Stories that have made headlines over the past two weeks, from a Christian perspective

Special edition

ISSUE 209 | 6 DECEMBER 2018

3Headline Makers

THREE HEADLINE-MAKERS IN 2018

 

By Donnelly McCleland, Alex Pollock and Cherolyn Amery

 

CROWN PRINCE MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN – The Man Who Would Be King

Since his meteoric rise to power in 2015, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has enjoyed favourable coverage in the international media, with a major focus on his economic and social reforms in the traditionally conservative and often repressive kingdom. The biggest development was the lifting of the ban on women drivers which became official in June 2018 and sparked waves of euphoria and optimism among the women of the Islamic nation. The decision formed part of bin Salman’s social and economic reform plan known as Vision 2030, which includes plans to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22% to 30% by 2030. Other major developments include: the lifting of the ban on commercial cinemas (as well as them not being segregated by gender); the first fashion week (for women only) with international designers; the employment of French expertise to set up a national opera and orchestra; the allowing of public concerts (including for mixed gender audiences); the relaxing of the dress code for women (so long as it’s “decent and respectful”); and the allowing of women to jog in public and take part in other sporting activities. A major policy shift this year allows women to open their own businesses without the consent of their husband or a male relative, marking a significant shift away from the strict guardianship system that has governed the kingdom for decades. With these changes, bin Salman has challenged the powerful clerics who have long dominated life in the ultraconservative kingdom.

October 2018, however, saw bin Salman’s international image take a massive knock when he was linked to the disappearance (and murder) of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Khashoggi case highlighted a darker side of bin Salman’s record, one that includes the imprisonment of critics and human rights activists, thousands of civilian deaths in Yemen and a rapid rise in the number of executions since his ascent to power. In contrast to the “younger, fresher face of Saudi leadership”, he is also seen as a symbol of “brutal tyranny” and yet another strongman who is able to do as he pleases with impunity.

In March, bin Salman went on a highly publicised tour of the United States which included him gracing the cover of Time Magazine and sitting down for interviews with CBS’ 60 Minutes and Bloomberg. Six months later, many have expressed deep concerns and reservations about bin Salman’s potential involvement in Khashoggi’s murder, and the deepening crisis in Yemen. But bin Salman’s Western allies, led by the US, appear unwilling to hold him directly responsible for the Khashoggi execution. The narrative Saudi Arabia is propagating, both at home and abroad, is that their kingdom is a “beacon of stability in the face of an expansionist Iran”, and their allies cannot risk losing their support in the region. When bin Salman recently attended the G20 summit in Argentina, he went secure in the knowledge that US president Donald Trump had already said that the crown prince’s culpability, if any, would not rupture the US relationship with Saudi Arabia. However, for the duration of his stay, he chose to remain in the fortified Saudi Embassy rather than a luxury hotel in response to moves by Argentinian prosecutors to investigate human rights complaints against him.

International observers and politicians assume Khashoggi’s killing could not have been committed without bin Salman’s consent, since he is generally seen as the power behind his father’s throne. But with every passing day, he looks more likely to survive the scandal. However, speculation about a possible assassination attempt in April this year could indicate that all may not be as secure for bin Salman. No one knows for sure why Khashoggi was killed, but many have speculated that the brutal murder was a warning to others not to cross the crown prince.

 

US PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP – The Controversial Maker of Bold Moves

The past year has been marked by historic moves for US president Donald Trump, many of which focused on the United States’ international relations. Firstly, there was Mr Trump’s meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin on 16 July. The summit, held in Helsinki, Finland, generated negative US media attention for Mr Trump after he made comments denying Russia’s involvement in the tampering of the 2016 US election. He later revised his statement, saying it was an unintentional misuse of words.

Mr Trump had another historic meeting in Singapore on 12 June, meeting with Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea. This was the first ever meeting between leaders of the two countries. The meeting resulted in a signed agreement for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, the promised return of US soldiers’ remains, and security guarantees for North Korea. 

Early in the year, the Trump administration announced the moving of the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, officially recognising the city as the nation’s capital, something no US president had officially done before him. The embassy opened on 14 May. The move was supported by many Christian and Jewish Americans, but was criticised by others as being a move for political gain, more than a move for peace.

Domestically, the US saw another year of an improving economy, as well as the highest monthly job growth since 1997. Mr Trump’s administration has been praised for delivering on issues such as economic growth, but has been plagued by criticism related to issues of immigration and the decision to halt DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).

The midterm election was another historic event this year, as the House of Representatives swung over 20 seats, favouring the Democrats. Congress is now split, as Republicans secured the Senate. Despite losing the House, Mr Trump still considered election night a success, tweeting a thank you to all his supporters. The midterms were widely seen as a referendum on Mr Trump’s administration, and the perceived shift in Republicans’ mindset could further divide the two parties moving forward.

 

PAKISTANI CHRISTIAN ASIA BIBI – The Centre of a Religious Storm

Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian woman who came to the attention of the international community after being sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy, was acquitted on 31 October in what has been described as a “landmark ruling”. After spending eight years in prison, Bibi’s sentence was overturned on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

Bibi was convicted in 2010 after an altercation with fellow workers and neighbours who were offended by her using a communal drinking cup. Supposed witnesses from her community then claimed that she had insulted the prophet Muhammad, an offense that can carry a death sentence in Pakistan. As her situation became known globally, there was widespread international condemnation for what was seen as a gross violation of human rights.

Following Bibi’s acquittal and release, there were violent protests in Pakistan by hardliners who support the controversial blasphemy laws. Bibi and her family went into hiding and her lawyer fled the country. The main protestors – a group known as Tehreek-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) – reached an agreement with the Pakistani government about beginning legal proceedings to place Bibi on a list that bans her from leaving the country, and were also given permission to petition the court’s decision. However, on 24 November, the cleric who leads the TLP was reportedly detained by the government on charges of terrorism and sedition.

When Bibi was released, it was expected that she and her family would be granted asylum in a Western nation. The United Kingdom, however, was quick in their refusal to receive her, citing the possibility of a backlash and unrest. It has since been reported that a number of European countries as well as Canada are in talks with the Pakistani government about Bibi’s asylum request.

Politico wrote that Asia Bibi’s case, release and the subsequent response “exposed the cultural fault lines in Pakistan”. While that is true, it is probably more accurate to say that it exposed the spiritual and religious fault lines. Christians are estimated to make up 1.6 percent of the national population, and while Muslim hardliners were protesting Bibi’s release, Pakistani Christians were celebrating the ruling that they saw as a major victory for their minority group as a whole.

Beyond Pakistan’s borders, Muslims in other nations were also stirred to protest Bibi’s release. According to an INcontext contact in the Muslim world, much media coverage was given to the matter. However, he also said that there were moderate Muslims writing ‘counter’ opinion pieces published in the media, which criticised the Muslim world as a whole for focusing so much anger and outrage on one person who is relatively insignificant in the bigger picture. These writers highlighted all the other problems that the Muslim world is facing – wars, economic issues, poverty, social divisions, etc. – and questioned why so much attention was focused on Asia Bibi instead of these prevailing issues. With such questions being raised, the ripple effects of Asia Bibi’s release may be felt and seen on multiple levels in the spiritual realm as well as the physical.

FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

From an overview look at the three people profiled in the section above, it becomes clear that God chooses to use anyone according to His Kingdom plans – in this case, a prince, a president and a ‘peasant’ woman. This is a pattern made clear in the Bible as well: God can choose to use anyone for His purposes, from seemingly ‘simple’ individuals with no worldly credentials to those in the highest positions of power (regardless of whether they acknowledge Him or not).

These three people profiled above are vastly different, and their various impacts on the world in 2018 have been different. Through our human eyes and understanding, we can look at their actions as being either “good” or “bad”, but we know that God views things in ways beyond our understanding. He uses people from all walks of life, of all ages, and in varying positions of influence, according to His Kingdom plans that are far wider and more complex than we can comprehend.

What we do know for sure is that God is always acting sovereignly to work out His purposes for the world, and He chooses to work through people as He pleases.

 

PRAY

  • For a continued opening of Saudi society, and an increase in opportunities for the Gospel to be shared
  • For the Lord to use Mr Trump to further His Kingdom objectives
  • For the Lord to continue upholding Asia Bibi and her family in the face of all the opposition  

 

2019 CALENDAR NOW AVAILABLE

2019 Calendar – The Colours of Hope

Including: Country profiles, prayer points and daily readings for each month of the year.

 

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UPDATED WORLD HOTSPOT LIST AND

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World Hotspot List – newly updated + Map

An overview of 16 nations that are impacting the world today – now with updated information, new prayer guides and full-colour images

An A1 map of the world, featuring the 16 nations profiled in the World Hotspot List – ideal for churches, mission boards and prayer rooms

 

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3Countries

THREE COUNTRIES MOVING TOWARDS PEACE IN 2018

By Cherolyn Amery, Alex Pollock and Donnelly McCleland

 

News outlets around the world bombard their audience with stories of war, disaster and famine. Seldom do stories of peace and hope make the headlines, and if they do, they usually disappear quickly, or commentators and analysts quickly provide an alternative outlook, focusing on what could go wrong. But three countries (four if you look at the Korean peninsula as the two separate countries it is comprised of) made major strides towards peace in 2018 and such actions should be applauded and encouraged. One of the three still finds itself in the midst of a ‘hot’ war, while the other two have been party to ‘cold’ wars with neighbours for decades.

ETHIOPIA – On an Unprecedented Trajectory

The election of Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister in April this year appears to have set Ethiopia on a whole new political path. During his acceptance speech, Mr Abiy made promises of political reforms, of working towards unity within the country, of building good relationships with the opposition, and of reaching out to long-term ‘enemy’ Eritrea. The speech generated much optimism and ushered in a more positive atmosphere to the country. And in the months that followed, Mr Abiy worked to follow through on his promises, implementing various political and economic reforms.

Within Ethiopia itself, which has a history of authoritarian rule and state brutality, Mr Abiy’s government approved the release of thousands of political prisoners and amended an ‘anti-terrorism’ law that was seen to be very repressive.

It was, however, his steps towards making peace with Eritrea that brought international acclaim. For two decades, the two countries had been locked in a ‘state of war’ over a border dispute – not actually at war, but on a tense war footing. This ended when Mr Abiy initiated a meeting with his Eritrean counterpart – the first in more than 20 years to do so – and the two signed an agreement to restore peaceful relations between their countries. Diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea were re-established, as well as telecommunication and transport links.

Internally, Ethiopia is still struggling with challenges of ethnic violence, unrest in certain areas, and conflicting visions for the future of the country. But for all the progress that has been made in 2018, both within the country and with their vastly-improved relationship with neighbouring Eritrea, Ethiopia has been hailed as a ‘role model’ for the region. Ethiopia has also hosted critical peace-talks for the warring leaders of South Sudan this year, with Mr Abiy acting as a mediator.

Mr Abiy was born to a Muslim father and a Christian mother, but it is reported that his mother was primarily responsible for his upbringing. The Economist describes him as a “devout Pentecostal”, saying that “religion seems to have shaped his politics” and “many of his sermon-like speeches about love and forgiveness invoke God.”

THE KOREAS – Pushing for Peace

President Moon Jae-In of South Korea and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un of North Korea met three times in 2018, with discussions focused on how to bring peace to the two nations. The first of the three meetings marked the first inter-Korean summit in 11 years. The summit was held in the joint security area, and was marked by North Korea’s agreement to work toward denuclearisation. The second and third summits focused on the pursuit of peace, and as of November 2018, multiple guard posts have been destroyed and the joint security area has been demilitarised by removing land mines and other explosives.

At the press conference after their first summit, Mr Moon was quoted as saying: “The era of no war has started. Today [27 April 2018] the North and South decided to remove all threats that can cause war from the entire Korean peninsula.”

Mr Moon’s leadership of South Korea has been focused on efforts to bring peace to the conflicted nations. The peace talks began after Kim Jong-un voiced his desire to send athletes to the Pyongyang Olympics. Kim Jong-un has proposed a visit to Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and if that happens, it would mark the first time a leader of the North has visited the capital of the South. His father spoke about visiting the South, but never followed through.

The move toward peace is not without risks, and the North’s decision whether or not to abandon its nuclear programmes relies heavily on Kim Jong-un’s talks with US president Donald Trump. With the US still imposing sanctions on North Korea, Mr Moon’s eagerness to move forward with economic exchange with the North could potentially harm the US-South Korea alliance.

Despite these risks, both Korean leaders have voiced a desire to move forward in peace. The countries proposed submitting a joint bid for the 2032 Summer Olympics and have teased a fourth summit “as soon as possible”.

SYRIA – Growing Optimistic That an End is in Sight

After almost eight years of death and destruction, there is a sense that the Syrian war is coming to an end. The Syrian government and their key ally Russia had a decisive year. In 2018, the capital of Damascus and its surrounding suburbs was again brought under full government control for the first time since 2011. After the heavy bombardments of Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta, it was thought that the southern regions of Syria would see a similar level of resistance, but this was not the case. Many of the rebels, when offered the opportunity for indemnity and reconciliation, took it, or took buses to the last remaining rebel stronghold of Idlib. Russia played a major role in overseeing these peace-making efforts. Local communities have also been instrumental in the process, as they have chosen to live alongside these former rebels, despite the suspicions and possible animosity after years of conflict.

Two key border crossings, one into Jordon and the other into the Golan Heights region, have also been re-opened this year. The al-Naseeb crossing with Jordon is particularly significant in restoring key trade routes which will facilitate the rebuilding of Syria, and benefit Jordan. With the re-opening of the crossing to the Golan Heights, the issue of Israel’s occupation thereof has again been raised in the UN. The resolution, titled “The Syrian Golan”, was adopted by a record vote of 99 in favour, 10 against and 66 abstentions on 30 November 2018.

The Syrian government was also partly vindicated in July when the OPCW interim report stated the following on the alleged chemical attack (7 April 2018) in Douma: “The results show that no organophosphorous nerve agents or their degradation products were detected in the environmental samples or in the plasma samples taken from alleged casualties.” Syria and Russia had maintained that the ‘attack’ was staged by rebels who were losing ground, in the hope of gaining a reprieve from an assault by the Western coalition. The US, UK and France did attack a number of targets in Syria (on 13 April), prior to the OPCW being allowed to gather any evidence.

Gradually, voices that counter the dominant narrative are being heard. Prominent figures, such as Baroness Cox of the House of Lords in the UK, have visited Syria and reported that the Syrian people “are very grateful to the Syrian Army, to [President] Assad and … for Russian help in getting rid of the terrorists. They are the perpetrators of the most appalling atrocities and killings.” Each week, as more areas of Syria return to government control and communities begin to feel safe again, and as services are restored and schools reopened, refugees are returning home. Those that were internally displaced are often the first to return, along with those in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

It has not all been victorious, however, as Turkey opened a new front in the conflict early in the year when they mounted an assault on the Kurds of Afrin in the north-west of Syria. Turkey has held on to large areas of Syrian territory as a form of assurance against the perceived threat of the Kurds in Syria assisting Kurdish forces in Turkey (the PKK is a recognised Kurdish terrorist group in Turkey). Turkey has also played a role in stalling a full-scale assault on Idlib by Syrian government forces by negotiating a truce with Russia to provide a demilitarised buffer zone. This remains a fragile agreement as rebel forces continue to threaten communities in Aleppo, Latakia and other areas adjacent to Idlib. Mr Assad has vowed that Syria in its entirety will ultimately come under government authority, and all foreigners will need to leave (including the United States and other coalition forces that have supported the rebels).

The US maintains a force in Syria for the stated purpose of clearing out the remnants of the Islamic State group, predominantly in eastern parts of the country. However, their presence did not prevent the Islamic State from exacting a vicious assault on the predominantly Druze villages of the Sweida area in south-western Syria. Hundreds were killed and many were taken hostage.

The resilience and determination of the Syrian people – both of those who remained, and those returning – is clearly evident as communities begin rebuilding, as they celebrate various festivals, and even hold international conventions. Syria is rising from the ashes, but there is still a way to go.

FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

“God is a peace-loving God, and a peacemaking God. The whole history of redemption, climaxing in the death and resurrection of Jesus, is God’s strategy to bring about a just and lasting peace between rebel man and Himself, and then between man and his fellow man.” (John Piper)

Ethiopia, the Koreas and Syria clearly demonstrate the importance of pre-empting war and pursuing peace. Syria is a broken nation after years of bloody conflict. Ethiopia and the Koreas have demonstrated the better option, pursuing peace, despite the risks. In both cases, there were instrumental “people of peace” who have played pivotal roles in shifting the mood of entire nations. These leaders have counted the cost, they have taken risks and made bold moves. Theirs was not the “easy option”; peace is never easy, but it’s worth it.

In seasons of shaking, it is incredibly important that believers intercede for their nations and pray for the Lord to raise up these “people of peace”, instruments in His hands, even if they don’t fully acknowledge His role in the process.

PRAY

  • For Mr Abiy and Ethiopia’s leadership to continue seeking and pursuing the road of peace, despite the challenges and opposition
  • For the two Koreas’ leadership as they negotiate, that they will persevere and achieve the goal of peace on the peninsula
  • For the Lord to answer the prayers of so many – that the war in Syria will end and restoration will come
3Geopolitical Events

THREE KEY GEOPOLITICAL EVENTS OF 2018

By Andrew Richards

 

2018 Overview

2018 saw world powers battling it out in proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, expanding the fight through cyber warfare and even trying to force each other into submission by means of a trade war.

Arguably, Turkey made the biggest geopolitical shift in the Middle East as the NATO ally chose sides against the US by deliberately targeting US-supported Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq. Turkey’s military presence in northern Syria caused an alliance of convenience with Russia and Iran, that in turn saw huge gains for the Assad government to the point of optimism that the war could soon be over in favour of the Syrian government. This new Russia-Turkey-Iran alliance has the potential to reshape the entire region, ultimately overpowering US influence and posing a grave risk to Saudi Arabia.

In East Asia, China moved from a cautiously observed communist state to the only real economic and military contender against US international influence. China’s ability to assemble all the African heads of state for a meeting, something that has never been done before, catapulted the nation to superpower status, with Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa concluding that China is the “new world order”. China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative is unrivalled anywhere in the world, and together with its continued militarisation of the South China Seas, China is set to write the history of the coming century.

Despite Russia awakening fears of a military confrontation with Europe, or the controversial Brexit deal that could see the future breakup of the European Union, no one country made more impactful geopolitical shifts in 2018 than the United States of America. In many ways, the US became more state-centred in its approach to geopolitics: withdrawing from numerous international agreements, building physical walls of exclusion, and reducing its role in international affairs. This year saw some dramatic moves from the US, which has shaken the world in ways not seen before.

US EMBASSY MOVES FROM TEL AVIV TO JERUSALEM

The world took notice when the Trump administration moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in a deliberate move to show its uncompromising support for Israel, and its non-recognition of Palestine. The move, which coincided with Israel’s 70th anniversary, set the tone for future US interaction in the region as it declared Jerusalem as the ‘true capital’ of Israel. This sent a clear message to Palestine – which also claims Jerusalem as its capital – that the US backs Israel. Mr Trump maintains that Jerusalem is the hard part of negotiating peace between Israel and Palestine, saying that “recognising Jerusalem as the capital of America’s closest ally has taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table.” However, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas called the move a “slap in the face” and said it no longer regards the US as an honest negotiator of peace.  As a result, together with America’s diminishing role in the region, other world players like China and Russia have offered to broker peace.

INTERNATIONAL TRADE WAR

During Donald Trump’s election campaign, he promised voters that he would end China’s unfair trade practices and put a stop to its continued violation of intellectual property rights that causes an estimated $600 billion loss per year. In theory, placing tariffs on Chinese imports are supposed to make them more expensive and US products cheaper, but cheaper goods don’t necessarily mean financial growth. The idea behind the tariffs, according to VOX, “was to level out the trade deficit and make China buy more US goods, but, as expected, China responded by slapping its own tariffs on American imports. And Mr Trump’s steep tariffs on all imported steel and aluminium, which went into effect in March, have led other US trading partners to add their own retaliatory duties on American goods.” As a result of imposing tariffs on China, specifically on steel and aluminium, the European Union, together with Canada, Mexico and India, have placed their own tariffs on US products in what has now become known as a trade war between the US and the rest of the world.

WITHDRAWAL FROM THE IRANIAN NUCLEAR DEAL

The US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal, brokered by former president Barack Obama in 2015, was perhaps the biggest upset in geopolitics this year. Making good on an election campaign promise, the Trump administration reversed the diplomacy of the Obama administration, moving closer to direct confrontation with Iran. The US withdrawal reintroduced sanctions, limiting Iran’s ability to trade with the rest of the world. The withdrawal also increased the divide between the US and Europe, with the UK, France and Germany vowing to keep the nuclear agreement alive from their side. If the agreement falls apart completely, it would place European countries who trade with Iran at risk of being sanctioned by the US, if they continue to do business with Iran. The withdrawal inadvertently placed the US and its European allies on opposite sides of the table. However, of greater concern to analysts is the possibility of yet another war in the Middle East. Iran has threatened to continue with its nuclear programme if America continues with sanctions, and both Israel and Saudi Arabia have threatened to attack Iranian nuclear plants if Iran follows through with its threats.

FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

The US remains the ‘flagship’ Christian nation, with the highest number of believers and the largest mission force in the world. Whatever the US does, whether consciously or not, it impacts the global Church and the face of the Church to the rest of the world. It is a significant role-player. Despite the inward shift in US focus, the three key events mentioned above have had, and continue to have, a far-reaching impact around the world. None of these events would have happened under the previous Obama administration, thus it is undeniable that the leadership of Donald Trump has played a pivotal role in the unfolding of these events. These geopolitical shifts have caused a tremendous shaking: politically, economically, geopolitically and spiritually. It has been a tumultuous year, where the status quo has been hammered, and it has caused people to question what is going on, and how it will end. In a spiritual sense, more growth takes place through difficulties and challenges than in times of rest and ease. People seldom call on the Lord when their lives are easy and “going according to plan”, but during times of shaking, that’s when people have cause to cry out, and reach out to One who is greater than the apparent chaos.

Fire is a destructive element, but in nature it plays an important role, clearing the dead brush, making way for new growth, and even causing some seeds to sprout that would not have done so under any other circumstance. However, fire too can get out of control and destroy the good and the bad. Similarly, stormy weather can knock down old, dead trees, making way for new growth, but it too can be catastrophic, destroying the good and the bad. The Bible clearly states that the Lord raises up and deposes leaders for a season (Daniel 2:21), and such leaders can be both constructive and destructive, as can nations. The challenge for believers is how to respond in times of shaking: does one throw up one’s hands in despair, cower in fear, or boldly bear the light of hope and truth one has found in Christ?

 

 

PRAY

  • For US leadership to pursue Godly counsel, that their decisions may bless the nations
  • For the Lord to continue to use the US Church to reach many with the Gospel
  • For US believers to be instrumental in their communities and beyond their borders

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