Tag Archives: Arabian Peninsula

Analysis: Will religious freedom flourish in post-treaty Middle East?

Could peace between the Jewish State and a Sunni Arab powerhouse portend increasing religious freedom across the Middle East?

By Lela Gilbert, World Israel News

On August 13, World Israel News reported that the United Arab Emirates and Israel have agreed to establish full diplomatic ties as part of a deal to halt Israel’s extension of sovereignty over Judea and Samaria. The announcement makes the UAE the first Gulf Arab state to do so and only the third Arab nation to have active diplomatic ties to Israel.”

The announcement was made by President Donald Trump.

“Now that the ice has been broken I expect more Arab and Muslim countries will follow the United Arab Emirates.”

So President Trump, who negotiated the agreement, predicted.

There was, of course, debate in Israel and beyond about whether the agreement had cast aside annexation of biblical Judea and Samaria for the sake of an elusive peace gesture. At the same time, there was celebration among young Israelis, embracing new hopes for harmony with the Arab world.

Despite the UAE flag emblazoned in lights across Tel Aviv’s city hall, heated discussions on the subject continue between American and Israeli, religious and secular, conservative and liberal Jews and their supporters.

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Meanwhile, conversations about the religious implications of the agreement have extended well beyond Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi. Could peace between the Jewish State and a Sunni Arab powerhouse portend increasing religious freedom across the Middle East?

Pope Francis

Pope Francis is welcomed by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince , Feb. 4, 2019. (AP/Kamran Jebreili)

For several years, the United Arab Emirates has been painting a self-portrait not only of a super-wealthy Arab state, but also as a haven of religious freedom. And since Pope Francis’ dramatic visit there in February 2019, much has been said to affirm that these efforts amount to more than a photo-op.

Deutche Welle (DW) described the Pope’s visit as an historic milestone, reporting

 “More than 130,000 worshipers flocked to the Zayed Sports City Stadium in the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, on Tuesday to celebrate a Mass with Pope Francis… He is the first leader of the Catholic Church ever to set foot on the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam.”

If peace between Jews, Muslims and Christians is possible in one small Arab country, why couldn’t it extend further? Reflecting on this possibility, prayerful optimists have lifted their eyes heavenward while world-weary cynics continue to shake their heads.

On the optimistic side, DW explained that at the start of his papal visit, Pope Francis met with Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and other UAE leaders at the presidential palace.

“He also signed a document promoting ‘human fraternity’ with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the seat of Sunni Muslim learning. During an address to a gathering of interfaith leaders, he called for an end to wars in the Middle East, including in Yemen and Syria. All religious leaders had a ‘duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word war,’ he said.”

But, as less-than-upbeat observers will quickly note, religious freedom in the Middle East often ends where radical Islam begins, whether that dangerous version of ideology is rooted in Shiite or Sunni tradition. In fact, in its 2020 Country Report, the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom (USCIRF) declared that Egypt, Iraq and Turkey were included on its “Special Watch List,” while Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to be “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC).

Both had either permitted or committed egregious violations of religious freedom. Indeed, the violent nature of conflicts in the Middle East, including genocides of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities, tend to discourage even the most enthusiastic proponents of dialogue and reconciliation.

Still, efforts for peace – whether motivated by economic promise or intended to create a bulwark against Iranian and Turkish aggression – should not be disregarded. It is a region where churches are sometimes bombed or torched and surviving synagogues are broken relics of happier days — before the wholesale expulsion of entire Jewish communities.

Nonetheless, the UAE has begun a unique project intended to transform the marred image of Muslim, Jewish and Christian relations: a Multi-Faith Complex – including the first official synagogue in the country’s history.

“A church, mosque and synagogue will share a collective space for the first time, serving as a community for inter-religious dialogue and exchange, and nurturing the values of peaceful co-existence and acceptance among different beliefs, nationalities and cultures,” the committee overseeing construction of the complex said in a statement.

For years, Israel and the United Arab Emirates have been holding clandestine meetings. Now their newly revealed projects include both economic and defense opportunities to which both have contributed expertise and funding. Today, the inclusion of other Arab states in such endeavors is already under discussion, including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Sudan and more.

Sanguine regional conversations about peace and prosperity should never be silenced. Prayerful candles should always be lit by people of faith. Nevertheless, wary eyes keep their watch as Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei rage and rant about the Israeli-Emirati agreement’s betrayal of Islamic empire-building.

And while Abu-Dhabi’s construction of the Multi-Faith Complex prepares for its 2022 opening, deadly gunfire shatters quiet nights in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, while rockets and explosive balloons continue to darken the sunlit skies above Israel.

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UNHCR recommends measures for strengthening security and refugee protection

Flag of United Nations Refugee AgencyUNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed on 18 December 2015, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva released guidance aimed at helping States deal with security concerns while maintaining vital standards of refugee protection.

2015 was a horrible year for millions of people who had to leave their own habitat, trying to find places where they could find some peace. The number of forcibly displaced people worldwide will far surpass a record 60 million this year.

With almost a million people having crossed the Mediterranean as refugees and migrants so far this year, and conflicts in Syria and elsewhere continuing to generate staggering levels of human suffering, 2015 is likely to exceed all previous records for global forced displacement, the UN Refugee Agency warned in a new report today.

The global refugee total, which a year ago was 19.5 million, had as of mid-2015 passed the 20 million threshold (20.2 million) for the first time since 1992. Asylum applications meanwhile were up 78 per cent (993,600) over the same period in 2014. And the numbers of internally displaced people jumped by around 2 million to an estimated 34 million.

The report by the United Nations refugee agency says one in every 122 humans today is someone who has been forced to flee their homes.

It notes that the figure includes 20.2 million refugees, the highest total since 1992.

The report says the numbers were mainly driven by the Syrian war, conflict in Ukraine and other protracted conflicts.

Persian Gulf states, which were not a party to the 1951 treaty, have not accepted refugees despite sharing a common language and geographic proximity in the Arabian Peninsula. Lebanon meanwhile hosts more refugees compared to its population size than any other country, with 209 refugees per 1000 inhabitants. And Ethiopia pays most in relation to the size of its economy with 469 refugees for every dollar of GDP (per capita, at PPP). Overall, the lion’s share of the global responsibility for hosting refugees continues to be carried by countries immediately bordering zones of conflict, many of them in the developing world. The United States (and Canada) has limited Syrian refugees to about 1500 since that country’s war broke out in 2011. However, the United States has provided more than $4 billion in humanitarian aid and almost one-third of the more than $574 million provided for the refugees. Reshaping the Middle East Exact numbers on population shifts are difficult to determine because of the chaos in both Syria and Iraq. While some four million Syrians have fled the country, another 6 to 7 million have been internally displaced.

“Forced displacement is now profoundly affecting our times. It touches the lives of millions of our fellow human beings both those forced to flee and those who provide them with shelter and protection,”

High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said.

“Never has there been a greater need for tolerance, compassion and solidarity with people who have lost everything,”

he added.

Nearly 2.5 million asylum seekers have requests pending, with Germany, Russia and the United States receiving the highest numbers of the nearly one million new claims lodged in the first half of the year.

Currently, with growing polarization of political debate concerning refugees in some countries, the concern is that asylum-seekers and refugees could be victimized, and refugee protection which has saved the lives of millions of people since World War Two could be endangered.

Two important points to bear in mind here are that refugees are themselves fleeing persecution and violence, often including terrorist acts; and that the 1951 Refugee Convention explicitly excludes people who are combatants or who have committed serious crimes.

For us it is very difficult to know if between the refugees are also fighters or infiltrators. Lots of people are afraid that Muslim fundamentalists may also enter our regions that way. But this would be most likely. The conditions how the refugees enter our regions is so bad that the Muslim fundamentalists can use much better and more safely way to enter our countries.

With border controls, UNHCR understands the need of States to identify security concerns at the point of entry, for example through increased checks, including the use of biometrics such as fingerprints and iris scans. Its recommendations include practical guidance on ensuring that these and other measures are carried out properly and proportionately and subject to judicial control, and avoiding discrimination, for example based on nationality, race, ethnicity, or religion. Applications for asylum must be looked at individually.

With cases involving the exclusion of people for serious criminal or terrorist acts, the paper of the UNHCR recommends that a factual and legal assessment be done, if needed, by specialized exclusion units. Guidance is provided on this and related measures, including handling of extradition requests, and detention. It also notes that people providing funds to terrorist organizations could themselves be excluded from refugee status, depending on the individual circumstances.

Registration is a crucial part of the refugee protection process, and UNHCR believes that proper systems for this, plus identity and security screening are essential including in situations of large-scale refugee influxes. As refugees are people at risk of their lives, information-sharing between States has to be done in line with established principles and standards on data protection.

Resettlement and other forms of admission remain a key tool for providing refugees with safety and a solution to their plight. In light of today’s record number of forcibly displaced people globally some 60 million the paper makes the point that it is more crucial than ever that resettlement and other forms of admission remain viable and effective options for the international community in dealing with refugees.

Resettlement programmes are handled between UNHCR and receiving States, which in many cases invoke far tougher screening than for almost any other form of admission to a country. Nonetheless, and to assuage concerns, UNHCR’s recommendations include support for continuing security screening not least as effective resettlement programmes provide a regular and safe alternative to dangerous sea and other journeys that not only put refugee lives at risk, but also profit smugglers and make the jobs of border security forces even more difficult.

Arguably the biggest risk for any environment of insecurity is that of increasing xenophobia and vilification directed towards people fleeing violent conflicts. The paper calls on States to exert continued resolute leadership in de-dramatizing and de-politicizing the challenges associated with managing refugee flows.

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