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Land of hazard

For famine, persecution, danger, war—and the strongest al-Qaeda franchise in the world—Yemen has it all

Land of hazard

Thousands of Yemenis march in support of the rebel Houthi government. (Associated Press/Photo by Hani Mohammed)

Sameer was expecting a visitor at his home in southern Yemen, so when he heard his name called outside his front door, he hurried to open it for his friend. Instead what greeted the prominent Christian leader was a truck loaded with gunmen. Before he had time to take cover, the armed men opened fire, shooting and killing Sameer while his wife and children watched.

Several months later a gunman ambushed and shot to death a second church leader, and just weeks after that another Christian man was shot to death in his home. All of the men were converts from Islam, all had openly professed their newfound faith, and all were killed by suspected al-Qaeda gunmen.

Yemen, that country most of us can only vaguely place on a map, is coming apart. Its two-year civil war has left more than 10,000 civilians dead and sparked a cholera outbreak, with 1 in 45 Yemenis expected to contract the disease this year. For all its strife, Yemen makes few headlines yet sits strategically at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, fronting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, part of the Suez Canal waterway that sees more than 25,000 ships pass annually—or 25 percent of all global trade.

Yet Yemen’s humanitarian disaster hasn’t arrested its place as an incubator of global terrorism, a mix with toxic and long-ranging consequences on the ground: Yemen, few realize, is the last bastion on the Arabian Peninsula for Christian and Jewish communities with roots stretching back more than a millennium.

The targeted killing of Christians in countries overtaken by Muslim jihadists no longer surprises observers, but in Yemen—a country currently estimated to be 99 percent Muslim and ruled by Sharia law—it’s a surprisingly recent phenomenon. Over the last two years, as the country has descended into civil war, Christians have been singled out, including during worship services. It’s a worrying trend exacerbated by a Saudi-led air campaign aimed at Yemeni rebels—airstrikes bought and paid for in some ways by U.S. taxpayer dollars.

Such deadly discrimination has not registered in human rights reports issued by the U.S. State Department, nor has Yemen risen to one of the 37 countries monitored by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Yet the watchdog group Open Doors ranks Yemen No. 9 among countries in the world where Christians are persecuted, elevating its ranking to “extreme persecution” in its 2017 report.

“What people on the outside don’t realize is that the church in Yemen existed prior to the war, but it was not explicitly targeted and did not face persecution from ISIS or other Islamic militants until the vacuum of power created in 2015,” said John Smith, the head of an organization in the Middle East that has worked closely with Yemeni Christians. Both Sameer and Smith are pseudonyms used to protect the identities of Christian workers and family members who face increasing mortal danger.

In addition to the shootings, militants have attacked church services, killing Yemeni worshippers, and have destroyed two of four churches in the port city of Aden. In September 2015 gunmen stormed and burned the Church of St. Joseph, and three months later an explosion destroyed the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

St. Joseph church in Aden. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Gunmen in March 2016 killed 16 people at a Missionaries of Charity home for the elderly in Aden, an attack later claimed by ISIS. The dead included seven Yemenis, and the rest were workers from Africa and India, including four Catholic nuns. The militants kidnapped from the home and continue to hold Tom Uzhunnalil, a Catholic priest from India’s Kerala state. In early July a Yemen official informed India that Uzhunnalil is still alive after a proof-of-life video emerged of the 58-year-old priest. In the video Uzhunnalil said in slow English, “My health condition is deteriorating quickly, and I require hospitalization as early as possible.”

Targeting Christians began with targeting Westerners. In 2012, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for shooting English teacher Joel Shrum, a 29-year-old American the group claimed was a missionary trying to convert Muslims. Only this year, the FBI announced a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of his assailants.

Taken together, the attacks have prompted thousands of Christians—mostly foreign-born workers from Africa and the West—to leave the country. While the U.S. State Department estimates the Christian population in Yemen between 3,000 and 25,000 people, Smith and others say the countrywide church today numbers about 1,000 believers, all Yemenis and most converts from Islam.

MUHAMMAD SAID, “When disaster threatens, seek refuge in Yemen.”

But the Prophet of Islam in reality fled north, from Mecca to Medina in a journey in a.d. 622 that marked the start of the Muslim calendar and the rise and spread of Islam. Yemen’s Islamic roots, nonetheless, run to the religion’s earliest days. At the Great Mosque in Sanaa, the capital, laborers in the 1970s stumbled upon what turned out to be some of the oldest existing codices of the Quran, dating back to the seventh and eighth centuries.

Yemen’s roots in Judaism and Christianity, however, predate its Islamic heritage. Legend has it the southern Arab tribes converted to Judaism after the Queen of Sheba, who was from present-day Yemen, visited King Solomon. Whatever its origins, a Jewish community long had thrived in Sanaa when German Jewish photographer Hermann Burchardt arrived in 1901 to chronicle its way of life. At one point authorities prevented Jews from moving out of Yemen because they were proud of hosting the only Jewish community in the Arab world.

Associated Press/Photo by Hani Mohammed

Shiite Houthi tribesmen at a gathering supporting the Houthi movement. (Associated Press/Photo by Hani Mohammed)

That changed with the creation of modern Israel, and about 50,000 Yemeni Jews emigrated to Israel in 1949-50. With the rise of Islamic jihad, threats in the last decade have forced thousands more to emigrate, primarily to Israel and also to New York City. By one news account only 50 Jews remain in Yemen today, most of them living in a compound adjacent to the American Embassy in Sanaa. Houthi rebels, who now control the capital, have threatened to eliminate them, according to Yemen’s information minister.

Christians, too, have an extensive history in the region. Before the rise of Islam, writes historian Robert Louis Wilken, the “most extensive documentation” of Arabic-speaking Christians came from Yemen, dating back at least to the fourth century. A well-established Christian community in Najran, an oasis, included not only church officers but rich merchants who helped shuttle Christian teaching and texts along the spice route.

In the sixth century up to 20,000 Christians were massacred at Najran in a spate of persecution fed by geopolitical calculations over control of trade routes. The Christians were seen as allied with Byzantium and a threat to Arab tribes. Najran today lies just inside Saudi Arabia but again is the scene of strategic conflict, with Yemen’s Houthi rebels fighting Saudi forces seeking to create a buffer zone along the Saudi-Yemeni border.

PRESIDENT Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 32-year-old regime already was in trouble when Arab Spring protests took hold in Yemen’s capital in 2011. Months of street unrest, defections by top military commanders, and an assassination attempt forced Saleh’s resignation. Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi won an uncontested election to replace him in 2012.

Hadi sought political reforms but came under increasing challenge from the Houthi tribes of northern Yemen, a Shiite-led faction long clamoring for greater representation. By 2014 the Houthis reverted to arms against the Sunni-majority government. The ousted Saleh, seizing an opportunity to regain power, linked up with the Houthis, who stormed the capital of Sanaa. Hadi fled to Aden and later found exile in Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis, strengthened by Saleh loyalists in the military, cemented control of Sanaa, along with much of northern Yemen and key ports along the Red Sea. Houthis have significant theological differences with the Shiites ruling Iran but nonetheless have received support, including shipments of missiles and other weapons, from Tehran. To combat the potential wider threat of an Iranian base on the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—with support from the United States and Britain—launched in March 2015 an airstrike campaign against Houthi positions, a campaign that’s drastically picked up tempo in 2017.

Associated Press/Photo by Hani Mohammed

Smoke rises after Saudi-led airstrikes hit a site in Sanaa. (Associated Press/Photo by Hani Mohammed)

The Houthi surge robbed the United States of an important ally in President Hadi to fight terrorism. Despite a long battle fought mostly from the air, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) stubbornly clings to its base in Yemen. Overshadowed by ISIS threats in Iraq and Syria, AQAP has been considered the most dangerous al-Qaeda franchise, and one confirmed to have plotted attacks against the United States.

Al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen stretches back to the 1990s, when the terrorist group’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, spent time there. Overshadowed by ISIS, AQAP hasn’t diminished, but has gained territory in the south. The United States has picked off AQAP principals in drone strikes, killing top leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi in 2015. But the group continues under jihadist veterans: Ibrahim al-Banna, who once described the 9/11 attacks as virtuous, and Ibrahim al-Qosi, a former Guantánamo Bay detainee.

Since President Donald Trump took office in January, U.S. forces have ramped up airstrikes: At the end of April, U.S. Central Command announced it carried out “more than 80 precision strikes against AQAP militants, infrastructure, fighting positions and equipment.” Trump also approved his first covert counterterrorism ground attack in Yemen, a raid that resulted in the death of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, along with an estimated 29 civilians. The raid drew criticism for hurried planning and insufficient intelligence.

Such forays began under President Barack Obama, who also upped arms transactions, selling $112 billion in weapons to the Saudis over eight years. Trump this year has pledged an additional $110 billion in proposed weapons sales.

Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

A Yemeni child suspected of having cholera receives treatment at a hospital in Sanaa. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)

Shortly before he left office, Obama tried to limit U.S. support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen—but U.S. intelligence sharing, aircraft refueling, and other cooperation all have continued. In June the Senate narrowly backed Trump’s proposed $500 million in precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, despite some Republican opposition—most notably from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.—over Saudi Arabia’s role in escalating the Yemen war.

THE CIVILIAN DEATH TOLL in the two-year conflict this year exceeded 10,000 people—with more than 40,000 people wounded—and humanitarian aid groups say a majority of the casualties are from Saudi coalition airstrikes, which have also struck hospitals, schools, and power plants.

Seeing the weapons flow into Saudi Arabia, Smith said it’s hard not to blame the West: “The weapons don’t end up with the right people, they end up with al-Qaeda and ISIS. … If the Saudis did not have advanced targeting capabilities and intelligence [from the United States], we would not have women and children dying. That’s the way people in Yemen see it.”

The war also fuels a cholera outbreak with nearly 400,000 suspected cases as of July 19, according to the World Health Organization, and 1,817 deaths. International Committee for the Red Cross head Peter Maurer, touring Yemen in late July, called the number of Yemenis lacking food, water, and medicine “staggering” and the cholera epidemic “a preventable, man-made humanitarian catastrophe” stemming from indiscriminate warfare.

For the small Christian community seeking to hold on to a long history in Yemen, the multiple obstacles are an opportunity not only to survive but to help others. Attacks “did not scatter the church but have caused it to come to the support of others, and they are learning to use projects to have an impact on society,” Smith said. “This is not a church that’s in survival mode but a persevering church.”

His group and others have helped to provide solar panels for electricity and rainwater catchment systems for water supply. They are helping with other needs, with church groups involved in food and water distribution and other community development projects. Such groups also are working with thousands of Yemeni refugees in nearby Djibouti and in Jordan.

“The average Yemeni is neither pro-Saudi nor pro-Houthi. They are against external intervention,” he said. “We have to keep them in mind, and the church. They have to live.”

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.