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Lebanon caught in regional squeeze-play

International | The fight for dominance between Iran and Saudi Arabia threatens to overtake their less powerful neighbors
by Onize Ohikere
Posted 11/14/17, 01:28 pm

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation during a trip to Saudi Arabia is the latest bombshell in a string of recent events that place Lebanon in the middle of the power play between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. The events have escalated the tussle between the two major rivals in the region and could leave Lebanon facing possible sanctions or further conflict.

In a televised Sunday interview from Saudi Arabia, Hariri denied claims his hosts detained him or forced him to resign his post. Hariri appeared tired and held back tears at one point but promised to return to Lebanon “within days.” He hinted he might even withdraw his resignation if Lebanon’s Islamist political party Hezbollah committed to remain neutral in regional conflicts.

In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia also shut down its borders with war-torn Yemen after it intercepted a missile launched by the country’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Saudi officials and a U.S. Air Force commander confirmed Iran manufactured the missile. And Yemeni officials on Tuesday accused the Saudi-led coalition of bombing the airport in the Houthi-controlled capital, Sanaa.

“There are a lot of lower-level conflicts that are somehow tied into these greater regional tensions,” said Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. 

Saudi Arabia has long accused Lebanon’s Hezbollah political party of supporting Iran. In his Sunday speech, Hariri said he formed Lebanon’s unity government with Hezbollah on the grounds that it would not interfere in regional affairs. He accused Hezbollah of breaking its side of the deal, citing its interference in Yemen as an example. Saudi Arabia accused Iran and Hezbollah of aiding the Houthi’s Nov. 4 attempted missile attack. 

Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar with the Arab Gulf States Institutes in Washington, D.C., said Yemen’s missile enraged the Saudis, but Iran’s growing influence amid its conquests in the fight against ISIS poses a bigger threat to the nation. Iran supported Iraq’s seizure of the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk and gained territorial control in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS) militants. Iran’s leading role in the conflict has left it and its allies in control of a land bridge that passes through the center of Iraq and Syria, including access to a seaport. 

“It’s a strategic game changer,” Ibish said. “There was nothing the Saudis could do to stop it. The only thing was to hit at Hezbollah at their epicenter, which is in Lebanon.”

Hariri warned Hezbollah’s continued meddling in the region could expose Lebanon to sanctions that will affect its trade and thousands of Lebanese in the region. 

Thomas Lippman, author of Saudi Arabia on the Edge, said it is unlikely Hezbollah will give in to Hariri’s request. 

“The only value Hariri has to Hezbollah is to give them a token Sunni Muslim as part of their government,” he said. “Hezbollah is calling all the shots and everyone can see that.” Ibish said the problem with Saudi Arabia’s political agenda is its dependence on a lot of factors it can’t control: “There’s not much they can do. They can create the political condition, but they can’t dictate the outcome.”

Associated Press/Photo by Andy Wong Associated Press/Photo by Andy Wong A U.S. flag flies next to the Chinese national emblem.

Persecuted Chinese Christian wins asylum in U.S.

The Board of Immigration Appeals granted asylum this week to Ting Xue, a persecuted Chinese Christian, after his case receive two initial rejections.

In 2007, Chinese authorities arrested Xue and several other Christians during a Friday fellowship at the underground church he attended. He remained in jail for at least three days, during which authorities interrogated and beat him, eventually locking him in a crowded cell in deplorable conditions. Following his release, police cautioned Xue not to return to the underground church and ordered him to report weekly to the police station. He eventually fled for the United States, where he applied for asylum. 

An immigration judge and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals both rejected his application and ruled religious persecution does not necessarily apply when an asylum-seeker practiced their religion in hiding to avoid state-imposed sanctions.

The Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), a Christian legal group, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to review the ruling. But the Department of Justice agreed to reopen the case and handed it over to the Board of Immigration Appeals, which reversed the earlier ruling.

“The whole point of religious freedom is that you’re free to practice as publicly or privately as you see fit—you don’t have to stay in the closet that so many countries have succeeded in pushing Christians into,” Brad Dacus, PJI president and founder, said in a statement. —O.O.


Associated Press/Photo by Dita Alangkara Associated Press/Photo by Dita Alangkara Supporters of Jakarta's former governor, a Christian jailed for blasphemy, rally outside the courthouse during his trial.

Indonesian court overturns law used for religious persecution

Indonesia’s high court has overturned a law used to discriminate against religious minorities for years. 

The 2006 law, perpetuated in a 2013 amendment, required all citizens to list religion on their national identification papers but only recognized six options: Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, or Confucian. Applicants could leave religious affiliation blank, but that posed a risk since atheism could be punished under Indonesia’s “dangerously ambiguous blasphemy law,” according to Human Rights Watch.

The requirement made it difficult for animists and followers of native religions to obtain national ID cards, resulting in the denial of various rights. Several native religious followers challenged the requirement, leading to the Constitutional Court review.

“These articles are not legally binding as they contradict the 1945 constitution,” Judge Arief Hidayat said as the court issued its unanimous decision Nov. 7.

Human Rights Watch argues the ruling should provide a starting point for abolishing all laws discriminating against religious minorities. The verdict offered good news for religious freedom in a country struggling against growing Islamic extremism and intolerance against even officially recognized religions like Christianity.

Last month, Muslim objections forced the cancellation of a prayer service for the Reformation’s 500th anniversary. In May, the North Jakarta District Court convicted former Jakarta Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian, of blasphemy and sentenced him to two years in prison. —Julia A. Seymour

Islamic State stronghold grows in Somalia 

The United States military on Sunday carried out a drone strike targeting Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Somalia. It’s the second airstrike against the group this month, as experts warn its presence could become a “significant threat.” Defense Department spokesman Col. Rob Manning on Monday said U.S. forces conducted five airstrikes in Somalia against terror group al-Shabaab and ISIS between Nov. 9 and Nov. 12. Manning said 36 al-Shabaab fighters and four ISIS militants died in the attacks. ISIS gained attention in Somalia last year after its militants seized the port town of Qandala in the northern punt land region and began calling it the seat of the “Islamic Caliphate in Somalia.” Analysts warn ISIS could attempt to regroup in Somalia as it continues to lose its strongholds in Syria and Iraq. For more than a decade, Somalia has battled with al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab. But ISIS influence continues to grow, with some al-Shabaab fighters defecting to the group. ISIS now has about 200 fighters in Somalia, according to a United Nations report reviewed by Reuters. The UN experts documented at least one shipment of small arms, including machine guns, delivered to ISIS in Somalia from Yemen. —O.O.

Irish nun wins award for work in South Sudan 

The Hugh O’Flaherty Memorial Society honored an Irish nun for her work supporting children and families in South Sudan. Sister Orla Treacy, who belongs to Our Lady of Loreto religious order, serves as a school principal in the South Sudanese town of Rumbek. She arrived in the town with four other nuns in 2006. Since then they have opened two schools and a medical clinic. As she received her award in Ireland, Treacy said the facilities educate 1,200 students, employ 200 local families, and feed 2,000 people daily. “You just live in the hope that every day you will be able to continue to do what you can do,” Treacy said. —O.O.

Taliban kills 27 police officers in Afghanistan

Taliban fighters killed at least 27 policemen after an overnight attack across Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province, officials confirmed Tuesday. Matiullah Helal, the provincial police spokesman, said the insurgents killed 22 police officials and injured at least 15 others in two districts. Helal said police officials engaged the militants in a gun battle that lasted for hours, killing some 45 Taliban fighters. Naway District Gov. Sarajuddin Sarhadi said the militants killed five police officers in his district. The Taliban has increasingly targeted Afghan forces and claimed responsibility for the latest attack. —O.O.


Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD's Africa reporter. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University-Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria. Follow her on Twitter @onize_ohiks.

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