The official announcements of seismic change in the Middle East first appeared on Aug. 13, 2020.
World Israel News reported : “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.”
There was, of course, debate in Israel about whether the agreement had cast aside annexation of biblical Judea and Samaria for the sake of what might turn out to be little more than an elusive gesture of peace. So, despite the UAE flag being emblazoned in lights across Tel Aviv’s city hall as a gesture of friendship, intense discussions on the subject will continue.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump predicted, “Now that the ice has been broken I expect more Arab and Muslim countries will follow the United Arab Emirates’ lead.” And—being quite well-informed on the subject—he was correct.
On Sept. 12, Al-Arabiya reported, “Bahrain joined the United Arab Emirates in striking an agreement to normalize relations with Israel…in a dramatic move aimed at easing tensions in the Middle East.”
The agreement expressed gratitude to the Kingdom of Bahrain for “…advancing the cause of peace, dignity and economic opportunity for the Palestinian people. The parties will continue their efforts to achieve a just, comprehensive and enduring resolution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict to enable the Palestinian people to realize their full potential. Israel affirmed that as set forth in the Vision for Peace all Muslims who come in peace may visit and pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem’s other holy sites will remain open for peaceful worshippers of all faiths…”
Also on Sept. 12, “ Oman praised Bahrain’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel…The sultanate said it expected the move to be a step towards building Palestinian-Israeli peace.” Will Oman be the next signatory of such a treaty?
Conversations about these agreements have extended well beyond the two initial parties. Could peace between the Jewish State and Sunni Arab nations portend not only peace between Palestinians and Israelis, but increasing religious freedom across the Middle East?
For several years, the UAE has in fact presented itself as a haven of religious freedom. And since Pope Francis’ dramatic visit there in February 2019, there have been numerous indications that these efforts amount to more than a series of photo-ops.
Deutche Welle (DW) described the Pope’s visit as a 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.”
Reuters reported just a year ago, “Construction on the United Arab Emirates’ first official synagogue will begin next year and be completed by 2022…The synagogue will be part of the multi-faith ‘Abrahamic Family House’ complex in Abu Dhabi, which will also feature a mosque and church.”
On the other hand, while Abu-Dhabi’s construction of the Multi-Faith Complex continues, deadly gunfire shatters quiet nights in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. These disturbances emanate from Turkey and Iran and their proxies—countries that oppose Israel with great vengeance, while despising the ecumenical intentions of moderate Sunni Muslims.
So is religious freedom, marked by real peace between Jews, Christians and Muslims possible in the Middle East? Reflecting on this question, prayerful optimists lift their eyes heavenward while weary cynics continue to shake their heads.
Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei persist on their hostile tracks—and at times in cooperation with one another —opposing their enemies and seeking to fulfil what appear to be their distinct visions: Iran, to “Export the 1979 Revolution,” and Turkey, to establish a neo-Ottoman caliphate. Their ruthless hostility and relentless aggression spell danger for all who oppose them.
This exposes a harsh reality: religious freedom in the Middle East ends where radical Islam begins, whether the ideology is rooted in a Shiite or Sunni tradition. And the genocide of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities, along with the 20th century expulsion of nearly a million Jews from their historic homelands, remain ugly evidence of this fact.
Yet today open discussions continue about whether states like Saudi Arabia and Sudan—with their appalling human rights records—may also sign agreements with Israel. Will they do so in order to benefit from the Jewish State’s technological and military expertise and investment opportunities? Is that kind of reformation possible?
Efforts toward peace—whether motivated by economic prospects or calculated to create a bulwark against Iranian and Turkish aggression—needn’t be discredited nor disregarded. At the same time, is some form of violent response from Iran or Turkey or their proxies likely following the new treaties? Some experienced military observers say yes, a responsive attack may well take place. Turkish and Iranian leaders continue to rage and rant about the new Israeli-Sunni agreements, while pursuing their own deadly Islamist empire-building.
The future of the Middle East remains both unsettled and unsettling. Nonetheless, conversations about peace, freedom and positive possibilities ought never be mocked or silenced. Prayerful candles should always be lit by people of faith who yearn for religious liberty. But still, at the same time, wary eyes must surely keep their watch.
Read in Religion Unplugged
Image Caption: President Donald J. Trump, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan participate in the signing of the Abraham Accords Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, on the South Lawn of the White House