The National Interest Foundation Newsletter
Issue 187, April 14, 2023
Welcome to our NIF Newsletter. In this week’s headlines: we analyze peace talks held between Saudi, Omani, and Yemeni envoys, look into the increasing attacks against Christians in Israel, and examine the increase in anti-Muslim violence in India.
Written by Breje Khan-Williams; Edited by Jacob Van Veldhuizen
Yemeni Peace Talks Continue
The ongoing conflict in Yemen, which has been raging for almost a decade, has caused an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the region. Millions of Yemeni civilians are currently facing famine, displacement, and disease, as a result of the conflict. However, recent developments in the region have provided a glimmer of hope for those seeking an end to this long-standing conflict. Over the weekend, Saudi and Omani delegations met with Houthi representatives in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, to discuss ending hostilities and easing the Saudi-led blockade on Yemen ports. These negotiations have been dubbed “the closest Yemen has come to actual progress towards sustainable peace” by UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg. These talks, coupled with ongoing UN peace efforts, have provided a renewed sense of optimism that a peaceful resolution to the conflict may be possible shortly. With hope given to a possible step toward progress, there are many ways to perceive and analyze the situation that took place over the weekend.
The talks are focused on setting a timetable for withdrawing foreign forces from Yemen, paying public employees their dues, and fully restoring the ports and airport under Houthi control. These are important issues that need to be addressed for any meaningful progress toward peace to occur. However, several challenges must be overcome to achieve sustainable peace in Yemen. One of the main challenges is the complex political environment in Yemen. The conflict has created several factions that have control over various parts of the country, making it difficult to bring all parties together to negotiate a political settlement. Furthermore, there is a fundamental disagreement among the parties on how the country should look after the war. These issues will likely remain an obstacle, but one that is not impossible to overcome. Making sure that all sides are included in the peace negotiations is essential. Giving the smaller factions a platform and say in negotiations will likely complicate things, but it will also lessen the risk of insurgencies sprouting up after the peace process. To this point, it is also important that the peace accord is comprehensive and represents the needs and aspirations of all Yemenis, including transitional justice. To address their disputes, all parties must continue to have meaningful conversations. It is important, despite any friction that may happen, that these talks don’t break down. Both sides must be willing to put aside preconceived ideas and be willing to make concessions. To facilitate these negotiations and bring all sides to the table, the UN may play a significant role. Because of the length and brutality of the war, trust between the warring parties is basically nonexistent. The UN can act as a trusted mediary to ensure both sides comply with the agreed-upon obligations. To create an atmosphere conducive to peace, the parties must develop confidence in one another.
A major challenge that will likely affect the negotiations is the underlying proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Houthis are aligned with Iran, while the Saudi-led coalition supports the Yemeni government. Any agreement between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia will need to address the concerns of both parties and be seen as a win-win for both sides. It is possible that Iran may play a spoiler role in these negotiations to prevent Saudi Arabia from gaining an advantage in the region. A recent improvement in diplomatic ties between the two countries may lessen this risk.
The recent talks between the Saudi, Omani, and Yemeni envoys offer a ray of hope for ending the prolonged conflict in Yemen. This development, along with ongoing UN peace efforts, signals a renewed commitment to finding a sustainable solution to the crisis. Despite the challenges that remain, the international community needs to support these efforts and urge all parties to engage in meaningful dialogue to achieve a peaceful resolution to the conflict. It is also essential to prioritize the protection of Yemeni civilians who have been severely affected by this devastating conflict. To move forward, all parties must be willing to make concessions and prioritize the long-term benefits of sustainable peace over short-term gains. The complex political environment in Yemen demands that all factions come together to negotiate a political settlement that takes into account the diverse needs and aspirations of the Yemeni people.
Attacks on Christians in Israel
The recent surge in attacks against Christians in Israel is a development that cannot be ignored. Incidents such as the assault on the Armenian proprietor of Taboon & Wine Bar in Jerusalem’s Old City and the vandalism of Christian tombs at the Protestant Mount Zion Cemetery demonstrate a worrying trend toward intolerance and violence. The situation has become even more concerning under the current extremist Israeli government, with incidents of violence against Christians becoming more frequent and severe. The Israeli government’s reluctance to take action against the perpetrators of these attacks has only compounded the issue. The police’s lack of effort in apprehending the offenders in the assault on Taboon & Wine Bar was particularly disappointing. Even though the recordings of the attack were already online and there were several surveillance cameras across the Old City, they requested the proprietor’s surveillance footage until two months after the incident occurred. It is not just Armenian Christians who are experiencing these attacks. Priests from many denominations have reported enduring years of being spat upon, and the number of worshipers permitted inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has been drastically reduced, citing safety concerns. Christian celebrations around Holy Week have also brought military barricades and harsh treatment from soldiers and settlers alike. These incidents raise important questions about the state of religious tolerance in Israel and the potential effects on American Evangelical Christian support of Israel. The American Evangelical community has long been a staunch supporter of Israel, but these attacks against Christians may strain this relationship.
The persecution of Christians and their holy sites in Israel is not a new phenomenon, however, the situation is only getting worse. Victims of these crimes often feel helpless and frustrated, as they complain that nothing is done by the police to apprehend or prosecute offenders. Church and community leaders point out that the authorities often downplay the ideological and religious causes behind the attacks, generally claiming that the attackers are mentally ill. Munib Younan, an emeritus bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, voiced his concern that these criminals are recognized, but they get away with it. This sentiment is echoed by others who feel that the authorities are not doing enough to investigate and address the root causes of these attacks. One of the ways in which some religious leaders have taken matters into their own hands is by installing cameras in their holy sites. Friar Francesco Patton, the protector of the Holy Land, notes that the Franciscans have reluctantly installed cameras in every area of their sites. This is a departure from their philosophy of hospitality, but it has become necessary to protect their holy locations and the visitors who come to pray and worship.
Targeting Christian symbols, particularly the cross, is not new either. The attackers often refer to Christians as “pagans” or “idol worshipers.” However, under the new administration, the assailants feel more empowered than ever. A dispute broke out over a recent incident of spitting, and a settler pointed his rifle in the direction of the Christians. The message was clear: “I can do whatever I want and claim self-defense,” as one of their friends put it. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the minister of national security continues to defend extremist Jews attacking Christians and other sites. Itamar Ben-Gvir’s appointment to the position has raised concerns among minority communities, who fear that the highest-ranking official in the equation is the most extremist. As one Armenian youth who claims they were attacked in January said, “What do you expect when the highest-ranking official in the equation is the most extremist?”
The politicization of religion and the religious influence on politics is contributing to the worsening situation for Christians in Jerusalem. According to Jerusalem attorney Daniel Seidemann, this crisis represents the most serious conflict between Israel and the Christian churches since 1948, and there is currently no communication between them. The ongoing efforts of the Israeli government to turn Christian sites on the Mount of Olives into a national park are raising concerns among church leaders, who fear their ownership rights will be stripped away and given to settlement interests. As a result, statements from the church are becoming more critical of the government. The Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, notes that the equilibrium between the various groups is no longer observed. The marginalization of Christians in Jerusalem is driving many to flee in search of a safer future elsewhere. Church leaders describe a scenario in which political concerns are increasingly influenced by religious zealotry while religious matters are becoming more politicized. Bishop Younan warns that these individuals are seeking to turn the political battle in Jerusalem into a theological one where nobody wins but radicals. Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate adds that when religion becomes ideology, it can lead to hatred instead of peace, concord, reconciliation, and forgiveness. The lack of action from foreign nations and the international community has left the Christian population in Jerusalem feeling forgotten and unsupported. While church leaders have spoken out on diplomatic issues, their responses often fall on deaf ears. Christians in Palestine and Armenia believe that they are being overlooked, and the diplomatic missions seem to focus on other issues plaguing the region. Even when threats are made against church property, opposition from the US is rare, and violence against Christians is unlikely to be the driving force for foreign missions. With the absence of support from foreign nations, the Christian community in Jerusalem is left to fend for itself, and the lack of a coherent vision and leadership has made mobilizing the community challenging. While individuals are taking steps to protect themselves, such as owning properties, the long-term viability of the Christian presence in Jerusalem remains uncertain.
Palestinian have faced much harsher treatment, but this recent uptick in the attacks on Christians may cause many former Christian supporters of Israel to break and join in their condemnation of the actions of this new extremist government. This shifting dynamic may also make it more politically palatable for elected officials in the United States to begin publicly criticizing Israel on both their treatment of Christians and Palestinians. There have so far been no signs of a widespread shift, but if conditions continue to worsen for Christians in Israel, it is very possible that Israel may lose some if not all of its support, both political and monetary, from the United States.
The Christian community in Jerusalem is facing significant challenges, including violence, threats, and economic pressures. Despite these challenges, there is a growing sense of solidarity and collaboration among Christians from different denominations and with other religious and ethnic groups in the city. The younger generation is recognizing the importance of working together to maintain the Christian presence in the city, and community leaders are mobilizing efforts to protect their communities. While the future remains uncertain, the resilience and unity of the Christian community in Jerusalem offer hope for a more peaceful and inclusive future for all residents of the Holy Land.
Anti-Muslim Violence in India
The recent Hindu celebration of Ram Navami, which marks the birth of the god Ram, has brought to light the escalating violence against Muslims in India. The parade in north Bombay drew a crowd of over 5,000 people, who marched through Muslim neighborhoods for hours, blasting hateful Hindu supremacy music and screaming “Jai Shri Ram,” the war cry of the Hindu right wing. This display of dominance has left many Muslims feeling afraid to speak out, as they fear the repercussions. According to reports, as the procession approached a mosque where Muslims were saying their evening prayers, the volume of the speakers was raised, interrupting the prayers and inciting tensions between the two communities. The situation soon escalated into a fight, resulting in stone-throwing and the detainment of over 20 persons by the police. The official account of the incident claims that a Muslim man threw a stone at the Ram Navami rally attendees after his plea to turn down the noise was ignored. However, the residents of Malad, where the incident took place, say they were at the receiving end of aggression by the Hindu marchers. These incidents are not isolated, as anti-Muslim violence has been on the rise in India for several years. The Modi government’s policies and rhetoric have fueled this violence, stoking the flames of religious intolerance and xenophobia.
Concerted attempts by extreme-right Hindu organizations to stoke religious tensions in the Indian state of Maharashtra, and states in the Western part of India, have reportedly been on the rise in recent months. In March, the Hindu festival of Ram Navami was used as a pretext for a massive parade in Mumbai organized by Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, two extremist groups that have been known to incite violence against Muslims. This was just one of more than 50 similar gatherings held across the state under the banner of the Sakal Hindu Samaj, an amorphous group that emerged a year ago. The group comprises far-right organizations such as Bajrang Dal, VHP, Sanatan Sanstha, and Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, and many of these rallies have been attended by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders and officials. The BJP is the political party of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Shriraj Nair, a member of VHP and the primary organizer of these rallies in Bombay, stated that the groups joined together with the “single purpose to awaken the Hindus.” He claimed that “activities like ‘love jihad’ are on the rise,” referring to a baseless conspiracy theory of Muslim men wooing Hindu women for marriage to convert them. Nair also claimed that “sleeper cells” were being created and that Maharashtra was in danger due to illicit activities, adding that “the Sakal Hindu Samaj is here to raise awareness among Hindus.”
One of the most vocal and controversial speakers at these gatherings has been T. Raja Singh, a suspended BJP lawmaker from the state of Telangana, who has advocated for economic boycotts and even the eradication of Muslims. In a rally in Shrirampur, western Maharashtra on March 10, Singh made incendiary comments threatening Muslims. The crowd cheered enthusiastically in return. Despite facing two police cases in Maharashtra, he has not stopped making hate speeches. The Sakal Hindu Samaj is a troubling development in a country where attacks on Muslims have been on the rise since the election of Modi’s government in 2014. It is alarming that such groups are organizing and carrying out activities that are aimed at inciting religious tensions and instigating violence against Muslims. The Modi government, which is known for its Hindu nationalist agenda, has been accused of stoking these tensions and turning a blind eye to the violence. The recent Ram Navami procession in Mumbai is just the latest example of this disturbing trend.
The Hindu far-right in Maharashtra has also been inciting religious tensions through hate speeches and anti-Muslim conspiracy theories. The editor-in-chief of Sudarshan News, Suresh Chavhanke, and Hindu far-right leader Kalicharan Maharaj are among those who have made derogatory remarks against Muslims in their speeches. The frequent spread of rumors and hate speech has prompted calls for action from citizens like Shaheen Abdullah, who petitioned the Supreme Court for a ban on hate speech and to hold the Maharashtra police accountable for their abuse against Muslims. However, the police’s lawyer claimed that the petition was an infringement on their religious rights. During the hearing, Justice KM Joseph criticized the state’s inaction, stating that “it’s happening because the state is impotent. It is not doing anything … Why do we have a state where the state is silent when all this is happening?”
The impact of hate speech in villages is evident in the incidents that have been occurring in different parts of Maharashtra. Right-wing groups have become more empowered and strengthened by the statewide protests, which have made the daily lives of Muslims in the region much more hostile than before. The incident in the village of Anva, where a religious scholar was beaten up and forced to recite a Hindu chant, is just one example of the violence that has been occurring in the region. Abdul Sattar, the chief of a nearby village, reported that there have been four similar incidents in the area in the past two months alone. The Muslim community has received no reassurance from the police, and such occurrences are becoming commonplace in their daily lives. Another incident in Savarde village in Kolhapur district, where a Muslim family was forced to flee their home due to a WhatsApp status message posted by their son, is also indicative of the impact of hate speech. The boy was detained by the police for “hurting religious emotions,” and Hindu supremacist organizations held protests demanding that he be punished with sedition. The family had to flee their home, and they were not able to find a lawyer to take up their case due to pressure from right-wing groups. These incidents demonstrate how hate speech is impacting the lives of Muslims in villages in Maharashtra. They are facing violence and discrimination regularly, and there is little support from the police or the legal system. The rise of right-wing groups has made the situation worse, and authorities need to take action to protect the rights and safety of all citizens, regardless of their religion.
This surge in hate speech came after the BJP deposed the former coalition government that had governed the state for two and a half years following the 2019 state elections. The BJP managed to gain control by stealing 40 Shiv Sena legislators, leading to a change in government in Maharashtra. Under the previous administration, Maharashtra had distinguished itself during Hindu festivities by the advocacy of mass rape of Muslim women and the murder of Muslims by Hindu seers in the states controlled by the BJP. However, when the non-BJP coalition held power, there were no such gatherings organized, according to Akolkar. Despite being contacted by Al Jazeera for comment, at least four BJP spokespersons declined to respond.
The rise in anti-Muslim hate speech and violence in India, particularly in Maharashtra, is a concerning trend that has been exacerbated by the actions of the ruling BJP government. The manipulation of religious tensions for political gain is a dangerous game that can have devastating consequences for communities and the stability of the region. The lack of accountability for those spreading hate speech only serves to embolden them and create a climate of fear and violence. The impact of this situation is not limited to India alone. It has the potential to spill over into neighboring countries, such as Pakistan, which has a long-standing rivalry with India and a sizable Muslim population. The US, which has close ties with India and Pakistan, also has a role to play in promoting peace and religious tolerance in the region. Islamophobia and Xenophobia cannot be tolerated. The International community must continue to object to and punish those responsible for the incitement of and abuse of Muslims.
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