Mideast Weekly Roundup

By Saturday, February 27, 2016

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the State Department is considering calling the Islamic State’s killing of Christians “genocide.” During a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting earlier this week, Kerry was grilled about his department’s failure to use the term when considering ISIS and its treatment of religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. Kerry said that the matter is being discussed, and added, “We are currently doing what I have to do, which is review very carefully the legal standards and precedents for whatever judgment is made.” The secretary was also asked why he doesn’t use the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” and he replied, “It is predominantly Islamic and I have no hesitation in saying that.”

The United States and Russia have finally agreed on a temporary cessation of hostilities in Syria, the first attempt at a ceasefire in that country in many years. The truce, which took effect at midnight on Feb. 26, does not apply to the efforts against the Islamic State or to the Al-Qaeda affiliate known as the al-Nusra Front. Political negotiations are expected to resume on March 7; until then, United Nations Mediator Staffan de Mistura said that food and medicine will be brought to Syrian towns that have been under siege for months. The High Negotiations Committee said that 97 factions have agreed to the ceasefire.

The Islamic State has released the last of the 200 Assyrian Christians who were kidnapped by the group more than a year ago. After receiving ransoms of $100,000 per person, ISIS freed the remaining 43 Christian hostages. The group had originally demanded $18 million for the captives’ release, but that amount was lowered after several months of negotiations. The other abductees taken from northeastern Syria in February 2015 were released in groups during the past year.

Iranian voters took to the polls Feb. 26 in the first election since the landmark nuclear deal with the P5+1 was settled last summer. Poll-goers were saddled with making the decision between backing President Hassan Rouhani or derailing his political agenda, and were tasked with electing the members of Iran’s two governing institutions, the Parliament and the Assembly of Experts. The results of the election had not yet been released as of this publishing, but early returns showed that none of the three major political sects would win a majority in the Parliament. Those initial indicators also revealed that voters favored Rouhani’s policies.

A Palestinian journalist jailed in Israel has finally ended his 94-day hunger strike after being told that he will most likely be freed in May. Mohammed al-Qeq, 33, began his strike on Nov. 25 to obtain his release from administrative detention, which allows prisoners to be held in Israel for up to 60 days without charge; this timeline can be extended with a court’s approval. Israeli officials said that al-Qeq’s detention will not be renewed when it expires on May 21. The prisoner is currently being treated in an Israeli hospital.

An 80-year-old American citizen was taken into custody in Iran after traveling to that country to attempt to visit his son, who has been imprisoned for the past four months. While both Baquer Namazi and his son Siamak are both dual U.S.-Iranian citizens, the government of Iran does not recognize dual nationalities. Baquer Namazi’s wife said that her husband suffers from “serious heart and other conditions,” and called his and her son’s imprisonment “a nightmare I can’t describe.” The U.S. State Department said that it is keeping tabs on the situation, but could not comment on the arrests. “We are aware of reports that a U.S. citizen was detained in Iran,” said spokesman Mark Toner to The New York Times.

A hacking group called “The Sons of the Caliphate Army,” which has been linked to the Islamic State, has posted an online video making retaliation threats against Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The collective expressed anger against both social media sites for closing accounts that were connected to ISIS. The online video showing photos of the CEOs rattled with bullet holes says that the hacking group has more than 10,000 Facebook accounts and 5,000 Twitter accounts, which will be used to disseminate ISIS propaganda, “if Allah permits.” A banner at the end of the video reads, “You announce daily that you suspended many of your accounts, and to you we say: Is that all you can do? You are not in our league.”

Kurdish special forces have rescued a 16-year-old Swedish girl who was being held by the Islamic State in Iraq. Last year, Marilyn Nevalainen was persuaded by her boyfriend to travel to Syria with him to join ISIS, but the couple was later separated and Marilyn was kept in a house in Mosul. Swedish authorities and Marilyn’s family members asked the Iraqi Kurdish government to help find the teen, who has now been rescued from the militant group. Kurdish authorities have released a statement saying that Marilyn is being “provided the care afforded to her under international law,” and will be “transferred to Swedish authorities to return home once necessary arrangements” are made.

Islamic State militants have claimed responsibility for the stabbing death and beheading of a senior Hindu priest in Bangladesh. Members of the group also wounded two worshippers. The priest, Jogeswar Roy (also known as Joggeshwar Das), was murdered at his home in a northern Bangladesh temple last Sunday. Three men were arrested in conjunction with the incident and have been charged with murder and weapons counts.

Samuel Willenberg
Samuel Willenberg

The last survivor of the Nazi death camp Treblinka has died in Israel at the age of 93. Samuel Willenberg was one of only 67 known survivors of the extermination camp, as nearly all prisoners of that location were gassed immediately upon arrival. Because of his youth and physical ability, Willenberg was assigned to maintenance work, escaping a swift death. In a 2010 interview, he told the Associated Press that “the world cannot forget Treblinka.” Although the total number of people killed at Treblinka is unknown, scholarly estimates range from 700,000 to 900,000. Willenberg, whose bronze sculptures created after the war depicted the Jews he saw while in Nazi imprisonment, said that the prison camp “never leaves me. It stays in my head. It goes with me always.”

Jessie Owen Payne

Jessie Owen Payne is the Media Director of The Philos Project. Jessie graduated from Bob Jones University in 2008 with a BA in Radio and Television Broadcasting and a minor in Public Relations Journalism. She interned with Entercom Communications while in college, did freelance writing for The Greenville News in South Carolina, and worked as a staff reporter and editor for The Springville Journal and, later, The Sun News outside Buffalo, NY. Jessie’s passions include fashion, photography and travel. She currently lives with her husband Drew and two children, Logan and Ashtyn, in Greenville, S.C.