Week of April 13

An Orthodox clergyman holds holy fire to transfer to predominantly Orthodox countries from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed by many Christians to be the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ. In Jerusalem’s old city the traditional Holy Fire ceremony was called off amid coronavirus on Saturday. Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP

Prisoners Released Across Region to Stem Outbreak

On Monday, with a COVID-19 outbreak confirmed in Turkey’s prisons, the country’s parliament approved a new law that would relax sentencing requirements and reduce the prison population by nearly a third, despite criticism that inmates held on terrorism charges will not eligible for early release. Furloughs and the early release of non-violent offenders has become a common preventative measure around the world. On Saturday, Turkey’s health minister said the country’s confirmed coronavirus cases rose to 82,329, overtaking neighboring Iran as the country with the highest total in the Middle East.  

Later in the week on Sunday, Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani announced that the country had extended furloughs for prisoners for another month as officials struggle to curb the spread of the coronavirus there. The announcement followed an earlier decision to allow so-called low-risk businesses — including many shops, factories, and workshops — to resume operations in Tehran. Rouhani said mosques and other religious centers would remain closed for another two weeks and that decisions on gatherings during Ramadan will be decided later. The Islamic holy month is scheduled to begin April 23rd. Iran has reported more than 80,000 confirmed infections and more than 5,000 deaths, but many Iranians and other experts think the government has intentionally underreported the extent of the pandemic.

Collective Plea for Resumption of USAID Programs in Yemen as COVID Arrives

Humanitarian groups have joined together in calling for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to reconsider its two-week old decision to suspend aid programs in northern Yemen after COVID-19 infections were confirmed in the country. Yemen Relief & Reconstruction Foundation, Yemeni Alliance Committee, Norwegian Refugee Council and Oxfam are collectively urging USAID to pause its aid suspension to ensure Yemen has all possible resources to prevent and respond to COVID-19. Without urgent and sweeping action, the aid groups warn that COVID-19 could quickly spread and overwhelm Yemen’s fragile health system. “The spread of coronavirus just as aid to parts of the country is reduced could be catastrophic for millions of people already living on the brink,” says Oxfam’s Country Director Muhsin Siddiquey. “Over 17 million people have no access to clean water. For millions of Yemenis who are living in crowded camps and shelters, social distancing and frequent handwashing are extremely difficult.” The USAID decision came after the Houthi rebels spent months preventing U.N. agencies from facilitating aid flows to beneficiaries.

The Neverending Election Story in Israel Continues

On Thursday, the Israeli president handed the task of forming a government to Parliament, starting a 21-day countdown that could lead to new elections, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival, Benny Gantz, missed another midnight deadline to reach a power-sharing agreement. The step, which was mainly technical, on its own does little to find a way through Israel’s yearlong political deadlock. Neither Netanyahu nor Gantz has a majority without joining forces, and their parties issued a joint statement on Thursday saying that negotiations for a unity government would continue. President Reuven Rivlin’s order gives lawmakers 21 days to come up with a viable government, whether a unity coalition or some other configuration. Failing that, parliament will automatically dissolve on May 7th and send Israelis back to the ballot box for the fourth time in little over a year. 

Somber, Quiet Orthodox Easter Observed in a Jerusalem on Lockdown

This screenshot of the Holy Fire ceremony shows the absence of usual crowds at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on April 18th. Source: Youtube.

On Saturday, the tradition of the Holy Fire – a centuries-old ceremony held annually at the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem the day before Easter on the Eastern Orthodox Christian calendar – was honored, albeit with a smaller audience. Usually tens of thousands of pilgrims pack the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and surround the Edicule, the inner sanctum that houses the spot where tradition says Jesus was entombed and resurrected. This year, as a result of COVID-19, no pilgrims attended. The church has been closed to visitors since last month, as all houses of worship in the Holy Land have shuttered their doors. The ceremony was broadcast live to tens of thousands of Orthodox Christian believers around the world. Clergy from Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic and Syriac churches were represented at the ceremony, with a few Israeli policemen standing guard. A small group of clergy, some wearing masks because of the coronavirus pandemic, stood guard at the Edicule doors, sealed with wax. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem, Theophilos III, did not wear a mask. He encircled the crypt, wearing a golden crown and vestments, while a lone clergyman chanted. Visit the National Geographic coverage of the event to access some remarkable photos and learn more about the tradition. Learn more about how Orthodox Christians observed Easter across the world despite COVID complications. 

Media Outlets Caught in the Middle of Saudi Arabia and Turkey Feud

Elsewhere on Sunday, Turkish authorities blocked Saudi and United Arab Emirates news websites, days after the sites of Turkey’s state broadcaster and news agency were blocked in Saudi Arabia. The apparently reciprocal moves come four weeks after Turkish prosecutors indicted 20 Saudis over the October 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Kashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which has strained relations between Ankara and Riyadh. Internet users in Turkey trying to access the sites of Saudi news agency SPA, the UAE’s WAM news agency and more than a dozen other sites saw a message saying that they were blocked under a law governing internet publications in Turkey. A spokesman at Turkey’s Justice Ministry declined to comment on the actions and the Saudi government media office did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

It’s Over!

Our normal digest covers Monday through Sunday but we’re breaking with tradition to acknowledge that Israel has finally formed a government after multiple elections and endless imbroglio. On Monday night (April 20th), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and his former challenger, Benny Gantz, agreed to establish a unity government, a deal that finally breaks a yearlong political impasse and keeps Netanyahu in office as he faces trial on corruption charges.

After three inconclusive elections in the past year, the creation of the new government prevents what had appeared – just days earlier – to be an inevitable fourth election and offers the deeply divided country an opportunity for national healing as it battles the coronavirus pandemic. The agreement also buys Netanyahu time to try to deal with two contentious issues that have become the focus of his political legacy: evading prosecution or figuring out how to prevent it from pushing him out of power, and extending Israeli sovereignty over occupied Palestinian territory, which he promised to annex in February.

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