Does Religion Have To Do With Tensions in the Middle East?


We have seen a dangerous escalation in the Middle East because of the war in Gaza. Iran has attacked targets in Iraq and Pakistan. The Houthis are targeting ships in the Red Sea. Hezbollah and Israel are exchanging fire across the Lebanese border. Does religion have anything to do with it?




The first point has to do with the division between Sunnis and Shiites, the two major branches of Islam. Worldwide, the Sunnis are the vast majority, with around 90% of the population, but looking more specifically at the Middle East, things are not so clear-cut. Iran is the great Shiite power and has a theocratic regime that uses religion to legitimize itself. But then there are several countries in the region that have significant minorities or even majorities of Shiites.

Sunnis, on the other hand, are in the majority in almost every country in the Middle East, except Iran, of course, and Iraq. The major Sunni powers are Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Turkey on the other – already outside the Middle East but on the border and increasingly looking east.

The great rivalries in the region, excluding Israel, are between Sunni and Shiite countries and sometimes between the forces of these two currents of Islam within the countries, acting at the behest of external powers. Thus, Saudi Arabia is currently in conflict with the Houthis in Yemen, who are Shiites and act under orders from Tehran, and Turkey supports the rebel groups in Syria, who are mostly Sunni and have a jihadist tendency, while the Syrian government is dominated by the Alawites, who are a branch of Shiism.

Until now, only one thing seemed to be able to unite the two branches: hatred of Israel and, by extension, its Western supporters, namely the United States. But even that now seems to be in question.



For years Israel has been the favorite target of Iran’s rhetoric. However, the two countries share no borders, so it was just rhetoric. Meanwhile, Hezbollah, the Shiite force in Lebanon, has started attacking Israel, and Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear country, which poses a serious risk for Tel Aviv. Worse, Iran has become one of the main sponsors of Hamas. 

When Israel fought back against Hamas, invading Gaza in an operation that has already caused tens of thousands of deaths and is leaving the territory practically uninhabitable, it was thought to be making a strategic mistake, turning the rest of the Middle East-and a good part of Western public opinion-against it. 

However, what we are witnessing now may indicate a winning bet for Israel, as the tension between Shiites and Sunnis isolates Hamas, which is dependent on Iran, and isolates Iran itself in the region. 

It should be noted that following the war in Gaza, no Sunni country came to the aid of Hamas. Still, on the contrary there were two attacks inside Iran promoted by radical Sunni forces, one based in Idlib, Syria, the other in Pakistan. It was the targets of these groups that Iran supposedly attacked.

Of course, this begs the question: why did these groups attack Iran precisely at a time when the Shiite state was using the groups it supports and controls to attack Israel and Western targets through attacks on ships in the Red Sea? Was there any encouragement from these Western governments, or from Israel, to do so?

What we do know is that Saudi Arabia said a few days ago that it might recognize Israel, provided that the Palestinian problem is resolved. It seems an impossible condition, but the Saudis haven’t said what they consider to be a fair resolution either, so everything is open. 

This approach by Riyadh clearly shows that the Sunni countries are realizing that it is not Israel that is their great enemy in the region, since it does not threaten them directly, and that they no longer have anything to gain from appeals for Muslim solidarity with Palestine since Iran has overtaken them on the right and taken up the cause for itself.

The coming period could, therefore, reveal a new balance of power in the Middle East, with Sunni countries accepting a truce and even collaborating with Israel and, by extension, with the Western world in the face of a common threat.



Half a century of a fundamentalist and backward regime in Tehran has managed to turn a large part of the population against those same ideas. In Iran’s big cities, people don’t care about religion, Shiism or rivalries with the Sunnis. Despite all their anti-Western talk, ordinary Iranians are deeply Westernized and are increasingly feeling the weight of their lack of freedom. 

Iran is therefore a powder keg that has already been put to the test several times but which, sooner or later, may actually explode and see the Ayatollahs’ regime disappear, to be replaced by a new, much more westernized reality that recovers the place Iran once occupied in the world, in terms of culture and development. But that hasn’t happened yet, nor is it known whether it will, so the Ayatollahs are still there and it is they who are close to obtaining nuclear weapons.  

Share Your Thoughts

All comments are moderated

From The Same Issue

The articles and content about this issue

From The Same Issue

The articles and content about this issue

From This Topic

The articles and content about this topic

From This Topic

The articles and content about this topic

Explore Other Topics

Browse other coverage

Explore Other Topics

Browse other coverage


Presents, discusses and draws readers to reflect on issues of outmost relevance to the world today.


Very often, mission is carried out in frontier situations around the world. Those who embrace these situations have much to share.


Writer Ilsa Reyes will be exploring the richness of Pope Francis’s latest encyclical Fratelli Tutti with a view of helping our readers to get a grasp of the this beautiful papal document.


Puts to the front committed and inspiring people around the world who embrace humanitarian and religious causes with altruism and passion.


Focus on a given theme of interest touching upon social, economic and religious issues.


As the Philippines prepares to celebrate 500 years of the arrival of Christianity. Fr. James Kroeger leads us in this series into a discovery journey of the landmark events in the history of faith in the Philippine archipelago.


Aims to nurture and inspire our hearts and minds while pondering upon timely themes.


The large archipelago of the Philippines, in its richness of peoples and cultures, offers varied and challenging situations for mission.


Reflections and vocation stories that shape up the lives of young people.


As humor and goodness of heart are qualities of Christian and missionary life, the new column “Mission is fun” will be publishing some anecdotes and stories that have happened in a missionary context to lighten up the spirits and trigger a smile in our faces.


To help readers of World Mission live this year dedicated to Ecumenism, Interreligious Dialogue and Indigenous Peoples, Tita Puangco, writer and lecturer, shares in this section insights on the spirituality of communion.


A historic view of the Catholic movements that emerged from the grassroots as an inspiration by the Holy Spirit.


On the Year of Ecumenism, Interreligious Dialogue and Indigenous Peoples, radio host and communicator Ilsa Reyes, in her monthly column, encourages Christians and people of good will to be one with their fellow people of other sects, religions and tribes.


Questions to a personality of the Church or secular world on matters of interest that touch upon the lives of people.


News from the Church, the missionary world and environment that inform and form the consciences.


A feature on environmental issues that are affecting the whole world with the view of raising awareness and prompting action.


The editor gives his personal take on a given topic related to the life of the Church, the society or the world.


A monthly column on themes touching the lives of young people in the Year of the Youth in the Philippines by radio host and communicator I lsa Reyes.


A missionary living in the Chinese world shares his life-experiences made up of challenges and joyous encounters with common people.


Life stories of people who deserve to be known for who they were, what they did and what they stood for in their journey on earth.


Stories of people whom a missionary met in his life and who were touched by Jesus in mysterious ways.


Critical reflection from a Christian perspective on current issues.


Comboni missionary Fr. Lorenzo Carraro makes a journey through history pinpointing landmark events that changed the course of humanity.


A biographical sketch of a public person, known for his/her influence in the society and in the Church, showing an exemplary commitment to the service of others.


Gives fresh, truthful, and comprehensive information on issues that are of concern to all.


A column aimed at helping the readers live their Christian mission by focusing on what is essential in life and what it entails.


Peoples, events, religion, culture and the society of Asia in focus.


The human heart always searches for greatness in God’s eyes, treading the path to the fullness of life - no matter what it takes.


The subcontinent of India with its richness and variety of cultures and religions is given center stage.


The African continent in focus where Christianity is growing the fastest in the world.


Well-known writer and public speaker, Fr. Jerry Orbos, accompanies our journey of life and faith with moments of wit and inspiration based on the biblical and human wisdom.


On the year dedicated to St. Ignatius of Loyala, Fr. Lorenzo Carraro walks us through the main themes of the Ignatian spirituality.


Fr. John Taneburgo helps us to meditate every month on each of the Seven Last Words that Jesus uttered from the cross.


In this section, Fr. Lorenzo delves into the secrets and depths of the Sacred Scriptures opening for us the treasures of the Sacred Book so that the reader may delight in the knowledge of the Word of God.


Reflections about the synodal journey on a conversational and informal style to trigger reflection and sharing about the synodal path the Church has embarked upon.

Shopping Cart