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Worshippers attend a prayer service in an evangelical church in Leon, Mexico.Reuters

Leobard “Chito” Aguilar was once a terrorist, a feared rebel leader, and a notorious drug trafficker.

But Aguilar found God in his darkest moments and now he has become a courageous Christian pastor, defending his flock in Mexico.

Speaking to Open Doors USA, Aguilar said he became a communist rebel in 1968 following the infamous Tlatelolco massacre where hundreds of students and civilians were killed by military and police.

By joining the rebels, he said he became part of a terrorist organization and a drug trafficker.

Aguilar said for years he lived in the world of organized crime until he was caught in possession of drugs and was locked up in prison.

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Fortunately, he had a devout Catholic wife named Lidia who prayed unceasingly for his release. God answered her prayers, and Aguilar was released from prison.

Aguilar said he did not believe in God even up to that point, and that all he wanted then was to recover the money and his other possessions that had been taken away from him.

But his wife never gave up on him as she kept on praying for him to find God. Finally, once again, her prayers were answered: Aguilar surrendered his life to Jesus.

Aguilar is now the pastor of Centro Familiar Aposento Alto, a Protestant church in Ciudad Juarez, near the border between Mexico and the United States.

Aguilar said his church, like many other churches in Mexico, is being subjected to extortion and coercion by the organized crime syndicate that he once belonged to.

However, because he knows first-hand how the criminal gangs operate, he said he has never been intimidated by them and never had to pay extortion money to them.

Other churches in the country have surrendered to the drug cartels, he said.

“You could see pastors leaving their congregations and fleeing to the United States because things had gotten very dangerous for them in Mexico. It was a very critical time for the church. Christian leaders lived in fear. The drug cartels had already killed a pastor and kidnapped several others,” he told Open Doors USA.

The Christian persecution watchdog ranked Mexico as the 41st worst country in the world for Christians to be living in on its 2017 World Watch list. It says the persecution level affecting the 120 million Christians in Mexico is “high” due to “organized corruption.”

Another source of persecution is the influence of indigenous pagan tribes. Last week, some 25 evangelical Christians refused to leave a troubled area in Mexico’s western Jalisco state despite facing persecution in an area where members of a tribe hold pagan rituals, Christian leaders told BosNews Life.

Members of the tribe who turned to Jesus have faced alienation, eviction from their communities, and separation from their families for refusing to take part in the ancient tribal rituals, sources said.

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Conspiracy, deception, hypocrisy, lies, plots, kidnappings, rebellion, war, military occupation, killings, secret policies, and the humiliating fall of a superpower. This is the stuff of which Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary, and Eisenhower’s Campaign for Peace is made and the history Alex von Tunzelmann tells is as infuriating as it is instructive.

In her book, which often reads as a fast-paced political thriller, Von Tunzelmann “covers history one day at a time” for 16 days: from Oct 22 to Nov 6, 1956. She provides a day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour, account of two international crises: the Suez war, which gets the larger share of the book, and the Hungarian uprising.

In 1956, Britain, France and Israel hatched a secret plot to invade Egypt. The three countries met clandestinely in October to plan an invasion of Egypt later that month to take back control of the Suez Canal and get rid of Gamal Abdel Nasser. As per the three governments’ connivance, Israel would launch a surprise attack on Egypt. Britain and France would enter the war on the false pretext of “separating the combatants” and “extinguishing a dangerous fire.” The three countries secretly signed an agreement to this effect.


How the Suez war stripped a superpower of its status


Unbeknownst to the British, Israel and France signed two more agreements: one allowed the French forces to use Israeli airfields and harbours to attack Egypt; the other enabled Israel to build a nuclear reactor with French help and to obtain the natural uranium to fuel it.

It was the French who brought the three governments together in the covert alliance despite the British seeing the Israelis as “toxic allies” and the Israelis recognising — in the scheme to attack Egypt — what they called “the acme of British hypocrisy.”

The French loathed Nasser because they held him “wholly responsible” for the Algerian war of independence. They had tried to assassinate him in 1954, but failed. The Israelis hated Nasser for the “new style of pan-Arab nationalism” that he had come to symbolise. They also wanted to occupy the Straits of Tiran and the port of Eilat. (The significance of Tiran became clear in 1957 when Israel brokered a secret agreement with the National Iranian Oil Company to build the trans-Israel pipeline to bring Iranian oil through Israel to the Mediterranean and to the European market, bypassing the Suez Canal.)

The British, too, wanted Nasser dead. In March 1956, the then British prime minister, Anthony Eden, shouted at his foreign secretary for suggesting that the British should work to politically isolate Nasser and find an alternative to replace him. “I want him murdered,” Eden is reported to have snarled. “I don’t want an alternative. And I don’t give a damn if there’s anarchy and chaos in Egypt.”

The British also wanted to preserve their mastery over the Middle East even though the president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, thought “The British had never any sense in the Middle East.” When Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal Company (the Suez Canal meant “oil power and global power”) in July 1956, the die was cast even though Eisenhower thought Egypt was within its rights to do so.

Meanwhile, in Hungary in October 1956, students and factory workers protested in Budapest for freedom of religion and democracy, and shouted “Go home” at Soviet troops stationed there. Later, some uniformed Hungarian soldiers joined in and the number of protestors grew beyond 200,000.

Von Tunzelmann writes that Nikita Khrushchev, then leader of the Soviet Union, was “making a genuine attempt at a political solution” in Hungary. But he changed his mind on Oct 30. That day, rebels entered the headquarters of the Budapest Party Committee looking for the non-existent secret chambers where political prisoners were rumoured to be held and tortured. When the rebels found nothing, they dragged out more than a dozen young state security men, strung them up from trees by their feet, poured petrol on them and set them on fire.

According to Von Tunzelmann, the Suez war also “pushed” Khrushchev to change “his policy in Hungary away from tolerance and toward violence.” In addition, Khrushchev wrongly believed that the US was a partner in the war against Egypt.

Von Tunzelmann’s treatment of the conspiracy to attack Egypt, the Suez war, and what happened afterwards is excellent. When Israeli forces attacked Egypt on Oct 29, they aimed to seize the Sinai, open up the Straits of Tiran, and sever Gaza from Egypt. That night, Von Tunzelmann writes, “the Israelis in the desert were resupplied by French planes, dropping everything from jeeps and guns to jerry cans of water and gasoline to cigarettes. These were brought from the British bases on Cyprus, though the British affected ignorance of these flights.”

On the same day, in the village of Kafr Kassem, Israeli troops massacred 43 civilians — of whom 23 were children aged between eight and 17 years. One nine-year-old girl had been shot 28 times. Five days later Israeli troops “summarily executed” 275 Palestinian civilians in Khan Yunis, of whom 140 were refugees from the 1948 nakba [catastrophe].

On Oct 31, the British began to bomb Egyptian airfields while French ships, escorted by Israeli destroyers, attacked Egyptian army bases and other targets. Though keeping the Suez Canal open was key to what the British and French called their spontaneous “police action,” they stupidly managed to close it. They did so by bombing and sinking Egyptian ships (filled with cement, scrap iron and empty beer bottles) that Egyptian forces had planned to sink themselves to block the canal.

The furious Americans condemned the invasion and proposed a draft resolution in the United Nations that called for an immediate ceasefire on all sides and the withdrawal of invading forces. Eisenhower, up for re-election in days, had chosen, writes Von Tunzelmann, “the United Nations over Nato.”

After capturing Sharm al-Sheikh on Nov 5, Israel announced that it was ready to accept a ceasefire, undermining the reasons for landing British and French forces.

In Budapest, by Nov 11, Soviet troops with tanks and armoured vehicles had brutally crushed the Hungarian uprising; “several thousand” Hungarian rebels were killed, more than 100,000 were arrested, 26,000 were jailed, and 600 were executed.

The British pound was under unprecedented pressure during the Suez war and to maintain its value, the British government was forced to liquidate much of its gold and dollar reserves. After the Americans refused to support the falling pound, the British agreed to a ceasefire, forcing the reluctant French to do the same.

Though the Suez war and the Hungarian uprising occurred independently of each other, Von Tunzelmann rightly sees them as interrelated because the war, in her words, “condemned” the uprising. She also makes the claim that the rebellion in “Hungary may have spared the world a greater conflict” — conflict caused by the Suez war. Her case here, though, is rather brief and not convincing. She herself points out that Eisenhower did not want a conflict with the Soviets.

The Suez war turned Nasser into a hero among the Arabs, destroyed the British prime minister as well as Britain as a superpower and changed the pattern of world politics. As Von Tunzelmann writes: “During the Second World War, when the term superpower was coined to describe states that could exert extraordinary power on a global scale, there were considered to be three of them: the United States, the Soviet Union and the British Empire. Now there were two.”

Blood and Sand is written in the form of popular history. The author has done well to bring this history to the general reading public and her account serves as a timely reminder that chicanery and outright lies are at the heart of international politics. The hour-by-hour, side-by-side coverage of the two crises in the book can be a bit maddening, but Von Tunzelmann’s admirably clear writing, and the story she has to tell, keep the reader going.

The reviewer is a communications consultant for international NGOs (The B&A print edition of April 30 erroneously identified the reviewer as a retired diplomat).

Blood and Sand: Suez,
Hungary, and Eisenhower’s
Campaign for Peace
By Alex von Tunzelmann
ISBN 978-0062249241
Harper, USA
550pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 30th, 2017

Exactly two hundred years ago today, on April 28, 1817, Acting United States Secretary of State Richard Rush and the British Minister to Washington Sir Charles Bagot exchanged and signed letters that became the Rush-Bagot treaty, which demilitarized the Great Lakes.

The treaty provided for a large demilitarization of lakes along the international boundary, where many British naval arrangements and forts remained. The treaty stipulated that the United States and British North America could each maintain one military vessel (no more than 100 tons burden) as well as one cannon (no more than eighteen pounds) on Lake Ontario and Lake Champlain. It later extended this to the other Great Lakes and in fact, the entire Canadian border.

It’s pretty amazing actually, that the USA and Canada have done a pretty good job of working together at cleaning up the lakes and keeping them demilitarized, although the Coast Guard now has bigger guns, Canada is looking the other way. According to Wikipedia, “The Canadian government decided that the armament did not violate the treaty, as the guns were to be used for law enforcement rather than military activities. Canada reserved the right to arm its law enforcement vessels with similar weapons.”

GLRI projectsGLRI/Public Domain

Today those Great Lakes are at risk, because of cutbacks at the EPA that may kill The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative of 2010. The border is being thickened against trade and immigration; there are lumber wars and milk wars and who knows what else perfidious Canadians are doing since as the President says, they have been “very rough” with America and “they’ve outsmarted our politicians for many years”.

But Rush-Bagot has stood for exactly 200 years today, which is a pretty good run for a treaty. Let’s hope it, and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, have a few more it it.