Friday, January 10, 2003

News Feed 20101226

Financial Crisis
»Lehman ‘Prophet’ Fears Second Crisis if US Interest Rates Are Kept Low
»Portugal: Beijing Will Help Us With Bond Purchase
»The UK Inflation Genie is Out of the Bottle
»Growing Market Opportunity is U.S. Muslims
»US Home-Grown Terrorists ‘A Global Threat’, Warns Congresswoman
Europe and the EU
»Berlusconi: The Majority No Longer Identifies With Fini
»Coldest December in Sweden in 110 Years
»German Aid Worker Killed in Afghanistan
»Italy: Weather Woes: Ice and Snow in the North, Rain in the South
»Netherlands: Police Arrest 12 Somalis on Terrorism Charges, Target Unknown
»Pope Condemns Christmas Day Violence
»Sweden: Gothenburg: Coptic Church Closed Down Due to Internet Threats
»UK: Boxing Day Violence: Armed Police Called After Shooting and Stabbing at One of Europe’s Busiest Shopping Centres
»UK: English Defence League Claim 78 Got Whiplash in Crash… But Only 25 Were on Coach
»UK: New 5p and 10p Coins Delayed Over Parking Chaos Threat
»Unwanted Attention: German Far Right Praises New Swiss Law
North Africa
»Eight US Tourists Killed in Egyptian Bus Crash
»Tunisia: 18,000 Women at the Head of Enterprises
Israel and the Palestinians
»Abbas Vows: No Room for Israelis in Palestinian State
»Christmas: Mixed Feelings in Bethlehem
»Christmas in Gaza is a Celebration Tempered by Fear
»Israel Won’t Attend Racism Conference Fete
»Militants Killed as Violence Surges on Gaza Border
»‘Musical’ Christmas Greetings From Peres on YouTube
»New Rules in Force for Consumer Protection
»Raed Salah in Rahat: Israeli Land Belongs to Muslims
Middle East
»Afghanistan’s Karzai Welcomes Taliban Setting Up Office in Turkey
»Al-Qaida Threat on Iraq Christians Linked to Egypt
»Jordan: Christmas for Iraqi Christians Tainted by Attacks
»Somalis Protest Discrimination by Landlords in Turkey
»Turkey Ties Frayed, Israel Turns to the Balkans
»Turkey ‘Wants to Repair Ties With Israel’
»Anti-Racism Rally Draws 2,500 in Moscow
»Russian Islamic Leaders Against the Kremlin
South Asia
»‘German Mother Theresa’ Saves Lives in Pakistan
»Muslim Radicals Colonising the Country, Indonesian Bishops Say
»Pakistan’s Rape Victim Who Dared to Fight Back
»Pakistan Suicide Bomber Was Woman Covered in Burqa
»Pricey Onions Threaten India’s Growth and Government
Far East
»Hu Jintao to Washington January 19, To Save China and U.S. From Disaster
Sub-Saharan Africa
»Islamic Clerics Reject South Sudan Referendum, Demand Islamic Laws
»Somali Islamists Beg Al Qaeda Help
Latin America
»Bolivia’s Recognition of Palestine as an Independent State Sets Off Alarm Bells in Israel
Culture Wars
»UK: Multi-Faith Chaplains to Make House of Commons More Inclusive
»UK: St George’s Flag Protest Lands in Court

Financial Crisis

Lehman ‘Prophet’ Fears Second Crisis if US Interest Rates Are Kept Low

“The crisis that required zero interest rates has passed,” said Mr Einhorn, who co-founded and runs Greenlight Capital, a $6.5bn (£4.2bn) fund. By not raising rates “it increases the chance that governments will over-borrow and fall into a debt trap”.

The criticism of the Federal Reserve comes as it embarks on another $600bn (£380bn) of quantitative easing — or printing money — in an effort to fire up a stronger recovery next year. Interest rates around the western world, including in Britain, have sat at or below 1pc since the near collapse of the financial system in 2008 triggered a global recession.

“If interest rates ever do go up again, you have another crisis,” Mr Einhorn told The Sunday Telegraph.

Those in favour of very low interest rates point to the support it has given the real estate market in the US and that, as in the UK, it should encourage politicians to begin to tackle the $1.3 trillion budget deficit without fear of damaging the economy. Greenlight, which Mr Einhorn founded in 1996 with about $1m, including an investment from his parents, has its single largest position in gold — an asset that many investors have historically turned to during periods of economic uncertainty.

The gold price, which is closing in on a tenth straight year of gains, reached a record $1,432.50 an ounce earlier this month. Mr Einhorn admits that he is having to pay far more attention to the broader economic picture when making decisions about which companies to invest in than he has ever done. He declined to say what he thought of either the UK or eurozone economies at the moment. The 42 year-old, already well known within the hedge fund industry, shot to wider prominence in 2008 after using a lecture in May of that year to voice criticisms of how Lehman was valuing its assets. The lecture had echoes of one he gave six years earlier on Allied Capital, a lender which he accused of using misleading accounting practices. That lecture sparked an almost decade-long battle with Allied, which is recorded in Mr Einhorn’s 2008 book Fooling Some of The People All of The Time. The financial crisis, he says, has done little to ensure that the regulators are any better at detecting either fraudulent or financially weak companies.

Both lectures drew stinging criticism from some investors and parts of the media, who accused the fund manager of stirring up concerns because it had short positions in both companies that would see Greenlight benefit if their share prices dropped.


           — Hat tip: DF[Return to headlines]

Portugal: Beijing Will Help Us With Bond Purchase

(ANSAmed) — ROME, DECEMBER 14 — China will “financially” help Portugal. So said the Portuguese Ambassador in Beijing following meetings that the Portuguese Finance Minister, Fernando Teixeira dos Santos, has had with the Chinese leaders during his visit to the country, according to what has been reported by the Bloomberg agency. Dos Santos has gone to China to try to persuade Beijing to buy Portuguese debt. The financial aid will be supplied “now and also in the future in view of the measures that Lisbon has approved for the restructuring of its economy,” reads a communiqué from the Portuguese Embassy. “We have made a great step forward in strengthening our relations at all levels: trade, investment and the financial sector,” Dos Santos told Portuguese agency Lusa. “China is supporting Portugal and will continue to do so,” he concluded, without specifying the amount of stocks that Beijing has already bought or will buy. (ANSAmed).

           — Hat tip: Insubria[Return to headlines]

The UK Inflation Genie is Out of the Bottle

I’m a natural optimist and don’t wish to upset anyone’s Boxing Day celebrations. Any commentator worth their salt, though, at times like this, should ignore such sensitivities. It would be wrong — reckless, in fact, given the slew of recent bad data — to fail to point to the worrying mix of economic issues the UK now faces. During 2011, the British economy will suffer from rising inflation and sluggish (in some quarters, possibly negative) growth. This grim combination will be set against a budgetary situation that can only be described as ghastly.

George Osborne was recently in New York, soaking up plaudits for boldly leading Britain into fiscal austerity at a time when, apparently in contrast, America’s feckless political elite has allowed the national debt to balloon. The problem is that UK austerity, so far at least, is a myth.

November’s national accounts, released last week, were shocking. Government spending last month was sharply up on the same month in 2009 — yes, up! British state borrowing is still escalating, with the national debt rising very quickly.

Anyone who takes an intelligent interest in current affairs could be forgiven for inferring from the political rhetoric that the UK’s fiscal squeeze is not only well under way but that the worst is actually behind us. If this was indeed your impression, you may want to pour yourself a large Yuletide sherry and possibly take refuge in another bowl of trifle. For the grim reality, as the latest figures show, is that Britain’s fiscal squeeze hasn’t even begun.

I’d hoped to end what has been a nerve-jangling year for the UK economy on an upbeat note. A couple of weeks ago, though, new figures showed that CPI inflation was 3.3pc higher in November than the same month the year before. Inflation has now been above the Bank of England’s 2pc target for 40 of the past 49 months.

Some of us have been warning this would happen. Since late 2008, this column has asserted that the UK faces inflationary dangers and that talk of British “deflation” was deeply disingenuous, an intellectual conceit to justify massive virtual “money printing” and the extension of endless soft credits to banks that should, in fact, be allowed to fail. Such a position has been seen as heresy — not least because “quantitative easing” has friends in high places. QE, for now, has helped politically connected bankers to dodge the implications of their own hubris and incompetence. It has allowed successive British governments to stick their fingers in their ears and avoid tackling root-and-branch banking reform.

To argue that QE is dangerous and that, as a corollary, the UK faces high inflation has been to be treated by the UK’s policy-making elite as some kind of economic Herod. I might as well have been suggesting we slay the first born. In recent weeks, though, the mood has changed. Reality has thankfully broken through.

“Top economists” are now finally allowing themselves to state what is both historically and technically obvious, that money-printing is counter-productive. The same professional “trend-spotters” are now also concluding that high UK inflation isn’t a “blip” or a “one-off”. What took them so long?


           — Hat tip: DF[Return to headlines]


Growing Market Opportunity is U.S. Muslims

#In the ballroom of an upscale hotel a short train ride from New York, advertisers, food industry executives and market researchers mingled — the men in dark suits, the women in headscarves and Western dress. Chocolates made according to Islamic dietary laws were placed at each table.

The setting was the American Muslim Consumer Conference, which aimed to promote Muslims as a new market segment for U.S. companies. While corporations have long catered to Muslim communities in Europe, businesses have only tentatively started to follow suit in the U.S. — and they are doing so at a time of intensified anti-Muslim feeling that companies worry could hurt them, too. American Muslims seeking more acknowledgment in the marketplace argue that businesses have more to gain than lose by reaching out to the community. “We are not saying, ‘Support us,’“ said Masood, a graduate of the University of Illinois, Chicago, and management consultant. “But we want them to understand what our values are.”

There are signs the industry is stirring: Faisal Masood, a Wall Street executive who organized the gathering, had attracted only 200 or so attendees when he started the event last year. This year, he had to close registration at 400 to keep from going over capacity. The worldwide market for Islamically permitted goods, called halal, has grown to more than half a billion dollars annually. Ritually slaughtered meat is a mainstay, but the halal industry is much broader, including foods and seasoning that omit alcohol, pork products and other forbidden ingredients, along with cosmetics, finance and clothing. Corporations have been courting immigrant Muslim communities in Europe for several years. Nestle, for example, has about 20 factories in Europe with halal-certified production lines and advertises to Western Muslims through its marketing campaign called “Taste of Home.” Nestle plans to increase its ethnic and halal offerings in Europe in coming years. In the United States, iconic American companies such as McDonald’s (which already has a popular halal menu overseas) and Wal-Mart have entered the halal arena. In August, the natural grocery giant Whole Foods began selling its first nationally distributed halal food product — frozen Indian entrees called Saffron Road. Along with new customers, however, the companies draw critics and can become targets in the ideological battle over Islam and terrorism. Abdalhamid Evans, project director with the World Halal Forum Europe, which works with the global halal industry, said a recent backlash has prompted some mainstream businesses in Europe to keep a lower profile about their halal products or scale back their offerings. In the U.K., after Kentucky Fried Chicken rolled out halal menu options in several dozen stores, the restaurant chain pulled the items in a few locations in the face of protests. Critics dubbed the menu “terror chicken.”

Last September, the Daily Mail of London reported that many British supermarkets, fast-food chains, hospitals, schools, pubs and sporting arenas such as Wembley Stadium, were serving some halal meat and poultry without notifying the public. A large share of meat sold in Britain comes from New Zealand, where the slaughterhouses have expanded halal production as they try to boost their already robust exports to Islamic countries.

In the uproar that followed, Barnabas Aid, a group that fights Christian persecution worldwide, started a petition in Britain against what it called the “imposition” of halal. It “may be interpreted as an act of Islamic supremacy,” the group said.


           — Hat tip: DF[Return to headlines]

US Home-Grown Terrorists ‘A Global Threat’, Warns Congresswoman

America’s home-grown terrorists are now a ‘global threat’ and the US should look to Europe to learn how to deal with the problem, a prominent US congresswoman has warned Barack Obama.

Mr Shahzad, who described himself as a ‘Muslim solider’, warned ‘brace yourselves because the war with the Muslims has just begun’ Photo: AFP

Duncan Gardham, Security Correspondent 2:42PM GMT 26 Dec 2010

In a letter to the president, Sue Myrick, a member of the House of Representatives select committee on intelligence, says that America is for the first time exporting Islamist terrorism.

She accuses the US of complacency in dealing with the issue and says the country in “far behind” Europe in having measures in place to deal with the growing problem of the radicalisation of young men and their willingness to carry out terror attacks.

Her letter marks a departure from a long-held view in the US that Britain is the biggest threat to the US as a result of its position as a staging point for extremists from Pakistan, the Middle East and East Africa.

In her letter, Mrs Myrick writes: “For many years we lulled ourselves with the idea that radicalisation was not happening inside the United Sates.

“We believed American Muslims were immune to radicalisation because, unlike the European counterparts, they are socially and economically well-integrated into society.

“There had been warnings that these assumptions were false but we paid them no mind.” She goes on: “Today there is no doubt that radicalisation is taking place inside America. The strikingly accelerated rate of American Muslims arrested for involvement in terrorist activities since May 2009 makes this fact self-evident. What has been missed is that our home-grown terrorists are now becoming a global threat.”

Among a number of cases cited by Mrs Myrick, a Republican, is that of David Coleman Headley, a US citizen who conducted the reconnaissance for the Mumbai attacks and also visited Britain.

She also writes about Samir Khan, a leading propagandist with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular who produces an English language online magazine called Inspire, and came from the congresswoman’s hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Some of those arrested over the last year, including Faizal Shazad, the Times Square bomber, “embodied the American dream, at least socio-economically,” she adds.

She said that the interpretation that social grievances are at the heart of domestic terrorism is wrong and adds: “The truth is that if grievances were the sole cause of terrorism, we would see daily acts by Americans who have lost their jobs and homes in this economic downturn.” The congresswoman said that America knows little about the ideology that drives terrorism and adds: “We are far behind our allies in Europe who have been studying extremist ideology for some time now.

“If we are truly to stem the tide of home-grown terrorism, we must follow the act of some European countries, we must move beyond addressing bombs and bullets to winning hearts and minds.” Mrs Myrick, a Republican, called on the US president to convene a bipartisan meeting on counter-radicalisation at the White House for congressional leaders to discuss the issues.

The Daily Telegraph understands that senior US officials have been briefed on Britain’s anti-radicalisation project called Prevent, which is currently being restructured by the Coalition Government.

Her call coincides with that of congressman Peter King, the incoming Republican head of the house committee on homeland security who said last weekend that he would hold hearings radicalisation, alleging that law-enforcement officials around the country had told him they received little co-operation from Muslims.

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, an expert in extremism at King’s College, London, said: “A number of recent cases, particularly over the last year, suggest that home-grown Islamist extremism is a growing problem in the United States.

“Many of the patterns we have become used to seeing in Europe over the last decade are now emerging over there and it is important that the current US administration acts decisively before it is too late.”

           — Hat tip: El Inglés[Return to headlines]

Europe and the EU

Berlusconi: The Majority No Longer Identifies With Fini

(AGI) Rome — “The majority that elected him no longer identifies with Fini”. The statement was made by Silvio Berlusconi during his guest-appearance in ‘Mattino Cinque’, reiterating the fact that a reconciliation with the 3rd-highest office of the State is not possible. & 13; “There are players in the Government and in the PDL who are turning ino the ruling class, including some that might be perfectly suitable to shoulder the responsibility of Government in the near future” he said and then went on to say, “we should hope that this actually comes about because governing the Country requires great sacrifice and imposes an almost impossible lifestyle”.

           — Hat tip: C. Cantoni[Return to headlines]

Coldest December in Sweden in 110 Years

The last few days of the year look to be very cold throughout Sweden, according to a forecast by the Swedish meteorological agency SMHI.

This means that several parts of Sweden, including the southern region Götaland and eastern Svealand, will have experienced the coldest December in at least 110 years.

Considering the freezing Christmas month, SMHI write on their website that it “maybe isn’t that strange that we’ve had a bit of traffic problems”, referring to the past few days of chaos on Swedish roads and rails, caused by heavy snowfall and bitter cold.

Tuesday and Wednesday will be cold throughout the country, but during the last two days of the year milder air will begin coming in.

           — Hat tip: C. Cantoni[Return to headlines]

German Aid Worker Killed in Afghanistan

A German development worker was killed by insurgents in northern Afghanistan on Friday night. Development Minister Dirk Niebel described the killing as a “cowardly attack,” while Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed her shock.

Merkel said on Saturday she “condemned the attack in the strongest terms,” and sent condolences to the bereaved family of the man.

The aid worker, an adviser for German development bank KfW, was fatally injured when the vehicle he was travelling in was shot at.

Four people were in the vehicle, a Development Ministry statement said. An Afghan travelling with him was also injured.

The injured KfW adviser was taken to a German army base for treatment, but died of his wounds soon after.

The worker was reportedly helping with a project to build a road between the towns of Kholm and Kunduz in northern Afghanistan.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on Saturday, with a spokesman saying they had killed a German citizen.

Niebel expressed sympathy for the man’s family, saying, “This cowardly attack, which is directed against the interests of the local community, shows once again the dangers of civilian reconstruction in Afghanistan.”

           — Hat tip: C. Cantoni[Return to headlines]

Italy: Weather Woes: Ice and Snow in the North, Rain in the South

(AGI) Rome — The storm alert in the Center-North has been lifted after the rain gradually shifted to the regions of the South. The forecast in this area is of stormy weather while temperatures drop considerably thoughout the whole peninsula.

The Civil Protection service warns of stormy weather in all of Northern Europe associated with a cold air front which is pushing snowfall towards Italy’s Northern aned Adriatic regions, even on the plains, and strong gushes of wind up to gale strength in the North-East.

           — Hat tip: C. Cantoni[Return to headlines]

Netherlands: Police Arrest 12 Somalis on Terrorism Charges, Target Unknown

The 12 Somali men arrested in Rotterdam on Friday night were planning to launch a terrorist attack in the Netherlands ‘in the short term’, the public prosecution department said on Saturday.

However, public prosecution department spokesman Wim de Bruin told the NRC the justice ministry currently has ‘no information at all’ about the potential target.

The 12 were arrested by police in a phone shop and four homes in Rotterdam and two motel rooms in Brabant. No weapons or explosives were found during the raids.

The men are aged between 19 and 48. Six are Rotterdam residents, five have ‘no fixed address’ and one comes from Denmark, the public prosecution department said in a statement.

Elite squad

The arrests were made by the police and army’s elite anti-terror unit DSI following a tip-off from the AIVD.

The NRC states the authorities appear to have taken the threat ‘very seriously’ and that the counter-terrorism office had been fully informed.

One eyewitness to the arrests in Rotterdam told the Telegraaf that two phone shop owners were arrested and 11 computers taken away for analysis.

The brother of one of the men said three people had been arrested at his home. One, the Danish Somali, was on holiday.

The men are expected to appear in court on Monday.

Earlier this year, the AIVD added Somalia to its list of potential terrorist threats against the Netherlands.

           — Hat tip: C. Cantoni[Return to headlines]

Pope Condemns Christmas Day Violence

At least 38 people were killed in Nigeria and six wounded in the Philippines over the festive period in attacks targeting churches and Christmas shoppers.

Pope Benedict XVI, told pilgrims and tourists in St Peter’s Square that he was saddened by the attacks on Christians and a suicide bomb attack in Peshawar, Pakistan which claimed 40 lives. “I want to express my heartfelt sorrow for the victims of these absurd acts of violence and repeat an appeal to abandon the path of hate and seek instead peaceful solutions to conflicts, “ he said. “The earth is once again stained with blood as we have seen in other parts of the world.”

A week ago, he said Christians are now the world’s most persecuted religious group and lamented that some had to risk their lives to practise their faith.

In one of two Christmas Eve attacks on churches in northern Nigeria, dozens of armed men dragged a pastor of out his home in the city of Maiduguri and shot him dead. Two male choir members rehearsing for a late-night carol service were also killed, along with two people passing the Victory Baptist Church, which was then set alight. Danjuma Akawu, the church’s secretary, escaped by climbing over the fence.

“I cannot understand these attacks,” he said. “Why Christians? The police have failed to protect us.”

At the Church of Christ in Nigeria at the opposite end of Maiduguri, Rev Haskanda Jessu said three men attacked around an hour later, killing a 60-year-old security guard.

The attacks have been blamed on the radical Muslim sect Boko Haram, which has its headquarters in Maiduguri.


           — Hat tip: DF[Return to headlines]

Sweden: Gothenburg: Coptic Church Closed Down Due to Internet Threats

The Coptic Christian church in Agnesberg (Gothenburg) was closed down after receiving an internet threat. The threat was vague, but the Swedish security service was called in .

There are about 400 Coptic families in Sweden, most living in the Stockholm area. The community in Gothenburg has about 200 members.

On Christmas Eve the community’s pastor, Father Shenouda, was visited by four police officers who said that there were calls on the internet for what the police called ‘activities’ against certain Christian churches in Europe.

           — Hat tip: Esther[Return to headlines]

UK: Boxing Day Violence: Armed Police Called After Shooting and Stabbing at One of Europe’s Busiest Shopping Centres

Shoppers dived for cover at one of Europe’s busiest shopping centres today after a youth was shot in a suspected gang clash.

Eyewitnesses described an apparent confrontation between two groups at Birmingham’s Bullring centre and police originally reported that a second man had been stabbed in the head, although a spokesman later said his facial injuries may have been the result of being slashed with a knife.

The incident, which was captured on CCTV, happened close to the flagship Selfridges department store on what was expected to be one of the busiest shopping day of the year as shoppers flocked into city centres to take advantage of the Boxing Day sales.

West Midlands Police sent armed officers to the Bullring, which has two three-storey wings separated by a central pedestrianised plaza. A number of areas inside and outside the shopping centre were cordoned off, although it was thought the shooting took place outside the mall.

A police source said it appeared that one group of around eight youths had chased a second, smaller group, through a section of the shopping centre.

One of those being pursued, a 26-year-old man who suffered the minor facial injuries, is under arrest in hospital on suspicion of violent disorder.

The second man, aged 19, was shot in the leg and is also in an undisclosed hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

It is understood both men are black, although some of those involved in the violence were Asian, police said.

The source said: ‘It could be that this disorder was the result of something which was pre-planned and we may be looking at a gang-type incident.

‘In my experience people don’t usually carry guns around with them unless they are planning to use them.’

Birmingham has been blighted by gun crime, much of it rooted in gang rivalries, over the past 15 years.

A drugs turf war between the two most notorious groups, the Burger Bar Boys and the Johnson Crew, came to national attention in 2003 when innocent teenagers Letisha Shakespeare, 17, and Charlene Ellis, 18, were gunned down at a New Year’s party in a drive-by attack by four Burger Bar Boys aiming for a member of the rival gang.

While both groups are predominantly black, the Johnson Crew were known to have made loose affiliations with local Asian heroin gangs in the city’s Aston suburb earlier this decade.

The Bullring expected around 180,000 bargain hunters to pass through its doors as retailers reduced items by up to 70 per cent in a bid to make up for the dent in sales caused by plummeting temperatures last week and heavy snow.

A West Midlands Ambulance Service spokesman said its crews arrived at the scene to find the 19-year-old being treated by security staff.

The second man was found in a ‘different location’ but also within the vicinity of the Bullring. He refused treatment and was left with police at the scene.

Today the entire shopping centre was cordoned off. A West Midlands Police spokesman said officers were patrolling the city centre to provide reassurance.

Ealier this month Birmingham became the first city in the country to install install sensors which alert police to the exact location of gunshots.

West Midlands Police has installed dozens of the Shotspotter sensors to public and private buildings in a two square mile of north-west Birmingham, in a bid to combat gun crime in the area.

The transmitters, which can determine exactly how many shots are fired, the direction the shots were fired in and pinpoint their location to a 25 metre radius, have already helped to reduce gun crime by up to 70 per cent in some American cities.

           — Hat tip: Gaia[Return to headlines]

UK: English Defence League Claim 78 Got Whiplash in Crash… But Only 25 Were on Coach

Almost 80 far-Right extremists are trying to claim for whiplash injuries after a coach crash — when there were only 25 people on board the vehicle and just 57 seats.

Supporters of the English Defence League have been accused of attempted insurance fraud after dozens sought compensation for neck injuries.

The claims were lodged after the coach carrying members to a rally was in a collision in which it sustained minor damage.

Driver Christopher Cartwright said he would be amazed if any of those on board were hurt, adding: ‘There was not much more than a scratch on the back corner.’

But days after the accident during a journey from Gateshead to Preston last month, the claims for injuries allegedly caused by the crash began to flood in from EDL supporters.

Coach firm bosses said only 25 people were on the vehicle, but more than three times that many claims had been made.

Maria Caris, of Caris Coaches in Gateshead, said she is considering legal action amid fears that EDL members are trying to cheat her company.

She said: ‘They must think we’re idiots. There are 78 claims in so far and the phone is still going with people asking for our insurance details. They are all saying they were on the coach.’ The rally in Preston ended in violent clashes with the police, who arrested 14 people for public order offences and drunk or disorderly behaviour.

Mrs Caris said: ‘These ‘‘whiplash injuries’’ could have been caused when they were fighting with the police in Preston.’

Yesterday even EDL supporters were protesting over the stupidity of so many making claims.

Member Alan Spence wrote on the party’s Facebook site: ‘Are you taking the p*** or what? There were only 20 people on the ****ing coach.’

Hel Gower of the Tyneside branch said: ‘Don’t look good, does it?’

Last night a senior police source said: ‘Making a false statement to seek financial benefit following a road traffic accident is a criminal offence.

‘We would urge the owners of the coach company to supply us with the details of any of those who may have wrongly made such claims against their insurance.’

No-one was available for comment at the EDL.

The group was at the centre of controversy earlier this month after a U.S. pastor who threatened to burn the Koran was said to have been invited to address one of its rallies.

The group later said it felt an invitation was inappropriate.

           — Hat tip: Gaia[Return to headlines]

UK: New 5p and 10p Coins Delayed Over Parking Chaos Threat

The new coins are 0.2mm wider than the existing 1.7mm version and are being made from cheaper materials in a bid to save £10m a year. Industry bodies warned of a “disaster”, saying it was impossible to alter millions of vending machines and 400,000 parking meters to accept the new coins in time for their slated introduction from 1 January. Now the Treasury and the Royal Mint say the coins will not be introduced until at least April.

Jonathan Hilder, chief executive of the Automatic Vending Association, said: “We’re relieved the coins have been put back to April and we are hopeful there could be a further delay until next January. “This has already saved the industry £16.3m in costs and will prevent millions of machine users having coins rejected.” He added: “The Treasury has been much more responsive to the needs of the industry than under the previous government.” The current coins — made from nickel and copper alloy, cupro-nickel — will be replaced by those made from nickel-plated stainless steel in a bid to save money as global copper prices are driven up by demand from China and India.


           — Hat tip: DF[Return to headlines]

Unwanted Attention: German Far Right Praises New Swiss Law

The NPD, a German far-right party, has been sending out new postcards. “The Swiss Example,” they read. “Make Quick Work of Criminal Foreigners.”

It’s the kind of attention the Swiss would rather avoid. Following last month’s referendum in Switzerland approving the deportation of criminal foreigners, Germany’s extreme-right party the NPD has praised the Alpine nation — and sent out hundreds of thousands of fawning postcards.

The country used to be renowned for its breathtaking Alpine landscapes, ultra-punctual train service and luxurious standard of living. Lately, however, Switzerland’s reputation has taken a bit of a hit.

In 2009, Germany and several other countries, including the US, heavily criticized the country’s banks for their alleged assistance to those who would evade paying taxes. In November of last year, the Swiss voted in a referendum to ban the construction of minarets in the country. And early this month, American dispatches from Switzerland, released by WikiLeaks, revealed deep US frustration with the country’s desire to play an outsized role in finding a solution to the dispute with Iran over that country’s nuclear program.

Now, however, it would appear that Switzerland has found an unwanted ally. At the end of November, Swiss voters passed a referendum mandating the swift deportation of non-citizens who have been convicted of certain crimes. Since then, the German far-right party NPD has handed out postcards praising the Swiss initiative.

The postcards depict an idyllic mountain landscape with the famous Matterhorn in the background. “The Swiss Example,” they read. “Make Quick Work of Criminal Foreigners.”

NPD spokesman Klaus Beier told the Swiss news website 20 Minuten Online that since the start of December, “We have distributed several hundred thousand of the postcards in Germany.”

Black and White Sheep

The Swiss referendum was heavily criticized by human rights groups and by the European Commission in Brussels. The NPD, however, wants to highlight what it sees as the benefits of direct democracy as practiced in Switzlerland. “The introduction of Swiss-style direct democracy has been a priority of ours for decades,” Beier told 20 Minuten Online.

It’s not the first time Germany’s far right has borrowed a tune from the Swiss right wing. During a 2007 parliamentary campaign, the populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) — which launched the November referendum — printed posters showing white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag. The image found its way onto NPD posters for a state election in the German state of Hesse in 2008.

In late 2009, a German court banned an NPD poster depicting two ravens pecking at a €100 bill, captioned “Stop the Polish Invasion.” The SVP had earlier printed a poster with the same black ravens picking apart a map of Switzerland.

The SVP has been adamant about denying any connection to the NPD. The Swiss party even considered legal action for the 2009 appropriation, though nothing came of it.

The propaganda from Switzerland, moreover, hasn’t done much for the NPD. After a brief surge of support several years ago, the party has lately had trouble attracting supporters.

           — Hat tip: C. Cantoni[Return to headlines]

North Africa

Eight US Tourists Killed in Egyptian Bus Crash

The bus, which was carrying 37 tourists from the United States, was headed to the ancient Egyptian Abu Simbel temples when it hit a damaged truck parked on the side of the road.

A police official said six of the dead were women. The bus driver and a tourist guide were also injured in the crash, which occurred early in the morning about 19 miles from Aswan.

Four tourists were in critical condition, the police official said, adding that the injured were taken to a military hospital in Aswan. Some of the wounded, he said, were to be airlifted in the afternoon to a hospital in Cairo that often treats injured tourists. Seventy-nine tourists on board two other buses in the convoy were unharmed.

A US embassy press official said the mission was aware of the accident and would provide consular assistance to the tourists and their families but did not provide any toll.

Traffic accidents occur frequently in Egypt, often because of poor road condition and lax regulations.

The government estimates that there are 8,000 road accidents a year in the country.

The US State Department warns on its website that travelling on Egyptian highways can be dangerous. Embassy officials are prohibited from travelling outside Cairo after dark because of driving hazards.


           — Hat tip: DF[Return to headlines]

Tunisia: 18,000 Women at the Head of Enterprises

(ANSAmed) — TUNIS, DECEMBER 20 — Women enterprise directors number 18,000 in Tunisia, according to the figures elaborated by the National Chamber of Women Heads of Enterprises (CNFCE), which noted that 11% are employed in the crafts sector, 41% in services, 25% in industry, 22% in trade and 1% in other activities. The study indicated that most are in their forties and married, 70% have children and 74.5% have a high school diploma. Another interesting figure is that 87% of the projects had been accomplished without using household assets. According to the press agency TAP, “enterprises run by women are characterised by higher productivity, reflexive financing policies, strategic positioning adapted to the economic trend and an ability to use Information and Communications Technology”.

           — Hat tip: Insubria[Return to headlines]

Israel and the Palestinians

Abbas Vows: No Room for Israelis in Palestinian State

PA president says US has failed to pressure J’lem, accuses Israel of ‘deception’ for blaming PA for impasse in talks.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced on Saturday that when a Palestinian state is established, it will have no Israelis in it.

“We have frankly said, and always will say: If there is an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, we won’t agree to the presence of one Israeli in it,” Abbas told reporters in Ramallah.

He was commenting on unconfirmed reports suggesting that the PA leadership might agree to the presence of the IDF in the West Bank after the establishment of a Palestinian state.

“We are ready to have peace on the basis of international legitimacy and the road map, which we have accepted, as well as the Arab Peace Initiative,” Abbas said. “But when a Palestinian state is established, it would have no Israeli presence in it.”

The PA president criticized Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and accused him of placing obstacles on the road to peace.

“He who prefers settlements over peace is responsible for the obstacles to peace,” he added.

“If he really was interested in peace, he would have at least preferred peace to settlements.”

Abbas accused the Israeli government of “deception” with the purpose of blaming the Palestinians for the current impasse in the peace talks. He also criticized the US administration for failing to put pressure on Israel to stop the construction in the settlements and east Jerusalem.

“The US administration has tried to stop the settlements, but Netanyahu refused,” he said. “We know that there’s a clear American position, but these days we don’t hear it any more. We hope we will hear it in the future.”

Abbas said that the PA has presented in writing to the US its position regarding all the core issues, but has still not heard Israel’s reply.

“All the final-status issues must be solved according to international resolutions,” he said. “All these issues will be resolved at the negotiating table, and this includes the issue of the refugees, which Israel tried to get rid of, but to no avail.”

On Friday night, Abbas met in Bethlehem with members of the tiny Christian community in the Gaza Strip who received permission from Israel to travel to the West Bank for Christmas.

Abbas expressed hope that his Fatah faction and Hamas would be able to resolve their differences so that the Gaza Strip would be part of the future Palestinian state. He also voiced hope that he would be able to travel to the Gaza Strip in the near future.

Abbas hailed Bolivia, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador, which have recognized a Palestinian state with the 1967 borders. He said that the Palestinians were now hoping that other countries, especially the EU, Russia, Canada, the US and Japan, would follow suit and declare their recognition of a Palestinian state.

“The whole world is now with us,” Abbas said. “These countries have recognized us because they love peace and want to support peace.”

           — Hat tip: TV[Return to headlines]

Christmas: Mixed Feelings in Bethlehem

(ANSAmed) — BETHLEHEM (WEST BANK) — A giant illuminated Christmas tree in Manger Square welcomes the masses of tourists who have returned this year to spend the most important day of the year in Jesus’ birthplace. The visitors come as a blessing to the usually depressed and trouble-ridden town, in which one person in three is unemployed.

“You only see so much life here at Christmas time,” taxi-driver Isha’ sighs: “everybody goes crazy, including the traffic. But I’m happy: the pilgrims help me earn a living — as well as a feeling of hope”.

In this symbolic city, Christmas also means business. The town is covered in lights and does its best to host the floods of arrivals. Ninety thousand visitors are expected over the coming days — twenty thousand more than in 2009. “The hotels are all full and pilgrims are staying in the monasteries or as guests in priests homes”, Deputy Mayor George Saade told ANSA” The Christmas period is vital for our economy. Most of the earnings come from tourism, which we try to promote through an event-filled schedule”. And this year, the arrivals don’t appear to be letting his hopes down, as the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Msg. Fouad Twal, said in his pre-Christmas message a few days ago: the town has welcomed 1.1 million visitors in the course of the year.

The citizens of Bethlehem are not the only ones trying to attract tourists: Israeli business also wants to partake of the market and this common interest leads to shared efforts.

Recently, the country’s Tourism Minister, Stas Misezhnikov, referred to “friutful collaboration” with the Palestine National Authority (PNA) — in this respect at least, and despite the current stalemate in the peace talks. Misezhnikov went on to stress how during the festive season the Israeli army is issuing special passes to Arab Christian faithful wishing to visit the holy places. But, referring to cooperation with Israel, Saade showed much less enthusiasm: “It’s true that there is a higher level of cooperation during this festive season, but let’s not exaggerate. This story about the special passes is also only partly true. A lot of applications have been turned down or have not received any reply. My mother, for example, an old woman, was denied permission to visit Jerusalem”.

Both politics and the conflict remain prominent during Christmas: we decorated and set up lights, but this isn’t enough to hide this fact. Just as it fails to mask over Bethlehems tough economic and social conditions. In the town where Christianity was born 2,000 years ago, Christians are threatening to disappear with time. According to Palestinian scholar Bernard Sabella, the phenomenon “is due, first of all, to the separation wall dividing Israel from the Territories”.

Although he is no academic, Milad — who runs a stall opposite the Nativity Basilica — agrees, and goes straight to the point: “A lot of us used to commute to Jerusalem to work. But since it has been necessary to cross the check-point, this is no longer so easy and the youngsters prefer to move”. The numbers speak for themselves: “Across the whole of the West Bank, the number of Christians has now dropped to just 1.25% of the population: a tiny percentage”, Sabella notes.

Not a few commentators speculate that among the reasons for this exodus is the hardening of the inter-Palestinian conflict between Christians and fundamentalist Muslims. This has been sharpened by the appearance of Hamas supporters — who are present in force — after smuggling themselves into Bethlehem’s town council, despite the fact that the town is still administered by Fatah, the party of the moderate PNA President Mahmoud Abbas. But the expert plays down this element: “There is a problem of religious intolerance here as well,” he concedes, “but the West Bank is not the Gaza Strip and the government of Abbas and Salam Fayyad is doing a first class job in guaranteeing security and law and order”. “If the Christians are fleeing, this is for other reasons: because there is no work and because of the difficult political situation,” in a land that is still looking for peace even at Christmas time.

           — Hat tip: Insubria[Return to headlines]

Christmas in Gaza is a Celebration Tempered by Fear

The Christmas tree is crooked and covered with dust. Before Najib M. (not his real name) can decorate the cypress in his family’s living room in the center of Gaza City it has to be rinsed and wiped off. But finding a suitable tree is the smallest problem that Christians in the Gaza Strip face over their most important festival of the year.

“There is no future here for our children”, says Najib. His son has left for Europe, his eldest two daughters are studying in the West Bank and can not reach the family home either. “This year is our last chance to visit them because our youngest daughter turns 16 soon.”

As a “gesture of good will” the IDF has announced it will let 500 Christian Palestinians visit their families in Israel or the West Bank “for religious and family gatherings”. But the arrangement excludes residents between 16 and 35 years of age.

Pictures of Jesus and Virgin Mary hang on the walls of the family living room. The doors of the children’s rooms are covered with stickers of Hannah Montana and Sponge Bob Squarepants.

“We may get our permit tomorrow,” Najib’s wife, Yulia, says as she serves apple juice and burbara, a dough cake made from wheat grains, almonds and raisins. The family has just celebrated Eid il-Burbara, another Orthodox holiday similar to Halloween. The main Orthodox Christmas takes place on January 7.

“My Christian family history in Gaza goes back over 500 years. As far as I remember religion has never been an issue like it is today, Najib says.” He has heard stories about imams who are preaching about Christians collaborating with Jews against Islam.

When his wife and daughter go out on the street they are subject to stares and sometimes even verbal abuse; Muslim men yell at them to cover their hair.

As a child in Gaza more than 30 years ago, Nabil went to a mixed school and “never felt special”. His friends, both Christians and Muslims, did not discuss religion. “For Palestinians there used to be only the national issue. But Hamas and other groups have used it since the Intifada to recruit fighters.”


           — Hat tip: DF[Return to headlines]

Israel Won’t Attend Racism Conference Fete

Israel says it won’t participate in the 10th anniversary commemoration of a U.N. conference on racism that singled out Israel for criticism and likened Zionism to racism.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the conference had “anti-Semitic undertones and displays of hatred for Israel and the Jewish world.”

The U.S. and Israel walked out of the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in the South African city of Durban over a draft resolution that criticized Israel and Zionism.

The U.N. General Assembly voted Friday to commemorate the event’s 10th anniversary during its annual ministerial meeting on Sept. 21.

Many African and Muslim countries have sought a commemoration, saying racism and religious intolerance remain prevalent.


           — Hat tip: DF[Return to headlines]

Militants Killed as Violence Surges on Gaza Border

Israel and Hamas traded threats of war amid fresh skirmishes along the tense Gaza Strip border on Sunday in which two militants were killed. The escalation of violence comes on the eve of the second anniversary of Israel’s devastating assault on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip — known as Operation Cast Lead — and follows weeks of rocket fire from Gaza and a string of retaliatory Israeli air raids.

Turning up the rhetoric, both sides said they were prepared for another round of bloodletting.

“I hope there is no need for another operation like ‘Cast Lead’,” Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom told public radio ahead of a cabinet meeting

“But if this situation continues — if missiles keep being smuggled in without hindrance, if they continue shooting into Israel, trying to hit innocent civilians — then, obviously we will have to respond and respond with all our force,” he said.

On Saturday, a spokesman for the military wing of Hamas said his group was also ready for a new conflict.

“There is a truce in effect in the field. It is real if Israel stops its aggression and ends its siege. But if there is any Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip we will respond strongly,” said a masked spokesman for the group, who identified himself as Abu Obeideh. “We are completely ready to answer any Israeli aggression,” he said, speaking at a press conference in Gaza City with three guards, who were all masked and armed.

The fresh threats come as Israeli forces, backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, killed two Islamic Jihad militants, who were apparently trying to place a bomb along the Gaza border, the army and the militant group said.

“Soldiers opened fire on members of a terrorist cell which was trying to place an explosive charge in the immediate vicinity of the security barrier,” an Israeli army spokeswoman told AFP. The barrier separates Israel from the Gaza Strip.

“The incident happened in the south of the Gaza Strip and helicopters backed up the fire of the soldiers,” she added. She said “soldiers received instructions not to hesitate to open fire when they saw terrorists placing booby-trap devices near the barrier.” Islamic Jihad confirmed the two dead men were members of the group.


           — Hat tip: DF[Return to headlines]

‘Musical’ Christmas Greetings From Peres on YouTube

(ANSAmed) — JERUSALEM, DECEMBER 24 — In a holiday message to Christians around the world for Christmas, Israeli head of state Shimon Peres briefly joined in the singing of a choir of Christian children from Galilee that paid him a visit. Along with the children — from a village near Nazareth — a smiling Peres softly sang a few lines from a traditional Christian song. He then made sure the brief footage went on Youtube.

“From the Holy City of Jerusalem,” said the head of state, “I would like to wish all the Christians of the world a happy holiday. May the heavens bring prosperity, tranquility and peace to the Middle East and the entire world during this Christmas and the New Year.” “All of us — Jews, Muslims and Christians,” he continued, “are praying in our heart for a better world for all the children of the world. There are a number of types of weapons: however, the strongest is that of prayer alongside the hope to change reality.” Shimon’s words have taken on a special meaning in these days in Israel, with nationalist rabbis opposing Christmas trees in public and the taking part of New Year’s Eve celebrations since — from their point of view — they are incompatible with the country’s Jewish character.

           — Hat tip: Insubria[Return to headlines]

New Rules in Force for Consumer Protection

(ANSAmed) — ROME, DECEMBER 23 — A minor revolution has occurred concerning consumer rights. New regulations concerning refunds for items purchased in shops and retail chains came into force, the Economic Commission of the Israeli Parliament said. Previously it had only been possible to return the goods purchased and receive credit equal to the amount spent. The regulation, as reported by the Italian Institute for Foreign Trade (ICE) office in Tel Aviv, will enable consumers to return a product or service purchased within fourteen days of the day of purchase so long as the product has not been used.

The regulations concern products and services over 50 shekels (about 11 euros).

           — Hat tip: Insubria[Return to headlines]

Raed Salah in Rahat: Israeli Land Belongs to Muslims

Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the Islamic Movement’s northern branch, said over the weekend that Israeli land is occupied Muslim, Arab and Palestinian territory, Israel Radio reported Sunday.

During a visit to Rahat, Salah called on Beduins to fight for the Muslim land, saying “we have no intention of leaving our land or even starting negotiations about the issue.”

Salah visited the site of a mosque that was built in Rahat without a permit and destroyed by Israel Lands Authority officials after courts ruled the structure to be in breach of the law.

In November, hundreds of Israel Police officers, backed by border policemen, protected the officials as they took down the 400- square meter structure, which was built over seven months ago in the parking lot of a soccer stadium to mark Land Day, an annual day of rallies held by Israeli Arabs to protest what they say is government seizure of their lands.

A small team entered the building before it was demolished to remove all sacred items from it with care, police said.

Rioters threw rocks at police during the clearance, resulting in five arrests, Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

The mosque has been described by courts as a direct provocation toward Israeli sovereignty due to its manner of construction and location.


           — Hat tip: DF[Return to headlines]

Middle East

Afghanistan’s Karzai Welcomes Taliban Setting Up Office in Turkey

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has supported the idea of Turkey becoming a venue for reconciliation talks with the Taliban, which he says could even open a representation office in Turkey. Turkish officials, however, stress that Ankara is focused on the reconciliation talks between Afghan groups and that the opening of such an office has not yet come onto the agenda of talks with the Afghan government

The Afghan president has indicated his potential support for the idea of Taliban officials setting up an office in Turkey as a means for reconciliation talks, though Turkish officials said Sunday the idea was still “hypothetical.”

“The idea was that Turkey would serve as a place where gatherings can take place, where representation [of the Taliban] could be established in order to facilitate reconstruction and reintegration,” Afghan President Hamid Karzai told a joint news conference in Istanbul with his counterparts from Turkey and Pakistan, saying figures close to the Taliban had previously shared the idea with him.

“If Turkey provides such a venue, we, as the government, as the state [of Afghanistan], will be pleased to walk on the path that Turkey has opened,” Karzai said.

The proposal to open a representation office for the Taliban in Turkey did not come onto the agenda during the talks held with the Afghan government, Turkish Foreign Ministry officials told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review on Sunday.

“Opening a representation office for the Taliban in Turkey is still hypothetical,” one official said. “If the Afghan government seizes on that notion, then we can consider it. There are complicated legal issues with that, including that [the Taliban] is not a political party.”

The same official noted that Ankara is focusing on reconciliation talks among Afghan groups, something that has long been on the agenda of the international community. Responding to Karzai’s statement, the official said: “The question asked to the Afghan president was on the issue of a representation office; however, what the Afghan president pointed out was that Turkey could be a venue for a reconciliation meeting of Afghan groups.”

Karzai’s comments came after an interview with a former Taliban official, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, in the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph, in which he suggested that the Taliban opening offices in neutral countries would be a beneficial step for the negotiations.

“If I was a Taliban I would choose a country close to Afghanistan but neutral, like the United Arab Emirates, somewhere that is not interested in interfering in Afghanistan, like Pakistan or China [are],” he said.

Ahmed Rashid, another Taliban expert, told the paper he had recently conducted interviews with five former insurgent leaders, who each said the Taliban wanted to open an office in a neutral country — such as in one of the Gulf states, or in Germany, Turkey or Japan — since their strongholds of Kandahar and Helmand were being hit by special-forces teams.

Turkish officials preferred to support the idea of talks in general terms, declining to go into detail on how Turkey could make a contribution.

Responding to the same question posed to Karzai at the news conference, President Abdullah Gül said he had not seen the Daily Telegraph report, but supported the idea in general terms. “Whatever will serve the future reconstruction of Afghanistan — we will be there,” Gül told reporters.

Asked about Karzai’s welcoming of Taliban offices in Turkey, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the ministry was always ready to answer all proposals, execute all processes in Turkey or contribute to ones outside Turkey, as long as the Afghan government accepted the efforts. He reaffirmed that Turkey had participated, and would take part in the future, in all attempts to maintain internal peace in Afghanistan.

“Mr. Karzai has made very important statements today,” Davutoglu told reporters in a press conference Friday. “There were some works being executed confidentially. Mr. Karzai called on Turkey more openly, giving voice to contributions Turkey could make. We are grateful for this confidence and ready to answer that on all levels.”

Karzai recently formed a peace council to lead talks with the Taliban in order to end the war. The peace council has been seeking to bring insurgents to the negotiating table. Qiyamuddin Kashaf, spokesman for the High Peace Council, appealed in October to all Muslim nations, in particular the Organization of the Islamic Conference, or OIC, and Saudi Arabia, for help in brokering an end to the war.

The recent negotiations have suffered a serious setback, however, as the Taliban has said it will not enter into dialogue with the Afghan government until all 152,000 U.S.-led foreign troops based in the country leave.

           — Hat tip: C. Cantoni[Return to headlines]

Al-Qaida Threat on Iraq Christians Linked to Egypt

The wives of two Egyptian Coptic priests, forbidden by the Church from divorcing their abusive husbands, desperately sought another way out by converting to Islam. When their intentions were discovered, police handed them over to the Church and their whereabouts since have been unknown.

The cases caused a furor at home that spilled over the borders and turned deadly when al-Qaida in Iraq cited the women as the reason behind the bloodiest attack ever on Christians in Iraq — a five-hour siege of a church in October that left 68 people dead.

It was a stark example of the schism between Christians and Muslims that runs through the Middle East and periodically erupts into violence. “Amid the current sectarian discord, the timing is perfect for al-Qaida to show it is defending Islam and to exploit the situation to rally extremists against the churches,” said Ammar Ali Hassan, an expert in Islamic movements.

Both Wafaa Constantine, 53, and Camilla Shehata, 25, lived in remote rural towns and enjoyed prestige as devoted and pious wives of conservative Coptic priests. But behind that veneer, a lawyer and a church official said the women were trapped in abusive relationships. Both tried to seek a divorce through Church channels, but hit a dead-end because the Coptic Orthodox Church forbids divorce — a rule enforced even more strictly against the wives of priests. And they decided to rebel, not only against their husbands, but against the whole religion. They sought to convert to Islam, something viewed as a disgrace in their community. The Coptic Church considers those who convert to other religions such as Islam dead, making the marriage contract invalid. Though Egyptian religious authorities say the women never succeeded in converting, the controversy in both cases escalated with angry protests by Egyptian Christians, who accused Muslims of abducting the women and forcing them to convert.

That in turn galvanized Muslim hard-liners in Egypt who protested and accused the church of holding them against their will and forcing them to convert back to Christianity.

Al-Qaida in Iraq turned it into a cause celebre when it cited the women as the reason behind the Baghdad church siege. The group followed with more threats against Iraq’s Christian minority, creating such fear that most Christmas celebrations in the country were canceled. Egypt’s Christian minority, estimated at about 10 percent of the country’s 80 million people, has grown more religiously conservative over the past three decades as has the country’s Muslim majority. Egypt’s Salafi movement — extreme conservative Muslims — have long accused the Coptic Church here of conspiring to “Christianize” Egypt. Though Salafis in Egypt reject violence, their doctrine is only a few shades away from that of groups such as al-Qaida. Both adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam that supposedly is a purer form of Islam said to have been practiced by Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century.


           — Hat tip: DF[Return to headlines]

Jordan: Christmas for Iraqi Christians Tainted by Attacks

(by Mohammad Ben Hussein) (ANSAmed) — AMMAN, DECEMBER 24 — Preparation for the traditional midnight Christmas mass among Iraqi Christians in Jordan is carried out solemnly but exuberantly in a small church in West Amman. With an eye on relatives left behind in the war-torn homeland, prayers of the small congregate has been dedicated to families left to face uncertain future following a spat of attacks by extremist groups.

At the church’s main door, the priest placed on a board instructions for asylum seekers.

The board also carries a headline by a local Iraqi newspaper: “Deadly attacks on Christians in Iraq continue,” a reminder of daily suffering Christian Iraqis face in the wake of the American lead invasion to their country seven years ago.

Enas George arrived in Jordan nearly three months ago on way to the US. “There is no pleasure in Christmas. How can we enjoy in Amman while at the same time there are others who are being killed for no reason except that they are Christians,” she said.

The attack on the Assyrian Catholic church in Baghdad earlier this year saw 100 people taken hostage by an extremist group.

Police raided the church, the biggest in Iraq, to free the hostages, leading to the death of at lest 40 people. The attack was the latest in a series of bombings that targeted churches across Iraq, forcing hundreds of thousands to be internally displaced or leave seeking a safe heaven in surrounding countries.

Iraq’s Christians once numbered 1.5 million out of Iraq’s population of about 30 million. With the formation of a new government, hopes are high that a sense of stability and security is back.

Father Remon, priest of Chaledean congregate said he wanted the new government to provide badly needed protection.

“I extend my hand to Muslims in Iraq and to the new government to protect Christians, who built Iraq thousands of years ago,” Remon told ANSAmed. He said celebration of Christmas has been tarnished by the recent attacks.

“We are praying for peace to prevail in Iraq after years of bloodshed. Christians only want peace,” he added.

Chaldeans belong to a branch of the Roman Catholic Church that practices an ancient Eastern rite. Most of its members are in Iraq and Syria, and they form the biggest Christian community in Iraq.

In a world where the true meaning of Christmas is sometimes lost, for the Chaldeans it still holds a strong symbolic and emotional meaning, linking them to the war torn country and their families in diapora. Christian denominations in Iraq include Chaldeans; Copts; Roman, Assyrian and Melkite Catholics; Maronites and Greek Orthodox. Jordan is home to a large Iraqi community of nearly 250,000 including Christian asylum seekers who live temporarily in the kingdom waiting immigration procedures before heading to a third country in Europe, north America or Australia.

Among the crowd in the church is Maria, a mother of 47 year old man who has been kidnapped four years ago. Maria said she comes to church to pray for her son. “I only want to know what is his fate. Is he dead or alive, we can not continue like this,” she said as tears glistened in her rugged eyes.

           — Hat tip: Insubria[Return to headlines]

Somalis Protest Discrimination by Landlords in Turkey

Somali women living in the Mediterranean province of Isparta protested in front of the governor’s office Wednesday, claiming they have been discriminated against by landlords and cannot find houses to rent.

“They do not rent to us because we are black and have many children,” the women said in their statement, which was reported by news agencies Thursday. “We do not behave [toward foreigners] like that in Somalia,” they added.

Somalis living in boarding houses said their rental contracts expire Dec. 31 and none of the landlords in the city would agree to rent to them. Twenty people appealed to the state for help with the situation, speaking on behalf of 400 women and children from Somalia who came to Turkey to escape their country’s ongoing civil war.

Members of the protesting group held banners that read, “Our hotel is forcing us to leave,” “Protect us!” or “Everyone sends their greetings to the governor,” saying they wanted the provincial governor to hear their voices. The demonstrators continued shouting despite police efforts to calm the group down, reports said.

Deputy Gov. Tahir Demir, who also serves as the province’s social aid director, asked to talk to the refugees and reportedly met with two of their representatives. During the meeting in the Governor’s Office, other refugees started to sing the Somali national anthem.

“There are some advertisements saying people have houses to rent, but whenever they realize we are from Somalia, they refuse us,” said one of the protesters, who said she has seven children and will be homeless soon due to having to leave the boarding house. “Are you Muslims or not?” she asked.

After Demir promised their accommodation problems would be solved, members of the group were taken back to their boarding house in official cars.

‘Worried for no reason’

Deputy Gov. Demir said none of the refugees suffer from being homeless. “We provide housing, heating, food and drink,” he said. “It is not clear that we can make an agreement with the owner of the boarding house. I believe that the protest strengthens the owner’s position.”

Demir said Isparta is a very sensitive province when it comes to taking in refugees. “None of the women will be forced to live outside; they worry for no reason,” he said.

           — Hat tip: C. Cantoni[Return to headlines]

Turkey Ties Frayed, Israel Turns to the Balkans

With relations between Turkey and Israel are at their lowest level, Israel is on the lookout for new allies and is boosting ties with Balkan countries. Israel is in low-key talks with Ankara to restore relations, but in the meantime has been noticeably upgrading ties with other nearby countries including Greece, Greek Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu (L) shakes hand with his Greek counterpart George Papandreou after a joint news conference in Athens. AP photo.

Israel is boosting its ties with Balkan countries after a deep freeze in relations with Turkey, formerly its closest and strongest regional ally.

For over a decade, Ankara and Israel shared warm relations, bolstered by important agreements on defense and the high-tech industry. Ties were so strong that Ankara even acted as an intermediary for indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria.

The relationship faltered in December 2008, when Israel launched a devastating military operation in the Gaza Strip, prompting Turkey to abandon its mediation efforts. But the final blow to the once-solid partnership was a May 2010 Israeli raid on a convoy of ships trying to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza. The navy operation killed nine people and caused a major crisis in bilateral ties.

Israel is in low-key talks with Ankara to restore relations, but in the meantime has been noticeably upgrading ties with other nearby countries including Greece, Greek Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria.

In August, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli premier to visit Greece, traditionally a pro-Arab country, after signing a series of military and economic cooperation deals.

Israel hopes to one day export some of the natural gas recently discovered in marine gas fields off its northern shore to Europe via Greece. As part of its development of the fields, Israel has signed a deal delineating an economic free zone with Greek Cyprus, prompting an outcry from Turkey. Ankara criticized the signing of the deal as an “unfortunate development” and said it is “null and void” because it disregards the rights and jurisdiction of Turkish Cypriots.

But Israel brushed off the criticism, and has forged ahead with other agreements to fill the gaps created when relations with Ankara turned sour. In particular, the troubled ties mean Israel can no longer train its air force in Turkish skies, a blow to a small country with little space of its own.

In recent months, it has begun carrying out joint air force exercises with Greece, Romania and Bulgaria. Despite the slew of new initiatives aimed at Balkan countries, Israel officially denies that the improved ties are intended to supplant Turkey’s role.

“There is an amazing and constant improvement in our relations with Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania and other countries, with whom our cooperation is increasing at all levels,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said. “This warming of ties is a natural development which we welcome and is not a substitution measure directed against a third country,” he said.

Despite the still-frosty ties between Israel and Ankara, commerce has actually grown, with bilateral trade up 30 percent over the past 11 months from the same period in 2009. Israeli imports from Turkey were valued at $1.6 billion this year, up from $1.2 billion in 2009, and exports stood at $1.2 billion, up from $974 million.

Still, the strained atmosphere seriously affected tourism, with the 300,000 Israelis who had visited Turkey each year shunning the country of late. “Our relations with Turkey are at their lowest level, and so we have looked for new friends in the Balkans,” said Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to Turkey.

“It’s very interesting, but it’s a stopgap measure, because Israel is in the Middle East,” he said, noting that Ankara recently made a “very important” deal on economic and cultural cooperation with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. “If the peace process continues to lag,” he warned, Israel faces “regional isolation.”

           — Hat tip: C. Cantoni[Return to headlines]

Turkey ‘Wants to Repair Ties With Israel’

Turkey’s foreign minister says he wants to repair ties with Israel, damaged when Israeli troops killed eight Turks and a Turkish-US national amid clashes on a pro-Palestinian aid ship in May.

Ahmet Davutoglu reiterated that Israel must apologise for the deaths, which led Turkey to withdraw its ambassador.

Israel, which insists the commandos fired in self-defence, said it was also seeking better relations with Ankara.

Meanwhile, crowds have welcomed the ship, Mavi Marmara, back to Istanbul.

The two nations have had 15 years of good relations, including a number of military and trade pacts, and have held talks in Geneva recently to try to restore ties.

But the talks foundered, reportedly because Israel refused to apologise for the 31 May raid. ‘Unchanged goal’

“Turkish citizens have been killed in international waters, nothing can cover up this truth,” said Mr Davutoglu.

“We want to both preserve relations and defend our rights. If our friendship with Israel is to continue, the way for it is to apologise and offer compensation.”

He said Turkish attempts to repair ties — including helping Israel tackle devastating forest fires — had not been reciprocated.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said improving the relationship was an “unchanged goal”.

He said Israel’s record in sending humanitarian aid to Turkey “speaks in a much more truthful and friendly manner than this statement by the Turkish foreign minister”.

The Mavi Marmara, which has been undergoing repairs, sailed back to its home port of Istanbul on Sunday afternoon.

Large crowds, including family members of the nine killed activists, greeted the vessel in a ceremony organised by the activists who sent it.

The Mavi Marmara was part of an aid flotilla which was trying to break the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

A blockade has been imposed on the Gaza Strip by Israel and Egypt since the Islamist militant group, Hamas, seized control in 2007.

In the wake of the outcry over the raid, Israel began allowing most consumer items into Gaza, but still maintains a complete air and naval blockade, limits the movement of people, and bans exports.

Israel says the measures are needed to stop weapons being smuggled to militants, but the UN says they amount to collective punishment of Gaza’s 1.5 million people.

           — Hat tip: TV[Return to headlines]


Anti-Racism Rally Draws 2,500 in Moscow

Several thousand people rallied in central Moscow on Sunday to protest against a wave of ethnic violence that shook the Russian capital this month following the deadly shooting of a football supporter. The demonstrators chanted “Russia is open to everyone” and held up signs reading “Russia without fascism, Russia without Nazism” during the sanctioned gathering on Pushkin Square, just a few blocks from the Kremlin.

An AFP reporter said about 2,500 people had gathered at the rally, which was attended by opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov and liberal Kirov region governor Nikita Belykh, in one of the largest such gatherings in months.

“I think that the Moscow unrest has been caused by all the rot that has accumulated in our society and which is only now rising to the top,” the RBC Daily website quoted popular radio personality and columnist Viktor Shenderovich as telling the crowd.

The December 4 shooting of a Moscow football fan by a Muslim suspect has sparked a wave of ethnic disturbances in the Russian capital, with groups of ultra-nationalists holding several large rallies throughout the city.

Police said that racism was the probable cause of a spate of recent deadly attacks against ethnic minorities from Central Asia and Russia’s predominantly Muslim southern republics.

In one of the most shocking cases, Russian investigators said that a boy aged just 14 had been arrested on suspicion of the apparently racist murder of a citizen of the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. Recent opinion polls have shown that Muscovites are growing increasingly anxious about the number of non-ethnic Russians in the city — a xenophobia that underscores the fragile coexistence of the country’s Slavic majority and its 160 smaller ethnic groups.


           — Hat tip: DF[Return to headlines]

Russian Islamic Leaders Against the Kremlin

The chief mufti attacks the State guilty of hindering the unification of the Muslims of the Federation and condemn those religious leaders who are working as puppets to quell the community’s presence in the country.

Moscow (AsiaNews) — The leaders of the Russian Muslim community have launched a strong attack against the authorities in the country. The head of the Council of muftis of Russia, Ravil Gainutdin, accuses the state of wanting to obstruct the unification of Muslims and attempting to “suppress Islam” in the Federation. He has also described as “puppets” and “squalid people,” those mufti who work in government institutions.

The project of unification of the Russian followers of Muhammad dates back to 2009. Then, Gainutdin said in an interview with Radio Liberty, “the mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin had proposed to merge the three central organizations of the Muslims of Russia.” “After studying the idea — continued the religious leader — I together with the leader of the Caucasus Muslims, Berdiyev, met him. We created a working group to structure this unification. But the government did not approve of our decision. They claimed Talgat Tadzhuddin’s idea was not in line with government policy”.

Gainutdin’s charges against the State are also motivated by the recent creation of the fourth muftiyat (Islamic Council), the “Russian Association of Islamic agreement” designed precisely to prevent any process of unification. “The new ‘ pocket muftis ‘, who oppose the growth of Islam are mere puppets” says Gainutdin. “These puppets, like those who work in government, for example, the Islamophobic Grishin (the director of the Presidential Administration in charge of relations with Islamic organizations, ed), will not hesitate to suppress Islam in Russia … which is already taking place, “he added.

Commenting on the recent clashes between Nationalist hooligans and mostly Muslim immigrants from the Caucasus, Gainutdin emphasized the existence of tensions in the capital home to more than two million Muslims. He also pointed out the need to build new mosques in Moscow, where the faithful are forced to pray, for lack of space, “in the streets, on tram lines, and even in the courtyards of churches.” “This humiliation, this discriminatory policy against civil rights continue, before the eyes of Muslims around the world.” (N.A.)

           — Hat tip: C. Cantoni[Return to headlines]

South Asia

‘German Mother Theresa’ Saves Lives in Pakistan

Every morning Ruth Pfau stands short and frail before a tall crucifix in Karachi’s St Patrick’s Cathedral. She bows her head, shuts her eyes, places her right hand on her heart and prays.

It is the beginning of another long day for the 81-year-old nun known locally as Pakistan’s Mother Teresa, who has spent half a century caring for some of the country’s poorest and most ostracised people.

Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, where Washington says Al-Qaeda is based. Its northwest mountains border Afghanistan and are subject to US drone strikes and Pakistani military operations.

Bombings have killed 4,000 people in three years, kidnappings are common, Islamist groups violently opposed to all but their extremist interpretation of Islam control significant territory.

Sister Pfau, who needs a stick to walk, admits some disquiet over security, but says nothing would stop her serving people in distress. “I find no difficulties even in the northwestern tribal areas, where most people know me because of my work and never create any hurdle when I go there to serve them,” she said, adjusting her white scarf on her silver-hair.

It was after the horrors of World War II in her native Germany that she decided to dedicate her life to serving humanity, become a doctor and join the Daughters of the Heart of Mary order, founded during the French Revolution.

Not required to take the veil or live in seclusion, she ended up in Pakistan by chance. En route to work in India, visa complications forced her to break the journey in Karachi, where she visited a lepers’ colony.

That was 1960 and the rest is history. The sub-human misery of what she saw persuaded her to stay in Pakistan to help the cause of leprosy. The living conditions were appalling. The gutters were overflowing and sewer rats feasted on limbs of patients unable to feel the rat bites.

“I felt saddened when I saw people living in caves, crawling like animals. They had compromised with their fate, but it was not their fate, they deserved a much better and happier life,” she said.

Sister Pfau’s makeshift clinic soon became a two-storey hospital, then the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre with branches across Pakistan. She trained doctors and treated thousands of victims. Her dedication inspired an otherwise hesitant government to establish in 1968 a national programme to bring leprosy under control.

Half a century ago, there were leper colonies across the country but now the programme puts the incidence of the disease at 0.27 people out of 10,000, meeting benchmarks from the World Health Organisation.

At times of natural disaster Sister Pfau was there: Drought in Baluchistan in the southwest in 2000, the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir and this year’s floods, the country’s worst natural disaster that affected 21 million people.

In Sindh, where more than a million people were affected by the floods, she targets areas mainly populated by Hindus, one of Pakistan’s clutch of religious minorities largely neglected by the government and Islamic charities.

She is a frequent visitor to flood-affected areas, largely bone-crunching drives from Karachi, which seem to tire her team more than her. “She still has amazing stamina. She is an amazing person,” said Venu Gopal, coordinator of Sister Pfau’s charity.

Born in Leipzig, she was just 17 years old when she headed for the border to cross from East into West Germany, braving Soviet soldiers who were ordered to shoot on sight.

She walked two days and nights before she was spotted by a Russian and a German soldier. “The German soldier told the Russian he would deposit me at the detention camp and walked with me a few paces ahead. Then, pointing in one direction, he whispered: ‘There lies the West’.”

Now, in places like the remote village of Begna in flood-hit Sindh’s Thatta district, people look upon the elderly German nun as a mother. “We’ve lost everything, but Amma (mother) is helping us and we hope to be on our feet soon,” said snake-charmer Sanwal Jogi.

“Thanks to her, I managed to replant some oilseeds and mustard, nobody else apart from her and her team comes down here,” said farmer Kaser Hero.

She has provided them with shelter, helped them rebuild their houses, gives them seeds and money to help them cultivate the land again.

“It is not just leprosy. We’re doing our share in healing partial blindness and tuberculosis and helping people stricken by disasters. Dr. Pfau commands respect in the West and gets funds for all this,” Gopal said.

“One should not compare one great legend with another, but we rightly call her Mother Teresa as she is serving people with the same empathy, dedication and love as Mother Teresa did in India,” said Sindh health minister Saghir Ahmed.

           — Hat tip: Fjordman[Return to headlines]

Muslim Radicals Colonising the Country, Indonesian Bishops Say

The bishop of Padang warns against the systematic and organised spread of radical Islamic ideology. Political authorities are criticised for failing to stop the wave of violence. In the meantime, police is out in force to prevent anti-Christian violence over the Christmas period.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) — Mgr Mathinus D Situmorang, president of the Indonesian Bishops of Conference’s (KWI), warned Indonesian political elites on a potentially serious threat to the national interest. The prelate, who is the bishop of Padang (Western Sumatra), delivered his word of caution during the admission ceremony for new members of the Indonesian Catholic University Student Association (PMKRI). In his address, he criticised the state for its powerlessness in the face of dozens of attacks carried out by Islamic fundamentalist groups against churches and Christians.

“In the past, Indonesia was occupied and colonised by foreign rulers. However, the present situation is not much better even if we are ruled by fellow Indonesian citizens,” the bishop said. Here, he was referring to recent attacks carried out by the Islamic Defender Front (FPI), which stormed two places of worship in Rancaekek, Bandung Regency (West Java), forcing their closure. More broadly, he is deeply concerned that religious intolerance is spreading and taking rook among ordinary people.

Muslim extremists, he explained, had no legal right to interfere with the aforementioned places of worship even if they did not have a building permit. What is more, the situation is getting worse because law enforcement is not stopping the Islamists, and it is not clear why. Nonetheless, for the prelate, “A spirit of intolerance is finding fertile ground because of political interests”.

In Parung, Bogor Regency, local authorities issued a ban against the Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church to prevent Christmas celebrations.

“If some Christian communities in Indonesia hold religious ceremonies in the streets or in the open, it is out of necessity because they have been unable to secure a building permit for their place of worship, and this, for years,” Bishop Situmorang explained.

“If the [central] government and local authorities are stopped by every extremist Muslim group, the situation will get worse and the state’s sovereignty will be given away to illegal groups that will carry out actions against the law,” he lamented.

Still, the 3,000 parishioners who belong to the Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church will be able to celebrate Christmas at a local nuns’ compound.

Indonesia’s Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro, who is Catholic, rejected the accusation, saying that any violent act would be punished.

Mgr Situmorang is not so sure. For him, the state is powerless and incapable of dealing with the problem. Yet, he is still “proud to belong to a multicultural society, where the spirit of intolerance is restrained”.

In the meantime, hours before the start of Christmas services, the country has been placed under tight security with thousands of police deployed near churches, 8,000 in Jakarta alone. In Bali, police has secured every strategic site, including churches.

A study by the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace warns that whilst most violent actions are carried out by the infamous FPI, less noticeable actions by other radical Muslim groups are equally worrisome, especially since they are increasingly supported by ordinary people and are attracting even liberal groups and moderate clerics.

There are also rumours that radical elements have infiltrated the moderate Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI), the country’s most important organisation of Muslim clerics, which wields the greatest influence in moral and political terms.

According to the Setara report, beside the FPI, other important violent Islamist groups are the Islamic Reform Movement (Garis) and the Islamic People’s Forum (FUI).

The same study noted that in “2005, FUI’s chief Al Khaththath [. . .] made it to the MUI’s board of directors,” and at the organisation’s annual meeting that year, he was among those who “actively lobbied the MUI to issue an edict forbidding the practice of liberal Islam”.

           — Hat tip: C. Cantoni[Return to headlines]

Pakistan’s Rape Victim Who Dared to Fight Back

Kainat Soomro should have stayed silent. After being battered and gang raped for four days her traditional, conservative village in rural Pakistan expected the 13-year-old girl to keep her story to herself. She refused.

Since then her dark brown eyes and striking features have become a staple of the country’s newspapers and television news channels, as she fights for justice and a new voice for women in a deeply conservative country.

Nothing has stopped her. Not the murder of her brother, threats from the men she says raped her or a death sentence imposed by the elders of her village, Dadu, in Sindh province.

“This is what happens in Pakistan,” she said. “Poor women have no chance. These men set the rules and think they know how to deal with these issues. They don’t.”

Instead of bowing to the local summary justice, her family fled to the sprawling port city of Karachi.

That was almost four years ago. Today Kainat is a vocal campaigner for women’s rights as she struggles for justice in her own case and tries to overturn the traditional, conservative culture that expects rape victims to suffer in silence.

The young woman cuts a familiar figure at press conferences and on television talk shows, her dark hair covered in a lilac print dupatta as her confident words of Urdu belie her lack of schooling. Her pretty eyes convey a quiet dignity as they stare from the front pages of Pakistan’s newspapers.

This is a society where rapes often remain unreported — through shame, intimidation or bribery — and domestic violence is not an offence. Kainat is campaigning to become a role model and a symbol of resistance for a new generation of women.

But her position has not come without a huge cost. Her family cannot return to their house in Dadu. Instead they rely on charity in Karachi, living in a cramped two-room apartment.

Two of her brothers have been in and out of jail, accused of everything from fraud to murder. Two of her sisters have lost husband or fiancé, such is the stigma attached to rape — or speaking out about rape. And this year she buried Sabir, her 24-year-old brother whose battered body was found after he went missing in March. She believes his murder was related to her case.


           — Hat tip: DF[Return to headlines]

Pakistan Suicide Bomber Was Woman Covered in Burqa

A woman covered in a head-to-foot burqa carried out a suicide bombing that killed more than 40 people in Pakistan, government officials said on Sunday, adding to security challenges confronting the U.S. ally.

Any increased use of women as bombers may complicate efforts by Pakistani security forces to stem a spreading wave of Islamist suicide attacks because it is harder to spot and search burqa-clad attackers in conservative tribal society.

Saturday’s bombing illustrated the resilient ability of militants to stage attacks despite army offensives against them.

The woman blew herself amid a crowd of men, women and children heading toward a food distribution center of the World Food Program in the Bajaur region on the Afghan border.

“Initially there was confusion as to whether the attacker was a man or woman but now we have established that (it) was a woman,” senior government official Sohail Ahmed told Reuters.

Government officials in Bajaur said they had recovered the head, burqa and clothes of the bomber.

Previous Woman Bomber in 2007

It was the second such attack by a female militant in Pakistan. In the first episode, a woman detonated explosives near a military checkpost in the northwestern city of Peshawar in 2007, but she killed no one except herself.

On Saturday, the woman initially threw hand grenades at people heading toward the food center to receive aid before blowing herself up. Forty-three people were killed and more than 60 were wounded in the attack.

“If militants use more women for such attacks then it is going to be a very huge problem for the security forces,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, an expert on tribal and militant affairs.

“They don’t have enough women (in the) police force and even (if) they have policewomen, because of our conservative culture, people don’t want their women to be subjected to body searches. It’s going to be a big problem.”

The attack happened a day after battles between security forces and insurgents in the neighboring Mohmand region that killed 11 soldiers and 40 insurgents, the government said. Militants disputed the official death toll.


           — Hat tip: DF[Return to headlines]

Pricey Onions Threaten India’s Growth and Government

India’s rapid economic growth is unequally distributed. Some states and social groups benefit as the poor languish. Rapidly rising food prices are fuelling social dissatisfaction in a country where tens of millions of people still lack adequate nutrition.

New Delhi (AsiaNews/Agencies) — India’s economy is expected to grow 8.5 per cent this year, making it the fastest growing large economy after China. However, most Indians are angry about a more down-to-earth problem, i.e. the skyrocketing price of onions, which has more than doubled from Rs35 (US$ 0.78) per kg to Rs80 (US$ 1.75) in the past few days, confirming a broader trend of rising food and fuel prices. As economic development helps a minority of India’s 1.2 billion people, the rest remain poor, often without enough to eat.

The gap between the two Indias is visible for all to see. On the one hand, the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and the National Capital Territory of Delhi are the established economies driving India’s growth, with dynamic manufacturing and service sectors. They generate the bulk of exports and attract most foreign investment. There, a small business class is taking advantage of growth with most people settling for low-level blue and white-collar jobs. On the other, there is the rural and populous hinterland of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand, long characterised by low growth and some of the lowest per capita income. Of these, Bihar has surprised many by recently recording higher rates of growth, but Uttar Pradesh, with a population the size of Brazil and notorious for social marginalisation, trails badly behind.

Overall, food prices are rising faster than growth, and onions are a basic part of this dietary staple, especially in the North. In an attempt to cool prices, the government on Wednesday slashed import duties for onions, after banning exports of the vegetable earlier this week. It has already started importing onions from its neighbour Pakistan, buying back produce that it had just sent across the border.

A drop in supply caused by unseasonable rains in the western producing states triggered the sudden spike, which was exacerbated by traders keen to cash in on shortages.

Analysts remember the dramatic rise in the price of onions in 1998, which is credited with ousting the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in that year’s Delhi election. It is therefore little surprise that Mr Singh’s office has written to the Agriculture and Consumer Affairs ministries urging them to take all necessary steps to bring prices back down to an “affordable level”.

The problem however is structural. On Tuesday, Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate economist, issued a stark warning to New Delhi about how “stupid” it was to aspire to double-digit economic growth without addressing the chronic undernourishment of tens of millions of Indians and the underdevelopment of highly populated states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which continue to fall behind in terms of income. Rather than seeking to drive growth higher, Sen recommends higher public spending on health and education.

Despite rising growth, the average calorie intake among India’s poorest has been stagnant for more than a decade. Eleven out of 19 states have more than 80 per cent anaemia, and more than half of India’s children under the age of five suffer stunting and poor brain development from inadequate nutrition.

Analysts warn that the country’s development cannot continue if it exacerbates differences and holds back some states. In fact, social unrest is a real danger in a political situation of high tensions fuelled by allegations of corruption in government circles over a multibillion-dollar telecoms corruption scandal.

           — Hat tip: C. Cantoni[Return to headlines]

Far East

Hu Jintao to Washington January 19, To Save China and U.S. From Disaster

The likely issues on the agenda: Korean tensions, the currency war and the possible collapse of the U.S. and the Chinese economy. The devaluation of the dollar could mean a Chinese speculative bubble in the areas of raw materials, real estate and construction, and bank loans.

Washington (AsiaNews) — The White House announced today that Barack Obama will receive Chinese President Hu Jintao on 19 January. Among the topics on the agenda: the tensions on the Korean peninsula, the currency war and the possible collapse of the U.S. and the Chinese economy.

So far Beijing has not confirmed the date, but has recently announced that Hu’s visit to the United States will be held in early 2011.

According to the Washington, the forthcoming visit will aim to “build a partnership that will improve the common interests and concerns that we share.” In recent months, the disagreements between the two countries have increased: on the one hand there is the tension between the two Koreas and accusations against Beijing of not doing enough to rein in Pyongyang. And on the other there are the complaints of American business leaders that China keeps its yuan currency too cheap, giving it an unfair trade advantage, and shaking the balance of trade between the two superpowers. The U.S. trade deficit with China rose by 20% this year, surpassing the 2008 peak of 268 billion dollars.

But the meeting should also find some solution to the risk of collapse of both economies. Many American scholars are concerned that Fed policy will lead to a greater inflation of the dollar (see 19/11/2010 Currency wars and the Fed’s demise.) But there are also worrying signs on the Chinese side. According to economist Mark Hart, a huge speculative bubble is building in the areas of raw materials, real estate and construction, and bank loans[i]. In his opinion, China, instead of being “the engine of global growth,” has become “it’s greatest danger”.

[i] See:,-to-save-China-and-U.S.-from-disaster-20330.html

           — Hat tip: C. Cantoni[Return to headlines]

Sub-Saharan Africa

Islamic Clerics Reject South Sudan Referendum, Demand Islamic Laws

A group of radical Muslim clerics on Friday overtly faulted the Sudanese government for accepting south Sudan’s referendum on independence, and demanded imposition of Islamic Shar’iah law in the entire country whether citizens of the mainly Christian region of south Sudan like it or not.

South Sudan, whose population mostly follows Christianity or traditional beliefs, is bound for secession from the Muslim-ruled north in a referendum vote due in January 2011, a plebiscite stipulated by the 2005’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which in 2005 ended nearly half a century of intermittent civil war between north and south Sudan.

Under the CPA, north Sudan maintained Islamic laws whereas the south was given extensive autonomy under a secular government led by the former southern rebels Sudan People’s Liberation Movement [SPLM].

The legitimate League of Muslim Preachers and Clerics (LLMPC), a group of radical clerics existing in parallel to the official clerical body known as the Association of Muslim Scholars, marched in protest on Friday, 24 December, and held a press conference in which the group’s leaders declared rejection to south Sudan’s referendum on independence and called on the government to implement Shari’ah law in full.

The group’s prominent member Mohamed Abdel-Karim addressed the protestors and demanded the government in the north fulfills its long-standing promise to implement Shari’ah Islamic law regardless of what southerners want.


           — Hat tip: DF[Return to headlines]

Somali Islamists Beg Al Qaeda Help

Somalia’s extremist group of Al-shabaab has urged Al-Qa’ida network to help them out in fighting the Somali governmentand the AU peacekeepers in Mogadishu.

speaking to the reporters ata function to announce the merger with Hisbul Islam, the spokesman of Al-Shabab, Sheikh Ali Mahamud Rage says rifts and difference in opinion among the two group’s fighters are no more.

“ We are appealing our brothers in Alqaeda to help us in fighting the appostate government and the infidels in Somalia” Rage flanked by Hizbul Islam officials said.

He has particularly entreated Al-Qa’idah fighters in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Yemen to support their group.

At the function over the weekend, Shaykh Abdifattah Muhammad Ali, who was the spokesman of the defunct Hisb al-Islam group, read a statement which was jointly written by Al-Shabab and Hisb al-Islam.

The statement said that the TFG and AU peacekeepers have failed in their attacks against their group.


           — Hat tip: DF[Return to headlines]

Latin America

Bolivia’s Recognition of Palestine as an Independent State Sets Off Alarm Bells in Israel

Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela have already recognised Palestine. Uruguay is expected to do the same next year. The issue is debated in Chile. The United States warns against unilateral recognition. The European Union is still waiting. Israel orders its diplomatic missions to oppose such initiative around the world.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) — Late last night, Bolivian President Evo Morales announced that his country would formally recognise Palestine as a state within the 1967 borders. Morales added that he planned to write to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, informing him of the decision.

Earlier this month, Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela had already recognised Palestine within 1967 borders and Uruguay plans to do so next year.

Legislators from ruling and opposition parties in Chile have stepped by pressure on the government of President Sebastian Pinera to grant the same recognition to Palestine. Chile has a large Palestinian community of more than 300,000 people.

For the leaders of these states, such recognition will help lead to peaceful and secure coexistence with Israel. At a minimum, it should breathe new life into the deadlocked peace process.

Unable to stop Israeli settlements on the West Bank, a Palestinian precondition for renewed talks, the United States has warned against unilaterally recognising the Palestinian state.

The European Union is waiting instead for the right moment to grant its recognition.

The Palestinian diplomatic offensive is worrying Israel. Sources tell AsiaNews that the Israeli government has ordered all its embassies to monitor and stop all initiatives that would increase the number of nations recognising a Palestinian state.

           — Hat tip: C. Cantoni[Return to headlines]

Culture Wars

UK: Multi-Faith Chaplains to Make House of Commons More Inclusive

John Bercow has backed the creation of a team of multi-faith chaplains, which will also include representatives of the Hindu, Buddhist and Jainist religions.

Members of the House have expressed surprise at the move, which some have described as “an exercise in politically-correct box ticking”. It could mean that religious leaders of non-Christian faiths will take part in parliamentary ceremonies, though there would need to be constitutional reform to allow them to read the daily prayers. At present, the Speaker’s Chaplain is the only person allowed to say the prayers before each day’s sitting and the role has been filled by an Anglican cleric since the office was created in 1660. The proposal to introduce a multi-faith chaplaincy was made by the current chaplain, the Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who was appointed by Mr Bercow against the wishes of the Very Rev John Hall, the Dean of Westminster.

Mrs Hudson-Wilkin has fought for greater recognition of ethnic minorities in the Church of England and said she was excited by the move.

The new chaplains will not receive a salary and their role is yet to be specified, but she said they will help to ensure everyone’s pastoral needs are cared for.

“Hospitals and prisons already have this type of chaplaincy system so it’s no big deal we’re now doing the same,” she said.

“As I move around the House I discover people from all walks of life and this seems like the responsible thing to do.”

However, MPs have questioned whether there is a need to set up a multi-faith chaplaincy.

“I welcome the news that this is being introduced if there is a demand for it, but until now I haven’t been aware of such a demand,” said David Amess, the Conservative MP for Southend West.

“I’m puzzled by it as I can’t imagine who has asked for this.”

While there are now eight Muslim MPs, there are not thought to be any Jains, Bahá’ís or Zoroastrians.

“It smacks of an exercise in politically-correct box ticking,” said one MP.

Ann Widdecombe, the former minister, said: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it if a number of staff want a visiting chaplain, but it starts to become ridiculous if you have every last religion.”


           — Hat tip: DF[Return to headlines]

UK: St George’s Flag Protest Lands in Court

THE English Defence League staged a protest in Reading today (Thursday) in support of a man arrested after hanging a St George’s flag outside a mosque.

Around 20 members of the controversial campaign group came from across the South East to demonstrate outside Reading Magistrates’ Court monitored by a heavy police presence.

Among them was co-founder Tommy Robinson, who told The Chronicle: “Our argument is with militant Islam. What’s far right about protecting women’s rights and gay people’s rights? The problem is the teachers of Islam, it’s got nothing to do with your colour. It all comes back to the Koran.”

Inside the court 37-year-old Tilehurst man Ronald Peterson was on trial for religiously aggravated harassment. The court heard he went to the partially built mosque in Oxford Road, west Reading, on May 30 to protest over the way its planning application was handled by the borough council.

Peterson, with two other men, draped the St George’s flag on a fence, posed for pictures and chanted “E, E, E.D.L” and “England”. Witness Urfan Azad, 32, told the court he was in the nearby Reading Tea House and went outside after hearing the chanting. He said he dialled 999 because he was concerned the situation could escalate, and added: “My concern was the flag needed to be taken off the fence because it might be seen by Muslims as a religious symbol. I felt upset about the whole incident. I’m British myself, I was born in Reading. It’s made me feel a bit socially excluded.” Police arrived on the scene within minutes and, without warning him or giving him a chance to move on, arrested Peterson on the spot. Sgt Lee Barnham said he spoke to Mr Azad, and added: “He was offended by the use of what he considered to be a religious cross against the site of worship.

“It was clear he was upset and felt intimidated. I was satisfied an offence under the public order act had been committed.”


           — Hat tip: DF[Return to headlines]


Zenster said...

Coldest December in Sweden in 110 Years

You gotta know the Muslims are really enjoying this little sample of genuine arctic weather.

I'll bet rape cases drop proportionally with the temperature.