Saturday, December 8, 2012

Mohamed Morsi approves martial law in Egypt, state media reports

CAIRO: Struggling to subdue continuing street protests, the government of President Mohamed Morsi has approved legislation reimposing martial law by calling on the armed forces to keep order and authorizing soldiers to arrest civilians, Egypt's state media reported on Saturday.

Morsi has not yet issued the order, the flagship state newspaper Al Ahram reported. But even if merely a threat, the preparation of the measure suggested an escalation in the political battle between Egypt's new Islamist leaders and their secular opponents over an Islamist-backed draft constitution. The standoff has already threatened to derail the culmination of Egypt's promised transition to a constitutional democracy nearly two years after the revolt against the former leader Hosni Mubarak.

"President Morsi will soon issue a decision for the participation of the armed forces in the duties of maintaining security and protection of vital state institutions until the constitution is approved and legislative elections are finished," Al Ahram reported, suggesting that martial law would last until at least February. Parliamentary elections are expected to be held two months after the constitutional referendum, which is scheduled for next Saturday.

A short time later, a military spokesman read a statement over state television echoing the report of the president's order. The military "realizes its national responsibility for maintaining the supreme interests of the nation and securing and protecting the vital targets, public institutions, and the interests of the innocent citizens," the spokesman said.

Expressing "sorrow and concern" over recent developments, the military spokesman warned of "divisions that threaten the state of Egypt."

"Dialogue is the best and sole way to reach consensus that achieves the interests of the nation and the citizens," the spokesman said. "Anything other than that puts us in a dark tunnel with drastic consequences, which is something that we will not allow."

Al Ahram reported that the defense minister would determine the scope of the military's role. Military officers would be authorized to act as police and "to use force to the extent necessary to perform their duty," the newspaper said.

A need to rely on the military to secure a referendum to approve the new charter could undermine Morsi's efforts to present the documents as an expression of national consensus that might resolve the crisis.

Even the possibility presents an extraordinary role reversal: an elected president who spent decades opposing Mubarak's use of martial law to detain Islamists — a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who himself spent months in jail under the "emergency law" — is poised to resort to similar tactics to control unrest and violence from secular groups.

After six decades during which military-backed secular autocrats used the threat of an Islamist takeover to justify authoritarian rule, the order would bring the military into the streets to protect an elected Islamist, dashing the whispered hopes of some more secular Egyptians that the military might step in to remove Morsi.

The move would also reflect an equally extraordinary breakdown in Egyptian civic life that in the last two weeks has destroyed most of the remaining trust between the rival Islamist and secular factions, beginning with Morsi's decree on Nov. 22 granting himself powers above any judicial review until the ratification of a new constitution.

At the time, Morsi said he needed such unchecked power to protect against the threat that Mubarak-appointed judges might dissolve the constitutional assembly. He also tried to give the assembly a two-month extension on its year-end deadline to forge consensus between the Islamist majority and the secular faction — something liberals have sought. But his claim to such power for even a limited period struck those suspicious of the Islamists as a return to autocracy, and his authoritarian decree triggered an immediate backlash.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters accusing Morsi and his Islamist allies of monopolizing power have poured into the streets. Demonstrators have attacked more than two dozen Brotherhood offices around the country, including its headquarters. And judges declared a national strike.

In response, Morsi's Islamist allies in the assembly stayed up all night to rush out a draft constitution over the boycotts and objections of the secular minority and the Coptic Christian church. Then, worried that the Interior Ministry might fail to protect the presidential palace from sometimes-violent demonstrations outside, Morsi turned to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups to defend it, resulting in a night of street fighting that killed at least six and wounded hundreds in the worst clashes between political factions since Gamal Abdel Nasser's coup six decades ago.

International experts who monitored the constituent assembly's work say that before the crisis, the Islamists and their secular foes had appeared close to resolving their differences and uniting around a document that both sides could accept. Even the draft charter, ultimately rushed out almost exclusively with Islamist support, stops short of the liberals' worst fears about the imposition of religious rule. But it leaves loopholes and ambiguities that liberals fear an Islamist majority could later use to empower religious groups or restrict individual freedoms, which the secular opposition has repeatedly compared to the theocracy established by the Iranian revolution of 1979.

Their denunciations, in turn, have reminded Islamist leaders of the Algerian military coup staged in the early 1990s to abort elections after Islamists won, and Morsi's political allies have repeatedly accused their secular opponents of seeking to undermine democracy in order to thwart the will of the Islamist majority.

Against the backdrop of the mounting distrust, Morsi's advisers say he has tried to offer a series of compromises. He has sought to redefine his initial decree so it fits within judicial precedents instead of stepping over the courts. He has said that the decree would be canceled after the referendum next weekend, even if the constitution is rejected.

And on Friday night, government officials opened the door to a delay in the referendum so that the constituent assembly can make further amendments, if secular opponents would agree to the terms.

But Morsi's Islamist allies say that they have also lost hope that any concession would satisfy the secular opposition and are convinced the opposition's true goal is to bring down the president — the main chant of the protesters who have surrounded the presidential palace for the last four nights. Morsi's secular opponents say they do not trust the president or the Brotherhood to deal in good faith. They are insisting that he agree to revamp the constitutional drafting process before they sit down for any talks.

In a speech two days ago, Morsi had invited secular opposition leaders to meet with him Saturday to try to work out a compromise. But the principal leaders declined the invitation. Without them, he met with a group again dominated by fellow Islamists, including some less-conservative Islamists outside the Brotherhood's party, according to a list reported on state media. Only one secular politician, the former presidential candidate Ayman Nour, attended.

The continuing unrest in the streets and attacks on Brotherhood offices had begun to raise the possibility that violence might mar next Saturday's scheduled vote on the referendum. While a deployment of the military could allay those concerns, it might also lead to new questions about the legitimacy of the process if the charter is indeed approved, complicating longer-term hopes of restoring civility and trust.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Christians count down to Christmas

Waiting for the wonder — Utah’s and world’s Christians count down to Christmas
Advent » Christians in Utah and around the world count down to Christmas.
First Published Nov 29 2012 12:57 pm • Updated 6 hours ago
In a world before iPhones, digital alarms and day planners, Christians sought a way to measure their waiting.
How many days until the Savior’s birthday? How many cold nights before the celebration? How long until light pierced the dark and rapturous music filled the air?
Thus, those medieval believers devised ways to mark the time before Christ-Mass with candles, prayers, fasting, blocks and wreaths. Such traditions have persisted to this day among many traditional Catholic and Protestant churches across the globe. They celebrate it as the season of Advent, which means "coming," to commemorate the anticipation of Christ’s birth.
Now even nontraditional believers embrace the idea of daily reminders.
Beyond Bible passages and Nativity figures, eager children can count down the days with Legos and Playmobil, chocolates and gummy bears, Disney and Barbie, Peanuts and princesses, snowmen and soldiers. They do so with calendars made of paper and cardboard and wood and fabric — often felt — that feature little windows that open, close or slide.
For most Americans "waiting means annoyance," Utah’s Catholic Bishop John Wester told his flock this week. "We don’t like to wait — we want to do, we want to be on the move. We sometimes fail to appreciate that Advent really is a gift that helps us open our hearts to that which we are expecting. This is unfortunate, because by rushing through to Christmas we miss many valuable experiences."
Advent, Wester said, "is a precious period for us to ponder and prepare."
It’s all about the anticipation of wonder, said the Rev. Tom Abbott, pastor at Cottonwood Presbyterian Church.
"Our culture is so focused on the immediate," said Abbott, who is spending his first Christmas in Utah since becoming Cottonwood’s pastor in September. "It is great to have a season where we think about waiting and preparing. Things of value take time. They don’t necessarily happen in the moment."
What Christians await, he said, "is the gift of salvation and what that means for us."
On each of the four Sundays until Christmas, leaders at Abbott’s church — like many others across Utah and the nation — light one candle in their evergreen wreath, which symbolizes everlasting life. Three of the candles are purple, representing aspects of Christ’s royal lineage — hope, peace and love.
On the third Sunday of Advent, he explained, the candle is pink, suggesting joy at the upcoming birth.
Finally, during the Christmas Eve service, a white candle, symbolizing Christ himself, is placed in the center of the wreath.
In her Advent sermon, Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts focused on the waiting women of Christian history.
There was Jesus’ mother, Mary, who anticipated "the birth of the Promised One in her part of the world, a child born for the whole world," Jefferts said in a videotaped message at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd on the grounds of General Theological Seminary in New York City.
Then there was John the Baptist’s mother, Elizabeth, who was "promised a child in her old age," the presiding bishop said. "These are both very unexpected births they are awaiting."
Finally, Jefferts said, there was Elizabeth of Hungary, a 13th-century saint "who was betrothed as a child herself, married at 14, a mother of three by the time her husband died when she was 20."
This saint "spent her life giving it away, giving it away both physically through her means and through her presence and her healing," Jefferts said. "She was an icon of generosity."
So what are Christians waiting for this year?
"Is it an opportunity to meet the surprising around you? Is it an opportunity to reflect on what is most needed in your heart and in the world around you? How are you going to wait for that gift? Are you going to wait actively? Engaged?" Jefferts asked. "Honing your desire? Stoking the passion within you for that dream? Are you going to wait for a dream that will bless the whole world?"
Rosemary Baron, a lifelong Catholic and hospital chaplain in Salt Lake City, celebrates Advent in the simple ways she learned as a child.
"We use the same Advent wreath that our son — who is now 32 — made when he was 5 years old," Baron wrote in an email. "It is braided and made from salt dough. We insert new candles each year and say Advent prayers and read a reflection by candlelight each evening after dinner."
Baron and her husband have followed this pattern during the nearly 40 years of their marriage and, before that, with her parents and siblings.
It is nothing new or extraordinary, she said, just "a spiritual preparation for Christmas."

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Fearful Pakistani Christians make home in forest

Having fled their homes in the latest spasm of Pakistani religious strife, a few hundred Christians have camped in a forest in the Pakistani capital, cut down trees and are using the branches to build a church. Their ordeal began when a Christian girl in their poor Islamabad neighborhood was accused by a neighbor of burning pages of the Quran — a blasphemy by Pakistani law that can mean life in prison.

A week after the girl's arrest, much remains in question: her age — 11 to 16 in conflicting reports; mental condition —  Down syndrome has been mentioned; and what exactly she was burning — there's little evidence that Quran pages were involved.

But as word spread, hundreds of people gathered outside her house demanding action, and on Aug. 20 police arrested the girl pending an investigation. (The Associated Press is withholding her name because it does not generally identify underage suspects.)

Most Christians in the neighborhood fled — some 600 families according to one interfaith group. Some said their landlords evicted them. A few have returned.

One of those who moved into the forest on Sunday was Sumera Zahid, who was busy feeding her three children and her parents.

"We used to come here to collect wood for fuel so we find it a suitable place for shelter," she said. "Here it is not anybody's home, nobody's land. Let us live here in safety."

On Monday their pastor, Arif Masih, spoke to them by the frame of branches they were lashing together for their church.

"We are thankful to the Lord for this land although here is no water and food, but rest assured the Lord will create water fountains and provide all fruits here for you if you remain patient and suffer these hardships, thanking the Lord," he said.

Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive issue in this 95-percent Muslim nation of 190 million people, and cases often grab huge attention here and abroad.

Crowds have been known to beat or kill suspected blasphemers. Last year two prominent politicians who criticized the blasphemy law were murdered, one by his own bodyguard who then attracted adoring mobs. In July, thousands of people dragged a Pakistani man accused of desecrating the Quran from a police station, beat him to death and set his body alight.

So volatile is the issue that public figures appear loath to speak out on the latest episode. The government has made little substantive comment, and no police protection was evident at the forest encampment.

On Monday the All Pakistan Ulema Council, an umbrella organization of Muslim clerics, held a news conference together with the Pakistan Interfaith League, the group that reports 600 families have fled and is campaigning to return them to their homes.

The two groups called for an investigation into whether the girl was wrongly accused and what role religious extremism played. League chairman Sajid Ishaq demanded government compensation for the displaced Christians, as well as protection.

Critics say the blasphemy laws are often used in vendettas and score-settling. Sensitivities are also heightened by Western reactions to such incidents, such as the U.S. State Department statement calling the latest case "deeply disturbing."

At the news conference, the head of the clerics' council, Maulana Tahir-ul-Ashrafi, told the outside world not to interfere, saying Pakistan would provide justice for the girl and her community.

Meanwhile, Nooran Bashir, who had fled a few hours after the girl's arrest, was back in her home Monday.

"I don't know whether she burned pages of some holy book or not, but we all had to abruptly leave our homes to save our lives," she said. She said one of her sons came back with her, but her other children were too frightened and she sent them to relatives.

She said Muslims asked the Christians not to worship in their church, and if they did, to refrain from singing.

But others were not ready to return. About 200 Christians, mostly men, protested in front of the city administration offices Monday, demanding permission to stay in the clearing. About another 100 people, mostly women and children, were back at the clearing.

"We don't have a big list of demands," said one Christian resident, Salim Masih. "We have cleared this place with our hands, and we have laid the first foundation of a small church here. Although this is a mere skeleton made of tree branches, this is the holy home of God. This should be respected."

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Iman Sheikh: Pakistan’s anti-Christian witch hunt

Rifta Masih is an 11-year-old Christian girl who lives near Islamabad, Pakistan. She reportedly suffers from Down’s Syndrome. Like many of the other Christians in her area — who comprise about 10% of the local population — the members of her family work menial jobs, and live in tiny properties rented from Muslim landlords.
On Thursday evening, Rifta was seen leaving the one-room dwelling she lives in with her sister and parents, carrying an earthenware dish filled with ash. Or, it may have been some refuse in a small shopping bag. Although Hammad Malik, a 23-year-old witness, is unclear on exactly what the girl was transporting, he is quite certain that the burnt remains had Arabic writing on them.
Rifta, he alleges, was burning pages from a Koran inside her house, and then trying to find a place to dispose of the remains. Although he did not see her do this, that did not stop him from assembling an angry group of men and reporting the incident to the local police, with the demand that the girl be apprehended in accordance with the country’s Blasphemy Law. The authorities at first did not act, but then moved swiftly to get the girl into custody when a mob of over 500 people gathered at the Masih home’s doorstep. Fearing for her safety, the authorities put her into a cell for a two-week detention.
Welcome to Pakistan: A nightmare society beyond pity or parody, where handicapped 11-year-old girls must be locked up to ensure their own safety.
According to the Blasphemy Law, anyone found guilty of insulting the Prophet Muhammad or the Koran can be sentenced to death. With blind religious extremism on the upswing, there is no shortage of Hammad Malik types — self-appointed religious vigilantes on the lookout for any transgression, real or imagined.
The law has been enforced in regard to even the most dubious reports of “blasphemy,” and has led to the murder of two prominent politicians. In January 2011, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard after he expressed sympathy for Asia Noreen, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. Scarcely two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s first Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs and the only Christian in Pakistan’s Cabinet, was leaving his mother’s home in Islamabad when his car was sprayed with bullets. (The Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for the killing.)
The aforementioned Noreen, better known in the media as “Asia Bibi,” was a farmhand who fetched water for her coworkers. When some Muslims refused to drink the water on account of it being contaminated by an “unclean” Christian, heated work-site arguments allegedly ensued. Later, a cleric received complaints that Noreen made derogatory comments about the Prophet Muhammad. A mob arrived at her house, attacking her and her family before she was rescued by the police. This was in June 2009. She is still in jail.
The Blasphemy Law can be manipulated by cynical plaintiffs, as a tool to take personal retribution. In the case of Asia Bibi, there had been a pre-existing feud between Noreen and a Muslim neighbour over property damage. In Rifta’s case, relations between the Muslim and Christian communities had been tense for months after complaints were made about the noise coming from churches in the area during religious services.
In Pakistan, Christians traditionally have worked as cleaners and sweepers; many Muslims still consider them “unclean.” About 900 Christians living on the outskirts of Islamabad have been ordered to leave the neighbourhood and the homes they have inhabited for two decades. On Sunday, houses on the backstreets of Mehrabadi, an area 20 minutes drive from Islamabad’s western embassies and government ministries, were locked up and abandoned, their frightened occupants having relocated to already overcrowded Christian slums in and around the capital.
Pakistan is a country with many problems — from corruption to terrorism to regional secession movements. But none captures the primitive, bigoted spirit of the nation’s religious extremists more perfectly than the witch hunt for “blasphemers” that has been used to persecute the country’s tiny, beleaguered Christian community. If an 11-year-old handicapped girl is considered fair game for the fanatics, what chance does anyone else have?

Friday, July 13, 2012

David Cameron: I will change the law to allow crosses at work

During exchanges at Prime Minister's Question Time, Mr Cameron was asked about the case of Nadia Eweida, who has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights after being barred by British Airways from wearing a crucifix while working at Heathrow Airport.
David Davis, the former shadow home secretary, described the airline's refusal to allow Miss Eweida to wear her cross as a "disgraceful piece of political correctness" and asked the Prime Minister why the Government was opposing her appeal.
He told the Commons that Miss Eweida was appearing before the European Court in September to complain that there were no protections under United Kingdom law for workers who wore religious symbols.
Saying she wore the crucifix "as a mark of her Christianity," Mr Davis went on: "The behaviour of British Airways in this was a disgraceful piece of political correctness, so I was surprised to see the Government is resisting Miss Eweida's appeal.
"I cannot believe the Government is supporting the suppression of religious freedom in the workplace, so what are we going to do in this case?"
In response, Mr Cameron said he that he was fully supportive of employees' right to wear religious symbols at work, adding: "I think it is an absolutely vital freedom."
He went on: "What we will do is that if it turns out that the law has the intention [of banning the display of religious symbols in the workplace], as has come out in this case, then we will change the law and make clear that people can wear religious symbols at work."
The Prime Minister joked that while he did not always side with Mr Davis – his rival for the 2005 Tory leadership contest – he "wholeheartedly agreed" with him over the BA case.
Miss Eweida, 59, a Pentecostal Christian from Twickenham, south-west London, was sent home from her job at Heathrow in 2006 when she refused to remove her crucifix or accept a non-uniformed job.
She lost an industrial tribunal, which ruled that she had not suffered religious discrimination. Mrs Eweida had argued that the airline was discriminating against her as a Christian because Sikh employees were permitted to wear turbans and Muslims could work in hijab head coverings.
But BA said that the wearing of a cross was not a "requirement" of her faith, unlike the turban and hijab. BA has since changed its policy to allow the wearing of crosses and other religious symbols.
Miss Eweida's has been joined in her legal battle by Shirley Chaplin, a nurse from from Exeter, who was told by her employer, The Royal Devon and Exeter Foundation NHS Trust, to remove a necklace on which she had hung a cross.
It is the first time that Mr Cameron has explicitly promised to change the law in the event that the two women lose their case.
Vince Cable, the Business Secretary who is Miss Eweida's constituency MP, welcomed the Prime Minister's words. He had previously written to Theresa May, the Home Secretary, asking for a change in the law and was told this was impossible.
He said: "As her local MP, I've supported Nadia's right to wear a cross throughout her campaign. I wrote to the Home Secretary eighteen months ago urging her change the law.
"So I am delighted by the Prime Minister's announcement today that the law will be changed to allow people of all religious faiths to be able to wear symbols of their religion."
Mr Cameron's announcement means that Christians and other people of faith will be given formal legal protection to wear religious symbols at work regardless of the outcome of the European Court case.
If Miss Eweida and Mrs Chaplin are successful, then no changes to the law will be necessary because the case will form a legal precedent.
The loss of the case would mean that the Government would be expected to bring forth legislation providing protection for religious workers as soon as the parliamentary timetable allowed.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

After NATO meeting, Turkey warns Syria on border

Buoyed by support from his country's NATO allies, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Syrian forces Tuesday to stay clear of their troubled border or face a Turkish military response to any perceived threat, following the disputed downing of a Turkish warplane.
The Turkish leader's bellicose tone came as ambassadors from the NATO alliance, seeking to avoid a wider conflict, held emergency talks in Brussels at Turkey's behest. After the meeting, the NATO secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said the alliance considered Syria's actions in shooting down a Turkish warplane Friday "unacceptable."
In a unanimous statement, the NATO allies called the episode "another example of the Syrian authorities' disregard for international norms, peace and security, and human life."
Turkey is a member of the alliance.
"I would certainly expect that such an incident won't happen again," Rasmussen said at a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels. In Ankara, Erdogan said Turkey had revised its military rules of engagement toward Syria.
"Every military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria in a manner that constitutes a security risk or danger would be considered as a threat and would be treated as a military target," he said to lawmakers in a speech attended by Arab diplomats.

In calling for the meeting in Brussels, Turkey said it was invoking Article 4 of the NATO treaty, which provides for consultations by the allies when one of them is threatened.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Iraq still operating secret torture site

A clandestine jail and alleged torture site under the control of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki continues to operate more than a year after the government ordered it shut down, Human Rights Watch claims in a report being released Tuesday.
Massive roundups of suspected loyalists of late leader Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party were conducted in October and November, when government security agents went door to door in Baghdad, the capital, with lists of those targeted for secret detention, the rights group reported. Another sweep of suspected government opponents occurred in March, ahead of an Arab summit, it said.
“Iraqi security forces are grabbing people outside of the law, without trial or known charges, and hiding them away in incommunicado sites,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Iraqi government should immediately reveal the names and locations of all detainees, promptly free those not charged with crimes, and bring those facing charges before an independent judicial authority.”
The group also called for the Iraqi government to appoint an independent commission to investigate "continuing allegations of torture" and disappearances.
The continued operation of the Camp Honor detention site was disclosed by Los Angeles Times staff writer Ned Parker in July, four months after Maliki's government said the facility had been closed at the urging of Iraqi lawmakers and human rights advocates.
In March 2011, Iraqi legislators toured the prison in the Baghdad government enclave known as the Green Zone after they learned that the International Committee of the Red Cross sent a letter to Maliki's government expressing concern over reports it had received about secret detention and torture at Camp Honor. The Justice Ministry ordered it closed after the lawmakers' visit.
Two Justice Ministry officials told Human Rights Watch that dozens of prisoners have been taken to the clandestine detention site as recently as last month and have yet to be transferred to official custody, as required by Iraqi law, according to the rights group.

Human Rights Watch based its report on information conveyed in interviews over the last six months with 35 former prisoners, family members, lawyers, legislators and Iraqi government officials, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, Stork said.
A spokesman for the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, Raifet Ahmad, relayed a request from The Times for government confirmation or denial of the Human Rights Watch allegations but did not provide a reply from Baghdad authorities.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

China denies South China Sea war preparations

China has denied it is increasing combat readiness in response to a tense territorial row with the Philippines in the South China
Sea which has dragged on for more than a month.
The stand-off erupted last month after Philippine authorities detected Chinese ships fishing near the Scarborough Shoal.
They tried to arrest the crew, but were blocked by Chinese surveillance vessels deployed to the tiny rocky outcrop in the South China Sea about 230 kilometres (140 miles) from the Philippines' main island of Luzon.
The two nations have stationed non-military vessels at the shoal since April 8 in an effort to assert their sovereignty over the area.
But China's defence ministry denied military units were getting ready for war, despite warnings in state media that China is prepared to fight to end the stand-off.
“Reports that the Guangzhou military region, the South China Sea fleet and other units have entered a state of war preparedness are untrue,” the ministry said in a brief statement on its website late Friday.
The Guangzhou military region in southern China has responsibility for the area.
It gave no source for the reports, but rumours on Chinese microblogs say China has ordered some military units up to level two of its four-level scale of war preparedness, one notch from the top which indicates full readiness.
China claims virtually all of the South China Sea, which is believed to sit atop huge oil and gas reserves, as its historical territory, even waters close to the coasts of other Asian countries.
The Philippines says the shoal is part of its territory because it falls within its exclusive economic zone.
On Friday, around 300 protestors demonstrated outside the Chinese embassy in the Philippines to denounce “bullying” by Beijing.
Chinese citizens responded by holding far smaller protests outside the Philippine embassy in Beijing on Friday and Saturday, but police have not allowed sustained demonstrations.
China worries protests could spark wider social unrest.
On Saturday, police hustled away a group of five people attempting to unfurl a banner outside the embassy, who were put in a van and then driven away, an AFP photographer witnessed.
One briefly held up a sign reading: “Philippine servants, get away from Huangyan Island” using the Chinese name for the Scarborough Shoal.
A Chinese state-backed newspaper on Saturday accused the Philippines of whipping up nationalism, but it added military conflict in the South China Sea was possible.
“Nationalism seems to echo just as strongly wherever you go around the South China Sea. The Philippines is showing prominent such behaviour,” the Global Times said in an editorial.
“It remains possible that military conflicts will ensue in the South China Sea, and when that happens China will certainly take firm action,” it added.
Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia also claim parts of the sea. The rival claims have for decades made the waters one of Asia's potential military flashpoints.
The official Xinhua news agency late Friday urged the Philippines to negotiate a diplomatic solution to the dispute.
“The Philippine government is urged to use its vision and wisdom to handle the... dispute by peaceful diplomatic means to prevent harming bilateral relations in the long run,” it said.
Chinese authorities have ordered tour operators to suspend trips to the Philippines, and a Philippine official said Saturday that Chinese customs had impounded fruit imported from the Philippines, alleging pests, amid the dispute.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sudan threatens to wage war against South Sudan

 KHARTOUM: Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir threatened on Wednesday to overthrow the "insect" government of South Sudan, amid global efforts to pull the rivals from the brink of all-out war after the South seized a key oilfield.

"Our main target from today is to liberate South Sudan's citizens from the SPLM ( Sudan People's Liberation Movement), and this is our responsibility before our brothers in South Sudan," Bashir said, adding that the southern government cannot be called a "movement".

"We call it an insect ... trying to destroy Sudan, and our main target from today is to eliminate this insect completely.

He spoke at a youth rally in support of troops who hope to reclaim Sudan's most important oil field, Heglig, from South Sudanese troops who seized it eight days ago.

"There are two choices: Either we end up in Juba or they end up in Khartoum. The old borders cannot take us both," Bashir said, predicting that the victory will be swift.

"In a few hours you are going to listen to good news from your brothers in Heglig," he told about 3,000 young people, some of them dressed in military gear.

"Heglig will not be the end. The end will be in Juba," the South's capital, said Bashir, whose audience sang songs about jihad, or holy war.

While Bashir forecast a swift victory, a foreign ministry official said Sudan is pursuing both military and diplomatic measures to get South Sudan out of the area.

"Military steps are underway ... and they are calculated measures," Omar Dahab, head of the ministry's crisis team, told a news conference.

"At the same time, they are taking into consideration the diplomatic and good offices efforts regarding the ending of the occupation.

"We have to end the occupation by hook or crook, by either way."

Sudan's military has released virtually no information about the situation on the ground but South Sudan has vowed to hold its positions in Heglig, despite air strikes.

Clashes broke out last month in the Heglig area and escalated last week with waves of aerial bombardment hitting the South and Juba's seizure of the oil centre on April 10.

The United Nations, the United States and the European Union have criticised the South's occupation of the north's most important oil field, equally denouncing Sudanese air strikes against the South.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

ASEAN to adopt human rights declaration in November

PHNOM PENH - The Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) has agreed to adopt a human rights declaration at the conclusion of an annual summit here, as the leaders of the 10-nation bloc formally called on the West to lift sanctions against Myanmar.

Regional leaders said yesterday that they intend to adopt the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, which is being drafted, when they meet in Cambodia in November.

Philippine diplomat Rosario Manalo said that the declaration will be patterned after the 1948 United Nations declaration. Although non-binding, it is the latest effort by the bloc to promote human rights in a region with a long history of violations, principally in Myanmar.

Yesterday, ASEAN leaders called on Western countries, including the European Union, to lift punitive sanctions imposed on Myanmar now that the once-pariah nation has embraced democratic reforms.

Myanmar was represented by President Thein Sein, who received praise for the recent reforms in his poor nation, most recently Sunday's by-elections won by pro-democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi and her party.

"We called for the lifting of all sanctions on Myanmar immediately in order to contribute positively to the democratic process and economic development in that country," the heads of state said in a statement, promising to help when Myanmar assumes ASEAN's rotating chairmanship in 2014. AP

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Rights group cites Syrian opposition for 'serious human rights abuses'

Armed rebels fighting the regime of Syria's Bashar al-Assad have committed "serious human rights abuses," an influential human rights watchdog said Tuesday.
In an open letter to leaders of the opposition, Human Rights Watch cites "increasing evidence" of kidnappings, torture and executions and calls on those forces "to refrain from engaging in these unlawful practices."
The report emerged as the death toll continued to mount in Syria, with dozens of deaths recorded Tuesday by activists. U.N. Security Council members and other world powers worked to address the crisis, which started a year ago when the government began a violent crackdown against protesters.
"We have no time to waste, no time to lose," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Indonesia. "The situation has reached unacceptable, intolerable situation now. ... I sincerely hope that the international community will continually speak in one voice and particularly the Security Council, I hope, will be able to be united so they can speak in one voice."
Al-Assad's regime has been denounced across the globe for its apparent slaughter of civilians in an attempt to quash the opposition over the last year.
The United Nations, Syrian activists and groups such as Human Rights Watch have documented widespread violations by Syrian government forces, including the widespread use of torture, arbitrary detentions and indiscriminate shelling of neighborhoods. But abuses by anti-government forces also have been documented during the crisis. 
"The Syrian government's brutal tactics cannot justify abuses by armed opposition groups," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Opposition leaders should make it clear to their followers that they must not torture, kidnap or execute under any circumstances." 
Human Rights Watch says the protest movement had been "overwhelmingly peaceful" until September, when reports emerged of military defectors and residents taking up arms to defend themselves against government raids and to strike checkpoints and security sites. 
"The intensity of the fighting has increased since early February 2012, when the government began large-scale military attacks against opposition strongholds throughout the country," the group said.
The past year has seen the formation of a resistance group of anti-government military defectors called the Free Syrian Army and a political opposition movement called the Syrian National Council.
Human Rights Watch said many of the anti-government groups reported to be carrying out abuses do not appear to belong to an organized command structure or to be following Syrian National Council orders.
"But Syria's opposition leadership has a responsibility to speak out and condemn such abuses," Human Rights Watch said. "On March 1 the SNC created a military bureau to liaise with, unify, and supervise armed opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army," the group said.
Human Rights Watch said those kidnapped include security forces, government-supported militia members known as shabiha and their backers. Security force members and civilians also have been tortured and executed, it said.
"Certain armed attacks by opposition groups were motivated by anti-Shia or anti-Alawite sentiments arising from the association of these communities with government policies," Human Rights Watch said. Al-Assad's government is dominated by the minority Alawite community, whose faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. About three-quarters of the Syrian population are Sunnis.
Syrian National Council member Sheikh Anas Airout notes "some exceptional situations and unfortunately these are reactions to the horrors, the crimes and the atrocities that the regime keeps committing against our people." But he told CNN that the abuses are "totally unacceptable."
"For a year now, the Syrian opposition didn't resort to any unacceptable act against any pro-Assad civilian or even the soldiers who are killing our people. We encourage our free men to show mercy to our captives because we want to prove to the world that we are better than the Assad regime and we will always be. We do not want to repeat the regime's same mistakes. Saying that, we have to keep it in mind that when we see the killing machine of Assad and his thugs slaughtering our people every hour of the day and the whole world is sitting aside and watching, we know and we understand that there would be some elements who would commit such acts."
Free Syrian Army Lt. Riad Ahmed said a "few incidents are a drop in a bucket in comparison to what the regime is committing."
"The FSA have prisoners and we treat them based on the Geneva Convention. We know that our soldiers and our civilians, men, women and children are being tortured, beaten up and even killed by the Assad thugs," Ahmed said.
The opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said at least 52 people were killed across Syria Tuesday.
The Syrian regime launched new assaults on Homs province Tuesday, killing one of the first organizers in the Syrian uprising, an opposition group said.
Heavy shelling in the city of Homs claimed the life of 23-year-old Abdul Rahman Orfalli, the Homs Coordination Committee said. The group said Orfalli helped organize the first protests in the city last March.
He had been arrested twice and tortured during a five-month detainment before returning to Homs to lead demonstrations, the group said.
The LCC reported the discovery in Idlib province of three Free Syrian Army members who had been executed, each shot in the head. The group said the men also "had insults written on their bodies."
It also said the army stormed a field hospital in Idlib and killed three members of the medical staff.
U.N. Security Council members were expected to discuss Syria in closed session on Tuesday. They could support a "presidential statement" supporting the mission of Kofi Annan, the special joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria. U.N. presidential statements aren't legally binding, like resolutions, and require unanimous support.
A five-member U.N. team with expertise in politics, peacekeeping and mediation was in Syria, according to Eduardo del Buey, deputy spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general. The team will stay as long as it is making progress toward goals set by Annan, del Buey said.
The U.N. effort is viewed as an attempt to lure China and Russia -- two countries that have refused to formally condemn the Syrian regime -- to join others in pressuring Syria to cooperate with Annan, who met with al-Assad this month and laid out a series of proposals intended to end the crisis.

Russia and China have said they want an end to the violence but would not place the blame squarely on the regime. Both countries also have major trade ties with Syria.
Ban urged an end to violence by all sides, dialogue for a political solution and unhindered access for humanitarian aid workers.

U.N. officials say the Syrian crisis has killed more than 8,000 people, while opposition activists put the toll at more than 9,000 -- most of them civilians.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Christians mark beginning of fasting season today

Christians in Pakistan and around the world will observe the beginning of the Lenten season with Ash Wednesday today.

Ash Wednesday is observed as a sign of repentance of the whole community. The ashes are placed on the forehead by the priest with the Sign of the Cross and the words: Remember you are dust, and into dust you shall return.

“Those ashes are last year’s palms from Palm Sunday. They are burnt and ashes are made from them and then blessed,” he said. During Lent Christians are encouraged to fast, pray, give alms and seek repentance for their sins for forty days in order to prepare for Easter.

“The time of Lent is important for us because it gives time to us to change and become closer to God, the priest said. In his message for Lent 2012 on the Vatican website, Pope Benedict XVI states that “in a world which demands of Christians a renewed witness of love and fidelity to the Lord, may all of us feel the urgent need to anticipate one another in charity, service and good works.” Masses will be held in churches across the city at different timings to observe the day.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Landmark women’s bill clears last hurdle

The National Commission on the Status of Women Bill, 2012, was finally passed in Senate without a single note of dissent. The bill was tabled by Adviser to the Prime Minister on Human Rights Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar.
“The commission will be independent and will have autonomous status with full financial and administrative powers,” Khokhar said. “Its fundamental functions will be to examine policies, programmes and other measures taken by the government for gender equality.”
Chairman Senate congratulated all the members of Senate on the sixth consecutive landmark women-specific legislation passed by Parliament in the last two years.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani also congratulated members of both houses over the passage of the bill.
Efforts to have an autonomous body for women’s rights were first initiated over seven years ago by then chairperson of the National Commission on Status of Women Justice Majida Rizvi. However, due to unknown reasons, the bill could not be passed in Parliament for over seven years.
After the 18th Amendment, the women’s commission was selected to remain a national entity in view of Pakistan’s international commitments, while the women’s ministry was devolved to the provinces. In light of the 18th Amendment, a new bill was drafted by Senator Raza Rabbani and was presented to the prime minister and the cabinet on behalf of the implementation commission for the 18th Amendment. The bill was approved on June 29, 2011.
After it was tabled in the National Assembly on October 13, 2011, the Human Rights Committee was asked to review and improve it.
The bill was passed by the National Assembly on January 19, with some amendments proposed by the Opposition and treasury members.
The commission will:
• Assess implementation and make suitable recommendations to concerned authorities considered necessary for effective impact
• Review all laws, rules and regulations affecting the status and rights of women
• Suggest repeal, amendment or new legislation essential to eliminate discrimination
• Sponsor, steer and encourage research to generate information
• Conduct dialogue with non-governmental organisations, experts and individuals in society
• Help facilitate and monitor implementation of international instruments and obligations affecting adult and minor females to which Pakistan is a signatory