News & Current Affairs

February 20, 2010

Dutch cabinet collapses in dispute over Afghanistan

Dutch cabinet collapses in dispute over Afghanistan

A Dutch soldier in Afghanistan

Dutch forces have been in Uruzgan since 2006

The Dutch government has collapsed over disagreements within the governing coalition on extending troop deployments in Afghanistan.

After marathon talks, Christian Democratic Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende announced that the Labour Party was quitting the government.

He offered his government’s resignation to Queen Beatrix in a telephone call.

The premier had been considering a Nato request for Dutch forces to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2010.

But Labour, the second-largest coalition party, has opposed the move.

Just under 2,000 Dutch service personnel have been serving in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan since 2006, with 21 killed.

Their deployment has already been extended once.

Where there is no trust, it is difficult to work together
Jan Peter Balkenende

The troops should have returned home in 2008, but they stayed on because no other Nato nation offered replacements.

The commitment is now due to end in August 2010.

The Dutch parliament voted in October 2009 that it must definitely stop by then, although the government has yet to endorse that vote.

Mr Balkenende’s centre-right Christian Democrats wanted to agree to Nato’s request to extend the Dutch presence in Afghanistan.

But this was bitterly opposed by the Dutch Labour Party.

The finance minister and leader of the Labour Party, Wouter Bos, demanded an immediate ruling from Mr Balkenende.

When they failed to reach a compromise, Labour said it was pulling out of the coalition.

Nato priority

Mr Balkenende said he would offer the cabinet’s resignation to the Dutch Queen Beatrix later on Saturday following the collapse of the government.

It was announced after a 16-hour cabinet meeting which ran into the early hours of Saturday morning.

The prime minister said there was no common ground between the parties.

“Where there is no trust, it is difficult to work together. There is no good path to allow this cabinet to go further,” he said.

The launch in 2001 of Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) for Afghanistan was the organisation’s first and largest ground operation outside Europe.

Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said six months ago when he began his job that his priority was the war in Afghanistan.

As of October 2009, Isaf had more than 71,000 personnel from 42 different countries including the US, Canada, European countries, Australia, Jordan and New Zealand.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende

Mr Balkenende had been considering the Nato request

The US provides the bulk of foreign forces in Afghanistan, and President Barack Obama has announced an extra 30,000 American troops for Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has said the next 18 months could prove crucial for the international mission in Afghanistan, after more than eight years of efforts to stabilise the country.

Afghanistan remains a deadly place for foreign forces.

Suicide attacks on Afghan civilians and roadside bomb strikes on international troops are common, with the Taliban strongly resurgent in many areas of the country.

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September 17, 2008

Hopes ride high on Zimbabwe deal

Hopes ride high on Zimbabwe deal

Woman carries shopping in Harare

Morgan Tsvangirai may have persuaded Robert Mugabe to sign over some of his executive powers but Zimbabwe’s prime minister-designate now has a very short honeymoon period to prove himself.

The BBC is still operating under restrictions in Zimbabwe, but what reactions we have been able to gather show that large numbers of people believe Mr Tsvangarai can deliver and start the process of re-building a shattered economy.

It stands in stark contrast to the more sceptical assessment of many in the diplomatic community.

We want to see people no longer afraid to walk down the street with an MDC T-shirt – no longer afraid to look a policeman in the eye
James McGee
US ambassador to Zimbabwe

They want this deal to work, but the “vintage Mugabe” who blamed his country’s ills on former colonial powers during his post-deal speech, suggests a man locked in the past and unwilling to face up to the future.

As one diplomat said, the challenge will be to “turn what could be a trap for Morgan into an ambush for Mugabe” – a sentiment revealing deep concerns about just how committed the man who has run Zimbabwe for nearly three decades is to power-sharing.

‘We have to believe’

In a squatter camp on the edge of Harare, a man in his 20s who lost his job as a gardener when the money to pay him ran out, said they had no other choice but to have faith in this new beginning.

Hospital in Harare

Zimbabwe’s hospitals are suffering because of the economic crisis

He is pinning his hopes on the new unity government delivering food, and a stable economic environment which would improve his chances of getting a job and restoring his dignity.

And young professionals, who spoke in secret locations away from the prying eyes of intelligence operatives, said they believed Mr Tsvangirai had the capacity to hold his ground against his former political foe.

Articulate and measured, young men from Zimbabwe’s Christian Student Association said Zimbabweans need the watchful eyes of the international community to monitor events in the coming months.

One implored potential donors to “believe in a deal which we have to believe in” if there is to be any hope of rehabilitating this once prosperous nation.

Culture of intimidation

We’ve only gleaned a partial picture.

With the security situation still precarious, it has been hard to gauge reaction in rural areas where Mr Mugabe has drawn much of his support.

MDC supporters in Harare

MDC supporters believe their leader can deliver a stable economy

But there are without doubt people who are smarting. People who were in the pay of the party, whose lifestyle of political patronage is now under threat.

Intelligence and security chiefs were absent from Monday’s historic signing in ceremony.

Whether their boycott signals plans to undermine the deal is impossible to know at this early stage, but diplomats are monitoring the environment carefully.

Tangible signs that the culture of intimidation is being reversed will be one of the benchmarks they will use to determine if, and when, to deliver billions of dollars of life-saving aid.

As James McGee, the US ambassador to Zimbabwe, put it: “When we talk about respect for human rights we want to see people no longer afraid to walk down the street with an MDC T-shirt – no longer afraid to look a policeman in the eye… those are the little things that show there has been a change in attitude.”

Expectations high

Driving around the streets of Harare gives the impression of a benign capital, a place where the streets are paved and the buildings stand tall. But it is a facade.

Inside the hospitals there are shortages of medicine – many people have died from cholera recently, deprived of drugs.

Zimbabwe's capital Harare

Behind the facade of modern Harare there are acute shortages

And the banks are stuffed with worthless cash. It is not unusual to see plastic bags stuffed with notes that have no value, discarded on the street.

Expectations that this deal will begin to reverse some of this economic chaos are riding high.

Mr Tsvangirai’s first test will be his ability to secure key cabinet posts.

In particular in the finance portfolio, giving the MDC greater leverage over the economy, allowing the government to shape policies that restore property rights and market mechanisms back to Zimbabwe.

The next test will be getting food out to the desperate people who need it and clearing the red tape that prevents humanitarian agencies from distributing aid.

Food has been used by Mr Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party as a political cattle-prod – they’ve ensured it reaches friends, but withheld it from foes.

If the new prime minister can make real headway in distributing food to a country facing the threat of starvation, then he could reap a huge moral dividend which the international community may be willing to reward.

Like the power sharing deal in Kenya, this is a huge political experiment dependent on the personalities of the key players and the political will to change.

There is the potential for the whole thing to combust, a scenario which would see the end of Morgan Tsvangirai’s political career.

But optimists believe that Zimbabwe’s landmark pact, will be the catalyst that breathes new life into a broken country.

September 10, 2008

The white priestess of ‘black magic’

The white priestess of ‘black magic’

Bent double by age, the high-priestess of Nigeria’s Yoruba spirit-world shuffles forward from under the trees, reaching out a white, blotchy hand in welcome.

Susanne Wenger and her adopted daughter Doyin Faniyi

Mrs Wenger resurrected the traditions of the river-god Osun

Half a lifetime ago, Susanne Wenger dedicated herself to reviving the traditions of the pre-Christian Yoruba gods, “the orishas”, and left Austria to make Nigeria her home.

The frail 94-year-old artist, with one seeing eye, has been a driving force in Osogbo town, where she is in charge of the sacred grove, a place where spirits of the river and trees are said to live.

In an upstairs room of her house, surrounded by carved wooden figures of the gods, she receives well-wishers and devotees, who she blesses in fluent Yoruba.

When she arrived here, she found traditional culture in abeyance, all but destroyed by missionaries who branded it “black magic” or “juju”, a word Mrs Wenger reviles.

Friends paint a picture of a dedicated, tough and far-sighted leader who has helped revive a culture thought destroyed by Christian and Muslim evangelists, and secured protection for one of the Yoruba tradition’s most sacred sites.

But she is very humble about her achievements.

Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove Festival

“Osogbo is a creative place, it is that by itself, it didn’t need me,” she says.

Followers say she has channeled the river-god Osun into her body, learning the knowledge of pre-Christian deities like no other European has ever done.

Orisha worship is a controversial belief. In the past it involved human sacrifice and there are rumours that still happens at secret shrines elsewhere in the country.

Devotees of the orishas can worship either good or evil gods in order to get what they want.

But thanks to Mrs Wenger, the town’s annual festival of Osun has grown in size and popularity and thousands of Yorubas come every August to renew their dedication to the river-god.

Sacrifice

Mrs Wenger arrived in Nigeria in 1950 with her then husband, the linguist Ulli Beier and traveled widely in south-western Nigeria.

Sangodare Gbadegesin Ajala
Maybe you can call Susanne our saviour
Sangodare Gbadegesin Ajala

In 1957, she fell ill with tuberculosis in an epidemic in which many thousands died.

Friend Ajani Adigun Davies says Mrs Wenger believes the illness was a kind of sacrifice, in return for the knowledge she was receiving about the gods.

“The Yoruba beliefs all depend on sacrifice, that you must give something of value to get something of value, you must suffer pain to gain knowledge,” he says.

In her early years in Nigeria she met Adjagemo, a high-priest of creator-god Obatala.

“He took me by the hand and led me into the spirit world,” Mrs Wenger told a French documentary maker in 2005.

“I did not speak Yoruba, and he did not speak English, our only intercourse was the language of the trees.”

She divorced her husband and moved in with Adjagemo in Osogbo, where she resolved to live for the rest of her life.

Mrs Wenger believes that the spirit world has long been neglected by Western culture, and spirits can appear to anyone as long as they are willing to accept them.

“You need special eyes to see them,” she says.

Traditions

Enemies in churches and mosques have tried to smash her sculptures of deities and burn down the forest that shelters them.

But artist Sangodare Gbadegesin Ajala, Mrs Wenger’s adopted son, says many local people accepted her eagerly.

Ajani Adigun Davies
Susanne’s knowledge of the behaviour and character of all the deities means she has actually become Yoruba now
Former curator Ajani Adigun Davies

“Maybe you can call Susanne our saviour,” says Mr Ajala, now the high-priest of Sango, the lightning-god.

“Was Christ an African? Muhammad was an Arabian. Why can’t our saviour be European?”

The first time he met her was the day of his initiation into the cult of Sango, when he was 11.

His father was an unapologetic devotee of the old gods, and refused to let his child be baptised or go to schools run by Christians or Muslims.

But Mr Ajala wanted to learn to read, and he thought a white woman would let him.

“I saw some children reading books, and I wanted to be able to go to school to read these stories.”

But six months after he moved in with Mrs Wenger, he asked her if he could go to school.

“She shouted: ‘No! you cannot go to school, they will turn you into a Christian and your life will be over!'” he remembers.

Mr Ajala is still illiterate, but has a deep knowledge about the traditions of Yoruba spirit gods and says his adopted mother has made him see how important it is that Yoruba traditions have been preserved.

Yet he is now working to build a school where children can go and receive an education and also learn about the traditions of the orishas.

‘Tug of war’

Mrs Wenger’s ideas about the preservation of the forest have become central to the survival of the traditional beliefs.

Mr Adigun Davies, a former curator with the government museums directorate who first met Mrs Wenger in 1989, says the battle to save the grove was a “tug of war”.

He recalls her lying down in the path of a bulldozer brought by a man who bought the grove from a relative of a traditional leader and wanted to build a house on the land.

“It’s a disgrace to the Yoruba that the person who came to save our culture was a European,” he says.

“But Susanne’s knowledge of the behaviour and character of all the deities means she has actually become Yoruba now.”

September 9, 2008

Why the fascination with the end of the world?

Why the fascination with the end of the world?

Artists impression of asteroid hitting earth, placard and mushroom cloud from French nuclear test

A huge particle accelerator experiment is about to start and a tiny group of people believe it could spell the end of the world. But why are we so obsessed with the possibility of apocalypse?

The world will end. That much is a certainty. But it may not be soon. And in all probability it will not come to a shuddering, fiery, boiling, cataclysmic end on Wednesday this week.

THE LARGE HADRON COLLIDER
At Cern on French-Swiss border
One of biggest and most expensive experiments in human history
Critics say micro black holes could be created, that could swallow the earth
Cern says any black holes will evaporate quickly and harmlessly
Effects will be less than cosmic ray collisions in atmosphere
LHC collisions could shed light on creation of universe
First beam on Wednesday
First collision later in year
Action ongoing at European Court of Human Rights to stop experiments
LHC Kritiks lead opposition

That is when the Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss/French border has its first full beam. The collider is a giant particle accelerator which, by smashing one particle into another, will tell us amazing things about the birth of the universe, scientists hope.

But there are a small but significant group of naysayers who worry that the LHC is not 100% safe. Opponents say it is possible the collider could produce micro black holes and dangerous “strangelets”, and that catastrophic effects from these cannot be ruled out.

In this worst case scenario the earth could very well have had its chips.

However, the consensus of physicists is that the collider is perfectly harmless. Micro black holes would vanish almost instantaneously.

But when you see a headline in a newspaper that says “Are we all going to die next Wednesday?”, one can’t help but wonder at our fascination with the idea of the end of the world.

FAILED PREDICTIONS
Jehovah’s Witnesses have predicted end several times, but have stopped
Millerites predicted end of world for 22 October 1844 – day known to followers as Great Disappointment
Edgar C Whisenant wrote 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988 – followed up with predictions for 1989, 1993, and 1994
Argentinian goalie Carlos Roa gave up football in anticipation of end of world in 2000
Hal Lindsey in 1970’s The Late, Great Planet Earth linked end of world to the EU

Whether you refer to it as eschatology (religious theory of the end of the world), millenarianism, end time belief, apocalypticism, or disaster scenario, it is one of humanity’s most powerful ideas, and it goes way back.

“It is a very ancient pattern in human thought. It is rooted in ancient, even pre-biblical Middle Eastern myths of ultimate chaos and ultimate struggle between the forces of order and chaos,” says cultural historian Paul S Boyer, author of When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture.

“It is deeply appealing at a psychological level because the idea of meaninglessness is deeply threatening. Human societies have always tried to create some kind of framework of meaning to give history and our own personal lives some kind of significance.”

And although end of the world thinking crops up in many religions, those in the West are probably most aware of Christian eschatology. In the early days of the church it was taken as a given by many believers that the Second Coming and the end of the world were imminent.

Child holds placard

The concept of the world ending is key to mainstream Christianity

Mainstream Christianity moved away from this type of thought, but large numbers of believers returned to it at various times.

“It isn’t just the lunatic fringe, it’s an integral part of all Christianity. But [in mainstream Christianity] it is put into perspective that it may happen ‘one day’,” says Stephen J Hunt, a sociologist of religion and author of Christian Millenarianism: From the Early Church to Waco.

“But certain groups and movements believe it is in their generation. They are saying we have got the truth and nobody else has.”

Cataclysmic scenarios

There have been many groups that have predicted the end of the world, or Tribulation, or Rapture, dealt with it not coming to pass and then issued new ones.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have issued predictions about cataclysmic scenarios that have manifestly failed to come to pass, only ceasing predictions of the end in recent years. Failed predictions seem not to have alienated core believers. Indeed, it is denied by some that specific predictions – as opposed to speculation based on scripture – have ever been made.

RELIGIOUS AND SECULAR
“End of world” concepts include:
Destruction of planet
Extinction of human race
Significant change in situation of human race
Secular scenarios include:
Catastrophic climate change
Asteroid or comet strike
Massive nuclear war
Destabilisation of earth or moon orbit
Religious scenarios include:
Islam refers to “last judgement”
Some Buddhists believe in disappearance of Buddha’s teachings
Christian end of world linked to second coming of Jesus
Hindus believe in cycle of ages
Zoroastrians may have had first codified end of world theory

No such luck applied to the 19th Century Millerite sect, led by William Miller. He didn’t just predict the end would be soon. He nailed the day – 22 October 1844. As the day neared the sect’s popularity snowballed, with thousands of newspapers sold. Only one thing was able to derail the movement’s popularity – the safe and unexpected arrival of 23 October 1844. The failure of the world to end was known as the “Great Disappointment” and followers left in droves.

“The current prophecy popularisers are much shrewder,” says Prof Boyer. “They say no man knoweth the day or the hour, but it’s coming soon.”

Carlos Roa thought he kneweth the hour. The Argentinian goalkeeper, best known for his penalty heroics against England in the 1998 World Cup, refused to countenance a new contract at Real Mallorca as the year 2000 approached because he believed the world was going to end and he needed to prepare. When it didn’t he was soon donning the gloves back in Mallorca.

And for all it is easy to mock those who have tried and failed, thinking about the ways the world might end, or the timing, may be fulfilling a basic human need.

Edition of The End is Nigh

Eschatology is of interest to both academics and curiosity hunters

“It comes down to an issue of power,” says Michael Molcher, editor of the magazine The End is Nigh. “What you get during times of particular discontent or war or famine or during general bad times is a rise in apocalyptic preaching and ideas.

“It is a way for people to control the way their world works. The one thing we can never predict is the time and manner of our own deaths.”

The great periods of millenarianism – Europe around the year 1000, the English Civil War, the Industrial Revolution on both sides of the Atlantic, and the 20th Century – have been periods of intense turbulence. Putting an eschatological spin on current events is extremely tempting.

“A lot of fundamentalists are what we call ‘sign watching’. If there’s another tornado in Florida it must be a punishment,” says Dr Hunt.

Sometimes the links to the temporal world can be tortuous to say the least. A common theme on the fringes of Christian millenarianism is a revived Roman Empire led by the Antichrist and consisting of 10 European nations. The theme is drawn out from the description of a beast with 10 horns in the book of Revelation.

THE TERMINOLOGY
Eschatology: Religious theory of the end of the world
Millenarianism: In Christianity, belief in coming of thousand year golden age linked with second coming of Christ
Apocalypticism: Belief based on end of present world order
End time: The end of the world or the end of the current age

It was historically linked to the EU, but now there are 27 members attention has shifted to the 10-nation Western European Union.

And these end times beliefs seem easily to find their way into popular culture. The Left Behind series of novels have sold millions and cinema-goers have happily trooped in to see three instalments of the Omen.

But it is wrong to say that belief that the world could be about to end is entirely confined to religious people. When the Cold War was going on, the likely culprit was nuclear weapons, at the moment it might be a catastrophic climate change scenario that leaves the world intact, but humanity gone. And Mr Molcher’s favourite prediction of recent years involved a woman who was convinced that Chinese plans to build a base on the moon would throw its orbit out and send it hurtling towards earth.

Seventh Day Adventist next to poster for exhibition on the end of the world

Many religious groups have made more than one prediction

And end of the world believers, whether religious or not, have one thing going for them. The world will, one day, end.

And there are still plenty willing to name a date.

Preacher Ronald Weinland’s book 2008 – God’s Final Witness, predicts that the US will be destroyed within two years.

Sadly anybody wanting to find out more by e-mail receives an automated response. One can only assume he is too busy preparing for the end that is nigh.


Send us your comments

September 7, 2008

Church obsessed with gays – Tutu

Church obsessed with gays – Tutu

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Archbishop Tutu said tackling poverty was key to global security

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has accused the Anglican church of allowing its “obsession” with homosexuality to come before real action on world poverty.

“God is weeping” to see such a focus on sexuality and the Church is “quite rightly” seen by many as irrelevant on the issue of poverty, he said.

It may be good to “accept that we agree to differ” on the gay issue, he said.

Archbishop Tutu was addressing a conference of church leaders organized by the Christian charity Tearfund.

The Church says its work on poverty tends to be overlooked.

The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, John Packer, said that apart from the government, the Church of England was the biggest provider of social services at home.

The Anglican Communion was also a major contributor to international projects such as Make Poverty History and the Millennium Development Goals, he said.

Tutu: ‘I am ashamed of homophobia’ in the Church

More than 600 Anglicans marched through London in July to draw attention to the increasing danger that the goals – which include eradicating extreme poverty by 2015 – will not be met.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown told them that millions of people owed the Anglican Communion a debt of gratitude for upholding the cause of the poor.

Archbishop Tutu told the conference in London that the Anglican Church was ideally placed to tackle poverty because of its presence at the heart of communities in the UK and overseas.

However, he said he sometimes felt ashamed of his fellow Anglicans as they focussed obsessively on trying to resolve their disagreement about homosexuality while 30,000 people died each day because of poverty.

“We really will not be able to win wars against so-called terror as long as there are conditions that make people desperate, and poverty, disease and ignorance are amongst the chief culprits,” he said.

‘Totally irrelevant’

“We seem to be engaging in this kind of, almost, past-time [while] there’s poverty, hunger, disease, corruption.

“I must imagine that God is weeping, and the world quite rightly should dismiss the Church in those cases as being totally irrelevant.”

Archbishop Tutu accused some of his fellow Anglicans of going against the teaching of Jesus in their treatment of homosexual people by “persecuting the already persecuted”.

The South African Nobel peace laureate said traditionalists were wrong to suggest that gay people had chosen homosexuality and the dispute had to be kept in proportion.

It will be good for us obviously, to resolve our differences on this, and maybe accept that we agree to differ
Archbishop Desmond Tutu

“It will be good for us obviously, to resolve our differences on this, and maybe accept that we agree to differ,” he said.

For the Anglican Communion, that is more easily said than done.

Traditionalists suspect that the call for an end to discussions about homosexuality is designed to allow liberal developments to go unchallenged.

Others, including Bishop John Packer, insist that the Church must have a sexual ethic – a sense of what is right and wrong in sexual behaviour.

Most agree that only by staying united will it continue to exercise real influence on the world stage.

August 17, 2008

US rivals try to woo Christians

US rivals try to woo Christians

John McCain (left), Rick Warren (centre) and Barack Obama

The pair have contrasting approaches to discussing their faith

US presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama have been trying to woo Christian voters at a televised religious forum in California.

The two men shared a stage for the first time since securing nomination.

Speaking first, Mr Obama defended his support for abortion and same-sex civil unions, but said marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

Republican John McCain affirmed he was pro-life and that he strongly supported preserving the status of marriage.

The forum, hosted by US pastor Rick Warren, was the senators’ last joint appearance before their official nomination as the candidates for November’s presidential election at their respective party conventions in a few weeks.

Three debates are scheduled to take place after the Democrat and Republican conventions.

Moral failure

Mr Warren is best known for building Saddleback Church into a 20,000-member “mega-church” in Lake Forest, southern California, and for writing The Purpose-Driven Life.

At the beginning of the first hour-long interview, Mr Obama told the pastor that America’s greatest moral failure was its insufficient help to the disadvantaged.

The Democratic candidate noted that the Bible had quoted Jesus as saying: “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me.”

He said the maxim should apply to victims of poverty, sexism and racism.

Mr Obama also reaffirmed his belief that marriage should only be a “union between a man and a woman”, although he also defended his support for same-sex civil unions and for the granting of similar rights to same-sex partners.

If he were president, he said he would not support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage because the issue was one for state governments to decide.

On abortion, Mr Obama stressed he remained pro-choice and that he believed in the “Roe vs Wade” Supreme Court ruling supporting it.

However, he did say that he would seek to reduce the number of late-term abortions and unwanted pregnancies.

‘Pro-life president’

Mr McCain was asked similar questions by Mr Warren. When asked about America’s greatest moral shortcoming, he responded by saying that its citizens had failed to “devote ourselves to causes greater than our self-interests”.

Appearing to criticize President George W Bush, Mr McCain said that after 11 September 2001 there should have been a push to encourage people to join the army, Peace Corps and other voluntary organizations, rather than an official call to “go shopping”.

When asked about his stance on abortion, the Republican candidate declared he opposed abortion “from the moment of conception”.

“I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies. That’s my commitment to you,” he said to applause.

Mr McCain also said he supported preserving “the unique status of marriage between a man and a woman” and that he was against the decision taken in some states to allow same-sex marriages.

“That doesn’t mean people can’t enter into legal agreements. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have the right of all citizens,” he said.

Conservative Christians form about one-quarter of the US electorate. They largely support the Republican Party, but have not shown great enthusiasm for Mr McCain.

He identifies himself as Baptist and has made a strong appeal to social conservatives and evangelical Christians during his campaign.

But he rarely discusses his faith. Earlier this year he said: “I’m unashamed and unembarrassed about my deep faith in God. But I do not obviously try to impose my views on others.”

The Illinois senator, a Christian, has made a point of discussing his religion on the campaign trail and has been courting religious voters with a presence on Christian radio and blogs, and other events.


Are you are Christian voter in the US? Which candidate has impressed you the most? Send us your views and experiences

August 14, 2008

Philippine displaced begin return

Philippine displaced begin return

A family sit at an evacuation centre in Pikit town on 13 August 2008

Tens of thousands of families were forced to leave their homes

Troops defused a bomb at a bus station in the southern Philippines, as people displaced by fighting between troops and Muslim rebels began to return home.

About 160,000 villagers fled violence which began in early August, after a deal expanding a Muslim autonomous zone was blocked.

Separatist rebels then occupied several villages in North Cotabato province, triggering a military assault.

Operations ended a day ago, and troops are encouraging families to return.

“We expect a considerable number of people to return home today. Since late Wednesday they were slowly going back, we are assuring them of their safety,” an army spokesman, Lt-Col Julieto Ando, was quoted as saying.

But many people still feared for the lives and were reluctant to return, aid agencies said.

Early on Thursday, security personnel defused a bomb planted at a bus station at Kidapawan town in the center of the province.

A military spokesman said it was probably a retaliatory measure by the retreating rebels.

‘Tainted relationship’

A boy salvages belongings from the ashes of his home in Takepan, North Cotabato province, on Tuesday, after it was razed by retreating rebels

The violence began when a deal that would have expanded an existing Muslim autonomous zone in the south fell apart.

The agreement had angered many Christian communities, who appealed to the Supreme Court to block it pending further hearings.

Several hundred guerrillas from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) then occupied 15 villages in North Cotabato – next to the autonomous zone.

The action triggered military air strikes and artillery assaults. At least two soldiers and more than two dozen rebels were killed.

Some of the tens of thousands of families who fled the fighting are now beginning to make their way back.

map

“The security situation has improved but it will probably take a bit of time before people feel secure enough to return home en masse,” Stephen Anderson, country director for the World Food Programme (WFP), told Reuters news agency.

“We have to be looking ahead to people having to potentially rebuild their lives – a lot of houses, villages have been destroyed.”

One local resident, whose house was looted, told the French news agency AFP that ties between Muslim and Christian communities would have to be rebuilt.

“The relationship has been tainted but our brother Muslims agreed we can rebuild it for the sake of our children.”

MILF rebels have been fighting for greater autonomy in the southern Philippines for almost four decades.

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