News & Current Affairs

December 25, 2008

Pope appeals for Mid-East peace

Pope appeals for Mid-East peace

Pope Benedict XVI has used his traditional Christmas Midnight Mass to call for an end to “hatred and violence” in the Middle East.

Addressing a huge congregation at the Vatican’s St Peter’s Basilica, he appealed for a new understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.

Thousands of pilgrims celebrated the start of Christmas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, amid tight security.

The Pope will deliver his Christmas Day message from St Peter’s later.

Appealing for new efforts to end the cycle of violence in the Middle East, Pope Benedict urged people to pray that “hearts will be opened, so borders will be opened”.

The 81-year-old pontiff plans to visit Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories next May, although final details of his trip have yet to be worked out.

Also in his homily, Pope Benedict appealed for an end to child abuse.

“Let us think of those street children who do not have the blessing of a family home, of those children who are brutally exploited as soldiers and made instruments of violence, instead of messengers of reconciliation and peace,” he said.

“Let us think of those children who are victims of the industry of pornography and every other appalling form of abuse, and thus are traumatised to the depths of their soul.

Children being blessed by Pope Benedict during Midnight Mass at St Peter's Basilica, Vatican

The Pope blessed a number of children in his congregation

As Midnight Mass began, Pope Benedict, dressed in white and gold-coloured vestments, walked up the main aisle of the flood-lit St Peter’s Basilica, smiling and stopping several times to shake outstretched hands and bless children.

For those unable to enter, giant screens were set up in St Peter’s Square.

Most of the world’s 2.1 billion Christians mark Christmas this week.

Others, chiefly from among the 200 million Orthodox Christians who use the Julian Calendar for their feast days, celebrate the Nativity on 7 January.

Across the world, believers have been attending Christmas church services and, in some countries, families gathered for a traditional festive dinner at midnight on Christmas Eve.

‘Explosion of love’

There was a heavy security presence in the West Bank town of Bethlehem as thousands of Christian pilgrims celebrated the start of Christmas.

Bethlehem is like the soul of the universe
Stefano Croce
Italian fashion photographer

Among those who attended the service in Bethlehem, which Christians believe is the birthplace of Jesus, were about 200 worshippers from the Gaza Strip whom Israel granted special permission to make the journey.

Extra Palestinian security personnel were deployed to Bethlehem from the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Jericho to safeguard visitors.

Correspondents in the town met elated pilgrims, gathering around nightfall outside the Church of the Nativity, considered the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

A dozen believers from India, Canada, Britain, the US and other countries sung impromptu renditions of Christmas carols, the Associated Press reported.

US citizen David Bogenrief, 57, played the trumpet, telling a gaggle of local children who were listening: “Jesus was the prince of peace, and he can bring that peace to you. We pray for you.”

In Manger Square, vendors sold roasted peanuts and Santa Claus hats to the crowds, among whom were some local Muslims out enjoying the annual international fuss over their town.

Correspondents say a relative lull in violence in the Middle East seems to have encouraged pilgrims to return to the “Holy Land”.

“Bethlehem is like the soul of the universe, and it’s like an explosion of love here,” said Italian fashion photographer Stefano Croce, 46.

In his traditional Christmas Day “Urbi et Orbi” speech – Latin for “to the city and to the world” – from the balcony of St Peter’s, Pope Benedict is expected to touch on current events and issues of concern to the Vatican.

He will then issue Christmas greetings to the faithful in more than 60 languages.

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 7, 2008

Bush chides Beijing over rights

Bush chides Beijing over rights

US President George W Bush has expressed “deep concerns” over China’s human rights record in a speech on the eve of the Beijing Olympics.

“The US believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings,” he said in the Thai capital Bangkok.

He praised China’s economy but said only respect for human rights would let it realise its full potential.

Mr Bush has been criticised by some campaigners for going to the Games.

He was due to fly to Beijing following the speech in Bangkok, a stop on his final trip to Asia before he leaves office in January.

The wide-ranging address, which included criticism of the regime in Burma, was more nuanced than Mr Bush’s past speeches on China.

It is unlikely to cause much offence in China, our correspondent says, and many people will see it more as a valedictory speech for Mr Bush’s record in Asia rather than an outline of future US policy.

‘Firm opposition’

President Bush said he was optimistic about China’s future and said change in China would arrive “on its own terms”.

Young people who grow up with the freedom to trade goods will ultimately demand the freedom to trade ideas…
George W Bush
US president

But his criticisms of China’s human rights record were clear.

“America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists,” he said.

When it was controversially awarded the games in 2001 by the International Olympic Committee, Beijing promised to make improvements in human rights, media freedoms and the provision of health and education.

But campaigners, such as Amnesty International, say Chinese activists have been jailed, people made homeless, journalists detained and websites blocked, while there has been increased use of labour camps and prison beatings.

In March, China suppressed violent anti-government protests in Tibet. Beijing said rioters killed at least 19 people, but Tibetan exiles said security forces killed dozens of protesters in the worst unrest in Tibet for 20 years.

The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled Buddhist leader, rejected Beijing’s claims he was behind the riots and said he expressed good wishes for the success of Games.

On Thursday, at least 1,500 Buddhists were holding a protest in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu against what they called China’s violation of religious freedom in Tibet. Correspondents say there have been scuffles with police.

In Beijing, police dragged away three US Christians who tried to demonstrate on Tiananmen Square in support of religious freedom.

Four pro-Tibet activists from Britain and the US were arrested and held briefly in the city on Wednesday after a protest close to the Olympic stadium.

Burma refugees

In his address, Mr Bush said the US recognised that the growth sparked by China’s free market reforms was “good for the Chinese people” and the country’s’ purchasing power was “good for the world”.

On foreign policy, he commended China’s “critical leadership role” in the negotiations to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, and the “constructive relationship” between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan.

He also called for an end to what he described as tyranny in Thailand’s neighbour, Burma.

Friday’s Olympic opening ceremony coincides with the 20th anniversary of a democracy uprising in Burma, which was crushed by the military.

First lady Laura Bush flew to the Thai-Burmese border to spend the day at the Mae La refugee camp where about 35,000 refugees live, having fled their homes.

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