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.

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September 18, 2008

Jews lose hold on Antwerp diamond trade

Jews lose hold on Antwerp diamond trade

There used to be tens of thousands of diamond cutters in the Belgian port of Antwerp. Now there are only a few hundred.

A Jewish diamond cutter in Antwerp

Traditional methods are coming under threat from globalisation

It is within the city’s Jewish community that most of the jobs have been lost – particularly among the Hasidic Jews who adhere strictly to religious laws.

Out of about 2,000 Hasidic families in Antwerp, 1,000 are now headed by a man who has no job.

Unemployment of 50% would cause great hardship among any group of people. But for Hasidic Jews it brings special problems.

Women do not usually work – they raise large families, with nine children on average – and the children are often given private religious education.

Jobs move abroad

In fact, diamonds still make a lot of money in Antwerp – but it is shared among a small elite.

Setting up as an independent dealer has become almost impossible.

But Alan Majerczyk, a director of the Antwerp Diamond Bourse, denies there is any prejudice against any particular group.

“It’s a multi-racial environment and we all get along well – it’s an example to the outside world,” he says.

“Like any other industry, we couldn’t afford to pay the heavy labor costs in Europe, so the polishing moved to India and China, but at a certain stage the goods come back. Antwerp gets 80% of all the rough trade and 50% of the polished diamonds.”

Africa, too, has taken some of Antwerp’s jobs. Nations where diamonds are mined, like Botswana, now insist the lucrative cutting process is also done within the country.

The use of lasers to cut the diamonds has also reduced the number of jobs.

Most of the Jews who work in the diamond trade are self-employed, which allows them to observe the Sabbath and religious holidays.

Nowadays, though, the industry is increasingly dominated by huge businesses like de Beers, which made nearly $500m (£280m) profit last year.

Some of the Jewish men who have been left without work are now starting to retrain in other professions.

Sam Friedman believes it is vital for men from his Hasidic community to gain new skills, and so he offers them night classes in accounting, languages and computers.

“Training and education are very important for the Hasidic people to get a job, because in the Jewish schools they only learn about Jewish law and Jewish history but not about general things,” he says.

“So it’s very important after religious school to train some more so that you can find a job.”

Cultural clash

Even among other Orthodox, non-Hasidic Jews, there is a major debate over education.

Tradition-minded parents often do not let their children go to university, partly for fear that its secular environment will taint their religious beliefs.

Marcel Engelstein is a successful businessman in Antwerp who believes the changes in the diamond industry present an opportunity for positive change.

Alan Majerczyk, a director of the Antwerp Diamond Bourse

Alan Majerczyk says Antwerp still has a future in diamonds

“We have here a community connected to Israel – which has developed a lot of hi-tech businesses. We can use our brain power to bring the companies here,” says Mr Engelstein.

“The Hasidic and Orthodox people are using their brains all the time when they are learning the Talmud [religious law and history].

“So it’s very easy to teach them new things. They need a bit of guidance and a bit of will power, of course, but I think we can really get them to do that.”

Some people already have learned new skills – like Daniel Verner, a young man who is making a name for himself locally as an architect.

His father used to work in diamonds and his brothers still do. But he decided to go to university and then set up his own business.

“Twenty years ago people would proclaim you crazy for not going into diamonds, and today it’s just the opposite,” he says.

“When people try to look for jobs outside diamonds they gain respect, because everybody knows the situation is much more difficult today than it was back then.”

Mr Verner believes that loosening the links between the Jewish community and the diamond trade will transform the society.

“Everybody is going to have a different life, different schedules and different interests, so even when we talk together it’s going to be on different subjects. For sure it’s going to change,” he says.

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