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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November 18, 2008

UK minister in Damascus meeting

UK minister in Damascus meeting

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband talks to reporters on arrival in Damascus

Mr Miliband wants Syria to play a role in Middle East peace-building

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband is holding talks with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The visit, the first to Damascus by a top-level British official since 2001, is part of a tour that includes Israel, the West Bank and Lebanon.

Mr Miliband told that Syria had a role to play as a force for stability in the Middle East.

The visit is the latest in a run of exchanges between Syria and European nations aimed at easing tense ties.

It comes a month after Mr Miliband met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in London for talks.

‘Understanding’

Building mutual understanding between the UK and Syria was important, Mr Miliband told .

“Syria has a big potential role to play in stability in the Middle East – it can be a force for stability or it can be a force for instability,” he said.

“Over the last 18 months I’ve been talking with the Syrian foreign minister about her (Syria’s) responsibilities in the region, in respect of terrorism, in respect of Iraq, in respect of the Middle East peace process, and we’ve got the chance now to take those discussions further forward.”

Mr Miliband will meet the Syrian president and other top officials on Tuesday morning, before flying on to Lebanon.

Syria has faced diplomatic isolation since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, even though it denies any role in the killing.

It has also been shunned by the US because of its ties with Iran, the Palestinian group Hamas and the Lebanese Shia political and militant movement Hezbollah.

But European nations, led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, are now initiating steps to bring Syria back into the international fold, arguing that engagement is the way forward.

On Monday David Milliband visited Israel and the West Bank for talks with top leaders.

He called on both Israelis and Palestinians to maintain the five-month-old ceasefire in Gaza, following recent outbreaks of violence that have triggered an Israeli blockade of the territory.

September 18, 2008

Livni wins Israel party primary

Livni wins Israel party primary

Tzipi Livni after casting her vote on Wednesday

Critics have accused Tzipi Livni of lacking political experience

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has won the leadership of the governing Kadima party, putting her on track to succeed Ehud Olmert as prime minister.

Ms Livni beat Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz by just 431 votes, or 1.1%, the central electoral commission said.

In a victory speech, Ms Livni announced that she wanted to form a new cabinet “as quickly as possible in the face of the serious threats” facing Israel.

She has 42 days to do so, during which time Mr Olmert remains prime minister.

He announced he would step down in July after facing growing pressure over multiple corruption investigations.

The senior Palestinian Authority negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said he hoped the result would lead to a return to stability.

‘Great reverence’

Correspondent in Jerusalem says that for much of Wednesday night, Ms Livni’s supporters in the Kadima party cheered at what they believed had been an emphatic victory, predicted by a series of exit polls on Israeli TV.

KADIMA PRIMARY RESULTS
Tzipi Livni: 43.1% (16,936 votes)
Shaul Mofaz: 42% (16,505)
Meir Sheetrit: 8.4% (3,327)
Avi Dichter: 6.5% (2,563)

Mr Olmert phoned his foreign minister to congratulate her and promise his full co-operation after she appeared on track to win with about 48% of the vote. Then the balloon slowly deflated as the results rolled in, our correspondent says.

According to the final results released by Kadima, Ms Livni won the election with 43.1%, or 16,936 votes. Mr Mofaz, a former defence minister and chief of staff of the Israeli military, came in a close second with 42%, or 16,505 votes.

The two other candidates, cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit and former Shin Bet director Avi Dichter, lagged far behind with 8.4% and 6.5% respectively.

Mr Mofaz’s supporters have warned that they may lodge an appeal against the result. His campaign headquarters has reportedly already demanded the ballot in the southern town of Ashkelon be disqualified.

Supporter of Shaul Mofaz (17 September 2008)

Supporters of Shaul Mofaz said they might appeal against the result

In a victory speech early on Thursday morning, Ms Livni said that she would seek to form a new coalition government “as quickly as possible” and called for party unity.

“All the people who came to vote today expressed what they wish to happen in this country,” she said. “The national responsibility [bestowed] by the public brings me to approach this job with great reverence.”

If she can form a fresh governing coalition within the next six weeks, Ms Livni will become Israel’s first woman prime minister since Golda Meir stepped down in 1974.

Our correspondent says that will be no easy task, and if it were to end in failure, general elections will follow in a further three months.

‘Mrs Clean’

Ms Livni is seen as less hawkish than Mr Mofaz when it comes to the Palestinians and to dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Ehud Olmert formally resigns as prime minister and his cabinet resigns with him
President consults parties to pick a Knesset member to form a new cabinet – expected to be the Kadima leader
The MK has 42 days to form a coalition acceptable to parliament
If no coalition is formed, another MK may be asked to try to form a government, or a general election may be called
If a general election is called, it must be held within 90 days
Mr Olmert remains caretaker prime minister until the Knesset approves a new government

Critics say Ms Livni, a former lawyer and Mossad agent, also lacks political experience.

Her supporters say she represents a break with the past. Ms Livni is untainted by the kind of allegations of corruption and bribery that led to Mr Olmert’s resignation and have damaged the reputation of Israeli politics.

“[She] is a good choice as far as Israel’s foreign relations are concerned, but there is still the tension with Iran. I am not so sure how much experience she has for such matters and if she will be able to take the right decisions,” said Shmuel Sandler, professor at the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies.

“She looks like ‘Mrs Clean’… but she will still have to form a coalition,” he told the Reuters news agency. “It is very difficult to predict whether she will be a strong prime minister.”

Kadima was formed three years ago when former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon split from the centre-right opposition party, Likud, to draw together support from left and right for his policy of unilateral withdrawals from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

But its poll ratings fell after a stroke left Mr Sharon in a coma.

His successor, Mr Olmert, faced strong criticism of his handling of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war and he was investigated in several corruption scandals.

Polls now suggest Likud could win a potential general election, which would take place if a coalition government cannot be formed in the wake of the Kadima leadership vote.

The Kadima election comes as the US government is continuing its push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before President George W Bush leaves office in January.

Mr Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas held talks on Tuesday. An Israeli spokesman said the two would continue to meet until a new government was sworn in.


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August 13, 2008

Palestinians say farewell to poet

Palestinians say farewell to poet

Palestinians are lining the streets of Ramallah, on the West Bank, for the funeral of poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Leading mourners, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas described the poet and author as a hero for all Palestinians.

Darwish was one of the most influential cultural figures in recent Arab history, encapsulating the Palestinian longing for independence.

He died after open-heart surgery in Houston, Texas, on Saturday at the age of 67.

The ceremonies in Ramallah are expected to be the biggest funeral in the West Bank since that of Yasser Arafat in 2004.

Darwish’s body was flown back from the US to Amman, Jordan, on Wednesday where an honor guard saluted as Palestinian Liberation Army officers carried the flag-draped coffin from the plane.

Military helicopter

Jordan’s Prince Ali bin Nayef attended the ceremony on behalf of King Abdullah.

The coffin was then taken by military helicopter to the government compound of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in Ramallah.

Mr Abbas led mourners and read a eulogy to the poet.

Afterwards, the coffin was to be taken in procession to Darwish’s grave near the Palace of Culture about 4km (2.5 miles) away.

Mahmoud Darwish

Darwish won many international prizes for his work

People of all backgrounds in the West Bank feel they had a personal connection to the poet and take pride in a man who told their story in a way they could not.

Darwish was a national icon, whose work was often based on his experiences of life in exile and under occupation.

“He symbolizes the Palestinian memory,” one Palestinian mourner.

“He intended to convey a message: in the end we are all human beings and we have to work collectively for the sake of humanity.”

Thousands would flock to his recitals. His poems were transformed into popular songs and used in political speeches, and the words he wrote now form part of Palestinian daily life, our correspondent says.

Fierce criticism

Nor was he shy of talking of his people’s shortcomings.

Darwish penned fierce criticism of the divisions among Palestinians, believing, in some ways, what they were doing to themselves was worse than anything others had done to them.

He also penned the famous speech Arafat delivered at the United Nations in 1974: “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”

There is little doubt his work, not just on the Palestinian cause, but on love and hope and death, will endure across the Arab world, our correspondent says.


How will you remember Mahmoud Darwish? Will you attend a commemoration service?

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