KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A leaked recording of an exchange between an Iranian air-traffic controller and an Iranian pilot purports to show that authorities immediately knew a missile had downed a Ukrainian jetliner after takeoff from Tehran, killing all 176 people aboard, despite days of denials by the Islamic Republic. Ukraine s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy acknowledged the recording s authenticity in a report aired by a Ukrainian television channel on Sunday night. In Tehran on Monday, the head of the Iranian investigation team, Hassan Rezaeifar, acknowledged the recording was legitimate and said that it was handed over to Ukrainian officials. After the Jan. 8 disaster, Iran s civilian government maintained for days that it didn t know the country s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, answerable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had shot down the aircraft. The downing of the jetliner came just hours after the Guard launched a ballistic missile attack on Iraqi bases housing U.S. forces in retaliation for an earlier American drone strike that killed the Guard s top general, Qasem Soleimani, in Baghdad. A transcript of the recording, published by Ukrainian 1+1 TV channel, contains a conversation in Farsi between an air-traffic controller and a pilot reportedly flying a Fokker 100 jet for Iran s Aseman Airlines from Iran s southern city of Shiraz to Tehran. “A series of lights like … yes, it is missile, is there something?” the pilot calls out to the controller. “No, how many miles? Where?” the controller asks. The pilot responds that he saw the light by the Payam airport, near where the Guard s Tor M-1 anti-aircraft missile was launched from. The controller says nothing has been reported to them, but the pilot remains insistent. “It is the light of (a) missile,” the pilot says. “Don t you see anything anymore?” the controller asks. “Dear engineer, it was an explosion. We saw a very big light there, I don t really know what it was,” the pilot responds. The controller then tries to contract the Ukrainian jetliner, but unsuccessfully. Publicly accessible flight-tracking radar information suggests the Aseman Airlines aircraft, flight No. 3768, was close enough to Tehran to see the blast. Iranian civil aviation authorities for days insisted it wasn t a missile that brought down the plane, even after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. officials began saying they believed it had been shot down. Iranian officials should have immediately had access to the air-traffic control recordings and Zelenskiy told 1+1 that “the recording, indeed, shows that the Iranian side knew from the start that our plane was shot down by a missile, they were aware of this at the moment of the shooting.” Ukraine s president repeated his demands to decode the plane s flight recorders in Kyiv — something Iranian officials had promised last month but later backtracked on. On Monday, Ukrainian investigators were to travel to Tehran to participate in the decoding effort, but Zelenskiy insisted on bringing the so-called “black boxes” back to Kyiv. “It is very important for us,” he said. Iranian authorities, however, condemned the publication of the recording as “unprofessional,” saying it was part of a confidential report. “This action by the Ukrainians makes us not want to give them any more evidence,” said Rezaifar, the head of the Iranian investigators, according to a report by the semiofficial Mehr news agency.
JERUSALEM (AP) — Palestinians held demonstrations across the region Friday to protest President Donald Trump s Middle East initiative, while militants in the Gaza Strip fired rockets and mortar rounds at Israel, drawing retaliatory strikes. The Palestinians have rejected the Trump plan, which heavily favors Israel and would allow it to annex all of its Jewish settlements, along with the Jordan Valley, in the occupied West Bank. The Palestinians were offered limited self-rule in Gaza, parts of the West Bank and some sparsely populated areas of Israel in return for meeting a long list of conditions. Israel launched airstrikes on militant targets in Gaza early Friday, shortly after Palestinians fired three rockets into Israel, two of which were intercepted, the military said. It said that Palestinian militants had also launched “explosive balloons” toward Israel and that a sniper had shot an observation antenna. The military said it struck targets linked to the Hamas militant group in response, including “underground infrastructure used to manufacture weapons.” Throughout the day, Gaza militants fired several rounds of mortars and projectiles. An Israeli tank fired on a Hamas military post, and Israeli aircraft struck additional militant sites in Gaza early Saturday. No one was wounded in either exchange of fire, but an Israeli woman dropped her three-week-old baby while running into a bomb shelter during the rocket attack, according to the United Hatzalah rescue service. The baby was hospitalized and is in moderate condition. Gaza has been relatively calm in recent months as Egyptian and UN mediators have worked to shore up an informal truce between Israel and Hamas, which rules the coastal territory. Hamas has curbed rocket fire and rolled back weekly protests along the frontier that had often turned violent. In return, Israel has eased the blockade it imposed on Gaza after the Islamic militant group seized power from forces loyal to the Palestinian Authority in 2007. Hamas rejected the Trump plan and vowed that “all options are open” in responding to the proposal, but the group is not believed to be seeking another war with Israel. Thousands of people took to the streets after Friday prayers in neighboring Jordan to protest the plan. Jordan, a close US ally and key player in previous peace efforts, has warned Israel against annexing territory. Jordan and Egypt are the only two Arab countries to have signed peace agreements with Israel. The protesters waved Jordanian and Palestinian flags and burned Israeli flags despite the rainy weather. They chanted “Trump is a coward” and “Here we are, al-Aqsa,” referring to a Jerusalem mosque on a site sacred to Jews and Muslims. In Lebanon, dozens of Palestinians gathered in the crowded Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp after Friday prayers, carrying Palestinian flags and pictures of the al-Aqsa mosque. They chanted “We would die for Palestine to live” and “Revolution until we set Palestine free.” “Palestine is not for sale, even if it were for millions upon millions. If (Trump) gave all of his money we wouldn t sell to him,” said 58-year-old Fatima al-Khatib. The plan anticipates $50 billion of investment in the future Palestinian state and describes several ambitious development projects, without saying where the money would come from. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have held small, scattered protests in recent days condemning the Trump initiative, and thousands gathered in Gaza on Friday, where they burned U.S. and Israeli flags and portraits of Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At least 14 Palestinians were wounded by Israeli gunfire in scattered protests along the security fence surrounding Gaza, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent medical service. There were concerns that larger demonstrations and clashes would break out at the compound housing the al-Aqsa mosque, but Friday prayers there concluded peacefully. The Islamic trust that manages the site said an estimated 30,000 worshippers attended the weekly prayers. The site, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, is the third holiest in Islam, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Jews refer to the site as the Temple Mount because it was the location of the First and Second Jewish Temples in antiquity. The hilltop shrine is managed by an Islamic trust under Jordanian stewardship, and day-to-day affairs are governed by informal understandings with Israel known as the “status quo.” Non-Muslims are allowed to visit during certain hours, but Jews cannot pray there. In recent years, increasing numbers of religious and ultra-nationalist Jews have visited the site, stoking fears among the Palestinians that Israel intends to one day partition it and igniting clashes between Muslim worshippers and Israeli police. Israel has repeatedly said it has no intention of changing the status quo. The Trump plan, which heavily favors Israel, says the status quo should “continue uninterrupted.” But the plan also says “people of every faith should be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, in a manner that is fully respectful to their religion, taking into account the times of each religion s prayers and holidays, as well as other religious factors.” The site is part of the famed Old City in east Jerusalem, which Israel captured, along with the West Bank and Gaza, in the 1967 war. The Palestinians view east Jerusalem as their capital and want all three territories to form their future state. Trump s Mideast plan would situate the Palestinian capital on the outskirts of east Jerusalem, beyond the separation barrier built by Israel. The rest of Jerusalem, including the Old City, would remain Israel s capital. “A lot of people are still in a state of shock over the proposal,” said Christian Saunders, the acting head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, which provides basic services to some five million Palestinians scattered across the region. “What will happen after that shock wears off, I don t know. We certainly have serious concerns that it will result in an escalation in clashes and in violence. We have contingency plans in place in order to support during such times of unrest.”
BEIRUT (AP) — Warplanes struck a town in a rebel-held enclave in northwestern Syria, killing at least 10 people, including some who were fleeing the attack, opposition activists and a rescue service said Thursday. The attack, believed to have been carried out by Russian warplanes backing a Syrian government offensive, also put a local hospital out of service, they said. The late Wednesday night assault on Ariha, a town in Idlib province, comes as the rebel-held enclave is under intense fire amid Syrian government advances on the area, which had been controlled by the opposition for nearly eight years. The Russian Defense Ministry rejected claims it was behind the attack, calling them a “provocation.” The ministry said Russian warplanes did not fly any combat missions in the area. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll from the airstrikes was at least 10 civilians. The rescue Syrian Civil Defense, known as the White Helmets, said 11 people, including a child, were killed when the Russian warplanes hit a road used by displaced people trying to leave Ariha. Both the Observatory and the White Helmets said a local hospital and a bakery were struck. At least 24 people were wounded, including a doctor, a White Helmet volunteer, three women and two children, the rescuers said. An Associated Press video shows the damaged hospital in a residential area, with medical equipment broken, supplies strewn over the floor and windows and doors dislodged from their frames. At least six people, relatives of patients, were killed as they waited outside the hospital, said Zuheir Qarat, a surgeon. An anesthesiologist was critically wounded, Qarat said, and remained at the hospital for over an hour until rescuers were able to evacuate him after the raids ended, along with 15 patients. Hospital generators and one hospital car were burned, he added. No patients were hurt. Qarat described three raids before midnight, within minutes of each other. “It destroyed the hospital and put it out of service,” Qarat told the AP in a voice message from Ariha. “There were also people injured from neighboring buildings.” The Ariha hospital, also know as al-Shami, is the only medical facility in the area with surgical facilities. There are no government-run hospitals in opposition-held areas, where health and education services are based on donations and international aid. Footage from Ariha showed the main road blocked with rubble from destroyed buildings. The raids sparked several fires in residential apartments, said a rescuer, who gave only his nickname, Abdel-Karim, because of concerns for his safety. He added that his team of volunteers were going through the area to ensure no survivors remained buried under the rubble. Qarat said that “striking the hospital is a message … a warning to evacuate,” adding that Ariha residents started fleeing after the raids. The hospital was the third that Qarat had worked in, after the previous two were also bombed. The U.N. Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock described to the Security Council on Wednesday the dire conditions in the rebel-held areas. At least 20,000 people were displaced in the last two days, he said, adding that 115,000 left their homes in the past week, bringing total of those uprooted by the violence since December to 390,000. “Many families are moving multiple times. They arrive in a place thought to be safe, only for the bombs to follow, so they are forced to move again,” he said. “This cycle is all too familiar in northwest Syria.” In the Russian-backed offensive, Syrian troops captured Maaret al-Numan, one of the largest and most strategic rebel-held towns in Idlib province on Wednesday. The town, which had been in rebel hands since 2012, sits on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo and is considered critical to President Bashar Assad s forces. It was mostly empty after intense bombardment in recent weeks. The government offensive now appears to be eyeing Saraqeb, a town to the north, which if captured, would secure the government s hold on the highway. The fighting in Idlib has driven hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes, mainly toward the border with Turkey and other rebel-held areas. The push to control the highway has angered Turkey, which backs the Syrian opposition and has deployed troops to observation points inside Idlib to monitor an earlier cease-fire negotiated with Russia. Turkey s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Russia is not loyal to agreements over Idlib and added that he is in contact with the Russians to urge them to stop the bombing in Idlib “or our patience will run out.” Farther north, government forces began an offensive on the western suburbs of Aleppo in an attempt to push insurgents away from Syria s largest city. Syria s nearly nine-year conflict has killed close to half a million people and displaced half of the population, including more than 5 million who are now refugees, mostly in neighboring countries.
Nine members of a religious order that was abruptly shuttered by the Vatican are under investigation for sex assault, the dioscese confirmed Wednesday, after allegations emerged linking the group to the abuse of two young brothers. Prato Bishop Giovanni Nerbini, who reported allegations against priests and lay members of the now defunct Disciples of the Annunciation community to police, pledged the church s cooperation in the case.
Egypt s Endowments Ministry Spokesperson Ahmed al-Qady has said that the ministry will respect the rulings of the judiciary, following the Supreme Administrative Court s decision yesterday upholding Cairo University s move to ban female faculty from wearing the niqab, or face veil. The court issued a ruling on Monday upholding a 2015 ban for female faculty members at Cairo University from wearing niqab in the classroom, a decision that was also upheld in court in 2016 amid protests likening the ban to religious discrimination. “The Endowments (Ministry) respects all judicial rulings. For the religious aspect, Dar al-Iftaa has to decide on it,” he said. Qady stressed the importance of developing religious discourse and engaging with communities in order to keep pace with modern day developments, adding that the Ministry is concerned with training imams and preachers and is following up on the public s response to ministry-sponsored seminars. Meanwhile, TV host Mohamed al-Baz has called for applying the niqab ban to all educational institutions across Egypt. Baz said during his program “90 Minutes,” which is broadcast on the al-Mehwar satellite channel, that the ruling issued by the Supreme Administrative Court does not apply to female employees at Cairo University, but applies only to female faculty members. He then called for filing a lawsuit to apply the ruling to all workers in educational institutions nationwide. He stressed that banning the wearing of the niqab does not contradict with the teachings of Islam and argued that even Al-Azhar, Egypt s premier Islamic institution, has said that the niqab was not representative of Sharia, or Islamic law. In its ruling on Monday, the court stated that individual choice of dress is among the “personal freedoms” guaranteed by the Egyptian constitution, adding that one should not be restricted by any limitations imposed by the administration. However, the court also said that this freedom is not without “limits,” stressing that personal freedoms should not contradict with what it called “public morals.” In 2015, Cairo University decided to ban female staff members donning a type of veil worn by a minority of Muslim women that covers the face entirely, except for the eyes. The university justified the decision to ban the face veil by arguing that niqab negatively impacts the ability of women who wear it to communicate. Other proponents of university campus niqab bans have cited security concerns. The court further explained that allowing the niqab at Cairo University would violate article 96 of the law regulating universities across Egypt, which binds university staff to university rules. In addition, the court asserted that professors should not have their faces hidden while dealing with students during academic lectures, underlining the importance of clear and direct communication between the academic staff and their students. Dozens of students and faculty protested in response to the ban in 2015, and university staff members who wear niqab published a statement that year condemning the step and describing it as “racist,” arguing as well that communication is not limited to facial expressions.
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon s parliament passed the 2020 budget on Monday although its budget and finance committee chief said the forecast revenues might be unrealistic as the country wrestles with a major economic and financial crisis. As lawmakers convened to debate the state budget, protesters hurled rocks at police who were deployed in force around parliament. The budget envisages a deficit of around 7% of GDP, the head of parliament s budget and finance committee, Ibrahim Kanaan, told Reuters, wider than the originally hoped-for 0.6% with the economy shrinking and choked by a liquidity crunch. The 2020 budget was first drafted by Saad al-Hariri s government before it resigned in October in the face of protests against the political elite that collectively steered Lebanon into the multi-faceted crisis. Prime Minister Hassan Diab, whose cabinet took office last week with backing from the Shia Hezbollah movement and its allies, told parliament he would not obstruct the budget. During Monday s parliamentary session, Kanaan said projected revenues might not be realistic because of a contraction in the economy. Some parties boycotted the session, with critics arguing the new government should have won parliament s vote of confidence first and then presented the budget itself. Lebanon s crisis is rooted in decades of state corruption and waste that have landed the country with one of the world s heaviest public debt burdens. Foreign donors have said any support to Lebanon will depend on it enacting long-delayed reforms. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Monday that Lebanon s new cabinet must make changes. “The government must put into place indispensable measures,” he said. “It s almost a question of its survival.”
GREEN VILLAGE MILITARY OUTPOST (AP) — US troops at military outposts ín eastern Syria asked variations of the same question to their top commander Saturday: What is our future here? What are the goals we need to think about? Gen. Frank McKenzie, the US Middle East commander, knows the future is not certain. But at least for today, he said, “this is an area where we made a commitment. I think we’re going to be here for a while.” In an unannounced tour of five military bases in Syria stretching from the northeastern part of the country to the Middle Euphrates River Valley, McKenzie offered reassurances that the US remains committed to its mission in Syria. And he said that operations against Islamic State militants are on the rise again, after the US cut back due to the increased tensions with Iran and the need to concentrate on increasing security. But these are uncertain times. And America’s mission to train and partner with Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight against the Islamic State group has been tested. Just last year President Donald Trump ordered US troops to withdraw from Syria – part of his vow to bring forces home and halt the endless wars. Over time, his military commanders, members of Congress and other leaders convinced Trump to keep a scaled-back force in Syria to protect an expanse of Kurdish-controlled oil fields and facilities from falling into IS hands. So while some troops did leave Syria, the Pentagon ordered others to move into the east, with armored vehicles and security forces to help the SDF guard the oil. McKenzie, who met with the SDF’s commander, Mazloum Abdi, at an undisclosed military base in eastern Syria Saturday morning, said the Kurdish leader wanted assurances that the US would continue to help his fighters. His answer, McKenzie said, was that the US will continue to conduct anti-IS missions, partner with the rebel forces and help protect the oil fields. But, he said, he did not put a deadline on it. “He knows, and I agree, that we’re not going to be here for 100 years,” McKenzie said during a stop at Green Village military outpost, east of Deir el-Zour. “I frankly don’t know how long we’re going to be here and I have no instructions other than to continue to work with our partner here.” McKenzie criss-crossed the east, flying by helicopter over long stretches of desert flecked with intermittent patches of green and scattered villages. It was his first trip to the five bases. The US declared an end to the Islamic State’s physical caliphate last March. But in recent months there have been growing concerns that the insurgents are regrouping, particularly in the west where US forces are not present. Operations against IS, however, were interrupted in recent weeks, in the aftermath of the US drone strike that killed a top Iranian general in Iraq. Fearing reprisals by Iran and Iranian-backed proxy forces, the US paused or slowed operations to beef up security in Iraq and Syria. Iran, after several days, launched ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq where US troops are stationed. Several dozen were diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, but no one was killed in the attacks. According to officials, US operations against the Islamic State group in Syria were reduced by half over that time. But as McKenzie took stock of the situation during his day-long sprint across eastern Syria he said that has now changed. “Certainly, the pace of operations went down earlier in the year, based on events in Iraq” McKenzie told two reporters from The Associated Press and The Washington Post traveling with him into Syria. “We’re now back up to, I think, probably three or four operations a week with our partners here — so that pace is beginning to pick up and we are very pleased with that.” Maj. Gen. Eric Hill, commander of the special operations forces in Iraq and Syria, was with McKenzie for most of the day. He said his forces continue to train and conduct operations with the SDF to root out IS insurgents who are “hiding in the valleys, in the caves, in the desserts, trying to regroup.” Hill spoke to reporters at the military base located at the Conoco gas field near Deir el-Zour, where military trucks and aircraft sit alongside looming plant buildings and old homes that have been turned into high-tech operations centers and barracks. According to officials, there are now about 750 US troops in eastern Syria, spread across a swath of land that stretches more than 90 miles (150 kilometers) from Deir al-Zour to the border region east of al-Hassakeh. The US-Syrian Kurdish relationship, which dates back to 2014, was strained after Trump last month ordered American troops out of northern Syria, making way for a Turkish invasion of Kurdish-held towns and villages along a stretch of the border. Kurdish and American forces are now operating in a region that is more complicated and crowded with troops since the Turks began their attack on northeast Syria in early October, aimed at pushing the Kurdish fighters away from the border. While talking to troops on Saturday, McKenzie warned that Iranian proxy forces in Syria continue to be a significant risk to them. He said that while Iran appears to be deterred right now from launching another attack against the US, “you always worry about their ability to command and control their proxy elements which they have equipped very well.”
El-Aqbat fi Misr El-Hadithah (Copts in Modern Egypt – Part I), by Ghada Mohamed, (Cairo: El-Maraya), 2018. In one of the most detailed accounts of the history of Coptic grievance, researcher Ghada Mohamed brings to the limelight the failure of the subsequent regimes of Modern Egypt -- from the rule of Mohamed Ali in 1805 to the end of the rule of Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1970 -- to address the roots of the "Coptic issue". In the first volume that essentially looks at citizenship issues of Egyptian Copts in the past 200 years, Mohamed argues that despite the accumulated gains that the Copts made since the rule of Mohamed Ali, on the socio-economic level or within the executive system, they had never truly overcome their status as Dhimmis -- those who were under Muslim rule or the oppressed Egyptians under Roman rule. Throughout the subsequent centuries, Mohamed detailed, Copts had to pay for being Copts – sometimes literally and metaphorically. There were varying degrees of marginalisation, discrimination and persecution; and there were moments of deliberate sectarian targeting and moments of peaceful coexistence, Mohamed argued. This was the case under and after subsequent Muslim rulers until the advent of Mohamed Ali to Egypt and Said Pasha, who lifted the Dhimmis regulations. The rule of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, from the mid-1950s to the 1970s saw a particular decline of active anti-Coptic sentiments. Mohamed is even willing to contest what she finds to be an exaggerated assessment of a total state of fairness among all Egyptians in the "liberal decades", from the early 1920s and until 1952. In these decades, she argued, Copts could speak up and protest against unfairness but they still were not fully treated like Muslims. The only brief moment in history when Copts and Muslims were almost equal was during 1919 Revolution, Mohamed argues. The decade that followed, she wrote, was one when all Egyptians worked to secure a common goal: national independence. However, she further added, as this goal was defeated, this rare moment of almost uncontested unity among all Egyptians receded. The first volume of Copts in Modern Egypt also examines the impact of the beginning of political Islamism, with the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1920s, on the state of Copts, including the creation of radical Coptic entities and the expanding role of the Church at the expense of secular Coptic bodies. It also examines the impact of the rise of pan-Arabism, something that Copts would not necessarily immediately subscribe to, unlike the Christians of the Levant, on the "Coptic issue". In many ways, Mohamed s book, in 170 pages, is an interesting read on the concerns of Copts, who were estimated to constitute six percent of the Egyptian population according to a 1986 survey.
BEIRUT (AP) — A new Cabinet was announced in crisis-hit Lebanon late Tuesday, breaking a months-long impasse amid mass protests against the country s ruling elite and a crippling financial crisis, but demonstrations and violence continued. Hassan Diab, a 60-year-old former professor at the American University of Beirut, announced a Cabinet of 20 members — mostly specialists supported by the Shiite group Hezbollah and allied political parties. The new government, which comes three months after former Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned, was rejected by protesters who have been calling for sweeping reforms and a government made up of independent technocrats that can deal with the country s economic and financial crisis, the worst since the 1975-90 civil war. Even before the Cabinet was announced, thousands of people poured into the streets, closing major roads in the capital of Beirut and other parts of the country in protest. The protesters complained that political groups still were involved in the naming of the new ministers, even if they are specialists and academics. Later, a group of protesters near Parliament threw stones, firecrackers and sticks at security forces, who responded with tear gas and pepper spray. “We want a government of experts … who are they kidding?” said one protester, Fadi Zakour. “We have been protesting for 90 days and we are not happy to close roads,” he added. Diab saluted the protesters in the street and vowed to “work to fulfill your demands.” In a speech addressing the country following the government announcement, he added that his Cabinet is the first government in the history of Lebanon to be made up entirely of technocrats and insisted the 20 ministers are specialists who have no political loyalties and are not partisan. He appealed to citizens to help the government implement a “rescue program” and said this Cabinet has the “capability and qualifications, will and commitment” to carry it through. “It s time to get to work,” Diab said. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomes the formation of a new government and looks forward to working with Diab and the incoming Council of Ministers, “including in support of Lebanon s reform agenda and to address the pressing needs of its people,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. “The secretary-general reiterates the United Nations commitment to support Lebanon s strengthening of its sovereignty, stability and political independence,” Dujarric said. For three months, the leaderless protests have been calling for a government made up of specialists that can work on dealing with the economic crisis. The protests have recently turned violent, with around 500 people injured in confrontations between protesters and security forces over the weekend. Although the government announced Tuesday is technically made up of specialists, the ministers were named by political parties in a process involving horse trading and bickering with little regard for the demands of protesters for a transparent process and independent candidates. Still, among the ministers named were accomplished academics and six women, including the minister of defense and deputy prime minister. The number is a record for Lebanon, with women now holding more than quarter of the Cabinet posts, including those of defense, justice, labor, youth and sports and the displaced. “The independence of justice will be among our top priorities and I will put all my efforts to move in this direction,” Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm told local LBC TV. Analysts said the new government, being politically aligned with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, would likely have difficulty drumming up international and regional support needed to avoid economic collapse. “The Cabinet includes a fair number of capable technocrats, but it does not have any political independence to speak of,” wrote Paul Salem, president of the Middle East Institute. “This government is likely to be short lived, to preside over a steep decline in the economy, a dangerous swerve in the state s security relationships, and growing social and political unrest in the country,” he predicted. The heads of the main ministries include career diplomat Naseef Hitti for the Foreign Ministry. Economist Ghazi Wazni was named finance minister and former army Gen. Mohammed Fahmi was named minister of the interior. Zeina Akar was named minister of defense and deputy prime minister. Lebanon has been without a government since Hariri resigned Oct. 29, two weeks into the unprecedented nationwide protest movement. Diab dismissed accusations that his was a government made up of one political camp consisting of Hezbollah and its allies, insisting it was the government of all of Lebanon. He also said it was natural to consult with political parties on the names of ministers, because in the end they are the ones that will decide the vote of confidence in Parliament needed for the Cabinet. Diab said his first visit as prime minister will be to the Arab region, particularly to the Gulf Arab countries — a nod to Saudi Arabia, which was the main backer of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Backing from oil-rich Gulf countries is badly needed in Lebanon that has one of the highest debt ratios in the world. He said the government would get to work immediately and hold its first meeting Wednesday. Panic and anger have gripped the public as the Lebanese pound, pegged to the dollar for more than two decades, plummeted in value. It fell more than 60% in recent weeks on the black market. The economy has seen no growth and flows of foreign currency dried up in the already heavily indebted country that relies on imports for most basic goods. Shortly before the Cabinet was announced Tuesday night, the Syndicate of Money Changers in Lebanon issued a statement saying it had agreed to set the exchange rate at a maximum of 2,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, after it reached 2,500 pounds to the dollar last week. The official price still stands at 1,507 to the dollar.
BEIRUT (AP) — An airstrike on a rebel-held village in northern Syria on Tuesday killed at least nine people, including an entire family, Syrian opposition activists said. The strike on Kfar Taal comes amid a government offensive on the northwestern province of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in the country, and rebel-held parts of nearby Aleppo province. A new cessation of hostilities agreement between Russia and Turkey, who support opposite sides in the conflict, went into effect earlier this month. But the violence has continued. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Step news agency, an activist collective, said the nine were killed in Kfar Taal before noon. They said the dead included a family of eight consisting of parents and their six children. The Observatory and Step blamed Russian warplanes for the strike. The government offensive has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom fled to areas closer to the border with Turkey. Dozens of fighters have been killed on both sides in recent days as clashes intensified. Idlib province is dominated by al-Qaeda-linked militants. It s also home to 3 million civilians and the United Nations has warned of the growing risk of a humanitarian catastrophe along the Turkish border.
BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi security forces fired tear gas and live rounds during clashes with anti-government protesters overnight and on Monday morning in Baghdad, killing one and wounding dozens of demonstrators, officials said. The clashes prompted authorities to close key streets and thoroughfares leading to the Iraqi capital s center. The violence is the latest since protests in Iraq reignited last week after a brief lull amid soaring tensions between Washington and Tehran following a U.S. drone strike that killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad earlier this month. Anti-government protests have similarly resumed in Lebanon after a brief hiatus, entering a new, violent phase as anger against a worsening economic crisis and politicians inaction mounts. Hundreds of people were injured over the weekend as security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets in clashes in downtown Beirut. In Baghdad, the tear gas and live rounds were fired near Sinak Bridge and also the nearby Tayaran Square, which have been the scene of violence in recent days, medical and security officials said. One protester, identified as Yousef Abdel Sattar al-Fartosi, was killed due to a gunshot wound, a medical official said. A statement from the Baghdad Operations Command said fourteen officers were wounded by a group of rock-throwing “inciters of violence ” while trying to secure the entrance to Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protest movement. “Despite these actions our forces continued to exercise restraint and follow up on the security duties assigned to them,” said the statement. A security official said at least nine arrests have been made so far after the National Security Council authorized security forces to arrest demonstrators seen blocking main thoroughfares and roundabouts. The U.N. envoy to Iraq, meanwhile, urged Iraqi political elites to resume pushing for reforms and for protests to remain peaceful. “Any steps taken so far to address the people s concerns will remain hollow, if they are not completed,” said Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert in a statement issued by the U.N. “Violent suppression of peaceful protesters is intolerable and must be avoided at all costs.” In the southern city of Nasiriyah, protesters blocked the highway linking the city to the southern oil-rich province of Basra. At least six protesters were wounded when an unknown gunmen fired at them from a speeding car, a medical official said. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity under regulations. On Sunday, protesters in Baghdad and southern Iraq burned tires, blocking main streets. Clashes in Baghdad wounded at least 27 people. Iraqi activists gave the government a week s deadline to act on their demands for sweeping political reforms or said they would up the pressure with new demonstrations. The uprising began on Oct. 1 when thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to decry rampant government corruption, poor public services and a scarcity of jobs. Protesters are demanding an end to Iraq s sectarian political system, alongside early elections and the stepping aside of its ruling elite. The anti-government movement had scored several successes before the U.S. strike diverted public attention. In December, pressure from demonstrations lead Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq s most revered Shiite cleric, to withdraw support for the government of Adel Abdul-Mahdi, prompting the prime minister s resignation. Later that month, lawmakers passed a key new electoral law that would give voters more say in who s elected to office. But bickering between rival political factions has set back talks over the selection of a new premier. Abdul-Mahdi s appointment was the product of a provisional agreement between rival parliamentary blocs led by the influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and another led by Hadi al-Ameri. Since the protests first erupted in October, at least 500 have died under fire from security forces.
Almost 400 people were wounded Saturday during running battles between Lebanese anti-government protesters and security forces in the capital Beirut, rescue services said. It was the heaviest toll since the protests erupted three months ago, with the Red Cross and Civil Defense saying 377 people at least were rushed to hospitals or treated at the scene. More demonstrations were expected later Sunday as part of the wave of popular protests that has demanded the wholesale ouster of the Lebanese political class, which the activists condemn as inept and corrupt. Protesters had called Saturday for a week of “anger” as an economic crisis deepened while efforts remained deadlocked to form a new government to replace the one that stepped down under street pressure late last year. Saturday s clashes began after dozens of protesters, some concealing their faces with scarves, threw rocks, plant pots and other objects at anti-riot police guarding the road leading to parliament. Others tried to breach barbed wire barricades to reach the legislature building or charged police lines using traffic signs as weapons. The security forces responded with water cannon and tear gas to disperse the crowds. The Civil Defense said late Saturday 43 people were taken to hospital and that it had treated at the scene 114 others who were “slightly injured or suffered from breathing problems”. The Red Cross said it had rushed 80 people to city hospitals while 140, including both protesters and members of the security forces, were given first aid at the scene of the clashes. The state-run National News Agency said around 30 people were detained following the violence but were later released. Meanwhile security forces said they had opened an investigation after a video shared online showed police beating up people believed to be protesters as they were brought to a Beirut police station. The protest movement that has rocked Lebanon since October 17 is demanding that a new government be comprised of independent experts and exclude all established political parties. The previous government headed by veteran premier Saad Hariri stepped down on October 29 under pressure from the street but has stayed on in a caretaker capacity. The demonstrators have been denouncing rampant corruption in Lebanon and accuse authorities of being inefficient and motivated by personal and partisan gains. Political factions agreed on December 19 to appoint former education minister Hassan Diab as the new premier but have since squabbled over proposed ministers. The World Bank has warned of the worsening impact on the economy, saying the poverty rate in Lebanon could rise from a third to half of the population if the political crisis is not resolved soon. On Sunday, calls were posted online for new demonstrations near the parliament.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. military is resuming operations against Islamic State militants in Iraq and is working to soon restart training Iraqi forces, U.S. officials said Wednesday, despite deep divisions over the American drone strike that killed an senior Iranian commander in Baghdad and the resulting missile attacks by Iran on Iraqi bases. One official said some joint operations between the U.S. and Iraqi forces have already begun, but there are not yet as many as before. The official said details are still being worked out to restore the training of Iraqi forces, but that could happen relatively soon. Relations with Iraq were fractured after the U.S. launched a drone strike near Baghdad s international airport on Jan. 3 that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The Parliament later voted to expel U.S. forces from the country and Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi asked Washington to work out a road map for a troop withdrawal. The U.S. flatly rejected that request and has not moved to pull the more than 5,000 troops out. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss decisions not yet made public. One official said military leaders have discussed the resumption of operations with the Iraqis, but it s not clear who was involved in those talks or whether Iraqi government leaders are publicly endorsing the move. Iraqi leaders were angry about the American drone strike and the retaliatory attacks by Iran. Iranian missiles struck Al-Asad Air Base last week, and hit near another base, but warnings sounded and no one was killed or injured. Iraq officials, however, called the U.S. strike that killed Soleimani an unacceptable breach of Iraqi sovereignty. That strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. And thousands of anti-government protesters turned out in Baghdad and southern Iraq, with many calling for both the U.S. and Iran to leave their country. U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, dismissed the calls for American troops to leave, saying the forces are critical to the fight against the Islamic State group. “We are happy to continue the conversation with the Iraqis about what the right structure is,” Pompeo said during one White House appearance last week. Tensions in Iraq had been spiking since late December, when a rocket attack at a base in northern Iraq killed one American contractor. The U.S. blamed Iran-backed fighters and quickly struck back. American airstrikes targeted Iranian-backed militia at five sites in Iraq and Syria, including weapons depots and command and control bases. Over New Year s, hundreds of Iran-backed militiamen attacked the highly fortified American embassy compound in Baghdad. The Pentagon deployed hundreds of additional troops to the region, and scaled back military operations and training inside Iraq. U.S. officials have said they believe Iraq is also interested in resuming the training, which has been going on since 2015, after IS began taking control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria. More details, including increased security for U.S. and coalition forces, are still being discussed. The New York Times first reported the resumption of joint military operations.
Pope Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of Saint Mark, opened on Tuesday the Cathedral of Abu Fam the Ausimi Soldier following restoration work, as part of a pastoral visit to Sohag Governorate that began last Saturday. Pope Tawadros II opened three altars, church icons and the icon holder in the cathedral, naming the main altar after the martyr Abu Fam, the front altar after Saint Anba Bishoy and the back altar the Virgin Mary. Pope Tawadros arrived in Tama accompanied by several Archbishops and Bishops, and he was received by Head of the Diocese of Tama Bishop Isaac. Sixteen bishops took part in prayers during the opening ceremonyof the cathedral. Pope Tawadros II began his visit to Sohag on Saturday and has visited five dioceses in the area.
BEIRUT (AP) — Following a brief lull, Lebanese protesters returned to the streets, blocking several roads around the capital, Beirut, and other areas of the country on Tuesday in renewed rallies against a ruling elite they say has failed to address the economy’s downward spiral. Protesters burned tires and blocked three main highways leading to the capital from the south, east and north, bringing traffic to a standstill. School and university students took part in some of the protests and hundreds marched down main highways, raising Lebanese flags and blasting rallying songs through loudspeakers. The protesters returned to the streets after several weeks of relative calm, following the designation of Hassan Diab as prime minister in mid-December. The lull was also partly due to the holidays followed by soaring regional tensions between the US and Iran that eclipsed the protesters in Lebanon and Iraq demanding sweeping political change. Samer al-Khoury, a 29-year-old protester, said the protesters were giving the politicians 48 hours to form a new government. “We need solutions,” he said. “The street is angry because some people are more poor than others; some people are dying in hospitals; some people don’t have food on their table.” Rabie al-Zain, an activist protesting in Jal al-Dib, north of Beirut, said the rallies are a reminder to the rulers that the reasons for their protests are still here. “Today we add the students to the revolution — those who will handle the country when the current rulers will go to the dustbin of history,” he said. In downtown Beirut, dozens rallied outside the Central Bank, chanting against the governor and his financial policies. Security forces separated the protesters from the bank’s entrance. In the northern city of Tripoli and in Akkar province, protesters sat in the streets and blocked several roads with burning tires or bricks. In the southern city of Sidon, dozens of protesters marched down the streets, rallying outside banks and government offices. Lebanon is facing its worst economic crisis in decades, with the local currency plummeting before the dollar, losing over 60 percent of its value over the last weeks while sources of foreign currency have dried up. Meanwhile, banks have imposed informal capital controls limiting withdrawal of dollars and foreign transfers in the country, which relies heavily on imports of basic goods. Panic has set in among residents who fear their deposits are in danger. Nationwide protests for three months have failed to pressure politicians to form a new government to institute drastic reforms. Diab, the designated prime minister, has so far failed to form an emergency government amid political divisions and jockeying for power. Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned in late October. Speaking to foreign diplomats, President Michel Aoun said Tuesday that forming a government in these critical times requires “people who can earn the trust of the people and the parliament.” Lately, protesters had focused their ire on banks, rallying at the premises or outside banks and demanding access to their deposits. Dozens have also taunted politicians who showed up in shopping malls or restaurants, sometimes chasing them out of public places and decrying their failure to address the economic crisis. Nationwide protests began in mid-October in Lebanon, denouncing years of government mismanagement and corruption, demanding the political elite step down.
An Egyptian Coptic woman has praised the Minya Criminal Court s 10-year-sentence in absentia on Saturday of three of her assaulters, who were accused in May 2016 of attacking her and stripping off her clothes in the streets of Karam Abu Omair village, after rumors of an affair between a Muslim woman and Christian man sparked sectarian violence in Egypt s Minya Governorate. “Today I earned back my rights, after having been mercilessly stripped of my clothes and paraded in the streets. God is just and sent me a fair court decision after many people have doubted my words. We ve been kicked out of our home for several years,” said Soad Thabet, known in the media as the “Karam woman,” according to a report from Al Masry Al-Youm. She also expressed her gratitude to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, commenting: “You ve stood by my side and supported me since the start of my struggle and you ve also built us a (new) home to accommodate us in light of the incident.” Thabet s story began in May 2016, when rumors began to circulate about an affair between a Christian man and a married Muslim woman in Karam Abu Omair village, located in Egypt s Minya Governorate. Nearly 300 Muslims assembled in the village, demonstrating their anger by setting fire to several buildings and homes, which were reportedly owned by Coptic Christians, Egypt Independent previously reported. Thabet claimed that she had been violently assaulted by a group of Muslim men during the unrest, with the mob attacking her and stripping her of her clothes in the street. Copts also set fire to houses and a storage room belonging to Muslim residents as rumors of the affair sparked outrage in the village. Thabet later filed a case in which she accused the former husband of the Muslim woman involved in the incident and the man s father of assaulting her.
TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Both of Libya s warring factions accused each other of violating a ceasefire proposed by Turkey and Russia, as fighting continued around the capital, Tripoli, on Sunday. The Turkish and Russian presidents had called for the ceasefire to start on Sunday, more than nine months into an offensive on Tripoli by the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar. Both the LNA and the Tripoli-based, internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) had said they conditionally agreed to the truce. But the GNA said in a statement that it had recorded gunfire in the Salaheddin and Wadi Rabea areas “minutes” after the ceasefire was meant to start at 0001 a.m. on Sunday (Saturday 2201 GMT). From early on Sunday morning exchanges of fire could be heard in Salaheddin and Ain Zara districts. Any attempt to impose a lasting ceasefire will be hard to enforce because of the splintered nature of Libya s military coalitions, with disparate factions and foreign fighters deployed on both sides. Both sides refer to each other as militias. “The (GNA) militias violated the truce on more than one battlefront, with all types of weapons,” said LNA commander Al-Mabrouk Al-Gazawi, adding that forces were waiting for further instruction from LNA general command. The GNA said in a statement it had recorded violations by “the aggressor s militias” but that it “renews its commitment to the ceasefire, and emphasizes the need for commitment from the patrons of this ceasefire and the United Nations mission in Libya in applying it optimally”. Turkey s defense ministry said it had observed that all sides were trying to abide by the ceasefire, and that the situation was calm except for “one or two separate incidents”. The ceasefire call came after a recent escalation of fighting around Tripoli, and the LNA s advance into Sirte, a strategically important city midway along Libya s coastline. It also came as the United Nations and European powers pushed for a summit in Berlin aimed at winding down foreign involvement and resuming a peace process upended by Haftar s advance. The LNA has received backing from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt and Russia, while Turkey backs the GNA and voted this month to allow a troop deployment to the North African country.
Egypt s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced that a number of sites, churches and monasteries along the path following the Holy Family s journey in Egypt have been restored and opened to visitors, amid ongoing efforts to boost cultural and religious tourism in the country. Tourism and Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Anani added that Old Cairo s “Hanging Church” was reopened after the completion of restoration work, as well as the Church of the Virgin Mary in Samanoud. The Church of the Martyrs Sergius and Bacchus has also been restored and opened to the public. Also known as Abu Serga, the church was constructed over a cavern where the Holy Family was rumored to have rested after fleeing from King Herod to Egypt. Parts of the four monasteries in Wadi al-Natrun have been restored as well, according to Anani, who added that the Ministry is currently working on the reconstruction of the Virgin Mary Church in Gabal al-Tayr (mountain of the birds) area in Minya and further development of the site of the Virgin Mary s Tree in Matariya district. The Ministry also plans to issue an information catalog in both Arabic and English to document the historical journey of the Holy Family in Egypt and important sites along their path. Anani extended Christmas greetings to Egyptian Christians during visits to various sites along the Holy Family path to check up on services and ongoing development projects, including Mary s Tree, the Hanging Church, the Abu Serga Church and the Virgin Mary Church in Maadi. Tourism expert Sabri Yani, who also serves as a member of the General Assembly of the Chamber of Tourism Establishments, said that Egypt has still not managed to secure its fair share of the religious and cultural tourism industry, especially given the number of archaeological and religious sites in the country. He argued that the development of infrastructure projects and restoration work along the Holy Family s path across Egypt would help to revive cultural and spiritual tourism in the country. Spiritual or religious tourism accounts for about 4 million tourists worldwide, according to Yani. The route taken by the Holy Family in Egypt, which marks stopping points during their flight from Palestine, extends from Rafah in North Sinai and goes through the northeast through the Delta region, moving next to Cairo. The path following the Holy Family s voyage is set to run through Beheira, Sharqia, Kafr el-Sheikh, Minya, Assiut, Gharbia and North Sinai, and the trek represents the world s longest pilgrimage in a single country.
The Saint Mark Cathedral in Abbasiya celebrated Coptic Christmas on Tuesday as Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria welcomed hundreds of celebrating Christians. The pope distributed sweets to children inside one of the halls specifically prepared for that, and took photos with the attendees in the presence of the church choir who chanted Christmas carols and melodies amid great joy. Interior Minister Mahmoud Tawfiq visited Pope Tawadros II to congratulate him and all Christians, expressing sincere congratulations from the behalf of the entire police force as well. He praised the Egyptian church s role in spreading tolerance across all the people of the nation, as Egyptian history shows that the church has always been confronting efforts to divide Egyptians. Pope Tawadros II praised the police s efforts and sacrifices in facing the challenges of the current era. He stressed on the people s support towards the security services as they carried out tasks to ensure the nation s security and stability. The speaker of the House of Representatives Ali Abdel-Aal, headed a delegation of MPs to Abbasiya cathedral to offer congratulations, saying: “You, Your Holiness, are a patriotic Egyptian figure that receives the satisfaction and love of all the people.” Abdel-Aal added that any country should be reassured if it has a strong army that continues to modernize its military capabilities and combat training, alongside a national unity guarded by wise people who believe in this country, allowing Egypt to remain a source of good for the entire region.
Egypt s Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II will lead this evening the Coptic Christmas mass in the Nativity of Christ Cathedral in Egypt s New Administrative Capital. Egyptian ministers, MPs and top state officials will be attending the mass. The Coptic Orthodox Church published earlier today Pope Tawadros Message for the Feast of Nativity 2020. The Papal message was translated into 19 languages. The mass will be broadcast on Egyptian terrestrial and satellite TV channels and on the radio. The Nativity of Christ Cathedral is the largest church in the Middle East, with a capacity to accommodate 8,200 worshipers. In 2018, Pope Tawadros led the first Christmas mass in the newly inaugurated New Administrative Capital s Nativity of Christ Cathedral. President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi attended the mass. Coptic Orthodox Egyptians, who make up around 90 percent of all Christians in the country, celebrate Christmas on 7 January. A minority of non-Orthodox Christians observed the holiday on 25 December. Egypt s interior ministry has intensified security measures nationwide ahead of Christmas, deploying security in main streets, axes and squares, and around vital institutions and houses of worship.
Several governors and executive officials congratulated Copts across Egypt for Christmas on January 7, ordering local units at the governorates to continue preparations to secure the celebrations. Churches and dioceses in Minya decorated their buildings to receive prayers for the Christmas mass. The Minya Security Directorate meanwhile placed security personnel at the churches, establishing a security plan in coordination with the armed forces to protect the celebrations. The governor of Minya Osama al-Qadi opened parks for free, and formed an operations room to follow up the celebrations and monitor any complaints. The governor of Luxor Mostafa Alham headed to Diocese of Saint Gerges in Armant for the Christmas celebrations. Elsewhere, the Qena Security Directorate finished preparations to secure various establishments, churches, and monasteries in cities across the governorate. The chief of the Qena Security Directorate Sherif Abdel Hamed finalized the security plan to protect the governorate s churches and monasteries. The plan includes installing metal detector gates at church entrances, iron barriers near the churches, and preventing any cars from stopping to close to the churches. Rapid Intervention Forces, and fixed and mobile patrols will be available in case of emergency. Security caravans will be available on the Western and Eastern Desert Road, Abdel Hamed said. The governor of Sharqiya Mamdouh Ghorab meanwhile followed up preparations for the service sectors across the governorate s cities for Christmas celebrations, stressing that the governorate is cooperating with executive bodies and the security directorate to implement its plan to secure the churches.
Conferences of Al-Azhar institution held under the slogan of renewing religious discourse is only an attempt to improve its image without a real desire to change the current situation. The current religious discourse is a terrorist speech that intelligently selects its words, so that people may think it is different from ISIS and Al-Qaeda. In fact, Al-Azhar is only a political tool and an intellectual terrorist arm