BAGHDAD (AP) — The Christmas tree in the middle of a central Baghdad plaza occupied by anti-government protesters is bare, save for portraits of those killed under fire from security forces. A tribute, the demonstrators explained, to a recent decision by Iraq s Christians to call off seasonal festivities to honor the losses. Leaders of Iraq s Christians unanimously cancelled Christmas-related celebrations in solidarity with the protest movement — but the aims of their stance go deeper than tinsel and fairy lights. Slogans of a united Iraq free of sectarianism resonate deeply within the community, which since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein has fearfully observed its diminishing influence amid growing Shia-dominated politics shaping state affairs. Christians have also left Iraq in huge numbers over the years after being targeted by militant Sunni groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. On a recent visit to Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protest movement, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Church in Iraq, said he was moved. “Now there you feel you are Iraqi,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “A new Iraq is being born.” The protests erupted in Baghdad and the predominantly Shia southern provinces on Oct. 1, when thousands of Iraqis first took to the streets calling for sweeping political reforms and the end of Iran s influence in Iraqi affairs. At least 400 have died at the hands of security forces and unidentified assailants firing live ammunition and tear gas to disperse the demonstrations. “Morally and spiritually we cannot celebrate in such an atmosphere of tension … it s not normal to celebrate our joy and happiness while others are dying. That doesn t work,” said Sako. Chaldeans are the predominant Christian denomination in the country. He called on the government and parliament to listen to the demands of the protesters and to find suitable solutions through dialogue. “The military solution is bad,” he said. Under the order of the church, holiday celebrations will be limited to prayers, and money budgeted for expensive street decorations and festivities for the community will be donated to funds supporting wounded protesters, Sako said. Christmas decorations were forbidden within the fine interiors of Baghdad s Chaldean Patriarchate. “We will have no other celebration, we cannot make a big feast when our country is a in a critical situation,” he added. But Iraq s Christians support the leaderless protest movement for other reasons, said church officials. Falling demographics capture their existential anxieties, explained Sako. Christians numbered around 1.5 million before the U.S. invasion 16 years ago, roughly 6% of the population. Today the Christian population is believed to be less than a third of that figure, though accurate estimates are hard to come by given the lack of census data in Iraq. During the onslaught by the Islamic State group in 2014, Christians were forcibly displaced and fled fearing persecution from the extremists. Those who returned found their homes destroyed and their communities forever changed. “We have suffered a lot,” Sako said. “Since the collapse of the old regime many have been killed, others kidnapped, others threatened and left, and many homes and properties of Christians have been occupied by militias.” “So the protesters are telling them (the government) we look for justice and stability and to be equal citizens. We ask for the same justice for ourselves,” he said. Iraq s particular brand of sectarian governance — called the “muhasasa” in Arabic — entitles political elites to govern based on consensus and informal agreements. But it has had the effect of empowering Shia-majority parties over other sects. “The main thing we have suffered from the sectarian system is marginalization,” said Albert Elias, 50, a Christian civil activist known in Tahrir Square for his book stall where he hands out Bibles for free. “The politicians come and tell us we are qualified and loyal, but then no one gives us positions in the government so we can have a say,” he said. “We see that in reality we mean nothing to them.” In Tahrir Square, he sees a model of his ideal Iraq. Young students sometimes stop by and ask him questions about his faith, leading to impromptu lessons. “Did you know Christians were the first Iraqis?” he said to one unsuspecting youth on a crisp December day. In under 30 minutes Elias recounted seven centuries worth of history, from St. Thomas the Apostle s bringing of Christian teachings to what is now modern Iraq through to the Arab Islamic conquests. But the spirit of the uprising, and the risks associated with protesting in the square, transcends religious affiliation, said Elias. “We are all suffering the same thing. We share with them the risk. We are here and we don t know when someone will attack us with knives.” Mysterious attacks perpetrated by unknown assailants have recently spurred paranoia and fear in the square. On Friday, 25 people, including three policemen were killed when gunmen fired live rounds from cars in Khilani Square, which is close to Tahrir Square. The day before, several stabbing incidents occurred as demonstrators supporting political parties and Iran-backed militias withdrew from the square. Protesters largely blame Iran-backed militias for the violence. In Baghdad s Karada neighborhood, once a religiously mixed area and now predominately Shia, trees covered in fake frost and stuffed Santas are still on display. But shoppers are more conservative in their choice of purchases compared to previous years, said Hakmat Dawood. “We should not celebrate while the bloodshed continues,” he said. Outside the mall stood a Christmas tree, wrapped in Iraq s national flag.
BEIRUT (AP) — Angry residents attacked the municipality headquarters in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Tuesday, smashing windows and setting a room on fire, an outburst of violence that came after a house collapsed overnight in the area, killing two siblings. A large military force was sent to the site to deal with the violence. It was not immediately clear what had caused the house to collapse. The two killed were a 19-year-old woman and her older brother, according to local media. Tripoli has witnessed some of the largest protests since nationwide demonstrations broke out on Oct. 17 against widespread corruption and mismanagement. The protesters have since transitioned to demand an end to the rule of the political elite that has run the country following the 1975-90 civil war. Residents told the local LBC TV station that the collapse was the result of negligence, saying that the municipality has repeatedly ignored calls by the owners to renovate the old house. Their claims could not be immediately confirmed. Lebanon s state-run National News Agency said that the angry residents damaged the office of the mayor as well as a municipality car that was parked outside the building. It added that the army later intervened and prevented further violence. The violence came a day after Lebanese soldiers had to separate protesters and the bodyguards of a Lebanese lawmaker after scuffles broke near his house in Tripoli.
CAIRO (AP) — Over 110 Yemeni children were killed between January and October in the key port city of Hodeida and a southwestern province, an international charity said on Monday. Save the Children said in a report that 56 children were killed and 170 wounded as a direct result of fighting in Hodeida, despite a cease-fire there between Yemen s internationally recognized government and the Huthi rebels that was brokered by the U.N. last December in Sweden. “The Stockholm Agreement brought a glimmer of hope to civilians in the area, but the fighting is far from over,” said Mariam Aldogani, Save the Children s field manager for Hodeida. The city serves as a main passageway for aid and a lifeline for Huthi-controlled areas. The charity said it was forced to close some of its children s centers in Hodeida for three months this year due to security fears as a result of shelling by the warring parties. The U.N.-brokered deal, which also included a prisoner swap, has prevented massive humanitarian suffering in Yemen but has yet to be fully implemented. Another 57 children were killed in the province of Taiz in the first ten months of this year, more than double the toll in 2018 when 28 children were killed, the charity said. The fighting also wounded 49 children in Taiz. “Every day we receive wounded children in Save the Children-supported hospitals needing our care. In 2019, our team has given medical care to more than 500 children who have been caught up in this conflict, some with life-threatening injuries,” Aldogani said. She said that in once instance, Save the Children simultaneously treated six wounded children from two families, some of whom had broken legs and shrapnel wounds across their bodies. “I cannot forget the youngest girl, just three years old, with burns all over her hands” she said. “We need to stop this war on children,” she added. The conflict in Yemen began with the 2014 takeover of the capital, Sanaa, by Iranian-backed Huthi rebels who control much of the country s north. A Saudi-led coalition allied with the internationally recognized government has been fighting the Huthis since March 2015. In the relentless campaign, Saudi-led airstrikes have hit schools, hospitals and wedding parties and killed thousands of Yemeni civilians. The Huthis have used drones and missiles to attack Saudi Arabia. The war has killed over 100,000 people and created the world s worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical shortages. In Sanaa, the Huthis began Monday the trail of at least ten journalists who have been detained for more than four years over accusations of collaborating with the Saudi-led coalition, lawyer Abdel-Majid Sabra said. Sabra said the journalists were allegedly tortured, beaten and mistreated at the hands of the Houthi guards, and have been denied medical care since their detention in 2015. Nine of the ten were detained at the same time in June that year, when Huthi fighters raided a Sanaa hotel where the journalists had gathered because it offered electricity and internet access. The tenth were detained two months later, also in the capital. The Committee to Protect Journalists has repeatedly called for their release, along with other journalists detained by the Huthis. “The Huthis have demonstrated their brutality by holding at least 10 journalists in what by all accounts are deplorable conditions for nearly four years,” CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said in May. The war in Yemen has taken a toll on journalists and media outlets, which have suffered from airstrikes, arson attacks, arbitrary detentions, and other press freedom violations by both sides.
BAGHDAD (AP) — Anti-government protesters wielding a blood-drenched flag returned to Baghdad s central plaza on Saturday after a night of bloody attacks that left 25 people dead and more than 130 wounded. Storm clouds gathered over Khilani Square as the protesters surveyed the blackened facade of a parking garage that had served as their de facto command post before unknown assailants torched it Friday night. Buildings surrounding the square were pockmarked with bullet holes. One demonstrator collected as many as a dozen spent cartridges. The attack, which took place in darkness moments after the power was cut, marked a major escalation in assaults against protesters that have been taking place in recent weeks. It was among the deadliest since Oct. 1, when thousands of Iraqis first took to the streets calling for sweeping political reforms and the end of Iran s influence in Iraqi affairs. At least 400 have died at the hands of security forces firing live ammunition and tear gas to disperse the demonstrations. Friday s attacks also came hours after Washington slapped sanctions on the leader of Asaib al-Haq, a powerful Iran-backed militia accused of being behind deadly sniping attacks on protesters. The US Treasury sanctioned leader Qais al-Khazali, his brother Laith al-Khazali, a commander in the group, and Husain Falih Aziz al-Lami. Demonstrators feared the attacks would be followed by armed street fighting and more violence that would undermine the peaceful tone of their mass rallies. “Everyone is terrified,” said Noor, a protester who provided only her first name for fear of reprisal. “We don t want this to become a street war. That is why we are trying to stay peaceful. But day after day we find that we are alone.” Anti-government activists blame the attacks on Iran-backed militias, which have staged similar assaults against protester sit-ins in the capital and the country s southern cities. On Thursday, the militias attempted to hold their own demonstration in the square to counter anti-government protesters, many of whom were attacked with knives by unknown assailants. They later withdrew. Two Iraqi officials, who requested anonymity in line with regulations, said it was widely suspected that militiamen were involved in Friday night s attacks. Members of the Popular Mobilization Units, an official umbrella organization comprising an array of militia groups, have said the attacks during the protests have been aimed at infiltrators of the anti-government movement who were looking to cause disturbances. Falah Fayadh, chairman of the paramilitary PMUs, the program that oversees an array of Shia militia groups, directed the PMU forces to stay away from squares occupied by protesters, according to an internal statement issued Saturday and seen by The Associated Press. Those who disobeyed the order would be fired, Fayadh said in the statement. Protesters said the government s failure to protect them at the height of the hostilities on Friday forced them to rely on a militia linked to influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, also the leader of the Sairoon bloc, which holds the most seats in Parliament. Al-Sadr has supported the protests by sending Saraya Salam (Peace Brigades), a militia group under his control, to block roads and prevent anti-protest gunmen from entering during Friday s clashes. Iraqi officials said they believed al-Sadr would use his popularity on the street as political leverage in talks over the selection of a new premier. Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi resigned last week in response to the protests. Abdul-Mahdi s ascension to prime minister was the result of an uneasy alliance between the Sairoon bloc and parliament s other main bloc, the Fatah, which includes leaders associated with the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units headed by Hadi al-Amiri. Even protesters who are wary of al-Sadr s politics — they consider him part of the establishment they are protesting — said the presence of Saraya Salam members, who were unarmed, was key to their safety. “I wish the … army had come and fought for us so that other people don t feel that Sadr is protecting the protesters — because they are also a militia at the end of the day,” Noor said. For Iraqi officials inside the fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq s government, the presence of al-Sadr s militia on the street serves only to reinforce perceptions that the majority of anti-government protesters are in fact supporters of al-Sadr. Al-Sadr, meanwhile, said his home in the holy city of Najaf was hit by a drone strike on Saturday. He did not elaborate. Nassar al-Rubaie, head of Sairoon s political committee, decried the attack in televised remarks and called for an emergency parliamentary session to discuss the violence in Khilani Square. Friday s attacks had many protesters on edge. Mohamed, a protester who only provided his first name for fear of reprisal, said when he arrived at the square Friday night after receiving a call from distressed protesters, he saw groups of masked men wielding knives near the protesters command post at the parking garage. Twenty minutes later, he said, four white pickup trucks arrived from the direction of Abdul-Qadir Gilani mosque, adjacent to Khilani square, without license plates and car rying armed men wearing ski masks. “They fired at us, and we ran,” he said, noting that the electricity went off moments before. The armed men positioned themselves on the top floor of the parking garage and started shooting at the demonstrators below, said Mohamed, whose version of events was corroborated by a half-dozen other protesters. The shooting lasted for at least three hours, he said. The attacks claimed the lives of 22 protesters and three policemen, officials said. Iraqi security forces were deployed to streets leading to the square early Saturday. Some protesters accused the government of colluding with the masked gunmen, pointing to the power outage that happened around the same time as the attacks. But a senior Electricity Ministry official, who requested anonymity in line with regulations, denied the allegation. The official said it would have been easy for anyone to cut the power lines.
TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Officials in Libya s U.N.-supported government say they plan to confront Moscow over the alleged deployment of Russian mercenaries fighting alongside their opponents in the country s civil war. Libyan and U.S. officials accuse Russia of deploying fighters through a private security contractor, the Wagner Group, to key battleground areas in Libya in the past months. They say the Russian fighters are backing commander Khalifa Haftar, whose forces have been trying for months to capture the capital Tripoli. The U.N.-supported Government of National Accord is based in Tripoli. The GNA has documented between 600 to 800 Russian fighters in Libya and is collecting their names in a list to present to the Russian government, according to Khaled al-Meshri, the head of the Tripoli-based government s Supreme Council of State. “We are going to visit Russia after we collect all evidence and present to the authorities and see what they say,” al-Meshri told The Associated Press last week. He did not say when that visit would take place. Moscow has repeatedly denied playing any role in Libya s fighting. Haftar s self-styled Libyan National Army — made up of army units, ultraconservative Salafists, and tribesmen — launched its offensive on Tripoli in April after seizing much of eastern Libya from Islamic militants and other rivals in recent years. Haftar is backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as France and Russia, while the Tripoli-based government receives aid from Turkey, Qatar and Italy. Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. The country is now split between a government in the east, allied with Haftar, and the GNA in Tripoli in the west. Both sides are bolstered by militias. Fighting has stalled in recent weeks, with both sides dug in and shelling one another along Tripoli s southern reaches. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker told reporters last week that the State Department is working with European partners to impose sanctions on the Russian military contractor responsible for sending fighters to Tripoli. “The way that this organization of Russians in particular has operated before raises the specter of large-scale casualties in civilian populations,” he said. Schenker s comments came shortly after U.S. officials met with Haftar to press for a cease-fire and “expressed serious concern” over Russia s intervention in the conflict. But President Donald Trump has sent decidedly mixed messages to Haftar. Trump voiced support of Haftar when he launched his attempt to take over Tripoli, praising the commanders “anti-terrorism” efforts in a phone conversation. The call was a sharp break with the U.S. policy of supporting Libya s Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj. Haftar s offensive dealt a blow to U.N. efforts to bring warring parties together. Al-Meshri called for confidence-building measures and a push toward presidential and parliamentary elections. “Since Gadhafi s ouster, there have been no presidential elections. People are fed up,” he said. The Russians presence has further mired an already complex conflict. Al-Meshri maintains his administration has strong evidence that there are Russians fighters on the ground. He says that government forces have found cell phones, intercepted communications and seized personal belongings left behind in the chaos of battle. He said flight data show dates and names of Russians moving from Syria to Egypt and then the Jordanian capital of Amman before flying to the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, Haftar s seat of power. He didn t elaborate or present any of these documents or items to the AP. Wagner Group is believed to have sent mercenaries to multiple conflicts, including Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere, raising accusations that Moscow is using it to spread its influence. The firm is a military contractor run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to the Kremlin. Russian officials have refused in the past to comment on the firm s activities. By deploying fighters into Libya, Russia is embroiling itself in another conflict in the Middle East. Russia s military is involved in Syria s civil war, conducting airstrikes and deploying troops and military police. That operation successfully shored up Syrian President Bashar Assad s government and — at a relatively modest cost — helped Moscow expand its clout in the region. Analysts believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to find leverage with Western powers in oil-rich Libya. They say he also recognizes that the country is a gateway for many migrants trying to reach European shores. “Most of this is smoke and mirrors designed to induce fear,” said Anas Gamati, founder of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute. “Russian influence has done only two things: inflate their size and specter of their power in Libya. They re not positively engaged or trying to play a constructive role with diplomatic or political value.” Officially, Russia continues to maintain a dialogue with both sides. Haftar has visited Moscow several times the past years, and al-Meshri was part of a GNA delegation that met with Putin during a Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in March. The allegations of Russian interference come amid a renewed push for international players to reach a consensus on Libya. Germany is working with the United Nations to host a conference on Libya by early 2020. Observers hope that international players could exert enough pressure to stop the fighting. But others worry that Haftar s appetite for territory and power might prove too large. Former GNA defense minister Mahdi al-Barghathi, who left in the government in July, says the only way toward peace is for Haftar to be left with no powerful friends, and no other options. Otherwise, al-Barghathi said Haftar will be set to become another Gadhafi. “We don t want to go back to square one,” he said. As long as international powers remain divided, Libya s conflict risks continuing to play out as the world s latest proxy war, some observers warn. “Putin would like nothing more than to keep Europe busy and divided over Libya, scared of illegal immigration, paralyzed by right-wing populism that threatens the very idea of the EU,” said Mohammed Eljareh, an analyst who runs Libya Outlook, a consulting company on Libyan affairs. “All of this is music to Putin s ears,” he said. Reporting by Maggie Michael; Associated Press writers Matt Lee in Washington, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Isabel DeBre in Cairo contributed to this report.
The committee on the legalization of churches at its Wednesday meeting approved legalizing the status of 87 churches and affiliated buildings, bringing the number legalized since the committee began work a year-and-a-half ago to 1,322 churches and buildings, Prime Minister Spokesperson Nader Saad announced. Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly chaired the Wednesday meeting in the presence of ministers of justice, parliamentary affairs, local development, housing, and representatives of the concerned authorities and Christian communities.
GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) — A U.S. charity building a tent hospital in the Gaza Strip is causing Palestinian unease by offering foreign medical volunteers the opportunity of weekend tourism in Israel, just across the volatile border. The facility, to be operated by the U.S. evangelical Christian group FriendShips, had won rare joint support from Gaza s Islamist rulers Hamas and their enemy, Israel, which maintains a blockade along its frontier with the enclave. Now, however, eyebrows are being raised in Gaza over a Holy Land pilgrimage pitch on the Louisiana-based organization s website that is promoting an endeavor to improve health services strained by years of conflict. The 50-bed encampment in northern Gaza across from Israel s Erez border crossing “will offer a wonderful opportunity to work in an important and productive project and, at the same time, to see and enjoy the Biblical sites of Israel”, the website said. Volunteers at the facility would be expected to work and live onsite Monday through Thursday but they “will be free to go to Israel and tour” on their days off, it said. Asked about the NGO s tourism perk to volunteers, Hamas official Basim Naeem said: “We are certainly against using our people s suffering to market Israel or attracting employees at our people s expense.” There was no suggestion from Hamas that it was about to scrap the project as a result of the sightseeing offer. A de facto truce brokered between Israel and Hamas by Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations after deadly cross-border fighting in May included the mediators support for the field hospital. Gaza s 13 hospitals often lack equipment for specialized treatments, while its two million residents need hard-to-obtain permits from Israeli authorities to get medical care in Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The FriendShips encampment will have “telemedicine for worldwide consultation with specialists” and eventually offer cancer treatment and PTSD therapy, among other services, the NGO s website says. “It will either be an uplifting humanitarian tool for our people, or it will be asked to leave immediately,” senior Hamas official Khalil Al-Hayya said. FriendShips, which previously operated a tent hospital along Israel s border with Syria, did not respond to multiple requests for comment and it was not clear when the facility would open. Israel declined to comment on the project. It keeps Gaza under a blockade, citing security concerns posed by Hamas, with which it has fought three wars and waged dozens of other deadly skirmishes over the past decade. But the hospital s construction with private U.S. funding drew criticism from Hamas s rivals in the Palestinian Authority (PA), which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank. “It will be an American-Israeli military base put forward on the land of Gaza Strip,” said Mai Alkaila, the PA s health minister.
BEIRUT (AP) — An airstrike on a market in a rebel-held town in the country s northwestern province of Idlib Monday killed at least 10 civilians and wounded others, Syrian opposition activists said. The airstrike comes amid an increase of violence in Idlib province, the country s last opposition stronghold where fighting between troops and insurgents killed dozens of gunmen on both sides over the weekend. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Monday morning airstrike on the market in Maaret al-Numan killed 10 and wounded others. The Aleppo Media Center, an activist collective, that covers rebel-held areas in northern Syria also said 10 civilians were killed and dozens were wounded. The opposition s Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, said nine civilians, including two women, were killed while 13, including two children, were wounded. The group said the death toll is not final yet. “The bombardment of the market that was packed with civilians led to a massacre and wide destruction,” the Civil Defense said on its Facebook page that also posted photos of its paramedic removing bodies from the market. A beheaded man laid in a pool of blood in the market. The Observatory and the Civil Defense reported another airstrike on the nearby town of Saraqeb saying it killed and wounded several people. Syrian troops launched a four-month offensive earlier this year against Idlib, which is dominated by al-Qaeda-linked militants. The Syrian government offensive forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee their homes. A fragile cease-fire halted the advance at the end of August, but in recent weeks it has been repeatedly violated.
Three people were killed and four others injured on Sunday when the western wall of an ancient church at the Monastery of Saint Fana of the Mallawi Diocese in Upper Egypt s Minya gonernorate, the Coptic Orthodox Church has announced. Investigations are underway to unveil the reasons behind the tragic incident, the church statement said. The church expressed deepest condolences to the families of the martyrs and prayed for the injured to have a speedy recovery. The Ministry of Antiquities also expressed "deep sorrow over the incident and heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims and the injured."
BAGHDAD (AP) — Security forces in Iraq shot dead 27 anti-government protesters in a 24-hour period, amid spiraling violence in the capital and the country s south, as Iran condemned the burning of its consulate. Security forces Thursday fired live ammunition, killing four protesters and wounding 22 on the strategic Ahrar Bridge in Baghdad, security and medical officials said. Violence across southern Iraq continued throughout the night, with security forces killing 23 protesters and wounding 165 since Wednesday evening. Protesters closed roads and police and military forces were deployed across key oil-rich provinces. In Baghdad, protesters attempted to cross the Ahrar Bridge leading nearby to the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq s government. Protesters are occupying parts of three bridges – Jumhuriya, Sinak and Ahrar – all leading to the fortified area. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. Protesters had set fire to the Iranian consulate in the holy city of Najaf late Wednesday, in one of the worst attacks targeting Iranian interests in the country since the anti-government protests erupted two months ago. The Iranian staff were not harmed and escaped out the back door. Anti-government protests have gripped Iraq since Oct. 1, when thousands took to the streets in Baghdad and the predominantly Shia south. The largely leaderless movement accuses the government of being hopelessly corrupt and has also decried Iran s growing influence in Iraqi state affairs. At least 350 people have been killed by security forces, which routinely used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse crowds, sometimes shooting protesters directly with gas canisters, causing several fatalities. Separately, the U.S. Embassy denounced a recent decision by Iraq s media regulator to suspend nine television channels, calling for the Communications and Media Commission to reverse its decision. Thursday s statement from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad also condemned attacks and harassment against journalists. Local channel Dijla TV had its license suspended Tuesday for its coverage of the protests, and its office was closed and equipment confiscated, according an official from one of the channels under threat. Other channels have been asked by the regulatory commission to sign a pledge “agreeing to adhere to its rules,” said the official, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal. The Islamic State group also claimed responsibility for Tuesday s coordinated bombings in three Baghdad neighborhoods, which killed five people. That was the first apparent coordinated attack since anti-government protests began. The bombings took place far from Baghdad s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of weeks of anti-government protests that have posed the biggest security challenge to Iraq since the defeat of IS. Tehran called for a “responsible, strong and effective” response to the incident from Iraq s government, said Abbas Mousavi, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, in statements to Iran s official IRNA news agency. Iraq s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the torching of the consulate, saying it was perpetrated by “people outside of the genuine protesters,” in a statement, adding that the purpose had been to harm bilateral relations between the countries. One demonstrator was killed and 35 wounded when police fired live ammunition to try to prevent them from entering the consulate building. Once inside, the demonstrators removed the Iranian flag and replaced it with an Iraqi one, according to a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with regulations. A curfew was imposed in Najaf after the consulate was burned. Security forces were heavily deployed around main government buildings and religious institutions Thursday morning. The province is the headquarters of the country s Shia religious authority headed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Al-Sistani has been largely supportive of protester demands, siding with them by repeatedly calling on political parties to implement serious reforms to placate demonstrators. The consulate attack comes after days of sit-ins and road closures with protesters cutting access to main thoroughfares and bridges with burning tires. Protesters have also lately targeted the state s economic interests in the south by blocking key ports and roads to oil fields. In the oil-rich province of Nassiriya, 23 protesters were killed overnight and 165 wounded by security forces who fired live ammunition to disperse them from a key bridge, security and medical officials said Thursday. Demonstrators had been blocking Nasr Bridge leading to the city center for several days. Security forces moved in late Wednesday to open the main thoroughfare. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. By Thursday afternoon, special forces were transferred from neighboring Najaf and Diwanieh provinces to Nassiriya to contain the violence, security officials said. In Basra, security forces were deployed in the city s main roads to prevent protesters from staging sit-ins, with instructions to arrest demonstrators if they tried to block roads. Basra s streets were open as of Thursday morning, but roads leading to the two main Gulf commodities ports in Umm Qasr and Khor al-Zubair remained closed. Schools and official public institutions were also closed. Protesters had brought traffic in the oil-rich province to a halt for days by burning tires and barricading roads.
BEIRUT (AP) — Dozens of people were injured in overnight confrontations between supporters and opponents of Lebanon s president, most of them in fistfights and stone throwing that erupted in cities and towns across the country, the Lebanese Red Cross said on Wednesday. The nationwide uprising against the country s ruling elite has remained overwhelmingly peaceful since it began on Oct. 17. But as the political deadlock for forming a new government drags on, tempers are rising. President Michel Aoun has yet to hold consultations with parliamentary blocs on choosing a new prime minister after the government resigned a month ago. Outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was Aoun s and Hezbollah s favorite candidate to lead a new Cabinet, withdrew his candidacy for the premiership, saying he hoped to clear the way for a solution to the political impasse after over 40 days of protests. Protesters have resorted to road closures and other tactics in an effort to pressure politicians into responding to their demands for a new government. The prolonged deadlock is awakening sectarian and political rivalries, with scuffles breaking out in areas that were deadly frontlines during the country s 1975-90 civil war. The violence first began on Sunday night after supporters of the main two Shia groups, the militant Hezbollah and Amal Movement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, attacked protesters on Beirut s Ring Road. That thoroughfare had in the past connected predominantly Muslim neighborhoods in the city s west with Christian areas in the east. Some of the most intense clashes occurred Tuesday night between the Shia suburb of Chiyah and the adjacent Christian area of Ein Rummaneh, where stones were hurled between supporters of Hezbollah and rival groups supporting the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces. A shooting in Ein Rummaneh in April 1975 triggered the 15-year civil war that killed nearly 150,000 people. Also on Tuesday night, supporters and opponents of Aoun engaged in fistfights and stone throwing in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon s second largest, injuring 24 people; seven were taken to the hospital. In the mountain town of Bikfaya, 10 people were injured including five who were hospitalized after scuffles and stone throwing between Aoun s supports and supporters of the right-wing Christian Lebanese Phalange Party, according to the Red Cross paramedic group. The violence broke out after a convoy of dozens of vehicles carrying Aoun supporters drove into the town, which has been historically a Phalange stronghold. “What happened yesterday was a mobile strife that intentionally tried to provoke our people,” said Phalange leader, legislator Samy Gemayel. “We warn our people that there are attempts to attack their revolution, which should remain peaceful.” Hezbollah and Amal supporters also attacked protesters in the northeastern city of Baalbek and the southern port city of Tyre. Police and troops deployed in the areas of clashes and got the situation under control hours after the violence broke out. Hariri had resigned on Oct. 29 in response to the mass protests ignited by new taxes and a severe financial crisis. His resignation met a key demand of the protesters but plunged the country into uncertainty, with no clear path to resolving its economic and political problems. Hariri had insisted on heading a government of technocrats, while his opponents, including Hezbollah, want a Cabinet made up of both experts and politicians. For weeks, the Lebanese security forces have taken pains to protect anti-government protesters, in stark contrast to Iraq, where police have killed more than 340 people over the past month in a bloody response to similar protests.
Iraqi officials said one anti-government protester has been killed by security forces on Tuesday and 21 others wounded amid ongoing clashes with security forces in Baghdad. Security and hospital officials said the protester died when he was struck with a rubber bullet fired by security forces on Rasheed Street near the strategic Ahrar Bridge. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. Protesters are occupying part of three key bridges _ Jumhuriya, Ahrar and Sinak _ in a standoff with security forces. At least 17 protesters have died in renewed clashes, which kicked off last Thursday. The historic Rasheed Street, known for its crumbling architecture, has been a flashpoint in the recent violent escalations. Security forces have used live ammunition, tear gas and rubber bullets to repel protesters from scaling a barricade. Over 350 people have died and thousands more wounded since Oct. 1, when thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to decry rampant government corruption, poor services and scarcity of jobs. The leaderless uprising seeks to dismantle the post-2003 political system.
Kenji Hayashida thought about committing suicide in the years after an atomic bomb was dropped on his hometown of Nagasaki. On Sunday he will hear Pope Francis call there for a world without nuclear weapons, a message 81-year-old supports passionately. Like many ageing survivors of the attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Hayashida hopes the pope can bring fresh international attention to the cause of nuclear abolition, and also keep alive the memory of the devastating bombings. A day before the pope arrived in the city, Hayashida and fellow local Catholics were rehearsing the hymns they will perform for Francis when he delivers mass in Nagasaki. “We must not use nuclear weapons. I don t even think nuclear deterrence works,” Hayashida told AFP at a church in the southwestern Japanese city. He said he was “certain” that the pope — who once hoped to become a missionary to Japan — would send a strong anti-nuclear message. Hayashida and his fellow choir members have been practicing for two months to prepare for the historic moment. But the pope s visit has special significance for those, like him, who survived the nuclear bombings at the end of World War II. Hayashida was seven at the time of the US attack. He lost his mother and two brothers, and suffered severe burns on his head, arms and legs. “I felt something was wrong with my head and I touched it. Then I saw blood all over my hand,” he recalled. It took him more than six months to walk again and he became reluctant to go out for fear of people staring at his injuries. – A living hell – At least 74,000 people were killed in Nagasaki when the bomb was dropped on August 9, 1945, three days after a first nuclear attack in Hiroshima killed around 140,000. The attacks are still marked annually in Japan, but many survivors fear people are forgetting the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. “We must not repeat the atrocity of nuclear bombs,” Minoru Moriuchi, an 82-year-old Catholic survivor in Nagasaki, told AFP. “The Pope never meddles with politics but I hope people listening to his message will think seriously about the nuclear issue.” Moriuchi described a “living hell” after the bombing. “My father s sister ran away to our house with her two children and I never forgot this sight — their bodies were reddish-black and completely burnt” “Four other relatives were brought in… but they didn t look like humans,” he said. The pope s visit comes at a time when many survivors feel the international consensus on the danger posed by nuclear weapons is being eroded. North Korea has continued to fire short-range projectiles and test weaponry, while the US and Russia failed to renew a Cold War-era nuclear pact in August, triggering renewed fears of an arms race. Next year will also see talks reviewing the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which seeks to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and technology. – A world without survivors – “The world is in a critical situation,” said Masako Wada, a 76-year-old survivor of the Nagasaki attack. “In today s Japan, not many people know about nuclear abolition. People don t relate to the issue.” She fears history is in danger of being forgotten as survivors age. “Survivors are on average in their 80s. I m horrified when I imagine the world without survivors telling their stories,” she said. For Hayashida, the pope s visit carries a special personal resonance because of the Christian Catholic faith that helped guide him through the aftermath of the attack. “It wasn t easy when I was young. I never say this to my wife, but I even thought of committing suicide before getting married,” he said. But he now believes that God wanted him to live. “My life was extended by the providence of God. I was left to live… to protect the faith.”
Pope Francis Sunday described the use of nuclear bombs as “a crime”, as he took his appeal for an end to atomic weapons to Hiroshima in an emotional meeting with survivors. The visit came hours after a highly symbolic stop in the city of Nagasaki, where Francis railed against all nuclear weapons, including their use as a deterrent. At least 140,000 people died after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, with another 74,000 killed after a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. “In barely an instant, everything was devoured by a black hole of destruction and death. From that abyss of silence, we continue even today to hear the cries of those who are no longer,” Francis said at the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima. “With deep conviction, I wish once more to declare that the use of atomic energy for purposes of war is today, more than ever, a crime not only against the dignity of human beings but against any possible future for our common home,” he added. He first signed the book of remembrance, saying he would “grieve in solidarity” with the victims, receiving warm applause from the assembled worshippers. He then clasped hands with several elderly survivors, some of them overcome with emotion on meeting the 82-year-old pontiff and sharing their harrowing testimony. Francis has made the call for a world without nuclear weapons a central theme of his four-day trip to Japan, starting his visit in two cities synonymous with the horrors of the atomic bomb. He said he felt a “duty to come here as a pilgrim of peace” and paid tribute to the “strength and dignity” of those who survived the attack and the physical and emotional toll of the aftermath. Like in Nagasaki earlier on Sunday, he laid a wreath of white flowers as a tribute and bowed his head in prayer before a moment of reflection with deep bells tolling in the background to remember those killed in the catastrophe. – True peace is unarmed : Francis – Survivors from Hiroshima described to the pope their personal experiences and backed his abolitionist message, including Yoshiko Kajimoto, who was 14 at the time of the attack. She recalled “people walking side by side like ghosts,” telling Francis: “No one in this world can imagine such a scene of hell.” The ageing survivors of the attacks have expressed fear that the memory of the bombings may disappear after their death, and some hope the pope will bring renewed attention to their stories. “I believe that passing on the experience of Hiroshima to the next generation is the final mission assigned to us A-bomb survivors,” survivor Koji Hosokawa told Francis in testimony read out as he was unable to attend. In Hiroshima, the Argentine pontiff repeated his insistence that there was no place in the world for nuclear weapons, even as a deterrent. This marks a break with past pontiffs — in a 1982 UN speech, Pope John Paul II described nuclear deterrence as a necessary evil. “How can we propose peace if we constantly invoke the threat of nuclear war as a legitimate recourse for the resolution of conflicts?” Francis said. “A true peace can only be an unarmed peace.” In Nagasaki earlier, he also took aim at the arms industry, describing money spent and made on weapons as an “affront crying out to Heaven”. – Fondness and affection – The Argentine pontiff is fulfilling a long-held ambition to preach in Japan — a country he wanted to visit as a young missionary. “Ever since I was young I have felt a fondness and affection for these lands,” said Francis when he arrived in Japan. As in Thailand, the first leg of his Asian tour, Catholicism is a minority religion in Japan. Most people follow a mix of Shinto and Buddhism, with only an estimated 440,000 Catholics in the country. Christians in Japan suffered centuries of repression, being tortured to recant their faith, and Francis paid tribute in Nagasaki to the martyrs who died for their religion, saying they had inspired him as a young Jesuit. Francis returns to Tokyo on Sunday night where he will on Monday meet victims of Japan s “triple disaster” — the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. He is also scheduled to deliver a mass at a Tokyo baseball stadium, meet Japan s new Emperor Naruhito and hold talks with Japanese government officials and local Catholic leaders.
Israel said its warplanes carried out a “very intense” attack against Iranian forces and Syrian army targets in Syria on Wednesday, in raids a monitoring group reported killed at least 23 people. In a rare confirmation of their operations in Syria, the Israeli army said they had carried out dozens of strikes against the Iranian elite Quds Force and the Syrian military, in response to four rockets fired at Israel a day before. Britain-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said 23 people were killed in the strikes — 21 fighters and two civilians. Sixteen were non-Syrian fighters, the group s head Rami Abdel Rahman said. Iran has fought alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad s forces in the country s eight-year civil war, heightening Israeli concern over the presence of its arch foe along its border. “Whoever hurts us, we will hurt him,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “This is what we did overnight vis-a-vis military targets of the Iranian Quds Force and Syrian military targets in Syria after a barrage of rockets was launched at Israel.” The Israeli army said they had targeted about a dozen military sites, including warehouses and military command centers. “It was very intense,” spokesman Jonathan Conricus told AFP. The most important target, he said, was a control facility at the main international airport in Damascus. “It is the main building that serves the (Iranian) Revolutionary Guards… for coordinating the logistic facilities of transport of military hardware from Iran to Syria and from Syria onwards,” he said. Heavy attack Israel has carried out frequent air and missile strikes against Iranian targets inside Syria since the country descended into civil war in 2011, but rarely comments on them. On Tuesday, four rockets were fired at Israel from Syria, with the army blaming an “Iranian force.” Israel s Iron Dome missile defence system intercepted the rockets. Conricus said it was the sixth time Iranian forces had tried to attack Israel directly in recent years, most recently in August. The Israeli attack Wednesday began in the early hours, with a series of large explosions rocking Damascus, an AFP correspondent in the city said. Syria s state news agency SANA said Syrian anti-aircraft defences responded to a “heavy attack” by Israeli warplanes over the capital. The Israeli army confirmed missiles were fired towards its jets but denied any were hit. In response to the fire, it said, “a number of Syrian aerial defence batteries were destroyed”. “We hold the Syrian regime responsible for the actions that take place in Syrian territory and warn them against allowing further attacks against Israel,” the army said. SANA added that the strikes were carried out from “Lebanese and Palestinian territories”. Israel sometimes launches attacks on Syria from planes flying over neighbouring Lebanon. Syria s civil war has been complicated by the involvement of multiple foreign powers, with Russian, Iranian and US forces on the ground backing various parties. Russia, which has backed Assad s regime militarily, condemned the Israeli attack. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov was quoted by TASS news agency as saying the operation “totally contradicts international law”. “We are going to examine the circumstances, all this is very bad,” he added. Flare-up The Observatory said Tuesday s rockets were fired from positions around the Syrian capital held by groups loyal to the Damascus government. The flare-up follows a major escalation in and around the Palestinian enclave of Gaza last week when Israel killed a top commander of militant group Islamic Jihad, which is allied with Damascus. The killing was accompanied by a second strike, unconfirmed by Israel, on an Islamic Jihad leader in Damascus that killed his son and another person, according to SANA. The hundreds of strikes Israel has carried out in Syria have mostly been against Iranian targets or positions of Iran s Lebanese ally, Shiite militant group Hezbollah. Both are sworn enemies of the Jewish state and have backed the Syrian president s forces. The war in Syria has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Days of protests over rising fuel prices and a subsequent government crackdown have killed at least 106 people across Iran, Amnesty International said on Tuesday, adding that the real figure may be much higher. Iran s government has not released a toll of those arrested, injured or killed in the protests that began Friday and spread quickly across at least 100 cities and towns. But it disputed Amnesty s report through its mission to the United Nations, calling it “baseless allegations and fabricated figures.” However, a U.N. agency earlier said it feared the unrest may have killed “a significant number of people.” Amnesty cited “credible reports” for its tally and said it “believes that the real death toll may be much higher, with some reports suggesting as many as 200 have been killed.” Iranian authorities shut down internet access to the outside world Saturday, an outage has left only state media and government officials able to say what is happening in the nation of 80 million. State television showed video Tuesday of burned Qurans at a mosque in the suburbs of the capital, Tehran, as well as pro-government rallies, part of its efforts to both demonize and minimize the protests. Absent in the coverage was an acknowledgement of what sparked the demonstrations. The jump in gasoline prices represents yet another burden on Iranians who have suffered through a painful currency collapse, following President Donald Trump s unilateral withdrawal of the United States from Iran s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, and the reimposition of crippling U.S. economic sanctions. Relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani has promised the fuel price increase will fund new subsidies for poor families. But the decision has unleashed anger among Iranians, like Maryam Kazemi, a 29-year-old accountant in the southern Tehran suburb of Khaniabad, who said the new cost of fuel was “putting pressure on ordinary people.” “It was a bad decision at a bad time. The economic situation has long been difficult for people, and Rouhani unexpectedly implemented the decision on fuel,” she said. Amnesty said it gathered its figures from interviewing journalists and human rights activists, then crosschecked the information. In its breakdown, it showed the hardest-hit areas as the western Kermanshah province and its oil-rich southwestern province of Khuzestan. Many online videos released before the internet outage had shown unrest there. “Video footage shows security forces using firearms, water cannons and tear gas to disperse protests and beating demonstrators with batons,” Amnesty said. “Images of bullet casings left on the ground afterwards, as well as the resulting high death toll, indicate that they used live ammunition.” Amnesty, citing eyewitnesses corroborated by video footage, said snipers also shot into crowds of people from rooftops and, in one case, a helicopter. So far, scattered reports in state-run and semiofficial media have reported only six deaths. The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights earlier issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned” about reports of live ammunition being used against demonstrators. It also urged protesters to demonstrate peacefully. “We are especially alarmed that the use of live ammunition has allegedly caused a significant number of deaths across the country,” spokesman Rupert Colville said in a statement. Colville added that it has been “extremely difficult” to verify the overall death toll. Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for Iran s U.N. mission, told The Associated Press that “any casualty figures not confirmed by the government are speculative and not reliable, and in many cases part and parcel of a disinformation campaign waged against Iran from outside the country.” “The baseless allegations and fabricated figures by biased Western entities do not shake government s determination in making prudent economic decisions,” he said. Meanwhile, an article published Tuesday in the hard-line Kayhan newspaper suggested that executions loomed for those who led violent protests. Though the state-owned newspaper has a small circulation, its managing editor Hossein Shariatmadari was personally appointed by Iran s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “Some reports say that the judiciary considers execution by hanging for the riot leaders a definite punishment,” Kahyan said, without elaborating. It also repeated an allegation that protest leaders came from abroad. Khamenei on Sunday specifically named those aligned with the family of Iran s late shah, ousted 40 years ago, and an exile group called the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq. The MEK calls for the overthrow of Iran s government and enjoys the support of Trump s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Police and security forces were on Tehran s streets on Tuesday in fewer numbers. Traffic also appeared to be flowing better, after part of the demonstrations saw people abandon their cars on major roadways. Authorities postponed four soccer matches in different parts of the country scheduled for Thursday and Friday, the Iranian weekend, according to the semiofficial ISNA news agency. With the internet outage and phone services spotty, it remained difficult to know the situation in some regions. The protests were prompted by a plunging economy. Many Iranians have seen their savings evaporate amid scarce jobs and the collapse of the national currency, the rial, since Trump withdrew Washington from the nuclear deal over a year ago and imposed sanctions. The rial now trades at over 123,000 to $1, compared to 32,000 to $1 at the time the deal took effect. Cheap gasoline is practically considered a birthright in Iran, home to the world s fourth-largest crude oil reserves despite decades of economic woes since its 1979 Islamic Revolution. Gasoline remains among the cheapest in the world, with the new prices jumping 50% to a minimum of 15,000 rials per liter. That s 12 cents a liter, or about 50 cents a gallon. A gallon of regular gas in the U.S. costs $2.59 by comparison. The U.N. rights office addressed that background of economic anger across Iran in its statement. “Protests of this nature and on this scale are an indication of deep-rooted and often well-founded grievances that cannot simply be brushed aside,” Colville said. Those grievances could be heard in Khaniabad and elsewhere around Tehran. Several described taking part in peaceful protests later hijacked by violent masked demonstrators. Others heard gunfire. “We were out to protest the gasoline price on Saturday,” said Reza Nobari, a 33-year-old car mechanic. “Suddenly a group of six or seven who covered their faces appeared together and started to break the windows of a bank. This wasn t what we were out for.” Jafar Abbasi, a 58-year-old who runs a dairy, said he saw another group of people who arrived in a van smash the windows of nearby shops. “Some looted the place and some other quickly disappeared,” he said. He added: “This is all the result of Rouhani s decision to increase the price of fuel.”
BEIRUT (AP) — Thousands of protesters rallying against the Lebanese political elite blocked roads in central Beirut on Tuesday, preventing lawmakers from reaching the parliament and forcing the postponement of a legislative session. The session had been scheduled even though the country is still without a Cabinet following the prime minister s resignation amid unprecedented demonstrations that have gripped Lebanon since mid-October. The protesters scuffled with riot police as they closed all roads leading to the parliament building in Beirut. When one legislator headed toward the building and could not reach it and turned back, his bodyguards opened fire in the air to clear the way. No one was hurt in the shooting. The protesters are questioning the constitutionality of a parliament session in the absence of a government. An earlier session last Tuesday was postponed amid the protests. Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned his government on Oct. 29 in response to the protests, which erupted over proposed new taxes but have since snowballed into calls for the government to resign and for the entire political elite that has ruled Lebanon since the end of its 1975-90 civil war to step aside. The political deadlock comes as Lebanon is passing through its worst economic and financial crisis in decades. The country, which suffers from widespread corruption, has one of the highest debts in the world, standing at $86 billion, or 150 of the GDP. Meanwhile, Lebanese banks reopened to customers on Tuesday after a week-long strike during which bank employees refused to come to work, fearing for their security amid random capital controls that have angered clients. On Monday, the Banks Association declared formal controls, limiting withdrawals to $1,000 per week, and allowing transfers abroad only for “urgent matters.” However, most banks on Tuesday were allowing depositors to withdraw only $500 from U.S. dollar accounts. Heavy police and army reinforcements were deployed in downtown Beirut since late Monday to cordon off the area around the parliament. Thousands of young protesters thronged around the parliament building, blocking the entrances and vowing to disrupt the session. Some protesters tried to break through the barbed wire, scuffling with riot police, while women protesters tried to form a live barrier between the two sides. “We are here today because there is a parliament session that is anti-constitutional,” said protester Rania al-Akhras, speaking in English and decrying the ineffectiveness of the legislators. “What they need to be doing is selecting a prime minister and a government.” Later on Tuesday, the parliament s secretary-general, Adnan Daher, read a statement saying that the session has been postponed “until a new date is set.” He added that current parliamentary committees will continue their work as there was no session on Tuesday to elect new committees. President Michel Aoun has not set a date for consultations to select a new prime minister and there are deep divisions between the country s political powers over the shape of the future Cabinet.
One Egyptian woman is taking on the country s inheritance laws that mean female heirs inherit half that of men. Since her father s death last year, Huda Nasrallah, a Christian, has stood before three different judges to demand an equal share of the property left to her two brothers by their father. Yet courts have twice issued rulings against her, basing them on Islamic inheritance laws that favor male heirs. Nasrallah, a 40-year-old Christian human rights lawyer, is now challenging the rulings in a higher court. A final verdict is expected to be handed down later this month. She has formulated her case around Christian doctrine which dictates that heirs, regardless of their sex, receive equal shares. “It is not really about inheritance, my father did not leave us millions of Egyptian pounds,” she said. “I have the right to ask to be treated equally as my brothers.” Calls for equal inheritance rights began to reverberate across the Arab world after the Tunisian government had proposed a bill to this effect last year. Muslim feminists hailed the bill. But there has been a backlash from elsewhere in the Arab world. Egypt s Al-Azhar, the highest Sunni religious institution in the Muslim world, vehemently dismissed the proposal as contradictory to Islamic law and destabilizing to Muslim societies. But there is hope that Tunisia could have broken the taboo on the topic for the region. Nasrallah belongs to Egypt s estimated ten million Coptic Christians, who live in a predominantly Muslim society governed by a constitution in which Islamic Shariah is the main source of legislation. Christians face restrictions in inter-religious marriages and church building, and are banned from proselytizing to Muslims. Egypt s legal system grants the Coptic church full authority over personal status matters of Copts, namely marriage and divorce. But the church does not have the same powers over its followers inheritance rights. One of the oldest Christian communities in the world, the Egyptian Coptic church is also deeply conservative on social matters, banning divorce except in cases of adultery or conversion to Islam. Nasrallah says she is making her case on religious grounds because she believes the court is more likely to respect existing structures within the society. She says she is trying to capitalize on a rare Christian doctrine that respects gender equality. Karima Kamal, a Coptic female columnist at the privately-owned al-Masry al-Youm daily, says that Nasrallah s case highlights the double discrimination that Coptic women can face in a society where religion is printed on government-issued identification cards. “You should not implement the rules of one faith on people of another faith,” she says. In early December 2018, Nasrallah s father, a former state clerk, died, leaving behind a four-story apartment building in a Cairo low-income neighborhood and a bank deposit. When she and her brothers filed their request for inheritance at a local court, Nasrallah invoked a church-sanctioned Coptic bylaw that calls for equal distribution of inheritance. She says she was encouraged by a 2016 ruling that a Cairo court handed down in favor of a Coptic woman who challenged Islamic inheritance laws. Nasrallah s brothers also testified that they would like their father s inheritance to be divided fairly between them, but the court has twice ignored their testimony. Many Coptic men prefer to benefit from the Islamic laws, Nasrallah said, using the excuse that it s out of their hands. “The issue of inheritance goes beyond religious rules. It has to do with the nature of the society we are living in and Egypt s misogynistic judicial system,” said Hind Ahmed Zaki, a political science assistant professor with Connecticut University. She says the state fears that if they grant equal property rights to Christian women, Muslim women will soon ask for the same. Girgis Bebawy, a Coptic lawyer, has represented dozens of Copts in similar cases over the last two years, though he has yet to win a single one. He s hoping that the latest case, which is currently before Egypt s Supreme Constitutional Court, could end differently. “It s religious intolerance,” he says. Many Coptic families decide to settle inheritance matters outside the legal system, but Nasrallah says that as a lawyer, she hopes her case could set a precedent for others. “If I didn t take it to court, who would?” she said.
Grand Imam of Egypt s Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb and the the head of the Catholic Church Pope Francis II reviewed the designs of the new interfaith complex, the Abrahamic Family House, during their meeting with members of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity in the Vatican City on Friday. The Abrahamic Family House, which is the first project supervised by the Human Fraternity committee, will be built in Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates capital, Abu Dhabi, and is scheduled to be completed by 2022. The complex will comprise a church, a mosque, and a synagogue, sharing a collective space. Grand Imam El-Tayeb was in in Rome both to meet with Pope Francis II and to participate in the "Interfaith Summit on Promoting Child Dignity in the Digital World," held on 14-15 November, at the Vatican s Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The Abrahamic Family House should be a reflection of the values in the Document on Human Fraternity, and aims to promote inter-religious dialogue and the values of tolerance and coexistence among peoples of different religions, cultures and beliefs, according to Al-Azhar. During their meeting with members of the Human Fraternity committee, Pope Francis and Sheikh El-Tayeb urged the committee members to turn the Document on Human Fraternity into tangible work on the ground. Pope Francis told the committee that the Abrahamic Family House was a “genius idea” and an embodiment of the values of human fraternity. The Document on Human Fraternity was launched in February 2019 in Abu Dhabi after it was signed by Pope Francis and Sheikh El-Tayeb. The document is a joint declaration of “good and heartfelt aspirations” from the two religious leaders, and should serve as a “guide for future generations to advance a culture of mutual respect.” The Higher Committee of Human Fraternity was formed to achieve the objectives of the document through executive measures and operational frameworks. The latest member to join the committee is former director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Irina Bokova, 67, who was the first woman to serve as UNESCO director-general for two consecutive terms (2009-2017).
BAGHDAD (Reuters) — Security forces killed two protesters and wounded 35 others in Baghdad on Thursday, police and medical sources said, as thousands of Iraqis continued a wave of anti-government protests. One protester died immediately after a tear gas canister hit his head and another died in hospital from wounds from a stun bomb fired by security forces, the sources said. Security forces used live fire, rubber bullets and shot tear gas canisters in a bid to disperse hundreds of protesters gathered near Tahrir Square, a Reuters cameraman said. Most of those hurt had choked on tear gas or had been hit by rubber bullets and were taken to hospital, medical sources said. Protesters said the security forces had stepped up their firing of tear gas canisters and rubber bullets early on Thursday morning. More than 300 people have been killed since Oct. 1, as security forces have fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at crowds of protesters. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi s government has taken some measures to try to quell the unrest, including handouts to the poor and creating more job opportunities for college graduates. But it has failed to keep up with the growing demands of demonstrators who are now calling for an overhaul of Iraq s sectarian political system and the departure of its entire ruling elite. The unrest is among the biggest and most complex challenges to the current ruling elite since it took power after the U.S. invasion and the toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Exchanges of fire triggered by Israel s targeted killing of a top militant in Gaza raged for a second day Wednesday and showed little sign of easing, with 22 Palestinians killed. Fresh rocket barrages were fired at Israel, which responded with strikes on what it said were Islamic Jihad militant sites and rocket-launching squads in the Gaza Strip. Air raid sirens wailed and fireballs exploded as air defense missiles intercepted rockets, sending Israelis rushing to bomb shelters. In Gaza, residents surveyed damage and mourned the dead outside a mortuary and at funerals. UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov was expected in Cairo for talks on halting the fighting, a diplomatic source said, but a source close to the discussions warned the risk of further escalation remained high. In comments Wednesday morning, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Islamic Jihad must stop its stop rocket attacks or “absorb more and more blows”. He reiterated his warning that “this could take time” and said Israel would respond to attacks “without mercy.” Islamic Jihad spokesman Musab al-Barayem said the group was not interested in mediation for now as it responded to the killing of one of its commanders. Israel killed senior Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata and his wife Asma in a targeted strike early Tuesday, prompting barrages of rocket fire in revenge and retaliatory Israeli air strikes. According to Israel, Ata was responsible for rocket fire at Israel as well as other attacks and was planning more violence, with the military calling him a “ticking bomb.” The flare-up raised fears of a new conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, who have fought three wars since 2008. A total of 22 Palestinians have been killed so far, including Ata and his wife, according to Gaza s Hamas-run health ministry. Islamic Jihad confirmed that the dead included other members of its armed wing. – 220 rockets – Since Israel s killing of Ata in what was believed to be a drone strike, at least 220 rockets have been fired into Israel from Gaza and dozens have been intercepted by air defences, according to the army. There have been no Israeli deaths, though damage has been caused and one rocket narrowly missed cars on a busy highway. Israeli medics said they had treated 48 people with light wounds, while schools were closed in areas near the Gaza border for a second day running. On Tuesday, school closures included the commercial capital Tel Aviv. Schools in the blockaded Gaza Strip, an enclave of two million people, have been closed since Tuesday. Unusually and in a sign it was seeking to avoid a wider conflict, Israel s announced targets were confined to Islamic Jihad sites and not those belonging to Hamas. It normally holds Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip, responsible for all rocket fire from the enclave as the territory s de facto rulers. Israeli analysts were quick to highlight the change of approach. “For the first time in the current era, Israel drew a distinction between Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” commentator Ben Caspit wrote in Israeli newspaper Maariv. “By so doing, Israel deviated from its iron-clad principle that Hamas, as the sovereign power in Gaza, has to pay the price for any action taken by anyone in the Gaza Strip. That is now no longer the case.” Islamic Jihad is the second most-powerful militant group in the Gaza Strip after Hamas. The flare-up comes at a politically sensitive time for Israel. A September 17 general election ended in a deadlock and a new government is yet to be formed. It was the second election since April, when polls also ended inconclusively. The violence drew international calls for calm. Britain s foreign office said “we call on all sides to rapidly de-escalate the situation, and support the UN and Egyptian efforts to achieve that objective.”
Recently, I took a taxi in Germany with my daughter. As I spoke few Arabic words, the taxi driver asked about our origins. I told him I am from Egypt and I knew that he is from Afghanistan. Suddenly, he asked me a strange question: Do you support al-Sisi or the Muslim Brotherhood? I asked him: what do you think of the Brotherhood? He told me that they are believers, and they are the best Muslims on the face of the ea