FaithWorld Religion, faith and ethics Thu, 03 Nov 2016 13:40:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Keeping kosher: it may be bad for your economic health Thu, 03 Nov 2016 13:40:58 +0000 Kosher inspector Aaron Wulkan examines display refrigerators containing meat in a food store to ensure that the food is stored and prepared according to Jewish regulations and customs in Bat Yam, Israel, October 31, 2016.REUTERS/Baz Ratner

(Kosher inspector Aaron Wulkan examines display refrigerators containing meat in a food store in Bat Yam, Israel, October 31, 2016.REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

Behind Israel’s food and tourism industries thrives a parallel economy run by rabbis and a legion of inspectors whose business it is to make sure everything is kosher.

Since most Israelis prefer knowing their food is prepared according to Jewish custom, hotels, restaurants and manufacturers have little choice but to go along with the arrangement – adjusting their kitchens, modifying ingredients, and paying a fee to get a must-have kosher certificate.

But new data shows the system is weighing on the economy, draining productivity, pushing up prices and allowing large cash balances to accumulate off the books, angering tax authorities.

Roni Hamama tends to bang on the table when describing his dealings with the kosher network. He owns five stores around Israel that sell roasted nuts and seeds. Each outlet falls under the jurisdiction of a different rabbi.

“With each store it’s a different battle, every store has to follow different rules,” said the businessman, giving the table another bash. “You become a hostage to all the demands.”

Even though most Israelis are secular, it is estimated that about 70 percent of Israeli Jews want access to kosher food.

To help maintain the delicate status quo between Israel’s Orthodox and non-observant Jews, the government has effectively given the rabbis free rein to administer the kosher regime as they see fit, with oversight from the Chief Rabbinate.

Over the years the system has grown so tangled that the OECD, a club for developed countries, recently singled out Israel’s “religious dietary rules” as helping to “hamper the functioning and efficiency of the food and retail sectors, which is in turn contributing to the weaker economy-wide productivity growth in Israel.”


At the top of the kosher economy sits the Chief Rabbinate Council, a government-backed body with wide-ranging authority, overseeing all Jewish rituals from marriage to circumcision. It has a monopoly on declaring whether food-related businesses – from wedding halls to sushi restaurants, in-flight airline coffee to wineries – operate in accordance with Jewish law.

Several thousand inspectors – it is not clear exactly how many – make onsite visits daily to check things like food sanitation, the separation of dairy from meat products and that materials are bought from suppliers who are also approved.

It even sends delegations abroad to inspect slaughterhouses that export beef to Israel.

For more devout consumers, a seal-of-approval from specific rabbis not connected to the chief council is needed, and dozens of private groups have popped up offering competing, extra-special-kosher certificates.

This has a created a situation where, according to one official, 17 inspectors every day descend upon a single food court in Jerusalem’s main mall, all at the expense of the business owners, who pass on costs to consumers.

Fees vary, but the owner of a falafel stand could pay about 1,500 shekels ($394) a month for kosher approval.

Nationwide, that adds up to about 2.8 billion shekels ($730 million) a year, accounting for 2.2 percent of turnover in the hotel industry and as much as 2 percent of all food services, according to a draft report by Israel’s Finance Ministry.

“It’s not work being done against keeping things kosher, it’s against the way the system is set up today,” said Maayan Nesher, a finance ministry official involved in the report. “We think the public should not have to pay for those extra costs.”


Those running the kosher network say the inefficiency figure of around 600 million shekels a year is much lower – closer to 30 million shekels. And the inspectors, they say, work with the business owners to make the process as smooth as possible.

“Our interest is that the maximum amount of businesses will be kosher,” said Oded Fluss, director-general of the Ministry of Religious Services, which oversees the Chief Rabbinate. “If costs are too high, they will simply say ‘forget it’.”

But there is room for improvement, he acknowledged.

To cut out frivolous costs and possible corruption, his office is pushing for more uniformity among rabbis in their enforcement of the religious laws, and it is developing a digital database to track suppliers within the network.

The dozens of smaller, private authenticators, however, do not answer to the Chief Rabbinate. They set their own standards and prices and no one knows exactly how much money they make.

Israel’s State Comptroller, an official watchdog, issued a report in 2014 saying that “hundreds of millions of shekels” are changing hands among those smaller groups. It described frequent tax avoidance and even cases of suspected money laundering.

The Tax Authority has promised to crack down, issuing a warning earlier this year that it would seek out this hidden revenue,? ?and has already begun its intelligence gathering.

Source: Keeping kosher: it may be bad for your economic health | Reuters

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Mississippi church burned, vandalized with ‘Vote Trump’ Thu, 03 Nov 2016 10:56:11 +0000 Hopewell Baptist Church is damaged by fire and graffiti in Greenville, Mississippi, U.S., November 2, 2016.  Courtesy Angie Quezada/Delta Daily News via REUTERS

(Hopewell Baptist Church is damaged by fire and graffiti in Greenville, Mississippi, U.S., November 2, 2016. Courtesy Angie Quezada/Delta Daily News via REUTERS)

A historic black church in Mississippi was burned and spray-painted with “Vote Trump” and authorities said on Wednesday it was arson and being probed as a hate crime committed one week before the U.S. presidential election.

Greenville Fire Chief Ruben Brown Sr. told a news conference on Wednesday afternoon that investigators had determined the fire at Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church was “intentionally set.”

“Samples and evidence have been collected from inside the church and are being analyzed to determine the accelerant or ignition source,” Brown said.

Earlier in the day he said no one was injured in the Tuesday evening blaze, but the church was extensively damaged.

“We’re investigating this as a hate crime,” Greenville Police Chief Delando Wilson told a news conference early on Wednesday. “We feel that the quote on the church is intimidating.

“It tries to push your beliefs on someone else, and this is a predominantly black church and no one has a right to try to influence the way someone votes in this election.”

Wilson told the Wall Street Journal that police on Wednesday evening were interviewing a “person of interest” in connection with the fire but the individual had not been charged.

Wilson did not immediately return a call or email.

Black churches in the U.S. South have long been a base of support for the Democratic Party.

During the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, southern black churches were often targets for arson and bombings by white supremacists.

“The FBI Jackson Division is aware of the situation in Greenville, and we are working with our local, state and federal law enforcement partners to determine if any civil rights crimes were committed,” the agency said in a statement.

“This act is a direct assault of people’s right to freely worship,” Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons said in a statement.

The town of some 33,000 people is about 100 miles (160 kms) northwest of Jackson.

“The act that happened left our hearts broken,” Pastor Carolyn Hudson told the news conference, noting that the church has a 111-year history.

The Mississippi Republican Party declined to comment.

In October, the Orange County Republican Party’s office in Hillsborough, North Carolina, was set on fire and a graffiti message left nearby said “leave town or else.”

No arrests have been made in that incident, which Indiana Governor Mike Pence, the Republican vice presidential candidate, called “political terrorism.”

Source: Mississippi church burned, vandalized with ‘Vote Trump’ | Reuters

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Myanmar police to arm and train non-Muslims in conflict-torn Rakhine region Thu, 03 Nov 2016 08:47:22 +0000 Policemen stand in front of the border guard headquarters at Kyee Kan Pyin village outside Maungdaw October 26, 2016. Picture taken October 26, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

(Policemen stand in front of the border guard headquarters at Kyee Kan Pyin village outside Maungdaw October 26, 2016. Picture taken October 26, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun)

Myanmar police will begin arming and training non-Muslim residents in the troubled north of Rakhine State, where officials say militants from the Rohingya Muslim group pose a growing security threat, police and civilian officials said.

Human rights monitors and a leader of the mostly stateless Rohingya told Reuters the move risked sharpening intercommunal tensions in a region that has just seen its bloodiest month since 2012, when hundreds of people were killed in clashes between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.

Soldiers have poured into the Maungdaw area along Myanmar’s frontier with Bangladesh, responding to coordinated attacks on three border posts on Oct. 9 in which nine police officers were killed.

Security forces have locked down the area – shutting out aid workers and independent observers – and conducted sweeps of villages in Maungdaw, where the vast majority are Rohingyas. Official reports say five soldiers and 33 alleged insurgents have been killed.

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has urged security forces to exercise restraint and act lawfully, but residents say civilians have been killed, raped and arbitrarily detained and houses razed to the ground. The government has denied abuses by troops.

Ethnic Rakhine political leaders have urged the government to arm local Buddhists against what they say is rising militancy among the Rohingya.

Rakhine State police chief Colonel Sein Lwin told Reuters his force had started recruiting new “regional police” from among the ethnic Rakhine and other non-Muslim ethnic minorities living in Maungdaw.

Candidates who did not meet the educational attainment standards, or criteria such as minimum height, required for recruitment by the regular police would be accepted for the scheme, he said.

“But they have to be the residents,” said Sein Lwin. “They will have to serve at their own places.”

Police Captain Lin Lin Oo said initially 100 recruits aged between 18 and 35 would undergo an accelerated 16-week training program, beginning in the state capital Sittwe on Nov. 7.

“They will be given weapons and other equipment, like police,” said Lin Lin Oo, an aide to the commander of the border police in Maungdaw, who will oversee the auxiliary force.

Police and civilian officials said the auxiliary police recruits would not form a new “people’s militia”, like those that fight ethnic insurgencies elsewhere in Myanmar.

Such militias – which are often accused of abuses against civilians – raise their own funds and are overseen by the army. The new recruits in Rakhine will be paid and come under the control of the border police.


Min Aung, a minister in the Rakhine State parliament and a member of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, said the recruits would help protect residents from the militants, estimated to be 400-strong, responsible for the Oct. 9 attacks.

The government has said the militants, who stole weapons and ammunition in the raids, have links to Islamists overseas.

Only citizens would be eligible to sign up for the police training, Min Aung said, ruling out the 1.1 million Rohingyas living in Rakhine State, who are denied citizenship in Myanmar.

“The minority ethnic people need to protect themselves from hostile neighbors,” said Min Aung, referring to non-Muslim ethnicities who are in the minority in the region. “That’s why the government supports them as regional police, as well as with employment.”

Suu Kyi’s government has invited diplomats and the senior United Nations representative in the country on a visit to Rakhine from Wednesday to try to assuage concerns over aid access and rights violations.

But international experts working to rebuild relations in Rakhine, and human rights groups, say arming and training local non-Muslims could make the situation on the ground worse.

“It’s sad and telling that the authorities regard this move as part of a security solution,” said Matthew Smith, founder of Fortify Rights, a campaign group.

Arming local Buddhists who may regard all Rohingyas a threat to their safety was “a recipe for atrocity crimes”, Smith said. “It can only inflame the situation and will likely lead to unnecessary violence.”

Kyaw Win, an ethnic Rakhine resident of Kyein Chaung village, in Maungdaw, told Reuters by phone on Wednesday that he was interested in signing up for the training, but said he doubted the plan would allay his community’s security fears.

“It is not possible to live together with Muslims because they are invading and seizing our own land day by day,” he said.

A Rohingya community leader in Maungdaw, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said he was concerned Muslims might come under attack form the newly armed recruits.

“If they have guns in their hands, we won’t be able to work together as before,” he said.

Source: Myanmar police to arm, train non-Muslims in conflict-torn region | Reuters

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Mosul under Islamic State: hardship, terror and swift ‘justice’ Thu, 03 Nov 2016 08:30:35 +0000 A recently displaced Iraqi woman weeps for her sick daughter inside her tent at Al Khazer camp near Hassan Sham, east of Mosul, Iraq November 2, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

(A recently displaced Iraqi woman weeps for her sick daughter inside her tent at Al Khazer camp near Hassan Sham, east of Mosul, Iraq November 2, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

Whenever members of Islamic State’s Mosul vice squad find a woman without gloves, they pull out a pair of pliers.

What follows is just one of a wide range of punishments that the group – known in Arabic by its enemies as Daesh – metes out in its northern Iraqi stronghold.

“Daesh would squeeze the pliers on the skin of the woman hard,” said Firdos, a 15-year-old girl who has fled from the city in the last week.

Firdos managed to escape such treatment herself, but she told Reuters that Islamic State has more ways of enforcing one of the many rules of its moral code – that women must not show their bare hands in public.

“The other penalty was we (women) would be whipped for not wearing gloves,” Firdos said in Al-Khazer, a town taken by Kurdish forces as part of an Iraqi offensive to regain Mosul.

She, like others who have fled Islamic State’s grip, declined to give her last name for fear of reprisals against relatives still in Mosul, about 27 km (17 miles) away.

When Islamic State captured Iraq’s second largest city in 2014, it promised that anyone who joined the Sunni militants’ cause would eventually earn a place in paradise.

It also told the people of predominantly Sunni Mosul it would eliminate Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite who was then Iraqi prime minister and widely accused of sectarian policies.

This message appealed to some Sunnis, members of a minority which had dominated before the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 and who now complain they are marginalized by the government led by the majority Shi’ites.

But residents who have recently fled Islamic State’s last stronghold in Iraq say life quickly became unbearable in the city of about two million.

Men had to wear beards to lengths it saw as Islamic. Women had to cover up from head to toe. Sometimes their husbands would be whipped in their place for violations.

No one was allowed to leave Mosul without special permission and former residents said they feared being shot if they were caught trying to escape.


None of the people interviewed by Reuters said they had seen public executions by shooting or beheadings, Islamic State’s favorite method of creating mass terror.

But everyone knew they took place because the jihadists spread the word. This appeared to be straight out of the handbook of the “Republic of Fear”, Saddam’s former state built on cruelty, retribution and extreme violence.

More than a decade after Saddam’s overthrow by the U.S.-led invasion, some of his former intelligence officers are senior members and strategists for Islamic State, according to Iraqi security officials.

Every Friday, the militants force people to go to mosques in Mosul to hear their sermons. Two years ago, Islamic State’s chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself the leader of all Muslims from a pulpit in the city, and the sermons remind residents that his words are sacred.

Islamic State also uses mosques to urge people to take up their cause and strike against what it called all enemies of Islam; from Maliki and his fellow Shi’ites to other Arab leaders, Israel and the United States.

Anyone who agreed to wage holy war was sent for training in neighboring Syria, part of its self-declared caliphate.

“I spoke to several people who went to Syria. They learned about strapping on suicide belts and beheading people,” said Abdul Kadir, one of the escapees who are sheltering in tents at a camp in Al-Khazer.

“They were there for three months or so. Some were young. Ten-year-old boys. Some were 15. Some of these people rejected all this but they had to pretend they supported Daesh or face consequences.”

Late one night, Islamic State raided his home, blindfolded him and threw him into a prison once run by Saddam’s security forces. After four days he appeared in a courtroom overflowing with detainees. His crime was trying to make ends meet by selling cigarettes.

The Islamic State judge showed no compassion.

“He asked me why I sell cigarettes. He said they are against Islam. I told him I was desperate to make a living because there were no jobs,” said Abdul Kadir, who was kept blindfolded throughout his ordeal.

“He said ‘take him away and whip him 55 times’. It was with a leather whip … I could not get out of bed for three days.”


Life under Islamic State was a far cry from the past, when communities lived side-by-side in the diverse trading city of Mosul. Besides the Sunni Arab majority, it had a large number of Christians, predominantly Assyrians. Kurds, Turkmens, Yazidis and Armenians made up the rest of the population. Most of the minority communities have fled.

Islamic State demolished shrines, mosques and churches and posted images of the destruction on internet sites.

Along with the terror came growing hardship. Many people lost their jobs as the local economy deteriorated.

Suleiman, 62, told Reuters he was at work when Islamic State arrived in Mosul. Returning to his neighborhood, he came face-to-face with militants dressed in traditional Pakistani clothes – a reminder of the group’s ability to recruit far and wide.

Soon, he was struggling to survive financially. “The money ran out eventually for a lot of people. Yet Daesh was squeezing everyone. You used to pay 500 dinars for a medical card. With them it was 2,000,” he said.

“The doctors charged a lot and the money went to them. Or they would tell you to give to charity under Islam and then gave the money to their relatives.”

Like many others, Suleiman was caught up in the struggle that pitted the militants against the Iraqi army and its Western allies. An airstrike hit his home but Islamic State offered little compensation. “My house collapsed and all they offered me was 30 kg of wheat,” he said.

A few tents away, Sahar Abed said she wanted to forget the hardship. “People were selling their cans of gasoline. I had to sell some of my clothes,” she said, as an aid worker took down names of the displaced.

Iraqi and Kurdish officials say that some Mosul residents have taken up arms against Islamic State recently, driven by discontent and encouraged by the advance of Iraqi forces, who have taken nearby villages and reached a section of Mosul.

History suggests the militants will respond to any discontent with brutality, especially after losing control of the cities of Falluja and Ramadi this year.

They have rigged Mosul with explosives and built elaborate tunnels, all of which could slow advances, leaving the population at their mercy.

“About a week ago we heard shooting at two in the morning. It was people who killed jihadists,” said Abu Said, also displaced at the camp.

“In these situations Daesh rounds a bunch of people up and makes an example out of them. They took people from their homes and made them watch two men lying on their stomach in the street while a car ran them over.”

Source: Mosul under Islamic State: hardship, terror and swift ‘justice’ | Reuters

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Pope Francis says he believes Catholic ban on female priests is forever Wed, 02 Nov 2016 15:08:30 +0000 Pope Francis speaks to journalists on his flight back to Rome, Italy November 1, 2016.  REUTERS/Ettore Ferrari/Pool

(Pope Francis speaks to journalists on his flight back to Rome, Italy November 1, 2016. REUTERS/Ettore Ferrari)

Pope Francis said on Tuesday he believes the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on women becoming priests is forever and will never be changed, in some of his most definitive remarks on the issue.

He was speaking aboard a plane taking him back to Rome from Sweden, in the freewheeling news conference with reporters that has become a tradition of his return flights from trips abroad.

A Swedish female reporter noted that the head of the Lutheran Church who welcomed him in Sweden was a woman, and then asked if he thought the Catholic Church could allow women to be ordained as ministers in coming decades.

“St. Pope John Paul II had the last clear word on this and it stands, this stands,” Francis said.

Francis was referring to a 1994 document by Pope John Paul that closed the door on a female priesthood. The Vatican says this teaching is an infallible part of Catholic tradition.

The reporter then pressed the pope, asking: “But forever, forever? Never, never?

Francis responded: “If we read carefully the declaration by St. John Paul II, it is going in that direction.”

Francis has previously said that the door to women’s ordination is closed, but proponents of a female priesthood are hoping that a future pope might overturn the decision, particularly because of the shortage of priests around the world.

In reaction, The Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC), a group that promotes a female priesthood, said in a statement that “Patriarchy Will Not Have the Last Word”.

WOC said it was “profoundly disappointed” by the pope’s comments, calling the document the pope referred to “outdated, fallible and painful”.

The Catholic Church teaches that women cannot be ordained priests because Jesus willingly chose only men as his apostles. Those calling for women priests say he was only following the norms of his time.

“The Church cannot be afraid to examine customs when they no longer communicate or resonate with the Gospel. A Church that is not open to the gifts of half of its membership is unsustainable and out-of-touch with the needs of its people,” WOC said.

In August, Francis set up a commission to study the role of women deacons in early Christianity, raising hopes among equality campaigners that women could one day have a greater say in the 1.2 billion-member Church.

Deacons, like priests, are ordained ministers and must be men. They cannot celebrate Mass, the Catholic Church’s central rite, but they are allowed to preach and teach in the name of the Church, and to baptize and conduct wake and funeral services.

The Church barred women from becoming deacons centuries ago.

Scholars debate the precise role of women deacons in the early Church. Some say they were ordained to minister only to other women, for instance in baptismal immersion rites. Others believe they were on a par with male deacons.

Source: Pope says he believes ban on female priests is forever | Reuters

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Documents show Islamic State obsessions: beards and concubines Wed, 02 Nov 2016 15:02:05 +0000 An Iraqi soldier shows a pamphlet which reads "Wearing beards is compulsory, shaving is prohibited" along a street of the town of al-Shura, which was recaptured from Islamic State (IS) on Saturday, south of Mosul, Iraq October 30, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File Photo

(An Iraqi soldier shows a pamphlet which reads “Wearing beards is compulsory, shaving is prohibited” along a street of the town of al-Shura, which was recaptured from Islamic State (IS) on Saturday, south of Mosul, Iraq October 30, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

After Islamic State conquered villages in northern Iraq, it spelled out in minute detail the rules of its self-proclaimed caliphate, from beard length to alms to guidelines for taking women as sex slaves.

Islamic State documents and posters, obtained in villages captured by Iraqi forces, highlight a tight and comprehensive system of rule by the militants, who went to great lengths to explain their extremist philosophy.

The documents and other materials, printed with Islamic State logos, were found by Reuters in offices used by the group until a few days ago. Members of the Iraqi forces told Reuters the documents originated from Islamic State, although this could not be independently verified.

Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters have seized several villages and towns during an offensive against the northern city of Mosul, Islamic State’s last stronghold in the country.

When Islamic State swept through the north in 2014, it announced a self-proclaimed caliphate, which appealed to some fellow Sunnis who felt marginalized by the Shi’ite-led central government.

But that appeal faded as Islamic State enforced its medieval thinking with brute force, beheading anyone deemed an opponent.

Slick, colorful posters, pamphlets and documents highlight Islamic State’s intense focus on dictating what it called proper Islamic behavior for the citizens of its caliphate.

Violations of its rules meant punishment such as public whipping or being hauled off to Mosul for execution, according to several villagers who recently escaped from Islamic State areas.

A green wallet-size insert lays out guidelines for how to pray properly. It shows a young boy undertaking ablutions. “Wash your feet from the direction of your toes down to your heels,” it said.


A five-page pamphlet with pictures of gold bracelets, diamond rings and wheat on the front spelled out instructions on how to give alms, an obligation under Islam. Failure to do so would mean a penalty.

In the village of Shura, where seven Islamic State suicide bombers were recently shot dead as they rushed toward Iraqi forces, militants kept meticulous records of who had given alms. Entries showed whether an individual owned gold, property or a car. Monthly salaries were also noted.

Unlike al Qaeda, its predecessor in Iraq, Islamic State made its name in the jihadi world by becoming the first militant group to capture significant amounts of land in the Middle East, hold it and then set up an administration.

But air strikes by a U.S.-led coalition targeting Islamic State’s leaders and its sources of income have dealt a major blow to the caliphate.

Islamic State’s inclination to codify its system of rule extended to what it called the spoils of war.

A pink and red pamphlet includes 32 questions and answers on how to deal with female captives.

A senior Islamic State cleric has the authority to distribute female captives among its fighters, it said.

“Non-Muslim women can be taken as concubines,” according to the leaflet.

Militants can own two sisters as concubines but only have sex with one.

“Pre-pubescent girls can be taken as concubines. You cannot have penetrative sex but you can still enjoy them,” the leaflet added.

One question in the pamphlet asks whether a group of militants can share a concubine. The answer: only a single owner can sleep with a concubine.

After blazing through northern Iraq, Islamic State took hundreds of women from the Yazidi minority as sex slaves.

Under Islamic State’s rules, women were required to largely stay at home or wear head-to-toe black coverings if they ventured out. Men wore short pants which were deemed Islamic along with beards of appropriate length.

One of the pamphlets begins by defining a beard as “hair that grows on your face and your cheeks”.

There were few forms of entertainment under Islamic State, which banned the internet and music along with cell phones.

A ban on satellite dishes deprived Iraqis of news of the outside world. In a huge slick poster, entitled “Why I Should Destroy My Dish”, the jihadists provided 20 reasons, revolving mostly around the immorality of satellite television programs.

Reason 8: “Because satellite channels show stories of love and naked women and inappropriate language.”

Reason 10: “Because satellite channels normalize men being effeminate and sissies.”


Source: Documents show Islamic State obsessions: beards and concubines | Reuters

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Pope Francis praises secular Sweden for taking in asylum seekers Tue, 01 Nov 2016 14:14:17 +0000 Pope Francis embrace a sick woman as he arrives to lead a Holy Mass at the Swedbank Stadion in Malmo, Sweden, November 1, 2016. REUTERS/Max Rossi

(Pope Francis embrace a sick woman as he arrives to lead a Holy Mass at the Swedbank Stadion in Malmo, Sweden, November 1, 2016. REUTERS/Max Rossi)

Pope Francis celebrated Mass on Tuesday for Sweden’s tiny Catholic community, made up of many refugees and migrants, praising as “blessed” those in this overwhelmingly non-religious nation who take in asylum seekers.

The main purpose of the pope’s two-day trip was to take part in a joint commemoration with Lutherans of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation.

After the historic inter-religious ceremony on Monday, Francis turned his attention to largely secular Sweden’s record of accepting tens of thousands of asylum seekers last year, in contrast to many other European nations.

In a football stadium packed with some 15,000 spectators, Francis weaved his homily around Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” which lists the Beatitudes, but added a few modern twists.

“Blessed are those who look into the eyes of the abandoned and marginalized and show them their closeness,” the Argentine-born pontiff said. “Blessed are those who renounce their own comfort in order to help others.”

Francis’s statement held special symbolism in Malmo, which has become a gateway for thousands of immigrants who have fled from Middle East wars over the last few years.

The Mass was also a shot in the arm to Sweden’s small Catholic community, which numbers only about 150,000 out of a population of about 10 million. That total is less than the attendance for some papal ceremonies in Rome.

“A decade or so ago, people were even uneasy about wearing crosses, having to explain to Swedes who did not understand,” Josephine Kabogoza-Muksoke, a Ugandan-born Catholic, said as the pope drove by in a golf cart around Malmo stadium.

“That isn’t so now. Catholics have more confidence and there are more of us – thanks to immigration.”


Thousands of Swedes, many immigrants from Latin America, the Middle East and Asia, had lined up outside the stadium in cold autumn rain.

Sweden took in 163,000 asylum seekers last year, more than any other European Union state relative to population. Its reputation for tolerance and stability have made it a haven for refugees for decades.

Polls say Sweden is one of the world’s most irreligious nations. In a WIN-Gallup survey last year, around eight in 10 Swedes said they were either “not religious” or “convinced atheists.” Surveys show Swedes trust institutions like the tax agency more than the Lutheran Church.

Still, they have been more accepting of migrants and refugees than Catholic countries such as Poland and Hungary.

The mood started to change last year, with many Swedes unnerved by reports of rising foreigner crime including gang activity in immigrant-heavy cities.

Even many liberal Swedes are having second thoughts, put off by reports of crime including sexual assaults by asylum seekers and financial strains on the nation’s prized cradle-to-grave welfare system.

With about 17 percent of Swedes now foreign-born, multi-culturalism has challenged Sweden’s comfortable secular identity.

Concerns about immigration have boosted support for the rightist Sweden Democrats, now backed by around 17 percent of voters in polls, up from the 13 percent they received in a general election in 2014.

In his homily, the pope also appeared to praise Sweden for its strong defense of the environment and efforts to fight the effects of climate change, saying; “Blessed are those who protect and care for our common home.

Source: Pope Francis praises secular Sweden over asylum seekers | Reuters

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Young Calais migrants pray in makeshift “Jungle” church before demolition Tue, 01 Nov 2016 14:08:56 +0000 FILE PHOTO - A migrant walks past the church in the dismantled aera of the camp for migrants called the "Jungle", in Calais, France, March 14, 2016.   REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

(A migrant walks past the church in the dismantled aera of the camp for migrants called the “Jungle”, in Calais, France, March 14, 2016. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol)

Dozens of young Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants gathered on Sunday at a makeshift Orthodox church in the Calais “Jungle” camp, one of the only places still standing in the area, to attend a last service before the demolition is completed.

Bulldozers are flattening the sprawl of ramshackle huts and tents in northern France which had been home to 6,000 refugees and migrants from Asia, the Middle East and Africa hoping to cross the English Channel and start new lives in Britain.

Calais resident Pascal Froehly, who works for Caritas France charity, said he would like to see the church survive the “Jungle” demolition.

“It has been built quite solidly … it’s an opportunity to recognize the knowledge and ingenuity of the refugees, among other things,” he said, adding it was “a kind of reminder of what happened here, of the joy and suffering”.

It took migrants and volunteers about two months to build the church, which is made mostly of wood, and was completed in July 2015. French authorities said it would be destroyed, like the rest of the camp, but did not say when.

Most adults have now been bussed to reception centers across France pending examination of their cases, in a dismantling of the camp which started last Monday.

But the plight of hundreds of minors, nearly 1,500 of whom are now in temporary lodging in container-boxes in Calais, has become a point of dispute between Britain and France.

Source: Young Calais migrants pray in ‘Jungle’ church before demolition | Reuters

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Religious life turned upside down by Italian earthquake Tue, 01 Nov 2016 14:02:11 +0000 Saint Anthony Church is seen partially collapsed following an earthquake along the road to Norcia, Italy, October 30, 2016. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

(Saint Anthony’s Church is seen partially collapsed following an earthquake along the road to Norcia, Italy, October 30, 2016. REUTERS/Remo Casilli)

Sunday’s earthquake struck the medieval walled town of Norcia as nuns, monks and priests were heading to morning prayer services, giving them just enough time to flee as the walls around them plunged to the earth.

The quake hit the same central regions that have been rocked by repeated tremors over the past two months. Although it was bigger than an Aug. 24 earthquake that killed almost 300 people, no-one died on Sunday, but there was huge damage.

Weakened by repeated powerful jolts in recent weeks, many of Norcia’s churches, monasteries and chapels were wrecked.

“We thought it was the end of everything,” said 74-year-old Sister Maria Raffaella Buoso, sitting on a bench outside the walls of Norcia after being evacuated from the Monastery of the Poor Clares of Santa Maria della Pace.

The nuns of the Poor Clares are normally cloistered and only leave the monastery in an emergency. Firemen had to break the doors down to get them out.

The six nuns have been ordered to leave for now, although they are confident that their church, which was built at the beginning of the 16th century, did not suffer extensive damage.

Other places were less fortunate, including the historic Basilica of St. Benedict, which stood on the main square of Norcia and was supposedly built over the birthplace of Benedict, the patron saint of Europe, and his sister St. Scolastica.

Badly damaged in multiple quakes on Aug. 24 and Oct. 26, the monastery complex, including the 13th century basilica, finally collapsed in a pile of rubble on Sunday, leaving just the gothic facade standing.

The 13 monks had been forced to abandon their monastery and their small commercial brewery following the previous tremors. However, they had hoped for a swift return, with the Italian emergency services releasing video earlier this week showing roof repairs being carried out on the imposing Basilica.

Although Norcia is intimately linked with Saint Benedict, the monks only came back to the town in 2000, some 190 years after the community was suppressed by the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte when he took control of swathes of Italy.

“(We have) started to accept once more that our life is not our own and God has altered our path once again,” one of the monks, father Benedict, wrote mid-week after the Oct. 26 quake.

With dust still blowing in the air on Sunday morning following Italy’s strongest quake since 1980, monks and residents sank to their knees in front of the eviscerated Basilica in silent prayer.

While many of Norcia’s sturdy houses have been earthquake-protected and largely survived this year’s wave of tremors, the town’s bigger religious structures were found to be less stable.

“Our churches have suffered terrible injuries,” said mayor Nicola Alemanno, describing the old stone buildings as though they were living beings.

A short distance from the town square, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Argentea lay in ruins, its roof caved in, while the nearby Convent of Sant’Antonio was also badly scarred.

“Everything is broken. All the rooms, the belltower has fallen down, the church itself,” said an elderly nun, leaning on her cane as she was interviewed by la Repubblica TV.

Local authorities have ordered residents out of the town center, forcing the nuns and monks to seek shelter elsewhere, including the six sisters from the Monastery of the Poor Clares, who were dismayed to hear that they would have to stay with Benedictine nuns in nearby Trevi.

“They live differently in other cloisters. They don’t get up to pray at night,” said Sister Maria Chiara Vittorie, 73.

“It makes me sad to leave because this is our cloister, our life is here.”

Source: Religious life turned upside down by Italian earthquake | Reuters

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Iranians arrested after celebrating ancient Persian king Cyrus the Great Tue, 01 Nov 2016 13:13:05 +0000 xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

(The tomb of Cyrus the Great, Pasargadae, Iran, 20 February 2009/Alireza Shakernia )

Iran’s Islamic Republic has arrested the organizers of a march last week near the tomb of the ancient Persian king Cyrus the Great that attracted thousands of people celebrating the country’s pre-Islamic glory.

Crowds of mostly young Iranians attended the march near the ancient city of Pasargadae in central province of Fars on Friday to celebrate the day unofficially marked in the Iranian calendar as Cyrus Day.

Videos released on social media show them chanting “Iran is our country, Cyrus is our father.” Reuters could not independently verify the videos’ authenticity.

“The main leaders and organizers of this gathering who chanted unconventional slogans against the (Islamic Republic’s) values have been arrested,” said prosecutor Ali Salehi in the provincial capital Shiraz on Monday, according to Fars news agency.

A senior Shi’ite cleric, Ayatollah Nouri Hamedani, denounced the gathering and its participants on Sunday.

“These people are against the Revolution. I wonder how they can gather around Cyrus’s tomb and chant the same slogans (about Cyrus) that we chant about our supreme leader,” Fars quoted him as saying. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has both the highest religious and political power in Iran.

A judiciary official said on Monday that the organizers of the event had been under surveillance by the intelligence and security forces for a long time and will face prosecution. There was no indication how many organizers had been arrested.

Following the march, there were heated debates on social media and harsh reactions from supporters of Tehran’s Islamic government because of some slogans against Arabs and in support of former leader Mohammad Reza Shah shouted by a few marchers.

Clerics in Iran frown upon nationalist movements based on the pre-Islamic glory, especially because the former Shah, who ruled until the 1979 Islamic Revolution, linked his reign to Cyrus the Great, the founder of the ancient Persian Empire, and celebrated 2,500 years of continuous monarchy.

Iran’s theocratic government is more inclined to celebrate events linked to Shi’ite history and mainly promotes the Islamic heritage of the country. Islam arrived in Iran 651 when invading Arab armies toppled the mostly Zoroastrian Sassanid Empire.

Source: Iranians arrested after celebrating ancient Persian king Cyrus the Great | Reuters

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