FaithWorld

from Photographers' Blog:

Afghan refugees – Seeking sanctuary

Brussels, Belgium

By Francois Lenoir

It was a cold, wet morning when I passed through the doors of the Church of Saint John the Baptist at the Beguinage, a grand 17th century building in the center of Brussels.

Inside, children were playing and shouting in the large, dark hall, which was lined with rows and rows of tents. I had not just entered a church – I was inside people’s homes. The building had become a very private space.

Saint John the Baptist’s is occupied by a group of Afghan migrants, who have been living there for more than three months. Their first asylum request was refused by the authorities and they were told to leave Belgium, but some ended up travelling around the county aimlessly and were left squatting in unoccupied buildings.

That was before Daniel Alliet, the priest at Saint John the Baptist’s, opened its doors to them. When I went to visit the church at the beginning of the year, more than 200 migrants were living there, although that number has since dropped as many have found shelter in asylum centers.

On my first visit, I felt a sense of dismay when I saw the chaotic and unsanitary conditions in which the asylum seekers lived. The church was not built to house this many people, day and night. Water supplies were under strain. There were only two toilets. The priest told me that the condensation from so many bodies had even begun to damage the organ.

from Photographers' Blog:

Christmas in Afghanistan

Baghlan, Afghanistan

By Fabrizio Bensch

There are thousands of miles that separate the German soldiers in Afghanistan from home.  For up to one year, they may be stationed in Afghanistan, but for most of them no more than four to five months.

The lead up to Christmas in Germany has a very long tradition and the arriving season is dominated by beautifully decorated shop windows in department stores and the smell of gingerbread and cinnamon. Christmas trees are festively illuminated in the streets with Christmas decoration and Christmas markets and Santa Claus are in every city.

But for the German armed forces Bundeswehr soldiers far away, each of them tries to maintain a little bit of these traditions and so everywhere in the camps are signs of Christmas.

Tajikistan moves to ban adolescents from mosques

(A Tajik boy in a mosque during Friday prayers in Dushanbe October 12, 2001/Shamil Zhumatov)

 

Tajikistan has taken the first step toward banning children and adolescents from worshipping in mosques and churches, drawing criticism from Muslim leaders who oppose the Central Asian state’s crackdown on religious freedom. The lower house of parliament in the impoverished ex-Soviet republic this week passed a “parental responsibility” bill that would make it illegal to allow children to be part of a religious institution not officially sanctioned by the state.

Authorities say the measures are necessary to prevent the spread of religious fundamentalism in the volatile republic, the poorest of the 15 former Soviet republics, where government troops have been fighting insurgents in the mountainous east. Muslim leaders said the law, the brainchild of long-serving President Imomali Rakhmon, would only increase discontent among the majority Muslim population of a nation that fought a civil war in the 1990s in which tens of thousands were killed.

Ayman al-Zawahri: Suburban doctor who became chief of al Qaeda

(Ayman al-Zawahri speaks from an unknown location, in this still image taken from video uploaded on a social media website June 8, 2011/Reuters TV)

 

The Egyptian who has taken the helm of al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden did not emerge from the crowded slums of Egypt’s sprawling capital a militant or develop his ideas in any religious college or seminary. Instead, Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahri was raised in Cairo’s leafy Maadi suburb where comfortable villas are a favourite among expatriates from the Western nations he rails against. He studied at Cairo University and qualified as a doctor.

The son of a pharmacology professor was not unique in his generation. Many educated youngsters were outraged at the treatment of Islamists in the 1960s when Egypt veered towards a Soviet-style one-party state under socialist Gamal Abdel Nasser. Thousands of people suspected of subversion were thrown into prison after show trials. “Zawahri is one of the many victims of the Nasser regime who had deep political grievances and a feeling of shame at Egypt’s defeat by Israel in 1967. He grew up a radical,” said Khalil al-Anani, an expert in Islamist movements at Durham University.

Family, Taliban scare off actresses in Afghan film industry

(Afghan film actress Nafisa Nafis puts on make-up at the sets of a television series directed by Saba Sahar in Kabul June 7, 2011/Ahmad Masood)

A young bride silently sobs on the floor watching her mentally disturbed husband gorge on chicken, rub his greasy hands through his hair and scream at her for more, just another chapter in the couple’s violent life together. Film director Saba Sahar anxiously watches the scene by the cameraman, squatting in blue jeans and wearing a bright pink headscarf. “Cut!” she calls.

The first Afghan female in her profession, Sahar, 36, has become a household name after acting and directing for more than half her life. She is adored by Afghan women. Like other Afghan directors, Sahar says finding actresses is her top challenge in an ultra-conservative Muslim country where many view acting as un-Islamic and inappropriate for women.

Q+A: Women’s rights in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban

(Afghan men and women teachers attend their graduation ceremony in Kabul March 30, 2011/Omar Sobhani)

Women have won hard-fought rights in Afghanistan since the austere rule of the Taliban was ended by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001. But gains made in areas such as education, work and even dress code look shaky as the government plans peace talks that include negotiating with the Taliban.

Reuters Kabul has produced a Q+A to accompany the feature How will Afghan women fare in Taliban reconciliation? by Amie Ferris-Rotman. Click here to read it in full.

How will Afghan women fare if Kabul and the Taliban reconcile?

(Schoolgirls listen to a speech by Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a ceremony marking the start of the school year at Amani High School in Kabul March 23, 2011/Omar Sobhani)

The gaggles of giggling schoolgirls in their black uniforms and flowing white hijabs seen across Afghanistan’s cities have become symbolic of how far women’s rights have come since the austere rule of the Taliban was toppled a decade ago. While women have gained back basic rights in education, voting and work, considered un-Islamic by the Taliban, their plight remains severe and future uncertain as Afghan leaders seek to negotiate with the Taliban as part of their peace talks.

The United States and NATO, who have been fighting Taliban insurgents for 10 years in an increasingly unpopular war, have repeatedly stressed that any peace talks must abide by Afghanistan’s constitution, which says the two sexes are equal. But President Hamid Karzai’s reticence on the matter, constant opposition by the Taliban, and setbacks even at the government level cast a shadow on the prospects of equality for the 15 million women who make up about half the population.

Women brave social barriers to join Afghan police force

(Afghan policewomen search women at a polling station in Herat, western Afghanistan September 18, 2010/Raheb Homavandi)

Married off at 12 years old to an abusive husband more than four times her age, Maryam wanted to join Afghanistan’s police force to help others avoid an all-too-familiar plight in a country where women’s voices often go unheard. A mother of three, Maryam is one of the women who make up less than one percent of Afghanistan’s National Police. They wear knee-length olive green skirts over thick trousers with navy hijabs.

The 22-year-old’s eyes light up when she talks about her job, one widely viewed in deeply conservative Muslim Afghan society as off-limits for women. This sentiment is shared by her father, who has stopped speaking to her and moved out of the family home because she works in an office with men who are not relatives.

In Kabul’s only synagogue, Afghan merchants open up shop

(An Afghan woman clad in burqa and her daughter walks past a restaurant built inside part of the only synagogue building in Kabul, June 1, 2011/Omar Sobhani)

A lattice of corrugated iron Star of Davids marks Afghanistan’s only working synagogue, a white-washed, two-storey building tucked into a sidestreet in the centre of Kabul. Kebabs, carpets and flowers are served and sold on the ground floor of the synagogue, which has been transformed into businesses over the last 18 months by the country’s sole remaining Jew, who lives upstairs in a small pink room.

Cafe manager Sayed Ahmad is unfazed by his small cafe’s history, where Kabul’s hundreds-strong Jewish community once gathered for prayers. Most fled to Israel and the United States amid the Soviet invasion of 1979. “Some of my customers know this is the synagogue and know about the Jew upstairs, but they don’t care and neither do I,” Ahmad told Reuters in his cafe, where bearded men on purple cushions puff on water pipes and eat traditional Afghan food.

Bin Laden ‘eased’ into sea in contentious burial

(Aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, from which Osama bin Laden was buried at sea somewhere in the north Arabian Sea/U.S. Navy)

He may have been America’s enemy number one, but after U.S. forces killed him, Osama bin Laden was afforded Islamic religious rites by the U.S. military as part of his surprise at-sea burial on Monday.

The U.S. military said preparations for the al-Qaida leader’s burial lasted nearly an hour. His body was washed before being covered in a white sheet and religious remarks translated into Arabic by a native speaker were read over bin Laden’s corpse.