Aid for millions caught in US-Palestinian row: UN agency

Palestinians take part in a protest against aid cuts outside of United Nations’ offices in Gaza City on January 17, 2018. The UN agency for Palestinian refugees faces its worst funding crisis ever after the United States froze tens of millions of dollars in contributions. (AFP)
Updated 19 January 2018
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Aid for millions caught in US-Palestinian row: UN agency

JERUSALEM: The head of the United Nations agency for Palestinians said Friday the US decision to freeze tens of millions of dollars in aid resulted from diplomatic disputes rather than the agency’s performance.
The US State Department this week froze two planned payments worth more than $100 million to the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA), with a spokeswoman saying it was linked to necessary “reform” of the agency.
But Pierre Krahenbuhl, UNRWA’s commissioner general, said the agency had not been informed by the United States of any new reform demands, and was “caught up” in a dispute between the Palestinian leadership and the US administration.
“I have to look at this as not related to our performance but a decision and a debate that was caught up in the aftermath of what of course was the General Assembly resolution on Jerusalem and other matters,” Krahenbuhl told AFP in an interview in Jerusalem.
“My perception is there is a debate in the US administration about funding to the Palestinians and our funding got caught up in that.”
The US gave around $700 million in support to the Palestinians last year, of which about half went to UNRWA, which has a non-political mandate to provide schooling, health care and other services to Palestinians across the Middle East.
Israel and some American politicians accuse the agency of bias, with Israeli leaders saying its existence perpetuates the conflict.
The Palestinian leadership has cut ties with President Donald Trump’s administration since his controversial December 6 recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
It said that the US under Trump can no longer be mediator in peace talks with Israel.
The United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn the US decision on Jerusalem.
Trump had been pushing to restart peace talks but on January 2 he tweeted that the US gives the Palestinians “HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS” and gets “no appreciation or respect.”
“With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?“
On Tuesday his administration suspended $65 million to UNRWA, followed Thursday by another $45 million in food aid destined for the agency.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the money was being held but could be released “in the future, if reforms are met, if UNRWA agrees to undertake reforms, if other countries agreed to pitch in and provide money.”
Krahenbuhl said the agency had received no communication from the United States about further necessary reforms in recent days.
“What is new is a decision by the United States to dramatically reduce its contribution and that was not in the communications to me associated with reform elements.”


Erdogan offers seminary exchange for Greek mosque minarets

Updated 16 February 2019
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Erdogan offers seminary exchange for Greek mosque minarets

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday suggested the mosque in Athens should open with minarets if the Greek premier wants to reopen a seminary in Istanbul.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was in Turkey this month and visited the disputed landmarks of Hagia Sophia and the now-closed Greek Orthodox Halki seminary.
Tsipras said during the visit to the seminary located on Heybeli island off Istanbul on February 6 he hoped to reopen the school next time with Erdogan.
Future priests of the Constantinople diocese had been trained at the seminary, which was closed in 1971 after tensions between Ankara and Athens over Cyprus.
Erdogan on Saturday complained that the Fethiye Mosque in Athens had no minarets despite Greek insistence that it would open.
The mosque was built in 1458 during the Ottoman occupation of Greece but has not been used as a mosque since 1821.
“Look you want something from us, you want the Halki seminary. And I tell you (Greece), come, let’s open the Fethiye Mosque,” Erdogan said during a rally in the northwestern province of Edirne ahead of local elections on March 31.
“They said, ‘we are opening the mosque’ but I said, why isn’t there a minaret? Can a church be a church without a bell tower?” he said, describing his talks with Tsipras.
“We say, you want to build a bell tower? Come and do it... But what is an essential part of our mosques? The minarets,” the Turkish president added.
Erdogan said Tsipras told him he was wary of criticism from the Greek opposition.
After the independence war against Ottomans began in 1821, the minaret is believed by some to have been destroyed because it was a symbol of the Ottoman occupation.
Ankara had returned land taken from the seminary in 1943 but there is still international pressure on Turkey to reopen it.
Erdogan has previously said that its reopening is dependent on reciprocal steps from Greece to enhance the rights of the Turkish minority.