Tunisian Islamist party endorses Jewish candidate

Simon Slama, the only Jewish candidate on the Islamist Ennahdha party's list for the municipal elections in the central coastal city of Monastir, 162 kilometres south of Tunis, speaks while campaigning on April 14, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 29 April 2018
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Tunisian Islamist party endorses Jewish candidate

MONASTIR: Decked out in a striking blue suit and white shirt, matching his political allegiance, Simon Slama rubs shoulders with fellow candidates ahead of Tunisia’s municipal elections.
Nothing unusual about that — except he is the only Jewish candidate, standing for the Islamist Ennahdha party.
A public relations stunt for some; a sign of genuine liberalization for others. But even if Slama fares dismally come the May 6 poll, his candidacy has become a major story in the nation.
This will be the first municipal vote since former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fell from power in 2011.
And while Slama looks at ease, joyously clapping hands on the campaign trail in the coastal town of Monastir, the 54-year old sewing machine repairman’s decision to run drew fierce initial opposition from loved ones.
“All my family were against my choice. My brother was angry and my wife went days without speaking to me,” the candidate tells AFP, with a timid smile and a nervous fidget of the hands.
“But I managed to convince them.”
Slama and his relatives are among the small number of Jews still living in Tunisia. The community in the North African nation has shrunk from several hundred thousand before independence in 1956, to just 1,200 today.
While Jews in the country, which is overwhelmingly Muslim, once served as lawmakers and even ministers, they have long since slipped to the margins of politics.
Slama believes his candidacy is helping to change all that and has already “removed fears for Jewish Tunisian citizens.”
Comrades in the Ennahdha party insist Slama is the right man to stand for office in Monastir — a symbolic town for Tunisians as it is the birthplace of Habib Bourguiba, the father of the country’s independence.
“He comes from an ancient family. He has his roots in Monastir... and he knows the town’s problems,” says Chokri ben Janet, who heads the party’s candidate list in the town.
Slama says that despite its history as an Islamist party he opted for Ennahdha out of political conviction, describing it as “the most active and the most serious on the political scene.”
“Ennahdha has changed its strategy — it is no longer a religious party, it is a civil party,” he says.
The party is a junior partner in a coalition led by President Beji Caid Essebsi and his Nidaa Tounes party.
Taking stock from its experience in power after the 2011 revolution, it has worked hard to modernize its image.
It opposed a project to criminalize any attempt to normalize relations with Israel; a vote on the proposal was dropped this winter.
Now some of its leading candidates are women who don’t wear the Islamic veil.
All of these changes — including Slama’s candidacy — have drawn derision from some political opponents who accuse the group of simple opportunism to bolster its vote.
Top Nidaa Tounes official Borhane Bassais called it a “political striptease.”
Others say that interest in Slama’s candidacy highlights that while Jews can practice their religion freely they remain an anomaly in Tunisia — and shows the country still has a long way to go on minority rights.
The media frenzy is testament to “this obsession we have of judging (people) on the basis of something so personal as their religious conviction,” says Yamina Thabet, an official for Tunisia’s Association for the Support of Minorities.
Some noteworthy figures have, nonetheless, thrown their weight behind Slama’s bid for a seat.
“This candidacy brings pride for the Jewish community,” says Rene Trabelsi, who organizes the Jewish pilgrimage to Tunisia’s famous Ghriba synagogue, on the island of Djerba.
“It has created a positive image of an open Tunisia that we can all share,” says the businessman, who was once a contender to become tourism minister.
And as for the candidate himself — he appears comfortable with his identity and the attention his foray into politics has garnered.
If he wins, Slama says, he is ready to take the oath of office on “both the books” — the Jewish Torah and the Muslim Qur'an.


Syria's Kurds hand three Russian orphans to Moscow

Updated 25 March 2019
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Syria's Kurds hand three Russian orphans to Moscow

  • Three Russian orphans were handed to a delegation from Moscow who will transfer them back home

QAMISHLI: The Kurdish administration in northeast Syria said Monday it handed over three Russian orphans to a delegation from Moscow who will transfer them back home.
Kurdish foreign affairs official Abdel Karim Omar said the children, aged five to seven, are being sent back at the request of Russia.
He told AFP their parents had been affiliated with the Daesh group, although it was not immediately clear how or when they arrived in Syria.
A member of the Russian government delegation said the siblings are from the country's North Caucasus region. The majority-Muslim southern territory is home to most of the Russians that joined Daesh.
Nelly Kouskova said the children were orphaned nearly one year ago, without providing details.
Their aunt back in Russia had asked authorities to help bring them home, Kouskova told a press conference.
Since the death of their parents the children have been living in the Al-Hol camp, a Kurdish-run shelter designed to accomodate 20,000 people.
But due to the mass exodus of people fleeing the battle to oust Daesh from its final strip of territory -- over which Kurdish-led forces claimed victory on Saturday -- the numbers have swelled to 70,000.
More than 9,000 foreigners, including over 6,500 children, are being held in the overcrowded camp, the Kurdish administration said on Monday.
Syria's Kurds have repeatedly called for the repatriation of foreign Daesh suspects and their relatives.
But the home countries of suspected Daesh members are reluctant to take them back, due to potential security risks and the likely public backlash.
Russia, however, can be seen as a pioneer in systematically returning children of suspected jihadists home.
Last month, 27 children aged four to 13 were flown from Iraq to the Moscow region. That followed the repatriation from Iraq of 30 children in late December.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in late 2017 called the drive to return the children "a very honourable and correct deed" and promised to help.
Some other foreign governments have also taken steps to bring the children of militants home.
France has repatriated five orphaned children of French militants' from camps in northeast Syria, the government said on March 15, in the first such transfer.
Belgium has said it will help the repatriation of children younger than 10, as long as the link with one Belgian parent is proven.