US defense chief to visit Macedonia, concerned about Russian ‘mischief’

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis holds a press conference at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on August 28, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 12 September 2018
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US defense chief to visit Macedonia, concerned about Russian ‘mischief’

  • NATO invited Macedonia to begin accession talks with the alliance, but said it would have to change its constitution and adopt the new name first

WASHINGTON: US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday he would visit Macedonia before a Sept. 30 referendum on changing the country’s name, also expressing concern about suspected Russian interference in the vote, which Moscow denies.
Macedonia scheduled the referendum on the government’s deal in June with neighboring Greece to change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia which would open the door for it to join NATO and the European Union.
“I am concerned about it... The kind of mischief that Russia has practiced from Estonia to the United States, from Ukraine and now to Macedonia, it always has adapted to the specific situation and it’s always beyond the pale,” Mattis, who will visit Macedonia over the weekend, told reporters.
Mattis said he wanted to make it clear the United States supported the Macedonian people.
NATO invited Macedonia to begin accession talks with the alliance, but said it would have to change its constitution and adopt the new name first. The EU has also said it would set a date for Macedonian accession talks pending implementation of the name deal.
Moscow’s ambassador to Skopje has criticized Macedonia’s ambitions to join NATO, saying it could become “a legitimate target” if relations between NATO and Russia deteriorate further.
Greece, a member of both NATO and the EU, has refused to accept the Balkan country’s name, saying it implies territorial claims on the Greek province of Macedonia and amounts to an appropriation of its ancient civilization.
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s government, elected in 2017, pushed for an agreement with Greece. Nationalists, including President Gjorge Ivanov, oppose the deal saying it is against the constitution.
In July, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats and barred two other people from entering the country, accusing them of having meddled by encouraging demonstrations and bribing unidentified officials to thwart the Macedonia agreement.
Russia has denied wrongdoing and responded in kind with expulsions of Greeks.


Mysterious naked holy men a huge draw at India’s Kumbh Mela

Updated 17 January 2019
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Mysterious naked holy men a huge draw at India’s Kumbh Mela

  • Organizers expect up to 150 million people to bathe at the confluence of three holy rivers
  • The Kumbh Mela has its roots in a Hindu tradition that says the god Vishnu wrested a golden pot containing the nectar of immortality from demons

PRAYAGRAJ, India: Ash-smeared and dreadlocked Naga sadhus or Hindu ascetics, naked except for rosary beads and garlands and smoking wooden pipes, are a huge draw at the world’s largest religious festival that began this week in India.
At the Kumbh Mela, or “festival of the pot,” held this year in Prayagraj in north India, organizers expect up to 150 million people to bathe at the confluence of three holy rivers: the Ganges, the Yamuna and a mythical third river, the Saraswati.
The festival is one of the only opportunities to see the reclusive Naga sadhus, some of whom live in caves after taking a vow of celibacy and renouncing worldly possessions.
Their charge down to the waters to bathe at the opening of the Kumbh, many armed with tridents and swords, is one of the highlights of the festival.
“It is a confluence of all Naga sadhus at the meeting point of these holy rivers,” said Anandnad Saraswati, a Naga sadhu from Mathura, a holy city in north India.
“They meet each other, they interact with each other and they meditate and pray here at the holy confluence. They give their message to the people and they transform people.”
Most of the Nagas enter the orders in their early teens, leaving their friends and families to immerse themselves in meditation, yoga and religious rituals. It can take years to be conferred with the title of a Naga, they say.
“One has to live a life of celibacy for six years. After that the person is given the title of a great man and 12 years after that he is made a Naga,” said Digambar Kedar Giri, a Naga sadhu from Jaipur.
During the eight-week Kumbh, generally held every three years in one of four cities in India, the Nagas live in makeshift monasteries called Akhara erected on the eastern banks of the Ganges.
They spend their days meditating and receiving a stream of visitors who come to pay their respects.
“It feels surreal: all this time you have read about them. They are almost like fictional characters and then you meet them,” said a woman who gave her name as Pallavi, on a visit to the Akharas.
The Kumbh Mela has its roots in a Hindu tradition that says the god Vishnu wrested a golden pot containing the nectar of immortality from demons. In a 12-day fight for possession, four drops fell to earth, in the cities of Prayagraj, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik, who share the Kumbhs as a result.