Pope decries slaughter of ‘defenseless’ Syrians

Updated 26 December 2012
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Pope decries slaughter of ‘defenseless’ Syrians

VATICAN CITY: Pope Benedict XVI wished Christmas peace to the world Tuesday, decrying the slaughter of the “defenseless” in Syria, urging Israelis and Palestinians to find the courage to negotiate and encouraging China’s new leaders to allow more religious freedom.
Delivering the Vatican’s traditional Christmas day message from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, Benedict also encouraged Arab spring nations, especially Egypt, to build just and respectful societies.
May China’s new leadership “esteem the contribution of the religions, in respect for each other” to help build a “fraternal society for the benefit of that noble people,” the pope prayed.
It was a clear reference to the Chinese government’s often harsh treatment of Catholics loyal to the pontiff instead of to the state-sanctioned church. Earlier this month, the Vatican refused to accept the decision by Chinese authorities to revoke the title of a Shanghai bishop, who had been appointed in a rare show of consensus between the Holy See and China.
As the 85-year-old pontiff, bundled up in an ermine-trimmed red cape, gingerly stepped foot on the balcony, the pilgrims, tourists and Romans below backing St. Peter’s Square erupted in cheers.
Less than 12 hours earlier, Benedict had led a two-hour long Christmas Eve ceremony in the basilica. He sounded hoarse and looked weary as he read his Christmas message and then holiday greetings in 65 languages.
In his “Urbi et Orbi” speech, which traditionally reviews world events and global challenges, Benedict prayed that “peace spring up for the people of Syria, deeply wounded and divided by a conflict that does not spare even the defenseless and reaps innocent victims.”
He called for easier access to help refugees and for “dialogue in the pursuit of a political solution to the conflict.”
Benedict prayed that God “grant Israelis and Palestinians courage to end long years of conflict and division, and to embark resolutely on the path to negotiation.”
Israel, backed by the United States, opposed the Palestinian statehood bid, saying it was a ploy to bypass negotiations, something the Palestinians deny. Talks stalled four years ago.
Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said that in a meeting with the pope last week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “emphasized our total readiness to resume negotiations.” The Palestinians have not dropped their demand that Israel first stop settlement activities before returning to the negotiating table.
Hours earlier, in the ancient Bethlehem church built over the site where tradition holds Jesus was born, candles illuminated the sacred site and the joyous sound of prayer filled its overflowing halls.
Overcast skies and a cold wind in the Holy Land didn’t dampen the spirits of worshippers in the biblical West Bank town. Bells pealed and long lines formed inside the fourth-century Church of the Nativity complex as Christian faithful waited to see the grotto that is Jesus’ traditional birthplace.
Duncan Hardock, 24, a writer from MacLean, Virginia, traveled to Bethlehem from the republic of Georgia, where he had been teaching English. After passing through the separation barrier Israel built to ward off West Bank attackers, he walked to Bethlehem’s Manger Square where the church stands.
“I feel we got to see both sides of Bethlehem in a really short period of time,” Hardock said. “On our walk from the wall, we got to see the lonesome, closed side of Bethlehem ... But the moment we got into town, we’re suddenly in the middle of the party.”
Bethlehem lies 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of Jerusalem. Entry to the city is controlled by Israel, which occupied the West Bank in 1967.
For those who couldn’t fit into the cavernous Bethlehem church, a loudspeaker outside broadcast the Christmas day service to hundreds of faithful in the square.
Their Palestinian hosts, who welcome this holiday as the high point of their city’s year, were especially joyous this season, proud of the United Nations’ recognition of an independent state of Palestine just last month.
“From this holy place, I invite politicians and men of good will to work with determination for peace and reconciliation that encompasses Palestine and Israel in the midst of all the suffering in the Middle East,” said the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal in his annual address.
Back at the Vatican, Benedict offered encouragement to countries after the Arab spring of democracy protests. He had a special word for Egypt, “blessed by the childhood of Jesus.”
Without citing the tumultuous politics and clashes in the region, he urged the North African region to build societies “founded on justice and respect for the dignity of every person.”
Benedict prayed for the return of peace in Mali and harmony in Nigeria, where, he recalled “savage acts of terrorism continue to reap victims, particularly among Christians.”
The Vatican for decades has been worried about the well-being of its flock in China, who are loyal to the pope in defiance of the communist’s government support of an officially sponsored church, and relations between Beijing and the Holy See are often tense.
Speaking about China’s newly installed regime leaders, Benedict expressed hope that “they will esteem the contribution of the religions, in respect for each other, in such a way that they can help to build a fraternal society for the benefit of that noble people and of the whole world.”
Acknowledging Latin America’s predominant Christian population, he urged government leaders to carry out commitments to development and to fighting organized crime.
In Britain, the royal family was attending Christmas Day church services at St. Mary Magdelene Church on Queen Elizabeth II’s sprawling Sandringham estate, though there were a few notable absences. Prince William is spending the holiday with his pregnant wife Kate and his in-laws in the southern England village of Bucklebury, while Prince Harry is serving with British troops in Afghanistan.
Later Tuesday, the queen delivered her traditional, prerecorded Christmas message, which for the first time was broadcast in 3D.
At Canterbury cathedral, Anglican leader Rowan Williams delivered his final Christmas day sermon as archbishop of Canterbury. He acknowledged how the church’s General Synod’s vote against allowing women to become bishops had cost credibility and said the faithful felt a “real sense of loss” over the decision.
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Dalia Nammari in Bethlehem and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.


After Afghan cease-fire gamble, prospects rise for US-Taliban talks

Updated 7 min 9 sec ago
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After Afghan cease-fire gamble, prospects rise for US-Taliban talks

KABUL/WASHINGTON: Prospects have risen for negotiations between the Taliban and the United States after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called a cease-fire and allowed militants to roam into cities in a gamble to encourage peace talks.
The Taliban, ousted from power in 2001 by US-led troops, insist that any negotiations with what it calls the “puppet” Afghan government on a peace plan can begin only after talks with the United States about withdrawing foreign forces.
Analysts and Western diplomats said Ghani’s offer to hold unconditional peace talks had set the stage for US officials to open backchannel negotiations with the Taliban, despite Washington’s policy that peace talks be Afghan-led.
“Ghani has done his bit,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank.
“It is now for the US to cut through this blockade,” he said, although that would be a departure from US policy that talks to end the 17-year-old war must be wholly Afghan-led.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared ready to tweak the policy when he welcomed Ghani’s 10-day extension of a cease-fire that is currently due to end on Wednesday. The Taliban said its cease-fire ended on Sunday.
“As President Ghani emphasised in his statement to the Afghan people, peace talks by necessity would include a discussion of the role of international actors and forces,” Pompeo said. “The United States is prepared to support, facilitate, and participate in these discussions.”
Richard Olson, former US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, described the statement as significant “in that it signals that the US is prepared to ultimately discuss the issue that is paramount to the Taliban, which is the withdrawal of foreign forces.”
A senior US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity before the start of the cease-fire, however said there were a number of issues that made direct talks between the Taliban and the United States unlikely in the short-term.
The official said there was a substantial gap in knowledge about the Taliban — for instance as to who had the authority to negotiate on the their behalf. “There is not enough intelligence or resources on this issue,” the official said.
A second official said there was still a question of what would happen with hard-line elements of the Taliban. “There are Taliban that won’t come to the table,” the official said.
Taliban call
The Taliban, in a statement marking the end of their cease-fire on Sunday, said the organization was unified and called on “the invading American party” to “sit directly for dialogue with the Islamic Emirate to find a solution for the ongoing imbroglio.”
A senior diplomat with knowledge of the negotiations leading to the cease-fire estimated the chances of eventual talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government at “50-50.”
“The Taliban want to talk to the US directly on withdrawal (of foreign forces) because they do not want to share the credit of withdrawal with the government,” the official said.
And while Washington has long resisted direct talks with Taliban, the official said that recent developments indicate “the US now seems less and less averse to it.”
In August, US President Donald Trump unveiled a more hawkish military approach to Afghanistan, including a surge in air strikes. Afghan security forces say the impact has been significant, but the Taliban roam huge areas of the country and, with foreign troop levels of about 15,600, down from 140,000 in 2014, there appears little hope of outright victory.
Ghani, never widely popular, met his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, on Sunday to secure support for peace talks. He visited a restaurant in Kabul where he met diners and took selfies with children, trying to capitalize on the unprecedented party atmosphere created by the cease-fire to mark last weekend’s Eid Al-Fitr festival.
But Amrullah Saleh, the former head of intelligence and head of a political party, said Ghani had committed a blunder by allowing insurgents to pour into government-controlled areas.
“Thousands of Taliban fighters were allowed to enter with guns and some of them could be hiding in civilian areas, planning attacks,” Saleh told Reuters.
Ghani has also come in for praise.
“Now we can say that our president is making an absolute honest attempt” for peace, said Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, the chairman of the outspoken New National Front of Afghanistan.