‘Clear risks’ for stability in China’s Pacific lending, Australian think tank warns

China's central bank, known as the People's Bank of China, is shown in this file picture. China has repeatedly been accused of offering lucrative but unserviceable loans to gain leverage or snap up strategically vital assets like ports, airports, or electricity providers. (Shutterstock photo)
Updated 21 October 2019

‘Clear risks’ for stability in China’s Pacific lending, Australian think tank warns

SYDNEY: China’s financial largesse in the Pacific carries “clear risks” for stability if left unchecked, a Sydney think tank warned, while saying allegations of “debt-trap” diplomacy are so far overblown.
In a study released Monday, the influential Lowy Institute warned that fragile Pacific nations risked borrowing too much and leaving themselves exposed to demands from Beijing.
China has repeatedly been accused of offering lucrative but unserviceable loans to gain leverage or snap up strategically vital assets like ports, airports, or electricity providers.
While Lowy said allegations that China was engaged in “debt-trap” diplomacy in the Pacific were overblown, the trend was not positive and countries like Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu were dangerously exposed.
Between 2011 and 2018, China committed loans to the region worth $6 billion — around 21 percent of regional GDP.
A majority of that money, $4.1 billion, was earmarked for Papua New Guinea.
Only a fraction, less than $1 billion, has so far been dispersed but China is still the single largest creditor in Tonga, Samoa, and Vanuatu.
“The sheer scale of Chinese lending and the lack of strong institutional mechanisms to protect the debt sustainability of borrowing countries mean a continuation of business as usual would pose clear risks,” the report said.
The South Pacific has become a forum for intense competition for influence between China, the United States, and Australia in recent years.
The island nations sit on a vital shipping crossroad, contain vast reserves of fish stocks, and provide a potential base for leading militaries to project power well beyond their borders.
Beijing has stepped up engagement in the region through a series of high profile visits and no-conditions lending via its Belt and Road Initiative.
The Solomon Islands and Kiribati recently announced they would switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing after a long courtship by the country’s Communist leaders.
Six Pacific governments are currently debtors to Beijing — the Cook Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu.
Lowy said many of China’s loans carry a modest two percent annual interest rate.
But it warned that China would need to adopt formal lending rules if loans were to be made sustainable as natural disasters like earthquakes, cyclones and tsunamis can quickly upend countries’ ability to pay back loans.
“Three small Pacific economies — Tonga, Samoa, and Vanuatu — also appear to be among those most heavily indebted to China anywhere in the world,” it said.


Italy’s Muslims call for more Islamic cemeteries in wake of virus

Updated 23 min 18 sec ago

Italy’s Muslims call for more Islamic cemeteries in wake of virus

  • Only 50 of the nearly 8,000 Italian municipalities have dedicated spaces for Muslims inside their cemeteries
  • According to the 2018 census, 2.6 million Muslims live in Italy and consist of 4.3 percent of the population

ROME: Muslims in Italy are calling for the establishment of more Islamic cemeteries in the country.

As national and international travel was banned at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, the bodies of Muslim dead in Italy could not be transported back to where the deceased person came from as was previously possible.

This caused “a dramatic situation in Italy, with several corpses left on hold in mortuaries as there are no Islamic cemeteries where they could be buried,” said Abdallah Redouane, secretary-general of the Great Mosque of Rome.

The situation was even more serious in the north of Italy, the area most affected by the coronavirus and where the highest number of deaths were reported. The Islamic community there is also larger, making the situation even more difficult for Muslims, Redouane told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

According to the 2018 census, 2.6 million Muslims live in Italy and consist of 4.3 percent of the population; 56 percent of them hold foreign citizenship and 44 percent are Italian citizens. Despite Islam being the second largest religion in the country, only 50 of the nearly 8,000 Italian municipalities have dedicated spaces for Muslims inside their cemeteries. When those spaces are available, they are very limited in most cases and there are not enough of them to meet demand, which dramatically increased in the first half of 2020.

Most of the spaces for Islamic burials in public cemeteries are located in the Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna regions. The first cemetery space for Muslims in Italy was established in Trieste in 1856. Unfortunately, not much progress has been made on the issue since then.

The Flaminio Cemetery in Rome has had space for Muslims since 1974. “Today this space is full. In the past few months, deaths have increased and so have burial requests,” Redouane said.

“We filed requests to open new spaces for Muslims in the municipal cemeteries nationwide. So far we managed to open some new areas. But as the situation gets worse and worse, we are still waiting for answers,” said Yassine Lafram, president of the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy (UCOII).

In the past few months, local newspapers have published several letters with appeals by Muslims calling for more Islamic spaces to be established in cemeteries as soon as possible. Some mayors said that they were working on the issue.

“We have to sort this out properly. Having a dignified burial is a fundamental human right which must be assured to all those who live in this country,” Leoluca Orlando, mayor of the capital of Sicily, Palermo, told Arab News. “In Palermo an area of the Sant’Orsola Cemetery is already dedicated for Islamic burial but it is not enough. We must do more,” he said.

As the president of the Association of Mayors in Sicily, Orlando said that a joint effort would be made on the issue with his colleagues at a regional level.

Islamic cemeteries are considered a basic need by Muslim communities in Italy.

“I wished my mother had been buried in Italy, in the country where she spent most of her life. My family lives here. Had she been buried here, we would have gone to find her in the Islamic cemetery more often, we would have felt her closer,” Samira, 40, told Arab News. Samira, who has been living in Italy for 30 years, said her mother had to be buried in Tunisia after she died a few years ago.

Hira Ibrahim, a young Macedonian Muslim, lost her mother a few weeks ago in Pisogne, near Brescia, to the coronavirus. Her mother’s body had to be kept at home for more than 10 days because there was no space  dedicated to Muslims available in any nearby cemetery.

“Dozens of other Muslim families lived this same nightmare in the COVID-19 emergency,” Jihad, 59, a doctor living in Rome, told Arab News. “That was a double suffering; along with losing their beloved relatives people felt deprived of the primary right of burying their dead in a dignified way in a country where they contribute to economic growth with their work every day,” he said.

Islamic communities hope that the agreement they signed with the Italian government on the reopening of mosques at the end of the national lockdown will put them in a better situation to negotiate more burial areas nationwide. The main problem that they still face in Italy is bureaucracy.

In his first sermon after the Via Chivasso mosque in Turin reopened for the first time in three months, Imam Said Ait El Jide remembered the victims of the pandemic. “In our first blessed meeting we remember first of all our brothers and sisters, fellow citizens and friends who have left us. Our condolences go to anyone who has lost a loved one and we pray to God that he will heal every sick person promptly,” he said.

The imam invited “all brothers and sisters to carry on, to continue to strictly follow the provisions and precautions in force as the pandemic is not over yet. These precautions must be considered as acts of worship, because thanks to them we protect our lives and that of our fellow citizens.”