EU urges US to join new Mideast peace effort

European High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell speaks during a media conference after a meeting of EU foreign ministers by videoconference at the European Council building in Brussels on June 15, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 15 June 2020

EU urges US to join new Mideast peace effort

  • Josep Borrell said the Europeans want peace talks to resume
  • He insisted that any new initiative must respect the “internationally agreed parameters”

BRUSSELS: European Union foreign ministers on Monday urged the United States to join a new effort to breathe life into long-stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, but they rejected President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan as the basis for any international process.
Trump’s proposal, which was unveiled in January, would foresee the eventual creation of a Palestinian state, but it falls far short of minimal Palestinian demands and would leave sizable chunks of the occupied West Bank in Israeli hands.
Speaking after chairing video talks between the ministers and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the Europeans “recognize the merit of the US plan because it has created a certain momentum where there was nothing.”
“This momentum can be used to start a joint international effort of the basis of existing internationally agreed parameters,” Borrell said, referring to the need for a two-state solution, based along the 1967 lines, with the possibility of mutually agreed land-swaps.
“We made clear that it is important to encourage the Israelis and the Palestinians to engage in a credible and meaningful political process,” Borrell said. “For us, there is no other way than to resume talks.” But he insisted that any new initiative must respect the “internationally agreed parameters.”
Trump’s plan was welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed it as “nonsense.” Gulf Arab states also rejected the White House plan as “biased.” While Israeli officials were present for its unveiling, no Palestinian representatives attended.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also insisted on the need “to revive the peace process in the region and find a way for both sides to speak and negotiate with each other.”
“A multilateral format could certainly be the right framework for this, and we are prepared to support any initiative in this direction — and I would be glad if our colleague from Washington also were prepared to do this,” Maas said. No details of what the new effort might look like were provided.
Netanyahu has said that he wants to move forward with plans to annex parts of the West Bank, perhaps in early July, and Borrell said the ministers warned Pompeo about “the consequences of a possible annexation for the prospects of a two-state solution but also for regional stability.”
In recent months, the 27-nation bloc has debated whether to modify its Middle East policy amid growing concern that settlement activity and US diplomatic moves, like the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, are undermining the chances of a two-state solution.
But while the EU is the biggest provider of aid to the Palestinians, the member countries have little obvious leverage over Israel that they would be prepared to use, and it’s unclear what action, if any, they would take should Netanyahu push ahead with his annexation plan.


S. Korean Christians facing ‘unprecedented challenge’ over virus spread claims: Church cleric

Updated 24 September 2020

S. Korean Christians facing ‘unprecedented challenge’ over virus spread claims: Church cleric

  • South Korean churches have been accused of ‘deliberately hampering’ COVID-19 response while groups say they are being made ‘scapegoats’

SEOUL: South Korean church leader, Rev. Lee Byung-seok, has become battle-weary over the country’s fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

The cleric, who preaches at a small church in Suwon, in northwestern Gyeonggi province, has faced a tough time fending off claims that Christians were the main culprits for spreading the deadly virus.

Since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in February, the religious community has been in the firing line for allegedly propagating the disease in the east Asian country which has to date recorded 23,216 cases and 388 deaths.

“The Christian sect in South Korea faces an unprecedented challenge,” the pastor told Arab News on Wednesday.

“Imagine police bursting into the chapel where prayers are at church, and the officer saying he’s responding to a call from a citizen who disbelievingly reported the church’s breach of a ban on gatherings. This happens at many churches. Except for a few churches, most have been observing health rules despite emotional and financial losses. Enforcing these restrictions upon all churches is too far,” he said.

Gatherings at churches have been tightly controlled by the South Korean government to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Under updated quarantine rules adopted on Sept. 20, up to 50 worshippers are allowed to attend churches with a seating capacity of 300 or more. Smaller churches can only take a maximum congregation of 20.

The Sarang Jeil Church, in the capital Seoul, has been at the center of the controversy over claims that Christians were to blame for spreading COVID-19 in South Korea after hundreds of cases were linked to the religious group and the church’s pastor, Jun Kwang-hoon, led a massive anti-government rally on Aug. 15, the country’s Liberation Day.

“The Sarang Jeil Church does not represent the sentiment of the Christian sect here, and the church has been already politicalized to affect other churches,” Lee said.

Health authorities said that the protests in central Seoul, where tens of thousands of Jun’s followers had converged, triggered a second wave of COVID-19 resulting in nearly 1,200 infections in the capital area.

A conservative pastor, believed to be popular among opposition politicians, Jun was accused of “defying health rules” to hold services and anti-government protests, while some of his churchgoers were criticized for refusing to take part in COVID-19 testing.

The situation led to President Moon Jae-in vowing to hold churches accountable for impeding government efforts to contain the disease.

“Certain churches have refused the government’s quarantine guidelines and hindered efforts to tackle the virus spread,” he said during a meeting with representatives of 16 churches and related groups on Aug. 27.

“Prayers or services may bring peace of mind but cannot protect people from the virus. The quarantine is not the domain of God but that of science and medicine,” he added. Jun tested positive for the virus two days after the Aug. 15 demonstration and was jailed after his bail was revoked.

The cleric was also detained earlier this year on charges of violating election laws after he called the president a “North Korean spy.” He was later released on conditional bail which included a ban on him attending political rallies or protests.

On Sept. 18, the Seoul city government sued Jun and his Sarang Jeil Church for nearly $3.9 million in damages related to the COVID-19 cluster “connected to its adherents.”

The city said in a statement that Jun had deliberately hampered its response to the virus outbreak by “refusing to observe health rules and submitting fake records.”

Meanwhile, statistics from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) showed that at least 1,168 positive patients had been traced to the church cluster.

The numbers were second only to those linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, often regarded as a nationwide cult organization, whose 5,200 cases were at the center of the country’s first wave of infections in February.

“We will take all possible measures to prove the damages incurred by Rev. Jun’s illegal activities that caused damages to the ordinary citizens,” Hwang In-shik, spokesman for the Seoul city government, told Arab News on Wednesday.

He said citizens had faced many difficulties due to the introduction of enhanced social distancing measures following a recent resurgence of cases, as well as the negative impact of the outbreak on the national economy.

“This is a matter of quarantine for the sake of people’s health, not oppressing a certain religion nor a church,” he added.

However, the Presbyterian church has remained defiant, arguing that the left-leaning Moon administration had made it a “scapegoat” for political reasons.

“A key reason why the Moon administration oppresses us is that Jun and his followers have taken the lead in striking Moon’s communist policies,” Kang Yeon-jae, a spokeswoman for Jun, told Arab News.

“We advocate the liberal democracy, which is not a path Moon takes. In this ideological conflict of a free world versus communism, our church is taking the bullet when few stand against Moon’s political blunders and pro-North Korean policies.”

South Korean Protestant churches have deep roots with the US, as American missionaries brought the religion to Korea.

Many of the megachurches in South Korea were founded by Protestants who fled communist persecution in North Korea before the 1950-53 Korean War and benefited from postwar aid from Americans.