Oman land border closure extended by a week on coronavirus concerns

Oman land border closure extended by a week on coronavirus concerns
Oman will extend the close of its land borders for another week until Feb. 1, to curb the spread of the coronavirus. (File/AFP)
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Updated 24 January 2021

Oman land border closure extended by a week on coronavirus concerns

Oman land border closure extended by a week on coronavirus concerns

DUBAI: Oman will extend the close of its land borders for another week until Feb. 1, to curb the spread of the coronavirus, state news agency ONA said on Sunday, citing a decision by the Gulf state’s coronavirus emergency committee.
The borders were closed last week because of concerns about a new coronavirus variant, although it did not specify which one, as well as due to lax adherence inside the sultanate to wearing face masks and avoiding large social gatherings.


Arab Coalition destroys five drones launched by Houthi militias aimed at targeting civilians

Arab Coalition destroys five drones launched by Houthi militias aimed at targeting civilians
Updated 3 min 2 sec ago

Arab Coalition destroys five drones launched by Houthi militias aimed at targeting civilians

Arab Coalition destroys five drones launched by Houthi militias aimed at targeting civilians

RIYADH: The Arab-led coalition fighting in Yemen has intercepted five explosive-laden drones targeting civilians, according to Al Arabiya TV.

It added that it is closely following a number of other drones. 

The coalition reaffirmed that it continues to work to protect civilians in accordance with international law. 


Pope Francis visits Iraqi Christians who suffered under Daesh

Pope Francis visits Iraqi Christians who suffered under Daesh
Updated 07 March 2021

Pope Francis visits Iraqi Christians who suffered under Daesh

Pope Francis visits Iraqi Christians who suffered under Daesh
  • Under tight security, he will lead a prayer “for the victims of the war” in Mosul
  • He will also visit Qaraqosh, further east in the Nineveh Plain, which is one of Iraq’s oldest Christian towns

BAGHDAD: Pope Francis, on his historic Iraq tour, visits on Sunday Christian communities that endured the brutality of the Daesh group until the jihadists’ “caliphate” was defeated three years ago.
The 84-year-old, traveling under tight security, will lead a prayer “for the victims of the war” in Mosul, an ancient crossroads whose center was reduced to rubble by fierce fighting to oust the Daesh, or also known as ISIL.
“We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion,” Francis said at an interfaith service Saturday, one of the many stops on the first-ever papal visit to the war-scarred country.
Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq as a “pilgrim of peace” aims to reassure the country’s ancient, but dwindling, Christian community and to expand his dialogue with other religions.
The leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics on Saturday met Iraq’s top Shiite Muslim cleric, the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who agreed that Iraq’s Christians should be able to live in “peace.”
“We all hope that this visit will be a good omen for the Iraqi people,” Adnane Youssef, a Christian from northern Iraq, told AFP. “We hope that it will lead to better days.”
The Christian community of Iraq, a Muslim-majority country of 40 million, has shrunk from 1.5 million before the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein to only 400,000 now, about one percent of the population.
“This very important visit will boost our morale after years of difficulties, problems and wars,” said an Iraqi Christian leader, Father George Jahoula.
Back in 2014, when IS militants swept across one third of Iraq, Pope Francis had said he was ready to come to meet the displaced and other victims of war.
Seven years later, after a stop early Sunday in the Kurdish north of Iraq, he will see for himself the devastated Old City of Mosul and efforts to rebuild it.
Pope Francis will also visit Qaraqosh, further east in the Nineveh Plain, which is one of Iraq’s oldest Christian towns.
It was largely destroyed in 2014 when IS rampaged through the area, but its residents have trickled back since 2017 and slowly worked at rebuilding their hometown.
To honor the pope, local artisans have woven a two-meter (6.5-foot) prayer shawl, or stole, with the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” prayers carefully hand-stitched in golden thread in Syriac, a dialect of the language spoken by Jesus Christ that is still used in Qaraqosh.
Security will be extra-tight in the north of Iraq, where state forces are still hunting IS remnants and sleeper cells.
Many thousands of troops and police have been deployed as the pope has criss-crossed the country, taking planes, helicopters and armored convoys to cover more than 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) in-country.
The other major challenge is the Covid-19 pandemic, as Iraq has recently been in the grip of a second wave, with a record of more than 5,000 cases in a day.
Iraqi authorities have imposed lockdown measures to control crowds, but thousands of faithful are expected to flock to a stadium later Sunday in the northern city of Irbil to hear the pope.
Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s oil-rich northern Kurdish region, has been a relative haven of stability and a place of refuge for many Christians who fled IS.
Several thousand seats in the Franso Hariri stadium will be left empty to avoid creating a super-spreader event when Iraqis come to hear the Catholic leader, known here as “Baba Al-Vatican,” deliver the holy mass.


Lebanon summons Iranian ambassador over media report on Maronite leader

Lebanon summons Iranian ambassador over media report on Maronite leader
Lebanon's Cardinal Mar Bechara Boutros al-Rahi greets supporters ahead of a speech on February 27, 2021 at the Maronite Patriarchate in the mountain village of Bkerki, northeast of Beirut. (AFP)
Updated 07 March 2021

Lebanon summons Iranian ambassador over media report on Maronite leader

Lebanon summons Iranian ambassador over media report on Maronite leader
  • Hezbollah ally the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) on Saturday issued a “categorical rejection” of the media report, saying it constituted “an assault” on the position of the patriarch

BEIRUT: Lebanon has summoned the Iranian ambassador over a media report on the country’s Maronite leader.
Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi was the focus of a report on the Iranian Al-Alam News Network website that accused him of supporting normalization with Israel.
Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe said on Saturday that Ambassador Ghazanfar Roknabadi had been summoned for a meeting on Monday.
The minister said the conversation with the ambassador would be “frank and sincere, based on the existing friendship between the two countries.”
An apology from the Iranian side had reached the patriarch, he added, and Lebanon’s ambassador to Tehran had been asked to provide details of what was reported by Al-Alam. “He informed me of an apology and condemnation issued by the Iranian government,” the minister said.
Earlier this month at a rally in Bkerke, north of Beirut, the cleric had called for a UN-sponsored international conference to deal with Lebanon’s economic collapse and political stalemate.
He urged neutrality so that the country would no longer be the victim of regional conflicts. But his comments drew anger from Hezbollah, as well as the critical report on the Al-Alam website.
The report said that Al-Rahi was “plotting today against the weaponry of the resistance and describes it as a militia loyal to Iran. He claims to be prudent and objective and talks about neutrality in the war for existence with global Zionism. We will definitely see him tomorrow in the arms of Israel.”
The patriarchate condemned the “insulting” report and said that, since it was issued by a foreign media organization, it was considered as “interference” in Lebanon’s internal and national affairs as well as interference in the church’s affairs.

FASTFACT

Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi’s call for neutrality embarrassed the Free Patriotic Movement, whose supporters did not participate in the Bkerke rally.

It demanded the channel “back off and apologize” so that it did not cause internal and external unfortunate repercussions, especially since Al-Rahi’s words were clear.
“The TV channel is trying to fabricate a headline to mobilize people against Bkerke, which called a spade a spade, put the finger on the wound and spoke about the situation of all the Lebanese, without exception,” it added.
The Maronite League in Lebanon, headed by former MP Naamatallah Abi Nasr, denounced the report’s accusations about Al-Rahi and said it retained the right to “resort to the competent judiciary.”
It called on the Foreign Ministry to summon the ambassador and inform him of Lebanon’s rejection of such attitudes.
Hezbollah ally the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) on Saturday issued a “categorical rejection” of the media report, saying it constituted “an assault” on the position of the patriarch.
Al-Rahi’s call for neutrality embarrassed the FPM, whose supporters did not participate in the Bkerke rally.
After a meeting of its political council on Saturday, the FPM said that Bkerke “was and still is a beacon for open thought and an edifice of convergence.”
“Patriarch Al-Rahi has always advocated adherence to the roots of this East, and solidarity with all its components in the face of the dangers and enemies that lie in wait. It has never been a conduit for plotting against its people.”

 


Missile strikes on Syria oil refineries kill 4

Missile strikes on Syria oil refineries kill 4
Members of the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets) extinguish a fire which reportedly erupted after a bombardment from unknown sources of makeshift oil refining installations in Aleppo province, on March 5, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 07 March 2021

Missile strikes on Syria oil refineries kill 4

Missile strikes on Syria oil refineries kill 4
  • Syria’s war has killed more than 387,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with a brutal repression of anti-government protests

BEIRUT: Missile strikes on makeshift oil refineries in northern Syria killed four people and injured more than 20 others, a war monitor said on Saturday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a series of strikes launched from Russian warships and by allied Syrian regime forces hit the makeshift refineries in Aleppo province on Friday night, causing a massive blaze as dozens of tankers caught fire in the area controlled by Turkey and its Syrian rebel proxies.
The Britain-based monitor “documented the deaths of four people, while 24 others sustained various injuries and burns” in the attacks near the towns of Jarablus and Al-Bab.
At least one Syrian rebel was among the dead, said Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman.
Rescue workers spent hours trying to extinguish the fire which spread to about 180 oil tankers, according to the war monitor.
“The fires are the largest yet from a missile attack on makeshift refineries,” the Observatory said.
Oil installations in Turkey-controlled parts of Aleppo have come under repeated attack in recent months although Moscow and the Syrian regime have not claimed responsibility.
The Observatory reported two such missile attacks last month.
In January, unidentified drones also hit oil refineries in Turkish-held areas of Aleppo, causing a large fire, according to the Observatory.
Syria’s war has killed more than 387,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with a brutal repression of anti-government protests.
It later evolved into a complex conflict involving jihadists and foreign powers.

BACKGROUND

Rescue workers spent hours trying to extinguish the fire which spread to about 180 oil tankers.

Northern neighbor Turkey has seized control of several regions inside Syria in military campaigns against the Daesh group and Kurdish fighters since 2016.
Meanwhile, Syria’s Kurds have handed back 12 children of alleged Daesh members to their mothers from Iraq’s Yazidi minority.
“The children, aged two to five, were all born to Yazidi mothers and fathered by Daesh members. They were handed over to their mothers” on Thursday, said Syrian Kurdish official Zeyneb Saroukhan.
Dozens of Yazidi women and girls survived sex slavery at the hands of Daesh in Syria and have since returned to Iraq, but many were forced to leave their children behind or risk being shunned by their community.
Saroukhan said this was the first time children had been given back to their mothers.
Daesh abducted thousands of Yazidi women and girls from their ancestral Iraqi home of Sinjar in 2014, then enslaved, raped, or married them off by force to terrorists, including in Syria.
US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters say they have rescued dozens during their years of battles against Daesh that led to their 2019 territorial defeat.
But while the Yazidi community welcomed those survivors back to northern Iraq, that compassion was not extended to their children.
Saroukhan said it had been the Syrian Kurdish authorities’ duty to look after the children until their mothers asked for them.
Yazidi women and children have previously returned from Syria to Iraq, but many of those abducted remain missing.
In May last year, a then 17-year-old Yazidi girl abducted by Daesh returned to Iraq after the coronavirus lockdown in Syria delayed her homecoming.
In 2019, Syria’s Kurds repatriated 25 women and children.

 


Pope Francis’ visit brings Iraqi Kurdistan’s safe-haven status into sharp focus

Nashwan Hanna gives a sermon at Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in the Christian-majority neighborhood of Ankawa, Erbil. (Kareem Botane)
Nashwan Hanna gives a sermon at Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in the Christian-majority neighborhood of Ankawa, Erbil. (Kareem Botane)
Updated 06 March 2021

Pope Francis’ visit brings Iraqi Kurdistan’s safe-haven status into sharp focus

Nashwan Hanna gives a sermon at Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in the Christian-majority neighborhood of Ankawa, Erbil. (Kareem Botane)
  • Northern autonomous region’s relative security and stability have made it a sanctuary for religious minorities and dissidents
  • Daesh’s 2014 onslaught drove Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks and other minorities along with Syrian refugees into the area

IRBIL / MEXICO CITY: On a recent morning, as Sahar Ayoub gently turned the pages of her Bible, she contemplated the trauma that her family experienced when Daesh militants seized the northern town of Qaraqosh in the Nineveh governorate almost seven years ago.

She and her husband Ameer Bahnam were forced to flee with their three children when the extremist group launched its campaign of extermination against Iraq’s ethno-religious minorities in 2014.

Seated in her living room in Ankawa, a Christian-majority neighborhood in Irbil, Ayoub, 50, expressed hope that Pope Francis’ visit to the main city of Iraqi Kurdistan on Sunday would offer her community the recognition she felt it had long deserved.

“Before, Christians in Iraq used to be valued and treated with consideration, no different from other Iraqis,” she told Arab News. “But that changed after 2003 when the new governments created sectarian divisions in the country between Muslims and Christians, and between Shiites and Sunnis.

“We are not free in Iraq as Christians. We can be judged for our rituals and what we wear. There is no freedom of religion for us in Iraq.”

Nashwan Hanna gives a sermon at Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in the Christian-majority neighborhood of Ankawa, Irbil. (Kareem Botane)

Bahnam, 57, said his family moved to the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region with the intention of eventually leaving for Europe. But after settling in Ankawa to take stock of the situation, they found something they had long hoped for — acceptance.

“I feel equal and safe here in Kurdistan,” Bahnam said. “As a Christian there is freedom of religion.

“Christians in Iraq do not have full rights. We face oppression and we don’t feel comfortable practicing our rituals freely. But not in Kurdistan. In other parts of Iraq, we feel we are strangers and something is missing.”

After his meeting on Saturday in Najaf with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites, Pope Francis was scheduled to travel north to the Kurdistan region. Iraq’s religious minorities, free-speech advocates and political dissidents have long sought sanctuary here from persecution and violence in their home regions.

Francis was scheduled to hold Mass on Sunday evening before a crowd of 10,000 at Irbil’s Franso Hariri stadium, capped below venue capacity to allow for social distancing. For security reasons, Francis would be meeting with the general public during his entire visit on just this one occasion.

Kurds make up a significant proportion of Iraq’s 40 million-strong population. However, the lack of recent census data makes it difficult to ascertain the precise number of Kurds in the northern provinces of Irbil, Sulaimani, Duhok and Halabja that make up the lush and mountainous region.

Although relations between Irbil and Baghdad have long been rocky, coming to a head in late 2017 when the Kurds held a non-binding referendum on independence, Kurdish is recognized as Iraq’s second official language alongside Arabic, and all three of Iraq’s post-2003 presidents have been Kurds.

The Kurds carved out their self-administered region in 1991 under the patronage and air cover of the US-led coalition, which intervened at the tail end of the Gulf War to prevent Saddam Hussein from exacting his revenge on the Kurds for daring to rebel.

Having already suffered the cruelties of Saddam’s Anfal campaign and the infamous chemical attack on Halabja in 1988, the Kurdish people had little doubt that Saddam intended to wipe out them out unless the West took notice.

THENUMBER

1.5m

* Christian population of Iraq in 2003.

Although corruption and tribalism continue to mar political life in Kurdistan, the region, with its own parliament and presidency, battle-hardened Peshmerga security forces and culture of tolerance, compares favorably with federal Iraq, blighted by endemic sectarian violence and unrest.

It came as no surprise perhaps when a people touched by genocide readily opened their doors to the persecuted minorities of the Nineveh plains when Daesh stormed northern Iraq and took over Mosul in the summer of 2014.

Hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks, Kakais and other minorities, alongside many thousands of refugees from neighboring Syria, poured through the Peshmerga’s checkpoints in search of safety.

Humanitarian aid agencies quickly arrived to accommodate the displaced in sprawling camps, while many Christians among them headed for Ankawa. Those with the means continued on to Europe and beyond.

Ameer Habib Bahnam and his wife Sahar Ayoub say they feel safe to practice their faith in Kurdistan. (Kareem Botane)

“I have applied for a visa to move to France, but until now I have had no news because of all that’s going on with the coronavirus,” said Ameer. “We wanted to go to France as my kids are scared to go back to our home in Qaraqosh. They are traumatized by what happened to us when Daesh came.”

Elaborating on the traumatic experiences, Sahar said: “Daesh burned and stole what was inside our house. After the liberation of Qaraqosh, we went there to check our house. Since then, we don’t want to go back. It’s not safe there now.

“If I met the pope, I would tell him he has to find a solution for the Christians of Iraq. We don’t have any rights here and I would ask him to get me out of the country. I don’t want to stay here. Either that, or he can make my town safe and assure my rights.”

Sahar and Ameer are not alone. Many Christian families have simply given up on the idea of leading a secure life in Iraq.

“Life for Christians in Iraq is all about living through war, without a future,” Juliana Nusrat, 28, told Arab News.

“I wish to meet the pope and tell him what we are going through. I want to tell him to take me out of Iraq. I lost my hope in Iraq. I don’t want to have more children in Iraq. There is no future here. I want my daughter to have a future outside Iraq.”

A memorial outside Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in Ankawa, Irbil, commemorates the Iraqi Christians killed by Daesh in 2014. (Robert Edwards)

She and her husband, Gazwan Zuhair, 39, also came to Ankawa in 2014, escaping Daesh’s conquest of Mosul. “We left our house and everything we had behind and took only our IDs,” said Gazwan. “When the war was over, we went to see our house in Mosul. All our belongings were gone.”

Gazwan lost his job at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the couple and their young daughter have struggled to get by, they have found a modicum of security in the Kurdistan region.

“We feel comfortable in Kurdistan. I can’t find a job here, but it’s safe,” he said.

“Kurdistan and the Kurds treat the Christians well and we feel safe here, but in the rest of the country, we are oppressed, especially in Mosul, where Christians were being threatened and blackmailed.

“As a Christian, I want to leave the country. Iraq does not offer me rights or work. Why should I stay? Maybe my life will be better in another country.”

Gazwan Zuhair, who lost his job at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, says he and his family feel a modicum of security in Kurdistan. (Kareem Botane)

The flight of Iraq’s Christians to the West is a major concern for church leaders of all sects — Syro-Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Chaldean alike.

Since the US-led invasion in 2003, the Christian population of Iraq had fallen from around 1.5 million to around 350,000-450,000 in 2014. With many now choosing exile abroad, their numbers have dwindled further.

“As a church, we do not encourage Christians to leave the country and leave their church to emigrate abroad,” Father Nashwan Hanna, 53, a priest at Ankawa’s Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church, told Arab News.

“We are an essential component of Kurdistan and Iraq. It is our home. We want to live in peace in our country and respect others and be respected.

“This visit, which will take the pope around Iraq, encourages us to stay. Our roots run deep in this land and this visit will encourage us to stay.”