Iraq’s struggling Christians hope for boost from Pope Francis visit

Iraq’s struggling Christians hope for boost from Pope Francis visit
Iraq’s Christian communities were dealt a severe blow when they were scattered by the Daesh onslaught in 2014. (AP)
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Updated 24 February 2021

Iraq’s struggling Christians hope for boost from Pope Francis visit

Iraq’s struggling Christians hope for boost from Pope Francis visit
  • Iraq’s Christian communities were dealt a severe blow when they were scattered by the Daesh onslaught in 2014
  • ‘It was as if we had been expelled forever from the lands of our grandfathers’

Nasser Banyameen speaks about his hometown of Qaraqosh in the historical heartland of Iraqi Christianity with nostalgia. Before Daesh group fighters swept through the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq. Before the militants shattered his sense of peace. Before panicked relatives and neighbors fled, some never to return.
Iraq’s Christian communities in the area were dealt a severe blow when they were scattered by the Daesh onslaught in 2014, further shrinking the country’s already dwindling Christian population. Many hope their struggle to endure will get a boost from a historic visit by Pope Francis planned in March.
Among the places on his itinerary is Qaraqosh, where this week Vatican and Iraqi flags fluttered from light poles, some adorned with the pope’s image.
Francis’ visit, his first foreign trip since the coronavirus pandemic and the first ever by a pope to Iraq, is a sign that “You’re not alone,” said Monsignor Segundo Tejado Muñoz, the undersecretary of the Vatican’s development office. “There’s someone who is thinking of you, who is with you. And these signs are so important. So important.”
The Daesh juggernaut and the long war to drive the militants out left ransacked homes and charred or pulverized buildings around the north. But the biggest loss perhaps has been the people. Traditionally Christian towns across the Nineveh Plains virtually emptied out and, by some of the widely varying estimates, fewer than half of the Christians who fled have returned.
The Vatican and the pope have frequently insisted on the need to preserve Iraq’s ancient Christian communities and create the security, economic and social conditions for those who have left to return.
To do that, the Vatican for years has helped coordinate a network of Catholic non-governmental organizations providing help in the field in Iraq and other countries, including in education, health care and reconstruction. The aid is non-denominational — Muslims are helped as well as Christians — and the overall hope is that the delicate interfaith balance can be preserved and strengthened. The pope’s March 5-8 visit will also have a strong interfaith component.
“People want to look for a better future for their families, so you can’t stop them if they have the intention of going somewhere else,” Tejado said. “But at least we try to create the conditions they might return.”
That could be difficult.
Many Christians who fled the Daesh advance have either stayed in Iraq’s Kurdistan region or started new lives abroad. While those who have returned have been rebuilding fractured but vibrant communities with resolve, some still feel vulnerable and eye better lives elsewhere.
Banyameen returned in 2019 from the Kurdish region to his house in Qaraqosh, also known as Bakhdida. But many family members who fled like him ended up in Australia and Germany. Daesh sleeper cells still carry out attacks in parts of Iraq, so he worries about the specter of a militant resurgence, the future of his three children and Iraq’s economic and security woes.
“The homeland is the family, not the house ... I feel very homesick,” he said. “When something is broken, it doesn’t go back to the way it used to be.”
Their home has been repaired, but the sight of empty or damaged ones on their street reminds his wife, Ban Saeed, of the Daesh reign of terror. After she gave birth to the couple’s third child in December, she wondered if it would have been better for their daughter to have been born abroad.
“If we left, I am sure their future would be better abroad, not like here,” she said. “There would be safety and I wouldn’t be scared for them when they come and go.”
The numerical decline and waning clout of Iraqi Christians started before the Daesh’s persecution of religious minorities like theirs. Christians were among groups targeted by militants amid the breakdown in security after the 2003 US-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein.
The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, estimated that 1 million Christians have left Iraq since 2003 and about 500,000 remained. But there are no official figures, and estimates vary: Some put the number left at fewer than 250,000.
Without faith the government can provide security from potential violence, legal protections and economic opportunities, many Christians are wary of returning.
Some Christians lament broken trust with some Muslims in neighboring villages who they believe sympathized with Daesh or helped pillage their homes. They are also wary of the ascension of largely Shiite militias and fearful of what they say are unfavorable demographic changes in some traditionally Christian areas.
Etched in the minds of many are the memories of the flight to escape Daesh, the indignities of displacement and the scenes of devastation that awaited those who returned, including burnt out churches and desecrated tombs.
As he left under cover of darkness shortly before the militants entered his town of Karamlis in 2014, the Rev. Thabet Habeb felt pain for all that he was leaving behind. He took little besides some manuscripts, including a Bible.
“It was as if we had been expelled forever from the lands of our grandfathers.”


Drought-hit Jordan to build Red Sea desalination plant

Drought-hit Jordan to build Red Sea desalination plant
Updated 13 June 2021

Drought-hit Jordan to build Red Sea desalination plant

Drought-hit Jordan to build Red Sea desalination plant
  • The cost of the project is estimated at ‘around $1 billion’
  • Thirteen international consortiums have put in bids, and the government will chose five of them by July

AMMAN: Jordan said Sunday it plans to build a Red Sea desalination plant operating within five years, to provide the mostly-desert and drought-hit kingdom with critical drinking water.
The cost of the project is estimated at “around $1 billion,” ministry of water and irrigation spokesman Omar Salameh said, adding that the plant would be built in the Gulf of Aqaba, in southern Jordan.
The plant is expected to produce 250-300 million cubic meters of potable water per year, and should be ready for operation in 2025 or 2026, Salameh said.
“It will cover the need for drinking water (in Jordan) for the next two centuries,” he said, adding that the desalinated water would be piped from Aqaba on the Red Sea to the rest of the country.
Jordan is one of the world’s most water-deficient countries and experts say the country, home to 10 million people, is now in the grip of one of the most severe droughts in its history.
Thirteen international consortiums have put in bids, and the government will chose five of them by July, Salameh said.
Desalinating water is a major drain of energy, and the companies must suggest how to run the plant in Jordan, which does not have major oil reserves.
Last month Salameh said that Jordan needs about 1.3 billion cubic meters of water per year.
But the quantities available are around 850 to 900 million cubic meters, with the shortfall “due to low rainfall, global warming, population growth and successive refugee inflows,” he said.
This year, the reserves of key drinking water dams have reached critical levels, many now a third of their normal capacity.


Jordan’s former royal court chief charged in Prince Hamzah sedition case

Jordan’s former royal court chief charged in Prince Hamzah sedition case
Updated 13 June 2021

Jordan’s former royal court chief charged in Prince Hamzah sedition case

Jordan’s former royal court chief charged in Prince Hamzah sedition case
  • In the indictment, Awadallah and bin Zaid are charged with “attempting to undermine the regime”
  • On June 2, they were referred to the SSC, which looks into cases related to terrorism and state security

AMMAN: Jordan’s former royal court chief and another man will go on trial this week at the State Security Court (SSC) for their alleged roles in a plot to “destabilize the country.”

The country’s public prosecutor endorsed the charges against Sharif Hassan bin Zaid and Bassem Awadallah, the former royal court chief.

Both are accused of working with Prince Hamzah, the former crown prince.

In the indictment, a copy of which was seen by Arab News, Awadallah and bin Zaid are charged with “attempting to undermine the regime, and the country’s security and stability,” as well as “inciting sedition.”

On June 2, they were referred to the SSC, which looks into cases related to terrorism and state security. The court is expected to begin the trial next week.

Awadallah and bin Zaid were arrested on April 3 along with 15 other people suspected of involvement in the case, which also involved Prince Hamzah. Jordanian authorities said that Awadallah, bin Zaid and Prince Hamzah were attempting to destabilize Jordan in collaboration with “foreign entities.”

Prince Hamzah’s involvement was resolved within the framework of the Hashemite family upon directives from his half brother King Abdullah II. The Jordanian royal court published a letter signed by Prince Hamzah in which he vowed allegiance to King Abdullah and confirmed that he would act “always for His Majesty and his Crown Prince to help and support.”

The charge sheet into the sedition case said that there is enough evidence proving a “solid connection” between Prince Hamzah and the two suspects, Awadallah and bin Zaid.

It also said that bin Zaid recommended Awadallah to Prince Hamzah to help them gather external support in their plot to topple the regime and place Prince Hamzah on the throne.

The charges said that the three men regularly met at the home of Awadallah, who was reportedly “encouraging the prince to intensify his meetings with notables and tribal leaders.”

Prince Hamzah then moved to the so-called “open criticism stage,” and began attacking national institutions and accusing them of ineptitude, the indictment said.

The charges also claim that Prince Hamzah exploited a hospital tragedy to mobilize Jordanians and ignite public anger against the state.

Seven COVID-19 patients died in March in the New Salt Public Hospital, northwest of the capital Amman, when the hospital’s oxygen supply failed.

The incident triggered public anger, forcing Jordan’s health minister at the time, Nazir Obeidat, to step down.

The indictment contains a number of text messages that Awadallah, bin Zaid and Prince Hamzah sent to each other during March, days before the case became public.

On March 13, Awadallah sent a WhatsApp message to bin Zaid that said: “It is time for H.” On the same date, Prince Hamzah wrote to bin Zaid: “There is another person saying ‘go ahead.’” The latter wrote back: “This (medical tragedy) is considered the spark.”

Before nationwide rallies planned for March, 24, prosecutors said that bin Zaid sent a text message to Prince Hamzah warning: “From now on, there should not be only words, but there should be a leadership.”

Activists affiliated with the United Jordanian Movement, Hirak called for the nationwide rally to commemorate the 10th anniversary of massive opposition protests in 2011 organized by the Youth of March 24 movement.

Bin Zaid sent another message to Prince Hamzah urging him to “seize the opportunity, maybe not today or tomorrow, but I’m sure not in June, for example. God be on your side.”

In another text message to Prince Hamzah, bin Zaid said: “Things are coming my friend and, as the man (Awadallah) said again last day, the thing will occur sooner than you think.”


Two thirds of eligible people in Dubai fully vaccinated against COVID-19

Two thirds of eligible people in Dubai fully vaccinated against COVID-19
Updated 13 June 2021

Two thirds of eligible people in Dubai fully vaccinated against COVID-19

Two thirds of eligible people in Dubai fully vaccinated against COVID-19
  • For six months the UAE has been running one of the world’s fastest vaccination campaigns against COVID-19

DUBAI: About two-thirds of people eligible for inoculation against COVID-19 have now received two doses of the vaccine in Dubai, the tourist and business hub of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai Health Authority (DHA) said.
Dubai is the most populous of the seven emirates that make up the UAE and has one of the world’s busiest airports.
For six months the UAE has been running one of the world’s fastest vaccination campaigns against COVID-19, initially using a vaccine developed by the China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm) and then adding the Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca shots and Russia’s Sputnik V.
DHA deputy director general Alawi Alsheikh Ali told Dubai Television late on Saturday that 83 percent of people aged over 16 — or about 2.3 million people — had now received at least one dose of a vaccine and that 64 percent had received two doses in the emirate.
The UAE recently said nearly 85 percent of its total eligible population had received at least one dose of a vaccine, without saying how many people had had both doses.
The UAE, which does not break down the number of cases by emirate, has seen a rise in the number of infections in the past month. It recorded 2,281 new cases on Saturday, bringing the total so far to around 596,000 cases. Daily cases peaked at almost 4,000 a day in early February.
DHA said 90 percent of the COVID-19 patients admitted to intensive care units in Dubai hospitals were unvaccinated, without specifying when that statistic was recorded.


Algerian parliamentary election results expected within days, authority says

Algerian parliamentary election results expected within days, authority says
Updated 13 June 2021

Algerian parliamentary election results expected within days, authority says

Algerian parliamentary election results expected within days, authority says

ALGIERS: The results of an Algerian parliamentary election in which fewer than a third of voters took part will be announced within a few days, the head of the voting authority said late on Saturday.
The ruling establishment has tried to use elections along with a crackdown on dissent as a way to end two years of political unrest, with Algeria facing a looming economic crisis.
Supporters of the “Hirak” mass protest movement said it showed the system lacked legitimacy. Two prominent journalists, Khaled Drareni and Ihsane El Kadi, and the opposition figure Karim Tabbou, were detained last week but released on Saturday.
Politicians said the turnout of 30.2 percent, the lowest ever officially recorded for a parliamentary election in Algeria, was “acceptable.”
“The election took place in good conditions. Voters were able to vote and choose the most suitable candidates to serve Algeria,” said election authority head Mohamed Chorfi on television.
The protests erupted in 2019 and unseated veteran President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, continuing weekly until the global pandemic struck a year later. After a year-long pause they resumed in February but police mostly quashed them last month.
Many Algerians believe real power rests with the military and security establishments who have dominated politics for decades, rather than with elected politicians.
“We have grown accustomed in the past to high turnout due to fraud,” said Arslan Chikhaoui, an Algerian analyst, saying the authorities had manipulated the results of elections before the Hirak protests to suggest greater enthusiasm.
After Bouteflika was forced to step down, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected with a turnout of 40 percent. Last year he held a referendum on an amended constitution that gained only 25 percent of votes.
The old parties that traditionally dominated have been tarred with corruption and abuse scandals, giving space to independents and moderate Islamist parties that hope to gain a majority of seats in the new parliament.
Those that win a lot of seats are likely to be included in the next government.
During parliament’s coming five-year term, Algeria is likely to face a fiscal and economic crunch, after burning through four fifths of foreign currency reserves since 2013.
The government has maintained expensive social programs and the state’s central role in the economy despite plummeting oil and gas sales.
Reforms to strengthen the private sector contributed to corruption that fueled the Hirak. Spending cuts could trigger a new wave of protests against the ruling establishment.
Laws passed by the outgoing parliament to encourage foreign and private investment and strengthen the energy sector have so far had little effect.


Lebanon stops Syrians attempting illegal sea crossing

Lebanon stops Syrians attempting illegal sea crossing
Updated 13 June 2021

Lebanon stops Syrians attempting illegal sea crossing

Lebanon stops Syrians attempting illegal sea crossing

BEIRUT: The Lebanese army on Sunday said it intercepted a small boat carrying 11 people, mostly Syrians, attempting an illegal sea crossing out of the crisis-hit country.
A statement said a naval force spotted the boat off the northern port city of Tripoli and that its passengers were all detained and referred for investigation, the army added.
The boat was carrying “10 people of Syrian nationality and a Lebanese national,” it said.
Their journey’s end was not specified but neighboring Cyprus, a member of the European Union, has been a popular sea smuggling destination in recent months.
In May, the Lebanese army intercepted a boat near Tripoli carrying 60 people, including 59 Syrians.
Lebanon, home to more than six million people, says it hosts more than a million Syrian refugees.
They have been hit hard by widening poverty rates and growing food insecurity brought on by the country’s economic crisis.
In a report released this month, the World Bank warned that Lebanon’s economic collapse is likely to rank among the world’s worst financial crises since the mid-19th century.