Pope sends defiant message of peace, hope and prayer to Iraq

Pope sends defiant message of peace, hope and prayer to Iraq
A Security man stands next to a poster of Pope Francis, ahead of his planned visit to Iraq, in Baghdad, Iraq, March 3, 2021. (Reuters)
Short Url
Updated 03 March 2021

Pope sends defiant message of peace, hope and prayer to Iraq

Pope sends defiant message of peace, hope and prayer to Iraq
  • Francis vows first papal visit will go ahead despite new rocket attack on air base
  • “For a long time I have wanted to meet these people who have suffered so much,” pope told weekly audience

ROME: Pope Francis sent a message of hope and peace on Wednesday to the people of Iraq, and a message of defiance to terrorists trying to rip the country apart.

After 10 rockets landed on an air base that hosts US, coalition and Iraqi forces, Francis vowed that the first papal visit to Iraq would begin on Friday as planned.

“The day after tomorrow, God willing, I will go to Iraq for a three-day pilgrimage. For a long time I have wanted to meet these people who have suffered so much,” the pope told his weekly audience in the Vatican.

“The Iraqi people await me. They also waited for St. John Paul II but he was forbidden to go. One can’t disappoint a people a second time. Let us pray that this journey will be successful.” A planned trip in 2000 by Pope John Paul II was cancelled by Saddam Hussein.

The visit is going ahead despite Wednesday’s attack on Al-Asad air base in Iraq’s western desert, during which a US civilian contractor died from a heart attack while sheltering from rockets.

Pope Francis is not scheduled to visit that part of the country, but he will spend time in Baghdad and Irbil, both hit by rocket attacks last month. He will also visit the former Daesh stronghold of Mosul, where churches still bear the signs of conflict.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said the pope may travel by armored vehicle, and will not be meeting crowds except for Mass at Irbil stadium on Sunday, where 10,000 people are expected.

“This is a particular situation. That’s why transport will be in a closed vehicle, meaning it will be difficult to see the pope on the street,” Bruni said. “There will be a number of meetings, but none will be more than a few hundred people.”

Francis, 84, will take part in a historic meeting on Saturday with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, 90, at the powerful Shiite cleric’s home in Najaf. Sistani is one of the most important figures in Shiite Islam, both within Iraq and beyond. He commands a vast following among Iraq’s Shiite majority and wields considerable influence over politics and public opinion.

The pope said: “Together with other religious leaders, in the birthplace of Abraham we’ll also move another step forward in the brotherhood of believers. I ask you to accompany this apostolic journey with your prayers so that it may take place in the best possible way and bear the hoped-for fruits.”

Pope Francis has long campaigned for inter-religious dialogue, peace and tolerance. Two years ago in Abu Dhabi, he met Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar, the center of Sunni Muslim learning. The two religious leaders signed a document on “human fraternity for world peace” and made a joint appeal for freedom of belief.


Migrant boat sinks off Tunisia, 21 dead, 3 survivors found

Migrant boat sinks off Tunisia, 21 dead, 3 survivors found
Updated 1 min 23 sec ago

Migrant boat sinks off Tunisia, 21 dead, 3 survivors found

Migrant boat sinks off Tunisia, 21 dead, 3 survivors found
  • A survivor said that the boat had 41 migrants on board, who had set off from Sfax in hope of reaching the Italian coast
  • The port city has become a common exit point for Europe-bound migrants escaping conflict or poor living conditions

TUNIS, Tunisia: Tunisian authorities said they recovered the bodies of 21 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, including nine women and a baby, whose boat sank Friday off the central port city of Sfax. The cause of the sinking was unclear.
Commander Housemeddine Jebabli, of the National Guard, told The Associated Press there were only three survivors, who were rescued by the coast guard with the help of civil protection divers.
Jebabli said that authorities are continuing to search the area of the sinking, as there are indications that 17 people could be missing.
Jebabli said a survivor told him that the boat had 41 migrants on board, who had set off the day before from Sfax in hope of reaching the Italian coast.
The port city has become a common exit point for Europe-bound migrants escaping conflict or poor living conditions.
Last month, on March 9, two boats ran aground in the same area killing 39 people, while 165 migrants were rescued. Most were sub-Saharan nationals.


With food and fuel, Hezbollah braces for the worst in Lebanon collapse

With food and fuel, Hezbollah braces for the worst in Lebanon collapse
Updated 13 min 29 sec ago

With food and fuel, Hezbollah braces for the worst in Lebanon collapse

With food and fuel, Hezbollah braces for the worst in Lebanon collapse
  • Hezbollah readies for 'stage of darkness and hunger', a step reflecting worries over looming end to subsidies
  • Plan chimes with worries in Lebanon that people will have to rely on political factions for food and security

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Hezbollah has made preparations for an all-out collapse of the fracturing state, issuing ration cards for food, importing medicine and readying storage for fuel from its patron Iran, three sources familiar with the plans told Reuters.
The moves, responding to a grave economic crisis, would mark an expansion of services provided by the armed movement to its large Shiite support base, with a network that already boasts charities, a construction firm and a pension system.
The steps highlight rising fears of an implosion of the Lebanese state, in which authorities can no longer import food or fuel to keep the lights on.
They underline Hezbollah’s growing role in tackling the emergency with services that the government would otherwise provide.
The plan chimes with worries in Lebanon that people will have to rely on political factions for food and security, such as in militia days during the 1975-1990 civil war.
In response to a question about Hezbollah’s plans, Leila Hatoum, an adviser to the caretaker prime minister, said the country was “in no condition to refuse aid” regardless of politics.
The sources from the pro-Hezbollah camp, who declined to be named, said the plan for a potential worst-case scenario has gathered pace as an end to subsidies looms in the coming months, raising the specter of hunger and unrest.
Lebanon’s currency has crashed as the country runs out of dollars, with no state rescue in sight. Food prices have shot up 400%.
Fights in supermarkets are now commonplace, as are people rummaging through trash. A brawl over food packages this week killed one person and injured two others.
Hezbollah’s plan would help shield its communities — not only members but also mainly Shiite residents of districts it dominates — from the worst of the crisis, the sources said.
Hezbollah, which with its allies has a majority in parliament and government, did not respond to a request for comment.
“The preparations have begun for the next stage...It is indeed an economic battle plan,” said one of the sources, a senior official.

OUTSIZED NETWORK
Already, the new ration card, seen by Reuters, helps hundreds of people buy basic goods in the local currency — largely Iranian, Lebanese and Syrian cheaper items at a discount up to 40%, subsidised by the party, the sources said.
The card — named after a Shiite Imam — can be used at co-ops, some of them newly opened, in the southern Beirut suburbs and parts of southern Lebanon where Hezbollah holds sway.
An Iran-funded paramilitary force which critics once called “a state within a state,” Hezbollah has grown more entangled in Lebanese state affairs in recent years.
Washington, which deems Hezbollah a terrorist group, has ramped up sanctions to choke off its sources of funding, including what it estimates as hundreds of millions of dollars from Tehran yearly.
Iranian funding keeps Hezbollah better off than many in the country’s mosaic of parties, including those opposed to its arsenal. Some factions have issued aid baskets to their patronage communities, but the Iran-backed network remains outsized in comparison.
“They’re all doing it...But Hezbollah’s scope is much bigger and more powerful, with more resources to deal with the crisis,” said Joseph Daher, a researcher who wrote a book on Hezbollah’s political economy. “This is more about limiting the catastrophe for its popular base. It means the dependency on Hezbollah particularly will increase.”
And while Hezbollah gives ration cards, the state, hollowed out by decades of graft and debt, has talked up the idea of such a card for poor Lebanese for nearly a year without acting.
Ministers have said the need for parliamentary approval has stalled the cabinet’s plan for cards.

DARKNESS AND HUNGER
Photos on social media of shelves stacked with canned goods, reportedly from one of Hezbollah’s co-ops, spread across Lebanon last week.
Fatima Hamoud, in her 50s, said the ration card allows her once a month to buy grains, oil and cleaning products for a household of eight. “They know we’re in bad shape,” she said. “Without them, what would we have done in these tough times?“
A second Shiite source said Hezbollah had filled up warehouses and launched the cards to extend services outside the party and plug gaps in the Lebanese market, where cheap alternatives are more common than pre-crisis.
He said the card offers a quota, based on the family size, for needs like sugar and flour.
The goods are backed by Hezbollah, imported by allied companies or brought in without customs fees through the border with Syria, where Hezbollah forces have a footing since joining the war to back Damascus alongside Iran.
The source added that Hezbollah had similar plans for medicine imports. Some pharmacists in the southern suburbs of Beirut said they had received training on new Iranian and Syrian brands that popped up on the shelves in recent months.
Two of the sources said the plan included stockpiling fuel from Iran, as Lebanon’s energy ministry warns of a possible total blackout. The senior official said Hezbollah was clearing storage space for fuel in next-door Syria.
“When we get to a stage of darkness and hunger, you will find Hezbollah going to its back-up option...and that is a grave decision. Then Hezbollah will fill in for the state,” said the senior official. “If it comes to it, the party would’ve taken its precautions to prevent a void.”


Erdogan defends minister after spat with Greece

Erdogan defends minister after spat with Greece
Updated 16 April 2021

Erdogan defends minister after spat with Greece

Erdogan defends minister after spat with Greece
  • ‘Turkey has violated international laws and conventions’, Greek foreign minister told Turkish counterpart
  • "Our foreign minister put him in his place in the face of this behaviour and attitude," Erdogan told reporters Friday

ISTANBUL: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday robustly defended his foreign minister after he traded barbs in an unusually public spat with his Greek counterpart.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias’s visit to Ankara on Thursday ended in disarray when he and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu used their closing statements to accuse each other of discrimination and violating international laws.
“Turkey has violated international laws and conventions in the Aegean Sea and in the eastern Mediterranean,” Dendias told Cavusoglu at one point.
“Turkey has carried out 400 (military) flights over Greek soil,” said Dendias.
“If you heavily accuse my country and people before the press, I have to be in a position to respond to that,” Cavusoglu retorted.
The oddly undiplomatic press event became the dominant talking point on Turkish news shows and overshadowed what was meant to be an attempt by the two NATO neighbors to mend ties after a year of disputes.
It was the first time the two ministers met since the two countries teetered on the edge of war when their gunboats collided during a Turkish push into disputed eastern Mediterranean waters last August.
Erdogan said Cavusoglu “could not be any softer” with Dandias because “that would not suit our country or people.”
“Our foreign minister put him in his place in the face of this behavior and attitude,” Erdogan told reporters after attending Friday prayers in Istanbul.
The Turkish leader said his own meeting with Dendias earlier that day was held in a “warm atmosphere.”
Dendias had also described his talks with Erdogan as “extraordinary.”
Turkey had said last month that Dendias was coming to prepare what could have been a groundbreaking summit between Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
But the heated exchange highlighted the deep diplomatic divide that stands between the two neighbors and no summit was announced.
The disagreements on Thursday included each country’s treatment of their respective Turkish Muslim and Greek Orthodox minorities.
Erdogan took issue with Dendias’s decision to pay a visit to the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians in Istanbul on Wednesday.
“You don’t show the necessary ... concern for our 150,000 (Turks in Greece). You appoint their chief mufti,” Erdogan said. “We do not appoint the patriarch here.”


UAE confirms 1,843 new COVID-19 infections, 2 deaths

UAE confirms 1,843 new COVID-19 infections, 2 deaths
Updated 16 April 2021

UAE confirms 1,843 new COVID-19 infections, 2 deaths

UAE confirms 1,843 new COVID-19 infections, 2 deaths
  • The total number of infected cases since the pandemic began has reached 493,266
  • The total fatalities stand at 1,547

DUBAI: The UAE has recorded 1,843 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours after conducting 198,135 tests, state news agency WAM reported.
The Ministry of Health and Prevention said the total number of infected cases since the pandemic began has reached 493,266 while the total fatalities stand at 1,547 after two deaths were confirmed.
Meanwhile, 1,503 people had recovered from the virus, raising the total number of recoveries to 476,518.


Half of Cyprus passports in cash scheme were illegal — inquiry

Half of Cyprus passports in cash scheme were illegal — inquiry
Updated 16 April 2021

Half of Cyprus passports in cash scheme were illegal — inquiry

Half of Cyprus passports in cash scheme were illegal — inquiry
  • Over 3,000 foreign investors who paid a minimum 2 million euros were given Cypriot passports between 2013 & 2019
  • In "tens" of cases, the commission recommended rescinding citizenship without giving details

NICOSIA: More than half the passports Cyprus issued to rich foreigners in an investment scheme were illegal, a government-appointed board of inquiry has found.
More than 3,000 foreign investors who stumped up a minimum of 2 million euros were given Cypriot passports between 2013 and 2019, with the scheme proving popular with Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese and Cambodians.
The program was terminated last year after a corruption scandal, embarrassing the island’s center-right administration which had championed the scheme before admitting it was flawed.
“Our interim report gives statistical data concerning illegal naturalizations — those which, in the view of the committee, were issued by exceeding the boundaries of the law — and those are 51.81% of the total,” Myron Nicolatos, who chaired the inquiry, told reporters on Friday.
He said some others were within the proper legal framework but did not meet some legal criteria which applied at the time.
In “tens” of cases, the commission recommended rescinding citizenship, Nicolatos added, without giving details.
His report has been passed to the attorney-general’s office and not been made public.
“The interim report notes possible criminal, disciplinary or administrative responsibilities which will be investigated by the relevant authorities,” said Nicolatos, who was president of the Supreme Court until he retired in 2020.
Panned by critics as opaque and fraught with the risk of money-laundering, the scheme had been staunchly defended by the government through a slew of mainly foreign media reports and European Union misgivings.
The authorities were forced to unceremoniously dump it after the Al Jazeera network secretly filmed a former speaker of parliament and others allegedly offering to help a person with a criminal record obtain a passport.
He resigned, but denied any wrongdoing, saying his comments were taken out of context.
The European Commission launched infringement procedures against Cyprus over the scheme last year, arguing that granting EU citizenship for pre-determined payments, without any genuine link to the state, concerned undermined EU citizenship.
Investigators probed 2,478 passports issued from 2007 to 2016, and an additional 417, deemed high-risk, until 2020.