King Abdullah II declares Jordan ‘strong’ as defendants in ‘sedition’ case released

King Abdullah II declares Jordan ‘strong’ as defendants in ‘sedition’ case released
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Updated 24 April 2021

King Abdullah II declares Jordan ‘strong’ as defendants in ‘sedition’ case released

King Abdullah II declares Jordan ‘strong’ as defendants in ‘sedition’ case released
  • The king said the “sedition” would not shake Jordan and that his country was “strong”
  • Defendants in sedition case released in honor of Ramadan

AMMAN: Jordan’s King Abdullah II said in a meeting this week that in honor of Ramadan 16 defendants involved in a “sedition” case would be released.

“As a father and a brother to all Jordanians, and in this holy month of tolerance and solidarity, when we all wish to be with our families, I ask the relevant officials to look into the proper mechanism to have those who were misled into following the sedition, return to their families soon,” he said during the meeting with officials from Jordan’s various governorates at Al-Husseiniya Palace.

The king said the “sedition” would not shake Jordan and that his country was “strong.”

King Abdullah II said although “what took place was painful,” recent events in the kingdom “won’t shake us.”

Several people have been arrested since the beginning of April following events that threatened to undermine the kingdom’s security and stability.

Reaffirming his commitment to the Jordanian people, the king said: “My duty, goal, and the pledge I have made is to serve and protect our people and country, and this is the standard that defines how we deal with everything.”


US report blasts Turkey for restricting religious minorities

US report blasts Turkey for restricting religious minorities
Updated 20 min 28 sec ago

US report blasts Turkey for restricting religious minorities

US report blasts Turkey for restricting religious minorities
  • Non-Muslim religious groups face challenges in operating houses of worship, holding board elections, and exemptions from mandatory religion courses in schools
  • Report adds to concerns raised when Erdogan reconverted the historic Chora Church and famed Hagia Sophia into mosques last summer

ANKARA: A new report released Wednesday follows a trend from the US State Department in criticizing Turkey for restricting the rights of non-Muslim religious groups in the country.

The latest report focused on the challenges non-Muslim religious groups have faced in operating houses of worship, holding board elections for their foundations, and obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion courses in schools, which are in violation of the European Court of Human Rights’ 2013 ruling.

The US also expressed concerns when Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan reconverted the historic Chora Church, one of Istanbul’s most celebrated Byzantine buildings, and the famed Hagia Sophia into mosques last summer.

In 2020, religious minorities had difficulties in obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion classes in schools while the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary remained closed, the report noted.

“The government continued not to recognize Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I as the leader of the world’s approximately 300 million Orthodox Christians, consistent with the government’s stance that there was no legal obligation for it to do so,” the report said.

According to the report, the US criticized the difficulties that Protestant communities faced in training indigenous Turkish clergy in their congregations as “they relied on foreign volunteers to serve them in leadership capacities.”

However, “they could not operate training facilities in-country,” the report added.

Another annual report for 2021 released last month by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom found that an independent government panel urged Ankara to address longstanding religious freedom issues. It said the religious freedom conditions in Turkey were on a “troubling trajectory.”

The commission, which criticized the vandalism of places of worship in Turkey, also recommended that the US State Department include Turkey on the special watch list for religious freedom violations, and criticized the Turkish government for being “divisive and hostile” against its own religious minorities.

The trial of an Assyrian priest, Sefer Bilecen, who was sentenced to two years in jail on terrorism charges, was also described by the commission as a politically motivated move.

Anna Maria Beylunioglu-Atli, a lecturer at MEF University in Istanbul, said the problems that Turkey’s religious minorities have been facing are directly linked with the authoritarianism trend in the country.

“What the religious minorities experienced over the past year is the inevitable continuation of the general trend of hate speech and discrimination in line with the rising Islamic rhetoric within the society,” she told Arab News.

She added: “Since the foundation of the republic, there was a similar trend in Turkey to restrict the religious freedoms of minorities. But, the recent Islamist rhetoric in the overall politics consolidated it further.”

Such international reports do not have a transformational effect on Turkish domestic politics anymore, Beylunioglu-Atli said.

“What Turkey needs is an indigenous transformation by providing its religious minorities with citizenship rights,” she said. “Otherwise, such reports do not push the rulers to change the living conditions of the minorities in the country.”

US President Joe Biden and his administration have put the fight against all forms of religious discrimination at the center of their agenda. It also reflects the effort of the US State Department in highlighting the status of religious freedom in several countries around the world, including Turkey.

Dr. Mine Yildirim, head of the Freedom of Belief Initiative and Eurasia Civil Society Program at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, said measures taken by the authorities in relation to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic had an impact on the religion or belief communities in interesting ways.

“Our observations and interviews indicated that in 2020 some communities felt that when the public authorities took measures related to curfews and lock-downs, the functioning and use of mosques were taken into account whereas the days of worship of other places of worship were not considered,” she told Arab News.

Yildirim said that there have been fewer attacks or vandalism against churches in 2020, mainly due to the fact that churches have been closed, and as such Christians were less visible.

“Some Alevi and Christian religious leaders have observed that the pandemic has also exasperated the inequalities in the context of public funding for religious services which is solely provided for such services provided through the Presidency of Religious Affairs,” she said.

“As they were not being able to come together in their places of worship some communities received fewer donations whereas their costs for rent and utilities and salary of religious leaders continued.”


UN chief appeals for halt to Israel-Gaza clash

UN chief Anotonio Guterres appealed on Friday for an immediate halt to fighting between Gaza and Israel. (AFP)
UN chief Anotonio Guterres appealed on Friday for an immediate halt to fighting between Gaza and Israel. (AFP)
Updated 14 May 2021

UN chief appeals for halt to Israel-Gaza clash

UN chief Anotonio Guterres appealed on Friday for an immediate halt to fighting between Gaza and Israel. (AFP)
  • UN spokesman added that Guterres urged the parties to allow mediation efforts to intensify

NEW YORK: UN chief Anotonio Guterres appealed on Friday for an immediate halt to fighting between Gaza and Israel.

Secretary-General Guterres warned that the ongoing conflict could “unleash an uncontainable security and humanitarian crisis and to further foster extremism,” not just in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel but also elsewhere in the Middle East region.

A UN spokesman added that Guterres urged the parties to allow mediation efforts to intensify and end the fighting more quickly.

Stephane Dujarric said the UN was “actively involved” in those mediation efforts.

Guterres, who said only a sustainable political solution would lead to lasting peace, also reiterated his commitment to support Palestinians and Israelis in resolving the conflict, through the Quartet of Middle East mediators — the UN, US, EU and Russia — on the basis of relevant UN resolutions, international law and bilateral agreements.

 


Save the Children urges end to Gaza violence as child deaths reach 31

Children watch the funeral of Palestinian boy Hussien Hamad, who was killed amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in the northern Gaza Strip May 11, 2021. (Reuters)
Children watch the funeral of Palestinian boy Hussien Hamad, who was killed amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in the northern Gaza Strip May 11, 2021. (Reuters)
Updated 14 May 2021

Save the Children urges end to Gaza violence as child deaths reach 31

Children watch the funeral of Palestinian boy Hussien Hamad, who was killed amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in the northern Gaza Strip May 11, 2021. (Reuters)
  • ‘If this does not end, more children will be killed,’ Gaza-based expert warns
  • Conflict could lead to ‘trauma, mental health issues’ for almost 1m children

LONDON: Children’s charity Save The Children has called for an immediate end to all hostilities in Gaza and Israel as the number of children killed by Israeli bombardment reaches 31.

“Save the Children is urging the international community to use its influence with parties to the conflict to seek an urgent path to de-escalation as fatalities in Gaza and southern Israel continue to soar,” said a statement issued by the charity to Arab News on Friday.

“Save the Children can confirm that at least 31 schools and a health facility in Gaza have been damaged by Israeli airstrikes,” it said.

In total, 33 children have now died in the violence — 31 in Gaza, and another two in Israeli territory.

The total death toll from the fighting, which continues to escalate, has now reached 126, including 119 Palestinians and seven Israelis. Hundreds more Palestinians have also been injured in Gaza and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Gaza-based Mazen Naim, a communications officer at Save the Children, told Arab News: “I’ve been talking to my family, consistently checking in with my friends and colleagues — the situation is very bad everywhere.

“The 2 million people living in Gaza do not feel safe at all in any way. There are explosions and airstrikes and attacks everywhere. There was houses that were hit, even some of them with people inside. Families were wiped out.”

Naim said that children will pay a “serious and lasting price” for the heaviest attack on Gaza in nearly a decade.

“Many children were alive yesterday that are not alive today. If this does not end, more children will be killed. If this continues, we could be looking at a huge humanitarian catastrophe,” he said.

Not only are dozens of children being harmed physically, he added, but the fighting is causing lasting mental distress to the Gaza Strip’s 800,000 children.

“Children are feeling fear, anxiety and sleeplessness. They are having nightmares at night — no one feels safe in any way, everyone is feeling like we could die at any moment.

“This might end soon, but they will still have nightmares for a long time. This will affect their personality, and their ability to cope and communicate. It will affect their education. Every time they will hear a loud noise — a door shutting, for example — they will have these memories brought back to them.”

Studies show that a large number of people still suffer from mental health issues rooted in previous violent flare-ups in Gaza and elsewhere, Naim said.

Densely populated Gaza has languished for over a decade under an Israeli blockade that has prevented the territory from developing its economy and has eroded critical infrastructure.

The healthcare system, in particular, suffers from a chronic lack of funding, a problem exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and compounded by the sudden influx of seriously injured people.

“The health system in Gaza was actually suffering because of the 14-years blockade on Gaza, but also from a shortage of staff, shortage of medical supplies and the coronavirus crisis,” said Naim.

“And now with this conflict happening, there’s a shortage of hospital beds, a shortage of drugs, and nobody knows when more supplies can enter the territory.”


Lebanese protester shot dead, another wounded by Israelis at border demonstration

People and reporters watching after a pro-Palestinian rally in the Lebanese Khiam area, on Friday. A Lebanese demonstrator died and another was wounded by Israeli fire when dozens rallied to protest strikes on Gaza Strip. (AFP)
People and reporters watching after a pro-Palestinian rally in the Lebanese Khiam area, on Friday. A Lebanese demonstrator died and another was wounded by Israeli fire when dozens rallied to protest strikes on Gaza Strip. (AFP)
Updated 14 May 2021

Lebanese protester shot dead, another wounded by Israelis at border demonstration

People and reporters watching after a pro-Palestinian rally in the Lebanese Khiam area, on Friday. A Lebanese demonstrator died and another was wounded by Israeli fire when dozens rallied to protest strikes on Gaza Strip. (AFP)
  • Local media reported the death of 21-year-old Lebanese demonstrator who succumbed to his injuries in hospital
  • The Lebanese army and security forces were deployed to stop the youths from advancing

KFARKILA, Lebanon: Hezbollah said Friday a young man killed by Israeli gunfire along the Lebanese-Israeli border was a fighter with the militant group.

The man, 21-year-old Mohammad Tahhan, died of wounds sustained on Friday when he was struck during a protest at the border.

The National News Agency (NNA) said in the afternoon two demonstrators were wounded “by two Israeli shells that fell near them after a number of youths tried to enter the town of Metula” in northern Israel.

Palestinian and Lebanese youth had gathered in the border area as part of a rally against the Israeli military campaign in Gaza. A small group later breached the fence and crossed the border into Israel, triggering the shooting.

In the aftermath, “the Lebanese army and security forces were deployed... to stop the youths from advancing” again, the NNA added.

The Israeli military said troops fired shots toward the group after they sabotaged the fence and crossed over briefly,  confirming on Twitter its tanks had “fired warning shots at a number of rioters... who had crossed into Israeli territory.”

The protesters, some carrying Palestinian flags and that of Hezbollah gathered in the Khiam plain, opposite Metula, a few dozen meters (yards) from the border, an AFP photographer said.

They later set fire to the area, with the flames spreading “all the way to the border,” he added.

After sunset a dozen protesters still lingered by the fence, prompting tear gas from the Israeli side.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun strongly condemned “the crime committed by Israeli forces” when they opened fire at the group.

On Thursday, three rockets were fired from southern Lebanon near the Palestinian refugee camp of Rashidiyeh toward Israel, a Lebanese military source said. Israel’s army said the rockets landed in the sea.


Small businesses pay big price for pandemic protection measures in MENA

A worker sanitises a table for clients at a cafe in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh on June 21, 2020, as the country begins to re-open following the lifting of a COVID-19 lockdown. (AFP/File Photo)
A worker sanitises a table for clients at a cafe in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh on June 21, 2020, as the country begins to re-open following the lifting of a COVID-19 lockdown. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 14 May 2021

Small businesses pay big price for pandemic protection measures in MENA

A worker sanitises a table for clients at a cafe in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh on June 21, 2020, as the country begins to re-open following the lifting of a COVID-19 lockdown. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Small, medium-sized enterprises have spent a fortune on cleaning, testing and PPE while absorbing the cost of lost custom
  • Lockdowns and social distancing rules have forced companies to adopt digital tools to ensure their long-term survival 

DUBAI: Staying in business through the COVID-19 pandemic has not been cheap for retailers, hoteliers or eateries — to name just a few types of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). All over the world,  including the Arab region, SMEs have suffered the double whammy of lost custom combined with new expenditure on cleaning, testing, protective equipment and hand sanitizers.

Companies have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on hygiene protocols in a desperate bid to keep their doors open. Contact-intensive sectors such as leisure, hospitality and tourism have suffered more than most. Airlines, spas, gyms and galleries have all been forced to limit footfall.

Although the rollout of vaccines has raised hopes of a turnaround this year, with people itching to book summer getaways and nights out on the town after months stuck indoors, a mixture of new virus mutations and the uneven distribution of vaccines means the world is still a long way from returning to normal.

According to an April report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which assessed the impact of the pandemic on SMEs over the past year, such firms have been hit far harder than their larger counterparts.

“SMEs are overrepresented in the sectors most affected by the crisis, in particular in wholesale and retail trade, air transport, accommodation and food services, real estate, professional services, and other personal services,” the report said.

“Smaller firms are typically more financially fragile and have smaller cash buffers than their larger counterparts. This makes them less resilient to crises.”

Small companies also tend to have weaker supply chains and can “lag behind in terms of the uptake of digital tools and technologies which can help to build resilience in the current pandemic crisis.”

People walk past a closed restaurant in the Saudi capital Riyadh, on February 5, 2021, after new rules laid out by the Ministry of Interior to curb a recent spike in COVID-19 cases. (AFP/File Photo)

Crucially, it would seem, SMEs are also “less likely to have managerial capability to comply with new regulatory frameworks to guarantee customers’ and employees’ safety.”

For Tala Badri, founder and executive director of the Center for Musical Arts in Dubai, most of the past year’s excess expenditure has been spent on COVID-19 safety and hygiene measures for her patrons and staff.

When businesses in Dubai were cleared to reopen in the second half of 2020, under strict public health guidelines, Badri was legally obliged to hire an approved cleaning company to sanitize the entire premises, its equipment and its musical instruments.

“We have to set up systems where you have a sanitization station everywhere that is accessible,” Badri told Arab News. “You have to buy the sanitizer. These are all additional expenses that we never had to face before.

“We also have to put up special screens for teaching, which cost AED 2,000 to AED 3,000 ($545 to $820) and are just plastic screens, not even that big, but they cost money,” she said.

“One of the other things we have to do is increase our Internet usage (for remote teaching). You have (limited) choice (in selecting an Internet service provider). You have just to go with whatever is there. We are paying on average about AED 15,000 ($4,000) per term, and this is like someone’s salary. It is like having another person on staff.”

Saudi authorities in February suspended the provision of indoor dining service, allowing only take-away, and banned all recreational and entertainments activities for 10 days to stem the spread of COVID-19. (AFP/File Photo)

Badri “totally accepts” the measures are necessary, but says they constitute an “unprecedented extra cost” that businesses like hers were in no position to take on. “When you are losing such a huge amount of your money, and you have to pay extra to stay in business, where there is no support, it is very difficult,” she said.

Other sectors have been forced to absorb cumbersome expenses of their own. Gyms, for instance, have replaced communal soap dispensers with individually wrapped bottles to reduce surface contamination.

Although many fitness facilities are saving on their laundry bill by asking guests to bring their own towels, round-the-clock sanitizing of equipment and surfaces is nevertheless eating into their budget.

Restaurants have also had to radically rethink their business model, relying on local delivery firms to reach a smaller catchment of customers and absorbing the additional cost of single-use takeaway packaging, not to mention the outgoings on additional health and safety measures in the kitchen.

Those eateries with sufficient space have experimented with partitioning and spreading out their customers, but the loss of larger bookings and walk-ins will no doubt have hit their balance sheets.

Employees of a restaurant at a mall in the Saudi capital Riyadh wear face masks after the authorities eased some of the restrictive measures put in place to combat the spread of COVID-19. (AFP/File Photo)

On top of this, extra signage, QR-code menus, queuing areas, plexiglass screens, sanitizing stations, plastic tablecloths and cashless payment systems have not only multiplied expenses but also taken away some of the magic of the dining-out experience. Who enjoys wearing their mask between courses?

No wonder supermarkets and other food-retail outlets have seen a bounce at the expense of restaurateurs since the pandemic began. According to Somaia Basha, a Dubai-based senior research analyst for Euromonitor International, Saudi Arabia’s restaurant sector lost 37 percent of its value in 2020.

“Because of the initial lockdown, we have seen overspending on food retail. On the other hand, of course, restaurants were massively hit,” she told Arab News.

SMEs have been forced to adapt quickly to new trends, which, although they existed prior to the pandemic, have been pushed into overdrive out of necessity. Take, for instance, the digital transformation of home delivery and payment methods.

“COVID-19 has elevated or increased the speed of a lot of trends that were actually already happening,” said Basha. “So, before COVID-19, there was transformation of payments, there were delivery options that were getting traction. But after COVID-19, these became more important.

“Progress that we expected to take years has been happening over the course of one year in some countries and even just a matter of months in others. This high speed is transforming many industries.

People sit at a cafe in a mall in the Saudi capital Riyadh on June 4, 2020, after it reopened following the easing of some restrictions. (AFP/File Photo)

“Now, imagine you are one of these restaurants and suddenly you are faced with this issue of either going digital or shutting down. You are going to have to invest money when you are already making a loss, because you are not generating any revenue, and you are not there on delivery platforms.

“So, you are now going to spend a couple of thousand dollars to be there, to be available in the digital world. And then, when you go into the digital world, you will find you have multiple platforms, which are competing, and you have prices dropping.”

Perhaps, then, the innovations that this pandemic has driven forward, with companies forced to invest and adapt to ensure their long-term survival, are the real silver lining of this traumatic and costly year. True, not all sectors can benefit from digital technologies, but those that do can expect to bounce back much faster.

“It is a challenging time for restaurants all over the world. They are playing in an area they have not maneuvered in before,” said Basha. “It is unknown territory.”

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Twitter: @jumanaaltamimi