Migrant crisis front and center in pope’s Greece-Cyprus trip

Migrant crisis front and center in pope’s Greece-Cyprus trip
Francis is returning to Lesbos this week for the first time since that defining day of his papacy, making a repeat visit to the island where hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants have passed through on their journey to Europe. (File/AFP)
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Updated 30 November 2021

Migrant crisis front and center in pope’s Greece-Cyprus trip

Migrant crisis front and center in pope’s Greece-Cyprus trip
  • Francis will first stop in Cyprus, a country in the Mediterranean that is coping with a rise in refugees so significant that the government is seeking to stop processing asylum claims
  • Greece continues to host large numbers of asylum-seekers while failing to protect their rights

LESBOS, Greece: When Pope Francis visited the Greek island of Lesbos in 2016, he was so moved by the stories he heard from families fleeing war in Iraq and Syria that he wept and brought a dozen refugees home with him.
Speaking to reporters on the way home that day, he held up a drawing handed to him by a child from the island’s sprawling refugee camp.
“Look at this one,” he said, revealing a bird neatly decorated in colored pencil, the word “peace” scrolled in English underneath it. “That’s what children want: Peace.”
Francis is returning to Lesbos this week for the first time since that defining day of his papacy, making a repeat visit to the island where hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants have passed through on their journey to Europe.
But he will find attitudes toward migrants here have only hardened in the intervening five years, as they have elsewhere in Europe, with tensions flaring on the border between European Union country Poland and Belarus and more deadly crossings — most recently in the English Channel.
Francis will first stop in Cyprus, another predominantly Orthodox Christian country in the Mediterranean that is also coping with a rise in refugees so significant that the government is seeking to stop processing asylum claims. As he did in Lesbos five years ago, Francis has arranged for several would-be refugees in Cyprus to travel to Italy after his visit, Cypriot officials say.
“They are our brothers and sisters,” Francis said in a video message to Greek and Cypriot faithful before the trip. “How many have lost their lives at sea! Today our sea, the Mediterranean, is a great cemetery.”
The pontiff starts his five-day trip on Thursday in Cyprus before heading to Greece on Saturday. He returns home on Monday.
While Francis’ renewed messages of compassion and welcome for migrants isn’t quite resonating in European capitals, they are a welcome salvo for the migrants themselves.
“His presence here will strengthen us, spiritually, and give us hope, some comfort,” said Christian Tango Muyaka, a 30-year-old asylum-seeker from Congo who is due to participate in a Sunday service with the pope at a new migrant camp on Lesbos.
“It gives us faith, it strengthens our faith,” he said.
Muyaka was separated from his wife and youngest daughter a year ago on the Turkish coast when they scrambled to board a boat bound for Greece. He has had no news of what happened to them since.
The north coast of Lesbos, just 10 kilometers (six miles) from Turkey, served as the main landing point for boats crossing into Europe during the 2015-16 migration crisis.
Piles of discarded orange life vests covered beaches, local fishermen helped daily rescue operations, and island residents took pride in setting up campaigns to provide hundreds of refugees arriving daily with food and clothing.
Fast forward five years, and the welcome mat is gone.
Migrants reaching the eastern Greek islands are now being held in detention camps, newly built and funded by the EU. Coast guard patrols are instructed to intercept dinghies and boats heading west and send them back to Turkey.
The overcrowded camp on Lesbos that Francis was taken to in 2016 burnt to the ground last year during protests against pandemic restrictions.
And along Greece’s land border with Turkey, a new steel wall and hi-tech sensor network have been installed to stop illegal crossings.
Eva Cosse at Human Rights Watch said Francis’ visit will serve as an urgent reminder of the human nature of the crisis.
“At a time when people are suffering and their rights are threatened, having the pope standing up for them and expressing these concerns is more important than ever,” she told The Associated Press. “Since the pope’s last visit, Greece continues to host large numbers of asylum-seekers while failing to protect their rights.
“Thousands seeking refuge in Greece are violently pushed back to Turkey. Migrant children face homelessness and a lack of access to health care, education and food. And nongovernmental groups face legislative restrictions and criminal harassment by officials.”
Greek authorities deny allegations of summary deportations. They argue that tougher border policing is necessary to counter hostility by several EU neighbors accused of exploiting the crisis and to limit arrival numbers to manageable levels.
“(Francis’) message is that we are one world, that we don’t have borders, that everybody is a child of God. Look, this is the religious point of view,” said Dimitris Vafeas, the deputy director of Mavrovouni migrant camp on Lesbos where the pope will visit.
“In practical terms, I think Greece has delivered ... so I think (Francis) will see calm faces. I don’t dare say happy faces, but calm for sure.”


Western diplomats meet Afghan activists amid Taliban talks

Western diplomats meet Afghan activists amid Taliban talks
Updated 19 sec ago

Western diplomats meet Afghan activists amid Taliban talks

Western diplomats meet Afghan activists amid Taliban talks
  • The EU, the US, Britain, France, Italy and hosts Norway in attendance
  • Taliban expected to lobby for release of $10 billion in assets frozen by US

OSLO: Western diplomats are meeting with Afghan women’s rights activists and human rights defenders in Oslo ahead of the first official talks with the Taliban in Europe since they took over control of Afghanistan in August.
The closed-door meeting was a chance to hear from civil society in Afghanistan and the Afghan diaspora about their demands and assessment of the current situation on the ground. The meeting was taking place at a hotel in the snow-capped mountains above the Norwegian capital and was attended by representatives of the EU, the US, Britain, France, Italy and hosts Norway.
The three-day talks opened on Sunday with direct meetings between the Taliban and civil society representatives.
A joint statement tweeted overnight by Zabihullah Mujahid, the Afghan deputy culture and information minister, following the talks reads that “participants of the meeting recognized that understanding and joint cooperation are the only solutions to all the problems of Afghanistan,” and emphasized that “all Afghans need to work together for better political, economic and security outcomes in the country.”
Later on Monday, Western diplomats are set to meet with Taliban representatives who will be certain to press their demand that nearly $10 billion frozen by the United States and other Western countries be released as Afghanistan faces a precarious humanitarian situation.
“We are requesting them to unfreeze Afghan assets and not punish ordinary Afghans because of the political discourse,” said Taliban delegate Shafiullah Azam. “Because of the starvation, because of the deadly winter, I think it’s time for the international community to support Afghans, not punish them because of their political disputes.”
The United Nations has managed to provide some liquidity and allowed the Taliban administration to pay for imports, including electricity. But the UN has warned that as many as 1 million Afghan children are in danger of starving and most of the country’s 38 million people are living below the poverty line.
Faced with the Taliban’s request for funds, Western powers are likely to put the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan high on their agenda, along with the West’s recurring demand for the Taliban administration to share power with Afghanistan’s minority ethnic and religious groups.
Since sweeping to power in mid-August, the Taliban have imposed widespread restrictions, many of them directed at women. Women have been banned from many jobs outside the health and education fields, their access to education has been restricted beyond sixth grade and they have been ordered to wear the hijab. The Taliban have, however, stopped short of imposing the burqa, which was compulsory when they previously ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.
The Taliban have increasingly targeted Afghanistan’s beleaguered rights groups, as well as journalists, detaining and sometimes beating television crews covering demonstrations.
A US delegation, led by Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West, plans to discuss “the formation of a representative political system; responses to the urgent humanitarian and economic crises; security and counterterrorism concerns; and human rights, especially education for girls and women,” according to a statement released by the US State Department.
The Scandinavian country, home to the Nobel Peace Prize, is no stranger to diplomacy. It has been involved in peace efforts in a number of countries, including Mozambique, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Colombia, the Philippines, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Syria, Myanmar, Somalia, Sri Lanka and South Sudan.


Burkina Faso’s President Kabore is held by mutinous soldiers

Burkina Faso’s President Kabore is held by mutinous soldiers
Updated 45 min 26 sec ago

Burkina Faso’s President Kabore is held by mutinous soldiers

Burkina Faso’s President Kabore is held by mutinous soldiers
  • Kabore had been leading Burkina Faso since being elected in 2015 after a popular uprising ousted longtime strongman President Blaise Compaore

OUAGADOUGOU: Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Christian Kabore is being held by mutinous soldiers, two of the soldiers told The Associated Press by phone early Monday. They did not say where Kabore is being held, but said he is in a safe place.
Gunshots were heard late Sunday night near the president’s residence and in the early hours of Monday a battle took place at the presidential palace while a helicopter flew overhead. The roads of the capital were empty Sunday night except for checkpoints heavily guarded by mutinous soldiers.
State news station RTB was heavily guarded on Monday morning.
Fighting began on Sunday when soldiers took control of the Lamizana Sangoule military barracks in the capital, Ouagadougou. Civilians drove into town in a show of support for the rebellion but were broken up by security forces firing tear gas. The mutiny came a day after a public demonstration calling for Kabore’s resignation, the latest in a series of anti-Kabore protests as anger has mounted over his government’s handling of the Islamic insurgency.
The government has not made any statements since Sunday when Minister of Defense Aime Barthelemy Simpore told state broadcaster RTB that a few barracks had been affected by unrest not only in Ouagadougou but in other cities, too. He denied, however, that the president had been detained by the mutineers, even though Kabore’s whereabouts was unknown.
“Well, it’s a few barracks. There are not too many,” Simpore said.
Kabore had been leading Burkina Faso since being elected in 2015 after a popular uprising ousted longtime strongman President Blaise Compaore who was in power for nearly three decades. Kabore was reelected in November 2020 for another five-year term, however, frustration has been growing at his inability to stem the spread of jihadist violence across the country. Attacks linked to Al-Qaeda and the Daesh group are escalating, killing thousands and displacing more than an estimated 1.5 million people.
The military has suffered losses since the extremist violence began in 2016. In December more than 50 security forces were killed in the Sahel region and nine security forces were killed in the Center North region in November.
Angry mutinous soldiers told the AP that the government was disconnected from its forces in the field and that their colleagues were dying and they wanted military rule. The soldiers put a man on the phone who said that they were seeking better working conditions for Burkina Faso’s military amid the escalating fight against Islamic militants. Among their demands are increased manpower in the battle against extremists and better care for those wounded and the families of the dead.


Severe weather brings snow to Athens, Greek islands

Severe weather brings snow to Athens, Greek islands
Updated 24 January 2022

Severe weather brings snow to Athens, Greek islands

Severe weather brings snow to Athens, Greek islands
  • Authorities have warned the public to limit their movements outdoors
  • Snow is common in the Greek mountains and in the northern part of the country
ATHENS, Greece: A severe weather front has hit Greece, with below-freezing temperatures and snowfall in many parts of the country, including the capital Athens and many Aegean islands.
Authorities have warned the public to limit their movements outdoors to the essential on Monday and Tuesday, while schools shifted to online classes only. Coronavirus vaccination appointments scheduled for Monday and Tuesday in one children’s hospital in Athens were rescheduled for later in the week in a different location.
The snow was coming down thick and fast in central Athens, settling on the marble columns of the ancient Acropolis. Authorities sent out emergency alerts to cell phones in the wider Athens area on Monday morning warning of severe snowfall over the next few hours and calling on people to avoid any unnecessary movement. Snow chains were mandatory for cars in parts of the northern fringes of the capital.
Snow is common in the Greek mountains and in the northern part of the country, but is more infrequent in central Athens and on Aegean islands. Last year, the Greek capital was hit by a major snowstorm that caused severe problems, knocking out power for days in certain neighborhoods and making all streets impassable without snow chains. Thousands of trees buckled and fell from the weight of the snow.

China tests 2 million in Beijing, lifts COVID-19 lockdown in Xi’an

China tests 2 million in Beijing, lifts COVID-19 lockdown in Xi’an
Updated 32 min 12 sec ago

China tests 2 million in Beijing, lifts COVID-19 lockdown in Xi’an

China tests 2 million in Beijing, lifts COVID-19 lockdown in Xi’an
  • The Olympics are being held under strict controls that are meant to isolate athletes, staff, reporters and officials from residents
  • China has reported relatively few cases of the highly infectious omicron variant

BEIJING: A fresh outbreak in Beijing has prompted authorities to test millions and impose new measures two weeks ahead of the opening of the Winter Olympics, even as Chinese officials on Monday lifted a monthlong lockdown on the northern city of Xi’an and its 13 million residents.
Despite falling case numbers, pandemic controls have been stepped up ahead of the Olympics, where all participants must be tested before and after their arrival in Beijing.
In the capital, the 2 million residents of Fengtai district underwent testing following the discovery of more than three dozen cases in the capital. Targeted testing was being conducted at residential communities in six other districts.
The government told people in areas of Beijing deemed at high risk for infection not to leave the city after 25 cases were found in Fengtai and 14 elsewhere. Residents lined up Sunday on snow-covered sidewalks in freezing weather for testing.
The Beijing Municipal Health Commission also said Sunday that anyone who had purchased medicine for fever, cough and other infections within the past two weeks would be required to take a COVID-19 test within 72 hours, the state-owned Global Times newspaper reported.
The Olympics are being held under strict controls that are meant to isolate athletes, staff, reporters and officials from residents. Athletes are required to be vaccinated or undergo a quarantine after arriving in China.
The announcement by the city of Xi’an Monday followed the restart of commercial flights from the city over the weekend. The major tourism center and former imperial capital, famed as the home of the Terracotta Warrior statue army, struggled to get food to some residents in the early days of the lockdown, after people were confined to their homes.
Xi’an has been a cornerstone of the ruling Communist Party’s “zero tolerance” strategy toward COVID-19 that mandates lockdowns, travel restrictions and mass testing whenever a case is discovered.
Xi’an is about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) southwest of Beijing, where the Olympics open Feb. 4.
Access to Xi’an was suspended Dec. 22 following an outbreak attributed to the delta variant of the coronavirus.
Other outbreaks prompted the government to impose travel bans on a number of cities, including the port of Tianjin, about an hour from Beijing. The stiff regulations are credited with preventing major nationwide outbreaks and China has reported relatively few cases of the highly infectious omicron variant.
China on Monday reported just 18 new cases of local infection, including six in Beijing. The country has 2,754 current cases of infection and has reported a total of 105,660 cases of COVID-19 with 4,636 deaths.
A number of nearby provinces reported cases linked to the outbreaks in the capital, including Shandong and Hebei provinces. The city of Shenyang in Liaoning province reported a positive test result in a person with no symptoms, also related to the Beijing clusters.
Organizers on Monday said 39 people among the 2,586 athletes, team officials and others who arrived after Jan. 4 had tested positive for the virus upon landing at Beijing airport. Another 33 people who had already entered the bubble isolating participants from the general public later tested positive, the organizing committee said on its website.
The statement did not identify those who tested positive other than to say they were “outside stakeholders,” a term that excludes athletes or coaches. China mandates 21 days of quarantine for people arriving from abroad, but had waived that for those coming for the Olympics on condition they tested negative for the virus.


UK govt orders probe into Muslim ex-minister’s claims

UK govt orders probe into Muslim ex-minister’s claims
Updated 24 January 2022

UK govt orders probe into Muslim ex-minister’s claims

UK govt orders probe into Muslim ex-minister’s claims

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered an inquiry into claims by a Muslim former minister that she was sacked from his government because of her faith, a spokesperson said Monday.
The claims by Nusrat Ghani, a former junior transport minister, have stoked fresh controversy for Downing Street as Johnson awaits the findings of a different inquiry into “partygate” revelations.
“The prime minister has asked the Cabinet Office to conduct an inquiry into the allegations made by Nusrat Ghani MP,” the spokesperson said.
Johnson had initially urged Ghani to file a formal complaint through the Conservative party. But she declined, arguing that the allegation centered on government rather than party work.
“The prime minister has now asked officials to establish the facts about what happened,” the spokesperson said, adding that Johnson “takes these claims very seriously.”
Ghani welcomed the new probe, which was announced after she held talks with Johnson on Sunday evening.
“As I said to the prime minister last night, all I want is for this to be taken seriously and for him to investigate,” she tweeted.
The inquiry must look into what she was told both by Downing Street aides and by a Conservative whip in parliament, the Tory MP added.
Ghani, 49, was sacked as a transport minister in 2020, and told the Sunday Times that a whip said her “Muslimness was raised as an issue” at one meeting in Downing Street.
She was also told her “Muslim woman minister status was making colleagues feel uncomfortable,” she claimed.
Chief whip Mark Spencer, whose role is to keep MPs on board with the government’s agenda, took the unusual step of identifying himself as the person at the center of the claims, and strongly denied the allegations.
The government whips were already in the spotlight after they were accused by another Tory MP of “blackmailing” backbench critics of Johnson over the partygate affair.
Several Conservatives have called for the prime minister to quit after revelations that his staff had held frequent parties in Downing Street during Covid-19 lockdowns.
Johnson attended at least one of the gatherings, but denies breaking the law, and has commissioned senior civil servant Sue Gray to investigate.
Gray’s report could come out this week, according to reports.
In a newspaper column in 2018, Johnson sparked widespread criticism by writing that Muslim women wearing the burqa looked like “letter boxes” and a “bank robber.”