Syrian monastery seeks visitors after years of war

In 2010, 30,000 people visited St. Moses the Ethiopian, a 7th century monastery perched atop a rocky hill about 100 km north of Damascus. (AFP)
In 2010, 30,000 people visited St. Moses the Ethiopian, a 7th century monastery perched atop a rocky hill about 100 km north of Damascus. (AFP)
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Updated 19 June 2022

Syrian monastery seeks visitors after years of war

Syrian monastery seeks visitors after years of war
  • St. Moses the Ethiopian, once a hub for interfaith dialogue, reopens after more than a decade of isolation

NABK, Syria: A Syrian desert monastery that was once a hub for interfaith dialogue, attracting tens of thousands, has reopened to visitors after more than a decade of war and isolation.
“We yearn for people to return. We want to see them pray and meditate with us once more, so that they may find here a space for calm, silence and contemplation,” Father Jihad Youssef told AFP, his voice echoing through the dark, empty halls of the monastery he heads.
In 2010, 30,000 people visited Deir Mar Moussa Al-Habashi (St. Moses the Ethiopian), a 7th century monastery perched atop a barren, rocky hill about 100 km  north of Damascus.
But the onset of civil war in 2011 and the disappearance of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, who had led and revived the community since 1982, scared away visitors for nearly a decade.
With security having improved in surrounding areas, the monastery reopened its doors to visitors this month.
They must climb 300 steps to reach the stone monastery, built on the ruins of a Roman tower and partly carved into the rock.
It has an 11th century church adorned with icons, ancient murals and writing in Arabic, Syriac and Greek that says “God is love” and “in the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful” — a phrase that serves as Muslim praise to God.
Dall’Oglio hosted interfaith seminars at the monastery, where the Christian minority and Muslims used to pray side by side, turning it into a symbol of coexistence that attracted visitors and worshippers for three decades.
The Italian Jesuit priest was expelled from Syria in 2012 for supporting a mass anti-government uprising, but returned a year later.
He disappeared in the summer of 2013, on his way to the headquarters of the group that later became known as Daesh in the city of Raqqa, where he had gone to plead for the release of kidnapped activists.
Dall’Oglio’s practice of inter-religious coexistence was the exact opposite of the intolerant, murderous extremism of IS.
He was reported to have been executed and his body dumped in a crevice soon after his capture, but his death was never confirmed by any party.
“IS most likely kidnapped him. We do not know for sure whether he is alive or dead,” Youssef said, adding that no one contacted the monastery to demand ransom.
In 2015, the monastery came under Daesh gunfire after the jihadists began two years of control in the nearby Homs countryside.
“We were scared we would be kidnapped or killed at any moment,” especially after IS reached the nearby village of Al-Qaryatain and kidnapped groups of Christians there, Youssef said.
Daesh abducted the monastery’s former chief Jacques Mourad from Al-Qaryatain for several months in 2015. The group razed a monastery in the nearby village and locked hundreds of Christians in a dungeon. They were later freed, but a Christian community which once numbered hundreds in Al-Qaryatain has now fallen to fewer than two dozen.
“We experienced all kinds of fear,” Youssef said, adding that they felt isolated in the desert monastery at the height of the fighting, and later because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
US-backed local forces defeated the Daesh “caliphate” in eastern Syria three years ago, while Syrian government troops, supported by Russia and Iran-linked forces, have recaptured much territory from rebels.
“This is a simple monastery devoid of luxuries. There is no Internet or cell coverage, making it easier to escape the hustle and bustle of the city,” Youssef said.
Two monks, a nun, and two postulants live in the three-story monastery, which includes rooms for visitors, a bird farm, and an expansive library.
They live off the land and drink from a nearby well.
In the early hours of the morning, Youssef calls out to them for breakfast from a courtyard overlooking caves carved into the hill.
The lonely hilltop refuge basks in unparalleled tranquillity.
Youssef Al-Halabi, 48, has been a monk for 16 years but he said the lack of visitors left him wondering what he could do to fill his spare time.
“I started looking for ways to fill these long hours... because sometimes we had zero yearly visitors,” he said.
After his morning prayer, the white-bearded monk usually heads to a nearby cave to make candles. Sometimes he occupies himself with farming.
Halabi, who has devoted his life to worship and to serving visitors, said he hoped people would fill the monastery once more “to share our way of life.”
“This is a space to breathe, away from the noise and agitation,” he said.


Confession by Houthi-affiliated smugglers prove Iran’s role in regional instability: Yemeni minister

Confession by Houthi-affiliated smugglers prove Iran’s role in regional instability: Yemeni minister
Updated 23 sec ago

Confession by Houthi-affiliated smugglers prove Iran’s role in regional instability: Yemeni minister

Confession by Houthi-affiliated smugglers prove Iran’s role in regional instability: Yemeni minister
  • Yemeni security forces earlier busted Houthi-affiliated cell for smuggling weapons from Iran to Hodeida
  • Smuggle operations were supervised by experts from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards

DUBAI: Yemen’s Minister of Information Muammar Al-Eryani said the confessions of a Houthi-affiliated cell to smuggling weapons from Iran to the militia in Hodeida confirm Tehran’s role in arming the group and undermining truce efforts.

His comments came after Yemen’s Joint Forces released a video of Yemeni men, busted as part of a security operation in the west coast, admitting to smuggling weapons from Iran’s Port of Bandar Abbas to a dealer who works for the Houthis in Hodeida. Such operations, they said, were supervised by experts from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
In a Twitter post, Al-Eryani said the confessions to the smuggle operations “confirm Tehran’s continued supply of weapons to [the] militia in flagrant defiance of international law” and illustrate Iran’s role in undermining de-escalation efforts.

 

He accused Iran of using Houthis to kill Yemeni civilians, cause regional instability and promote terrorism in a manner that challenges international interests. He also accused the Islamic state of exploiting the United Nations-brokered Stockholm Agreement to use Hodeida ports in smuggling weapons.

Al-Eryani called on the international community and UN members to explicitly condemn Iran’s “subversive policies and exert real pressure to end its interference in Yemeni affairs.”

Yemen’s army has repeatedly accused the Iran-backed militia of breaching the truce, which was extended for the third time earlier this month, through consistent attacks on soldiers and civilians.

During a meeting with parliament members, President of Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council Rashad Al-Alimi said the government would not condone targeting of the coalition supporting legitimacy in Yemen.


Seven injured, two seriously, in attack on Jerusalem bus

Israeli security inspect a bus after an attack outside Jerusalem's Old City, August 14, 2022. (AFP)
Israeli security inspect a bus after an attack outside Jerusalem's Old City, August 14, 2022. (AFP)
Updated 11 min 35 sec ago

Seven injured, two seriously, in attack on Jerusalem bus

Israeli security inspect a bus after an attack outside Jerusalem's Old City, August 14, 2022. (AFP)

JERUSALEM: Seven people were injured, two of them critically, after a shooting attack on a bus in Jerusalem’s Old City, Israeli police and medics said early Sunday.
“The police were informed of a shooting of a bus ... Police have cordoned off the scene and are searching for a suspect who fled,” the police said.
Israel’s emergency medical services, the Magen David Adom (MDA), called the incident a “terror attack in the Old City.”
“We were on scene very quickly. On Ma’ale Hashalom St. we saw a passenger bus standing in the middle of the road, bystanders called us to treat two males around 30 years old who were on the bus with gunshot wounds,” MDA paramedics said in a statement.
Bus driver Daniel Kanievsky said the attack occurred near King David’s Tomb.
“I was coming from the Western Wall. The bus was full of passengers. I stopped at the station of the Tomb of David. At this moment starts the shootings. Two people outside I see falling, two inside were bleeding. Everybody panicked,” he told reporters at the scene.
Since March, 19 people — mostly Israeli civilians inside Israel — have been killed in attacks mostly by Palestinians. Three Israeli Arab attackers were also killed.
In the aftermath, Israeli authorities increased operations in the occupied West Bank.
More than 50 Palestinians have been killed, including fighters and civilians, in operations and incidents in the West Bank since then.
Last week saw three days of intense conflict between Israel and Islamic Jihad militants in the densely populated Palestinian enclave of Gaza.
At least 49 Palestinians, including Islamic Jihad fighters but also children, died in the latest violence, which ended last Sunday after Egypt negotiated a truce.
 


Four Yemeni soldiers killed, 25 wounded in Houthi attacks during truce

Four Yemeni soldiers killed, 25 wounded in Houthi attacks during truce
Updated 13 August 2022

Four Yemeni soldiers killed, 25 wounded in Houthi attacks during truce

Four Yemeni soldiers killed, 25 wounded in Houthi attacks during truce
  • US envoy Tim Lenderking says international community has made ‘significant progress’ toward ending the war

JEDDAH: Yemen’s army claimed on Saturday that four of its soldiers were killed and 25 more wounded in Houthi attacks, accusing the Iran-backed militia of breaching a United Nations-brokered truce hundreds of times in the past week.

The international community is pressing the Houthis to open roads in Taiz and turn the truce into a lasting peace settlement to end the war.

The army’s media center said in a statement that the Houthis committed 351 violations last week alone by shelling and mounting ground attacks on government troops, launching explosive-rigged drones, gunning down army troops, mobilizing new forces and creating new military posts in Taiz, Hajjah, Marib, Hodeidah, Dhale and Abyan.

Displaced Yemenis receive aids of tents, mattresses and bedding, after their camp was exposed to heavy rain that damaged their tents in the Khokha district of the country’s western province of Hodeida. (AFP)

Under the truce that came into effect on April 2 and has been renewed twice since, both sides agreed to stop fighting, to facilitate the departure of commercial flights from Sanaa, to ease restrictions on the movement of fuel ships through Hodeidah port, and to open roads in Taiz and other provinces.

Yemen’s government and military officials have warned that the continuation of deadly strikes by the Houthis and the failure to lift their seven-year siege on Taiz would jeopardize the truce and efforts to end the war.

Residents of Taiz said on Saturday that the Houthis had fired a number of artillery rounds at A-Shemasi neighborhood in the east of Taiz, causing large explosions. It is not known whether there were any casualties.

People in Taiz have repeatedly complained that the Houthis have not honored the truce and continue to strike densely populated districts.  

Despite local and international pressure, the Houthis have rejected the UN’s proposal to open a main road and four small roads around Taiz, insisting on opening just one narrow, unpaved road.

In New York, Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the UN secretary-general, said on Friday that talks over opening roads in Taiz and other governorates were “still ongoing.”

“What we have seen since this ceasefire has been agreed to is a good amount of flights going in and out of Sana’a Airport,” he added during his daily press briefing.

US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking said that the international community has made “significant progress” toward ending the war in Yemen and that his priority is to get roads in Taiz open, add flights to more destinations from Sanaa airport, and to accelerate salary payments to public servants in Houthi-controlled areas.


Background of Rushdie attacker sheds light on Khomeini sympathizers in US

Background of Rushdie attacker sheds light on Khomeini sympathizers in US
Updated 14 August 2022

Background of Rushdie attacker sheds light on Khomeini sympathizers in US

Background of Rushdie attacker sheds light on Khomeini sympathizers in US
  • Lebanese-American Hadi Matar signals ties with Tehran-backed Hezbollah

CHICAGO / NEW YORK / WASHINGTON, DC: Hadi Matar, the 24-year-old New Jersey suspect charged with attempted murder over a vicious knife attack on author Salman Rushdie on Friday, is believed to have been motivated by pro-Iranian regime sympathies and the death fatwa placed on the novelist in 1989 by the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

Rushdie was speaking at a literary festival in upstate New York when Matar rushed onto the stage and stabbed the prize-winning author multiple times, including in the face, arm and abdomen, police allege.

The suspect had a pass to attend the literary conference hosted by the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York, according to police.

Hospital officials said that Rushdie, 75, is likely to lose an eye as a result of the attack.

The celebrated author suffered nerve damage to one arm, a serious injury to his liver and is on a ventilator.

Although police officials investigating the attack have not speculated on Matar’s motives, or possible official or unofficial ties to extremist pro-Iranian groups, many experts linked the incident to Iran’s longstanding, extremist terrorist agenda.

Matar’s Facebook cover page, which was widely shared on social media, shows the suspect is a follower of the Tehran regime’s hard-line agenda.

The page includes images of Khomeini, the regime’s founder, and current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, leaving no doubt about Matar’s indoctrination and sympathies with the Iranian regime.

“The attack on Salman Rushdie by a reportedly pro-Khomenei individual would seem to qualify as an act of terrorism. The documented threats to Americans by Iran are certainly terrorism,” Norman Roule, an adviser to the United Against Nuclear Iran coalition, based in Washington, posted on Twitter.

“How would we have responded if these were AQ-related attacks? Why the difference?”

 

 

Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Washington-based Arab Center, a think tank focusing on US foreign policy in the Middle East, told Arab News that pockets of pro-Iranian activists exist in the US, but usually stay under the radar.

Jahshan said that he believed Matar might be a “lone wolf” motivated by the Iranian regime’s longstanding fatwa, and rhetoric against Rushdie and other Western officials, but is surprised the attack was carried out now.

“One would think, after so many years, this fatwa issued by Iran and supported by many in the region, including in Lebanon, has somewhat dissipated, diminished, if you will, in intensity and in emotional attachment to it,” Jahshan told Arab News.

The fatwa against Rushdie was tempered in 1998 after Khomeini’s death, with the Iranian leader’s successors saying they no longer supported calls for Rushdie’s killing. But the fatwa was never officially revoked.

Jahshan said that the fatwa still holds relevance for some who continue to support Iran.

“I'm certainly not surprised that there are people who still take these things seriously. Support (for) terror attacks against civilians for political reasons have diminished in many parts of the world, but they continue to exist at least on the individual level,” he said.

“So the fact that it’s an individual who doesn’t seem to be tied to any particular organization or set-up, whether in this country or outside, is not surprising. That’s the fad right now. That’s a common trend. But, again, one has to wait for the investigation to proceed and see what connections they might come up with after the investigation.”

Immediately after the attack, pro-Iranian and pro-Hezbollah social media feeds lit up with praise for the alleged assailant, but many were later removed.

The IranArabic Twitter account with more than 90,000 followers called Matar a “Lebanese hero who stabbed Satan Salman Rushdie, author of 'The Satanic Verses,' in which he insulted the Prophet of guidance and mercy, the Messenger of God, Muhammad.”

Some activists in Detroit, where Lebanese Shiites and support for Hezbollah are strong, said they are not surprised by the attack, adding that pro-Iranian activism there is often high profile, but also that they feared speaking out publicly because of fears for their safety.

“People are afraid to speak out here in Detroit against Iran or Hezbollah,” one Detroit activist said, asking not to be identified.

The FBI issued an alert in 2020 warning of possible terrorism from pro-Iranian sympathizers and agents in the US after the drone assassination of Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force and responsible for a series of violent terrorist attacks against anti-Iran regime dissidents.

The attack on Rushdie comes after the US Justice Department revealed a plot to assassinate former US National Security Adviser John Bolton.

Shahram Poursafi, identified by US officials as a member of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, is currently wanted by the FBI on charges related to the murder-for-hire plot.

Matar was born in the US, but may not have escaped the extremist indoctrination that many young people, and even children, are forced to go through in pro-Iranian Hezbollah strongholds. Exporting the extremist ideology of the Iranian "revolution" is a key goal of its proxies in the Middle East.

But they seem to have also established a presence in the American heartland as well.

Analysts discovered this summer that a pro-Iran mosque in Houston was forcing young children to take part in chants called “Salam Farmande,” or “Hello Commander” in Farsi. The ceremony, which has been posted on social media, closely mirrors Iranian and Hezbollah indoctrination intended to instill total loyalty to Khamenei.

In a recent report published by the Middle East Forum, a think tank that monitors extremism, Adrian Calamel, an analyst specializing in the Middle East and terrorism, said that the song is part of the recruitment drive for the Iranian regime.

“It’s enlisting the children to be the next generation of martyrs,” he said. “The song itself says, ‘we are ready to die for the commander.’”

Calamel warns that Shiite mosques similar to the one in Houston are centers of Iranian influence in the US.

“Al-Qaeda can’t set up these centers, Daesh can’t set up these centers, but Iran can,” he said.

It is unclear how Matar was radicalized, but clearly there is a broader trend of political and religious indoctrination that is being pushed by sympathizers of Iran’s brand of religious extremism that justify and encourage attacks like the one against Rushdie.


Egypt appoints 13 new ministers in major Cabinet reshuffle

Egypt appoints 13 new ministers in major Cabinet reshuffle
Updated 13 August 2022

Egypt appoints 13 new ministers in major Cabinet reshuffle

Egypt appoints 13 new ministers in major Cabinet reshuffle
  • The Cabinet shake-up was approved by parliament in an emergency session and affected 13 portfolios, including health, education, culture, local development and irrigation ministries
  • President El-Sisi said the shake-up came in consultation with Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly

CAIRO : An emergency session of parliament on Saturday approved several cabinet changes in Egypt’s first major reshuffle since 2019, with 13 ministers moved, the National Media Authority reported.
A statement said the House of Representatives had approved “all the nominations set forth in a letter from President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi regarding a ministerial reshuffle.”
El-Sisi’s official Facebook page said the president had urged parliament to discuss the changes in the more than 30-strong cabinet, which were agreed following consultations with Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli.
The president said in a Facebook post that the changes aimed at “developing the governmental performance in some important files ... which contribute to protecting the state’s interests and capabilities.”
There has been only one reshuffle since Madbouli took office in 2018, in December 2019.
Following parliamentary approval, the new ministers are now expected to be sworn in.
The reshuffle does not include the key defense, interior, finance or foreign ministries.
But it does appoint new ministers of health, tourism and antiquities, commerce and industry, irrigation, civil aviation, immigration, education, higher education, military production, manpower, public business sector, culture and local development.
Banker Ahmed Issa took over the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry, replacing Khaled Al-Anani who led Egypt’s efforts in recent years to revive the tourism industry, a pillar of the economy. Such efforts included displaying ancient discoveries, opening new museums to attract international tourists.
Hani Sweilam, professor of water resources management at Germany’s RWTH Aachen University, was named as Irrigation Minister. He replaced Mohammed Abdel-Aty who oversaw years of technical negations with Ethiopia over its controversial dam on the Nile River’s main tributary.
The decision to replace outgoing irrigation minister Aty comes just a day after Addis Ababa announced it had finished its third filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
The Ethiopian water project damming the Nile is proceeding without agreement from downstream countries Egypt and Sudan.
The new irrigation minister is Hani Sewilam, a professor of sustainable development and water resources management at the American University in Cairo.
He assumes the post amid increasing fears over water security and an impending water crisis.
Other notable swaps include tourism and antiquities. Khaled Anani is credited with several high-profile attempts to revive Egypt’s vital tourism industry, and he is succeeded by Ahmed Issa Abu Hussein.
The health portfolio has been filled by Khaled Abdel Ghaffar, the acting minister since October.
Abdel Ghaffar’s former post of higher education minister will be filled by his deputy, Ayman Ashour.
Another notable appointment is Egyptian Air Force chief Mohamed Abbas Helmy, who takes on the civil aviation portfolio.
The government has held talks in recent months with the International Monetary Fund for a new loan to support its reform program and to help address challenges caused by the war in Europe. The government has received pledges from wealthy Arab Gulf nations for billions of dollars in investments, some of which are for private industry.
(With AFP and AP)