Tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims in Ukraine despite war

Tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims in Ukraine despite war
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish pilgrims in Uman, Ukraine, Sept. 25, 2022. (Reuters)
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Updated 25 September 2022

Tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims in Ukraine despite war

Tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims in Ukraine despite war
  • Despite warnings, crowds of Hasidim dressed in traditional black clothing celebrated in the streets of Uman
  • Pilgrims often cite a religious text from Rabbi Nachman in which he promised he would ‘save (worshippers) from hell’ if they came to visit his tomb

UMAN, Ukraine: Tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews gathered in the Ukrainian city of Uman for their annual pilgrimage, officials said Sunday, despite authorities asking them to skip the trip because of the war.
Every year, Hasidic Jewish pilgrims come to Uman from across the world to visit the tomb of one of the main figures of Hasidic judaism for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year.
The central Ukrainian city of Uman is relatively far from the frontline, but Ukrainian and Israeli authorities urged worshippers to skip the celebrations taking place between September 25 and 27 this year.
But despite the warnings, crowds of Hasidim dressed in traditional black clothing gathered in Uman, celebrating in the streets.
“This is the most important day of the year to be able to connect with God. And this a great place to do it,” one pilgrim, Aaron Allen, told AFP.
Pilgrims often cite a religious text from Rabbi Nachman, the founder of an ultra-Orthodox movement who died in the city in 1810, in which he promised he would “save (worshippers) from hell” if they came to visit his tomb on Rosh Hashana.
“There were sirens, but coming from Israel we are used to sirens, we know what to do. We feel pretty safe,” said Allen, a 48-year-old doctor from Yad Binyamin.
Police set up a wide perimeter to access the area around the grave, checking IDs and only letting through residents and Hasidim.
It was forbidden to sell not only alcohol, fireworks and firecrackers, but even toy guns during the festivities in Uman, regional police spokeswoman Zoya Vovk told AFP.
A curfew between 11 p.m. (20 GMT) and 5 am is also in place.
Despite the restrictions, the shrine housing the tomb was buzzing with celebrations on Sunday.
Pilgrims — only men and boys — were praying, pressed against the white walls and columns of the burial place.
Outside the temple, a simultaneous prayer from hundreds of pilgrims resonated.
Police will not release the exact number of pilgrims until the end of the festivities for fear of attacks from Russia.
“We understand that there is a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine and that the enemy is monitoring information,” Zoya Vovk told AFP.
“The only thing I can say is tens of thousands (of pilgrims have already arrived),” she added, however.
The United Jewish Community of Ukraine NGO said that more than 23,000 pilgrims had arrived in Uman.
Uman in central Ukraine has been hit several times by Russian strikes since the invasion began on February 24.


Trade tensions overshadow Macron’s showy White House visit

Trade tensions overshadow Macron’s showy White House visit
Updated 29 November 2022

Trade tensions overshadow Macron’s showy White House visit

Trade tensions overshadow Macron’s showy White House visit
  • This is the first formal state visit of Biden’s presidency and US officials say the choice of France reflects both deep historical ties and their intense current partnership in confronting Russia
  • The breadth of Macron’s entourage — including the foreign, defense and finance ministers, as well as business leaders and astronauts — illustrates the importance Paris has put on the visit

WASHINGTON: French President Emmanuel Macron was set to arrive in Washington Tuesday for a rare state visit hosted by Joe Biden, but hard-nosed disagreements about US-EU trade will loom over the pomp and ceremony at the White House.
Due to Covid delays, this is the first formal state visit of Biden’s presidency and US officials say the choice of France for the honor reflects both deep historical ties and their intense current partnership in confronting Russia over its war in Ukraine.
Biden will host Macron with a full ceremonial military welcome, a poignant visit to Arlington National Cemetery, an Oval Office sit down, a private dinner with their spouses Wednesday and the state banquet on Thursday, where Grammy-award winning American musician Jon Batiste will perform.
Compared to Macron’s edgy first experience of a state visit as the guest of Donald Trump in 2018, this trip — concluding with a stop Friday to the once-French city of New Orleans — will be a carefully choreographed display of transatlantic friendship.
Certainly the diplomatic furor that erupted last year when Australia canceled a deal for French submarines and instead signed up for US nuclear subs is now buried.
But even with little risk of Trump-style fireworks, Macron has major grievances to air.
Top of these is tension over Biden’s signature green industry policy, the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, which will pump billions of dollars into climate-friendly technologies, with strong backing for American-made products.
Europeans fear an unfair US advantage in the rapidly emerging sector just as they are reeling from the economic consequences of the Ukraine war and Western attempts to end reliance on Russian energy supplies.
Talk in Europe is now increasingly on whether the bloc should respond with its own subsidies for homegrown products, effectively starting a trade war.
“China favors its own products, America favors its own products. It might be time for Europe to favor its own products,” French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told France 3 radio on Sunday.
Martin Quencez, deputy director of the Paris office of think-tank GMF, said Macron will tell Biden “there’s a contradiction between an administration that constantly talks of alliances... and at the same time takes a decision like the IRA that will impact allies’ economies.”
Another gripe in Europe is the high cost for US liquid natural gas exports — surged to try and replace canceled Russian deliveries.
Responding to accusations that the United States is effectively profiteering from the Ukraine war, a senior US administration official said this was a “false claim.”
The official also played down IRA-related tensions, saying a “very constructive set of conversations” is underway on how to prevent European companies from being shut out.
To underline the importance of the issue for Paris, Macron met with dozens of business executives ahead of his departure to Washington, urging them to keep investing in France. These included representatives from US giants Goldman Sachs and McDonald’s.
The breadth of Macron’s entourage — including the foreign, defense and finance ministers, as well as business leaders and astronauts — illustrates the importance Paris has put on the visit.
However, at the White House, a senior official said the main goal is to nurture the “personal relationship, the alliance relationship” with France — and between Biden and Macron.
That more modest sounding goal will include improving coordination on helping Ukraine to repel Russia and the even more vexing question of how to manage the rise of the Chinese superpower.
“We are not allies on the same page,” one adviser to Macron told AFP, forecasting “challenging” talks with Biden.
Despite his strong support for Kyiv, Macron’s insistence on continuing to maintain dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin has irked American diplomats.
The China question — with Washington pursuing a more hawkish tone and EU powers trying to find a middle ground — is unlikely to see much progress.
“Europe has since 2018 its own, unique strategy for relations with China,” tweeted French embassy spokesman Pascal Confavreux in Washington.
A senior US official said even if their approaches were “not identical,” they should be at least “speaking from a common script.”


Belgian locked up by Iran on hunger strike: family

Belgian locked up by Iran on hunger strike: family
Updated 29 November 2022

Belgian locked up by Iran on hunger strike: family

Belgian locked up by Iran on hunger strike: family
  • Olivier Vandecasteele, 41, is suffering "monstruous injustice" at the hands of Iranian authorities
  • He is one of several Western nationals detained in Iran, in what foreign-based activists say is a bid to extract concessions

BRUSSLES: A Belgian aid worker detained in Iran is on a hunger strike over the “inhuman” treatment by his captors, his family said on Tuesday, expressing worries about his failing health.
Olivier Vandecasteele, 41, is suffering “monstruous injustice” at the hands of Iranian authorities, who arrested him in Tehran in February, they said in a statement.
He is one of several Western nationals detained in Iran, in what foreign-based activists say is a bid to extract concessions.
Iran is seeking the return of one of its diplomats, Assadollah Assadi, who is in prison in Belgium serving a 20-year sentence after being found guilty last year of masterminding a foiled 2018 bomb plot outside Paris.
Vandecasteele has been kept in solitary confinement since being seized and is suffering a growing number of physical afflictions, his family said.
They included “major weight loss, haematomas on his toes, fingernail loss, and worrying dental and gastric problems,” they said.
He started his hunger strike two weeks ago, consuming nothing more than bread and water once a day.
His last communication with his family was on September 1, and they said they feared he was suffering “irreversible harm” from the “disgraceful” detention conditions.
The bomb plot Assadi was convicted for was an attempted attack on a conference outside Paris held by an exiled Iranian opposition group.
Iran insists that Assadi should enjoy diplomatic immunity, even though he was arrested in Germany, away from Austria where he was accredited to work in Iran’s embassy in Vienna.
Belgium this year agreed a prisoner-swap treaty with Iran seen as opening the door for Assadi to be sent home if Tehran releases Vandecasteele.
But the treaty has generated controversy, with some Belgian politicians, Iranian opposition groups and the United States all coming out against it as allowing an Iranian “terrorist” to escape justice.


UK police arrest man over 2021 deaths of 27 migrants

UK police arrest man over 2021 deaths of 27 migrants
Updated 29 November 2022

UK police arrest man over 2021 deaths of 27 migrants

UK police arrest man over 2021 deaths of 27 migrants
  • The National Crime Agency (NCA) said the 32-year-old was arrested at an address near Cheltenham, southwest England
  • NCA investigators are working with the French authorities to track down those responsible for the tragedy

LONDON: UK police on Tuesday arrested a man suspected of playing a “key role” in the deaths of at least 27 people who drowned attempting to cross the Channel in a dinghy last November.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) said the 32-year-old was arrested at an address near Cheltenham, southwest England, on suspicion of being “a member of the organized crime group who conspired to transport the migrants to the UK in a small boat.”
NCA investigators are working with the French authorities to track down those responsible for the tragedy.
French prosecutors have so far charged 10 people for their alleged role in the disaster on November 24 last year.
It was the worst accident in the Channel since 2018, when the narrow strait became a key route for migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia attempting to reach England from France.
The vessel sank after leaving the French coast, leading to the death of all but two of those aboard. Four people remain missing.
The suspect will appear before London’s Westminster Magistrates Court on Wednesday, where extradition proceedings will commence.
“This is a significant arrest and comes as part of extensive inquiries into the events leading to these tragic deaths in the Channel,” said NCA deputy director Craig Turner said.
“The individual detained today is suspected of having played a key role in the manslaughter of those who died.
“Working closely with our French partners we are determined to do all we can to get justice for the families of those whose lives were lost,” he added.
Among the 27 — aged seven to 47 — were 16 Iraqi Kurds, four Afghans, three Ethiopians, one Somali, one Egyptian and one Vietnamese migrant.


UK charity to help Pakistan flood victims with cryptocurrency fundraising

UK charity to help Pakistan flood victims with cryptocurrency fundraising
Updated 29 November 2022

UK charity to help Pakistan flood victims with cryptocurrency fundraising

UK charity to help Pakistan flood victims with cryptocurrency fundraising
  • Penny Appeal joins Crypto Giving Tuesday
  • Last year $2.4m raised from digital-asset holders

LONDON: UK-based humanitarian charity Penny Appeal has announced that it would take part in Crypto Giving Tuesday, the biggest day for cryptocurrency generosity, to raise digital donations for its efforts to support the victims of Pakistan’s floods.

Devastating floods since June have killed more than 1,700 people, displaced 7.9 million, and inflicted billions of dollars of damage. Pakistan’s authorities estimate property damage could be as high as $40 billion.

“Bitcoin is more than just an investment; it can also be used to make charitable donations, that’s why on Nov. 29, crypto enthusiasts around the world will be taking part in Crypto Giving Tuesday,” the international charity said in a statement.

“Just as Black Friday and Cyber Monday kicked off the holiday shopping season, Crypto Giving Tuesday is a day for people to show their support for charities and nonprofit organizations that accept cryptocurrency donations,” it added.

Penny Appeal said it has been utilizing platforms like The Giving Block, which helps facilitate cryptocurrency fundraising for nonprofit organizations, to make it easy for people to donate using their digital assets.

The charity’s projects include humanitarian response work, solar-powered water wells, climate-smart villages and education sponsorships for orphans. They are currently working on building permanent homes for those who have lost everything in the floods in Pakistan.

“We’re extremely excited to be able to receive cryptocurrency donations,” said Adeem Younis, founder of Penny Appeal. “Cryptocurrency is playing an increasingly important role in philanthropy, and we hope that Crypto Giving Tuesday will encourage more people to donate cryptocurrencies to support life-saving aid for millions of victims of the Pakistan floods.”

Last year, the day raised over $2.4 million and saw nonprofit participation rise by 839 percent, according to data provided by The Giving Block.

“This year, the team behind Crypto Giving Tuesday is hoping to build on that success and raise even more money for charity,” Penny Appeal said.


Ukraine detains Kherson official suspected of aiding Russian occupiers

Ukraine detains Kherson official suspected of aiding Russian occupiers
Updated 29 November 2022

Ukraine detains Kherson official suspected of aiding Russian occupiers

Ukraine detains Kherson official suspected of aiding Russian occupiers
  • The unnamed Kherson official cooperated with the occupation authorities and helped with the functioning of public services under the Russians
  • The official, who could not be reached for comment, faces up to 12 years in prison under the allegations if prosecuted and found guilty

KYIV: Ukraine has detained a deputy head of newly liberated Kherson’s city council on suspicion of aiding and abetting Russian occupation forces that seized control of the city in March, Ukraine’s state prosecutor said on Tuesday.
The Kherson official, who was not named in the statement, cooperated with the occupation authorities and helped with the functioning of public services under the Russians, the prosecutor said.
The official, who could not be reached for comment, faces up to 12 years in prison under the allegations if prosecuted and found guilty. The official was in custody, but could post bail, the prosecutor said.
Ukraine proclaimed the liberation of Kherson on Nov. 11 after Russian forces who invaded Ukraine in February pulled out of the city in the south of the country and crossed to the other side of the Dnipro River.
The withdrawal ended more than eight months of Russian occupation of Kherson, which was home to almost 300,000 people before the war, but Russian forces are now frequently shelling the city from across the Dnipro.
Ukraine faces a challenge restoring order in Kherson. Tens of thousands of residents have fled, electricity and basic utilities are unavailable and security forces are hunting for possible collaborators and Russian soldiers in disguise.
Ukraine has legislation criminalizing the act of collaboration, but the Kherson city council official is suspected of the slightly different crime of “assisting an aggressor state.”