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British Quakers support peace seekers in Palestine and Israel

Tue, 2014-12-02 12:01

Quakers in Britain are responding to the recently escalating cycles of violence and retribution in Palestine and Israel, with a new initiative to support those seeking peace.

Quakers in Britain are responding to the recently escalating cycles of violence and retribution in Palestine and Israel, with a new initiative to support those seeking peace.

“Peacebuilding is the only way of preventing violence,” says Helen Drewery, General Secretary of Quaker Peace and Social Witness. “We are sending this letter to the numerous individuals and small groups who are courageously upholding the way of peace in both Israel and Palestine. We want them to know that they are supported and their work is celebrated. We cannot know all their names – we hope the letter will be passed from one to another and that publicising the letter will help us to reach more of them.”

The full text of the letter follows:
A letter to those seeking peace in Israel and Palestine

Dear Friends,
I write on behalf of Quakers in Britain to express our appreciation of your work for peace in the current climate of violence and retribution. We applaud all those on any side who choose not to retaliate or seek revenge whether you are individuals, communities or leaders.

“We are hugely saddened by the cycle of violence that has recently escalated including the killing of Israelis and Palestinians going about their daily lives, the use of non-judicial punishments, punitive house demolitions, the scale of injuries to life, livelihood and dignity and the use of sustained structural violence against a whole people. Equally troubling to us is the celebration of and incitement to violence by some within both Israel and Palestine, together with the language of hate.

Quakers have a long history of working in the region to assist the development of a just peace. We find that when people on any side instigate, promote or applaud violence in the region this makes it harder to advocate for a just peace and security for all.

We see communities in Israel and Palestine being further damaged by growing fear and anger, entrenching the view that security can best be achieved through armed attacks or military solutions. When violent incidents are exploited for political gain or to build support for further violence, the fear and anger are deepened. We see a need for leaders of all communities to expand their thinking away from these harmful responses and instead react to such incidents by using judicial processes in line with international law. We uphold all individuals and groups who have the courage to condemn violent attacks on all sides and seek recourse in law rather than revenge.

As Quakers in Britain, we recognise and deplore the part that our own government has played historically and currently as part of an international community that does not appear to have the political will to act to promote a sustainable and just peace. We will continue to lobby the UK government on this issue.

We know how hard it is to uphold values of peace and mutual respect and how costly it is to maintain this strength of character in the face of acute provocation. We have been deeply impressed when meeting those who rise to this challenge, to hear your stories and to learn from your actions to bring change.

We retain our hope for a relationship between Palestine and Israel where all people are equal under the law, enjoy the full exercise of their human rights, have access to just and inclusive governance and are free from fear and want. We have seen elsewhere that where positive aspirations and actions can be retained through the most acute times, the peace that is achieved is of greater substance.

And so we write, with our gratitude and commitment to uphold and act alongside all those who are living with peace in mind and heart and working for change. Like you, we are convinced that the weapons of war are not the right tools to build true peace in the region. The tools of peace and nonviolence are to hand and they are strong when used with consistency and conviction.”

Paul Parker
Recording Clerk
Quakers in Britain

The experience of Quakers in Britain in the region is grounded in the eye witness accounts, since 2003, from the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, managed by Quakers in Britain on behalf of churches and agencies in UK and Ireland.

* Quakers are known formally as the Religious Society of Friends.
* Around 23,000 people attend 478 Quaker meetings in Britain. Their commitment to equality, justice, peace, simplicity and truth challenges them to seek positive social and legislative change.


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Living standards crisis gives Chancellor £17bn tax gap 'headache'

Tue, 2014-12-02 10:01

The government is collecting £17bn less than forecast in income tax because of the lack of earnings growth in the UK, according to the TUC.

The government is collecting £17 billion less than forecast in income tax because of the lack of earnings growth in the UK, according to new analysis published by the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

The news comes ahead of the much anticipated autumn statement from Chancellor George Osborne on Wednesday 3 December 2014.

If earnings growth had been in line with the forecast made in June 2010 by the Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR) – the official watchdog for the government’s fiscal policy – income tax receipts this year would be £176 billion. But the Treasury is now expected to collect just £159 billion in 2014/15 – £17 billion less than forecast.

The shortfall has occurred because earnings growth has been even weaker than the OBR’s cautious 2010 forecast, despite an assumption that wage increases would be lower than the pre-recession trend. If earnings growth since 2010 had been in line with the pre-recession trend, income tax receipts in 2014/15 would be £189 billion. This is £30 billion more than the figure now expected.

The £17 billion gap is equivalent to a rise in the basic rate of income tax of 4p, or an increase to VAT of 4 per cent.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The government’s failure to get wages growing again has not only left families far worse off than in 2010, it’s put the public finances in a mess too. “The economy has become very good at creating low-paid jobs, but not the better paid work that brings in income tax.

“The Chancellor’s sums just don’t add up – he can’t make the tax cuts for the better off that he is promising and meet his deficit reduction target without making cuts to public services. His cuts would be so deep that no government could deliver them without doing damage to both the economy and the fabric of our society."

She added: “We can’t cut our way out of this problem any more than we can dig ourselves out of a hole. More austerity would only keep us stuck in a downward spiral. The Chancellor should use next week’s Autumn Statement to invest in growth and to put a wages recovery at the top of the agenda.”

* The full TUC analysis (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat document) can be found at http://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/The%20Living%20Standards%20Tax...

* More from Ekklesia on the Autumn Statement here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/autumnstatement

* Previous budget analysis from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/budget


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Churches have a special role to play in HIV response

Tue, 2014-12-02 09:07

In Africa, where up to 40 per cent of the health care facilities are provided by faith related organisations, Dr Mirfin Mpundu, executive director of the Ecumenical Pharmaceutical Network (EPN), says that due to their unique position, churches can play a special role in eliminating HIV and AIDS and bringing improvements in the lives of people living with the virus.

In Africa, where up to 40 per cent of the health care facilities are provided by faith based organisations, Dr Mirfin Mpundu, executive director of the Ecumenical Pharmaceutical Network (EPN), says that due to their unique position, churches can play a special role in eliminating HIV and AIDS and bringing improvements in the lives of people living with the virus.

Mpundu shared these views in an interview on 14 November. Mpundu’s organisation, the EPN based in Kenya, works closely with the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa (EHAIA), a project of the World Council of Churches (WCC).

Calling the church an “influential institution”, Mpundu said the “churches are strategically well positioned to tackle the HIV and AIDS pandemic. They can do this by accepting the people living with HIV and AIDS in communities, promoting the use of medication and caring for orphans, widows and widowers who have lost family members due to HIV and AIDS”.

Mpundu comes from Zambia and has long experience of working in the field of health care, especially in the area of HIV and AIDS. He calls “compassionate ministry” a privilege of the churches. “Church involvement in mitigating HIV and AIDS impact is a mandate given to the church from God. Churches can provide support for people living with HIV and can help communities to create opportunities for reflection and compassion,” he said.

Speaking of the African region, where HIV has a high prevalence rate, Mpundu said churches can bring change at the grassroots level. “The church being an advocate for high moral principles can bring behavioural changes necessary in dealing with the HIV and AIDS. Since churches command trust and respect from a society, they are well positioned to transform behaviours,” Mpundu said.

“HIV and AIDS is not just a health issue. It has economic, social and spiritual dimensions. And the church has the capability to affectively deal with these dimensions,” he said.

Speaking about Kenya, Mpundu shared that a number of churches have developed policies to guide their HIV and AIDS response. They have committed their resources and are supporting people living with the virus. According to the UNAIDS estimate in 2013, the number of people living with HIV in Kenya is 1,600,000 and the number of deaths due to AIDS is 58,000.

Providing care and support

Christian hospitals are offering treatment and have established homes for children orphaned by HIV. And several church leaders are involved in anti-stigma messaging, reported Mpundu. In 2012, he said, faith leaders developed the Kenya National Action plan to guide the HIV response. This is when faith based organisations such as EHAIA, EPN, Organisation of African Instituted Churches and International Network of Religious Leaders living with AIDS (INERELA+) became engaged.

Theological literature on HIV and AIDS produced by EHAIA has been used by churches in Kenya and West Africa in the last ten years, said Mpundu. A number of church leaders have been trained by the EHAIA staff, while several theological institutions in Central Africa have incorporated HIV into their curricula as promoted by EHAIA, he added.

Mpundu shared that the EHAIA supported initiatives have broken taboos by encouraging dialogue on sexuality, gender relations and related violence, issues that are delicate even outside the churches. The use of contextual Bible studies promoted by the EHAIA has helped in transforming perspectives on issues such as rape and gender-based violence.

The EPN, Mpundu explained, has engaged with EHAIA in mobilising church leaders for community action on HIV and AIDS offering treatment and literacy trainings. “At the EPN, we have also supported EHAIA in reviewing its work, planning of projects, as well as exchanging experiences from mutual learning in our engagement with the HIV issues”, he said.

According to Mpundu, EHAIA has brought in sensitivity in response to HIV. The approach in EHAIA’s work does not perceive men merely as 'perpetrators' but helps to create safe spaces for men to discuss their role models, relationships with their fathers and interaction with women.

Mpundu said the churches and faith based organisations need to strengthen their work in order to diminish HIV and AIDS related stigma. This stigma, he said, continues to be an obstacle in the effective work for HIV prevention and care in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Also the 'false theology' which promotes the idea of people living with HIV and AIDS healed by God without treatment needs to be addressed by churches, he said. Churches and other faith based organisations must be more proactive in providing HIV education and awareness, while contributing to the care of the AIDS-affected, Mpundu concluded.

* Ecumenical Pharmaceutical Network: http://www.epnetwork.org

* Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa: http://www.oikoumene.org/en/what-we-do/hivaids-initiative-in-africa

* The World Council of Churches promotes Christian unity in faith, witness and service for a just and peaceful world. An ecumenical fellowship of churches founded in 1948, by the end of 2013 the WCC had 345 member churches representing more than 500 million Christians from Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican and other traditions in over 140 countries. http://www.oikoumene.org/


© Marianne Ejdersten is press officer of the World Council of Churches.

Categories: News syndication

WCC urges protection of refugees and displaced people from Middle East

Tue, 2014-12-02 08:58

The World Council of Churches wants all countries to take special measures to protect and support refugees and displaced people from the Middle East.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) Executive Committee has made strong recommendations urging all countries to take special measures to protect and support refugees and displaced people from the Middle East, especially those from countries like Syria, Iraq and Israel-Palestine.

It recommended increased financial and material support for all countries hosting displaced people, urging countries to share the burden more equitably with the most affected host countries and communities. The statement particularly appreciates efforts by countries like Lebanon and Jordan to keep their borders open.

Based on the Christian premise of welcoming the stranger, the statement addresses the crisis of forced displacement in the Middle East, where the WCC has a number of churches and partner organisations working on the issue.

The document urges all parties to conflicts driving destruction and displacement in Syria, Iraq and Israel-Palestine, to “respect the dignity and rights of all human beings, to observe all the principles of international humanitarian law concerning the protection of civilians”. It calls for an end to the conflicts, enabling return of the refugees and displaced people to their homes safely and with dignity.

The statement also calls on the international humanitarian community and authorities in host countries to redouble efforts to avoid statelessness among refugee populations, particularly among children, by simplifying registration procedures and documentation requirements for substantiating identity and marriage.

The statement recommends all states sign, ratify and implement the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1954 and 1961 Statelessness Conventions.

Another significant point stressed by the WCC statement is related to strengthening the Christian presence in the Middle East, with due protection of their rights and dignity.

According to Dr Elias El-Halabi of the Middle East Council of Churches, “the statement is timely given that the WCC constituency includes important members in Syria, Iraq and Palestine”.

“The issue of internally displaced persons is related to human rights and international humanitarian laws, yet deeply linked with the presence of Christians in the Middle East,” he said. “Forced displacement of religious and ethnic communities can tear apart the social fabric of their homelands, in a region which prides itself on diversity and a history of peaceful co-existence.

“Work to care for refugees and displaced people is never enough. While churches and ecumenical organisations in the region are trying to address the situation, the need to do more to support refugees still remains persistent,” Halabi said.

Challenging divisions, supporting displaced people

The statement also speaks about the 1974 partition of Cyprus, asking political leaders from both Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities to overcome hostilities, division and injustice and to bring negotiations on the future of Cyprus to a successful and just conclusion. It specially encourages religious leaders, through the religious track of the Cyprus Peace Process, to continue their efforts for peace, justice and human rights.

While encouraging international collaboration to protect refugees and displaced people, the document invites churches to deepen their reflection on the Christian calling to welcome the stranger, promoting the resource “Welcoming the Stranger: Affirmations for Faith Leaders”. The document is an outcome of dialogue convened by UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, following which faith-based organisations including the WCC drafted “Welcoming the Stranger” that aimed to inspire religious leaders to welcome strangers with dignity, respect and support.

WCC Central Committee moderator Dr Agnes Abuom said, “This issue is impacting the life of the church, as well as our national borders, in terms of security.” She added that, “Since its formation, the WCC has worked with refugees and with the resettlement of people, which is part of our diakonia call.”

“This is why the churches are very concerned about the security of such people, especially children and women, who are more vulnerable than others. So we would like to see governments and faith communities address this issue more effectively,” she said.

The WCC Executive Committee meeting was held in Paralimni, Cyprus, from 20 – 26 November. The meeting was hosted by the Church of Cyprus.

* Full statement here: http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/executive-committee/cypr...


Categories: News syndication

Protest at exclusion of Filipino diplomat from climate talks

Tue, 2014-12-02 08:00

Yeb Sano, the young Filipino diplomat who wept and fasted for two weeks after super-typhoon Haiyan devastated his country, has been excluded from UN Climate Talks.

Yeb Sano, the young Filipino diplomat who became the face of the UN climate talks in Poland 2013, when he wept and fasted for two weeks after super-typhoon Haiyan devastated his country, has been excluded from UN Climate Talks in Lima, says the grassroots Dakila collective of artists and creatives working for social change.

In a media release this morning, they declare: "At the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, we watched him stand up for the Philippines in Warsaw and the whole world listened.

"He fasted to end the madness of inaction of world leaders to climate change and the international community supported him. He walked 1,000 kilometres for 40 days to Tacloban to demand for climate justice and thousands walked with him.

"Barring Yeb Sano in the Philippine Delegation at this crucial stage of the climate negotiations is injustice to developing nations like the Philippines that demand for climate justice and to the world climate movement who have lost a staunch fighter in this battle against climate change.

"We are in a war against climate change. In our battles, we want leaders who can walk their talk and not lame politicians who will render lip service. We want public servants who will fight with us till the last breath.

"We want Yeb in Lima because the Filipino people deserve a representative that speaks for the voiceless and powerless marginalised sectors whose lives are being affected by the impacts of climate change.

"The history of our nation has long been paved with leaders that betrayed the interest of the revolution. We refuse to accept a future that another revolution will be betrayed.

"It is time we switch the power to the hands of the people and make our government accountable to its every action.

"This is the first battle in our war against climate change but we vow to win in this climate revolution."

* Dakila Philippines Collective: http://dakila.org.ph

* Climate revolution video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fo_Qw-dMkc8&list=UUQTPt4DprT82ATd3SAX7ojQ

* On Twitter: #climatechange #climatejustice #climaterevolution #YebInLima


Categories: News syndication

Why World Aids Day matters

Mon, 2014-12-01 22:16
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Most people in Britain say tax avoidance by large companies is morally wrong

Mon, 2014-12-01 21:38

More than 4 in 5 British adults say tax avoidance by large companies is morally wrong even if legal, concludes a new ComRes poll for Christian Aid and ActionAid.

More than four in five (85 per cent) British adults say tax avoidance by large companies is morally wrong even if it’s legal, according to a new ComRes poll for Christian Aid and ActionAid.

The poll is published ahead of the government’s Autumn Statement, which is expected to include new measures against tax avoidance, including a ‘Google tax’.

The poll found that four in five Britons (80 per cent) agree that large companies in the UK can avoid tax too easily.

People are also worried about tax avoidance in the world’s poorer countries. Four out of five British adults (78 per cent) say it’s important to them that large companies pay their fair share of tax in developing countries and three-quarters (73 per cent) say the next UK government should legislate to discourage UK companies from avoiding tax in these countries.

The poll was conducted in November by the research agency ComRes. It found that just one in five people (20 per cent) believe political parties have gone far enough in their promises to tackle tax avoidance by large companies.

Anger about tax avoidance was shared across supporters of all parties. Of people who expressed a voting intention, 85 per cent of LibDem and UKIP supporters, 88 per cent of Labour supporters and 90 per cent of Conservative supporters all agreeing that tax avoidance is morally wrong even if it is legal.

Toby Quantrill, Principal Economic Justice Adviser at Christian Aid, said: “This poll clearly shows mass public opposition to tax avoidance by large companies, both in the UK and in developing countries. It doesn’t matter which political party people support – they all are saying the same thing: that politicians of all parties are still not doing enough to stop tax dodging.”

He added: “There is much more the UK could do to reduce the problem of tax dodging by multinationals. It should make good on commitments to create a public registry of company owners and ensure that the UK-controlled tax havens (the Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies) follow this lead. We can also get ahead of the game globally by ensuring that UK companies are required to report separately on their economic activities in every country in which they operate, so as to reveal any artificial operations that may be used to reduce their global tax bills.”

ActionAid Tax Policy Adviser Diarmid O’Sullivan said: “It is not just the UK that is affected by tax avoidance. The world’s poorest countries lose billions of dollars a year to tax dodging. This is money that could otherwise be used to pay for schools, hospitals and other essential public services.

“That’s why we are encouraging politicians of all parties to move past halfway measures and promise strong and comprehensive action, ahead of the next election to put an end to tax dodging.”

* More from Ekklesia on the Autumn Statement here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/autumnstatement

* Previous budget analysis from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/budget


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Egypt mass trial could see death sentences for 500, including Irish teen

Sun, 2014-11-30 18:46

A mass trial for almost 500 people is about to resume in Egypt which may see death sentences handed down to the defendants, including an Irish teenager arrested last year.

A mass trial for almost 500 people will resume tomorrow (1 December) in Egypt, and could see death sentences handed down to the defendants – including an Irish teenager arrested last year while on holiday.

Ibrahim Halawa, from Dublin, was 17 at the time of his arrest during a military crackdown on protests in the city last August. He is one of 494 defendants who could face a death sentence in a makeshift courtroom expected to convene in the Tora prison complex in Cairo. It has emerged that several other minors are also among the hundreds due in court. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/20723)

Tomorrow's hearing follows a mass trial several days ago at which authorities handed down sentences totalling 340 years to 78 children. At that hearing, lawyers were reportedly barred from entering the court.

At the last hearing for Mr Halawa's mass trial in August this year, a three-judge panel resigned from the case mid-hearing, citing ‘unease’ with the proceedings amid protests from lawyers and defendants alike.

Egypt’s mass trials have been condemned by the UN as illegal and "rife with procedural irregularities”, and by Egyptian rights groups as "a grave violation of… the right to a fair trial". A report published days ago from the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, meanwhile, criticised the UK Government for failing to list Egypt as a ‘country of concern’ in light of the mass trials and the handing down of death sentences.

Maya Foa, head of the death penalty team at the legal charity Reprieve, which is assisting Mr Halawa, said: “It is extremely worrying that the mass trial appears to be going ahead as planned. This is a clear violation of internationally-accepted fair trial standards, and the international community must do all it can to halt them and prevent hundreds of people from potentially being sentenced to death.”


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Advent: God's alternative agenda

Sun, 2014-11-30 08:35
Categories: News syndication

Brazilians triumph in 'David v Goliath' tax battle

Sat, 2014-11-29 21:49

Poor Brazilian farmers have won a David v Goliath battle to be exempted from huge tax demands for land where they have lived and worked for over a century.

Thousands of poor Brazilians are celebrating victory in a David v Goliath-style battle to be exempted from huge tax demands for land on which they have lived and worked for more than 100 years.

Several Quilombola communities – the descendants of African slaves and one of the most socially excluded groups in Brazil – were hit by bills as high as £4 million after winning collective legal ownership to the land in recent years.

The Quilombola live simple lives, relying mainly on subsistence farming and the small amount they make from the sale of forest produce such as Brazil nuts, açaí berries and cassava flour.

The tax bills – levied ironically because the Quilombola left intact the trees on which their incomes depend, leading the authorities to deem the land ‘unproductive’ – meant they faced the prospect of losing all they had fought to secure, says the UK-based churches' global development agency Christian Aid

To fight the demands, Christian Aid’s partner organisation CPI (Pro-Indian Commission) in São Paulo secured pro-bono legal help from lawyers Bichara, Barata & Costa Advogados. As well as initiating a legal challenge, CPI and the lawyers lobbied the Brazilian government and parliament to withdraw the demands as unjust.

It was feared the struggle could take many years, but in October, Brazil’s Senate voted to exempt the Quilombola land from the tax, and this month the country’s President Dilma Roussef signed the reform into law.

Edilson da Conceição Cardoso da Costa, leader of the Arapapuzinho community, said this week: “For us this is more than just a victory, it marks our liberation. This debt made it impossible for us to do anything despite the rights we had under the Brazilian Constitution and ILO Convention No.169 [a legally binding international instrument of the International Labour Organisation which deals specifically with the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples.]

“All the hopes that we had built up during the struggle for our land were dashed. The victory over these unfair tax demands is like a door opening wide for these rights to reach our communities.

“We hope that this will be a landmark in the history of the Quilombola/Afro-Brazilian communities in Brazil. Many people died in the struggle for land. We will not give up the fight that our ancestors started, their blood won’t have been shed for nothing.”

Lucia M.M. de Andrade of CPI said: "The extent of this achievement is greater than just the amnesty of the Quilombola’s tax debts. It's another step towards official recognition of the collective way in which Quilombola own their land – something which went unnoticed when Brazil’s land tax law was passed.

“This meant that the Quilombola did not get the treatment they deserved. The latest change in the law corrects this distortion and solves a problem that has concerned us since 2011 when the Quilombola first requested our support.”

Mara Luz, Deputy Head of Christian Aid in Latin America, said: “We are overjoyed. The new law benefits thousands of families in the Amazon area of Brazil. They need no longer live in fear.

“Furthermore, now their tax debts have been cancelled, the Quilombola can get social and financial benefits from the Brazilian government. This will help them thrive.”

She added: “This story shows how the tax system, which sometimes seems so far removed from daily life, affects communities and generates inequality. But it is also evidence of how work at grassroots level, combined with pro bono legal work and political lobbying rooted in the community, can achieve dramatic change. CPI and the lawyers have achieved more than we ever dared to hope for.”


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The significance of Pope Francis visiting Turkey

Sat, 2014-11-29 20:14

Pope Francis has undertaken a fourth papal visit to Turkey amid much ignorance and misunderstanding. Ekklesia associate and regional expert Dr Harry Hagopian says that the present leader of the worldwide Catholic Church came to Ankara and Istanbul with three overarching objectives. He looks at what those are and why they are important politically and religiously.

Two things that are somewhat amusing (but nevertheless instructive) in hindsight happened to me recently.

The first one occurred as I was watching a satellite news channel where the anchor was clearly struggling with the item about the visit by Pope Francis to Turkey. He referred for instance to a meeting between the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch by mispronouncing the title of the patriarch in Arabic and hilariously ended up meaning a penguin instead of a church leader! He then went on to massacre the words that denote Orthodoxy as well as the name of the patriarch himself.

Later in the day, another channel contacted me for an interview. Instead of focusing on the objectives of this papal visit or on the plight of refugees, the interviewer was far more interested in highlighting the persecution of Christians in Turkey, the population exchanges betwixt Greeks and Turks post-1923 and the claims that the country was catalysing terrorism!

What is my point? It is simply that those two channels clearly had little substantive clues about the portent of this visit. One could not even recognise a major Christian faith that has many indigenous followers in the MENA region whilst the other was eager to highlight Christian suffering at the hands of Muslims. If this is how some newsy people - perhaps also a large number of viewers - react to this story, is it any wonder that the two religions or cultures do not communicate well despite the unending dialogues between hierarchs and the customary handshakes, smiles and appropriate platitudes?

Welcome to Pope Francis who undertook a fourth papal visit to Turkey amidst much ignorance or misunderstanding. In my opinion, the present leader of the Catholic Church travelled to Ankara and Istanbul with three overarching objectives.

The first was to show public solidarity with the Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the whole region - some 1.6 million of them are in Turkey alone - and not least those Iraqi Christian refugees who fled their homes in northern Iraq as a result of a rapacious group of men who are fantasising dangerously about restoring a Muslim caliphate in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

The second interlinked objective is to try and strengthen Christian-Muslim dialogue in order to overcome some elements of mutual suspicion, fear or even obscurantism and to encourage Muslim leaders to speak out more openly - vocally - against the excesses being perpetrated against indigenous Christians by ISIS or other groups in various MENA countries.

Finally, and as a cornerstone of this papacy, the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew I in Istanbul is part of those attempts to heal the schisms since 1054 that have bedevilled relations between two key components of Christianity. After all, is it not time to heal the wounds and debunk the myths that keep Christians apart from each other? The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I articulated it so centrally when he said that “The challenges presented to our Churches by today’s historical circumstances oblige us to transcend our introversion.”

It is in this context that Pope Francis visited the beautiful Sultan Ahmet / Blue Mosque as well as the now reconverted Hagia Sofia Museum that until 1453 stood for almost one millennium as an important Orthodox cathedral at the religious heart of a largely Christian Byzantine empire with its capital of Constantinople.

It is also for this purpose that he had meetings with President Reçep Tayyip Erdo?an of Turkey as well as the Grand Mufti of Istanbul Rahmi Yaram let alone a symbolic number of Iraqi and Syrian refugees. In all those encounters, the message to a country of 80 million (that was 20% Christian a century ago and is now one of the most mono-Muslim countries, with other faiths no more than 0.2% of the population) is that refugees are not on their own and that Muslims and Christians should talk more and bicker less.

Will this latest initiative bear fruit? Pope Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel, published in 2013, expresses clearly his interest in a deeper understanding of Islam and his unequivocal position against lumping all of Islam together with extremism and violence. This is why he has called for an interfaith dialogue to counter fanaticism and fundamentalism. He stressed at the new presidential palace in Ankara that, “Religious freedom [...] will stimulate the flourishing of friendship and will become a significant sign of peace”.

Mind you, I remain unsure that hopeful words alone will either clothe refugees or keep them warm and safe. Nor will they overcome all the divergences within Christianity let alone in Christian-Muslim relations that are still fraught with caution and uncertainty. But ‘ecumenism’ for me as an Armenian believer is not one that strives to impose unity through uniformity. Rather, it celebrates unity in its rich diversity and that reaches out to the other. The Middle East Council of Churches in Beirut is a living institutional testimony to this hopeful outcome.

So was the satellite channel not too far off the truth, I ask myself today as Pope Francis get ready to fly back to the Vatican? After all, many Muslims remain ignorant of Christian realities. No wonder even the ethnocentric anxieties popularised by one adage that ‘the only friend a Turk has is another Turk’.

But the same could also be said of my subsequent interview where the presenter was simply underlining a tendency (consolidated alas by the ISIS heinous crimes and subsequent polarisation) that the two religions have starkly different understandings of culture and nationalism. No wonder some believe that Christianity is willy-nilly disappearing in the tapestry of a Muslim country.

Or is it? Does hope not spring eternal? And is it not a key component of our Christian faith alongside love and charity?


© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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Tribespeople call on WWF to stop funding abuse for ’conservation’

Fri, 2014-11-28 10:03

A group of Baka tribespeople in southeast Cameroon have begged the WWF to stop funding the anti-poaching squads responsible for persecution of the Baka.

A group of Baka tribespeople and their neighbours in southeast Cameroon have sent an impassioned plea to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), urging the conservation giant to stop funding anti-poaching squads that are responsible for a long history of persecution against the Baka.

One letter by a village elder reads, "When WWF started its work here in Ndongo we welcomed it, but the promises that were made and the things we were told have never materialised. We are subjected to your law enforcement work – and where are the promises you made?

“Sir, before you finance your work we want you to come meet the people on the ground [to see] its negative impacts.”

Another letter urges WWF to stop giving money to the anti-poaching squads.

When much of their land was turned into “protected areas” and safari hunting zones, the Baka, who hunt to feed their families, were promised they would still be able to use their ancestral lands.

But now the Baka are forced to stay in roadside villages and fear going into the forest which has provided them with most of what they needed for generations, says Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights.

Anti-poaching squads routinely arrest, beat and torture Baka and their neighbors in the name of “conservation” and many Baka say that friends and relatives have died as a result of the beatings.

Despite having known about these abuses for at least 13 years, WWF has taken no effective action and has repeatedly claimed that it has not been presented with enough evidence.

Survival’s Director Stephen Corry said, “National parks have, since their invention, been responsible for the eviction, and sometimes destruction, of tribal peoples. It is not sufficient for organisations like the WWF merely to have ‘policies’ to protect tribal peoples – they have actually to adhere to them.

"If WWF cannot ensure the funds it gives to anti-poaching squads are not harming people, it must stop that part of its program. For conservation of the Baka’s forests to really work, WWF must help protect the tribe’s land rights and respect their own methods of conservation.”


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UK licensed £7 million worth of arms to Israel in lead up to Gaza bombing

Fri, 2014-11-28 09:50

New government figures collated by CAAT show that the UK approved £7 million worth of military licences to Israel during the six months prior to the recent bombing of Gaza.

New government figures collated by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), show that the UK approved £7 million worth of military licences to Israel during the six months leading up to the recent bombing of Gaza. The licences, include components for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones), combat aircrafts, targeting equipment and weapon sights.

These revelations follow a review overseen by the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills that identified twelve licences for components which it concluded could been used in the recent conflict. CAAT says that despite its own findings the Government chose not to suspend a single licence.

Andrew Smith from CAAT, said: "Right up until the eve of the bombing, the UK was supporting licences for the same kinds of weapons that Vince Cable's own review found are likely to have been used against the people of Gaza."

Earlier this month, in a legal letter written to CAAT, the Government announced that it would be conducting a new review of arms sales to Israel.

The UK has a history of selling arms to Israel. A Ministerial Statement on 21 April 2009, by the then Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary David Miliband, confirmed that Israeli equipment used in Gaza in the 2008-9 conflict almost certainly contained UK-supplied components.

"Unfortunately it would not have been the first time UK weapons were used by Israel. This new review will only be worthwhile if it means a real and fundamental change from business as usual. The public was rightfully shocked by the bombardment. That is why the UK must announce a full embargo on all arms sales to Israel and an end to military collaboration", concluded Andrew Smith.

* Read the Treasury Solicitor's letter to CAAT here https://www.caat.org.uk/resources/countries/israel/legal/2014-11-05.tsol...


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MPs criticise Government over 'dangerous precedent' on drones

Thu, 2014-11-27 21:05

A Foreign Affairs Committee report published today (27 November) criticises the government for “set[ting] a dangerous precedent” in its public position on drones.

A Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) report published today (27 November) criticises the government for “set[ting] a dangerous precedent” in its public position on drones.

The Committee also calls on the UK to provide a written response to concerns expressed by a UN official over the lack of an international legal framework governing the use of drones.

The robotic aircraft have proved controversial because of their use by the CIA and other secretive US organisations to carry out strikes in countries where the US is not at war, such as Yemen and Pakistan – something which many believe to be at odds with international and domestic law.

Research by the legal charity Reprieve indicates that the UK supports that campaign through the sharing of intelligence and the provision of infrastructure at US bases in Britain. However, ministers have refused to take a public position on the legal or ethical implications, maintaining that the drone strikes are a matter only for the US and the country where they are taking place.

The FAC’s comments, contained in its report on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's human rights work in 2013, warn that, “Criticisms have been levelled at the UK for not supporting a resolution on the use of drones […] In some quarters, this is seen as indicating an inconsistency of approach. We believe [it] set[s] a dangerous precedent for other countries to follow suit.”

The MPs note that “There is a clearly a difference of opinion between the UK Government and the UN Special Rapporteur on whether there is international consensus on the legal parameters surrounding the use of drones” and recommend “that the Government should acknowledge this and provide a written response detailing its points of disagreement with the UN Special Rapporteur’s findings to both Parliament and the UN Human Rights Council.”

Commenting, Kat Craig, legal director at Reprieve said: “This piles yet more pressure on the British Government to come clean over its involvement in the US’ secret drone war. Parliament’s Foreign and Defence Committees, and former intelligence and military chiefs have now all said that the UK’s silence on this issue is no longer good enough. There is overwhelming evidence that Britain supports secretive US strikes which lack both legal and democratic backing. Yet our political leaders are relying on legal ambiguity and obfuscation to effectively get away with murder.”

*The FAC's report can be found here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmselect/cmfaff/551/55...


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TUC says 4 million young people's 'missing' votes could decide election

Thu, 2014-11-27 10:05

With polls suggesting that next year’s general election is too close to call, new analysis from the TUC shows over four million ‘missing votes’ from people under 35.

With polls suggesting that next year’s general election is too close to call, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) today (27 November)) publishes new analysis showing that there are over four million ‘missing votes’ from people under the age of 35.

The analysis – launched during the TUC’s Young Workers’ Month – finds that in the 2010 election, just 33 per cent of 18-34 year olds voted, compared to 64 per cent of those aged 35 years and older.

The number of ‘missing votes’ from young people needed to match the voting rate for those over 35 is more than four million, according to the TUC analysis.

The analysis finds that the average number of young people’s ‘missing votes’ per constituency is in excess of 11,000. This is more than the average constituency majority in 2010 of around 8,000 votes – suggesting that if more young people were to register and vote they could play a decisive role in the outcome of next year’s election.

The TUC and Bite the Ballot – a not-for-profit organisation campaigning to empower young voters – are today launching Register Your Workplace, a ‘how to’ guide for union reps aimed at increasing voter registration amongst young people. The guide includes information and practical ideas for engaging, educating and registering young people at work.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Young people have had a rough ride – first from the recession and now as a result of the austerity that followed. As long as young people are less likely to vote than older generations, politicians will continue to see them as an easy target for austerity and carry on ignoring their problems like high rents, rogue landlords, youth unemployment and low pay.”

Chair of the TUC Young Workers’ Forum Fern McCaffrey said: “If more young people decide to use the ballot box, we could bring about a political earthquake. If younger voters can match older ones, we have the power to change the result in hundreds of seats next May.

“By registering to vote, we can warn politicians we are ready to use that power. We can make sure that our jobs and pay, our chance to buy a home, our chance to study without crippling debt – our future – is at the heart of every election debate.”

Managing Director of Bite the Ballot Michael Sani said: “Politicians write policies for people who participate – those who are registered to vote, and those who vote. This means that younger citizens are often ignored. But young people have the power to change this. By registering to vote, young people become votes worth winning. They can demand change and use their power to punish or reward politicians at the ballot box.”

* The TUC analysis used general election turnout data for 2010 (Electoral Commission); Census 2011 population data (Office for National Statistics); and the report Great Britain's Electoral Registers 2011 (Electoral Commission). It found that at the 2010 election the voting rate – combining both registration rate and turnout – was 33 per cent for 18-34 year olds and 64 per cent for those aged 35 and over. For 18-34 year olds to have matched the 64 per cent voting rate in 2010, it would have required 4,260,000 more of them to vote.

* The full calculations can be found at http://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/TUC%20analysis%20of%20young%20...

* Register Your Workplace: A ‘How to’ Guide on Engaging, Educating and Registering Young People in your Workplace can be found at http://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/Register%20Your%20Workplace.pdf

* More information about Bite the Ballot can be found at http://bitetheballot.co.uk/

* More on the upcoming General Election from Ekklesia here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/generalelection2015

Views expressed by individual contributors do not necessarily reflect an official Ekklesia view.


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Submission to the Smith Commission on devolution to Scotland

Thu, 2014-11-27 08:36

To coincide with publication of the cross-party agreement negotiated by the Smith Commission, Ekklesia is publishing its own submission to the Commission, made alongside contributions by around 300 civic organisations and 1,700 individuals. We highlighted to Lord Smith the need for widespread public engagement on the Heads of Agreement, and certain core principles related to subsidiarity, the localisation of power and a democratic and socially just future which needed to be at the core of an agreement on new powers which represents a truly substantial shift in the current settlement.

Simon Barrow
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