As a nervy ceasefire comes and goes in the latest Israel-Gaza conflict, here is a selection of images from a more settled time in the Holy Land.
Including: Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, the Dead Sea, Haifa and Akko
Pope Francis has completed a three-day tour of Israel, Jordan and the West Bank
This was the first visit of the pontiff to the Holy Land since he was voted into the bishopric of Rome last year. He began in Jordan, where he visited a Syrian refugee camp and the River Jordan itself, where many people believe Jesus was baptised.
He then crossed directly into the Palestinian Territory of the West Bank, where he provoked uneasy reaction from Israeli leaders by praying at one of high concrete separation walls built across the area. Spiralling around Jewish settlements, the controversial barriers either protect historically Jewish lands or divide Palestinians from each other, depending on the views from the two sides of the ongoing regional rift.
The Holy Father then went on to hold an open-air mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square. I was there in the city a couple of days before and the video below shows preparations being made:
In the birthplace of Jesus Christ, along with the evocative notes of the Muslim call-to-prayer echoing out across Manger Square, you can see posters and banners celebrating the Catholic visit to the ‘State of Palestine’. In an interesting twist, the Palestinian Territories are one of only two entities to be afforded the diplomatic status at the United Nations of ‘non-member observer state’; the other is the Vatican City, or Holy See.
The Pope then moved on to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. As the video below highlights, he arrived in the region on Saturday 24 May and would go on to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where he prayed jointly with the Orthodox Christian patriarch Bartholomew I.
The prayer that the pontiff offered at a section of the separation wall coated in anti-Israeli graffiti in Palestine was an unscheduled stop and lauded by Palestinians. However, for Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, it was an awkward moment and one he was keen to equal by highlighting the price that many Israelis have also paid in the conflict. On Monday 26 May, the Pope eased tensions by agreeing to stop to pray at a memorial to Israeli victims of terrorism on Mount Herzl, where Yad Vashem, the country’s national Holocaust museum, is located.
In such an old region, a land of sacred Jewish walls, revered Muslim shrines and Christian holy rivers, where cultures and religions have risen and fallen, it was always going to be a tricky trip to make, and one that was full of symbolic gestures. The view across the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, was a fascinating shot to film, with the blue-and-white Star of David flags flying just below the gleaming golden Muslim Dome of the Rock, and the Islamic call-to-prayer gliding out from the Aqsa Mosque over hundreds of Jews praying at the wall below.
During a visit to the Middle East, I visited Haifa, a town on Israel’s northern coast.
As the sun drooped towards the Mediterranean, the Friday evening restaurants started to bustle with pre-Sabbath trade. In the shadow of the Shrine of the Báb temple of the Bahá’í faith, pro-Palestine chants broke out among a group of people bristling with flags and placards. After several minutes of stationary protest, the group of demonstrators marched off articulating their support for imprisoned Palestinians.
Saudi Arabia worries over changing US direction in the Middle East
Rapprochement with Iran. Watching Vladimir Putin do his own thing over Ukraine and Crimea. And – as Saudi Arabia sees it – forgetting the rebels in Syria. The US has been pursuing a controversial line of foreign policy over the past few months. Several countries have been glad to see Western noses bloodied but there are others who are getting cross with the American State Department’s actions, or lack of them. One of the angry allies is Saudi Arabia. And it has lambasted the global community’s lethargy over the civil war in Syria. As the major world Sunni Muslim power, a defeat for the Shia-allied government of Bashar al-Assad would suit Saudi Arabia well. One country who would rather see a regime victory is Iran, Riyadh’s foe across the Gulf. And the United States has been getting on pretty well with Tehran so far this year, after a landmark deal in January on Iran’s nuclear activities.
The House of Saud has been getting annoyed with all this cosying up to Shia Muslim actors. Last week, at an Arab League summit in Kuwait, the Crown Prince vocalised Riyadh’s annoyance that the Sunni-majority rebels in Syria and their political wing, the Syrian National Coalition, were being sidelined and forgotten in what has been the longest struggle of the ‘Arab Spring’. The war in Syria has been going on for more than three years, with the number of people killed estimated to be in excess of 100,000. But the war gains are becoming more marginal, and the front lines are remaining largely the same. The rebels still manage to shoot down the odd regime helicopter but with Lebanese Hezbollah man-power and Russian hardware, Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces are still strong.
It was timely then that over the weekend US president Barack Obama paid a trip to Saudi Arabia for what was surely a testing head-to-head with King Abdullah. Riyadh was angered by the stalling uncertainty from Washington over the chemical weapons attack in Syria in August last year, when Congress ruled out a bombing raid on Assad regime posts in response to the Sarin nerve agent attack on the outskirts of Damascus. Instead, Russia outflanked the US and brokered a deal with the Syrian president which would see him give up his stockpile of chemical weapons. In this weekend’s meetings in the Saudi desert, Riyadh would have wanted assurances that Washington was not going to give up finding a solution to the conflict.
Barack Obama, with two years left on his contract in the White House, will be focused on finding an issue to work on abroad in order to be able to secure some kind of international legacy. And although American officials in the Holy Land started work again yesterday to try to organise a framework to extend an April deadline for Israel-Palestine peace negotiations, it seems unlikely that the two-state solution will be achieved any time soon. Washington’s point-of-view on the war in Syria seems increasingly to be that the answer to the crisis must come from within the fracturing country. There are many other points of contention in the region (Egypt’s twisting and turning Army-led confusion, Yemen’s instability and Iraq’s continuing sectarian violence) but it appears to be Iran that whets Obama’s appetite the most. The White House sees the nuclear issue in the Middle East as one that it can get its teeth stuck into properly.
The problem for Saudi Arabia is that this means a focus from its US friends on spending more time in Geneva hotels with Iranian politicians. Yet Saudi Arabia wants a deal as well. A nuclear-armed rival in the region is anathema to Riyadh, who have talked up air strikes from Tel Aviv or Washington on Tehran’s dodgy installations before. But the crux is that in order for the Saudis’ American allies to nullify any nuclear threat from Iran, they have to speak to the Iranians, and spend time with them, and things are getting a bit too friendly for Riyadh’s liking. They don’t want any nuclear bombs being made in Iran, but nor do they want the West’s rapprochement to divert from support for the big Sunni power. It’s a hard choice, but as the US pivots towards Asia, and works on peace deals with Iran, Riyadh does not want to be left out in the cold.
UN human rights investigators confirm outsiders, including jihadis, are present in Syria
On Monday 17 September the United Nations chief investigator for Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, said that “foreign elements”, including fundamentalist fighters, are operating inside the war-torn country. He also accused both sides of carrying out war crimes, although the list of atrocities alleged against the government was longer. Activists estimate that up to 27,000 people have lost their lives in the conflict so far. But what Mr Pinheiro was outlining was official confirmation of what many people have known and even admitted before: that overseas influences are being deployed inside Syria for outside political and religious objectives.
On Sunday 16 September General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, confirmed that members of its special forces are in Lebanon and Syria providing “counsel and advice”. However, the commander denied that the existence of the commandoes meant that Tehran had a ‘military presence’ in either country. On Tuesday 18 September Egypt hosted Iran as part of a get-together of the ‘Islamic Quartet’, which also includes Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Cairo warned Tehran that the two countries’ relations are going to continue to stumble along unless the latter changes its stance on the situation in Syria.
It has long been understood that Iran has been worried that the Syrian civil war is having a negative effect on its alliances in the area. The government of Bashar al-Assad, which has been responsible for the worst bloody episodes of the conflict so far, has been one of Iran’s friends for a long time. The admission that the elite Iranian Quds Forces are also out and about in Lebanon is not a great surprise either, seeing as Hezbollah are based in that country.
All three parties – the Iranian state, the Hezbollah movement and the Syrian leadership – are linked by the Shia branch of Islam. They all have a mutual aim and a clear desire (as any political entity anywhere in the world would have) to continue to exist and to exert power where they can. At the moment, the civil war in Syria is stirring up all sorts of regional power and influence struggles and the Islamic religious dividing lines are one of the most obvious battle areas.
Saudi Arabia, the massive Sunni Muslim strongman, is none too happy about Iran getting involved and Riyadh is licking its lips at the prospect of kicking out the Assad Alawites (an offshoot is Shia Islam) and installing a new Sunni government in Damascus. Saudi Arabia has been flexing its muscles by arming the rebel fighters in Syria and while it is undeniable that the regime has acted in an unjustifiable manner in suppressing opposition to its rule in such a brutal way, you cannot simply characterise the rowdy rebels as ‘the good guys’ and thus, by default, laud Saudi Arabia for its actions. Paulo Pinheiro’s words on Monday condemning the violence from either side prove this.
The sheer abundance and complexities of the ethnic links, political unions, religious divides and linguistic differences in the Middle East illustrate how the situation in Syria is much more of a dizzying whirlpool than the less intricate conflict in Libya last year.
Here is a basic outline of which country thinks what and why they have made made the Syrian civil war so regionally significant:
Syria: 74% Sunni Muslim; 16% Shia, Alawite, Druze Islam; 10% Christianity (via CIA World Factbook – as are all religious percentages below). Kurdish community in north-east. Friends with Iran and Hezbollah. Loosely tied to Russia.
Turkey: 99% Muslim (mostly Sunni). Western-allied. Member of NATO. Wants Assad regime out. Has taken in up to 60,00 Syrian refugees, according to the UN. Large Kurdish community in north with which it is conducting an internecine war.
Iran: The major Shia powerhouse. 89% Shia Muslim; 9% Sunni Muslim. Friends with Syrian government and Hezbollah. Distrusts Saudi Arabia. Detests Israel and the West. Large Kurdish community in north. Quds special forces active in Syria and Lebanon.
Iraq: 60-65% Shia Muslim; 32-37% Sunni Muslim. Large Kurdish community in north. Fighting ongoing insurgency since end of war in 2009.
Qatar: Majority Sunni Muslim. Active in both Syria and Libya in arming the rebel fighters.
Saudi Arabia: The major Sunni powerhouse. Active in Syria in arming the rebel fighters.
Jordan: 92% Sunni Muslim. Expanding Zaatari refugee camp in north of country to allow it handle up to 80,000 refugees from Syria. Has welcomed Syrian fighter pilots and politicians defecting from regime.
Egypt: 90% mostly Sunni Muslim; 10% mostly Coptic Christians. Supports uprising against regime.
Israel: 76% Jewish; 17% Muslim. Friends with the West. Detests Iran and is highly suspicious of its nuclear programme.
Palestinian Territories: Mostly Muslim and at centre of Middle East peace process over territorial disputes with Israel.
Lebanon: 60% Muslim; 40% Christian. Hezbollah group is Shia Muslim and supports Assad regime and Iran. More than 60,000 Syrian refugees are in the country. Nation not wholly in favour of one particular side or grouping in the conflict. Risk of sectarian strife spilling over from Syria.
Turkey is pursuing a wide-ranging and refreshed foreign policy
Turkey has slow-burning plans to join the EU at some point but there is one major bump on that road. Last week Cyprus began offshore drilling for possible oil and natural gas resources. Turkey immediately warned it had warships at the ready to protect its own deep-sea claims. It maintains a military presence in the mini-state of Northern Cyprus, the Turkish Cypriot north-eastern end of the island, a territory that is only recognised by Turkey. The Cyprus issue of greatest concern to the EU. The union has recognised and admitted the island nation on the basis that the only legitimate governing authority on in Nicosia is the Greek Cypriot one.
The Mediterranean is choppy in other areas as well at the moment for Ankara. Diplomatic relations with once-friend Israel have dropped to new lows. The Turkish public is still fuming over the deaths of nine activists killed on 31 May after Israeli commandos intercepted an aid convoy heading towards Gaza. The massive ruptures in relations since over Turkish demands and Israeli refusals to apologise for the incident have done serious damage.
Despite a slow start, Turkey has been an intelligent local voice on the Arab Spring. Ankara hosted meetings of the Libya Contact Group to facilitate international financial and diplomatic support for the National Transitional Council. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been calmly but incessantly turning up the temperature on the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Last weekend Mr Erdogan said a Syrian-flagged ship had been seized by his forces and he said Turkey will intercept any arms shipments headed to his violent neighbour.
Last month, Ahmet Davutoglu, the busy Turkish Foreign Minister, travelled to the former ally and let Damascus know that Turkey had “run out of patience” with the regime over its the brutal crackdowns on protesters. Syria is out in the cold and so is Israel. Into their place has stepped the new Egypt, another previously staunch Semite.
The hugely successful administration of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has prided itself on moderation and mediation but also, critically, playing a strong hand when faced with a challenge. Mr Erdogan’s response to Kurdish uprisings is one example. However, relations with the Arab world have never been better. The EU issue has been a path to tread carefully but for now Turkey certainly views the tumultuous Middle East as a renovated region of which it can become political master, using its democratic model, bubbling economy and geographic and cultural Europe-Asia bridge history as a springboard for greater standing in the world.
On the regional diplomatic front-line against the Syrian violence, more might be expected from Lebanon
It is a fractious neighbourhood. The repressive Assad regime in Syria is surrounded by Iraq (still rocking with violence of its own), Iran (currently quietly watching events from the corner), Israel (dealing with its own Spanish indignado-style protests at the moment), Jordan (where King Abdullah has spoken recently to reassure the people of reforms), Turkey (starting to get restless with Syria and now using its megaphone to condemn Bashar al Assad) and Lebanon (a successful democracy, sitting between West and the Middle East).
However, Beirut is failing to use its geopolitical location and the fact that it has a seat on the UN Security Council at the moment to be able to lead the pack on Syrian policy. When the condemnatory statement was on the table in New York, Lebanon lifted its pen and passed it on. Discussing his country’s refusal to sign, Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour was quoted as saying that:
“The decision reflected Lebanon’s clear convictions. This position sought the higher interests of Lebanon and the entire region, including Syria.”
It is true that a resolution would have been a more defiant outcome and the European-led statement was weak. But that is not a reason not to express support for a small step on the road to reform, sanctions or intervention. This last option is the most worrying and the one that scares Russia and China the most at the moment. But Lebanon does not have to call for a Libyan-style military move.
The violence has escalated in recent days to the shelling of the port of Latakia from the sea by the Syrian navy. A simple denunciation would carry weight, as Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern and major Muslim nation on the present Council (although Gabon and Nigeria have sizeable Islamic populations as well).
But Lebanon has some tricky politics. Hezbollah, the militant Shia Muslim group, supports the Assad regime. Saad Hariri, the former prime minister, looks more to the West. With politics opening up across the region, Hezbollah ought to pause and consider the fallout if it were to continue to support a regime that was to be thrown out and whose members, like Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president, ended up in caged docks in front of a condemnatory public. Hezbollah has links to Iran and it is hard for them to think purely within national borders, such are the complexities of the regional patronages and ties.
If it were to do so, it may see the reformist agenda led by Hariri and also the tide of condemnation growing in regional big beasts like Turkey. Lebanon is swimming against the flow at the moment and it would be better at least to turn to face the shore, rather than the swelling, international, condemnatory white rollers brewing out at sea.
Sweden was the subject of a recent bomb plot gone wrong and five men were arrested in Denmark on 29 December on suspicion of planning a bombing raid. Has Islamist terrorism come to Scandinavia?
The chilly winds and blizzards of Sweden and Denmark are far-removed from the blasting sun and desert heat of the Middle East but Islam is a powerful and growing presence in Northern Europe. It has overtaken Catholicism to become Norway’s largest minority religion. There are approximately 500,000 Muslims in Sweden. After Lutheranism, Islam is the biggest religion in Denmark.
Mass immigration in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly from the Muslim south-east corner of Europe, Somalia and Pakistan, has prompted the development of Islam as a serious faith in the three Scandinavian countries. National reaction to the growth of Islam has courted controversy.
The Jyllands-Posten cartoons uproar in 2005 was the first major sticking-point to development between this part of Europe and Islam. The men arrested earlier this week in Denmark have been accused of wanting to kill “as many people as possible [at the newspaper’s offices]”, according to Danish officials. The fact that these alleged threats and confirmed arrests have occurred five years after the cartoons were published show that the reach of Islam is growing.
Cartoons were also at the centre of controversy three years ago. Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist, pictured Muhammad as a dog on a roundabout. Mr Vilks has since taken precautions against possible retribution.
Islam has not suffered the same level of inertia and religious apathy which has afflicted the Christian denominations across Europe. Young Muslims are born into a growing faith of potency and totality. Their non-Muslim peers simply do not worry about religion that much at all. And it is this perceived affront to the standard Scandinavian secular-based lifestyle by a popular and powerful minority religion that has caused an upswell in indignation towards Muslims in the region.
The traditional Scandinavian mentality may also be a root cause of the increase in terror plots. By attacking a liberal, less outspoken area of the majority-Christian and Western world, the direct opposite of the US, the UK and Israel, Islamist fundamentalists are demonstrating their capabilities to challenge religious and political ideologies across the globe, no matter how quiet and non-confrontational those countries appear on the surface.
The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has published its end-of-year report and it does not make easy reading for journalists. This is the second part of a two-part blogpost. Here we analyse the figures since 2006.
a) The five most deadly countries
1. Iraq 127
The ongoing insurgency has caused the most problems for reporters but religious conflict between the different Muslim congregations and ethnic troubles towards the Kurdish north of the country have contributed to make Iraq the most dangerous nation for journalists in the last 5 years. The withdrawal of UK and US combat troops was meant to herald a change in the fortunes for Iraqis but the militancy has continued.
2. The Philippines 59
Developing fast with a mushrooming population, the Philippines is becoming a deadly platform for reporting. Inter-religious divisions and ethnic bonds spill over into the politics, which sees a number of assassinations every year. Journalists are regularly caught up in the shootings.
3. Mexico 47
Five years ago, Felipe Calderon was sworn into office as Mexico’s president. In the same year he launched his ‘war on drugs’, an aggressive policy of taking on the gangsters head-to-head with the military spearheading the campaign. Five years later and a staggering 28,000 people have died in the violence. The majority have been gang members, but thousands of policemen and soldiers have died too. And so have 47 journalists, unsure over what to publish and what to broadcast as the cartels’ media influence grows. As the war intensifies and continues, it becomes an increasingly deadly news story to report.
4. Pakistan 38
The NATO coalition’s war in Afghanistan has spread to Pakistan and although operations began in Afghanistan in 2001, over the last 5 years there has been increased activity in Pakistan; both by the Taliban and by mainly US forces. When the militancy is added to religious strife, the ongoing Kashmir situation and corrupt politics, it is clear that the journalistic atmosphere is particularly dangerous.
5. Somalia 23
A country without a full-functional government since 1993, Somalia has been the scene of fierce fighting and warfare mainly between government troops and Islamist militias, of which Al-Shabab is the most prominent. Recently, African Union peacekeepers have been trying to improve stability in the capital, but intimidation and violence from the militants have meant very little press freedom.
b) The rest of the world
Africa (18): DRC 7, Nigeria 7, Angola 4
Asia (70): Sri Lanka 15, Afghanistan 14, India 14, Nepal 9, Thailand 6, Israel/Gaza 5, Indonesia 4, Lebanon 3
Europe (26): Russia 21, Georgia 5
Latin America (44): Colombia 19, Honduras 14, Venezuela 7, Guatemala 4
The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has published its end-of-year report and it does not make easy reading for journalists. This is the first part of a two-part blogpost analysing the data.
In 2010, 105 journalists were killed. Since 2006, 529 have died. The risky countries are not surprising. However, there are different reasons for the dangers faced by reporters and cameramen out on the roads.
There are two main sets of figures the PEC has released: this blogpost will look at this year’s figures and the next blogpost will analyse the global total of journalists’ deaths since 2006.
a) The five most deadly countries in the last year
1 = Mexico and Pakistan 14 dead in both
With more than 3,000 people killed in Ciudad Juarez, a northern border town, this year alone, it is no great shock that the ‘war on drugs’ has claimed journalists’ lives in Mexico. The reporting of drugs deals and violence is often accompanied by death threats and in September the newspaper ‘El Diario de Juarez’ published a frank editorial to the gangs titled ‘What do you want from us?’ and agreed to print what the gangs wanted after one of its photographers was shot dead.
More than 3,000 died in violence in Pakistan last year. Militancy, tribal wars, US drone strikes and the Pakistani armed forces’ battles against Taliban insurgents have contributed to the rising deaths. Journalists covering the militancy have been shot as political, religious and international tensions grow.
3. Honduras 9
Since the 2009 coup, which installed Porfirio Lobo as the new premier, politically-motivated murders have been on the rise. In addition, the contagion of Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’ has spread to the country and that has caused further problems for journalists in the field.
4. Iraq 8
US combat operations ceased in Iraq this year but thousands of troops are still in the country training troops and aiding stabilisation policies. The insurgency has claimed 8 journalists’ lives this year alone.
5. The Philippines 6
Religious conflict in the mainly-Muslim south and the ferocious and deadly politics, where ethnicity, party allegiances, family ties and religion meet in a lethal mix, have created an unstable environment in which to report.
b) The deadliest nations in the rest of the world
Africa (14): Nigeria 4, Somalia 3, Angola 2, Uganda 2, Cameroon 1, DRC 1, Rwanda 1
Asia (16): Indonesia 3, Nepal 3, Afghanistan 2, Thailand 2, India 2, Bangladesh 1, Yemen 1, Israel/Gaza 1, Lebanon 1
Europe (11): Russia 5, Belarus 1, Bulgaria 1, Cyprus 1, Greece 1, Ukraine 1, Turkey 1
Latin America (13): Colombia 4, Brazil 4, Venezuela 2, Argentina 1, Ecuador 1, Guatemala 1