THE ANGLICAN Communion is not the only worldwide Christian fraternity to have organised a tense, top-level meeting this month. Only a couple of weeks after the Communion preserved its shaky unity by ostracising its liberal American brethren, the leaders of the Orthodox Christian church convened in all their robed solemnity, and at rather short notice, in Geneva.
At stake is whether or not an even grander Orthodox meeting (the most important for centuries, in some people’s view) can proceed as planned this summer. The key players in this drama are Bartholomew I, the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch who is considered “first among equals” in the Orthodox hierarchy and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. Since Ottoman and Tsarist times, these two centres of power have often competed for influence over the eastern Christian world.
The very fact that Moscow agreed in principle to this summer’s “Great and Holy Synod” marks something of a diplomatic success for Patriarch Bartholomew, as does Patriarch Kirill’s presence at the current session in Geneva. (He could have sent an underling.) But many things are up in the air, including the location of the summer gathering: originally scheduled to take place in Istanbul, it might be relocated (perhaps to Geneva again) because of the dire state of Russo-Turkish relations.
On arrival in the Swiss city, Patriarch Kirill made a carefully calibrated address that seemingly spelled out Moscow’s conditions for continued participation. The most important concern Ukraine. In that country the two biggest Orthodox institutions are the globally recognised Ukrainian Orthodox Church, ultimately under the Moscow Patriarchate, and the 25-year-old Kiev Patriarchate which strongly supports Ukrainian independence and the government’s battle against Russophile rebels in east. These two bodies have identical services; the main difference is that they pray for, and obey, different bishops. Many a confused believer could hardly tell the difference.
To outsiders, it’s remarkable that thousands of local parishes across Ukraine, including some of the country’s grandest places of worship, have managed to remain at least loosely under Moscow’s ecclesiastical jurisdiction, even as war raged between the Ukrainian army and rebels who enjoyed support in high Muscovite places. As part of a survival strategy, the head of the UOC, Metropolitan Onufry, quietly excused his parishes from praying publicly for the Moscow Patriarch if they were located in areas where anti-Russian sentiment was running high.
But Patriarch Kirill protested in Geneva that 30 churches had been “violently” realigned from his authority to the Kiev hierarchy, and that at least ten other churches were “under threat of seizure by sectarians and [Ukrainian] nationalists, who then present what is happening as the supposedly voluntary transfer of a body of believers to the so-called Kiev Patriarchate.” The Russian prelate complained that certain bishops, claiming to be acting under Patriarch Bartholomew’s authority, had visited Ukraine and expressed their support for the Kiev hierarchy, hence creating “temptations” among the believers and clergy of Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill welcomed the fact that many of the world’s Orthodox churches had come out in clear support of Moscow’s position. His subliminal message was something like: don’t even think about offering succour or recognition to the Kiev hierarchy, or all further inter-Orthodox cooperation will be cancelled until further notice.
Religion-watchers saw the Russian Patriarch’s warning as directed, above all, at Patriarch Bartholomew. There are many Ukrainians, in the homeland and the diaspora who dream of their country having a united Orthodox church which would look politically to Kiev and ecclesiastically to the ancient see of Constantinople, in other words to Patriarch Bartholomew. During a visit to Ukraine in 2008, Patriarch Bartholomew held a delicate balance, accepting the legality of the Moscow Patriarchate’s authority in that part of the world but also giving heart to the Ukrainian yearning for a united, independent church. Patriarch Kirill was making it clear that if this happens, there could be a massive split within global Orthodoxy.
Amid all these squabbles, there is something mysterious about any gathering of mitred, bearded prelates from different corners of the world. The services over which these gentlemen habitually preside are immensely intricate pieces of choreography; there is a great variety of languages and singing styles from booming Slavic to ululating Arabic. Yet they and their respective entourages can come together and worship, as they did this morning, in a Swiss city, the cradle of Protestantism as it happens, as though they had been concelebrating (to use the technical term) every day of their lives.
Update: January 25 2016
Many things are up in the air. It has just been decided that the summer gathering should take place in Crete, rather than in Istanbul as originally planned. With Russo-Turkish relations in a dire state, the new venue will make it easier for Russians to attend.
Rouhani will meet the pope and the French and Italian leaders on a trip that aims to re-establish economic ties after sanctions
Hassan Rouhani is to make the first state visit to Europe by an Iranian president in almost two decades this week, following the lifting of sanctions against his country.
The trip will aim at rebuilding economic ties and Iran is expected to sign a deal with Airbus for 114 new aircraft.
Europe was Iran’s largest trading partner before sanctions, and has sent an unprecedented number of business delegations to the country since the landmark nuclear agreement with the west was sealed in July. The end of sanctions, including the removal of EU’s embargo on Iranian oil imports, means that trade can begin again.
Rouhani is expected in Rome on Monday, where he will meet the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi. He will also meet Pope Francis at the Vatican. He will then travel to Paris on Wednesday and is scheduled to be welcomed by the French president, François Hollande, at the Elysée palace on Thursday.
Germany, Italy and France have been leading the pack as Europe aims to increase trade with Tehran from the current level of €7.6bn (£5.8bn) a year to the pre-sanctions figure of almost €28bn.
Iran’s minister for roads and urban development, Abbas Akhondi, has been quoted as saying that the country is in talks with Airbus for the purchase of 114 new aircraft.
Tehran has long said it will need to revamp an ageing fleet, hit by a shortage of parts because of trade bans imposed by Washington and other western powers. Mahdi Hashemi, the chairman of the Iranian parliament’s development commission, said this weekend that the country may need as many as 500 new planes over the next three years.
Rouhani was initially expected in Europe in November, but his visit was cancelled at the last minute after the Paris attacks. It will be Rouhani’s first official visit to Europe and the first by an Iranian head of government since 1999, when the reformist former president Mohammad Khatami made similar trips to Paris and Rome.
Iran is a huge market for French car manufacturers, which are eager to do business in the country again. Peugeot used to sell 400,000 vehicles a year in Iran before sanctions were put in place. An arrangement with the local manufacturer Iran Khodro, which assembled the vehicles, meant its cars were ubiquitous across the country.
Local media reported this weekend that Iran Khodro could finalise a new deal worth €500m with Peugeot during Rouhani’s visit to France. “Peugeot 2008 crossover, 208 supermini and 301 compact cars will be manufactured inside Iran under the 50-50 joint venture,” according to the semi-official Tasnim news, which quoted an anonymous Iranian official.
Other French companies, including Alstom, the electricity generation and rail transport firm, the industrial group Bouygues and Aéroports de Paris are also interested in engaging Iran in the post-sanctions era.
“The Rouhani administration is counting on sanctions relief resulting in economic improvements, and if possible, before next month’s parliamentary elections,” said Timothy Stafford, a research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
“However, there is a danger that it will over-promise and under-deliver. International businesses will think very carefully about the risks of returning to the Iranian market, and even if they do, it will take a long time for the economic benefits of increased trade and investment to be felt,” he said.
“In addition, it is still possible that some of the nuclear-related sanctions that are being lifted will be reimposed for other reasons in the coming months. That is how the US has decided to respond to the ballistic missile tests Iran conducted late last year.”
The pope strongly advocated a peaceful resolution to the crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme. He intervened directly, urging Congress not to sabotage the accord during his visit to the US last year, a
Business talks at Medef, France’s main business confederation
Rouhani is expected to meet Medef’s president, Pierre Gattaz. A number of Iranian ministers, including the oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh, are accompanying the president during his visit. Oil executives from Total and other French business leaders are also expected to meet Rouhani.
No lunch at the Elysée
Rouhani is expected to attend a dinner for Iranian expatriates in Paris, but a lunch reception at the palace, which is usual for state visits, is unlikely to take place because of Iran’s insistence on a longstanding diplomatic protocol that its officials should not participate in events where wine is served.
Fight against Isis
Rouhani will present his country as a key regional player when it comes to the conflict in Syria. Iran, an ally of Bashar al-Assad’s regime since the conflict started in 2011, argues that the west should prioritise the fight against Islamic State and roll back from its position that the Syrian leader must step down as part of any solution. How much he will succeed remains to be seen.
The reaction of European banks
Despite the lifting of sanctions and the desire among European businesses to enter Iran, the continent’s major banks are still reluctant to handle Iranian payments. The US Federal Reserve has issued a 50-page guidance document that says EU banks can now do business with Iran provided they refrain from dealing with certain entities and individuals still blacklisted under sanctions relating to terrorism and human rights. Banks, however, are not yet fully reassured and some say the guidance is open to interpretation.
Financial Times 25-Jan-16
The finances of the Holy See are nowhere near transparent enough
Vatican folklore has it that a former pope was once asked how many people worked at the Holy See. “About half,” the Pontiff is said to have replied. Those now charged with directing the affairs of the Catholic Church are prone to observe that the Holy Father must always be generous in his judgments.
The problems of the Roman Curia run deeper than chronically inefficient administration and overstaffing. An Italian court has just handed down a two-year suspended sentence on Nunzio Scarano, the former Vatican accountant.
Monsignor Scarano, widely known as “Msg Cinquecento” for his habit of carrying around €500 notes, was a senior officer at Apsa, the secretive body that manages the Vatican’s property and investment portfolio. He was acquitted of attempting to smuggle €20m in cash from Switzerland to Italy, but convicted of giving false evidence. He faces further prosecution for alleged money laundering.
Accelerating the reforms promised by his predecessor Benedict XVI, Pope Francis can claim to have made significant strides in cleaning up the notorious Institute for Religious Works, more commonly known as the Vatican bank.
The management appointed by the pontiff was shocked by what it found: thousands of unexplained accounts, habitually large cash transactions and the absence of safeguards against money laundering. At best the bank was a tax haven, at worst a shelter for the proceeds of criminal gangs.
The present team, overseen by the Australian Cardinal George Pell, who runs the Holy See’s economic affairs, are confident they have rooted out day-to-day corruption.
Some 4,800 illegitimate accounts have been closed, agreement reached on information sharing with Italian regulatory authorities and processes put in place to detect illicit transactions. The Council of Europe’s anti-money-laundering agency has concluded the Vatican has now addressed most of the weaknesses in its legal and regulatory framework.
The Bank, however, has yet to tackle properly historic cases of corruption and still faces internal opposition. Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s money-laundering agency, wants Vatican prosecutors to be more proactive.
So far there have been no confiscations, indictments or prosecutions. A failure to address overstaffing has made it harder for the reformers to bring in untainted managers from outside, while the conservative forces within the Curia resist the use of independent consultants.
There is now a risk of reform fatigue. In Cardinal Pell’s assessment, the authorities have “come quite a long way in a short space of time” but still “have a way to go”.
The biggest challenge lies outside the Bank, in the supervision of the church’s sizeable investments in property and other assets, and management of the so-called Peter’s Pence — income from congregations across the world.
The decentralised nature of the Vatican’s finances, with different sources of income falling under the control of different fiefdoms, has made it difficult to impose proper oversight. The result, as two books written by Italian Vatican experts have revealed, has been serious misuse of church funds.
Pope Francis has done much to restore the reputation of the Papacy, both among the Catholic faithful and beyond. By backing tolerance over rigid doctrinal conservatism he has restored a reputation for compassion. But the Catholic Church has a long way to go to recover confidence and respect.
Honest, transparent finances are an essential precondition for a change of culture. On this occasion, the Pope should be less than generous towards those standing in the way.
Israel’s military has been preparing for major tunnel strikes from the Gaza Strip.
Officials said the military and intelligence community were coordinating to help foil efforts by Hamas and other Palestinian forces to infiltrate deep into Israel. They said Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees were cooperating to dig tunnels that could reach up to 10 kilometers into Israel.
“The goal is to reach an urban area and kill or abduct hundreds of people,” an official said.
Officials said the military held two major exercises over the last six months to enhance skills to detect and respond to Gaza tunnel attacks. They said Hamas and its allies were no longer interested in merely infiltrating Israeli communities along the Gaza frontier.
“Most of these [border] communities are full of soldiers who are ready for such an attack,” the official said. “The terrorists want the element of surprise.”
One Hamas target was believed to be the southern Israeli city of Sderot, located seven kilometers from the Gaza Strip. For a decade, Sderot, with a population of 25,000, marked the major target of Hamas missile and rocket strikes.
“Now we have a civilian armed emergency squad capable of an initial response until military forces arrive at the scene,” a senior military officer said.
The pope in Mexico, the Russian patriarch in Cuba. Both on visits to these countries in mid-February. Ready to surprise the world, with a meeting
“Everyone knows that he is the pope of surprises. If he wants to make a change to his schedule, he will certainly do so.”
So said Captain Domenico Giani, inspector general of the Vatican gendarmerie, at the end of a meticulous security inspection in Mexico, where Francis will visit from February 12 to 18.
And the “surprises” could include an exceptional one: a meeting between Pope Francis and Kirill, the Orthodox patriarch of Moscow and of all Rus’. The first meeting in history between the heads of the Churches of Rome and of the “Third Rome,” unexpectedly beneath tropical skies.
In fact, just when the pope is in Mexico, Kirill will be in Cuba, where he was invited personally by Raúl Castro in May of last year, during the Cuban president’s visit to Moscow.
On that occasion, Raúl Castro made a stop in Rome on his way back from Moscow and met with Francis. To speak with him about the pope’s visit to Cuba, scheduled for September of that year. But it is likely that he also wanted to talk with him about his conversations with Patriarch Kirill and with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
A meeting between the pope and the patriarch of Moscow – who governs two thirds of the 200 million Orthodox in the world – has been talked about for years, or rather for decades. Each time imagining it on neutral ground, like Vienna or Budapest. But never before today has the meeting been seen as feasible in the near future, not even after the exit from the stage of a pontiff “impossible” for the Russians like the Polish John Paul II.
After the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope, however, the hypothesis soon became less unrealistic. On November 30 of 2014, on the flight back from Rome after his trip to Turkey, Francis gave this response to a Russian journalist who had asked him precisely about his contacts with the patriarchate of Moscow:
“I told Patriarch Kirill, and he agreed, there is a willingness to meet. I told him: ‘I’ll go wherever you want, you call me and I’ll come;’ and he too wants this.”
Francis did not conceal – in his further remarks to the Russian journalist – the obstacles that he saw in the way of the meeting. Which were principally two.
On the first, uniatism – which is the derogatory term that the Orthodox use to designate the union of the Eastern-rite Catholic communities with Rome – Bergoglio made it understood that he wants to turn the page:
“The Eastern Catholic Churches have a right to exist, but uniatism is a dated word. We cannot speak in these terms today. We need to find another way.”
Regarding the second obstacle, the war in Ukraine – the birthplace of Russian Orthodoxy but also the home of the most populous Byzantine-rite Catholic Church – the pope said instead that the one with the greatest difficulty was the patriarch of Moscow:
“There is the problem of war in these times. The poor man has so many issues there that the meeting with the Pope has been put on the back burner. Both of us want to meet and move forward.”
And in fact, on the question of Ukraine, Francis has always moved with actions and words carefully crafted so as not to gall the Moscow patriarchate and Putin’s policies in the region, even at the cost of sowing the strongest disappointment among the bishops, clergy, and faithful of the Catholic Church of that nation:
One effect has been that on several occasions Kirill has not failed to express public appreciation for the role of Pope Francis in the Ukrainian crisis:
So the Vatican and the patriarchate of Moscow began to study in secret the feasibility of a meeting between the two.
The secrecy was dictated by the intention of avoiding any reaction from forces in either camp that would be opposed to the meeting, with the risk of ruining it.
In the Catholic camp it is above all the Ukrainian Church that feels itself wounded by such a sensational cozying up of the pope to the patriarchate of Moscow, seen as inseparable from the great enemy and “invader,” Putin’s Russia.
But within the patriarchate as well there is very extensive opposition to “openness” to the Catholic Church, and therefore to the execrated West, symbolized by the embrace between the pope and the patriarch.
One sign of this is the caution of the deputy in the patriarchate, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, concerning rumors of a meeting between Francis and Kirill:
Another sign is the recent turbulence at the upper echelon of the patriarchate, with the expulsion of the head of religious information, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, an ultra-nationalist and theorist of Russia’s “holy war” in Syria:
In freeing himself of him, Kirill wanted to weaken the component of the Russian Church most closely connected to the autocratic Putin regime and to its military operations in Ukraine and the Middle East.
In fact, after working in close agreement with Putin for the reconstruction of Orthodoxy in Russia, Patriarch Kirill now wants to act with greater autonomy and acquire the credibility and charismatic profile of a world spiritual leader, of a Russian “Pope Francis,” partly in competition with the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, who is at home in the Vatican but in Russia is seen by many as a vassal of Western “uniform thinking.”
Both Francis and Kirill, therefore, have a strong interest in the realization of their meeting. And in its happening with that “surprise” effect which would present the world – and their respective opponents – with the fait accompli.
That the meeting between the two is near, very near in fact, has been hinted at by Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the pontifical council for Christian unity.
In a January 23 interview with the journalist and fellow Swiss countryman Giuseppe Rusconi, Koch said:
“It is clear that Pope Francis ardently desires such a meeting. Kirill too is in agreement. Now the stoplight is not red anymore, but yellow.”
And he recalled as close to becoming reality the words that Francis said on the flight from Turkey to Rome:
“I told Kirill: ‘I’ll go wherever you want, you call me and I’ll come’.”
In less than a month the two really will call each other. Francis from Mexico. Kirill from Cuba. For the historic meeting so longed for by both.
Catholic World News 27-Jan-16
The Patriarchate of Moscow has dismissed rumors that a summit meeting between Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill is being planned for next month.
Speculation about a meeting was nourished by the fact that both the Pontiff and the Patriarch will be in the Western hemisphere in February, when Pope Francis visits Mexico and Patriarch Kirill travels to Cuba. But the Moscow patriarchate, in a January 26 statement, said that trips were coincidental.
“The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church and the head of the Roman Catholic Church will be visiting completely different countries, albeit on the same continent,” the statement read.
Although there have been discussions of a possible summit, the patriarchate said, “no specific time and place of such a meeting have yet been stipulated.”
Media Line MidEast Daily News 26-Jan-16
Jokes about America’s vast debt to China is a fixture in late night comedy shows, but how much money does the United States own another behemoth, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is a closely held secret of the US Treasury market dating back to the era, long ago, of oil shortages and a mighty Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) manipulating the value of petrodollars. But now, with Saudi Arabia under pressure from plummeting oil prices and expensive conflicts in the Middle East, the question, which has persisted in a sort of limbo since the 1970s and has been kept tightly under wraps by the US Treasury Department, is once again on the table. Faced with its biggest budget shortfall in 25 years, Saudi Arabia burned through some $100 billion of foreign exchange reserves just in the past year. Just how bad is it? For the first time in its history, Saudi Arabia has put one of its crown jewels, the state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco, on the block. The indications of strain are now prompting concern over Saudi Arabia’s outsize part of the world’s largest and most important bond market. International markets are concerned that Saudi Arabia may have started selling off Treasury holdings, which are believed to be among the largest in the world, to raise needed cash. Another possibility: the Saudis may be buying, looking for safe harbor in the latest financial squall. Whichever the case, the United States Treasury does not disclose Saudi Arabia’s holdings as a matter of policy and courtesy towards a longtime ally in the unstable Middle East, grouping it with 14 other mostly OPEC nations including Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Nigeria. In the case of almost every other nation, over one hundred countries, ranging from China (yes, China) to the Vatican, the US Treasury provides a detailed breakdown of how much US debt is held.
MEG-MSA:160126:(28-JAN-16):Egyptian troops in Saudi Arabia for joint military exercise: Egyptian Armed Forces
Several Egyptian military units headed to Saudi Arabia on Monday to take part in “Thunder of the North”, a joint military exercise involving “a number of Arab and Muslim states”, according to Egypt’s armed forces.
The military units participating in the exercise include ground and air forces and special forces, in addition to air defense equipment.
According to an Egyptian Armed Forces statement, the military training exercise aims to raise the technical and combat standards of the units taking part in it.
The Egyptian military’s statement did not specify the number of countries participating in the exercise.
According to the Saudi-owned London newspaper Al Hayat, Jordanian troops, as well as forces from Gulf Cooperation Council member states, will also take part in “Thunder of the North”.
On December 15, Saudi Arabia announced it launched a Saudi-led “Islamic alliance” to fight terrorism, made up of 34 countries including Egypt. One day later, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud ordered the increase of Saudi investments in Egypt to above 30 billion Saudi riyals ($8 billion) and pledged to contribute to providing Egypt with petroleum needs for the next five years.
Egypt has enjoyed the support of Saudi Arabia, as well as of Gulf neighbors Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, since the military ouster of then-President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 following mass protests against his rule.
During the Egypt Development Conference held in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in March 2015, Saudi Arabia pledged $4 billion in investments in and assistance for Egypt, including $1 billion which will be deposited in the Egyptian central bank, while the rest will be in the form of investments.
Egyptian forces have previously conducted joint military training exercises with Saudi forces, most notably the Morgan 14 naval exercise and the Tabuk 3 ground forces exercises.
New York Times 26-Jan-16
Nearly 500 years ago, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a German church, beginning the Protestant Reformation that led millions to break with the Roman Catholic Church and ushered in more than a century of conflict and war.
On Monday, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis will participate in a joint Lutheran-Catholic worship service in Sweden this October, kicking off a series of events planned for 2017 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
The effort to mend relations with Protestants has been on the agenda of many popes before Francis, but it is a delicate endeavor. The worship service in Sweden was billed by its sponsors, the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation, as a “commemoration,” not as a “celebration,” in order to avoid any inappropriate note of triumphalism. Some Catholics have criticized the notion of a pope celebrating the anniversary of a schism.
Francis addressed the troubled history between the Christian churches as he led an ecumenical vespers service at a basilica in Rome on Monday to mark the closing day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. He appealed for forgiveness for “the sin of our divisions, an open wound in the Body of Christ.”
He added that “when together the Christians of different churches listen to the word of God and try to put it in practice, they achieve important steps toward unity.”
The year 2017 is also the 50th anniversary of the start of an international dialogue between Catholic and Lutheran theologians. The dialogue produced a significant document in 1999, the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” which established a common understanding on core questions about sin and salvation. In 2013, the two bodies published a joint study document, “From Conflict to Communion.”
Dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics has been “on the front burner” of both churches for years, and has resulted in more significant progress than many other ecumenical initiatives, said Michael Root, an expert on and participant in Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, and a professor of systematic theology at Catholic University of America, in Washington.
He said it was notable that the joint worship service would be in Sweden.
“There’s been a great recognition that particularly the Scandinavian Lutherans have a greater affinity for the Catholic world than the Germans or Americans,” Professor Root said. “They kept a more traditional church structure and style, and oddly enough, because there are virtually no Catholics in Sweden, it makes relations easier. There’s no history of competition and no history of warfare.”
Despite historic strides, Catholics and Lutherans are still officially barred from receiving communion in each other’s churches. Francis stirred up a controversy last year when he visited a Lutheran church in Rome and, during a question-and-answer session, suggested to a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic man that perhaps, if her conscience permitted, she could receive communion in her husband’s church.
“I wouldn’t ever dare to allow this, because it’s not my competence,” Francis told the woman, according to news reports, then added: “One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Talk to the Lord and then go forward. I don’t dare to say anything more.”
The joint service, to be held at the cathedral in Lund on Oct. 31, is sponsored by the Lutheran World Federation, the global umbrella for 72 million Lutherans in 98 countries, and the Roman Catholic Church. The service will be led by Pope Francis and both the president and the general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation.
The Rev. Martin Junge, the general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, said in a statement, “By working towards reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics, we are working towards justice, peace and reconciliation in a world torn apart by conflict and violence.”
The two churches released a liturgical guide last month, “Common Prayer,” to be used in commemorations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. A website for Catholic traditionalists, Rorate Caeli, pronounced some of the prayers “scandalous,” claiming they extolled Martin Luther.
Pope Francis met with the Iranian president Tuesday, joining in a cordial discussion which touched on the recent nuclear accord and Iran’s role in the region.
President Hassan Rouhani met first with Francis, privately for 40 minutes, and later with other officials.
The Vatican in a statement said the conversation delved into the nuclear accord recently taking effect and “the important role that Iran was called to play” to combat terrorism along with other countries in the region.
Iran was also urged to help fight arms trafficking, the Vatican said.
The Vatican described the talks as “cordial” and said “common spiritual values were highlighted,” as well as good Iranian-Vatican relations.
After the meeting, Iran’s president asked Pope Francis to pray for him. The Vatican meeting was a key part of an Iranian effort to take a more prominent place on the world stage after a nuclear deal with Western powers.
Rouhani’s visit to the Holy See saw the first meeting between a pope and an Iranian president since 1999. Iran, which agreed to limit its nuclear activities in exchange for an end to economic sanctions, is eager to carve out a bigger role in mediating Middle East conflicts. Francis’ papacy has emphasized mediation and conflict resolution, including his role in helping Cuba and the United States to normalize their relations after.
The Iranian leader is on a four-day European swing to boost Iran’s image abroad as well as to rehabilitate economic ties with a continent that had been a big trade partner before sanctions.
“I ask you to pray for me,” Rouhani told Francis after their 40-minute meeting. He called the visit by the leader of a Muslim country to the head of the Roman Catholic church “a real pleasure.”
Francis thanked Rouhani for the visit and added: “I hope for peace.” He gave the Iranian a medal depicting St. Martin helping a poor man, an act Francis called “a sign of unsolicited brotherhood.”
Rouhani brought a gift of a hand-made rug. He told the pope the red-toned carpet was made in the Iranian holy city of Qhom.
Rouhani arrived for the late-morning, closed-door meeting in a motorcade of some two dozen limousines. Security, already tight around the Vatican following the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, was even more rigid than usual. Police kept tourists and Romans from walking too close to the colonnade ringing the square before and during the visit.
Tehran is keen on re-establishing energy and other economic ties with Europe, long a dependable trading partner. Iran also wants to end decades of diplomatic distance with the West in the wake of the landmark deal with six nations, including the United States, to curb Tehran’s nuclear activities and end economic sanctions.
Before going to the Vatican, Rouhani told a forum of business leaders in Rome that “Iran is the safest and most stable country of the entire region.”
Italy also sees Iran as a potential peacemaker in Syria’s civil war, as the Italian government fears the warfare will further destabilize Libya, just across the Mediterranean from southern Italy, fuel terrorism and jeopardize energy security.
“Italy has always backed the role of Iran as a regional player in resolving tensions in the area, starting with the Syrian crisis,” Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said after meeting his Iranian counterpart, according to his office.
Rouhani has described the political talks leading to the nuclear deal as a potential blueprint for pursuing peace in the Middle East.
Rouhani’s visit to Italy and France is part of efforts by Iran to reach out to its old partners following the implementation of the nuclear deal, and Rouhani is eager for foreign investment after the lifting of international sanctions. The trip was originally planned for November but postponed because of the attacks in Paris
Catholic Herald online 28-Jan-16
Iranian leaders may fawn over Pope Francis in public, but privately they see the Holy See as a useful tool for achieving their global ambitions
On Tuesday morning, a motorcade of limousines crossed St Peter’s Square. Sitting inside one of them was President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, on his way to a strictly private meeting with Pope Francis. We don’t know precisely what was said, but the Vatican announced that the two men had discussed “common spiritual values”, the recent nuclear deal and “the spread of terrorism”.
It was the first time a pope had sat down with an Iranian head of government since 1999. That is hardly surprising, given some of the activities of the Islamic Republic in the intervening years.
But did you know that Iran has more diplomats accredited to the Holy See than any other nation except the Dominican Republic? That certainly is surprising, and it raises an obvious question: why?
The Vatican’s relationship with Tehran has been healthy for years and is getting steadily warmer. The subject doesn’t get much media attention – and, even if it did, the information might not be reliable. These are two notoriously opaque centres of power.
The Holy See and Iran have had diplomatic relations since 1954. Iranian officials like to point out that this gives it an edge of 30 years over the United States, which did not establish full diplomatic relations with the Vatican until 1984, after a break of more than 100 years.
Iran is an Islamic theocracy that nurtures nuclear ambitions and sponsors terrorism. The Holy See does neither (except perhaps in the imaginations of anti-Catholic conspiracy theorists). Shouldn’t it treat Iran as a menace rather than as some sort of friend?
It’s sometimes suggested that Iran’s Shia Islam, with its hierarchical clergy, annual rituals and mystical veneration of shrines, is a sort of Muslim Catholicism. Sunni Islam, in contrast, is compared to Bible-reading fundamentalist Protestantism. Could there be some sort of doctrinal or cultural “fit” between Roman and Iranian spirituality?
If so, and it’s a big “if”, we can be pretty sure that theology plays little or no role in the current negotiations.
Two issues above all are driving this cooperation: the Syrian civil war and nuclear weapons. Rome and Tehran want to talk to each other about them, even though their points of view on both subjects couldn’t be more different.
The Church’s interest in the Syrian conflict is obvious: events in Syria have brought misery to Eastern-Rite Catholics and other Christians in the Middle East, some of whose communities are being driven to extinction.
For the mullahs, in contrast, the war threatens their regional client, Bashar al-Assad. They reckon the Vatican’s long track record of opposing US-led military interventions in the Middle East could prove useful.
As for nuclear weapons, the Vatican hates them while for Iran they could be the means of securing their hegemony in the region.
Of the two, Syria is the more pressing issue for the Church. The beheadings of Christians by ISIS, to say nothing of the religious cleansing of their ancient towns, are part of what Francis has called “a piecemeal third word war”: Catholics and Orthodox are the victims of nothing less than genocide, he insists.
The Holy See believes that Iran is one of the keys to solving the Syrian conflict. Iran is “an integral part of the dialogue and negotiation that can lead to peace” in Syria, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations, said last summer.
The desire to end the Syrian mess also explains why the Vatican’s relations with Russia have grown stronger. And this raises an intriguing question.
Iran and Russia are both anti-American, as is most of the Islamic world. Could the Holy See be attempting to create a balance of power between the West, led by the United States, and the Islamic world in which – despite the antagonism between Shia and Sunni – Iran’s influence is increasing?
Such a balance of power has one obvious advantage for the Church: if it worked, Christians in Islamic countries might enjoy greater protection from Muslim aggressors. The Vatican would be seen as a restraining hand on the United States. We know from Pope Francis’s speeches that he is extremely forthright (albeit sometimes implicitly) in his criticism of America. If his successor comes from the developing world, that sharp critique would continue – and it would play well in Islamic countries where Christians are most threatened.
Iran also has reasons for favouring the emergence of the Vatican as a power broker, though they are far more Machiavellian than the Church’s.
Tiny though it is, the Holy See is an important sovereign entity – one with immense influence and moral force within the West. While not afraid to pour scorn on American-style capitalism, the Pope can influence US public opinion: witness the crowds of non-Catholics who gathered to applaud his stance on climate change. The influence works both ways, however. Without the 70 million American Catholics, the Vatican would struggle to keep afloat financially.
Iran seems to have concluded that courting the Holy See allows it to tap into the complex and important relations between the Catholic Church and America. Moreover, this week’s Francis-Rouhani dialogue serves to soften the image of Iran in countries all over the world with significant numbers of Catholics.
Evidence that Tehran is determined to win the goodwill of the Pope is not hard to come by. Mohammed Taher Rabbani, the Iranian ambassador to the Holy See, is unstinting in his praise of Francis, “a virtuous figure … brimming with morality and modesty”.
He has praised the Pontiff’s views on economics, the wellbeing of the poor, war and international conflict.
Rabbani has even suggested that Iran resists oppressors and the powerful “just like Jesus Christ”. This comment will have disgusted Christian victims of Iranian-sponsored acts of terror. But might it have gone down well with Vatican diplomats and the Pope himself?
Until very recently, any détente between the Holy See and the mullahs would have been severely limited by the issue of nuclear weapons.
The Church has always opposed nuclear weapons, which make the mass killing of non-combatants, expressly forbidden under just-war doctrine, a virtual certainty if two nuclear powers attack one another. (The Vatican tolerated deterrence during the Cold War as a temporary transition before full disarmament.)
Iran, by contrast, has been struggling for decades to acquire its own nuclear warheads. Last year, however, it changed tactics. It agreed a deal with the Obama administration whereby it would roll back its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions.
The Holy See was delighted. When the deal was announced, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s “foreign minister”, described it as a step along the path to “a world free of nuclear weapons”. We also know that American Catholic groups lobbied hard for President Obama’s initiative – with the backing of the Vatican.
Seen in this light, the Holy See is already beginning to play the role of honest broker between Islam and the West: the new balance of power mentioned above begins to look achievable.
But there is another point of view, and it’s one that Catholics should take seriously, even at the risk of appearing to reject the Holy Father’s optimism about the path to peace.
Francis is idealistic, but how seriously do the mullahs take anyone’s ideals except their own? The history of the Islamic Republic suggests that it will say anything to move towards, or conceal, its determination to become a nuclear power.
Critics say that last year’s deal merely gave Tehran breathing space while it planned new means of obtaining nuclear weapons. Using nuclear facilities and infrastructure that the agreement allows them to keep, Iran continues to enrich uranium – and now does so with extra billions in sanctions relief. Moreover, there are already signs that the regime is cheating on the terms of the agreement.
Certainly, Iran enjoys better public relations than it did a few years ago. Unlike Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his crude and theatrical predecessor, President Rouhani cultivates a friendly, polished image. He speaks calmly and evenly. Like Pope Francis, he has the touch of the grandfather about him.
But there the similarities end. Rouhani has always been a loyal servant of his Shia Islamist overseers.
In Iran, real power lies with the ayatollahs. It is thanks to them that the country bans conversion to Christianity, and it’s easy to find accounts of Tehran’s persecution of Christian believers, whom the secret police routinely arrest on bogus national security charges.
There are not many Catholics in Iran, and the regime wants to keep it that way. If the Vatican believes that the mullahs are remotely interested in protecting the Christian communities of the Middle East, then it is being naïve rather than idealistic.
Before entering the Vatican on Tuesday, Rouhani told reporters that Iran was “the safest and most stable country of the entire region”.
In some respects he was right. Iran is relatively safe for its population, so long as they behave themselves. It is stable because it is a tyranny, and an explicitly anti-Christian one at that. We must just hope that when the Holy Father met the Iranian president, he stirred his tea with a very long spoon.
The Moscow Times 26-Jan-16
As Russia’s inflation reached double-digits last year, Russians saw their real wages decline by 9.5 percent compared to 2014, data published by the Rosstat state statistics service showed Monday.
In December 2015, real wages of Russians dropped 10 percent when compared to the same month in 2014, according to Rosstat data. The average monthly salary in Russia last year was 30,311 rubles ($381).
Average real incomes — apart from wages that include private incomes and state payouts — fell 4 percent last year when compared to 2014, Rosstat said.
The sharp decline in earnings have forced a lot of Russians to slash their daily spending.
According to the findings of the poll conducted in the end of December 2015 by state-run pollster VTsIOM, 63 percent of Russians restrained from purchasing certain goods in the previous six months or bought them less often.
Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they switched to cheaper goods and 26 percent of Russians started to spend their personal savings on daily needs, the Interfax news agency reported, citing the results of the poll.
IS-EGR:160127:(28-JAN-16):Statement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Government-to-Government Consultation Meeting with Greece
Israeli Prime Minister’s Media Adviser 27-Jan-16
Following is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement today (Wednesday, 27 January 2016), at the government-to-government consultation meeting with Greece:
“Prime Minister Tsipras, Alexis, it’s a pleasure for me to welcome you and your delegation. The Middle East’s only democracy is proud to welcome the prime minister of the world’s first democracy. We are conducting the second G2G, the second government-to-government meeting.
We are two ancient peoples. You were standing outside the window, and I showed him the, showed Prime Minister Tsipras the Old City of Jerusalem, and I said, ‘This is our Acropolis’. So, the Acropolis and the City of David are the two foundations of much of our modern civilization, and while both Greeks and Jews can justifiably take pride in our rich, ancient heritage, we share a common desire to embrace the future. We want to seize the scientific and technological promise of the 21st century.
And we also face shared challenges. We are two Eastern Mediterranean democracies that want to bring progress, security and peace to our peoples. But we live in a region that is increasingly volatile and unstable, and plagued by the forces of Islamist extremism. I believe that we are much stronger when we meet these challenges together.
Over the last few years, Greece and Israel have greatly upgraded the scope and the diversity of our cooperation, and in this G2G meeting we will take further steps to strengthen this partnership: in diplomacy, in defense, in cyber security, counter-terrorism, in economics, trade, energy and innovation. Energy also includes not merely discussing the possibilities of using our off-shore gas, but also connecting Israel, Cyprus and Greece with an electricity cable which will, for the first time, enable Israel to diversify its electricity grid and even export gas through electrical energy. We are going to discuss water, environment, agriculture, public safety and emergency responses, transportation, maritime affairs, tourism – many other areas.
I think our cooperation makes both our countries more secure and more prosperous, and it’s something that has been long-overdue, but is happening and at a very rapid pace.
Mr. Prime Minister, your visit to Israel occurs on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Civilized peoples everywhere unite to remember history’s greatest crime, the attempt to totally annihilate the Jewish people in an industrial program of genocide.
I believe it’s not enough to merely commemorate the mass murder of Jews in the last century. I think we have to be vigilant and strong in the face of the calls for new genocide, for the new upheavals of murderous creeds that seek to annihilate modern peoples, the remnants of ancient civilizations, the very way of life that developed through our common culture. And I believe that we have the capacity to learn from history and prevent its repetition.
We know that many Greeks risked their lives to save Jews during the dark years of the Holocaust. We have, Alexis, a special program in our Holocaust memorial here to commemorate those non-Jews who risked their lives, risked their families – the greatest form of courage – risked their lives, but also the lives of their families to save Jews in our darkest hour. There are 321 Greeks who have been recognized by our commemoration institution, Yad Vashem, as Righteous Among the Nations. Three hundred and twenty one. That’s a substantial number.
I, during my visit to Greece, saw the heroism of Greeks, of mayors, of clerics, who stood up to the calls to bring in the Jews for annihilation, and I remember one particular case in which a mayor and a cleric came to the Nazi official who ordered them to deliver Jews, and they said, they came just the two of them, and said, ‘Here are your Jews. We are the Jews’. We never forget that. It’s a great, great testament of human bravery.
Your government stands resolutely against neo-Nazism,anti-Semitism and racism, and it’s something we applaud. You have shown that Greece, the cradle of democracy,remains a bastion of tolerance and freedom, and that’s no easy task in these days. I know how important that is for all of us as members of the civilized community. I also want to express my appreciation for Greece’s principled positions towards Israel in international forums.
Greece is a true friend. I believe that we are developing a friendship that can turn into a genuine alliance for peace, for progress and for security. And I’m sure that this G2G meeting which we’ll have following this brief press conference will further enhance that friendship and cooperation. So, once again, welcome to Jerusalem, welcome my friend.”
IS-ECY-EGR:160128:(28-JAN-16):Netanyahu in Cyprus to Strengthen Ties to Greece following Tsipras Visit to Israel
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamín Netanyahu is in Cyprus today to meet with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades. It the third Netanyahu-Tsipras meeting in two months (the last was yesterday, in Jerusalem) and is meant to highlight the improving ties between the two small Mediterranean nations that are only a hop, skip and a jump away, as their back to back meetings indicate. “Our cooperation with Greece and Cyprus stands on its own,” Netanyahu said, in a formal statement, and addressing himself to the neighborhood behemoth and Green rival, Turkey. “While we believe that it should have happened some time ago, we are pleased by the current progress. It does not depend on our efforts to normalize our relations with Turkey. We are trying to do this. I do not know if we will succeed but I think that we will continue our efforts to do so. We must ensure that Israel’s interests are upheld. Turkey and Israel have had excellent relations in previous years. We did not want to see them deteriorate and we did not cause this deterioration in relations. We will welcome any change in policy.” “We are two ancient peoples. You were standing outside the window, and I showed him the, showed Prime Minister Tsipras the Old City of Jerusalem, and I said, ‘This is our Acropolis’. So, the Acropolis and the City of David are the two foundations of much of our modern civilization, and while both Greeks and Jews can justifiably take pride in our rich, ancient heritage, we share a common desire to embrace the future. We want to seize the scientific and technological promise of the 21st century.” Not everyone is thrilled by the progress. Or by what Netanyahu cagilly referred to the “change in policy.” Senior Palestinian statesman Nabil Sha’ath published an OpEd entitled “Will Greece Betray the Palestinians?” in the Israeli daily Haaretz, in which he asked “For 70 years, Greece and Palestine have been close friends and allies. Will short-term economic interests between Greece and Israel lead Greece’s leaders to abandon us?”
Greece, Israel and Cyprus will explore the possibility of building a natural gas pipeline to Europe, tapping huge gas reserves discovered in the eastern Mediterranean in recent years, leaders of the three countries said on Jan. 28.
Israel has reported some of the largest gas finds in the past decade and EU member Cyprus confirmed a discovery in 2011, making both potential exporters.
Groups of specialists will be appointed to assess the pipeline idea, and plans are proceeding to create a subsea electricity cable to Europe, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters in Nicosia.
“These are two practical things we are moving on,” Netanyahu said, flanked by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades.
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz has said experts estimate there are 10,000 to 15,000 billion cubic metres of gas in the east Mediterranean basin, which includes Israel, Egypt and Cyprus—enough to supply domestic needs as well as Europe.
The 1,500 km EuroAsia Interconnector would send up to 2,000 megawatts of power generated from the gas fields to Europe via Israel, Cyprus and Greece.
Project managers say a 329 km first phase will link Cyprus and Israel.
The European Union includes the plans among its “projects of common interest,” which are designed to bolster energy security and improve European market integration.
However, not all experts are convinced a subsea electricity cable to Europe is a genuine possibility.
“It’s not feasible for commercial and political reasons,” said Michael Leigh, a former director-general in the European Commission and now a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, specializing in East Mediterranean gas. “It’s pie in the sky.”
On Jan. 24, an Israeli exploration group announced it had discovered signs of another large natural gas field off Israel’s coast, building on the Tamar and Leviathan discoveries in 2009 and 2010.
A group led by Isramco Negev and Modiin Energy said there could be an estimated 8.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas at the Daniel East and West fields.
While some of the offshore gas will be for domestic use, Israel’s difficulty is to find a way to export what it doesn’t need, either via pipelines or LNG facilities, which could require deals with Egypt, Turkey and Cyprus.
THE-IS-RU:160127:(28-JAN-16):Israel: war with Hezbollah less likely after Russia’s Syria intervention
Rudaw 27-Jan-16 [Turkish private newspaper Don.]
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) believe that the likelihood of another war with the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon or Syria in the near future is lessened due to the presence of the Russians in Syria.
According to The Jerusalem Post this conclusion was based on assessments carried out by Israel’s military to evaluate the country’s volatile strategic environment. The assessments reason that Russia is likely to rein in any Hezbollah attempt to spark a major war in response to, as they have often threatened, Israeli attacks on them in Syria.
Hezbollah did attempt an ambush against an Israeli army patrol on the Israel-Lebanon frontier last month in response to the alleged Israeli air strike which killed Samir Kantar, a member of the group who spent years in Israeli jails for murdering an Israeli family. However that did not escalate into a war.
Both Israel and Russia have established a hotline to ensure that their air forces do not clash. Israel sometimes flies air strikes into Syria against advanced anti-air and ship missile systems it fears that militia forces may acquire.
Additionally, Hezbollah has diverted men and resources into Syria’s war and has lost an estimated 1,300 men in the process. It is receiving less money from Tehran, which has to give additionally billions to keep President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in place and also has more of an interest in diverting more funds for domestic spending and development, meaning it might not be able to fight another costly war with the Israelis.
Russia intervened in Syria four months ago to bolster the Assad regime. Hezbollah intervened in Syria in mid-2013 to do the same. The Russians have given close air support to Syrian offensives which have included Hezbollah.