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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Michael's Morning 7 - 2 June

Ahead of President Obama’s trip to the Middle East and his address to “the Islamic world,” advocates for religious freedom are urging him to speak out for embattled Christians and others persecuted for their faith – especially in the two Arab countries the president is scheduled to visit. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an expert panel set up under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, considers Saudi Arabia one of the world’s most egregious violators – a country where freedom of religion does not exist, even on paper. Rights groups and the U.S. government say authorities deny religious freedom to non-Muslims as well as to Muslims who do not adhere to the state’s Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam. Egypt’s Copts, an Orthodox Christian minority dating back to the early church – and predating the Islamic conquests of the 7th century – face multiple forms of discrimination, both officially-instigated and at the hands of Islamists. Fourteen of the 24 countries the USCIRF considers as having the worst records on religious freedom are Islamic or mostly Islamic – Afghanistan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Instances of abuse: Saudi Arabia: Hadi Al-Mutaif, a member of the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam, was condemned to death for apostasy in 1994 for a remark he made as a teenager that was considered blasphemous. Egypt: Fr. Mattaos Wahba, a Coptic priest in Geza, was arrested last year, charged and found guilty of helping a young Muslim woman obtain an ID card falsely declaring her religion as Christianity. In October he was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. Iran: Two Iranian Christians who converted from Islam, were arrested by Iranian security officers on March 5 after their apartment was searched and Bibles were found.

Eurozone unemployment rose in April to the highest level in almost 10 years. The rates were the lowest in Netherlands and Austria while Spain had the highest rate. The unemployment rate in the 16 countries of the currency  reached 9.2%, the highest level since September 1999. The data was issued today by Eurostat, the statistics office of the European Union. Eurostat estimates that20.825 million men and women in the EU27 , of which 14.579 million were in the Eurozone , were unemployed in April 2009. Compared with March, the number of persons unemployed increased by 556 000 in the EU27 and by 396 000 in the Eurozone . Compared with April 2008, unemployment went up by 4.653 million in the EU27 and by 3.100 million in the Eurozone.

The opening ceremony of the XIII Games of Small States of Europe (GSSE) was held at the GSP Stadium in Nicosia on Monday, bringing together the Olympic spirit and the culture of Cyprus. All heads of state of participating countries attended the opening ceremony, as well as many officials from the Olympic Movement, international and European federations, and guests. The sun, sea and nature of Cyprus were the focus point of the event, laced with music and dance inspired from the island's artistic heritage. The ceremony included performances by 1,300 children, 300 folk dancers, a group of 20 female dancers, a choir of 300 youths, and the team Echodrasis with the drum performance that was presented at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. 

Russia and the United States on Tuesday reconvened negotiations on renewing a key nuclear arms reduction treaty after a first day of talks that was marked by a "positive" climate. "The talks are under way," a US spokesperson told AFP, without confirming the exact location of the closed door meeting in the western Swiss city of Geneva. The negotiations on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) mark a second round of talks on the issue, coming just two weeks after meetings in Moscow. The talks were scheduled for three days, but a Russian diplomat had said that they could end Tuesday if the negotiators from Washington and Moscow manage to complete their agenda early. A member of the Russian delegation told AFP after the first day of the meeting on Monday that the climate was "positive" and "business-like". The agreement this year to seek its renewal marked the first tangible step in the thaw in US-Russian relations. However, on top of the complex technical issues involved in the landmark disarmament treaty, the negotiations are dogged by bargaining over US plans for an anti-missile defence shield partly stationed in Europe, a project which has angered Russia.

The 27 countries in the European Union elect the 736 members of the European Parliament this week. Here are some facts about the election and the assembly. Q. Who votes and when? A. More than 375 million people are eligible to vote in the 27 European Union member states. Voting takes place over four days, starting in Britain and the Netherlands on June 4. Ireland votes on June 5, and Latvia, Cyprus, Malta and Slovakia vote on June 6. Two countries vote over two days -- the Czech Republic on June 5-6 and Italy on June 6-7.  Voting takes place on June 7 in the rest of the member states -- Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. Voting is by secret ballot. Results cannot be released by any country until voting ends in all member states. Since the last election in 2004, Romania and Bulgaria have joined the EU. Q. Who will be elected? Q. What is the European Parliament? Q. What does the European Parliament do? Q. How will the parliament be affected by the Lisbon treaty?

This week's election to the European parliament includes some unusual and controversial candidates. Following are brief profiles of some of them. MITRO REPO, an Orthodox priest in Finland, was stripped of his priesthood on May 26 for the period of the election campaign and for the duration of his tenure in parliament if elected. The Bishops' Conclave of the Orthodox Church of Finland cited in its decision a 5th-century canon against taking part in any historical or political movement. "The Church sees itself as timeless and universal, and it neither idealizes any historical moment nor political movement." BARBARA MATERA, a former showgirl and actress, represents the People of Freedom Party of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose estranged wife called the attractive blondes and TV starlets in the election "entertainment for the emperor." EMANUELE FILIBERTO di SAVOIA, grandson of the last king of Italy and winner of TV show "Dancing with the Stars," is running in the region where the Savoy family dynasty -- whose male heirs were exiled in 1948 because of its relations with the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini -- has its origins. COSTAS KYRIAKOU, a 51-year-old writer and farmer who is also known as Utopos, is running in Cyprus as an independent candidate. He vows to re-create Cyprus's urban society, turning the island into perfect city states, or Utopias. HANS-PETER MARTIN, an ex-journalist who has campaigned against sleaze and bureaucracy, is expected to win 14 percent of the vote in Austria. ALEXANDER TOMOV, a former vice-president of Bulgaria, ex-president of CSKA Sofia soccer club and former director of the insolvent Kremikovtzi steel mill, is awaiting trial on charges of embezzling 36 million levs ($26 million). He could gain immunity if elected to the European Parliament. IVAILO DRAZHEV, the former head of the Chernomorets soccer club in Bulgaria, is also awaiting trial. RACHIDA DATI, France's justice minister, is being forced to run as part of President Nicolas Sarzoky's plan to remove gaffe-prone politicians from this cabinet. Known to enjoy the Paris high life, critics have doubted her commitment to Europe. DIEUDONNE M'BALA M'BALA, a French stand-up comic known for anti-Semitic remarks and his association with Holocaust deniers, has said Zionism is a grave danger to France. The government tried to ban him but failed to find sufficient legal grounds. "Zionism is a gangrene in France. It is a danger."

Several tombs in a Serbian Orthodox cemetery near the village of Vidanja, in the municipality of Klina in Metohija, have been damaged and desecrated in the past days, an official of Klina Municipality, Ranko Kostic, confirmed. He specified for Tanjug that some unknown perpetrators have desecrated several monuments, breaking tombs and destroying photographs of the deceased. Serb returnees are very worried about this and expect the police to bring the perpetrators to justice, Kostic said. According to him, at that Serbian cemetery, where locals of four Serb villages are buried, only a few tombs have remained intact. This cemetery is just one among numerous cemeteries in Kosmet that have been desecrated at several intervals since 1999, when international forces arrived in the Province.