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Powered by article titled “The pope has work to do selling Catholicism in Cuba’s busy marketplace” was written by Richard Gott, for on Monday 26th March 2012 16.17 UTC

Largely ignored and undervalued by the Roman Catholic church for more than five centuries, Cuba is now receiving its second papal visit in 14 years. Yet Pope Benedict XVI’s visit this week takes place in rather different circumstances than that of Pope John Paul II in 1998. In those days, the charismatic Polish pope was on a wave of popularity, and an uncritical media suggested that perhaps he might sound the trumpet and the walls of communism in Cuba would tumble as they had done earlier in eastern Europe.

Today the uncharismatic German pope, struggling to restore the stained reputation of a global institution suffering from internal malpractices and external apathy, is perceived to have lesser ambitions.

Cuba too, has changed. In 1998, Fidel Castro was still in complete control, and the country was only just beginning to emerge from a disastrous economic decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its financial friend and political patron.

Today it is Fidel’s brother, Raúl, as uncharismatic as his papal visitor, who runs the show, presiding over a country that has got over the worst of its economic difficulties and has been gingerly putting its toes into the uncertain waters of contemporary capitalism. Reform rather than upheaval is on the agenda.

Yet some things do not change. Cuba remains an island where the Roman Catholic church has a weak and insubstantial hold. Afro-Cuban religions – Santería, Palo Monte and Abakuá – come top of the popularity contest among the great mass of the people, followed almost certainly by a variety of Protestants sects imported from the United States over a century ago.

The Roman Catholic church, an almost exclusively urban phenomenon run by Spanish priests over most of its existence, comes a poor third, although the pope will certainly be welcomed by large crowds, always happy to witness a great state-spectacle. He will visit the ugly shrine at El Cobre, outside Santiago de Cuba, of the Virgin of Charity, a saintly national heroine variously endorsed over time by Indians, blacks and whites, and celebrated by both Catholics and Afro-Cuban enthusiasts.

The real challenge facing the Roman Catholic church, both in Cuba and in the rest of Latin America, is the tremendous growth in recent decades of evangelical Protestantism. In Cuba, the various denominations popular in the United States in the 19th century arrived with the US invasion of 1898, and spread rapidly all over in the country, bringing their unique blend of education and self-help. They divided up the country between them: Northern Baptists in Oriente, Southern Baptists in Pinar del Rio, Quakers and Methodists in eastern Cuba, Presbyterians and Congregationalists in the west, and Episcopalians in Matanzas.

They were a vital element in the North Americanisation of Cuba in the 20th century, against which Fidel Castro’s revolution of 1959 was in part a rebellion, but the Protestant missionaries, unlike the Catholics, had been quick to move into the rural areas, to enrol Cuban pastors and to teach black children. In the more promiscuous era of the 21st century, where Cuba officially tolerates a wide variety of religions, the Protestant sects have been quick to build on this legacy.

The Roman Catholic Church, many of whose Franco-era Spanish priests were expelled in the early 1960s, has had more difficulty in re-establishing itself in the hearts and minds of the people. The experience of centuries in negotiating relations between Church and state has somehow passed it by.

For most of the past half century, the Cuban Roman Catholic Church has been content just to survive, without playing any significant role. Only in the past few years has it begun to negotiate a possible position as an intermediary between the state and the embryonic emergence of a civil society.

By happenstance, the two most popular figures in Latin America will be present in Havana during the pope’s visit: Fidel Castro, now old and retired but still sprightly, and Hugo Chávez, the youthful but ailing president of Venezuela, in town for a radiotherapy session to treat his cancer.

Will Pope Benedict participate in a photo opportunity, in the hope that some of their charisma will rub off on him and on his church?

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Powered by article titled “New media gurus launch Upworthy – their ‘super-basic’ internet start-up” was written by Ed Pilkington, for on Monday 26th March 2012 15.48 UTC

As Upworthy’s launch editors openly admit the first offering from the new website is “super-basic”. It contains nothing more, so far, than a mission statement and a couple of links relating to the Trayvon Martin story.

But as any start-up entrepreneur will tell you, you’ve got to begin somewhere. Upworthy’s founders hope that Monday’s modest offering will snowball into a website that becomes “the place to find awesome, meaningful, visual things to share”.

So why should this attempt at aggregation prove any more successful than the myriad other start-ups that never quite make it? Well, the track record of its founders certainly make Upworthy worth watching, even if it doesn’t guarantee success.

The mission statement is written with trademark satirical touch by the Onion’s former editor Peter Koechley. The other two founders are Chris Hughes, who was in at the beginning of Facebook and used the ample proceeds recently to buy the New Republic magazine, and Eli Pariser, president of the left-wing internet campaign MoveOn.

The founders are remaining annoyingly coy about their aspirations for Upworthy, formerly known as Cloud Tiger Media, so we have to rely on the mission statement to divine their intentions. It sums up their hopes with the phrase “I can haz meaning” stamped over a cute picture of a cat.

They want to bring together content that is “awesome”, “meaningful” and “visual” and make it viral through sharing across social media – hence the name Upworthy. By so doing, they want to help fight the inanity of internet content, of which only 0.1% – by their estimation – actually matters.

It’s too early to tell whether their offering will rise to the surface amid the sea of competing porn, adverts on how to get a flat belly in 30 days and – yes – pictures of cute cats. But at least now we have a URL, and that’s a start. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Powered by article titled “‘Taliban sympathiser’ arrest prompts new questions about FBI tactics” was written by Paul Harris in New York, for on Monday 26th March 2012 16.01 UTC

The arrest of a Pittsburgh man described as a Taliban sympathiser has sparked allegations that the FBI deployed a notorious confidential informant used in previous controversial stings on suspected Muslim radicals.

Khalifah al-Akili, 34, was arrested in a police raid on his home on March 15. He was later charged with illegally possessing a gun after having previous felony convictions for drug dealing. However, at his court appearance an FBI agent testified that al-Akili had made radical Islamic statements and that police had uncovered unspecified jihadist literature at his home.

But, in a strange twist, al-Akili’s arrest came just days after he had sent out an email to friends and local Muslim civil rights groups complaining that he believed he was the target of an FBI “entrapment” sting. That refers to a controversial FBI tactic of using confidential informants – who often have criminal records or are paid large sums of money – to facilitate “fake” terrorist plots for suspects to invent or carry out.

In the email – which was also sent to the Guardian before al-Akili was arrested – he detailed meeting two men he believed were FBI informants because of the way they talked about radical Islam and appeared to want to get him to make jihadist statements. According to his account, one of them, who called himself Saeed Torres, asked him to buy a gun. Al-Aikili said he refused. The other, who was called Mohammed, offered to help him go to Pakistan for possible Islamic radical training. Al-Akili also refused.

In the email al-Akili recounted that he obtained a phone number from Mohammed and put it into Google. The search returned a reference to the case of the Newburgh Four, where an FBI confidential informant called Shahed Hussain helped secure the convictions of four men for attempting to blow up Jewish targets in the Bronx.

Hussain’s actions became notorious among civil rights groups due to the incentives he deployed on his targets, who were local black Muslims in the impoverished town of Newburgh. They included offering one suspect $250,000, a car and a free holiday. Al-Akili said he also found a picture of Shahed Hussain on the internet and realised it was the same man as “Mohammed”.

Al-Akili concluded his email by saying: “I would like to pursue a legal action against the FBI due to their continuous harassment and attempts to set me up.” The Guardian contacted al-Akili by email and on March 14 by phone and al-Akili agreed to talk more to the Guardian about his belief that he was being set up by Hussain. But he was arrested the next day and has been denied bail as a potential threat to the public, keeping him in jail.

Al-Akili’s lawyer Mike Healey believes that the FBI may have been monitoring al-Akili’s emails, and possibly his phone, and then rushed to arrest him once Hussain had been identified and al-Akili had effectively gone public with his fears.

Healey questioned why the FBI would use Hussain, who has also been widely criticised for his role in another “entrapment” case in Albany, New York, which resulted in the jailing of a local imam and a pizza shop owner. “What are they doing bringing him here? I am amazed they would use someone like that,” he said.

Yet, despite being painted in court as a dangerous radical Islamist, the only charges brought against al-Akili were for firing a rifle – which Healey said was owned by a friend – at a local shooting range almost two years ago in June 2010. Al-Akili faces the prospect of a hefty jail sentence if found guilty.

A spokesman for the FBI declined to comment on whether the agency had been using Shahed Hussain as a confidential informant in Pittsburgh. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Powered by article titled “Obama: US and China will co-ordinate response to North Korea rocket launch” was written by Justin McCurry in Osaka, for The Guardian on Monday 26th March 2012 13.39 UTC

The US and China have agreed to co-ordinate their response if North Korea goes through with a planned rocket launch next month, a day after Barack Obama urged Beijing to use its influence to rein in its unpredictable ally.

Speaking at the start of a two-day summit on nuclear security in the South Korean capital, Seoul, the US president said China and the US had a shared interest in preventing nuclear proliferation.

“We both have an interest in making sure that international norms surrounding non-proliferation, preventing destabilising nuclear weapons, is very important,” he said.

Obama and the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, did not elaborate on how they would respond to a North Korean missile launch, which is expected to take place between 12 and 16 April to coincide with the centenary of the birth of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung.

“The two leaders agreed to co-ordinate closely in responding to this potential provocation, and if necessary consider what steps need to be taken following a potential launch,” a senior White House aide told Reuters.

But the early show of unity is a step forward after the US leader chided China, North Korea’s biggest benefactor, on Sunday for failing to exert more pressure on the North to abandon its nuclear weapons programme.

During bilateral talks on Monday, Hu told Obama that the North Korean issue remained “very sensitive”, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency. “We do not hope to see a reversal of the hard-won momentum of relaxation of tension on the [Korean] peninsula,” Hu was quoted as saying.

But Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said North Korea had previously ignored Chinese concerns about its nuclear and missile programmes.

“China has expressed those concerns before and North Korea has continued on with its behaviour,” he said. “China needs to look at whether it needs to be doing more above and beyond the types of messages and warnings it’s been giving to the North Koreans.”

South Korea and Japan have said they will shoot down the missile if it passes over their territory. “We are preparing measures to track the missile’s trajectory and shoot it down if, by chance, it deviates from the planned route and falls into our territory,” a South Korean defence ministry spokesman said.

The North insists that the rocket, whose main component has reportedly been moved to a launch site in the country’s north-west, is designed to carry an observation satellite into orbit.

The US, South Korea and Japan, however, say the launch would violate a UN ban on missile activity as the same technology could be used to develop long-range missiles, including those capable of striking the US mainland, possibly within five years.

The show of unity by the US and China, however ambiguous, will not be welcomed in Pyongyang, according to North Korea experts.

Shin Jong Dae, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, says North Korean provocations are partly motivated by a desire to divide the US and China over their response.

“North Korea doesn’t want to see an improvement in Sino-US relations, so to rupture relations between China and US, it opts for military adventurism, just as it did with the sinking of the Cheonan, bombing Yeonpyeong island and conducting missile tests,” he said.

Shin added that China’s main concern was avoiding political instability in the North. “The best-case scenario for China is a stable North Korea without nuclear weapons. The worst-case scenario is an unstable North Korea. But if China can’t achieve that ideal, then it will at least try to avoid the worst possible alternative. That means it will tolerate a North Korea with nuclear weapons, as long as it remains stable.”

The planned launch has put on hold a deal reached last month that would have required North Korea to suspend long-range missile tests and its uranium enrichment programme in return for 240,000 tonnes of US food aid.

In a speech to students at Hankuk University in Seoul, Obama warned North Korea’s new leadership under Kim Jong-un not to invite “more isolation” by developing nuclear weapons.

“By now it should be clear,” he said. “Your provocations and pursuit of nuclear weapons have not achieved the security you seek, they have undermined it. Instead of the dignity you desire, you are more isolated.”

His comments may also have been directed at Republicans who are seeking to exploit what they see as Obama’s failure of diplomacy on North Korea in an election year.

“The United States doesn’t want to do anything that will result in North Korea conducting nuclear tests or missile launches or anything that would be detrimental to the Obama administration,” said Kim Hyun Wook, a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul.

“If that happens, there could be criticism from Republicans of Obama that his diplomatic efforts with North Korea have failed. Obama doesn’t want that; it would make his re-election more difficult.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Powered by article titled “Four Horsemen – review” was written by Peter Bradshaw, for The Guardian on Thursday 15th March 2012 22.15 UTC

In these parlous times, there can never be enough criticism of bankers and tame politicians enjoying what Milton Friedman called socialism for the rich. Ashcroft’s documentary lands some punches, but it is hampered by a PowerPoint-style presentation. As our western empire declines, he sees four apocalyptic horsemen: crooked finance, terrorism, poverty and ecological collapse. It’s all fair comment, with sharp snippets from Noam Chomsky and the FT’s Gillian Tett, although the tone is patronising sometimes. Ashcroft unveils some bold cures at the end, but we need more specifics. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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