Knights of Malta to pope: Stay out of our internal affairs

Sun, 2016-12-25

VATICAN CITY: The Order of Malta, the ancient Roman Catholic aristocratic lay order, has told Pope Francis that his decision to launch an investigation into the ouster of a top official over an old condom scandal is “unacceptable.”
In an extraordinary rebuke of the pontiff, the group said late Friday that the replacement of its grand chancellor was an “act of internal governmental administration of the Sovereign Order of Malta and consequently falls solely within its competence.”
Francis on Thursday appointed a five-member commission to investigate the Dec. 8 ouster of Albrecht von Boeselager amid suggestions that Francis’ own envoy to the group, conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke, helped engineer it without his blessing. Burke has emerged as one of Francis’ top critics.
One charge used against von Boeselager concerned a program that the order’s Malteser International aid group had participated in several years ago with other aid groups to help sex slaves in Myanmar, including giving them condoms to protect them from HIV infection.
Church teaching bars the use of artificial contraception. Von Boeselager has said as soon as the order’s headquarters in Rome learned of the condom distribution, two of the projects were immediately halted. A third continued, he said, so as not to deprive a poor region of Myanmar of all basic medical services. The project eventually ended after the Vatican’s doctrine office intervened.
Burke is a hard-liner on enforcing church teaching on sexual morals. As a result, the dispute roiling the order reflects the broader ideological divisions in the Catholic Church that have intensified during Francis’ papacy, which has emphasized the merciful side of the church over its doctrinaire side.
Von Boeselager has said he was asked, and then ordered to resign Dec. 6 during a meeting with Burke and the order’s leader, who suggested that the resignation was “in accordance with the wishes of the Holy See.” He said he subsequently learned that the Holy See had made no such request.
In its statement, the Knights of Malta said the pope’s decision to appoint a commission to investigate von Boeselager’s replacement was a result of a misunderstanding with the Vatican’s secretariat of state.
The Order of Malta has many trappings of a sovereign state, issuing its own stamps, passports and license plates and holding diplomatic relations with 106 states, the Holy See included.
The Vatican, however, has a unique relationship with the order since the pope appoints a cardinal to “promote the spiritual interests” of the order and its relationship with the Vatican. Francis appointed Burke to that position in 2014 after removing him as the Vatican’s supreme court justice.
Kurt Martens, professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America in Washington, says the pope’s investigation was complicated, given the sovereign nature of both the order and the Vatican under international law.
“The way it has been perceived, it’s as if they’re looking into the order, and that’s why there is the backlash from the order,” he said in a phone interview.
Martens also suggested that nominating Knights of Malta members as part of the pope’s commission could be problematic.
“It makes sense that you ask members” because they are familiar with the order, he said. “But then you have a huge conflict of interest because they are investigating their ‘head of state.’“
The knights trace their history to the 11th-century Crusades with the establishment of an infirmary in Jerusalem that cared for people of all faiths. It now counts 13,500 members and 100,000 staff and volunteers who provide health care in hospitals and clinics around the world.

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13 hurt in Christmas Eve blast near Philippine church

Agence France Presse
Sun, 2016-12-25

COTABATO CITY, Philippines: A blast ripped through a police car outside a Catholic church in the southern Philippines late Saturday, authorities said, wounding 13 people including a police officer.
The explosion hit churchgoers attending a series of Christmas Eve masses at the Archdiocesan Shrine of Santo Nino in the farming town of Midsayap, a priest who present at the service said.
“The communion was ongoing when the explosion took place,” the Rev. Jay Virador told reporters.
The blast occurred about 30 meters (98 feet) away from the church’s entrance and caused panic, he added.
The regional police spokesman, Superintendent Romeo Galgo, confirmed the blast which he said was caused by an unspecified explosive device.
Thirteen people were wounded by the explosion and treated at nearby hospitals, including a police officer and an unidentified person, according to an updated police tally.
Authorities did not immediately say who was responsible for the blast. No group has claimed responsibility.
A police investigator who asked not to be named told AFP it appeared the suspects had initially targeted the church but later settled for a patrol car assigned to guard the building instead.
“It seems they wanted to get closer but due to heavy security they opted to throw the explosive at the police car blocking the road,” the officer added.
The explosion damaged the police car and a pickup truck parked nearby, police said.
The town, about 900 kilometers (559 miles) south of Manila, is located in the middle of the large Philippine island of Mindanao, home to a Muslim minority and decades of armed rebellion.
However the main Muslim guerrilla group in the area has signed a cease-fire with the Philippine government.
Government forces continue to fight smaller Muslim armed groups on the island, some of whom have pledged allegiance to the Daesh extremist group in Iraq and Syria and have been blamed for bombing civilian targets in the past.

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All-night talks fail to reach DR Congo deal

Agence France Presse
Sat, 2016-12-24

KINSHASA: Hopes of a deal to end DR Congo’s dangerous political crisis before Christmas were faltering Saturday after fruitless all-night talks over President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to quit power.
Kabila’s second and final five-year term ended on December 20, but he has shown no intention of leaving office soon, sparking violent protests that have left at least 40 people dead this week, according to the United Nations.
The influential Catholic Church has been brokering talks between the government and opposition and hopes rose this week of an imminent deal, with a draft seen by AFP outlining plans for fresh elections at the end of next year, when Kabila would step down.
But that optimism has been slipping, and negotiators from the two camps left church offices in Kinshasa just before 5:30 am (0430 GMT) without a deal to prevent a fresh descent into conflict in a country that has suffered two horrific wars since 1996.
“The work is practically finished — the final touches are all that is left to do before the deal is signed,” insisted Marcel Utembi, president of the Congo National Episcopal Conference (CENCO), who had pushed for a deal before Christmas.
But others indicated there was still a long way to go.
“Everything is still blocked on how (public affairs) will be managed during the transition period,” said opposition delegate Francois Muamba.
Two opposition delegates said the squabbling sides could return to the table Saturday morning, but there was no confirmation from CENCO. Negotiators from Kabila’s political alliance were remaining tight-lipped.
A frustrated CENCO official, speaking on condition of anonymity, blasted DR Congo’s political class for “serious mediocrity” in their inability to reach a deal.
“They have called into question everything we arranged the day before,” the official said as talks stretched into the night.
Time is pressing as the bishops overseeing the talks are due to quit the capital Saturday afternoon to return to their congregations in time for Christmas Eve mass.
Tensions are still running high, with security forces spraying live ammunition at a string of anti-Kabila protests in Kinshasa and other towns this week, killing at least 40 civilians, according to the UN.
Congolese police put the toll at 20 dead, saying they had largely been killed in “looting” or by “stray bullets.”
Other sources say somewhere between 56 and 125 people have been killed in a week of clashes, not counting the unknown toll from fighting between security forces and an anti-government militia in the central town of Kananga.
Kabila, 45, has been in power since the 2001 assassination of his father Laurent at the height of the Second Congo War.
He was confirmed as leader of the mineral-rich nation in 2006 during the first free elections since independence from Belgium in 1960, and re-elected for a second term in 2011 in a vote marred by allegations of massive fraud.
Constitutionally banned from seeking a third term, he obtained a controversial court ruling in May stating that he could remain in power until a successor was chosen.
DR Congo has never seen a democratic transfer of power following polls since independence from Belgium in 1960.
Two decades ago, the country collapsed into the deadliest conflict in modern African history. Its two wars in the late 1990s and early 2000s pulled in at least six African armies and left more than three million dead.

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Pinochet agents apologize for Chile crimes

Agence France Presse
Sat, 2016-12-24

SANTIAGO: Nine former agents of late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime asked forgiveness for their crimes Friday — a first for Chile — but victims’ families rejected the gesture as a ploy.
The apology came in the form of a private religious ceremony at the Punta Peuco prison, where some 100 former regime agents are serving sentences for the kidnappings, killings and torture perpetrated during Pinochet’s rule from 1973 to 1990.
The nine convicts included Raul Iturriaga, a high-ranking official in Pinochet’s political police.
“God is doing something extraordinary in this country. This would not have been possible until recently,” Anglican priest Pablo Alvarez told journalists after the ceremony, which was closed to the press.
But dozens of victims’ family members protested outside the prison, rejecting the ceremony as a hollow bid to obtain a pardon or early release.
“We have the right and the moral duty to be here to prevent this media show,” said Alicia Lira, head of a rights group for victims’ families.
Family members emphasized that none of the convicts have provided information on the fate of nearly 1,000 people missing and presumed killed by the regime.
They also demand the closure of Punta Peuco, which they condemn as a luxury prison with tennis courts, terraces and barbecues.
More than 3,000 regime opponents and alleged collaborators were killed or disappeared during Pinochet’s rule. Some 38,000 were tortured.
Pinochet, who came to power in a military coup, died in 2006 without being brought to justice.

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Trump warns Putin not to set US, Russia on ‘alternate path’

Fri, 2016-12-23

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida: After months of promising to engage more with Russia, President-elect Donald Trump vowed to enhance America’s nuclear capabilities, warning Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday to avoid circumstances that may set the two global powers on an “alternate path.”
Trump passed along a “very nice letter” his transition team says was sent to him by Putin, which urges Trump to act “in a constructive and pragmatic manner” to “restore the framework of bilateral cooperation.”
Putin’s letter, dated Dec. 15, also notes that serious global and regional challenges “show that the relations between Russia and the US remain an important factor in ensuring stability and security in the modern world.”
Trump said in response to the letter that Putin’s “thoughts are so correct,” noting that he hoped “both sides are able to live up to these thoughts, and we do not have to travel an alternate path.”
The Russian government did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation that Putin sent the letter. The Kremlin does not always report the letters Putin sends to foreign leaders. Trump’s transition team said the English-language letter was an unofficial translation.
The exchange comes on the heels of comments by both Trump and Putin about the need to strengthen their countries’ nuclear arsenals. Trump re-opened the debate over nuclear proliferation Thursday, declaring on Twitter that the US should “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability” until the rest of the world “comes to its senses” regarding nuclear weapons. Those comments echoed an earlier statement by Putin who said this week that strengthening his country’s nuclear capabilities should be a chief military objective in the coming year.
But Putin downplayed the significance of Trump’s comments Friday at a marathon end-of-year news conference, saying he sees “nothing unusual” in Trump’s pledge to strengthen the US nuclear forces, calling the statement in line with the president-elect’s campaign promises.
In his wide-ranging remarks, the Russian leader claimed that his country’s military is stronger than any potential aggressor, but acknowledged that the US military is bigger. He also cast the modernization of Russia’s nuclear arsenals as a necessary response to the US missile defense system.
Trump extolled Putin’s leadership during the campaign and called for a tempered approach to US-Russia relations. And while Putin had described Trump as “bright and talented” during the campaign, observers say Russia’s interest is centered around relief from crippling sanctions implemented under the Obama administration, which is viewed as a gateway to bolstering Russia as the political and economic equivalent of the United States.
Renewed tensions have mounted between the US and Russia in recent months over accusations that the Russian government hacked the e-mails of US citizens and institutions, including political organizations. The FBI said this month that it supported the CIA’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the presidential election with the goal of supporting Trump.
Trump has repeatedly dismissed claims that Russia sought to usher in his victory, but his remarks, both in the letter and over the need for beefed up nuclear capabilities, indicate that Russia may not be an exception to Trump’s vow to assert American influence through “unquestioned military strength.” However, his comments are prompting fears of a nuclear race-in-the-making if Trump breaks nuclear treaties, and countries like Russia interpret the move as a threat.
The two countries signed the New START treaty in 2010, capping the number of nuclear warheads and missile launchers each country can possess. The agreement is in effect until 2021 and can be extended for another five years.
Earlier this year, Trump said he would “certainly not do first strike,” with regard to nuclear attack, but quickly shifted his position, saying, “I can’t take anything off the table.”
Outgoing Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in September that the Pentagon plans to spend $108 billion over the next five years in its commitment to correct decades of short-changing its nuclear force. Trump’s choice as defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis, has called Russia’s aggression in Ukraine a problem “much more severe, more serious” than Washington and the European Union are treating it.
Trump’s spokesman and newly-named press secretary, said Friday the president-elect is putting other countries on notice.
“It was in response to a lot of countries. Russia, China and others are talking about expanding their nuclear capability,” spokesman Sean Spicer said on Fox News.
Spicer also told NBC’s Today, “We’re not going to sit back and watch other nations threaten our safety.”
He added: “But just to be clear: The president isn’t saying we’re going to do this. He said, ‘unless they come to their senses.’ It’s a warning to them that this president isn’t going to sit idly by.
Trump was in Mar-a-Lago, his South Florida estate, Friday, where he retreats for most holidays. He spent the morning playing 18 holes with golf champion Tiger Woods at the Trump International Golf Course, and was set to hold high-level staff meetings later in the day, his transition team said.
He has spent the week meeting advisers and interviewing candidates for a handful of Cabinet positions that remain unfilled.
The president-elect took to Twitter early Friday, declaring it a “ridiculous shame” that his son, Eric, will have to stop soliciting funds for his charitable foundation, the Eric Trump Foundation, because of a conflict of interest.
“My wonderful son, Eric, will no longer be allowed to raise money for children with cancer because of a possible conflict of interest with my presidency,” Trump tweeted. “He loves these kids, has raised millions of dollars for them, and now must stop. Wrong answer!“

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Philippines urges evacuations ahead of Christmas Day typhoon

Agence France Presse
Sat, 2016-12-24

MANILA: Philippine authorities urged hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate their homes on Saturday as a strong typhoon threatened to wallop the country’s east coast on Christmas Day.
Nock-Ten is expected to be packing winds of 222 kilometers per hour (138 miles per hour) when it makes landfall on Catanduanes, a remote island of 250,000 people, on Sunday, the US Joint Typhoon Warning Center said.
It is then expected to hit the country’s main island of Luzon, including the capital Manila, on Monday.
“We issued an advisory to local government units this morning to conduct preemptive evacuations,” Rachel Miranda, spokeswoman for the civil defense office in the Bicol region that includes Catanduanes, told AFP.
Bicol, an agricultural region of 5.5 million people, is often the first area to be hit by the 20 or so storms and typhoons that pound the archipelago each year.
The most powerful and deadliest was Haiyan, which left 7,350 people dead or missing and destroyed entire towns in heavily populated areas of the central Philippines in November 2013.
The Philippine weather service warned of potentially deadly two-meter (six-and-a-half-foot) waves along the east coast, as well as landslides and flash floods from heavy rains.
Local broadcaster ABS-CBN showed footage Saturday of long lines of trucks, cars and vehicles stranded at Bicol ports after the coast guard shut down ferry crossings to nearby islands as a precaution.
The action prevented thousands of people from returning to their hometowns for the Christmas weekend, it said.
Cedric Daep, civil defense chief for the Bicol province of Albay, told AFP at least 400,000 people in that region alone needed to be evacuated.
“Our evacuation centers will not be able to accommodate all of them,” he said. Others were being asked to stay with relatives or friends.
“We are requesting vehicle support” from other government agencies to move people to safety, Daep added.

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Passengers from hijacked Libyan plane leave Malta for home

Associated Press
Sat, 2016-12-24

VALLETTA, Malta: The passengers from a hijacked Libyan flight that was diverted to Malta have left the Mediterranean island and are returning home.
Malta’s interior minister, Carmelo Abela, said the passengers left Malta early Saturday.
Two Libyan hijackers had diverted the domestic flight Friday to demand asylum in Europe and create a new political party in honor of the late dictator Muammar Qaddafi, officials said. After hours of negotiations, the standoff ended peacefully with the hijackers freeing all 117 people on board and walking off the plane to surrender. The passengers were subsequently interviewed by officials.
Malta police said it was most likely the two hijackers, who had threatened to blow up the plane with hand grenades, would be arraigned Saturday.

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Germany hunts possible accomplices of Berlin attacker

Agence France Presse
Sat, 2016-12-24

BERLIN: Germany was hunting for possible accomplices of the suspected Berlin truck attacker on Saturday, a day after he was killed in a shoot-out with Italian police in Milan.
As most of the country was preparing to celebrate Christmas Eve, Germany’s under-pressure authorities said hundreds of investigators would be working on the probe throughout the holiday season.
Tunisian Anis Amri, 24, is believed to have hijacked a truck and used it to mow down holiday revellers at a Berlin Christmas market on Monday, killing 12 people in an attack claimed by the Daesh group.
The rejected asylum seeker was the focus of a frantic four-day manhunt after the rampage, but his time on the run was cut short by Italian police.
Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday thanked Italy and expressed relief that the fugitive no longer posed a threat, but warned that “the danger of terrorism in general endures.”
She pledged a “comprehensive” analysis of how the known jihadist was able to slip through the net in the first place.
“The Amri case raises questions,” she said. “We will now intensively examine to what extent official procedures need to be changed.”
“How could Europe’s most wanted terrorist leave Germany?” asked the respected Die Welt daily on its website, in a nod to the growing criticism of the country’s handling of the probe.
Amri was shot dead after pulling out a pistol and firing at two officers who had stopped him for a routine identity check in the early hours of Friday near Milan’s Sesto San Giovanni railway station.
He lightly wounded one of the officers before being killed by 29-year-old police rookie Luca Scata, who has since been hailed as a hero.
Police said Amri had shouted “bastard police” in Italian before opening fire.
According to Milan police chief Antonio De Iesu, Amri had arrived in Italy from Germany via France. He had a few hundred euros on him but no telephone.
The Daesh group released a video Friday in which Amri is shown pledging allegiance to Daesh chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
German investigators are now focusing on whether Amri had help from accomplices.
“It is very important for us to determine whether there was a network of accomplices… in the preparation or the execution of the attack, or the flight of the suspect,” federal prosecutor Peter Frank told reporters.
Questions have been raised about whether enough was done to keep tabs on Amri, who was on the radar of anti-terrorism agencies in both Germany and Italy.
Amri’s port of entry to Europe was Italy, arriving on a migrant boat in 2011. He then spent four years in prison there for starting a fire in a refugee center, during which time he was apparently radicalized.
After serving his sentence he made his way to Germany in 2015, taking advantage of Europe’s Schengen system of open borders — as he did on his return to Italy this week.
German security agencies began monitoring Amri in March, suspecting that he was planning break-ins to raise cash for automatic weapons to carry out an attack.
But the surveillance was stopped in September because Amri, who was supposed to have been deported months earlier, was seen primarily as a small-time drug dealer.
Germany’s anti-migration AfD party, which has blamed the attack on Merkel’s liberal asylum policy, surged to a year high of more than 15 percent in a poll on Friday, ahead of a general election expected next September.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas has pledged to examine “how to improve surveillance of potentially dangerous persons” and concrete steps to speed up deportations of illegal migrants.

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US to ‘act in kind’ if other nations increase nuke capacity

Sat, 2016-12-24

WASHINGTON: The United States under Donald Trump’s presidency will not allow other countries to increase their nuclear capability without responding in kind, a spokesman for the president-elect said on Friday.
“There are countries around the globe right now that are talking about increasing their nuclear capacity,” Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, told CNN.
Meanwhile, Trump said after being asked to clarify his comments about expanding US nuclear weapons capability, “Let it be an arms race,” and that the United States would win it, MSNBC reported on Friday.
Trump had alarmed non-proliferation experts on Thursday with a Twitter post that said the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski spoke with Trump on the phone and asked him to expand on his tweet. She said he responded: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
Shares of uranium producers and a nuclear fuel technology company have jumped on Trump’s comments with Uranium Resources Inc, Uranium Energy Corp, Cameco Corp. and Lightbridge Corp. all trading higher on Friday.
It was not clear what prompted Thursday’s tweet by Trump, a Republican who takes office on Jan. 20, but it came the same day Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country needed to boost its nuclear forces.
In his year-end news conference in Moscow on Friday, Putin said Trump’s comment on Wednesday was not out of line and that he did not consider the United States to be a potential aggressor.
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said in several television interviews on Friday that there would not be an arms race because the president-elect would ensure that other countries trying to step up their nuclear capabilities, such as Russia and China, would decide not to do so.

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Israel ‘turned to Trump to head off UN resolution’

Sat, 2016-12-24

JERUSALEM: Israel’s prime minister turned to President-elect Donald Trump to help head off a critical UN resolution after learning that the White House did not intend to veto the measure, an Israeli official said Friday.
The admission marked a final chapter in the icy relations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama over the last eight years, and signaled an era of close ties between Israel and the incoming Trump administration.
The Egyptian-sponsored resolution had demanded that Israel halt settlement activities in occupied territories claimed by the Palestinians and declared that existing settlements “have no legal validity.”
But under heavy Israeli pressure, Egypt called off a planned vote in the Security Council hours before it was to take place. In the diplomatic activity ahead of the postponement, both Netanyahu and Trump issued nearly identical statements urging the US to veto the measure.
“After becoming aware that the administration would not veto the anti-Israel resolution, Israeli officials reached out to Trump’s transition team to ask for the president-elect’s help to avert the resolution,” the Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing behind-the-scenes diplomatic activity.
On Friday, Egypt said its president had received a call from Trump in which they both agreed to give the incoming US administration a chance to try and resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The call came hours after Egypt indefinitely postponed the UN vote.
A statement from the Egyptian presidency said the two men spoke by phone early Friday and agreed on “the importance of giving a chance for the new American administration to deal in a comprehensive way with the different aspects of the Palestinian issue with the aim of achieving a comprehensive and a final resolution.”
The US, along with the Palestinians and nearly all of the international community, opposes Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem as obstacles to peace. Some 600,000 Israelis live in the two territories, which the Palestinians seek as part of a future independent state. Israel captured both areas in the 1967 Mideast war.
Although the US opposes the settlements, it has traditionally used its veto power as a permanent member of the Security Council to block resolutions condemning Israel, saying that disputes between Israel and the Palestinians must be resolved through negotiations. But after eight years of failed peace efforts during the Obama Administration, Israel has expressed concern the outgoing president would take an audacious step to leave his mark on the region.
In recent weeks, the White House had been especially secretive about its deliberations.
Trump has signaled he will be far more sympathetic to Israel.

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