Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity ordered closed over coronavirus fears

By Mussa Qawasma

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) – The Church of the Nativity was ordered closed on Thursday and foreign tourists were banned from West Bank hotels after four suspected coronavirus cases were found in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem.

The measures announced by the Palestinian Authority’s tourism ministry came as a particular blow to the Biblical town, whose businesses are largely dependent on Christian visitors to the church, built on the traditional site of Jesus’s birth.

Just three months ago Bethlehem was hailing its best Christmas for two decades, the mayor and hoteliers said, even better than the 1.5 million visitors it received in 2018.

The Latin Patriarchate of the Holy Land said the Church of the Nativity, which was first founded in 339 and rebuilt and extended over the centuries, would be closed for two weeks, along with other churches and mosques in the Bethlehem area.

The ban on foreign guests at West Bank hotels will also last two weeks, the tourism ministry said.

“This affects us dramatically,” said Joey Canavati, manager of the 58-room Alexander Hotel in Bethlehem. “Our workers are essentially laid off for the next 14 days. We will be closed down completely. It destroyed our business from every perspective.”

Canavati said groups of tourists from the United States, Poland and Cameroon had already canceled their bookings.

Palestinian health officials said they were examining whether four workers at another hotel in Bethlehem had contracted coronavirus from tourists who had stayed there recently.

Police surrounded the hotel, as authorities awaited the results of laboratory tests. There have been no confirmed cases of the disease in the West Bank. Fifteen people have been diagnosed with the virus in neighboring Israel.

The Palestinian governor of the West Bank town of Nablus on Thursday ordered its Muslim and Christian holy sites shut as a public health precaution.

The Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank under interim peace accords.

On Wednesday, Israel ordered travelers arriving from Germany, France, Spain, Austria and Switzerland to go into home quarantine over coronavirus concerns and canceled a military exercise with troops from the U.S. European Command.

The measure effectively cut off foreign tourism from those countries, whose citizens, the Health Ministry said, would not be allowed into Israel unless they could show they had made quarantine arrangements ahead of time.

Israel has already imposed the edict with regard to flights from Italy, China and Singapore.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta, Stephen Farrell and Rami Ayyub; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Alex Richardson)

Christianity grows in Syrian town once besieged by Islamic State

Children stand together inside a damaged house in Kobani, Syria April 3, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

By John Davison

KOBANI, Syria (Reuters) – A community of Syrians who converted to Christianity from Islam is growing in Kobani, a town besieged by Islamic State for months, and where the tide turned against the militants four years ago.

The converts say the experience of war and the onslaught of a group claiming to fight for Islam pushed them towards their new faith. After a number of families converted, the Syrian-Turkish border town’s first evangelical church opened last year.

Islamic State militants were beaten back by U.S. air strikes and Kurdish fighters at Kobani in early 2015, in a reversal of fortune after taking over swaths of Iraq and Syria. After years of fighting, U.S.-backed forces fully ended the group’s control over populated territory last month.

Though Islamic State’s ultra radical interpretation of Sunni Islam has been repudiated by the Islamic mainstream, the legacy of its violence has affected perceptions of faith.

Many in the mostly Kurdish areas of northern Syria, whose urban centers are often secular, say agnosticism has strengthened and in the case of Kobani, Christianity.

Christianity is one of the region’s minority faiths that was persecuted by Islamic State.

Critics view the new converts with suspicion, accusing them of seeking personal gain such as financial help from Christian organizations working in the region, jobs and enhanced prospects of emigration to European countries.

The newly-converted Christians of Kobani deny those accusations. They say their conversion was a matter of faith.

“After the war with Islamic State people were looking for the right path, and distancing themselves from Islam,” said Omar Firas, the founder of Kobani’s evangelical church. “People were scared and felt lost.”

Firas works for a Christian aid group at a nearby camp for displaced people that helped set up the church.

He said around 20 families, or around 80 to 100 people, in Kobani now worship there. They have not changed their names.

“We meet on Tuesdays and hold a service on Fridays. It is open to anyone who wants to join,” he said.

The church’s current pastor, Zani Bakr, 34, arrived last year from Afrin, a town in northern Syria. He converted in 2007.

“This was painted by IS as a religious conflict, using religious slogans. Because of this a lot of Kurds lost trust in religion generally, not just Islam,” he said.

Many became atheist or agnostic. “But many others became Christian. Scores here and more in Afrin.”

A woman reacts at a grave of her daughter, an SDF fighter killed during fightings with Islamic State militants, at a cemetery in Kobani, Syria April 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

A woman reacts at a grave of her daughter, an SDF fighter killed during fightings with Islamic State militants, at a cemetery in Kobani, Syria April 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

MISSIONARIES AND CRITICS

One man, who lost an arm in an explosion in Kobani and fled to Turkey for medical treatment, said he met Kurdish and Turkish converts there and eventually decided to join them.

“They seemed happy and all talked about love. That’s when I decided to follow Jesus’s teachings,” Maxim Ahmed, 22, said, adding that several friends and family were now interested in coming to the new church.

Some in Kobani reject the growing Christian presence. They say Western Christian aid groups and missionaries have exploited the chaos and trauma of war to convert people and that local newcomers to the religion see an opportunity for personal gain.

“Many people think that they are somehow benefitting from this, maybe for material gain or because of the perception that Christians who seek asylum abroad get preferential treatment,” said Salih Naasan, a real estate worker and former Arabic teacher.

Thousands of Christians have fled the region over decades of sectarian strife. From Syria they have often headed for Lebanon and European countries.

U.S. President Donald Trump pledged to help minorities fleeing the region when he imposed a travel ban on Muslims in 2016, but many Christians were denied asylum.

“It might be a reaction to Daesh (Islamic State) but I don’t see the positives. It just adds another religious and sectarian dimension which in a community like this will lead to tension,” said Naasan, a practicing Muslim.

Naasan like the vast majority of Muslims rejects Islamic State’s narrow and brutal interpretation of Islam. The group enslaved and killed thousands of people from all faiths, reserving particular brutality for minorities such as the Yazidis of northern Iraq.

Most Christians preferred not to give their names or be interviewed, saying they fear reaction from conservative sectors of society.

The population of Kobani and its surroundings has neared its original 200,000 after people returned, although only 40,000 live in the town itself, much of which lies in ruins.

(Editing by Tom Perry and Alexandra Hudson)

Two tales of a city: Jerusalem tour guided by a Palestinian and an Israeli

Tourists take part in the Dual Narrative tour lead by tour guides, Noor Awad, a Palestinian from Bethlehem, and Lana Zilberman Soloway, a Jewish seminary student, stand next to the Dome of the Rock on the compound known to Jews as Temple Mount and to Muslims as The Noble Sanctuary, in Jerusalem's Old City, February 4, 2019. Picture taken February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

By Rami Ayyub and Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – On a Jerusalem plaza looking up at the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, a crowd gathers in front of two guides, listening attentively, a common sight in a city packed with pilgrims and tourists visiting its religious landmarks.

What is unusual is that one of the guides is Palestinian, one is Israeli, and they are taking turns to give their perspectives on the city known to Jews as Yerushalayim and to Arabs as al-Quds..

“We are in Jerusalem, which is the capital of the Jewish state. We are in one of the holiest places in the world for Christianity. And the keys are held by Muslim families,” said Israeli guide Lana Zilberman Soloway, who spoke first as the group reached the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where Jesus is believed to be buried. “And all three coexist at the same time.”

Her counterpart, Noor Awad, from Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank just a few km (miles) away, took a different view of the status quo, noting that Muslims and Christians from the West Bank or Gaza need Israeli travel permits to worship here.

“For Palestinians, this is the capital of Palestine and the capital of their country,” said Awad, 28. “If you don’t get that permission, you can’t come actually here to pray. So the place is being used, and plays a lot into the two narratives and the conflict we have today.”

The two guides heard each other out politely, with the occasional quip or raised eyebrow. Two dozen tourists, mainly foreigners living in the city, peppered them with questions.

The company, MEJDI Tours, says its “Dual Narrative” tour was “created in partnership by Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, and Jews”. The weekly tours have been underway since last October.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem its capital. The Old City and holy sites lie in the mainly Arab eastern half, captured by Israel in a 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally. Palestinians say the eastern half is occupied land and must become the capital of a future Palestinian state.

At the heart of Old City, the tour came to the hill known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

“Where the Dome of the Rock today is standing, the Prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven to talk to God,” Awad told the tour party, describing what Muslims consider the holiest spot on earth outside of the two Arabian cities Muhammad called home.

“That’s a very central event, somehow similar to the story of Moses talking to God from Mount Sinai.”

For Jews, it is the site of the biblical temple, destroyed by Babylonian conquerors, rebuilt and razed again under the Romans. The Western Wall, a restraint for the foundations built by Herod the Great 2000 years ago, is a sacred place of prayer.

“All the way down deep underground, underneath the golden dome, 5779 years ago, God created the world. 4,000 years ago we believe Abraham came to bind Isaac on that exact spot,” Zilberman Soloway said.

Dave Yedid, 26, a Jewish seminary student from Long Island, New York who came on the tour, said: “exactly what differs in the sort of Jewish Zionist narrative versus the Palestinian narrative is something I’ll take home with me.”

“I wanted to see those two side by side.”

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Peter Graff)

U.S. evangelist Billy Graham to be laid to rest in North Carolina

Members of the public visit the late U.S. evangelist Billy Graham as he lies in honor in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. February 28, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Ian Simpson

(Reuters) – U.S. evangelist Billy Graham, who preached to millions around the world in a 70-year career, will be laid to rest on Friday in his native North Carolina following a funeral service that will draw thousands of mourners including President Donald Trump.

The service for Graham, who died on Feb. 21 at age 99, comes after he lay in honor at the U.S. Capitol in recognition of a clergyman who counseled presidents and was the first noted evangelist to take his message to the Soviet bloc.

Graham will later be buried in a pine coffin made by Louisiana prison inmates next to his late wife, Ruth, at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina, organizers said.

The 90-minute funeral service is scheduled to start at 12 p.m. EST. It will be held at a library parking lot under a tent emblematic of Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles revival under canvas that marked his breakthrough as an evangelist.

“It was Mr. Graham’s explicit intent that his funeral service reflect and reinforce the Gospel message that he preached” for decades – the need for a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, Mark DeMoss, a spokesman for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said in a statement.

Trump, a Republican, will be among about 2,300 invited guests, along with first lady Melania Trump and Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, organizers said.

Graham’s son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, will deliver the eulogy at the funeral service, which will include singing by Grammy winner Michael Smith.

One of the guests, Jim Daly, the head of the Focus on the Family evangelical organization, said the funeral would be “a tribute to a wonderful life. This man lived it well.”

Asked about the prospects of another evangelist like Graham arising, Daly said by phone, “No diamond is alike. In that regard, Billy Graham was a unique gemstone that God created.”

Graham’s headstone will carry his name, dates of birth and death and the inscription “Preacher of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ” above the Bible reference “John 14:6.”

According to his ministry, Graham preached Christianity to more people than anyone else in history. Some 77 million saw him in person, and nearly 215 million more watched his crusades on television or through satellite link-ups, it has said.

Graham also became the de facto White House chaplain to several presidents, most famously Richard Nixon.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Jerusalem’s Church of Holy Sepulchre to reopen after protest

A general view of the entrance and the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered as the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial, will reopen its doors after Israel backtracked on Tuesday from a tax plan and draft property legislation that triggered a three-day protest.

The rare decision on Sunday by church leaders to close the ancient holy site, a favorite among tourists and pilgrims, with the busy Easter holiday approaching put extra pressure on Israel to re-evaluate and suspend the moves.

After receiving a statement from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian clergy said the church would reopen Wednesday morning.

An Israeli committee led by cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi will negotiate with church representatives to try to resolve the dispute over plans to tax commercial properties owned by the church in Jerusalem, Netanyahu’s statement said.

Church leaders, in a joint statement, welcomed the dialogue.

“After the constructive intervention of the prime minister, the churches look forward to engage with Minister Hanegbi, and with all those who love Jerusalem to ensure that our holy city, where our Christian presence continues to face challenges, remains a place where the three monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) may live and thrive together.”

The Jerusalem Municipality, Netanyahu said, would suspend the tax collection actions it had taken in recent weeks.Mayor Nir Barkat has said the churches owed the city more than $180 million in property tax from their commercial holdings, adding that “houses of worship” would remain exempt.

Church leaders, in closing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, said church-owned businesses, which include a hotel and office space in Jerusalem, had enjoyed a tax exemption.

While the review is under way, work on legislation that would allow Israel to expropriate land in Jerusalem that churches have sold to private real estate firms in recent years will also be suspended, Netanyahu said.

The declared aim of the bill, deemed “abhorrent” in a prior statement issued by church leaders, is to protect homeowners against the possibility that private companies will not extend their leases of land on which their houses or apartments stand.

The churches are major landowners in Jerusalem. They say such a law would make it harder for them to find buyers for church-owned land – sales that help to cover operating costs of their religious institutions.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on Israel to permanently cancel the proposed measures, which he said would “lead to escalating tension and to instability”.

A small minority of Palestinians are Christians, many of them in Bethlehem, the town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank – near Jerusalem – where Jesus is believed to have been born.

(Reporting by Ori Lewis, Mustafa Abu Ghaneyeh and Nidal al-Mughrabi; writing by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Trump says he has new reasons to hope for Middle East peace

By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday that he had come to Israel from a weekend visit to Saudi Arabia with new reasons to hope that peace and stability could be achieved in the Middle East.

On the second leg of his first overseas trip as president, Trump was to hold talks separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The U.S. leader visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s walled Old City and was due to pray at Judaism’s Western Wall. He travels on Tuesday to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank at the end of a stopover lasting 28 hours.

Netanyahu and his wife Sara, as well as President Reuven Rivlin and members of the Israeli cabinet, were at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport to greet Trump and first lady Melania in a red carpet ceremony after what is believed to have been the first direct flight from Riyadh to Israel.

“During my travels in recent days, I have found new reasons for hope,” Trump said in a brief speech on arrival.

“We have before us a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region and its people, defeating terrorism and creating a future of harmony, prosperity and peace, but we can only get there working together. There is no other way,” he said.

Trump’s tour comes in the shadow of difficulties at home, where he is struggling to contain a scandal after firing James Comey as FBI director nearly two weeks ago. The trip ends on Saturday after visits to the Vatican, Brussels and Sicily.

ARAB WELCOME

During his two days in Riyadh, Trump received a warm welcome from Arab leaders, who focused on his desire to restrain Iran’s influence in the region, a commitment they found wanting in the Republican president’s Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama. He also announced $110 billion in U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Israel shares the antipathy that many Arab states have toward Iran, seeing the Islamic Republic as a threat to its very existence.

“What’s happened with Iran has brought many of the parts of the Middle East toward Israel,” Trump said in public remarks at a meeting in Jerusalem with Rivlin.

He also urged Iran to cease “its deadly funding, training and equipping of terrorists and militias”.

But Iran’s freshly re-elected pragmatist president, Hassan Rouhani, said regional stability could not be achieved without Iran’s help, and accused Washington of supporting terrorism with its backing for rebels in Syria.

He said the summit in Saudi Arabia “had no political value, and will bear no results”.

“Who can say the region will experience total stability without Iran? Who fought against the terrorists? It was Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Syria. But who funded the terrorists?”

Rouhani also said Iran would continue a ballistic missile program that has already triggered U.S. sanctions, saying it was for defensive purposes only.

U.S. President Donald Trump (C) stands next to Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz at the plaza in front of the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem’s Old City May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

“ULTIMATE DEAL”

Earlier, at the airport, Netanyahu said Israel hoped Trump’s visit would be a “milestone on the path towards reconciliation and peace”.

But he also repeated his right-wing government’s political and security demands of the Palestinians, including recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

Trump has vowed to do whatever is necessary to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians — something he has called “the ultimate deal” — but has given little indication of how he could revive negotiations that collapsed in 2014.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters en route to Tel Aviv that any three-way meeting between Trump, Netanyahu and Abbas was for “a later date”.

When Trump met Abbas this month in Washington, he stopped shortly of explicitly recommitting his administration to a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict, a long-standing foundation of U.S. policy.

Trump has also opted against an immediate move of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a longtime demand of Israel.

A senior administration official told Reuters last week that Trump remained committed to the measure, which he pledged in his election campaign, but would not announce such a move during this trip.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) listens as U.S. President Donald Trump (L) speaks during a welcoming ceremony upon his arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod near Tel Aviv, Israel May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

On Sunday, Israel authorized some economic concessions to the Palestinians that it said would improve civilian life in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority and were intended to respond to Trump’s request for “confidence-building steps”.

The United States welcomed the move but the Palestinians said they had heard such promises before.

Trump will have visited significant centers of Islam, Judaism and Christianity by the end of his trip, a point that his aides say bolsters his argument that the fight against Islamist militancy is a battle between “good and evil”.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller)

Iraqis celebrate Palm Sunday near Mosul for the first time in three years

Iraqis attend the first Palm Sunday procession in the burnt out main church of the Christian city of Qaraqosh since Iraqi forces retook it from Islamic States militants,

By Ulf Laessing

QARAQOSH, Iraq (Reuters) – Hundreds of Christians flocked to the Iraqi town of Qaraqosh on Sunday to celebrate Palm Sunday for the first time in three years, packing into a church torched by Islamic State to take communion at its ruined altar.

In October, Iraqi forces expelled the Sunni Muslim militants from Qaraqosh as part of a campaign to retake nearby Mosul, the country’s second-largest city seized by the group in June 2014.

Iraqis boys visit the burnt out main church as others attend the first Palm Sunday procession in the Christian city of Qaraqosh since Iraqi forces retook it from from Islamic States militants,

Iraqis boys visit the burnt out main church as others attend the first Palm Sunday procession in the Christian city of Qaraqosh since Iraqi forces retook it from from Islamic States militants, Iraq April 9, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

Iraq’s biggest Christian settlement until the militants arrived, Qaraqosh has been a ghost town as most residents are still too afraid to come back with the battle for Mosul, located 20 kilometers away, still raging.

But on Sunday church bells rang again across the town.

Hundreds arrived in cars from Erbil, the main city in autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan where most Christian had fled when Islamic State gave them an ultimatum to pay special taxes, convert or die.

“We need reconciliation,” Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Mosul Butrus Moshe told worshippers in the Immaculate Conception Church guarded by army jeeps.

Islamic State has targeted minority communities in both Iraq and Syria, setting churches on fire.

Scribbled “Islamic State” slogans could be still seen on the church’s walls while torn-up prayer books littered the floor.

Escorted by soldiers carrying rifles, the congregation then walked through Qaraqosh for Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week that culminates on Easter Sunday, holding up a banner saying “In times of war we bring peace.”

Iraqis attend the first Palm Sunday procession in the burnt out main church of the Christian city of Qaraqosh since Iraqi forces retook it from Islamic States militants,

Iraqis attend the first Palm Sunday procession in the burnt out main church of the Christian city of Qaraqosh since Iraqi forces retook it from Islamic States militants, Iraq April 9, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

Christianity in northern Iraq dates back to the first century AD.

The number of Christians fell sharply during the violence which followed the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the Islamic State takeover of Mosul purged the city of Christians for the first time in two millennia.

“Almost 75 percent of houses were burnt so if people return where can they live?” said Aziz Yashou, a worshipper. “We call for an international protection in order to live here.”

(Reporting by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Susan Fenton)

Putin unveils monument to Russia’s ‘spiritual founder’ calls for unity

The newly unveiled monument of grand prince Vladimir I, who initiated the christianization of Kievan Rus' in 988AD, is seen in central Moscow, Russia,

By Vladimir Soldatkin

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday unveiled a monument to the medieval prince who brought Christianity to the precursor of the Russian state, a figure being embraced by the Kremlin as a symbol of national identity.

Unveiling the statue to Grand Prince Vladimir near the Kremlin walls, Putin said the prince had been the spiritual founder of the Russian state.

“Today, our duty is to jointly stand up to modern challenges and threats, relying on the priceless traditions of unity and accord, moving forward and safeguarding the continuation of our 1,000-year history,” he said.

The 17.5 meter (56 foot) -tall bronze monument features prince Vladimir in flowing robes with a sword in his left hand and a cross in his right.

Grand Prince Vladimir was a ruler of Kievan Rus, the territory in modern-day Ukraine from which the Russian state would later emerge. In 988, he adopted Orthodox Christianity as the faith of his people, who were until then largely pagan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, attend a ceremony to unveil a monument of grand prince Vladimir I, who initiated the christianization of Kievan Rus' in 988AD, on National Unity Day in central Moscow, Russia,

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, attend a ceremony to unveil a monument of grand prince Vladimir I, who initiated the christianization of Kievan Rus’ in 988AD, on National Unity Day in central Moscow, Russia, November 4, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Putin, in the 16 years since he became president, has sought to build a spirit of national unity and pride, with a new emphasis on traditional Russian values.

His critics say he uses those values as a pretext to justify his stand-off with the West, which he accuses of trying to encroach on Russia’s sphere of influence and impose liberal social attitudes on its people.

The site of the new statue is between the red-brick walls of the Kremlin and the Lenin Library.

The unveiling coincided with National Unity Day, a public holiday created by Putin’s administration in 2004 to replace the Communist October Revolution Day, when tanks, missiles and troops used to parade through Red Square.

(Editing by Christian Lowe and Andrew Roche)

Christian convert stabbed to death in Bangladesh

DHAKA (Reuters) – Suspected Islamist militants stabbed a Christian convert to death in northern Bangladesh on Tuesday, the latest in a series of attacks on minorities in the Muslim-majority nation.

The South Asian country has seen a surge in Islamist violence in which liberal activists, members of minority Muslim sects and other religious groups have been targeted.

Police said three attackers came on a motorbike and stabbed Hossain Ali, 68, while he was having his morning walk in Kurigram, north of Dhaka.

“They left the scene exploding crude bombs to create panic,” Kurigram district police chief Tobarak Ullah told Reuters by telephone.

Ali converted to Christianity from Islam in 1999, he added.

“We are not sure whether Islamist militants carried out the attack,” he said, adding that the pattern of killing bore the hallmarks of recent attacks by Islamist militants.

Three men were picked up for questioning, he said.

Over the last few months, Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the killings of two foreigners, attacks on members of minority Muslim sects and other religious groups, but police say domestic militant group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen is behind the attacks.

At least five militants of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen have been killed in shootouts since November, as security forces have stepped up a crackdown on militants seeking to make the moderate Muslim nation of 160 million a sharia-based state.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Mother Teresa of Calcutta to be made saint in September

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a nun who dedicated her life to helping the poor, will be made a saint of the Roman Catholic Church at a ceremony on Sept. 4, Pope Francis announced on Tuesday.

Last December, he cleared the way for sainthood for the Nobel peace laureate, who died in 1997 at the age of 87 and was known as “saint of the gutters”.

Teresa, who was born Agnese Gonxha Bojaxhiu of Albanian parents in 1910 in what was then part of the Ottoman Empire and is now Macedonia, became an international figure but was also accused of trying to convert people to Christianity.

Francis, who has made concern for the poor a major plank of his papacy, was keen to make Mother Teresa a saint during the Church’s current Holy Year.

The Vatican said the ceremony would take place at the Vatican, dashing hopes of Indians that the pope would go to Kolkata, as Calcutta is now called, to perform the ritual.

“I am waiting to get there because it has been absolutely jubilant news and I can’t thank God enough that it is happening in my lifetime,” said Sunita Kumar, spokesperson for the Missionaries of Charity, the order of nuns Mother Teresa founded.

She began the order in the 1950s to help the poor on the streets of Kolkata. The religious order spread throughout the world. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

The late Pope John Paul II bent Vatican rules to allow the procedure to establish her case for sainthood to be launched two years after her death instead of the usual five. She was beatified in 2003, a mere six years after her death.

In the time since her death, some have accused Mother Teresa and the order of having ulterior motives in helping the destitute, saying their aim was to convert them to Christianity.

The order rejects that, saying, for example, that most of those helped in the Kalighat Home for Dying Destitutes in Kolkata were non-Christians with just a few days left to live and noting that conversion is a lengthy process.

The Church defines saints as those believed to have been holy enough during their lives to now be in Heaven and can intercede with God to perform miracles. She has been credited in the church with two miracles, both involving the healing of sick people.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; editing by Ralph Boulton; Editing by Ralph Boulton)