Nigeria holds mass burial for 73 people killed in communal violence

People cry as a truck carries the coffins of people killed by the Fulani herdsmen, in Makurdi, Nigeria January 11, 2018.

By Alexis Akwagyiram

MAKURDI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Seventy-three people killed since the start of the year in communal violence between semi-nomadic herdsmen and farmers were buried in Nigeria on Thursday highlighting a bloody conflict over fertile land that is taking on political significance.

The mass burial took place in Makurdi, in the central state of Benue, where thousands of mourners took to the streets to watch the funeral procession. The killings occurred in remote parts of Benue, the state worst hit by clashes that have killed at least 83 people since Dec. 31.

Thousands of herdsmen mainly from the Fulani ethnic group have moved southwards in the last few years to flee spreading desertification in the north, putting pressure on dwindling fertile land amid rapid population growth.

The spike in violence has become increasingly political ahead of elections in February 2019 with critics of President Muhammadu Buhari, who is Fulani, accusing him of failing to get tough with the herdsmen.

Feelings ran high on the streets of Makurdi where thousands of people, many clad in black, waved wreaths as coffins on lorries passed by carrying the dead who were mainly from rural communities of Benue.

Some mourners held banners featuring pictures of victims and the words: “President act now: your people are killing us”.

“Something that is disturbing that I have heard about is linking those developments to the fact that a Fulani man is president and so, he is brooking such kind of evil acts,” said the president’s spokesman, Femi Adesina, this week, adding that such violence predated Buhari’s administration.

The herdsmen are mostly Muslim and the settled farmers are often Christian.

Despite the recent outbreaks of violence, Nigerians, split roughly equally between Christians and Muslims from around 250 different ethnic groups, mostly live peacefully together.

Clashes in the last few months have occurred in parts of the northwest and southeast, but the middle belt – where differing religious, ancestral and cultural differences frequently ignite conflict – has been worst hit in the latest flashpoints.

Peter Zion,31, a member of a state government task force set up to defend farms, was recuperating in hospital after being shot and cut across his face and torso by herdsmen wielding guns and cutlasses on Jan. 2 in the state’s Guma district.

“They killed some of my colleagues and the neighbors that were there all died,” said the father-of-two whose face had been cut and whose hands and legs were heavily bandaged. He described attackers going door-to-door shooting people.

The executive secretary of the Benue emergency agency, Emmanuel Shior, on Thursday said around 80,000 people who had fled herdsmen attacks were living in four camps located across the state.

Herdsmen traditionally roam freely across West Africa, entering and leaving Nigeria through porous borders with Benin, Niger and Cameroon. They have also accused Nigerian farmers of violent attacks in the last few years.

Improving security was a key promise in Buhari’s successful 2015 presidential election campaign. The 75-year-old has not yet said whether he will seek re-election next year.

“Security of life and property continues to be top of our agenda, in line with our election pledge and promises,” said Buhari in a tweet on Thursday, which linked to a list of ways in which the government has responded to the killings.

He bolstered the police presence in Benue on Monday and ordered the head of police to relocate to the state.

The violence is likely to further stretch security forces already contending with Boko Haram’s Islamist insurgency in the northeast and the threat of attacks on oil facilities in the southern Niger Delta of the type that in 2016 helped to push Africa’s largest economy into recession.

(Additional reoporting by Anamesere Igboeroteonwu in Onitsha and Felix Onuah in Abuja; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

For Iraqi Christians, a bittersweet first Christmas home after Islamic State

Iraqi Christians pray during a mass on Christmas eve at Church of Saint George in Teleskof, Iraq December 24, 2017.

By Raya Jalabi

TELESKOF, Iraq (Reuters) – Inside the newly renovated Church of Saint George in the Northern Iraqi town of Teleskof, Hayat Chamoun Daoud led children dressed as Santa Claus singing “Jingle Bells” in Aramaic.

Like every other resident of Teleskof, this was Daoud’s first Christmas back home in three years, since Islamic State militants overran her town and forcibly displaced its 12,000-strong Chaldean Christian community.

“It’s so special to be back in my church, the church where I got married, the church I raised my children in,” the school headmistress said, tears in her eyes.

Faced with a choice to convert, pay a tax or die, Daoud, like many other Christians in the Nineveh Plains, chose to flee. Most sought refuge in nearby towns and cities, but many sought permanent asylum abroad. Though the militants were only in Teleskof for a few days, residents only began returning home earlier this year.

On Sunday, they celebrated their first Christmas together again at the town’s main church, which was overflowing. Hundreds of congregants, dressed in their finest, poured in to pray and receive communion from Father Salar Bodagh, who later lit the traditional bonfire in the church’s courtyard, a symbol of renewal he said.

Iraqi Christian children wait for gifts during a mass at Church of Saint George in Teleskof, Iraq December 24, 2017.

Iraqi Christian children wait for gifts during a mass at Church of Saint George in Teleskof, Iraq December 24, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

‘JOY SOAKED IN TEARS’

Despite the obvious joys of being able to celebrate openly once again, it was a bittersweet Christmas for most across the Nineveh Plains, the epicenter of Iraq’s ancient Christian communities which can trace their history in the country back two millennia.

Though Iraq declared full victory over the militants just two weeks ago after a brutal three-year war, the damage done to Christian enclaves was extensive, and left many wondering whether they could overcome their recent history.

Islamic State ravaged Christian areas, looting and burning down homes and churches, stripping them of all valuable artifacts and smashing relics.

The damage in Qaraqosh, a town 15 km (10 miles) west of Mosul also known as Hamdaniya, was extensive, particularly to the town’s ancient churches.

At the Syrian Catholic Church of the Immaculate, congregants gathered for midnight Mass on Sunday surrounded by scorched and blackened walls, still tagged with Islamic State graffiti. They also sat on donated plastic chairs – the church has not yet been able to replace the wooden pews the militants used to fuel the massive fire which engulfed the church.

Most families will require tens of thousands of dollars to repair their homes and replace their stolen goods. But most say they can overcome the material damage, unlike the forced separation of their families.

Before the militant onslaught, Qaraqosh was the largest Christian settlement in Iraq, with a population of more than 50,000. But today, only a few hundred families have returned. Entire congregations have moved overseas, such as the Syriac Orthodox congregation of the Church of Mart Shmony.

On Saturday afternoon, Father Butros Kappa, the head of Qaraqosh’s Church of the Immaculate was trying hard to summon any sense of hope to deliver his congregation during Christmas Mass.

“We’ll have a Christmas Mass like in previous years, but this year, ours will be a joy soaked in tears, because all of our people have left Iraq,” said Father Kappa.

Holding Mass in the singed and upturned ruins of his church was therefore important, he said, “to remind everyone that despite the tragedies that have befallen us, we’re still here.”

A burned church of the Immaculate Conception by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Qaraqosh, south of Mosul, Iraq December 23, 2017. Picture taken December 23, 2017.

A burned church of the Immaculate Conception by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Qaraqosh, south of Mosul, Iraq December 23, 2017. Picture taken December 23, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

‘NO FUTURE FOR US’

In Teleskof, 30 km (20 miles) north of Mosul and itself one of the oldest continuing Christian communities in the world, some families were skipping Mass altogether upset at their forced dispersal.

“We usually celebrate with our entire family,” said Umm Rita, as she prepared the traditional Christmas Day dish of pacha (sheep’s head, trotters and stomach all slowly boiled) at her home. “But how can we be happy this year? Our brothers and sisters, even my own daughter, her husband and child I’ve never met have all moved away.”

Community leaders estimate more than 7,000 of Teleskof’s residents are now scattered across Iraq and it’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region, the United States, Australia, Germany, Lebanon and Jordan.

Amid ongoing tensions between the central government in Baghdad and Iraq’s Kurds after a referendum on Kurdish independence was held over Baghdad’s objections in September, Teleskof’s residents fear violence once again. “We just want to live in peace,” said Umm Rita. “We are more anxious now than when Islamic State was in our homes.”

“Our community has been gutted,” said Firas Abdelwahid, a 76-year-old former state oil employee, of the thousands who have sought permanent shelter overseas. Watching children play by the church bonfire, he felt melancholy.

“But what do we expect? The past is tragic, the present is desperate and well, there is no future for us Christians in Iraq.”

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Mary Milliken)

Vietnam braces for typhoon as Philippine toll rises to 230 dead

Vietnamese residents are seen at an evacuation center before Tempin storm hits the land in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam December 25, 2017.

By Mi Nguyen and Manuel Mogato

HANOI/MANILA (Reuters) – Authorities in Vietnam prepared to move a million people from low-lying areas along the south coast on Monday as a typhoon approached after it battered the Philippines with floods and landslides that killed more than 230 people.

Typhoon Tembin is expected to slam into Vietnam late on Monday after bringing misery to the predominantly Christian Philippines just before Christmas.

Vietnam’s disaster prevention committee said 74,000 people had been moved to safety from vulnerable areas, while authorities in 15 provinces and cities were prepared to move more than 1 million.

The government ordered that oil rigs and vessels be protected and it warned that about 62,000 fishing boats should not venture out to sea.

“Vietnam must ensure the safety of its oil rigs and vessels. If necessary, close the oil rigs and evacuate workers,” Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc was quoted as saying on a government website.

Schools were ordered to close in the southern commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City on Monday, a working day in Vietnam.

On Sunday, Tembin hit the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, parts of which are contested by several countries, including Vietnam and China.

No casualties were reported in outposts there.

Vietnam, like the Philippines, is regularly battered by typhoons that form over the warm waters of the Pacific and barrel westwards into land.

Tembin will be the 16th major storm to hit Vietnam this year. The storms and other disasters have left 390 people dead or missing, according to official figures.

SCORES MISSING

In the Philippines, rescue workers were still struggling to reach some remote areas hit by floods and landslides that Tembin’s downpours brought, as the death toll climbed to more than 230. Scores of people are missing.

The full extent of the devastation was only becoming clear as the most remote areas were being reached.

Health worker Arturo Simbajon said nearly the entire coastal village of Anungan on the Zamboanga peninsula of Mindanao island had been wiped out by a barrage of broken logs, boulders and mud that swept down a river and out to sea.

“Only the mosque was left standing,” Simbajon said.

“People were watching the rising sea but did not expect the water to come from behind them.”

Manuel Luis Ochotorena, head of regional disaster agency, said he expected the death toll to rise.

“Many areas in Zamboanga peninsula are still without power and communications, some towns are cut off due to collapsed bridges, floods and landslides,” he said.

Tens of thousands of people on Mindanao have been displaced by the storm, which struck late on Friday.

The Philippines is battered by about 20 typhoons a year and warnings are routinely issued.

But disaster officials said many villagers had ignored warnings this time to get out coastal areas and move away from riverbanks.

In 2013, super typhoon Haiyan killed nearly 8,000 people and left 200,000 families homeless in the central Philippines.

(This version of the story was refiled to fix spelling in paragraph two)

(Reporting by Mi Nguyen; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Robert Birsel)

Nazareth Christmas celebrations will be held as normal

Israeli Arabs perform a nativity scene for tourists in the northern town of Nazareth December 22, 2008.

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Nazareth, the Israeli Arab city where Jesus is thought to have been raised, will celebrate Christmas as usual, its mayor said, denying the festivities would be curtailed in protest at the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

On Wednesday, a city spokesman said there would be some cuts to the celebrations to protest against President Donald Trump’s decision on Jerusalem that angered Palestinians as well as U.S. allies in the Middle East and the rest of the world.

Mayor Ali Salam told Reuters on Saturday that three singers who had been due to perform would not appear. He gave no reason for their absence, but said that the celebrations would proceed as normal.

“I don’t know why people thought that there would be cuts to the celebrations. Everything, except for three singers who will not be coming, will be held as normal. We have already welcomed 60,000 people to the city today,” Salam said.

Nazareth, the largest Arab town in Israel with a population of 76,000 Muslims and Christians, is one of the Holy Land’s focal points of Christmas festivities which begin officially on Saturday evening.

Nazareth’s imposing Basilica of the Annunciation is built on a site that many Christian faithful believe was the childhood home of Jesus’ mother, Mary.

(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

‘We are one’: Palestinian Christians and Muslims unite against Trump’s Jerusalem call

'We are one': Palestinian Christians and Muslims unite against Trump's Jerusalem call

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Less than an hour after U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Palestinians protested by turning off the lights on the Christmas tree outside Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

It was a timely reminder that while headlines focused on Islamist calls for uprisings and Trump’s references to Jewish historical ties, the president’s words also stirred deep feelings among the Palestinians’ small Christian community.

Coming out of the Sunday service in his Assyrian Catholic church in Jerusalem, Fredrick Hazo accused Trump of “dragging all the world into trouble”, and called on the U.S. leader to reverse his decision.

“We are united – Christians, Muslims, we are one,” said the 59-year-old Palestinian musician, standing in an alley in the heart of the Old City, surrounded by shops selling religious trinkets.

He was frustrated by the politics, but confident the delicate balance the three faiths kept in the holy city would prevail. “In this sacred place, God is protecting us all. We are guarded by his angels in Jerusalem,” Hazo added.

Christians make up around just one percent of the Palestinian population in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem – though they punch above their weight in local and national politics.

Back in July, Hazo protested alongside Muslims against Israel’s installation of security scanners at the nearby al-Aqsa mosque – Islam’s third holiest site – after two Arab-Israeli gunmen shot dead two Israeli police officers at the site.

It removed the metal detectors after days of bloody clashes, scenes that have not been repeated in the city since Trump’s declaration.

UNITED IN PRAYER

The appeals to religious unity inside Jerusalem’s walls stand in contrast to the more divided voices outside.

In the hours running up to Trump’s statement, Pope Francis called for the status quo in the city to be respected. The Episcopal Church of the United States said Trump’s announcement “could have profound ramifications on the peace process and the future of a two-state solution”.

But Trump’s decision found strong backing from another corner of the Christian community – many among his own country’s politically powerful evangelicals who see God’s hand in the modern-day return of Jews to a biblical homeland.

Trump convened a circle of evangelical advisers during his presidential bid, and he was the overwhelming favorite of white evangelical voters in last year’s U.S. election.

“We are all bible-believers and we believe that this is the bible-land and that Jerusalem is the ancient capital of Israel back to the days of King David,” said Dallas-based Mike Evans, part of an evangelical group that met Trump on Monday.

“So for our president to stand up and declare it makes us extremely proud and honored.”

For Palestinian supermarket cashier Mohammed al-Hawa, however, Trump’s words and the logic behind them ignored the more complex reality on the ground.

People of all faith in Jerusalem were united in prayer, the 33-year-old said, even if they were divided over politics.

“Christians, Jews and Muslims live in this city together. There is no problem between them. Only the politics. The governments want to make wars,” he said.

“This is my city – my blood, my life,” added a 70-year-old Palestinian, walking through the pilgrim-packed courtyard of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered by Christians as the site of Jesus’s tomb.

The church is packed into a small parcel of land that also holds the al-Aqsa compound and Judaism’s Western Wall

“I can go to the church, to anywhere in Jerusalem, not Trump nor Netanyahu can stop me,” added the man who identified himself only as a “Jerusalemite”.

(Additional reporting by Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh in Bethelem; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Andrew Heavens)

Message from Pastor Jim Bakker “This is One of the Great Moments in Biblical History.”

Pastor Jim Bakker

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they that love thee shall prosper. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces. For my brethren and companions’ sakes, I will say now, peace be within thee. For the sake of the House of the Lord our God I will seek thy good.

– Psalm 122

In a live message recorded shortly after the proclamation by President Donald Trump, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Pastor Jim Bakker spoke to Christians about this historic moment.  

“Our President has stood up for Israel.  He has stood up and fulfilled his promises.  The press has said that ‘The President has changed the course of history today.’ He knows the authority of the Bible”  

Please watch this compelling Christian view of this momentous and bold act by our President and what God says about Israel.  Please continue to keep both Israel and our President in your prayers!  

Posted by The Jim Bakker Show on Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Philippine army says taking fire from women, children in Marawi battle

Smoke billows from a burning building as government troops continue their assault on its 105th day of clearing operations against pro-IS militants who have seized control of large parts of Marawi city, southern Philippines September 4, 2017.

By Manuel Mogato

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – Philippine troops fighting Islamic State-linked rebels in a southern city have encountered armed resistance from women and children, the military said on Monday, as troops make a final push to end a conflict that has raged for more than 100 days.

Ground forces were braced for higher casualties amid fierce fighting in Marawi City on the island of Mindanao, where the field of battle has shrank to a small area in a commercial heart infested with snipers, and littered with booby traps.

“We are now in the final phase of our operations and we are expecting more intense and bloody fighting. We may suffer heavier casualties as the enemy becomes more desperate,” Lieutenant General Carlito Galvez, who heads the military in Western Mindanao, told reporters.

He said the number of fighters was diminishing and a small number of women and children, most likely family members of the rebels, were now engaged in combat.

“Our troops in the field are seeing women and children shooting at our troops so that’s why it seems they are not running out of fighters.”

More than 800 people have been killed in the battle, most of them insurgents, since May 23 when the militants occupied large parts of the predominantly Muslim town.

The battle is the biggest security challenge in years for the mostly Catholic Philippines, even though it has a long history of Muslim separatist rebellion in Mindanao, an island of 22 million people that has been placed under martial law until the end of the year.

The protracted clashes and resilience of the rebels has fanned fears that Philippine groups loyal to Islamic State, and with ties to Indonesian and Malaysian militants, have formed an alliance that is well-organized, funded and armed, and serious about carving out its own territory in Mindanao.

Citing information provided by four hostages who had escaped from the rebels, Galvez said there were some 56 Christian hostages – most of them women – and about 80 male residents may have been forced to take up arms and fight the military.

The fighting was concentrated in an area around a mosque about a quarter of a square kilometer. He said soldiers were taking control of an average 35 buildings a day and at that rate, it could be three weeks before the city was under government control.

 

AIR STRIKES

Fighting in Marawi was intense on Monday, with heavy gunfire and explosions ringing out across the picturesque, lakeside town, the heart of which has been devastated by near-daily government air strikes.

Helicopters circled above to provide air cover for ground troops as fighting raged, with bursts of smoke rising above the skyline as bombs landed on rebel positions.

Galvez said intelligence showed the rebels’ military commander, Abdullah Maute, may have been killed last month in an air strike.

Postings on Facebook and chatter over the past two days on Telegram, a messaging application used by Islamic State and its sympathizers, had carried tributes to Abdullah, referring to him by one of his pseudonyms, he said.

“There is no 100 percent confirmation until we see his cadaver but this is enough to presume he died already,” he said.

The military has contradictory statements about the status of the rebel leaders over the past few months.

Abdullah Maute and brother Omarkhayam are the Middle East-educated leaders of a militant clan known as the Maute group that has gained notoriety in the past two years due to its ability to engage the army for long periods.

Under the name Dawla Islamiya, the Maute group has formed an alliance with Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of a pro-Islamic State faction of another group, Abu Sayyaf.

Galvez said the army’s intelligence indicated both Omarkhayam and Hapilon, Islamic State’s anointed “emir” in Southeast Asia, were still in the Marawi battle.

 

 

 

(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel)