New Mexico family believed dead boy’s spirit would lead attacks: prosecutors

Personal articles are shown at the compound in rural New Mexico where 11 children were taken in protective custody after a raid by authorities near Amalia, New Mexico, August 10, 2018. Photo taken August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Hay

By Andrew Hay

TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – A 3-year-old boy found buried at a New Mexico desert compound died in a ritual to “cast out demonic spirits,” but his extended family believed he would “return as Jesus” to identify “corrupt” targets for them to attack, prosecutors said in court on Monday.

Prosecutors’ account of an exorcism-like ritual, allegations of weapons training for children and references to martyrdom and conspiracy were aimed at persuading a judge to deny bond for the five adults charged with child abuse in the case.

Defense attorney Thomas Clark (R) sits next to his client, defendant Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, defense attorney Marie Legrand Miller (2nd L) and her client Hujrah Wahhaj (L) during a hearing on charges of child abuse in which they were granted bail in Taos County, New Mexico, U.S. August 12, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Hay

Defense attorney Thomas Clark (R) sits next to his client, defendant Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, defense attorney Marie Legrand Miller (2nd L) and her client Hujrah Wahhaj (L) during a hearing on charges of child abuse in which they were granted bail in Taos County, New Mexico, U.S. August 12, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Hay

However, state District Judge Sarah Backus said at the end of the four-hour detention hearing she remained unconvinced that the defendants posed a danger to the community and set bail at $20,000 for each of them.

“The state alleges that there was a big plan afoot,” Backus said in rendering her decision. “But the state hasn’t shown to my satisfaction, in clear and convincing evidence, what that plan was.”

Defense attorneys said prosecutors sought to criminalize their clients for being African-Americans of Muslim faith.

“If these people were white and Christian, nobody would bat an eye over the idea of faith healing, or praying over a body or touching a body and quoting scripture,” defense lawyer Thomas Clark told reporters after the hearing. “But when black Muslims do it, there seems to be something nefarious, something evil.”

Under terms of the judge’s order, four defendants were expected to be placed under house arrest with electronic ankle bracelets to ensure they remain within Taos County for the duration of the case.

The five suspects, who had established a communal living arrangement with their children in the high-desert compound, have been in custody since authorities raided their ramshackle homestead north of Taos 10 days ago.

The two men and three women are all related as siblings or by marriage. Three are the adult children of a prominent New York City Muslim cleric who is himself the biological grandfather of nine of the children involved.

The principal suspect, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 39, has also been charged with abducting his severely ill 3-year-old son, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, from the Atlanta home of the boy’s mother in December.

Clark said Ibn Wahhaj would remain in custody due to a fugitive warrant against him in Georgia stemming from the cross-country manhunt that led investigators to the New Mexico compound.

The body of a young boy believed to be his son was found in a tunnel at the site three days after the raid. No charges have been filed in connection with the death.

For now, the thrust of the government’s case remains 11 counts of felony child abuse filed against each of the defendants – Ibn Wahhaj and his wife, Jany Leveille, along with his brother-in-law and sister – Lucas Morton and Subhannah Wahhaj – and a second sister, Hujrah Wahhaj.

The 11 children, ranging from one to 15 years old and described by authorities as starving and ragged when they were found, were placed in protective custody after the Aug. 3 raid.

WEAPONS AND RITUALS

According to prosecutors’ presentation on Monday, some of the children were given weapons training to defend the compound against a possible raid by law enforcement. However, the government said there was more to it than that.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Travis Taylor testified that the 15-year-old son of Ibn Wahhaj recounted one of the adults telling him the spirit of the dead 3-year-old would return “as Jesus” to direct the group in carrying out violent attacks. Taylor said prospective targets would include “the financial system, law enforcement, the education system.”

Prosecutor John Lovelace said the 3-year-old boy died during “a religious ritual” intended to “cast out demonic spirits.”

Abdul-Ghani stopped breathing, lost consciousness and died during a ceremony in which his father put his hand on the boy’s head and recited verses from the Koran, Taylor testified, citing interviews with Ibn Wahhaj’s 15-year-old and 13-year-old sons.

Prosecutors said in court documents last week that all five defendants were giving firearms instruction to the children “in furtherance of a conspiracy to commit school shootings.”

Authorities acknowledged in court on Monday that police had previously encountered Ibn Wahhaj, Leveille and seven of the children in December when they were involved in a traffic accident in Alabama.

Lovelace said police at the time found weapons and ammunition in the vehicle. Authorities let the group go after Ibn Wahhaj explained he was licensed to carry the guns as a private security agent and that he and the others were en route to New Mexico for a camping trip.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos; Writing by Steve Gorman, Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Tom Brown, Michael Perry and Paul Tait)

Five charged with child abuse at New Mexico compound due in court; body of child found

Conditions at a compound in rural New Mexico where 11 children were taken into protective custody for their own health and safety after a raid by authorities, are shown in this photo near Amalia, New Mexico, U.S., provided August 6, 2018. Taos County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS

TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – Five people charged with felony child abuse were due to make their first court appearance on Wednesday after 11 children were found malnourished inside a ramshackle compound in northern New Mexico.

The defendants include the father of a missing boy whose disappearance led authorities to raid the compound last week. They also include another man and three women presumed to be the mothers of the 11 children, who were taken into protective custody.

On Monday, authorities found a body at the site believed to be the remains of the missing boy, whose abduction from his Georgia home has been reported by his mother in December. His body was discovered on what would have been the missing child’s fourth birthday, the Taos County sheriff said on Tuesday.

Identification of the remains was awaiting an autopsy. Further charges in the case were possible, local prosecutor Donald Gallegos said.

The compound, surrounded by tires and a trench, is located on the outskirts of Amalia, New Mexico, near the Colorado state line, about 50 miles (80 km) north of Taos.

Each of the five adults were charged with 11 counts of felony child abuse, according to the local prosecutor, Donald Gallegos.

The missing boy’s father, who the sheriff said was heavily armed when taken into custody, was identified as Siraj Wahhaj, 39. According to CNN, Wahhaj is himself the son of a prominent Muslim cleric of the same name in New York.

The second man has been alternatively identified by the sheriff as Lucas Morten and Lucan Morton.

The sheriff declined to answer questions about what was going on at the compound, but he said a shooting range had been built at the property.

(Reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, editing by Larry King)

Supreme Court poised to rule on Trump travel ban, California law on anti abortion clinic regulations

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court is seen after the court revived Ohio's contentious policy of purging infrequent voters from its registration rolls, overturning a lower court ruling that Ohio's policy violated the National Voter Registration Act, in Washington, U.S., June 11, 2018. REUTERS/Erin Schaff/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court, winding down its nine-month term, will issue rulings this week in its few remaining cases including a major one on the legality of President Donald Trump’s ban on people from five Muslim-majority nations entering the country.

The nine justices are due to decide other politically sensitive cases on whether non-union workers have to pay fees to unions representing certain public-sector workers such as police and teachers, and the legality of California regulations on clinics that steer women with unplanned pregnancies away from abortion.

The justices began their term in October and, as is their usual practice, aim to make all their rulings by the end of June, with more due on Monday. Six cases remain to be decided.

The travel ban case was argued on April 25, with the court’s conservative majority signaling support for Trump’s policy in a significant test of presidential powers.

Trump has said the ban is needed to protect the United States from attacks by Islamic militants. Conservative justices indicated an unwillingness to second-guess Trump on his national security rationale.

Lower courts had blocked the travel ban, the third version of a policy Trump first pursued a week after taking office last year. But the high court on Dec. 4 allowed it to go fully into effect while the legal challenge continued.

The challengers, led by the state of Hawaii, have argued the policy was motivated by Trump’s enmity toward Muslims. Lower courts have decided the ban violated federal immigration law and the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on the government favoring one religion over another.

The current ban, announced in September, prohibits entry into the United States by most people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

In a significant case for organized labor, the court’s conservatives indicated opposition during arguments on Feb. 26 to so-called agency fees that some states require non-members to pay to public-sector unions.

Workers who decide not to join unions representing certain state and local employees must pay the fees in two dozen states in lieu of union dues to help cover the cost of non-political activities such as collective bargaining. The fees provide millions of dollars annually to these unions.

The justices seemed skeptical during March 20 arguments toward California’s law requiring Christian-based anti-abortion centers, known as crisis pregnancy centers, to post notices about the availability of state-subsidized abortions and birth control. The justices indicated that they would strike down at least part of the regulations.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham and Grant McCool)

Turkey’s Erdogan wins sweeping new powers after election victory

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters from the balcony of his ruling AK Party headquarters in Ankara, Turkey, early June 25, 2018. Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Nevzat Devranoglu

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan won sweeping new executive powers on Monday after his victory in landmark elections that also saw his Islamist-rooted AK Party and its nationalist allies secure a majority in parliament.

Erdogan’s main rival, Muharrem Ince of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), conceded defeat but branded the elections “unjust” and said the presidential system that now takes effect was “very dangerous” because it would lead to one-man rule.

A leading European rights watchdog that sent observers to monitor the voting also said the opposition had faced “unequal conditions” and that limits on the freedom of media to cover the elections were further hindered by a continuing state of emergency imposed in Turkey after a failed 2016 coup.

Erdogan, 64, the most popular – yet divisive – leader in modern Turkish history, told jubilant, flag-waving supporters there would be no retreat from his drive to transform Turkey, a NATO member and, at least nominally, a candidate to join the European Union.

He is loved by millions of devoutly Muslim working class Turks for delivering years of stellar economic growth and overseeing the construction of roads, bridges, airports, hospitals and schools.

But his critics, including rights groups, accuse him of destroying the independence of the courts and press freedoms. A crackdown launched after the coup has seen 160,000 people detained, and the state of emergency allows Erdogan to bypass parliament with decrees. He says it will be lifted soon.

Erdogan and the AK Party claimed victory in Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary elections after defeating a revitalized opposition that had gained considerable momentum recently and looked capable of staging an upset.

“It is out of the question for us to turn back from where we’ve brought our country in terms of democracy and the economy,” Erdogan said on Sunday night.

His victory means he will remain president at least until 2023 – the centenary of the founding of the Turkish republic on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Erdogan’s foes accuse him of dismantling Ataturk’s secular legacy by bringing religion back into public life.

Erdogan responds to such criticism by saying he is trying to modernize Turkey and improve religious freedoms.

With virtually all votes counted, Erdogan had 53 percent against Ince’s 31 percent, while in the parliamentary vote the AKP took 42.5 percent and its MHP nationalist allies secured 11 percent, outstripping expectations.

Turkish markets initially rallied on hopes of increased political stability – investors had feared deadlock between Erdogan and an opposition-controlled parliament – but then retreated amid concerns over future monetary policy.

“MAJOR DANGER”

The vote ushers in a powerful executive presidency backed by a narrow majority in a 2017 referendum. The office of prime minister will be abolished and Erdogan will be able to issue decrees to form and regulate ministries and remove civil servants, all without parliamentary approval.

“The new regime that takes effect from today is a major danger for Turkey… We have now fully adopted a regime of one-man rule,” Ince, a veteran CHP lawmaker, told a news conference.

The secularist CHP draws support broadly from Turkey’s urban, educated middle class. It won 23 percent in the new parliament and the pro-Kurdish HDP nearly 12 percent, above the 10 percent threshold needed to enter parliament.

The HDP’s presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, campaigned from a prison cell, where he is detained on terrorism charges he denies. He faces 142 years in prison if convicted.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a rights watchdog, said high voter turnout, at nearly 87 percent, demonstrated Turks’ commitment to democracy. But the OSCE also cited some irregularities and echoed opposition complaints about heavy media bias in favor of Erdogan and the AKP.

“The restrictions we have seen on fundamental freedoms (due to the state of emergency) have had an impact on these elections,” Ignacio Sanchez Amor, head of the OSCE observer mission, told a news conference in Ankara.

The MHP takes a hard line on the Kurds, making it less likely that Erdogan will soften his approach to security issues in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey and neighboring Syria and Iraq, where Turkish forces are battling Kurdish militants.

The Turkish lira and stocks sagged after initial gains, and economists said the outlook was uncertain.

“Any rally could quickly go into reverse if President Erdogan uses his strengthened position to pursue looser fiscal and monetary policy, as we fear is likely,” said Jason Tuvey, senior emerging markets economist at Capital Economics.

The lira is down some 19 percent since January and investors fear Erdogan, a self-declared “enemy of interest rates”, may pressure the central bank to cut recently hiked borrowing costs to stimulate economic growth despite double-digit inflation.

Seeking to reassure investors, Erdogan’s chief economic adviser, Cemil Ertem, told Reuters the new government would focus on economic reforms and budget discipline. He added that the central bank’s independence was “fundamental”.

The EU’s executive Commission said it hoped Erdogan would “remain a committed partner for the European Union on major issues of common interest such as migration, security, regional stability and the fight against terrorism”.

Turkey’s years-long EU accession bid stalled some time ago amid disputes on a range of issues, including Ankara’s human rights record, especially since the post-coup crackdown.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called Erdogan to congratulate him but there were no reports of Western leaders doing so, underlining the chill in relations between Ankara and its traditional NATO allies.

(Reporting by Turkey bureau; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Saudi Arabia’s women drivers get ready to steer their lives

Driving instructor Ahlam al-Somali (R) reads instructions before getting ready to drive with trainee Maria al-Faraj at Saudi Aramco Driving Center in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) – On June 24, when Saudi women are allowed to drive for the first time, Amira Abdulgader wants to be sitting at the wheel, the one in control, giving a ride to her mother beside her.

“Sitting behind the wheel (means) that you are the one controlling the trip,” said the architect, dressed in a black veil, who has just finished learning to drive. “I would like to control every single detail of my trip. I will be the one to decide when to go, what to do, and when I will come back.”

Abdulgader is one of about 200 women at the state oil firm Aramco taking advantage of a company offer to teach female employees and their families at its driving academy in Dhahran to support the social revolution sweeping the kingdom.

“We need the car to do our daily activities. We are working, we are mothers, we have a lot of social networking, we need to go out – so we need transport,” she said. “It will change my life.” (Click for Wider Image picture essay https://reut.rs/2thn2qN )

Women make up about five percent of Aramco’s 66,000 staff, meaning that 3,000 more could eventually enroll in the driving school.

Last September, King Salman decreed an end to the world’s only ban on women drivers, maintained for decades by Saudi Arabia’s deeply conservative Muslim establishment.

But it is his son, 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is the face of the wider social revolution.

Many young Saudis regard his ascent to power as proof that their generation is finally getting a share of control over a country whose patriarchal traditions have for decades made power the province of old men.

For Abdulgader, June 24 will be the day to celebrate that change, and there is only one person she wants to share it with.

“On June 24, I would like to go to my mother’s house and take her for a ride. This is my first plan actually, and I would like really to enjoy it with my mother. Just me and my mother, without anyone else.”

(Reporting by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Alison Williams)

Pakistan heatwave kills 65 people in Karachi – welfare organization

Men and children cool off from the heatwave, as they are sprayed with water jetting out from a leaking water pipeline in Karachi, Pakistan May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

By Saad Sayeed

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – A heatwave has killed 65 people in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi over the past three days, a social welfare organization said on Tuesday, amid fears the death toll could climb as the high temperatures persist.

The heatwave has coincided with power outages and the holy month of Ramadan, when most Muslims do not eat or drink during daylight hours. Temperatures hit 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit) on Monday, local media reported.

Faisal Edhi, who runs the Edhi Foundation that operates morgues and an ambulance service in Pakistan’s biggest city, said the deaths occurred mostly in the poor areas of Karachi.

Residents sleep on a building pavement, to escape heat and frequent power outage in their residence area Karachi, Pakistan. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Residents sleep on a building pavement, to escape heat and frequent power outage in their residence area Karachi, Pakistan. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

“Sixty-five people have died over the last three days,” Edhi told Reuters. “We have the bodies in our cold storage facilities and their neighborhood doctors have said they died of heat-stroke.”

A government spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

But Sindh province’s Health Secretary Fazlullah Pechuho told the English-language Dawn newspaper that no one has died from heat-stroke.

“Only doctors and hospitals can decide whether the cause of death was heat-stroke or not. I categorically reject that people have died due to heat-stroke in Karachi,” Pechuho was quoted as saying.

Nonetheless, reports of heat stroke deaths in Karachi will stir unease amid fears of a repeat of a heatwave in of 2015, when morgues and hospitals were overwhelmed and at least 1,300 mostly elderly and sick people died from the searing heat.

In 2015, the Edhi morgue ran out of freezer space after about 650 bodies were brought in the space of a few days. Ambulances left decaying corpses outside in sweltering heat.

The provincial government has assured residents that there would be no repeat of 2015 and was working on ensuring those in need of care receive rapid treatment.

Edhi said most of the dead brought to the morgue were working class factory workers who came from the low-income Landhi and Korangi areas of Karachi.

“They work around heaters and boilers in textile factories and there is eight to nine hours of (scheduled power outages) in these areas,” he said.

Temperatures are expected to stay above 40C until Thursday, local media reported.

(Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Alison Williams)

Muslims must stop other countries opening Jerusalem embassies: Turkey

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Secretary General of Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Yousef bin Ahmad Al-Othaimeen are seen during a meeting of the OIC Foreign Ministers Council in Istanbul, Turkey May 18, 2018. Hudaverdi Arif Yaman/Pool via Reuters

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Parisa Hafezi

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey called on Muslim countries on Friday to stop other nations from following the United States and moving their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem, as it opened a meeting in Istanbul on Friday.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan called the summit of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) after Israeli forces this week killed dozens of Palestinian protesters who were demonstrating in Gaza against the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.

Turkey has been one of the most vocal critics of the U.S. move and the violence in Gaza, declaring three days of mourning. Erdogan has described the actions of the Israeli forces as a “genocide” and Israel as a “terrorist state”.

“We will emphasise the status of the Palestine issue for our community, and that we will not allow the status of the historic city to be changed,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an opening address. “We must prevent other countries following the U.S. example.”

The events in Gaza have also sparked a diplomatic row between Turkey and Israel, with both countries expelling each other’s senior diplomats this week.

The plight of Palestinians resonates with many Turks, particularly the nationalist and religious voters who form the base of support for Erdogan, running for re-election next month.

TRADE TIES

Despite the rhetoric, Israel was the 10th-biggest market for Turkish exports in 2017, buying some $3.4 billion of goods, according to IMF statistics.

“We have excellent economic ties with Turkey. And these relations are very important for both sides,” Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon told Israel Radio on Friday when asked if Israel should break ties with Turkey.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to move the embassy reversed decades of U.S. policy, upsetting the Arab world and Western allies.

Guatemala this week became the second country to move its embassy to the holy city, and Paraguay said it would follow suit this month.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Iranian television after arriving in Istanbul that “Israel’s recent crimes in Palestine and the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem need serious coordination between Islamic countries and the international community”.

U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein on Friday said Israel had systematically deprived Palestinians of their human rights, with 1.9 million people in Gaza “caged in a toxic slum from birth to death”.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Israeli joy, Palestinian fury over U.S. embassy launch in Jerusalem

Palestinian demonstrators run for cover during a protest against U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and ahead of the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The crowd sported branded baseball caps and Israel’s prime minister wore red, white and blue as the United States opened its embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, delighting Israelis and deepening Palestinian anger.

“Our greatest hope is for peace,” U.S. President Donald Trump said in a recorded video message, even as a spokesman for the Palestinian president accused him of sowing instability by overturning decades of U.S. policy on the status of the city.

The inauguration of the embassy, after Trump outraged the Arab world and stoked international concern by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December, was hailed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “glorious day”.

Trump opted not to attend the ceremony in which a U.S. consular building was re-purposed into an embassy, pending the construction of a new facility, probably years away.

His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, both White House advisers, were there, seated next to Netanyahu opposite a stage with a backdrop of U.S. and Israeli flags. Two American pastors and a rabbi gave invocations.

Kushner, in a rare public speech, said the relocation from Tel Aviv, a diplomatically and politically sensitive step promised but never implemented by a succession of U.S. presidents, showed that Trump was a man of his word.

The comments were telling, just a week after Trump announced Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, a move that critics said weakened global trust in the United States.

GAZA VIOLENCE

“When President Trump makes a promise, he keeps it,” Kushner said, a reference to a campaign pledge to open a Jerusalem embassy. “Today also demonstrates American leadership. By moving our embassy to Jerusalem, we have shown the world once again that the United States can be trusted.”

Palestinians, with broad international backing, seek East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they want to establish in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Israel regards all of the city, including the eastern sector it captured in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed, as its “eternal and indivisible capital”. The Trump administration has avoided that description, and noted that the city’s final borders should be decided by the parties.

The crowd, many wearing the caps marked “U.S. Embassy, Jerusalem, Israel” rose for numerous standing ovations. Attendants handed out pretzels and mineral water.

A smiling Netanyahu, decked out in U.S. colours – a blue suit, white shirt and red tie – showered praise on Trump, a president with whom he is in lockstep on many regional issues.

Thanking Trump for “having the courage” to move the embassy, Netanyahu said: “This is a great day. A great day for Jerusalem. A great day for the state of Israel. A day that will be engraved in our national memory for generations.”

Split screens on Israeli television stations showed a more complex story.

As coverage of the embassy ceremony ran on one side of the screen, the other broadcast the violence along Israel’s border with Gaza, where dozens of Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli gunfire.

Amid expressions of international concern and condemnation over the use of live ammunition, Israel said it was taking the necessary measures to prevent any breach of its border fence with the enclave run by the militant Hamas movement.

Kushner, echoing the Netanyahu government’s position that the six weeks of Gaza protests were being orchestrated by Hamas Islamists opposed to Israel’s existence, said: “Even today those provoking violence are part of the problem and not part of the solution.”

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Andrew Heavens)

Jews and Muslims celebrate unusual coexistence in Tunisia’s Djerba

Two Tunisian Muslim women chat with a Jewish man at Ghriba, the oldest Jewish synagogue in Africa, during an annual pilgrimage in Djerba, Tunisia May 2, 2018. Picture taken May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

By Tarek Amara and Ahmed Jadallah

DJERBA, Tunisia (Reuters) – Cyrine Ben Said, a Tunisian Muslim, carried candles and wrote her hopes for the future on an egg in religious ceremony at a synagogue on the southern island of Djerba.

She wanted to share the rituals with her Jewish friends because, for her, Tunisia is a country of tolerance, coexistence and freedom of belief.

“I’m here to share rituals with my Jewish friends in new Tunisia of tolerance, coexistence and freedom of belief … Every one has his religion, but we have many common points; the flag, love and peace,” Ben Said.

Tunisia is home to one of North Africa’s largest Jewish communities. Jews have lived in Tunisia since Roman times, and the community once numbered 100,000.

But fear, poverty and discrimination prompted several waves of emigration after the creation of Israel in 1948. Many left after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, most going to France or Israel.

They now number about 2,000, with more than 1,200 in Djerba.

Ben Said is one of dozens of Muslims who participated in the Jewish religious ceremonies in the oldest synagogue in Africa, Ghriba, during an annual celebration held this month. The eggs, covered in people’s ambitions for love and prosperity, are stored in a cellar.

The event is a powerful sign of mutual tolerance in Djerba, where the two communities have long coexisted.

“The Jews and the Muslims of Djerba are all Tunisian citizens, so there is no difference between us,” said Perez Trabelsi, a Jewish community leader. He added that despite their small number Jewish people have a strong presence in economic life, including tourism, restaurants and the jewelry trade.

“NO DIFFERENCE”

Each year, Muslim religious leaders and politicians from the Mufti to the head of the government take the chance to go to Ghriba to promote the message of interreligious tolerance.

“This is a peaceful island that embraces its Jews and Muslims in harmony, giving a message to the world that we must abandon hatred and hostility,” said Tunisian Imam Hassen Chalghoumi, as he shook hands with one of the rabbis.

Cyrine Ben Said (L) and Amnia Ben Khalif, Muslim Tunisians, light candles during a religious ceremony at Ghriba, the oldest Jewish synagogue in Africa, during an annual pilgrimage in Djerba, Tunisia May 2, 2018. Picture taken May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Cyrine Ben Said (L) and Amnia Ben Khalif, Muslim Tunisians, light candles during a religious ceremony at Ghriba, the oldest Jewish synagogue in Africa, during an annual pilgrimage in Djerba, Tunisia May 2, 2018. Picture taken May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Ghriba synagogue was hit by an al Qaeda truck bombing in 2002 that killed 21 people, most of them German visitors.

At the entrance to the synagogue, a young Muslim, Makrem Gaagaa, welcomes visitors with a broad smile and presents headscarves to those who need one.

“It’s my job and my livelihood,” he said. “My relationship with everyone who visits this place is good, they have their religion and I have my religion,” added the guard, who has worked in the synagogue since seven years.

Most Jews in Djerba live in Hara Kbira neighborhood, their homes next to Muslim homes, where they exchange visits and gifts at religious events and weddings.

“Here, there is no difference between Jews and a Muslims,” says Jewish resident Georgina, who gave only her first name. “We are good neighbors, some of them we visit all the time. They offer us food, and we give them food, too.”

Despite the peaceful atmosphere, security is still tight. This year, during protests against government austerity measures in January, assailants threw petrol bombs at a small synagogue in Djerba, causing shock but no casualties.

In Djerba’s old medina, Jewish tailor Mgissis Chabeh has worked for four decades sewing “jebba”, a traditional Muslim dress.

Tunisian Jews and Muslims attend a ceremony at Ghriba, the oldest Jewish synagogue in Africa, during an annual pilgrimage in Djerba, Tunisia May 2, 2018. Picture taken May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Tunisian Jews and Muslims attend a ceremony at Ghriba, the oldest Jewish synagogue in Africa, during an annual pilgrimage in Djerba, Tunisia May 2, 2018. Picture taken May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

“All my customers are Muslims and they love my work,” 70-year-old Chabeh said from behind his sewing machine, in between jokes with a Muslim gold trader friend.

The old medina in Djerba is full of jewelry shops, most of which are run by Jews who have controlled the trade in Djerba for decades.

Nearby, a popular Jewish restaurant has a sign written in Arabic and Hebrew.

“In the old city there are many Jews,” said Jewish chef Gabriel Yahich. “We cook meals for them that are compatible with the Jewish religion, but we also offer traditional meals accepted by the Muslims.”

“For me the important thing is that trade is good, the rest is details.”

(Editing by Aidan Lewis and Alison Williams)

Children of Iraq’s Kawliya return to school after 14-year break

Children of Iraqi Kawliya group (known as Iraqi gypsies) attend a class at a school in al-Zuhoor village near the southern city of Diwaniya, Iraq April 16, 2018. Picture taken April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

AL-ZUHOOR, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraq’s Kawliya minority, also known as the country’s gypsies, have long been marginalized by society. But in al-Zuhoor, they finally have an elementary school again – nearly 14 years after the village’s only school was ransacked and destroyed at the hands of an Islamic militia.

Known locally as the Gypsies’ Village, Al-Zuhoor is near the city of Diwaniya, 150 km (95 miles) south of Baghdad. Roughly 420 people live in mud houses and reed huts lining unpaved streets.

With no basic services, the village’s primary school and clinic, built by the government of Saddam Hussein, were damaged by an Islamic militia in a mortar attack on the village in late 2003, months after a U.S.-led invasion toppled him from power.

The school was reopened with the help of U.N. children’s fund UNICEF after a campaign started by civilian activists on Facebook called I am a Human Being. It is made of a cluster of caravans provided by UNICEF on Al-Zuhoor’s outskirts.

The school has 27 children aged six to 10 and a teaching staff of a headmaster and two teachers.

Malak Wael, 10, said her family encouraged her to come to school and learn.

Headmaster Qassim Abbas Jassim said the school and the village suffer from a lack of electricity and safe drinking water.

Scorned by many Muslims and barely tolerated by the rest of society, Iraq’s Kawliya live a precarious existence. Lacking education or skills, they form one of the lower rungs of Iraq’s social system, and are not granted Iraqi citizenship.

Manar al-Zubaidi, representative of the I am a Human Being group who lobbied for a year for the construction of the school, urged the government to grant the Kawliya Iraqi nationality to help their children continue with their studies and get jobs.

Under Saddam, the Kawliya had some protection from persecution — partly in exchange for supplying dancers, alcohol and prostitutes, Iraqis say. The safety net disappeared with Saddam’s overthrow, leaving them open to the whims of religious militia groups contemptuous of their freewheeling ways.

The Kawliya speak Arabic and profess belief in Islam. Most originated in India, although a few came from other Middle Eastern countries.

(Writing by Huda Majeed, Editing by William Maclean)