After UAE and Bahrain deals, is Saudi Arabia softening its stance on Israel?

By Marwa Rashad and Aziz El Yaakoubi

RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) – When one of Saudi Arabia’s leading clerics called this month for Muslims to avoid “passionate emotions and fiery enthusiasm” towards Jews, it was a marked change in tone for someone who has shed tears preaching about Palestine in the past.

The sermon by Abdulrahman al-Sudais, imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, broadcast on Saudi state television on Sept. 5, came three weeks after the United Arab Emirates agreed a historic deal to normalize relations with Israel and days before the Gulf state of Bahrain, a close Saudi ally, followed suit.

Sudais, who in past sermons prayed for Palestinians to have victory over the “invader and aggressor” Jews, spoke about how the Prophet Mohammad was good to his Jewish neighbor and argued the best way to persuade Jews to convert to Islam was to “treat them well”.

While Saudi Arabia is not expected to follow the example of its Gulf allies any time soon, Sudais’ remarks could be a clue to how the kingdom approaches the sensitive subject of warming to Israel – a once inconceivable prospect. Appointed by the king, he is one of the country’s most influential figures, reflecting the views of its conservative religious establishment as well as the Royal Court.

The dramatic agreements with the UAE and Bahrain were a coup for Israel and U.S. President Donald Trump.  But the big diplomatic prize for an Israel deal would be Saudi Arabia, whose king is the Custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, and rules the world’s largest oil exporter.

Marc Owen Jones, an academic from the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, said the UAE and Bahrain’s normalization has allowed Saudi Arabia to test public opinion, but a formal deal with Israel would be a “large task” for the kingdom.

“Giving the Saudis a ‘nudge’ via an influential imam is obviously one step in trying to test the public reaction and to encourage the notion of normalization,” Jones added.

In Washington, a State Department official said the United States was encouraged by warming ties between Israel and Gulf Arab countries, viewed this trend as a positive development and “we are engaging to build on it.”

There was no immediate response to a request by Reuters for comment from the Saudi government’s media office.

Sudais’ plea to shun intense feelings is a far cry from his past when he wept dozens of times while praying for Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque – Islam’s third-holiest site.

The Sept. 5 sermon drew a mixed reaction, with some Saudis defending him as simply communicating the teachings of Islam. Others on Twitter, mostly Saudis abroad and apparently critical of the government, called it “the normalization sermon”.

Ali al-Suliman, one of several Saudis interviewed at one of Riyadh’s malls by Reuters TV, said in reaction to the Bahrain deal that normalization with Israel by other Gulf states or in the wider Middle East was hard to get used to, as “Israel is an occupying nation and drove Palestinians out of their homes”.

MUTUAL FEAR OF IRAN

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de-facto ruler often referred to as MbS, has promised to promote interfaith dialogue as part of his domestic reform. The young prince previously stated that Israelis are entitled to live peacefully on their own land on condition of a peace agreement that assures stability for all sides.

Saudi Arabia and Israel’s mutual fear of Iran may be a key driver for the development of ties.

There have been other signs that Saudi Arabia, one of the most influential countries in the Middle East, is preparing its people to eventually warm to Israel.

A period drama, “Umm Haroun” that aired during Ramadan in April on Saudi-controlled MBC television, a time when viewership typically spikes, centered around the trials of a Jewish midwife.

The fictional series was about a multi-religious community in an unspecified Gulf Arab state in the 1930’s to 1950’s. The show drew criticism from the Palestinian Hamas group, saying it portrayed Jews in a sympathetic light.

At the time, MBC said that the show was the top-rated Gulf drama in Saudi Arabia in Ramadan. The show’s writers, both Bahraini, told Reuters it had no political message.

But experts and diplomats said it was another indication of shifting public discourse on Israel.

Earlier this year, Mohammed al-Aissa, a former Saudi minister and the general secretary of the Muslim World League, visited Auschwitz. In June, he took part in a conference organised by the American Jewish Committee, where he called for a world without “Islamophobia and anti-Semitism”.

“Certainly, MbS is intent on moderating state-sanctioned messages shared by the clerical establishment and part of that will likely work towards justifying any future deal with Israel, which would have seemed unthinkable before,” said Neil Quilliam, associate fellow with Chatham House.

ISOLATED PALESTINIANS

Normalization between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel, which will be signed at the White House on Tuesday, has further isolated the Palestinians.

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, has not directly addressed Israel’s deals with the UAE and Bahrain, but said it remains committed to peace on the basis of the long-standing Arab Peace Initiative.

How, or whether, the kingdom would seek to exchange normalization for a deal on those terms remains unclear.

That initiative offers normalized ties in return for a statehood deal with the Palestinians and full Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

However, in another eye-catching gesture of goodwill, the kingdom has allowed Israel-UAE flights to use its airspace. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who has a close relationship with MbS, praised the move last week.

A diplomat in the Gulf said that for Saudi Arabia, the issue is more related to what he called its religious position as the leader of the Muslim world, and that a formal deal with Israel would take time and is unlikely to happen while King Salman is still in power.

“Any normalization by Saudi will open doors for Iran, Qatar and Turkey to call for internationalizing the two holy mosques,” he said, referring to periodic calls by critics of Riyadh to have Mecca and Medina placed under international supervision.

(Additional reporting by Davide Barbuscia, Alexander Cornwell in Dubai and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; editing by Maha El Dahan, Michael Georgy and William Maclean)

Sudan confirms ‘contacts’ with Israel, says UAE move is ‘brave’

An Israeli flag is seen near the Dome of the Rock, located in Jerusalem's Old City on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount December 6, 2017.

By Khalid Abdelaziz

KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Sudan on Tuesday confirmed having contacts with Israel, saying the United Arab Emirates’ decision to normalize relations with Israel is “a brave and bold step”, according to its foreign ministry spokesman.

Under the U.S.-brokered deal announced last week, the UAE becomes just the third Arab country to forge full relations with Israel in more than 70 years. The pact could reshape Middle East politics from the Palestinian issue to the fight against Iran.

In February, Israeli officials said Israel and Sudan had agreed to move towards forging normal relations for the first time during a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s military-led, transitional sovereign council, in Uganda.

“The Emirates’ move is a brave and bold step and contributes to putting the Arab world on the right track to build peace in the region and to build sustainable peace,” Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Haydar Sadig told Reuters by phone on Tuesday, confirming remarks made earlier to regional media.

“I cannot deny that there are contacts between Sudan and Israel,” he added.

Netanyahu welcomed the remarks, saying on Twitter: “Israel, Sudan and the entire region will benefit from the peace agreement (with the UAE), and together can build a better future for all people in the region. We will do whatever is necessary to turn this vision into a reality.”

Back in February, Burhan confirmed the meeting with Netanyahu but cast doubt on any rapid normalization of ties, saying Sudan’s stance on the Palestinian issue remains unchanged, and that relations between the two countries was the responsibility of the civilian cabinet in Khartoum.

Scores of Sudanese protesters condemned Burhan’s meeting with Netanyahu in February. Under the long rule of Islamist strongman Omar al-Bashir until his fall in a popular uprising in 2019, Khartoum counted among hardline Muslim foes of Israel.

Sadig said any normalization of relations with Israel would not be at the expense of “Sudan’s moral values and independence” and be “according to Sudan’s interests”.

“We will not accept unequal relations with Israel.”

Israel says it expects other Gulf Arab countries and Muslim nations in Africa to follow in normalizing ties after its breakthrough with the UAE.

(Aditional reporting Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem; Writing by Mahmoud Mourad; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Turkey’s Erdogan says Hagia Sophia becomes mosque after court ruling

By Daren Butler and Ece Toksabay

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan declared Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia open to Muslim worship on Friday after a top court ruled that the building’s conversion to a museum by modern Turkey’s founding statesman was illegal.

Erdogan made his announcement, just an hour after the court ruling was revealed, despite international warnings not to change the status of the nearly 1,500-year-old monument, revered by Christians and Muslims alike.

“The decision was taken to hand over the management of the Ayasofya Mosque…to the Religious Affairs Directorate and open it for worship,” the decision signed by Erdogan said.

Erdogan had earlier proposed restoring the mosque status of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, a focal point of both the Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires and now one of the most visited monuments in Turkey.

The United States, Greece and church leaders were among those to express concern about changing the status of the huge 6th Century building, converted into a museum in the early days of the modern secular Turkish state under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

“It was concluded that the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally,” the Council of State, Turkey’s top administrative court in Ankara, said in its ruling.

“The cabinet decision in 1934 that ended its use as a mosque and defined it as a museum did not comply with laws,” it said, referring to an edict signed by Ataturk.

RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH EXPRESSES REGRET

The association which brought the court case, the latest in a 16-year legal battle, said Hagia Sophia was the property of the Ottoman leader who captured the city in 1453 and turned the already 900-year-old Byzantine church into a mosque.

Erdogan, a pious Muslim, threw his weight behind the campaign to convert the building before local elections last year. He is due to speak shortly before 9 p.m. (1800 GMT), his head of communications said.

The Ottomans built minarets alongside the vast domed structure, while inside they added huge calligraphic panels bearing the Arabic names of the early Muslim caliphs alongside the monument’s ancient Christian iconography.

The Russian Orthodox Church said it regretted that the court did not take its concerns into account when making its ruling and said the decision could lead to even greater divisions, the TASS news agency reported.

Previously, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide and based in Istanbul, said converting it into a mosque would disappoint Christians and would “fracture” East and West.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Greece had also urged Turkey to maintain the building as a museum.

But Turkish groups have long campaigned for Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque, saying this would better reflect Turkey’s status as an overwhelmingly Muslim country.

(Reporting by Daren Butler and Ece Toksabay; Editing by Dominic Evans, Jonathan Spicer and Timothy Heritage)

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)

Death toll rises to 32 in religious violence in India’s capital

By Aftab Ahmed

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – At least 32 people have been killed in the deadliest violence to engulf India’s capital New Delhi for decades as a heavy deployment of security forces brought an uneasy calm on Thursday, a police official said.

The violence began over a disputed new citizenship law on Monday but led to clashes between Muslims and Hindus in which hundreds were injured. Many suffered gunshot wounds, while arson, looting and stone-throwing has also taken place.

“The death count is now at 32,” Delhi police spokesman Anil Mittal said, adding the “entire area is peaceful now.”

Men remove debris in a riot affected area following clashes between people demonstrating for and against a new citizenship law in New Delhi, India, February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

At the heart of the unrest is a citizenship law which makes it easier for non-Muslims from some neighboring Muslim-dominated countries to gain Indian citizenship.

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said the new law adopted last December is of “great concern” and she was worried by reports of police inaction in the face of assaults against Muslims by other groups.

“I appeal to all political leaders to prevent violence,” Bachelet said in a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Critics say the law is biased against Muslims and undermines India’s secular constitution.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has denied having any prejudice against India’s 180 million Muslims, saying that law is required to help persecuted minorities.

New Delhi has been the epicenter for protests against the new law, with students and large sections of the Muslim community leading the protests.

As the wounded were brought to hospitals on Thursday, the focus shifted on the overnight transfer of Justice S. Muralidhar, a Delhi High Court judge who was hearing a petition into the riots and had criticized government and police inaction on Wednesday.

Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the transfer was routine and had been recommended by the Supreme Court collegium earlier this month.

Opposition Congress party leader Manish Tiwari said every lawyer and judge in India should strongly protest what he called a crude attempt to intimidate the judiciary.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar said inflammatory speeches at the protests over the new citizenship law in the last few months and the tacit support of some opposition leaders was behind the violence.

“The investigation is on,” he said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who romped to re-election last May, also withdrew Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy in August with the objective of tightening New Delhi’s grip on the restive region, which is also claimed by full by Pakistan.

For months the government imposed severe restrictions in Kashmir including cutting telephone and internet lines, while keeping hundreds of people, including mainstream political leaders, in custody for fear that they could whip up mass protests. Some restrictions have since been eased.

Bachelet said the Indian government continued to impose excessive restrictions on the use of social media in the region, even though some political leaders have been released, and ordinary life may be returning to normal in some respects.

(Reporting by Aftab Ahmed; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

India’s Modi appeals for calm as riot toll rises to 20

By Devjyot Ghoshal and Manoj Kumar

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed for calm on Wednesday after days of clashes between Hindus and minority Muslims over a controversial citizenship law in some of the worst sectarian violence in the capital in decades.

Twenty people were killed and nearly 200 wounded in the violence, a doctor said, with many suffering gunshot wounds amid looting and arson attacks that coincided with a visit to India by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Police and paramilitary forces patrolled the streets in far greater numbers on Wednesday. Parts of the riot-hit areas were deserted.

“Peace and harmony are central to our ethos. I appeal to my sisters and brothers of Delhi to maintain peace and brotherhood at all times,” Modi said in a tweet.

Modi’s appeal came after a storm of criticism from opposition parties of the government’s failure to control the violence, despite the use of tear gas, pellets and smoke grenades.

Sonia Gandhi, president of the opposition Congress party, called for the resignation of Home Minister Amit Shah, who is directly responsible for law and order in the capital.

The violence erupted between thousands demonstrating for and against the new citizenship law introduced by Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.

The Citizenship Amendment Act makes it easier for non-Muslims from some neighboring Muslim-dominated countries to gain Indian citizenship.

Critics say the law is biased against Muslims and undermines India’s secular constitution. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has denied it has any bias against India’s more than 180 million Muslims.

A firefighter walks past damaged shops at a tyre market after they were set on fire by a mob in a riot affected area after clashes erupted between people demonstrating for and against a new citizenship law in New Delhi, India, February 26, 2020. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Reuters witnesses saw mobs wielding sticks and pipes walking down streets in parts of northeast Delhi on Tuesday, amid arson attacks and looting. Thick clouds of black smoke billowed from a tyre market that was set ablaze.

Many of the wounded had suffered gunshot injuries, hospital officials said. At least two mosques in northeast Delhi were set on fire.

On Wednesday, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in a tweet that it was alarmed by the violence and it urged the Indian government “to rein in mobs and protect religious minorities and others who have been targeted”.

(Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal and Manoj Kumar; Additional reporting by Aftab Ahmed, Danish Siddiqui and Zeba Siddiqui; Writing by Euan Rocha; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Nick Macfie)

World welcomes new year amid wildfires and protests

By Swati Pandey, Jessie PANG and Twinnie Siu

SYDNEY/HONG KONG (Reuters) – The world rang in the new year on Wednesday with spectacular firework displays from Sydney to Tokyo, though celebrations in Australia were overshadowed by deadly wildfires and the festive mood in Hong Kong and India was dampened by protests.

Around a million revellers thronged Sydney harbour and nearby districts to watch more than 100,000 fireworks explode above the city, even as thousands of people along Australia’s eastern seaboard sought refuge from the bushfires on beaches.

Hong Kong cancelled its popular New Year’s Eve fireworks in Victoria Harbour due to security concerns as protesters formed giant human chains and marched through shopping malls, vowing to continue to fight for democracy in 2020.

Thousands of Indians also planned to greet the new year with protests, angered by a citizenship law that they say will discriminate against Muslims and chip away at India’s secular constitution.

Sydney decided to press ahead with its fireworks display despite calls by some members of the public for it to be cancelled in solidarity with fire-hit areas in New South Wales, of which the city is the capital.

Sydney mayor Clover Moore said planning had begun 15 months ago and that the event also gave a boost to the economy.

Some other towns in eastern Australia cancelled their new year celebrations as naval vessels and military helicopters helped firefighters to rescue people fleeing the fires, which have turned swathes of New South Wales into a raging furnace.

The fires have killed at least 11 people since October, two of them overnight into Tuesday, destroyed more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres) and left many towns and rural areas without electricity or mobile coverage.

Some tourists trapped in Australia’s coastal towns posted images of blood-red, smoke-filled skies on social media. One beachfront photograph showed people lying shoulder-to-shoulder on the sand, some wearing gas masks.

Elsewhere, revellers from Auckland in New Zealand to Pyongyang, capital of isolated North Korea, welcomed the new year with firework displays. In Japan, people took turns to strike Buddhist temple bells, in accordance with tradition.

NOT FIREWORKS BUT TEAR GAS

In Hong Kong, rocked by months of sometimes violent pro-democracy demonstrations, protesters were urged to wear masks at a New Year rally called “Don’t forget 2019 – Persist in 2020”, according to social media posts.

A “Symphony of Lights” was planned instead of the firework display, involving projections on the city’s tallest skyscrapers after a countdown to midnight.

“This year there are no fireworks, but there will probably be tear gas somewhere,” said 25-year-old IT worker Sam. “For us it’s not really New Year’s Eve. We have to resist every day.”

Some 6,000 police were deployed and Chief Executive Carrie Lam appealed for calm and reconciliation in her New Year’s Eve video message.

The protests began in June in response to a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party, and have evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement.

In India, protesters angry about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new citizenship law planned demonstrations on Tuesday evening in the capital New Delhi, in the grip of its second coldest winter in more than a century, as well as the financial hub Mumbai and other cities.

(Reporting by bureaux in Sydney, Hong Kong and New Delhi; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Kevin Liffey)

Thousands defy ban on protests against Indian citizenship law

By Devjyot Ghoshal and Shilpa Jamkhandikar

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI (Reuters) – Hundreds of Indians held for defying a ban on demonstrating against a disputed new citizenship law continued protests in police detention on Thursday, and authorities shut down the internet for hours to help enforce bans on public gatherings.

Public anger and staunch opposition from political parties over the new legislation widely considered to be discriminatory toward Muslims has flared across the country.

Marches and rallies organized by college students, academicians, minority Muslim groups and opposition parties against the law passed by the Hindu nationalist government persisted despite legal moves to stifle them.

In the financial capital Mumbai, more than 5,000 protesters gathered on Thursday evening, forcing the police to impose traffic restrictions.

Haroon Patel, an Indian citizen who lives in London, joined the protest in Mumbai, calling the new law the first step toward dictatorship. “We have to save the country,” said Patel.

Supporters of the bill also took to the streets in the major western state of Gujarat. “The fault lines are defined – either one supports the law or stands against (it)…Indians have to decide and protest,” said Rupak Doshi, who organized a large rally in support of the law in Gujarat’s main city Ahmedabad.

Police detained hundreds of people in Delhi and the southern city of Bengaluru on Thursday and shut down the internet in some districts as protests entered a second week over a law that critics say undermines India’s secular constitution.

Yogi Adityanath, a senior leader of Modi’s party and Uttar Pradesh state chief minister, accused many protesters of indulging in violence. “People are allowed to protest, but no one is allowed to break the law,” said Adityanath.

In the eastern state of Bihar, a senior police official said more than 200 protesters detained in a police campus in Patna were chanting slogans against the law, but they would not be silenced by force.

FLIGHTS CANCELED

Dozens of airline flights out of Delhi were canceled due to a lack of staff who were held up by traffic disruptions caused by protesters, and a number of Delhi metro stations closed.

A senior home ministry official said maintaining law and order was a state responsibility but reserve forces were ready to provide immediate assistance.

Rights group Amnesty International has asked federal and state governments to stop the crackdown on peaceful protests against what it called a “discriminatory” citizenship law.

Defying the bans, protesters held rallies at Delhi’s historic Red Fort and a town hall in Bengaluru, but police rounded up people in the vanguard of those demonstrations as they tried to get underway.

In Bengaluru, Ramchandra Guha, a respected historian and intellectual, was taken away by police along with several other professors, according to an aide. “I am protesting non-violently, but look, they are stopping us,” said Guha.

Police said they had detained around 200 people in the city, where protest organizers said thousands attended four demonstrations on Thursday.

PM MODI UNMOVED

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has dug his heels in over the law that lays out a path for people from minority religions in neighboring Muslim states – Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan – who settled in India before 2015 to obtain Indian citizenship.

Opponents of the law say the exclusion of Muslims betrays a deep-seated bias against the community, which makes up 14% of India’s population, and that the law is the latest move by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to marginalize them.

Discontent with Modi’s government has burst into the open after a series of moves seen as advancing a Hindu-first agenda in a country that has long celebrated its diversity and secular constitution.

Internet and text messaging services were suspended by government order in parts of Delhi on Thursday, mobile carriers said, widening a communications clampdown in restive areas stretching from disputed Kashmir to the northeast.

The outage affecting services provided by Vodafone Idea VODA.NS and Bharti Airtel BRTI.NS resumed around 1 p.m. (0730 GMT) after a four-hour interruption, they said.

(Additional reporting by Chandini Monappa and Nivedita Bhattacharjee in Bengaluru, Neha Dasgupta, Aditi Shah in New Delhi, Saurabh Sharma in Lucknow, Zarir Hussain in Guwahati, Rupam Jain in Mumbai, Amit Dave in Ahmedabad Writing by Aftab Ahmed, Sanjeev Miglani and Rupam Jain; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Mark Heinrich)

As bigotry stirs globally, Bosnian Jews, Muslims recall lesson in tolerance

As bigotry stirs globally, Bosnian Jews, Muslims recall lesson in tolerance
By Maja Zuvela

SARAJEVO (Reuters) – Bosnia’s Jews and Muslims on Thursday marked the bicentenary of the rescue of a dozen Jews from an Ottoman-era governor’s jail, saying their liberation by Sarajevo Muslims is a great example of co-existence at a time of rising global sectarian hatred.

The 1819 rescue, which happened during a Muslim uprising, and consequent removal of corrupt Turkish governor Mehmed Ruzdi Pasha is a holiday for Sarajevo’s Jews, known as Purim di Saray. The governor had sought a huge ransom to spare the Jews’ lives.

The event was marked by a joint exhibition and conference depicting the events and celebrating nearly 500 years of peaceful coexistence between Jews and their Muslim neighbors, as well as between Jews and Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats.

“Bosnian Muslims and Jews are one body,” said Bosnia’s Muslim top cleric Husein Kavazovic.

“Amid the ever rising evil of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia … we are renewing our pledge that we will remain good neighbors who will watch over each other as we did in the past.”

The Muslim rebellion was recorded by renowned Sarajevo Jewish historian Mose Rafael Attias, also known as Zeki Effendi, in his book Sarajevo Megillah.

The book’s title is a reference to the Book of Esther, which is read aloud during the Jewish holiday of Purim. The holiday celebrates the Jews’ salvation from genocide in ancient Persia and is normally held in about March.

Attias studied Islam and mediaeval Persian literature and was a passionate interfaith advocate.

His tombstone, which has epitaphs in Bosnian, Hebrew and Turkish, the latter inscribed in Arabic script, has been renovated at the town’s Jewish cemetery as part of the Purim bicentenary.

“The tombstone itself is a proof of Sarajevo’s multiculturalism,” Eli Tauber, an author and historian, told Reuters. “Close links between our communities are unique. The way we mark Purim is also unprecedented and could serve as a role model to the rest of the world.”

Jews have played a significant role in Sarajevo’s cultural and economic life for 450 years. Expelled after the Christian re-conquest of the Iberian peninsula, they found sanctuary in the city, then part of the Ottoman Empire.

At the height of the city’s influence, Sarajevo had eight synagogues serving some 12,000 Jews. But most of them were killed during World War Two, when the city was occupied by Nazi Germany. Fewer than 1,250 remained.

The community recovered somewhat in the post-war era but was dealt another blow with Yugoslavia’s bloody collapse and the subsequent siege of Sarajevo, the longest in modern history.

Before the Bosnian 1992-95 war, Sarajevo was a multi-ethnic melting pot – mosques, churches and synagogues standing virtually side by side. It afterwards become predominantly Muslim, but some 800 Jews living in the town remain an important part of its multi-ethnic identity.

(Reporting by Maja Zuvela, Editing by William Maclean)

Portals to history and conflict: the gates of Jerusalem’s Old City

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Jews, Muslims and Christians pass daily through the gates of Jerusalem’s Old City, on their way to and from prayers or simply to go about their everyday business in one of the most politically sensitive spots on earth.

There are eight gates – seven are open and one is sealed – along the Old City walls that were built in the 16th century by Turkish sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

It’s always busy at Damascus Gate, the main entrance to the Muslim quarter, and at Jaffa Gate, facing west toward the Mediterranean, where local residents and tourists mix in markets lining stone alleyways.

Lion’s Gate – two pairs of heraldic lions are carved on the archway – is also known as St. Stephen’s Gate. It faces east, toward ancient Jericho. It is often crowded with Muslim worshippers after prayers at al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine.

Many Jewish worshippers take another route to Judaism’s nearby Western Wall. They pass through the Dung Gate, the closest entrance to the holy place, and Jewish families on their way to celebrate a 13-year-old son’s Bar Mitzvah can be spotted making their way to the wall.

Security is always tight in a volatile area at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli police patrol and closed circuit TV cameras monitor the passageways of the Old City.

Israel views all of Jerusalem, including the walled Old City that it captured in the 1967 Middle East war, as its “eternal and indivisible” capital.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem, where the Old City is located, as the capital of a state they seek to establish in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)