Third woman breaches ban at Indian Hindu temple amid protests

Protesters scuffle with police during a protest against state government for allowing two women to defy an ancient ban and enter the Sabarimala temple, in New Delhi, India, January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

KOCHI, India (Reuters) – A woman aged 46 has become the third to enter the Sabarimala Hindu temple in south India in defiance of an ancient ban on females of menstruating age, the office of the chief minister of Kerala state said on Friday.

It was not immediately clear how the woman, a Sri Lankan, had got in, and the temple management denied that she had in fact entered.

The hill temple, which pays homage to the celibate god Ayyappan and draws millions of worshippers a year, is one of a few in India that bar entry to girls and women between the ages of 10 and 50, saying that menstruating women are impure.

Conservative Hindu groups shut businesses and halted transport across Kerala on Thursday with a protest strike against the communist state government, which backs a Supreme Court ruling in September that ordered the lifting of the ban.

The first two women to breach the ban arrived in an ambulance with a plainclothes police escort on Wednesday and went in through a side gate without any devotees noticing.

VISITS BLOCKED

The chief minister’s office said the third had gone to the temple with her husband, and had been offered police protection.

Media identified her as Sasikala and reported that she had had her womb removed, which would mean she cannot menstruate. They said she had gone in at about 10:55 p.m. on Thursday.

The temple has refused to abide by the court ruling and subsequent attempts by women to visit had been blocked by thousands of devotees. It says the ban is necessary because menstruating women are impure, and denied that another woman had visited.

“The chief minister’s office is lying,” said Ayyappa Dharma Sena leader of the temple and grandson of former chief priest Rahul Easwar. “The pictures of the Sri Lankan woman Sasikala being shown in the media are fake.”

The protests against Kerala’s communist coalition, led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, were backed by both of the main national parties – Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress party. A general election is due by May.

On Friday, only small protests were reported from across the state. Fewer than 100 members of the Congress youth wing marched and shouted slogans against the chief minister in the city of Kochi.

In some parts of South Asia, menstruating women are commonly forbidden to enter houses or temples or take part in festivals and community events.

(Reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan and Jose Devasia in KOCHI; Editing by Martin Howell and Kevin Liffey)

Protests paralyze Indian state after women defy temple ban

Supporters of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) attend a protest rally during a strike against the state government for allowing two women to defy an ancient ban and enter the Sabarimala temple, in Kochi, India, January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Sivaram V

By Sudarshan Varadhan and Neha Dasgupta

KOCHI/NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Conservative Hindu groups paralyzed India’s southern state of Kerala on Thursday protesting against the state government for allowing two women to defy an ancient ban and enter a Hindu temple.

Many small businesses were shut after the groups called for a state-wide stoppage. Most bus services were halted and taxis were refusing to take passengers as some drivers said they feared they would be attacked.

Some protesters burst makeshift bombs outside a police station in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, police said.

On Thursday morning, about 400 protesters – including some women – marched towards the main city junction in Kochi, the commercial capital of Kerala, to stage a sit-in, shouting slogans and waving flags, with streets otherwise deserted.

They were backed by officials from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP.

India’s Supreme Court in September ordered the lifting of the ban on women of menstruating age entering the Sabarimala hill temple, which draws millions of worshippers a year.

The temple has refused to abide by the ruling and subsequent attempts by women to visit have been blocked by thousands of devotees.

On Wednesday, two women were escorted by police into the temple through a side gate. They offered prayers from the top of a staircase where they could see the deity below without drawing the attention of the priest or other devotees, a police official familiar with the operation said.

He did not wish to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The Kerala state government is run by left-wing parties and has sought to allow women into the temple, a position that has drawn criticism from both of India’s main political parties, the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress.

Policemen wear riot gear before the start of a rally during a strike called by Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to protest against state government for allowing two women to defy an ancient ban and enter the Sabarimala temple, in Kochi, India, January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Sivaram V

Policemen wear riot gear before the start of a rally during a strike called by Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to protest against state government for allowing two women to defy an ancient ban and enter the Sabarimala temple, in Kochi, India, January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Sivaram V

BUSES DAMAGED

The state’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told reporters women were the target of some attacks by protesters, including women journalists covering the event.

On Wednesday, a woman police constable was molested by five protesters near Kochi, while a protester was pelted with stones and killed in a southern district of the state, police said.

The protests on Thursday remained largely peaceful, Vijay Sakhare, Inspector General of Police Kochi Range, told Reuters.

Since Wednesday, police have arrested more than 700 people and taken more than 600 protesters into preventive custody, V.P. Pramod Kumar, deputy director, public relations, state police headquarters, told Reuters. He said police had riot gear, teargas and water cannons in case protests became unruly.

In several places protesters damaged state-run buses, Kumar said.

A majority of stores in one of the busiest markets in Kochi remained shut even after protesters dispersed in the evening, according to M.C.K Jaleel, the state joint secretary of Kerala Samsthana Vyapari Vyavasayi Samithi, one of the largest merchant associations in the city.

DEFIANCE BY STEALTH

The women, Bindu Ammini, 42, and Kanaka Durga, 44, had approached state police to find a way to enter the temple after a failed attempt on Dec. 24.

For more than a week before Wednesday’s visit, the women were under police protection at an undisclosed location, unknown even to their families, to prevent the plan from leaking out, the police official said.

In the early hours of Wednesday, the police took the two women to the hill temple inside an ambulance to avoid attention. Medical services are frequently used outside the temple to help the elderly who go on the trek, the official said.

After offering prayers, the women merged with the crowd and headed to the exit, accompanied by four police in plain clothes, the police official said.

“Every minute, about 100 devotees throng to the sanctum sanctorum and there was no way the priest would have noticed these two,” he said.

Several women turned away by devotees in previous attempts to enter the temple said they had faced a backlash.

Bindhu Thankam Kalyani, 43, a teacher in Kerala, who tried to enter Sabarimala in October, said she was harassed by protesters. “They would come to my school and intimidate me,” she said.

However, some women who support the ban have criticized the women, saying they were defying religious tradition.

“We have been taught from our childhood that women should not go,” said Saritha C. Nair, 35, an entrepreneur.

(Additional reporting by Jose Devasia; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Russian lawmakers back law jailing anyone urging teenagers to protest

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny shout slogans during a rally for a boycott of a March 18 presidential election in Moscow, Russia January 28, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian lawmakers approved draft legislation that would make it a jailable offense to call on teenagers to attend unauthorized street protests, a move Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny said on Tuesday was designed to frustrate his own activity.

Navalny, a 42-year-old lawyer who says he wants to succeed Vladimir Putin as president, has tried to win the support of a young demographic, including teenagers, some of whom have attended his nationwide anti-Kremlin protests.

Police have sometimes dispersed his rallies using force and jailed hundreds of attendees, including teenagers, whose presence has drawn sharp criticism from the Kremlin which has accused Navalny of manipulating minors for political gain.

The new legislation proposes introducing fines of up to 50,000 rubles ($750) or a jail sentence of up to 15 days for anyone calling on people aged under 18 to attend unauthorized protests. Companies or organizations that encourage minors to attend could be fined up to 500,000 rubles under the new law.

Opposition activists who want to protest already face an array of restrictions, including a requirement to seek the authorities’ advance approval for the time and place of any rally. Authorities often flatly decline such requests for technical reasons or propose alternative venues in remote locations far from the public eye.

Navalny wrote on Twitter that the draft bill showed how the authorities were moving to give themselves a new lever to hamstring his opposition activity.

“They passed the law especially for me, but it’s them that should be jailed for it,” he wrote.

The bill was approved in its third and final reading on Tuesday. It must be approved by the upper house of parliament before it is signed into law by President Putin, something that is normally a formality.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

Freed Pakistani Christian needs German passport to leave: lawyer

FILE PHOTO: Saiful Mulook, lawyer for Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi, at a news conference in The Hague, the Netherlands, November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Eva Plevier/File Photo

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – The lawyer for Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian acquitted of capital blasphemy charges, appealed on Tuesday to Germany to give her whole family citizenship to start a new life in Europe.

Saiful Mulook told a news conference in Frankfurt that Bibi was now free but she and her family needed a passport to leave the country.

Bibi, 53, was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 over allegations she made derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.

The Supreme Court acquitted her last month.

“The whole world is asking why she’s not coming,” Mulook told reporters. “The answer is first that to leave a country you need a visa or you require a passport of another country.”

“If the German chancellor directs her ambassador to give a passport to her, her husband and her two daughters conferring German nationality, nobody can stop her for one second because she is no longer Pakistani,” he added.

“So far, no government has come forward in such an open and free manner,” he said.

It was unclear why citizenship, rather than a visa, was necessary for her to leave Pakistan, though Mulook said pressure from religious extremists was making it harder for Islamabad to arrange her departure.

She and her family are staying at a safe house in Pakistan, despite offers of asylum from countries including Canada.

Mulook said the status of a friend of Bibi’s husband, who has a wife and five daughters, whom he would like to join them, was a sticking point. Another wife of Bibi’s husband and her three daughters were not seeking to leave Pakistan with Bibi, he added.

German officials have said that they and a number of other countries are in talks with Bibi’s family and the Pakistani government to find a way of rehousing her.

Mulook, who has himself sought refuge in the Netherlands after being threatened for taking on Bibi’s case, said Bibi had no preference as to which country she would travel to for asylum.

The German government had no immediate comment on the request for a passport.

(Reporting by Reuters Television; Writing by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Qatar pays Gaza salaries to ease tensions; Israel says money’s not for Hamas

Palestinian Hamas-hired employees receive full salaries for the first time in years, in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – A $15 million Qatari cash infusion was paid out to impoverished Palestinian civil servants in the Gaza Strip on Friday, offering the enclave’s dominant Hamas Islamists a potential domestic reprieve though Israel said the money would not go to them.

Hamas’s political rival based in the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has slashed Gaza budgets, beggaring tens of thousands of government employees. That has helped stoke a half-year of bloody protests and occasional shelling exchanges across the border of Gaza, which Israel keeps under blockade.

Palestinian sources said the Qatari payout, received on Thursday, was the first of a total of $90 million that would come into Gaza over the next six months with Israeli approval.

Israel had previously agreed to the gas-rich Gulf Arab state donating materials for civilian construction projects or fuel, worried that more fungible cash donations could reach Hamas guerrillas, with which it has fought three wars in a decade.

“One day, I have no money to get food or medicine for my children – and now I will buy them food, medicine and clothes,” said Wael Abu Assi, a traffic policeman, outside a Gaza City post office where people queued to draw their salaries.

Branded a terrorist group in the West, Hamas has been under years of embargo by Israel and neighboring Egypt. Hamas leaders said in the past they had received funds from other countries including Iran.

Observers for Qatar were present at all 12 post offices across Gaza to monitor the salary disbursements. Employees had to present their identity card and be finger-printed.

Palestinian Hamas-hired employees wait to receive full salaries for the first time in years, in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Palestinian Hamas-hired employees wait to receive full salaries for the first time in years, in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

ENVOY’S CONVOY STONED

“Long live Qatar!” shouted youths who greeting Doha’s point-man for Gaza relief efforts, Mohammed Al-Emadi, at a site near the border with Israel which has seen frequent demonstrations.

“Long live Gaza!” he replied. But as the diplomat’s convoy departed, some youths threw stones that smashed a window on his bodyguards’ car – suggesting not all Palestinian protesters were pleased with Qatar’s intervention. Al-Emadi’s car was unscathed.

Qatar’s official news agency said the donated money would benefit 27,000 civil servants. “The salaries for the others will be paid from local revenue,” it said.

Hamas has hired over 40,000 people in Gaza since 2007 but many appeared to have been excluded from the list of payees.

“They told me they don’t have money for me,” one employee told Reuters on condition tat he would not be named. “Maybe Israel vetoed my name?”

Officials from Hamas, Qatar and Israel have been largely silent about the details of the Gaza payouts arrangement.

But a member of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet played down their significance.

“This is not money that is going to Hamas activities. It is money that is going to the salaries of civil servants, in an orderly, organized manner,” Environment Minister Zeev Elkin told Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM.

Elkin accused Abbas, whose peace talks with Netanyahu stalled in 2014 and who is boycotting the United States because of its pro-Israel policies, of cutting salaries to “inflame Gaza, because he has not been successful on other fronts”.

“The Qataris came along and said: ‘We are willing to pay this instead of Abu Mazen (Abbas), in order to calm Gaza down’. What does it matter who pays it?” Elkin said.

Wasel Abu Youssef, a member of the executive committee of the Abbas-led Palestine Liberation Organization, criticized the move. “Arrangements through Qatar and elsewhere prolong the crisis of Palestinian division,” Abu Youssef told Reuters.

Doha’s donation, as well as U.N.-Egyptian truce mediation and winter rains, have tamped down the violence at the border, where Gaza medics say Israeli army fire has killed more than 220 Palestinians since the protests began on March 30.

Israel, which says its lethal force prevents armed infiltration, has lost a soldier to a Gaza sniper and tracts of forest and farmland to incendiary material flown over the frontier on kites or helium balloons.

“This is one of the fruits of the ‘March of Return’,” Abraham Baker, a police officer who received a full salary, said, using the Palestinian term for the protests, which demand rights to lands lost to Israel’s in the 1948 war of its founding.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Maher Chmaytell in Dubai; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Facing new sanctions, Iranians vent anger at rich and powerful

FILE PHOTO: Iranian rials, U.S. dollars and Iraqi dinars are seen at a currency exchange shopÊin Basra, Iraq November 3, 2018. Picture taken November 3, 2018. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

GENEVA (Reuters) – More Iranians are using social media to vent anger at what they see as the corruption and extravagance of a privileged few, while the majority struggles to get by in an economy facing tighter U.S. sanctions.

The country has been hit by a wave of protests during the last year, some of them violent, but as economic pressures rise, people are increasingly pointing fingers at the rich and powerful, including clerics, diplomats, officials and their families.

One person channeling that resentment is Seyed Mahdi Sadrossadati, a relatively obscure cleric who has amassed 256,000 followers on his Instagram account with a series of scathing posts aimed at children of the elite.

In one recent post, he blasted the “luxury life” of a Revolutionary Guards commander and his son, who posted a selfie online in front of a tiger lying on the balcony of a mansion.

Openly criticizing a well-known member of the powerful military unit that answers to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is in itself an unusual act of defiance.

“A house tiger? What’s going on?” Sadrossadati wrote. “And this from a 25-year-old youth who could not gain such wealth. People are having serious difficulty getting diapers for their child.”

The Iranian rial currency has hit 149,000 to the U.S. dollar on the black market used for most transactions, down from around 43,000 at the start of 2018, as U.S. President Donald Trump vowed to pull out of the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers aimed at curbing its nuclear program.

That has sent living costs sharply higher and made imports less accessible, while the threat of financial punishment from the United States has prompted many foreign companies to pull out of Iran or stay away.

The situation could get worse, as additional sanctions come into force this week.

“SULTAN OF COINS”

Wary of growing frustration over the relative wealth of a few among the population of 81 million, Khamenei has approved the establishment of special courts focused on financial crimes.

The courts have handed out at least seven death sentences since they were set up in August, and some of the trials have been broadcast live on television.

Among those sentenced to death was Vahid Mazloumin, dubbed the “sultan of coins” by local media, a trader accused of manipulating the currency market and who was allegedly caught with two tons of gold coins, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA).

The tough sentences have not been enough to quell frustration, however, with high profile officials and clerics in the firing line.

“Because the economic situation is deteriorating, people are looking for someone to blame and in this way get revenge from the leaders and officials of the country,” said Saeed Leylaz, a Tehran-based economist and political analyst.

Washington is likely to welcome signs of pressure on Iran’s political and religious establishment, as it hopes that by squeezing the economy it can force Tehran to curb its nuclear program and row back on military and political expansion in the Middle East.

Public anger among Iranians has been building for some time.

Demonstrations over economic hardships began late last year, spreading to more than 80 cities and towns and resulting in at least 25 deaths.

CLERICS

In addition to his written contributions, Sadrossadati has posted videos of debates between himself and some of those he has criticized.

In one, he confronted Mehdi Mazaheri, the son of a former central bank governor who was criticized online after a photograph appeared showing him wearing a large gold watch.

In a heated exchange, Sadrossadati shouted: “How did you get rich? How much money did you start out with and how much money do you have now? How many loans have you taken?”

Mazaheri, barely able to get in a reply, said he would be willing to share documents about his finances.

Children of more than a dozen other officials have been criticized online and are often referred to as “aghazadeh” – literally “noble-born” in Farsi but also a derogatory term used to describe their perceived extravagance.

High-profile clerics have also been targeted.

Mohammad Naghi Lotfi, who held the prestigious position of leading Friday prayers at a mosque in Ilam, west Iran, resigned in October after he was criticized on social media for being photographed stepping out of a luxury sports utility vehicle.

Facebook posts labeled Lotfi a hypocrite for highlighting ways that ordinary Iranians could get through the economic crisis during his speeches. The outcry was a major factor in his decision to resign from a post he had held for 18 years.

“The hype that was presented against me in this position … made me resign, lest in the creation of this hype the position of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution be damaged,” Lotfi told state media after stepping down.

“The issue of the vehicle … was all lies that they created in cyberspace,” he added.

He was one of at least four clerics in charge of Friday prayers who have resigned in the last year after being accused on social media of profligacy or financial impropriety.

(Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Pakistan shuts phone networks as Islamists protest over Christian woman

By Mubasher Bukhari and Saad Sayeed

LAHORE/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan suspended mobile phone networks in major cities on Friday and many schools were closed as Islamist groups protested for a third day against the acquittal of a Christian woman facing the death penalty for blasphemy.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the conviction of Asia Bibi, a mother of five, and ordered her freed. She had been living on death row since 2010 after being convicted under Pakistan’s tough blasphemy laws.

The case outraged Christians worldwide and has been a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help Bibi were assassinated.

The Supreme Court decision enraged hardline Islamists, in particular, members of a group called the Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP), who have taken to the streets to call for the death of the judges who made the decision and the ouster of the government.

Authorities, including members of the main military security agency, held negotiations with the leader of the group late on Thursday but they came to no agreement, the TLP leader, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, said.

The spokesman for the military said the armed forces hoped the “matter is resolved without the disruption of peace”.

“Both sides should talk amongst themselves, and we should not reach the stage where this matter comes under the ambit of the armed forces,” he told state-run PTV channel.

On Friday, telephone networks were down in the capital, Islamabad, and the eastern city of Lahore, where pockets of TLP protesters blocked main roads.

“All services have been shut down by the government,” said a customer service representative at one of Pakistan’s main mobile phone companies, while declining to elaborate.

Authorities in Pakistan often shut down mobile phone networks in the hope of distrusting the organization of protests.

Schools across the most populous province of Punjab were closed.

In the commercial hub of Karachi in the south, normally bustling markets were shuttered.

A Reuters photographer saw about 100 protesters using stones, pieces of wood and motor-bikes to create a barricade across one main road.

Bibi’s whereabouts were not known on Friday. Her family has been in hiding this week.

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Pakistan Islamists protest for second day after Christian acquitted of blasphemy

Supporters of Jamiat Talaba Islam (JTI), student wing of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) hold signs as they chant slogans after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, during a protest in Karachi, Pakistan November 1, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

By Syed Raza Hassan

KARACHI, Pakistan (Reuters) – Islamist protesters blocked roads in Pakistan’s major cities for a second day on Thursday, opposing a Supreme Court decision the previous day to acquit a Christian woman on death row for blasphemy allegations, media said.

Knots of protesters from an ultra-Islamist party blocked roughly 10 key roads in the southern city of Karachi and others in eastern Lahore, Geo TV and other channels said. Private schools in both cites were shut, as well as in the capital.

Groups of about 200 protesters from the Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) party sat under large tents, listening to speeches on two blocked roads in Karachi, a Reuters witness said.

In one speech, a TLP speaker exhorted supporters to light new fires if the police managed to douse burning tires and other objects they had already set ablaze.

The demonstrators were protesting against the court’s decision to free Asia Bibi, a mother of four, who had been living on death row since 2010, as the first woman sentenced to death by hanging under Pakistan’s tough blasphemy laws.

Bibi was accused of making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.

But a three-judge panel set up to hear the appeal, headed by Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, ruled the evidence was insufficient.

The case has divided Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help Bibi were assassinated, and outraged Christians worldwide, with Pope Francis saying he personally prayed for Bibi.

In a televised national broadcast late on Wednesday, Prime Minister Imran Khan warned the protesters the government would act against any prolonged blockade.

“We will not allow any damages. We will not allow traffic to be blocked,” Khan said. “I appeal to you, do not push the state to the extent that it is forced to take action.”

Khan’s broadcast followed comments by a senior leader of the Islamist TLP group, calling for Chief Justice Nisar and the other two judges to be killed.

“They all three deserve to be killed,” TLP co-founder Muhammad Afzal Qadri told a protest in Lahore. “Either their security, their driver, or their cook should kill them.”

He also called for the ouster of Khan’s new government and urged army officers to rise up against powerful military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Hafiz Saeed, an influential Islamist whom the U.S. accuses of being the mastermind of attacks in Mumbai in 2008 that killed 166, has called for protests after Friday afternoon prayers.

Another Islamist group, the Milli Yakjehti Council, is also meeting on Thursday to discuss Bibi’s case and may launch protests.

The whereabouts of Bibi and her family are unclear, and speculation is growing that she will leave Pakistan with her family, who have been in hiding for much of the past eight years.

(Writnig by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Protests after Pakistan frees Christian woman sentenced to death over blasphemy

Supporters of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) hold their palms to pray in a protest, after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, in Karachi, Pakistan October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

By Asif Shahzad and Mubasher Bukhari

ISLAMABAD/LAHORE (Reuters) – Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Wednesday freed a Christian woman from a death sentence for blasphemy against Islam and overturned her conviction, sparking angry protests and death threats from an ultra-Islamist party and cheers from human rights advocates.

New Prime Minister Imran Khan issued a warning to the religious right late in the evening that any prolonged blockade of streets would be met with action.

Asia Bibi, a mother of four, had been living on death row since 2010, when she became the first woman to be sentenced to death by hanging under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws, which critics say are too harsh and often misused.

She was condemned for allegedly making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim. Bibi has always denied committing blasphemy.

The case has outraged Christians worldwide – Pope Francis said he personally prayed for Bibi – and has been a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help Bibi were assassinated.

Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, who headed a special three-judge bench set up for the appeal, cited the Koran in the ruling, writing that “tolerance is the basic principle of Islam” and noting the religion condemns injustice and oppression.

In overturning her conviction, the ruling said the evidence against Bibi was insufficient.

Bibi did not appear in the courtroom and her whereabouts were a closely held secret for fear of attacks on her and her family. Many have speculated they will be forced to leave the country, but there was no confirmation of their plans.

Her lawyer called the court ruling “great news” for Pakistan.

“Asia Bibi has finally been served justice,” lawyer Saiful Mulook told Reuters. “Pakistan’s Supreme Court must be appreciated that it upheld the law of the land and didn’t succumb to any pressure.”

Supporters of the Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan Islamist political party block the Faizabad junction to protest after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, in Islamabad, Pakistan October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

Supporters of the Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan Islamist political party block the Faizabad junction to protest after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, in Islamabad, Pakistan October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

DEATH THREATS

Supporters of Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) immediately condemned Wednesday’s ruling and blocked roads in major cities, pelting police with stones in the eastern city of Lahore.

Street protests and blockades of major roads were spreading by mid-afternoon, paralyzing parts of Islamabad, Lahore and other cities.

One of the TLP’s top leaders called for the death of Nisar, the chief justice, and the two other judges on the panel.

“They all three deserve to be killed. Either their security should kill them, their driver kill them, or their cook kill them,” TLP co-founder Muhammad Afzal Qadri told a protest in Lahore.

“Whoever, who has got any access to them, kill them before the evening.”

He also called for the ouster of Khan’s new government of and for army officers to rise up against powerful military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who he said “should be sacked from the army”.

Khan addressed the nation in a televised speech on Wednesday night, supporting the court ruling and warning the ultra-Islamists not to disrupt the nation.

“We will not allow any damages to occur. We will not allow traffic to be blocked,” Khan said. “I appeal to you, do not push the state to the extent that it is forced to take action.”

The TLP was founded out of a movement supporting a bodyguard who assassinated Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer for advocating for Bibi in 2011. Federal minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was also killed after calling for her release.

In November, TLP staged a crippling blockade of Islamabad after small changes to a religious oath taken by election candidates, which it said were tantamount to blasphemy. Seven people were killed and more than 200 wounded in clashes with the police and TLP’s supporters only dispersed after striking a deal with the military.

BLASPHEMY LAW CRITICIZED

In February, Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, and one of her daughters met Pope Francis shortly before Rome’s ancient Coliseum was lit in red one evening in solidarity with persecuted Christians, and Bibi in particular.

The pope told Bibi’s daughter: “I think often of your mother and I pray for her.”

Christians make up only about 2 percent of Pakistan’s population and are often discriminated against.

Dozens of Pakistanis – including many minority Christians or members of the Ahmadi faith – have been sentenced to death for blasphemy in the past decade, though no one has been executed.

Rights groups say the blasphemy law is exploited by religious extremists as well as ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.

Additionally, at least 65 people have been murdered over blasphemy allegations since 1990, including a 23-year-old student beaten to death on his university campus last year.

“This is a landmark verdict,” said Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director for Amnesty International. “The message must go out that the blasphemy laws will no longer be used to persecute the country’s most vulnerable minorities.”

(Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson)

Vatican ‘suffragettes’ want vote, change, in a man’s Church

FILE PHOTO: A nun enters to take part at the synod afternoon session led by Pope Francis at the Vatican October 16, 2018. Picture taken October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Max Rossi

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Catholic women say there’s a clerical stained glass ceiling in the Vatican, and they want to shatter it.

They want to vote in major policy meetings. They want Pope Francis to deliver on his promise to put more women in senior positions in the Holy See’s administration. And some of them say they want to be priests.

“Knock knock! Who’s there? More than half the Church!” several dozen Catholic women chanted outside the Vatican on Oct. 3, the first day of this year’s synod of bishops from around the world.

The role of women in the Church has been a recurring theme at the month-long meeting, which brings together some 300 bishops, priests, nuns and lay participants. Only about 35 are women.

The subject has come up in speeches on the floor, in small group discussions and at news conferences by participants in the gathering, officially titled “Young People, Faith and Discernment of Vocation”.

Only “synod fathers”, including bishops and specially appointed or elected male representatives, are allowed to vote on the final recommendations to be sent to the pope, who will take them into consideration when he writes his own document. Other participants are non-voting observers, auditors or experts.

Some of the attendees have pointed to what they say is a contradiction in the rules of the synod, which takes place every few years on a different theme.

This year, two “brothers”, lay men who are not ordained, are being allowed to vote in their capacity as superiors general of their religious orders.

But Sister Sally Marie Hodgdon, an American nun who also is not ordained, cannot vote even though she is the superior general of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambery.

“I am a superior general. I am a sister. So in theory, logically you would think I would have the right to vote,” Hodgdon, who is also vice president of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), an umbrella group of Catholic nuns, told reporters.

The membership of female religious orders is about three times larger than that of male orders.

FILE PHOTO: Sister Sally Hodgdon (2nd L) stands during a synod afternoon session led by Pope Francis at the Vatican October 16, 2018. Picture taken October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Max Rossi

FILE PHOTO: Sister Sally Hodgdon (2nd L) stands during a synod afternoon session led by Pope Francis at the Vatican October 16, 2018. Picture taken October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Max Rossi

GENDER IN THE CHURCH

A petition demanding that women have the right to vote at synods has collected 9,000 signatures since it opened online at the start of this meeting. It is sponsored by 10 Catholic lay groups seeking change in the Church, including greater rights for women and gays and a bigger role for the laity.

“If male religious superiors who are not ordained can vote, then women religious superiors who are also not ordained should vote. With no ontological/doctrinal barrier, the only barrier is the biological sex of the religious superior,” it reads.

The cause has won some influential clerical male backers.

At a news conference on Oct. 15, superiors general of three major male religious orders – the Jesuits, the Dominicans and one branch of the Franciscans – expressed support for changes in synod rules in order to allow women to vote in the future.

Backing also came from Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich, president of the German Bishops Conference and one of the most influential Catholic leaders in Europe.

“We must face up to the often uncomfortable and impatient questions of young people about equal rights for women also in the Church,” Marx said in his speech to the synod.

“The impression that the Church, when it comes to power, is ultimately a male Church must be overcome in the universal Church and also here in the Vatican. It is high time.”

The Holy See, as the offices of the central administration of the 1.3 billion-member Church are known, and the State of Vatican City have a combined work force of about 4,100 people. About 700 are women.

Of the approximately 60 departments in the Holy See, about 10 must be headed by priests because they deal with governance and jurisdiction over other ordained ministers or other sensitive doctrinal matters, the Church says.

Francis has promised to put more women in senior roles in those other 50 departments. But more than five years after he was elected, there are only six women in such roles. Five are lay women and one is a nun. None of them heads a department.

Francis told Reuters in June he had to “fight” internal resistance to appoint 42-year-old Spanish journalist Paloma Garcia-Ovejero as deputy head of the Vatican’s press office.

He declined to name those who had resisted, but said he had to use “persuasion,” an apparent reference to the powerful conservative wing of what has been an institution run exclusively by males for 2,000 years.

The Vatican Museums, which are part of the State of Vatican City, are headed by Barbara Jatta, the first woman to hold the high-profile post which oversees nearly 1,000 employees.

The pope’s critics, including former Irish President Mary McAleese, say he is moving too slowly.

“How long can the hierarchy sustain the credibility of a God who wants things this way, who wants a Church where women are invisible and voiceless in Church leadership?” she said at a conference in Rome in March.

TIME FOR CHANGE

Sister Maria Luisa Berzosa Gonzalez, one of the participants at the current synod, thinks it is time for change – in the synod, and in the wider Church.

The Spanish nun, whose energy belies her 75 years, has dedicated her life to educating the poor and underprivileged in Spain, Argentina and Italy and is still going strong.

“With this structure in the synod, with few women, few young people, nothing will change. It should no longer be this way. Its participation should be broadened,” she told Reuters.

Berzosa, who took her vows in 1964, said she supports a female priesthood, a position not very common among nuns her age.

The Church teaches that women cannot become priests because Jesus chose only men as his apostles.

Proponents of a female priesthood, like 32-year-old Kate McElwee, who organised the protest on the synod’s opening day, say Jesus was merely acting according to the norms of his times.

“Some women feel called by God to be priests. They discern a vocation to the priesthood just as men do,” said McElwee, the Rome-based executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, a U.S. lobbying group.

McElwee has found kindred spirits in nuns like Berzosa.

The nun said she knows women won’t be priests in her lifetime because change comes slowly and piecemeal in the Church.

Still, between one easy laugh and another, her frustration slipped through.

“I lead spiritual exercises, I develop a deep rapport with people, I teach them how to pray, and then someone else comes along to say the Mass,” Berzosa said. “It’s not fair.”

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)