Closer inter-faith ties in once-atheist Albania
Religious leaders in Albania have pledged to cooperate in improving conditions in the country, which in the communist era was pronounced "cleansed of religion" by its then rulers.
"After rebuilding our religious communities, we have entered a new phase of challenges," the leaders of the country's main faiths said in a declaration signed on March 18 in the presence of Albania's prime minister.
"These require us to strengthen efforts to promote good relations and cooperation among ourselves, while also enhancing the role of our communities as important institutions in our society."
The document was signed by the head of Albania's Orthodox church, Archbishop Anastasios, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Tirana-Durres, and Muslim leaders.
Albanian religious leaders had been preparing the document in the hope of avoiding bloody ethnic conflicts such as those in nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.
Several acts of aggression against the Orthodox church in Albania were reported last year, including the destruction of a cross-bell tower, the looting of an Orthodox youth camp and student facilities around a monastery, and the eviction of the Orthodox community from an old church building.
The religious leaders said in their declaration that "preaching must not cause religious hatred" and urged that each religion be treated "in an open and equal manner" in school textbooks.
"We accept that our religious communities differ from each other and that each of us feels called to observe their own faith," they said.
"At the same time, we recognize that our religious and spiritual traditions hold many values in common."
Serbian monk asks Kosovo Albanians for forgiveness
A leading monk in the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo was looking forward to a better era of Albanian- Serb relations when he apologized to ethnic Albanians for the suffering they endured during the Balkan war of the 1990s.
In a statement to the Albanian press released on June 20, Fr. Sava Janjic of the Decani Monastery said the Serbian Orthodox Church was "genuinely sorry" for the years of war when Serb forces attacked ethnic Albanians.
"We are genuinely sorry and understand the pain which many Albanians have gone through during the war in this region. We were witnesses to the deaths because we were there to help all neighbors in trouble as much as we could, securing humanitarian aid and offering them protection in our monasteries," he said.
"Unfortunately, we were not able to prevent these tragic events and change the general politics of the regime at that time, but we gave clear assurances that in our opinion, the politics of violence on any side are unacceptable.
"However, the deaths of Albanians have ceased, but many Serbs are still dying, over the past six years now. Our great wish is to secure full protection for our Orthodox ancestry and allow returnees to come back to their homes and live normal lives, regardless of race or religion. Only this return effort and a normal lifestyle will be a final indication that the community in Kosovo has seen a real level of progress."
Fr. Sava also urged an improved security situation that would allow Serb refugees to return home. 170,000 Serbs have fled Kosovo, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
World military spending topped $1 trillion in 2004
World military spending rose for the sixth year running in 2004, growing by 5 percent to $1.04 trillion on the back of "massive" US allocations for its war on terror, a leading research institute said in June.
But world military expenditure was still 6 percent below all-time highs recorded in 1987-88 toward the end of the Cold War, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said in its annual report.
With expenditure of $455 billion, the United States accounted for almost half the global figure, more than the combined total of the 32 next most powerful nations, said SIPRI.
In 2003, U.S. spending stood at $405 billion, SIPRI said. "The major determinant of the world trend in military expenditure is the change in the United States, with its 47 percent of the world total."
US spending "has increased rapidly during the period 2002-2004 as a result of massive budgetary allocations for the 'global war on terrorism', primarily for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq."
US military spending increased to 3.9 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) last year from 3 percent in 1999 but remained well below its Cold War peak of more than 6 percent, it said.
The top five - the United States, Britain, France, Japan and China - spent 64 percent of the world total.
The rate of spending increased most in South Asia mainly due to a massive increase in India's defense budget to $15 billion.
Growth in China's military spending slowed to 7 percent - to $35 billion - from on average 11.5 percent per year in the past decade.
Russia's 2004 national defense budget increased almost five percent to $19 billion, SIPRI said.
Based on data for the past five years, Russia has overtaken the United States as the world's leading supplier of conventional weapons.
Russia, the United States, Britain, France and Germany accounted for 81 percent of all conventional weapons deliveries in 2000-2004.
China and India were the two main recipients of conventional arms in 2004, the institute said.
Amnesty International accuses US of torture
In a 300-page annual report released in May, Amnesty International accused the US government of damaging human rights with its attitude toward torture and treatment of detainees. This granted "a licence to others to commit abuse with impunity," the human rights advocates said.
In its wide-ranging review of 131 countries and five world regions, Amnesty International said the US government's selective disregard for international law and reported abuses of detainees was sending a "permissive signal to abusive governments... The US, as the unrivaled political, military and economic hyper-power, sets the tone for governmental behavior worldwide. When the most powerful country in the world thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights, it grants a licence to others to commit abuse with impunity."
The report also criticized the world as a whole for failing to act over crises, notably in Sudan's Darfur region. Afghanistan was slipping into a "downward spiral of lawlessness and instability."
The report also highlighted the organization's concerns about a lack of accountability for human rights violations in Haiti and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, abuses by Russian forces in Chechnya, new levels of brutality against civilians by armed groups in places like Iraq, and lack of a full independent investigation into abuses against detainees in US custody in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.
President Bush called the report's criticisms of the US "absurd," charging that it was the product of people who "hate America." Vice President Cheney told CNN that he was "offended" by the use of the term "torture" and that he did not take the organization "seriously." Defense Secretary Rumsfeld called the comparison "reprehensible."
Amnesty pointed out that the administration often cites its reports when that suits its purposes.
"If our reports are absurd, why did the administration repeatedly cite our findings about Saddam Hussein before the Iraq war?" asked William Schultz of the Amnesty's US branch. "Why does it welcome our criticisms of Cuba, China and North Korea? And why does it cite our research in its own annual human rights reports?"
Iraq: Lifting the censor's veil
"Nobody wants to come forward about this," said Aidan Delgado. "I didn't want to come forward about this."
Delgado, 23, is a former Army reservist who was repelled by the violence and dehumanization of the war. After completing his tour in Iraq, he sought and received conscientious objector status and was honorably discharged last January.
When he returned to Florida last year from a tour of Iraq that included a stint with a military police unit at Abu Ghraib prison, he planned to focus his energies on resuming the life of a college student and leave his war experiences behind. But when people asked him about Iraq, he began to show them photos he had collected, some of them extremely difficult to look at, which were permanent reminders of events that are likely to stay with him for a lifetime.
There are pictures of children who were wounded and barely clinging to life, and some who appeared to be dead. There was a close-up of a soldier who was holding someone's severed leg. There were photos of Iraqis with the deathlike stare of shock, stunned by the fact that something previously unimaginable had just happened to them. There were photos of soldiers happily posing with the bodies of dead Iraqis. Some of the most disturbing photos in his possession were taken after army guards at Abu Ghraib opened fire on detainees who had been throwing rocks at guards during a protest. Four detainees were killed. In one shot a soldier is leaning over the top of the body bag with a spoon in his right hand, as if he is about to scoop up a portion of the dead man's wounded flesh.
"These pictures were circulated like trophies," Delgado said. Some were posted in command headquarters. He said it seemed to him that the shooting of the prisoners and the circulation of the photos were viewed by enlisted personnel and at least some officers as acceptable, even admirable, behavior.
Delgado said that when his unit was first assigned to Abu Ghraib, he believed, like most of his fellow soldiers, that the prisoners were among the most dangerous individuals in Iraq. "Most of the guys thought, 'They're out to kill us. These are the ones killing our buddies.'" But while at work in a headquarters office, he learned that most of the detainees at Abu Ghraib had committed only very minor nonviolent offenses, or no offenses at all.
Several months ago Delgado gave a talk and presented a slide show at his school, New College of Florida in Sarasota. To his amazement, 400 people showed up. He has given a number of talks since then in various parts of the country.
His goal, he said, is to convince his listeners that the abuse of innocent Iraqis by the American military is not limited to "a few bad apples," as the military would like the public to believe. "At what point," he asked, "does a series of 'isolated incidents' become a pattern of intolerable behavior?"
Gorbachev: US bid to dominate invites disaster
US efforts to dominate the world could end in disaster, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's last leader, said in May at a meeting at the UN's European headquarters marking the 20th anniversary of his 1985 Geneva summit with President Reagan, a turning point in the then frigid East-West relations.
Gorbachev called for the rapid withdrawal of occupation forces from Iraq, warning, "The longer they stay, the worse the situation will get. You cannot get anywhere ... by trying to dominate. That doesn't work with small countries nowadays, and even less with big ones like Russia, Iran and - heaven forbid - China. That way lies disaster.
"Trying to be a world gendarme today is an illusion. That is not the way ahead, but a blind alley."
Insistence by the administration of President Bush that it had the right to use nuclear weaponry amounted to renunciation of the course he charted with Reagan and Bush's father in the second half of the 1980s, he said.
If Washington pursued its efforts to put a defensive weapons system in space, Gorbachev told the meeting, "it will spark a new arms race, with all the consequences."
"Surely it would be better if we worked together to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely and to use the resources that freed to eradicate poverty and misery around the globe?"
Anti-euthanasia vote by Euro parliament hailed by Churches
Church leaders in Europe have welcomed a vote by Council of Europe parliamentarians rejecting euthanasia, saying they believe instead in good care being provided for terminally-ill patients.
A resolution favoring doctor-assisted euthanasia for terminally-ill patients was rejected April 27 by a vote of 138 to 26.
"There are alternatives to allowing euthanasia, without hiding away from the problem," said the Rev. Richard Fischer, head of the Conference of European Churches, which links 126 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican churches. "There's no theological difficulty with allowing a terminally-ill patient to die naturally," said Fischer. "But all Christian churches agree the deliberate killing of suffering and dying human beings is a grave sin. We need good terminal and pastoral care, but also the continued prohibition of euthanasia."
Among the church leaders who had opposed legitimizing euthanasia was Patriarch Alexis of the Russian Orthodox Church.
However grave a patient's condition, he said, "we should always hope for God's mercy and for a miracle which may change the suffering person's state any moment."
More often than not, he added, patients asking for euthanasia do so in a state of depression, which prevents them from adequately assessing their chances for care, pain relief and survival.
The enactment of a bill making euthanasia practices legal, he said, would have disastrous implications not just for people asking for assistance in killing themselves, but also for those agreeing to honor such a request.
Also, legitimization of euthanasia would undermine all historically accepted codes of medical ethics, which hold that a doctor's mission is to help people carry on with their lives, not to help them die. Such legislation could also pose a potential threat to patients lacking money for medical treatment.
Alexis said that only those solutions can be regarded as religiously justifiable that alleviate patients' suffering without depriving them of "the divine and sacred gift of life."
French study shows abortion puts the next baby at risk
Having an abortion almost doubles a woman's risk of giving birth too early in a later pregnancy, according to a French study of 2,837 births - the first to investigate the link between terminations and extremely premature births. The research found that mothers who had previously had an abortion were 1.7 times more likely to give birth to a baby at less than 28 weeks' gestation. Babies born this early often die soon after birth; a large number who survive suffer serious disability.
The research leader was Dr. Caroline Moreau of the Hopital de Bicetre in Paris, said the study. The study was published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Bartholomew seeks return of orphanage
Patriarch Bartholomew will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights over Turkey's refusal to acknowledge its ownership of a historic Greek orphanage outside Istanbul, a weekend report said.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate decided in May to take its case to the Strasbourg-based court after a Turkish court rejected its legal fight to regain ownership of the Pringiponnissos orphanage.
The Patriarchate will seek to have the Turkish decision overruled as being in breach of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which followed the disastrous 1919-22 Greek-Turkish war.
The now-derelict wooden building, on an island just outside Istanbul, was shut down in 1964 by the Turkish government, which also closed the Patriarchate's Halki religious seminary in 1971. Turkish courts have ruled that the Patriarchate's titles to the building were null and void.
Beirut bishop criticizes leaders for neglecting people's welfare
During the Paschal Liturgy in May, the Archbishop of Beirut, Elias Aoude, accused Lebanon's political leaders of neglecting the people's welfare in favor of private interests.
The archbishop denounced the lack of political vision and planning, "as everybody is busy with the elections and they don't have time... I don't see unity in this country ... I feel disunity and collapse in political ethics."
Aoude criticized those who display party banners at public events. "Only the Lebanese flag should be hoisted. Other flags mean their wielders are loyal to their parties, not to Lebanon."
In a reference to supporters of the Lebanese Forces party and its use of an altered cross as the party's symbol, Aoude added: "Leave the cross alone. Christ has been crucified on the cross and I am willing to die on the cross. It is a sacred religious emblem that must be kept out of partisan politics." He also denounced the shape of the Lebanese Forces cross. "The cross cannot be a dagger," he said. "The cross is not a tool for killing but a means of life."
Beslan Children visit Holland as guests of Orthodox parish
For ten days in June, a group of victims of the school siege in Beslan - eleven children, five mothers, two teachers and a nurse - visited the Netherlands for a holiday in Amsterdam and on Texel island.
The vacation was organized by the Russian Orthodox parish of St. Nicholas in Amsterdam in cooperation with the Teachers' Committee of the school. Three volunteers from the parish stayed throughout the holiday with others assisting individual activities.
Children from Beslan with Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov, rector of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Amsterdam, and parish volunteers
The initiative was launched days after the hostage drama. Donations from individuals, schools and churches in the Netherlands and beyond raised a total amount of over 30,000. Several Dutch companies provided services free of charge.
The aim of the initiative was to offer victims a break from the situation in Beslan, dominated by mourning and despair. The parish also hoped to help restore the children's trust. The program offered a combination of leisure and activities, including a meeting with an Amsterdam school class that had raised 3,500 for the project (together the children enjoyed a day of theater and play with drama specialists from War Child Netherlands); making movies assisted by a professional documentary maker; handicrafts; an outing to Amsterdam, with a canal tour and a visit to the zoo; bicycle tours (for some, their first); swimming and playing at a holiday resort; a "well-being" day for the mothers and teachers with massage, body treatment and a Turkish bath.
St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Parish in Amsterdam counts some 250 members of over 20 different nationalities. Services are celebrated both in Slavonic and in Dutch. Photos are on the web site of the parish.
Church to be built at Beslan hostage crisis site
An Orthodox church will be built on the site of School No. 1 in Beslan, Northern Ossetia, seized by hostage-takers last September. At a meeting in April between the jury board for Beslan memorial designs and town residents, families of those affected by the terrorist attack supported Bishop Pheophan's proposal to erect a church. They also decided that what remains of school's walls and gymnasium, where the hostages were held, will become part of the church.
Orthodox Easter celebrated in Beijing
Orthodox Easter was celebrated in China on May 2. The service was conducted in Beijing's Catholic Cathedral since there are no Orthodox places of worship left in the country. A non-eucharistic liturgy, the first one in 40 years, was conducted by lay people since there are also no Orthodox priests in China. (China's oldest Orthodox priest, Fr Alexander Du Lifu, died in 2003 at the age of 80.)
Chinese Orthodox believers succeeded in getting prior authorization from Beijing's City Hall. The Chinese faithful said they hope "to soon have an Orthodox priest of their own".
Another Easter service took place on the premises of the Russian Embassy in Beijing, but was not open to Chinese.
The Orthodox Church in China gained autonomy from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1957, but the Church barely survived the Culture Revolution of 1966-67. There are an estimated 13,000 Orthodox Christians in the whole of China, with about 400 in the capital.
Dubai: Construction of Orthodox church to begin
Construction on the first Orthodox church in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, is set to begin later this year. Construction of St. Mary's Greek Orthodox Church has been made possible thanks to the donation of a plot of land by General Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai Crown Prince and UAE Defense Minister.
Currently the Orthodox community in the UAE uses churches of other denominations for services.
Construction will start in October.
Greek Orthodox services regularly attract as many as 400 people in Dubai and about 200 in Sharjah. During major Christian festivals such as Easter there can be as many as 2,000 people attending.
ROCOR to join Moscow Patriarchate
The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia is set to join the Moscow Patriarchate as a self-governed branch, similar to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, it was announced in June. The union was envisaged by a draft act on canonical communication, published on the web sites of the Moscow Patriarchate and ROCOR, along with other documents adopted by the cross commissions for the bilateral dialogue.
"These documents cover the key issues that ROCOR considered to be major obstacles on the way to a full dialogue," said Fr. Nikolai Balashov, secretary for Orthodox ties of the Moscow Patriarchate.
The Moscow Patriarchate has disavowed a Soviet-era declaration of loyalty to the Communist government.
The Moscow Patriarchate has said Patriarch Sergei did this to save the church from ruin. A new text on its web site says the declaration was among documents that "do not express the true voice of the Church of Christ [and] are deemed no longer valid."
ROCOR severed contacts with the Moscow-based church after Patriarch Sergei issued the loyalty declaration in 1927. Sergei's declaration has been a barrier dividing the Russian Church ever since.