Vatican jostles for role in Jerusalem talks

The Vatican has reiterated its desire for a role in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians over the future of Jerusalem. Speaking during a symposium organised by Jerusalem's Latin Patriarchate on October 26, Vatican Foreign Minister Jean-Louis Tauran said: "The Holy See believes that it's important for its representative to sit at the negotiating table to make sure that they are fair and that no aspect of the problems will be forgotten". Tauran repeated the Vatican's view that Israel was illegally occupying Jerusalem, and called for the city to become the "symbol and national centre" of Israelis and Palestinians. The recent agreement signed in Washington brings closer the "final status" issues. Among them, Jerusalem promises to be the most contentious. Israel continues to insist that the city remain its "eternal and undivided" capital, while the Palestinians have made it clear they see no settlement with the Jewish state that does not involve Jerusalem as capital of a future Palestinian state. The Vatican, incidentally, is ready to recognise such a state, according to its charge d'affaires in Jordan, Monsignor Dominique Rezeau. "As we recognised the state of Israel, we will be ready to recognise the state of Palestine as part of the rest of the world community," he said (Jordan Times, Oct 15).

Immigration wave ahead?

PM Binyamin Netanyahu told a Knesset immigration committee in late October he expects up to 150,000 new immigrants to arrive from Russia and the Ukraine in the year ahead. Netanyahu promised government funding for projects aimed at bringing Jews to Israel. According to figures released in September, there are approximately 450,000 Jews left in Russia, and about 310,000 in the Ukraine.

Christians "crucified" in Egypt

Coptic Christians have been subjected to torture, rape and "crucifixion" rituals by Egyptian security force members during a recent crackdown on the community, according to human rights groups cited in a sobering report in the London Telegraph. Hundreds of Copts had been rounded up in southern Egypt after tensions in the area between local Muslims and Christians. "Apart from the crucifixions, teenage girls have been raped and babies as young as three months savagely beaten," the October 25 report said. Coptic Bishop Anba Wissa and two priests have broken the silence and are now facing the death penalty for "using religion for the purpose of inciting strife and damaging national unity". Twenty-nine US Congressmen have written to President Hosni Mubarak to demand an end to the campaign. According to the report, police detained about 1,200 Christians in an area near Luxor over the past month. "[M]any were nailed to crosses or manacled to doors with their legs tied together, then beaten and tortured with electric shocks to their genitals, while police denounced them as 'infidels' …Young girls were raped and mothers were forced to lay their babies on the floor of police stations and watch police beat them with sticks." Copts, the ancient inhabitants of Egypt before the seventh century Arab invasion, today make up six per cent of the population of Egypt. The government refuses, however, to recognise them as an official minority, and converting to Christianity is a criminal offence. Egypt is a major recipient of US aid, and considered a key player in American efforts to secure Mideast peace.

The fruits of Israeli-Jordanian peace

Israel and Jordan in October marked the fourth anniversary of the peace treaty between the neighbours. Israel's ambassador to Jordan, Oded Eran, urged the Jordanians to strengthen economic ties with Israel and take advantage of the fruits of the peace agreement. "We are on the right track," Eran said. "I am very optimistic regarding future relations between Israel and Jordan. I feel that most of us are interested in true peace." Israel and Jordan are soon to begin construction of a dam on the Yarmuk River, which will divert water from Israel and supply it to Jordanian farmers on the east bank of the Jordan River. In terms of a water agreement between the two countries, Israel currently diverts 55 million cubic metres of water annually to Jordan.

On the brink of war

Turkey and Syria teetered on the brink of armed conflict in October, during a crisis which threatened to drag in a reluctant Israel as well. It began when Turkey sent thousands of troops to its south-eastern border with Syria, demanding that Syria stop sheltering Turkish Kurdish rebels fighting for autonomy from Turkey. Relations have been strained for other reasons too: a dispute over water usage lingers on; and Syria (along with other Arab states) is bitterly opposed to the growing military and diplomatic ties between Turkey and Israel. So it was hardly surprising that Syria's official Al-Baath newspapers saw an Israeli hand behind Turkey's sabre-rattling. But Israeli Defence Minister Yitzhak Mordechai stressed that Israel was not involved, and ordered the Israeli army to reduce some routine activities along the frontier with Syria, to make it "clear beyond a shadow of a doubt" that he meant what he said. Diplomatic efforts by Iran and Egypt eventually led to a resolution, with Damascus agreeing to crack down on Kurdish rebels. The Kurdish Workers' Party leader, Abdullah Ocalan, left Syria, reportedly for Russia.

'Torture routine in PA jails'

Torture has become a "daily routine" in Palestinian Authority prisons, the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group has reported. In a recently-released survey covering the first half of 1998, the PHRMG gathered 68 sworn testimonies from victims or their families. The worst perpetrators among the PA security agencies appear to be members of the Preventive Security Service run by Jibril Rajoub. The General Intelligence agency (West Bank) was also linked to many cases of torture. Three of the cases cited involved Arab residents of Jerusalem--despite the fact PA activity is outlawed in the capital. In 10 per cent of the cases, no charges were brought against the detainees.

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