Maija Liuhto – The lone female prosecutor in Kandahar risks her life daily fighting for women’s rights

Every morning, 28-year-old Zainab Fayez puts on a blue burkha and walks through multiple checkpoints to get to her heavily fortified office in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan. Finally inside, she takes off the burkha but leaves a scarf on to cover her face and hair in the otherwise all-male office. Fayez is the first and only female prosecutor in the volatile province of Kandahar, working in the attorney general’s office of Kandahar’s appellate court.

via Women in the World

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Nice small things

via Wednesday & Thursday Outgoings 📤💌 — Artful Geet Creations

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Politics behind the Kyiv-Moscow religious clashes involving Constantinople

On November 16, 2017 Patriarch Filaret (Denisenko) of Kyiv and all Rus-Ukraine wrote a letter of reconciliation and communion to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). But two weeks later he denied any apologies or formal unity with the ROC. So why then did he write that ambiguous letter?


On November 30, 2017, the whole Orthodox World was shocked by media reports about a letter of the unrecognized Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP) Patriarch Filaret (Denisenko) to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) Bishops’ Council. This former Metropolitan of Kyiv left the ROC after he lost the election of its Primate. In the document of November 16, 2017 he claimed his will “to end the divisions and dissensions among Orthodox Christians, to restore communion in the Eucharist and in prayer, as befits the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church”. “For the sake of achieving the God-commanded peace between coreligionist Orthodox Christians and the reconciliation between nations” Patriarch Filaret called the Council to “nullify” the anathema imposed on him in 1997. The letter concluded with words of mutual forgiveness: “as your brother and concelebrant, ask forgiveness for all that I have done in word, in deed, and through all my senses, and likewise sincerely from my heart I forgive you”.

Having considered the appeal, the ROC hierarchs didn’t find it possible to ignore the words of caring for the Orthodox Christian Church’s good. Council members immediately established a special commission to negotiate with UOC-KP on how to restore the canonical order in Ukraine and how to address the related technical issues.

However, once Moscow started to implement preliminary agreements and the media got suspicious about possible confidential talks behind it, the UOC-KP suddenly reversed its course. Instead of making another step towards the dialog they made two steps back. At the pressconference on December 2, Filaret (Denisenko) announced that his appeal to the ROC Primate’s Council had been misunderstood. The UOC-KP’s Primate stated that in his letter he hadn’t intended to deliver apologies for anything or seek any formal unity with the ROC. He said the letter had been written to give Moscow an opportunity to correct its mistake and lift “unjust” prohibitions that prevent the ROC from recognizing autocephaly to which the UOC-KP is “rightfully” entitled. In its turn, the Synod of the Kyivan Patriarchate decreed to “agree to negotiate with the ROC”, but didn’t establish any corresponding commission for that.

It’s just amazing why on Earth the Russians believed that Patriarch Filaret repented for his schism! I mean Filaret himself had repeatedly declared that he wouldn’t submit himself under any other patriarch – neither of Moscow nor of Constantinople. Moreover, while dealing with Constantinople, UOC-KP leadership has already shown its inability to fulfill agreements and maintain confidentiality. Now Moscow has learnt it the hard way.

Supporters of Filaret have been covertly seeking assistance at the Fanar for decades, addressing it as their Mother-Church. In 2016, Ukrainian authorities adopted and submitted appeals to the Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and waited for a response (or at least a hint of it) for almost half a year. And when all these efforts proved to be in vain they made an instant U-turn. Ever since Ukrainians accuse the Ecumenical Patriarchate of “spiritual wandering“, «Byzantine art of “palaver“», intriguery and Greek chauvinism. In contrast to the Fanariots, the ROC not only received delegates of the UOC-KP but almost welcomed them all with honours. Representatives of the Kyivan Patriarchate were accommodated in the 5-star hotel Metropol, had a peaceful conversation and were presented with valuable books.

Besides, Bishops’ Council in Moscow demonstrated its openness and readiness to talk by establishing a commission to further negotiate with Patriarch Filaret after his former letter. According to the comments from the UOC-KP’s clergy, the whole process took just about a month from the first unofficial meeting to the creation of the commission by the ROC. Nevertheless the matter remained stalemated due to Kyivan Patriarch’s backtrack later. Why then did he write that ambiguous letter?

The question of UOC-KP’s motives is indeed complicated. One could suggest, there are some actors in the UOC-KP that strive for improvent of the relations with the canonical Orthodox Christian Churches, but attempts to bring Filaret to the negotiation table were blocked by those interested in alienation of the contestant Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC-MP, self-ruling entity under the jurisdiction of Moscow Patriarchate). This provokes tensions between different groups and movements within the UOC-KP that fight for influence and opportunities to enthrone their own candidates on the Kyivan See at the right moment. If this is true then the UOC-KP is likely to split further and further.

The Patriarch Filaret’s appeal to Moscow might be also driven by the intention to make the Fanar jealous and thus prompt it to take more specific actions. But we remember that according to the statements of the UOC-KP’s hierarchs their Church is de facto autocephalous and they don’t care if this status is formally recognized by other Patriarchates. Thus we can suppose that it is Ukrainian politicians who might be eager to simulate the start of the negotiations with Moscow. Yet, it’s unlikely that their inelaboate maneuvers will meet their goal. Patriarch Bartholomew is well aware of the complexity of the situation in Ukraine and takes into account all possible risks.

Moreover, his wisdom and deep situational vision are proved by the unofficial discussion of the appeal of the Ukrainian parliamentarians to the Ecumenical Patriarch on the sidelines of the Holy and Great Council in Crete. As the majority of hierarchs in attendance expected back in June 2016, His All-Holiness obviously distanced himself from Ukrainian issue.

However, one cannot rule out that the real mission and the raison d’etre of the Kyivan Patriarchate is to maintain the present instability which weakens the UOC-MP and gives benefits for the Ukrainian Greek-Catholics. The Uniates are interested in promoting other Orthodox Christian denominations in Ukraine. For example, most of the Ukrainian parliamentarians who initiated the letter to the Patriarch Bartholomew are Greek Catholics. And even some clerics of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church prove that gathering all Ukrainian Orthodox believers under the omophorion of the Ecumenical Patriarch is a first step to bringing them under the authority of the Pope. Besides, the situation between patriarchates of Moscow and Conastantinople is one more trouble-issue in the context of the Russian –Turkish relations. This is exactly the objective of the Washington’s foreign policy in the region. And the White House is by the way one of the crucial partners of the present Ukrainian Administration.

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ColoRail, a non-profit advocacy organization dedicated to preserving & expanding passenger rail in Colorado, has set its Winter meeting for Saturday, February 17th. The session runs from 8am to Noon, and will be held at the Kimpton Hotel Born, just southwest of Denver Union Station. This writer, who spends significant time in the state, has […]


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How Civil Wars End — Political Violence at a Glance

By Lise M. Howard, Associate Professor of Government and Alexandra Stark, Ph.D. Candidate, both in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. As with most civil wars, the war in Yemen is marked by the influence of outside actors. It began in September 2014, when the Iranian-backed Houthis took over the capital Sana’a, and it…

via How Civil Wars End — Political Violence at a Glance

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Syrian Army Unearths Ancient Byzantine Mosaics in Hama

As Veteran’s Today reports referring to Sputnik,  Divisions of the Syrian army have come across ancient mosaics dating back to the Byzantine era, while clearing mines in a rural area around Hama.

photo by Mohammad Najm

Speaking to Sputnik Arabic, Abdel Qader Farzat, the head of Hama Museums and Antiquities Department in Hama said that “valuable artefacts have been found outside Akerbat, which lies 85 kilometers east of Hama. When the first reports from the military arrived, a group of our experts traveled to the scene and determined that the mosaic dates back to the Byzantine epoch. It was created in the first half of the fifth century. The large-sized mosaic features birds and is covered with a 1.5-meter layer of earth.”

photo by Mohammad Najm

“As we were digging the newly found mosaic out, we spotted yet another one, just 80 centimeters away. The second one lies not that deep, it’s 7×8 meters in size. The image shows peacocks, ducks, pigeons, plants and animals, geometrical figures as well as six Greek lines. One of its sides is semi-circular, which might have housed an apsidal altar in a church,” he added.

According to the speaker, the excavation works have now entered the third week. The best specialists with the Antiquities Department are engaged in cleaning up the artifacts so that they could be transported to laboratories for renovation later on.

Once all the work is done, the objects will be put on public display, Farzat noted.

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How the U.S. Promotes Extremism in the Name of Religious Freedom

Rethinking the USCIRF

Foreign Affairs

On July 26, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his nomination of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback as U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom. The position was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which also established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), with whom the ambassador’s office closely cooperates. President Trump and members of Congress will appoint new commissioners to the USCIRF in 2018. The commission reports on global violations of religious freedom and makes recommendations to the president and the State Department for action, including sanctions.

Despite Congress’ best intentions, the USCIRF has strayed far from its mandate. In its 2017 report, the commission effectively supports the right of Islamist extremists to operate in several Muslim-majority countries, Iranian mullahs to spread radicalism abroad, and hardline Islamist organizations to receive foreign funding. It also castigates policies that promote secularism, such as bans on headscarves for girls in public schools. In its quest to protect freedom of religion, the USCIRF is championing the rights of groups that aspire to impose religious coercion on others.


Although it operates around the world, in recent years the USCIRF has been particularly harsh in its condemnation of the Muslim-majority, ex-Soviet states of the Caucasus and Central Asia—Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The committee has criticized them for excessive restrictions on religious freedom and repression of non-traditional religious groups. All these countries observe strict separation of church and state, have refused to designate Islam as a formal state religion, and maintain secular laws and courts. And in sharp contrast to their treatment in most of the Middle East, non-Muslims in these countries can live as equal citizens.

These states, with their Soviet heritage, have at times been heavy-handed in their handling of religious issues; for instance, authorities in Tajikistan forcibly shave men’s beards and instruct women to wear their headgear only in the traditional Tajik way. It is no secret, moreover, that none of the countries in question are smoothly functioning democracies. But it must also be acknowledged that their rules help protect secular Muslims, women, and minorities, from religious coercion. Islamists who would like to overturn this secular order and enforce a religious state are not allowed to do so. Yet the USCIRF pays no attention to these nuances and simply declares the states to be violating their citizens’ religious freedom.

In its 2017 report, for instance, the USCIRF, as part of its justification for categorizing Tajikistan as a top violator of religious freedom, lists the country’s legislation requiring religious institutions and studies to register with the government. But Tajikistan, which shares a long and porous border with Afghanistan, says the purpose of the law is to prevent terrorists from operating in the country under the guise of legitimate religious activity—an understandable concern. The USCIRF report also criticizes Tajikistan for a law that requires parental consent before a minor can receive religious instruction. The law in question, however, was instituted in order to protect vulnerable young people from falling under the sway of extremists, who often seek to recruit them in public spaces such as soccer fields and markets. Finally, the USCIRF report objects to Tajikistan’s prohibition of the international Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. Yet this group advocates the use of violence to establish an Islamic caliphate and is blatantly anti-Semitic. It is banned in Germany as well as in most Arab countries.


The USCIRF also criticizes several states for preventing foreign funds from reaching local Islamic organizations. For instance, its 2017 report censured Kazakhstan for blocking the bank accounts of individuals included in the finance ministry’s list of people “connected to financing of terrorism or extremism.” But not only do these policies respond to the real threat of the spread of radicalism from the Gulf States or Iran, they are also in line with U.S. legislation aimed to combat terrorist financing. The USCIRF is thus actively opposing a key element of the U.S. government’s own counterterrorism policies.


An inherent problem with the current system concerns the accuracy of the evidence on which USCIRF bases its conclusions. Because the commission’s mandate is to cover the entire globe, it rarely conducts original research, relying instead on reports from local and international NGOs. It then recycles these reports, without independently verifying their accuracy, and puts the U.S. government’s stamp of approval on them. Worse, the USCIRF provides no specific information on the sources of their data beyond naming NGOs and opposition media. In other words, the reader has no basis for verifying the commission’s data. A further problem with this approach is that many NGOs are highly partisan groups that make no pretense of hiding their agenda, whether it is to actively support a government or to bring it down. In its current report, most of the reporting relating to Central Asia and the Caucasus draws from the website of a Norwegian organization called Forum 18. This group has no research division and declares itself a “Christian initiative” that “affirms on the body of the incarnation of Jesus Christ” the right to freedom of religion—not necessarily a recipe for a dispassionate and rigorous research.

The USCIRF staff, moreover, possesses neither the language skills nor the regional expertise needed truly to understand the intricacies of church–state relations around the globe. This is understandable, given that the commission has only fifteen employees. No wonder, then, that James J. Zogby, who served as the commission’s vice-chair until May, stated in his dissenting opinion in the 2017 report that due to insufficient resources, “the commission’s staff is forced to write their drafts based largely on secondary sources or accounts from advocacy groups or the results of a few three- or four-day trips commissioners take each year to some of the countries. After receiving the draft, commissioners are then asked to review and comment on chapters dealing with countries, many about which we know very little.”



Various liberal democracies around the world have adopted differing models for separating  church and state. A stark contrast exists, for instance, between the American and French models. The Muslim-majority states of Central Asia and Azerbaijan have adopted something close to the French model, which upholds public secularismandfocuses on defending the state and society from religious coercion. Thus, France and the states following its model limit the expression of religion in the public sphere. This model may seem harsh to Americans, who have never had to contend with a dominant religious authority and have been more concerned with securing freedom for their churches to operate than with protecting their citizens from religious coercion. Yet the USCIRF and other U.S. institutions that deal with religious freedom globally should be more tolerant of diversity in the various approaches to managing the relationship of church and state, and accept that different states with different historical challenges will adopt different models.

 Rather than leading to positive change, Washington’s current tactics cause bewilderment and anger. One former Tajik minister wondered why United States opposed his country’s fight against extremists, and privately asked one of this article’s authors whether the U.S. planned to sacrifice Central Asia to ISIS in some future deal with the group. Indeed, at the same time as U.S. forces are bombing the bases of Islamist insurgents in Iraq and Syria, the USCIRF is attacking allies in the Muslim world with secular governments, secular laws and courts, and secular systems of education. Their sin? Trying to keep those same extremists at bay.

As the Trump administration and Congress appoint new commissioners and weigh the USCIRF’s latest report, it is important that they thoroughly rethink the purpose and practices of the commission. Moving forward, several steps need to be taken. First, the USCIRF should recognize that the United States’ approach to church–state relations is not the only valid model—in particular, it should accept the legitimacy of French-inspired models that seek to protect state and society from religious coercion. Further, the USCIRF should only report information that it can independently verify. Foreign governments will be much more amenable to U.S. recommendations if they focus only bona fide violations.

Finally, the USCIRF should focus more on carrots than on sticks. Instead of simply classifying and censuring U.S. partners, or demanding sanctions, it should focus on constructive steps that various agencies of the U.S. government could take in cooperation with these governments in order to address problems and improve governance with respect to religious freedom.


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