Sunday, April 10, 2011

War in Afghanistan is destabilising Pakistan: Zardari

Asif Ali Zardari

criticises members of US Congress and US media in Guardian interview

The war in Afghanistan is destabilising Pakistan and seriously undermining efforts to restore its democratic institutions and economic prosperity after a decade of military dictatorship, Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, has told the Guardian.

Speaking during an exclusive interview in the imposing presidential residence in Islamabad, Zardari also pointed to widespread concern in Pakistan at the slow pace of efforts to end the Afghan conflict, and said some US politicians showed limited understanding of the impact of American policies.

"Just as the Mexican drug war on US borders makes a difference to Texas and American society, we are talking about a war on our border which is obviously having a huge effect. Only today a suicide bomber has attacked a police compound in Baluchistan. I think it [the Afghan war] has an effect on the entire region, and specially our country," Zardari said.

Asked about harsh criticism of Pakistan's co-operation in the "war on terror" published in a White House report last week, Zardari said Pakistan always listened to Washington's views. But he suggested some members of Congress and the US media did not know what they were talking about when it came to Pakistan.

"The United States has been an ally of Pakistan for the last 60 years. We respect and appreciate their political system. So every time a new parliament comes in, new boys come in, new representatives come in, it takes them time to understand the international situation. Not Obama, but the Congress, interest groups and the media get affected by 'deadline-itis' [over ending the Afghan war]," Zardari said.

"I think it is maybe 12 years since America has become engaged in Afghanistan and obviously everybody's patience is on edge, especially the American public, which is looking for answers. There are no short-term answers and it is very difficult to make the American taxpayer understand."

With less than three months left before Barack Obama has promised to begin withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan, the White House recriminations reflected the growing pressures on all three governments to agree a workable, long-term strategy. The report complained bitterly that after years of US funding of the Pakistani military, "there remains no clear path towards defeating the insurgency" inside Pakistan.

It criticised as ineffectual Pakistani army operations in some areas of the western tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, which are believed to be used as safe havens by Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida elements.

A congressional panel also weighed in this week, urging the Obama administration to abandon Pakistan in favour of India. "Pakistan is about to go broke or collapse," said Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat.

Zardari suggested that if that assertion were true, the interventionist policies of the US and other foreign governments in south Asia would be a significant contributory factor. Pakistan had been in a state of "security alert" for several decades, he said.

"Our emphasis has been on security rather than our commerce and we need commerce for our survival.

"We have all the gas in the world waiting to go through to markets in India and the Red Sea but it cannot be brought in until Afghanistan is settled. So Afghanistan is a growth issue for us. I think most of the time, the quantification of the effect of the war is not calculated [by the US].

"Prices are going up, obviously we are a high fuel-importing country, and fuel prices are going up. Because of the war situation, the industry in one of our provinces has practically closed down ... When one whole sector is not working, there is an effect on the other sectors."

According to senior intelligence officials, the "war on terror" has cost the Pakistani economy approximately $68bn (£42bn) since 2001.

More than 33,300 Pakistani civilians and military personnel have been killed or seriously injured. Last year's record-breaking floods added to the strain on the economy.

Zardari said the security situation was also undercutting efforts to strengthen democratic institutions bypassed or overturned during the military rule of his predecessor, General Pervez Musharraf. "Democracy is evolving. It's a new democracy. It takes time to bring institutions back. Destroying institutions during a decade of dictatorial regime is easy ... So there is a political impact as well as an economic impact."

Pakistani officials say relations with the US reached a "low ebb" following the recent row over Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who shot dead two Pakistanis; a CIA drone attack in Pakistan's tribal areas last month that accidentally killed dozens of civilian elders meeting in a jirga (council), and Pakistan's suspicions that it is being excluded from discussions about an Afghan peace deal.

Zardari, who is expected to visit Washington next month, said he would ask Obama to share drone technology with Pakistan so future attacks could be planned and directed under a "Pakistani flag". Although this request had been turned down in the past, he said he was hopeful the Americans would be more receptive this time, given the huge anger and rising anti-American feeling that the drone attacks were causing.

Zardari and other senior government officials said all parties felt a sense of growing urgency about forging an inclusive peace settlement in Afghanistan, but the process must be "Afghan-led". Pakistan was ready to play its part, consistent with its national interest, they said.

Salman Bashir, Pakistan's foreign secretary, said: "Everybody is gradually coming round to our point of view that this requires greater diplomatic pressure. There is no military solution in Afghanistan."

Gaddafi Accepts Road Map To Peace

Colonel Gaddafi rallies his supporters as he accepts a road map to peace proposed by the African Union. Sky's Stuart Ramsay reports from Tripoli.

Art gallery in Peshawar under consideration: official

The Culture Department of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is mulling over a plan to set up a permanent art gallery to facilitate local artists.

This was disclosed by Secretary for Culture Department and Managing Director of Tourism Corporation of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Azam Khan during his visit to the exhibition of paintings by Associate Professor Dr Ghulam Shabbier that ended on Sunday after receiving a positive response from the art lovers and people in general.

Azam Khan took round of the 31 art pieces exhibited at the Nishtar Hall by a literary, cultural and social welfare organisation Gandhara Hindko Board in collaboration with the Culture Department.

Praising the paintings, the secretary said these reflected different aspects of the cultural life of the Walled City and signified the keen observations of the artist who was born and raised in this city. He also selected two paintings for the Culture Department.

Azam Khan said there was no dearth of talent in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which excelled in several fields, art being one of them.

The secretary said the local talent needed to be officially supported, adding the Culture Department would make every effort to promote the art and culture as it was direly needed to portray a soft image of this land and end the misgivings about its people who loved peace.

Adviser to the Federal Ombudsman and a former chief secretary of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Ejaz Ahmad Qureshi, travelled from Islamabad to view the paintings on the concluding day of the exhibition.

Ejaz Ahmad Qureshi, who himself lived the early part of his life in Bazaar-e-Kalan neighbourhood in Peshawar, said it was highly encouraging to note that at a time when Peshawar and other parts of the province were going through hard times due to a wave of terror, there were people and institutions who were making efforts to promote art and culture and thus give a ray of hope to the people.

“I strongly believe that at a time when cultural landscapes of Peshawar are being threatened with commercialism, there is a greater need to preserve the rare architectural heritage of the 2500-year old city and its values which has the distinction of being the oldest living city of the South Asia,” said Ejaz Ahmad Qureshi, son of known educationalist Ahmad Nawaz Saleem Qureshi who spent his life in serving the education sector and also authored two books “A dynamic view of education” and “Dayar-e-Dil”.

Professor Mohammad Siddique Zakki, a former teacher at the Edwardes College Peshawar, said Dr Ghulam Shabbier had portrayed though his brushwork the cultural life of Peshawar that touched the heart. “A look at these paintings gives me a peace of mind. It reminds of the calm that Peshawar once had when the life was not as mechanical as it is today. I still own a house in the interior part of the city and I have retained it just because it is part of the city culture,” said Professor Zakki as his eyes welled up while looking at some of the paintings that showed the interior views of the traditional houses in Peshawar.

Jehanzeb Malik, a seasoned art teacher, said painting in watercolour is more difficult than oil colour. “Shabbier has done a good job by preserving the cultural life through his brushwork,” he said of the artist who is a pulmonologist by profession and served at the Khyber Teaching Hospital.

Assistant Professor Dr Tazeen Gul of the Jinnah College for Women, University of Peshawar, who was at the exhibition along with her children, said such cultural activities must be promoted if we wanted to keep our young generation away from the negative pursuits. She proposed that such events should be well publicised in advance.

Feeling elated at the response to the exhibition and recognition of his work, Dr Ghulam Shabbier said he would extend the scope of his work to portray other aspects of Peshawar as well. He suggested that the Gor Gathri Cultural Complex in the Walled City should have a portion to display the artwork of the local artists as you cannot progress by breaking with your glorious past.

The exhibition was formally opened on Friday by an educationist Khwaja Mohammad Waseem at a ceremony, which was attended by the art lovers from different sections of the society, a good number of university and school students and teachers.

Bahraini forces raze 5 mosques

Saudi-backed Bahraini forces have reportedly destroyed 5 mosques in Hamad Town and Mahooz village in the east and northeast of the country as the regime continues its brutal crackdown on protesters.

The mosques were razed on Sunday, a day after the Al Khalifa regime admitted that two protesters had died in its custody.

Bahraini troops had earlier destroyed Watiyah Mosque in Mahooz .

Destruction of the religious sites has become a new scare tactic sanctioned by Manama in its attempts to suppress the popular protests, which began on February 14.

The security forces have also shot and killed a protester in Bilad al-Qadeem -- a Manama suburb town.

A recently-surfaced video showed forces firing tear gas canisters at peoples' homes.

Also on Sunday, a funeral procession was held in Sehla for Ali Isa Saqer, a 31-year-old who died the day before in police custody after alleged physical abuse by Bahraini security forces.

Saqer was a human rights activist. His body bore signs of torture.

On Saturday Maryam al-Khawaja of the Bahrain Center of Human Rights told Press TV that the number of detainees in Bahrain has reached 800, including at least 25 women.

Dozens of people have been killed and thousand others injured since the start of the revolution, which urges the ouster of the royal family.

Led by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain's Arab neighbors deployed their troops to the country in mid-March to reinforce the armed attacks against protesters. The reinforcements have reportedly contributed to an increase in the use of violence against protesters.

On Thursday, the international medical and humanitarian organization of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) confirmed earlier reports that Manama-paid forces swoop on the country's medical centers soon after injured patients trust medical authorities with their identification and inform them that their injuries are protest-related.

Higher Education Commission:18th Amendment, HEC and higher education

By—Prof Ijaz Khan
Daily Times

The real issue is not HEC or devolution but the appropriate level of autonomy of the university campus. Academia fears intrusion by the provincial bureaucracy and politicians. There is a need for the creation of an alternate system that addresses this apprehension

The implementation of the 18th Amendment has generated a debate in academic and other interested circles, political as well as non-political, due to its far reaching implications for higher education. This piece attempts to explain the implications, apprehensions and the possible policy responses.

The 18th Amendment abolishes the concurrent list, thus devolving a number of subjects, including higher education, to the federating units. However, it awards the responsibility of standard setting to the federal list. This means the end of the federal education ministry and, more important, the end of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), at least as we know it. It is the implications of the change in HEC that has generated debate in academia. The broader divide is between those who consider the HEC’s survival in its present form vital for the growth of quality higher education and those who consider the main issue ensuring the autonomy of the campuses and devising a new system in the light of the 18th Amendment, which will ensure the enhanced funding that was made available through the HEC.

The protagonists of the HEC argue that if it is devolved to the provinces, the increased funding made available to it since 2002 will dry up, resulting in discontinuation of a large number of both indigenous and foreign PhD scholarships and research projects. They further argue that the large number of new universities is a gift of the HEC and also credit increased enrolment, research publications and PhD degree holders to HEC. It has also been argued that the degrees awarded by the Pakistani universities have achieved a better level of recognition as a result of HEC’s policies and verification system. A more serious fear is expressed that the devolution of higher education to the provinces will mean loss of autonomy of the universities and a greater level of intrusion from both the provincial bureaucracy and politicians. Thus, it is inferred that if the HEC is wound up or its powers and functions reduced, all the good things that have happened to higher education will come to end.

The question is: how would the surge in funding decline with HEC’s end or change in its status? If it was generated by the HEC and belongs to it, then there may be some truth in this. The fact is that the funding to the HEC came from the government directly or because of the government from USAID and the World Bank (WB). International funding has been available to higher education along with other sectors after September 11, 2001. Our international supporters were willing to support the state and the people for reasons well known. The state created a certain system through the establishment of HEC to receive and utilise that fund. The situation that convinced foreign donors has not changed and will not change by the demise of or change in the status of HEC. The provision in the agreement between the WB and the HEC to the effect that “any change in the current HEC status will result in end of funding” simply means that it is giving funds to HEC because of its status and role as an agency made responsible by the state to receive such funds. That provision was not and cannot be interpreted as protecting HEC but rather protecting funding for higher education through the HEC so long as the HEC is responsible for higher education. As such, the funding to HEC will end as it has been reported in the newspapers, but will resume through the alternate mechanism/s created for the purpose. Once funding is assured, there is no reason to fear the termination or suspension of the ongoing projects or scholarships as well as their future continuity.

The increased number of universities, both in the private and public sector, is the result of government policy and has nothing to do with HEC. HEC simply was not, is not, and has never tried to be a university-creating body. It only sets certain standards for an institution to be a university or a degree awarding body. The power to award degrees is granted by the state and not by the HEC. Similarly, if, when and where to create a university are the decisions of the government of the day, not HEC. There is also a question whether this mushrooming of universities is a good policy or not, whether it promotes quality higher education or not. However, the HEC can neither be given credit for it nor accused for the number.

The increased number of PhDs and scholarships is the direct result of more funds being available. If there was no increased funding, scholarships or other projects would not have been possible, HEC or no HEC. The increased number of PhDs is also a result of this becoming a requirement for appointment at senior levels. Again, that requirement was made much earlier than HEC was established. One must acknowledge that HEC has established a good system for evaluation of research journals and research publications. That may need a little rationalisation but overall it is a good contribution. However, that such a system could not have been created without the HEC is not a very strong claim. Now that it is there, the bodies replacing the HEC can keep it, as there may be other contributions of the HEC that may be retained.

International recognition of degrees from Pakistani universities has not been affected at all by the HEC. The level of recognition remains the same as it was. Mostly western universities equate educational qualifications based on the years of education and admissions to various programmes are based on certain tests, like GRE, GMAT, TOEFL or IELTS. A degree attested by the HEC is not given any more credibility than one attested by the university granting it. Rather, the university that has granted a degree is a much better and more authentic authority for verification or attestation than the HEC or any other place. Even if others do it, they have to rely on evidence provided by the degree awarding institution.

The real issue is not HEC or devolution but the appropriate level of autonomy of the university campus. Academia fears intrusion by the provincial bureaucracy and politicians. There is a need for the creation of an alternate system that addresses this apprehension. There has to be an autonomous provincial body, free of the influence of the provincial government. However, it should not be a replication of HEC at the provincial level. It must be remembered that HEC had also curtailed freedom of the campus and had developed the habit of micro-managing universities. The new system must avoid that. The government must act urgently to create an alternative with inputs and consultation of the stakeholders, academics being the central ones, and people with a much better understanding of the needs and requirements of a modern university. The 18th Amendment gives the federation the responsibility for standard setting, which means a restructured HEC or a new body succeeding it at the federal level may continue with the coordination, standard setting, quality enhancement and assurance, accreditation and equivalence functions. The fear that higher education in different provinces will be totally different from one another is not very well founded either. The devolution of higher education as a result of the 18th Amendment provides for a certain level of standardisation along with providing enough room for diversity and freedom.

Our universities may not be ideal and do have a lot of deficiencies, but they are full of highly qualified academics with degrees and work experience in the developed world. In the interim period, the continuity of the ongoing projects and payments of scholarships to those already enrolled as well as those about to proceed must be ensured.

The writer is the chairman of department of International Relations, University of Peshawar

China tells U.S. to quit as human rights judge

The United States is beset by violence, racism and torture and has no authority to condemn other governments' human rights problems, China said on Sunday, countering U.S. criticism of Beijing's crackdown.
The row between Beijing and Washington over human rights has intensified since China's ruling Communist Party extended its clampdown on dissidents and rights activists, a move which has sparked an outcry from Washington and other Western governments.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is the most prominent of the activists to be detained by police or held in secretive custody in the latest crackdown.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Friday she was "deeply concerned" about it, and cited "negative trends" including Ai's detention.
A U.S. State Department report on global human rights released on Friday said Beijing had stepped up restrictions on lawyers, activists, bloggers and journalists, and tightened controls on civil society.
It has also increased its efforts to control the press, Internet and Internet access, the report said.
But China has shown no sign of bowing to foreign pressure.Its Foreign Ministry on Saturday dismissed the U.S. report as meddling, and its own annual report about U.S. human rights stressed Beijing's dismissive view.
"Stop the domineering behavior of exploiting human rights to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries," it said, according to excerpts published by the official Xinhua news agency.
"The United States ignores its own severe human rights problems, ardently promoting its so-called 'human rights diplomacy', treating human rights as a political tool to vilify other countries and to advance its own strategic interests," said a passage from the Chinese report
Produced by the State Council Information Office, the government's public relations arm, the report dwelled on what it said were severe deprivations and threats facing many Americans, as well as Washington's invasion of Iraq.It also cited the United States' refusal to ratify a number of international human rights pacts, and listed poverty, hunger and homelessness as stains on the country's rights record.
"The United States is the world's worst country for violent crimes," said the report. "Citizens' lives, property and personal safety do not receive the protection they should."
"Racial discrimination is deeply rooted in the United States, permeating every aspect of social life," it said.
Criticism of China's human rights problems do not come just from foreign governments and groups.
Chinese rights lawyers and advocates have also been dismayed by a recent burst of arrests, detentions and heavy sentences against dissidents and activists.
On Sunday, hundreds of Chinese police moved to prevent a planned outdoor service by a church in Beijing that had been evicted from its former premises.

Colorado mom shocked to hear Obama quote her email

A Colorado mom says she and her family were watching TV in their pajamas when she heard President Barack Obama read from an email telling him how a government shutdown could spoil her son's school trip to Washington.
Shalini Schane, of Longmont, said Saturday that she emailed the president a few days ago because she was worried the 50 eighth-graders from Altona Middle School would be shut out of landmarks on their trip, which begins Sunday.
Schane, who's going along as a chaperone, said a White House staffer called her Friday to say the email might be used in a speech. The staffer didn't indicate when that might happen, or who would be making the speech.
Schane and her 13-year-old son Adam were packing for the trip Friday night, still not knowing whether the government would be shut down, when the president came on TV to discuss the compromise that is keeping things open.
Her husband and their daughter were also watching when Obama closed his remarks by quoting from her email.
"That was quite shocking, and we're still in shock," Schane said.
Obama didn't mention Schane by name, but a White House spokesman confirmed Saturday she had written the email. The Longmont Times-Call first reported she was the author.
Obama directly quoted one passage from the email: "Remember, the future of this country is not for us. It's for our children."
He closed by saying, "Today we acted on behalf of our children's future. And next week, when 50 eighth graders from Colorado arrive in our nation's capital, I hope they get a chance to look up at the Washington Monument and feel the sense of pride and possibility that defines America — a land of many that has always found a way to move forward as one."

Obama to lay out spending plan

One budget deal down, President Barack Obama and Congress began to pivot Sunday from the painful standoff over this year's spending to a pair of defining debates over the nation's borrowing limit and the election-year budget.
Much will be revealed at midweek, when the House and Senate are expected to vote on a budget for the remainder of this fiscal year and Obama reveals his plan to reduce the deficit, in part by scaling back programs for seniors and the poor. Across the dial on Sunday, messengers from both parties framed the series of spending fights as debates over cuts — a thematic victory for House Republicans swept to power by a populist mandate for smaller, more austere government.
"We've had to bring this president kicking and screaming to the table to cut spending," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., on "Fox News Sunday."
Presidential adviser David Plouffe said Obama has long been committed to finding ways for the nation to spend within its means. He confirmed that the president would unveil more specifics for deficit reduction with a speech Wednesday that would reveal plans to reduce the government's chief health programs for seniors and the poor.
"You're going to have to look at Medicare and Medicaid and see what kind of savings you can get," Obama adviser David Plouffe said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
The presidential speech on Wednesday is part of official Washington's shift from the standoff over spending through September to next year's budget and beyond. Alone and together, the prospects of raising the debt ceiling and passing a 2012 spending plan are politically perilous, a knot that lawmakers will spend the coming months trying to unravel. That means competing plans to shore up the nation's long-term fiscal health in a debate many predict will make Friday's nail-biter look minor.
For all the forward focus Sunday, congressional officials still were analyzing Friday's 348-70 vote to fund the government through the week. Operating under it, aides were putting to paper the longer-term bipartisan accord to fund the government through September. It wasn't clear that the vote would remain the same on the spending bill for the next six months.
The late hour of Friday's handshake left lawmakers little time to react. House members of both parties who voted for the funding through the week could not say on Sunday that they'd vote for the plan to fund the government through September.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who voted "yes" Friday to extend funding this week while the final compromise was written, said he was nonetheless undecided on whether he'd vote for the final deal. On ABC's "This Week," he said he didn't think the six-month compromise would pass.
On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., also a "yes" vote on Friday, would not commit to voting for the six-month deal either.
Pence praised House Speaker John Boehner for fighting "the good fight."
"It sounds like John Boehner got a good deal, probably not good enough for me to support it, but a good deal nonetheless," Pence said on ABC.
Friday's tally also offered a look at Republicans likely to be the staunchest opponents of any compromises on spending and policy.
Twenty-eight of the "no" votes were cast by Republicans. Sixteen of those are members of the 87-member freshman class. Also voting no: Tea Party star and possible presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.
"This short-term was just 'same ol', same ol" for Washington," one newcomer who voted "no," Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, wrote on his Facebook page.
The $38.5 billion in cuts, Huelskamp wrote, "barely make a dent" in years of trillion-dollar deficits and the nation's $14 trillion debt. Additionally, the measure lacked the policy riders he sought, such as one to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding, though by law no federal money goes to its abortion services.
All told, Huelskamp wrote, the measure "ignores the fundamental reasons I and my fellow freshmen members of Congress were sent to Washington in November of last year."
Plouffe said the president understands the mandate to dramatically cut spending. On talk show after talk show, he pointed to December's bipartisan deal on tax cuts with Friday night's agreement on this year's budget as evidence that both parties can govern together when they want to.
"Compromise is not a dirty word," Plouffe said on ABC.
The president, Plouffe said, would address ways to reduce the deficit and the long-term, $14 trillion debt. He gave few specifics, but he said the president believes taxes should go up on higher-income Americans and cuts to Medicare and Medicaid will be necessary.
Obama's speech will come as the debate shifts to the far more delicate ground of the government budget for next year — when the president and most of Congress are up for re-election.
Republicans said Friday night's deal in no way means they're ready to compromise on the fiscal debates ahead, starting with the House Republicans' $3.5 trillion spending plan for next year.
The GOP blueprint, unveiled last week by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would slash federal spending by $5 trillion or more over the coming decade and repeal Obama's signature health care law. It would leave Social Security untouched but shift more of the risk from rising medical costs from the government to Medicare beneficiaries. It also calls for sharp cuts to Medicaid health care for the poor and disabled and to food aid for the poor.

Saudi Arabia Jails Two Christians Without Trial

Two Indian Christians of a thriving Pentecostal house church in Saudi Arabia have been moved from pre-trial detention to a prison in the Saudi capital Ryadh where they are "forbidden to pray or read the Bible" and "suffer of a lack of food and medical attention," an elder of the church told BosNewsLife Sunday April 10.

Vasantha Sekhar Vara, 28, and Nese Yohan, 31, who are members of the "Rejoice in the Church of the Lord" congregation, were initially detained in January and received 45-days of "pre-trial detention" on charges of attempted Christian conversion, also known as "proselytizing", said the church elder speaking from Riyadh in a telephone interview.

"They were later moved from the police station to [a notorious] central jail in Riyadh without a trial," he added. He said it was not known when and if the trial will start.

The elder asked not to be identified as he is still involved in negotiating their release and Saudi security forces have raided his church.

"We were crying when we met each other in the prison facility last week," he said, his voice trembling. "They are forbidden to pray or read the Bible. Our brothers' head hair was shaved and they look very thin. They don't receive enough food. Yohan is coughing, perhaps because of Tuberculosis, but he is denied medical treatment. The world should know about their plight."


The church official said the two young men can barely sleep in the overcrowded jail. "They are the only known Christians there who are imprisoned for their faith. The other inmates are criminals."

In India, Vara’s pastor, Ajay Kuma Jeldi, said earlier in published remarks that Vara had told him by telephone that he had been pressured in prison to convert to Islam, but had refused. "If I have to die for my God, I will die for him here," Vara reportedly said.

Vara and Yohan were detained in January when they organized a Bible study group in one of the apartments where their 70-strong church of mainly Indian expat workers gathers, the elder speaking to BosNewsLife confirmed.

"Saudi security forces also confiscated Bibles and other christian literature as well as the church's sound installation and instruments, such as guitars, during the raid. They even broke furniture, suit cases, and painted what I believe were Koran verses on the walls" of the apartment where the church met, he added.


The elder said the two men's "families back in India are very concerned about our brothers."

Pentecostal church members are often referred to as "brothers" or "sisters" in reference to Biblical teaching that those who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are children of God, the Heavenly Father.

The Indian embassy has not yet provided legal assistance and did not openly pressure Saudi authorities to release the two Indian citizens, reportedly describing the case as an "internal religious affair."

The church has not been able to hire a lawyer, the church elder told BosNewsLife. "Our congregation is made up of workers who each have a small salary. There is simply no money to hire an expensive lawyer to defend out brothers in court."


Despite the difficulties and threats of more arrests, the church elder said his congregation continues worshiping in different locations, and even baptizes new believers. "We have to continue to praise the Lord, what else can we do? This is a lively church. There is also an interest among people of other religions to attend our services."

Rights groups say Saudi Arabia, a strict Islamic nation, has a long history of cracking down on Christians. In 2004, 28 Indian workers were reportedly arrested for practicing Christianity. The charges were eventually dropped, but in 2010 brought up again leading to the deportation of one worker, while another person was arrested, according to rights investigators.

In another case, 16 Indian workers were allegedly arrested in February 2008, and then released after three days. In 2010, eight left the country of their own accord and three of the remaining eight were reportedly issued deportation orders and expelled.

A recent United States State Department report on religious freedom expressed concerns about the situation of religious minorities in the country.


U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner said the public practice of non-Muslim religions remains prohibited, and that the Saudi government has not acted on pledges to rid textbooks of religious incitement.

"...There still continues to be in the Saudi textbooks, references, very negative, stereotypical references to Christians, Jews and others, which regard as offensive," he told reporters following the presentation of the report in November.

Saudi authorities have denied human rights abuses and recently urged political activists not to repeat pro-democracy demonstrations that have engulfed other Arabic nations.

The Middle East nation of over 26 million people is officially 100 percent Muslim, but as in other Arabic countries, there have been reports of a growing interest in Christianity in Saudi Araba, where many foreigners are Christians.

In 2009, BosNewsLife already cited Netherlands-based Arabische Wereld Zending, or 'Arabic World Mission,' as saying that Christians have set up an underground church in Mecca, viewed by Muslims as the "holiest city in Islam", while tens of thousands of other Saudi Christians are worshiping via the Internet.

Saudi Arabia mobilizing Salafis to disrupt Egypt's unity

Shia Muslims gathered in front of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Cairo on Saturday to denounce the Saudi stance on decrees permitting the demolition of shrines, as well as its funding of Salafi movements in Egypt.

Demonstrators said the Gulf kingdom plays a role in mobilizing Salafi Muslims to disrupt Egypt's social security and endanger Sufis and Copts.

Protesters hoisted banners denouncing decrees excommunicating Shias, Sufis and the 25 January revolutionaries, as well as the kingdom's rejection of calls to prosecute ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

"You defended Mubarak, pushed Salafis to sow sedition, and pressed for not trying the tyrant", one banner read.

The protest was not well attended by Sufi and Shia figures, nor by members from the Syndicate of al-Asharf (descendants of the Prophet Mohamed), which demonstrators attributed to directives given by their respective senior leaders not to demonstrate before the embassy.

Mohamed al-Dereiny, the head of Egypt’s Shia community, said that Shias were invited to protest but did not organize it.

A number of shrines of consecrated saints have been recently attacked by Salafis, who view visiting such places as against Islam. But followers of the Sufi trend vowed to protect the shrines.

Saudi Arabia is on the wrong path

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has said that Saudi Arabia chose a wrong path when it decided to dispatch troops to Bahrain to quell the popular uprising in the country.

Salehi made the remarks during a joint press conference with Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Leonardo Almagro Lemes in Tehran on Saturday.

“Saudi Arabia is following the wrong path and its action will have severe consequences,” he stated.

Salehi said, “It has been announced that the troops were dispatched to Bahrain at the request of Bahrain and under the Peninsula Shield security pact. But according to the information we have, (the signatories to the pact) can militarily intervene in another (Persian Gulf Cooperation Council member) country only when it is under military attack.”

“Did (Bahrain) regard the popular protests as a foreign invasion and thus ask for Saudi Arabia’s help?”

In 1984, the PGCC decided to create a joint military force called the Peninsula Shield Force. The Peninsula Shield Force is intended to deter and respond to military aggression against any of the PGCC member countries, namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Salehi added, “When I took the post of foreign minister, I announced that my first priority was to establish strong ties with Saudi Arabia, and I made the utmost efforts in this regard, but the response we received was irrational and ill-considered.”

However, Iran is still ready to develop strong ties with this country, and “we hope that Saudi Arabia will leave Bahrain’s soil as soon as possible and will not complicate the situation further,” he stated.

The Uruguayan foreign minister also condemned the foreign military intervention in Bahrain.

Egyptian foreign minister invited to Tehran

Salehi also confirmed the reports that he has invited Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil el-Arabi to visit Tehran.

In light of the overtures made by el-Arabi, “we are ready to welcome him in Tehran, and we are prepared to make a trip to Cairo as well. The consultations are underway in this regard,” he stated.

He added that cooperation between Iran and Egypt will help promote world peace and global stability and security.

Iran thanks Iraq for dealing with terrorists

Asked if U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ three-day visit to Iraq, which started on Friday, has sapped Baghdad’s determination to seriously deal with the members of the Mojahedin Khalq Organization (MKO), Salehi said that the Iraqi government is cracking down hard on terrorist groups.

“We appreciate the Iraqi government’s measures in this regard,” he added.

Bushehr nuclear plant being reloaded

Elsewhere in his remarks, Salehi confirmed the reports that the Bushehr nuclear power plant is being loaded with nuclear fuel again.

“The reloading of fuel into the core of the reactor started on April 8,” Salehi stated.

Iran had to unload fuel due to safety concerns that arose in February. Russia said a breakdown of one of the reactor’s cooling pumps necessitated the removal of 163 fuel rods from its core.

Salehi added that the fuel was unloaded from the Bushehr nuclear power plant to ensure the safety of the reactor

Production of centrifuge parts in Iran nothing new

Salehi also commented on the MKO members’ claims about the discovery of a factory producing centrifuge components located in Tehran Province near the border with Alborz Province, west of the city of Tehran.

“The components required by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran are being manufactured in different parts of the country,” he stated.

The factory in question is also not a hidden facility and reporters have even visited it, Salehi added.

Jalili preparing a reply to Ashton’s letter

Asked about the continuation of talks between Iran and the 5+1 group (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany), Salehi said that EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton recently sent a letter to Supreme National Security Council Secretary Saeed Jalili, and Mr. Jalili is preparing a written reply to her letter.

“We have always been keen to negotiate,” Salehi stated.

The foreign ministers of Iran and Uruguay also held a meeting before the press conference and signed a cooperation agreement.

They also explored ways to promote cooperation between Tehran and Montevideo in various spheres, particularly in economic interactions.

State Department releases 2010 Human Rights Report

The latest assessment of human rights by the United States is critical of the records of Middle Eastern governments, including those of allies like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and adds that it will take "years" before the impact of the wave of unrest across the region is understood.
In a gripping introduction to its 2010 Human Rights Report released Friday, the State Department said, "Because we are publishing this report three months into the new year... our perspectives on many issues are now framed by the dramatic changes sweeping across countries in the Middle East in 2011."
"At this moment," it said, "we cannot predict the outcome of these changes, and we will not know the lasting impacts for years to come."
The detailed report chronicles human rights conditions in 194 countries but it focuses significant attention on events in the Middle East and North Africa.
No "sweeping analysis" of the entire region is possible, it said, because the internal dynamics of each country are different.
But, singling out Tunisia, which sparked the so-called "Arab Spring" and Egypt, which threw out one of the most powerful leaders in the region, the report says, "We are witnessing popular demands for meaningful political participation, fundamental freedoms, and greater economic opportunity."
"These demands are profound, they are homegrown, and they are being driven by new activists, many of them young people. These citizens seek to build sustainable democracies in their countries with governments that respect the universal human rights of their own people. If they succeed, the Middle East region, and with it the whole world, will be improved."
The 2010 Human Rights Report lists three trends that are affecting rights around the world:
The first is the "explosive growth" of non-governmental advocacy organizations promoting democracy and human rights issues and causes. "In many countries "citizens' organizations have been created against great odds and only because individual human rights activists were willing to face great personal risk," it says.
In the last several years, more than 90 governments have sought to pass restrictive laws and regulations hampering the ability of organizations to register, operate freely, or receive foreign funding
The second trend is the explosion of connective technologies like the internet and mobile phones. In Egypt and Tunisia, the report notes, "while it is the courage of the people themselves that led the way and was the driving force, the amplifying impact of these new technologies, coupled with the power of television stations and the internet to broadcast videos obtained by citizens using these mobile phones, cannot be denied."
More than 40 governments, however, it says, now are using a combination of regulatory restrictions, technical controls on access to the internet, and technologies designed to repress speech and infringe on the personal privacy of those who use these rapidly evolving technologies.The third trend, a negative one, the State Department said, is the escalation of violence, persecution, and official and societal discrimination against members of vulnerable groups, such as racial, religious, and ethnic minorities. The discrimination extends to women, children, persons with disabilities; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons.
"In Uganda, intimidation and harassment of LGBT individuals worsened during the year," it said, "and some government and religious leaders threatened LGBT individuals. Honduras saw an upsurge in killings of members of the LGBT community by unknown individuals.
A key U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, comes in for criticism, with the report noting "there were severe restrictions on religious freedom and discrimination on the basis of religion was common."
In addition, the Saudi government, it said, restricted access to the internet and interfered with citizens' privacy while online, monitoring e-mail and internet chat rooms and blocked sites, "including pages about Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and certain forms of Islam deemed incompatible with Sharia law and national regulations."
In Bahrain, the report cites were "multiple allegations of mistreatment and torture, especially of Shia activists associated with rejectionist and opposition groups. Authorities arbitrarily arrested activists, journalists, and other citizens and detained some individuals incommunicado," it said. Shia Muslims are underrepresented in leadership positions in the civil service, police, and security forces and citizens in general "did not have the right to change their government." The government restricted civil liberties, including freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and some religious practices, it notes.
In Israel, the State Department cites "institutional, legal, and societal discrimination against Arab citizens, Palestinian residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, non-Orthodox Jews, and other religious groups." It says there is societal discrimination against persons with disabilities, as well as discrimination and domestic violence against women, particularly in Bedouin society. "While trafficking in persons for the purpose of prostitution decreased in recent years, trafficking for the purpose of labor remained a serious problem, as did abuse of foreign workers and societal discrimination and incitement against asylum seekers."
In Yemen, the report cites "arbitrary and unlawful killings, politically motivated disappearances, and reports of torture and other physical abuse accompanied the use of excessive force against civilians in internal conflict. Human rights abuses included" severe limitations on citizens' ability to change their government due to, among other factors, corruption, fraudulent voter registration, administrative weakness, and close political-military relationships at high levels.
In Pakistan it cites media and non-governmental organization reports on allegations of extrajudicial killings and detention of civilians by the security forces. The total number of reported torture and rape cases of individuals in custody almost doubled, the report notes, compared to 2009.
In an update on Tunisia , however, the report is optimistic, saying the United States is "encouraged by the creation of a fact-finding committee to investigate human rights abuses that took place during the uprising," it said.
In Egypt, the State Department says the United States is "waiting for the government to lift the state of emergency, which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has promised to do prior to parliamentary elections."

Saudi academics stage protests

Dozens of unemployed Saudi university graduates and teachers have taken to the streets in Riyadh and the western city of Jeddah.
The Protesters were demanding a share of the Arab world's oil-driven economy on Sunday, Reuters reported.
The demonstrators respectively gathered in front of the Education Ministry and the ministry's office.
"God willing, I'll be here until Friday if I have to,” said Omar Alharbi, a 34-year-old Arabic language teacher in Jeddah. “We don't care anymore after seven years of unemployment. We have no other choice," he said.

People migrate from Jawakai after militants’ threat

Thousands of tribal people have started migrating towards Kohat from semi-tribal area F.R. Jawakai after receiving threats from the militants, Geo News reported on Sunday.

According to the sources, F.R. Jawakai, an area of nearly 50,000 inhabitants has been targeted by the militants for several weeks. Tribal people said their houses were being targeted with rockets by the militants as a result several people have been killed and injured.

Security forces have started operation in the area.

Pak-US intelligence operations frozen since January: report

Joint Pakistan-U.S. intelligence operations have been halted since late January, Reuters quoted senior Pakistani intelligence officer as said.

Uneasy Pakistan-US ties have become even more tense after a string of diplomatic disputes so far this year, including a massive drone strike in March and the case of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who shot dead two Pakistanis on January 27 in the eastern city of Lahore.

“Presently, joint operations are on hold,” a senior Pakistani intelligence officer told Reuters, adding that they were halted after Davis killed the two men.

“The agency’s ties to the ISI have been strong over the years, and when there are issues to sort out, we work through them,” CIA spokesman George Little told Reuters. “That’s the sign of a healthy partnership.”

“It is our land. We know how to tackle things. We will set the rules of the game. It is not Afghanistan,” a senior Pakistani military official told Reuters. “They have to cease spying operations.”