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For Afghan Hazaras, where to pray can be life and death choice

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October 21, 2021

By Gibran Naiyyar Peshimam

KABUL (Reuters) – Each time Hussain Rahimi leaves his Kabul home for the mosque to pray, he recites the Kalima – a short verse that is the central tenet of Islam – because he is not sure he will come home alive.

“I am afraid. My family is afraid when we go to the mosque,” said 23-year-old Rahimi, an ethnic Hazara – a predominantly Shi’ite community that has been at the receiving end of some of the most violent attacks in Afghanistan’s bloody history.

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The last two Fridays have seen suicide bombings at mosques – both attacks claimed by Islamic State (ISIS) and both targeting the minority Shi’ite sect. More than 100 people were killed in total.

In the wake of the violence, some Hazaras are not going to the mosque at all.

Hazaras have long been discriminated against in Afghanistan from a mix of factors, of which religion is just one.

But while thousands died under the last Taliban government from 1996-2001, it was the appearance of Islamic State in Afghanistan from around the start of 2015 that made them and the wider Shi’ite community a systematic target.

Many hundreds were killed in suicide attacks on mosques and community centres by hardline Sunni militants who do not see them as true Muslims, bringing a form of the sectarian violence that devastated countries like Iraq to Afghanistan.

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No up-to-date census data exists, but estimates put the size of the overall Shi’ite community at between 10-20 percent of the population, including Persian-speaking Tajiks and Pashtuns as well as Hazaras.

In addition, Hazaras have often also been victim of the ethnic and economic rivalries endemic to Afghan politics.

Rahimi lost his sister, a 12th grade student, in a bombing of a Kabul school in May which killed mostly young girls.

Although the Taliban have promised that all of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups will be protected, the killing has gone on since they seized power in August.

“When we are out of our homes, our family calls and asks where we are … they tell us to return home quickly, the situation is bad,” says Rahimi, a computer science student at Kabul University, clutching a picture of his sister.

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He is still working up the courage to go to the mosque for Friday prayers – the most important congregation for Muslims across the world.

GARDEN OF THE MARTYRS

With more than 400 Shi’ite mosques in Kabul alone, total security is impossible and no one knows where the next attack will come.

“Our community feels that on future Fridays, maybe Herat will explode, maybe Kabul will explode, maybe some other,” said Mohammad Baqer Sayed, a university professor who has worked for the rehabilitation of victims of previous attacks.

The Persian-speaking Hazara, thought to trace their descent back to the armies of the 13th century Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, are considered the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan behind the Pashtuns and Tajiks.

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But they have suffered discrimination and oppression ever since the “Iron Amir” Abdur Rahman cleared thousands from their lands in central Afghanistan during his ruthless campaign to found the modern Afghan state in the 19th century.

So many have been killed in suicide attacks that they have a special graveyard in Kabul, called the Garden of the Martyrs, where most of those killed in the May school bombing were buried.

Asif Lali, who works at a clinic a few meters away from the school, has decided with his family to stay away from Friday prayers for the moment.

“We are frightened of everything. Even when we cross the road,” he said.

Like many Shi’ite Hazara families in Kabul, he is no stranger to death. He lost his younger brother when an Islamic State suicide bomber killed dozens of people outside Kabul airport during the chaotic evacuation in August.

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“The attacks on Shias are not just in mosques … they happen in educational institutions and universities – in the education institution you see behind me,” he said.

Under the previous government, Shi’ite communities were offered some basic training and weapons so that they could protect their mosques, but the Taliban have mostly removed these, leaving many feeling even more vulnerable.

Taliban authorities pledged to step up security at Shi’ite mosques last week, but the assurance is not enough for many, who have little faith in a movement long seen as their enemy.

“They should consult with the leaders, the scholars, the professors, and other social activists of the Hazara and Shia people, who know more than the Taliban about their security problems,” the professor Sayed said.

(Reporting by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by James Mackenzie and Mike Collett-White)

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Indonesia Semeru volcanic eruption kills 13; 10 evacuated

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December 5, 2021

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Ten people trapped after Indonesia’s Semeru volcano erupted have been evacuated to safety, the country’s disaster mitigation agency (BNPB) said on Sunday, as the death toll from the disaster climbed to at least 13 and with dozens injured.

Semeru, the tallest mountain on Java island, threw up towers of ash and hot clouds on Saturday that blanketed nearby villages in East Java province and sent people fleeing in panic.

The eruption severed a strategic bridge connecting two areas in the nearby district of Lumajang with the city of Malang and wrecked buildings, authorities said.

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BNPB official Abdul Muhari said in a news release that 13 people have been killed after the eruption, two of whom have been identified. Ninety-eight have been injured, including two pregnant women, and 902 have been evacuated, the statement said.

Thoriqul Haq, a local official in Lumajang, said earlier that sand miners had been trapped around their work sites.

BNPB said at least 35 people had been hospitalised, while Lumajang’s deputy head said 41 people suffered burns.

Semeru, more than 3,600 metres (12,000 feet) high, is one of Indonesia’s nearly 130 active volcanoes. It erupted in January, causing no casualties.

Indonesia straddles the “Pacific Ring of Fire”, a highly seismically active zone, where different plates on the earth’s crust meet and create a large number of earthquakes and volcanoes.

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Separately, an earthquake of magnitude 6 struck north of Halmahera on Sunday, the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre (EMSC) said. Halmahera is about 2,000 km (1,200 miles) northeast of Semeru.

(Reporting by Stanley Widianto and Nilufar Rizki; Editing by Ed Davies)

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Analysis-Modi’s farm reform reversal to deter investment in India’s agriculture

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December 5, 2021

By Mayank Bhardwaj and Rajendra Jadhav

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s repeal of agriculture laws aimed at deregulating produce markets will starve its vast farm sector of much-needed private investment and saddle the government with budget-sapping subsidies for years, economists said.

Late last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government introduced three laws meant to open up agriculture markets to companies and attract private investment, triggering India’s longest-running protest by farmers who said the reforms would allow corporations to exploit them.

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With an eye on a critical election in populous Uttar Pradesh state early next year, Modi agreed to rescind the laws in November, hoping to smooth relations with the powerful farm lobby which sustains nearly half the country’s 1.3 billion people and accounts for about 15% of the $2.7 trillion economy.

But by shelving the most ambitious overhaul in decades, Modi’s backtracking now seemingly rules out much-needed upgrades of the creaky post-harvest supply chain to cut wastage, spur crop diversification, and boost farmers’ incomes, economists said.

“This is not good for agriculture, this is not good for India,” said Gautam Chikermane, a senior economist and vice president at New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.

“All incentives to shift towards a more efficient, market-linked system (in agriculture) have been smothered.”

The u-turn does allay farmers’ fears of losing the minimum price system for basic crops, which growers say guarantees India’s grain self-sufficiency.

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“It appears the government realised that there’s merit in the farmers’ argument that opening up the sector would make them vulnerable to large companies, hammer commodities prices and hit farmers’ income,” said Devinder Sharma, a farm policy expert who has supported the growers’ movement. 

But the gruelling year-long standoff also means no political party will attempt any similar reforms for at least a quarter-century, Chikermane said.

And, in the absence of private investment, “inefficiencies in the system will continue to deliver wastage and food will continue to rot,” he warned.

COLOSSAL WASTE

India ranks 101 out of 116 countries on the Global Hunger Index, with malnutrition accounting for 68% of child deaths.

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Yet it wastes around 67 million tonnes of food every year, worth about $12.25 billion – nearly five times that of most large economies – according to various studies.

Inadequate cold-chain storage, shortages of refrigerated trucks and insufficient food processing facilities are the main causes of waste.

The farm laws promised to allow private traders, retailers and food processors to buy directly from farmers, bypassing more than 7,000 government-regulated wholesale markets where middlemen’s commissions and market fees add to consumer costs.

Ending the rule that food must flow through the approved markets would have encouraged private participation in the supply chain, giving both Indian and global companies incentives to invest in the sector, traders and economists said.

“The agriculture laws would have removed the biggest impediment to large-scale purchases of farm goods by big corporations,” said Harish Galipelli, director at ILA Commodities India Pvt Ltd, which trades farm goods. “And that would have encouraged corporations to bring investment to revamp and modernise the whole food supply chain.”

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Galipelli’s firm will now have to re-evaluate its plans.

“We have had plans to scale up our business,” said Galipelli. “We would have expanded had the laws stayed.”

Other firms specialising in warehousing, food processing and trading are also expected to review their expansion strategies, he said.

PERISHABLE PRICES YO-YO

Poor post-harvest handling of produce also causes prices of perishables to yo-yo in India. Only three months ago, farmers dumped tomatoes on the road as prices crashed, but now consumers are paying a steep 100 rupees ($1.34) a kg.

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The laws would have helped the $34 billion food processing sector grow exponentially, according to the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), an industry group.

Demand for fruits and vegetables would have gone up. And that would have cut surplus rice and wheat output, slicing bulging stocks of the staples worth billions of dollars in state warehouses, economists said.

“Crop diversification would also have helped rein in subsidy spending and narrow the fiscal deficit,” said Sandip Das, a New Delhi-based researcher and farm policy analyst.

Food Corporation of India (FCI), the state crop procurement agency, racked up a record 3.81 trillion rupees ($51.83 billion) in debt by last fiscal year, alarming policymakers and inflating the country’s food subsidy bill to a record 5.25 trillion rupees ($70.16 billion) in the year to March 2021.

However, while the federal government now has limited scope for change, local authorities “can opt for reforms provided they have the political will to do so,” said Bidisha Ganguly, an economist at CII.

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Similarly, venture capital-funded startups have also expressed interest in India’s agriculture sector.

“Agritech, if it is allowed to take root, has the potential to enable a better handshake of farmers and consumers through their technological platforms,” Chikermane said.

(1 = 74.83 rupees)

(Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj and Rajendra Jadhav; additional reporting by Aftab Ahmed; editing by Gavin Maguire and Kim Coghill)

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Orthodox priest shouts ‘Pope, you are a heretic’ at Francis in Athens

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December 5, 2021

By Philip Pullella and Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) -An elderly Greek Orthodox priest shouted “Pope, you are a heretic” as Pope Francis was entering the Orthodox Archbishopric in Athens on Saturday and was taken away by police, a reminder of the lingering distrust between the two divided churches.

Video showed the man, who was dressed in black robes and black hat and had a long white beard, shouting the words in Greek outside the building before police bundled him away.

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Witnesses said he shouted loud enough for the pope to hear the commotion. The man appeared to have fallen while being taken away and was lifted up by police.

Francis arrived in Greece on Saturday for a three-day visit that Greek Catholics hope will bring the Eastern and Western churches closer together.

Christianity split into the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in 1054 in what is referred to as the Great Schism, and for centuries relations were rocky.

In his address to the archbishop, Beatitude Ieronymos II, Francis asked forgiveness in the name of the Roman Catholic Church for its part in the historical wrongs that led to the breakup.

“Tragically, in later times we grew apart. Worldly concerns poisoned us, weeds of suspicion increased our distance and we ceased to nurture communion,” Francis told Ieronymos, whom he met during his first trip to Greece in 2016.

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“I feel the need to ask anew for the forgiveness of God and of our brothers and sisters for the mistakes committed by many Catholics,” Francis said.

Pope John Paul II first asked forgiveness for the Catholic role in the break-up when he visited Greece in 2001.

Catholics and Orthodox have been involved in dialogue aimed at eventual reunion for decades and cooperate in many social initiatives but the two sides are still far apart theologically.

“We believe you have the courage and the sincerity to examine the failures and omissions of your fathers,” Ieronymos told Francis. “Between those who want to be called Christian brothers, the best language is, and always will be, honesty.”

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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