News Roundup (6 Sept. 2008)

Israeli official denies U.S. supervisors will take part in Israel-Syria peace talks
By Barak Ravid and Yoav Stern, Haaretz Correspondents, 06/09/2008

A senior European official visiting Israel told the London-bed Arabic language newspaper Al Sharq al-Awsat that an American observer was scheduled to take part in indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria to be held in Turkey in two weeks, the paper reported Saturday.

An official in Jerusalem, however, told Haaretz the report was untrue and that he had no knowledge of any U.S. involvement in the peace talks, currently being held indirectly under Turkish mediation.

The report, however, included confirmation by an Israeli source that a U.S. official was in fact to act as an observer in the upcoming talks.

The report marks the first time the possibility of U.S. participation in Israel-Syria talks has been brought up since the collapse of U.S. mediated negotiations in the Shepherdstown summit, held in West Virginia in 2000.

The talks, led by then prime minister Ehud Barak, failed to yield any concrete results, but both Syrian and Israeli officials did vow to return to negotiations as soon as possible, but have yet to fulfill that vow.

Syria has said in the past that any successful negotiations would need the participation of American supervisors, and could only be held after President George W. Bush leaves office.

An official in Damascus told Al Sharq Al-Awsat that due to Syrian suspicions towards the United States, it is not clear whether Syria will ask for them to help in negotiations.

U.S. State Department official John Sullivan told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that the United States supports continued Israel-Syria talks, but said he could not confirm whether or not U.S. supervisors would participate in any future round of negotiations.

Daily Star Editorial: Will Israel and America spurn yet another Arab overture?

"…The Israeli people would do well to reflect on exactly what that means, and they should start by asking themselves what kind of Israel they want. Is it really worth it to keep occupying other people's land and killing Arabs for a country that then has to cope with the inevitable backlash of its own violence by installing sirens in every city to alert them that it's time to get underground in their bunkers? Or do they want to live in peace with their neighbors? The choice is theirs to make."

Reports of Abbsi's arrest in Syria not yet verified – Najjar
By Nicholas Kimbrell
The Daily Star, September 06, 2008

BEIRUT: Amid speculation on Thursday and Friday that Fatah al-Islam chief Shaker al-Abssi had been detained in Syria, Lebanon's Justice Minister said that if the reports were verified, Lebanon might act to have Abssi extradited. Ibrahim Najjar, the newly appointed justice minister, told The Daily Star that he could not confirm the reports. "I have just asked yesterday about this news, [and] I have to wait and see," he said.

"We need to be sure," he added, "first, that Shaker al-Abssi is in custody, and second, that the Syrians have released such a statement."

When asked if Lebanon may seek extradition of Abssi, if he has indeed been arrested, Najjar said: "If the news is verified and the implementation of the bilateral convention [for normalization between Lebanon and Syria] goes through, then we might ask that he face justice in Lebanon … if all the prerequisites are verified."

A news feed by Naharnet on Thursday reported that Syrian officials had notified visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy this week that Abssi had been detained.

According to Naharnet, "Sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said contacts were under way between security agencies in Damascus and Beirut to determine whether Abssi would be extradited to Lebanon or tried in Syria."

Dubai-based Al-Bayan reported Thursday morning that Abssi had crossed into Syria where he has been in custody for a month and half.

Shaker al-Abssi led Fatah al-Islam in their 15-week war against the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp outside the northern city of Tripoli in the summer of 2007.

The battle took the lives of hundreds of civilians and Fatah al-Islam fighters, as well as 171 LAF soldiers.

After rumors that Abssi had been killed in the fighting, he was reported to have mysteriously escaped the camp.

France working to secure release of abducted Israeli soldier
World Jewish Congress, September 5, 2008

France has passed on a letter for the abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was seized by Palestinian militant groups in Gaza two years ago. It was brought by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who attended a summit with the leaders of Syria, Qatar and Turkey in Damascus. The letter from Shalit's father is to be delivered by the Emir of Qatar to the Damascus-based leader of the Hamas movement, Khaled Meshal. French diplomats were quoted as saying that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad had been "happy to help" in the Shalit case "but he does not want to be seen as an official, designated middleman". “This is an issue I want to say very little about," Sarkozy told the AFP news agency in Damascus. "What I am interested in is results." On Wednesday, a senior Hamas figure in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahhar, was reported as saying Egyptian-mediated talks for Shalit's release had stalled. He said Israel was continuing to reject Hamas's demands over a proposed prisoner exchange. Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, is seeking the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

Peres proposes direct talks with Syria
By Guy Dinmore
Financial Times, September 5, 2008

Syria and Israel should hold direct talks in Jerusalem or Damascus, Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, proposed on Friday.

Mr Peres, who holds a largely ceremonial role as president, extended an invitation to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, beside him as they debated the prospects for peace at the annual Ambrosetti conference on the shores of Italy’s Lake Como.

Comments (5)

norman said:

To All,

Is there any western reaction to Syria’s call on the Lebanese army to stop the extremist in northern Lebanon and the Hariri reaction.

September 6th, 2008, 10:47 pm


Alex said:

September 7, 2008
Journeys | Pilgrimage Packages
Searching for the Roots of a Deep Faith

New York Times

SOME 16 feet beneath the present-day street level of Damascus, the Syrian capital, just off the Street Called Straight, is a cramped, artificially lighted chapel with roughly cut stones for walls and a few modern pews as furnishings. The grotto was once part of a home where — 2,000 years ago — Saul of Tarsus is said to have taken shelter after he was blinded by a heavenly light, the incident that converted him to Christianity. He emerged from that home as the Apostle Paul.

On a recent sultry summer evening, that historical event was very much on the minds of the 20 or so worshipers who watched reverently as a priest stood in front of a modern altar at one end of the small room, arranged the liturgical items he had brought with him, lighted the candles and celebrated Mass. “In the tradition of legions of pilgrims, we find ourselves doing what the early Christians did,” the Rev. Cesare Atuire said during his homily, which addressed the significance of Paul’s message in contemporary society.

Since June, similar gatherings have been taking place in churches throughout the world after Pope Benedict XVI inaugurated the jubilee year commemorating the second millennium of Paul’s birth, which historians have placed between A.D. 7 and A. D. 10.

To many present-day pilgrims, however, nothing quite compares with the experience of traveling the road to Damascus. “It’s one thing for Christians to read the Holy Scriptures, quite another to come see where things happened,” said Father Atuire, who is the chief executive officer of the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, or ORP, the Vatican-backed travel organization that last year took 300,000 pilgrims to religious shrines around the globe, including its home city, Rome. (This year, it expects that number to hit 400,000.)

Of course, Christians aren’t the only ones showing an interest in religion-based tourism. Participants in the Kumbh Mela, a rotating Hindu festival, have reportedly topped 75 million, and each year, some two million Muslims make a pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. Nor is Damascus the only place where Christians are heading these days. Lourdes, France, which the Pope will visit in September, draws an average of six million a year (with more than eight million expected this year, officials say, to mark the 150th anniversary of the reported apparition of the Virgin Mary at the grotto), and San Giovanni Rotondo, home to the shrine of the mystic monk Padre Pio, lured eight million to Puglia, Italy, in the last year.

Father Atuire has some thoughts about the surge of believers searching for the roots of their faith. “In times of epochal change, people sense a greater need to find points of reference,” he said while a bus lurched along a Syrian highway to the town of Malula and the Convent of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, another popular pilgrimage site and one of the few places in the world where Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, is still heard. “But at the same time many are looking for untraditional forms of expression and a pilgrimage allows you to approach a religious experience from a different perspective.”

Pilgrimage destinations, even unconventional ones, are recognizing the potential for growth. Syria, not exactly a top-of-mind vacation destination for Western tourists (the American administration “hasn’t always represented us in a good way,” Syria’s tourism minister, Sadallah Agha al-Qala, said in a recent interview), has been making the most of the Pauline year celebrations. “We’re trying to give importance to the jubilee,” said Mr. Agha al-Qala. Both Muslim and Christian Syrians “are proud of the role Damascus played in the history of Christianity.”

A series of events — concerts, conferences — coordinated by the country’s multiple Christian communities and the government of this most secular of Arab states kicked off the Pauline year, which runs until June 29, 2009. “It was a unique experience,” watching Christian and Muslim leaders celebrate together, “speaking the same language and sharing the same emotions,” Mr. Agha al-Qala said. Another weeklong round of events, coordinated with ORP, is scheduled to end on Jan. 25, the date given for Paul’s conversion.

Syria will also have a starring role at Josp Fest, a showcase for tour operators, agencies and organizations specializing in pilgrimages, or “journeys of the spirit,” which ORP is organizing in Rome in January. Religion-based tourism will finally get “out of the ghetto experience it has in the tourism world,” to receive “the dignity and exposure it merits,” Father Atuire said. So far, some 60 countries have agreed to participate, and the priest said he was hoping more will sign on.

Father Atuire has played no small part in broadening the scope of ORP, which was founded in 1934 to provide spiritual and logistical support to pilgrimages sponsored by Roman parishes. Until a few years ago, the Vatican organization mostly did business with parishes and groups; now individuals make up 40 percent of its trade. “I’ve been trying to transform ORP into a real Catholic universal organization in terms of geographical and spiritual outreach,” Father Atuire said, “because in times of crisis, this can be of value not only to people who go to church, but for everyone.” Prayer is central to the pilgrimage experience, and spiritual guides accompany each group to celebrate Mass and stimulate discussion. In Syria, where 225 pilgrims have visited on organization tours so far this year, groups might ponder the Crusades while climbing the battlements at the fortified castle known as Crac des Chevaliers, or the tradition of Byzantine icon painting prompted by a visit to the monastery at Seidnaya, which houses a miraculous image of the Virgin reputedly painted by St. Luke.

Then, inside the Umayyad Mosque, the eighth-century structure that houses what is believed to be the head of St. John the Baptist, conversation may turn to Christian-Muslim relations and the shared reverence for this historical figure. ORP has steadily increased its pilgrimage destinations and proposals. “There’s no corner of the globe we don’t touch,” said Father Atuire. This includes Burma, where pilgrims can visit missionary communities.

September 7th, 2008, 4:21 am


George Y. Krikorian said:

Sarkozy, when interviewed by the Media Press, hinted to the fact that everything implemented during the Quadripartite talks in Damascus/Syria had the “thumbs up” of the Americans.

Whether an American diplomat is physically present at any “Syrian” talks is irrelevant as long as Sarkozy’s plans have the benediction of W (Bush & Co.).

September 7th, 2008, 5:52 am


Shai said:

Israel shows U.S. sanctions against Syria are useless:

September 7th, 2008, 6:06 am


Shai said:

I guess not all AIPAC people support the current administration…

September 7th, 2008, 2:56 pm


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