Christmas joy and anger for rival Orthodox churches in historic Kyiv monastery

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Worshippers watch a broadcast of the Christmas service from outside of the Assumption Cathedral in Kyiv Pechersk Lavra on January 7, 2023, amid the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. (AFP)
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Priests of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine conduct a Christmas service at the compound of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra monastery on January 7, 2023, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine. (Reuters)
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Updated 08 January 2023

Christmas joy and anger for rival Orthodox churches in historic Kyiv monastery

  • Orthodox Church of Ukraine holds first-ever service at Kyiv cathedral after taking control of it from a rival church with ties to Russia

KYIV: Tears of joy streamed down worshippers’ faces as Ukraine’s main church celebrated a “return” to Kyiv’s Cathedral of the Assumption on Orthodox Christmas day, shortly after taking control of it from a rival church with alleged ties to Russia.
The golden-domed cathedral, of huge cultural and religious significance, sits on a high hill in the center of Kyiv by the river Dnipro, and forms part of the 980-year-old Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery complex, also containing chapels and administrative buildings.
It has become a focus of a bitter conflict between Ukraine’s Orthodox communities, triggered by Russia’s invasion.
Members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), Ukraine’s largest, piled into the cathedral’s ornate interior on Saturday, to hear the first-ever Ukrainian-language service in the cathedral.
“During these days of festivities, with strong feelings we ask God: Help us to defeat the enemy, who brought grief into our home. Help us to finally drive out the foreign invasion from the Ukrainian land,” said the OCU’s Metropolitan Epifaniy I.
Vadym Storozhyk, a 50-year-old Kyiv city councillor, said the Christmas service meant to him a “return” of a holy site under Ukraine’s control.
“Thirty years after renewing our history and gaining our independence — we return to our holy places, to our (spiritual) sources,” he said.
Ukraine’s culture minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, who attended the service with the speaker of Ukraine’s parliament, posted a message on Facebook celebrating what he said was the end of three-and-a-half centuries of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra’s “capture” by Moscow.
Ukraine’s Orthodox Church, in its various iterations, has been subordinate to Moscow since the 17th century.
In a note at the bottom of his post, Tkachenko hinted at a major change to Ukraine’s Christmas celebrations, hitherto always held on Jan. 7, the same date as Russia and several other Orthodox-majority countries.
“I hope that this year all the churches will come to an agreement and we will celebrate Christmas together on December 25th,” he wrote.
Ukraine has about 30 million Orthodox believers, divided between different church communities. The war, now in its 11th month, has led many Ukrainians to rally round the OCU, which they see as more pro-Ukrainian than its rival, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC).
The UOC was officially under the wing of Russia’s Orthodox Church until May 2022, but announced a severing of ties due to the Moscow church’s support for the war.
President Vladimir Putin on Saturday praised the Russian Orthodox Church for supporting Moscow’s forces fighting in Ukraine in an Orthodox Christmas message and called it an important stabilising force in society.
Despite cutting ties, the UOC still faces allegations of pro-Russian views and direct collaboration with Moscow, which it denies, from Ukraine’s government and from much of Ukraine’s press and civil society. The UOC says it is the victim of a political witch hunt by its enemies in government.
The UOC was evicted from the cathedral after its lease from the government expired.
The handover of the cathedral took many by surprise — an OCU priest, Vasyl Rudnytskyi, looked stunned as he walked toward the building’s gates amid the deafening pealing of bells.
“I didn’t even consider the possibility of this two weeks ago, or the fact that we would celebrate Jesus’ birth in such a meaningful place for the Ukrainian people,” he said.

The OCU was established in 2019 and recognized as Ukraine’s official branch of Orthodoxy by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Istanbul, the global head of the Orthodox Church.
That decision infuriated Russia’s Orthodox Church, as Istanbul had previously recognized the UOC, then under Moscow’s rule, as the legitimate Ukrainian church.
Some of the UOC’s clergy and many of its worshippers moved to the OCU, to the former organization’s dismay. Both churches say the other is canonically illegitimate. Although the OCU soon had more worshippers than the old church, the UOC maintained control of over 12,000 churches, including the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra complex.
Ukraine’s government institutions and local press often refer to the UOC as the “Moscow Patriarchate,” a label the church rejects. A poll last August showed the UOC only retaining 20 percent of its worshippers from 2021, suggesting many had left it since the invasion, but the church told Reuters this data didn’t correspond to reality.
The UOC’s spokesman, Metropolitan Kliment, told Reuters the government’s actions were a “provocation intended to upset and humiliate millions of UOC worshippers.”
Lyudmyla, a 69-year-old worshipper, said she feared the government was biased against the UOC.
“I don’t like this. We need to be united not divided, right now. And this could lead to some kind of religious split (in our society),” she said.
The UOC’s monasteries and churches, including the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, faced a wave of searches by Ukrainian security forces and the police have announced a string of investigations.
Authorities said they found pro-Russian literature and Russian citizens being harbored on church premises, something the UOC denied.

Saudi Arabia’s RSGT to operate major terminal in Bangladesh’s largest port

Updated 06 December 2023

Saudi Arabia’s RSGT to operate major terminal in Bangladesh’s largest port

  • RSGT will operate Patenga Container Terminal in Chittagong Port for 22 years
  • Project marks beginning of larger Saudi presence in Bangladesh, minister says

DHAKA: Saudi port developer Red Sea Gateway Terminal on Wednesday signed a concession agreement with the Bangladeshi government to manage and operate a newly built terminal in the country’s largest port.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Saudi Investment Minister Khalid Al-Falih witnessed the signing ceremony between RSGT and the Chittagong Port Authority at the premier’s office in Dhaka, marking the beginning of a 22-year agreement struck under the public private partnership and G2G format.

The $240 million Patenga Container Terminal, which finished construction earlier this year, is a “lighthouse of hopes for the economic development of Bangladesh,” Hasina said at the ceremony.

“This automated modern terminal will further strengthen the capacity of our ports. In addition, it will facilitate foreign trade, create employment and facilitate the ways of new entrepreneurs … it will work as a gateway to world trade and open new opportunities for the expansion of our trade and establishing connectivity with the world,” she said.

RSGT will be the first foreign company operating Bangladeshi ports, as Dhaka banks on the company’s technological expertise and ports management experience.

“Red Sea Gateway Terminal International is a renowned global terminal operator nominated by the Saudi government,” Hasina said. “With the goodwill RSGTI is operating the Jeddah port along with other ports, they will apply the same expertise, technology and work processes in operating our Patenga Container Terminal. It will open a new door for our country. Our people will also be trained in this process.”

Chittagong Port is the busiest container port on the Bay of Bengal, which handled about 3.2 million 20-foot equivalent units in the 2021 fiscal year and served as the main gateway for Bangladesh’s ocean cargo import and export. This included products from its garment sector, which accounts for 80 percent of the country’s exports and 11 percent of its gross domestic product.

The Patenga Container Terminal, which will be handed over to RSGT next month, is expected to have an annual capacity of 500,000 TEU, or twenty foot equivalent container units.

The signing on Wednesday is the beginning of a “new chapter in our very friendly relationship,” Al-Falih said at the signing ceremony, adding that Bangladesh holds a “special place” in Saudi Arabia that makes the Kingdom keen on continuing its support of the South Asian country’s development.

“Today’s signing of the investment agreement for the Red Sea Gateway company project in Patenga, this award represents, in my opinion, an anchor, economic connection between our two countries, and one of the most important sectors establishing a strong economic relationship, which is logistics,” Al-Falih said.

 “For us, Patenga also symbolizes the importance of logistics as an enabler for other sectors,” he said. “This project, this decision, is a small nucleus that we hope will grow into a large vibrant cluster of Saudi presence here in Bangladesh.”

Italy to process asylum-seekers in Albanian facility

Updated 06 December 2023

Italy to process asylum-seekers in Albanian facility

  • Migrants to be given right to legal aid via video call
  • More than 153,000 people traveled from North Africa to Italy this year

LONDON: Italy will offer legal aid via video call to migrants it detains at an overseas holding facility in Albania, The Times reported on Wednesday.

Italy’s government on Monday issued a parliamentary bill to put in motion plans to open a holding center in Albania by next spring.

The facility will house up to 3,000 migrants who are picked up by Italian ships operating in international waters.

They will be transported to Albania’s Shengjin port, identified and sent to the facility, with Italy proposing a 28-day asylum-processing period.

It follows the striking of a deal between the Italian and Albanian governments last month, with Rome planning to quickly repatriate migrants that disembark from “safe countries,” including Tunisia.

The Italian government bill guarantees migrants “the quick and full exercising of the right to defense,” and the right to “private discussions with a lawyer in Italy via video conference.”

Migrants will be able to take part in judicial hearings on their case using video calls if they choose to appeal against their repatriation.

The facility in Albania — which is expected to cost under $215 million per year to operate — will also contain a prison facility to incarcerate migrants who commit crimes while detained.

Albania will not be paid to host the center but accepted the deal as a “gesture of goodwill,” said its Prime Minister Edi Rama. But Rome will pay the salaries of the center’s guards and will oversee jurisdiction of the site.

Italy is battling a migration crisis, with about 153,000 migrants sailing into its territory from North Africa this year. The figure represents a surge over last year, when 95,000 people made the same journey.

However, the country’s latest plan has been labeled “unworkable” by migration experts over concerns that 28 days leaves too little time to resolve asylum disputes.

Italy also lacks sufficient bilateral deals with migrants’ countries of origin to expedite repatriations, they warned.

Indonesia looks into potential aviation, railway cooperation with Saudi Arabia

Updated 06 December 2023

Indonesia looks into potential aviation, railway cooperation with Saudi Arabia

  • Indonesia, Saudi transport ministers held talks in Riyadh on Sunday
  • Jakarta also eyeing Saudi investment on Indonesian railways

JAKARTA: Indonesia was hoping for closer cooperation with Saudi Arabia in the aviation sector and to develop its urban transportation, the southeast Asian country’s Ministry of Transportation has revealed.

Indonesian Minister of Transport Budi Karya Sumadi held a meeting with his Saudi counterpart Saleh bin Nasser Al-Jasser in Riyadh on Sunday, where they explored potential cooperation between the two nations.

In a statement issued by his ministry, Sumadi said: “This is a big momentum for our two countries to continue cooperation in transportation, which has been going really well.”

Sumadi was in the Saudi capital to attend the 15th International Civil Aviation Organization’s Air Services Negotiation event, partaking in a ministerial session alongside Al-Jasser and other transport officials.

His trip follows Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s state visit to the Kingdom in October, when officials discussed the formation of a negotiation team for the Indonesia-Saudi Arabia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.

“There are plenty of other collaboration opportunities we can do, especially for Hajj flights and the development of urban transportation,” Sumadi added.

The Indonesian minister had highlighted recent urban transportation developments in Saudi cities during his meeting with Al-Jasser, projects happening at a time when Indonesian cities were also developing mass transport systems.

“There’s an opportunity for (Saudi Arabia) to invest in Indonesia’s railways, which has to be further discussed,” Ministry of Transportation spokesperson Adita Irawati told Arab News on Wednesday.

“Saudi Arabia’s experience in developing urban railways can also be a benchmark for Indonesia.”

Indonesia was looking into the possibility of establishing a joint venture for domestic flights with Saudi airlines, the ministry said, as the country also hoped to increase flights between the two nations to facilitate more Indonesian pilgrims.

“On aviation, the importance of cooperation is related to Umrah and Hajj flights as there is a large volume of Indonesian pilgrims,” Irawati added.

Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, sends the biggest Hajj contingent and hundreds of thousands of Umrah pilgrims to Saudi Arabia every year.

Former UK leader Boris Johnson apologizes to COVID-19 victims families

Updated 06 December 2023

Former UK leader Boris Johnson apologizes to COVID-19 victims families

  • Former PM begins giving evidence at a public inquiry into his government’s handling of the health crisis

LONDON: Boris Johnson on Wednesday apologized for “the pain and the loss and the suffering” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as he began giving evidence at a public inquiry into his government’s handling of the health crisis.
The former prime minister, who has faced a barrage of criticism from former aides for alleged indecisiveness and a lack of scientific understanding during the pandemic, is facing two days in the witness box.
Johnson, who was forced from office last year over lockdown-breaching parties held in Downing Street during the pandemic, accepted that “mistakes” had “unquestionably” been made.
“I understand the feeling of the victims and their families and I’m deeply sorry for the pain and the loss and the suffering to those victims and their families,” Johnson said.
Johnson, 59, was briefly interrupted as a protester was ordered from the inquiry room after refusing to sit down during the apology.
“Inevitably we got some things wrong,” Johnson continued, before adding “we did our level best” and that he took personal responsibility for decisions made.
The former premier had arrived around three hours early for the proceedings, with some suggesting he was eager to avoid relatives of the COVID-19 bereaved who gathered outside later in the morning.
Nearly 130,000 people died with COVID-19 in the UK by mid-July 2021, one of the worst official per capita tolls among Western nations.
Johnson will insist the decisions he took ultimately saved hundreds of thousands of lives, the Times newspaper reported, citing a lengthy written statement set to be published later Wednesday.
The Times said he would argue he had a “basic confidence that things would turn out alright” on the “fallacious logic” that previous health threats had not proven as catastrophic as feared.
But he is expected to say that overall, the government succeeded in its main goal of preventing the state-run health service from being overwhelmed by making the “right decisions at the right times.”
He will also say that while the country’s death toll was high, it defied most of the gloomiest predictions and “ended the pandemic well down the global league table of excess mortality.”
According to The Times, Johnson, who quit in part because of revelations about lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street, has reviewed 6,000 pages of evidence and spent hours in talks with lawyers.
He can expect to be questioned on whether he thought the government was initially complacent about the pandemic, despite evidence suggesting a more proactive approach was needed.
He will also need to justify his timing of the first UK lockdown on March 23, 2020, which some senior ministers, officials and scientific advisers now believe was too late.
Johnson, who was treated in hospital intensive care for COVID-19 early on in the pandemic, is expected to say that shutting down the country went against all his personal and political instincts.
But he had no choice because “ancient and hallowed freedoms were in conflict with the health of the community.”
Johnson’s understanding of specialist advice is likely to come under scrutiny after his former chief scientific officer, Patrick Vallance, said the former premier was frequently “bamboozled” by data.
Comments about lockdowns and the death toll, including a claim that Johnson suggested the elderly might be allowed to die because they had “had a good innings,” could also be raised.
Johnson has denied claims he said he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than impose another lockdown.
Johnson’s former top aide Dominic Cummings and communications chief Lee Cain both criticized their ex-boss when they gave evidence at the inquiry.
Cummings said a “low point” was when Johnson circulated a video to his scientific advisers of “a guy blowing a special hairdryer up his nose ‘to kill Covid’.”
Cain said COVID-19 was the “wrong crisis” for Johnson’s skill set, adding that he became “exhausted” by his alleged indecision and oscillation in dealing with the crisis.
“He’s somebody who would often delay making decisions, would often seek counsel from multiple sources and change his mind on issues,” Cain said.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who was Johnson’s finance minister during the pandemic, is due to be questioned at the inquiry in the coming weeks.

Death toll in Philippine ‘killer curve’ bus accident rises

Updated 06 December 2023

Death toll in Philippine ‘killer curve’ bus accident rises

  • Bus carrying dozens of people when its brakes failed in the central province of Antique on Tuesday afternoon
  • The Philippines is notorious for its lax regulation on public transportation and poorly maintained roads

MANILA: A passenger severely injured when a bus plunged into a ravine in the central Philippines has died, taking the death toll from the accident to 17, authorities said on Wednesday.
The bus was carrying dozens of people when its brakes failed in the central province of Antique on Tuesday afternoon, the local governor, Rhodora Cadiao, told a press conference.
Seven people were in critical condition while four were stable and recovering, she said.
Local media had reported earlier than 28 died in the crash.
Cadiao said the bus was traveling to Culasi in Antique from the neighboring province of Iloilo when its brakes malfunctioned on a winding road and it plunged 30 meters (98.5 feet) into the ravine.
“We call that area the killer curve. It was already the second bus that fell off there,” Cadiao told DZRH radio station.
Rescue operations at the site have stopped after all visible bodies were retrieved, the Antique government said on Facebook.
“The engineering design of this road is very faulty,” Cadiao said. “I want to condemn that road already.”
The Philippines is notorious for its lax regulation on public transportation and poorly maintained roads.