Sunday, June 27, 2010

Benedict in the News

Well, GetReligion has a good overview of responses to the egregiously bad Time article on the Pope. And George Weigel takes down the article.

On the Ahmadiyya

A little known, but very important community within Islam:
The attacks, which took place within minutes of each other at the mosques located a few miles apart, were clearly aimed at the Ahmadi community, which considers itself Muslim but is severely discriminated against under Pakistani law. Pakistan does not recognize the Ahmadi sect as part of Islam... the Times link to the Ahmadi website does bring up an interesting doctrinal issue that’s relevant to the story at hand. Here’s how the Ahmadi describe one of the tenets of their faith: Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is the leading Islamic organization to categorically reject terrorism in any form. Over a century ago, Ahmad(as) emphatically declared that an aggressive “jihad by the sword” has no place in Islam. In its place, he taught his followers to wage a bloodless, intellectual “jihad of the pen” to defend Islam. To this end, Ahmad(as) penned over 80 books and tens of thousands of letters, delivered hundreds of lectures, and engaged in scores of public debates. His rigorous and rational defenses of Islam unsettled conventional Muslim thinking. As part of its effort to revive Islam, Ahmadiyya Muslim Community continues to spread Ahmad’s(as) teachings of moderation and restraint in the face of bitter opposition from parts of the Muslim world. I would like to see a follow-up about this. If the Ahmadis are explicitly non-violent and living in the midst of the Taliban, that’s an interesting story, no?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Fannie and Freddie

More bad news:
The cost of fixing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage companies that last year bought or guaranteed three-quarters of all U.S. home loans, will be at least $160 billion and could grow to as much as $1 trillion after the biggest bailout in American history.

Fannie and Freddie, now 80 percent owned by U.S. taxpayers, already have drawn $145 billion from an unlimited line of government credit granted to ensure that home buyers can get loans while the private housing-finance industry is moribund. That surpasses the amount spent on rescues of American International Group Inc., General Motors Co. or Citigroup Inc., which have begun repaying their debts.

“It is the mother of all bailouts,” said Edward Pinto, a former chief credit officer at Fannie Mae, who is now a consultant to the mortgage-finance industry.

Fannie, based in Washington, and Freddie in McLean, Virginia, own or guarantee 53 percent of the nation’s $10.7 trillion in residential mortgages, according to a June 10 Federal Reserve report. Millions of bad loans issued during the housing bubble remain on their books, and delinquencies continue to rise. How deep in the hole Fannie and Freddie go depends on unemployment, interest rates and other drivers of home prices, according to the companies and economists who study them...

The Congressional Budget Office calculated in August 2009 that the companies would need $389 billion in federal subsidies through 2019, based on assumptions about delinquency rates of loans in their securities pools. The White House’s Office of Management and Budget estimated in February that aid could total as little as $160 billion if the economy strengthens.

If housing prices drop further, the companies may need more. Barclays Capital Inc. analysts put the price tag as high as $500 billion in a December report on mortgage-backed securities, assuming home prices decline another 20 percent and default rates triple.

Sean Egan, president of Egan-Jones Ratings Co. in Haverford, Pennsylvania, said that a 20 percent loss on the companies’ loans and guarantees, along the lines of other large market players such as Countrywide Financial Corp., now owned by Bank of America Corp., could cause even more damage.

“One trillion dollars is a reasonable worst-case scenario for the companies,” said Egan, whose firm warned customers away from municipal bond insurers in 2002 and downgraded Enron Corp. a month before its 2001 collapse...

A 20 percent decline in housing prices is possible, said David Rosenberg, chief economist for Gluskin Sheff & Associates Inc. in Toronto. Rosenberg, whose forecasts are more pessimistic than those of other economists, predicts a 15 percent drop.

“Worst case is probably 25 percent,” he said.

The median price of a home in the U.S. was $173,100 in April, down 25 percent from the July 2006 peak, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Fannie and Freddie are deeply wired into the U.S. and global financial systems. Figuring out how to stanch the losses and turn them into sustainable businesses is the biggest piece of unfinished business as Congress negotiates a Wall Street overhaul that could reach President Barack Obama’s desk by July...

“Do we really want to go to the central bank of China and say, ‘Tough luck, boys’? That’s part of the problem,” said Karen Petrou, managing partner of Federal Financial Analytics Inc., a Washington-based research firm.

BP Chairman "Consultor of the Extraordinary Section of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See"

So this might end up being another Vatican Bank fiasco. BP had serious issues with safety and so forth in 2007, and the chairman stands at the nexus of a number of interests:

It was a suitably stormy day this week when I went to meet Peter Sutherland, chairman of BP and former world trade tsar. A report into Britain's biggest oil company had just seriously criticised its safety record and the political bruiser appeared to have presided over the eclipse of the BP chief executive, Lord Browne, the Sun King of the corporate world...

He had never given an interview in his capacity as BP chairman since his appointment 10 years ago, he said, and was naturally determined not to talk about the beleaguered oil group amid this week's travails and after a year in which it had struggled to deal with America's worst corporate accident in a decade, allegations of trading irregularities and oil spills in Alaska.

But on just two issues he could not help himself clarifying the situation, nor indeed checking the quotes: his own position as BP chairman with a commitment to stay until the new chief executive, Tony Hayward, was settled in, and on the legal ramifications of the Baker safety report.

He said reports that he had called the investigation "harsh" made him sound more strident than he felt. "It was harsh in places ... but actually ... I'm not complaining." He was furious at a report suggesting the board he chaired throughout the saga was in any way accountable for safety procedures. "It does not make any suggestion of legal failure on the part of the board."

Sutherland's concern for the world's disenfranchised might sit a little uneasily with his position as head of one of the world's biggest oil groups and of its most successful investment bank. Yet he sees no conflict. "I don't consider them to be in any way immoral or operating contrary to the common good."

They have continued to give him influence on the world stage. Last month he added to his illustrious CV the title Consultor of the Extraordinary Section of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See. In other words, financial adviser to the Pope...

Perhaps ironically, his position at BP was whispered to be one factor for the French refusal to back his candidacy for the head of the European commission, most recently two years ago - he has been tipped for the job three times.

He admits to only two regrets: one is that he never played rugby for Ireland (he was a successful prop forward) and the other is that he never got that top job. "The thing I've wanted to run all my life was Europe but I don't think that will happen. It's just such a great idea. Europe for me is the most noble political process in 1,000 years."

He still has political ambitions but prefaces them by calling them unrealistic. "I'd love to be foreign minister of Europe but there are a hell of a lot of foreign ministers [who would like the job]."

He was asked by Kofi Annan, the outgoing head of the United Nations, to be his special representative for migration. It's a $1-a-year job he obviously loves but which could end this summer...

Bilderberg Goes Semi-Public

Never thought I'd see the day. I really have no idea what to make of this:
An extraordinary thing happened last weekend. The world's most secretive strategy group, Bilderberg, poked its nose out of the shadows and launched its own website: For an organisation that prefers to cordon the press a mile from its meetings, whose press relations policy to date has been to arrest, harass and search journalists, this was an astonishing turnaround.

Until now, David Rockefeller's policy forum carried on quietly out of sight. It welcomed politicians (David Cameron in 2008, George Osborne 2006-2009) to strategise in secret with corporate heads, European royalty and bank bosses. This year saw Google CEO Eric Schmidt take part alongside Robert Zoellick (president of the World Bank), Bill Gates and the usual sprinkle of EU commissioners and Goldman Sachs heavyweights. If you didn't know it was going on, that's understandable. It's what they wanted.

This year, in the Spanish seaside town of Sitges, the sheer weight of attention on Bilderberg became too much for its policy of "ignorance management". TV crews at the police line, bloggers blogging, the Spanish press asking questions about cost, the Canadian press wondering at this year's unusual glut of Canucks – finally, the mainstream press was taking notice. I found myself taking part in a debate on the BBC World Service. I knew something had changed when Kate Adie spoke passionately of her concerns about the armed secrecy of Bilderberg.

This secrecy in action is quite a sight. For four whole days, a normally tranquil hotel on the Spanish coast was transformed into the Pentagon: riot police, police helicopters, military divers moored offshore, and hundreds of plain clothes officers – a mammoth €10m campaign of press exclusion for a "private meeting", all paid for by the already hard-pressed Spanish taxpayer...

Still, never mind the guns: this year all the furious secrecy and bonkers policing didn't stop the story breaking. The bizarre atmosphere of confusion, paranoia and misapprehension – a direct result of Bilderberg's half-century history of press suppression, of delegates crouching on limo floors, or lying to their parliaments that they've attended (I'm talking to you, Tony Blair) – is finally lifting...

No longer able to deny its existence, Bilderberg has shifted gear: the story they're putting out now is that "nothing goes on", "just some old chaps having a chinwag" – old, insignificant chaps like José Zapatero (the Spanish PM), Peter Voser (CEO of Royal Dutch Shell), Paul Volcker (chairman of Obama's economic advisory board), Richard Holbrooke (Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan), Josef Ackermann (CEO of Deutsche Bank). Have a look online at our Bilderberg 2010 "Power Gallery" for more "golfing buddies"...
UPDATE: Mind you, I have my doubts as to the authenticity of the site. I mean, anyone can put up a big old "Official Website" thing. And the privacy policy and liability information sound odd.

Afghanistan, War, and Money

An interesting development:
A series of recent news stories has deeply damaged the Obama administration's case for continued patience with U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign, which has shown little discernable progress despite the best efforts tens of thousands of additional American troops and an all-star lineup of top military officers.

First, let's talk about Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president. Remember the chatter earlier this year about how he'd gone crazy, threatening to join the Taliban and all that? That discussion died down a little after Karzai checked all the right boxes during his May visit to Washington.

Then came the "peace jirga" -- after which Karzai abruptly fired his intelligence and interior ministers, reputed to be two of the most competent members of his cabinet (technically, they resigned). The intelligence minister, Amrullah Saleh, told his side of the story Friday in a jaw-dropping interview with the Times. According to Saleh, Karzai no longer believes the West can win the war and is looking to cast his lot with Pakistan and the Taliban; an unnamed source told the paper that Karzai had suggested that the Americans had carried out a rocket attack on the peace jirga. Karzai has apparently also asked the United Nations to remove Mullah Omar from a key U.N. blacklist.

Next came revelations that Pakistan's powerful military intelligence agency, the ISI, is still deeply involved with the Afghan Taliban (yeah, blow me over with a feather) despite heated denials to the contrary.

Meanwhile, the drive for Kandahar looks to be stalled in the face of questionable local support for Karzai's government, the Taliban is killing local authorities left and right, and the corruption situation has apparently gotten so bad that the U.S. intelligence community is now keeping tabs on which Afghan officials are stealing what.

In short, things don't look good for the United States ... which makes me suspicious of the timing of this attention-grabbing James Risen story in the Times, which opens with this mind-boggling lede:

The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials."

Wow! Talk about a game changer. The story goes on to outline Afghanistan's apparently vast underground resources, which include large copper and iron reserves as well as hitherto undiscovered reserves lithium and other rare minerals.

Read a little more carefully, though, and you realize that there's less to this scoop than meets the eye.

The Financial Mess Continues

Bill Fleckenstein, who predicted the current financial crisis, is expecting more of the same:
As for the "dress rehearsal" to our ultimate funding crisis, aka the current financial mess in Europe, my oft-cited source the "Lord of the Dark Matter" had this to say about where we are in the unraveling of the euro: "It took over three years from the first EPDs (early payment defaults) in the summer of 2006 until Lehman's demise. Economic and monetary union has been from inception an experiment wrapped in a tissue of economic lies. . . . Its unraveling -- for that is what is actually happening in the plumbing -- has been telescoped into a few short months, and because the unraveling is all in the plumbing, I do not think the median investor nor median policymaker is able to grasp the significance of the unstoppable process that appears to be under way. . . . The enormity of the problems there cannot be overstated, and the chances they can be overcome are diminishing by the day." In short, he thinks there really is not much hope for the euro in the end. As he says, "Europe's Lehman Bros. is actually Europe." (And Lehman Brothers' collapse, of course, precipitated Wall Street's near meltdown.) However, as I noted recently, I think it will take some time for all of this to play out. As has become apparent to the world's investors, paper money is no good, hence the worldwide bid for gold. Become a fan of MSN Money on Facebook This doesn't stop gold from being volatile, nor does it guarantee that every day it will increase in price or rally on the days that one thinks it ought to. But over time it has, and it will protect folks' wealth from consequences of the printing press.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Turkish Bishop Died for Pope

In recent news:
Analyst Fr. Fillippo di Giacomo, who writes for publications such as L’Unitá and La Stampa, revealed that “hours before Padovese was killed, the Turkish Government called him to say that his driver, who they themselves had put in his service four years before, had gotten out of hand. That is to say, he had embraced the fundamentalist cause.”

Speaking to the Spanish daily El Pais, Fr. di Giacomo added that “knowing this, Padovese canceled the tickets he had reserved to Cyprus for himself and Altun (his driver). He preferred to stay home rather than to make the trip because he feared that his driver would take advantage of his proximity to the Pope and make an attempt on his life.”

According to El Pais, “the death of the Capuchin Franciscan bishop, known as an intellectual open to Islam, and who adored Turkey, occurred at a dramatic moment in the Middle East, right after Israel killed nine people (eight Turks and an American) in their assault on the humanitarian flotilla in international waters that attempted to pass through the Israeli blockade of Gaza.”

Another less-covered topic, which is nevertheless of concern to the Vatican, was the expulsion of 28 Christians from Morocco, El Pais added. The Spanish daily argued that the Moroccan government took advantage of the international chaos to deport the missionaries who worked with the poor because they “perturbed the mentality of the good Muslim.”

In his interview with the Spanish daily, Fr. di Giacomo asserted that the expulsion was a consequence of the “fatwa promulgated by 7,300 Moroccan Muslim doctors who recently declared that Christian charity ought to be considered religious terrorism.”

Israel and Palestine--Behaving Badly

In alphabetical order, the Israeli story first:
The Israeli army is at the centre of a second controversy over the moral conduct of its soldiers in as many days. The printed t-shirts were discovered by an Israeli newspaper. ... The revelations centre on t-shirt designs made for soldiers that make light of shooting pregnant Palestinian mothers and children and include images of dead babies and destroyed mosques. The t-shirts were printed for Israeli soldiers at the end of periods of deployment or training courses and were discovered by Israeli newspaper Haaretz. One, printed for a platoon of Israeli snipers depicts an armed Palestinian pregnant women caught in the crosshairs of a rifle, with the disturbing caption in English: "1 shot 2 kills". Another depicts a child carrying a gun also in the centre of a target. "The smaller, the harder," read the words on the t-shirt. According to a soldier interviewed by the newspaper, the message has a double meaning: "It's a kid, so you've got a little more of a problem, morally and also the target is smaller."
Really wrong. Not necessarily unexpected in a war zone among soldiers, but this should have been stopped by Israeli army authorities long ago. From the Palestinian side:

For religion angles, I’ve actually been going to Al Jazeera. They’re slanted pretty noticeably toward the activists and have trouble with facts at times (confusion over what the standards are for boarding in international waters a ship attempting to thwart a blockade) but they do cover some of the religion angles. This live blog was updated throughout the day with helpful new information.

But if you really want to find some religion ghosts, it helps to find translations of Al Jazeera’s Arabic broadcasts. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of a neutral source for translation. Palestinian Media Watch, which you can read more about here, translated one such broadcast. You can watch the video but here’s the PMW translation and explanation of a May 29 broadcast:

Reporter: “Despite the Israeli threats and several unexpected delays, the arrival of the ships at the meeting point before sailing to the Gaza Strip inflamed the emotions and the enthusiasm of the participants.”

Visuals from Gaza flotilla ship of young Muslims shouting Islamic battle chant invoking the killing and defeat of Jews in battle:

“[Remember] Khaibar, Khaibar, oh Jews! The army of Muhammad will return!”

[Khaibar is the name of last Jewish village defeated by Muhammad’s army and it marked the end of Jewish presence in Arabia in 628.]

Reporter: “While singing songs reminiscent of the Palestinian Intifada (Palestinian terror war against Israel, 2000 - 2005), participants expressed their longing to reach Gaza.”

A participant: “Right now we face one of two happy endings: either Martyrdom or reaching Gaza.” [Based on Islamic call before battle: “Either victory or Martyrdom”.]

If you’re reading Western papers, the information is fairly sanitized. But some of these transcriptions show a wealth of religious language. There’s a significant dichotomy between the way, say, the New York Times presented the flotilla activists (the words “Muslim” “faith” “jihad” or “martyr” are not used in reference to them) versus the piece above or this interview with Gaza-based professor Dr. Abd Al-Fatah Nu’man. This interview was translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute:

“My message is to those heroes who are, as we speak, at mid-sea, in pitch darkness under the skies, their palms raised to Allah in supplication. What are they asking for? The Prophet Muhammad said: “He whose feet have been covered with dust for the sake of Allah is saved from the Hellfire, and he who has fought even for only the time it takes to milk a she-camel secures a place in Paradise.” These heroes were selected by Allah to carry out this mission — the mission of awakening the nation, and this will bring honor upon them.

“Yesterday, the commander of the fleet said: ‘We will not allow the Zionists to come near us, and we will wage resistance against them.’ With what will they wage resistance? With their fingernails. These are people who wish to be martyred for the sake of Allah. As much as they want to reach Gaza, the other option is more desirable to them.

“We pray to Allah that they be awarded both good things: That they reach the shore of Gaza safe and sound, and that they be granted martyrdom, along with us, on the walls of the Al-Aqsa Mosque — as conquerors.”

It’s hard to gauge how representative these views are among Muslim supporters of the flotilla but I sure wish some of these voices could be included — and given context — in English-language media reports. It’s quite a shock to go from American mainstream media to Al Jazeera in English and even more of a shock to read some of these Arabic broadcasts.

Are there any other religion angles that need to be covered? Of course. As Israelis debate how the military handled the raid, what are religious voices saying? And is there anything else to learn about the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation, which backed the flotilla?

I hadn't seen this entering the discussion about the flotilla, really.

Puzzle the, Anti-Aslan

Interesting meditation on the AntiChrist:

For those who see good versus evil in an ever-battling dualism, the foremost lesson about the Antichrist comes as a shocking relief: He is not the opposite of Christ. The concept of “pure evil” has no place in the Catholic faith, for, even in their self-created hell of permanent separation from God, demons retain the good mark of having been created by God. Instead, the Antichrist comes in disguise, offering seductive lies that seem to satisfy humanity’s deepest yearnings at the deadly price of the full truth.

Drawing on the letters of Sts. Paul and John, the Catechism speaks of this time as “the Church’s ultimate trial ... a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh” (No. 675).

Our faith teaches, then, that God has already and definitively defeated evil for us. The Antichrist has no chance of winning, for he remains subject to God’s reign despite his rejection of it. What the Antichrist represents is not some final standoff between good and evil, with angelic swords blazing and the outcome uncertain. He comes, rather, in a last-ditch effort to be idolized, to bring down mankind in a vile bacchanal of creaturely worship.

Perhaps no other writer in modern times has fleshed out the nature of the Antichrist as artfully as C.S. Lewis...

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Experimentation on Detainees

Well--this is a little hellish:
Medical personnel on the payroll of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) participated in experimentation and research on detainees during interrogations following the US terror attacks of 11 September 2001 according to an independent report released today. The actions documented in the report took place during the administration of President George W. Bush and contravene principles of research ethics set out in the Nuremburg Code, including those explicitly stated by the US government. The report, Experiments in Torture: Human Subject Research and Evidence of Experimentation in the `Enhanced' Interrogation Program, was published by the advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It relies on previously classified documents released by US President Barack Obama's administration between May 2009 and February 2010. The 30-page document alleges that personnel in the CIA's Office of Medical Services (OMS) were involved in activities such as adjusting saline levels in water used for the simulated drowning technique called waterboarding, and comparing prisoners' pain tolerance after various techniques, such as slapping, water dousing and sleep deprivation, were applied serially or in combination. "The CIA appears to have broken all accepted legal and ethical standards put in place since the Second World War to protect prisoners from being the subjects of experimentation," says Frank Donaghue, PHR chief executive.

Friday, June 4, 2010

"...making sacred wounds blossom..."

So--glorious beauty abounding:
Without a conversation with Pierre, who had been imprisoned in the same camp as I-his name is different, but that does not matter-this book would not have been written. Pierre and I met on a Paris boulevard one day in the spring. There was a light rain, and trees were in bloom. Our discussion became a trifle heated, with the result that I had to give up, accept the challenge, and take to writing. Pierre had spent four years in the concentration camp of Dachau. He had come back bitter, aged, unrecognizable; his body sick, his soul still more sick. At each one of our meetings, it was the same story: "I no longer have any faith in man. What a filthy beast he is! What a selfish brute!" His memories obsessed him. He sipped the bitterness of their horror, scrutinizing one by one the long line of miseries. He would finish by hissing through his teeth the horrible words of Sartre: "Human fellowship is hell!" To a very direct question, he gave this answer: "Yes, I believe that God exists, in an inaccessible heaven of heavens, while we poor "human beings are crawling in mud. Grace? Why, yes, that exists perhaps, but of what importance is it if it does not succeed in changing man? There are certain miseries where grace has no access, where even God conceals His face. If you only knew!" "Tell me, Pierre," I said to him, "what do you make of the saints?" He began to laugh, a laugh that hurt. "Why, yes, I believe in saints. I believe that there are saints. But they are products of greenhouses. They need a special climate, a favorable one with sanctifying conditions. Saints do not grow in inhuman soil. I defy you to show me a saint in a concentration camp. One saint. One who truly prefers his neighbor to himself. I defy you!" For a moment I kept silent. Then, "Pierre, suppose I accept the challenge? If I show you a saint in a real concentration camp; someone who offered to die in place of a fellow prisoner ..." He looked at me with his pitiful beaten-dog eyes. We were standing in a doorway, while the rain fell hard and the brisk steps of infrequent passers-by alternated with the gusts of rain. "Then, and only then, will I admit that you are right." We changed the subject, but the blow had reached its mark. From this broken conversation the scheme of this book originated. It is not intended especially for religious persons, neither for the convents nor for the ladies of charitable societies. I destine and dedicate it to my brother the condemned one, to all those who have lost faith in man and, through that loss, no longer believe in God! Every man is an image of the living God, but only the saint appraises it, as a jeweler appraises a pearl. We have the terrible power to spit into the adorable Face, slap It, twist It into a caricature. The saint carries It as in a living monstrance. And a time can come when the invading Presence flashes like a flame on the bruised body, making sacred wounds blossom. Not every saint bears the stigmata; but there is no saint who does not die on the Cross. Love must be stronger than death. And sanctity is simply an adventure of love, the most thrilling adventure, and within reach of all. This is what Father Maximilian Kolbe, whose life I here relate, was incessantly preaching.


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