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Israeli restrictions on ‘Holy Fire’ ignite Christian outrage

Christians were celebrating the “Holy Fire” ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Saturday against a backdrop of rising tensions with Israel, which imposed new restrictions on attendance this year that it said were needed for safety.
Israel says it wants to prevent another disaster after a crowd stampede at a packed Jewish holy site last year left 45 people dead.
Christian leaders say there’s no need to alter a ceremony that has been held for centuries.
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In the dense confines of Jerusalem’s Old City, where Jews, Christians and Muslims must share their holiest sites – no matter how reluctantly – even small changes can cause prophetic angst.
The city has already seen a week of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police at the nearby al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the third holiest site in Islam.
It stands on a hilltop that is the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount.
This year major Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays have converged against a backdrop of renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Tensions have soared as tens of thousands of people flock to Jerusalem’s Old City to visit some of the holiest sites for all three faiths for the first time since the lifting of pandemic restrictions.
Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that on the Saturday before Easter a miraculous flame appears inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a sprawling 12th century basilica built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
Every year the Greek patriarch enters the Holy Edicule, a chamber built on the traditional site of the tomb, and returns with a lit lantern, passing the flame from candle to candle among thousands of people, gradually illuminating the walls of the darkened basilica.
The flame is later transferred to Orthodox communities in other countries on special flights.
The source of the Holy Fire has been a closely guarded secret for centuries, and highbrow skeptics going back to the Middle Ages have scorned it as a carnival trick for the masses.
Two years ago, the church was nearly empty because of a coronavirus lockdown, but Israel made special arrangements for the flame to be carried abroad. Hundreds attended last year, when travel restrictions were in place and the ceremony was limited to the fully-vaccinated.
This year, Israel says it is applying a safety law that limits crowd size based on space and the number of exits.
Authorities say they want to prevent a repeat of last year’s stampede on Mount Meron in northern Israel during a religious festival attended by around 100,000 mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews.
It was one of the worst disasters in the country’s history, and authorities came in for heavy criticism over alleged negligence.
“There’s never a problem until there’s a problem, and this is what happened last year in Meron,” said Tania Berg-Rafaeli, the director of interreligious affairs at the Israeli foreign ministry.
If something were to happen at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, “we would have to take responsibility for that, and we want to avoid any problem,” she said.
Authorities said they would allow a total of 4,000 people to attend the Holy Fire ceremony, including 1,800 inside the church itself, which has a single large entryway with a raised step.
Berg-Rafaeli said Israeli authorities have been in close contact with the churches and would revise the quota upwards next year if more doors in the basilica can be opened.
“It’s totally about safety and not at all about anything else,” she said.
Church leaders rejected any restrictions on principle, saying they infringe on religious freedom. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, like al-Aqsa, is governed by a decades-old set of informal arrangements known as the status quo.
As at al-Aqsa, seemingly minor violations have ignited violence, including notorious brawls between monks of different denominations.
In a statement released earlier this month, the Greek Patriarchate said it was “fed up with police restrictions on freedom to worship.”
“The orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem has decided, by the power of the Lord, that it will not compromise its right to provide spiritual services in all churches and squares,” it said. “Prayers will be held as usual.” The patriarchate says up to 11,000 people attend in normal years.
Police sealed off the main entrances to the Christian Quarter with barricades. Large crowds jostled to get in, as the police waved through a trickle of local residents and some foreign tourists.
The frustration could be felt outside the New Gate leading to the Christian Quarter on Saturday, as people jostled with police to get in, lifting baby strollers and small children over the barricades as some were waved through.
“It’s like this every year and every year there’s a different excuse,” said Dr. Muna Mushahwar, a physician who argued with police as she tried to organize the entry of a foreign delegation.
“They don’t want the Christians here. The more you push people the more frustrated they get and then they leave.”
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Dr. Mona Khashwani becomes UAE’s first Emirati physician to perform robotic surgery

Dr. Mona Abdulaziz Khashwani from Sharjah’s Al Qassimi Women and Children’s Hospital in the United Arab Emirates has become the country’s first Emirati physician to perform robotic surgery.

Khashwani, a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology, performed the robotic surgery using the advanced Da Vinci system, Emirates Health Services said in a statement on Wednesday.

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“I sincerely thank the wise leadership, who gave me the opportunity to be one of the few citizens who carry out this type of high-precision operations for patients using a robot,” she said.

Khashwani is one of the UAE’s most experienced doctors in the robotic surgery field. She graduated from London’s Queen Mary University in 2005 and was then nominated by the hospital’s Director of Laparoscopic Operations and Robotic Surgery Program, Dr. Zaki al-Mazki al-Shamsi, to join the women robotics surgeons’ program.

The Emirati doctor performs total hysterectomy, supra-cervical hysterectomy and the operations to remove of fibroid tumors, ovarian cysts, and adhesions, among others.

“I have spent countless hours after my shift using the surgical simulator for training and studying how the robotic system operates,” she said.

“This qualified me to receive a license to perform gynaecologic robotic surgery using the advanced Da Vinci surgical robot from the IRCAD Training Center in Strasbourg, France,” Khashwani added.

Launched in 1999, Da Vinci is an automated surgical system that performs minimally invasive procedures and is considered to be one of the most accurate systems of its kind in the world. It is the first FDA recognized safe and effective surgical tool that performs complex surgeries, often involving small incisions, which shortens patients’ hospital stays, ensures faster recovery, and reduces the need for pain killers after operation.

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Taiwan rejects Philippines complaint about South China Sea live fire drills

Taiwan on Wednesday rebuffed a complaint from the Philippines about live fire drills around a Taiwan-controlled island deep in the South China Sea, saying it had the right to do so and always gives issues a warning of its exercises.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, in a message on Twitter late on Tuesday, lodged a “strong objection over the unlawful live fire drills” to be carried out by Taiwan this week around the island, known internationally as Itu Aba.
Taiwan calls the island Taiping, and the Philippines calls it Ligaw Island.
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The department said the island belonged to the Philippines.
“This illegal activity raises tensions and complicates the situation in the South China Sea,” it said.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry said in a statement the island was part of the territory of the Republic of China – Taiwan’s formal name – and that it enjoyed all relevant rights accorded by international law.
“Our country has the right to conduct routine exercises on Taiping Island and related maritime areas. In order to ensure the safety of maritime traffic and fishing boats operating in adjacent maritime areas, we notify the relevant regional countries in advance before each live-fire drill,” it said.
Itu Aba is the biggest feature in the Spratly Islands, a grouping of islets and other features also claimed, entirely or in part, by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
The Philippines normally complains most vociferously about China’s activities in the South China Sea, including what Manila says is illegal fishing.
The Philippines, like most countries, has no official diplomatic ties with Taiwan but there are close cultural and economic links and Taiwan is home to about 160,000 Filipinos, most of them migrant workers.
The maps China bases its South China Sea claims on date to when Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China government ruled China before it fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists.
Taiwan also controls the Pratas Islands at the very northern end of the South China Sea.
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Turkey to seek extradition of ‘terror’ suspects from Finland, Sweden

Turkey said Wednesday it would seek the extradition of 33 “terror” suspects from Sweden and Finland under a deal that paved the way for Ankara to back the Nordic countries’ NATO membership bids.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lifted his opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO after crunch talks ahead of Wednesday’s NATO summit, in return for written security guarantees.
Ankara immediately put the new agreement to the test, with the justice minister announcing that Turkey would seek the extradition of alleged Kurdish militants and members of a group that Erdogan blames for a failed 2016 coup attempt.
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“We will seek the extradition of terrorists from the relevant countries within the framework of the new agreement,” Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag was quoted as saying by NTV television.
Bozdag said Ankara would now ask for the extradition of 12 suspects from Finland and 21 from Sweden who were either members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or alleged members of a group led by the US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen.
The PKK, which has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984, is blacklisted by Turkey, the EU and the United States.
Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan, denies charges of plotting the 2016 coup attempt.
The three-way memorandum signed on Tuesday says that Finland and Sweden pledge to “address Turkey’s pending deportation or extradition requests of terror suspects expeditiously and thoroughly.”
The two countries also agreed to lift their embargoes on weapons deliveries to Turkey, which were imposed in response to Ankara’s 2019 military incursion into Syria.
Erdogan’s office hailed the agreement, saying Ankara had “got what it wanted.”
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