For the third straight year, the isolated communist nation of North Korea remains atop the annual Open Doors International "World Watch List" of countries where Christians are persecuted.
"Christianity is observed as one of the greatest threats to the regime's power," the 2005 World Watch List report states. Exact figures are difficult to obtain, but it is believed that tens of thousands of Christians are currently suffering in North Korean prison camps, and at least 20 Christians were shot or beaten to death in 2004 while in detention.
The annual list ranks countries according to the intensity of persecution Christians face for actively pursuing their faith. Five of the top 10 are Islamic-dominated countries, four have communist regimes in power, and one country, Bhutan, is dominated by Buddhism.
Saudi Arabia again held the second spot on the list, followed by Vietnam, Laos, and Iran. Other countries listed on the WWL's top 10, from No. 6 to 10, include: Maldives, Somalia, Bhutan, China and Afghanistan.
Newcomers to the top 10 are Somalia and Afghanistan. Dropping out of the top 10 are Turkmenistan (No. 12) and Myanmar (No. 17). Somalia moved up four places to seventh in the rankings primarily because "Christian converts from Islam are paying a high price for their new faith, especially in rural parts of this most lawless country in the world."
New to third place is Vietnam, rising one position. One of the few communist nations in the world, Vietnam considers Christians to be a hidden enemy. Authorities fear that Evangelical Christianity, suspected to be connected to the United States, is being used in a peaceful revolution against the communist system.
Although the constitution provides for religious freedom, the government considerably restricts unrecognized religious activities. A new law on religion was introduced during the past year and bans any religious activity deemed to threaten national security, public order or national unity. The new ordinance is used to prohibit unregistered church services in private houses.
The situation deteriorated for Christians in the East African country of No. 16 Eritrea, where more than 400 evangelical Christians are currently in prison for their faith and subjected to harsh conditions, including being locked in metal shipping containers in severe heat.
And while Christians in Iraq - ranked 21st - enjoy more liberty than under the regime of Saddam Hussein, they are experiencing increased pressure from fundamentalist Islamic groups. "Written threats, kidnappings, bombings and murder by Muslim extremists continued to drive tens of thousands of the minority Christian population out of the country," the World Watch List report observes.
On the positive side, Christians in Sudan, ranked No. 19, are hopeful that a new peace accord will lead to greater access to goods and services previously denied. Under the latest accord, the mainly Christian and animist south will remain autonomous for six years. It's estimated more than two million people have died in Sudan during 21 years of civil war.
No. 11-25 on the World Watch List are: Yemen, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Comoros, Uzbekistan, Eritrea, Myanmar (Burma), Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Brunei and Nigeria (north).
Rounding out the list are Nos. 26-50: Cuba, Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Mexico (Chiapas), Tunisia, Qatar, India, Nepal, Colombia (conflict areas), Indonesia, Algeria, Turkey, Mauritania, Kuwait, Belarus, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Syria, Bangladesh, Jordan, Kenya (northeast), Ethiopia and Bahrain.
Colombia — In an upcoming episode of Colombia's favorite soap opera, a former prostitute determined to better the world strides into a spacious office to discuss the fight against human trafficking with U.N. officials. "You have our full support to battle this crime," a gray-suited Frenchman, Thierry Rostan, tells her. Rostan sounds just like a diplomat — because in real life that's exactly what he is.
In "Everybody Loves Marilyn," U.N. officials are cast as themselves and scenes are filmed in their well-guarded Bogota offices. The United Nations itself approached the show's producers with the idea, to bring their message to as many Colombians as possible and prevent girls from being tricked into becoming sex slaves abroad.
"What better vehicle to reach out to people than through a soap opera that has seven million viewers," said Sandro Calvani, director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Colombia. "We could have sent out a communique or something, but it wouldn't have the same impact."
Adriana Ruiz-Restrepo, who leads the U.N. program against human trafficking here, was watching "Everybody Loves Marilyn" one night when she hatched the plan.
Human trafficking is a big problem in Colombia. The secret police estimate that up to 50,000 Colombians, including many underage girls and boys, are being lured abroad and sexually exploited, mainly in Japan, Spain and Holland.
Most of the victims come from the impoverished countryside but move to Colombia's cities in search of wealth and fame. They make easy targets for traffickers who offer promises of a modeling career, travel and a chance to make their dreams come true.
"Trafficking in women is one of the worst abuses of human dignity, when somebody's life has been bought," Calvani said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan personally approved Ruiz-Restrepo's novel plan to highlight the problem. She then telephoned RCN television, which produces the show, and got an enthusiastic response.
"It fit perfectly with our aim to discuss social issues in the soap opera," said Adriana Suarez, the executive producer of the soap opera, which is also broadcast elsewhere in Latin America, including Mexico and Chile.
Together they worked on the plot, which tells the story of Catalina, a pretty and ambitious 24-year-old who is duped by a man posing as a fashion designer telling her she will become a model if she travels to a foreign country. She is drugged at the airport before the flight to ensure she doesn't back out, and winds up working in a brothel against her will.
"It's easy for Colombian girls to relate to the character and say to themselves: 'This could have happened to me,'" Ruiz-Restrepo said.
The United Nations reserved the right to delete or modify proposed scenes. For example, Ruiz-Restrepo said, the script at one point erroneously said the United Nations has law enforcement powers.
There have been few occasions when the United Nations opened its doors to film crews.
Last year Annan allowed "The Interpreter" to be filmed inside the U.N. General Assembly in New York. The movie stars Nicole Kidman as a U.N. translator who overhears a conversation that could cost her life. No U.N. personnel had acting roles.
Rostan said it was fun being an actor — though daunting at first. "It wasn't easy, but it's something that enabled us to become a part of peoples' lives, showing them in a down-to-earth way how we can help with issues that affect them directly."
The episodes are scheduled to air in the next few weeks.
U.N. Officials Join Soap Opera
A couple of decades back, north of the border, it was discovered that some overzealous types in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had been surreptitiously burning down the barns of Quebec separatists. The prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, shrugged off the controversy and blithely remarked that, if people were so upset by the Mounties illegally burning down barns, perhaps he'd make the burning of barns by Mounties legal. As the columnist George Jonas commented:I feel vindicated that Mark's with those of us fighting for Terri. Not all my idols have fallen.
''It seemed not to occur to him that it isn't wrong to burn down barns because it's illegal, but it's illegal to burn down barns because it's wrong. Like other statist politicians, Mr. Trudeau . . . either didn't see, or resented, that right and wrong are only reflected by the laws, not determined by them.''
That's how I feel about the Terri Schiavo case. I'm neither a Floridian nor a lawyer, and, for all I know, it may be legal under Florida law for the state to order her to be starved to death. But it is still wrong.
This is not a criminal, not a murderer, not a person whose life should be in the gift of the state. So I find it repulsive, and indeed decadent, to have her continued existence framed in terms of ''plaintiffs'' and ''petitions'' and ''en banc review'' and ''de novo'' and all the other legalese. Mrs. Schiavo has been in her present condition for 15 years. Whoever she once was, this is who she is now -- and, after a decade and a half, there is no compelling reason to kill her. Any legal system with a decent respect for the status quo -- something too many American judges are increasingly disdainful of -- would recognize that her present life, in all its limitations, is now a well-established fact, and it is the most grotesque judicial overreaching for any court at this late stage to decide enough is enough. It would be one thing had a doctor decided to reach for the morphine and ''put her out of her misery'' after a week in her diminished state; after 15 years, for the courts to treat her like a Death Row killer who's exhausted her appeals is simply vile.
There seems to be a genuine dispute about her condition -- between those on her husband's side, who say she has ''no consciousness,'' and those on her parents' side, who say she is capable of basic, childlike reactions. If the latter are correct, ending her life is an act of murder. If the former are correct, what difference does it make? If she feels nothing -- if there's no there there -- she has no misery to be put out of. That being so, why not err in favor of the non-irreversible option?
The here's-your-shroud-and-what's-your-hurry crowd say, ah, yes, but you uptight conservatives are always boring on about the sanctity of marriage, and this is what her husband wants, and he's legally the next of kin.
Michael Schiavo is living in a common-law relationship with another woman, by whom he has fathered children. I make no judgment on that. Who of us can say how we would react in his circumstances? Maybe I'd pull my hat down over my face and slink off to the cathouse on the other side of town once a week. Maybe I'd embark on a discreet companionship with a lonely widow. But if I take on a new wife (in all but name) and make a new family, I would think it not unreasonable to forfeit any right of life or death over my previous wife.
Michael Schiavo took a vow to be faithful in sickness and in health, forsaking all others till death do them part. He's forsaken his wife and been unfaithful to her: She is, de facto, his ex-wife, yet, de jure, he appears to have the right to order her execution. This is preposterous. Suppose his current common-law partner were to fall victim to a disabling accident. Would he also be able to have her terminated? Can he exercise his spousal rights polygamously? The legal deference to Mr. Schiavo's position, to his rights overriding her parents', is at odds with reality.
As for the worthlessness of Terri Schiavo's existence, some years back I was discussing the death of a distinguished songwriter with one of his old colleagues. My then girlfriend, in her mid-20s, was getting twitchy to head for dinner and said airily, ''Oh, well, he had a good life. He was 87.'' ''That's easy for you to say,'' said his old pal. ''I'm 86.'' To say nobody would want to live in an iron lung or a wheelchair or a neck brace or with third-degree burns over 80 percent of your body is likewise easy for you to say.
We all have friends who are passionate about some activity -- They say, ''I live to ski,'' or dance, or play the cello. Then something happens and they can't. The ones I've known fall into two broad camps: There are those who give up and consider what's left of their lives a waste of time; and there are those who say they've learned to appreciate simple pleasures, like the morning sun through the spring blossom dappling their room each morning. Most of us roll our eyes and think, ''What a loser, mooning on about the blossom. He used to be a Hollywood vice president, for Pete's sake.''
But that's easy for us to say. We can't know which camp we'd fall into until it happens to us. And it behooves us to maintain a certain modesty about presuming to speak for others -- even those we know well. Example: ''Driving down there, I remember distinctly thinking that Chris would rather not live than be in this condition.'' That's Barbara Johnson recalling the 1995 accident of her son Christopher Reeve. Her instinct was to pull the plug; his was to live.
As to arguments about ''Congressional overreaching'' and ''states' rights,'' which is more likely? That Congress will use this precedent to pass bills keeping you -- yes, you, Joe Schmoe of 37 Elm Street -- alive till your 118th birthday. Or that the various third parties who intrude between patient and doctor in the American system -- next of kin, HMOs, insurers -- will see the Schiavo case as an important benchmark in what's already a drift toward a culture of convenience euthanasia. Here's a thought: Where do you go to get a living-will kit saying that in the event of a hideous accident I don't want to be put to death by a Florida judge or the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals? And, if you had such a living will, would any U.S. court recognize it?
BlogsForTerri and the Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation are planning to join forces in a long-term mission to support life, and to defeat the emerging culture of death in America and the judicial system that supports it.I'm in.
The effort, still in the planning stages, will be non-partisan, and will focus on the sanctity of human life and the defeat of euthanasia by judicial fiat. Liberals and conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, and independents, will be asked to continue to work together as we are doing for Terri, by focusing on the many views that we share in common, and working together to minimize those few views that we have differing opinions on.
We are determinined that Terri's terror will be the rallying cry of a wake-up call for America, and the begining of a coming together of liberals and conservatives in the common cause of supporting life. As has been the case in bringing Terri's plight into the media spotlight, bloggers from all sides of the political spectrum will increase our number, as the powerful force we have already become, in order that we turn back the forces that seek to euthanize the disabled, the elderly, and the unwanted.
Every single politician, regardless of political affiliation, who's vote contributed to the murder of Terri Schiavo shall be targeted for defeat in the upcoming election. Every judge that turned their heads away from Terri, will be made to bow their heads in shame and disgrace.
Furthermore, we intend to create a tsunami of an outcry for an investigation of Michael Schiavo's abuse of Terri, and the Pinellas County court system that handed him the axe on a silver platter to do it with.
Much more to come ....
When the BBC world service released the results of its 2004 presidential poll it revealed an interesting figure. Of the sixteen linguistic ethnical groups surveyed around the world, Persians were overwhelmingly the most supportive of President Bush. In fact, over 52 percent of Iranians preferred Republican George W. Bush to challenger John Kerry who only received 42 percent support. Thus, surprisingly, unlike in the United States where the presidential race was relegated to a couple of percentage points, in Iran President Bush won by a landslide.
Numerous other sources have confirmed these results. Renowned intellectuals and journalists have agreed. For instance, Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, who spent an entire week in Iran, recently wrote: "Finally, I've found a pro-American country. Everywhere I've gone in Iran, with one exception, people have been exceptionally friendly and fulsome in their praise for the United States, and often for President George W. Bush as well." Thomas Friedman, another Pulitzer Prize winner and ardent critic of the war in Iraq, wrote: "young Iranians are loving anything their government hates, such as Mr. Bush, and hating anything their government loves. Iran . . . is the ultimate red state."
The well-documented pro-Bush leaning in Iran, which is relatively widespread, has perplexed many western technocrats. Part of the answer may be that Iran is changing at such a rapid rate that the media has had a difficult time reporting or understanding the situation inside the country. Also, Friedman may be right that young Iranians are reactionary, "loving anything their government hates." But there are other social reasons, including the availability of satellite dishes and the Internet.
Millions of Iranian homes receive illegal satellite television beamed in by Iranian-American expatriates. With a mix of pop music, political discussion, and international news these stations have had a profound impact on the cultural and political situation inside of Iran. The Iranian dictatorship has repeatedly tried to crack down on dishes and the Internet, but they have been largely unsuccessful. It is presently estimated that between five to seven million homes receive satellite television, and an estimated three million have Internet access. To the dissatisfaction of the reigning ayatollahs Iranians do not live in a closed off cave.
Could anyone have imagined that an upstart opposition movement in Egypt that calls itself Kifaya, Arabic for "enough", would grow strong enough to disrupt Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's hopes of handing his presidential reign over to his son Gamal?You should read it all: Arab 'imagine' revolution rolls on. We're definitely living in interesting times.
Well, guess what? That little Kifaya movement has now placed enough kinks in the system to put serious doubts over such a done deal. Succession for Gamal, as well as the entire superstructure of men who have ruled the largest Arab country since 1952, can no longer be assured.
Picture frame after picture frame, an image of revolt is surfacing across the Arab landscape. Fear is melting away; people are turning suppressed frustrations into action. Will it last? Just imagine.
A few weeks ago would it have occurred to anyone that women in Kuwait would hit the streets in demonstrations demanding the right to vote or that a senior Saudi royal family figure such as foreign minister Prince Saud Al Faisal would publicly pledge that Saudi women will get the right to vote as well?
Only three years ago would anyone have imagined that Al Qaeda's "princes of darkness", the same folks who strutted about after blowing up the World Trade Center, would today be on the run everywhere from Afghanistan to Western Europe to Saudi Arabia, tracked, arrested, fleeing, scared, falling one after the other, their funds frozen, their cobwebs and culture of murder teetering? That is happening, too. One can imagine that in a couple of years it will be spoken of as a shadow of its former self, a thing of the past.
Back in 2002, would anyone have imagined that by 2005 Saddam Hussein - the most ruthless dictator in modern Arab history, a man who boiled his critics in acid and gassed his own people - would be lingering in a small cell at one of his former Baghdad palaces?
As a U.S. federal court considers whether to reconnect Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube, Jewish scholars are turning to halachah, or Jewish religious law, for guidance on the issue.
Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged Florida woman whose parents and husbands have been in battling in state and now federal courts for more than a decade, is the insensate center of a swirl of emotion and legal action. Religious leaders have been involved as well; Terri Schiavo and her parents, Mary and Robert Schindler, are Roman Catholic, and many of their most fervent supporters are fundamentalist Protestants.
The Schindlers want to keep their daughter’s feeding tube in; Michael Schiavo wants it removed so his wife can die a natural death.
Jews, like others caught up in the debate, have a range of beliefs, and their understanding of how to apply halachah varies accordingly. Virtually all the rabbis interviewed, though, told JTA that they did not agree with attempts by some conservative Christians to tie Schiavo’s case to the public debate about abortion.
At the traditional end of the spectrum, Rabbi Avi Shafran of the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America said the Schiavo case is “straightforward from a Jewish perspective: The most important point from a halachic standpoint is that a compromised life is still a life."
“In the Schiavo case, you’re not dealing with a patient in extremis," he said, noting that until her feeding tube was removed, Schiavo was not dying.
In halachah, there is a category for a person at the edge of death; the rules for such a person, called a goses, are complicated.
“There are times when certain medical intervention is halachically contraindicated," Shafran said. “There may be times when it’s OK not to shock a heart back into beating, not to administer certain drugs. You do not prolong the act of dying."
But Schiavo was not a goses, Shafran said. Instead, before the tube was removed she “had the exact same halachic status as a baby or a demented person. Like a baby, she was helpless, could not feed herself and was not able to communicate in any meaningful way. But a life is a life."
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, the central arm of modern Orthodoxy, agreed that from a halachic perspective the Schiavo case is straightforward.
“It’s not permitted to do anything actively that would stop the process of a person’s staying alive," he said. “In this case, that would be withdrawing a feeding tube, which is tantamount to starving a person to death."
Like Shafran, Weinreb said the wishes of the patient or the family are not relevant.
“It might have a bearing on whether new measures are undertaken, but once a person is on a support system, removing it is not possible," Weinreb said.
“Doing something to actively interfere with a person’s ability to continue to live technically is murder," he said. “I can’t imagine a scenario that would make removing the feeding tube permissible."
Rabbi David Feldman, who had an Orthodox ordination and defines himself as “traditional," is rabbi emeritus of the Conservadox Jewish Center of Teaneck, N.J.
“There’s a dispute here between a husband and parents, but none of that makes any difference as far as halachah is concerned," said Feldman, the author of “Birth Control and Abortion in Jewish Law" and the dean of the Jewish Institute of Bioethics. “You can’t hasten death yourself, with your own hands. If death comes, you can thank God because it’s a relief, but you can’t decide yourself that it has to be done."
The only time it would be acceptable to remove a medical device, Feldman said, would be if “something worse would happen — if leaving it in would cause infection, or more pain.
“You can kill someone pursuing you, you can kill the soldier in the enemy army, maybe very cautiously you can kill if there is a death penalty, but you can’t kill an innocent person because of illness," he said.
Rabbi Joel Roth is a member of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly’s law committee. In 1990, when he was the committee’s chair, the group studied end-stage medical care and accepted two opposing positions on artificial nutrition and hydration.
One, by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, “would permit withholding and withdrawing" the tube; the other, by Rabbi Avraham Reisner, would not.
The divide comes from how the tube that provides food and water is defined. If it is seen as a medical device, as Dorff does, it may be removed, Roth said. If it is seen as a feeding device, as Reisner does, it may not be removed.
Dorff puts a person dependent on a feeding tube “in the halachic category of ‘treifah,’ which, he argues, is a life that does not require our full protection — an animal that is treifah is one that has some kind of physical defect that will prohibit it from having a prolonged life. So he argues that a treifah is a life that does not require our full protection," Roth said.
Reisner, on the other hand, “treats these people as goses," Roth said.
“And even in the end stage," he noted, “there is the value of ‘chaya sha’ah,’ the life of the hour." In other words, Roth said, even when there is very little life left, that life still matters.
The Conservative movement accepts both decisions, but Roth, a professor of talmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, sides with Reisner, and with Schiavo’s parents.
“She should be kept on the feeding tube," he said. “She’s not being medicated and she’s breathing on her own."
Rabbi Mark Washofsky teaches rabbinics at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, and he sits on the movement’s responsa committee.
The movement does not speak with one voice on the issue, Washofsky said, but in 1994 it issued a responsa on the treatment of terminally ill patients.
Like the Conservative decisors, the Reform rabbis base their view of whether a feeding tube can be removed on their understanding of the tube’s function.
“We cannot claim that Jewish tradition categorically prohibits the removal of food and water from dying patients," Washofsky said. “But we consider food and water, no matter how they are delivered, the staff of life. So what we ultimately do is express deep reservations about their withdrawal, but in the end we say nonetheless that because we cannot declare that the cessation of artificial nutrition and hydration is categorically forbidden by Jewish moral thought, the patient and the family must ultimately let their consciences guide them."
Rabbi David Teutsch, director of the Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, agrees that the question is how a feeding tube is defined.
“If it were a form of eating, a position held by a number of more traditional halachic authorities, then you’re required to feed those who are hungry," Teutsch said. “But if it’s medicine — a position held by Conservative authorities like Rabbi Elliott Dorff, and by me as well — then you serve the interests of the patient, which may involve not providing medicine.
He believes that a feeding tube is a medical device, and so it can be removed, Teutsch said.
“It’s pretty clear that it’s closer to regular intervention than to eating," he said.
As court considers Schiavo case, Jews turn to halachah for guidance