Sunday, December 31, 2006

Christmas Cribs

Hey guys, sorry for the long break. With the Taiwan earthquake severing much of the Asian communications links and me being out of the office, the internet has been a tad slow.

I've also been traveling around a bit. I have tons of photos but uploading them has been a real test of patience.

Here's some cribs that I want to highlight.

This garish scene lies on the facade of my parish Church, just above the porch and visible from the street in front. The Marian statue is not usually lighted this way, its normally just a regular spotlight. But somehow its blue this time. Something is wrong with the scene as well.

Notice anyone missing?

Ok. This next photo shows the creche on the sanctuary during the midnight Mass.

Here's what it looks like during the day. The Magi aren't out yet. They'll be out on the Epiphany.
This creche is located in the Malaysian National Shrine of St. Anne on the mainland.
Here's a close-up.

There's another beautiful one on the sanctuary too.

Ok, after those nice ones, here's the creche from the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit.

It's slightly garish and small for my taste. Note the tabernacle on the left of the photo below.
From another angle.

Here's one I've had my eye on in the shop. They are clothed in very fine fabrics. I hope to see this in my house next year =)

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Pope gets a letter from Iran's Ahmadinejad

From the New York Times.

Published: December 28, 2006

ROME, Dec. 27 — Pope Benedict XVI granted a private audience on Wednesday to an Iranian delegation, including Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who presented him with a letter from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Italian news reports said.

Mr. Mottaki, whose ministry earlier this month held a two-day gathering of Holocaust deniers and white supremacists in Tehran, and the other Iranians exchanged pleasantries with the pope in a meeting that lasted 30 minutes, the reports said. The private meeting came after the pope’s general audience, the reports said.
Iranian news accounts described the meeting as “very cordial” and reported that the content of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s letter was of a religious nature and not a political one.

The Italian news agency ANSA reported that the pope issued a note after the meeting in which he “reaffirmed the role that the Holy See intends to exercise for world peace not as a political authority, but as a religious and moral one, appealing to the conscience because the problems of the people are always resolved with dialogue, in mutual understanding and in peace.”

The Vatican indirectly issued a statement at the time of the Holocaust deniers conference, saying that the Holocaust “was a great tragedy before which we cannot remain indifferent” and which must serve as a warning to people’s consciences.
Pope Benedict XVI looks at a gift presented to him by Vice-President and Head of Iran's Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization Esfandiar Rahim-Moshaee (L) at the Vatican December 27, 2006. REUTERS/Osservatore Romano/Handout (VATICAN)

The English version of the Iranian news agency IRNA reported on Wednesday that during the audience with the Iranians, the pope had expressed “appreciation for Iranians’ sentiments for Mary and Jesus Christ” and asked that his greetings be conveyed to Mr. Ahmadinejad.
Earlier this month, Benedict had met with the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who urged Christians to protest Holocaust denials. Mr. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel.
Pope Benedict XVI meets Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki (C) and Vice-President and Head of Iran's Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization Esfandiar Rahim-Moshaee (R) at the Vatican December 27, 2006.

The letter delivered on Wednesday was one in a series from Mr. Ahmadinejad. Earlier this year, he wrote a letter to President Bush criticizing American policies and the war in Iraq. Later, he wrote a letter to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in which he discussed the legacy of the Holocaust. Before Wednesday, his most recent letter had come last month and was addressed to the American people. In it, he urged the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

You can find the full text of Ahmadinejad's letter to President Bush here.


In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

Mr. George Bush,
President of the United States of America,


Can one be a follower of Jesus Christ (PBUH), the great Messenger of God, feel obliged to respect human rights, present liberalism as a civilization model, announce one’s opposition to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and WMDs, make “War on Terror” his slogan, and finally, work towards the establishment of a unified international community – a community which Christ and the virtuous of the Earth will one day govern, but at the same time, have countries attacked. The lives, reputations and possessions of people destroyed and on the slight chance of the presence of a few criminals in a village, city, or convoy for example, the entire village, city or convoy set ablaze.


Mr. President,
You might know that I am a teacher. My students ask me how can these actions be reconciled with the values outlined at the beginning of this letter and duty to the tradition of Jesus Christ (PBUH), the Messenger of peace and forgiveness? There are prisoners in Guantanamo Bay that have not been tried, have no legal representation, their families cannot see them and are obviously kept in a strange land outside their own country. There is no international monitoring of their conditions and fate. No one knows whether they are prisoners, POWs, accused or criminals.

European investigators have confirmed the existence of secret prisons in Europe too. I could not correlate the abduction of a person, and him or her being kept in secret prisons, with the provisions of any judicial system. For that matter, I fail to understand how such actions correspond to the values outlined in the beginning of this letter, i.e. the teachings of Jesus Christ (PBUH), human rights and liberal values.


Students are saying that sixty years ago such a country did not exist. They show old documents and globes and say try as we have, we have not been able to find a country named Israel.
[Andrew:Perhaps they've never read a Bible with maps? =)]

I tell them to study the history of WWI and WWII. One of my students told me that during WWII, which more than tens of millions of people perished in, news about the war, was quickly disseminated by the warring parties. Each touted their victories and the most recent battlefront defeat of the other party. After the war they claimed that six million Jews had been killed. Six million people that were surely related to at least two million families.

Again let us assume that these events are true. Does that logically translate into the establishment of the state of Israel in the Middle East or support for such a state? How can this phenomenon be rationalized or explained?

Mr. President,
I am sure you know how – and at what cost – Israel was established:

* Many thousands were killed in the process.

* Millions of indigenous people were made refugees.

* Hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland, olive plantations, towns and villages were destroyed.


Another big question asked by the people is “why is this regime being supported?” Is support for this regime in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ (PBUH) or Moses (PBUH) or liberal values? Or are we to understand that allowing the original inhabitants of these lands – inside and outside Palestine – whether they are Christian, Moslem or Jew, to determine their fate, runs contrary to principles of democracy, human rights and the teachings of prophets? If not, why is there so much opposition to a referendum? The newly elected Palestinian administration recently took office. All independent observers have confirmed that this government represents the electorate. Unbelievingly, they have put the elected government under pressure and have advised it to recognize the Israeli regime, abandon the struggle and follow the programs of the previous government.


Mr. President,
It is not my intention to distress anyone.
If Prophet Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael, Joseph, or Jesus Christ (PBUH) were with us today, how would they have judged such behavior? Will we be given a role to play in the promised world, where justice will become universal and Jesus Christ (PBUH) will be present? Will they even accept us? My basic question is this: Is there no better way to interact with the rest of the world? Today there are hundreds of millions of Christians, hundreds of millions of Muslims and millions of people who follow the teachings of Moses (PBUH). All divine religions share and respect one word and that is “monotheism” or belief in a single God and no other in the world.

The Holy Koran stresses this common word and calls on all followers of divine religions and says: [3.64] Say: O followers of the Book! Come to an equitable proposition between us and you that we shall not serve any but Allah and (that) we shall not associate aught with Him, and (that) some of us shall not take others for lords besides Allah; but if they turn back, then say: Bear witness that we are Muslims. (The Family of Imran)

Mr. President,
According to divine verses, we have all been called upon to worship one God and follow the teachings of divine Prophets.

“To worship a God which is above all powers in the world and can do all He pleases.” “The Lord which knows that which is hidden and visible, the past and the future, knows what goes on in the Hearts of His servants and records their deeds.” “The Lord who is the possessor of the heavens and the earth and all universe is His court” “planning for the universe is done by His hands, and gives His servants the glad tidings of mercy and forgiveness of sins” “He is the companion of the oppressed and the enemy of oppressors” “He is the Compassionate, the Merciful” “He is the recourse of the faithful and guides them towards the light from darkness” “He is witness to the actions of His servants” “He calls on servants to be faithful and do good deeds, and asks them to stay on the path of righteousness and remain steadfast” “Calls on servants to heed His prophets and He is a witness to their deeds” “A bad ending belongs only to those who have chosen the life of this world and disobey Him and oppress His servants” and “A good end and eternal paradise belong to those servants who fear His majesty and do not follow their lascivious selves.”

We believe that a return to the teachings of the divine prophets is the only road leading to salvation. I have been told that Your Excellency follows the teachings of Jesus (PBUH) and believes in the divine promise of the rule of the righteous on Earth.

We also believe that Jesus Christ (PBUH) was one of the great prophets of the Almighty. He has been repeatedly praised in the Koran. Jesus (PBUH) has been quoted in Koran as well: [19.36] And surely Allah is my Lord and your Lord, therefore serve Him; this is the right path. Marium Service to and obedience of the Almighty is the credo of all divine messengers.

The God of all people in Europe, Asia, Africa, America, the Pacific and the rest of the world is one. He is the Almighty who wants to guide and give dignity to all His servants. He has given greatness to Humans.

We again read in the Holy Book: “The Almighty God sent His prophets with miracles and clear signs to guide the people and show them divine signs and purify them from sins and pollutions. And He sent the Book and the balance so that the people display justice and avoid the rebellious”.

All of the above verses can be seen, one way or the other, in the Good Book as well.

Divine prophets have promised: The day will come when all humans will congregate before the court of the Almighty, so that their deeds are examined. The good will be directed towards Heaven and evildoers will meet divine retribution. I trust both of us believe in such a day, but it will not be easy to calculate the actions of rulers, because we must be answerable to our nations and all others whose lives have been directly or indirectly affected by our actions.

All prophets, speak of peace and tranquility for man – based on monotheism, justice and respect for human dignity.

Do you not think that if all of us come to believe in and abide by these principles, that is, monotheism, worship of God, justice, respect for the dignity of man, belief in the Last Day, we can overcome the present problems of the world – that are the result of disobedience to the Almighty and the teachings of prophets – and improve our performance? Do you not think that belief in these principles promotes and guarantees peace, friendship and justice? Do you not think that the aforementioned written or unwritten principles are universally respected? Will you not accept this invitation? That is, a genuine return to the teachings of prophets, to monotheism and justice, to preserve human dignity and obedience to the Almighty and His prophets?


We increasingly see that people around the world are flocking towards a main focal point - that is the Almighty God. Undoubtedly through faith in God and the teachings of the prophets, the people will conquer their problems. My question for you is: “Do you not want to join them?”

Mr. President,
Whether we like it or not, the world is gravitating towards faith in the Almighty and justice and the will of God will prevail over all things.

Vasalam Ala Man Ataba’al hoda
Mahmood Ahmadi-Nejad
President of the Islamic Republic of Iran


MADRID, Spain - Spanish Muslims said on Wednesday that they have appealed toPope Benedict XVI to be allowed to pray in the Cathedral of Cordoba in southern Spain, which was once an ancient mosque.
In a letter to the pope, Spain's Islamic Board said Spanish Catholic clergy had rejected requests for Muslims to be allowed to pray inside the Cathedral, which was converted into a church in the 13th century.
[Andrew: What the report does not say is that Muslims often do attempt to pray there illegally.]

They stressed that Muslims want the mosque to turn into an ecumenical temple, where Christians, Muslims and believers from other faiths might all be worshipping the same God. [Why don't they turn one of their mosques into ecumenical temples? It's just that the Spanish manage to reconquer Spain. Ask the Copts of the Greeks in Constantinople to ask for a mosque to be turned into an ecumenical temple.]They wrote a similar letter to Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero earlier this year.
"What we wanted was not to take over that holy place[Could have fooled me.], but to create in it, together with you and other faiths, an ecumenical space unique in the world which would have been of great significance in bringing peace to humanity," the letter said.

The Cordoba mosque dates back to the times when the Moors ruled Spain, and in its heyday was considered one of the world's most magnificent buildings. It is classified as a United Nations world heritage site.

Spain, a traditionally Roman Catholic country, has a Muslim community of around 800,000 people out of a total population of 44 million.

This is one of the most ridiculous requests that I have ever heard. Nevertheless, I'm big enough to say that this particular request should be granted. Posthaste.

As soon as Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is restored as Church. And all the other Churches converted by Muslim jihadists into mosques and for other uses in all the lands that the Sword of the Prophet ripped from the Christians from North Africa to West Asia and Albania, Bosnia etc.

These fellas should be asking their Muslim brethren to start restoring our Churches. Reciprocity anyone? Yeah right...
Reciprocity man...the Pope should take this opportunity to raise this issue with them. Its time for some reciprocity on the Muslim side.

I'm dreaming of a White Christmas

Believe it or not, its a White Christmas in Jerusalem! Wow!
Here's the news story and some shots of familiar sites cloaked in a dusting of snow.
JERUSALEM (AFP) - A dusting of snow covered Jerusalem for the first time this winter as foul weather caused an upsurge in accidents in Israel and the Palestinian areas.

Thick snowflakes settled on the walls surrounding the Old City and covered the golden Dome of the Rock in the Al Aqsa compound on Temple Mount.

"The snow makes this a 100 percent Christmas!" said Ahmed inside his store in the Old City, where shops were closing down earlier than usual.

"It's fantastic!" added another a merchant in the open-air Mahne Yehuda market which stood deserted in the cold. Nearby, traffic on Jaffa street, Jerusalem's main traffic artery, ground to a halt.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews with plastic bags covering their tall black hats scurried the streets of Jerusalem, where snow ploughs stood by for for possible road-clearing duty.

The Hebrew university on Mount Scopus also closed down due to the heavy snow, which blocked the entrance to the campus.

Israeli weatherman Danny Roup told AFP that Wednesday's snowfall was the heaviest since 2000, when half a metre (nearly 20 inches) of snow covered the Jerusalem mountains.

"We are expecting more snow in the coming hours before midnight. Tomorrow will be very cold, but it won't snow," he said.

Snow was also reported in northern Israel as well as in some elevated areas of the Negev desert in the south, easing weeks of near-drought that had had farmers worried.

The wintry cold spell claimed its toll on the roads, with dozens of accidents reported. In the south, a tent housing a Bedouin family collapsed, injuring eight people.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas in Bethlehem

Lets take a look at what Christmas is like where it all began. Lets look at Christmas in Bethlehem. We'll start off with the procession of the Latin Patriarch through the streets of Bethlehem as he blesses the people along the route to the Basilica of the Nativity and then to Mass at St. Catherine's Church, the parish Church in Bethlehem. Enjoy!

"It hasn't really set in that I am here in Bethlehem where everything happened so many thousand years ago," said an overwhelmed Matt Lafontaine, a 21-year-old university student from Plymouth, Minnesota. "It's really exciting. It's just starting to set in. It's surreal."

In an annual tradition, Bethlehem's residents enacted Christmas rituals that seem out of place in the Middle East. Palestinian scouts marched through the streets, some wearing kilts and pompom-topped berets, playing drums and bagpipes. They passed inflatable red-suited Santas, looking forlorn in the West Bank sunshine.

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) -- Thousands of people joined by marching bands, clergymen in magenta skullcaps and children dressed as Santa Claus celebrated Christmas Eve in the center of Bethlehem Sunday, doing their best to dispel the gloom hovering over Jesus' traditional birthplace.

Most were local residents or Christian Arabs from neighboring Israel with a sprinkling of foreign tourists.

Other scenes of this Bethlehem Christmas, however, could be found nowhere else. To get to town, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the Roman Catholic Church's highest official in the Holy Land, rode in his motorcade through a huge steel gate in the Israeli separation barrier that separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem.

Israel says it built the barrier to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from reaching Israeli population centers. Palestinians view the structure, which dips into parts of the West Bank, as a land grab.

The robed clergyman was led into Palestinian-controlled territory by a formal escort of five Israeli policemen mounted on horses. Two Israeli Border Police troops closed the gate behind him.

"I congratulate our people, especially our Christian brothers, not only here but all around the world for Christmas and the New Year, God bless us," he said. He called his meeting with Olmert "a good start."

Sabbah, wearing a flowing gold and burgundy robe, led a procession into St. Catherine's Church, adjacent to the traditional birthplace of Jesus for midnight Mass.

Hundreds of worshippers packed the cavernous church for the service, as clergymen chanted in Latin amid the sound of bells and organ music. Abbas attended the ceremony, escorted by a large security detail to a front row seat. Sabbah offered him a blessing.

In his homily, Sabbah asked all political leaders and adversaries, including Israeli troops and those "who are classified as extremists and terrorists " to "examine their conscience" to end the bloodshed.

In his homily at midnight Mass in Bethlehem, Sabbah appealed to Palestinians to halt their recent "fratricidal struggles" and called for an end to Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed as well.

"The conflict here has lasted too long," he said. "It is high time that the leaders who have our destinies in their hands in this land -- specifically, the Palestinian and Israeli leaders as well as those of the international community -- it is time for all of them to take new measures that will bring an end to the long phase of death in our history and lead us into a new phase in the history of this Holy Land."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a Muslim, joined the celebrations, expressing hope that his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Saturday would lead to a peace breakthrough.

Earlier, Sabbah sounded similar themes in his annual Christmas address at his Jerusalem office before departing for Bethlehem

"God wants us all to be peacemakers. He wants every believer who has faith in God -- Jewish, Muslim or Christian -- to work to make peace," Sabbah said. "Our leaders so far have only made war, they haven't made peace."

Bethlehem's tourist industry has been hit hard by the last six years of Israeli-Palestinian violence and by the barrier, which Israel began building in 2002, but also by internal Palestinian friction.

This Christmas is the first under a Palestinian Authority governed by the militant Islamic group Hamas. To alleviate Christian fears ahead of the holiday, Hamas promised that it would send $50,000 to decorate Manger Square in the center of town for the holiday. It was not clear if the money ever arrived.

Even so, Manger Square and the surrounding buildings were decorated in neon lights. Bands performed on a stage, and a large screen beamed images of Palestinian flags and officials.

Standing outside his empty souvenir shop, George Baboul said this is the "worst Christmas" he has seen in more than 30 years. Baboul's shop, the "Bethlehem Star Store," is in a prime location, at the side of the Church of the Nativity, but he said there is no business.

"No tourists are coming," said Baboul, 72, who opened the shop in 1967. "I don't know what's the reason for that. There are no problems, Bethlehem is safe, but tourists are afraid to come."

Bethlehem's mayor, Victor Batarseh, said his city would celebrate Christmas despite the hardship.

"With all this oppression, this economic stress, physical stress, psychological stress, we are defying all these obstacles and we are celebrating Christmas so that we'll put joy into the faces of our children, joy to the citizens of Bethlehem," he said.

By evening, Manger Square was bustling with thousands of people. The small contingent of foreign tourists in Bethlehem this year included a Polish choir group and a handful of pilgrims from South Korea who gathered to sing carols in one corner of the square, interrupted briefly by the loud call to prayer from a nearby mosque.

"It's exciting. I can feel that Jesus was here," said Jae Hwan Kim, 29, of Seoul.

Israel's Tourism Ministry forecast 18,000 tourists would visit Bethlehem this year, up from 16,000 last year, but far below the tens of thousands of people who thronged Manger Square at the height of peacemaking in the 1990s.

"It's a lot more positive than I thought," said Frank Baumann, 59, of Squamish, Canada, who came with his wife and three daughters. "It's very festive and everybody is in a good mood. There's certainly no sense of any violence."

The only large foreign contingent in Manger Square was made up of around 200 Filipino Christians who work in Israel.

With every Christmas, the Holy Land's Christian community shrinks a bit. The native Palestinian Christian population has dipped below 2 percent of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Arab East Jerusalem, down from at least 15 percent in 1950, by some estimates. Bethlehem is now less than 20 percent Christian.

In Gaza, where 3,000 Christians live among around 1.4 million Muslims, the head of the tiny Roman Catholic community, Father Manuel Musallem, canceled Midnight Mass celebration, citing the recent Palestinian infighting between Fatah and Hamas.

"The children told me Santa Claus won't come this year because it's too dangerous," he said.

By Jonathan Saul Mon Dec 25, 8:21 AM ET

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - Hundreds of pilgrims celebrated Christmas in Bethlehem on Monday but Palestinian residents said there was little cause for holiday cheer in the town Christians revere as the birthplace of Jesus.Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attended the traditional midnight mass along with a few hundred worshippers in the Church of the Nativity, and morning saw Manger Square awash with the soft sounds of hymns and church bells.

"We need peace even more now," said Hanna abu Eita, a 60-year-old Christian. "We only want a chance to live."

Local officials said some 8,000 to 10,000 pilgrims would visit Bethlehem this Christmas, compared with 2,000 last year.

But residents and merchants said the estimate appeared high and that Israeli Arabs, rather than overseas pilgrims, made up the bulk of visitors.

Israel's army eased travel restrictions to allow foreigners as well as Israeli and Palestinian Christians from the

West Bank
and Gaza to visit the town over Christmas.

But residents said military checkpoints and the Israeli barrier cutting into land that Palestinians want for a state were constant reminders they had little cause for celebration.

A concrete wall, with an iron gate, blocks off the entrance to Bethlehem along the road from nearby Jerusalem.

Israel says the barrier, a mix of wire fencing and concrete walls, stops suicide bombers from reaching its cities.

Hundreds of pilgrims gathered in Manger Square, decorated with colored lights and Christmas trees. Worshippers also flocked to the grotto of the Church of the Nativity.

But six years after the start of a Palestinian uprising, and nearly a year after election victory by the Islamic militant group Hamas, hardship across the occupied West Bank has deepened.

Bethlehem's own Palestinian Christian community is dwindling under pressure from the conflict with Israel and Western economic sanctions against the Hamas-led Palestinian government.

"The Christmas quiet and lights are an illusion," said Khaled Bandak, 39, a Christian hotel owner in the town.

"People do not have money to spend. Christians are leaving because the situation is so dire. It is a gloomy atmosphere," he said. "You see smiling faces, but inside we are not smiling."

More than 3,000 Christians, about 10 percent of Bethlehem's Christian population, have left the town since 2000, according to the United Nations.

"It is so beautiful in Bethlehem at Christmas, compared to the rest of the year," said Charles Radloss, a 78-year-old American attending midnight mass. "People should be able to be jubilant all the time, especially in the Holy Land."

At the mass, the Roman Catholic Church's leader in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, a Palestinian, called for an end to fighting between Palestinian factions and for the revival of long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Tourism, the lifeblood of Bethlehem's economy, has fallen sharply over the past six years. The average number of visitors has fallen to as low as 20,000 a month from about 100,000 before the Palestinian uprising. Unemployment in the town is estimated at about 65 percent.

Western sanctions on the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority have hit government employees, many of whom have not been paid for months. The West wants Hamas, sworn to Israel's destruction, to change its stance as the main condition for renewing aid.

(Additional reporting by Said Ayyad)