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UK politicians ‘don’t do God’ but religion matters in this election

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People hold up placards and Union flags as they gather for a demonstration organised by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism outside the head office of the British opposition Labour Party in central London on April 8, 2018.

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An infamous political tale tells of the occasion when former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair once wanted to discuss his faith in public but was interrupted by his top communications advisor Alistair Campbell who abruptly told him: “We don’t do God.”

The curt riposte to Blair’s desire to talk about his Christian faith reflects a general attitude in the U.K. — both among the political establishment and the general public — that politics and religion don’t mix well.

In the case of the forthcoming U.K. election on Thursday December 12, however, political parties have been unable to dodge religion with controversies over discrimination coming to the fore for both the Conservative and Labour parties.

The bigger prominence of religion in the 2019 snap election, one which will decide the direction the U.K.’s departure from the EU takes, is more to do with identity politics, experts say.

“We’re not a mainstream religious country,” Vince Cable, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, told CNBC Tuesday.

“This isn’t America, it’s not Poland, we’re a fairly secular country so it’s not the vast majority of people wanting to express a religious view. But I think it’s one manifestation of the politics of identity that is becoming increasingly common,” he said.

“Identity is sometimes about religion, sometimes about color, sometimes about nationality. And I think what is happening is that traditional left-right class alignments are becoming less and less relevant, and it’s identity, in those different forms, that becomes salient,” Cable added.

Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

Religious identity has featured prominently in the run up to the election in the U.K. with both the main parties accused of failing to deal with religious discrimination and prejudice within their own ranks.

In late November, the U.K.’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis attacked the Labour party for failing to tackle anti-Semitism within its ranks, adding that the party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn was “unfit for office.”

He also said in an interview with The Times newspaper that “the overwhelming majority of British Jews are gripped by anxiety” ahead of polling day as they fear a potential Labour government.

Mirvis’ comments came on the same day that Labour had launched a “race and faith manifesto,” which it said aimed to tackle prejudice across all faiths. Labour has repeatedly denied accusations of anti-Semitism and has expelled party members after complaints of anti-Semitism were upheld yet it remains accused of not doing enough.

The party came under fresh pressure this weekend when it emerged there was a backlog of unresolved complaints over anti-Jewish racism within the party, some dating back years. Shadow Finance Minister John McDonnell apologized to the Jewish community “for the suffering we have inflicted on them.”

People hold banners during a protest, organized by Stand Up To Racism platform, against former British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson after his Islamaphobic article, which includes hate crime on women those who wear niqab or burqa, in front of the contact office of Conservative Party in London, United Kingdom on August 09, 2018.

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While Labour’s reputation has been tarnished in the Jewish community, the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson has been accused of not doing enough to tackle Islamophobia within the party. Johnson has come under fire himself for previous comments in which he likened Muslim women wearing burkas as looking “like letter boxes.”

On Sunday, Conservative Chairman James Cleverly apologized for cases of Islamophobia in his party and reiterated a promise made by Johnson that there would be an inquiry into prejudice and discrimination within the party by the end of the year. Like Labour, the Conservatives have expelled a number of party members for alleged Islamophobia.

Cable, who once led the third-largest opposition party, the Liberal Democrats, said both the mainstream parties had upset ethnic minorities in the U.K.

“The Labour party has got a very specific issue which relates to anti-Semitism … they’ve got to clean up their act and I don’t think they can do that as long as (Jeremy) Corbyn is their leader, frankly,” he said.

“The Tories are tapping into an underlying, often very racist feeling in parts of the country … there is an undercurrent of hostility to ethnic minorities and Johnson has, through his language, has played into that, and I think they (the Tories) are a bigger problem than the Labour Party.”

Ben Ryan, head of research at Christian think tank Theos, told CNBC that the main problem with modern political parties in the U.K. was a failure to engage with faith groups on all sides, and tending to regard the issue of faith in negative terms.

“There’s been nothing really positive from the parties about how they’re going to engage faith groups,” he said. “There’s been almost purely negative messaging about faith groups … and a total absence from the debates of positive things faith groups can offer society. They’re often pillars of social services in the community.”

Don’t mention God

Political parties might have trouble engaging with faith groups but they also have problems dealing with the religious identities of their own lawmakers at times. In fact, Vince Cable’s predecessor Tim Farron, resigned from the leadership of the Liberal Democrats because he said he could not reconcile his faith, and remain “faithful to Christ” with being party leader.

The difference between the U.S. and U.K. when it comes to religion and faith in politics is pronounced.

In the U.S., former President George W. Bush was seen by the Christian right as a way to push a conservative Christian agenda while in the U.K., his then-counterpart Tony Blair (incidentally, both Bush and Blair were religious converts to a certain extent; Bush was born again as an evangelical Christian in 1985 and Blair who converted to Catholicism) was discouraged from expressing views on his personal faith.

When announcing to the nation the start of the 2003 war in Iraq, Blair was apparently dissuaded by aides from ending his message with the phrase “God bless you” — a marked contrast from then-President George W. Bush who told the world that he was spurred to intervene in Iraq because, “God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq.”

Theos’ Head of Research Ben Ryan told CNBC that politicians in the U.K. “are certainly more reserved about expressing their religious identity than in the U.S.”

“It’s easier to treat it (religious identity) as a cultural marker than an explicit expression of faith. It’s more of a muted identity in the U.K. It’s far more unusual for politicians here to put their faith out there. People who have done so have been burnt, like Tim Farron, an evangelical Christian that felt he couldn’t do both,” he said.

“It is becoming a harsher environment in terms of how religious identity can be used against you, particularly for Muslim MPs,” he said, adding “it’s not a left-right thing, it’s affecting all Muslim MPs.” Ryan claimed that the language used by political rivals against Muslim MPs was often religiously charged.

He cited the example of Zac Goldsmith using the terms “radical and divisive” to describe his political rival Sadiq Khan in the race to become mayor of London. Goldsmith was criticized for using the language of extremism to describe Khan.

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Mauritius declares emergency as stranded ship spills fuel

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Bystanders look at MV Wakashio bulk carrier that had run aground and from which oil is leaking near Blue Bay Marine Park in south-east Mauritius on August 6, 2020.

Dev Ramkhelawon | AFP | Getty Images

The Indian Ocean island of Mauritius declared a “state of environmental emergency” late Friday after a Japanese-owned ship that ran aground offshore days ago began spilling tons of fuel.

Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth announced the development as satellite images showed a dark slick spreading in the turquoise waters near environmental areas that the government called “very sensitive.”

Mauritius has said the ship was carrying nearly 4,000 tons of fuel and cracks have appeared in its hull.

Jugnauth earlier in the day said his government was appealing to France for help, saying the spill “represents a danger” for the country of some 1.3 million people that relies heavily on tourism and has been been hit hard by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our country doesn’t have the skills and expertise to refloat stranded ships, so I have appealed for help from France and President Emmanuel Macron,” he said. Bad weather has made it impossible to act, and “I worry what could happen Sunday when the weather deteriorates.”

Jugnauth shared a photo of the vessel, the MV Wakashio, tilted precariously. “Sea rough beyond the reefs with swells. Ventures in the open seas are not advised,” according to the Mauritius Meteorological Services.

Video posted online showed oily waters lapping at the shore as people murmured and peered at the ship in the distance. Online ship trackers showed the Panama-flagged bulk carrier had been en route from China to Brazil.

The French island of Reunion is the closest neighbor to Mauritius, and France’s Foreign Ministry says France is Mauritius’s “leading foreign investor” and one of its largest trading partners.

“We are in a situation of environmental crisis,” the environment minister of Mauritius, Kavy Ramano, said, calling the Blue Bay Marine Park and other areas near the leaking ship “very sensitive.”

After the cracks in the hull were detected, a salvage team that had been working on the ship was evacuated, Ramano told reporters Thursday. Some 400 sea booms have been deployed in an effort to contain the spill.

Government statements this week said the ship ran aground July 25 and the National Coast Guard received no distress call. The ship’s owners were listed as the Japanese companies Okiyo Maritime Corporation and Nagashiki Shipping Co. Ltd.

A police inquiry has been opened into issues such as possible negligence, a government statement said.

Tons of diesel and oil are now leaking into the water, environmental group Greenpeace Africa’s climate and energy manager Happy Khambule said in a statement.

“Thousands of species around the pristine lagoons of Blue Bay, Pointe d’Esny and Mahebourg are at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius’ economy, food security and health,” Khambule said.

A government environmental outlook released nearly a decade ago said Mauritius had a National Oil Spill Contingency Plan but equipment on hand was “adequate to deal with oil spills of less than 10 metric tonnes.”

In case of major spills, it said, assistance could be obtained from other Indian Ocean countries or from international oil spill response organizations.

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Lebanon to examine possible ‘external interference’ in port blast

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Lebanese President Michel Aoun (2nd L) inspects the site after a fire at a warehouse with explosives at the Port of Beirut led to massive blasts in Beirut, Lebanon on August 5, 2020.

Lebanese Presidency | Handout | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Lebanon’s president said on Friday its investigation into the biggest blast in Beirut’s history would examine whether it was caused by a bomb or other external interference, as residents sought to rebuild shattered homes and lives.

Rescuers sifted rubble in a race to find anyone still alive after Tuesday’s port explosion that killed 154 people, injured 5,000, destroyed a swathe of the Mediterranean city and sent seismic shockwaves around the region.

“The cause has not been determined yet. There is a possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act,” President Michel Aoun told local media.

Aoun, who had previously said explosive material was stored unsafely for years at the port, said the investigation would also weigh if the blast was due to negligence or an accident. Twenty people had been detained so far, he added.

One source said an initial probe blamed negligence.

While the United States has said it did not rule out an attack, Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, has denied any role. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said the cause was unclear, but compared the blast to a 2005 bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s powerful Shi’ite group Hezbollah, denied what he said were “preconceived” comments both domestically and abroad that the Iran-backed group had arms stored at the port.

He called for a fair investigation and strict accountability for anyone responsible without any political cover.

“Even if a plane struck, or if it was an intentional act, if it turns out this nitrate had been at the port for years in this way, it means part of the case is absolutely negligence and corruption,” he said.

The customs director and a predecessor were arrested later on Friday.

At Beirut’s Mohammad Al-Amin mosque, next to Hariri’s grave, chief cleric Amin Al Kurdi told worshipers in a Friday sermon that Lebanese leaders bore responsibility.

“Who is the criminal, who is the killer behind the Beirut explosion?” he said. “Only God can protect, not the corrupt … The army only protects the leaders.”

Security forces fired tear gas at a crowd in Beirut on Thursday, as anger boiled over at the ruling elite, who have presided over an economic collapse. The small crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate and currency disintegrate, while government decision-making floundered.

‘Where is the state?’

“There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?” said Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old.

His family home is in Gemmayze, a district a few hundred metres from the warehouses where 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were stored for years near a densely populated area.

A security source and local media previously said the fire that caused the blast was ignited by welding work.

Volunteers swept up debris from the streets of Beirut, which still bears scars from a 1975-1990 civil war.

“Do we actually have a government here?” said taxi driver Nassim Abiaad, 66, whose cab was crushed by wreckage as he was about to get in. “There is no way to make money anymore.”

For many, the explosion was symptomatic of years of neglect and corruption. “The problem is this government and all governments before it,” said Dr. Mohammed Kalifa, 31.

Officials have said the blast, whose impact was recorded hundreds of miles away, might have caused losses amounting to $15 billion. That is a bill Lebanon cannot pay after already defaulting on a mountain of debt — exceeding 150% of economic output — and with talks stalled on a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund.

Hospitals, many heavily damaged as shockwaves ripped out windows and ceilings, have been overwhelmed.

“I lived through part of the civil war. I saw people being shot in front of me. But never has there been such a horror,” said Dr. Assem Al Hajj at Beirut’s Clemenceau hospital, which he said had treated 400 victims.

Hunting the missing

As exhausted rescuers combed wreckage to find any survivors, grieving families camped outside the port where their loved ones were last seen. Some victims were hurled into the sea because of the explosive force.

“We would like to go inside the port to look for my son but we can’t get permission,” said Elias Marouni, describing his son George, a 30-year-old army officer.

One weeping mother called a prime-time TV program to plead with authorities to find her son, Joe. He was found hours later: dead.

Dozens are still unaccounted for.

In Beirut’s Karantina district, a Polish rescue team took a break near a once three-store building that was completely flattened. One woman and her two teenage daughters were killed, a neighbor said.

Charbel Abreeni, who trained port employees, showed Reuters pictures on his phone of killed colleagues. He was sitting in a church where the head of a Virgin Mary statue was blown off.

“I know 30 port employees who died, two of them are my close friends and a third is missing,” said the 62-year-old, whose home was wrecked and his shin wrapped in a bandage.

“I have nowhere to go except my wife’s family,” he said. “How can you survive here? The economy is zero.”

After the blast destroyed Lebanon’s only major grain silo, U.N. agencies helped provide emergency food and medical aid.

Aid offers have also poured in from Arab states, Western nations, the Vatican and beyond. But none, so far, addresses the bigger challenges facing a bankrupt nation.

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Venezuelan court sentences 2 former Green Berets to 20 years in prison

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ID cards of people linked to an operation denounced by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro are displayed during a meeting with members of the Armed Forces in Caracas, Venezuela on May 4, 2020. Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro confirmed the detention of two US “mercenaries” among 13 attackers involved in Sunday’s two failed maritime raids.

Miraflores Presidential Palace | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

A Venezuelan court sentenced two former U.S. special forces soldiers to 20 years in prison for their part in a failed beach attack aimed at overthrowing President Nicolas Maduro, prosecutors announced late Friday.

Former Green Berets Luke Denman and Airan Berry admitted to taking part in the May 4 operation orchestrated by a third ex-U.S. soldier who remains in the United States, Venezuelan’s chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab announced on Twitter.

“THEY ADMITTED THEIR RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE FACTS,” Saab wrote, adding that the case will continue for dozens of other defendants. He did not offer details.

“Operation Gideon” was launched from makeshift training camps in neighboring Colombia and left at least eight rebel soldiers dead while a total of 66 were jailed. Former Green Beret Jordan Goudreau, who operated a private, Florida-based security firm called Silvercorp USA, claimed responsibility for the failed attack.

Venezuelan prosecutors announced that Denman and Berry, both decorated former U.S. service members, were found guilty of conspiracy, trafficking in illegal arms and terrorism.

The two Americans arrested in the coastal fishing community of Chuao have ever since been widely displayed by officials on Venezuelan state TV as proof of their long-held claims that the United States is set on overthrowing Maduro’s socialist government.

The incident also unleashed claims that U.S. backed opposition leader Juan Guaido had authorized Goudreau through a signed agreement to carry out the attack, executed by two of Guaido’s former political advisors.

Guaido and U.S. officials have denied any role in the attack. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington would use all possible means to win the freedom of Denman and Berry.

A day before authorities announced that the two ex-Green Berets were sentenced, Venezuelan authorities opened the trial of six American executives of the Houston-based Citgo company. The six men were arrested over two years ago in Venezuela on corruption charges.

The case had lingered for months until former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson met personally in July with Maduro in Caracas to urge they be released so they could return home to the United States.

Both play out amid hostility between Washington and Caracas. The Trump administration last year threw its support behind opposition leader Guaido, who declared he was Venezuela’s legitimate president, vowing to oust Maduro.

Guaido blames Maduro for the once wealthy nation’s economic and social collapse, while the socialist leader says Washington is manipulating Guaido to steal the nation’s vast oil wealth.

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