TIME Pope Francis

Pope Francis Draws Shrinking Christian Flock in Holy Land

Every space in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was filled for the papal visit on Sunday morning, but with the population of Palestinian Catholics dwindling, many Filipino and Indian guest workers made up the numbers

As much as the half-empty soccer stadium where Pope Francis gave a Mass in Jordan on Saturday, the Sunday morning scene at Bethlehem’s Manger Square spoke volumes about the declining population of Christians in the very place the faith was born.

Unlike the scene in Amman, where half of the seats in a 30,000-seat stadium went unfilled, there were no empty spaces in the plaza–some 9,000 congregants turned out in front the Church of the Nativity, built above the cave where the baby Jesus was said to have been laid in a manger.

But relatively few in the crowd were themselves born in the Holy Land. Laced heavily among the hardy native Palestinian Catholics were guest workers from India and the Philippines working in Israel, asylum seekers from Sudan, American tourists, pilgrims from Ghana, and a smattering of Palestinian Christians from other denominations.

Christians account for only about 1.5 percent of the West Bank’s 2.5 million population, and a similar proportion of Israel, where every fifth citizen is Palestinian. Historically, according to Hanna A. Amirah, head of the Higher Presidential Committee of Churches in the Palestinian Authority, Christians accounted for every tenth resident in the region.

“We are few,” said Layla Zaid, sitting with her sister Nadia in the shade of the gift shop arcade off the square as Pope Francis entered. Greek Orthodox both, they had traveled by bus from the West Bank city of Ramallah with 150 others, including Romanian Orthodox, Protestants and Catholics. “No problem,” Nadia says. “It’s for Christians.”

But there are fewer and fewer of them. Bethlehem itself is mostly Muslim today, the Christian population dwindling to perhaps 15 percent of the district.In the Gaza Strip, the Christian population is down to an estimated 1,250 in a population of 1.7 million. Half of them got permits from Israel to travel to the West Bank, and about 50 were clustered in Manger Square, holding a homemade sign reading: “With Great Love & Happiness GAZA Receives our Pope”

“Most of the Christians leave Gaza,” says Hanady Missak, deputy director of the Rosary Sisters School, a Christian private school of 850 students, only 78 of whom are Christian. The balance are Muslim. “They sell their houses and their lands and go to the United States or Australia or Canada.” The exodus accelerated after Hamas came to power in 2007, when Gaza had nearly three times as many Christians. But the man standing next to her, Suleiman Hana, had a similar story from the West Bank city of Nablus: Only 650 Christians remain, he says, including just three Catholic families.

Under such dire circumstances, the natives say they very much welcome the Filipino and Indian guest workers, many of whom share their faith. “One God for all,” says Hana. Israel admits the foreigners, if only for a few years, to do jobs that Israelis will not, mostly cleaning and caring for the elderly and disabled. Most are Catholic, and in some parts of the country they vastly outnumber their native Palestinian counterparts. The allotment of tickets for the Manger Square mass by the priests at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Jaffa tells the story: Arab members of the church got 100 tickets, Indian members 120 and Filipinos 250. Another 60 were divided between members from Sri Lanka and Sudan.

The guest workers say they are surprised to find Christians such a small minority in the Holy Land. “Sometimes this is strange,” says Teresa Paglinawen, who hails from the Philippines. “Sometimes they don’t understand us, how we like this place, its importance for us. We are foreigners working here so sometimes they cannot accept us, our religion and our faith.”

Who are “they”?

“Everyone – Jews, Muslims,” replies Ruby Tiongson, a fellow Filipina, joining the conversation.

“We are not angry, because it is their place,” says Paglinawen. “We rely on visiting here and working here. But they need to understand also, because this place has a holiness. Our savior was born here.”

TIME Pope Francis

Pope Makes Mideast Leaders a Peace Offer They Couldn’t Refuse

Francis' invitation to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to pray together at the Vatican exploits their one shared desire: To avoid painful specifics

By inviting the president of Israel and the head of the Palestinian Authority to his Vatican home for a “prayer for peace,” Pope Francis picks up where Secretary of State John Kerry left off—using moral suasion to bring the two famously recalcitrant sides together in the same room. But in this case, Francis is leaving out the Israeli leader who matters most.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as head of government, is the key decision-maker in any peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Yet the Pope’s invitation from a Bethlehem mass on Sunday was extended not to Netanyahu but to Shimon Peres, the famously dovish 90-year-old statesman whose seven-year term in the largely symbolic office of president expires in two months.

Peres readily accepted the Pope’s invitation to travel to the Vatican for “a heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace,” as Francis put it. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said a quick yes, too. That puts together in a room two men of peace who routinely voice the need for a two-state solution to the as-yet-intractable conflict–and who, according to contemporaneous news reports, met discreetly several times in 2011.

As Peres tells it, he and Abbas came within a whisker of fashioning an agreement that would have resolved the matter by agreeing on the terms for fashioning a state called “Palestine” beside Israel.

But Netanyahu forbad Peres from closing the deal, according to Peres, who recounted the tortured history earlier this month to an Israeli television station, shortly after the apparent collapse of the Kerry negotiations.

And while there is nothing at all wrong with prayer, least of all for peace, the Pope’s invitation truly was one that neither side could refuse. The Israelis and Palestinians have been talking so long about peace – 20 years now, since the breakthrough known as the Oslo Accords that introduced then then-exciting idea of sitting down face-to-face with the enemy – that to be seen rejecting talks is to be viewed as the villain.

Both sides have strong incentives to be perceived as inclined toward an agreement, and both sides have strong incentives to avoid the particulars required to produce one. Which is why an invitation to keep things as vague as praying for peace is something of a godsend, especially coming from the most charismatic religious figure in the world. Where’s the downside in that?

None that’s apparent. But only a fool would rule out this Pope. After barely a year in office, the Argentine Francis has shown himself nothing if not a man of this world, shrewd, and deeply committed to challenging the status quo. It was en route through Bethlehem to the mass where he delivered his seemingly airy invitation that Francis made his unscheduled, quietly thrilling stop at the Separation Barrier. He prayed in silence, and briefly touched his head against the gritty concrete, possibly the way a ram does, in warning.


TIME Pope Francis

Pope Makes Surprise Stop to Pray at Bethlehem Separation Wall

Pope Francis touches the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank in the West Bank city of Bethlehem
Osservatore Romano—Reuters Pope Francis touches the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank, on his way to celebrate a mass in Manger Square, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 25, 2014

The unscripted move cheers Palestinians already encouraged by the Pontiff's support of Palestine, before he moved on to Israel for a day

Pope Francis stopped his motorcade between scheduled events in Bethlehem on Sunday to pray before the massive concrete separation barrier that divides the Palestinian city from Israel, which erected the controversial wall a decade ago.

The surprise stop was the latest signal that the Pope backed what the Vatican had indicated in 2012 with its support for a U.N. vote to make Palestine a nonmember state: that it regards it as a sovereign state. In a speech earlier on Sunday the Pope called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a “man of peace” after paying him a courtesy visit, and referred to the Vatican’s good relations with the “state of Palestine.”

But Sunday’s unscheduled prayer had the weight of symbolic imagery. Israeli guards watched from a fortified guard tower overhead as the Pontiff stepped down from his Popemobile and made his way to what may be the most photographed section of the Wall, as the barrier is colloquially known — a graffiti-rich section that tourist buses pass by entering from Israel en route to Bethlehem, which along with the rest of the West Bank Israeli troops have occupied since 1967.

As security and staff formed a cordon through several dozen well-wishers lining the motorcade route, Francis made his way to the towering concrete wall. He stopped at a panel spray-painted, in black, “Pope we need some 1 to speak about Justice Bethlehem look like Warsaw ghetto” and, in red paint, “Free Palestine.” He bowed his head in silent prayer, laid his palm against the wall, and before leaving touched his forehead to it.

The episode lasted only a few minutes, but on a three-day visit to the Holy Land the Pontiff had billed as “strictly religious,” likely provided the iconic image of the trip. The Pontiff is known for identifying with the underdog, and in a visit that is of necessity mostly stage-managed, the visuals alone were exceptional.

It certainly pleased the Palestinians.

“He decided without anybody knowing that he would pass by and stop at the wall, and with the Israeli soldiers up there just looking down and not knowing what’s going on!” says Elias Giacaman, 32, a who saw the stop on the television mounted in the gift shop his family runs on Manger Square, where Francis arrived a few minutes later to preside over a Sunday morning mass.

“That has a lot of meaning, a lot of meaning,” adds Belinda Shamma, 53, a Palestinian Catholic who traveled from her Jerusalem home to the Bethlehem mass. “He is trying to tell the world what is happening to Palestinians is so unfair … We are dying inside.”

Analysts had already detected support for the Palestinian cause in Francis’ decision to helicopter from Jordan directly to Bethlehem, without stopping first in Israel. But local merchants clearly had too. T-shirts on sale at the event featured both the Pope and Abbas, plus Patriarch Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox church, in a circle labeled “state of Palestine.”

The balance of the Pope’s time in Bethlehem was devoted to hearing complaints from Palestinians about the hardships of Israel’s occupation, including a visit with children from the city’s refugee camps, home to descendants of Arabs displaced since Israel was established in 1948.

Even the Pope’s decision to travel in an unarmored Popemobile was taken by some as a statement, given the security measures Israel has imposed as a matter of routine over the decades, which included two armed intifadehs, or uprisings. “Why not feel safe in here?” asks Giacaman, who is both Palestinian and Catholic. “He might feel unsafe in Jerusalem, not here, with those fanatical Jews around him.”

Francis was scheduled to arrive in Jerusalem later on Sunday, and — in part because of official concerns about religious extremists, security preparations were extraordinary even by Israeli standards, outstripping even precautions taken for President Obama’s visit last year, according to organizers.

The schedule for Monday includes deep bows to the Israeli narrative, including a visit to Yad Vashem, the museum of the Holocaust and to the Wailing Wall, the last remaining piece of the temple in place at the time of Christ. In a gesture that unsettles Palestinians, Francis will also be the first Pontiff to lay a wreath on the grave of Theodore Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement that envisioned a future state on the land hundreds of thousands of Arabs called home.

TIME Egypt

Egypt Veers Toward Return of Security State

Khaled Desouki—AFP/Getty Images An Egyptian man sits next to graffiti of Egypt's ex-army chief and leading presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on May 21, 2014.

As former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi looks set to be voted president in next week's elections, Egyptians can't decide whether the military commander's rule will represent a return to law and order — or regression to a police state

From beyond its borders, Egypt seems poised to revert to form after next week’s presidential election a security state led, as it has been for the last half-century, by a military strongman in uniform or out. The headlines suggest little room for any other conclusion: Hundreds condemned to death after a one-hour trial; last year’s governing party declared a terrorist group; public protests outlawed; mass arrests, kangaroo courts.

Yet on the ground, no sense of crisis presents itself. The airport is no longer the loneliest place in town. There’s little or no overt security presence in the streets, save the armed camp around the U.S. embassy just off Tahrir Square. Cairo feels like itself. And the people who would be expected to complain about the state’s infringement on rights may or may not actually complain. It depends on who you’re talking to.

Some see the crackdown on dissent led by former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose election to the presidency is considered a foregone conclusion, as a throwback. “I think al-Sisi is trying to rebuild the wall of fear that we destroyed in the 11th of February revolution,” says Ahmad Abdallah, a leader of the April 6th Movement, the grassroots group most prominent in the build-up to the protests that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, who stepped down Feb. 11, 2011.

Abdallah predicts his movement will be declared a terrorist organization after Sisi becomes president. Some of April 6th’s leaders already are in jail, alongside respected journalists and at least 16,000 others arrested since July. Another 1,000 Egyptians have been killed by security forces.

“And this is just a prelude,” says Mohamed Lotfy, co-founder of the independent Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. “If an interim government is capable of doing this, imagine what an elected government can do.”

Others, former revolutionaries among them, argue the draconian new rules are simply necessary given the domestic threat posed by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the insular Islamist group that controlled government until Sisi removed it last July after millions marched against its continued rule.

“The security part is the most crucial part,” says Ahmed Magdy, 26, who protested in Tahrir Square and worked for a moderate Islamist candidate, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, in the 2012 presidential elections. He sat with three artists in a hookah bar one night last week where activists gathered each night during the protests against Mubarak. Magdy declares Hamdeen Sabahi, the Tahrir activist running against Sisi, “too weak.” The artists, all 26, and each named Aya, nod their agreement.

“He built his campaign on being against the army, at a time when the army is all we have,” says Aya Hassan. “It’s the one thing keeping the country secure….But we don’t think Sisi will be able to do much more than keep control. “

Does that mean Egypt is a police state again? “That’s the way it looks to outsiders, and this is the way the Muslim Brotherhood describes the regime. But that’s not the way the majority of Egyptians see it,” says Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist and human rights activist jailed by Mubarak in 2000.

“Egyptians love stability,” Ibrahim explains. Living beside the Nile for thousands of years, he says, Egyptians relied on the course and predictability of its flow for life itself — and the same desire for steadfast permanence has dictated the shape of Egyptian politics. “This is the whole idea of a hydraulic society,” Ibrahim says. “You have a central authority that maintains law and order, and regulates the river, because it’s the only source of survival.”

Another veteran activist, Wael Nawara, says wariness of instability is what brought people into the streets against Morsi last June 30, fearing that after three years of incessant political tumult the state was nearing collapse. “Understand the model: It’s the people,” says Nawara, who co-founded the Constitution Party with Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei. “The people made a decision to [depose Morsi]. Not the army. The country was collapsing.”

Nawara says he supports Sisi, but adds, “I’m not betting on him. I’m betting on the Egyptian people, because he is following them.”

Ibrahim agrees that something fundamental has changed. “Water does not pass under the bridge twice,” he says. “Things have proceeded in a way that is irreversible. The wall of fear that has remained in Egypt for 6,000 years–with this Pharaonic, hydraulic central authority–that no longer is there. Everyone is talking politics.”

Not quite everyone. Back at the hookah bar, the artists say they’re growing wary of speaking their minds. “The problem now is people are not generating the atmosphere of freedom,” says Aya Amr. “When I’m in a group taxi now and I say I’m against Sisi, people get angry with me.”

Adds Aya Fayez: “The society is divided into two parts: Sisi or Brotherhood. If you speak against Sisi, you’re Brotherhood, and the other way around. Which reduces my freedom. Even on Facebook, I’m not speaking any more about politics. People fight over every word that’s said. You find fighting inside the home, between friends, losing each other because everyone’s very rigid in their opinion.”

Magdy, the Tahrir activist who a few minutes earlier called security key to everything, now adds the situation is far from ideal. “The heavy hand of security, and arresting everyone near the Brotherhood makes the families stricter with their kids, always advising them not to speak: ‘Don’t say anything about Sisi or the Brotherhood.’ ‘Don’t speak in the taxi, don’t speak in class.’”

So things are not always as they seem, either inside or outside Egypt. Consider that Amr Badr, the spokesman for presidential contender Sabahi, meets TIME at the online newspaper he edits. It’s a hive of twenty-somethings swarming workstations where a screensaver shows a bloodied protester. But while the blood was real enough, the freedom, Badr says, is an illusion. “Actually, everything you see from outside is true,” he says. “We are turning back to a police regime.”

The only thing that’s totally clear is that the country is in yet another transition. But the direction is evident even to visitors. In the current EgyptAir inflight magazine, there in the seat pocket of every flight to and from Cairo, the centerpiece is not a glossy photo spread of a new tourist destination but rather a tribute to “Egypt’s greatest modern soldier, General Abdel Moneim Riad,” the Six-Day War commander remembered as a martyr. His statue presides over a grubby downtown traffic circle the magazine struggled in vain to make look attractive in a photo, but could not. It just looked like a clumsy attempt to please the new boss.



TIME Turkey

Anger at Turkish Mine Disaster Rebounds on Erdogan

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits scene of accident following the coal mine fire disaster in Soma district of Manisa, western Turkish province, on May 14, 2014.
Ege Gurgun—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits scene of accident following the coal mine fire disaster in Soma district of Manisa, western Turkish province, on May 14, 2014.

After surviving a massive corruption scandal, battles with social-media sites and protests over his authoritarian politics, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's populist image may be further harmed by the deadly coal-mine disaster in Soma

As if Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t have enough to worry about with a massive corruption scandal, running battles with the world’s most popular social-media sites and stubborn protests over his authoritarian politics, Wednesday’s catastrophic mine accident in the city of Soma looks set to trouble his premiership yet further.

Only six weeks after Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party dominated Turkey’s municipal elections, a victory that was widely viewed as a vote of confidence in the Premier, the mine explosion quickly stirred discontent. Protesters congregated at the local party headquarters in the city of 100,000 people, 480 km southwest of Istanbul, some calling the Premier “murderer” and “thief,” according to news reports.

Demonstrators, some wearing miner’s helmets, also gathered outside the Istanbul headquarters of the company that owned the mine; underground, commuters played dead on subway platforms in a show of solidarity with the dead miners. Another group in the capital city of Ankara tried to march on the Energy Ministry before being dispersed by police.

Erdogan reacted to the disaster much as any leader would: he canceled a planned trip to Albania in order to visit the site and ordered three days of mourning. But he was more combative than statesmanlike when confronted with the complaints of grieving families that safety had been shortchanged at the mine. The deaths occurred after an electrical transformer exploded during a shift change, with more than 700 workers in the mine. The death toll stood at 274 on Thursday, with at least 150 others still trapped in smoldering tunnels filled with toxic gases.

“Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It’s not like these don’t happen elsewhere in the world,” Erdogan said at a news conference after his site visit, before listing a series of global mining disasters going back to 1862.

The Prime Minister has largely weathered the controversies that have gathered about him over the past year, thanks in part to the economic expansion he has overseen over the decade-plus rule of the AKP, as his party is known in Turkey. But the mine disaster could strike in a visceral way at the core of the Premier’s populist image, as a self-described “black Turk” who stands with the common man against elitists who controlled national politics for most of Turkey’s history.

Erdogan’s close links to big business, in particular the construction industry, was after all at the heart of the massive judicial probe prosecutors pursued until he ordered them reassigned. And after almost a dozen years in power, his party cannot avoid responsibility for the country’s abysmal record on worker safety. The Geneva-based International Labour Organization in 2012 ranked Turkey third worst in the world for worker deaths.

The Soma disaster carries specific risks for the incumbent. Last month, a local lawmaker petitioned Turkey’s parliament to investigate the mine; Ozgur Ozel, a member of the opposition Republican People’s Party, said residents had complained incessantly that the mine was not safe. The effort was thwarted by Erdogan’s party, some members of which publicly mocked the proposal. Erdogan pointed out on Wednesday that the mine had passed inspections in March.

The issue is sure to be revisited now, and for some time to come. Already media outlets critical to Erdogan were linking the Prime Minister to the disaster and alleging the mine operators were given advance notice of inspections. “Massacre in the mine,” read the headline on one column in the English language Today’s Zaman on Wednesday. “Symptom of a one-man regime.”

TIME Nigeria

5 Things to Know About Boko Haram

A member of Boko Haram in a suburb of Kano, Nigeria, in 2012.
Samuel James—The New York Times/Redux A member of Boko Haram in a suburb of Kano, Nigeria, in 2012.

The Nigerian militant group, founded in 2002, grew far more brutal after its founder was executed. Now suspected of having kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls last month, it has reached a realm appalling even to extremists

The militant group Boko Haram has become a target of international outrage ever since it kidnapped more than 250 Nigerian schoolgirls last month. A leader of the group recently boasted in a video that “I abducted your girls” and will “sell them in the market.” The United States has vowed to send a team to Nigeria to assist in their rescue, and a social media campaign is seeking to raise the pressure on world leaders to act.

Here are five things to know about Boko Haram.

It began in Nigeria’s poorest corner

Nigeria was formed as a protectorate of Great Britain, but the colonial power concentrated its resources on the coast. The country’s northern half, which extends into the Sahara, was Muslim, and so poor that in Kano, the ancient city walls are being eaten away by people stealing sand. Northerners generally feel under-represented, and Boko Haram began in 2002 as an expression of that. A charismatic cleric named Mohammed Yusuf founded the group as Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, or “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” The mosque and school he established were presented as an alternative to the government schools he regarded as both alien to Muslims and tools of the elite. That gave rise to the nickname Boko Haram, which translates as “Western education is a sin.”

It turned far more violent after its founder was killed in police custody

The group, which advocated reviving an Islamic caliphate and imposing Sharia law, gradually grew more militant, attacking local critics, including Christians, and government representatives, especially police. Government forces struck back with a vengeance in 2009, capturing Yusuf, interrogating him in front of an array of camera phones, then shooting him without trial. Followers went underground but mounted a fierce return, now led by Yusuf’s former deputy, Abubakar Shekau. The group has killed more than 1,500 people since 2009 in attacks that have grown more and more deadly. The 815 people killed in 2012 was more than in the previous two years combined. But it was the April 14 abduction of about 276 girls from a school in the northeastern town of Chibok that drew the world’s attention. This week’s attack on another town, Gamboru Ngala, which left at least 150 dead, might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

The military option, while tempting, could make matters worse

“This problem is coming from bad governance, bad governance and bad governance,” says Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization. “More troops, more boots on the ground won’t solve anything.”

Crisis Group reports detail the conditions that have nurtured the group, which Depagne notes “moved from a 100-person sect at the end of 2002 to a kind of massive underground force, complete with artillery.” Contributing factors include desertification linked to climate change, and the heavy-handed actions of Nigerian security forces, who worked with local militias dubbed Joint Civilian Task Forces to counter the group. Watchdogs including Human Rights Watch have documented mass arrests and extrajudicial killings by Nigerian forces in Maiduguri, a Boko Haram stronghold.

Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said the Obama Administration appeared to be taking the right approach by sending a small team from several disciplines, including psychology as well as intelligence and military, to assist Nigeria in finding the kidnapped girls. “The government’s heavy-handed approach has made the problem worse and harder to solve,” she says. The specialists from Washington “have to make sure that the Nigerian security forces don’t go in too strongly,” Margon warns. “The U.S. hasn’t been all that good at sending those messages to Nigeria. I understand some are sent privately, but they need to send a public message as well so the Nigerian people understand what is going on.”

It’s crazier than al-Qaeda

Boko Haram is reportedly linked to al-Qaeda and has been listed since last year by the United States as a terrorist organization. But in the constellation of African insurgencies, Boko Haram appears to have less in common with al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda affiliate active in Somalia, than with the Lord’s Resistance Army, the savage cult that has wreaked havoc in northern Uganda for more than 25 years. Both Boko Haram and the LRA kidnap girls en masse, make use of porous international borders, and are led by a warlord who claims to talk with the Almighty. And while LRA founder Joseph Kony claims to be Christian, the faith is no more recognizable to believers than Boko Haram’s brand of Islam, which alarms even jihadists. “Their brutality is kind of a combination of African rebel groups and al-Qaeda in its original incarnation,” says Margon, who previously worked for the Senate subcommittee on Africa. “Al-Qaeda now realizes you have to engage in populations, you can’t just slaughter them.”

In the video announcing he would sell the kidnapped schoolgirls, Shekau comes off as a parody of an African warlord, standing in front of an armored personnel carrier, scratching his head idly as he speaks, amused by the fuss. “Just because I took some little girls who were in Western education everybody is making noise,” he says, and chuckles. A few moments later, the warlord declares, “Either you are with us—I mean real Muslims, who are following Salafism—or you are with Obama, Francoise Hollande , George Bush—Bush!—Clinton.” He pauses to turn a page in a sheaf of what appeared to be prepared remarks, then adds: “I’ve forgot not Abraham Lincoln.”

The social media campaign might actually help

The JosephKony2012 online campaign ended up doing little beyond making a household name of the LRA leader, but that was the creation of a group of outraged Americans. A Nigerian lawyer started #BringBackOurGirls, following the lead of distraught mothers who had taken their case to the streets of Abuja, the Nigerian capital. “I think what you’re seeing from the Nigerian side is that they are pretty well fed up with the way the authorities are handling Boko Haram,” Margon says. And not only did the campaign catch fire—First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted her support on Tuesday—it also served to illuminate the more subtle issues involved, such as the quality of local governance. Protest organizers complained of being ordered detained by Nigerian First Lady Patience Jonathan after an unproductive meeting with her Monday, the same day the video surfaced publicly. As President Barack Obama said at a town hall meeting while in Africa last year, “It is my strong belief that terrorism is more likely to emerge and take root in countries that are not delivering for their people.” He was answering a question from a Nigerian.


Iranian Commander Lets Slip That Revolutionary Guard Is Fighting in Syria

Hossein Hamedani Iran Syria
Morteza Nikoubaz—Reuters Head of the Mohammad Rasulallah Revolutionary guard base, Hossein Hamedani, attends a conference to mark the martyrs of terrorism in Tehran on Sept. 6, 2011.

It's common knowledge that Iran sent forces into Syria early in the civil war, so it's bizarre that an Iranian news item, which reported a Revolutionary Guard commander admitting his country's role in the brutal conflict, was hastily scrubbed from the Internet

Iran’s military involvement in Syria’s civil war is not much of a secret. Yet when a commander in the Revolutionary Guard Corps spoke openly about it on Sunday, the Iranian news story reporting his comments lasted only a few hours online before authorities there took it down.

“Today we fight in Syria for interests such as the Islamic Revolution,” Hossein Hamedani said at a conference, according to the original post by the Fars news agency. “Our defense is to the extent of the Sacred Defense,” the commander went on, using the regime’s term for the 1980-88 war with Iraq, a reference that signals the importance the Islamic Republic places on the survival of the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad.

Hamedani, identified by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as a former commander of the Guard’s Rasulollah division in Tehran, boasted of training Syrian government forces, and even establishing “a second Hizballah” in Syria, the first one being the Shiite militia Iran established in Lebanon after Israel’s 1982 invasion of that country. Until it was taken down, the Fars story also said Hamedani claimed 130,000 members of Iran’s paramilitary volunteer Basij were trained and ready to go to Syria.

The volunteers would be joining an Iranian force that has been assisting Assad since early in the three-year conflict. The head of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, acknowledged as much in September 2012, though he said the involvement was limited to the Corps’ Quds Force, which operates clandestinely abroad. Jafari made the admission a month after a busload of Iranians was captured outside Damascus by the Free Syrian Army, and described by Iran as religious pilgrims. Their journey turned out to have been booked by the Revolutionary Guards’ travel agency.

But the most striking evidence of Iranian boots on the ground in Syria is video footage purporting to show a Guards commando unit. Filmed by an Iranian documentary maker, it was obtained by rebels who overran the unit and gave the footage to the BBC, which named the resulting documentary, Iran’s Secret Army. “It’s quite dramatic footage, and gives us our best information on the Iranian presence,” says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “Iran’s involvement has been pretty heavy.”

So why not admit it?

It may be a question of keeping fuel off the fire. Iran feels it must deny its military involvement so as not to motivate the rebel side further, says Landis. The war has devolved into a sectarian conflict, with Shiite Iran and Hizballah aligned with Assad—whose heterodox Alawite faith is seen as kin to Shiism—against overwhelmingly Sunni rebel forces, which include extremists who regard Shiites as apostates. “The main rebel battle cry, the main rebel insult is ‘nizam majousi’,” or Persian regime, says Landis, who blogs at Syria Comment. “To call Syrians Alawite and assisters of the regime majous, means they are neither the right religion nor the right nationality or ethnic group: neither Sunni nor Arab.”

The accusation was also heard during the U.S.-led war in Iraq, where any Shiite force was apt to be labeled—and often were—a cat’s paw of Tehran. But in Syria’s case it’s more likely to be true, Landis notes. Lebanese Hizballah has played a crucial battlefield role over the last year, and Tehran has trained, armed and directed government forces, as well as providing elite special forces of its own. “The main accusation there is that all Shiites and [regime supporters] are crypto-Iranian,” he says.

But given the potency religion has already provided in fueling the conflict, it’s evidently not in Iran’s interest to further fire up the Sunni side by acknowledging its presence on the battlefield — even if denying it means suffering the occasional Wizard of Oz, pay-no-attention-to-that-man-behind-the-curtain moment.

TIME Israel

New iPhone App Turns Back The Clock on Israel

A smartphone placed on an Israeli map in Jerusalem, displaying the new iNakba application that allows users to find the remains of Palestinian villages that now lie inside modern-day Israel, May 5, 2014.
Thomas Coex—AFP/Getty Images A smartphone placed on an Israeli map in Jerusalem, displaying the new iNakba application that allows users to find the remains of Palestinian villages that now lie inside modern-day Israel, May 5, 2014.

What Israel calls Independence Day, Palestinians know as "Nakba," The Catastrophe. Now an iNakba app maps villages erased after 1948, tracking a changing landscape. A spokesperson for the app's developer Zochrot said, "maps are a political tool"

Tuesday was Independence Day in Israel, and Israelis marked 66 years of statehood with barbecues, flyovers, and fireworks. Supporters of the Palestinians used the occasion to unveil a new app that looks at the holiday from the perspective of the side that lost the 1948 war and has been locked in conflict with Israel ever since: iNakba

In Arabic, “nakba” means “catastrophe,” and the iPhone application maps some 500 Palestinian villages that once stood on the land controlled by Israel since 1948. The app was developed by Zochrot, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that exists to remind Israel’s Jewish majority of that history. “The application provides coordinates and maps of Palestinian localities that were completely demolished and obliterated after their capture, partially demolished, or remained standing although their residents were expelled,” Zochrot says on its website.

This appears, on an iPhone screen, as a forest of ochre-colored Google Map pins laid over the familiar map of modern Israel. Tap on any one pin and the Arabic name of the village comes up: Umm al-Zinat, for instance, in the north near Haifa. Tap again, and a page opens showing a photo—some feature handsome stone buildings, this one just rubble—and a few lines of data: There is the name of the Jewish communities that went up after 1948 (Elyakim), the date and the Israeli military unit that occupied it, and the Palestinian population in 1948 (1,710) and after 1948 (None).

A menu allows viewers to upload photos of their own, and offers driving directions, using Google Maps, Apple Maps or Waze—the crowd-sourcing navigation app developed by Israelis and purchased by Google for $1.15 billion.

“The idea of the app is like changing the landscape, because we in Zochrot believe that maps are a political tool, and from ‘48 till today, Israel on its maps just erased Palestine and its localities and our heritage,” Raneen Jeries, a spokesperson for Zochrot, tells TIME. “So we put Palestine back on the map.”

The app has its practical uses. Of the 3,000 downloads in the first 24 hours, some may have been by descendants of the 750,000 people who fled or were forced out in 1948 and now come to Israel looking for the site of their ancestral home in a landscape of freeways, factories and subdivisions. Bound volumes like All That Remains can help, but as Jeries says, “It’s not easy to find the destroyed places.”

But the app also represents a new frontier—clean, bright, helpful—in the competition between historical narratives. Israelis and Palestinians have different experiences of the last century, and each wants the world at large to see history from their perspective. The differences between them extend even as far as dates: Israel changes the date of Independence Day every year, marking the occasion according to the lunar-based Jewish calendar. Palestinians use May 15, the day after Israel signed its declaration of independence on the Gregorian calendar in 1948.

The iNakba effort is unlikely to change many minds among Jewish Israelis, says Dahlia Scheindlin, a political consultant and pollster who blogs on the leftist +972 site. “Up until now, Zochrot has taken very radical positions,” she tells TIME. By supporting the right of return for Palestinians—allowing descendants of the 1948 exodus to live in Israel—the group has placed itself in line with a segment of the Jewish Israeli population that, Scheindlin says, is too tiny to register in public opinion surveys. Nakba is so unpopular a notion that until the Knesset legal advisor barred its introduction in 2012, Israeli lawmakers championed a bill barring its commemoration inside Israel, even though 20 percent of the population is Arab, many descended from the Palestinians who were allowed to remain after 1948.

Still, Scheindlin says, Zochrot has displayed a talent for framing a volatile issue in new ways. “They’re making an effort to get noticed in Israeli society,” she says, “and at least talk in way that will get people thinking.”


Iraq Votes in Relative Peace, But Governing Remains a Challenge

Iraqis went to heavily guarded polls this week to cast votes for representatives. The country's first parliamentary election since the U.S. withdrew in 2011 saw a turnout of almost 60 percent and was relatively peaceful, with attacks killing 14 people across the country

Voting in Iraq’s first election since American troops left the country went relatively smoothly this week. Turnout reached almost 60 percent, no major irregularities were reported, and in a country defined for more than a decade by car bombs and mass fatalities, the death toll for election day stood at 14.

“Anywhere else in the world, that would be seen as a terrible disaster,” says Hayder al-Khoei, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a London think tank. “Everything is relative in Iraq.”

But then, getting people to vote has not been a great challenge in Iraq, especially in Baghdad, where traffic closures and security services out in force made for relatively safe. The problem, in Iraq, is what comes next: governing.

Wednesday’s parliamentary election was the third since U.S.-led forces overthrew Saddam Hussein 11 years ago, and amounted to a referendum on the man who has governed for the last eight years: Nouri al-Maliki, seeking a third term as prime minister, is widely criticized for ruling the country of 32 million with a focus on sectarian divisions. Opponents argue that by favoring Iraq’s long-oppressed Shiite majority, he has encouraged a Sunni rebellion that has opened much of Anbar province to groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, Iraq’s third major population, the Kurds, essentially govern themselves in a largely autonomous northern enclave.

Very early returns suggested that, as analysts expected, Maliki appeared likely to remain the dominant political figure, though in a more crowded political universe. All major parties appeared to be drawing fewer votes than four years earlier, as smaller parties fractured the vote within each bloc.

“He won,” al-Khoei says, “but it doesn’t look like he won by a large enough mandate” to assure a third term without forming a coalition— a negotiation process that dragged on for 10 months in 2010, and might take even longer given the increase in parties. The process could also aggravate the sectarian warfare that has already led to death tolls approaching the “civil war” bloodletting of 2006-7. But al-Khoei says the process might also do the opposite, leading to the kind of inclusive character that has eluded Iraqi governance to date.

“One of the paradoxes of Iraqi politics as I see it is the atmosphere is incredibly sectarian,” al-Khoei tells TIME. “But at the political levels, in a weird way it’s gone beyond sectarianism, because all the parties are much more fragmented. So it seems to me it’s much more likely that blocs within the blocs will do deals at the expense of their co-religionists or fellow Kurds.”

As in 2010, the makeup of a governing coalition will likely be influenced by Iran, which, despite the massive U.S. investment in lives and treasure, has emerged as the dominant outside influence in Iraq. Analysts call that another impediment to building trusted institutions as committed to democracy as the citizens who defy threats and bombs to cast their ballots.

“The election is not the problem,” says Hiwa Osman, a former aide to Iraq’s Kurdish President, Jalal Talabani. “The key thing with Iraq is it needs to figure out what kind of system you have.” While Kurds favor a federal system with loose control, others prefer a centralized system—though Maliki has so concentrated powers that some critics warn of an emerging dictatorship.

“I think Iraq is on a path whereby however more central government wants it to be, the more distance it will create between its various components,” says Osman, “Maliki has been trying for more than a year to control it by force, but security usually comes last in handling any political problem. Anbar’s problem is a political problem.”

TIME Saudi Arabia

Saudis Show Off a Missile As Tensions Rise With Iran

Saudi worries about a nuclear Iran may be behind display of a missile that could reach Tehran

Saudi Arabia bought its mid-range Dong Feng-3 ballistic missiles from China in the late 1980s, but had not put them on public display until they were wheeled past a reviewing stand at the Hafr al-Batin military base this week, at the parade concluding the largest military exercise the kingdom has ever mounted.

It was no secret that the Saudis had the missiles, but the public outing of the weapons on Tuesday was broadly interpreted by analysts as Saudi Arabia sending a message to its regional rival, Iran, at a time when the countries are battling at one remove in Syria, and the Saudis feel betrayed by Washington for attempting a rapprochement with Tehran by embracing negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.

“They’ve been kept under wraps all these years, albeit they were known to be there; it’s just quite interesting for us to see them on show,” says Jeremy Binnie, editor of Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor, who was among the experts taking note of the Saudi showcase.

“I think there’s a few different ways you could potentially read it, but certainly one is as a sort of display of Saudi Arabia’s ability to retaliate in kind to Iranian ballistic missile attacks. And that was sort of the message coming out of this exercise in general, quite a lot of publicity by Saudi Arabia standards all round.”

The Saudis and Iranians are longtime rivals divided foremost by faith – the Saudis functioning as guardians of Islam’s dominant Sunni branch, while the Iranians lead the minority Shia denomination. But the competition has ramped up in recent years as Iran has drawn Iraq into its orbit (as the Saudis insistently warned Washington would happen if the secular Sunni dictator, Saddam Hussein, was brought down), and has sharpened as Iran has drawn nearer to the capability of producing a nuclear weapon.

Iran says it has never had plans to build a nuclear bomb. It is currently engaged in negotiations over its nuclear program with the United States and other world powers. Those talks are reportedly proceeding well of late. Which is small comfort to the Saudis. “They don’t have much faith in the Obama administration,” says Meir Javedanfar, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya, a private Israeli university. “They are worried Washington is going to reach a deal with the Iranians and leave the Saudis behind.”

Hence Riyadh’s tough talk about going it alone. “We do not hold any hostility to Iran and do not wish any harm to it or to its people, who are Muslim neighbors,” Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence, told a security conference for Gulf states last week. “But preserving our regional security requires that we, as a Gulf grouping, work to create a real balance of forces with it, including in nuclear know-how, and to be ready for any possibility in relation to the Iranian nuclear file.”

Tehran routinely showcases its own arsenal in parades, as well as mounting war games several times a year. But at the Saudi base, the reviewing stand also conveyed a message: Among the dignitaries was the chief of Pakistan’s army, Gen. Raheel Sharif, whose presence, along with the missiles, could be read as a threat to top a Saudi missile with a Pakistani nuclear warhead. The Saudis reportedly aided Pakistan in its clandestine and successful nuclear effort, and have done little to quell reports that Islamabad might provide its loyal friend with a warhead should Iran actually produce an atomic bomb.

“You can read what you like into it,” says Binnie. “But having a high-ranked Pakistan guy there helps keep that idea alive that Saudi Arabia might be in a position to get nuclear warheads form Pakistan if Iran goes nuclear, which the Saudis want us to believe at the moment.”

Will the Iranians respond? Not on any parade ground, says Javedanfar,who lived in Iran in 1987.

“It is a flexing of the muscles, but the war being fought between Iran and Saudi Arabia is not one where you can use missiles,” he says. “It’s proxy war, where you can use your intelligence agents, you use terror, you use unconventional means. That’s why I don’t think this is going to impress the Iranians too much.”

What might impress Tehran, he says, is a bold move in Syria, the main proxy war between the two Middle East powers. Iran and its proxy, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hizballah, heavily support President Bashar Assad against rebels armed and supported by the Saudis and a handful of other majority-Sunni nations. “I don’t think either Iran or Saudi Arabia sees the other as a conventional threat,” says Javedanfar. “If we see a flooding of Pakistani weapons to the rebels in Syria, this is the kind of thing that will worry the Iranians, not a Saudi missile.”

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