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WEEK OF DECEMBER 27 THROUGH JANUARY 2
Pope Francis to Atheists: You Don’t Need to Believe in God to go to Heaven
Dec. 30….(Times of Asia) In comments likely to enhance his progressive reputation, Pope Francis has written a long, open letter to the founder of La Repubblica newspaper, Eugenio Scalfari, stating that non-believers would be forgiven by God if they followed their consciences. Responding to a list of questions published in the paper by Mr Scalfari, who is not a Roman Catholic, Francis wrote: "You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don't believe and who don't seek the faith. I start by saying, and this is the fundamental thing, that God's mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience. "Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience."
Robert Mickens, the Vatican correspondent for the Catholic journal The Tablet, said the pontiff's comments were further evidence of his attempts to shake off the Catholic Church's fusty image, reinforced by his extremely conservative predecessor Benedict XVI. "Francis is a still a conservative," said Mickens. "But what this is all about is him seeking to have a more meaningful dialogue with the world." In a welcoming response to the letter, Scalfari said the Pope's comments were "further evidence of his ability and desire to overcome barriers in dialogue with all". In July, Francis signaled a more progressive attitude on sexuality, asking: "If someone is gay and is looking for the Lord, who am I to judge him?In comments likely to enhance his progressive reputation, Pope Francis has written a long, open letter to the founder of La Repubblica newspaper, Eugenio Scalfari, stating that non-believers would be forgiven by God if they followed their consciences.
WEEK OF DECEMBER 20 THROUGH DECEMBER 26
ACLU Sues Christian Hospitals for Their Refusal to Perform Abortions
Dec. 21….(Christian Headlines) The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is volunteering to defend Trinity Catholic Hospitals after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the Hospitals in October for their refusal to perform abortions. Trinity Health operates 86 facilities in 21 states. According to thegatewaypundit.com,“Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing several pro-life, pro-women’s organizations asked a federal court Wednesday to allow the groups to intervene in defense of a Catholic hospital system that the American Civil Liberties Union sued in October. The ACLU lawsuit is asking the court to force Trinity Health and its staff to commit abortions regardless of their religious and pro-life objections.” The various organizations represented by ADF are Catholic Medical Association, Christian Medical and Dental Association, American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and Concerned Women for America. “Patients should always have the freedom to choose a health care facility that respects life and to choose doctors who do not commit abortions,” stated ADF Senior Legal Counsel Matt Bowman.
Iran Provokes the World as Obama Does Nothing
Dec. 21….(Washington Post) Iran is following through on the nuclear deal it struck with a US led coalition in an utterly predictable way: It is racing to fulfill those parts of the accord that will allow it to collect $100 billion in frozen funds and end sanctions on its oil exports and banking system, while expanding its belligerent and illegal activities in other areas, and daring the West to respond. Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s response to these provocations has also been familiar. It is doing its best to downplay them, and thereby encouraging Tehran to press for still-greater advantage. We’ve pointed out how the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has unjustly sentenced Post correspondent Jason Rezaian to prison and arrested two businessmen with US citizenship or residence since signing the nuclear accord. There have been no penalties for those outrageous violations of human rights. Now a United Nations panel has determined that Iran test-fired a nuclear-capable missile on Oct. 10 with a range of at least 600 miles, in violation of a UN resolution that prohibits such launches. Moreover, it appears likely that a second missile launch occurred on Nov. 21, also in violation of Security Council Resolution 1929. The US response? “We are now actively considering the appropriate consequences to that launch in October,” State Department official Stephen Mull testified at a Senate committee hearing Thursday. In other words, there have so far been none, other than a speech by the US ambassador to the United Nations blaming the Security Council for the lack of action. As for the second missile launch, the administration claims to be investigating it, though it likely has in its possession the intelligence necessary to make a judgment. It’s not hard to guess the reasons for this fecklessness.
President Obama is reluctant to do anything that might derail the nuclear deal before Iran carries out its commitments, including uninstalling thousands of centrifuges and diluting or removing tons of enriched uranium. The same logic prompted him to tolerate Iran’s malign interventions in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, along with the arrest of Mr. Rezaian, while the pact was under negotiation. US officials argue that Iran’s nonnuclear violations make it all the more important that the nuclear deal be implemented. But that ignores the clear connections between the missile launches and Tehran’s ambitions to become a nuclear power. The only practical military purpose of the missiles the regime is testing is to carry atomic warheads. And while missile launches are not prohibited by the nuclear pact itself, the separate resolution banning them remains in effect until the deal is implemented, after which a new resolution takes effect that calls on Iran not to develop such missiles for eight years.
By flouting the UN resolutions, Iran is clearly testing the will of the United States and its allies to enforce the overall regime limiting its nuclear ambitions. If there is no serious response, it will press the boundaries in other areas, such as the inspection regime. It will take maximum advantage of Mr. Obama’s fear of undoing a legacy achievement, unless and until its bluff is called. That’s why the administration would be wise to take firm action now in response to the missile tests rather than trying to sweep them under the carpet.
WEEK OF DECEMBER 13 THROUGH DECEMBER 20
Russia Readying Nuclear Weapons for Syria
Dec. 14….(Times of Israel) President Vladimir Putin ordered defense chiefs to strengthen Russia’s strategic nuclear forces amid rising tensions with the US over the global balance of power. New weapons should go to “all parts” of the nuclear triad of air, sea, and land forces, Putin told a Defense Ministry meeting in Moscow on Friday. Action must also be taken “to improve the effectiveness of missile-attack warning systems and aerospace defense.” Russia’s military will have five new nuclear regiments equipped with modern missile complexes next year, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told the same meeting. More than 95 percent of the country’s nuclear forces are at a permanent state of readiness, he said.
Putin’s moves to reinforce Russian nuclear capabilities are reviving Cold War tensions with the US and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The US warned in June that the Kremlin’s “nuclear saber-rattling” is undermining stability in an attempt to intimidate European neighbors. Russia’s nuclear arsenal, its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, in July led Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to call the country the most pressing threat to US national security. Putin said Russia’s military must continue its program of training drills and devote special attention to the “transport of troops over long distances” as well as “strategic nuclear deterrence” and the ability to airlift forces including “anti-aircraft, missile and electronic elements.”
About 56 percent of Russian nuclear weapons are new, including modern missiles, upgraded aircraft and a strengthened submarine capacity, Shoigu said. Russia has also expanded the military’s combat capabilities by reinforcing its western and south-western army groups and building four bases in the Arctic region, he said.
NATO’s troop presence in the Baltic states and central Europe increased sharply in the past year, Shoigu said. The US also has about 200 nuclear weapons sited in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and Turkey and has plans to modernize them, he said. Amid a conflict with NATO member Turkey over the shooting down of a Russian warplane near the Syrian border last month, Putin ordered defense officials to “react harshly” to threats to Russia’s forces operating in Syria. Any such threats should face “immediate extermination,” he said.
The Russian air campaign in Syria against Islamic State and other militants is aimed at protecting Russia from terrorism, and actions are being synchronised with operations of special forces against domestic threats, Putin said. Airstrikes are being coordinated with both President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and those of the opposition Free Syrian Army, which has more than 5,000 troops fighting terrorists with weapons supplied by Russia, he said.
Islamic State has more than 60,000 terrorists and is expanding its influence in Syria and Iraq, Shoigu said. Russian airstrikes in Syria that began Sept. 30 have hit 8,000 terrorist infrastructure targets during 4,000 combat missions, he said
WEEK OF DECEMBER 1 THROUGH DECEMBER 6
Israel’s Air Superiority Clouded by New Russian Missiles in Syria
(Putin’s deployment of advanced S-400 system impacts a mainstay of Israel’s defense strategy)
Dec. 2….(Times of Israel) Israel’s air superiority over its enemies has been a linchpin of its defense strategy for decades. The capacity of Israeli planes to carry out attacks well within enemies’ borders has prevented Syria and Iraq from creating nuclear weapons. The Israel Air Force’s unquestioned supremacy over neighboring forces has kept Syrian, Egyptian and Jordanian planes almost entirely out of Israeli airspace in the country’s wars. But with the recent deployment of the Russian S-400 “Triumph” missile defense system in Syria, that absolute primacy is now in question. The S-400’s specs are enough to make any Israeli’s heart race. The anti-aircraft system,constituting an array radar to monitor the skies and a missile battery, can track and shoot down targets some 400 kilometers (250 miles) away. At its new position on the Syrian coast in Latakia, that range encompasses half of Israel’s airspace, including Ben Gurion International Airport. This is not the first time that Russian technology in Syria has called into question Israel’s aerial supremacy, and the precedent was catastrophic: In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 2K12 “Kub” missile defense system, provided to Syria by the then-Soviet Union, destroyed dozens of Israeli planes. The “Kub” prevented an Israeli aerial offensive into Syria in 1973; the S-400 extends deep into Israel’s sovereign air space.
In addition to the S-400, Russia has been bringing highly advanced ordnance into the Syrian theater of war, including outfitting its jet fighters with air-to-air missiles, the Israeli NRG website recently reported. By bulking up their air defenses in Syria, the Russians hope to prevent future attacks on their aircraft, like the incident last week when the Turkish military brought down an Su-24 jet that Ankara claimed had entered its airspace. “This system is liable to worry people,” said Yiftah Shapir, a military technology research fellow at the Tel Aviv University-affiliated Institute for National Security Studies, said curtly of the S-400. Nonetheless, he stressed, while the S-400 restricts the previous free rein that Israel had over its neighbor’s skies, the people with their finger on the trigger are not enemies. “Today [the S-400] is in the hands of the Russians, and we have coordination with them over what’s happening in Syria,” Shapir noted.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu highlighted the importance of that coordination during and after a meeting in Paris on Monday with Russian President Vladimnir Putin. So long as that’s the case and the Moscow-Tel Aviv hotline remains open, the S-400’s presence in Syria shouldn’t “keep anyone from sleeping at night,” said Uzi Rubin, a missile defense analyst for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Besides, Rubin said with dry humor, “there are enough other things for us to worry about.”
The S-400 missile defense system is also intended to stay in the hands of the Russians, even when, or if,their army pulls out of Syria. The anti-aircraft battery will not be a party favor for whoever ultimately winds up running Syria, both Shapir and Rubin pointed out. In Paris on Monday evening, Netanyahu and Putin further discussed the lines of communications and announced they would be strengthened in the coming days, with IDF and Russian Army generals meeting in Tel Aviv on Tuesday. And yet, some experts stress, while there is currently no impending threat to Israel’s operations in Syria, there is an inherent discomfort with having your freedom of movement potentially restricted and requiring coordination with an outside force, no matter how friendly. The supremacy of the Israeli Air Force, one of the most advanced and capable air forces in the world, is, after all, a central factor in Israel’s essential capacity to defend itself, by itself, in a hostile and wildly unpredictable region.
Today, the interests of Russia and Israel in Syria do not conflict with one another. Israel’s immediate concern in Syria is not President Bashar Assad or his forces, but Hezbollah. Putin, meanwhile, is concerned with propping up Assad and defeating the Islamic State, and very much in that order of preference. Though Israel certainly sees no friend in Iran-backed Assad, who regularly speaks out against the Jewish state and whose father waged war with Israel in 1967 and 1973, the IDF has taken a hands-off approach to the Syrian civil war, only intervening and striking Syrian army outposts when mortar shells or rocket fire spills over onto Israeli territory.
Meanwhile, Russia has adopted a laissez-faire stance towards Assad’s ally, and one of Israel’s main enemies, Hezbollah, according to Nadav Pollak, a researcher with the Washington Institute for Near East Studies and former analyst for the Israeli government. “Russia has sold a lot of weapons to Syria. If they sell 15 crates and two of them go to Hezbollah, Russia’s not going to say anything. I’m not even sure they’re aware it’s happening,” Pollak said. But on the flip side, he said, “It doesn’t seem that Russia cares too much if Israel is targeting those arms shipments.” Which it has been doing, Prime Minister Netanyahu admitted on Tuesday. According to an accumulation of reports, in fact, Israel has struck sites in Syria some five times in the past few weeks alone, for the most part against weapon caches and convoys. One of these raids, an alleged bombing run in Qalamoun, near Syria’s border with Lebanon, occurred on Saturday night, two days after Russia claims the S-400 was put in place.
Russian pilots have also accidentally breached Israeli airspace, with no Israeli response, in stark contrast to the Turkey incident. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF officers have all indicated that these non-incidents demonstrate the efficacy of Israel’s hotline coordination with Russia. At this stage, there is no threat to that hotline. Israel’s security demands have not changed. And should Russia’s plans for Syria change, the frequent communication between the IDF’s deputy chief of staff and his Russian counterpart is meant to ensure there is ample notice for the IDF to determine how best to proceed. Though security experts are wary to hazard what exactly Russia’s intentions are in the Middle East.