Pope perturbed by Potter’s powers
BERLIN – Is Harry Potter seducing young people and endangering their souls? According to comments attributed to Pope Benedict XVI by German writer Gabriele Kuby, the popular series of books by J.K. Rowling includes “subtle seductions which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly.”
Kuby, a devout Catholic who has written a critical book called Harry Potter – Good or Evil, sent the Pope a copy of her critique in 2003 and received two letters in response, when Benedict was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Kuby published passages from one letter in German on her website, according to the London’s Financial Evening News.
The Vatican previously appeared to approve of the books. But this was a misunderstanding, according to Catholic World News. At a Vatican press conference in 2003, Father Peter Fleedwood made a positive comment on Harry Potter in response to a question, the news services noted last week. Headlines such as “Pope approves Potter” (Toronto Star), “Pope sticks up for Potter books” (BBC), and “Harry Potter is OK with the pontiff” (Chicago Sun Times) subsequently “littered the mainstream media,” Catholic World News noted.
Fleedwood apparently suggested that Pope John Paul II thought the books helped children distinguish between good and evil. Kuby maintains the opposite, listing 10 arguments against Harry Potter. “The ability of the reader to distinguish between good and evil is overridden by emotional manipulation and intellectual obfuscation," she writes.
In one of the letters, Pope Benedict gives the author permission to publicize his opinion. "Somehow your letter got buried in the large pile of name-day, birthday and Easter mail," he wrote. “Finally this pile is taken care of, so that I can gladly allow you to refer to my judgment about Harry Potter.”
Earlier this year, Vatican officials condemned Dan Brown’s Catholic conspiracy bestseller The Da Vinci Code. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone blasted the book as an absurd distortion of history, saying it was full of cheap lies and urging that Catholic bookstores take it off their shelves.
Just what Iraq needs – a cola war
BAGHDAD – Coca-Cola is back in Iraq after nearly four decades, setting up a joint venture bottling company with Turkish and Iraqi partners to compete with Pepsi for 26 million consumers. But the UK’s Guardian reports that the move may trigger a cola war in a lucrative but potentially hostile market.
Coke withdrew from Iraq in 1968 when the Arab League declared a boycott because of its business ties to Israel. That left Pepsi to dominate the Middle East market for soft drinks. The boycott ended in 1991, but sanctions and wars kept Coke out of Iraq.
The plusses for Coke are a thirst-inducing climate and Islamic conservatism, which means that beer and other alcoholic drinks are banned in much of the country. The minuses, aside from Pepsi’s head start, are the insurgency, bandits who threaten supply routes, and the enduring perception that Coca-Cola is linked to Israel and “American Zionists.”
Working with Efes Invest, a Turkish company, and the Iraqi HMBS, Coke will bottle its product in Dubai and distribute it across the country. The early response in Baghdad has been mixed. One wholesaler, Abbas Salih, told the paper the initiative was doomed. “Coca-Cola does business with those who are shooting our brothers in Palestine,” he argued. “How can we drink it?”
Abu Ream, a shop owner in Baghdad, repeated a widespread conspiracy theory: “If you hold up a Coke can to the mirror, the writing says ‘No Allah’. Or maybe ‘No Mohammad’. I can’t remember which,” the Guardian reported. Yet, since supplies became available two years ago, he said he has sold more Coke than Pepsi. “People like the taste better. And they like the novelty.”
After the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, sanctions led the Iraqi license holder, Baghdad Soft Drinks, to replace the authentic Pepsi concentrate with fakes smuggled from Eastern Europe. Saddam Hussein’s son Uday bought 10 percent of the company. Baghdad Soft Drinks says Pepsi is rebuilding, with bottling operations in the capital and southern Iraq.
UN enforces U.S.-inspired Haitian crackdown
PORT-AU-PRINCE – Supporters of ousted Pres. Jean-Bertrand Aristide are basically terrorists, U.S. Ambassador James Foley said July 4, two days before more than 350 UN troops entered Cité Soleil, Haiti’s largest slum, with 41 armored vehicles, helicopters and several dozen Haitian police officers.
Haiti Progres, a pro-Aristide news service, has charged that the specific objective was to kill Emmanuel “Dread” Wilmer and four other leading pro-Aristide organizers. Reuters and other sources have confirmed that they and others died, but UN and police officials deny the accusation that unarmed civilians were targeted
“Today in Haiti, they [Aristide backers] are burning houses, they are burning stores, they are attacking means of transportation and communication links,” Foley argued before the raid. “All of this has a name: The use of violence against civilians for political purposes is the very definition of terrorism."
The U.S. State Department and business interests have called for tougher UN action against supporters of Aristide’s political movement, Lavalas. In May, Reginald Boulos, president of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, classified the group as “bandits.” A raid on Cite Soleil was staged later that month, followed by a violent four-day siege of Bel Air, a pro-Aristide neighborhood.
Human rights observers have described the tactics being used by the Haitian police as a “scorched earth” policy. But Roger Noriega, assistant U.S. secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, has accused Aristide of personally fomenting violence. “We believe that his people are receiving instructions directly from his voice and indirectly through his acolytes that communicate with him personally in South Africa,” Noriega told the Miami Herald.
Fredi Romélus said that during the July 6 violence, UN troops lobbed a smoke grenade into his house and opened fire, killing his wife and two children, according to Haiti Progres. Video footage captured images of three apparent victims. The UN admits that five people were killed during the raid, but residents put the number of dead at no fewer than 20.
A Reuters correspondent, Joseph Guyler Delva, said he “saw seven bodies in one house alone, including two babies and one older woman in her 60s,” and Doctors without Borders reported that 26 people, a majority of them women and children, were treated for gunshot wounds.
The UN claimed that its troops opened fire only after being fired upon, and discounted noncombatant casualties. International news agencies noted that Cite Soleil harbors a number of gangs, many of them loyal to Aristide.
A group of human right and trade union activists sent to Haiti by the San Francisco Labor Council early this month to participate in a conference claims that the UN action qualifies as a massacre. The evidence “is substantial and compelling,” Seth Donnelly told InterPress Service upon his return home. “It completely contradicts the official version.”
Joint Paraguay-U.S. exercises raise questions
ASUNCION – The launch of joint military exercises by Paraguay and the United States is sparking controversy across the region. As soon as the first 500 U.S. soldiers hit the ground in early July, Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia expressed concerns that it might lead to the establishment of a U.S. military base, Prensa Latina reported. Officials in Washington and Asuncion emphatically rejected the charge.
The maneuvers, headed by seven U.S. officials, are the first of 13 exercises to be staged until December 2006. They began last week amid tight secrecy with a meeting of the Paraguayan military command and U.S. officers. Paraguay’s Congress has granted immunity to participating US soldiers until they conclude their work.
Colonel Elio Flores, head of Social Communication of the Paraguayan Armed Forces, said 65 officials will take part in instruction to fight terrorism and drug trafficking. He also mentioned an exercise called “Medrete,” which involves medical assistance to poor families in the northwest. Medrete was set to start on Sunday with the participation of 30 U.S. military officials, including doctors, nurses, and dentists.
Critics see the exercises as part of a U.S. plan to extend its presence in a strategically important area of South America.
Military stand off emerging in Central Asia
TASHKENT – Uzbekistan is stepping up pressure on the United States to leave its air base in the Central Asian country and move operations to neighboring Afghanistan, according to India’s Hindu News. Last month the country imposed restrictions on U.S. flights from its Khanabad base, forcing the U.S. command to redeploy aircraft. Kyrgyzstan has joined Uzbekistan, calling on Washington to shut down an air base near its capital, Bishkek.
In response, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, argued that Russia and China are pressuring the Central Asian nations into demanding a date for U.S. forces to leave the strategically important region, according to CNSNews.com. Myers was responding to a call by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – a grouping of Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan – for foreign coalition forces to set a deadline for the withdrawal.
Russia regards the former Soviet republics as part of its sphere of influence, and has been strengthening is presence at bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Special Forces Army units from both Russia and China also have been ordered to both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and stationed near the U.S. bases there. Russia’s Novosti News Service claims that, although Kyrgyzstan wants U.S. forces to leave, it thinks Russia should stay. Thus far, the requests have been ignored.
Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin is reportedly increasingly concerned about what Moscow News is calling a “conspiracy to seize Russia’s oil assets.” Speaking recently at a meeting with Russian businessmen, Vladislav Surkov, the deputy head of Putin’s administration, said, "I am not a follower of a conspiracy theory. But this is evidently a planned action."
Iran backs out of cloning deal
NEW DELHI – India’s ambitious plan to clone the cheetah, which vanished from the subcontinent in 1962 due to large-scale hunting, has hit a snag. Iran has refused to send two cheetahs – a male and a female – to India for research purposes, The Times of India reports. It also has refused to allow a team of scientists from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) to travel to Iran to collect sperm and tissue samples from a cheetah in a zoo.
For the past six years, the CCMB has been trying to get tissues of the animal from Iran for cloning. Director Lalji Singh and his team wanted to take the genes from live cheetah cells and fuse them with empty leopard eggs. Any resulting embryos would be carried in leopard surrogates.
Iran is the only country with a close relative of the extinct Indian cheetah. “Iran and India were to jointly work on the conservation of cheetahs in Iran and cloning of cheetahs in India,” explained Singh. “A team comprising members from the ministry of environment and forests, Zoo Authority of India, Wildlife Institute of India and the CCMB were to leave for Iran. I had personally made this request to Iranian president Mohammad Khatami when he visited CCMB.”
But the Iranian government ultimately decided not to loan India two cheetahs or allow Singh’s team to travel to Iran for sample collection. :The letter asked us to contact Africa, which is home to a lot more cheetahs,” he added.
Bigger ‘bunker-buster’ on the way
LONDON – Before the end of the year, the United States will test a new missile aimed at destroying deep bunkers where suspected weapons of mass destruction are stored, according to New Science, a British magazine. Four prototypes of the new "bunker-buster" are being developed by Lockheed Martin and Fire Control of Dallas, TX, which are working with U.S. Navy scientists on behalf of the Pentagon’s Threat Reduction Agency.
The new missile design has a blunt nose that, combined with high velocity, creates a bubble of air in front of the weapon. The bubble is supposed to force earth out to the sides as the missile descends, creating a cavity through which the weapon can slide.
“Lockheed Martin hopes the supercavitating missile will reach 10 times the depth of the current air-force record holder, the huge BLU-113 bunker-buster, which can break through seven meters of concrete (22.7 feet) or 30 meters (97 feet) of earth," New Scientist says. The weapon also could carry more explosives than its predecessors
Mansion money grab hurts Miller’s image
ATLANTA – Former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, whose fire-breathing speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention charged that fellow Democrats have lost their way, has been forced to send a check for more than $113,000 to the state to resolve a controversy over money he received while he was the state’s chief executive.
At issue was a $40,000-a-year allowance that Georgia gives its governors to offset entertainment and hospitality costs at the executive mansion. According to documents obtained by Atlanta’s WSB-TV, Miller kept more than $60,000 that apparently wasn’t spent on entertaining legislators, business leaders and dignitaries while he was governor from 1991 to 1999. Miller "also picked up a check for more than $20,000 for ‘unused leave’ – a sum to which he was not entitled as a constitutional officer," the station reported.
Initially, Miller argued that he was “technically eligible” to keep the cash because no one said he couldn’t. But other former governors contacted by the TV station disagreed. The cash was meant for use at the mansion, not for the occupant’s personal use, they explained.
A 1969 opinion by the state’s attorney general held that money paid to state officials for expenses “are part of such official’s gross income and taxable to the extent they are not used for such business purposes.” In a statement, Miller said he was guided by that opinion in treating his unused allowance as income and paying tax on it, but decided to give it back anyway. The Macon Telegraph opined that Miller “probably doesn’t really need the money,” since his book attacking the Democrats, A National Party No More, was on The New York Times bestseller list for almost six months.
Backlash growing against eminent domain ruling
AUSTIN – On July 12, the Texas House of Representatives unanimously approved a constitutional amendment that would ban eminent domain from extending to economic development. The next day the state Senate passed a law that would do the same. If it also approves the House amendment, Gov. Rick Perry’s signature would send voters to the polls on Nov. 8 for the final say.
The move is part of a groundswell of support for homeowners and property rights in reaction to the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that makes it easier for the government to seize private property through eminent domain. The decision has galvanized state legislatures, according to a report by Nick Timiraos on Stateline.org.
Even before the case reached the Supreme Court, at least eight states – Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, South Carolina and Washington – had restricted eminent domain for economic development except to remove blight. Utah and Nevada limited it earlier this year in anticipation of the court ruling.
In Connecticut, Senate Republicans have called for a special session. But a June 28 attempt to amend the state’s two-year $31.2 billion budget to limit such condemnation laws failed in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Alabama’s Republican Gov. Bob Riley has promised to call a special legislative session to restrict seizures for economic development. Republican governors in Georgia and Missouri, and legislators in Florida, Oklahoma and New Hampshire, have created committees to make recommendations on how to protect private property owners.
An attempt to ban the use of eminent domain for private developments in Georgia failed last year. Illinois will address the issue in the fall when GOP Sen. Steve Rauschenberger introduces legislation to require that the state assembly and governor sign off on eminent domain cases for private development.
The Supreme Court ruling has created unlikely allies. Liberals, concerned that large companies may use political muscle to seize land in poor and minority neighborhoods, are working with conservatives, who are distressed about the government’s right to take private property from one person and give it to another. Developers caution against a backlash, claiming that eminent domain facilitates growth in dilapidated parts of town.
In Congress, Sen. John Cornyn, R-TX, has introduced legislation to exclude economic development as a valid pretext for seizing property. A similar bill has been introduced in the House. Representatives have voted 231-189 to bar federal funding for property seizures and expressed “grave disapproval” at the high court’s decision in a resolution that passed 365 to 33.
State supreme courts in six states – Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, New York and North Dakota – have held that eminent domain authority can be used for private economic development.
No taxes for Florida’s Jerusalem
ORLANDO – The Holy Land Experience, a religious-themed park modeled after ancient Jerusalem, has won a four-year legal battle for exemption from property taxes based on its religious nature.
The company faced a $786,343 bill for back taxes on property valued at more than $12.5 million. The next bill likely would have caused the park to shut down, attorney Mathew Staver said.
In her ruling, Circuit Judge Cynthia MacKinnon sided with Zion’s Hope, the nondenominational Christian ministry that developed the project, according to the Orlando Sentinel. “The property appraiser has failed to direct the court’s attention to any evidence that Plaintiff is using The Holy Land Experience to make money or for some other purpose than evangelizing and worshipping,” she wrote.
Orange County property appraiser Bill Donegan, who denied Holy Land tax-exempt status, isn’t convinced. It bears more resemblance to a theme park than a religious ministry, he argued. “None of those that I know of charge $30 admission,” he said.
Holy Land’s attractions include a life-sized walled gate and re-creations of Herod’s Temple and courtyard, Jesus’ garden tomb, a street market with artisans’ workshops, a Bedouin tent, and the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. It also boasts the Scriptorium with the largest private collection of biblical texts and artifacts in the country.
McKinnon noted that the non-profit company produces and distributes biblical cassettes, videos, books and CDs; publishes a religious magazine; broadcasts a syndicated radio show; and supports missionaries in Israel.
Opened in 2001, Holy Land was controversial from the start. Local rabbis were concerned, given the parent company’s stated mission of converting Jews to Christianity. The owner’s decision to prohibit charismatic and Pentecostal Christians from working there prompted picketing.
Some passengers may get fast-track passes
WASHINGTON – Frequent fliers could soon get a new perk at Reagan National and Dulles International airports: a pass to the front of the security checkpoint line in exchange for providing personal information and passing a background check.
The federal Registered Traveler Program, which speeds up security checks, so far has been implemented at six airports. But most have only one airline participating, and the Washington Post reported last week that many airlines and airports are tired of waiting for the Transportation and Security Administration to expand it.
As a result, several airports have formed the Registered Traveler Interoperability Consortium to develop standards that would allow each airport to sign up travelers and give passengers the same security privileges at different locations. This would include exemption from a secondary screening that includes pat-downs.
To become a member, a passenger would need to provide personal information such as date of birth, e-mail address, home address and phone number, and have their fingerprints and irises digitally scanned. Airports would then submit the information to the Transportation Security Administration. If travelers pass background checks, they would receive Registered Traveler cards containing data chips with their information.
Under the group’s plan, airports also might be able to offer their own perks, such as allowing passengers to earn additional frequent-flier miles or exempting them from having to take off their shoes or remove laptops from cases.
“There has been no path forward,” said Carter Morris, senior vice president at the American Association of Airport Executives. “The goal is to get this going now and move it at the speed the public wants it.”
Speeders safe from Florida spy cams
TALAHASSEE – If Florida cities want to use surveillance cameras to issue citations to drivers who run red lights, the state legislature will have to amend the law to allow the use of such information, according to a ruling by Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist. But this isn’t likely to happen, according to the Miami Herald, which noted that lawmakers have rejected such proposed laws for several years.
Cities can install cameras to “advise a car owner that his or her license tag number has been recorded in a violation of the traffic laws,” Crist wrote, but they can’t issue citations based solely on the photographs.
The Herald concluded that this sends a message to cities and counties that they shouldn’t bother installing red-light cameras, since most communities won’t spend money to install them if they can’t recoup the investment.
Cameras have been used for years in more than 20 states to catch drivers who plow through red lights, according to the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running, which is largely funded by camera contractors. Critics say the cameras smack of Big Brother, and the real motivation is to serve as cash cows for cities and camera contractors.
Schwarzenegger terminates labor research funding
SACRAMENTO – When California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a state budget last week that included spending increases for higher education, he also used his line-item veto power to strike $3.8 million that lawmakers had set aside for labor research programs at the University of California.
The funds had been allocated for the university’s Labor and Employment Research Fund, which supports studies by faculty and graduate students, and for education and research on labor conducted by industrial relations institutes at the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.
Schwarzenegger didn’t voice philosophical objections, yet was following up on a proposal he made to eliminate funds for the labor research last year. That budget continued to finance the studies.
Some business and conservative groups object to state funding for research conducted at the university’s industrial relations institutes. A primary objective of the work is to help improve the capacity and operations of labor unions. Matt Tennis, legislative director at the Associated Builders and Contractors of California, argued that the programs have been used to promote a “pro-labor” political agenda that was inappropriate for a public university.
Labor leaders in California have defended the programs, and the American Association of University Professors argues that singling out specific research topics violates the academic freedom of scholars and undermines the university’s autonomy. Universities often conduct research that helps improve businesses, supporters note.
University of California officials said that they did their best to work with members of both political parties. “We will continue working to see if there is some way of funding a program in this area in a manner that addresses the concerns and interests of all involved,” university spokesman Brad Hayward wrote in an e-mail.
Energy fight centers on product liability
WASHINGTON – Big oil companies have won a battle in the U.S. House of Representatives to protect themselves from lawsuits over the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), a suspected carcinogen that has leaked into water supplies in all 50 states.
A non-binding motion by Rep. Lois Capps, D-CA, introduced during debate over expansion of U.S. energy supplies, would have instructed House negotiators to oppose legal protection for MTBE makers, but the House rejected it in a 217-201 vote. The narrow margin indicates how divided Congress remains over immunizing oil companies from MTBE product liability lawsuits, Reuters reported.
Oil executives fear that MTBE liability could open the door to huge lawsuits, similar to those faced by the tobacco and asbestos industries. House GOP leaders lobbied hard to protect oil refiners and other MTBE makers, but moderate Senate Republicans and many Democrats say the oil industry, which is enjoying record-high profits, should not duck liability and stick communities with the cleanup bill.
To pass an energy bill before Congress goes into recess, lawmakers also will have to resolve differences over corn-blended ethanol, global warming, and whether utilities must begin to use renewable energy sources. The House energy bill offers $8 billion in tax breaks to produce more domestic energy. The Senate version doubled the amount.
MTBE liability was the main reason that an energy bill failed to pass the Senate last year. “It could easily happen again,” Capps said.
U.S. oil refiners began adding MTBE to gasoline in 1979 as an anti-knock agent that replaced lead. But the chemical has seeped into municipal water supplies across the nation through leaky underground tanks, rendering the water undrinkable.
Municipal water utilities say the nationwide cleanup bill could be as high as $89 billion. The American Petroleum Institute, which represents the biggest U.S. oil companies, claims the costs will be less than $1.5 billion.