View galleryGerman Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures as she address media during a news conference at Bundespressekonferenz … By Noah Barkin BERLIN (Reuters) – Chancellor Angela Merkel looked on track to win a third term in a weekend election in Germany but faced a battle to preserve her center-right majority and avert a potentially divisive coalition with her arch-rivals, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).The vote on Sunday is being watched across Europe, with many of Berlin’s partners hoping it will bring about a softening of the austerity-first approach Merkel has promoted since the euro zone debt crisis broke out nearly four years ago.But the prospect of major shifts in her euro policy are slim, even if she is forced into a „grand coalition” with the SPD, whose candidate Peer Steinbrueck has criticized the chancellor for choking off growth in southern members of the currency bloc by insisting on spending cuts and painful reforms.”Germany remains committed to euro zone membership, but public opinion and institutional constraints … limit the scope for any German government to drastically alter course towards more generous support policies,” analysts at Citi Research said in a research note.Two days before the vote, a survey by Forsa for private broadcaster RTL showed Merkel’s conservatives — the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister Bavarian party the Christian Social Union (CSU) — 14 points ahead of the SPD, meaning she will almost surely return for a third term.But her combined center-right bloc, which includes the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), was in a dead heat with left-leaning opposition parties, with both camps on 45 percent.That makes the election in Europe’s largest economy too close to call.Merkel could win a narrow majority with the FDP, her preferred partner, or fall short and be forced into difficult negotiations with the SPD which could last up to two months and result in big changes to her cabinet, including the departure of Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, a key player in the crisis.The wild card is a new anti-euro party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which polled 4 percent in the Forsa survey but is given a decent chance of vaulting above the 5 percent threshold needed to win seats in parliament on election night.That would doom Merkel’s hopes of continuing her current coalition and stir concerns about rising German euroscepticism, though its impact on government policy would likely be limited.UNDECIDED VOTERS-Also complicating forecasts is a large group of undecided voters, estimated by pollsters at more than 30 percent.”I still don’t know who I’m going to vote for,” Anja Brueckmann, a secretary who usually votes for Merkel’s CDU, told Reuters in Berlin. „I keep listening to all this talk from the politicians but no matter who wins nothing changes.”Merkel, 59, would be only the third post-war German leader, after Helmut Kohl and Konrad Adenauer, to win three terms. After Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg and Andrus Ansip of Estonia, she is Europe’s longest-serving leader.Hugely popular at home for her steady „step by step” leadership during five years of global and euro zone financial crisis, supporters have taken to waving „Mutti” (Mum) signs at rallies, reflecting her image as a caring mother of the nation.She has presided over a robust economy and booming labor market. At 6.8 percent, the German jobless rate is roughly one-quarter that of Greece, which stands at more than 27 percent.”Germany has had four good years. We accomplished a lot together,” Merkel said in a CDU campaign letter received by over 5 million German households on Friday.Merkel’s critics deride her as a reactive, risk-averse leader whose policies have slavishly followed public opinion, instead of shaping it. They say Germany’s economic success is largely down to reforms introduced a decade ago by her predecessor, SPD chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany as the daughter of a Protestant pastor, became chancellor in 2005 after narrowly beating Schroeder.Because of her razor-thin margin of victory, she was forced into the first ‘grand coalition’ between Germany’s two biggest parties since the 1960s. After winning re-election in 2009 with the FDP, she may have to look to the SPD again after Sunday.This time the process may not be as smooth.”The (SPD) lost 13 percent of the vote during its last partnership with Chancellor Merkel and is highly concerned about the potential long-term electoral repercussions of repeating the arrangement,” said Alex White of JP Morgan in London. „SPD leaders will push for the most advantageous possible deal, likely extending negotiations for a period of many weeks.”In the talks, the SPD is expected to push for a nationwide minimum wage, a tax rise for higher earners and also key cabinet posts, including possibly the finance and foreign ministries.(Additional reporting by Erik Kirschbaum, Stephen Brown and Gareth Jones; Editing by Gareth Jones)
View gallery A U.N. chemical weapons expert (2nd L) takes a picture of a person affected by an apparent gas attack, …By Anthony Deutsch THE HAGUE (Reuters) – Syria has submitted details of its chemical weapons to Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, the organization told Reuters on Friday.Syria is believed to possess around 1,000 tonnes of chemical toxins, and has agreed to destroy them under a joint Russian-U.S. proposal designed to avert a U.S. strike on Syria.”We have received part of the verification and we expect more,” an OPCW spokesman said.A U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the details had been submitted, saying: „It’s quite long … and being translated.”The organization’s core members are due to vote – probably next week – on a plan aimed at fast-tracking the destruction of Syria’s chemical stockpiles by mid-2014.The plan has emerged from a U.S. threat to attack Syria and a burst of international diplomacy after a poison gas attack killed hundreds of civilians on the outskirts of Damascus last month.(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch in The Hague, additional reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Sara Webb and Kevin Liffey)
ABIDJAN (Reuters) – Ivory Coast will try former first lady Simone Gbagbo, who is being sought by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity, in a domestic court, the government said following a special cabinet meeting on Friday.Former President Laurent Gbagbo, whose refusal to accept defeat in a late 2010 presidential runoff triggered a brief war, is currently in The Hague awaiting trial for crimes committed during the post-election crisis.The government declined to transfer Simone Gbagbo to the court when the ICC indictment, which alleged she was „criminally responsible for murder, rape, other forms of sexual violence, other inhumane acts, and persecution”, was unsealed last November.”This decision by the cabinet aims to judge Madame Gbagbo in Ivory Coast under Ivorian jurisdiction, which is today rehabilitated and able to offer her a fair and balanced trial,” a statement read by government spokesman Bruno Kone said.”The government will shortly introduce its request to the registrar of the International Criminal Court,” he added.Simone Gbagbo was arrested along with her husband in April 2011 as fighting came to an end and has since been held under house arrest in the northwestern city of Odienne. She is accused by Ivorian authorities of crimes including genocide.(Reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)
Pope Francis signals remarkable shift in priorities for Catholics .Pope Francis said in an interview released Thursday that the Catholic Church’s emphasis needs to turn from sexual issues to the ‘freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.’By Harry Bruinius | Christian Science Monitor – 14 hours agoPlay Video The world’s Catholics ponder the points of Pope Francis first major interview euronews Videos 1:19Play Video Possible backlash over Pope’s commentsSeven Media Group – News 1:35 Pope Francis again signaled a remarkable shift of priorities for the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, saying in an interview released Thursday that the church’s moral edifice would “fall like a house of cards” if it did not prioritize the proclamation of the saving love of God over its current emphasis on dogmatic and moral teachings.“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” the pope said in an extensive and candid interview published in Jesuit journals in 16 countries, including America magazine in the United States. “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”“Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: This is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn,” continued the pope, who startled observers in July by saying, “Who am I to judge?” when referring to gays who seek God in good faith. “A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation.”RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about the Catholic Church? Take our quiz!The current pontiff’s emphasis on the “freshness and fragrance of the Gospel” is a dramatic shift, many observers believe, from that of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. A professional theologian who had previously been prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly called the Inquisition), the man earlier known as Joseph Ratzinger had long been in charge of maintaining the doctrinal purity of Roman Catholics.Benedict had also suggested the church might need to become smaller and purer to contend with modern secularism and materialism – frequent topics of his sermons and writings. And Catholic bishops in the US have often focused their public statements on condemnations of explosive social issues like homosexuality and abortion.Francis, by contrast, has brought a renewed and aggressive focus on evangelization, social justice, and parish ministry – each of which are important parts of his religious order, the Society of Jesus, whose members are known as Jesuits. Pope Francis, an Argentine of Italian heritage, is the first Jesuit pope, as well as the first pope from the Americas.“The interview brims with Pope Francis’ fundamental optimism about human beings – and his confidence in our ability, individually and collectively, to discern what is good and what is of God,” says J. Patrick Hornbeck, chair of the department of theology at Fordham University in New York.“This is in stark contrast to what he views as a legalistic attitude toward people,” Professor Hornbeck continues. “This is fundamentally Jesuit: It reflects what Francis would have learned from his earliest days in the Jesuits – namely, the great confidence that Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, has in God’s work through human beings.”Francis’ change in tone and emphasis has many of the 75 million Catholics in the US applauding after what they see as years of the church’s decline.“Certainly the vast majority of US Catholics will enthusiastically welcome the remarks of Pope Francis,” says Michele Dillon, chair of the sociology department at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H. “Catholics have for many decades now made up their own minds about the morality of contraception, gay relationships, marriage [and] divorce, and the moral nuances presented by the difficult challenges posed by abortion.”“Many in the church will be surprised – and additionally, some bishops and the conservative Catholic minority will be alarmed – that Francis combined abortion, contraception, and gay sexuality in the same statement denouncing the obsession of the church with these issues,” continues Professor Dillon, a practicing Catholic who is also president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.Even so, the pope’s words do not indicate a change in the church’s basic moral teachings about these matters, but merely a renewed focus on other aspects of Catholic teaching, which Francis considers more essential.“Nothing in what the pope said in this newly released material counters Roman Catholic church doctrine but, rather, he sets it all in a new key – a pastoral key,” says Bruce T. Morrill, the Edward A. Malloy professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn. “The beautiful priority for Pope Francis is pastoral love and care for real people where they are at. The unifying doctrinal source is the Gospel, the lived-message of people and God encountering each other through listening, compassion, service, and then teaching that ‘speaks’ in the given context.”Hornbeck agrees: “A constant theme in the interview – and in his pontificate more broadly – is mercy,” he says. “It is a word that recurs throughout the text. He says repeatedly that the church must ‘heal the wounds’ – including wounds imposed by the church’s … ‘small-minded rules,’ ” he says, quoting the pope’s words. “It is because of this emphasis that the pope emphasizes that there is a hierarchy of doctrines and that the proclamation of the Gospel should come first.”Yet, in addition to the wounds Francis spoke of, many Catholic theologians and members of the laity see the past few decades of the church as modeling a top-down hierarchy that refused to engage the lives of parishioners – something Francis seems intent to change.“[The] pope is living the example, practicing the pastoral work, of being directly with the people so as to know and listen to [them], rather than simply to teach and tell them,” says Father Morrill, who is also a Catholic priest and member of the Society of Jesus. “The latter, in my estimation, has been the tactic of the majority of US Catholic bishops for the past couple decades, and one can readily see how ineffective [and] unpersuasive they have been, not only in wider society but among Catholics themselves, who have been falling away precipitously.”“Polling and interview data for decades have found the laity expressing their dismay at how irrelevant, if not insulting, has been so much of the preaching to which they’ve been subjected,” Morrill continues. “A renewed ‘mystification’ of the sacramental rites – primarily the mass – is another top-down, clerically centered, if not obsessed approach that, after more than a decade, has not shown much pastoral fruit.”“Rules, of course, will still have a place,” says Peter Ellard, director of the Reinhold Niebuhr Institute of Religion and Culture at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y. “But a focus on them leads to ‘small mindedness,’ he says. This is an amazing statement for a pontiff.”“The most astonishing thing to me is that his predecessor was indeed focused on following rules, on highlighting doctrine, on placing strict adherence to moral teaching above just about everything else,” says Mr. Ellard. “The message seems clear: Francis has another idea. It is truly an exciting time.”RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about the Catholic Church? Take our quiz!
South African commission accuses police of lying over killings of striking minersBy Christopher Torchia, The Associated Press | The Canadian Press – 20 hours agoView Photo FILE – In this file photo taken Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012 police surround the bodies …JOHANNESBURG – South African police lied, withheld documents and apparently doctored other papers during a government-appointed investigation of the police killings of 34 striking miners last year, a state panel said Thursday.The revelation by the Marikana Commission of Inquiry is bound to heighten concerns about the police force which is struggling to stem high crime rates, and points to wider concerns among some South Africans who believe the nation has not lived up to the high expectations that prevailed when all-race elections were held for the first time in 1994 to end white minority rule.The commission said it had to search computer hard drives of officers to discover documents about the August 2012 shootings that shocked South Africa and recalled the worst excesses of white-led apartheid rule, when mass killings such as those at Sharpeville in 1960 and Soweto in 1976 helped shape a protest movement forged through loss.In last year’s labour unrest, violence during strikes at Lonmin PLC’s platinum mine near Marikana, northwest of Johannesburg, led to the deaths of 46 people, including the nearly three dozen miners who were shot dead by police.The police version of events of the shootings „is in material respects not the truth,” said the commission after studying the newly obtained documents.The commission, which has faced delays as well as funding shortfalls, said the thousands of pages of new evidence include documents the police had previously said did not exist and material which should have been disclosed earlier by the South African police, known by the acronym SAPS. The panel adjourned until Wednesday to study the new evidence, and said technicians were „continuing the painstaking and slow task of identifying and copying” hard drive material on police computers.”We recognize that it is important that the SAPS should have the opportunity to explain the matters which have raised our concern,” the commission said. „However, we have to say that absent a convincing explanation, the material which we have found has serious consequences for the further conduct of the work of this Commission.”The Associated Press telephoned police spokesmen to ask for reaction to the commission statement, but the officials were not immediately available.Evidence presented to the commission has indicated some miners were shot in the back as they tried to flee and others were killed when they already were wounded and posed no threat. Police, however, said they opened fire after striking miners attacked them. And South Africa’s police chief, Gen. Riah Phiyega, told the commission that officers involved in the shooting deaths were just doing their job.A recent bout of unrest at South Africa’s gold mines ended peacefully, with workers and management agreeing to a compromise on wage increases. But the protests undercut productivity in a country that was already struggling with falling commodity prices as well as an unemployment rate of about 25 per cent. Auto workers and municipal power workers in Johannesburg have also held protests, contributing to one of the biggest waves of labour unrest in past years.The Marikana killings deepened skepticism in some circles toward the ruling African National Congress party, the former liberation movement that has dominated politics since the end of apartheid and remains the overwhelming front-runner ahead of elections next year. But discontent over a lack of opportunities and corruption scandals, as well as a more robust opposition, have eroded support for the ANC in some areasNelson Mandela, the former prisoner and president who once led the ANC, is 95 years old and in critical condition at his home, where a team of doctors is caring for him around the clock.
Iran security elite told to shun politics as nuclear talks loomBy William Maclean and Marcus George | Reuters – 23 hours agoView Photo Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during the 16th summit of the …By William Maclean and Marcus George DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s clerical leadership has told security hardliners to stay out of politics, in effect instructing them not to wreck the new centrist government’s attempt to solve an intractable nuclear dispute with West.If the message to the Revolutionary Guards from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and new President Hassan Rouhani was meant as an admonition, however, it was a friendly one.The request was delicate since the military force has accumulated great economic and political power in recent years and is omnipresent in the life of the nation.Such is the Guards’ influence in political, social and economic affairs that they could disrupt any rapprochement with the West if they felt this would damage their interests.The 125,000-strong Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has a military budget that is believed to dwarf that of the regular armed forces. But much of its much of its clout comes from positions held by former members in parliament, in the cabinet, as provincial governors and on Khamenei’s staff.Khamenei told a meeting of Guards personnel on Tuesday: „There’s no need for the IRGC to be active in the political arena”.A day earlier the gathering was told by Rouhani – a centrist cleric who defeated more conservative candidates in a June election – that the late founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had recommended the military stay out of politics. „The IRGC is above and beyond political currents, not beside them or within them,” Rouhani said.However, Khamenei’s message was twinned with praise for the Guards’ business and other non-military roles, a hint that it may be rewarded eventually for indulging Rouhani’s attempt at solving the nuclear standoff and ending economic sanctions.Rouhani has called for „constructive interaction” with the world and the head of Iran’s nuclear energy organisation said on Wednesday that he saw „openings” on the nuclear issue.While Iran says its nuclear programme is peaceful, the West suspects it is aimed at developing nuclear weapons and has imposed crippling economic sanctions on Tehran.STREET PROTESTS-To many, Khamenei’s comments implicitly recognised the Guards’ ability to interfere in any perceived weakening of Iranian resolve in pursuing its nuclear programme.Conservative leaders of the Guards opposed many policies of reformist president Mohammad Khatami, who served from 1997 to 2005, and helped to scuttle his boldest initiatives.The Guards and its volunteer paramilitary branch, the Basij, were also instrumental in suppressing huge street protests that followed the disputed re-election of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.Farhang Jahanpour of Oxford University’s Faculty of Oriental Studies said the main domestic obstacle Rouhani faces was the attitude of hardliners represented by the Guards who call the United States and its allies „world arrogance”.”They have been the ones most insistent about not surrendering to ‘world arrogance’ and upholding revolutionary values. So both Rouhani and Khamenei feel they have to keep them on their side by giving them something in return,” he said.”As long as the Guards see that the country is not totally capitulating to the West and as far as their economic gains are safe, they would keep quiet and will give the government room to find an honourable compromise with the West.”According to one Iranian journalist in Tehran, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Khamenei had calculated it was in his interests to give negotiations with Washington a chance if it resulted in an easing of sanctions.GREAT POWER-But at the same time he was worried about „the great power and influence that the IRGC has over everything in Iran … because they could any time make a coup against him (Khamenei)whenever they find the Leader threatening for their interests.”That may be an extreme view. Hardliners seem to have little reason yet to worry about the nuclear issue, as Western diplomats see no sign of Iran slowing its programme.The last report by the United Nations nuclear watchdog showed Iran further expanding its uranium enrichment capacity by installing more than 1,800 additional old generation centrifuges since the previous report in May.Then there are personal loyalties. The Guards report directly to Khamenei, and many commanders owe their careers to him.An example of how close the Guards are to the heart of power surfaced this week when the Iranwire website published photographs of a funeral wake for the mother of the head of the Guards’ shadowy Quds force, Qassem Soleimani.Almost the entire military and political elite turned out to pay their respects, including senior cabinet members, centrist politicians and the Guards’ intelligence chief. As well as a condolence message from Khamenei, there was also one from former president Khatami, the website said.Western diplomats believe Soleimani is responsible for the Guards’ alleged role in the Syrian civil war.General concern about the spreading influence of the Guards is not hard to find among Iran watchers. Some wonder if the Guards dislike economic sanctions as much as everyone else.Imposed mostly by Western countries over Iran’s nuclear activities, sanctions have kept Western oil firms away from Iran’s energy sector, leaving space for Guards firms to win the lucrative contracts.A HONEYMOON PERIOD?-The Guards’ interests, which grew strongly in the volatile, factionalised political environment under Ahmadinejad, may have to be placated in some way if Rouhani is to make headway in any fresh nuclear talks.Siavush Randjbar-Daemi, an Iran expert at the University of Manchester, said Khamenei was keen to give Rouhani the space to pursue effective negotiations with the West.”What we’re seeing is a reshuffle in terms of authority and power in Iran – an attempt to put the house in order,” he said of Khamenei’s instructions about avoiding politics.He added there was a new optimism inside the ruling system following the election that lessened the need for the Guards to be involved in politics. „The last administration saw a breakdown in bureaucracy and a breakdown of boundaries. No-one knew what the IRGC was up to.”Khamenei is redressing the lines and carving out some authority for Rouhani …. It’s his honeymoon period.”(Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; editing by David Stamp)