Saturday, December 29, 2007

Walled Off Town Of Bethlehem's Struggles Continue

A normally empty Manger Square was filled beyond capacity on Christmas day as thousands of Palestinians, dignitaries and foreigners descended on the little town of Bethlehem to welcome Michel Sabah the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

The Patriarch's yearly visit was meant to kick off Christmas festivities but this year, as in others, the spirit of the festive season is uniquely intertwined with the fate of all Palestinians, who say the city has suffered from years of Israeli occupation.

And like previous years, despite a boost in tourism, celebrations in Bethlehem have been marred by a poor economic and security situation.

While Bethlehem is the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ atop a hill just 10km away from Jerusalem, the site of Christ's crucifixion, a 10-meter high concrete wall put up by Israel and several military checkpoints keep the two cities very much apart.

Fairy tale Christmas

It is such barriers and restrictions borne of Israeli occupation that has made Christmas bittersweet for Palestinians.

Maxim Sansour, founding board member of Open Bethlehem, an international campaign to address the state of emergency facing Bethlehem, said the city's greatest problems largely go unaddressed every Christmas.

He said: "Christmas comes and goes, but our problems remain."

Issues of growing Israeli settlements which lie immediately on the border of Bethlehem and demolitions of Palestinian homes on the outskirts of the city have made life difficult for Palestinians.

Sansour says Bethlehem will always continue to struggle as long as such Palestinian issues of statehood, economic viability and sustenance under occupation remain unaddressed.

Sansour also believes that visitors and pilgrims who do come show support but at the same time many are also in Bethlehem as part of "the fairy-tale story of Christmas".

Father Garret Edmonds, a Franciscan monk from California who works with pilgrim groups in Palestine and is spending his fifth Christmas in Bethlehem, said: "There are moments of hope but then everything returns to the status quo. It goes on and off like this all the time."

Father Edmonds also highlighted the increasing erosion of the Church and the increasing number of Christians choosing to emigrate from in Palestine.

"It's important to have a viable, living Church, but if things continue the way they are in 25 years there might not be a living church. Bethlehem could become one giant museum," he said.

Life under occupation

In 2006, Open Bethlehem released the results of a questionnaire which examined the reasons behind the high rate of Christian emigration from Bethlehem.

Of 2000 Palestinians surveyed in Bethlehem, 76 per cent said Israeli occupation was the main reason for leaving.

Sixteen per cent of the Christians in the city said they are in the process of emigrating, compared to eight per cent of the Muslims.

Many Palestinians also said that foreigners and pilgrims coming to Bethlehem do not experience daily life under occupation.

Palestinians who have Israeli permission to travel between Bethlehem and the West Bank say they are subjected to fingerprint and document scanning, full body searches, and long waits before they are let through.

Some are not even allowed to visit friends and family simply because they live on the wrong side of the wall or in some cases the soldier manning a checkpoint might not feel like letting them through.

Brother Jack Curran, Vice President of Development for Bethlehem University, said: "I have colleagues who haven't been to Jerusalem in years and I can come and go as freely as I want. I feel ashamed of the privilege I have and it's easy to take for granted, I always have to remember that."

"But it is also a privilege that the Palestinians deserve."

Brother Curran, a member of the Lasallian order, felt that Christmas in Bethlehem is not truly reflected because of what he says are the injustices being heaped upon the Palestinians daily.

"The story can't be told without looking seriously at these things," he said.

"Without foreigners," Curran explained, "it would also be a lot worse. We must act as the witnesses and truth tellers, but not just once a year."

Sustain support

Christmas generates a great deal of positive media attention for both Bethlehem and Palestine every year. It is a chance for the world to show the Palestinians some sympathy and solidarity but Sansour said that it never carries on.

"We love good feelings and the Palestinian people deeply appreciate the show of support, but it must be a sustained kind of support."

Bethlehem is a small town; according to the Palestinian Central bureau of Statistics its population in 2006 stood just shy of 30000, and has a very small and localized economy which is dominated by the tourist industry.

According to Open Bethlehem, tourism accounts for 65 per cent of Bethlehem's economy. In November, 80,000 visitors arrived in the city. This was boosted by a further 20,000 in the days leading to Christmas.

Sansour said that while tourism represents a significant portion of Bethlehem's economy many of the tourist operators are Israeli which means that most of the tourists who do come stay for only a short time and promptly return to Jerusalem.

"They come here, take their
Disneyland photos and drink some tea from a local shop and go back to Jerusalem," Sansour said.

"Maybe they'll stop by and buy some wood carvings from a shop where the Israeli operators get a commission, but that's about it," he added.

Christmas surge

Most of Bethlehem's local businessmen wait all year just for the Christmas season to come in hopes of boosting their incomes and providing for their families.

It's not surprising given that the poverty rate stands at 60 per cent while unemployment stands at 55 per cent, a slight increase from last year but not overly significant according to George Saadeh, Bethlehem's deputy mayor.

Abed Ibrahim, who works at a sweets shop, said: "Christmas [is] the only time of the year that anyone makes any money."

"It's good for now. But next year it will be bad again until the next Christmas. Nothing will change," he said

Ibrahim added: "Fast dollars won't solve our business problems."

Ameer Jaber, who operates a stall selling boiled corn and roasted peanuts, feels the Palestinians need the kind of media exposure they received for Christmas year-round and not just in Bethlehem, but all over Palestine.

He said: "You foreigners come and help us, but then you leave when you have your pictures and reports, but we're still here and you'll have the same story next year unless we get your help."

China Invests 5 Billion In Morgan Stanley

A state-controlled Chinese investment fund has taken a $5
bn stake in Morgan Stanley, one of America's biggest investment banks, which earlier announced multi-billion-dollar losses.

The US bank and securities firm said on Wednesday that China Investment Corporation (CIC) would gain around a 9.9 per cent shareholding in it.

Earlier in the day, Morgan Stanley announced a net loss of $3.59bn for the fourth quarter.
The firm's financial picture darkened as it announced it was writing off $9.4bn.

Morgan Stanley mainly blamed this decision on loss-making mortgage investments, including subprime home loans granted to Americans with poor credit.

John Mack, the chairman and chief executive officer, said CIC's cash infusion would reinforce Morgan Stanley's stretched finances.

The Chinese fund controls a $200bn investment war chest.

New team

Mack said that he had put a new management team in place and would not accept a bonus for 2007.
Still, speculation mounted over whether Mack would keep his job amid the mounting losses.
"Huge writedowns caused the ouster of Merrill Lynch & Co CEO Stan O'Neal and Citigroup Inc CEO Charles Prince. May be Morgan Stanley will follow them," said Peter Cardillo, a market analyst at Avalon Partners.
China has been making increasingly aggressive investments in some of America's premier financial companies this year.

Its moves have alarmed some US politicians who believe the deals could threaten national security.
CIC acquired a $3bn stake in the Blackstone Group, a large private equity firm, earlier this year and China's CITIC Securities Co Ltd bought a six per cent shareholding in Bear Stearns, another US investment house, for $1bn in October.

Buying spree

Sovereign wealth funds operated by China, Singapore and Gulf Arab states are buying stakes in the US finance sector as Wall Street reels from a prolonged US housing downturn and heavy losses related to mortgage securities.
The mortgage losses and economic uncertainty have depressed the stock prices of many big banks in recent months, including Morgan Stanley.

Its shares were up over four per cent at $50.19 in mid-afternoon trading, but have tumbled from a peak this year of over $74 in June.

With the Morgan Stanley deal, China becomes one of the biggest shareholders in a US firm that traces its roots to 1854.
John Pierpont Morgan was considered the unofficial central banker of the US in the late 1800s and famed for helping reorganize the country's railroads.

A History Of Akrons The Chapel "Ex Gay" Ministry

In 1973 John Evans, who is gay, and Rev. Kent Philpott, who is heterosexual, co-founded the original “ex-gay” ministry, Love In Action on the outskirts of San Francisco. Philpott soon wrote The Third Sex?, the first ever “ex-gay” book which touted six people who supposedly converted to heterosexuality through prayer.

Although time eventually revealed no one in his book actually had changed, the people reading it had no idea the stories were fallacious. As far as they knew, there was a magical place in California that had figured out the secret for making gays into straights. Inspired by his book, a few enthusiastic individuals spontaneously began their own “ex-gay” ministries.

Evans, however, denounced the program he co-founded after his best friend Jack McIntyre committed suicide in despair over not being able to “change”. Still, Love in Action survived because many people who read The Third Sex? came to California in hopes of changing.

As a result of Philpott’s book, within three years more than a dozen “ex-gay” ministries organically sprung up across America. As these ministries serendipitously became aware of each other, two leading “ex-gay” counselors at Melodyland Christian Center in Anaheim, California - Gary Cooper and Michael Bussee - decided to organize a conference where the “ex-gays” could meet each other and network.

In September 1976, Cooper and Bussee’s vision came to fruition as sixty-two “ex-gays” journeyed to Melodyland for the world’s first “ex-gay” conference. The outcome of the retreat was the formation of Exodus International, an umbrella organization for “ex-gay” groups worldwide.

The early Exodus meetings almost disintegrated the group because participants kept sleeping with each other. The group was rocked to its core a few years later when Bussee and Cooper acknowledged that they had not changed and were in love with each other. They soon divorced their wives, moved in together and eventually held a commitment ceremony.

In 1979, Seventh Day Adventist minister Colin Cook founded Homosexuals Anonymous (HA). But Cook’s “ex-gay” empire crumbled a few years later after he was scandalized for having phone sex and giving nude massages to those he was supposedly helping become heterosexual.

As acceptance for homosexuality grew in the late 1970’s, the “ex-gay” ministries had trouble attracting new recruits and growth of these programs stagnated. Then came AIDS. Unscrupulous ministry leaders were able to use the threat of AIDS to scare people into entering “ex-gay” ministries.

However, even as the epidemic spurred new growth, the “ex-gay” ministries remained relatively obscure in mainstream society. This dramatically changed in 1998 when the politically motivated Religious Right jumped on the “ex-gay” bandwagon launching a multi-million dollar newspaper and television ad campaign. They featured groups like Exodus because the traditional fire and brimstone rhetoric of the far right political groups made them seem mean-spirited and intolerant. By embracing the “ex-gays”, hateful men like Revs. D. James Kennedy, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson could claim they loved homosexuals and were just trying to help them.

But the ad campaign soon backfired after University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was murdered because he was gay. The groups who sponsored the anti-gay ads were held largely responsible for creating a climate where hate crimes, such as the Shepard incident, could flourish. Although these groups denied a connection, because of the negative fallout they postponed their “ex-gay” television ads for several months and the campaign lost steam.

Additionally, several of the “ex-gays” they paraded as proof of “change” were uncovered as frauds. The biggest example was “ex-gay” poster boy John Paulk who the ad campaign sponsors put on the cover of Newsweek with his “ex-lesbian” wife Anne under the large headline, “Gay for Life?” But in September 2000 Paulk was photographed cruising in a Washington, DC gay bar and was suspended as Chairman of Exodus and put on a temporary “hiatus” by Focus on the Family, where he ran their “Love Won Out” program.

The “ex-gay” ministries are still growing today despite their history of scandals and failures. The sad truth is, as long as people are made to hate themselves for being gay, these groups will exist. The best way to counter their negative influence is by highlighting the truth and revealing the failed history that “ex-gay” groups represent. Showing an honest portrayal of gay life also greatly diminishes the effectiveness of these groups. When people learn that God loves them for who they are and that they can be gay and happy, the appeal of these dangerous groups invariably wanes.

"Aussie Taliban"David Hicks Released From Prison

David Hicks, the only Guantanamo inmate convicted of terrorism offenses by a US military tribunal, has walked free after more than six years in prison.

The 32-year-old left prison in his hometown of Adelaide on Saturday after he completed a nine-month-sentence in his native Australia struck under a plea deal.

Hicks was captured in Afghanistan in late 2001.

He spent five years in Guantanamo before becoming the first person to be sentenced under the alternate war crimes tribunals created by the Bush administration to try non-American captives.

The former kangaroo skinner admitted training with al-Qaeda and meeting its leader Osama bin Laden, whom he described as "lovely", according to police evidence given to the court.

Restricted movement

He was sentenced to seven years in prison in March, though all but nine months' prison time was suspended.

Hicks did not speak to reporters as he left prison in what constituted his first public appearance since being captured.

However, in a statement released by his lawyer, he thanked those who helped get him out of Guantanamo Bay, including the Australian public, and promised to uphold conditions of his plea deal and avoid doing "anything that might result in my return there."

Hicks will still be subject to a strict control order which includes a midnight-to-dawn curfew. He will not be allowed to leave Australia.

Under a plea bargain reached with US military authorities, Hicks agreed to a gag order which stops him from talking about his experiences for a year, ending on March 26.

He also forfeited any right to appeal his conviction and any money offered for interviews could be confiscated under Australian law.

Media reports last week said Hicks was unprepared for freedom, suffered agoraphobia and had retreated to solitary confinement in his Australian prison cell.

No apology

The Hicks case became a political issue in Australia where many activists and politicians criticised John Howard, the former prime minister, for allowing an Australian to spend years in a foreign prison without trial.

Under increasing pressure Howard raised the issue of Hicks with Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, when he was in Sydney earlier this year, and the tribunal proceedings against Hicks started soon afterward.

Kevin Rudd, Howard's successor, has recognised the plea deal and the strict conditions on Hicks' movements.

But in 2006 Rudds described Hicks' imprisonment as a "national obscenity" and that the Guantanamo prison should be closed.

No apologies

Terry, Hicks' father, had said on Friday his son would apologise for any wrongdoing he committed while in Afghanistan, but the statement contained no such apology.

Asked about the omission, Terry Hicks said his son had served his time and had nothing to be sorry about.

Around 20 supporters cheered at Hicks' release Saturday and held up signs that read, "Hicks is not a threat" - a reference to the strict controls on his movements.

Terry Hicks gave no indication of where his son would live or any plans for the future.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Israel Continues With Illegal Settlements

An Israeli building program planned for East Jerusalem is set to overshadow a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Thursday's summit between Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, is the first since the two agreed to renew peace talks at the US-sponsored Annapolis meeting last month.

The Jerusalem dispute has already clouded earlier meetings between negotiating teams.
Last month, Israel announced tenders for 307 new apartments in Har Homa, part of a ring of settlements built on confiscated Palestinian land in east Jerusalem.

Fighters captured

Meanwhile, in the occupied West Bank, Israeli soldiers captured two senior members of the Islamic Jihad group in raids on Thursday, Palestinian security sources and witnesses said.
Israeli troops arrested Mohammad Assayda near Nablus, the Islamic Jihad said.

Assayda, who was released from Israeli jail in September, is a lecturer at al-Najah University.Samer al-Saadi, another Islamic Jihad fighter, was captured in a separate raid in a refugee camp in Jenin, a Palestinian security officer told Reuters news agency.

Demand for halt

The Palestinians are demanding that Israel halt the Har Home housing project, in line with the peace roadmap which committed Israel to freeze settlement activity.
Israel, which annexed east Jerusalem in 1967 after capturing it along with the West Bank, does not accept demands to limit its construction there.
Israel views the Har Homa building project as distinct from settlement activity because it takes place in "unified" Jerusalem, rather than in the occupied West Bank.
The distinction is not accepted by Palestinians.
Al Jazeera's Ayman Mohyeldin, reporting from east Jerusalem, said Israeli settlement construction shows no sign of slowing down.
"The Knesset later today [Thursday] is expected to vote on the 2008 budget and in that budget is approximately $25 million that will go to the building of new housing units in the illegal settlements of Maale Adumim and Har Homa."

Freeze demanded

Abu Rdeneh, an aide to Abbas, said the Palestinian leader will ask Olmert for "a clear cessation of settlement activities" at Thursday's talks.
He said joint committees would begin discussing the main issues for a peace agreement at the meeting, "but there is a need to freeze the settlement activities in order to create the appropriate atmosphere to bring progress in the peace process".
Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesman, said that Israel is committed to trying for a peace treaty with the Palestinians in 2008, as decided at Annapolis.
"This is an ambitious goal. It will demand our tenacity, our determination and both sides coming to the table in the spirit of seriousness," he said.
But Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, said Israel's construction plan "kills the credibility of the peace process".

Egypt meeting

Egypt also criticised the Israeli intention to build new homes in east Jerusalem at a meeting on Wednesday in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik between Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, and Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister.
The talks focused on Israeli accusations that Egypt was not doing enough to prevent arms smuggling into Gaza, the Palestinian territory controlled by Hamas.
Barak said after the meeting that Israel and Egypt would continue to work together to resolve disagreements, but offered little evidence the sides had made progress on the issue.

Outcome at risk

Instead, Mubarak criticised the Israeli building programme as a threat to the Israeli-Palestinian process.
Suleiman Awwad, Mubarak's spokesman, said that "settlement activity will hijack the only outcome of the Annapolis conference".
Barak disagreed. "In our view, this is not part of the problem with the Palestinians," he said.
"We are not building new settlements."
Palestinians claim all of east Jerusalem as capital of a future state, while Israel claims all of the city as its capital.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Israel Kills At Least 6 During Raid Into The Gaza Strip

Israeli tanks and troops have raided the central Gaza Strip, killing at least six Palestinian fighters, hospital officials said.
Palestinian witnesses said the Israeli forces advanced nearly one kilometre into the Gaza Strip on Thursday, just east of the Maghazi refugee camp.
Hamas, which has de facto control of Gaza, said three of the men killed by the Israeli forces were from Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, its armed group.

Islamic Jihad also said three fighters from their armed wing died in the raids.
Another 20 people were wounded in the fighting, Muawiya Abu Hassanein, director of emergency services in Gaza, said.
He said that Palestinian ambulances were prevented from reaching the scene of the incident to attend to more casualties.

Rockets fired
An Israeli military spokeswoman confirmed that a raid was undertaken, describing it as "a routine operation against terrorist threats".

Israel this week stepped up ground and air operations against Islamic Jihad, which has spearheaded cross-border rocket attacks from Gaza.

Hours after the Israel raid near Maghazi, three rockets were fired into the Israeli border town of Sderot, one of which landed 40m from a school, Israeli police said.

Twelve children were treated for shock, the police said.

Hamas said it fired 21 mortar bombs at Israeli border posts. There were no reports of casualties from those attacks.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

NRCC Pledge $2 Million To Their Cash Strapped Party

Republicans have pledged to give more than $2 million to their cash-strapped party fundraising arm to support candidates, according to officials at the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio several weeks ago announced the formation of the fund, which would be earmarked for candidates rather than retiring the committee’s debt. Boehner and David Dreier of California, whom he tapped to round up support, each gave $500,000.

The infusion of cash included $400,000 from Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan and $250,000 from Rep. Wally Herger of California, who are competing to succeed retiring Rep. Jim McCrery as the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee. McCrery, who announced earlier this month that he will not seek re-election next year, pledged $200,000.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Rep. John Mica of Florida each gave $100,000.

The NRCC had $3.6 million in debt and only $2.5 million in cash at the end of October, according to CQ MoneyLine. GOP officials say the new fund will give them a surplus.

“It will put us in the black for the first time,” said NRCC spokeswoman Julie Shutley.

She said recent special election wins in Virginia and Ohio spurred donations, though both districts have a strong Republican tilt.

“The energy and excitement surrounding the victories in two special elections this month is making for an early Christmas at the NRCC,” she said.

Settlement Activity Endangers Mideast Talks

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Tuesday new Israeli settlement activity was posing an obstacle to revived Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts launched in the U.S. town of Annapolis last month.

Plans for new Israeli settlement building this month have drawn rare criticism from the United States, as well as the European Union, and raised fears of widening the rift in the first Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in seven years.

"I think the obstacle that hampers negotiations with the Israelis particularly concerns the construction of settlements. And we have said clearly that Israel must stop the construction and the expansion of settlements," Abbas told a news conference.

The first round of peace talks following Annapolis opened in discord last week after Palestinians demanded a halt to Israeli plans to build new homes at a settlement near Jerusalem known to Israelis as Har Homa and the Palestinians as Abu Ghneim.

One of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's closest confidants, Vice Premier Haim Ramon, told Army Radio that settlement growth was "largely limited" to the major settlement blocs, which Israel hopes to keep as part of any final peace deal with the Palestinians.

Ramon said Israel would compensate the Palestinians by giving them land in exchange for the settlement blocs, though he did not say how large these land swaps might be.

Abbas said some of Ramon's comments had not been helpful.

"What Ramon said on the continuation of the building of settlements is a declaration that does not serve the cause of peace. And if it's the official policy of Israel, I think we're heading towards real difficulties in the near future," Abbas said through a translator.

"Settlements must stop to prepare the path to proper talks, talks that can lead us to a definite solution to known questions such as Jerusalem, refugees, borders, get to a real peace treaty between us and the Israelis," Abbas said.


Abbas was speaking in Paris the day after an international donors conference in the French capital raised pledges of $7.4 billion for the Palestinian Authority.

The Paris meeting was the financial sequel to the U.S.-sponsored conference in Annapolis last month, which relaunched formal peace talks with the goal of reaching an agreement on Palestinian statehood by the end of 2008.

Abbas was cautious on the likelihood of reaching the target. "We have no guarantee on this. It is possible that 2008 will be the year of peace and it's possible that it won't be."

"We have found agreement for the solution to come in 2008...If intentions are good, particularly from the Israeli side, I don't think there will be obstacles to realise this objective, the Palestinian state," he said.

Abbas said he supported a proposal French President Nicolas Sarkozy floated during the Paris conference to deploy an international force to help Palestinian security forces.

"We're very favourable to this idea launched by...Sarkozy. We hope it will soon be an international position," he said.

Former 'Ex-Gay' Minister Speaks Out

Scott Harrison desperately tried to change his sexual orientation in various "ex-gay" ministries for eight years, three of them as a ministry leader in Southern California. Most of his experience with ex-gay groups — Christian organizations that see homosexuality as a choice that can be changed with proper therapy — was with Living Waters and Desert Stream, two curricula of a national ex-gay network that has more than 80 branches today. When Harrison joined in 1982, he felt ex-gay ministers were then a band of compassionate outsiders attending to the first AIDS victims. But by the end of that decade, Harrison had taken note of the movement's increasing radicalism, symbolized for him by the minister at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in San Pedro, Calif., who performed an exorcism on him in an attempt to cast out the "demons" said to be the cause of his homosexuality. Harrison finally quit the movement in 1990 after deciding he could, after all, reconcile his sexuality with his Christian faith. Today, he speaks to parents of gay and lesbian children about the dangers he sees in the ex-gay movement. Harrison says the relatively recent alignment of Exodus International, one of the largest ex-gay groups with some 120 ministries in North America alone, with anti-gay Christian "dominionists" — people who want to impose Christian rules on the secular institutions of society — has led to ex-gay ministers pursuing a hard-line message with young people that can only end in mental anguish and failure.

Scott, how did you first get involved with the ex-gay movement?
I grew up in the '60s in a conservative evangelical home, in a Baptist environment. From a young age, I learned homosexuality was not only bad but was the worst sin a person could do. It was worse than murder. For me, the two options I saw, once I realized I was gay, were to commit suicide and go to heaven or to come out as gay and go to hell. [The ex-gay movement] offered a third option.

You started attending ex-gay ministries in 1982. Those were the early days of the movement. What was a typical meeting like?
They would open with a prayer. Andy Comiskey [founder of Living Waters/Desert Stream, a neo-Pentecostal ex-gay ministry], or whoever the particular person leading the session was, would present the teaching. These teachings later became the chapters in Comiskey's book, Pursuing Sexual Wholeness.

We were separated into small groups that would stay together for the entire duration of the class. It was a three-and-a-half-hour segment every Saturday. We would break up into our small groups, and we would do a discussion.

There would be praying to break "one-flesh unions." That was the language they used to describe anything that involved having sex that they considered sinful, whether it was premarital sex or homosexual behavior or someone having sex with someone who was in the occult.

The small groups were meant to create Platonic, healthy, same-sex relationships with other Christians. And so you got really close to these people who were in the group. You'd call them every day just to see how they were doing. It was really similar to a recovery group. Homosexuality was viewed as a temptation, not as an orientation.

Back in the 1980s, many Christian churches wanted nothing to do with ex-gay ministries. They saw them as shameful. What was your experience?
[The Vineyard Christian Fellowship in San Pedro, Calif.] was completely different from any evangelical church you've ever been to. There was a strong emphasis on social justice issues — feeding the homeless and doing whatever you could to help people. There was a strong emphasis on doing the things Jesus did and walking the talk.

So the first ex-gay movements considered themselves progressive?
Yes. This was at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. If you were struggling with feelings of being attracted to the same sex, regardless of whether you accepted yourself as gay or lesbian, you often were asked to leave your church. People tried to cast demons out of you if it was a Pentecostal or charismatic church. Some said that just through reading the Bible would make you change.

So Desert Stream comes along, and it was fairly innovative. Comiskey had a marriage and family therapy degree. He was versed in psychology. [The program] integrated his brand of psychology with theology. It was seen [in Desert Stream] that sexuality was a gift from God, but certain expressions of sexual behavior are not proper and are not blessed by God. The message was a mixed message — it had progressed from a view you heard in evangelical churches, that homosexuals are all going to hell. It was a message that was hopeful, in a sense.

In 1987 you became an ex-gay minister. Why?
I still believed that change was possible or I wouldn't have done it. I didn't believe change was an easy process. People would have said, if you asked them in private, [that] the option was one of celibacy, as opposed to accepting oneself as gay and lesbian. When [ex-gay ministers] talked about change at that time, they were talking about behavior modification. A person submitted his or her life to God and believed in the power of Christ to transform all elements of his or her life. It was a hope that was held out there, that [one's] desires would become more and more heterosexual. I dated [women] a little bit but it just didn't happen.

A minister in your church performed an exorcism on you to root out your homosexuality. How did that happen?
There was a particular associate minister who was pretty out there. But the problem was he was also extremely intuitive. He would know stuff about you without you ever having told him.

When you're coming from a perspective that you believe God can give messages to people, words of prophecy, then it's very easy to become prey. This guy got a team of people together. One of the aspects that is pretty strong in Vineyard, still, is that they believe that people can be "demonized." Not meaning that a person is fully possessed by Satan, but that a person has given him or herself over to Satanic strongholds in his or her life, so that it may take an exorcism to release the various demons that this person has given over their lives to.

What happened as you went through it?
It was very intense, dramatic, group prayer. It lasted at least three hours. At the end, I was drenched in sweat. There were some real areas of psychological wounding. All I can really describe it as — because of how it happened and the incorrectness of the theology — is that it felt like a spiritual rape to me.

I'm not saying he [the minister] didn't have good intentions, but it amounted to a spiritual rape. The exorcism occurred that afternoon, and then we ran into the evening church service. I've got hearing issues. I'm fairly hard of hearing; I had hearing aids at the time. This person was convinced that God had given word that I was supposed to give up my hearing aids, that God would heal my hearing. He did this in front of 300 people. I was psychologically vulnerable. I didn't follow my better hunches. Even though it happened over 20 years ago, it's hard to still not blame myself. … I knew there wasn't a demon of homosexuality.

The [minister] said that if I let him crush my hearing aids, then God would give me back my hearing. He said he would pay for them if God didn't give me back my hearing. Then, he later reneged on that. For the next several weeks, I was faking that my hearing had been healed.

Nowadays, you speak to groups like PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, about ex-gay ministries. What do you tell them?
I always start out by saying what I am not doing is trying to bash people or say negative things about anyone who's involved with these ministries as a person. My goal is to educate people [as to] what their theology is, what they do and also what some of the things I see as dangerous [are] about the movement, both when I was involved and currently.

There's psychological damage when change doesn't occur, when sexual orientation remains homosexual. I certainly heard stories and knew people who committed suicide. I've seen what I believe is a higher incidence of risky behavior and alcohol and drug use among a lot of people who go through an ex-gay ministry. A lot of it is because of spiritual conflict that emerges going through that, feeling betrayed by God, feeling betrayed by the church.

Since you left in 1990, the ex-gay movement has become much more political, hiring lobbyists and meeting with lawmakers. How did this come about?
Around 1997, the ex-gay movement started to get funding from Focus on the Family [a huge Christian Right group led by James Dobson and based in Colorado Springs, Colo.] and from what I'll call other fundamentalist Christian organizations. Exodus International began receiving a lot of their funding from these organizations. As a result, [the ex-gay groups] began to tell a different story. Ex-gays became a vital part of the battle against gay and lesbian civil rights in society.

At the Exodus Revolution ex-gay conference this summer, you saw a speech by Michael Brown in which he encouraged people to "give up their lives" in the fight against homosexuality. What do you think of that?
When you have a keynote speaker like Michael Brown, to me that's unacceptable. It's preaching a message of Christians not just simply opposing gay civil rights and believing a spiritual revival is necessary for this country, but actually calling on Christians to lay down their lives in a spiritual revolution to set up civil laws based on one extreme interpretation of biblical laws from the Old Testament [that calls for the death penalty for homosexuals]. It's Christian Reconstructionism [a doctrine that calls for imposing harsh Old Testament laws on civil society], Christian dominionism. It's abhorrent, and it's dangerous, not just for LGBT people but for our entire society. Because if civil laws are based on [Brown]'s interpretation of the Bible, it's not going to be a democratic society.

Should ministries like Exodus exist?
Legally, I believe they should be allowed to exist. But I don't believe they should be state-sanctioned. Ex-gay ministries are primarily religious. They should not be allowed to go into public schools any more than representatives of a church, mosque or synagogue. But Exodus Youth [an Exodus International outreach group] is distributing brochures and flyers in public high schools. They are telling teenagers that they should be willing to sacrifice their sexuality because Jesus sacrificed his life for us. So they should be willing to give whatever God asks in exchange for salvation.

What's the problem with that message?
I don't think that's healthy for anyone, but especially not for high school students. Teenagers are idealistic. They're going to grab for that, believing they can actually change their sexuality, when we have plenty of evidence showing it's not possible. What's going happen when they don't change? More youth suicides, more youths engaging in risky behaviors, feeling betrayed by the church and by God and giving up on their faith. If I'd heard that message as a teenager, I don't know if I'd be here today.

I think the healthier option is to encourage them to accept themselves and find ways of maintaining a faith relationship while encouraging relationships that are healthier than promiscuity. For some people, that might be a monogamous same-sex relationship. For other people it might mean that they are celibate. Speaking from my own experience, I never witnessed anybody [in the ex-gay movement] who would acknowledge to me privately that they did not still have attractions towards people of the same sex. I can't tell you how many people come out of the ex-gay movement with their faith wrecked and they have to rebuild it from scratch.

Interview conducted by Casey Sanchez

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Tale Of How Halliburton/KBR Rape

In July 2005, on her "fourth night in a Green Zone barracks in Baghdad," former Halliburton/KBR employee Jamie Leigh Jones says she "accepted a 'special drink' from male KBR employees," after which she doesn't "remember anything at all" until she "woke up naked," "bleeding," and "bruised." "I remember looking down and seeing the bruises between my inner thighs, at that moment my heart sank," Jones told an ABC-affiliate in Houston. According to Jones, "an examination by Army doctors showed she had been raped 'both vaginally and anally,'" but somehow "the rape kit" with her examination's results "disappeared after it was handed over to KBR security officers." After reporting her rape to KBR, Jones says "the company put her under guard in a shipping container with a bed and warned her that if she left Iraq for medical treatment, she'd be out of a job." After "at least 24 hours" in the container "without food or water," a "sympathetic guard" allowed her to call her family in Texas, who contacted Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX). Poe then contacted the State Department, "which quickly dispatched agents from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad" to free Jones from the container. In the two years since Jones returned from Iraq, "the Justice Department has brought no criminal charges in the matter" and Poe says "neither the departments of State nor Justice will give him answers on the status of the Jones investigation." Frustrated by the government's inaction, Jones is now taking her case to the civil court system, but KBR is pushing for it to be heard in "private arbitration," without a "public record or transcript."

KBR'S 'INADEQUATE' DEFENSE: KBR, formerly known as Kellogg, Brown and Root and until 2006, a subsidiary of Halliburton, is "the largest" private "employer of Americans" in Iraq, with "nearly 14,000 U.S. workers." The company is aggressively resisting Jones's claims. In a memo to company employees, KBR CEO Bill Utt "disputes portions of Ms. Jones' version of the facts" and alleges "inaccuracies in the accounts of the incident in questions." In particular, KBR says "one of its human resources employees tended to Jones following the incident, provided her with food, and helped her contact her family." Jamie Armstrong, the human resources employee, confirmed to KBR's version of events to ABC News, but cautioned that "her memory may not be accurate" because "this happened several years ago." In his memo to employees, Utt emphasizes that the company "expressed" its "position in detail to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)," but the Houston Chronicle reports "that the EEOC's Houston office found KBR's investigation into Jones's allegations were 'inadequate and did not effect an adequate remedy.'" According to the Chronicle, KBR told the EEOC that "one of the men accused in the rape" said that Jones "consented to have sex with him." Jones's lawyers responded by to KBR's defense by saying that "attacking the victim is the oldest trick in the book."

For the past two years, Poe has been championing Jones's case, pushing federal investigators to take action. "I think it is the responsibility of our government, the Justice Department and the State Department," Poe told ABC News. "When crimes occur against American citizens overseas in Iraq, contractors that are paid by the American public, that we pursue the criminal cases as best as we possibly can and that people are prosecuted." After ABC News reported on Jones's case last week, the House Judiciary Committee announced that it would hold a hearing on Jones's allegations next Wednesday. In the past week, multiple members of Congress have written to the Attorney General, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of State urging them to "act immediately to investigate Ms. Jones's claims." In his letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) raised concerns about a second KBR employee alleging sexual assault while working for the company in Iraq. "I am deeply troubled by recent reports that at least two women who worked in Iraq under contractors for the Department of Defense were sexually assaulted by male coworkers," Nelson wrote to Gates.

In her lawsuit, Jones asserts that "KBR and Halliburton created a 'boys will be boys' atmosphere at the company barracks which put her and other female employees at risk." "I think that the men who are there believe that they live without laws," Jones's lawyer Todd Kelly told ABC News. Another former KBR employee, Linda Lindsey, supports Jones's claims about the "boys will be boys" environment of KBR barracks in Iraq. "I saw rampant sexual harassment and discrimination," said Lindsey in a sworn affidavit for Jones's case. During an appearance on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight last week, Poe said he does not think that Jones's alleged rape "is an isolated case of sexual assault against American citizens in Baghdad by coworkers," and he wants "the other victims to notify" his office immediately. In his letter to Gates, Nelson mentions "a second alleged assault, this time of a woman from Florida who reportedly worked for a KBR subsidiary in Ramadi, Iraq in 2005." Houston's CBS affiliate KHOU says "a North Carolina woman, who also said she was assaulted by a KBR contractor," will testify along with Jones on Wednesday, though the House Judiciary Committee has yet to release an official witness list.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

World Bank says that aid and investment will be pointless

International donors meeting in Paris on Monday have been asked to raise $5.6bn over the next three years in support of the Palestinian Authority.

This comes amid warnings about the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the Palestinian territories and an irreversible unraveling of the economy unless Israel eases its restrictions on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

While Palestinian officials were optimistic that the 90 participant countries and organizations attending the one-day Conference of Donors for a Palestinian State would be generous, Israel indicated no major rethink on its closure policies.

Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister, is expected to tell the donors that "we would like to support and bolster the Palestinian Authority, but not at the expense of the security of Israel", the Israeli media said on Sunday.

Samir Abdallah, the Palestinian planning minister, said that he expected "full support" for the Palestinians' $5.6bn aid request.

"I think that all signs coming from here and there tell us that we get full support," he told the AP news agency in Paris.

Promised funding

The German and the British governments have put aside a combined $780 million, while the
US has raised its promised funding to $540m, pending a congressional clearance that ties its approval to guarantees on money not falling into the hands of "extremists".

The Palestinians will face a challenge convincing the West to provide aid to both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which is facing Israeli and international sanctions after Hamas took full control of the territory in June.

Meanwhile, the UN has urged donors to raise $462m to meet humanitarian needs in the Palestinian territories in 2008.

"In addition to continuing fatalities from direct Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 2007 saw a dramatic increase in deaths and injuries due to internal Palestinian violence," a statement released by about 40 UN organizations and non-governmental groups operating in the Gaza Strip and West Bank said.

"The poverty rate stands at 57 per cent and food insecurity affects 34 per cent of the population."

On Thursday, the World Bank asked Israel to reverse its closure policies, warning that increased aid money and economic investment in the Palestinian economy would be futile unless the restrictions are eased.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), on Friday, also condemned Israel, saying security concerns did not justify the severe restrictions.

"The Palestinian territories face a deep human crisis, where millions of people are denied their human dignity. Not once in a while, but every day," the ICRC said.

Israeli restrictions

Israel currently controls Gaza's borders along with its air and sea space.

In addition, more than 700 checkpoints and roadblocks cover all areas of the West Bank, preventing Palestinians' freedom of movement. All exits in and out of Gaza are blocked by Israeli forces.

So far only Britain has said it will link disbursement of aid to improved conditions on the ground, including an easing of Israeli restrictions and Palestinian government reform.

Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister and a former International Monetary Fund economist, has been actively campaigning to convince Palestinians at home and international donors that the government has established a transparent accountability system to stem mismanagement and corruption.

He says that he is doing his best not to disappoint the donors, who have seen more than $10bn in aid largely go to waste since 1993 because of mismanagement and Israeli attacks.

Fayyad has already won the support of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a three–year economic plan that includes promises to trim the oversized public payroll and reduce hundreds of millions of dollars in utility subsidies.

The IMF has said that the plan is ambitious, but achievable.

The plan being presented aims to assure donors that they are not expected to prop up the Palestinian Authority indefinitely, even though the bulk of the aid, $3.9 billion, would go towards the government's budget deficit.

The balance is to shift gradually to development projects, under a scenario that has Israel easing restrictions and enabling the Palestinian private sector to recover.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, however, would have to dispel fears among Palestinians about the Gaza Strip being excluded from getting aid.

In statements prior to their departure to Paris, Palestinian officials said they were seeking help for all Palestinians.