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43 die in Coptic churches bombing in Egypt as Christians observed Palm Sunday: Islamic State (ISIS) claims attack

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Blast at Cairo Coptic Cathedral Complex, VOA

Cairo, April 9, 2017: At least 43 people were killed and 100 injured in two separate bomb attacks carried out by the Islamic State on Coptic churches in Egypt as the Christian faithful observed Palm Sunday, one of the most important days on the religion’s calendar.

The first explosion, which left 27 dead and 78 injured, ripped through a Palm Sunday service at Mar Girgis (St. George’s) Coptic church in Tanta, a city located 120 km from Cairo, EFE news reported.

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The explosive device was planted under a seat in the church and was detonated in the main prayer hall.

A short time later, a suicide bomb attack outside Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria killed 16 and injured 41 people, according to a Health Ministry statement.

In a brief statement released through official news agency Amaq, the Islamic State claimed that the attack had been launched by a “security unit belonging to the Islamic State”.

Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail condemned the attacks on private television channel On TV, adding that the government was determined to end terrorism in the country.

“This is an impious terrorist act, but we will eradicate terrorism from Egypt and we are determined to put an end to terrorist groups,” EFE news quoted Ismail as saying.

Copts, who make up around 15 per cent of Egypt’s population, were celebrating Palm Sunday, which marks the start of the Holy Week for Christians.

This attack comes 20 days before the visit of Pope Francis, who is set to travel to Egypt on April 28.

The Pope condemned the attack and publicly prayed for converting the hearts of those who “sow terror, violence and death”.

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The pontiff was addressing the faithful during the traditional Palm Sunday mass at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City when he was notified of the attack.

He offered his condolences to the victims’ families, to those injured and to all Egyptians.

Over the past few years, Egypt is struggling to combat a terrorist wave that killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers since the military removed former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 and blacklisted his Muslim Brotherhood group as “terrorist organisation”.

The terror attacks, mostly claimed by a Sinai-based group loyal to the IS, has recently been targeting Egypt’s Christian minority and a previous church blast in Cairo in December 2016 left at least 28 worshippers dead, mostly women and children.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian security forces killed hundreds of terrorists and arrested a similar number of suspects as part of the country’s “anti-terror war” declared by former army chief and current President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi following Morsi’s ouster. (IANS)

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Mahalaya: Beginning of “Devipaksha” in Bengali Celebration of ‘Durga Puja’

“Mahalaya” is the auspicious occasion that marks the beginning of “Devipaksha” and the ending of “Pitripaksha” and heralds the celebration of Durga Puja

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Mahalaya morning in Kolkata. Flickr
  • Mahalaya 2017 Date: 19th september.
  • On Mahalaya, people throng to the holy river Ganges in order to pay homage to their ancestors and forefathers; which is called ‘Torpon’
  • Mahalaya remains incomplete without the magical chanting of the scriptural verses from the ‘Chandi Kavya’ that is broadcasted in All India Radio
  • The magic is induced by the popular Birendra Krishna Bhadra whose voice makes the recitation of the “Chandi Kavya” even more magnificent

Sept 19, 2017: Autumn is the season of the year that sees the Hindus, all geared up to celebrate some of the biggest festivals of India. The festive spirit in the Bengalis all enthused to prepare for the greatest of the festivals, the ‘Durga Puja’.

About Mahalaya:

Mahalaya is the auspicious occasion that marks the beginning of “Devipaksha” and the ending of “Pitripaksha,” and this year it is celebrated on September 19.

Observed exactly a week before the ‘Durga Puja’, Mahalaya is the harbinger of the arrival of Goddess Durga. It is celebrated to invoke the goddess possessing supreme power! The goddess is invited to descend on earth and she is welcomed with devotional songs and holy chants of mantras. On this day, the eye is drawn in the idols of the Goddess by the artisans marking the initiation of “Devipaksha”. Mahalaya arrives and the countdown to the Durga Puja begins!

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The day of Mahalaya bears supreme significance to the Bengalis. The day is immensely important because on this day people throng to the holy river Ganges in order to pay homage to their ancestors and forefathers. Clad in white dhotis, people offer prayers and take dips in the river while praying for their demised dear ones. The ritual is popular as “Torpon”.

Mahalaya
An idol-maker in progress of drawing the eye in the idol of the Goddess. Wikipedia

As per Hindu myth, on “Devipaksha”, the Gods and the Goddesses began their preparations to celebrate “Mahamaya” or Goddess Durga, who was brought upon by the trinity- Brahma, Vishnu, and Maheshwara; to annihilate the fierce demon king named Mahishasura. The captivating story of the Goddess defeating the demon got popularized with the goddess being revered as “Durgatinashini” or the one who banishes all the evils and miseries of the world. The victory of the Goddess is celebrated as ‘Durga Puja’.

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Mahalaya remains incomplete without the magical chanting of the scriptural verses from the ‘Chandi Kavya’ that is broadcasted at dawn in All India Radio in the form of a marvelous audio montage enthralling the souls of the Bengalis. Presented with wonderful devotional music, acoustic drama, and classical songs- the program is also translated to Hindi and played for the whole pan-Indian listeners.

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Mahalaya
Birendra Krishna Bhadra (1905-1991). Wikipedia

The program is inseparable from Mahalaya and has been going on for over six decades till date. The magic is induced by the popular Birendra Krishna Bhadra whose voice makes the recitation of the “Chandi Kavya” even more magnificent! He has been a legend and the dawn of Mahalaya turns insipid without the reverberating and enchanting voice of the legendary man.

Mahalaya will keep spreading the magic and setting the vigor of the greatest festival of the Bengalis- the Durga Puja, to worship the supreme Goddess, eternally.

                 “Yaa Devi Sarbabhuteshu, Shakti Rupena Sanhsthita,

                     Namastaswai Namastaswai Namastaswai Namo Namaha.”

– by Antara Kumar of NewsGram. Twitter: @ElaanaC

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Civilian Deaths Surge in Raqqa as Islamic State (ISIS) Tactics Slow US-backed Advances

Rights organizations and activists continue to express concerns about the rising death tolls among civilians in the besieged city

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FILE - Smoke rises after an airstrike during fighting between members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Raqqa, Syria, Aug. 15, 2017. VOA

Syria, August 19, 2017: As U.S.-backed forces continue to make slow progress in their offensive to oust Islamic State (IS) from its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, thousands of civilians who are trapped in the city face an increasing danger of getting caught in a crossfire, rights organizations and local activists warn.

Officials from the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) say their battle against IS has entered a fierce and grueling phase in the densely populated neighborhoods of the city, as the terrorist group tries various tactics to keep its stronghold.

“This fight has become a matter of life and death for both sides,” Mustafa Bali, a spokesperson for the SDF, told VOA.

Bali said IS militants are increasingly using suicide car bombs, snipers, drones and tunnels to hinder SDF advances.

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces walk at their position during fighting with Islamic State militants in Nazlat Shahada, a district of Raqqa, Syria, Aug. 16, 2017. VOA

“But what distinguishes the operation for Raqqa from all other cities is the degree to which IS thugs use civilians as human shields,” he said.

He added that IS has forced civilians to remain in their homes so coalition forces avoid airstrikes in those areas.

Despite IS tactics, the SDF was able to advance slightly from the southeast of the city, Bali said. As the forces marched forward, SDF’s special units rescued nearly 250 civilians early Thursday.

Claims of civilians killed in airstrikes

Meanwhile, rights organizations and activists continue to express concerns about the rising death tolls among civilians in the besieged city.

Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Wednesday said an escalated shelling of Raqqa by the U.S.-led coalition warplanes since Monday has left nearly 60 residents dead, including 30 children and women.

The group said it expects the death toll to rise as recovery units continue to find missing bodies under the rubble.

Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, told reporters on Wednesday that coalition jets have conducted more than 200 airstrikes against IS positions in Raqqa this week alone. He did not directly comment on the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights’ findings.

A banner belonging to Islamic States fighters is seen during a battle with members of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa, Syria, Aug. 16, 2017. VOA

Speaking with reporters during a phone briefing from Baghdad, Dillon talked about the stiff resistance the SDF forces are facing from about 2,500 IS fighters who still hold about 45 percent of the city.

He added that the jihadist group has centralized much of its operations and many of its fighters in densely populated areas and high-rise buildings, including the city’s main hospital, in an effort to slow down the ongoing siege.

“They have fortified the complex, created tunnels for access, and are hiding among women and children who have nowhere else to go,” Dillon said.

The United Nations estimates there are still nearly 25,000 civilians trapped inside the city. The agency has called upon the U.S.-led coalition and the SDF to increase their efforts to open safe corridors for the remaining civilians to flee.

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces keep guard at their advanced position during fighting with Islamic State militants in Nazlat Shahada, a district of Raqqa, Syria, Aug. 16, 2017. VOA

“The worst place probably today in Syria is the part of Raqqa that is still held by the so-called Islamic state,” Jan Egeland, the U.N.’s humanitarian adviser for Syria, told reporters on Thursday.

IS landmines

Hussam Eesa, a founder of the anti-IS monitoring group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, told VOA that many residents who escape airstrikes and IS snipers fall victim to the landmines planted by IS.

Eesa said about 350,000 residents have managed to escape the city, making it to nearby towns and villages under SDF control. But he said they continue to suffer from lack of basic services.

“The SDF areas are safer off course,” Eesa said. “But there is a lack of aid and increased restriction on civilian movement in refugee camps.” (VOA)

 

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Seven Decades after Partition: Sikhs in Pakistan Struggle amid Bombings and Violence

Sikhs in Pakistan have been looking to leave Pakistan as their homeland has begun to turn toward radical Islam

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Sikhs in pakistan
Types of 51st Sikhs (Frontier Force), now 3 Frontier Force, Pakistan Army. ca. 1905. Wikimedia Commons
  • In today’s period, Sikhs in Pakistan are among the smallest minorities
  • Pakistan today uses blasphemy as a weapon against minorities and fellow Muslims alike, which is a crime that carries an involuntary death penalty
  • Mr. Singh heads a council representing the Sikhs in Pakistan

Aug 15, 2017: At the age of 11, Radesh Singh’s grandfather left his village in India’s Punjab province to move to Peshawar, which is bordered by Afghanistan in the far northwest of the country.

Pakistan wasn’t even a glint in the eye of its founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah in the year 1901 when the British ruled the Indian subcontinent and Peshawar held the promise of work and adventure.

It has been 70 years since the partition of India, which divided the subcontinent into majority Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan and led to one of the largest migrations in modern history.

Singh’s family have been waging a secessionist uprising in India ever since, demanding unmitigated sovereignty for India’s Punjab state where they command. Singh’s family is neither Hindu nor Muslim but Sikh, a religious minority in both countries. Feeling increasingly less at home on either side of the border, they have been victims of local Taliban violence in the recent years in Muslim Pakistan.

Singh’s grandfather would never return to his village, not even in 1947. Singh stated that poverty kept his grandfather in Peshawar, which was controlled by fiercely independent ethnic Pashtun tribesmen. He said, “It’s not easy to start over at zero when you have very little,” mentioned BBG Direct.

ALSO READ: 10,000 members of Sikh community in Pakistan lack Education and Health: Sikh Leader 

According to Singh, the enmity in the immediate aftermath of 1947 was slightly lower in the northwest. It was followed by decades of peace. The decision to stay in Pakistan appeared like a reliable option at the time.

The Sikhs had lived harmoniously for centuries alongside their Pashtun Muslim countrymen. Singh explains, Sikhs had a glorious history in the northwest. In the 18th century, they oversaw a dynasty headed by a Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh, whose capital was Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore. He rebuilt Peshawar’s infamous Bala Hisar Fort, an imposing walled fortress that some historians assume is as old as the city itself.

In today’s period, easily identifiable because of the colorful turbans and the surname Singh, Sikhs in Pakistan are among the smallest minorities. As indicated by the CIA Factbook, 3.6 percent of Pakistan’s 180 million people are non-Muslims which include Sikhs, Christians, and Hindus.

Singh asserted until 1984 Pakistan’s Hindus and Sikhs lived unitedly in northwest Pakistan. Their children married and worshipped together. But after the tragic assassination of India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, the entire scene changed consequently.

“They (Hindus) cut all relations with us. They said Pakistani Sikhs are like all Sikhs everywhere. No difference. They said, ‘From now on, we will be separate from you”, Singh recalled.

Today Sikhs in Pakistan are contending with the government for possession of dozens of Sikh temples (Gurdwaras); however, they have succeeded to restore some of the buildings. The Pakistan government took over the buildings after 1947 and allowed the squatters to remain.

Once a vibrant Gurdwara attended by hundreds of Sikhs, it no longer resembled a house of worship but rather a sweeping courtyard. However, it was until now that two families called it the home, said Singh.

Singh who heads a council representing the Sikhs in Pakistan, said young Sikhs have been looking to leave as the homeland has begun to turn toward radical Islam.

“They want to go to another country, not to India or Pakistan. But every country eyes them with suspicion.,” he said.

He adds, “Even Indians see his Pakistani passport and question his intentions, suggesting he wants to agitate for Sikh secessionism, the battle that resulted in Indira Gandhi’s death and a dream still held by many Sikhs on both sides of the border.”

According to Singh, Pakistan’s slide into intolerance began when Pakistan’s military dictator Zia-ul Haq set the country on the course of Islamic radicalization in the late 1970s with the former Soviet Union’s invasion of neighboring Afghanistan. Jihad became a rallying cry to defeat the communists in Afghanistan.

Extremism aggravated after the 2001 intrusion of Afghanistan by a U.S.-led coalition, he proclaimed.

The tribal areas were steadily caught by Taliban and in 2013 several Sikhs were killed, their limbs cut. Singh said the brutality of the killings and the threats sent thousands abandoning Pakistan.

Pakistan today uses blasphemy as a weapon against minorities and fellow Muslims alike, which is a crime that carries an involuntary death penalty.

“That is why we have a fear in our hearts, that this law can be used against us,” he told.

“In the last nearly 40 years we have been facing the boom, boom (mimicking the sound of explosions) in every city of Pakistan,” said Singh. “In a long time we have not heard any sweet sounds in our Peshawar, but still we love our city.”


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