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Obama Honors Slain Police Officers as Nation Grapples with Inflamed Racial Divide

The president has strongly condemned the use of violence during demonstrations, but he has expressed sympathy for their cause

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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a memorial service following the multiple police shootings in Dallas, Texas, July 12, 2016. Image source: Reuters
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President Barack Obama honored five slain police officers during a memorial Tuesday in Dallas, saying the past week of violence has exposed “the deepest fault line of our democracy,” while also insisting that the nation is not as divided as some claim.

The president asked Americans to try to find common ground as he works to unite a nation deeply divided on the question of race relations between law enforcement and the minority communities they serve.

Last week’s attack on Dallas police by a black Army veteran who was angry over police killings of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota intensified a national debate over racial bias in law enforcement.

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In remarks that ranged from the dedication of law enforcement officers to racial bias in America, Obama said he understood that people across Dallas and the country are suffering.

The president honored the five slain officers and called for unity and hope.

“I understand how Americans are feeling, but Dallas, I’m here to say we must reject such despair,” Obama said.

He urged the nation to speak “honestly and openly” about the current state of race relations, saying an overwhelming number of police officers is “worthy of our respect, not our scorn.”

Although race relations have improved dramatically in America in recent decades, he added, “America, we know bias remains, we know it.”

Five seats were left empty to represent each of the fallen officers during a crowded and emotional memorial at the Morton Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas.

‘Hatred and malice’

“They were peacemakers in blue; they have died for that cause,” proclaimed Mayor Mike Rawlings.  “The soul of our city was pierced when police officers were ambushed in a cowardly attack.” He added, “Today must be about unity.”

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Vice President Joe Biden and Obama’s predecessor, former President George W. Bush, also attended the memorial.

Bush condemned the “hatred and malice” behind the attack and called for unity, hope, and tolerance in its wake. The former president urged Americans to “honor the images of God we see in one another.”

Before the memorial, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that Obama believes America must both fully support police officers and acknowledge “the reality of racial disparities” that exist in America.

The White House said the president is interested in comforting people across the nation after emotionally charged events in recent days, including the separate shooting deaths in Baton Rouge and St. Paul.

From conversation to action

While traveling to Dallas, Obama telephoned the families of both men killed by police, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, to offer condolences on behalf of the American people.

“These are legitimate concerns raised by all sides of the issues,” Earnest said. “The president is interested in trying to push that conversation into concrete action,” he added.

“The conversation is taking place in the context where it has often been painted, unfairly I think, as being hostile to law enforcement,” said Anderson Francois, Georgetown University School of Law.  “But I think this conversation is an important one, and I think he’s the best person in the position to do it.”

The fatal shootings were captured on video and sparked protests across the nation, and charges that white police officers unfairly target minorities.

On Wednesday, Obama will meet with law enforcement officials, civil rights leaders, activists, academics and political leaders from across the country to discuss ways to restore trust in communities where tension exists between law enforcement officials and residents they are sworn to protect.

The sniper, Micah Johnson, killed the police officers during a rally by the Black Lives Matter, a grass-roots movement trying to pressure political leaders to take action on police brutality and criminal justice reform.

The president has strongly condemned the use of violence during demonstrations, but he has expressed sympathy for their cause.

“I think the president has been very, very clear on a number of occasions about his support for the Black Lives Matter movement,” Francois said. “Yes, there are times when he’s challenged their tactics, but at the end of the day, he’s always been very clear that he’s in support of the ultimate goal.”

Investigators are looking into Johnson’s background. The Army reserve veteran died when police used a robot armed with explosives against him.

“We’re convinced that this suspect had other plans, and thought that what he was doing was righteous and believed that he was going to target law enforcement, make us pay for what he saw as law enforcement’s efforts to punish people of color,” said Dallas police chief David Brown.

Bomb-making materials and a rambling journal were found at Johnson’s home during a search. (VOA)

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  • Aparna Gupta

    Racial discrimination should be condemned by every nation. This move by US is really commendable.

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Pakistan Reacts Sharply To U.S. Religious Freedom Charges

China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are also included in the U.S. list of countries accused

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A Pakistani nun holds a candle during a vigil for victims of a deadly suicide bombing in a park, March 28, 2016, in Lahore. VOA

Pakistan is denouncing a U.S. decision to place it on a list of countries Washington says are the worst offenders of religious freedom.

“Pakistan does not need counsel by any individual country how to protect the rights of its minorities… there are serious questions on the credentials and impartiality of the self proclaimed jury involved in this unwarranted exercise,” the Foreign Ministry said Wednesday in a strongly-worded statement.

The reaction comes a day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced his designation of “countries of particular concern” that allegedly have engaged in or tolerated ”systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

Freedom Violations

The countries on the blacklist are exposed to punitive sanctions, but Pompeo waived them for Pakistan, citing U.S. national interests.

Pakistan had until now been on a U.S. watch list for governments that have “engaged in or tolerated” severe violations of religious freedom.

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Pakistani volunteers collect debris from an Ahmadi mosque demolished by an angry mob, in the eastern city of Sialkot. VOA

While rebuking Tuesday’s U.S. pronouncement as “unilateral and politically motivated,” the Pakistani Foreign Ministry noted Pakistan is “a multi-religious and pluralistic society” of more than 200 million people, mostly Muslims.

“Around four percent of our total population comprises citizens belonging to Christian, Hindu, Buddhists and Sikh faiths. Ensuring equal treatment of minorities and their enjoyment of human rights without any discrimination is the cardinal principle of the Constitution of Pakistan,” it said.

Ahmadis most persecuted community

The statement did not mention the Ahmadi sect, which critics say is the most persecuted minority in Pakistan. The constitution bars the community from “posing as Muslims” and from calling their worship places “mosques.”

U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback while defending downgrading of Pakistan reiterated Tuesday the challenges facing the Ahmadi community.

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Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, speaks to reporters at the State Department in Washington. VOA

“The Pakistani government criminalizes the identification of Ahmadis as Muslims, and then also — and this one has really been difficult and troubling for a lot of people — the government often fails to hold accountable perpetrators of killings and violence against members of religious minorities targeted on account of their religious beliefs or affiliations,” said Brownback.

Blasphemy laws

He cited, among other things, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws as a cause for the downgrade of the country’s religious freedom ranking. The laws prescribe the death penalty for those found guilty.

Rights groups have long complained Islamist groups misuse the law to intimidate minorities in the country.

Insulting Islam or its prophet is an extremely sensitive issue in Pakistan where mere allegations have led to mob lynchings. A former provincial governor, a federal minister, judges and lawyers are among those assassinated in Pakistan by extremists merely for calling for reform of the blasphemy laws to prevent their misuse or for hearing cases and defending alleged blasphemers.

Asia Bibi

In a historic judgement this past October, Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who had been on death row for eight years after being convicted of insulting the Prophet Mohammad. The women denied the charges from the outset as an outcome of a local feud and the country’s highest court cited lack of evidence in overturning her conviction by a lower court.

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Radical Islamists rally to condemn a Supreme Court decision that acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, who spent eight years on death row accused of blasphemy, in Karachi, Pakistan. VOA

Bibi and her family have been in hiding since her release. Her lawyer fled Pakistan shortly after the landmark court ruling announced on October 31, saying his life was in danger.

Bibi is awaiting a rehearing of her case by the Supreme Court and is residing in a safe place under government protection, say Pakistani officials.

Pakistan also arrested hundreds of Islamist activists and their leaders last month for staging days of mass violent protests to denounce the court for freeing Bibi.

Also Read: Muslims in Malaysia Rally In Kuala Lumpur To Keep Status

The government has charged the detainees with treason and terrorism and officials have vowed to put them on trial in special courts.

“It’s our hope that they will, the new leadership in Pakistan, will work to improve the situation. There was some encouraging signs seen recently on how they’ve handled some of the recent protesting against the blasphemy laws, and we continue to watch very carefully what’s happening to Asia Bibi,” said Brownback.

China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are also included in the U.S. list of countries accused of committing severe violations of religious freedom. (VOA)