Global Issues

Islamic State’s Sophisticated Recruiting Campaign Poses Persistent Threat in U.S.

ISIS online. Image via aradaphotography/shutterstock.com

ISIS online. Image via aradaphotography/shutterstock.com

The arrests of six Minnesota men accused earlier this month of attempting to join the Islamic State group highlights an unprecedented marketing effort being waged by the militant group in Iraq and Syria, U.S. law enforcement officials and terror analysts said.

It’s a campaign that is finding resonance from urban metros to the American heartland.

“This is not so much a recruitment effort as it is a global marketing campaign, beyond anything that al-Qaida has ever done,” said a senior law enforcement official.

The official, who is not authorized to comment publicly, said the Islamic State’s slick multimedia productions, its use of social media, and personal “peer-to-peer” communication are proving to be effective parts of a sophisticated program aimed at the West.

“I don’t think there has been one case in which we haven’t found some connection to the videos or other media the group has produced,” the official said.

Federal authorities have identified more than 150 U.S. residents who have sought to join the ranks of the terror organization or rival groups in Syria. There is evidence that about 40 of those have traveled to the region and returned to the U.S. Most have been charged; an undisclosed number are free and subjects of intense surveillance, the senior official said.

The smallest subset of the group, an estimated dozen, represents those who have actually joined the fighting ranks.

On Eve of Anniversary, Turkey’s ‘Cultural Genocide’ of Armenian History Is Ongoing

Photo via Tania Karas / RNS

The Armenian Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island, Lake Van in Turkey. Photo via Tania Karas / RNS

This tiny Kurdish village outside the city of Van in Turkey’s southeast is home to the ruins of a once-famous 11th-century Armenian Christian monastery.

Known to Armenians as Varagavank, it thrived as a place of worship until Turkish forces looted it and murdered parishioners in the mass killing sprees of 1915.

Today, the roof is collapsing. Toppled stone columns lie nearby. And with no signage, there is no acknowledgment it was once a celebrated church for Armenians.

Varagavank is one of hundreds of disappearing physical reminders of a community whose history in present-day Turkey goes back more than 2,000 years. Over the past century, the Turkish government — in writing its own narrative of what Armenians call genocide — has destroyed many Armenian churches, homes, schools, and cemeteries, or allowed them to fall into ruins. They are sites other countries might consider valuable antiquities.

“The term we use for this is ‘cultural genocide,’” said Vahram Ter-Matevosyan, a historian at the American University of Armenia in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.

“We consider what is happening to many churches a continuation of the genocide which started at the beginning of the 20th century. It is painful, utterly painful.”

Historians and visitors have noted holes in the ground of Armenian historical sites throughout Turkey, evidence of widespread rumors that Armenians buried their riches before fleeing.

Hermine Sayan, an Armenian who lives in Istanbul, said her heart was broken when she visited what remained of a destroyed church in Malatya, a city in eastern Turkey, a few years ago.

“We stood together saying our prayers, and we were crying,” said Sayan, whose grandparents survived the genocide.

On April 24, Armenians worldwide will commemorate 100 years since almost 1.5 million of their ancestors died in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, in massacres, by starvation or during forced death marches into the Syrian desert.

World Bank Launches Interfaith Push to Eliminate Extreme Poverty

Photo courtesy of REUTERS / Mike Theiler / RNS

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim. Photo courtesy of REUTERS / Mike Theiler / RNS

The World Bank is teaming up with global religious leaders in a 15-year effort to end extreme poverty by 2030.

About 35 religious groups worldwide, including Bread for the World, Islamic Relief International, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Sojourners, endorsed the call to action. Supporters include Christians, Jews, Muslims, Baha’is, and others.

“Our approach to this staggering need must be holistic, rooted in the spiritual visions of our respective faiths, and built on a shared recognition of the intrinsic dignity and value of every life on Earth,” the call said.

Observers say it’s the first time the World Bank has tapped the reach and resources of religious groups in combating extreme poverty — partly out of a realization that the work is too big for any one institution, and also in hopes of limiting unnecessary duplication between the World Bank’s ideas and those of various religious groups.

“There’s a real convergence between these dual goals of the bank and many of the commitments and convictions of religious institutions and organizations,” said the Rev. Adam Taylor, a Sojourners and World Vision alum who now oversees faith-based initiatives at the World Bank.

During an April 9 teleconference, Wold Bank President Jim Yong Kim said the number of people living in extreme poverty — living on less than $1.25 per day — has fallen from 2 billion in 1990 to 1 billion today. And he strongly believes that with enough support, that figure could be eliminated in another 15 years.

But Kim said that in order to reach the goal, there will be two important aspects to the fight to end poverty: gathering evidence on what works and what doesn’t work in combating poverty, and enlisting the aid of religious communities.

“I believe that some of the most important leaders in the movement to end extreme poverty will be people of faith, people who are motivated fundamentally to help the most vulnerable among us,” Kim said.

Pope Francis to Visit Cuba Before U.S. Trip

Photo via Philip Chidell / Shutterstock.com

Photo via Philip Chidell / Shutterstock.com

Pope Francis will visit Cuba before arriving in the United States in September, the Vatican said April 22.

Rev. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, confirmed the news to reporters in a statement made in Italian, Spanish, and English.

“I am able to confirm that the Holy Father Francis, having received and accepted the invitation from the civil authorities and bishops of Cuba, has decided to pay a visit to the island before his arrival in the United States for the trip announced some time ago,” Lombardi said.

The pope is scheduled to visit Washington, New York City, and Philadelphia starting around Sept. 23.

Francis would be the third pope to visit Cuba, after St. John Paul II in 1998 and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in 2012.

Women of the Wall Pluck Torah Scroll Across Partition to Women’s Section

Photo via Miriam Alster / Flash 90 / RNS

Women of the Wall celebrate with the Torah scroll during their prayer at the Wall. Photo via Miriam Alster / Flash 90 / RNS

For the first time in its 26-year history, the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall managed to read from a full-sized Torah scroll April 20 after one of its members surreptitiously borrowed one from the Western Wall’s men’s section.

The scroll’s procurement, which was facilitated by the group’s male supporters standing on the other side of a partition, was a bold move by a group that has continuously challenged the ultra-Orthodox establishment’s sole authority over the holy site.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall, has long prohibited women from wearing prayer shawls and reading from a Torah. He based his prohibition on a regulation that forbids any religious ceremony “not in accordance with the custom of the holy site and which offends the sensitivities of the worshippers at the place.”

Although a 2013 court ruling confirmed Women of the Wall’s right to pray at the Wall, Rabinowitz has continued to ban anyone from bringing a Torah into either the men’s or women’s section and has placed all 100 of the holy site’s Torahs in the men’s section alone.

Although the group recently smuggled a tiny Torah into the women’s section, “you needed a magnifying glass to read it and we had to return it to its owners in London,” said Anat Hoffman, WOW’s chairwoman.

But on Monday morning, the group’s male supporters held a Torah reading service at the Wall, next to the gender partition. Once their service finished, the men opened an unlocked gate leading to the women’s section and a female WOW activist stepped into the men’s section and picked up the Torah.

Report Counts Sharp Spike in Global Anti-Semitism

Photo via REUTERS / Charles Platiau / RNS

A woman lights candles in front of the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris. Photo via REUTERS / Charles Platiau / RNS

The number of violent anti-Semitic attacks around the world surged nearly 40 percent last year, according to a report released April 15 by researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

The report found there were 766 recorded incidents against Jewish people in 2014 — the worst year for attacks since 2009. It was released ahead of Israel commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day, which began April 15 at sundown.

The attacks were “perpetrated with or without weapons and by arson, vandalism, or direct threats against Jewish persons or institutions such as synagogues, community centers, schools, cemeteries, and monuments as well as private property,” the authors of the report, based at the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University, said.

In 2013, there were 554 registered incidents.

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