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Shimon Peres, former president and veteran Israeli statesman, dies at 93

 

 

A lifetime searching for peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors was rewarded on December 10, 1994, when Peres – along with then- prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat – received a Nobel Peace Prize. The award recognized their work as the architects of the 1993 inter – im peace deal known as the Oslo I Accord – a pact that, to Peres’s dismay, never hard- ened into a lasting treaty.

In a career spanning some 70 years, Peres was a servant of the state who was inti- mately involved in every aspect of the country’s histo- ry since before its founding. In his 48 years in parliament – from the fourth Knesset in 1959 through the 17th in 2007 – he served in var – ious parliamentary groups, including Mapai, Rafi, Labor, the Alignment, Labor, One Israel, Labor-Meimad, Labor- Meimad-Am Ehad and Kadi- ma. His main affiliation was with the Labor Party.

Peres’s string of govern- ment roles included two stints as prime minister – from 1984 to 1986 as part of a rotational government, and for seven months in 1995 and 1996 after the assassination of Rabin – as well as minis- ter of immigrant absorption, transportation, information, defense, communications (or posts and telegraphs as it was known at the time), internal affairs, religious affairs, for – eign affairs, finance, regional cooperation, and develop- ment of the Negev and Gal- ilee, serving in some of those positions more than once. He also served several times as acting prime minister, deputy prime minister and vice prime minister.

Though Peres ran for prime minister five times from 1977 and 1996, he never won a national election outright.

Peres was born on August 2, 1923, in Wiszniewo, Poland, as Szymon Perski, and immi- grated to Palestine with his family at the age of 11. He grew up in Tel Aviv, attend- ing the Balfour and Geula schools in Tel Aviv, and the agricultural high school in Ben-Shemen. He spent sever – al years at Kibbutz Geva and Kibbutz Alumot, of which he was one of the founders. In 1943, he was elected sec- retary of the Labor-Zionist youth movement.

At age 24, he worked with David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol in command of the Hagana, responsible for manpower and arms. During and after the War of Inde- pendence, Peres served as head of the naval services.

In 1952, he joined the Defense Ministry and, a year later at the age of 29, was appointed its director-gen- eral – the youngest ever – playing an important role in developing the Israeli mili- tary industry and promoting the development of Israel Aerospace Industries.

Peres was elected a mem- ber of Knesset in 1959, and, except for three months in early 2006, served until his election as president in June 2007. Among his achieve- ments as deputy defense minister from 1959 to 1965 were the establishment of the military and aviation industries and the promo- tion of strategic ties with France, which culminated in strategic cooperation during the 1956 Sinai Campaign. Peres also was instrumental in establishing Israel’s nucle- ar program.

For three years following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Peres again played a central role in the country’s secu- rity as defense minister. In that role, he revitalized and strengthened the IDF and was involved in the disen- gagement negotiations that led to the 1975 Interim Agreement with Egypt. He also was instrumental in the planning of the 1976 Enteb- be rescue operation. Peres briefly served as acting prime minister following the resignation of Rabin in 1977, and later served his first tenure as prime minister in the national unity government from 1984 to 1986, based on a rotation arrangement with Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir.

From November 1988 until the dissolution of the National unity government in 1990, Peres served as finance minister, focusing his energies on the failing economy and the complex situation resulting from the 1982 war in Lebanon.

He is credited with reducing the annual inflation rate from 400% to 16% and was instrumental in the withdrawal of troops from Lebanon and the establishment of a narrow security zone in southern Lebanon.

After Labor returned to power in the 1992 election, Peres was again appointed foreign minister and he initiated and conducted the negotiations that led to the signing of the Declaration of Principles with the PLO in September 1993.

Peres’s second term as prime minister came in the wake of the assassination of Rabin on November 4, 1995. The Labor Party chose Peres as Rabin’s successor, and the Knesset confirmed the decision with a vote of confidence supported by both coalition and opposition members.

Despite polls showing him far ahead, Peres lost to Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the election on May 29, 1996, by fewer than 30,000 votes.

In October 1997, Peres created the Peres Center for Peace with the aim of advancing Arab-Israeli joint ventures. He was also the author of 12 books.

When he was sworn in as the ninth president of the state on July 15, 2007, Peres was the first former prime minister to serve in the role. He was two weeks shy of his 91st birthday when he completed his seven-year term in 2014.

Peres’s wife, Sonia, died in 2011.

The couple had three children, eight grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren.

 

 

 

 

Archeologists: The Biblical Story Happened Right Here

Next to Jerusalem, Lachish was the most important city from the time of King Rehoboam until the exile of Judea in 586 BCE. The archeological site of Tel Lachish has been undergoing excavation for decades, but, given its enormous size, only in March of this year was the elaborate structure of the city gate fully revealed.

According to excavation director Sa’ar Ganor, the “Gate Shrine,” the specific site that now is being fully exposed, points to none other than King Hezekiah.

More specifically, the findings at the Gate Shrine are linked to Hezekiah’s religious reforms mentioned in 2 Kings 18:4: “He [Hezekiah] removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah.”

The broken horns of the twin alters located within the Gate’s elaborate structure were broken to desecrate the pagan alters. The latrines found within the Gate also point to a common practice used to desecrate pagan holy places, first mentioned in connection with King Jehu: “They also broke down the sacred pillar of Baal and broke down the house of Baal, and made it a latrine to this day” (2 Kings 10:27).

Tests conducted by the Israel Antiquity Authority found that these latrines were never used, adding weight to the notion that they served as a sign of defilement.

The Gate also reveals that the biblical institution of the “City Gate” was real. Ganor points to well persevered benches located within the gate’s chambers: “According to biblical descriptions, the gate of a city was where everything happened. The elders of the city, the judges, governors, kings, and bureaucrats – all of them sat on the benches at the city gates,” which now can actually be seen for the first time.

As expected, politicians were quick to seize the opportunity to emphasize modern Israel’s connection to its biblical past.

Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev said that this discovery is one of many in a long line that “give us a glimpse into our rich past.” Minister of Environmental Protection Ze’ev Elkin said that the excavation is another example of how stories from the Bible are confirmed in archaeological records.

 

 

 

Azerbaijan’s Ambiguous Bible Breakthrough

After 20-year struggle, will new Bible society even be allowed to print Bibles?

 

Azerbaijan's Ambiguous Bible BreakthroughFrancisco Anzola / Flickr
A cultural center in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital.

A restrictive majority-Muslim country is getting good news—or rather, the Good News.

The recent registration of a Bible Society in Azerbaijan, after a 20-year fight, has brought fresh optimism to the country’s minority Christians. But there remains some confusion about the types of books it will be allowed to print, with even Bibles potentially falling foul of the country’s strict regulations.

Terje Hartberg from United Bible Societies called it “a great development, which will start a new chapter in Bible ministry for all Christians in Azerbaijan.”

However, all literature either printed or imported by the Bible Society will remain subject to approval by the government. Every publication is labeled with an official sticker, and distribution is only allowed at state-approved venues.

Those who distribute any religious literature outside these strict limitations face administrative or criminal punishment, reports Forum 18, a news agency focused on religious freedom in Central Asia.

The Old Testament and Hebrew Bible, meanwhile, remain on the list of banned books. Texts from these parts of the Bible have been confiscated in police raids, according to Forum 18.

Asked whether the prohibition of the Old Testament in effect bans the Bible too, Forum 18’s Felix Corley told World Watch Monitor by email: “Well, you can’t publish, print, import, or distribute any religious publication without prior permission from the State Committee, which will also set numbers allowed. So nothing is approved until it is approved.

“Then it can only be distributed in a state-approved venue with a sticker from the State Committee. It appears these stickers have not been available since April. As for the Old Testament, that appears to have been on a police list. So who knows?”

Rasim Khalilov (left), chairman of the Bible Committee, holds the new certificate of registration.

United Bible Socieities

Rasim Khalilov (left), chairman of the Bible Committee, holds the new certificate of registration.

 

As a new chapter opens for the Bible Society in Azerbaijan, the country itself may be entering a new, more restrictive period. President Ilham Aliyev, following the example of his counterparts in Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, is seeking to change the constitution to allow for longer terms in office and to remove minimum age restrictions.

Aliyev, 54, has been president since 2003, when he succeeded his ailing father. Critics suggest the referendum, held on September 26, was an attempt by Aliyev to secure the rule in perpetuity for his family.

Voters were asked to “reject” or “approve” 29 separate amendments to the constitution, including extending maximum presidential terms from five to seven years and adding two vice presidents to be chosen by the president. The minimum age for a president would also be abolished, and the minimum age for election to parliament reduced from 25 to 18.

Critics have suggested Aliyev may have earmarked the first vice president post for his wife, Mehriban—currently deputy chairwoman of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party—or their son, Heydar, who is 19.

In other proposed amendments, the president would be able to hold early elections or dissolve parliament. Another amendment proposes that if Aliyev were to fall ill, his powers would pass to the first vice president, rather than to the prime minister.

The results of the election are due by October 21. Voter turnout was said to be 63 percent—more than double the required 25 percent to validate the vote. On September 30, Ogtay Asadov, the speaker in the Azerbaijan parliament, said the turnout validated the referendum and indicated the people’s “strong support” for the president.

However, opposition groups criticized the proposed changes as “undemocratic” and “monarchical,” while five prominent human-rights activists sought to block the referendum by appealing to the Council of Europe. Intigam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov, Anar Mamedli, Leyla Yunus, and Emin Guseynov—all of whom have faced jail or exile for their criticisms of the government—argued the amendments contravened “human rights and the supremacy of law.”

“The current regime’s intolerance of criticism and the continuing restrictions on the media and on freedom of expression and assembly … render impossible a balanced evaluation of the proposed amendments and acquainting voters with them prior to holding the referendum,” they wrote.

In response, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission said the referendum had been called without a proper debate in parliament and that the proposed changes would give “unprecedented” control to the president.

But Shahin Aliyev, head of the presidential legal department, called their response “flawed” and “politically driven.”

“They speak to us in a language of ultimatums,” he said at a briefing in the capital, Baku.

One opposition party, the Azerbaijani Popular Front, called for a boycott of the referendum, while its ally, the Musavat opposition party, launched a petition against it. The petition was voided after 3,500 of the more than 40,000 signatures were labelled “invalid” by Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission.

“Democracy is something that Azerbaijan has never known,” said Rolf Zeegers, analyst at the World Watch Research unit of Open Doors, which monitors treatment of Christians worldwide. “The regime in Baku is just another post-Communist authoritarian bunch of rulers that are only after consolidating their position.

“They are in perfect line with the different regimes in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.”

Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have already approved constitutional amendments to allow for longer presidential terms.

However, Zeegers said he didn’t believe the proposed changes would have “serious consequences” for the church.

“The regime is already known for strictly surveilling religious activities in Azerbaijan,” he said. “They will remain in power, and even more solidly than before. But it will not mean a change in attitude towards [Christians].”

But while the impact on Christians is indirect, Zeegers still said the overall climate is changing.

“Tajikistan used to be rather relaxed towards religion until 2009,” he said. “The fact that the largest religious group in the country—Muslims—were able to openly and officially run religious schools is a very good indication for this. Since 2009, the regime in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, has become much more authoritarian. All political opposition has been banned, and legislation has become more restrictive. In August 2011, more laws were passed that prohibit any [ministry to] youth.”

Christians have also experienced the change of climate, Zeegers said. “The focus of the government against youth work has affected summer camps, a traditional church activity that brings young Christians together during the summer holidays. This can no longer be done openly, as the camps will be raided by the police. And it goes much further: Since August 2011, any youth work is prohibited. And youth form about 50 percent also of the [Christians], so it has big consequences. In curtailing the biggest religious group, the regime shows it is serious. Christians are warned.”

Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has called for the establishment of a Ministry for Religious and Civil Affairs. According to the website of the Kazakh presidency, the ministry will vouchsafe freedom of religion.

Zeegers said the announcement is “remarkable” but also “possibly dangerous.”

“Remarkable, because Kazakhstan is a secular country in which state and religion have been strictly separated,” he said. “[And] if there is a strict separation between state and religion, why form a special ministry for religious affairs?”

One possible answer is that it is “the first step towards much tighter control over religion in Kazakhstan,” Zeegers said. “So far, the country was relatively mild in its treatment of [Christians]—much milder than Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. These developments mean we need to keep our eyes open about what is going on in Kazakhstan.”

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