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Defense lawyers Geir Lippestad (l.) and Vibeke Hein Baera stand together with mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik in the courtroom, Friday, Aug. 24, in Oslo, Norway. (Heiko Junge/NTB Scanpix/AP)

No clear winners in trial of Anders Behring Breivik

By Correspondent / 08.28.12

Last week concluded what has been a confusing and all-consuming trial against Anders Behring Breivik in what was supposed to be a cut and dry case.

Breivik was caught on the island of Utøya with a Glock pistol, Ruger semi-automatic rifle, and an arsenal of ammunition after having killed 69 people at Labor party youth summer camp. He even confessed to the bomb attack on the government headquarters earlier that day that killed eight, and detailed his entire planning to police shortly after his capture.

By all measures, the case should have been over long ago. Instead, it dragged on for 13 months with a final verdict falling on Friday: The 33-year-old Norwegian and self-proclaimed militant nationalist was sentenced to the maximum sentence of 21 years’ permanent detention for terrorist acts.

IN PICTURES: Norway vs. Breivik

Now, there are renewed calls today for Jens Stoltenberg, Norway’s prime minister, to accept responsibility for failing to protect Norwegians from the attack and the slow police response that day.

After watching the trial for 10 weeks and listening to the debates since the attacks, one can’t help but feel something is lacking. In many ways, it is still not clear who really won.

Technically, Breivik did, at least on legal precedence. He was arguing to be judged sane so that his militant nationalist ideology would stand stronger. He attacked the Labor party targets because he faults them for allowing too many Muslim immigrants into Norway and thereby promoting the “ethnic cleansing of indigenous Norwegians.” The court ruled that he was sane and not paranoid schizophrenic as the first of two forensic psychiatric reports concluded.

He also won by getting considerable media coverage of his political ideology during the trial.  Indeed, in the political manifesto he released online shortly before his killing spree, he referred to the trial as part of “the propaganda phase” of his publicity efforts. That phase is expected to continue from prison, where he plans to write a trilogy of political books in English and correspond with supporters.

He did lose on one main point: that he be found not guilty.  Judge Wenche Elizabeth Arntzen rejected his argument that his planned massacre was a “pre-emptive attack” to avoid a wider civil war that would ensue as a result of the Muslim colonization of Europe. Neither Norwegian law, nor the European Court of Human Rights, gives the right to assassinate government figures for extreme political purposes, she said as part of the historic 90-page verdict.

As for the prosecution, technically they did not win because they were pressing for him to be remanded to compulsory psychiatric care.  The judges instead found that Breivik was sane and legally punishable. However, how horrible is it for prosecutors to lose and see a mass murderer go to prison?

Still the case is embarrassing for the prosecution because it never really questioned the first psychiatric report that found him psychotic. Tor-Aksel Busch, Norway’s chief of public prosecutions, even had to apologize after the verdict for not having ordered a second report. Had legal counsel for the victims not pressed for a new report, Breivik could have gotten away with the crime of the century.

As for the victims, it’s a pale victory. Yes, they get to see Breivik held accountable for the murders and put an end to their 13-month ordeal. But they will still be struggling to deal with the senselessness of his car bomb attack at the government headquarters and the brutality of the executions at Utøya, where he gunned down Labor party youths in cold blood for more than one hour.

The real loser may be Prime Minister Stoltenberg and the Labor party, the target of Breivik’s attacks. Stoltenberg is currently under fire after the scathing 22 July Commission’s report earlier this month revealed that the attacks could have been prevented and lives saved by a swifter police response.

Stoltenberg today presented his strategy for implementing the 22 July Commission’s recommended changes during an extraordinary session of parliament. The hard-pressed minister apologized for the failings leading up to and during the attacks. The commission documented a failure in Norwegian preparedness that was “more comprehensive and deeper than I was prepared for,” he told parliament.

However, he failed to dissuade politicians from considering a possible call for his removal. Knut Arild Hareide, leader of the Christian Democratic Party, said it would be “irresponsible to rule out” a confidence motion against Stoltenberg in the future. The minister will next have to answer more questions when he appears before the parliament’s control and constitutional committee in coming months.

Stoltenberg will most likely survive the political year until next September’s elections as his coalition government holds a parliamentary majority, but he will be damaged. A recent poll by Ipsos MMI for Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet this week showed that more Norwegians prefer Conservative party leader Erna Solberg as prime minister over Stoltenberg 36 percent versus 25 percent.

Regardless, Breivik will spend the next 21 years in prison and possibly more.  Although there are no life sentences in Norway, he will most likely remain incarcerated under a Norwegian law that allows his detention to be rolled over in five-year intervals indefinitely.

IN PICTURES: Norway vs. Breivik

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Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba speaks to journalists at his office in Tokyo, Tuesday, Aug. 28. Gemba on Tuesday demanded an investigation into an incident in which a man in Beijing ripped the Japanese flag off of a car carrying the country's ambassador to China. (Kyodo News/AP)

Japan demands investigation into attack on ambassador's car in China

By Staff writer / 08.28.12

Japan pressed its diplomatic advantage with China on Tuesday, demanding an official investigation into an attack on the Japanese ambassador’s car in Beijing.

Beijing apologized for the embarrassing incident on Monday, in which an unidentified man ripped the Japanese flag from the ambassador’s car amid rising tensions over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said the government was undertaking a “serious investigation” and would guarantee foreign diplomats’ safety. That did not stop Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba from formally demanding an investigation on Tuesday, calling the incident “deplorable.”

Thousands of anti-Japanese protesters took to the streets of cities across China last weekend for the second straight week, burning Japanese flags and vandalizing Japanese restaurants and businesses.

The violence is the latest flare-up of a long-simmering row between Beijing and Tokyo over ownership of a handful of uninhabited rocky islands known here as the Diaoyu and in Japan as the Senkaku islands. The islands are surrounded by fishing grounds, and sovereignty would confer rights over nearby undersea oil and gas deposits.

The most recent war of words broke out between the two Asian neighbors a month ago, when Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda appeared to suggest that his government might seek to buy the islands from their private Japanese owner, an idea championed by maverick Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara.

That prompted a sharp response from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, who expressed Beijing’s “strong displeasure” with what he called Mr. Noda’s “highly irresponsible” remarks.

Tensions rose further when a group of Chinese activists from Hong Kong landed on one of the disputed islands on Aug.15, the 67th  anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II.

After they had been arrested by the Japanese coast guard and expelled from Japan, a group of right wing Japanese activists landed on another of the islands to make their own point for a couple of hours, before coast guard officials persuaded them to leave.

Nationalist and anti-Japanese sentiment is strong in China, where the authorities have long encouraged it in their citizens from an early age through history books that often inflame resentment against the former invaders.

The Chinese government faces a delicate task, however, not wanting to appear soft on Japan yet anxious to keep protests from turning into expressions of dissatisfaction with the Chinese authorities themselves, or from spilling over into violence that might seriously harm relations with Tokyo.

The Japanese authorities too appear anxious not to let the dispute get out of hand. The government yesterday refused a request from the Tokyo municipality for permission to land a delegation on the islands.

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Visitors surround German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) during open house day at the Chancellery in Berlin, Sunday. Mrs. Merkel is facing re-election next year. (Thomas Peter/Reuters )

Fiscally conservative Romney-Ryan ticket: Does it appeal in Germany?

By Rieke HavertzContributor / 08.24.12

With America's election day getting closer, Germans are following the tightening race between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney with increasing enthusiasm. Four years after Mr. Obama entered the White House he is still highly popular. But could Germans' interest in Romney rise with Paul Ryan on his ticket?

Consider: Romney, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is a fiscal conservative. In a time of global economic crisis, his support for spending cuts in the federal budget could in theory prove highly popular especially with “Madame No,” the power player in the euro crisis. Meanwhile, Obama's heroic status has inevitably come down to earth overseas. A Pew Research study from June 2012 shows that global approval of the policies Obama has promoted has declined significantly since he first took office, though in Germany, 87 percent of participants still expressed confidence overall in the president.

Stimulus packages

But throughout the economic crisis, the Obama White House was encouraging Germany to support more debt-increasing stimulus packages. Germany resisted, with Mrs. Merkel arguing that decreasing the debt was the solution for regaining political authority.

“Superficially, one could argue that Romney and Merkel share the same economic interests,” says Josef Braml, Program Officer USA/Transatlantic Relations at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin.

But Romney may still face an uphill battle in winning the hearts and minds of Germans and their leader.

Romney didn’t help himself with his Europe trip earlier this month, facing criticism for the countries he chose to visit and a number of his remarks. Then there is his economic philosophy.

The German and American definitions of conservative diverge sharply. Being conservative in Germany does not automatically mean promoting deregulation. “In Germany, it is hardly imaginable to reduce the role of government in the way Romney/Ryan want to do it. The state and some regulation on the market play a bigger role in Europe,” says Mr. Braml.

Little social security

Merkel's politics are based on the social economic market, an economic model most political parties have followed since World War II. It's a compromise between social democracy and economic liberalism, combining private enterprise with government regulation to establish fair competition. “Extensive cuts in social benefits, like Paul Ryan’s proposal to privatize Medicare, are not part of her political vision,” says Henriette Rytz from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. Germans have questions about how a Romney-Ryan team would cut government spending while expanding the military budget. And experts raise concerns about more social cuts in a system that – compared to Germany ­– has little social security.

Moreover, whoever wins the presidential race in November is going to face a tough economic outlook for 2013. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the first half of 2013 will be difficult if currently planned spending cuts and tax hikes go into effect, with US GDP shrinking by 2.9 percent, followed by a second half growth rate of 1.9 percent.

This outlook will influence US foreign policy, Braml says. “Neither a Democrat nor a Republican will have a lot of leeway. Because of its own economic problems, the USA will try to shift much of the burden onto its allies in Europe and Asia.”

Austerity policy

Looking at this global crisis, Merkel favors an austerity policy but also promotes a regulation of the financial sector and a financial transaction tax, something Romney would most likely not agree on.

“Given his campaign promise to repeal Dodd-Frank [Wall Street reforms], Romney is likely to object to government intervention in the global financial sector,” says Mrs. Rytz.

Merkel might give a future president Romney a warm welcome as a sometime-fellow conservative, but the differences in their economic policies would not likely translate into an immediately tight-knit relationship. And at any rate, for the next year, with an election looming, Merkel's main preoccupation jibes more closely with Obama's: getting reelected.

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Centenarian sister helps Sardinian siblings set world record

By Correspondent / 08.22.12

Could the rugged Mediterranean island of Sardinia harbor the secret to a long life? Experts increasingly think so.

The island has long had a reputation for longevity, with one of the highest rates of centenarians in the world. Now that reputation has been further bolstered with the discovery of nine elderly brothers and sisters who have a combined age of 818 years.

The Melis siblings were officially recognized this week by Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest living siblings.

It can surely only be a matter of time before “The Sardinian Diet” becomes the next big thing among Hollywood stars and well-heeled health enthusiasts.

All but two of the siblings live in the village of Perdasdefogu in a mountainous region of the island known as the Barbagia, which in the past was famed for banditry, feuding, and kidnapping.

Its unforgiving terrain has repelled outside invaders since pre-Roman times, ensuring a distinct gene pool that appears to have passed on longevity from generation to generation.

The Melis family ascribes its extraordinarily long lives to plenty of exercise – walking up and down precipitous slopes to feed its sheep and goats, for instance – as well as a healthy diet based around bread, cheese and pasta, all locally produced.  

Family members speak particularly highly of minestrone soup, which is filling but low in fat and full of greens. The red wine they drink is unusually high in antioxidants, experts have found.

Being surrounded by around 150 children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren also keeps them young, they say.

The oldest of the siblings, Consolata, celebrated her 105th birthday today, while the “baby” of the family, Mafalda, is a comparatively sprightly 78 years old.

“In my day women had to do all the domestic work, going to the standpipe to get water and to the river to wash the clothes. My grandchildren have washing machines and vacuum cleaners so when they say 'I’m so stressed,' I just can’t understand it,” Consolata told Italy’s daily Corriere della Sera.

One of the sisters, Claudina, 99, keeps in shape by walking to and from church every day, while a brother, Adolfo, 89, still works in a bar in the village and tends vegetables in his garden.

It was a family friend who approached Guinness claiming that the Melis siblings were probably the oldest in the world.

Guinness verified the claim in conjunction with the Gerontology Research Group in the US and announced the finding this week.

“The Mediterranean lifestyle is always held up as being beneficial to a long, healthy life, and Italians in particular feature prominently in the list of supercentenarians and centenarians,” said Craig Glenday, editor-in-chief for Guinness World Records.

“Seven out of the 70 people alive over the age of 110 are Italian, for example, and the world's second-oldest living person is the Italy-born Dina Manfredini, who was born in Emilia-Romagna," Mr. Glenday noted, adding that Ms. Manfredini now lives in the US.

“With all longevity records, genes and lifestyle are paramount, but luck plays a big part – avoiding accidents and falls, and so on – so to have such a large number of living siblings with an average age of more than 90 years is incredibly rare.” 

The secret of Sardinians’ long life is being studied by a scientific project called AKeA – an acronym for “A kent’ annos,” a traditional toast in the Sardinian language which means “May you live to 100 years.”

Scientists believe genetics play a key role in Sardinians’ longevity – the same surnames crop up again and again in the list of long-living islanders, said Luca Deiana, a professor of clinical biochemistry from the University of Sassari.

The only other region in the world that can match Sardinia for the proportion of centenarians is the island of Okinawa in Japan.

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In this image released by the US Department of Defense and taken Monday, Aug. 20, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, prepares to board a CH-47 at Kabul International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. (D. Myles Cullen/Department of Defense/AP)

Despite drones and blimps, rocket attacks in Afghanistan prove hard to stop (+video)

By Jeremy KellyContributor / 08.21.12

The attack on Bagram Air Field, which damaged Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey’s plane, is a common phenomenon on most military bases across Afghanistan.

The sprawling Bagram base, or the equally large Kandahar Air Field, are attractively large targets for militants who might not have the stomach to launch a frontal assault on foreign or Afghan troops. 

NATO officials today said they were unsure of the exact type of weapon fired at Bagram, which immobilized General Dempsey’s C-17 transport plane and slightly injured two American maintenance crew, but Chinese-made 107mm rockets are one of the most common used in such attacks.

The rockets can be easily set up on a rock or another firm surface and crudely aimed in the direction of its target, sometimes up to three miles away. Accuracy is mostly guesswork, which probably explains why there are comparatively few casualties despite them being a common occurrence.

Ensuring militants aren’t detected by the plethora of technology held by the US – and other foreign – militaries has become a game of cat-and-mouse.

Getting the trigger on a delay mechanism has become the most important part to avoid being caught. The omnipresent surveillance blimps, early-warning rocket detectors and, most worrying for militants, pilot-less drones circling nearby, mean that once a rocket is launched, coalition forces will usually know pretty quickly exactly where it came from.

Whoever set up the rocket would want to have already fled the area or be prepared for almost immediate retaliation by NATO forces.

But militants have started to adapt.

At a US base in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan in 2010, the base was regularly getting hit by rockets and mortars. Every time one hit, coalition forces would scramble to the launch site, sometimes less than two miles from the base’s perimeter. Each time, they found nothing.

It led to theories on how the (presumed) man whom US soldiers dubbed “Rocket Man” and, slightly more creatively, “Elton John,” was managing to fire the rockets on delay. Perhaps he had set up a mobile phone trigger system or just a simple clock-based timer. Yet the best theory was even cheaper, and simpler: He was using a block of ice. 

The block would be set up to so after it melted, the change in weight on the contraption would make two trigger wires connect and the rocket would be launched. 

Whatever it was, it worked: A year later on the base, rockets were still being fired and no suspect had been caught. 

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Pedestrians walk past Yemeni vendors trying to attract customers as they make their way at the entrance of the old city of Sanaa, Yemen Jan. 31, 2011. (Hani Mohammed/AP)

What do Yemenis want from the West? Whitening strips, for one thing.

By Adam BaronCorrespondent / 08.19.12

My life has taken a number of unexpected turns since I moved to Yemen last year, but I never expected it to lead me to a Brooks Brothers in downtown Washington, DC. But there I was two weeks ago, picking up an umbrella for one of my neighbors in Sanaa’s old city. 

For whatever reason, my neighbor Hussein, an area elder and former world-class ping-pong player, took an almost immediate liking to me. Within months of my arrival in the Yemeni capital, the 60-something father of 10 had me calling him uncle, rarely allowing me to pass by without summoning me by enthusiastically screaming “Texas” – an odd choice for a nickname, since I’ve never set foot in the state.

He also took a liking to my black and white-checkered Brooks Brothers umbrella. Whether due to the memory of the draconian laws of the long-overthrown Imamate, which restricted umbrella use to the upper echelons of Yemeni society, or a genuine admiration for classic American design, he developed an odd fixation with it. Having spent a few afternoons as a guest in his home, I couldn't refuse his request that I pick him up an umbrella like mine during my brief trip back to the United States last month.     

It was only one of a string of things, from Aspirin to iPhones, I’ve been asked by Yemeni friends and neighbors to transport back to Sanaa. Neighborhood kids have grown to anticipate my returns from abroad, loitering by my door for my eventual appearance with a bag of candy or a box of sweets. As I passed out desserts I picked up from a famous Egyptian bakery during my lengthy layover in Cairo, I felt like some odd derivative of Santa Claus – a diminutive Italian-American who falls from the sky to deliver sweets during the last days of Ramadan. 

As I devoured baklava and basbousa with my neighbors, I distributed the motley assortment of specific items they had requested. I finally got a bottle of baby aspirin to the older man with a heart condition who lives across the alley from me.

I also managed to get whitening strips to neighborhood teenagers, who have grown increasingly self-conscious about their teeth as they approach marrying age – qat, the chewing of which is a favorite pastime of male Yemenis, discolors their teeth.

It took a great deal of effort to rebuff their efforts to pay me back, although I’m sure I’ll be milking free dinners from the gift giving spree for months. (I’ll admit, though, that I did make my driver give me $200 dollars for the iPhone I picked up for him, at his request.)

It often seems like conflict zones such as Yemen become merely places where violence happens, not where millions of people live. The humanity of people living there often seems forgotten. 

But as I gently grabbed my new iPad back from the crumb-covered hands of neighborhood children admiring its “Call to Prayer” app, impressive even to non-Muslims, and headed out into the night to track down my charmingly eccentric, Brooks Brothers umbrella-loving adopted uncle, the often dominant image of a violence-wracked Yemen “on the brink” was far from my mind. For a few moments, at least, it was hard to see Yemen as anything other than home.

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A placard is held by a supporter of Julian Assange outside the Ecuador embassy in west London, August 16. (Olivia Harris/Reuters)

Ecuadorians rally around decision to offer asylum for Assange (+video)

By Irene CaselliCorrespondent / 08.16.12

Julian Assange was not a household name in Ecuador until Wednesday night, when Ecuador’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ricardo Patiño read out a letter delivered to Ecuador’s embassy in London.

In the letter, technically an aide memoire in diplomatic speak, the UK government explained that it has the right to enter Ecuador’s embassy if the Ecuadorean government were to decide to grant asylum to Mr. Assange, the founder of the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks

The letter was seen as a direct “threat” to the country, said Mr. Patiño. “We are not a British colony,” he said. “The days of the colony are over.”

This decision rallied support among Ecuadorians towards the decision – formally announced today – to grant asylum to Assange. Some hardliners, supporters of President Rafael Correa, protested outside the UK embassy in Quito on Wednesday night, while others cheered when Patiño officially announced Ecuador would grant Assange asylum in an early and longwinded press conference on Thursday.

For common people in Ecuador, it was good for their country to stand up against larger countries.

“The way the UK expressed itself was almost violent,” says Pablo Boada, a cultural consultant, reached by phone in Quito’s old town. “It awakened my sense of solidarity towards the Ecuadorean state as a whole."

As Ecuador is about to enter an election cycle, this sense of solidarity could well be harvested by President Correa, who is most likely going to run again for president in February 2013.

According to government sources who spoke to The Guardian earlier this week, the Ecuadorean government had already reached an agreement with Assange when the WikiLeaks founder decided to enter the embassy in London on June 19, officially asking for political asylum.

But despite this, authorities seemed surprised by the British reaction, and acted immediately to respond to what they saw as a “threat.”

“Nobody is going to intimidate us!” Correa tweeted.

For many abroad, who have read about Correa’s difficult relations with media this year, it might seem ironic that he is granting asylum to Assange in the name of freedom of expression.

In April, Assange conducted an interview with Correa for his TV show on Russia Today, a Russian state-funded channel in English, and the two joked about issues such as freedom of speech.

“Cheer up! Cheer up! Welcome to the club of the persecuted!" said Correa, who believes Assange should be granted political asylum because he is being politically persecuted. 

In recent years, WikiLeaks has begun publishing huge volumes of classified US military and diplomatic documents. Sweden, meanwhile, is seeking Assange's extradition in order to question him about sex crime accusations made against him. Some of Assange's supporters fear Sweden would give Assange over to the US, however experts note it would be simpler for the Americans to just extradite Assange from the UK.

In Ecuador, some within the business community are simply worried about their livelihoods. Some businessman saw the decision as a threat to Ecuador’s trade relations.

“My worry is that we can be seen as an unfriendly country,” says Javier Muñoz, who runs a car import business in Quito and was reached by phone. “If Ecuador starts fighting with these countries, this could have a very negative effect for everyone."

The United States is Ecuador’s main trade partner. Long-time US trade benefits with Ecuador, under the Andean Trade Preferences Act, are up for renewal this year. Businessmen like Mr. Muñoz are worried that the US Congress might decide not to renew the preferences following the Assange decision.

However, it is unclear whether anything ultimately comes of Ecuador's decision. 

Today the British Foreign Secretary said the UK does not recognize the principle diplomatic asylum and would not allow Assange to leave the country.

It might remain little more than a symbolic gesture for Ecuador, but a symbolic gesture that might have repercussions.

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South Korean shaman Lee Soon-ae performs prayers during a shipboard ceremony intended to exorcise the demons that threaten fishermen and bring good luck to everybody on board, off Incheon, west of Seoul, on June 24. Though an ancient practice, Korean shamanism - in which singing and dancing are used in trance rituals addressed to specific gods, often to get an answer to specific questions - had long been suppressed in Asia's second most Christian nation. (Choi Dae-woong/Reuters/File)

Amid pressures of daily life, more Koreans revive interest in shamanism

By Jason StrotherContributor / 08.16.12

The banging of drums, crashing of cymbals and blaring of a horn echo down the slope of Samgak Mountain. They’re coming from a shaman’s temple, where a goot, a spiritual rite, is underway.
The predominant religions in South Korea are the traditional Buddhist faith and a large Christian population, though a large segment of the population is not religious. Still, many are believers in an animistic spirituality that goes back thousands of years.

Shamanism is the indigenous faith of the Korean people, and although it has been diminished by centuries of influence from other religions and some repression, it is still intertwined with daily life among religious and nonreligious populations alike. And due to the pressures caused by the nation’s rapid development, many Koreans are turning to shamanism for guidance from the spirit world.  

At the center of one of the temple’s rooms is a man wearing a tall hat and draped in a multi-layered red, blue, and white robe. He spins in circles, waving silk flags in one hand, a sword in another.
He is a mudang, a shaman priest. He carries on a tradition that is one of the most essential aspects of Korean culture.
“I help make people’s dreams come true,” says Tae Eul, the mudang who leads the ceremony. “I try to figure out how the energy of the universe flows through then, the gods show the way. If god commands that their problem can be solved through a goot, I will perform a goot for them.”
Tae Eul is helping a woman who has fallen on some tough financial times. He has her light candles and bow in front of an altar. He summons the gods of the mountain and sky and calls out to her ancestors. At one point during the ritual, Tae Eul stands barefoot on knife blades, which somehow do not puncture his skin.
Some observers say an intrinsic search for spiritually divined good luck is what keeps South Korea’s 50 thousand mudangs in business. That’s according to David Mason, author of Sacred Mountains, a book on Korean shamanism. 
“It seems to me that many Koreans are still shamanic believers at their core, underneath. Many scholars have used this analogy, like an onion, with shamanism at the core of their psychology and then layers of Buddhism or Confucianism, then Christianity and modern scientific thinking as the outer layers,” Mr. Mason says.
Shamans haven’t always had a good reputation.  During the 1970s the country's government tried to get rid of shamanism, and some Koreans view practitioners skeptically and write them off as con artists. But, Tae Eul says he sees a brighter future for mudangs like himself.
 “Our lives will become increasingly fast paced in the future,” he says.  “I think shamans will once again be treated with respect. We can predict the future and because of that people will appreciate us more.”

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Saudi plan to boost women's employment? Create a women-friendly city.

By Lisa De BodeCorrespondent / 08.15.12

A version of this story published earlier today mistakenly reported that only women would work in the city. A Saudi government report said that it will create job opportunities for both men and women in the area. We apologize for the error.

Women in the Westernized world largely take for granted being able to work and mingle freely with colleagues without fear of repercussions. That's not the case with women in Saudi Arabia: Among those who are allowed to work, most must operate in limited, segregated spaces.

But now the Saudis are addressing that, albeit in an unconventional way. A women-friendly industrial city with built-in segregated work spaces in factories and proximity to residential neighborhoods in Hofuf should create more job opportunities – but in accordance with religious customs. The Saudi Industrial Property Authority (Modon) says it is slated to open next year.

"I'm sure that women can demonstrate their efficiency in many aspects and clarify the industries that best suits their interests, their nature, and their ability," Modon’s deputy director-general, Saleh Al Rasheed, told the Saudi daily al-Eqtisadiah, according to The Daily Mail.

The motives for the city's development are several. Women can help boost Saudization – an ailing government program aimed at increasing the proportion of Saudi nationals in a labor market heavily reliant on foreign workers. Interest in diversifying away from oil also plays a role: about 5,000 jobs in textiles, pharmaceuticals, and food-processing industries would be created. And a growing cohort of female graduates who were sent abroad on a government scholarship aren't content with sitting at home anymore.

The Kingdom boasts one of the lowest national female labor participation rates of the region – at only 15 percent of its active workforce, it's outpaced by Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait. About one quarter of those are unemployed, but highly qualified, according to a report issued by consultancy group Booz & Co.

But the number of women entering the workforce, eager to become financially independent from their families, has nearly tripled over the past 10 years. Saudi female business women are generally better educated than male workers – only 1 percent of business women have no formal education, in contrast to 14.5 percent of the Saudi workforce according to the Monitor Group and the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce & Industry – and are often regarded as more productive.

But not every woman is ready to give up on her religious beliefs and loosen the strict standards she was raised with. The new women-friendly city will allow such women to balance their religious beliefs and desire to work.

Modon said in a statement that the city would be "characterized by allocating sections equipped for women workers... consistent with the privacy of women according to Islamic guidelines and regulations.”

Trying to break with tradition at a media company

Mashail Almadi, a former human resources executive at Rotana, a media company owned by Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Al Saud, recounts the difficulties she had when trying to hire female employees. In defiance of the Kingdom’s strict dress code, the company does not allow women to wear their abayas at the office, where men and women work alongside one another.  

“When I mentioned these requirements, some female candidates would just hang up or start yelling at me over the phone,” Ms. Almadi says. Many aren’t ready for such a change. "The prospect of working in a mixed work environment is a scary one for many Saudi women.”

She experienced some of that social resistance first-hand. At a previous job, she wore the niqab, or face-covering veil. At Rotana, this wasn’t necessary anymore. “But my father didn’t want everyone to know I was working here,” she says, “to protect the family’s reputation.”

Recent efforts in retail to allow women to sell lingerie and cosmetics are increasing employment, but fall short of addressing the many regulatory challenges female businesswomen face.

Indirect access to government services and capital, the requirement to appoint a male manager, and the absence of proper licenses for female business activities such as beauty salons and women’s fitness centers – which can only be opened if affiliated with a medical establishment – persist. Less than half of all female entrepreneurs register their businesses themselves.

Saudi businesswomen rate their experience as most challenging in terms of gender compared to their peers in the Middle East/North Africa region, but are also among the most optimistic about their prospects for growth, according to a survey. The women-friendly city, it is hoped, will contribute to this trend.

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Penitents participate in the Procession of the Torches during Holy Week in Goias Velho, west of Brasilia. Brazil is one of the most religious countries in the world according to a new poll. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

Atheism on the rise around the globe

By Rieke HavertzContributor / 08.15.12

Atheism is on the rise in the United States and elsewhere while religiosity is declining, according to a new worldwide poll. “The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism,” conducted by WIN-Gallup International headquartered in Switzerland, found that the number of Americans who say they are “religious” dropped from 73 percent in 2005 – when the poll was last conducted – to 60 percent. Those who said they were “convinced” atheists rose from 1 to 5 percent. And 33 percent of the people polled said that they don’t consider themselves as a “religious person."


Ryan Cragun, a University of Tampa sociologist of religion, told the “Religion News Services” he questions whether the number of atheists in the United States really grew as the poll suggested. Dr. Cragun suggests that people may just be more comfortable identifying themselves as atheist.

That view seems consistent with a study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life in 2009 showing that 5 percent of Americans at that time said they did not believe in God or a universal spirit, but only 24 percent of the nonbelievers actually called themselves atheists.

The new poll is based on interviews (face-to-face, by telephone or online varying from country to country) with more than 50,000 people from 57 countries. The participants were asked this question: “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person, or a convinced atheist?”

America remains way down the list of countries for self-reported atheism. China tops that list with 47 percent “convinced atheists,” followed by Japan (31 percent), the Czech Republic (30 percent), France (29 percent), and South Korea (15 percent).

Religious Ghana

According to the poll, the following are the top ten religious countries: Ghana (96 percent of the participants that they are religious), Nigeria (93 percent), Armenia (92 percent), Fiji (92 percent), Macedonia (90 percent), Romania (89 percent), Iraq (88 percent), Kenya (88 percent), Peru (86 percent), and Brazil (85 percent).

The least religious nations, according to the poll, are China (14 percent saying they are religious), Japan (16 percent), Czech Republic (20 percent), Turkey (23 percent), Sweden (29 percent), Vietnam (30 percent), Australia (37 percent), France (37 percent), Hong Kong (38 percent) and Austria (42 percent).

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