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Battles fought over Christmas in 2017

While ostensibly a season of celebration and gift-giving, Christmas has found itself embroiled in nu..

While ostensibly a season of celebration and gift-giving, Christmas has found itself embroiled in number of controversies over its Christian character involving college campuses, figurines and the US president himself.

Though its roots can be traced back to midwinter festivities of pagan and Roman Europe, Christmas has been celebrated by Christians worldwide on December 25 (or January 7 if you are Orthodox) as the birthday of Jesus Christ. Recent decades, however, have seen the religious aspects of this holiday chipped away both by secularism and rampant consumerism, and some conservative commentators have declared there is a “War on Christmas.”

As yuletide draws nearer, RT looks back on a few of the Chrimbo controversies that have erupted over the past few weeks.

No Christmas on campus!

Santa Claus, Christmas trees, wrapping gifts and jingle bells are all regular fixtures of the season, but not, apparently, at the University of Minnesota, where a newsletter from the Dean this week informed students that “specific religious iconography” is “not appropriate for gatherings and displays at this time of year” and advised students to “consider neutral-themed parties such as a ‘winter celebration’” instead. Jewish symbols of Hanukkah such as dreidels were also listed as undesirable.

The U of M (@UMNews) shared this letter with some faculty and student employees this week The colors red & green, blue & white/silver are verboten during the "winter celebration" period. Images of Santa, wrapped gifts, and bells are also deemed "religious iconography."

— Jon Miltimore (@miltimore79) December 14, 2017

The handout also encouraged students to report any dissident decorating to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. However, university spokeswoman Emma Bauer told Fox News that the letter was a “conversation piece to facilitate dialogue at a voluntary, internal college event on respecting religious diversity in the workplace,” and not official college policy.

Happy Holidays?

Among the self-proclaimed defenders of the Christmas tradition is US President Donald Trump, who has decried the role “political correctness” has had in dampening the festive spirit, and has made a point of saying “Merry Christmas” instead of the more neutral expression, “Happy Holidays,” favored by the Obamas.

“They don't use the word 'Christmas' because it's not politically correct,” he said in a speech in October. “We're saying 'Merry Christmas' again.”

True to his word, the Trump family’s Christmas card this year read “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,” and is signed by Melania Trump, her son Barron and the POTUS himself.

But there might be some discord in the First Family’s household as daughter Ivanka Trump tweeted “Happy Holidays!” on Tuesday, inadvertently inviting a wave of sarcasm. Ivanka is married to Jared Kushner, who is Jewish, and herself converted to Judaism in 2009.

While over half of Americans don’t mind whether they are greeted with a “Merry Christmas” or a “Happy Holidays,” according to a recent Pew survey, the latter can be deeply offensive to conservative Christians who consider it an attack on their beliefs.

Nativité? Non, merci

Across on the other side of the Atlantic, France’s fiercely secular tradition of "laïcité" forbids the expression or proselytizing of religion in many public places, leading to court rulings against local authorities putting up nativity scenes in their town halls. But earlier in December Laurent Wauquiez, the president of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region and contender for the leadership of the right-wing Republicans party, found a way to get around the ban by claiming his nativity set-up was in fact a celebration of the work done by local artisans.

“Judges have banned us from displaying a nativity scene in the town hall and other public buildings,” Wauquiez said. “And so this year, we have organized an exhibit about the art of making santons [nativity figures].The aim is to put forward this extraordinary savoir-faire, and for people to find out more about how the traditional figurines are made.”

Pendant un mois la Région va accueillir une grande exposition sur les métiers d’art des santonniers. Venez découvrir le travail des santonniers de notre région, un art et un savoir-faire artisanal extraordinaire et ancien.

— Laurent Wauquiez (@laurentwauquiez) December 4, 2017

M Wauquiez’s “exhibit” was criticized by local left-wingers, who accused him of acting “like a child.”

No Christmas in the classroom!

Parents, officials and politicians alike complained to the Gribskolen primary school in Graested, Denmark, earlier this week after it chose to cancel the traditional Christmas service, in an effort not to exclude pupils from different religious backgrounds.

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"We took the decision because we have children who are not Protestant,” Marianne Vederso Schmidt, the head of the school, wrote in an intranet posting earlier this month, adding that “it must be left to the individual families whether they want to privately attend a service.”

A group of 10 parents were the first to criticize the decision, which was quickly picked up by the national media.
“I don’t see why our tradition has to be taken away from us, just because someone else at the school believes in something else,” Mette Brüel-Holler, the mother of two enrolled daughters, told TV2. “I come from a small community, where the church is important, and these traditions are beautiful. I remember enjoying them myself as a child, and they are a fundamental part of Christmas.”

Some speculated that the move was made to avoid offending the sensibilities of Muslim students, and right-leaning politicians too weighed in on the argument. “We are a Christian country with our own traditions,” Marie Krarup of the Danish People's Party wrote on her Facebook. “We should not sacrifice this in the name of multiculturalism.”

However, the chairman of the School Leaders Association, Claus Hjortdal, has said that there is no rule saying that there must be a Christmas service at the end of term, and pointed out that many schools do not have one at all.

Christmas banned for real

In the past, Christmas celebrations have been banned by Puritan Christians in both England and America, as well as by communist regimes such as Cuba and Albania. These days an actual ban on festivities is only observed in a handful of mostly Muslim countries.

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© Erich Gemeiner

In 2015, Somali officials declared that public celebrations on Christmas have no place in a Muslim society, and may provoke an attack by militant group al-Shabaab. The few Christians remaining in the country, mostly foreigners, are allowed to practice their beliefs in private. Around the same time the sultanate of Brunei in Southeast Asia also outlawed Christmas, and anyone caught wearing a Santa hat there could face five years in jail.

The same year, the majority-Muslim but officially secular ex-Soviet republic of Tajikistan passed laws banning Christmas trees, gift-giving, dinners, fundraising and fireworks, having already banned Father Frost, the Russian version of Santa Claus, from TV screens in 2013. The measures apply to both Christmas time and New Year's, and are intended to guard Tajikistan’s cultural traditions from foreign influences.

Christmas is banned in communist North Korea, where the nation's Christians are forced to practice their beliefs in secret. In 2014, Pyongyang threatened to hit a Christmas tree erected on the South Korean border with an artillery strike.

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Nuclear annihilation just one miscalculation away, UN chief warns

The world is one misstep from devastating nuclear war and in peril not seen since the Cold War, the UN Secretary General has warned.

“We have been extraordinarily lucky so far,” Antonio Guterres said.

Amid rising global tensions, “humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation”, he added.

His remarks came at the opening of a conference for countries signed up to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The 1968 deal was introduced after the Cuban missile crisis, an event often portrayed as the closest the world ever came to nuclear war. The treaty was designed to stop the spread of nuclear weapons to more countries, and to pursue the ultimate goal of complete nuclear disarmament.

Almost every nation on Earth is signed up to the NPT, including the five biggest nuclear powers. But among the handful of states never to sign are four known or suspected to have nuclear weapons: India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan.

Secretary General Guterres said the “luck” the world had enjoyed so far in avoiding a nuclear catastrophe may not last – and urged the world to renew a push towards eliminating all such weapons.

“Luck is not a strategy. Nor is it a shield from geopolitical tensions boiling over into nuclear conflict,” he said.

And he warned that those international tensions were “reaching new highs” – pointing specifically to the invasion of Ukraine, tensions on the Korean peninsula and in the Middle East as examples.

Russia was widely accused of escalating tensions when days after his invasion of Ukraine in February, President Vladimir Putin put Russia’s substantial nuclear forces on high alert.

He also threatened anyone standing in Russia’s way with consequences “you have never seen in your history”. Russia’s nuclear strategy includes the use of nuclear weapons if the state’s existence is under threat.

On Monday, Mr Putin wrote to the same non-proliferation conference Mr Guterres opened, declaring that “there can be no winners in a nuclear war and it should never be unleashed”.

But Russia still found itself criticised at the NPT conference.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned what he called Russia’s sabre-rattling – and pointed out that Ukraine had handed over its Soviet-era nuclear weapons in 1994, after receiving assurances of its future security from Russia and others.

“What message does this send to any country around the world that may think that it needs to have nuclear weapons – to protect, to defend, to deter aggression against its sovereignty and independence?” he asked. “The worst possible message”.

Today, some 13,000 nuclear weapons are thought to remain in service in the arsenals of the nine nuclear-armed states – far lower than the estimated 60,000 stockpiled during the peak of the mid-1980s.


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Australia election: Why is Australia’s parliament so white?

Australia is one of the most multicultural nations in the world, but it’s a different story in the country’s politics, where 96% of federal lawmakers are white.

With this year’s election, political parties did have a window to slightly improve this. But they chose not to in most cases, critics say.

Tu Le grew up the child of Vietnamese refugees in Fowler, a south-west Sydney electorate far from the city’s beaches, and one of the poorest urban areas in the country.

The 30-year-old works as a community lawyer for refugees and migrants newly arrived to the area.

Last year, she was pre-selected by the Labor Party to run in the nation’s most multicultural seat. But then party bosses side-lined her for a white woman.

It would take Kristina Kenneally four hours on public transport – ferry, train, bus, and another bus – to get to Fowler from her home in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, where she lived on an island.

Furious locals questioned what ties she had to the area, but as one of Labor’s most prominent politicians, she was granted the traditionally Labor-voting seat.

Ms Le only learned she’d been replaced on the night newspapers went to print with the story.

“I was conveniently left off the invitation to the party meeting the next day,” she told the BBC.

Despite backlash – including a Facebook group where locals campaigned to stop Ms Kenneally’s appointment – Labor pushed through the deal.

“If this scenario had played out in Britain or the United States, it would not be acceptable,” says Dr Tim Soutphomassane, director of the Sydney Policy Lab and Australia’s former Race Discrimination Commissioner.

“But in Australia, there is a sense that you can still maintain the status quo with very limited social and political consequences.”

An insiders’ game

At least one in five Australians have a non-European background and speak a language at home other than English, according to the last census in 2016.

Some 49% of the population was born or has a parent who was born overseas. In the past 20 years, migrants from Australia’s Asian neighbours have eclipsed those from the UK.

But the parliament looks almost as white as it did in the days of the “White Australia” policy – when from 1901 to the 1970s, the nation banned non-white immigrants.

“We simply do not see our multicultural character represented in anything remotely close to proportionate form in our political institutions,” says Dr Soutphomassane.

Compared to other Western multicultural democracies, Australia also lags far behind.

The numbers below include Indigenous Australians, who did not gain suffrage until the 1960s, and only saw their first lower house MP elected in 2010. Non-white candidates often acknowledge that any progress was first made by Aboriginal Australians.

Two decades ago, Australia and the UK had comparably low representation. But UK political parties – responding to campaigns from diverse members – pledged to act on the problem.

“The British Conservative Party is currently light years ahead of either of the major Australian political parties when it comes to race and representation,” says Dr Soutphomassane.

So why hasn’t Australia changed?

Observers say Australia’s political system is more closed-door than other democracies. Nearly all candidates chosen by the major parties tend to be members who’ve risen through the ranks. Often they’ve worked as staffers to existing MPs.

Ms Le said she’d have no way into the political class if she hadn’t been sponsored by Fowler’s retiring MP – a white, older male.

Labor has taken small structural steps recently – passing commitments in a state caucus last year, and selecting two Chinese-Australian candidates for winnable seats in Sydney.

But it was “one step forward and two steps back”, says party member and activist Osmond Chiu, when just weeks after the backlash to Ms Le’s case, Labor “parachuted in” another white candidate to a multicultural heartland.

Andrew Charlton, a former adviser to ex-PM Kevin Rudd, lived in a harbour mansion in Sydney’s east where he ran a consultancy.

His selection scuppered the anticipated races of at least three diverse candidates from the area which has large Indian and Chinese diasporas.

Party seniors argued that Ms Kenneally and Mr Charlton – as popular and respected party figures – would be able to promote their electorates’ concerns better than newcomers.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese also hailed Ms Kenneally as a “great Australian success story” as a migrant from the US herself.

But Mr Chiu says: “A lot of the frustration that people expressed wasn’t about these specific individuals.

“It was about the fact that these were two of the most multicultural seats in Australia and these opportunities – which come by so rarely – to select culturally diverse candidates were squandered.”

He adds this has long-term effects because the average MP stays in office for about 10 years.

The frustration on this issue has centred on Labor – because the centre-left party calls itself the “party of multiculturalism”.

But the Liberal-National government doesn’t even have diversity as a platform issue.

One of its MPs up for re-election recently appeared to confuse her Labor rival for Tu Le, sparking accusations that she’d mixed up the two Asian-Australian women – something she later denied. But as one opponent said: “How is this still happening in 2022?”

Some experts like Dr Soutphommasane have concluded that Australia’s complacency on areas like representation stems from how the nation embraced multiculturalism as official policy after its White Australia days.

The government of the 1970s, somewhat embarrassed by the past policy, passed racial discrimination laws and “a seat at the table” was granted to migrants and Indigenous Australians.

But critics say this has led to an Australia where multiculturalism is celebrated but racial inequality is not interrogated.

“Multiculturalism is almost apolitical in how it’s viewed in Australia,” Dr Soutphommasane says, in contrast to the “fight” for rights that other Western countries have seen from minority groups.

What is the impact?

A lack of representation in parliament can also lead to failures in policy.

During Sydney’s Covid outbreak in August 2021, Fowler and Parramatta electorates – where most of the city’s multicultural communities reside – were subject to harsher lockdowns as a result of a higher number of cases.

How will things change?

Liberal MP Dave Sharma, the only lawmaker of Indian heritage, has said all parties – including his own – should better recruit people with different backgrounds. He called it a “pretty laissez-faire attitude” currently.

Mr Albanese has urged Ms Le to “hang in there”, insisting she has a future.

But more people like Ms Le are choosing to speak out.

“I think I surprised a lot of people by not staying quiet,” she told the BBC.

“People acted like it was the end of my political career that I didn’t toe the party line. But… none of that means anything to me if it means I’m sacrificing my own values.”

She and other second-generation Australians – raised in a country which prides itself on “a fair go” – are agitating for the rights and access their migrant parents may not have felt entitled to.

“Many of those from diverse backgrounds were saying they felt like they didn’t have a voice – and that my case was a clear demonstration of their suppression, and their wider participation in our political system.”

She and others have noted the “growing distrust” in the major parties. Polls are predicting record voter support for independent candidates.

“This issue…. matters for everyone in Australian society that cares about democracy,” says Mr Soutphommasane.

“If democratic institutions are not representative, their legitimacy will suffer.

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US military leader warns Chinese security deal with Solomon Islands sounds ‘too good to be true’

A senior US military general has warned during a visit to Australia that China’s offer to deepen security ties with Solomon Islands will come with strings attached, suggesting the Pacific island country may come to regret the planned deal.

“My parents told me if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” the commandant of the United States Marine Corps, general David Berger, said on Wednesday.

Berger was cautious when asked about longstanding US concerns relating to a Chinese company’s lease over the port of Darwin, stressing it was a sovereign decision for Australia as part of its yet-to-be-completed national security review.

Ahead of a trip to Darwin, the site of increasing rotations of US Marines, Berger said: “If it’s not of concern to Australia, then it’s not of concern to me.”

Berger’s visit comes amid a flurry of diplomatic activity by the US and Australia attempting to head off a proposed security agreement between China and Solomon Islands, which could allow regular visits by the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

A leaked draft from last month raised the possibility China could “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands”, while Chinese forces could also be used “to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands”.

The prime minister of Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, has sought to allay concerns, saying his country has no intention of allowing a Chinese naval base. But Sogavare has also said it is “very insulting to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs”.

Speaking in Canberra on Wednesday, Berger said the US needed to show humility in its outreach to Pacific nations, but also needed to be open about the potential long-term consequences.

Berger reflected on the fight for control of Guadalcanal in Solomon Islands during the second world war, when the US and allies sought to prevent Japanese forces from gaining a foothold in the strategically important location.

“A lot of things change in warfare. Not geography. Where … Solomon Islands are matters. It did then and it does now,” Berger said at the Australian Strategic Policy


He said the proposed agreement was “just another example” of China seeking to broaden and expand its influence. He raised concerns about “the way that [it] happens and the consequences for the nations” involved.

Sogavare has argued Solomon Islands pursues a “friends to all and enemies to none” foreign policy, but Berger implied countries making agreements with Beijing might regret it down the track.

“We should illuminate, we should draw out into the open what this means long term,” Berger said.

“This is, in other words, an extension of ‘hey we’re here with a cheque, we’re here with money, we’d like to improve your port or your airfield or your bus station’. And that just sounds so great, until a year later or six months later.”

The US plans to reopen its embassy in Solomon Islands, a move the nominee for US ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy, has said “can’t come soon enough”.

Berger acknowledged there were limits to US insights in Pacific island countries, so the US needed to rely on allies such as Australia.

“We’re not going to have always the best view, the clearest picture,” he said.

“We have to understand the neighbourhood and we’re never going to understand it as well as Australia.”

Earlier, the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, denied that the US had conveyed any concerns that Australia had dropped the ball in the region.

Morrison said the Australian government was continuing to raise concerns with Solomon Islands without acting in a “heavy-handed” way.

Australia’s minister for the Pacific, Zed Seselja, met with Sogavare in Honiara on Wednesday and “asked Solomon Islands respectfully to consider not signing the agreement” with China.

Seselja suggested Solomon Islands “consult the Pacific family in the spirit of regional openness and transparency”. Australia would work with Solomon Islands “swiftly, transparently and with full respect for its sovereignty”.

“We welcome recent statements from prime minister Sogavare that Australia remains Solomon Islands’ security partner of choice, and his commitment that Solomon Islands will never be used for military bases or other military institutions of foreign powers,” Seselja said.

Sogavare has previously said Solomon Islands welcomed “any country that is willing to support us in our security space”.

But Matthew Wale, the leader of the opposition, has argued the deal “would make the Solomons a geopolitical playing field” and “further threaten the nation’s fragile unity”.


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