Pope approves blessings for same-sex couples

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Tuesday, 19th December 2023

Pope Francis has formally approved allowing priests to bless same-sex couples “if it doesn’t resemble marriage”. The radical change in the Vatican’s stance is outlined in a new document, which says people seeking God’s love and mercy should not be subject to “an exhaustive moral analysis” to receive it. The document from the Vatican’s doctrine office, released on Monday, elaborates on a letter the Pope sent to two conservative cardinals last October. In that preliminary response, Francis suggested such blessings could be offered under some circumstances if they did not confuse the ritual with the sacrament of marriage. The new document also reiterates that marriage is a lifelong sacrament between a man and a woman. It stresses the same-sex blessings must be non-liturgical and should not be happening at the same time as a civil union. The blessings must also not be given using set rituals or even with the clothing and gestures that usually would take place at a wedding. However, the document does say requests for such blessings for same-sex couples should not be denied.

At least 100 killed in Israeli airstrike on refugee camp – Hamas

An airstrike on north Gaza’s Jabaliya refugee camp has killed at least 110 people and injured more, said the Hamas-run health ministry. According to Dr Munir Al-Bursh, director-general of the Ministry of Health, many are still trapped under rubble after Israel’s bombardment on residential buildings in the camp. He told CNN the strike hit a family home, which had been housing displaced people. “The majority of the casualties are women and children,” he said. “The bodies and injuries are still coming to our medical point which is the only medical field point for entire northern Gaza.” It comes as Telecom services in Gaza gradually resumed following a communication blackout. The Palestinian Red Crescent reported the blackout had lasted four days – the longest the besieged territory has suffered since the conflict escalated on 7th October, when Hamas attacked Israel. Nearly 19,500 have been killed in Gaza since fighting began, according to the Hamas-led health ministry.

UN Security Council vote postponed by 24 hours

The United Nations Security Council vote on the conflict in Gaza, which was expected yesterday,  has been postponed due to ongoing negotiations over the precise wording of the resolution – which Arab countries tabling the vote are interpreting as evidence that the United States is growing impatient with Israel’s conduct of the war. The vote was due to take place at 5pm in New York (11pm Malta time) but has been put back to today because the US said it could not support a reference to a “cessation” of hostilities. However, rather than simply vetoing the resolution outright, as it had done on two previous occasions since 7th October, sources have indicated that the US could accept the term “suspension” of hostilities.

The draft has been introduced by a group of Arab nations led by the UAE, which have been encouraged by broad UN support for a ceasefire last week, when 153 Member states voted in favour of a non-binding resolution. In addition to a ceasefire, the draft text reportedly also affirms support for a two-state solution and “stresses the importance of unifying the Gaza Strip with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority”. The draft does not explicitly name Hamas – classified as a terrorist organisation by Israel, the United States, and the European Union – but it does call for the “immediate and unconditional release of all hostages” while condemning “all violence and hostilities against civilians, and all acts of terrorism”.

US urges Israel to protect civilians in Gaza

As calls for a ceasefire in Gaza mount, US Defence Chief Lloyd Austin has held talks with Israeli leaders to discuss ways to scale back major combat in the territory. He reiterated that Israel had the right to defend itself, but stressed it had an obligation to protect civilians. Austin has also called for increased humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip, according to a statement from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Austin also said that the US would be providing Israel with “the equipment that you need to defend your country … including critical munitions, tactical vehicles, and air defence systems”.

Israelis slam “Hamas’  criminal terrorist video”

Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari has slammed a new hostage video released by Hamas calling it “a criminal terrorist video’’. The film, showing three aged men living in dire conditions, was said to be testimony to  Hamas’ cruelty towards very elderly, innocent civilians who need care. Hagari said that “the world must do its utmost to send medicines and ensure the health of the hostages.’’ Addressing the three Israelis in the video, Hagari added: ‘‘Haim, Yoram, Amiram, I hope you are listening. Please know that we do everything we can to get you back safely. Some of your relatives are already at home. We will not rest until you return too.’’

Israel using ‘starvation’ as weapon, says HRW

International rights group Human Rights Watch on Monday accused Israel of “using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare in the Gaza Strip, which is a war crime”. HRW claimed that Israeli forces were “deliberately blocking the delivery of water, food, and fuel while willfully impeding humanitarian assistance”. The human rights watchdog said that it was part of “a policy spurred on, or endorsed by, high-ranking Israeli officials and reflecting an intent to starve civilians as a method of warfare”. There was no immediate comment from Israel on the HRW report, but Israel has denied targetting civilians throughout the war with Hamas.

Photo: MOHAMMED ABED/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Israel, US warn Hezbollah

Speaking at his joint news conference with Lloyd Austin, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant issued a message to Hezbollah in Lebanon. He called on the Iran-backed militia to abide by a 2006 ceasefire agreement which requires it to stay away from the Israeli-Lebanese border and said that Israel would “not hesitate to act” if the terms of the ceasefire were not “implemented diplomatically”. Asked if Israel was planning for a ground operation on its northern border to Lebanon, Gallant said “diplomacy is the preferred way” but stressed that “we are preparing ourselves [for] any situation that is needed”.  Austin also urged Hezbollah not to “provoke a wider conflict”. More than 130 people have been killed in hostilities on the Lebanese side of the frontier, according to AFP, mainly Hezbollah fighters but also one Lebanese soldier and 17 civilians, including three journalists. On the Israeli side of the border, five civilians and seven soldiers have been killed, authorities said.

Photo: ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP

Multi-national operation to safeguard Red Sea shipping

The United States and a host of other nations are creating a new force to protect ships transiting the Red Sea that have come under attack by drones and ballistic missiles fired from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, US officials have said. The seriousness of the attacks, several of which have damaged the vessels, has led multiple shipping companies to order their ships to hold in place and not enter the Bab el-Mandeb Strait until the security situation can be addressed. “This is an international challenge that demands collective action,” US Defence Secretary Austin said in a statement. “Therefore. today I am announcing the establishment of Operation Prosperity Guardian, an important new multinational security initiative.” The UK, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles, and Spain will join the US in the new mission, Austin said. Some of the countries will conduct joint patrols while others provide intelligence support in the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The mission will be coordinated by the already-existing Combined Task Force 153, which was set up in April 2022 to improve maritime security in the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb, and the Gulf of Aden.

German farmers drive their tractors to Berlin in protest

Farmers from across Germany descended upon Berlin on Monday, with hundreds of tractors converging on the city’s famous Brandenburg Gate under the motto “Too much is too much!”. Farmers are angry about the federal government’s decision to scrap diesel fuel subsidies as well as the negation of tax breaks for the purchase of agricultural and forestry machinery. According to the German Farmers’ Association, those changes could cost farmers up to €1 billion. The coalition government has justified the move by pointing to the need to plug a €17-billion-hole in the country’s 2024 budget after the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe ruled it was unconstitutional for Berlin to re-allocate funds originally earmarked for Coronavirus aid for other purposes.

China earthquake leaves 116 dead

At least 116 people were killed and hundreds more injured after an earthquake hit northwest China, state media reported on Tuesday, as rescue teams scrambled to reach survivors in sub-zero temperatures. The quake rocked Jishishan county in Gansu Province late Monday night, damaging houses and roads. Rescuers raced to search for survivors trapped under rubble, while residents rushed outdoors, huddling overnight in the bitter winter cold. As of Tuesday morning, the quake has killed 105 people and damaged more than 4,700 houses in Gansu, provincial authorities said in a news conference. A total of 397 people in Gansu have been injured so far, including 16 critically and 76 seriously, officials said. Eleven people have died in the neighboring province of Qinghai, according to CCTV.

Photo: Jia Shengyan | Visual China Group | Getty Images

Monsanto ordered to pay $857m over chemicals in school

A US jury on Monday ordered chemical company Monsanto to pay $857 million to seven people at a school in the western state of Washington who said they were sickened by chemicals leaking from light fittings. The ruling is the latest legal setback for Monsanto, which is already grappling with hefty legal bills after losing court cases over its glyphosate-based weedkiller Roundup. The jury said the company, owned by German pharmaceutical giant Bayer, had sold fittings containing the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that the group of students and parent volunteers at Sky Valley Education Centre in the town of Monroe in Washington state claimed had made them ill. It ordered the firm to pay a total of $73 million compensation and $784 million in punitive damages to the plaintiffs in the case. Lawyer Felix Luna, representing the plaintiffs, told the jury Monsanto had engaged in years of subterfuge to cover up what they knew about the harmful effects of PCBs. The jury found the company negligent and ordered varying amounts of compensation to the seven plaintiffs, with each also being awarded $112 million in punitive damages. A spokesperson for Monsanto said the firm would appeal the ruling.

Photo: bizjournals.com

Main photo: MARTIN MEISSNER / AP

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