Taliban ‘intelligence chief and arms dealer’ released from Guantanamo

December 20, 2014

Mohammed Zahir, one of four latest releases, said to have Stinger missiles and uranium “for a nuclear device” when arrested in Afghanistan

Afghan detainees (top L-R) Mohammed Zahir and Abdul Ghani and (bottom L-R) Shawali Khan and Khil Ali Gul

Afghan detainees at Guantanamo (top L-R) Mohammed Zahir and Abdul Ghani and (bottom L-R) Shawali Khan and Khil Ali Gul

ByRichard Spencer,Middle East Correspondent

The Daily Telegraph

A Guantanamo inmate once named as a top Taliban intelligence official who kept Stinger missiles and uranium at his farm is among four men who have been released and sent back to Afghanistan.

Mohammed Zahir was a leading Taliban weapons supplier, according to his official Guantanamo file, leaked three years ago to The Telegraph by the Wikileaks hacker group.

“Detainee was arrested on suspicion of possessing weapons including Stinger missiles and uranium, which detainee’s recovered documents indicate was intended for use in a nuclear device,” Zahir’s threat assessment read.

Zahir and the other three men, two of them members of militias linked to the Taliban, were released after their threat level was dramatically reduced.

According to a Pentagon statement released on Saturday, they were flown overnight to Kabul and handed over to the Afghan authorities, but it did not give a reason. However, the Associated Press news agency quoted a “senior official” saying that “most, if not all, of the terrorism accusations against the men had been discarded and each is considered a low-level operative at best”.

President Barack Obama promised to close the Guantanamo Bay internment facility within a year of becoming president, but had to backtrack amid uncertainty over what to do with its hundreds of inmates.

After a series of releases, some to third countries, 132 now remain. Six other prisoners were sent to Uruguay earlier this month. This is the first group to be returned to Afghanistan since 2009.

Some former inmates, especially a celebrated group of Saudi jihadis known as “Batch 10” who were repatriated in 2007, have rejoined al-Qaeda. However, subsequent releases have been deemed low risk.

Zahir was said when recommended for continued detention seven years ago to be a “veteran high-level member of the Taliban Intelligence Directorate” as well as having links to narcotics smuggling.

Of the other three, Abdul Ghani was a member of an assassination squad who admitted to having been involved in at least one rocket attack on US forces; Khi Ali Gul was said to have ties to the Haqqani terrorist network and to have planned and executed attacks against US and Coalition forces; and Shawali Khan, who was said to be the nephew of a leader of the Taliban-linked Hezb-E-Islami Gulbuddin with possible ties to al-Qaeda and Iranian extremist elements.

The release followed a request by Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, and were said to be a sign of the US’s greater confidence in the Afghan authorities since he replaced Hamid Karzai, the former president originally backed by Washington but with whom relations had soured.

“The United States is grateful to the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan for its willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close theGuantanamo Bay detention facility,” the Pentagon statement said.

“The United States coordinated with the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to ensure these transfers took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures.”

The Afghans gave “security guarantees” over the four but there is no requirement that they be held and they are said to be likely to be returned to their families.

More than half the remaining inmates are Yemenis, whose return is being hampered by the country’s current three-way civil war between the government, Al-Qaeda and Shia Houthi rebels.

Related:

Xi warns Hong Kong and Macau in ‘one China’ message

December 20, 2014

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A flag raising ceremony is held to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Macau’s handover from Portugal to Chinese rule, in Macau, December 20, 2014 (AFP Photo/)

Macau (Macau) (AFP) – Chinese President Xi Jinping warned Hong Kong and Macau on Saturday to remember they are part of “one China”, as pro-democracy campaigners in both semi-autonomous territories call for free leadership elections.

Dozens of protesters marched through Macau’s historic centre Saturday afternoon as Xi wrapped up his two-day visit to mark the 15th anniversary of the handover from Portugal — just days after police cleared the last remaining protest sites in neighbouring Hong Kong.

Residents of all ages walked in the middle of the road through the historic district shouting: “We want universal suffrage” through megaphones, some wrapped in banners and others with slogans painted across their faces.

“I am uncertain about Macau’s future, so we have to come out to make noise for ourselves,” said Mark Pang, a 15-year-old high school student who held up an open yellow umbrella — the symbol of the Hong Kong democracy movement.

The protest march culminated in a public square where around 100 demonstrators remained in the early evening, though some bystanders were confused by the scene.

“Are these people from Hong Kong?” asked one.

Xi warned both territories against a “misguided approach” in a speech Saturday.

“We must both adhere to the ‘one China’ principle and respect the difference of the two systems,” Xi said at the inauguration of Macau’s chief executive Fernando Chui, who was selected for a second term by a pro-Beijing committee in August.

“At no time should we focus only on one side to the neglect of the other. This is the only way leading to sound and steady progress. Otherwise a misguided approach from the beginning, just like putting one’s left foot into the right shoe, would lead us to nowhere,” Xi said.

He also warned against “external infiltration and interference” to safeguard the stability of Macau. Beijing has accused foreign forces of stirring up the Hong Kong protests.

Security was tight during the trip, with reporters on the airport tarmac waiting for Xi’s arrival Friday not allowed to hold umbrellas and handed raincoats instead.

There were also reports that some visitors and journalists from Hong Kong were denied entry after being told their names were on a blacklist.

- ‘Escalate actions’ -

Both Macau and Hong Kong enjoy freedoms unseen on the mainland — but their leaders are selected by a loyalist committee.

“In the light of Hong Kong’s umbrella movement, I think Macau people should escalate our actions for democracy,” local protest leader Jason Chao told AFP.

“We need a democratic political system in which the citizens can hold the officials accountable,” Chao said, adding that despite a huge economic boom in the gambling enclave in the past decade, the quality of life for citizens has been on the decline, with government officials seen as too close to big business.

Similar discontent over corruption and social inequality partly underpins the Hong Kong movement.

Though Macau’s democracy movement is not on the scale of Hong Kong’s, the territory saw its largest ever protest in May over proposed cash benefits for retired Macau officials, with 20,000 people taking part.

Xi gave his backing to Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying, who he met in Macau on Friday, pledging “full trust” in him following the clearance of the protest camps which blocked major highways for over two months.

Xi’s visit was also an opportunity to drive home the message that the territory needs to diversify away from casinos, which have seen revenues dive owing to a national anti-corruption drive and a stuttering economy.

He called on Macau to “promote appropriately diversified and sustainable economic development” during his speech Saturday, before leaving the enclave in the late afternoon.

Macau is the only part of China where casino gambling is legal and has depended on high-rollers from the mainland.

But Beijing has warned the southern territory to reconsider its dependence on gaming and is reported to already be clamping down on illicit funds channelled from the mainland through its casinos.

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U.S. Sends Four Guantanamo Prisoners Home to Afghanistan

December 20, 2014

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Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba.

Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Four Afghans held for over a decade at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been sent home to Afghanistan, the Pentagon said on Saturday, the latest step in a slow-moving push by the Obama administration to close the facility.

The men were flown to Kabul overnight aboard a U.S. military plane and released to Afghan authorities, the first such transfer of its kind to the war-torn country since 2009, a U.S. official said.

Obama promised to shut the internationally condemned prison when he took office nearly six years ago, citing the damage it inflicted on America’s image around the world. But he has been unable to do so, partly because of obstacles posed by the U.S. Congress.

 With a recent trickle of releases, including the transfer of six prisoners to Uruguay earlier this month, Guantanamo’s detainee population has been gradually whittled down to 132.

The repatriation of the four Afghans, identified as “low-level detainees” who were cleared for transfer long ago and are not considered security risks in their homeland, had been in the pipeline for months.

But in a measure of what one senior U.S. official described as an improving relationship with the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, Washington went ahead with the transfer after he formally requested it.

(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Prayer and Meditation for Sunday, December 21, 2014 — “Let it happen to me as you have said”

December 20, 2014

Fourth Sunday of Advent
Lectionary: 11

The angel appears to Joseph in a dream by Anton Raphael Mengs

Reading 1 2 sm 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16

When King David was settled in his palace,
and the LORD had given him rest from his enemies on every side,
he said to Nathan the prophet,
“Here I am living in a house of cedar,
while the ark of God dwells in a tent!”
Nathan answered the king,
“Go, do whatever you have in mind,
for the LORD is with you.”
But that night the LORD spoke to Nathan and said:
“Go, tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD:
Should you build me a house to dwell in?’“It was I who took you from the pasture
and from the care of the flock
to be commander of my people Israel.
I have been with you wherever you went,
and I have destroyed all your enemies before you.
And I will make you famous like the great ones of the earth.
I will fix a place for my people Israel;
I will plant them so that they may dwell in their place
without further disturbance.
Neither shall the wicked continue to afflict them as they did of old,
since the time I first appointed judges over my people Israel.
I will give you rest from all your enemies.
The LORD also reveals to you
that he will establish a house for you.
And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors,
I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins,
and I will make his kingdom firm.
I will be a father to him,
and he shall be a son to me.
Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand firm forever.”

Responsorial Psalm ps 89:2-3, 4-5, 27-29

R/ (2a) For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
The promises of the LORD I will sing forever;
through all generations my mouth shall proclaim your faithfulness.
For you have said, “My kindness is established forever”;
in heaven you have confirmed your faithfulness.
R/ For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
“I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant:
Forever will I confirm your posterity
and establish your throne for all generations.”
R/ For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
“He shall say of me, ‘You are my father,
my God, the Rock, my savior.’
Forever I will maintain my kindness toward him,
and my covenant with him stands firm.”
R/ For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.

Reading 2 rom 16:25-27

Brothers and sisters:
To him who can strengthen you,
according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ,
according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages
but now manifested through the prophetic writings and,
according to the command of the eternal God,
made known to all nations to bring about the obedience of faith,
to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ
be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Alleluia Lk 1:38

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

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Gospel lk 1:26-38

The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.
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Homily from the Abbot
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My sisters and brothers in Christ,
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It is God who reaches out to us! It is God who wants to save us and offers us salvation. So often we think about what we can do for God without reflecting on his infinite and tender love for us. The first reading today, from the Second Book of Samuel, tells us about King David wanting to build a temple for the Lord. Instead, the Lord reminds King David that He, the Lord, is the one who has done everything and who will keep the House of David forever.This is not pride on the part of God! Rather, it is God reminding us that He comes to save us. All of our actions are in response to His love and His compassion.The second reading, from the Letter to the Romans, tells us again that everything that happens is a mystery and part of God’s love for us from the beginning of time. The purpose is to bring about an obedience of faith. In our times, the word obedience is not very popular and sounds to many to be a form of subservience. Yet in the plan of God, obedience is a faithful listening to the Lord and a willingness to do things His way. Instead of creating subservience, it creates a complete freedom in our loves to know His love and to express that love to others.The Gospel today, from Saint Luke, is the Gospel of the Annunciation. We can only imagine the surprise of the young woman, Mary, when an angel appears to tell her that she will be pregnant! We are so accustomed to this story that it can easily lose its power. Here is a young women, striving to be faithful to the Jewish traditions. Out of nowhere comes an angel, telling her that she will be pregnant and bear the Son of God.

No one in their right mind would easily believe such a thing! On the other hand, we don’t know how this annunciation took place. Having an angel appear is not an ordinary occasion, even in the time of Jesus! There are other recorded instances of angels appearing in the Scripture, but they are not numerous over the thousands of years of history.

In some mysterious way, Mary is able to recognize that this angel really is of God and that she can consent to what the angel is asking of her. Perhaps some of us have had experiences in which we that we must do something and that it is God asking us, and yet we cannot explain it fully even to our friends. Perhaps some of us have had supernatural experiences in which we have been convinced of the presence of God. Always, such people must bear with the doubts of others.

The readings today invite us to open our hearts and our minds to the supernatural, to the presence of God, to seek His will and to be willing to look foolish in the eyes of the world for striving to live in union with the God who loves us. The birth of Jesus confirms God’s love for us. We await the coming of the Lord.

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http://christdesert.org/News/Abbot_s_Homily/

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Lectio Divina From the Carmelites

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A key to the reading:

v. 26-27. In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph of the House of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.


In the sixth month: This is a precise moment for those who have read the previous page of the Gospel, the meeting of the angel Gabriel with Zachary in the temple. But for Mary, unbeknownst to her, this sixth month is her “today”. As it was for her so it is for us, there is a unique today, the time of invitation to enter into the project planned for us. But this today is not an isolated time, it is connected to the times of others, each unique and unrepeatable, a today to be set alongside the other todays until such time as the Word of God is fulfilled.

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The way of grace is very linear. The subject is God. The term of reference: a virgin. The intermediary: the angel Gabriel. Everything is named: the city is called Nazareth; the virgin: Mary; the man to whom she is betrothed: Joseph. Everything has a precise historical setting. The sixth month is that of Elisabeth’s pregnancy. The virgin is the betrothed bride. Joseph is of the House of David. God does not come haphazardly, he comes within the parameters already in existence, those human, drawn by people who have names.

v. 28. He went in and said to her, ‘Rejoice, you who enjoy God’s favour! The Lord is with you’.
The words of the Gospel, ‘He went in’, may be understood in two ways: he went into her house or he went into to her being. So, did Mary see the angel or not? She saw him and heard him. This is true since all that was said will be accomplished. With which eyes did she see him? The physical eyes or the spiritual ones? The mystery of a person’s encounter with God cannot be explained. It happens and that’s all. It is an encounter that leaves a sign, and herein lies the greatness of the event. She who is full of grace has only the eyes of the spirit, thus for her there is only one way of seeing, spiritually, that transparent look of the pure heart that can look upon God and not die.

v. 29. She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean.


Mary being disturbed is quite legitimate. The way she sees herself, even though she is full of grace, does not allow her to distance herself from others, and so she is not aware of being full of grace, for her it is natural to be what she is, faithful to doing good always and everywhere, faithful to that interior attraction that raises her on high.

v. 30. The angel said to her: “Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God’s favour.


Mary’s fear is the amazement of all little ones who are surprised at being the object of attention from someone important. And if this someone is God, how great then is that fear? So great that one feels one’s utter smallness and that one has everything from the free gift of love.

v. 31. You are to conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus.


The divine plan is revealed: to conceive and bring to light and to name him. The Saviour is already there, in the words of the angel. How wonderful! Centuries and centuries of waiting are fulfilled in these two syllables: Jesus.

v. 32-33. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord god will give him the throne of his ancestor David; he will rule over the House of Jacob for ever and his reign will have no end.


When the Lord approaches a person to call that person to take participate in his thoughts of redemption, he does so completely. What remains still obscure is the manner of the human cooperation, because the person remains free to concretise the fulfilment of God’s thought. The point of departure is: an “unforeseen” son. The destination is: the Son of the Most High, who will sit on the throne of David and will reign forever. The means for accomplishing this is your person. Now it is up to you to become the protagonist.

v. 34. Mary said to the angel, ‘But how can this come about, since I have no knowledge of man?’


Mary asks of the angel the how of the fulfilment of the will of God. She does not doubt God, she knows that the Word pronounced by God is always possible. The how is what concerns her, what she is being called to be. She is certain that her desire and intention of not “knowing man” will continue, because God does not cancel the plans of his children, drawn up by their most authentic desires. She knows that her plan will fit into the plan just heard. But she does not know how it will happen. And so she simply asks to do exactly what has been asked of her.

v. 35. The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come down upon you, and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God’.


The angel explains. Mary will simply have to accept, because it will be the Spirit who will descend in her, it will be the Most High who will overshadow her, and the Holy one will be born.

vv. 36-37. And I tell you this too: your cousin Elizabeth also, in her old age, has conceived a son, and she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible to God.


The experience of Elizabeth told by the angel to Mary is nothing more than an occasion of connecting with history. Mary must have already known of Elizabeth, because both were preparing the way for the fulfilment of promise made to Israel: John the voice, Jesus the spouse. It is the same project.

v. 38. Mary said, ‘You see before you the Lord’s servant, let it happen to me as you have said.’ And the angel left her.


Mary’s reply is essential: Here I am. Her concentration on the Word pronounced to her is so great that she can only feel that she is a “servant”, a useful instrument in the concrete realisation of the will of the Father. Let it happen to me… this is nothing like a passive yes, it is a yes aware of the greatness of her involvement, a yes so deep that it brings forth the face of God in human features.

c) Reflection:

Ecce ancilla Domini; fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum!

Behold… This word is essential and full of life. No words are better suited to humankind than this being present, awake, holding one’s breath so as not to lose anything of what the mystery is sharing of Himself.

Let it happen… God’s choice is worthy of acceptance, but requires the deep silence of one’s whole being, let it happen to me… Mary knows that she is not the protagonist, but the servant of the divine will; she belongs to the group of servants that Jesus will call friends: a servant does not know what his master does. But friends do know. Whatsoever I have heard from my Father I have revealed to you.

The shadow of the Spirit that covers the tent of the presence on such a beautiful creature for her availability, will whisper the mysterious secrets of the Eternal. And the times that go on tracing new ways of grace will come to their peak when the Son of God will see the light of an infinitely small space for his power, the space of limitation and contingency. Mary, first cradle of the ineffable Word, first embrace of the coming light, has no other treasure than her humility; a hollow that receives the fullness, smallness that is called infinite, limited love that demands the embrace of the infinite.

 ORATIO

1 Samuel 2,1-10:

My heart exults in Yahweh,
in my God is my strength lifted up,
my mouth derides my foes,
for I rejoice in your deliverance.
There is no Holy One like Yahweh,
no Rock like our God.
The bow of the mighty has been broken
but those who were tottering are now braced with strength.
Yahweh judges the ends of the earth,
he endows his king with power,
he raises up the strength of his Anointed.

 CONTEMPLATIO

Lord, let the gentle breeze of silence, the breeze of grace, carry away all the voices and sounds that gradually take my heart away from my own existence. May the luminous trail of your passing by intoxicate with your perfume the air I usually breathe so that I may seek no one but you. And when the ruminated syllables of Scripture, together with the events that form the memory of our encounter, will become the fibre of my flesh, the world will see you again, will see your face in the physical features that I shall give to you.

The limits of my being will tell of the prodigies of your power, unless I try uselessly to flee or avoid them, but I shall love them as the precision of my human uniqueness. I shall then come to think your words, speak your words, fulfil your words, because, by not fleeing from myself, I shall have met you where you are: in the depths of my limited being, in my inner self and in my essential silence, where love given brings forth love gift and creates bridges of communion.

http://www.ocarm.org/en/content/lectio/lectio-divina-4th-sunday-advent-b

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Reflection by The Most Rev Msgr William Goh Archbishop of Singapore
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PREPARING OURSELVES TO BE THE NEW ARK OF THE COVENANT

SCRIPTURE READINGS: 2 SM 7:1-16; ROM 16:25-27; LK 1:26-38
http://www.universalis.com/20141221/mass.htm 

Christmas is coming in just a week’s time and we all look forward to this celebration.  For many of us, the most concrete way of preparing ourselves to welcome the Prince of Peace is to express it materially.  We put up Christmas decorations, Christmas trees, and shop for gifts for our friends.  All these external preparations are well and good.  However, this is not the real preparation for Christmas that is needed.  The truth is that the place that the Prince of Peace wishes to enter and live is not our house but the home within us.

Indeed, this was the same situation and mistake of King David.  He too wanted to make a house worthy for the Lord.   He was then living in a palace as he and his people had settled into the sedentary life of the Canaanites.  Thus he felt guilty that his Lord and Master, that is, Yahweh, the true King of Israel was still living in the Tent where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.  However, as the first reading tells us, God told the prophet Nathan to tell David, “Are you the man to build me a house to dwell in?”  Rather, “the Lord will make you great; the Lord will make you a House instead.”

In saying this, God is telling King David and us that He does not want to dwell in houses made by human hands.  No, He wants to live in the hearts of man.  The truth is that nothing less than the hearts of men is a worthy dwelling place for God.

To live in our hearts implies that God reigns in our hearts and transforms us into people of love and justice.  This is what living the life of the kingdom is all about.  In this eschatological sense, all of us are called to belong to the House of David where God will reign in us through Christ.

This precisely is the mystery that St Paul speaks about in the second reading.  Indeed, for St Paul and for us, Christ Jesus is the “mystery kept secret for endless ages but now so clear.”  Jesus is the wisdom of God in person, the one in whom God lives totally. That is why we say that Jesus is the incarnation of God, the God made man.  In Jesus, we see that God really lives in the hearts of men.  In Jesus, we see the kingdom of God in person because we see the life of Jesus as a life lived in total obedience to the Father’s will, which is a life lived in love and mercy.  Consequently, in Jesus, we can say that He is the Emmanuel, God who is with us.  And we know that through His death and resurrection, He sends us His Holy Spirit at Pentecost to dwell among and in us permanently.

If that is so, the implication for us is that the real preparation for the birth of Christ is to make our hearts the very dwelling place for Christ to be born.  Our hearts are the new stable of Bethlehem where Jesus was born 2000 years ago.  This is the only place worthy for Christ to be born.  Anything less than this will not do.  Jesus does not need all the external manifestations of our love for Him.  What He wants is a heart of love, a heart of compassion, a heart of God.

And thus, to prepare ourselves to be the dwelling place of God, the Church on this last Sunday of Advent invites us to turn to none other than Mary.  Why?  Because scriptures and Church tradition since the apostolic Church tell us that Mary is the New Ark of the Covenant.  The old Ark of the Covenant, which housed the Torah, the Holy Books of Moses which is the Word of God, lived in the tents made by man.  But Mary as the New Ark of the Covenant housed Jesus who is the Word and Wisdom of God, as Paul tells us, in her very being, her womb.  We too are therefore invited to imitate Mary and make ourselves the Ark of the Covenant, the place where Jesus, the Word of God made flesh can live.  Hence, we must now consider how Mary came to be considered by the Church to be the New Ark of the Covenant.

If Mary is called the New Ark of the Covenant, it is because she lived a covenanted life.  This is expressed in the greeting of the Angel Gabriel to Mary when he said, “Rejoice so highly favoured!  The Lord is with you.”  Traditionally, we have translated this as “full of grace.”  Whichever translation we take, it is clear that if Mary is full of grace or that she is so highly favoured by God, it is because the Lord is with her and she is with the Lord.  In other words, the covenantal life of Mary is that Mary lived a life in deep relationship with God.  And this relationship and union with God is manifested not only in her disposition towards God but also in her relationship with her fellow human beings by her life of charity and service.  For it is significant that after the annunciation scene, the evangelist, Luke, related how Mary immediately went to the hill country of Judah to help Elizabeth who was pregnant with John the Baptist in her old age.  This, then, is what the covenantal life is all about: a life of deep union with God and others.

How then can such a covenantal life of Mary be ours also?   Firstly, we are told that Mary was a person filled with the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, only in Mary, do we have the same word “overshadow” that was also used for Jesus at the Baptism and Transfiguration.  In other words, Mary, like Jesus, was certainly always living in the presence of God.  Mary was conscious of God’s presence within and without herself, represented by the Cloud of God’s external presence and the Spirit within her.  So like Jesus, Mary was filled with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God.  We too must make ourselves the temples of the Holy Spirit by being more conscious of God’s presence within us at every moment in our lives.  Like Mary, we must live and move by the Spirit.

Secondly, the gospel describes Mary calling herself the handmaid of the Lord.  To call herself the handmaid is tantamount to calling herself the servant of God.  To be the servant of God is to be the servant of the Kingdom.  Indeed, Mary once again reflects what her Son is called to be – the Suffering Servant of the Kingdom.  In other words, like her Son, Mary made herself at the disposal of God to be the servant of the Kingdom that God wants to establish; that kingdom that was promised to her ancestor, King David.  Following from this, we too are called to be servants of the Kingdom.  We too are called to make the kingdom of God’s love and mercy a reality in our midst as Mary did.

Thirdly, if we are to be servants of the Kingdom, then the pre-requisite is that we be open to the will of God.  Mary said in response to the angel, “let what you have said be done to me.”  Here again, Mary, like her Son Jesus, saw that doing God’s will is the way to bring about the Kingdom.  It is no wonder that in teaching the disciples to pray the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus linked doing the will of God with the establishment of the Kingdom, “thy will be done, thy kingdom come.”    Indeed, to do God’s will is to live a life of love and service.  God’s will, then, is the calling of every human being to live that life of charity according to the situation that one is in.  It is our faithfulness and obedience to this very calling to love, like Mary and Jesus, that God’s kingdom of love can be realized.

Doing God’s will entails that each of us, like Mary and all the people before her, from the prophets to King David until Abraham, must accept the role that God wants us to play in His salvific plan.  All of us are important and contribute to the realization of God’s plan of establishing His Kingdom of love in our lives.  There is certainly a unity in the plan of God, and everything in life is guided by the wisdom of God.  Our task is to respond generously to God’s plan for us so that together, God’s vision of a covenantal family of love can be fulfilled.  Failure to co-operate with God’s plan will only delay the coming of God’s Kingdom.  Indeed, we are grateful to Mary for giving that co-operation even when she could not fully understand the full implications of her commitment there and then.

This brings us to the fourth element of living a covenantal life, namely, trust.  Mary not only lived in love but also in trust.  Even if she could not understand how the incarnation could be possible, she responded by believing that “nothing is impossible to God.”  It is this trust that kept Mary faithful to her calling and vocation until the end of her life.  Even in the later part of her life, when she had to face the trials and rejections of Jesus and especially His death and crucifixion, she did not give up hope.  She continued to trust that God will vindicate her Son and herself.  This trust certainly reflects her deep union with God.

As Christians who are baptized in Christ and in the Spirit, we too are called to be the new tabernacles of the Lord.  We are called to make Jesus present in our very being and in our hearts.  The real birth of Jesus is not outside of us but really inside of us.  To celebrate Christmas, the birth of Christ is to celebrate His birth in our hearts.  Like Mary, it is more important to conceive Jesus in the heart before we conceive Jesus in the flesh.  It is more important that Jesus lives in us in His Spirit than for us to be concerned with all the external manifestations of love for Him.  And because God is present and lives in every man and woman, then necessarily, not only are we called to be God’s tabernacles of love but we are also called to recognize that Christ is also born and present in every one of us.

In this way then, we will truly be ready for Christmas, for when that day comes, what we celebrate externally will be but the expression of what we already experience and what we already are, for Christ is born in our hearts.  The incarnation of Christ will therefore not simply be an abstract doctrine but a true reality in our lives because in us Christ continues to dwell in man, to live among us and is present with us as the Emmanuel. 

- See more at: http://www.csctr.net/21-december-2014-4th-sunday-of-advent/#sthash.uGVBsfCO.dpuf

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Taiwan is grateful for U.S. military equipment, warships which “help maintain peace and stability in the region.”

December 20, 2014

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US Navy Perry-class frigate the USS Elrod assisting in the rescue of distressed persons in the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: EPA

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By Jason Pan  /  Staff reporter, with CNA
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‘OUTRAGE’:Beijing slammed Obama’s approval of a US measure authorizing the sale and called on Washington to cut official and military exchanges with Taiwan
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Taipei Times
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Taiwan is grateful to the US for agreeing to sell four Perry-class guided missile frigates, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) said yesterday, adding that they would enhance the nation’s defense capabilities and contribute to peace and stability in the region.

China reacted by lodging a formal complaint with the US and calling for an end to arms sales to Taiwan.

US President Barack Obama on Thursday signed into law a bill that authorizes the sale of up to four Perry-class frigates to Taiwan. The US Senate and House of Representatives had both passed the bill earlier this month.

The sale of the frigates demonstrates the Obama administration and US Congress’ commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act and support for Taiwan’s security, while also attesting to the mutual friendship and strengthening of bilateral ties between Taipei and Washington, ministry spokesperson Major General David Lo (羅紹和) said.

The government has budgeted about NT$5.5 billion (US$174.8 million) to purchase two Perry-class frigates, Lo said, adding: “The navy will review its needs and decide whether to buy more frigates in the future.”

“The purchase program will follow the military’s arms procurement regulations. We shall be in close contact with our US counterparts to obtain the frigates’ shipboard architecture and weapons systems that are suited to our combat needs,” Lo said.

He added that the sale “will boost our military’s confidence and capability to defend the nation, and help maintain peace and stability in the region.”

The navy will send a team to the US next year in preparation for taking delivery of the frigates, which are expected to arrive in 2016 at the earliest.

The measure approved by the US government will allow the sale of four Perry-class frigates — the USS Gary, USS Carr, USS Taylor and USS Elrod — to Taiwan.

Ministry officials said they would replace the nation’s aging fleet of Knox-class vessels, which have been in service for about 50 years.

The 4,165-tonne Perry-class frigates are designed for marine-patrol warfare, with secondary anti- aircraft and anti-ship capability.

US Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, said the arms sales would bolster Taiwan’s maritime security and its critical relationship with the US, as provided for in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.

“Few other pieces of foreign policy legislation have been as consequential as this act. With steadfast support from the United States Congress, Taiwan has become a thriving modern society that strongly respects human rights, the rule of law and free markets,” Royce said.

The US measure drew an angry reaction from Beijing, with Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Qing Gang (秦剛) saying: “China is strongly dissatisfied” with the bill.

“We are firmly opposed to arms sales to Taiwan by the US,” he added, reiterating Beijing’s longstanding position.

“We have launched solemn representations with the US side,” he said, using formal language for a diplomatic protest, adding that Taiwan “remains the most sensitive issue in China-US relations.”

He also called on the US to cut official and military exchanges with Taiwan.

Additional reporting by AFP

http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2014/12/20/2003607152

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China Protests Planned U.S. Sale of Warships to Taiwan

December 20, 2014

U.S. moves closer to sale of frigates to Taiwan; Beijing protests

Obama approves sale of four frigates to Taiwan

The White House’s approval Thursday of the Naval Vessel Transfer Act, authorizing sales of the excess ships, gives Taiwan a shot at arranging its first purchase of American-made military equipment in three years. The Perry-class guided missile frigates would replace vessels that have been used for 20 years, analysts said.

But China’s Foreign Ministry said Friday that it had made a formal protest to Washington, a rebuke that could strain Sino-U.S. relations.

“We urge the American side to … stop U.S.-Taiwan official contact and military exchanges, to stop arms sales to Taiwan and do more things that help overall Sino-U.S. relations and peaceful development of cross-Strait relations,” ministry spokesman Qin Gang said at a news conference in Beijing, referring to ties between mainland China and Taiwan.

Washington cut formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan when it reestablished such ties with Beijing in 1979. But the U.S. and Taiwan have maintained a strong “unofficial” relationship, including arms sales, for decades, which has irked China.

Taiwan has been separately ruled since 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists fled to the island amid China’s civil war. But Communist Party leaders in Beijing claim sovereignty over the island of 23 million people, which sits 99 miles offshore, and bristle whenever Taiwan’s defenses get a boost from overseas.

China has more than 2 million troops and 520 ships, compared with Taiwan’s 290,000 active military personnel and 102 vessels, according to the statistical database GlobalFirepower.com.

Though relations between Beijing and Taipei have warmed since 2008, local elections in Taiwan last month indicated a surge in support for an opposition party that advocates more distance from China. Incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou and his Nationalist Party have eased historic tension through trade and investment deals.

A frigate sale is still uncertain. Washington and Taipei would need to set a price, possibly subject to legislative review in Taipei. The bill would probably top $50 million.

A 1979 act of Congress requires the United States to consider helping Taiwan defend itself but does not obligate it to sell particular hardware or keep a set schedule.

Washington last agreed to a military sale in 2011 with an upgrade to 146 U.S.-made F-16s, which Taiwan bought in the 1990s.

When the United States approved a $6.4-billion arms package for Taiwan in 2010, including Patriot air defense missiles and Black Hawk helicopters, China canceled military exchanges with Washington and said it would sanction American defense contractors involved in the deal.

Chinese officials are expected to cool down faster this time.

“They know these frigates are not threatening weapons,” said Raymond Wu, managing director of Taipei-based political risk consultancy e-telligence. “They pose no challenge to the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army.”

Jennings is a special correspondent. 

 

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New York Times

HONG KONG — China sharply criticized on Friday a decision by Washington to sell four used warships to Taiwan, the self-ruled island it considers part of its territory.

President Obama signed legislation on Thursday approving the sale of four Perry-class guided-missile frigates, the first military hardware sale to Taiwan since 2011, when the United States transferred upgrades to F-16 fighter jets.

A spokesman for China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, Qin Gang, said Friday during a regularly scheduled news conference that China “is firmly opposed to the arms sales by the U.S. to Taiwan.” He added that the warship transfer “brutally interferes in China’s domestic affairs and undermines China’s sovereignty and security interests.”

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry indicated this year that it would probably buy only two of the vessels, and Taiwan’s government must still approve the purchase. The frigates were built in the early 1980s and have either been decommissioned or soon will be. A price has not been announced.

The potential for armed conflict has at times made the Taiwan Strait one of the world’s most worrisome hot spots. In recent years, tensions between the two sides have eased as Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, has pursued closer economic links with China. Cross-strait trade and visitors to Taiwan from China have risen significantly during Mr. Ma’s six and a half years in office.

Read the rest:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/20/world/asia/china-protests-planned-us-sale-of-warships-to-taiwan.html?action=click&contentCollection=Asia%20Pacific&region=Footer&module=MoreInSection&pgtype=article

India PM Modi’s Party Distances Itself From Religious Conversions

December 20, 2014

Reuters

NEW DELHI — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party said on Saturday it does not support forceful religious conversions, distancing itself from a sensitive issue that has drawn sharp criticism from opposition parties and hurt the government’s reform agenda.

Modi has in recent weeks come under fire for being slow to rein in his hardline affiliate groups that are allegedly trying to promote a Hindu-dominant agenda by luring Muslims and Christians to convert to Hinduism.

Critics say such groups undermine the secular foundations of multi-faith India and have become more assertive since Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power in May.

“BJP is not supportive of any forceful conversions,” party president Amit Shah said, adding that his party was supportive of bringing in an anti-conversion law.

India’s 1.2 billion people are predominantly Hindus, but the country has about 160 million Muslims and a small proportion of Christians.

Religious conversions are a hot button issue for Hindi nationalists in India, which was colonized for centuries by Muslim and Christian invaders. Some hardliners want the entire country to become a land of Hindus.

Earlier this month, Muslim slum-dwellers complained they had been tricked into a conversion ceremony by Hindu groups who attracted them with promises of cheap government rations and voter identity cards. Indian police are investigating the case.

In another incident, a Hindu priest-turned-lawmaker of Modi’s party planned a conversion ceremony on Christmas Day, but canceled the event after the prime minister intervened.

Supporters define such events as a ‘homecoming’, saying families signing up for the ceremonies were originally Hindus.

“A police complaint has been registered against the so-called homecoming program and the matter has reached the court. … Let the court decide if it was a forceful conversion or not,” Shah said.

Modi’s agenda to push through reforms to boost economic growth has hit a roadblock in India’s upper house of parliament, where opposition lawmakers have demanded that the prime minister make a statement on the contested conversions issue.

The Hindu nationalist leader has so far refrained from doing so, and has let his colleagues fend off criticism.

“The BJP speaks with a forked tongue,” national spokesman of the opposition Congress party, Sanjay Jha, told Reuters, accusing the BJP of using economic reform as a way to a camouflage its Hindu agenda.

(Reporting by Aditya Kalra; Editing by Crispian Balmer)

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement alive and well this Christmas

December 20, 2014

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Pro-democracy protesters hold up yellow umbrellas, a symbol of the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement, at Victoria Park near Causeway Bay shopping district in Hong Kong December 13, 2014. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR4HVDM

A new kind of shopping trip. (Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha)
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By Lily Kuo

When police dismantled the last protest site of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement earlier this month, demonstrators pledged that they would be back. Now that the city has returned to normal, Umbrella Movement demonstrators and their supporters are starting to try out some of their new tactics.

A shopping revolution

After being kicked out of their protest site in Mong Kok, demonstrators have been going on protest “shopping trips” in the popular commercial center at all hours of the day. (The phrase gauwu geming or “shopping revolution” is also a reference to Chinese tourists who admitted that they participated in a pro-government rally in Hong Kong over the summer to “go shopping.”)

Unsurprisingly, the police aren’t amused. Last weekend, 14 protesters were arrested for participating in what authorities said was an illegal assembly. More “shopping” is planned for this weekend, though there is some disagreement between protesters, with accusations that the more moderate demonstrators are only there to get their Christmas shopping done.

Protest caroling

Just before police cleared the last protest site in Causeway Bay, a church group organized a Christmas street performance where carolers sang a rather politically charged version of “We wish you a Merry Christmas.”

The protesters sang in Cantonese, “Whole world remember—elders, middle-aged, young people—[we] need to persist to get universal suffrage. All citizens decide for themselves.” After slipping into English for part of the chorus, they then urged people to participate in protest shopping. They sang, again in Cantonese, “We wish you a shopping trip. We wish you to be careful with the police. Shopping every day. It’s legal to be on pedestrian street.”

Groups plan to do more protest caroling throughout the month.

Tax tactics

The “Conscientious Tax Resistance Movement” has pledged to make it harder for the Hong Kong government to process taxes by asking people to give the government checks in annoyingly small amounts of HK$6.89, $68.90 or $689. Critics of the city’s chief executive CY Leung often refer to him as “689,” a snarky reference to the number of votes he received from an election committee to win his current seat.

The Hong Kong Federation of Students and other groups that organized the Umbrella Movement protests are arguing that “Taxpayers’ money should not be used to feed a violent government.”

Tenants in public housing have also been asked to delay paying their rent as long as possible without getting evicted. If both campaigns end up proving popular, the impact could be substantial: Hong Kong is home to 2.3 million residents of public housing and 1.74 million taxpayers.

http://qz.com/314979/three-ways-hong-kongs-umbrella-protesters-are-fighting-for-democracy-this-christmas/

China’s Xi warns against pro-democracy protests on visit to Macau

December 20, 2014

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Chinese President Xi Jinping has reminded Macau and Hong Kong that pro-democracy protests are not the way forward for both territories . He made the comment on a two-day visit to Macau.

From left, Macau Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai-on, China’s President Xi Jinping, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council Wang Guangya and an unknown man.

Xi made the comment in a speech delivered towards the end of a two-day visit to Macau to mark the 15th anniversary of the territory’s handover to China from Portugal.

Security was tight amid fears activists could attempt to stage protests during Xi’s Macau visit.

Pro-democracy campaigners in both semi-autonomous territories are demanding free and fair leadership elections.

Protest sites in Hong Kong were recently cleared by police in a crackdown on activists who were demanding that Beijing step back from vetting candidates for the 2017 leadership election.

Symbol of pro-democracy movement banned

Reporters waiting for the Chinese president’s arrival on Friday were banned from holding umbrellas, which had become the symbol of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

They were given raincoats instead to protect them from the elements as they gathered on the airport tarmac.

Xi’s message was clear as he warned both territories on Saturday against a “misguided approach.”

“We must both adhere to the ‘one China’ principle and respect the difference of the two systems,” Xi said at the inauguration of Macau’s chief executive, Chui Sai On. He was selected for a second term by a pro-Beijing committee in August.

“At no time should we focus only on one side to the neglect of the other. This is the only way leading to sound and steady progress. Otherwise a misguided approach from the beginning, just like putting one’s left foot into the right shoe, would lead us nowhere,” he continued.

Both Macau and Hong Kong enjoy certain freedoms unseen on China’s mainland, however, the main sticking point for activists is that their leaders are selected by a committee loyal to Beijing.

Xi pledged his “full trust” in Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying after they met in Macau on Friday.

Move away from gambling in Macau

The president encouraged Macau to diversify away from casinos, which are its main source of income.

China Präsident Xi Jinping in Macau

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets Chui Sai On, chief executive of the Macau Special Administrative Region

Macau is the only part of China where casino gambling is legal, and has until recently, depended on revenues from major players from the mainland.

Beijing warned the southern territory to reconsider its dependence on gambling after its income saw a major drop due to a national anti-corruption drive.

During the last six months, Macau’s casino industry had billions of US dollars wiped off its market value.

lw/pfd (AP, AFP, Reuters)

http://www.dw.de/chinas-xi-warns-against-pro-democracy-protests-on-visit-to-macau/a-18143277

In Macau, Xi Jinping Appears to Reach Out to Young People — Tells all Macanese to stick to ‘one country, two systems’ in veiled swipe at Hong Kong

December 20, 2014

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“We need to strengthen the education of young people so they could have a stronger sense of national pride”

By Jeffie Lam

The South China Morning Post

President Xi Jinping praised Macau for its implementation of the “one country, two systems” principle and warned against “external interference”, in what an analyst said were remarks aimed instead at protest-rattled Hong Kong.

Xi, who will end his two-day visit to Macau today, said focusing separately on either “one country” or “two systems”, but not together, was “misguided” and compared it to wearing the wrong shoes.

“We must both adhere to the one-China principle and respect the differences of the two systems … at no time should we focus only on one side to the neglect of the other,” he said. “This is the only way leading to sound and steady progress.”

He said any other way would be “a misguided approach from the beginning” and like “putting one’s left foot into the right shoe”,

The Chinese leader also called on citizens to guard against and oppose “external infiltration and interference” in order to ensure stability and unity in Macau, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary of the handover from Portugal to China.

Veteran Macau political observer Larry So Man-yum believed Xi’s remarks were targeted at Hong Kong instead of Macau in light of the city’s unprecedented Occupy pro-democracy protests which ended last week.

Speaking at the inauguration ceremony of Macau’s new administration, helmed by re-elected Chief Executive Dr Fernando Chui Sai-on, Xi had placed great emphasis on the importance of “one country, two systems”.

Xi reiterated it was a “basic state policy” vital to ensuring the long-term stability and prosperity of both Hong Kong and Macau.

Xi Jinping, right, toasts with Macau Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai-on. Photo by Reuters

He urged the Macau government to strengthen education for the younger generation to safeguard patriotism.

Xi laid out four tasks for Macau to hopefully fulfil, including promoting the rule of law and building a clean, fair and efficient government.

He also said the territory, to promote social stability, should ensure its people can share the fruits of development. It should also strengthen the education of young people so they could have a stronger sense of national pride, Xi said.

Reiterating his call in 2009, Xi again urged Macau – the only gambling hub on Chinese soil – to diversify its economy. More regulation and supervision over the gambling industry are needed, he added, whereas the city should also take action to solve the “deep-rooted problems” over the years.

Xi is expected to pay a field trip at Hengqin this afternoon before heading back to Beijing

Earlier this month, Zhang Rongshun, vice-chairman of the Legislative Affairs Commission under the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (China’s legislature), had already said that Hong Kong needed “re-enlightenment” on an accurate understanding of the “one country, two systems” principle.

So, the political observer, said Xi was sending a strong message to Hong Kong, where the so-called Umbrella Movement has just ended, as well as the youth in Macau, who may be starting to join pro-democracy movements.

Macau in May saw mass protests erupt against a proposed bill that sought to shield the chief executive from criminal prosecution and offer plush pensions to political appointees.

“There’s not much problem with the implementation of ‘one country, two systems’ in Macau and the speech is apparently targeted at Hong Kong,” said the political pundit. “They also want to tell the youth that the Hong Kong’s way is definitely infeasible.”

Regarding Xi’s warning against foreign interference, So said it could refer to two factors: the pro-democracy movement in Macau, which is perceived as backed by other countries; and the foreign investment on the city’s gaming business.

He said the casino franchises currently are dominated by US firms, which has apparently failed to implement its corporate responsibility to return its lucrative income to the community.

“The central government is very cautious on the matter as they afraid the United States would meddle in the city’s affairs via such business[es],” said So.

The Macau government will start reviewing the casino licences renewal next year.

http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1666564/xi-jinping-warns-macau-against-misguided-thinking-subtle-swipe-hong

President Xi Jinping visits a family living in Seac Pai Van public housing estate. Photo: Macau Government Information Bureau

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