Archive for March, 2014

China and The Philippines Continue South China Sea Disagreement All The Way To International Court

March 31, 2014

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The Sierra Madre, a rusted warship that has been grounded on the Second Thomas Shoal since 1999, has been kept in place as a way to reinforce the Philippine claim to the shoal. Credit Jay Directo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By Jane Perlez
The New York Times

BEIJING — China accused the Philippines on Monday of illegally occupying Chinese territory after a Filipino vessel outmaneuvered the Chinese Coast Guard and resupplied a ship that has been stranded for 15 years on the Second Thomas Shoal, a tiny reef in the South China Sea.

Chinese ships prevented the Philippines from resupplying the boat and its eight-man military crew in early March, but on Saturday a Filipino vessel manned by troops managed to keep the Chinese at bay by going into shallow waters and lifting food onto the stranded ship.

“This is a political provocation,” the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Hong Lei, said at a regular briefing on Monday, adding that the Philippines was “hyping” its “illegal occupation” by filing a case on Sunday with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

The submission by the Philippines argues that the Second Thomas Shoal — known as Ayungin in the Philippines and Ren’ai Reef in China — is 105 nautical miles from the Philippines, well inside the 200 nautical miles of a Philippine exclusive economic zone that allows the Philippines to exploit the waters around the shoal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the brief says.

The Philippine secretary of foreign affairs, Albert del Rosario, said at a news conference in Manila on Sunday that a ruling on the submission — which includes 4,000 pages and 40 maps and was written by a Washington law firm — was expected in 2015.

The State Department noted the filing Sunday and said the United States supported the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The cat-and-mouse maneuvers between the Philippines, an American ally with little naval capacity, and China, which has a fast-expanding navy, have captured attention for what they might foretell about future rivalries in the South China Sea.

China claims about 80 percent of the South China Sea, a vital waterway for world trade.

President Obama is scheduled to visit the Philippines during a tour of Asian allies in April, a trip that does not include China but is bound to highlight China’s projection of power in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

In the past year, China has intensified its surveillance operations in the South China Sea, dispatching fishing vessels, coast guard ships and navy ships to keep watch.

To publicize its determination to keep the Second Thomas Shoal, the Philippines invited reporters on board the government vessel that was sent to resupply the Sierra Madre, a rusted warship that has been grounded on the reef since 1999. The warship and its crew had been kept in place as a way to reinforce the Philippine claim to the shoal.

China says that the shoal is part of the Nansha Islands, which it says are inside the so-called nine-dash line that runs deep into the waters around Southeast Asia. The line was first drawn by the Nationalist government in the 1940s and has been used by the Communist government to justify its claims to a wide area of islands and sea.

As the resupply vessel approached the Sierra Madre on Saturday, two Chinese ships approached the Filipino vessel and sent a radio message saying that it should leave immediately and “stop all” illegal activities. The Filipino vessel kept going and found waters too shallow for the Chinese ships so that the resupply operation could go ahead, Reuters reported.

After food and water were heaved onto the Sierra Madre, the crew on board left and a new crew began its rotation.

The Global Times, a Chinese state-run newspaper with nationalist views, said in an editorial on Monday that the “small and weak” Philippines had become the vanguard force of “provoking China.” It warned that China had the ability to force Filipino soldiers off the reef at any time, “like taking thieves away.”

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Philippine Navy Gets More Use Out Of Old U.S. Ship In South China Sea Standoff With China

March 31, 2014

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A dilapidated Philippine Navy ship LT 57 (Sierra Madre) with Philippine troops deployed on board is anchored off Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin Shoal, Sunday, March 30, 2014 off South China Sea. On Saturday, China Coast Guard attempted to block the Philippine government vessel AM700 carrying fresh troops and supplies, but the latter successfully managed to docked beside the ship to replace troops who were deployed for five months. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

By Jim Gomez

ABOARD BRP SIERRA MADRE, Spratly Islands (AP) — On board the crumbling carcass of this World War II-era warship, Filipino marine 1st Lt. Mike Pelotera and his eight men make their way to a mid-level deck to raise the Philippine flag up a leaning pole and then salute it. Across the calm, turquoise waters, two Chinese coast guard ships lurk, looking on.

Its hull riddled with holes and rust, the BRP Sierra Madre has become a fragile symbol of the Philippines’ claim to Second Thomas Shoal, an eight-kilometer (five-mile) -long submerged coral outcrop that has been disputed by China and the Philippines for years.

It’s a lonely ship, where Pelotera and his team wage a daily battle against isolation.

“There’s a point where you tend to feel low,” Pelotera said of the challenges of his team’s four-month deployment at the reef, where there is no land to stand on and nothing to stare at all day but sea. “But we have to kill the boredom because there is an important mission to fulfill.”

The Philippine navy inherited the former U.S. tank-landing ship USS Harnett County in 1976, and ran it deliberately aground at Second Thomas Shoal in 1999.

A Chinese frigate and maritime surveillance ships arrived last year to press China’s claim to the shoal, which is believed to be sitting atop undersea oil and gas reserves. The move was an example of China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, something that is alarming the United States, Manila’s longtime ally.

Analysts say China’s strategy is to slowly take possession of islands and outcrops in the South China Sea, using intimidation where necessary but avoiding any major confrontation. Its military might and economic dominance in the region mean it can push its weight around with little fear.

Second Thomas Shoal and the nearby Spratly Islands lie about 120 miles (190 kilometers) from the western Philippine province of Palawan, and about 700 miles (more than 1,000 kilometers) from southern China. China’s foreign ministry says Beijing has “indisputable sovereignty” over the shoal.

The Sierra Madre is now effectively a shipwreck, but the Philippine military has not decommissioned it. This makes the ship an extension of the government and means any attack on the ship is tantamount to an assault against the Philippines. The Chinese ships are around 5 miles (8 kilometers) from the outpost, clearly visible to those on board.

When Associated Press journalists and other members of the media were allowed to board the ship over the weekend, the marines went about their day, washing dishes and giving the visitors a short tour. The slow strain of Kid Rock’s late 1990’s song “Only God Knows” played from an old stereo set.

“We’re marines,” Pelotera said in an interview. “We can adapt to life anywhere.”

Another marine, Cpl. Sheffrey Luna, said people should look beyond the ship’s disrepair.

“They should see the determination of the soldiers in it,” he said. “If you’re not determined here, where everything you see is water, you won’t last long.”

In the last 15 years, the Sierra Madre has slowly crumbled, beaten by the sun, sea and storms.

Its main deck, used as a helipad before, is now home to an upturned lifeboat and toppled iron poles. Doors and wooden scraps cover holes and weak deck sections that could collapse and hurl a marine down into the cavernous cargo hold. Its towering mast is heavily rusted and could be toppled by the next big storm.

Three weeks ago, the Chinese succeeded in blocking for the first time a Philippine boat bringing troops and supplies to the Sierra Madre.

Manila deployed a civilian boat last week with a fresh batch of marines and 10 tons of food. In a bid to draw global attention to what Philippine officials have called China’s bullying tactics, they invited more than a dozen journalists, TV cameramen and photographers to come along on the 30-hour-plus journey from the Philippine mainland.

Two Chinese coast guard ships tried to block the slow-moving vessel, with one cutting dangerously through the Philippine boat’s path twice. The Chinese coast guard warned the boat by radio to turn back, saying it was illegally venturing into Chinese territory. The Chinese ships blew their horns continuously, but the boat maneuvered toward a shallow approach to the shoal dotted with submerged rocky outcrops, preventing the Chinese from continuing.

Carl Thayer, a professor at the University of New South Wales and an expert on the dispute, said China is trying to wear the Philippines down. “China is mainly motivated to squelch the Philippines and its vocal and legal opposition to Chinese assertiveness, less this inspire other regional states to do the same,” Thayer said. “Bit by bit, China hopes to condition regional states into accepting its hegemony.”

Philippine navy Lt. Ferdinand Gato, who led the resupply mission, smiled as the boat approached the Sierra Madre, with the outgoing marines, some of them sporting beards, waving and smiling on the deck. He had served as a gunnery officer of the warship during military campaigns against Muslim insurgents and Abu Sayyaf extremists in the mid-1990s.

A regional military commander, Lt. Gen. Roy Deveraturda, awarded Pelotera and his men with bronze cross medals Monday for their work on the Sierra Madre.

“You can now shave and have a haircut,” he told the marines.

He said he was heartened when he asked each of them if they were willing to return to the Philippine ship on the shoal. “They told me, ‘anytime, sir.'”

Ukraine crisis: Russia ‘withdrawing troops from border’, Putin tells Merkel

March 31, 2014

Vladimir Putin informs Angela Merkel of ‘partial withdrawal’ of Russian troops from eastern border of Ukraine as Dmitry Medvedev visits Crimea

Vladimir Putin (pictured), the Russian president, told German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday that he has ordered a partial withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border

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Vladimir Putin, informed German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday that he has ordered a partial withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border Photo: Alexey Druzhinin/ Getty

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, told German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday that he has ordered a partial withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border.

During a telephone call the pair agreed to cooperate on possible steps to “restore stability” in Ukraine, and also discussed the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniestria.

“The Russian president informed the chancellor about the partial withdrawal of Russian troops he ordered from the eastern border of Ukraine,” Ms Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.

The move followed claims by Ukraine and the United States that Russia had massed tens of thousands of troops within striking distance of eastern Ukraine last week. Russia had warned it could send troops into eastern Ukraine to protect Russian speakers there.

Russia formally annexed Crimea on March 21, three weeks after its troops seized control of the region from Ukraine in a largely bloodless takeover.

The development came as Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, arrived in Crimea on Monday with a high-level Kremlin delegation as Russia consolidated its hold on the newly annexed region and sought to reassure local residents that the annexation would leave them materially better off.

Ukraine immediately issued a note of protest after Mr Medvedev and several other ministers flew into Simferopol, the Crimean capital, to chair a cabinet meeting.

“No resident of Crimea or Sevastopol should lose anything as a result of joining Russia, they should only gain,” Mr Medvedev told the cabinet session.

Russian soldiers fix the tanks of a Ukrainian unit, which was based in Perevalnoe village, on the railway station in Gvardeyskoe village near Simferopol, Crimea (Arthur Shvarts/ EPA)

“This is what people are expecting from us, that we provide the conditions for a stable and decent life, certainty in the future and the feeling that they are part of a great nation. We must meet these expectations.”

Mr Medvedev announced a series of measures to boost the region’s flagging economy, including a low-tax special economic zone, slashing the price of air tickets from Moscow so as to undercut holidays in Turkey, and a programme to overhaul the region’s moribund farming sector.

He promised to raise public sector wages to the Russian average by July and announced the creation of a federal ministry for Crimean affairs, indicating a certain lack of faith in the local elites Moscow installed during its seizure of the region last month.

Mr Medvedev’s visit came after American and Russian diplomats failed to agree a way out of the crisis at crunch talks in Paris on Sunday night.

John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, emerged from four hours of talks with little to show other than a willingness to keep talking.

“We have ideas. We have some proposals that both sides made. And it’s really important for the appropriate consultations to take place before there’s any discussion about that,” Mr Kerry told reporters in Paris after the talks.

A four-point American plan for de-escalation includes Russian forces withdrawing to their March 1 positions, deployment of impartial observers across Ukraine to reassure Moscow about the treatment of Russian speakers, direct talks between Kiev and Moscow, and recognition of the Ukrainian presidential elections scheduled for May 25.

But Russia in turn is insisting that Ukraine rewrite its constitution to become a federal republic, granting wide-ranging autonomy to individual regions – something that the Kiev government has rejected as invasion by other means.

“We are convinced that federalism is a very important part of constitutional reform because the key is to ensure the unity of Ukraine by respecting the interests of all regions of this country,” Mr Lavrov said after the Paris talks.

While federalisation was discussed on Sunday, Mr Kerry said any agreement must be between Kiev and Moscow.

The Kiev government on Sunday denounced the Russian proposals as amounting to “the complete capitulation of Ukraine, its dismemberment, and the destruction of Ukrainian statehood.”

“Russia’s proposals for federalisation, a second official language, and referendums are viewed in Ukraine as nothing less than proof of Russia’s aggression. We sincerely regret that Minister S. Lavrov had to voice them,” the Ukrainian foreign ministry said in a statement.

Nato foreign ministers will meet in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss the Alliance’s response to Russia’s seizure of Crimea.

Ministers, including William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, are expected to focus on “practical” measures to increase military exercises, such as the enhanced operations of fighter jets and Awacs aircraft over the Baltic States today.

Senior diplomats said the meeting would begin long-term planning work to reconfigure Nato around the new threat from Russia for a decision in June.

The major review will examine whether the Alliance should expand its permanent presence in Eastern Europe, particularly to provide protection for the Baltic States.

“Over the coming months”, military planners will also look at the role of Nato’s Response Force (NRF), which has primarily been used for humanitarian relief.

Ukraine is a member of the NRF, a stand-alone military force available for rapid deployment.

The Alliance will hold air drills over the Baltic States on Tuesday, in an annual drill that has grown in significance following events in Crimea.

Prayer and Meditation for Tuesday, April 1, 2014 — Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk.”

March 31, 2014

Christ cleansing a leper by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, 1864.

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent
Lectionary: 245

Reading 1 ez 47:1-9, 12

The angel brought me, Ezekiel,
back to the entrance of the temple of the LORD,
and I saw water flowing out
from beneath the threshold of the temple toward the east,
for the façade of the temple was toward the east;
the water flowed down from the right side of the temple,
south of the altar.
He led me outside by the north gate,
and around to the outer gate facing the east,
where I saw water trickling from the right side.
Then when he had walked off to the east
with a measuring cord in his hand,
he measured off a thousand cubits
and had me wade through the water,
which was ankle-deep.
He measured off another thousand
and once more had me wade through the water,
which was now knee-deep.
Again he measured off a thousand and had me wade;
the water was up to my waist.
Once more he measured off a thousand,
but there was now a river through which I could not wade;
for the water had risen so high it had become a river
that could not be crossed except by swimming.
He asked me, “Have you seen this, son of man?”
Then he brought me to the bank of the river, where he had me sit.
Along the bank of the river I saw very many trees on both sides.
He said to me,
“This water flows into the eastern district down upon the Arabah,
and empties into the sea, the salt waters, which it makes fresh.
Wherever the river flows,
every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live,
and there shall be abundant fish,
for wherever this water comes the sea shall be made fresh.
Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow;
their leaves shall not fade, nor their fruit fail.
Every month they shall bear fresh fruit,
for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary.
Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine.”
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Responsorial Psalm ps 46:2-3, 5-6, 8-9

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R. (8) The Lord of hosts is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob.
God is our refuge and our strength,
an ever-present help in distress.
Therefore we fear not, though the earth be shaken
and mountains plunge into the depths of the sea.
R. The Lord of hosts is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob.
There is a stream whose runlets gladden the city of God,
the holy dwelling of the Most High.
God is in its midst; it shall not be disturbed;
God will help it at the break of dawn.
R. The Lord of hosts is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob.
The LORD of hosts is with us;
our stronghold is the God of Jacob.
Come! behold the deeds of the LORD,
the astounding things he has wrought on earth.
R. The Lord of hosts is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob.
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Gospel jn 5:1-16

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There was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now there is in Jerusalem at the Sheep Gate
a pool called in Hebrew Bethesda, with five porticoes.
In these lay a large number of ill, blind, lame, and crippled.
One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.
When Jesus saw him lying there
and knew that he had been ill for a long time, he said to him,
“Do you want to be well?”
The sick man answered him,
“Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool
when the water is stirred up;
while I am on my way, someone else gets down there before me.”
Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk.”
Immediately the man became well, took up his mat, and walked.
.Now that day was a sabbath.
So the Jews said to the man who was cured,
“It is the sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.”
He answered them, “The man who made me well told me,
‘Take up your mat and walk.’“
They asked him,
“Who is the man who told you, ‘Take it up and walk’?”
The man who was healed did not know who it was,
for Jesus had slipped away, since there was a crowd there.
After this Jesus found him in the temple area and said to him,
“Look, you are well; do not sin any more,
so that nothing worse may happen to you.”
The man went and told the Jews
that Jesus was the one who had made him well.
Therefore, the Jews began to persecute Jesus
because he did this on a sabbath.
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The first reading is often a mystery to many people.  The Church has chosen these Biblical readings about water to prepare us to renew our baptismal promises in two-and-a-half weeks. The waters of Baptism are much greater than Ezekiel’s river of life, the psalmist’s river of peace, or the healing pool of Bethesda. The waters of Baptism are greater than the flood waters at Noah’s time, the waters of the Red Sea, and even the River Jordan in which Jesus was baptized. When we renew our baptismal promises, we reject Satan, all his works, and all his empty promises. We believe with all our hearts in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Thus we will know the life-giving, soul-saving, cleansing, freeing, and healing powers of the waters of Baptism. Prepare to make the greatest act of faith in your life.
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Prayer: Father, I plunge and immerse myself in the waters of Your love..Promise: “Remember, now, you have been cured. Give up your sins so that something worse may not overtake you.” —Jn 5:14

“Look, you are well; do not sin any more,
so that nothing worse may happen to you.”

This phrase jumps out at me. We are human. We are far from perfect. Many of us believe we shall never be saints.

But Jesus and The Word comfort us.

Jesus is all love. Jesus is all mercy. Jesus is all forgiving. Jesus suffered an incrdible ordeal and death itself for us – for each of us.

And “The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” Romans 8:26 NIV

Pastors tell me there are many people who run away from a closer relationship with God becuse they are ashamed of past sins and discretions. But that is not what Jesus told us to do.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  Matthew 18:18

“What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”  Matthew 16:26

Jesus tells us:

“Rise, take up your mat, and walk.”

REFLECTION

 “366 Days with the Lord”

DO YOU WANT TO BE WELL? Jesus’ question may sound redundant. The man has been sick for 38 years! Of course, he wants to be well. But Jesus’ question is, in fact, very appropriate. Medical doctors ask their patients the same thing even if the latter are obviously seeking the help of health professionals. A doctor’s question implies one or all of these: “Are you ready to do what it takes to get well? Are you willing to follow my advice? Do you trust me?”

Jesus wants the man to declare his faith. Miracles follow faith, not the other way around. Moreover, “being well” means being able to do things which one could not when one is “dis-abled” by a “dis-ease.” Hence, Jesus’ question may also mean, “Are you ready to stop appealing to your ‘dis-abilities’ for your non-involvement and instead assume ‘response-abilities’ (responsibilities) in your family and in your community?” Faith in Jesus is a call for action.

“God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in distress” (Ps 46:2).

SOURCE: “366 Days with the Lord 2012,” ST. PAULS Philippines, 7708 St. Paul Rd., SAV, Makati City (Phils.,); Tel.: 895-9701; Fax 895-7328; E-mail: books@stpauls.ph; Website: http://www.stpauls.ph.

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Lectio Divina from the Carmelites
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Reflection

.• Today’s Gospel describes Jesus who cures the paralytic who had waited 38 years for someone to help him get to the water of the pool so as to be healed! Thirty-eight years! Before this total absence of solidarity, what does Jesus do? He transgresses the law of Saturday and cures the paralytic. Today, in poor countries, assistance to sick persons is lacking, people experience the same lack of solidarity. They live in total abandonment, without help or solidarity from anyone.

• John 5, 1-2: Jesus goes to Jerusalem. On the occasion of the Jewish festival, Jesus goes to Jerusalem. There, close to the Temple was a pool with five porticos or corridors. At that time, worship in the Temple demanded much water because of the numerous animals which were sacrificed, especially during the great festivals. This is why, near the Temple there were several cisterns where rain water was gathered. Some could contain over one thousand litres. Close by, because of the abundance of water, there was a public bathing resort, where crowds of sick people gathered waiting for help or to be healed. Archeology has shown that in the same precincts of the Temple, there was a place where the Scribes taught the Law to students. On one side, the teaching of the Law of God. On the other, the abandonment of the poor. The water purified the Temple, but it did not purify the people.

• John 5, 3-4: The situation of the sick. These sick people were attracted by the water of the bathing resort. They said that an angel would disturb the water and the first one who would enter after the angel disturbed the water, would be cured. In other words, the sick people were attracted by a false hope. Healing was only for one person. Just as the lottery today. Only one person gets the prize! The majority pays and wins nothing. Precisely, in this situation of total abandonment, in the public baths, Jesus meets the sick people.

• John 5, 5-9: Jesus cures a sick man on Saturday. Very close to the place where the observance of the Law of God was taught, a paralytic had been there for 38 years, waiting for someone who would help him to go down to the water to be cured. This facts reveals the total lack of solidarity and of acceptance of the excluded! Number 38 indicated the duration of a whole generation (Dt 2, 14). It is a whole generation which does not succeed to experience solidarity, or mercy. Religion at that time, was not capable to reveal the welcoming and merciful face of God. In the face of this dramatic situation Jesus transgresses the law of Saturday and takes care of the paralytic saying: “Get up, pick up your sleeping-mat and walk around!” The man picked up his mat and started to walk around among the people.

• John 5, 10-13: Discussion of the cured man with the Jews. Immediately after, some Jews arrived and criticized the man who was carrying his sleeping mat on a Saturday. The man did not know who the one who had cured him was. He did not know Jesus. This means that Jesus passing by that place where the poor and the sick were saw that person; he perceived the dramatic situation in which he was and cured him. He does not cure him to convert him, neither so that he would believe in God. He cures him because he wants to help him. He wanted him to experience some love and solidarity through his help and loving acceptance.

• John 5, 14-16: The man meets Jesus again. Going to the Temple, in the midst of the crowds, Jesus meets the same man and tells him: “Now, you are well again, do not sin any more, or something worse may happen to you”. At that moment, people thought and said: “Sickness is a punishment from God. God is with you!” Once the man is cured, he has to keep from sinning again, so that nothing worse will happen to him! But in his naiveté, the man went to tell the Jews that Jesus had cured him. The Jews began to ask Jesus why he did those things on Saturday. In tomorrow’s Gospel we have what follows.

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Personal questions

• Have I ever had an experience similar to that of the paralytic: to remain for some time without any help? How is the situation regarding assistance to the sick in the place where you live? Do you perceive any signs of solidarity?

• What does this teach us today?

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Concluding Prayer

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God is both refuge and strength for us,
a help always ready in trouble;
so we shall not be afraid though the earth be in turmoil,
though mountains tumble into the depths of the sea,
and its waters roar and seethe,
and the mountains totter as it heaves. (Ps 46,1-3)

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http://ocarm.org/en/content/lectio/lectio-divina-john-51-16

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Reflection by  The Most Rev Msgr William Goh Archbishop of Singapore
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RENEWAL OF OUR BAPTISM AS A CALL TO INSERT OURSELVES INTO THE PASCHAL MYSTERY   – See more at: http://www.csctr.net/01-april-2014-tuesday-4th-week-of-lent/#sthash.skING7ya.dpuf
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As we enter into the second half of the Lenten Season, the liturgy focuses more and more on the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord.  Indeed, in the opening prayer, we pray specifically that we may embrace the paschal mystery.  This focus is highlighted in the next three weeks.  We see the growing hostility against Jesus.  The story of the blind man yesterday demonstrated the increasing tension between the Pharisees and Jesus.  Today, the gospel ended with the remark that “it was because he did things like this on the Sabbath that the Jews began to persecute Jesus.”  Over the days to come, such confrontations will become more frequent and hostile.

But what has this enmity against Jesus got to do with the theme of water and baptism? Precisely, the paschal mystery is closely associated with the Sacrament of Baptism.  Baptism can give us new life only when we are inserted into the paschal mystery of Christ.  Hence, the Church invites us to be conscious of our baptismal calling and dignity.

From the outset, it is important to see how the two readings are connected.  The liturgy wants to establish the fact that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Ezekiel.  In the historical context of the prophecy of Ezekiel, the Israelites were in exile and they were hoping for the reconstruction of the Temple.  They felt abandoned and lost.  Nevertheless, the angel led the prophet to the temple where he saw a stream flowing from under the right side of the Temple, south of the altar.  This water irrigates the banks of the river, bringing life to all creatures and the tree-bearing fruits. The Temple is clearly the symbol of God’s presence.  So Ezekiel gave hope to the people in exile.  In the gospel, we have the story of a paralyzed man waiting at the pool.  He has been waiting for thirty-eight years for an opportunity to enter the pool, for it is believed that whoever enters the pool first when the angel comes to stir the water would be healed.  The man, paralyzed by his sins, symbolized the Israelites in the desert for forty years.

It is in this setting that Jesus entered the Temple.  In entering the Temple, He is claiming to be the presence of God.  He is the new Temple replacing the Old Temple of Jerusalem, which was destroyed during the time of the exile.  Jesus came as the Saviour, for there were many people lying there with all kinds of sicknesses.  They were people without hope, personified by the paralyzed man.  They were all waiting for a saviour to deliver them.

So, Jesus came to the sick man and healed him. However He did not cure him by touching him.  Nay, He healed him by a word and a command, “Pick up your mat and walk.”  In other words, Jesus showed Himself to be the Word of God.  The context of the pool implies that Jesus had come to give us life through the Holy Spirit, since water is a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, that Jesus worked the miracle on the Sabbath implies that Jesus is identified with the Father.  This is because God rested on the seventh day after creation.  Although He rested, He continued to sustain creation by His presence and love.  So by performing a miracle on the Sabbath, Jesus implicitly is claiming to be God, since like Him, He continues to give life to the people even on the Sabbath.   He does not stop giving life since He is God.

When we place all these three elements together, we have actually the work of the Trinity in our salvation, since we have the Spirit symbolized by the Water, Jesus as the Word of the Father and the Father Himself who works through Jesus.  This means that Jesus is the One who comes to engulf us in the life and presence of the Trinity by giving us His Spirit and reconciling us with the Father. The Sacrament of Baptism is the way by which we can share in the Trinitarian life of God.

Hence, it is clear that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Ezekiel. But Jesus has come to deliver us from our misery and sinfulness. Through the Sacrament of Baptism, Jesus gives life and restores us to wholeness.  Jesus, as the living water, comes to cleanse us from our sins; and as the Word of life, gives us new life, for in baptism we are incorporated into Him.

However, although Jesus is the living water that comes to give us life, He requires our cooperation.  Just as He asked the sick man, “Do you want to be well again?” He is asking us whether we really want to be saved and be restored to wholeness.  In other words, for baptism to be effective in our lives, we are urged to reexamine whether we really desire to live the life of Christ.

Thus, baptism presupposes a genuine repentance.  We must be sincere that we truly want to get well; that we want to rid ourselves of our sins and all that paralyzes us from living a good and happy life.  For unless we are clear that it is our sins that make us unable to walk, to live, to love, then we will not want to change and be transformed.  Clearly, then, repentance is the prerequisite for new life.  Repentance would mean that we sincerely wish to die to our sins, which in reality is sharing in the passion and death of our Lord.

Secondly, baptism presupposes faith.  It is the faith of the man in Jesus that enabled him to walk.  By submitting in faith to Jesus who said to him, “Get up, pick up your sleeping-mat and walk”, he was “cured at once, and he picked up his mat and walked away.”  So faith is another condition for the new life that Jesus comes to give us.  Faith leads to obedience.  Unless we have faith in Jesus, we cannot surrender our lives to Him and hence this new life cannot be ours.

Thirdly, Jesus reminds us, “now you are well again, be sure not to sin any more, or something worse may happen to you.”  Like the sick man who was healed, we can lose Jesus in the crowd.  Because of our preoccupations with so many things in life, we can lose Jesus in the midst of our daily activities.  Yes, it is important to realize that we can lose the new life given to us at baptism if we fall into sin.  By allowing sin to reign in our lives, something worse might happen to us because we are rejecting something essential.

How then can we recover our faith in Jesus?  We are told that like the man who was healed, it is necessary to grow in knowledge of Jesus.  The man who was healed “had no idea” who Jesus was. We must therefore take the necessary step to rediscover Jesus in our lives.  We need a re-evangelization, to hear the Good News again so that we might have a deep faith in Jesus as the life-giver.  If we truly want to find Him again, then Jesus will reappear to us, just as He did when the man who was healed lost Him almost immediately after being given new life by Jesus.   Hence, we must pray for the gift of sight so that we can turn to Jesus again.

The worst thing that can happen to us is that we are can fall into the same sin of the Pharisees. Like them, we can be so blind that we do not even see that we are blind.  This remains a constant temptation for us, as quite often we forget how sinful we are.  Consciously or unconsciously, we explain our sins and weaknesses away and justify what we do and cover up our sins.  Instead of being humble like the sick man and admit that we need help to grow in our spiritual life and a personal relationship with Jesus, we try to cover up our lack of personal knowledge of Jesus by relying on doctrines and rituals or engage in debate and discussion on such matters, like the Pharisees who avoided confronting themselves by finding fault with those who break the Sabbath Law.

If we do that, greater is our guilt.  As Jesus said in yesterday’s gospel, “But since you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”  Yes, the greatest danger is that we might not see the need for a real conversion in our lives.  We are so blind that we do not even see our sinfulness and wretchedness.  As a result, like the Pharisees, we will not be able to have a share of the New life promised to us at Easter since we have not lived out the paschal mystery, our baptismal calling, by dying to sin and rising with Christ.  Let us pray for the gift of openness to conversion so that we can truly embrace the Paschal Mystery in our lives.

Aquino: Philippines Seeking Arbitration To Comply With International Law and To Maintain Peace in the South China Sea

March 31, 2014

Defiant Benigno Aquino III says arbitration case at The Hague is an attempt to defend Manila’s sovereignty.

Associated Press

The Philippine president has defended his country’s arbitration case against China‘s sweeping territorial claims over the oil-rich South China Sea.

Benigno Aquino III said the intention was peacefully to protect his nation’s territory and sovereignty, rather than to provoke Beijing.

Manila resorted to United Nations arbitration after more than a decade of unsuccessful regional attempts to forge a binding code of conduct in the sea, Aquino told reporters.

“We went through the arbitration because that is a means to resolve the dispute which is consistent with a peaceful policy and in conformity with international law,” Aquino said.

The Philippines submitted to the tribunal in The Hague 4,000 pages of analysis and documentary evidence on Sunday to defend its territorial claims, ignoring Beijing’s warning the case would damage ties.

The Chinese embassy on Monday quoted a foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, as rejecting arbitration and accusing the Philippines of “illegal occupation of some of China’s islands and reefs”.

Hong said the Philippines had agreed to China’s position to settle disputes through direct negotiations. This had been done, he said, in a series of bilateral documents and in a declaration signed in 2002 by Beijing and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea.

“The Philippines is obliged to honour its own commitment,” he said.

As a party to the UN convention on the law of the sea, China had declared in 2006 that such disputes were excluded from arbitration, Hong added.

The foreign affairs department spokesman Charles Jose said Manila “never ruled out anything” with regards to resolving the dispute. It would be for the tribunal to determine whether the case could be subject to arbitration, he said.

That 2002 non-binding declaration on the South China Sea was seen as a first step towards forging a binding agreement. China has agreed only reluctantly to open consultations, and has lobbied some Asean members to prevent consensus.

Aquino expressed frustration that after more than a decade of talks between Asean and China, “we still have no code of conduct”.

“So what are our options with regards to the whole issue?” he asked. “I have to defend national territory and our sovereignty.”

The Philippines has urged other claimants to join the arbitration case, but none has done so publicly.

China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims across the busy South China Sea.

China has asked claimants to settle the disputes through bilateral negotiations, in which Beijing would have the advantage because of its sheer size and clout. It has also warned Washington against getting involved.

Philippine marines

Philippine Marines raise the flag on the first day of their deployment to a disputed reef in the South China Sea. Photograph: Bullit Marquez/AP

Related:

Map of South China Sea

China has claimed much of the South China Sea for itself —  claims that have upset many in the region, especially Vietnam and the Philippines. A huge wealth of untapped oil is believed to be below the sea here.

Kerry scraps plans, rushes to Israel in an attempt to salvage flailing peace talks

March 31, 2014

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By REUTERS, JPOST.COM STAFF

US Secretary of state breaks from his travel schedule in Rome amid crisis over delayed prisoner release and Abbas’s refusal to extend talks.

US Secretary of State John Kerry broke from his travel schedule for the second time in a week to rush back to Israel on Monday to try to salvage Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The US-brokered negotiations faced a crisis over the weekend when Israel, saying it was seeking a Palestinian commitment to continue negotiations beyond an end-of-April deadline, delayed the fourth prisoner release to which it had committed to in previous negotiations.

 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leaves Paris on March 31, 2014, for his trip to the Middle East.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leaves Paris on March 31, 2014, for his trip to the Middle East.

“After consulting with his team, Secretary Kerry decided it would be productive to return to the region,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said.

 

Kerry had interrupted a visit to Rome last week to go to Amman for talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to try to convince him to prolong the talks beyond an April 29 deadline for a deal and to press Israel to release the prisoners.

Speaking at a meeting of Likud ministers on Sunday, Netanyahu said that Israel would not make a deal to free the prisoners “without a clear benefit for Israel in return.” He acknowledged that negotiations to come to an agreement could potentially “blow up.”

In order to move back to the negotiations table, Israel agreed in July to release 104 terrorists convicted of crimes before the the 1993 Oslo accords in four tranches of 26 prisoners each. In return the Palestinians agreed not to pursue unilateral diplomatic actions in international forums, including taking Israel to the International Criminal Court.  Israel has so far released 78 prisoners.

A deal has allegedly been reached for Israel to release a fourth group of Palestinian prisoners by Tuesday evening after Israel missed a Saturday night deadline to free theinmates, sources in Ramallah told Palestinian news site al-Quds on Sunday, though the report also stated that the Palestinians were not expected to make additional compromises, such as agreeing to an extension of talks, in exchange for the release.

 

By returning to the region, Kerry may be indicating that  he believes there is a chance to save the talks, possibly with commitment from both sides to extend the negotiations, or to issue a message that US patience is not without limits.

 

Kerry was scheduled to attend a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday, and it was not immediately clear whether he would still be able to make the first day.

 

Direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resumed last July after a three-year break. In the absence of any obvious breakthroughs, Kerry said he wanted a clear framework to enable discussions to continue in the coming months.

 

Officials have said the two sides remain far apart even on the draft framework. However, the State Department’s Psaki said on Monday the Israelis and Palestinians “have both made tough choices” over the past eight months.

“As we work with them to determine the next steps, it is important they remember that only peace will bring the Israeli and Palestinian people both the security and economic prosperity they all deserve,” she said.

American officials said that Kerry was expected to travel to both Israel and Ramallah in the coming hours.

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(CNN) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is traveling to Israel on Monday as part of the latest effort to forge a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Kerry is flying from Paris — where he had discussed the Ukraine crisis with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over the weekend — into Tel Aviv, with possible meetings in Jerusalem and Ramallah over the next day, a senior State Department official said.

Kerry tried to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process eight months ago, aiming to get a deal leading to the two states coexisting peacefully.

So far, the process has included a series of meetings along with incremental steps intended to build trust, such as prisoner releases. However, Kerry’s initial goal of an agreement by the end of April has morphed into a possible framework for further talks through the end of 2014.

Psaki said Kerry decided it would be productive to return to the region this week after consulting with a U.S. team that is negotiating with the Israelis and the Palestinians to end their decades-long conflict.

“Over the course of the last eight months, the Israelis and Palestinians have both made tough choices, and as we work with them to determine the next steps, it is important they remember that only peace will bring the Israeli and Palestinian people both the security and economic prosperity they all deserve,” Psaki said.

Kerry’s trip comes after President Barack Obama hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for separate White House talks earlier this month.

While both sides have signaled agreement with the concept of a two-state solution, in which Israel and an independent Palestinian nation would live side by side, they remain at odds over how to make that happen.

Areas of disagreement include borders, security issues, the status of Jerusalem, and the rights of Palestinians who left or fled their homes in what is now Israel.

READ: John Kerry defies the odds with intense drive for Middle East peace

READ: Time running out for even a framework for Middle East talks

South China Sea: Philippines Seeks Arbitration at U.N. to Resolve China’s Claims

March 31, 2014

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China’s foreign ministry said in a statement Saturday that “China will absolutely not allow the Philippines to occupy” Second Thomas Shoal.

By James Hookway
The wall Street Journal

The Sierra Madre has Philippine troops deployed on board and is anchored off Second Thomas Shoal. Associated Press/Bullit Marquez

The Philippines filed an arbitration case Sunday with the United Nations over China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, raising the ante in a long-running dispute over who owns what in the strategic, energy-rich waters.

Manila has been preparing for months to file its challenge to China’s claim to control everything within a broad expanse of the sea delineated by its so-called “nine-dash line.” The Philippines’ submission is nearly 4,000 pages long, includes more than 40 maps and is aimed at countering Beijing’s argument that controlling mostly submerged features such as reefs or shoals provides China with sovereignty over the sea, including some 80% of the Philippines’ U.N.-declared exclusive economic zone.

The contested waters include areas potentially rich in oil and gas, as well as rich fishing waters such as Scarborough Shoal, where Philippine and Chinese vessels were locked in a standoff for nearly two months in 2012.

China so far has abstained from the proceedings in the matter, which the Philippines first raised in January under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Now that the case for arbitration has been filed, the UN tribunal will decide on what steps are to be taken next.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said on Sunday that seeking arbitration “is about defending what is legitimately ours” and securing a “just and durable solution grounded on International Law.”

China’s foreign ministry dismissed the arbitration filing in a statement posted on its website Sunday night, reiterating its position that it considers the dispute a bilateral matter to be resolved through direct negotiations. “Regardless of how the Philippines packages its complaint, the direct cause of the dispute is illegal occupation of reefs in the South China Sea on the part of the Philippines,” it said.

The Philippines’ challenge comes as Manila engages in another protracted cat-and-mouse game to evade Chinese ships apparently attempting to blockade one of the Philippines’ few outposts in the region: a rusting hulk marooned on Second Thomas Shoal.

A Philippine ship managed Saturday to slip past a Chinese vessel to resupply a small contingent of Filipino soldiers aboard the World War II-era Sierra Madre, which was steered onto Second Thomas Shoal in 1999. The wreck is one of the Philippines’ few visible claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea, something of a symbolic marker in efforts to withstand China’s growing ambitions.

In recent weeks China has attempted to stop Philippine forces from resupplying the wreck, forcing the Philippines to conduct air drops. Journalists from the Associated Press and other news organizations were aboard the Philippine supply vessel and reported hearing a Chinese coast guard ship warning it to stay away by radio. The Philippine ship, carrying some 10 tons of food and water, slipped away after heading into shallower waters where the Chinese vessel couldn’t follow.

China’s foreign ministry said in a statement Saturday that “China will absolutely not allow the Philippines to occupy” Second Thomas Shoal.

The Philippine legal challenge to China’s claims is perhaps a more significant display of resistance.

The waters, which carry around half of the world’s trade, are also claimed in part by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan and tensions have led to a series of confrontations in past decades. Any decision by the U.N. could bear on how the overlapping territorial claims are ultimately resolved and could stir tensions between China and the U.S.

The Obama administration infuriated Beijing in 2010 when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the free navigation of the South China Sea as being in America’s “national interest.”

China has since attempted to step up control, among other things dispatching nominally civilian coast guard vessels into disputed waters. Beijing argues each territorial dispute should be resolved on a bilateral basis. Washington and the Association of Southeast Asian want a multilateral, rules-based approach.

Write to James Hookway at james.hookway@wsj.com

Putin’s Reckless Gamble

March 31, 2014

By Stephen Sestanovich
The New York Times

President Obama’s meetings with European leaders last week made clear how much they hoped Russia, having seized Crimea, would call off any further dismemberment of Ukraine. They may get their wish, whether or not President Vladimir V. Putin’s telephone call Friday to Mr. Obama bears diplomatic fruit. But to assure Ukraine’s survival, the United States and Europe need a more ambitious strategy. To avoid a new Cold War, we must learn the right lessons from the old one.

The best reason to think President Putin is in fact seeking a break in the action is that his policy to date has been one improvisation after another. For weeks, he urged Ukraine’s leaders to crack down on protesters. When doing so brought down the Ukrainian government and created still more disorder in Kiev, Mr. Putin’s original goal — to draw the whole country into his orbit — seemed hopelessly out of reach. His impulsive response — grabbing Crimea, the one piece of Ukraine already under de facto Russian control — has brought him a quick 10 percent jump in popularity at home (and given him a new tool, nationalist hysteria, with which to control dissent). It has also produced the most extreme international isolation Moscow has felt since Leonid I. Brezhnev invaded Afghanistan.

Mr. Putin needs a breather. If he forswears further territorial aims in Ukraine, he will get no early rollback of the sanctions Europe and America have imposed. But he can probably avoid new ones. So much discussion has focused on the risk of a Russian blitzkrieg into eastern Ukraine that, when it doesn’t happen, many Western policy makers will breathe a sigh of relief. Mr. Putin could then work to cool European and American indignation, and get our leaders bickering with one another about the next step. With that, he — and we — might think the worst was over.

Would it be? Russian actions have been so shocking that their impact will certainly linger. Mr. Putin has won himself a reputation as a wrecker of international norms. He’ll have to live with that for a while. Yet the real damage to Russian diplomacy goes far beyond the question of personal trust.

By undermining Ukrainian statehood, Mr. Putin has made it impossible to call off the crisis. Over more than 20 years, Ukraine’s leaders, however corrupt and incompetent, have been extremely responsible about the question of national unity. Despite ethnic resentment and suspicion, they never contemplated breaking up the country. This was the third rail of Ukrainian politics, and very few were willing to touch it. Secession was taboo.

Now Mr. Putin has put the question of a breakup on the national agenda. And it can’t easily be taken off. Fractious nationalism — not invasion — is Ukraine’s real vulnerability. Even without a grand plan to dismember his neighbor, Mr. Putin has recklessly whipped up patriotic sentiment and groups on both sides of the border. Such forces have a life of their own. Moscow may offer separatists in eastern Ukraine active support or mere rhetoric. Either way, the threat is a permanent one. As in Crimea, Mr. Putin can turn the “protection of Russian speakers” into outright aggression almost overnight.

To limit this danger, the United States and Europe have to address Ukraine’s many weaknesses. Economic success is important; American loan guarantees, the International Monetary Fund’s new $18 billion stabilization program and the opening of the European Union’s market will help.

But the problem goes beyond matters of trade, currency or economic growth. It goes beyond even the issues of corruption and the rule of law. Ukraine’s institutions function poorly across the board, from its military to its police and border guards, from local government to political parties. When ethnic resentments were under control, this poor performance didn’t matter. Now it could produce a new crisis.

American policy has rarely excelled at “nation building.” Even the rigors of European Union accession, or of I.M.F. assistance, which demand reform and modernization, offer no surefire solution. In Europe and America, budgets are tight and attention spans short. But unless our policy makers understand the huge scope of the problem, they will someday wake up to discover Ukraine’s viability at risk again.

No one wants to revive the Cold War. But it offers lessons for today. In the 1940s, the authors of “containment” saw nation building as the key to success. They wanted to check Russian power without war, and believed that across Western Europe, once viable societies were so deeply divided that they might not survive. Those nations’ political and economic models, like Ukraine’s today, were broken. They would not hold together without what Dean Acheson called “the added power and energy of America.”

What made “containment” successful was not the infliction of pain on the Soviet Union. The heart of American policy was to revive, stabilize and integrate countries on our side of the line. Yes, we worried that Stalin had been able to bring down the government in Prague. We worried even more that he might do so in Rome and Paris. Successful nation building eventually dispelled those fears. In time, even Eastern Europe got its chance to build successful pluralist societies, but only because years earlier Western Europe had done the same.

A policy that saw the parallels between the dangers of the ’40s and those of today would never — ever — accept the annexation of Crimea. But it would not make reversing it the most urgent goal. Our real challenge is to keep Mr. Putin from any temptation to break up one of the biggest countries in Europe. It may take years, even decades, of effort, just as it did from the 1940s on, to know whether our policy has succeeded. Unless it does, we will face a far more dangerous crisis than the one over Crimea.

ObamaCare in Kentucky — Lawmaker says the Affordable Care Act is “unsustainable”

March 31, 2014

By Perry Bacon Jr. 
Yahoo News

FRANKFORT, Ky. — In one of the poorest areas of Appalachia, about 2,500 people have signed up to get health insurance over the last six months — a number that represents more than a tenth of Clay County’s residents.

One-hundred-and-twenty miles way, the county’s state senator, Robert Stivers, is laying out his plans to gradually gut the Affordable Care Act in Kentucky, which provided his constituents with insurance. The soft-spoken 52-year-old Republican is hardly a fiery Tea Party type: He first joined the state Legislature in 1997 and slowly rose through the ranks to become the state Senate president. In a mid-March interview in a small room just off the floor of the Senate in Kentucky’s Capitol building, Stivers acknowledged that Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear had handled the rollout of President Barack Obama’s health care law smoothly in this state and that some people in his district now have health insurance for the first time.

Stivers, though, is unmoved. The Affordable Care Act, he says, is “unsustainable” in the long run. If Republicans can gain more seats in the state Legislature here over the next year, he said, they will look to peel back Kentucky’s participation in the health care law by limiting the expansion of Medicaid in the state. And he backs scrapping the entire law, too, at the federal level. “I do think it should be repealed,” he said emphatically at the end of the interview.

Kentucky’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act has been wildy successful, with a well-functioning state website from day one of open enrollment and a major push that’s led to more than 300,000 signing up for the exchanges or Medicaid. Indeed, the rollout in this red state has been so successful that Obama invited Beshear, a Democrat, to attend the State of the Union address in January and praised him by name during the speech.

Far from being seen as a success story, though, in Kentucky, the health care law and Beshear’s strong embrace of it remain deeply controversial. A recent poll showed that a plurality of Kentuckians continue to favor repealing the law. Other than Beshear, many of the state’s leading Democrats, aware of the lingering tensions around the ACA, avoid speaking about it publicly, wary of being seen as too supportive of “Obamacare.”

And Kentucky Republicans are acting just like those in Washington and states around the country: GOP state legislators in the Democrat-controlled Kentucky House this month pushed unsuccessfully for a provision to repeal the state’s Medicaid expansion under the ACA and suspend its health care exchange.

“The politics have really not changed,” said Regan Hunt, executive director of Kentucky Voices for Health, a nonprofit group that supports the health care law. She noted that while it’s easy to find Republicans in the state’s Legislature who will publicly blast the law, “I don’t know if we have true Democratic champions” besides Beshear.

The lingering opposition isn’t surprising. Kentucky didn’t become the poster child for Obamacare because of a broad consensus in the state, but because of the actions of one man: Beshear.

Like the rest of the South, the state, once dominated by Democrats, has moved decidedly right over the last 15 years. Bill Clinton won here in 1992 and 1996, but Obama was defeated by 23 points in 2012. Kentucky’s U.S. senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, are ardent conservatives.

At the same time, five of Kentucky’s six statewide nonfederal officers are Democrats, including Beshear, and the party has maintained a majority in the state House of Representatives. That’s because state Democrats distance themselves from the national party whenever possible. Beshear, first elected in 2007, won again in 2011 by blasting Obama as an enemy of the state’s coal industry.

Through his first five years in office, the governor had high approval ratings, but that was largely because he hewed close to the political center.

Then came Obamacare. Freed from political considerations because term limits prevent him from running again, Beshear over the last two years has stunned Republicans and even Democrats here with his forceful advocacy of the ACA. He unilaterally decided to create a health care exchange and expand Medicaid, ignoring complaints from Republicans in the state’s Legislature who either opposed those moves outright or wanted to reach some sort of compromise.

Kentucky is the only state in the South with expanded Medicaid and an exchange website built locally.

“Our statistics are horrible, our health statistics are among the worst in the country,” Beshear said in an interview in his office on the first floor of the Capitol, two floors below where Stivers and the legislators were meeting. He was referring to Kentucky’s high percentages of people who smoke, are obese or have dental problems.

“When the Affordable Care Act came along, it was a gift from heaven in the sense it gave us a tool to change the history of this commonwealth when it came to the health of our people,” Beshear said.

In the months before the October 2013 start of the new insurance options under the health care law, Beshear and his aides prepared extensively. Their strategy was to try to reach Kentuckians everywhere, with enrollment events at state fairs and bourbon festivals, but also to name their insurance website kynect (combining the words “Kentucky” and “connect”) and de-emphasize the link between kynect and the national health care law.

That approach worked. Even Republicans here say that some Kentuckians will criticize Obamacare but in the next breadth emphasize how well kynect works, as if they are not part of the same law. Kentucky’s health insurance website has had few of the technical problems that have dogged HealthCare.gov.

Beshear, to the consternation of Kentucky conservatives, has not only implemented the law without any input from them, but spent the last several months on something of a victory tour, penning an op-ed in The New York Times telling Obamacare opponents to “get over it,” making regular appearances on MSNBC touting Kentucky’s success and sitting in first lady Michelle Obama’s box when Obama singled him out for praise at the State of the Union address.

The Republicans were initially caught flat-footed, particularly as enrollments surged in many of the state’s most conservative areas, which are also high in poverty. And some Republicans privately concede it will be difficult to roll back expansion of health insurance to so many.

“Three hundred thousand people are on this now,” said one top Kentucky GOP operative. “It’s going to be hard to take this away from people.”

But other Republicans are undaunted, determined to poke holes in Beshear’s story of Kentucky as a health care success. They emphasize that about 80 percent of Kentucky’s new enrollments have been in Medicaid, while only 20 percent are in private health care plans, a ratio Republicans argue will be problematic when the state must start paying for some of the costs. (Under the law, starting in 2017, states must pay 5 percent of the costs of new Medicaid enrollments. Most other states have not released precise data on their enrollments, so it’s not clear if Kentucky’s Medicaid ratio is unusually high.)

“I think it’s immoral to give you something you know we can’t pay for,” said Robert Benvenuti, a Republican state representative who unsuccessfully pushed a bill that would have required Beshear and state legislators to get their own insurance through the exchange. “Why are you creating dependency you know you can’t afford?”

Republicans are collecting stories of Kentuckians whose health care plans have been changed or eliminated because they do not comply with Obamacare regulations.

Steve Robertson, chairman of the Kentucky Republican Party, said the GOP statehouse candidates would run this fall on the mantle of repealing the health care law, looking to gain five seats and the House majority. And a Republican could replace Beshear after next year’s gubernatorial elections.

“It’s a question of when, not if, when Kentucky will become just truly a red state,” said Robertson.

From there, Stivers described a gradual process to reduce Kentucky’s participation in the health care law. He suggested, for example, that Republicans pare down the Medicaid expansion under the program, which currently covers people as long as their income is less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level, in increments, bringing it down to perhaps 130 percent initially, then a lower number after that. (The Obama administration has long said it would not support such a partial expansion of Medicaid.)

Democrats acknowledge the political challenge in defending the law. They say the policy success has done little to shift the politics because anything associated with Obama is unpopular in Kentucky.

At the national level, Democrats, including top White House aides, have long argued that Americans would view the ACA more positively once millions of people became insured through it, and that Republicans would stop urging repeal once people in their own districts and states were benefiting.

What’s happening in Kentucky directly contradicts those assumptions: the stories of the newly insured are drowned out, politicians in both parties here say, by the enduring unpopularity of Obamacare and the man it is named after, concerns (often unfounded) that the law has caused premiums to increase for people who previously had insurance and general confusion about the law, particularly the individual mandate.

When the state House had the vote on defunding the health care law, nearly all Republicans backed the provision, while a bloc of more than 20 Democrats abstained, denying it the votes to pass but also illustrating their concern over supporting the ACA publicly. Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat challenging McConnell in a closely watched U.S. Senate race, does not include any mention of the law on her campaign website and has avoided associating herself with Beshear’s embrace of it.

McConnell, on the other hand, pledges to repeal the law in nearly every campaign speech.

“Politics is two seconds. In two seconds, you can say, ‘Obamacare, lost insurance,” said Coleman Eldridge, a top aide to Beshear. “Takes three minutes to explain why that’s really not true. They’re (Republicans) smart to do it, just matters how we defend it.”

“It’s a reflection of the reactionary and racist nature of Kentucky,” said Gerald Neal of Louisville, a Democrat who is one of the two black state senators here. “This is Kentucky and some parts of Kentucky are living in the past. They (Republicans) have been successful in associating these issues with Obama.”

This hostile political environment has left Beshear on a determined effort in his last year and a half in office, racing to deeply entrench the health care expansion in Kentucky, to make it so embedded that even if a Republican succeeds him, it will be politically impossible to unwind the process.

Beshear is looking for ways to fund the state’s health-insurance exchange without using taxpayer dollars, a move that would make it harder for state Republicans to argue that implementing the ACA is draining state resources. The governor and his team are already talking about conducting focus groups to study how to get more young adults to sign up for insurance when open enrollment starts again in November, to further broaden the number of people in the program.

And last month, Beshear announced a new initiative called “kyhealthnow,” a kind of Obamacare 2.0 that seeks to build on insurance expansion in Kentucky and sets up a long list of new health goals for the state, such as reducing its uninsured population to less than 5 percent and cutting the state’s obesity rate by 10 percent.

Beshear aides believe that if the number of Kentuckians enrolled through kynect gets near 500,000 over the next year in this state of 4 million, Republicans will continue to complain publicly but also largely concede they won’t be able to unwind the ACA in Kentucky.

“I’m making sure that nothing happens during this legislative session that will stand in the way of our progress,” Beshear said. “We are also building, I think, the public support so that as we get into next year and the year after that, this will be a very acceptable effort to everyone, regardless of their political party.”

North Korea Shells Into South At Least 500 Artillery Rounds — South Says North Korea Intentionally Provoked an Incident

March 31, 2014

SEOUL Mon Mar 31, 2014 5:02am EDT

Passengers watch a television program showing reports on North Korea's plan to conduct live-fire drills, at a railway station in Seoul March 31, 2014. REUTERS-Yonhap

Passengers watch a television program showing reports on North Korea’s plan to conduct live-fire drills, at a railway station in Seoul March 31, 2014.   REUTERS/Yonhap
SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea fired more than 100 artillery rounds into South Korean waters as part of a drill on Monday, prompting the South to fire back, officials in Seoul said, but the exercise appeared to be more saber rattling from Pyongyang rather than the start of a military standoff.

The North had flagged its intentions to conduct the exercise in response to U.N. condemnation of last week’s missile launches by Pyongyang and against what it says are threatening military drills in the South by U.S. forces.

North Korea also accused the South of “gangster-like” behavior at the weekend by “abducting” one of its fishing boats and threatened to retaliate. The South said it had sent the boat back after it drifted into its waters.

More than 100 North Korean shells out of 500 or so fired landed in South Korean waters, prompting marines from the South to fire back with more than 300 rounds in the North’s waters, defense officials in Seoul said.

Seoul also scrambled F-15s on its side of the maritime border, they said.

“We believe the North’s maritime firing is a planned provocation and an attempt to test our military’s determination to defend the Northern Limit Line and to get an upper hand in South-North relations,” South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said.

The Northern Limit Line, a maritime border that wraps itself round a part of the North’s coastline, has been the scene of frequent clashes and in 2010, four people were killed when North Korea shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong.

“It’s up to the two militaries either to recognize or reject their own claimed line, and challenge the other’s – this goes back and forth, so this is probably another episode of that,” said Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group.

Earlier in 2010, a South Korean naval vessel was sunk close to the line by what an international commission said was a North Korean torpedo, although the North denies involvement.

The line was drawn up at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War and North Korea does not recognize it. The two sides are still technically at war as the conflict ended in a mere truce, not a treaty.

The residents of Baengnyeong island, one of the remote islands close to the firing area, were evacuated to bomb shelters as a precaution, a government official said by telephone.

North Korea has ratcheted up its rhetoric in recent weeks and conducted a series of missile launches, mostly short range, in response to what it sees as the threat posed by a series of joint U.S.-South Korean military drills that are held annually.

The current drill called Foal Eagle ends on April 18.

“At a time that South Korea and the United States are conducting military exercises using sophisticated equipment, the North is unlikely to be reckless enough to do anything that will lead to a sharp worsening of situation,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

“There is an element of trying to show displeasure at the South Korea-U.S. drills and to pressure the South, but it doesn’t seem the North wants this to blow up into something bigger.”

China, which hosted several rounds of now-defunct multilateral talks aimed at ending the North’s nuclear weapons program, nevertheless said it was concerned at the exchange of fire and called for restraint from both sides.

“The temperature is rising at present on the Korean peninsula, and this worries us,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing.

He added that China was also concerned by the North’s threat to carry out more nuclear tests.

North Korea threatened nuclear strikes against the South and the United States last year after the United Nations tightened sanctions against it for conducting its third nuclear test.

Financial markets in South Korea were unmoved by the latest developments with the stock market’s benchmark KOSPI turning higher from early losses to finish up 0.2 percent and the won extending gains to end onshore trade up 0.4 percent against the dollar.

(Additional reporting by James Pearson, Ju-min Park, Choonsik Yoo and Narae Kim in Seoul and Megha Rajagopalan in Beijing; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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(CNN) — A day after raising the possibility of further nuclear tests, North Korea has engaged in provocative live-fire exercises near the South Korean maritime border, leading to an exchange of fire between the two neighbors.

Semi-official South Korean news agency Yonhap reported Monday that the North had begun the drill just after noon (local time). The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) confirmed that some North Korean ordnance landed in South Korean waters, and that the South responded with fire.

The JCS confirmed that the North Korean offshore military exercise began around 12:15 pm (local time) Monday, and said that “a part of North Korea’s shelling reached South Korean side of the NLL (Northern Limit Line) and we (South Korea) responded with K-9 self-propelled guns into the North Korean waters above NLL.”

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The statement is in line with Yonhap’s report that the North fired “several” artillery shells, to which South Korean military responded with self-propelled artillery fire. The South Korean K-9 howitzers have a 24-mile (40-kilometer) range.

It is not clear how many of the shells fired by North Korea reached the Republic’s territorial waters. Although there was a lull, North Korean offshore firing seems to have resumed, with Yonhap quoting a resident of Baekryong Island, which is in close proximity to the NLL.

“Some (North Korean) artillery fire landed in (the) southern part of Northern Limit Line — but in the water,” a South Korean Ministry of Defense spokesperson told CNN. “We counter-fired over the Northern Limit Line”.

When asked what South Korea fired back at, the MOD spokesman said “We are not shooting at North Korea, just shooting into the sea.”

The spokesman declined to answer where South Korea is firing from and if the exchange is still ongoing. The official also refused to confirm if civilians are being evacuated or put into shelters on the front line islands.

Warning fax

The reclusive state took the unusual step of informing its neighbor of live-fire drills close to the NLL in the heavily-militarized western sea, also known as the Yellow Sea. Pyongyang sent a fax early Monday demanding the Republic “control” its vessels in seven sea border areas of the Yellow Sea north of the NLL.

According to Wee Yong Sub, South Korean Defense Ministry vice-spokesperson, the scheduled tests mark the first time — in recent history, at least — that the North has announced live-firing exercises above the NLL, which marks the established maritime border between the two Koreas.

“We consider such announcement as a hostile threat and so have activated crisis management operation in case of (military) provocation,” he said. “We stress that we are fully prepared for all situations.”

He added that there are no immediate signs of nuclear tests being carried out by the North.

South Korea captures a North Korean fishing boat

Nuclear tests

North Korea said Sunday it “would not rule out” a new nuclear test as it defended its recent mid-range missile launch that triggered international condemnation.

“(We) would not rule out a new form of a nuclear test aimed at strengthening our nuclear deterrence,” Pyongyang’s foreign ministry said in a statement carried by the state-run KCNA news agency. “The U.S. had better ponder over this and stop acting rashly.”

The statement did not specify what North Korea meant by a “new form” of test.

On Wednesday, the Stalinist state launched two medium-range ballistic missiles into the sea off its east coast, violating United Nations resolutions that prohibit Pyongyang from conducting such tests.

The U.N. Security Council condemned the move and is considering an “appropriate response,” the council’s president U.N. Ambassador Sylvie Lucas said.

At a briefing Monday, Wee said: “We are fully prepared for all provocation, including North Korea’s additional launching of missiles or nuclear test under the close cooperation with the U.S.”

http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/31/world/asia/north-korea-live-fire-exchange/

The military exercises are the latest provocation by the North, and come after a maritime dispute last week was seemingly swiftly resolved. On Thursday, a North Korean fishing boat was seized following an alleged incursion into South Korean waters, and then returned with its three crew members to the following day.

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Photos of Korean military exercises:

Dispute: The South Korean military shot shells into North Korean waters during a drill after their rivals fired across the sea boundary during their own practice

Residents on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, metres south of the border, were told to seek shelter during the drill. There were no reports of injuries

 

The heated exchange took place during the US Marines' annual military training with South Korea, which the North brands rehearsal for invasion

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