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My life-changing visit to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum and Park

Hiroshima, Japan, days after the devastating blast of the the A-bomb.

One single bomb named “Little Boy” leveled the big city of Hiroshima. Today’s nuclear weapons are each thousands of times more powerful. By 2013 there were more than 4,100 active nuclear warheads in the world’s arsenal–enough to destroy all of mankind. Another 17,300 nuclear warheads are on standby.

The flight ground crew with Enola Gay pilot Col. Paul Tibbets. The plane would deliver the first atomic bomb to ever be used in war.

The flight ground crew with Enola Gay pilot Col. Paul Tibbets (center). The plane would deliver the first atomic bomb to ever be used in war. (Click photos to enlarge.)

Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombed

On August 6, 1945, 8:15 AM, after 44 months of increasingly brutal fighting in the Pacific, the Enola Gay, an American B-29 bomber loaded with a devastating new weapon, appeared in the sky over Hiroshima, Japan. Minutes later, that new weapon—a bomb that released its enormous destructive energy by splitting uranium atoms to create a chain reaction—detonated in the sky, killing some 70,000 Japanese civilians instantly and leveling the city.

Three days later, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb over the city of Nagasaki, with similarly devastating results. The following week, Japan’s emperor addressed his country over the radio to announce the decision to surrender. World War II had finally come to its dramatic conclusion.

My personal interest in the atomic bombings

In 1997 my Project Friendship Russian exchange student Timur Chirikov was a senior at Severn School in Severna Park, Maryland. Timur brought home a homework assignment. He had been asked to write a term paper on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like most Americans, I had never really given much thought to the subject.

I agreed to help Timur with this project. We began to pour through all kinds of information we found on the internet or in print at our local library.

Timur had to first decide a “pro” or “con” position regarding the US use of atomic weapons to end the war with Japan. After looking through hundreds of pages of information, he decided he would write against the use of the atomic weapons. The clincher in that decision seemed to be the Oppenheimer Target Committee report that had been declassified by the US Department of Defense.

The Enola Gay crew photographed the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. The photos on the right show the city of Hiroshima before and after the blast.

The Enola Gay crew photographed the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. The photos on the right show the city of Hiroshima before and after the blast.

Several Japanese cities had been listed by the Target Committee as potential bomb sites. Perhaps it was the wording of the committee’s suggestion that Kyoto would make a good target. Although Kyoto, an urban industrial city of one million inhabitants, was never bombed, it had been classified by the committee as an “AA Target.” Committee members reasoned, “From the psychological point of view there is the advantage that Kyoto is an intellectual center for Japan and the people there are more apt to appreciate the significance of such a weapon as the gadget.” (“Gadget” was the code word for the atomic bomb.)

Timur and I read those words in disbelief. What? More educated, intelligent people can better appreciate being incinerated by an atomic bomb?

Hiroshima was the last major Japanese city left untouched. It was the political and economic heart of
the Chugoku Region and possessed  vital military base. The population at the time was in excess of 350,000.
Hiroshima would be “number one” on the Target Committee’s report.

The ongoing controversy

The decision to employ atomic weapons against Japan remains a contentious chapter in American history. Even before President Harry S. Truman finalized his decision to use the bombs, members of Truman’s inner circle grappled with the specifics of the decision to drop the new weapon. Their concerns revolved around a cluster of related issues: whether the use of the technology was necessary to defeat an already crippled Japan; whether a similar outcome could be effected without using the bomb against civilian targets; whether the detonation of a second bomb days after the first, before Japan had time to formulate its response, was justified; and what effect the demonstration of the bomb’s devastating power would have on postwar diplomacy, particularly on America’s uneasy wartime alliance with the Soviet Union.

The ongoing struggle to present the history of the atomic bombings in a balanced and accurate manner is an interesting story in its own right, and one that has occasionally generated an enormous amount of public debate. In 1995, anticipating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum planned a display around the fuselage of the Enola Gay, the aircraft that dropped the first bomb, for its museum on the National Mall. That exhibit would place the invention of atomic weapons and the decision to use them against civilian targets in the context of World War II and the Cold War, provoking broader questions about the morality of strategic bombing and nuclear arms in general.

The atomic bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan were conducted by the United States during the final stages of World War II in August 1945. The two bombings were the first and remain the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare.

The atomic bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan were conducted by the United States during the final stages of World War II in August 1945. The two bombings were the first and remain the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare.

The design for the exhibit quickly triggered an avalanche of controversy. Critics charged that it offered a too-sympathetic portrayal of the Japanese enemy, and that its focus on the children and elderly victims of the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki encouraged visitors to question the necessity and morality of the weapons. As originally written, those critics alleged, the exhibit forwarded an anti-American interpretation of events surrounding the atomic weapons’ use. That such a message was to appear in a national museum amplified the frustrations of critics (especially veterans’ groups), who believed that the exhibit should not lead museum goers to question the decision to drop the bomb or to portray the Pacific war in morally neutral terms.

In place of the original exhibit, veterans’ organizations offered a replacement exhibit with a very different message. Their proposed exhibit portrayed the development of the atomic weapons as a triumph of American technical ingenuity, and the use of both bombs as an act that saved lives—the lives of American soldiers who would otherwise have had to invade the Japanese home islands, and the lives of thousands of Japanese who would, it was assumed, have fought and died with fanatic determination opposing such an invasion. The revised exhibit removed the questioning tone of the original, replacing it with more certainty: the use of the bombs, it argued, was both necessary and justified.

Varying accounts of US history books

Because the use of the atomic weapons evokes such passionate responses from Americans—from those who believe that the use of the bombs was wholly justified to those who believe that their use was criminal, and the many people who fall somewhere in between—it is a particularly difficult topic for textbooks to discuss. In order to avoid a potentially treacherous debate, textbooks have often adopted a set of compromises that describe the end of the war but avoid or omit some of the most difficult parts of the conversation.

A 1947 history textbook, produced just two years after the bombings did just this, sidestepping the controversy by presenting the story at a distance and refraining from interpretation or discussion of civilian casualties: “The United States unveiled its newest weapon, demonstrating twice—first at Hiroshima and then at Nagasaki—that a good-sized city could almost be erased from the map in one blinding flash. Confronted by this combination of forces, Japan surrendered August 14.”

The skeletal remains of the "Atomic-bomb Dome" is the sole remaining structure damaged by the blast. Hiroshima Prefectural Products Exhibition Hall

The skeletal remains of what has become known as the “A-bomb Dome.” It is the sole remaining structure damaged by the blast. It was formerly the Hiroshima Prefectural Products Exhibition Hall. All other bomb ruins were demolished.

“If the war dragged on and Americans had to invade Japan, it might cost a million lives…life for life, the odds were that [the atomic bomb] would cost less.”

Later textbooks made other compromises. The 2005 textbook A History of the United States adopts a familiar tone, arguing that President Truman based his decision to drop the bomb mainly on a complex calculus of the cost in human lives if the war were to continue: “Should the United States use the atomic bomb? No one knew how long Japan would hold out.” That uncertainty forced American planners to assume the worst: “If the war dragged on and Americans had to invade Japan, it might cost a million lives. The atomic bomb, President Truman knew, might kill many thousands of innocent Japanese. But life for life, the odds were that it would cost less.”

A 2006 textbook, The Americans, suggests that the decision to drop the bomb occurred largely outside moral concerns: “Should the Allies use the bomb to bring an end to the war? Truman did not hesitate. On July 25, 1945, he ordered the military to make final plans for dropping two atomic bombs on Japan.” The paragraph on the decision concludes with a compelling quote from the President himself: “Let there be no mistake about it. I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt it should be used.”

Other recent textbooks have labored to present this often-contentious topic in a more nuanced manner. The 2007 textbook American Anthem describes the decision-making process as an involved one, observing “Truman formed a group to advise him about using the bomb. This group debated where the bomb should be used and whether the Japanese should be warned. After carefully considering all the options, Truman decided to drop the bomb on a Japanese city. There would be no warning.” The carefully written passage does not suggest that the question of whether to use the bomb against civilian targets was part of the debate; it describes the inquiry as focused on where to drop the bomb and whether a warning would precede its use.

More recent textbooks often offer viewpoints from other perspectives—including Japanese civilians, who suffered the legacy of atomic fallout for decades after the original explosion—from a morally neutral stance, inviting (or directly asking) readers to make their own judgments. Besides offering a description of Truman’s decision-making process, the American Anthem textbook includes a passage of equivalent length that describes the destruction on the ground, anchored by a quote from a survivor of the Hiroshima bomb. It also features a “Counterpoints” section that contrasts a quote from Secretary of War Henry Stimson supporting the bomb’s use with one from Leo Szilard, an atomic physicist, characterizing the use of the bombs against Japan as “one of the greatest blunders of history.”

The mother tree (1st Generation) is now planted in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.

This knarled Peace Tree was transplanted to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. It was one of the few plants to survive the atom bomb blast. Hundreds of severely injured Japanese men and women have found solace at the foot of this scarred tree, thinking, “If this tree can survive the effects of that bomb, then so can I.”

What the documents reveal

Over the years, particularly during the 1990s, much information related the atomic bombing of the two Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been declassified, but still a discussion that focuses primarily on the need to employ the bomb in order to save lives—the lives of Japanese civilians as well as those of American soldiers—is incomplete. In fact, as the documentary record shows, there was a good deal of debate over the use of atomic weapons during the summer of 1945. Much of the debate, however, focused on other complex issues–not the lives that would be saved or lost by bringing the war to an immediate end.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe and one of the architects of the successful campaign against Germany, was one of the dissenters. After the war, Eisenhower recalled his position in 1945, asserting that “Japan was defeated and… dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.”

Eisenhower’s objection was, in part, a moral one; as he noted, “I thought our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face.'”

Eisenhower recalled that his objection found at all well received by Secretary of War Henry Stimson. In Eisenhower’s own words, Stimson was “deeply perturbed by my attitude, almost angrily refuting the reasons I gave for my quick conclusions.” (In a separate document, Stimson himself concurred with Eisenhower’s conclusion that there was little active American attempt to respond to Japan’s peace feelers to prevent the use of the atomic weapons: “No effort was made, and none was seriously considered, to achieve surrender merely in order not to have to use the bomb.”)

The year after the Japanese surrender, the U.S. government released its own Strategic Bombing Survey (SBS), an effort to assess the effectiveness of dropping bombs on civilian populations, including the fire bombs used in Europe and the Pacific, and the atomic weapons detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Its findings suggested that the bombs had been largely unneeded, and that Japan’s surrender was all but guaranteed even without the threat of invasion. “Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts,” the SBS concluded, “and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that . . . Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”

Though firm in its assertions, the SBS received widespread criticism from many quarters for drawing conclusions considered “far beyond the available evidence.”

Sam is privileged to ring the Peace Bell in Hiroshima’s Peace Park. “I rang it with the Middle East in mind,” he says.

But, the Strategic Bombing Survey’s conclusions highlight another important factor in the decision to employ the bombs against Japan: the message such a display would send to Josef Stalin. Uneasy allies in the war against Germany, Russian forces had joined the war in Japan in August 1945.

Contemporary observers noted that the demonstration of the deadly new weapon’s considerable might had the additional effect of warning Stalin that the U.S. would exercise considerable power in the postwar period. Furthermore, dropping two bombs only days apart had the added benefit of convincing the Russians that the U.S. possessed a formidable supply of the new weapons; when in fact, the U.S. nuclear arsenal was entirely depleted after the two attacks on Japan.

A survey of primary sources from the summer of 1945 and the months afterward reveals a variety of opinions, arguments, and justifications regarding the use of atomic weapons. Embracing the variety of opinions while also presenting a narrative that depicts the decision and its effects from multiple perspectives is a near-impossible task.

Given how controversial the story of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has proved to be, the compromises 21st-century textbooks have undergone appear understandable if not entirely necessary.

The death toll

The real mortality of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan will never be known. The destruction and overwhelming chaos that followed made orderly counting impossible. It is likely that the estimates of men, women and children who died in Hiroshima (140,000) and Nagasaki (75,000) are far too conservative.

On August 6, 1945, at 8:15 AM, in Hiroshima an estimated 70,000 people were killed instantly. The heat from the bomb was so intense that some people were simply vaporized in the explosion. Some who survived the initial blast threw themselves in the Ota River seeking relief from their burns. There thousands drowned. Within the next four months another 70,000 would die from the effects of radiation and sustained blast injuries. Still, thousands more suffered from the long-term effects of prolonged radiation sickness.

Masayuki, a first-year student at the Hiroshima Junior High School. Masayuki Ueda was one of more than 6,000 students who died.

Masayuki, Ueda, a first-year student at the Hiroshima Municipal Junior High School., was one of more than 6,000 students who died from the blast.

Hiroshima today

Little remains of the effects of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima except for artifacts in the city’s Peace Memorial Museum and Park and the skeletal remains of the  Atomic Bomb Dome. The city has been rebuilt.

Nearly 70 years has passed since the atomic bombings and the end of war with Japan. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Park now seeks to preserve survivor experiences and has as its major objective the ending of all war and promoting world peace.

My hotel was but a block away, so I was able to visit the Peace Museum often during my stay.

One of the exhibits that was very moving was that about three junior high school students whose lives were ended by the blast. More than 8,400 Japanese first and second-year students from the Hiroshima Municpal Junior High School had been assigned to demolishing old buildings as a means of  creating firebreaks should the city face saturation bombing from Allied planes. More than 6,000 of these children died when atomic blast took place in the sky above them.

The exhibit showed clothing from three of the students who died. There was the cap belonging to first-year student Eiichi Tsuda. There was the uniform belonging to second-year student Hajime Fukuoka, and there were gaiters (a covering worn over the shoes and lower pants legs) belonging to first-year student Masayuki Ueda.

The museum exhibits powerfully communicate the need for world peace and an end to war.

Outside the museum I find myself surrounded by many smiling Japanese junior high school students. Their ages and faces appeared the same as the young students I had seen featured in the exhibit. Easily recognizing me as an American, they began to encircle me. Not knowing what to say, I asked if they spoke English. They excitedly reached out to shake my hand, saying almost in unison, “Hello, mister. How are you?” I shook their hands and greeted them.

After speaking briefly with these children, I met a very dear lady, Akemi Yagi, a peace volunteer guide who would spend several hours walking with me through the Peace Park. Akemi was born in Hiroshima in 1948, three years after the a-bomb was dropped. Her parents were “A-bomb survivors.”

“I don’t have vivid memories, but I can still hear my mother saying that everyone is so poor. She would say often that the people of Hiroshima lost everything: houses, clothes, food.” Akemi tells me she has dedicated her life to ending war and nuclear proliferation. She was truly inspiring.

I suggested to Akemi that no warning had been given to the people of Hiroshima before the atomic bomb was dropped. Her response was very gracious. “Neither did we Japanese give any warning to the Americans before attacking Pearl Harbor,” she says. “War is evil. We must stop war. We must forgive the past. We must work for a better future for our children and grandchildren.”

Akemi points out that today’s nuclear weapons are thousands of times more powerful than that single atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  “And there are thousands of them,” she says. “That’s why nuclear disarmament is so important. The world must eliminate these weapons.”

Akemi is right. A history of nuclear arms race is portrayed in a timeline prepared by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) indicates today’s wide proliferation of these destructive weapons of war nuclear weapons could destroy the world a thousand times over within just a few minutes. Even a relatively small regional nuclear war could trigger a “nuclear winter.” It would cause droughts for more than a decade, researchers say.

Eisenhower right–Akemi too!

Eisenhower

Although President Eisenhower, a former World War II general, spoke against increased military spending, the Cold War deepened during his administration and political pressures for increased military spending mounted. By the time he left office in 1961, he felt it necessary to warn the American people about the “military industrial complex.”

I am convinced Akemi has it right, and so did General Eisenhower. What the Japanese did at Pearl Harbor was evil and wrong. But I am also persuaded from my research, that I now fully agree with Eisenhower–that what America did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki was also wrong. It was in Eisenhower’s words “unnecessary.” And as he predicted, America had also become known as the only nation to have ever used nuclear weapons in time of war.

Eisenhower would later serve two terms as president of the United States. At the end of his eight years as president, three days before he left office, Eisenhower addressed the American people in a televised appeal–a warning that would  become known as “Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation.”

In that message President Eisenhower causioned American citizens about the evil of an uncontrolled military industrial complex and the potentially strong influence of their lobbyists in the halls of the US Congress:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

I asked Akemi about the lingering effects of radiation from the a-bomb. I was surprised to learn that just about all of the radiation from the Hiroshima bombing disappeared within a couple of months. She says the Japanese government certified anyone who was within two kilometers of the hypocenter during the two weeks following the bombing as an “A-bomb survivor.” “The A-bomb exploded not on the ground but in the air,” she explained.

Most of the radiation from the explosion had been dispersed and decayed in the mushroom cloud that went far into the atmosphere. Akemi also points out that a very powerful typhoon named Makurazaki hit Hiroshima, just six weeks after the blast, causing major flooding in the city. “It washed just about all of the remaining traces of radiation out to sea.”

Now Akemi tells me something I never knew. In addition to the more than 140,000 Japanese who died immediately or during the following four months, there were at least 12 American POWs who died on that fateful day. We stare into a computer screen in the research library. She points to the names of the 12 Americans that are listed there.

Later I learn that the death of American POWs was not acknowledged by the United States until the late 1970s. The Japanese have now added the names of the twelve soldiers to their official tally of those killed in the bombing, and the photos of these POWs are now mounted in the Peace Memorial Museum photo gallery.

During a war memorial ceremony, some of the thousands of "A-bomb orphans" on Ninoshima Island.

During a 1947 memorial ceremony, some of the thousands of “A-bomb orphans” on Ninoshima Island gathered to honor their parents and friends who had died.

Hiroshima’s A-bomb orphans

Speaking with great conviction, Akemi shares the story of Hiroshima’s “A-bomb orphans.” “There were thousands of them,” she says. These were children 8 to 11 years old who had been evacuated to the countryside for wartime safety.  Though their parents had met a horrific death, they  were spared, but at what cost? Their lives had been horribly changed by the tragedy of war!

Children are always the most innocent victims of war. In the 21st century, millions every year are traumatized by the events of war.

“After the war these orphaned children of Hiroshima were sheltered on Ninoshima Island, some were pushed onto the streets for various reasons,” Akemi says. “Anyway, they had to live on their own by shining shoes on the street or taking any other jobs available.” Teary-eyed, Akemi admits, “Some of the orphans starved to death. Others joined street gangs or prostituted themselves to survive.”

Shouzou’s story

Akemi mentions one particular orphan. She explains that a young boy named Shouzou Kawamoto lost had six members of his family. He was working in a field with other evacuated children when he saw that flash of light from the bomb and the mushroom cloud rising high in the sky. Akemi says he found out the next day that both his parents, three sisters and a brother were all dead.

Shouzou joined the thousands of other orphans on Nimoshima Island. When he was 18 he left the orphan camp and found work as a truck driver for a soy sauce company. “He worked so hard,” Akemi says.”When he became 23 years old, he fell in love with a girl. He proposed to her, but her parents were against their marriage, because they worried about the effects of radiation.”

Akemi Yagi and Shouzou Kawamoto share their stories with visitors in the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park. Both have dedicated their lives to promoting world peace and nuclear disarmament.

Akemi Yagi and Shouzou Kawamoto (center) share their stories with visitors in the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park. Both have dedicated their lives to promoting world peace and nuclear disarmament.

“A-bomb survivors faced a lot of discrimination,” she adds, “especially when they tried job hunting or getting married.”

Wanting to leave those horrible memories of Hiroshima behind, Shouzou resolved to leave the city. Having only 640 yen in his pocket, he took the train as far as he could to nearby Okayama. There, Shouzou, heard his mother’s voice saying to him, “Never give up! Never give up, Shouzou!” He saw a help-wanted ad on the door of a neighborhood noodle shop. He walked inside and was hired.”

Many years later, when Shouzou was 50 years old, he started a very successful business making lunch boxes. Akemi tells me he never married.

Decades had passed without any contact with his former acquaintances in Hiroshima. One day he received an unexpected phone call. He was invited to join other classmates at a school reunion.

After years of healing from the traumatic scars of war, Shouzou now felt a great longing to be reunited with his classmates. He found understanding, sympathy and hope from those who had also experienced the atomic bombing.

Ten years later, now 70 years old, Shouzou would close his lunch box business in Okayama and return to live Hiroshima.

Today, like Akemi, Shouzou is a peace volunteer guide, sharing his story with the many visitors who come to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Park. They are proof that one need not be controlled by the horrid events of the past, but one can use those experiences to help others to build a better future for all mankind. Shouzou says, “No one else should ever suffer as we did.”

Sam with paper cranes mailed by school children from around the world in remembrance of Sadako and to promote world peace.

Sam with some of the origami paper cranes mailed by school children from around the world in remembrance of Hiroshima’s war children and to promote world peace.

Sadako and the paper cranes

While continuing our walk through the Peace Memioral Park I notice brightly colored paper cranes hanging nearby. Akemi begins to tell me the story of a young girl named Sadako Sasaki who made origami cranes.

Sadako was two years old when she was exposed to the radiatio of the A-bomb. She had no apparent injuries at the time. She grew into a strong, healthy, beautiful girl. However, nine years later, in the fall of 1954, shortly after entering the sixth grade of Nabori Cho Elementary School, Sadako suddenly developed signs of an illness. By February of the following year she was diagnosed with leukemia and was admitted to the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital.

Believing that folding paper cranes would help her recover, Sadako kept folding and folding, but on October 25, 1955, after an eight-month struggle with the disease, she passed away.

Sadako’s death triggered a campaign to build a monument where people could pray for world peace. It also offers the world’s children a peaceful response to remember the children killed by the atomic bomb. The Children’s Peace Monument in the middle of the park was built with funds donated from all over Japan. Later, this Sadako’s story spread around the world, and now, approximately 10 million cranes are presented each year to the Children’s Peace Monument.

Sending paper cranes

Anyone may bring paper cranes to the Children’s Peace Monument near the center of the Peace Memorial Park. However, if you are unable to come to the park, the City of Hiroshima will be happy to present your cranes to the Children’s Peace Monument on your behalf. In addition, the name of your school or your children’s names and messages for peace will be entered into the Paper Crane Database. In this way, your desire for peace will be recorded for posterity. For this purpose, please complete the registration form and return it to the Children’s Peace Memorial along with your paper cranes to:

Peace Promotion Division
The City of Hiroshima
1-5 Nakajima-cho Naka-ku,
Hiroshima 730-0811 Japan

A video that changed my life

Following our visit to the Children’s Peace Memorial, Akemi takes me into the Ground Zero Museum and Research Library. There we enter a theater. She says what I am about to see is very important. As the documentary film Children of Hiroshima begins to play I am immediately moved to tears as child after child describes life during and after the atom bomb fell.

Please, I now ask you, for the cause of world peace and ending war, for the sake of future generations, please, please watch this short 15-minute film which I have posted below. Children of Hiroshima is based on the eyewitness accounts of Japanese children who were present when the atomic blast occurred. Share this video with your family and friends, and get involved, like Akemi and Shouzou, in campaigning for world peace.

Children of Hiroshima film

Sources: US Strategic Bombing Survey, UPI, Hiroshima Memorial Peace Museum, The Nation, US Department of Defense, wikipedia.org, atomicbombmuseum.org, National Geographic Magazine, youtube.com, Children of Hiroshima, teachinghistory.com, A History of the United States, The Americans, Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, United States Archives, Stars & Stripes, livescience.com, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

October 13, 2014 Posted by | Peace | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A very close look at Korea’s Demilitarized Zone

Scores of South Koreans wait their turn to get a glimpse of the Demilitarize Zone and North Korea.

Scores of South Koreans wait their turn to get a glimpse of the Demilitarized Zone and North Korea. The two nations have been in a state of war since 1951. Hope remains that one day the two nations will be reunited.

(Click on photos to enlarge.)

A map showing the Deimilitarized Zone separating North Korea from South Korea. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Brief Korean War history

The Korean War (1950 to 1953) was a war between North and South Korea, in which a United Nations force led by the United States was fighting alongside the South, and China, assisted by the Soviet Union, was fighting alongside the North. The war arose from the division of Korea at the end of World War II and from the global tensions of the Cold War that developed immediately afterwards.

The Korean Armistice Agreement is the treaty which ended hostilities between North Korea and South Korea. It was signed by U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Harrison, Jr. representing the United Nations Command (UNC), North Korean General Nam Il representing the North Korean People’s Army, and the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army.  The armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, and was designed to “insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.”  So far, no “final peaceful settlement” has been achieved.

During the three years of war, South Korea had suffered 217,000 military casualties and more than 1 million citizens had died. North Korea had suffered 406,000 military casualties and an estimated 600,000 of its citizens had been killed. According to the US Department of Defense, more than 30,000 US troops died and another 103,284 were wounded. Thousands of troops are still classified as POWs or MIAs.

If we could push a button and end war on planet Earth we would no doubt do it. Such statistics as mentioned above are grim reminders that war is never a good response to disagreements and conflicts.  We must find far better ways to negotiate a just and lasting peace.

Visiting the Demilitarized Zone

Sam with Dr. Sadig Malki and Bernard van Maele at the DMZ.

Sam with his friends Dr. Sadig Malki and Bernard van Maele at the DMZ.

At the end of the World Peace Summit in Seoul, my colleagues, Dr. Sadig Malki from Saudi Arabia, and Bernard van Maele from Belgium, and I grabbed a taxi from in front of the Seoul Renaissance Hotel and took off for the Korean Dimilitarized Zone (DMZ) some 50 kilometers to the north. It is 250 kilometres (160 miles) long, approximately 4 km (2.5 mi) wide.

The name “Demilitarized Zone” is actually an oxymoron. It is in reality one of the most heavily militarized strips of land in the world. Occasional skirmishes and shelling still take place.

The DMZ cuts the Korean Peninsula roughly in half, crossing the 38th parallel on an angle, with the west end of the DMZ lying south of the parallel and the east end lying north of it. It was created as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement between North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and the United Nations Command forces in 1953.

Our taxi attempted to drive directly to the Dora Observatory, but UN forces waved us away. We were told we had to go to a nearby location and transfer to a tour bus. The Dora Observatory is a large outpost overlooking the DMZ and North Korea. From the observatory, visitors can get an excellent view of the DMZ and North Korean towns and the mountains that lay beyond. This observation post was first opened to the public in January 1987.

Hundreds of South Koreans crowded around telescopes as they sought to get a glimpse of life in North Korea. Looking through a telescope, I didn’t see any sign of movement or life. I didn’t see any people walking around or any traffic on the streets.

It reminded me of my first visit to Berlin, Germany, in 1967. I was just 18 years old. I had walked along the Berlin Wall. On one side of the wall I saw the bustling businesses and tall skyscrapers of West Berlin. On the East Berlin communist side there was little evidence of economic growth or activity. It was as though I was peering into a time warp. Many buildings still lay in ruins from World War II.

Sam and friend take the tram through one of the access tunnels.

Sam and Korean friend Lee take the tram through one of the access channels to Tunnel Two.

DMZ invasion tunnels

At our first stop, Bernard, Sadig and I walked through a DMZ museum where we learned about the possibility of visiting a network of tunnels that had been dug by the North Korean military. We were told they are “invasion tunnels” that were meant to send infiltrating forces into South Korea.

According to one declassified intelligence report I read, it is believed that North Korea began digging the tunnels after then president Kim Il-sung issued the September 25, 1971, Combat Readiness Order.  In that directive, Kim stressed the need to dig tunnels under the Demilitarized Zone, saying that “one tunnel would be more effective than 10 atomic bombs” and would thus be the best means of overwhelming the heavily fortified South Korean army.

Tunnel One was discovered in November 1974 in the Western Sector of the DMZ near Gorang-po.  At an estimated length of 3.5 kilometers, it extends one kilometer south of the Military Demarcation Line that divides the DMZ. The walls and ceiling of the tunnel, 1.2 meters high and nearly a meter wide, are reinforced with concrete slabs.  It has the capacity to move an entire regiment through it. The tunnel was lit with lamps connected to 220-volt power lines.  Equipped with a narrow-gauge railway, rail cars and drainage devices were also found inside. This tunnel is located only 65 kilometers north of South Korea’s capital Seoul.

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Tunnel Two winds through several kilometers of granite rock beneath the surface of the DMZ.

Twice as wide as Tunnel One, Tunnel Two was discovered in March 1975 in the Central Sector of the DMZ, about 13 kilometers north of the town of Cheorwon.  Measuring two meters high and just over 2 meters wide, the arch-shaped tunnel is large enough to move heavy weapons like tanks, field artillery, and armored personnel carriers.  More than 30,000 troops per hour could be moved through the tunnel into the South.  It was bored through 3.5 kilometers of bedrock at a depth of 50-160 meters below ground. A spacious troop assembly area was carved out inside the tunnel. There were three exits from the assembly area leading to the surface.

Tunnel Four, which is located along one of the most strategic routes in the Eastern Sector, was discovered in March 1990 only 26 kilometers northeast of Yanggu.  This tunnel is buried at an average depth of 145 meters below ground and measures two meters high and two meters wide.

Almost identical with Tunnel Two and Tunnel Three in size and structure, Tunnel Four goes just over 1 kilometer south of the Military Demarcation Line and is designed to infiltrate massive forces into the Sohwa-Wontong corridor, the major access route to the Yeongdong Expressway.

Down, down we go

Donning hard hats to prevent head injuries from hanging rocks, we boarded a small passenger tram, travelling some two kilometers and far beneath the surface into Tunnel 2. The tram had been built by South Korea to provide its citizens with a vivid account of the invasion tunnels that threatened the South.

The South Korean Defense Ministry still officially looks for tunnels as it believes there may be as many as 20 of these military corridors, but we are told the budget is small and tunnel hunters believe it is merely a token effort. As we move deeper beneath the DMZ a speaker system explains that North Korea has said the tunnels were not for invasion, but part of its “mining industry.”

North Korea officially declared Tunnel Two to be a coal mine. Comically black “coal” was painted on the walls by retreating North Korean soldiers to help prove this. There is no geological likelihood of coal being in the area, we’re told. “The walls are noticeably granite,” we’re told. “It is highly unlikely that coal would ever be found in such geological conditions.”

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An access channel built by the South Koreans as a conduit to North Korea’s Tunnel Four. This is the two-kilometer upgrade Sam faced when returning to the bus.

My great adventure—Tunnel Four!

We eventually surfaced from that tunnel, and I thought I was following Sadig and Bernard into an access channel leading to the much longer Tunnel Four.

Wondering how they had gotten so far ahead of me, I kept moving down the steep grade. There was no tram to ride in Tunnel Four. I kept on moving down, down the steep incline into the ground, walking about 2 kilometers. All the time I’m thinking, “Good grief! I’ll never make it back up this tunnel!”

Towards the end, I realized Bernard and Sadig were not ahead of me, and I was alone in this man-made cavern. I also realized there was no easy way out–not tram or elevator could be found. There I was some 120 meters beneath the middle of the DMZ! I eventually found myself peering through a hole in a door. There was a sign “Restricted Area!” That door, I was told later, led directly into North Korea!

I began walking back in the opposite direction, and after about 30 minutes I finally found my way back to that steep passage way leading to the exit. As I began moving slowly back up the steep two-kilometer incline, I heard a message blaring over the PA system: “Meester Sam. If you in tunnel back to bus! Go fast please! Bus leaving!”

I began running up that corridor, huffing and puffing and stopping now and then to lean on the rail to catch my breath. What a tremendous workout! I was wondering how many older men like me had died of heart-attacks alone down there!

When I finally made it out I was soaking wet from sweat. I practically crawled into the bus. Bernard and Sadig were relieved to see me while another 30 Korean tourists seemed a bit annoyed with an American who was holding up the bus. I apologized to all, bowing profusely. They in turn smiled kindly as Koreans do. And I thought to myself, “What an incredible adventure!”

DMZ–a wildlife refuge

Despite the posturing and the insults hurled across this narrow strip of land, the DMZ has become a haven for wildlife and plants in the region. “It’s kind of the irony of war,” said Hall Healy, chairman of the board of the International Crane Foundation, which has worked with researchers and locals near the DMZ on red-crowned crane conservation.

Species that have dwindled or disappeared in some parts of Asia have found refuge in the DMZ. Sightings of rare birds, such as red-crowned cranes and white-naped cranes, are not unusual. Black bears, musk deer, and Amur gorals—a goat relative that lives in the mountains—also inhabit this heavily fortified area.

No videoing of the invasion tunnels is permitted, and in places no photos are permitted. I did find the following short video of one of the invasion tunnels on YouTube. It accurately portrays what we saw:

Sources: History Magazine, wikipedia.org, Republic of South Korea Ministry of Tourism, US Department of Defense, historylearningsite.co.uk

October 11, 2014 Posted by | Geography, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

World Peace Summit held in Seoul, South Korea

More than 60,000 men and women from around the world gathered in the Seoul Olympic Stadium for the World Religions for Peace Summit. Among those attending were political and religious leaders and heads of NGOs from 150 nations.

More than 60,000 men and women from around the world gathered in the Seoul Olympic Stadium for the World Alliance of Religions for Peace summit. Among those attending were political and religious leaders and heads of NGOs from an estimated 172 nations. Thousands of cards are assembled in the background to image Roman Catholic Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales, of the Philippines, as he addresses the gathering.

Sam flashes peace sign at the opening ceremony of the World Peace Summit in Seoul.

Sam flashes peace sign at the opening ceremony of the World Peace Summit in Seoul.

A plea for world peace and an end to war

The three-day World Alliance of Religions for Peace (WARP) peace summit was held in Seoul, South Korea, 17 – 19 September. I was privileged to join several participants from Saudi Arabia. Our main goal in being present for this huge conclave was to network with other faith leaders from around the world. And that we did!

More than 60,000 people from 172 countries took part in the spectacular opening ceremony at Seoul’s Jamsil Olympic Stadium. (Be certain to watch the short video at the end of this article!) Just about all the world’s religions were represented, including the major Abrahamic faiths–Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

From the time we arrived in South Korea until the day we left, event staff were among the most hospitable I had ever met. Every detail regarding meetings, lodging, meals and transportation were meticulously well organized. These workers did their very best  at all times to make us feel comfortable and kept informed.

During the opening ceremony, event chairman Man Hee Lee urged global leaders to double down on their efforts to become “peace promoters and peace advocates.”

A congratulatory video message from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the spiritual leader of South Africa and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, attracted much attention. In his message, he said, “I would like to congratulate both Chairman Man Hee Lee and the members of HWPL for hosting the World Alliance of Religions’ Peace Summit. Thank you for delivering the message of peace and the cessation of wars to the whole world.”

Alexander Rutskoy, former vice president of Russia, said, “As a part of the world, a citizen of Russia and as a friend of the Korean people, I want to support this work, offering my experience and knowledge, declaring our common ways to build peace and uniting nations and traditions.”

Present was a diverse line-up of attendees that included former and current heads of state, prominent religious leaders, academics, government legislators, Nobel Prize laureates, as well as community, youth, and women’s leaders from every continent.

Sam with Omani religious leaders.

Sam with Muslim leaders from Oman.

Middle East well represented

There were numerous delegations from the Middle East. Egyptian Grand Mufti Shawqi Abdel Karim Allam was among the list of high profile speakers set to deliver an opening address, but he was unable to attend at the last minute and was replaced by Doha (Qatar) International Centre for Interfaith Dialogue chairman Dr. Ibrahim Saleh Al Naimi.

The Qatari official stressed the importance of dialogue in his speech, describing it as the only way to address conflict among communities.

Bahrain sent a 20-strong delegation from the Bahrain Association for Religious Co-existence and Tolerance (BARCT).

BARCT chairman Yousif Buzaboon told the GDN that his group is now considering the idea of hosting a similar event in Bahrain. “We would certainly like to see such an important summit that promotes peace being held in Bahrain,” he said. “Bahrain is sending a strong message by having such a large delegation at this summit. We are showcasing the achievements of our country and welcome activities that promote peace and empower youth.”

Yemini Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman championed the cause of peace and women's rights.

Yemini Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman championed the cause of peace and women’s rights.

Seminars and focus groups

Throughout the three-day event there were various leadership seminars and focus groups discussing regional issues and various methods of conflict resolution.

In recent years, peacebuilding initiatives have been on the forefront of leading a country’s economic, social and political strength, laying the foundation for development and conflict management. Sustainable peace can, however, present its own challenges as it calls for a nation to gather its utmost efforts across a wide range of activities.

Among important efforts are establishing security on a nation’s borders, providing assistance to refugees, organizing elections of new governments and financing programs towards the protection of human rights. Preventive measures and integrated strategies are greatly needed to assist in the development of best practices , especially in postwar recovery and reconciliation.

Tawakkol Karman from Sana, Yemen, a journalist and the first Arab woman and youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize winner, declared that the Arab Spring has seen a wave of liberation for women throughout the Arab world.  “Women are no longer victims,” she said. “They have become leaders. They are at the forefront of the demonstrations. We will share a role in all aspects of life, side by side with men.”

More than 100 thousands participated in the peace parade ending at the Peace Monument at the Seoul Olympic park.

The closing of the Peace Summit saw more than 100 thousand people rally in the peace parade which culminated at the Peace Monument in the Seoul Olympic Park.

The closing ceremony included an hours-long Olympic-style show replete with fireworks, marching bands and celebrants. Korean theatrics created an emotional display of pomp and pageantry. At the end, many of us joined the Koreans on the field for photos and well wishes.

World peace parade

On the last day of the WARP Summit, a total of 200,000 people including summit participants, members of international NGOs and local citizens, participated in the “Walk for World Peace” near Seoul Olympic Park. This event, hosted by the International Peace Youth Group (IPYG), commemorated the final day of a successful “World Alliance of Religions Peace Summit.”

There were speeches by various youth leaders from many countries and all of them spoke of sufferings in their respective countries and the need for world peace to end the wars in their regions.

Chairman Lee said that world peace is attainable if all the leaders of various religions aggressively continue their efforts to attain world peace. He emphasized the role of religious leaders to encourage their communities to work closely together and also asked the media to promote peace messages around the globe.

Man Hee Lee welcomes participants to the Peace Summit.

Man Hee Lee welcomes participants to the Peace Summit.

Reservations and concerns

While I applaud the efforts of the World Alliance of Religions for Peace to have conducted this international Peace Summit, these efforts have seemingly been based on the leadership of one single man–Chairman Man Hee Lee.

In her statement lauding Man Hee Lee at the opening of the summit, Nam Hee Kim, chairwoman of the collaborative International Women’s Peace Group referred to Lee as “the Peace Advocate, heaven-sent for all humanity.”

In an “Action Plan” released to summit delegates it was said, “Leaders of religions around the world must join hands with the chairman of HWPL for the alliance of religions and frequently meet to achieve the unity of religions.”

Midway through the summit, Lee distributed a statement defending himself from accusations made by the conservative Christian Council of Korea (CCK). The CCK says Lee’s Shincheonji Church of Jesus and his organization Heavenly Culture World Peace Restoration of Light are “cultic.”

Lee himself denied that he had once claimed to have fulfilled the Second Coming of Jesus; however, several comments made by Lee at the summit were disturbing to me, especially his insistance that all delegates sign a statement that called for merging all religions into one single world religion. It read, in part, “Therefore, all religions must unite under God as one…. We pledge in the sight of God, all people of the world, and the Peace Advocate to become one under God through the unity of religion.… We hereby pledge with all reasonable endeavor, to take on this duty to establish peace and end all wars on this earth, and, as a united religion, to leave a world at peace….”

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Faith leaders from all major faiths and 170 nations met for discussions on war and peacemaking.

Faith dialogue very important

World peace is certainly a noble goal. And, without a doubt, dialogue among the world’s major religions and faiths is needed. Many of the conflicts and wars taking place today are caused by religious extremists who have hi-jacked faith for their own political purposes. Such is the case of ISIS (IS or ISIL) and other militant groups now committing horrible atrocities in the name of Islam.

During the past millennium we have seen such circumstances time and time again as even Christians annihilated Muslims, leading their warring military charges under the cross of Jesus in their Crusades to capture the Holy Land. War was conducted on numerous occasions by Catholics who sought to blot out the “heresy of Protestantism” or as World War II Nazis sought to destroy Judaism.

Such evil is also seen today as Israeli Zionists continue a 60-year war of ethnic cleansing, seeking to remove millions of Palestinian Christians and Muslims from the Holy Land or as normally peaceful Buddhists continue a slaughter of the Muslim minority in Myanmar.

The need for dialogue among peoples of faith is of utmost importance, but the it appeared that the predominant view of those attending the Seoul peace summit is that this should not entail eliminating any one faith group or merging all faiths into one.

There is a beauty in the diversity of faith and tradition. And as we met and discussed our beliefs with many faith leaders from around the world, one thing is certain: no faith on earth, based on its holy books, can justly call for the annihilation of innocent men, women and children who believe differently than they. Therefore, we must all do our part to stop the vicious conflicts and carnage being unjustly perpetrated today in the name of any religion or faith group.

Take a few minutes to watch the spectacular opening ceremony of the WARP Peace Summit in Seoul:

 

October 9, 2014 Posted by | Human Rights, Interfaith, Religious Reconciliation | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

My recent visit to the Slovak Republic

Spisska Sabota

The historic village of Spišská Sabota, Slovakia, located at the near the High Tatra Mountains National Park in northern Slovakia.

Family

Sam with Jana and Janulik in Spišská Sabota. (Click photos to enlarge.)

Time with my family

Jana, Janulik and I enjoyed a couple of weeks together in Spišská Sobota, Slovakia, near the High Tatras National Park which borders southern Poland.

It was a welcomed relief for me from the hot humidity of the Red Sea city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Our time together was wonderful, as we had not seen each other in more than a year. We enjoyed outings in the national park and visiting with family members in Košice and Poprad.

“Kenny” (our Schnauzer), Janulik and I enjoyed throwing the frisbee in the backyard of the bed-and-breakfast lodging. Kenny is absolutely wild about chasing a frisbee. He never got tired of chasing his flying disc. Just mention the word, and he goes into a frenzy. He was constantly begging for his red frisbee, which he wore out while I was in Slovakia. He would sit beneath the rack holding the frisbee, whimpering and begging for it.

I have read that chasing and catching frisbees is an exciting and physically demanding activity that “tests a dog’s intelligence, fitness and endurance.” It is apparently a natural extension of a dog’s “prey drive,” and many hunting and working dogs, like Schnauzers, pick up the sport with very little effort. “Kenny” is one of them.

In additiona, “Kenny” is a great companion for Janulik. He faithfully walks Janulik four times everyday!

A lot of changes!

Spišská Sobota and the nearby city of Poprad have changed so much since I was first here as a teenager in 1968. The dark days of totalitarian communism have given way to bustling commercial centers of shopping malls, restaurants and hype-supermarkets. The old, gray, cold hotels and buildings are now painted vibrant, cheerful colors. Historic villages and castles are now busy with tourists wandering about. By night the streets are brightly lit with flashing LED signage.

Janulik and "Kenny" play frisbee!

Janulik and “Kenny” in their daily frisbee routine. It is a challenging workout for both of them!

Some changes here have been rather shocking–like the price of gasoline. It costs over 100 euros (US $126) to say “Fill ‘er up!” Cars are driven as infrequently as possible. While the rise in salaries here in Slovakia has slowly increased, the overall cost of living has mushroomed. But there is one bargain still available to tourists, if you have the right connections. We found a modern, well-equipped bed-and-breakfast for just $10.00 a night!

Our favorite time everyday, was to walk through this historic village where the bed-and-breakfast was located–Spišská Sobota. Especially, around dinner time!

There are a lot of not-too-expensive, excellent cafes and restaurants. You can have a nice meal in one place, and easily walk across the street to a bakery or coffee shop for a great dessert.

My favorite dessert, as my family knows, is makovnik. It’s a large rolled pastry filled with a sweet poppy seed mixture. My father-in-law, Miloslav, presented me with two very large makovniks while I was there!

The Slovak King of Madagascar

As we were walking down the main street of the ancient town of Spišská Sobota I noticed a historic marker on one of the old houses. It read “Home of Zuzana Benyovska, wife of Count Maurice Benyovsky.” The dates pointed to the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that then included Slovakia.

Loving history, I began to wonder, who was this married couple? As I began to ask questions, it didn’t take long to get my answer, as my Slovak family and friends were very proud to tell the story.

Count Maurice Benyovsky, the King of Madagascar!

Count Maurice Benyovsky, the King of Madagascar!

Count Maurice Benyovsky was considered a great representative of the period known as the Age of Enlightenment. He was a leading figure during the development of transportation and world trade.  He was an explorer of unknown regions, and a “Slovak-French colonel.” He would be known as the “King of Madagascar” and the first Slovak author of a best-selling travelogue, having been involved in the history of various nations.

After being captured while fighting for the independence of Poland, Benyovsky was deported by the Russians to the Siberian region of Kamchatka. There he organized his escape, commandeering a Russian sailing vessel. His voyage would take him to Macao. His was the first known voyage from the northeast to the southeast shores of Asia.

The King of France would eventually entrust him with an expedition to Madagascar, where he made friendships with the various warlords, uniting a major part of the island. Benyovsky, beloved by the local tribes, was conferred affectionately with the title of “king.”

Upon his return to France, he attempted to build a fleet of ships for overseas trade, but business was not his gift. Having failed at commerce, this man of adventure and travel never gave up.

While in France he had developed a close friendship with the US Ambassador Benjamin Franklin who in turn introduced Benyovsky to US General George Washington. Benyovsky became a general himself in the American revolutionary army. He fought in major sea battles during the American war for independence. In 1796 he would be killed in battle alongside the French. His travel memoirs were published in London in 1790.

Benovsky’s wife Zuzana later, with the assistance of Benjamin Franklin, returned to her home in Spišská Sobota.

Jana excited displays the tag from Sam's new suit  marked "Samuel."

Jana excitedly displays the tag from Sam’s new suit marked “Samuel.”

Slovak cuisine and the “miracle suit”

Slovakia is known for its excellent cuisine. Svíečková with potato dumplings (knedliky) is a one of my favorite Slovak dishes and one of the most popular Slovak meals. It is sirloin beef prepared with vegetables, spiced with black pepper, allspice, bay leaf and thyme and boiled with thick double cream. Pour that over the knedlíky, and you have a scrumptious meal fit for a king!

Being in Slovakia for just a couple of weeks, and knowing time was of the essence, I tended to eat as much as I could! But then, all of this delicious food presented a big problem. My business suit “shrank”!

Seeing I was having difficulty buttoning my suit, my wonderful Jana insisted on helping me find a new suit. We looked all over the nearby city of Poprad, going from one shopping mall to another, in and out of men’s apparel shops. Nothing fit me properly. Top too small. Pants too long. And there was no time for alterations. I told Jana, “It’s impossible to find a nice suit in Slovakia. Just forget it.”

But Jana never gave up. I got a phone call from her one morning. She was so excited. “You have to come try on this suit! It has your name on it! And it’s 50% off!”

She picked me up, and we were off to the Prior department store. That suit did, indeed, have my name on it! It bore the factory tag marked “Samuel.” Apparently this Slovak clothing factory assigns a name to every suit they make.

And, of course, when I tried it on that suit was a perfect fit!

Sad goodbyes

Goodbyes are always difficult. Jana and Janulik work and live in Slovakia. I am working in Saudi Arabia. It isn’t the best arrangement, but I hope to return to Slovakia in just 4 months. We spend time together, almost daily, on Skype and via the internet, sharing the latest news and asking questions. I hope to never be away so long from Slovakia again.

Jana, Janulik and “Kenny”!
The memories of you
Are engraved within my heart.
Nothing in this world
Can ever tear us apart! ~ Daddy

Here’s a great, short video showing the beauty and splendor of the Slovak Republic–a little nation of great faith, history and castles, high mountains, culture and very hospitable people. Take a few minutes to watch it!

Sources: BBC History Magazine, wikipedia.org, historyorb.com, slovakiopedia.com, youtube.com, discdogg.com

September 30, 2014 Posted by | Geography, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Visiting the King Abdullah Interfaith Center

KA Interfaith Center Vienna

Saudi Prince Saud Al-Faisal and faith leaders from around the world at the opening ceremony of KAICIID, November 2012.

The King Abdullah Interfaith Center, Vienna, Austria

Sam Shropshire with Fahad Abualnasr, chief of staff of KAICIID, Vienna, Austria.

Sam Shropshire with Fahad Abualnasr, chief of staff of KAICIID, Vienna, Austria.

It was my privilege to meet the first of September with Fahad Abualnasr, chief of staff, of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) in Vienna, Austria.

KAICIID was founded to enable, empower and encourage dialogue among followers of different faiths and cultures around the world. The Centre is an independent, autonomous, international organization, free of political or economic influence.

The Founding States are the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Republic of Austria and Kingdom of Spain. They constitute the “Council of Parties” responsible for overseeing the work of the Centre; the Roman Catholic Holy See has been admitted as a Founding Observer to the Centre.

The Board of Directors comprises high-level representatives of the major world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism) and cultures. The Centre is headed by a Secretary General. An Advisory Forum of up to 100 members of other religions, cultural institutions and international organizations provide a further resource of interreligious and intercultural perspective.

Our discussion at the KAICIID Vienna offices

KAICIID’s mission, to facilitate interreligious and intercultural understanding, and enhance respect for diversity, justice and peace is reflected in the diversity of its staff from 19 countries, four continents, and a wide range of cultural and religious affiliations. Respect for diversity is a cornerstone of KAICIID’s recruitment policy.

The Foreign Minister of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Spain, Gonzalo de Benito Secades, and Reverend Father Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot of the the Founding Observer, the Holy See, signed the declaration during a Ministerial Meeting of the Council of Parties to the KAICIID Dialogue Centre in New York on 25 September 2014.

The Foreign Minister of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Spain, Gonzalo de Benito Secades, and Reverend Father Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot of the the Founding Observer, the Holy See, signed the declaration during a Ministerial Meeting of the Council of Parties to the KAICIID Dialogue Centre in New York on 25 September 2014.

My discussion with Fahad Abualnasr centered on current religious extremism among all faiths its resulting conflicts. We spoke of my work with Muslim Voice for Peace & Reconciliation and about the need for Islam itself to be known as a more vigorous partner in initiatives promoting world peace, human rights and environmental concerns, recalling that the founding document of KAICIID cites principles enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, especially, “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”–with emphasis on “human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.”

I was, indeed, blessed and encouraged to have learned more about the work of KAICIID and by meeting Fahad Abualnasr and members of his staff.

KAICIID statement condemns religious extremism

On 25 September, meeting at the KAICIID offices in New York, the foreign ministers of the Republic of Austria, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Kingdom of Spain signed a declaration affirming dialogue as a path to lasting peace and social cohesion. This was in response to the current deplorable violence and humanitarian crisis in Northern Iraq and in Syria, as well as in other parts of the world. KIACIID hopes, with the combined support of all faith, to develop international solidarity n ending sectarian violence in various parts of the world.

The released statement said, “We condemn violent conflict in the world, more so violence committed in the name of religion, and call for an end to violent hostility. We deplore loss of life and commend those who seek to alleviate suffering, as well as those who strive to promote well-being, harmony and peace.”

The statement, as well, opposed the instrumentalization of religion to make war and strongly condemned “terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes.

Hate speech and extremism that incite violence and fuel prejudice were also singled out.

Enjoy this sand-art performance during the opening ceremony of KAICIID on 26 November 2012:

Sources: Ecumenical Review, Time Magazine, KAICIID.org

September 29, 2014 Posted by | Human Rights, Interfaith, Islam | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sam takes on the ice bucket challenge!

Andrew and his service dog "Alaya."

Andrew Stevens with his service dog “Alaya.”

Challenge accepted

I accepted the ice bucket challenge on behalf of my 14-year-old friend Andrew Stevens who lives with his parents Angelo and Nancy Stevens in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The event was staged in the historic Al Balad district of downtown Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

It was more than 100 degrees and humid in Jeddah at the time, so the ice and cold water were actually a welcomed relief!

Lennox-Gastaut syndrome

Andrew lives with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS), a severe form of epilepsy. LGS, also known as Lennox syndrome, is a difficult-to-treat form of childhood-onset epilepsy that most often appears between the second and sixth year of life, and is characterized by frequent seizures and different seizure types. LGS is often accompanied by developmental delay and psychological and behavioral problems.

Andrew made history in 2011 when he was finally allowed entrance to his Northern Virginia school accompanied by his service dog “Alaya.” While the Epilepsy Foundation of Virginia applauded the school board for allowing Andrew into school, it released a statement saying, “We continue to urge the school system to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Apparently many schools do not.

Andrew’s story has been featured at avarious times on NBC News, the TODAY Show and in the Washington Post.

Contributions to assist families living with LGS and other forms of epilepsy can be made online to the Epilepsy Foundation of Virginia. Your generous help will be greatly appreciated.

God bless you, Andrew! We love you and pray for you! Thank you for all the good work you do for men, women and children living with epilepsy!

August 29, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Considering Islam, terrorism and war

ISIS fighters rally in Iraq as they advance towards Baghdad.

ISIS fighters rally in Iraq as they advance towards Baghdad. This extremist Sunni group has announced plans to rule the territory it has carved out of Iraq and Syria in recent months.

Sam Dammam

During the past two years Sam has traveled to remote areas of Saudi Arabia, speaking with desert  Bedouins, city dwellers and government leaders. He has gained a remarkable understanding of Islam and the Saudi culture. (Click photos to enlarge.)

(Article last updated 23 October 2014, 11:01 pm)

Recently I received several questions from American friends. They are questions that have also troubled me since moving to Saudi Arabia two-and-a-half years ago. The questions: “When will Sunni and Shia Muslims stop fighting each other?” and “How can Muslims commit such horrible atrocities?” and “Doesn’t the evil of terrorism discredit Islam?”

A view from the heart of Islam

I have lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for two-and-a-half years now. I’ve asked just about every difficult question that could possibly be asked, and I have actually been on the lookout for “extremists” to try to get a better understanding of what makes them think the way the do. So far I have found none.

The Muslims brothers and sisters I have here are rational men and women who dislike bigotry, hatred and war. They simply want a nation that has a sound economy. They want prosperous futures for their children and grandchildren. However, they are concerned about how others outside the Kingdom view their Muslim faith.

As I answer the above questions, I do not intend in any way to excuse some of the obvious hatred and bigotry among peoples and groups who refer to themselves as Muslims. But in living here in the Mecca Region, the very heart of Islam, I have gained what I believe to be a valid perspective, having completed the grueling difficulties of Hajj with friends from our local neighborhood mosque, and having visited Mecca on many occasions and Medina once.

Also, millions of Muslim pilgrims from all over the world travel in and out of Jeddah every year on their way to Mecca, just 35 miles down the road. I mingle with them as they come and go. I have also developed friendships with some of the migrant workers resident in Saudi Arabia—most who are Muslim.

Lest we forget our own Western “Christian” wars

The American Civil War found brother against brother and Christian against Christian to end slavery.

The American Civil War found brother fighting against brother and Christian fighting against Christian in a war to end slavery.

While we are astounded at what we see every night on television, I can imagine that many Muslims of the 19th and 20th century must have asked these same questions when observing wars in the West.

One might consider the American Civil War, that pit Southern Christians who supported slavery against northern Christians who, for the most part, opposed slavery. More than 620,000 American combatants died, and there were more than 450,000 casualties among American civilian men, women and children.

In reference to that War Between the States, President Abraham Lincoln stated in his second inaugural address: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered.”

During the First World War and the Second World War “Christian nations” battled “Christian nations” for supremacy. It was a time when oligarchies made alliances with religious groups and political parties (fascism) for one political objective or another. Allied armies responded in force.

Even more recently we have had the Irish Republican Army (IRA) battling it out with the Presbyterian Orange Order of Northern Ireland. Countless kidnappings, murders, and bombings were carried out during the 1960s and 1970s. Homes were torched and innocent men, women and children were caught in the crossfire.

Today in South Sudan we find Christian militia battling Christian militia for power and control.

Islam–divisions and factions

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ISIS and similar extremist groups are un-Islamic. They do not represent Islam any more than the KKK represents Christianity.

One cannot think simply of Islam as a united faith where all believers are in agreement. Islam has many divisions and factions.

Greater than eighty percent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are said to be Sunni. Among Sunnis are thousands of offshoots.

In recent years, some self-proclaimed Sunni leaders, like those of ISIS, have managed to organize radical militias, enlisting soldiers while amassing funding by pillaging towns, cities and homes as they pass through.

ISIS has a radical agenda of organizing a caliphate (an Islamic state) from parts of Syria and Iraq. Their leaders have ordered Iraqi Christians living within their proposed state to convert to Islam, pay taxes or die.

To say that these fanatical Muslims who lob grenades at each other shouting “Allah akbar!” (“God is great!”) are representative of all Islam would be like saying the IRA is a bona fide movement of the Catholic Church.

I don’t know a lot about ISIS, but I can honestly say that some Islamic hate groups are to Islam what the National Socialist White People’s Party (NWSPP) and Ku Klux Klan (KKK) are to Christianity. Fortunately, most Americans are keenly aware that the NWSPP and KKK are certainly not “Christian” in the traditional sense, but both racist groups do claim to represent “white, Christian America.”

Islam and illiteracy

It is unfortunate that millions of Muslims today, especially those living in poorer nations, cannot read or write.

While education of both girls and boys is promoted throughout the Muslim world, some Muslim populations have fallen under the influence of radical Islamists who have political objectives that are extra-Quranic. They forbid the education of girls and endorse only principled Islamic texts for educational purposes.

While many of those who are illiterate are able to recite long passages of the Qur’an, I was surprised to find that some have no idea what they are reciting. While the Arabic of the Qur’an is beautiful, flowing wonderfully with sounds and syllables, it is an ancient language that many who recite it don’t understand. It would be like a Catholic quoting from the Latin Vulgate Bible–not knowing the meaning or nuances of the Latin sentences and words.

It has been pointed out to me by men in my mosque that there are many who are born into Islam and refer to themselves as “Muslim,” but they actually have no idea what it means to truly be Muslim. They have little knowledge of who Mohammad was and the principles for which he stood.

War is hell, and horrible atrocities happen in all wars–even at the hands of western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, when radical Muslims who are politically motivated present themselves to be acting on behalf of God, the consequences can be disastrous. One man commanding a group of disenfranchised, uneducated, illiterate  followers can wreak havoc on a nation (eg Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Shabaab in Somalia, ISIS in Iraq, etc.).

The Sunni – Shia differences

Sunnis (about 80 per cent of Muslims) and Shiites (15- 20 per cent) have waged deadly sectarian wars.

Sunnis (about 80 per cent of Muslims) and Shiites (11 – 15 per cent) have waged deadly sectarian wars.

Now we come to the historic Sunni—Shia divide.

I do not pretend to know all there is to know about what caused the evolution of Shia Islam and the succeeding Sunni resentment that followed. I have met a few Shia Muslims and have spoken with my Sunni Muslim friends about the matter. It appears that the battle is over something that happened nearly 1400 years ago; a deviation from the original faith observed by the Prophet Mohammad.

The Sunni branch of Islam believes that the first four caliphs (Mohammed’s successors) rightfully took his place as the leaders of Islam. They recognize the heirs of the first four caliphs as legitimate religious leaders. These heirs ruled continuously in the Arab world until the break-up of the Ottoman Empire following the end of the First World War.

Shia Islam, in contrast, teaches that only the heirs of the fourth caliph, Ali, are the legitimate successors of Mohammed. Shiites seem to be more mystical in nature—some paying homage and praying to Ali and his descendants.

In some Shia homes in Iran, one will find “icons” honoring Ali. Shiites make pilgrimages to what is believed to be Ali’s gravesite in Iraq. Some speak of the miracles Ali has performed on their behalf.

Sunnis compare such behavior to idolatry, and they believe that any form of idolatry is anathema and worthy of “hell fire.” Indeed, the Qur’an says that no one should worship idols or pay homage to humans or other created entities. Even pictures of the Prophet Mohammed are forbidden.

I have visited Mohammed’s tomb at the Nabawī Mosque (also known as the Prophet’s Mosque) in Medina. There are guards posted at Mohammad’s sepulcher to prevent Muslims from praying or paying homage to the Prophet.

I find the Sunni-Shia divide to bear similarities to the great debate that took place between Protestants and Catholics during the great Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. Protestants separated from Roman Catholics, debating similar issues. Reformation leaders like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli and others sought to eliminate manyof the corruptions and accesses that were then present within Roman Catholicism.

Luther ignited the Reformation by posting his “Ninety-five Theses” on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. That church held one of Europe’s largest collections of holy relics. These religious relics had been gathered by Frederick III of Saxony. At that time, pious veneration of relics were said by Rome to give relief from temporal punishment for sins in “purgatory.” By 1520, Frederick had over 19,000 relics, purportedly “including vials of the milk from the Virgin Mary, straws from the manger of Jesus’ birth and the body of one of the innocents massacred by King Herod.”

ISIS is now destroying Shia, Sunni and Sufi mosques around Mosul. In this photo posted on a militant website that frequently carries official statements from the Islamic State extremist group, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, Shiite's Jawad Husseiniya mosque explodes in Tal Afar, Iraq.

ISIS is now destroying Shia, Sunni and Sufi shrines and mosques around Mosul. Iraq. In this photo posted on a militant website that frequently carries official ISIS statements, Shia’s Jawad Husseiniya mosque is demolished in Tal Afar.

As reformers allied themselves with kings and rulers vicious wars ensued between Catholics and Protestants. Horrible atrocities were committed. Many of the reformers were imprisoned, burned at the stake, beheaded, hanged or dismembered.

Conflicts between some Shia and Sunni Muslims continue today. ISIS is further advancing its radical religious agenda by destroying Shiite mosques and Islamic shrines around the ancient Iraqi city of Mosul, which they captured last month. Al Arabiya reported that the damage extends to at least four shrines to Sunni or Sufi figures, and six Shiite mosques in the northern province of Nineveh.

Pictures surfacing on social media showed the destruction, ISIS troops accomplished with explosives and bulldozers. They appeared on a militant website that was verified by the Associated Press as being an outlet  for official ISIS statements. The photos were posted under the headline, “Demolishing shrines and idols in the state of Nineveh.”

The vast majority of Shias and Sunnis live in friendship together side by side. They say it is security and stable economies their families need, not misguided extremists stirring up trouble.

I pray that peace and reconciliation between these two contending bodies of believers might be possible in the same way that eventual dialogue, appeasement and understanding have taken place between Protestants and Catholics during the past century. After all, Islam means to “voluntarily surrender” to the God of Abraham. It also implies “peace” and “safety.”

Current situation in Syria and Iraq

Millions of Syrian refugees have fled the civil war in search of safety, medical treatment, food and temporary housing.

Millions of Syrian refugees have fled the civil war in their homeland in search of safety, medical treatment, food and temporary housing.

I liken the present situation in Syria and Iraq to that of the former Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia had come into existence as a result of treaties at the end of the First World War. Serbia (which then included the present-day Republic of Macedonia), Montenegro, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia were forcibly joined, and after the Second World War these Balkan states were brought under Josip Tito’s communist dictatorship as the Iron Curtain of atheistic socialism descended over Central Europe.

After Tito’s death in 1980 and the subsequent fall of communism in 1989, the nation of Yugoslavia descended into anarchy and civil war. Today, the former Yugoslavia has self-divided along religious beliefs and ethnicity.

Now there are predominantly Catholic Christian states, Orthodox Christian states and Muslim states. All are now living peaceably and have expanding economies.

Many of the Islamic states of the Middle East were also formed after the downfall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. Their borders were drawn up by colonial powers (England and France). The secretive Sykes–Picot Agreement, officially known as the Asia Minor Agreement, defined their proposed spheres of influence and control in the Middle East. Dictators were essentially appointed and supported by various foreign powers, including the United States.

What is now happening in Syria and Iraq is, I fear, inevitable. People yearn for freedom and stable economies–better futures. Today we are witnessing the breakup of these “forced” states along religious and ethnic lines. In the case of Syria and Iraq, Sunni, Shia and Kurds are vying to have dominant influence hoping to form their own independent states.

The challenge for Arab states

KSA Hotspots MapHow will these conflicts that currently surround the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman affect the stability of these nations?

As I write this article, CNN is broadcasting that that Al Qaeda and another group new to me is planning attacks on Arabian Peninsula airports and shopping malls.

There is growing concern about Islamic extremism here and elsewhere. As well-publicized bouts of violence, from civil war to suicide bombings, plague the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, concern about Islamic extremism is high among countries with substantial Muslim populations, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.

Lebanese, Tunisians, Egyptians, Jordanians and Turks are all more worried about the extremist threat than they were a year ago. Men and women living in Muslim states hold very negative opinions of well-known extremist groups, such as al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah.

Last evening, Prince Turki al Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to the US and former Saudi intelligence chief, was interviewed by CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour. (See posted interview at the end of this article.)

Prince Turki believes ISIS is a threat to world peace. He argued that the the major powers must come together to confront ISIS.

“Look how many American young people, French, English and other misguided western youth are joining the ranks of ISIS,” he said. Prince Turki says this is a critical matter that needs to be dealt with by western governments as well as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council states.

Prince Turki says the Muslim world basically wants to live in peace. He believes the kind of terrorist tactics being espoused by ISIS is foreign to the faith of Islam. He concluded his remarks on CNN about ISIS, “It’s a terrorist organization that has specialized in brutal killings, so it is a danger to the whole area and I think to the rest of the world.”

On August 7, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, said extremists are attempting to hi-jack Islam for their own evil use. He condemned Islamist extremists who he said have besmirched Islam by committing atrocities in the name of religion. The King’s comments were read August 7 on Saudi television, “It is shameful and disgraceful that these terrorists are doing this in the name of religion, killing people whose killing Allah has forbidden, and mutilating their bodies and feeling proud in publishing this.”

The ISIS call for a Sunni Islamic caliphate has little support outside the ranks of the organization. Muslim scholars and movements from across the Sunni Islamic spectrum have rejected the caliphate declared by the group, with the fighters receiving scathing criticism from mainstream Muslim leaders. Most recently the chief imam of Turkey has pronounced the ISIS caliphate as illegitimate.

Murder and wanton slaughter of the innocent prohibited

The Qur'an is clear on matters of war and condemns terrorism as worthy of hell.

The Qur’an is clear on matters of war and condemns suicide bombers as worthy of hell fire. The Qur’an provides rules for faith and practice for all Muslims.

All the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) agree that acts of aggressive behavior, especially when it involves murder and massacres of innocent men, women and children, are evil. There is no place within any of these faiths for suicide bombers and acts of aggression.

Abrahamic believers today are of one of two opinions. Some seek to avoid conflict and war all together, declaring themselves pacifists or conscientious objectors. They refuse to fight under any circumstances.

The overwhelming majority consider “just war” appropriate when confronting an agressive enemy that is invading, killing their fellow citizens, and destroying their cities, businesses, farmlands and homes.

In Islam, the Qur’an makes the  following clear:

Suicide is forbidden.  “O ye who believe!… [do not] kill yourselves, for truly God has been to you Most Merciful.  If any do that in rancour and injustice, soon shall We cast him into the Fire…” (Qur’an 4:29-30).

The taking of life is allowed only by way of justice (i.e. the death penalty for murder), but even then, forgiveness is encouraged.  “Nor take life – which God has made sacred – except for just cause…” (Qur’an 17:33).

In pre-Islamic Arabia, retaliation and mass murder was commonplace.  If someone was killed, the victim’s tribe would retaliate against the murderer’s entire tribe.  This practice was directly forbidden in the Qur’an (2:178-179). Following this statement of law, the Qur’an says, “After this, whoever exceeds the limits shall be in grave chastisement” (Qur’an 2:178).

No matter what wrong we perceive as being done against us, we may not lash out against an entire population of people. The Qur’an admonishes those who oppress others and transgress beyond the bounds of what is right and just.  “The blame is only against those who oppress men with wrongdoing and insolently transgress beyond bounds through the land, defying right and justice.  For such there will be a chastisement grievous (in the Hereafter)” (Qur’an 42:42).

Harming innocent bystanders, even in times of war, was forbidden by the Prophet Muhammad.  This includes women, children, noncombatant bystanders–even animals, trees and crops.  Nothing is to be harmed unless the aggressor is actively engaged in an assault against Muslims.

Listen to this interview conducted from Jeddah last evening by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour with Saudi Prince Turki al Faisal. (Click on photo below to be directed to the video interview.)

Sources: CNN, Arab News, wikipedia.org, Saudi Gazette, New York Times, The Huffington Post, Aljazeera Internatioanl News, National Post (Jordan), islamicity.com, answering-islam.org, Al Arabiya News

July 2, 2014 Posted by | Human Rights, Islam, Religious Reconciliation, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Happy Ramadan, everybody!

Colorful lanterns are often light to celebrate the month of Ramadan.

During Ramadan lanterns and lamps of various kinds, hues and degrees of brightness are often strung in homes and businesses.

A time of rejoicing, fasting and prayer

From Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Sam wishes all a very happy Ramadan!

From Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Sam wishes all his friends around the world a very happy Ramadan! (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Today, 29 June 2014, marks the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which is the most important time of the year for Muslims worldwide.

This is my third year to join in the celebration of Ramadan in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, having moved to Jeddah in December 2011.

Ramadan is viewed by children as a wonderfully magical time. Neighborhood houses and businesses are often adorned with strings of colored, lighted lanterns. During Ramadan lanterns and lamps of various kinds, hues and degrees of brightness are often strung in homes and businesses. Many stories of their origins have been told. One legend has it that the Fatimid Caliph Al Hakim Bi-Amr Illah wanted to light the streets of Cairo during Ramadan nights, so he ordered all the sheikhs of mosques to hang Fawanees that could be illuminated by candles. As a result, the Fanoos became a custom that has never been abandoned.

Homes seem to be perfumed constantly with the mixed smells of food and burning incense—all serving as a constant reminder that this month is a very special time of the year.

The uninterrupted chanting of Qur’an verses emanating from nearby mosques indicate the absolute solemnity of Ramadan.

It is an intrinsically sacred time for all Muslims. It was during the month of Ramadan that the first revelations of the holy Qur’an were first revealed to the Prophet Mohammed by the Archangel Gabriel.

The Qur’an is the holy book of Muslims, being recited daily year-round through prayers and worship. It is the basis for reflection in guiding the lives of Muslim men, women and children.

A time of renewal, drawing closer to God

During Ramadan, Muslims will fast and engage in extra prayers and worship, as a means of drawing nearer to God.

Ramadan is the ninth Islamic month. The Islamic calendar is based on a lunar calendar, and the lunar calendar which is 10 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar. It, therefore, takes 30 years for the calendar to rotate full cycle.

Fasting and prayer are from dawn to dusk during Ramadan, which presents greater challenges to Muslims living in the far northern regions where they are expected to stick to the rules, no matter how long the fasting period may be. Fasting in northern Canada or the Nordic states of Norway, Sweden, and Finland is especially difficult, but the blessings of fulfilling the fast are even greater.

The Prophet Muhammad taught that “whoever does not give up lying or cursing during Ramadan, God has no need for that person to give up his food or drink” – which emphasizes that Ramadan is not just about avoiding food or drink, but also working on who one purports to be as a person.

As a spiritual support to achieve one’s goal, Muslims will attend their mosques more often. In the evenings there will be a special extended prayer time.

A Muslim family breaks the fast at sundown with Iftar.

A Muslim family breaks the fast at sundown with Iftar.

A month of empathy and gratitude

Ramadan is known as the “month of empathy.” Ramadan is an exercise in empathy for the more than 2 billion people in the world who live in poverty, but it’s also a lesson in gratitude.

During this 30-day period Muslims put themselves in the shoes of people who are in dire straits—people who are suffering deprivation of all kinds: thirst, hunger, homelessness, sickness, pain, etc.

This month at Tuqwa Mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as in all mosques around the world, the brothers and sisters gather five times a day for prayer, fellowship and encouragement while reflecting on the needs of others in their community and worldwide.

Collections are made for the poor. Individuals are encouraged to carry out distributions to the poor. It is common to find men, women and children on street corners distributing dates and water to passersby at sundown for the breaking of the fast.

The ultimate “anger management” course

Men and women seek to draw closer to God through prayer and reading the Qur'an.

Men and women seek to draw closer to God through increased prayer times and reading the Qur’an.

Along with learning and practicing empathy towards others, one is to learn patience.

For 30 consecutive days the faithful are put into a situation where they will face are going to be hungry, sugar levels are low, and the chances are that one is going to get a bit edgy and agitated, so either one develops a rather foul mood for the month of Ramadan or one deals with it successfully for 30 days.

Ramadan is likened by Dr Mansur Ali Jameel, lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Center for the Study of Islam at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, as “the best possible anger management course.”

Muslims are advised to control and deny anger. If one feels anger rising within, one is encouraged to take refuge in God.

The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) said, “If a man gets angry and says, ‘I seek refuge with God from the accursed Satan,’ his anger will go away.” Saying this, Muslims believe, will make it easier to control your anger, as it will remind you that it’s being increased by Satan’s whisperings and that he is rubbing his hands with glee at your rising temper!

Standing makes one feel strong, agressive and powerful and ready for fight. So if one gets angry while standing one is directed to follow the Prophet’s advice: “When one of you becomes angry while standing, he should sit down. If the anger leaves him, well and good; otherwise he should lie down” (Abu Dawud and Al Tirmidhi).

Remembering God and the coming judgment

Noor Khan helps load food bags for different charities that were picking up the donated food bags at the Al Hijra School in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. The food and cash donations were collected by the local Muslim community.

Noor Khan helps load food bags for different Canadian charities. The food and cash donations were collected by the local Windsor, Ontario, Muslim community.

All the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) teach that there will most definitely be a final day when all humankind will stand before God in Judgment. Jesus spoke of the Judgment Day when he walked among men. He said “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of’ Judgment” (Matthew 12:36). We’re told in Hadith Jibra’il, that one is: “…to worship God as though you are seeing Him, and while you see Him not yet—truly He sees you” (Al-Bukhari).

Such God-consciousness (tuqwa) is a good practice for all who claim to believe in the God of Abraham!

One should strive to live each moment, fully aware of God’s presence, living in the knowledge that He is watching everything done by humankind—that someday there will be an accounting for one’s behavior here on earth.

Ramadan is a great time to demonstrate repentance, seeking renewal in one’s relationship with God, to gain forgiveness and peace through increased reverence and worship and to prepare oneself for that final, great Judgment Day.

A firm faith in God is the beginning of that journey—but it must be proved that it is a genuine faith that leads to changed behavior while reflecting on the needs of others and exercising self-restraint; engendering greater love, dedication and service to our almighty God.

Eid al Fitr celebrations

Ramadan ends with the festival Eid al Fitr, which in 2014 occurs on July 28. Literally the “Festival of Breaking the Fast,” Eid al Fitr is one of the two most important Islamic celebrations (the other occurs after the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca). At Eid al Fitr people dress in their finest clothes, adorn their homes with lights and decorations, give treats to children, and enjoy visits with friends and family.

A sense of generosity and gratitude colors these festivities. Although charity and good deeds are always important in Islam, they have special significance at the end of Ramadan. As the month draws to a close, Muslims are obligated to share their blessings by feeding the poor and making contributions to mosques and community nonprofit organizations.

In many parts of the world Ramadan is celebrated with spiritual music. Enjoy this Ramadan song by contemporary Muslim recording artist Maher Zain:

Sources: Arab News, Saudi Gazette, ramadan2014.net, The Windsor Star, Time Magazine

June 29, 2014 Posted by | Archeology, Islam | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Red Sea Coral Reefs–Amazing!

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The Red Sea’s colorful coral reefs are home to some of the world’s most amazing species of aquatic life.

Snorkeling south of Jeddah

Sam joined Saudi firends on a snorkeling trip along the coast of the Red Sea south of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Click on photos to enlarge.) Sam joined Saudi friends on a snorkeling trip off the coast of the Red Sea south of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Sam and Saudi friends at the Red Sea coral reefs south of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Yesterday I had the wonderful experience of accompanying some Saudi friends on a snorkeling adventure into the Red Sea, about 90 kilometers south of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  My previous experience of exploring coral reefs had been in snorkeling around Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands and scuba diving off the Gulf coasts of Belize and Mexico. However, what I witnessed beneath the waters of the Red Sea was equally incredible.

The Red Sea coral reefs are among the most beautiful of all the world’s marine habitats. This vast inlet of the Indian Ocean provides ideal conditions for corals and other countless forms of aquatic life. There are about 200 species of “stony corals” along the coast.

Most corals are reef builders. Each of these sea polyps builds a skeleton and the animal sits in a calcareous cup that it has secreted. The polyps are connected to each other by an extension of the body above the level of the skeleton. Thus the colony sits on the surface of the skeleton, feeding on algae and particles of food drifting along in the water.

The Red Sea coral reefs form an ecological environment in which creatures can take refuge from predators. Crustaceans, eels, starfish, turtles and thousands of varieties of fish–all benefit from this beautiful ecosystem. Fish that are found in these reefs include some very colorful species. One will find brilliant orange coral groupers, enormous gorgonian fan fish, moray eels and elaborate lionfish and majestic, swooping giant manta rays.  We even saw “Nemo” who was made famous by the film “Saving Nemo.”

In deeper waters there are such species as hammerhead sharks and barracudas and various varieties of jellyfishes which look attractive but can deliver their unpleasant stings.

Red Sea Hawksbill turtles are on the decline due to degradation of nesting habitats.

Red Sea Hawksbill turtles are on the decline due to degradation of nesting habitats.

Jacques Cousteau and these coral reefs

I am told that Jacques Cousteau chose this celebrated Red Sea reef system to first introduce the world to undersea life, and by the same token it is not by chance that so many people become diving and snorkeling fanatics during their visits to Saudi Arabia.

The exceptional richness of marine life in the Red Sea is due to an unusual combination of environmental factors. First, the Red Sea is comparatively sheltered and calm: its currents are gentle and regular, its tides almost non-existent, and its temperature warm and steady. While its waters run quite deep, they are warmed by volcanic heat emanating from the sea bed. The result of all these factors is an environment ideally suited to the complex and delicate ecosystem of coral reefs.

Considering all the world’s most celebrated reef systems, these of the Red Sea stand out for their unusual wealth of specific kinds of marine life–most notably, coral itself. The sheer abundance of corals, many of exceptional size and color, makes diving and snorkeling in the Red Sea an experience of almost magical intensity.

Today, one-third of shallow water, reef-building species are threatened with extinction, making them one of the most endangered animal groups on the planet. These reefs are suffering from many environmental impacts, including the effects of climate change, pollution, over-fishing of animals that live on the reefs, and removal of the reefs for use as home décor objects and curio and aquarium trade.

Watch this video produced by Saudi Aramco to learn more about the wonders of the seas bordering both sides of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia:

 

Sources: Scuba Travel Guide, redsea-online.com, wikipedia.com, youtube.com, Red Sea Reef Guide, Saudi Aramco

June 23, 2014 Posted by | Environment, Geography, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amsterdam and Paris on my mind

Sam's reflection in the window of the Thalys high-speed train he took from The Netherlands to France.

Sam’s reflection in the window of the Thalys high-speed train he took from The Netherlands to France.

Always enjoyed seeing the world

As a high school student at Bob Jones Academy and later as a student at Shelton College, I had worked in Europe for four summers with the Evangelical Reformed Church and other Christian groups. So it was at the age of 18 I found myself bagging groceries, waiting tables in restaurants and scrubbing dormitory toilets in what would be an ongoing effort at getting airline tickets to Europe. As a young student of history, at the end of each summer of work I would take off on my own–travelling to see different parts of Europe. I got around by a Eurail Pass for trains or just hitchhiking on the German autobahns.

I have, on occasion through the years, returned to Europe, and it has been interesting to see changes gradually taking place throughout—especially Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of communism.

Now I was invited by a businessman from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to accompany him on a brief 8-day business trip to Amsterdam and Paris, and I got to have some time off in both cities to explore sights I had first seen some 48 years ago!

Amsterdam canal

Sam stands over one of Amsterdam’s many canals. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

A few days in The Netherlands

Amsterdam is considered the “greatest planned city of northern Europe.” It has always been a well-known name in world history and played a central role in the history of the Netherlands. In the 17th century Amsterdam was the center of world economy, and nowadays the city is known for its more tolerant character.

The period 1813-1940 is marked by economic recovery and, from 1870 onwards, by expansion. The increasing wealth brought about a rapid population growth. This development was primarily the result of the Industrial Revolution which triggered off a New Golden Age. The city now ventured into the area beyond the Singelgracht. Large poorly built working-class neighbourhoods were built. The period 1920-1940 was a time of economic recession. Therefore it is all the more remarkable that the so-called Ring 20-40 compares favourably to the 19th century jerry-building. This was also the period of large-scale damage to the historical city centre; canals were filled in and new traffic breakthroughs were realised.

After concluding business in the Netherlands, I boarded the hi-speed Thalys train from The Netherlands to Paris, France. The train ride, at nearly 300 kilometers per hour, would take a mere two-and-a-half hours compared to the 10 hours it used to take to get from Amsterdam to Paris!

Sam stood behind Notre Dame Cathedral some 48 years after he first visited Paris!

Sam stood behind Notre Dame Cathedral some 48 years after he first visited Paris!

Vive la France!

The history of ParisFrance, spans more than 10,000 years! During that time the city grew from a small mesolithic settlement to the France’s largest city and capital. Through the centuries Paris developed into a center of government, art, medicine, science, fashion, tourism, high culture and high finance, becoming one of the world’s most influential global cities.

Today, Paris is one of the major capitals of the world.  While many world capitals feed off the energy of modernity, Paris is loved because it represents an escape from it. So when most people visit the city, their agenda involves visiting monuments like the Louvre, the Hôtel de Ville and Notre Dame Cathedral. The “baby” of this grand group  is the Eiffel Tower, built in 1887.

Certainly, no visit to the “City of Lights” can be completed without visiting the Eiffel Tower time and time again. It was constructed as the focal point of the 1889 Paris Exhibition which highlighted the science and engineering achievements of the 19th century. Soaring 300m / 984 ft. (320.75m / 1,052 ft. including antenna) and weighing 7000 tons, the structure consists of two visibly distinct parts: a base composed of a platform resting on four separate supports (called pylons or bents) and, above this, a slender tower created by the latticework tapering upward.

It was almost torn down in 1909 at the expiration of its 20-year lease, but was saved because of its antenna — used for telegraphy at that time. Beginning in 1910 it became part of the International Time Service. French radio (since 1918), and French television (since 1957) have also made use of its stature. In the 1960s, it was the subject of a wonderful study by semiologist Roland Barthes. This unprecedented work, the tallest structure in the world until the Empire State Building was built about 40 years later.  It has earned its right as a major symbol of Paris. (For a tour of the Eiffel Tower watch the video at the end of this post.)

Around its Grande Arche and esplanade ("le Parvis"), La Défense contains many of the Paris urban area's tallest high-rises.

Around its Grande Arche and esplanade (“le Parvis”), La Défense contains many of the Paris urban area’s tallest high-rises.

Contemporary Paris

Paris might very well be one of the most well-preserved cities in the world – but it still has a lot of contemporary ‘features’ to offer. This comes in the form of hip and modern buildings, museums and other architectural wonders which will give you an idea about what contemporary Paris is all about.

The prime example of contemporary Prisian architecture is La Défense.  It is actually considered as an urban project for the 20th century which is made up of 30 high-rise towers standing in a vast square.  If you’re in the mood to seeing a film at one an IMAX theater which has one of the biggest screens in the world, this is definitely the place for you.,

Among the more notable modern buildings of La Défense is the famed square, hollow Grande Arche. La Defense is also home to Pompidou Center’s Piano and Rogers Building, considered one of the emblematic buildings of the 20th Century. Sometimes compared by critics to an oil refinery, the building which houses modern art was the subject of huge controversy throughout the 1970s, but now has won the hearts of Parisians.

I am grateful to have had this opportunity to visit these nations once again. Enjoy this video history and tour of Paris’s famous Eiffel Tower.

Sources: Paris by Day, A Short History of Paris, wikipedia.com, simplyparis.org, centrepompidou.fr

June 23, 2014 Posted by | Geography, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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