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MVPR peace mission to America

During September and October 2016, an MVPR peace mission team traveled from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to Washington, DC and Annapolis, Maryland and then on to Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Beaverton (Oregon) and Seattle. We met with churches and Christian groups and visited mosques, providing information about MVPR’s peacemaking efforts. Here is a short video produced by videographer Kienan Mamoun who accompanied our team.

December 2, 2016 Posted by | Interfaith, Islam, Peace, Religious Reconciliation, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

England’s growing Islamic awakening

england-mosque-open

Visitors read information board about Muslims in Britain during an open day at Finsbury Mosque in London. Photography: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Islam becoming the dominant faith in England

england-church-presbyterian-bar

O’Neill’s Pub now occupies the former Muswell Hill Presbyterian Church in North London. The church closed for lack of interest and contributions.

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the United Kingdom. Most of my time was spent in my ancestral homeland Shropshire County on the border of Wales.

I went there to get a close look at the spiritual history of the land; and what I discovered was profoundly surprising. I found that the God of Abraham the English once sought in Christian churches and Jewish synagogues is now more likely to be worshiped in Muslim mosques! Sadly many churches have closed, and many of the buildings have been converted to bars, dance clubs, skate boarding rinks and grocery stores. There are now six mosques in Shropshire–five of them opened in former church buildings.

It does appear that over the past 50 years the British people have lost faith in organized religion much faster and more completely than many other western states. The most recent survey to show this comes from Win/Gallup, which found that Britain now appears to be one of the most irreligious countries on earth, with only 30% of Brits calling themselves “religious.”

Quite apparent in Shropshire County

Mohammed Abbasi of Football for Peace with Paul Armstrong, director of Association of British Muslims.

Mohammed Abbasi of Football for Peace with Paul Armstrong, director of the Association of British Muslims.

In England Islam is growing rapidly, and the numbers of Muslims worshiping faithfully is increasing daily. Islam is expected to become the most dynamic religion in the United Kingdom in just 10 more years.

According to the British online journal The Mail (2 September 2016), “Mohammed,” for the second year in a row, remains at the top of the list of most popular baby boy names in England and Wales.

Quite a few former Christians are finding Islam to be more loving, kind and emotionally supportive than the cold, dying Christianity offered by the more traditional denominations. As British men and women are finding Islam to be a “living faith” to their liking, closed church buildings are finding new life in Islam.

An Englishman by the name of George, in his mid-sixties, shared his observation with me. When I told him I was Muslim, he said, “I’m not interested in converting to Islam, but I do think Islam has more to offer the people of England than the passive, fake religiosity and unconcern that has taken hold in many Christian churches.”

He told me he identified with the concerns of Muslims who preach modesty and dedication to family life and service to others. “They are more what I think Christians ought to be,” he said.

International growth of Islam

According to the Pew Research Center, worldwide, “The number of Muslims will grow more than twice as fast as the world’s population from now until 2050.”

While the world’s population is projected to grow 35 per cent before the middle of the century, the number of Muslims is expected to increase by 73 per cent–from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.8 billion.

In 2010, Muslims made up 23.2 per cent of the global population. Four decades later, they are expected to make up about three-in-ten of the world’s people (29.7per cent), the Washington, DC-based think tank said.

Muslim leaders in Shropshire

Sam met with Abdurraheem Green, an English

Sam met with Abdurraheem Green, an English convert to Islam and founder of Islamic Education & Research Academy (iERA).

In the short time I was here I was able to a number of Muslim leaders here in Shropshire County.

I was particularly impressed by the outreach of the faithful at Telford Central Mosque and the Shropshire Islamic Foundation.

Members of the six Shropshire mosques are offering spiritual counseling and organizing shelter to the homeless. They are reaching out to refugees who are fleeing war and offering healthcare and other assistance to needy British individuals and families.

I was honored also to meet Abdurraheem Green, founder of the Islamic Education & Research Academy (iERA), a dynamic organization based in Shropshire. Abdurraheem is a Muslim convert who is known in Muslim communities for his work on Peace TV and Huda TV and on college and university campuses. For the better part of 30 years, Green has been active in the field of dawah, inviting people to Islam.

I am grateful to Abdurraheem for having invited me to his home for dinner and introducing me to his wonderful family. (He has been blessed with 10 children!) He told me about his work with iERA. I was captivated by his genuine, meek and beautiful spirit. I found him to be a man full of God’s grace and mercy.

Also, meeting with me at the Telford Central Mosque were Mohammed Abbasi of Football for Peace and Paul Salahuddin Armstrong, director of the Association of British Muslims–the UK’s oldest Muslim organization. I was deeply impressed by the fervent spirit of all these leaders and all the Shropshire Muslims I met. Their desire to make a positive difference in the lives of broken and needy people was clear.

What we Muslims must consider

The question we Muslims must ask is, what kind of Muslims will be produced simply by birth statistics? It is not enough to say that one is Muslim simply because he or she was born to a Muslim family.

Yes! Those who are born Muslim must be imbued with a living faith–given to self-denial and to prayer and service to others.

I have heard it said often by Muslim leaders travelling from the Middle East to the West, “In the West we have seen ‘Muslims’ without Islam, and here in the Middle East we often find Islam without Muslims.” In other words the outward manifestation of faith is not always evident in the lives of those who consider themselves Muslim simply by birth.

Further thoughts

Since 2011 Muslim Relief for victims of war has expanded nationwide.

Since 2011 Islamic Relief for victims of war has expanded nationwide. Thousands of British Muslim men and women serve as volunteers.

It is not enough to say one is born Jewish, Christian or Muslim.

Truly, a vibrant, heart-felt, life-changing Islam is needed in England and our world today—not a religion of just traditionally “born Muslims.”  I am talking about a living faith most evidenced by the truly concerned humanitarian servants it produces.

One must believe and act accordingly to the dictates of faith! Of what value is a Jew who does not truly worship wholeheartedly the God of Abraham? Of what value is a Christian who does not follow and obey the teachings of Jesus (pbuh)? And similarly, what good is a Muslim who simply says he is Muslim by birth, but does not submit daily to God, observing and obeying the truths of the Qur’an and all God’s prophets?

Among early Christians the issue of faith and works was fiercely debated. James, the brother of Jesus, wrote, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Injil / Epistle of James 2:15-17).

And we have this promise from God in the holy Qur’an, “Those who believed and did good works, We shall blot out their transgressions and shall reward them according to the best of that which they used to do” (Qur’an / Al Ankabut 29:7).

It is absolutely true that genuine faith will be evidenced by the good works we are commanded to do. God desires obedience from each of us. Ours must be a pure faith planted miraculously in the hearts of men, women and children by the very God of Abraham (pbuh), transforming those who believe into servants of God and providing hope and direction for all mankind.

Islam’s English history and interfaith outreach

The British Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), one of the oldest Christian denominations in England, has developed strong ties with Muslims in a number of communities. Most recently, Quakers and Muslims have realized a working union on several levels–a powerful force for reconciliation and peace. These positive dimensions, they say, stem from “the love of God and of neighbor, and are at the heart of both Muslim and Christian faiths.”  Quakers are working to develop peaceful understanding both locally, nationally and internationally with their Muslim brothers and sisters.

Islam is not new to England. Its positive influence on British society began in the 19th century.

Please take a few minutes to watch the following BBC documentary about the history of Islam in England. Here you will hear the little-known story of three British leaders–William Quilliam, Baron Headley and Marmaduke Pickthall–who embraced Islam at a time when to be a Muslim was to be seen as a traitor to the Church of England and to the Crown.

This superb BBC program looks at the amazing achievements (good works!) of these three men and how their legacy lives on today.

November 29, 2016 Posted by | Interfaith, Islam, Refugees, Religious architecture, Religious Reconciliation, Travel, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Myanmar and the Rohingya genocide

More than 2 million Rohingya men, women and children have fled the ethnic cleansing of the Myanmar military government. Few know or care about this modern-day holocaust.

More than 2 million Rohingya men, women and children have fled the ethnic cleansing of the Myanmar military government. Few know or care about this modern-day holocaust.

My interest and travel to Myanmar

Sam Shropshire discussed Rohingya persecution with Myanmar Buddhist leaders.

Samuel Shropshire recently discussed Rohingya persecution with Buddhist leaders inside Myanmar. (Click photos to enlarge.)

It was through my close friend Shafik Zubir, the mu’adhin (“caller to prayer”) at Taqwa Mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, that I gained a strong interest in the fate of the millions of Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar (formerly Burma).

Shafik’s parents immigrated from Myanmar to Saudi Arabia in 1985. Shafik and his family have shared with me the plight of Myanmar’s Muslims. Now I find myself travelling to Myanmar to personally investigate the horrific genocide that has been committed against these noble people during the past century.

Approximately 1.5 millions Rohingya men, women and children remain in Myanmar. More than 2 million Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia, on foot or by boat, and from there have sought refuge in other nations. The death toll of those fleeing this modern-day holocaust is unknown, but it is, no doubt, in the hundreds of thousands.

Greater than 300 thousand Rohingyas now reside in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It has been my privilege to meet and speak with many of them.

A history of totalitarianism

Myanmar was ruled with an iron fist long before the current regime came to power. From the early 19th century until World War II, the insatiable machine that was the British Empire held sway over Burma. Before the British, there were the kings of old, who rose to power by eliminating rivals with claims to the throne.

Tracing the conflicts back to the 9th century, we find the Himalayan Bamar people, who comprise two-thirds of the population, at war with the Tibetan Plateau’s Mon people. The fight went on for so long that by the time the Bamar came out on top, the two cultures had effectively merged.

The 11th-century Bamar king Anawrahta converted the land to Theravada Buddhism, and inaugurated what many consider to be its golden age. He used his war spoils to build the first temples at Bagan (Pagan). Stupa after stupa sprouted under successive kings, but the vast money and effort poured into their construction weakened the kingdom. Kublai Khan and his Mongol hordes swept through Bagan in 1287, hastening Myanmar’s decline into the dark ages.

British colonialism

The British governor, left , and Burma's first president, Sao Shwe Thaik, stand at attention as the new nation's flag is raised on January 4, 1948.

The British governor, left, and Burma’s first president, Sao Shwe Thaik, stand at attention as the new nation’s flag is raised on January 4, 1948.

There’s not much known about the centuries that followed. History picks up again with the arrival of the Europeans – first the Portuguese, in the 16th century, and then the British, who had already colonised India and were looking for more territory in the East. In three moves (1824, 1852 and 1885), the British took over all of Myanmar. The Burmese king and queen were exiled to India and their grand palace at Mandalay was looted and used as a barracks to quarter British and Indian troops.

The colonial era wrought great changes in Myanmar’s demographics and infrastructure. Large numbers of Indians were brought in to work as civil servants, and Chinese were encouraged to immigrate and stimulate trade. The British built railways and ports, and many British companies grew wealthy trading in teak and rice.

Many Burmese were unhappy with the colonial status quo. A nationalist movement developed, and there were demonstrations, often led, in true Burmese fashion, by Buddhist monks. Two famous nationalist monks, U Ottama and U Wizaya, died in a British prison and are revered to this day.

World War II and early independence

During World War II, the Japanese, linked with the Burmese Independence Army (BIA), drove the British out of Myanmar and declared it an independent country. But the Japanese were able to maintain Burmese political support for only a short time before their harsh and arrogant conduct alienated the Burmese people. Towards the end of the war, the Burmese switched sides and fought with the Allies to drive out the Japanese.

Bogyoke Aung San emerged from the haze of war as the country’s natural leader. An early activist for nationalism, then defence minister in the Burma National Army, Aung San was the man to hold the country together through the transition to independence. When elections were held in 1947, Aung San’s party won an overwhelming majority. But before he could take office, he was assassinated by a rival, along with most of his cabinet. Independence followed in 1948, with Aung San’s protégé U Nu at the helm. Ethnic conflicts raged and chaos ensued.

Ne Win’s coup d’etat

On 2 March 1962, Ne Win again seized power in a coup d'état. He became head of state as Chairman of the Union Revolutionary Council and also Prime Minister. The coup was characterized as "bloodless" by the world's media. Declaring that "parliamentary democracy was not suitable for Burma," the new regime suspended the constitution and dissolved the legislature.

Since 1962, when the Ne Win government seized power in a military coup, Myanmar has been under the vice like grip of successive regimes that have ruled the country through oppression and fear.

In 1962 General Ne Win led a left-wing army takeover and set the country on the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’. He nationalised everything, including retail shops, and quickly crippled the country’s economy. By 1987 it had reached a virtual standstill, and the long-suffering Burmese people decided they’d had enough of their incompetent government.

By 1987 it had reached a virtual standstill, and the long-suffering Burmese people decided they’d had enough of their incompetent government. In early 1988, they packed the streets and there were massive confrontations between pro-democracy demonstrators and the military that resulted in an estimated 3000 deaths over a six-week period.

Once again, monks were at the helm. They turned their alms bowls upside down (the Buddhist symbol of condemnation) and insisted that Ne Win had to go. He finally did, in July 1988, but he retained a vestige of his old dictatorial power from behind the scenes.

The 1989 election

The shaken government quickly formed the Orwellian-sounding SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), declared martial law and promised to hold democratic elections in May 1989. The opposition, led by Bogyoke Aung San’s charismatic daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, organised an opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Around the same time, Slorc changed the country’s official name from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar, claiming ‘Burma’ was a vestige of European colonialism.

While the Burmese population rallied around the NLD, the SLORC grew increasingly nervous. It placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and postponed the election. In spite of this and other dirty tactics, the NLD won more than 85% of the vote. Sore losers, Slorc refused to allow the NLD to assume its parliamentary seats and arrested most of the party leadership.

Aung San Suu Kyi: house arrest, release and election

Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses her supporters from her house compound after her release from house arrest.

Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses her supporters from her house compound after her release from house arrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and was finally released from house arrest in July 1995. She was arrested again in 2000 and held in her home until the UN brokered her unconditional release in May 2002.

She was rearrested in May 2003 and released in November 2010 by the military authorities. During her arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi continually refused offers of freedom in exchange for exile from the country and, despite an ongoing debate in the pro-democracy movement over future strategy, her stature throughout Myanmar remained strong.

In moves symbolic of the positive momentum in the country, in 2011 Suu Kyi left Yangon for the first time in eight years, and in May 2012 Suu Kyi entered the lower house of the Burmese parliament as an MP. Much more remains to be done, but the hope is that decades of isolation may be coming to an end.

Ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in the Arakan state

However after nearly 50 years of military rule, the apparatus of the state is entrenched in the fabric of Burmese society and as the pogrom continues in Arakan state, the back story provides unnerving evidence that systematic official behavior has lead to the current crisis.

Debris is scattered among the ruins of the Mingalar Zayone Islamic Boarding School in the Mingalar Zayone neighborhood of Meikhtila, Myanmar. (AP photo)

Debris is scattered among the ruins of the Mingalar Zayone Islamic Boarding School in the Mingalar Zayone neighborhood of Meikhtila, Myanmar. (AP photo)

What has occurred in western Burma has been described as a sectarian conflict between two communities who simply hate each other. This prognosis is demonstrably false, and a look at the situation in Arakan provides ample evidence that there is a systematic pattern, which in most cases would amount to crimes against humanity.

One element of this picture is the improbability of a “sectarian conflict.” Arakan (Rakhine) state has a population of almost 4 million, making the Muslim or Rohingya population less than quarter of the inhabitants, thus making a two-sided conflict highly illogical.

Further, the minority population has been controlled by the state to the extent that they are unable to travel between towns, renovate a mosque or even have a child or marry without a permit from the military.

The control of this population has long been perpetuated not just by uniformed military or Nasaka (border guard) personnel but also by quasi-civilian militias, as has been the case in much of the country. Indeed in Burma the ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) grew out of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).

A Rohingya mother holds her child close as she flees persecution by boat.

A Rohingya mother holds her child close as she flees persecution by boat.

This organisation had perhaps its most notorious hour in 2003, when it attacked Aung San Suu Kyi’s convoy in central Burma. The authorities naturally tried to portray it as a clash between two rival political groups. However, only one side, the National League for Democracy (NLD), suffered 70 deaths and only one side’s supporters were arrested – also the NLD.

In the wake of the Depayin massacre, the US embassy dispatched a cable back to Washington entitled: “MOSQUE RAZED, PARAMILITARIES TRAINED.”

In the cable, one of the militia’s discussed was, “the USDP-affiliated ‘Power Ranger’ militia” that was receiving “rudimentary riot-control and military training.” One of its other jobs was to hold up the Americans in case of an invasion, while the government was “training a paramilitary ‘Peoples Militia’ in Arakan state to assist in putting down any general uprising.”

“Rohingya Muslims specifically, suffer from an aggravated, systematic, institutionalised form of persecution”

According to the cable, “Local officials on July 22 (2003) reportedly tore down a mosque in Sittwe, 70 miles SE of the Bangladeshi border, and arrested seven Muslims, one of whom subsequently died in custody.”

The dispatch goes on to explain that the mosque was demolished because the worshippers “made unauthorized improvements to the structure, resulting in the decision by local authorities to tear down the whole building.”

The embassy concludes that, “We frequently hear stories of pro-SPDC ‘fake monks’ allegedly inciting violence against Muslims to deflect anti-regime ire.”

Muslims around the world decry the genocide being committed against the Rohingya peoples.

Muslims and human rights organizations around the world decry the genocide being committed against the Rohingya peoples.

Dr Kyaw Yin Hlaing, who is now on the commission to investigate June’s violence in Arakan state, also notes this type of tactic being used. In 2008, he wrote in a US legal journal that:

“Before former intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt was dismissed and his intelligence agency disbanded, the junta could almost always uncover opposition groups that were planning to organise protests. In 1997, for instance, the junta became aware of monks’ plans to protest a regional commander’s improper renovation of a famous Buddha statue in Mandalay. Before the monks could launch the protest, a rumour emerged that a Buddhist woman had been raped by a Muslim businessman. The government diverted their attention from the regional commander to the Muslim businessman, eventually causing an anti-Muslim riot.”

He concludes that: “intelligence agents have often instigated anti-Muslim riots in order to prevent angry monks from engaging in anti-government activities.”

Given the uncanny resemblance of this case and the details surrounding late May’s ‘spark incident’, one must ask questions about the current government and the legitimacy of the reform process.

Khin Nyunt was not only adept at preventing anti-government actions, he was also good at neutralising ethnic insurgent groups and casually referred to the entire nation of India as “kalars” – a pejorative term used in Burma to describe Muslims and individuals of South Asian descent.

Government policy then was described as “pervasive and sometimes aggressive religious discrimination that favours Burma’s Buddhist majority.”

The world watches practically in silence

Obama called Myanmar to end discrimination against Rohingya people, urging in his strongest comments on the persecuted Muslim minority that the government grant them equal rights.

In November 2014 US President Barack Obama called on Myanmar to end discrimination against Rohingya people, urging in his strongest comments on the persecuted Muslim minority that the government grant them equal rights.

While the US embassy noted in a cable in 2005 that the UNHCR head at the time Jean-François Durieux described “the situation in northern Arakan as ‘shocking,’ with the GOB [government of Burma] in constant denial of the true situation. Although Muslims have some religious freedom in Rangoon, the GOB has a policy of ‘complete repression’ of Rohingyas in northern Arakan. He noted that Buddhist temples are ‘springing up everywhere,’ although he estimates the Buddhist population as only one percent of the population [in northern Arakan].”

If there is any doubt that there is systematic repression against the population, the US embassy noted that, “The military has effectively sealed the Rohingyas off from the world and keeps them at the bare subsistence level – it is an internment camp.” They further correctly forecasted that, “We should not assume that any future democratic government will accord these people their basic human rights.”

Needless to say, however, despite this and the accumulated evidence, the US government has lifted punitive measures against the Myanmar government.

The lack of civil rights is overshadowed, moreover, by the basic human indicators that have been thrust on the population by the government, as the US embassy noted: “Infant mortality is four times the national average (71 per 1000 births); 64% of children under five are chronically malnourished, and stunted growth is common.” Infant mortality then is roughly equivalent to that of Ethiopia, which is chronically affected by drought, and 80% of the population is illiterate with one teacher for every 79 students.

If this were not systematic, the discrepancies with other regions of the country would not be so severe. The government has been more than able to prevent freedom of movement for the roughly 850,000 Rohingya still in existence in the area, it would then seem that with one of the largest armed forces in Asia controlling the movement of mobs would be easy.

According to jurist Guy Horton writing in 2005, “the Rohingya Muslims specifically, suffer from an aggravated, systematic, institutionalised form of persecution designed to destroy them through exclusion, rather than assimilation.”

According to the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide: “…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Given that Thein Sein has attempted to off load the entire population onto the UNHCR, it is evident that he too is in favour of removing the population. With the well-documented government abuses against the population, there is not much of a case to suggest that what is occurring now in Arakan state is anything less than genocide.

Take a few minutes to watch this Press TV documentary account of the genocide being committed against the Rohingya peoples:

Sources: Joseph Alchin on DVB, Associated Press, VOA, wikipedia.org, BBC, presstv.com, New York Times, Al Jazeera News, Time Magazine, A History of Asia

March 19, 2015 Posted by | Geography, Human Rights, Islam, Terrorism, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Bangladesh responds to the Rohingya refugee crisis

Bangladesh--my first impression: so many people on so little land. It is like crowding half the US populations into a land mass the size of New York state.

Bangladesh–my first impression: So many people on so little land! It is like crowding half the US populations into a land mass the size of New York state.

I recently traveled to Bangladesh on an assignment to meet with Rohingya refugees who, for the past 30 years, have been fleeing persecution in their home country Myanmar. I learned a lot about the history of Bangladesh as well. The following is what I found…

Banglandesh history

Alexander the Great's weakened forces were no match for the Subcontinents war elephants!

Alexander the Great’s weakened forces were no match for the subcontinent’s war elephants! (Click on photos to enlarge!)

The early history of the Bengal region featured a succession of vast Indian empires, often accompanied by internal strife, and a struggle between Hinduism and Buddhism for dominance. Islam later made its appearance during the 8th century when Sufi missionaries arrived on the scene. Later, Muslim rulers paved the way for millions of new converts by building mosques, schools and social centers.

The first European power to arrive in India was the Macedonian army of Alexander the Great in 327–326 BC. Alexander appointed regional leaders in the northwest of India to govern in his absence, but his influence quickly crumbled after his armies were ousted from the Subcontinent. Later, trade between the various Indian states was established between the Roman Empire  and India by Roman sailors who had reached India via the Red Sea and Arabian Sea, but the Romans never established permanent trading settlements.

The spice trade between India and Europe was one of the main avenues of trade in the world economy and was the main catalyst for the period of European exploration. Indeed, the search for a shorter, quicker access to India led to the accidental “discovery” of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492.

British East India Company ships at dock in Calcutta, India.

British East India Company ships at dock in Calcutta, India. The ships carried spices, silk to Europe and Christian missionaries and missionaries to Asia.

Only a few years later, near the end of the 15th century, Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama became the first European to re-establish direct trade links with India since those of Roman times by being the first to arrive by circumnavigating Africa (1497–1499). Having arrived in Calicut, which by then was one of the major trading ports of the eastern world, he obtained permission to trade in the city from Saamoothiri Rajah.

Trading rivalries among the seafaring European powers brought other European powers to India. The Dutch, England, France, and Denmark all established trading posts in India in the early 17th century. As the Mughal Empire disintegrated in the early 18th century, and then as the Maratha Empire became weakened after the third battle of Panipat, many relatively weak and unstable Indian states which emerged were increasingly open to manipulation by the Europeans, through dependent Indian rulers.

In the later 18th century Great Britain and France struggled for dominance, partly through proxy Indian rulers but also by direct military intervention. The defeat of the redoubtable Indian ruler Tipu Sultan in 1799 marginalized the French influence. This was followed by a rapid expansion of British power through the greater part of the Indian subcontinent in the early 19th century. By the middle of the century the British had already gained direct or indirect control over almost all of India. British India, consisting of the directly-ruled British presidencies and provinces, contained the most populous and valuable parts of the British Empire and thus became known as “the jewel in the British crown”.

Sir Winston Churchill was a British prime minister and statesman who led the country to victory against Nazi Germany and the Axis powers in World War Two.

Sir Winston Churchill was a British prime minister and statesman who led the country to victory against Nazi Germany and the Axis powers in World War Two.

British colonialism and the Bengal famines

A series of deadly famines were to hit the Bengal region of India–the last and most devastating was in 1941. It struck hard, killing more than 10 million men, women and children.

True, Britain was preoccupied with its own national survival during World War II, but Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s callous response to the suffering of the Bengali peoples was shocking.

British imperialism had long justified itself with the pretense that the colonization of India was conducted for the benefit of the governed. However in his recently published book The Ugly Britain, Shashi Tharoor disagrees. He documents disparaging remarks that seemed to be foundational to the thinking of British economists and politicians throughout the colonial period.

In doing so, Tharoor dampens our western idolatry of the late Winston Churchill. He says Churchill’s conduct in the summer and fall of 1943, during the peak of the last great Bengal famine, revealed the man’s true character.

He quotes Churchill as saying in a war-cabinet meeting to the British Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” Churchill went on to dismiss the horrors of the famine, blaming the famine, not on British policies, but rather on the Indians for “breeding like rabbits.”

Pedicabs still serve as a main means of transportation in the capital city Dhaka.

Pedicabs have replaced the man-drawn rickshaws during the past century. Pedicabs serve as a main means of transportation for most of the 15 million inhabitants in the sprawling capital city Dhaka.

Modern Bangladesh

The borders of the modern People’s Republic of Bangladesh were established with the partition of Bengal and India in August 1947, when the region became East Pakistan as a part of the newly formed State of Pakistan. However, it was separated from West Pakistan by 1,600 km (994 mi) of Indian territory.

Due to political exclusion, ethnic and linguistic discrimination, as well as economic neglect by the politically dominant West Pakistan, popular agitation and civil disobedience eventually led to the war of independence in 1971 and the founding of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.

After gaining independence, the new state would continue to endure food shortages and widespread poverty, as well as political turmoil and military coups.

The restoration of democracy in 1991 has been followed by relative political calm and slow economic progress; however, a third of this poor country annually floods during the monsoon rainy season, hampering economic development.

The population of Bangladesh is 142 million. That’s almost half the US population crowded into a land mass about the size of New York state.

Dr Rashid Malik (center) with his brothers and sisters.

Dr Rashid Malik (center) with his brothers and sister.

Dr. Rashid Malik and family

I am welcomed to Bangladesh by my Bangladeshi friend Dr. Rashid Malik and his wife Yasmin Malik, founders of Malik College in Atlanta, Georgia. This was my first visit to Bangladesh, so it was reassuring to be met by someone who was very familiar with this relatively new nation and its political goings on.

Rashid’s older brother Malik Abdullah Al-Amin (“Sadi”) is a judge in the Bangladesh Judicial Service. Sadi, his parents and the rest of Rashid’s family have played an important role in the formation of this relatively new nation.

Rashid’s father, Advocate Abdul Wadood Malik, was a lawyer for the Supreme Court of Pakistan and continued in that position in the Bangladesh Supreme Court after Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan . His mother Momtaz Begum Malik is the former principal of a prestigious college in Bangladesh. Today members of Malik family can be found in various parts of the world: the US, Sweden, India, Kuwait, and the United Kingdom.

Rashid is very proud now to be an American citizen. He tells me, “I am now the president of Malik College in Atlanta. This is my family’s way of giving back to the USA for what America has done for us. In short, the USA has given much to us in many ways, to me, to Yasmin and to my children.”

Sadi and Sam prepare to board flight to far-south Bangladesh.

Judge Sadi Malik and Sam prepare to board a flight to far-south Bangladesh.

Travel to the far-south

Knowing of my interest in learning more about the history and persecution of Rohingya Muslims within the neighboring state Myanmar (formerly Burma), Judge Malik arranged flight tickets for Rashid, himself and me to travel south to Cox’s Bazar, on the Gulf of Bengal. In Cox’s Basar we were met by a private car and driver and taken south.

From Cox’s Bazar south are huge populations of Rohingya refugees who have fled persecution in neighboring Myanmar. A history of the Rohingya peoples and the cause of the appalling persecution will be discussed in detail in my next blog post about my travels to Myanmar and Thailand. Here we will address the issue of Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh.

UN Rohingya refugee camps

In many countries, when you reach the age of 21 you become an adult and must start to fend for yourself. But in the United Nations Dr. Rashid Malik, Sam and Kutupalong camp director Mohammed Ishmail. But 21 years after the Rohingya first started

Dr. Rashid Malik, Sam and UNHCR Kutupalong camp director Mohammed Ishmael.

Dr. Rashid Malik, Sam and UNHCR Kutupalong camp director Mohammed Ishmael.

arriving as refugees in Bangladesh, these desperately poor people are more dependent on aid than ever.

While these may sound like luxuries to an estimated 240,000 other unregistered Rohingyas living outside the camps and in the hills and local villagers in this poverty-stricken region, camp residents often lament the fact that their entire lives appear to be doomed to be living out as unsettled refugees.

There are mixed reactions to the official refugee camps.

Visiting the Kutupalong camp

“This is not life,” said Shaufiq Alam, a 30-year-old refugee in the Kutupalong camp. “I came 20 years ago. If I had been in the village I could have received a higher education by now. The camp situation is depriving us of our lives.”

The UN refugee agency is working to change that sense of powerlessness, but within tight operational constraints. It works closely with refugee-elected camp management committees, empowering them to mediate disputes and organizing women’s training and peace education workshops.

Rohingya men and women retrieve water

Rohingya men and women retrieve water from a Kutupalong camp well.

Refugees are also encouraged to participate in the day-to-day running of the camps. Bibi Begum, 30, helps to distribute food rations in Kutupalong every two weeks. Today she is in charge of sugar, stirring a sack sugar with her hand to loosen the grains before spooning precise portions into waiting plastic bags.

A widow with three children, she is one of seven incentive workers at the food distribution center who are given employment.

“I get 1,820 taka (US$22.50) per month. It helps with the children’s school supplies, and I can buy extra things,” she said. “Usually I make fishing nets for a living, but it is not profitable. I only made 1,000 taka after three months of work.”

The UNHCR vocational training is another important empowerment tool. While the refugees are not permitted to work or to sell things they produce, UNHCR seeks to keep them occupied while teaching them skills like carpentry, soap making and tailoring that they can hopefully use in the future.

At Nayapara camp, Hamida Khatun, a 40-year-old widow with five children, is busy making soap. “I wanted to earn some money so I approached UNHCR to put my name on the list,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for a month, learning how to mix chemicals and use the mould.”

am is greeted by children of the Kutupalong refugee camp.

Sam is greeted by children of the Kutupalong refugee camp.

Her job today is to cut individual bars of soap to make sure they weigh a consistent 150 grams each. “I am proud of my soaps,” she said. “I get 1,036 taka per month for six months. But it’s not enough. There are 14 people in my family – six are registered and get food rations, the rest are not registered and get nothing. The money helps to buy some extra rice, but it is not enough for extra blankets.”

When completed, Hamida’s soaps are taken to the Bangladeshi Red Crescent Society to be distributed in the camp’s Women’s Centre along with some underwear, clothing and other personal items.

The clothing items are made at the Nayapara Women’s Centre by refugees attending the tailoring class. “They are usually aged 15 to 25, and rotate every six months,” said one of the women in charge. “We teach them skills and keep them busy so hopefully they don’t get married off at a young age.

Economic disadvantages

A young Rohingya girl mingles along with tourists on a beach looking for ways to make money.

Looking for ways to make money, a lone Rohingya girl, 11, mingles with tourists on a beach.

Unfortunately, there are few prospects after the six-month training as most refugees cannot afford to buy their own equipment. Even those who manage to buy a sewing machine find it hard to get raw materials and to market their products. Without regular practice, their skills fade quickly.

In comparison, the more than 240,000 unregistered Rohingyas living outside the camps appear to have developed their own coping mechanisms over the years.

I am shocked at the sight of thousands of young children, 8 to 10 years old, wandering the roads or working in the markets, many without parents. The roadside markets are busy and these children have found informal ways to survive without government or UNHCR support. I am told that many have resorted to “sordid ways” of subsistence. I inquire further. It is said some of these Rohingya children are falling prey to human trafficking and heroin trade. Many of these Rohingya children have little or no knowledge of the Islamic faith that once guided them morally.

These problem lead one to believe that we need rethink how best to help these stranded refugees.

“The UNHCR is good at emergency response, setting up camps quickly in the hope that refugees can return in one to two years,” said Dirk Hebecker, head of the agency’s sub-office in Cox’s Bazar. “But when the situation gets protracted, we need to be able to adjust our strategies.”

He added that the international community should work with the Bangladeshi government to shift from focusing on just the two camps—which currently cares for only 10 to 15 per cent of the refugee population. He says the whole refugee population, including those outside the camps, must be immediately assisted if practical solutions are to be found to this long-running catastrophe.

Young children 9 to 15 years of age are seen wandering the streets. We learn that many of their mothers and fathers were killed in Myanmar or have died from disease and starvation during their exodus en route to Bangladesh.

In the following 5-minute video you will hear testimonies about the nearly 300,000 Rohingya refugees now living in Bangladesh.

Sources: Time magazine, wikipedia.com, British History Museum, A History of the Subcontinent, People’s Republic of Bangladesh, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, The Ugly Britain, theeastindiacompany.com, Rohingya News, The New York Times, BBC, The Guardian

February 12, 2015 Posted by | Human Rights, Islam, Travel, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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, korea.net

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

Saudi Arabian falconry–an amazing UN World Heritage Sport

Falconry has a long history stretching from ancient Mongolia to Europe and the Middle East.

Falconry has a long history stretching from ancient Mongolia to Europe and the Middle East.

Sam is introduced to "Sushan," a Bedouin hunting falcon.

Sam is introduced to “Shuja,” a Bedouin hunting falcon.

“Shuja” pays me a visit

Abdulla Al Ghamdi and two of my Saudi Bedouin military friends, brothers Majed and Fahad Olayan, dropped by my office a couple of days ago for a surprise visit with their Saker falcon “Shuja” (Arabic for courageous or brave).  “Shuja” is being trained for hunting rabbits in the nearby deserts.

The falcon, among birds known as “raptors” or “birds of prey,” has amazingly acute vision and can identify prey at a distance of several kilometres. It can fly at speeds of over 100 km per hour, approaching 200 km per hour during dives.

The art of falconry is a big deal here in Saudi Arabia, with well-trained birds selling for thousands of dollars.

Hunting with birds of prey

Falconry has been practiced in many forms for thousands of years by many cultures.  Some specialists place falconry’s origins somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 BC in the plains of Mongolia. Other historians believe that the practice could be much older, with its beginnings in the deserts of the Middle East, particularly here on the Arabian Peninsula.

Wherever it began, falconry, which was originally used for subsistence and not sport, was well established in both Asia and the Middle East by 2,000 BC, and gradually made its way westward to Greece, Italy and eventually to Medieval Europe.

European falconry

Beginning in the early 6th century and extending through the Middle Ages, the popularity of falconry (or “hawking”) surged in Europe. It was the sport of royalty for centuries. The possession of falcons and other birds of prey was considered a status symbol.

And talking about regulation, get this! By the 17th century in England, falconry came to be governed by a strict set of customs called the Laws of Ownership, which dictated the birds of prey that were permitted to be flown by citizens of various social ranks. For example, a king could fly a gyrfalcon; a duke, a rock falcon; an earl, a peregrine; a yeoman, a goshawk; and a servant, a kestrel.

During the reign of Edward III, 1327-77, stealing a trained raptor was punishable by death.

Falconry is believed by many to have been a part of Arabian Bedouin life for thousands of years. These ancient birds of prey are still used for hunting rabbits and desert quail.

Saudi falconry today

Once the pastime of the rich, falconry now continues as a highly structured sport that demands a lot of time and serious commitment. For some Bedouins it remains a primary method of hunting rabbits and other desert animals.

Saudi birds are generally bred in captivity and when hunting, often have a small radio transmitter attached under the tail for tracking.

Training a falcon is time-consuming and requires enormous patience since the falconer must carry the bird on his arm for several hours each day. That might be possible for the Bedouin, but try fitting that into a regular 21st century work schedule!

The falcon hunting season here in Saudi Arabia is from October to March. The two most popular falcons are the Saker and the Peregrine. The Saker is valued both for its outstanding beauty and for its ability to withstand adverse weather conditions. Because the Saker completes its annual moult early, it can start hunting in October, while the Peregrine may not have sufficient feathers until January.

Nothing compares to God’s falcon

In the Old Testament (Torah) book of Job there is a reference to the keen sight of this wondrous raptor, “No bird of prey knows that hidden path, no falcon’s eye has seen it.”

The celebrated 13th-century Persian Muslim poet, in his work “Mathnawi,” wrote, “The falcon made the king’s hand his joy, and became indifferent to the search for carrion. All animals from the gnat to the elephant are of the family of God and depend on Him for sustenance. What a sustainer is God!”

The motion picture industry has championed films like The Maltese Falcon and Day of the Falcon. And in America we have our Atlanta Falcons football team. Oregon has it’s Falcon Cove. The US Air Force has its Falcon F-16 and Raptor F-22 fighter jets. But certainly no man-made imaginary compares to God’s incredible creation of this eagle-eyed, warp-speed hunter of the Arabian Peninsula.

The United Nations has proclaimed falconry a World Heritage Sport. Watch this short video I found on YouTube about this popular Saudi sport:

November 13, 2012 Posted by | Animal Rights, Arabian Desert, Geography, Jeddah History, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments