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What freedom of religion?

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In the city of Mosul, northern Iraq, the greatest abuse of freedom of religion has been conducted. A ‘cleansing’ of around 3,000 Christians has been conducted by the Islamist extremist group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Broadcasted from the loudspeakers on the city’s mosques, Christians in the city were given three choices that were to determine whether they would live in the city or not. The announcement said:

We offer them three choices: Islam; the dhimma contract – involving payment of jizyah; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword.

The rules were simple: convert to Islam, pay a religious tax known as a jizyah, a historical practice which would protect non-Muslims in a Muslim land, or die by the sword, decrees which are found in the Qur’ān.

Families were forced to leave their own homes with barely anything but the clothes that they wore and a few belongings. Houses were marked in red spray paint with the Arabic letter ‘N’ for Nasara (Christian), identifying the residence as a Christian home. For the first time in 1,600 years, Mass was not said in this ancient city were Christians have lived for centuries. Churches of new and old are now void and abandoned, left to the destruction of the intolerant and violent. Statues of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary are destroyed and smashed, a sombre reminder of the iconoclast movement of the past.

Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, a Syriac Catholic patriarch has recently said in an interview:

There is no more room for Christians in Mosul. What happened, it’s really a kind of ‘cleansing’ based on religion… It’s tragic because that city, second largest city in Iraq, was the nucleus of Christian presence for many centuries. We have at least 25 churches in that city. All are abandoned. No more prayers, service, no more Masses on Sundays in Mosul.

In another similar story of Christian persecution, a Christian woman was thrown into prison on charges of ‘apostasy’, after the court declared her guilty for renouncing her Muslim faith and marrying a Christian man. According to the law, Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslim men, but a Muslim man can enter an inter-faith marriage. It is however obligatory for his future children to follow the doctrines and teachings of Islam.

Meriam Ibrahim stated that she was never a Muslim in the first place, so the charges put against her were unfounded. She was kept in prison while heavily pregnant, and gave birth with her feet chained, which meant that she could not give birth comfortably. After the birth of her child, what awaited her was the gibbet.

Fortunately, Sudan’s Supreme Court released Meriam, and after being detained for three days in Sudan on accusations that she falsified her travel documents, she has now arrived in Rome with her husband and children after a secretly organised flight took her away from any further imprisonment. She even met Pope Francis who praised her for the strength of her faith, and expressed his concern for persecuted Christians like her.

 

Whenever I read these stories, my thoughts immediately go to the Maltese people who identify themselves as ‘Catholic’ yet take their faith lightly and keep it on the shelf for the rest of the week. They bring it out only for Sunday Mass or the village feast, where people’s attitudes are more pagan than Christian. What you hear in the streets are not prayers but shouts and vulgar oaths and swears with God’s name or the patron saint’s used ever so lovingly.

In almost every Sunday Mass in my parish, the parish priest’s homily is centred on the importance of living a genuine faith. Meanwhile, the majority of the congregation either stares blankly or fiddles with their mobile phone behind the pew. The women in front of me would be enjoying a lively conversation in hushed tones, with more passing comments in other parts of the congregation. The parish priest ends up looking to me more like a school teacher with ungrateful children in front of him, completely disinterested in what he has to say.

As a Maltese population we greatly take for granted our religious freedom, and many others have a slack and lazy attitude with their faith, with little knowledge about its principles and teachings. Bibles are left on the bookshelves to accumulate dust and have silverfish eat away at the pages. At least they get some nourishment from the Bible.

To be clear, I am not priding myself as an exemplary Catholic or saint. I have my own sins to take care of and believe myself to be far from the ideals that adorn saints like Francis of Assisi or Thérèse of Lisieux. What I find disheartening is that most Maltese people do not even try to practice their faith more genuinely, or learn about what they believe and why. The priest’s homily is of no good if it falls upon deaf ears. It’s the same with school. The teacher must do his part, but so must the student.

We should thank our lucky stars that we have the liberty to go to a church and worship without worrying about being blasted by a car bomb. Christians in these persecuted areas risk their lives to try and attend Mass every Sunday, and because of their faith they now have no home or place of worship. Meriam Ibrahim, in my opinion, is a great role-model for the perseverance of faith.

Let us look at what is happening in the East and remember our persecuted brothers and sisters in prayer. Ultimately, we should be deeply grateful for our religious freedom and hopefully, with stories like these, we would try to live a more honest and real faith.

Posted in Opinion, Opinion

Majority of students, KSU in favour of new grant system

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A poll conducted by Insite indicates that the majority of University students are in favour of the Government’s announcement that maintenance grant funds will, as from next academic year, get sent to students’ bank accounts rather than to a smart card. From a sample of 348 respondents, 66% were in favour of it.

The University Students’ Council (KSU) said that this new system will make the purchasing of educational products more flexible. It also means that students who want to buy items online will no longer need to “go through the same tedious process to get a refund”. It will also help  Gozitan students who will now be able to use maintenance grant funds to buy Gozo Ferry tickets and pay for accommodation rent. KSU also recommended the reinvestment of the money that the Government will be saving as a result of this new grant system into research at the University of Malta.

This request was similarly echoed by student organization Pulse who “call[ed] upon the Government to invest the savings from such a reform back into the educational system.”

However, KSU also voiced their concerns that this new system will widen the scope for the possible abuse by students of government-funded money. “The Government should work hard to strengthen the mentality that money is not given for any reason and is, on the contrary, an investment for which the student should give something in return,” KSU said. They therefore asked the Government to explain how they will monitor this new grant system to ensure that students spend the money on educational material and extracurricular activities of the type that were previously smart card refundable.

Posted in News

Two turtles freed after 9 month rehabilitation

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Nature Trust Malta today released two loggerhead turtles back into their natural environment, after 9 months of treatment at San Lucjan Centre in Marsaxlokk. Both turtles, called Monster and Neil, were cared for by volunteers of the NGO’s Rehabilitation Unit.

Weighing 47 kilos, the first turtle was found with a hook in its mouth, and was medicated to remove a nylon fishing line from its intestines. The second turtle required 7 months of cleaning and vitamin provision after it was found covered in oil and malnourished.

Over 140 turtles have received treatment at the Marsaxlokk centre, which can take the form of therapy and at times surgery. Medication for these and other turtles is acquired through funds from participants in the Adopt-A-Turtle campaign.

After 22 years of safeguarding animals, Nature Trust plans to set up the first wildlife rehab centre in Malta.

The NGO’s President Vincent Attard said that this is “the way forward” in protecting various endangered species such as turtles, chameleons and hedgehogs.

Posted in News

Did KSU actually influence the trade dispute?

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The mere look of glee or, more cynically, dread in the visage of expectant students receiving their results should be enough of a victory to add to KSU’s century old CV. Still, consider for a moment the snail’s pace that discussions took,  the disregard to KSU  (or students for that matter)  that the stakeholders’ attitudes often showed, and that it was only KSU’s threat of a student protest that really incited a reaction. This all shows that KSU was not as influential as it should have been throughout negotations.

In spite of this lack of influence, has KSU influenced the trade dispute in any way? When queried on the former question,  Julian Caruana, Insite’s former media officer, highlighted that “…all we got was a reminder that KSU is nothing more than a student pressure group”.

He went on the explain that KSU did have a significant role at ensuring a quicker resolution to negotations. However, unless the council could secure a seat at the negotation table , the amount of power they could assert was always going to be limited. “We have seen some improvements of late, namely KSU’s inclusion in the body that decides on the next canteen operator, but much more needs to be done”, Caruana said.

As a mere ‘student pressure group’, has KSU failed to put out its own voice? Former JEF and KSU executive member Albert Camilleri believes that KSU looked on top of things in both social media and local newspapers, particularly since a lot of their actions were picked up by a number of organisations and media houses. “Usually when that happens, you are on the right track of influencing decisions in one way or another”, Camilleri said, while also noting KSU’s involvement in the collective agreement before the unions’ announcement of the trade dispute.

Often seen as a deviant from KSU’s preferred tactic of being the only student organisation  that negotiates on behalf of the entire student body, Chris Vella, vice president of rival political organisation Pulse, shot down the idea that KSU has achieved the result on its own. “Without taking any merits from any student organisation or the council itself, it was a joint effort, manifesting a clear example of the pros of student representation,” Vella said. “Certainly it was a great effort from the whole student body at large, which as clearly envisaged today, led to the desired effect’’.

Like Julian Caruana, Mr Vella believes that the next challenge lies in ensuring that students have a presence on the round table from day 1.

Overall, the general consensus is that KSU probably handled the situation in the best way it could. Its greatest move was its ability to effectively rally a student body which is often considered highly passive and apathetic. Regardless of the highly valid criticsm of KSU’s stature as a minnow throughout negotiations, KSU will come out of this as a students’ council that was ready to go that extra mile and take “radical steps” in the form of a protest. Definitely something to add to the CV.

Posted in Comment, Features

The young and talented Lauren Aquilina

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Malta’s Farsons Beer Festival is one of the most awaited festivals by the public. Apart from the beer drinking, this festival serves as a platform for new and aspiring Maltese artists. Lauren Aquilina is one of these artists. Aquilina is a nineteen year old young lady, who has been making it in the music industry in England. She’s an inspiration to many young singers in Malta, proving that if you are dedicated to doing something you really love, you will get there.

Tonight at 10pm, Lauren Aquilina will be singing at the Beer Festival for the second time. Having attended Aquilina’s performance last year, I can say that tonight’s performance is not to be missed! So in order to get you all started below you will find Lauren Aquilina’s debut song released back in 2012, and an exclusive interview with Lauren herself.

 

Nicole: How long have you been in the music industry? 

Lauren: I have been signed for a few months, but releasing music since I was 17. So two years I guess!

 

Nicole: Could you tell me something about your music, what is the aim behind it?

Lauren: I use writing as a form of release, there was never really any aim, I’m just glad people seem to like it! It’s all very personal and fairly chilled.

 

Nicole: Which song of yours is your favourite? What’s the story behind it?

Lauren: My favourite song of mine is actually a new one I’ve written for the album, it’s about wanting to be free of something and finally feeling that release. I can’t reveal much more than that!

 

Nicole: Who are your musical inspirations?

Lauren: I love most music but in particular Coldplay, Stereophonics and Annie Lennox were massive influences whilst I was growing up. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Bon Iver and M83.
Nicole: Are there any new songs to be released soon?

Lauren: I’m writing lots at the moment for my debut album which should hopefully be out in 2015!

 

Nicole: Could you kindly tell me something about your relation to Malta?

Lauren: My Dad is Maltese which makes me half Maltese :-) I have a lot of family here and have been visiting often since I was really little.

 

Nicole: How do you like the country?

Lauren: I love it! It’s my favourite place in the world, my paradise.

Posted in Interviews, Music

Can KSU reform a dying KPS?

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The Social Policy Commission (KPS) at the University of Malta allows students to debate social issues. While it has so far only been accessible to those students who form part of a student organization, plans are in the works to open it up to all University students. Andrea Gonzi asked KPS Commissioner Becky Micallef and KPS Coordinator Andrew Muscat for details about this revamp.

 

Andrea: Let’s start with a rather pointed question. Is KPS dying?

Andrew: When I was contesting for the (KSU) elections, I had a couple of weeks to study the exact role of KPS and how it is implemented in reality. What I found out was that participation was at a minimum. So I came up with a soluton to make KPS more effective by extending its reach to students who are not members of student organisations.

Becky: In practice it looked like it was dying, maybe because the topics that were discussed weren’t very relevant to students. The structure needed a change. Basically what we’re going to do this year, apart from making KPS more open, is find topics that touch upon students’ lives, topics that students will be interested in discussing. The seven different themes that will be discussed this year will be health and well-being, Green Campus, the gender identity bill, drug decriminalization, the right to privacy in light of Snowden’s revelations, transport and parking, and irregular immigration. We’re also giving student organisations and students alike the opportunity to tell us ‘listen, we want to discuss this issue because we think it’s important’. If we feel that it really reflects the student interest, we will set up an ad hoc committee and start discussing it right away.

 

Andrea: Can you explain what the changes themselves will actually entail?

Andrew: I make a distinction between the substantive part of KPS, which is the policies per se, and the procedural part. While I find the substantive part quite reassuring, I feel that the procedural part is lacking. So I’m focusing more on the procedure; on the way we should tackle things, on the way we should discuss, on the way we should issue press releases, on the procedure of ad hoc committees, etc.. etc.. We’re trying to hit the ground running by implementing a procedure that would make things run more smoothly.

 

Andrea: Let’s take the example used by last year’s KSU executive where press releases were discussed. Do you think that this ‘unstructured’ debate was due to a lack of procedure?

Andrew: I believe so. I don’t think that it was ineffective but we can do better by anticipating social issues. For example, I am informed that the gender identity bill will only come out next spring. So we’re quite early in choosing it as a topic for discussion. We have a year to plan out strategically; we can talk to experts, we can study comparatively. Therefore, as students, we will be prepared. That’s where I think that procedure is extremely important.

 

Andrea: Why is there such a focus on these subcommittees and how will this work out procedurally?

Andrew: I don’t want it to be highly-bureaucratic or technical. These ad hoc committees and subcommittees will form part of the KPS structure. KPS will direct these subcommittees with the only difference that students from outside organisations can take part.

During election week I had formed a chart. The committees will serve as a guideline. Why? Because we need a more specific committee. For example, if we are talking about a medical issue, I expect medical students to be present. The committees will guide KPS.

 

Andrea: Do you feel that this type of arrangement opens up KSU’s door to the involvement of more students when compared to the previous systems?

Andrew: I hope so. That’s our aim.

 

Andrea: Becky, you had already put forward a few points and suggestions during the run up to your election. Can you outline the changes that you yourself are proposing?

Becky: Basically, the changes I had proposed back then were in line with what Andrew had proposed in SDM’s manifesto. The ad hoc committees that I suggested were just ideas of potential topics for discussion. I had researched some topics that I thought are of interest to students, and indeed some of them will be discussed by KPS this year. Also, what I had in mind was for the ad hoc committees to not only focus on writing reports but also on organisating activities or events that could attract an audience.

 

Andrea: The KSU executive of two years ago had tried to introduce a public dialogue which proved to be quite unsuccessful. Can you outline how your approach will succeed where theirs failed?

Becky: I think that the ad-hoc committees will make a big difference because it will not simply be about KSU reaching to the public. Rather, KSU will have ad hoc committees supported by KPS, which will in turn be supported by student organisations who can branch out to the general public.

 

Andrea: The main issue I’ve always seen with branching out KPS towards the common students’ is that their focus is only on policy. Don’t you think that tackling educational issues would interest the student more?

Becky: Such topics fall in the competence of the Education Office of KSU and that is why they haven’t been discussed in KPS. However, with the recent issue regarding the trade dispute between UMASA and the University of Malta, we did hold a joint meeting with the Education Commission (KE) and KPS members.  KPS didn’t take a vote on it though, as it fell under the role of KE.

 

Andrea: Since you are trying to change things, wouldn’t it be innovative of you to open KPS up to elements pertaining to education?

Andrew: It could definitely be an option and I think it could work, but we need to be cautious. There’s a fine line between what KPS stands for and what the commission for education stands for. I do think it’s an option though and I’m not disregarding it.

Becky: KPS involves all student organisations because they deserve such importance. Since the education office does not involve student organisations directly but rather student representatives, it could be an option.

 

Andrea: During Becky’s nomination speech, Pulse’s Joseph Masini asked whether the ad hoc committees will remove the powers of KPS? What would your reply be to that now?

Becky: I disagree. What the ad hoc committees discuss still have to go through KPS.

Andrew: It’s like a parliamentary committee. You have the institution but then you have the technical people that research and do the anaylatical work. We usually only had monthly KPS meetings in the past. This is not enough if KPS wants to be effective.

 

Andrea: After these changes are implemented, what’s next on the agenda?

Andrew: Obviously, we’ve already planned a timeline for the year. There’s the careers convention that I think we can really improve this year. We’re also thinking of taking all organisations to Junior College to bridge the gap between 6th forms and University.

We’re trying to utilise media as much as possible to take KPS to a higher level. I plan to take KPS to a national level as well as a University one. I want our issues, our concerns, our proposals, our enthusiam, and our energy reflected on a national level. This is where prominent people can come on board and give us a hand. It would be revolutionary for KPS.

Posted in Interviews