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On Trip to Turkey, Pope Francis Calls for Dialogue in Battling ISIS

In his first visit as pope to a predominantly Muslim country, Pope Francis said in Turkey on Friday that interreligious dialogue, more than just military action, was required to combat the “fanatacism and fundamentalism” that threaten Christians and other religious minorities along the country’s southern border. “Interreligious and intercultural dialogue can make an important contribution to attaining this lofty and urgent goal, so that there will be an end to all forms of fundamentalism and terrorism, which gravely demean the dignity of every man and woman and exploit religion,” the pope said in a televised speech from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s presidential palace in Ankara. “Fanaticism and fundamentalism, as well as irrational fears, which foster misunderstanding and discrimination, need to be countered by the solidarity of all believers.” The pope emphasized the need to focus on commonalities of faith and the value of learning from religious differences to repair relations between Christians and Muslims. The papacy has had a tarnished image among Muslims in Turkey since 2006, when Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, quoted a Byzantine emperor who called Islam “evil and inhuman.” Francis called for fighting against fanaticism and fundamentalism, especially in the Middle East, and the 77-year-old pope said military action was not enough to counter “irrational fears, which foster misunderstanding and discrimination” (Source: The New York Times).

Russia's warships pass through English Channel, anchor off coast of France and do exercises

Four Russian military ships on Friday sailed through the English Channel and dropped anchor alongside the coast of France, an incident that NATO called routine but still had resonance at a time of Cold War-level tensions between Russia and the West. The four ships, led by the anti-submarine destroyer Severomorsk, planned to hold exercises “to combat underwater subversive forces,” while at anchor, Russian state-run news agency RIA Novosti reported the Russian military as saying. The ships had been passing through the English Channel when they decided to wait out poor weather by dropping anchor in the Bay of the Seine, the military said, according to RIA Novosti. The Northern Military District referred inquiries to the Russian Defense Ministry, which did not respond to requests for comment. NATO said that it was tracking the ships but it did not view their activity as hostile. “We see this as a routine movement on the part of the Russian navy. And they’re well within their rights to do so,” said Col. Jay Janzen, a spokesman for NATO’s military command. “It’s not as if they are doing some war-fighting maneuvers in the English Channel or something that could be considered hostile.” The British Defense Ministry said Friday that its navy had sent a patrol vessel to escort the Russian ships as they passed through the English Channel and into international waters, a routine measure when foreign navies pass through the narrow strait. The Russian Navy frequently uses the English Channel to navigate to the Mediterranean Sea. Russian defense movements in recent months have caused countries such as Finland to reconsider long-held decisions to sit out of NATO (Source: The Washington Post).

Are Russia and China Really Serious, Or Just Hooking Up?

The recent announcement of further joint Russia-China military exercises scheduled for 2015 has fueled fresh speculation about the possibility of a growing alliance between the two countries. The development of close ties between Russia and China is not a foregone conclusion. For most of the latter half of the Cold War, the pair had frosty, or even outright hostile relations. Russia’s biennial Vostok military exercises have often been set against a hypothetical foe that resembles China. Even as relations have thawed between the countries over the last decade, and Russian relations with the West have deteriorated markedly in the last year, it’s not clear that the new closeness between Russia and China will mature into a strong alliance. There are a lot of unknowns, so let’s start with what is known. Russia has been doubling down on its opposition to the West in the wake of the Great Crimean Heist and the Ukraine conflict. Moscow won’t back down from this perch for quite a while; likely until Putin leaves office, which won’t happen until 2018 at the earliest. China’s stance — a little more ambiguous and harder to nail down — is the more important unknown in the equation. A RAND report breaks alliances into three categories: tactical, historical, and natural. Tactical alliances are the one-night stands and casual hookups of the geopolitical world. They’re typically very much about addressing a mutual interest and have no real life beyond that (Source: Vice).

France's Hollande heads for Ebola-hit Guinea

French President Francois Hollande is due to meet his counterpart in Guinea, being the first Western leader to visit one of West Africa’s Ebola-hit countries since the outbreak began. Hollande was set to begin a visit to Guinea on Friday as the first non-African head of state to visit any of the three countries badly hit by the Ebola crisis. The French president was expected to deliver a “message of solidarity” from France, and give his backing to the efforts of aid providers working there. During the visit, Hollande was set to visit healthcare facilities, and take part in a round-table discussion on the Ebola outbreak, as well as hold talks with his Guinean counterpart Alpha Conde. France has said it will give 100 million euros ($125 million) to the fight against Ebola, focusing its efforts on Guinea, where there are plans to finance several care centers. Paris has also pledged to establish two training centres for health workers, one in France and one in Guinea. French biotechnology companies have also been drafted in to set up rapid diagnostic tests in Africa. The contagion has killed nearly 5,700 people in the region, with Liberia tallying the most deaths. Sierra Leone, meanwhile, has seen the fastest rate of expansion, making Guinea’s outbreak the least urgent by comparison. However, officials and medical workers say aid efforts in Guinea – where the first instances off the latest outbreak were recorded – are still suffering from poor coordination. The government of Sierra Leone on Thursday announced that a three-day shutdown of all businesses in the capital, Freetown, would begin on Friday in an attempt to curb the outbreak (Source: France24).

NATO's 'Spearhead' Answer to Russia Fraught With Funding Difficulties

NATO’s planned new fast-reaction force, centerpiece of its response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, is proving harder to set up than expected because of shortages of vital equipment and arguments over funding, diplomats say. NATO leaders meeting in Wales in September agreed on a new “spearhead” force of up to 5,000 ground troops with air, sea and special forces support as part of a plan to reassure eastern European allies nervous about Russia’s actions in Ukraine. NATO leaders envisaged a force able to quickly reinforce eastern Europe — comprising countries that were under Soviet domination during the Cold War but are now NATO members — in case of trouble. Some units would be ready to move in two days, compared with the five needed by NATO’s current response force. “We’ve found that standing up that capability has more difficulty involved than perhaps the alliance expected when it took the decision at Wales,” Britain’s ambassador to NATO, Adam Thomson, told reporters. One reason is the downsizing of NATO armed forces, reducing the ability to whisk equipment across Europe since the Cold War. “We have moved so far away from the capabilities that the alliance developed for collective defense through the Cold War,” Thomson said. NATO foreign ministers meet next Tuesday to review progress since the summit. NATO expects defense ministers to approve the size and design of the “spearhead” force next February. But diplomats do not expect it to be fully operational until 2016. Next year, NATO will strive to improve its existing rapid reaction force as a stepping stone to the new “spearhead” (Source: The Moscow Times).

A Tilt Toward NATO in Ukraine as Parliament Meets

As Ukraine’s new Parliament, firmly controlled by a coalition of pro-Western parties, convened for the first time on Thursday, President Petro O. Poroshenko urged lawmakers to repeal a 2010 law that codified the country’s nonaligned status in global affairs, and to instead pursue membership in NATO. The Parliament, in two of its most important initial actions, chose Volodymyr Groysman, a close ally of Mr. Poroshenko, as speaker and also re-elected Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, a technocrat well-loved in the West, as prime minister. Mr. Poroshenko’s remarks were sure to antagonize Russia, which annexed Crimea in March and has supported violent, pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, in part because of the Kremlin’s opposition to any move by Ukraine toward NATO. “Today it is clear that the nonalignment status of Ukraine proclaimed in 2010 couldn’t guarantee our security and territorial integrity,” Mr. Poroshenko told the Parliament. “This position has led to serious losses. That’s why we’ve decided to return to the course of NATO integration.” Earlier this month, Dmitri S. Peskov, the chief spokesman for the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, pointedly underlined Russia’s position in an interview with the BBC, saying: “We would like to hear a 100 percent guarantee that no one would think about Ukraine’s joining NATO. We would like to hear that NATO would discontinue to approach Russian borders, that NATO will discontinue attempts to break the balance, the balance of power. But unfortunately we fail to hear these words” (Source: The New York Times).

An average of three people a day join Estonia's national guard, driven by fear of Russia

Each day an average of three people have joined Estonia’s national guard this year. Estonians worry Russia could one day turn its aggression on them, and they want to be ready. Isabelle de Pommereau reports from Tallinn. Last time Alo Looke and his university buddies got together over coffee, they spoke of little else but the Russian annexation of Crimea and Russia’s moves into eastern Ukraine. “Then we thought, what do we do if something ever happens in Estonia?” said Looke, who manages advertising for the Estonian National Opera. “We can’t just sit around and do nothing.” The answer from Looke’s friends came fast: Join the country’s volunteer army. So far this year, 30-year-old Looke and close to 1,000 other Estonians have flocked to the Estonian Defense League, the country’s voluntary national guard. This doubles the number of new recruits compared to last year’s figures. Created in 1918 after Estonian won independence from Russia, it was disbanded when the Soviet army took over the country in 1940. The recent jump in paramilitary enlistment is the biggest since the League, or Kaitseliit, was reinstated in 1991. With 1.3 million people, Estonia has only 3,800 professional soldiers, but some 14,545 Defense League volunteers, who train to fight, swelling the ranks of the country’s protectors – be it for riots or war. Like the 140 members of the Estonian volunteer cyber army, they report to the Defense Department. Neighboring countries are also witnessing huge jumps in their paramilitary enlistments – the Riflemen’s Union in Lithuania as well as Latvia’s and Poland’s reserve home guards (Source: Deutsche Welle).

Bulgaria charges radical imam, six others with supporting Islamic State

A Bulgarian imam and six others detained during a special operation by security forces earlier this week have been charged with supporting the ultra-radical militant group Islamic State, Bulgarian prosecutors said on Wednesday. Charges against Muslim prayer leader Ahmed Mussa, five men and one woman include propagating an anti-democratic ideology and incitement to war, both verbally and with videos and images, Deputy Chief Prosecutor Borislav Sarafov said. Islamic State, who control territory in Iraq and Syria, have carried out brutal killings of civilians, including highly publicized beheadings of foreign journalists and aid workers. The group has been targeted by U.S.-led air strikes. Western governments fear their own citizens who have joined the group to fight could return and carry out attacks at home.  Bulgarian security forces raided more than 40 homes and a mosque in southern Bulgaria on Tuesday to seize books and computers in a special operation aimed at uncovering radical Islamist activities. Some 26 people were held for 24 hours and 30 witnesses were questioned during the operation, conducted by more than 400 police officers, security agents, prosecutors and investigators. “(Mussa) is an intelligent man, so he has accepted the prosecutors’ decision and he has not expressed indignation regarding his detention,” Elvira Pankova, Mussa’s lawyer, told reporters.  Investigators discovered a large number of shirts, hats, flags and banners with the logo of the Islamic State. Sarafov said that Mussa, a former Christian of Roma origin who converted to Islam in 2000 while working in Vienna, had preached surrounded by the Islamic State flags (Source: Reuters).

NATO Fears Russia Could Control Black Sea Region

NATO’s top commander warned on Wednesday that Russia’s militarization of the Crimean peninsula could allow Moscow to take control of the entire region. “We are very concerned with the militarization of Crimea. We are concerned that the capabilities in Crimea that are being installed will bring an effect on almost the entire Black Sea,” Air Force General Philip Breedlove, head of the U.S. European Command and NATO supreme allied commander, said after meetings in Kiev with Ukrainian leaders. Breedlove warned that Russian troops stationed on Ukraine’s border could mount a major incursion into Ukraine. Russian troops already in Ukraine were “training, equipping, giving backbone … helping [pro-Russian separatists] forces in the field,” he said. “This international border is completely wide open and maintained open by Russian forces, so that forces, supplies, money, fighters can move across at will,” Breedlove added. Russia denies its troops are in Ukraine, despite numerous reports that they have breached Ukraine’s borders and are assisting separatists there. Breedlove added that the number of Russian military incursions into NATO members’ airspace, as well as the number of planes involved in these incursions, are on the rise. According to NATO, the alliance has conducted more than 100 intercepts of Russian aircraft in 2014, three times the number of incursions conducted by the alliance in 2013. “The number and pattern has changed, maybe as much as three times as much as we have seen before,” Breedlove said (Source: Foreign Policy).

France's President urges 'democratic transition' in Egypt during Sisi Paris visit

France on Wednesday urged Egypt to continue its path towards democracy, as visiting president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi sought to restore his country’s reputation with his first European tour after a deadly crackdown on opponents. “We want the process to continue, a process of democratic transition which respects the roadmap and allows Egypt to succeed fully,” said French President François Hollande at a joint news conference after talks with Sisi. Hollande called for a “clear” relationship between Paris and Cairo after talks that focused on the fight against Islamic extremists as well as several bilateral business deals. “We have to act together to fight against terrorism,” stressed Hollande. Sisi arrived from Italy, where he was hailed as a “strategic partner” of Rome and Europe, in the latest sign of Cairo’s international rehabilitation. This is partly due to shared problems and enemies, notably the lawlessness in Libya and the challenge posed by the Islamic State group’s deadly insurgency across Syria and Iraq. Sisi hopes to coordinate an international response to fighting in Libya between government-backed troops and Islamist militias. Hollande has described Libya’s descent into chaos after the 2011 overthrow of Moamer Kadhafi as his “major concern”, sounding the alarm over what Paris has termed a “terrorist hub”. The Egyptians “have the feeling that they weren’t heard in 2011 when they warned of the dangers of a Western intervention. They hope to be heard today,” said a French government source. “They believe we need to re-intervene in Libya but we doubt that this crisis can be solved purely by force,” added the source (Source: France24).