Conference explores nexus of governance and religion

Conference explores nexus of governance and religion

BARCELONA, 12 March 2015, (BWNS) — Over 50 people gathered at "The Conference on Governance and Religion", held recently at the iconic Palau Robert in Barcelona, Spain.

The conference was cosponsored by the Baha’i community of Spain in collaboration with seven other organizations and institutions, including the University of Barcelona, UNESCO’s Association for Interreligious Dialogue, and the Government of Catalonia’s General Directorate of Religious Affairs.

Organizers wanted to promote a dialogue on new, just, and peaceful forms of social organization, drawing on insights from science and religion, explained Sergio Garcia, a representative of the Baha’i community.

"The purpose of the Congress was to open a space for reflection on the contribution of religion to social progress in general and to the structures, processes, and instruments of good governance in particular," said Dr. Garcia. "A challenge that had to be faced was how to generate a collective space instead of a space where different individuals come to present their paper and go."

The event’s opening day was focused on the theoretical dimensions of the subject of governance and religion and explored a number of related themes. What followed on the second day were presentations on the practical contributions of religion to social progress.

The first of the five panels featured sought to define the concept of governance and its relationship with religion. "The concept of governance", as noted by Nuria Vahdat, the first presenter, "encompasses the way in which the formal government, NGOs, community organizations, and the private sector manage public affairs and resources."

Historian Amin Egea then examined how religion has inspired high moral standards that have made possible progressive forms of social organization in different eras. "Ultimately", he said, "the efficacy of institutions governing society depends on the qualities of the people participating in them."

On the second panel, Mar Griera, the Director of the Institute of the Sociology of Religion at Universitat Autonomo de Barcelona, challenged the commonly held view that pluralistic and modern societies lead to the marginalization of religion. In her presentation, she explored how religion can flourish in modern societies, citing empirical data to support her conclusions.

Dr. Griera’s comments were reinforced by her co-panelist Silvia Albareda Tiana, a professor of education at the International University of Barcelona. "The humanist perspectives which religion offers, can promote a more holistic human development," Dr. Tiana stated, "and religious foundations help to improve the conditions for more just, equitable, and sustainable societies."

On the second day, two presentations offered glimpses into the role of religion in social progress. The first explored how numerous spaces for interfaith dialogue in Spain have promoted religious freedom and diversity, and the second looked at the social contributions of religion to a globalized world.

In the final session, Jose Rodriguez, a professor of sociology at the University of Barcelona, shared insights from studies that suggest religion contributes significantly to happiness through its promotion of social cohesion and altruistic action.

Reflecting on the effort of the collaborating organizations to promote a dialogue on governance, Dr. Garcia explained that the conference "may be seen as an effort to open a new forum where different actors representing all sectors of society can contribute collectively to the evolution of social thought in areas of relevance for the betterment of society".

The congress was the second of a series in the coming years that will explore different aspects of governance, such as global governance, political economy, media and public agenda, and collective security.

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“Education is Not a Crime” gains momentum

LOS ANGELES, 8 February 2015, (BWNS) — Education is Not a Crime, a worldwide campaign drawing attention to the constructive response of the Baha’i community to the Iranian government’s systematic denial of university education to young Baha’is, is gaining momentum as it nears its global day of action, 27 February.

The campaign’s website highlights the breadth of efforts by authorities in Iran to persecute the Baha’is there, and it provides historical context.

Calling on people around the world to participate in the campaign, the homepage states, "Education is a crime in Iran. But we can change that".

Launched in November 2014, the campaign, organized by Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist and filmmaker who was himself imprisoned in Iran in 2009, was inspired by the film "To Light a Candle", a documentary made by Mr. Bahari.

The film uses interviews, personal stories, and archival footage – often smuggled out of Iran at great personal risk – to explore how the Baha’is in Iran, in the face of ongoing oppression, have found creative ways to respond to injustice. In particular, it highlights the constructive resilience of Baha’i youth who have expressed their desire to pursue their education by developing informal arrangements through which they could have access to university-level studies.

The campaign is leading up to a major event titled Education Is Not A Crime Live 2015, to be held in Los Angeles on 27 February, where "To Light a Candle" will be shown – one of hundreds of screenings to be held around the world on that day.

A significant element of this campaign is the support it has received from across the world. Notably, a growing number of Iranians have decided to defend the rights of the Baha’is against decades-long efforts by authorities and religious leaders in Iran to misrepresent the Baha’i community.

"Many people are learning from the Baha’is," Mr. Bahari said during the premier of his film in London this past September. He added that, in the past, Iranians "were indifferent to the fate of the Baha’is. We didn’t care to care."

"Most young Iranians today have Baha’i friends despite the fact the government continues to harass them and portray them in the same negative light," Mr. Bahari said.

The Education is Not a Crime campaign has been endorsed by many prominent individuals. These include Noble Peace laureates such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Shirin Ebadi, Tawakkol Karman, Jody Williams, and Mairead Maguire. In addition, it has won the support of a number of other artists and intellectuals including Nazanin Boniadi, Abbas Milani, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Azar Nafisi, Omid Djalili, Eva LaRue, and Mohammad Maleki, former president of the University of Tehran.

A section of the site has been devoted to providing information on how individuals can become involved in the initiative. In addition, numerous videos have been posted, both on the website and the Facebook page of the campaign, by people around the world who have sent messages supporting the right of the Baha’is in Iran to study.

"Education is a basic human right," says an individual in his video posted on the website. "It’s like…the right to livelihood, safety or work, right to shelter. It’s a basic human right, it’s not a crime. Deprivation of it is a crime."

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Archbishop Tutu Condemns Denial of Education to Baha’is of Iran

Archbishop Tutu Condemns Denial of Education to Baha’is of Iran

CAPE TOWN, 1 February 2015, (BWNS) — In a statement published on 30 January, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African social rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate added his voice to the chorus of condemnation of the denial of the right of Baha’is to higher education by the government of Iran.

Posted on the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation website, the statement reads: "The Iranian government says that education is a crime for Baha’is. But I want to tell you that we can change that – we can give voice on their behalf. We can tell the government of Iran, and the world, that banning the Baha’is or any group from higher education is hurting Iran and the Iranian people. Our bitter experience of apartheid demonstrates that discrimination of all types hurts us all. Iran’s government is denying its own people the services of thousands of Baha’i engineers, doctors, and artists, who could help Iran, Iranians and the world."

The statement was made as part of the Education is Not a Crime campaign, which began in November 2014, following the release of the film To Light a Candle, a documentary by Mr. Maziar Bahari, an acclaimed journalist and filmmaker and a former Newsweek correspondent in Tehran.

The Education is Not a Crime campaign has gained the support of numerous prominent individuals from around the world. Among these are Nobel Laureates – Ms. Mairead Maguire, Dr. Shirin Ebadi, Ms. Tawakkol Karman, and Ms. Jody Williams. Mr. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, an Iranian filmmaker, Dr. Mohammad Maleki, former president of the University of Tehran, and Ms. Azar Nafisi, an Iranian writer and professor have also expressed their support.

The film highlights the constructive resilience of Iran’s young Baha’is who, in the face of systematic attempts by the Iranian regime to debar them from access to higher education, developed an informal arrangement through which they could have access to university-level studies. The campaign features voices of support from around the world for the Baha’is in Iran and will include a global day of action on 27 February.

"The right to education is a human right which should not be denied to any human being", said the statement of Dr. Maleki, published on the website of Education is Not a Crime. "It is not acceptable to deny any one this right on the account of belief, religion, sex or any other criteria."

The Baha’is in Iran have faced systematic and ongoing persecution in their homeland since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In line with its intention to eradicate the Baha’i Faith as a viable entity, the government in that country has denied them even the most basic rights. In addition to the right to enter universities, Baha’is are banned from working in the public sector and are repeatedly obstructed from earning a livelihood. Over the years, hundreds of Baha’is have also been illegally detained and imprisoned solely because of their beliefs.

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On three continents prominent Muslims denounce persecution of Iran’s Baha’is, call for religious coexistence

On three continents prominent Muslims denounce persecution of Iran’s Baha’is, call for religious coexistence

PARIS, 17 June 2014, (BWNS) — In the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, prominent Muslims have spoken out recently against the persecution of the Baha’is in Iran, denouncing the religious intolerance that is the motivating force behind the oppression of that country’s largest religious minority. Inspired in part by Iranian Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi Tehrani, who recently issued a call asking specifically for "coexistence" with Baha’is, Ayatollah al-Faqih Seyyed Hussein Ismail al-Sadr, the most senior Shi’a cleric in Baghdad, Iraq; the Muslim Judicial Council of South Africa; and Dr. Ghaleb Bencheikh, Chair of Religions for Peace in France, have all praised Ayatollah Tehrani’s action as both principled and courageous, endorsing his appeal for a fresh discourse on the shared values among different religions as part of an effort to promote harmonious coexistence.

In Baghdad, in an extended interview published online on 14 May 2014, Ayatollah al-Faqih Seyyed Hussein Ismail al-Sadr, founder of the Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation, said discussions about such shared values can help overcome dogmatism and fanaticism.

"All of us, before adhering to a certain religion, group, or doctrine, are human beings," said Ayatollah Sadr. "As such, we share many values, thought processes, and natural dispositions, which are the elements that allow us to come together and engage in a discourse that would give us a greater understanding of others, and thus gain a deeper understanding of each other, which, in turn, leads us to establish a harmonious coexistence."

In the interview, Ayatollah Sadr also addressed the question of the Baha’is. "The Qur’an addresses us all as ‘children of Adam’," he said, "and according to Imam ‘Ali, peace be upon Him, people are of two kinds – either your religious brother, or your equal in creation. I might not agree with followers of a certain religion, but that does not mean that I have the right to deprive them of their natural human rights or deny them their rights as citizens of a nation."

Ayatollah Sadr, who is well known for his efforts to promote dialogue among religious and secular groups, called for a "human discourse" about religious harmony and coexistence. His objective, he said, is to "engage in all discourses that contribute to the formation of a progressive humanity with a new vision that can build a healthy society, which, in turn, contributes to building successful nations."

Last October, Ayatollah Sadr issued a religious edict of fatwa concerning how Muslims should behave towards Baha’is, in response to a question posed to him by someone who noted that some Muslims believe that they should not have any interactions with Baha’is.

"God Almighty has ordered us to deal with all our brothers and sisters from other religions and faith with kindness, based in justice, mercy and love," he said. "Therefore, there is no objection to interacting and associating within the general human fundamentals between Muslims and their brothers from other religions and beliefs."

On 16 May 2014, the Muslim Judicial Council of South Africa issued a statement praising Ayatollah Tehrani’s "noble act" which, it noted, accorded "due recognition to the Baha’i community". The Council also expressed hope that Ayatollah Tehrani’s action would lead to "official recognition of the rights of this religious community whose aims and objectives are solely for peace and tolerance on earth for all".

And in Paris, in a video posted online, Dr. Ghaleb Bencheikh, a highly respected Muslim theologian and well-known in France for his promotion of interfaith activities and as the presenter of the weekly television program "Islam", commended Ayatollah Tehrani’s "magnificent" gesture.

"I hope he will inspire others very soon," said Dr. Bencheikh. "It would be wonderful if he had ambassadors who spoke in his name. For the moment he has none, not that I know of in any case. Well then, we will proclaim ourselves as his ambassadors."

Condemning the persecution of Iran’s Baha’is as being "in disdain of law" and "an intolerable scandal", Dr. Bencheikh urged that discourse on religious coexistence be carried forward. To this end he immediately arranged for a round-table event, jointly hosted by Religions for Peace and the Baha’i Community of France, to be held in Paris on 27 June, under the title: "Promoting religious co-existence – shared reflections in tribute to the action of Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani". Dr. Bencheikh has also raised the possibility of a larger such gathering to be held this coming winter.

"We should not lose hope," said Dr. Bencheikh. "The greatest cathedrals begin with a stone. This stone is laid. If you want men to fraternise, bring them together to build cathedrals. Here the cathedral is not a physical edifice. It is the cathedral of universal fraternity. So, then, it begins with a word, a gesture, a sign of friendship that we need to know how to build upon."

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Threatening anti-Baha’i posters distributed in Yazd, Iran

Threatening anti-Baha’i posters distributed in Yazd, Iran

GENEVA, 18 June 2014, (BWNS) — A highly inflammatory and threatening flier calling Baha’is "godless" was distributed in the city of Yazd, Iran, last week on the eve of an important Shiite holy day.

The anonymously authored leaflet was posted on walls and also placed on the homes and cars of Baha’is, said Diane Ala’i, the representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations in Geneva.

"The distribution of this poster was obviously timed to inflame religious passions against Baha’is, who are a minority in Yazd and throughout Iran," said Ms. Ala’i. "The basic message of the poster is that it is a religious duty to attack Baha’is and to destroy their properties.

"The targeting of Baha’i homes and vehicles is also equally ominous, sending a message: ‘We know who and where you are,’" she added.

The distribution of the flier in this mid-sized central Iranian city came on 12 June 2014, on the eve of Shabe-barat [the "night of deliverance"], which honors the birth of Imam Mahdi and is an important holy day for Shiite Muslims.

The flier claims that according to Sharia law, the "blood" of Baha’is "is worthless," and that "every Muslim individual must stand up against any activity by this movement and combat them even at the cost of his own life."

A similar version of the poster had been delivered to at least five Baha’i homes in Yazd last January. That flier was signed by "Hizbu’llah" (the Party of God).

Ms. Ala’i said it was the government’s duty to denounce such acts publicly and to find and prosecute the perpetrators of such hateful messages, and to protect Baha’is as citizens of Iran.

"Unfortunately, the government has for too long allowed the perpetrators of such attacks to act with impunity. In recent years, there have been literally hundreds of attacks or threats against Baha’is and their properties, and no one has been prosecuted for such actions," she said.

Ms. Ala’i noted, for example, that three Baha’is were attacked in their home in Birjand in January by an anonymous intruder wielding a knife and that a Baha’i was shot and killed in Bandar Abbas last August. There have also been a number of incidents of the desecration of Baha’i cemeteries in recent months, such as efforts by the Revolutionary Guard to destroy an historic Baha’i cemetery in Shiraz.

"Unfortunately, the government has too often been a willing participant in the circulation of hate material against Baha’is. Top officials and government media outlets regularly spew anti-Baha’i propaganda – and the volume of such items has in fact increased dramatically this year," said Ms. Ala’i.

In January, said Ms. Ala’i, the Baha’i International Community had catalogued at least 55 anti-Baha’i articles on Iranian websites. That rose to 72 in February, 93 in March, 285 in April, and 366 in May.

"The government has created an atmosphere where those who harbor hatred against Baha’is can act with complete impunity," said Ms. Ala’i. "And without fear of prosecution, we are gravely concerned that life-threatening attacks against Baha’is are all too likely to continue."

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Faith leaders call for release of Iran’s imprisoned Baha’is

Faith leaders call for release of Iran’s imprisoned Baha’is

LONDON, 3 June 2014, (BWNS) — Representatives from the United Kingdom’s major religious communities have called for the immediate release from prison in Iran of that country’s seven former Baha’i leaders.

The call came at an unprecedented commemorative meeting in Westminster Abbey, held on 27 May, to mark the sixth anniversary of their imprisonment. The seven are each currently serving 20-year jail sentences, the longest faced by any of Iran’s prisoners of conscience.

The gathering took place in the Abbey’s historic Jerusalem Chamber. Dating from the late 14th century, it is the room where committees translated the Authorized Version of the Bible in 1611, and prepared subsequent revised editions.

Welcoming the guests, the Reverend Andrew Tremlett – Canon of Westminster Abbey – explained how the Abbey "aspires to be a place that gathers people of all faiths and none, so it is absolutely right that this occasion is happening here."

The program included prayers and reflections delivered by representatives of the Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and Zoroastrian communities.
After the contributions, seven of the faith leaders each lit a candle, representing a prisoner.

The Iranian government’s treatment of its Baha’i community is the litmus test of its regard for the human rights of all its citizens, Ms. Ellmann added.

"Today I reiterate the call in urging the Iranian authorizes to release the [Baha'i leaders] unconditionally and immediately."

Two prominent faith leaders – a Sunni Muslim and a Coptic Orthodox Christian – also offered remarks. In a video message which was screened to the gathering, Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra – who serves as an imam in Leicester – said that "no religion teaches us to treat others wrongly and oppress them… Iran has the opportunity to demonstrate to the world that Islam is indeed a religion of compassion and peace".

Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom said that "we stand with, and pray for, the Baha’i community, both here and around the world, and pray for the safe return of their leaders to them".

"We pray for a change of heart, a change of policy. We pray for a change of thought and understanding," said Bishop Angaelos.

Speaking on behalf of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United Kingdom, Fidelma Meehan said it was "heartwarming" to see such a diverse group of people gather in support of the human rights of the Baha’is in Iran.

Ms. Meehan also noted that government, interfaith, and civil society support in the United Kingdom was matched by a "growing awareness" around the world of the true intentions of the Baha’is to "strive for the spiritual and material welfare of others". Even in Iran, she said, a number of "promoters of justice, artists, statesmen, thinkers, and other enlightened citizens" have recently "broken their silence" in defense of the human rights of Iranian Baha’is.

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Ellman said, "Voices calling for change, voices speaking out against oppression must be heard – and after that, action must follow."

The seven Baha’i leaders formed the entire membership of the now-disbanded group known as the "Yaran" or "Friends in Iran", which operated with the explicit knowledge of the government to tend to the spiritual and social needs of the 300,000-member Baha’i community of that country.

On 14 May 2008, in a series of early morning raids in Tehran, six of them were arrested: Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm. A seventh member of the group, Mahvash Sabet, had been detained two months earlier on 5 March 2008.

Afterwards, the seven were subject to an entirely flawed judicial process. During their first year in detention, they were not told of the charges against them and had virtually no access to lawyers. Their trial, conducted over a period of months in 2010 and amounting to only six days in court, was illegally closed to the public, demonstrated extreme bias on the part of prosecutors and judges, and was based on non-existent evidence.

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Continuing praise for Ayatollah Tehrani’s call for religious coexistence

Continuing praise for Ayatollah Tehrani’s call for religious coexistence

SAO PAULO, Brazil, 21 May 2014, (BWNS) — The dramatic initiative of a senior Iranian religious leader, who last month called for coexistence with Baha’is, continues to stir a global conversation about religious tolerance and freedom of belief.

Statements by prominent religious leaders and other thinkers have recently been made in Brazil, Canada, Spain, and South Africa in response to the actions of Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, who on 7 April 2014 gifted to the Baha’is of the world an illuminated calligraphic work of Baha’i holy verses.

In Brazil, noted Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff expressed admiration for Ayatollah Tehrani’s gesture, saying he is "serving the cause of peace among religions – the basis for peace among peoples."

"It is impossible not to remember, in this context, the extraordinary experience of seven centuries of peaceful coexistence and profound dialogue between the followers of Allah who lived in the Spain of Averroes and Avicenna, amongst great other poets, living alongside Christians like the Franciscan priest Raimundo Lullo," wrote Dr. Boff, who currently serves as Professor Emeritus of Ethics, Philosophy of Religion and Ecology at the Rio de Janeiro State University.

Also in Brazil, Federal Deputy Chico Alencar recently delivered a statement to Congress praising Ayatollah Tehrani’s gesture, calling it a "symbolic action for us to remember the importance of valuing human dignity and of peaceful coexistence."

"Beyond that, he states that independent of the religion, people should live in cooperation and avoid hatred, enmity and religious prejudice," said Deputy Alencar, explaining he was citing Ayatollah Tehrani’s actions as a reminder to other Federal Deputies that laws should "promote educational, social and political practices aligned with ideas of peace and peaceful coexistence among all Brazilians…."

In Canada, James Christie, director of the Ridd Institute for Religion and Global Policy at the University of Winnipeg, wrote a letter commending Ayatollah Tehrani’s actions.

"His words and his gift augur a rising tide of reconciliation, peace and hope among religions upon which all people of good will must surely comment and act, not for fortune, but in faith," said the Rev. Prof. Dr. Christie.

In South Africa, Gary Eisenberg, chairman of the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies, wrote a letter to Ayatollah Tehrani, commending him on his gesture towards the Baha’is, calling it "a symbol of respect for the innate dignity of human beings, for fellow-feeling and peaceful coexistence regardless of religious affiliation, denomination or belief."

"We pray that the message of tolerance and compassion found in the Koran and repeated in your message to the Baha’i community will spread among the other leaders in your country so that all the peoples of Iran become free to live as equals in your beautiful land," wrote Mr. Eisenberg.

And in Spain, Eva Borreguero, a professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, and Antonio Sanchez Bayon, a professor of law at Universidad Camilo Jose Cela, expressed support for Ayatollah Tehrani and his message.

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Senior law officers in Bangladesh praise courageous symbolic action for coexistence

Senior law officers in Bangladesh praise courageous symbolic action for coexistence

DHAKA, Bangladesh, 18 May 2014, (BWNS) — Four leading jurists in Bangladesh have commended the action of a prominent Iranian religious leader who has called for coexistence of all religions, including Baha’is.

Advocate Md. Abdus Salam Mondal, Deputy Attorney General of Bangladesh, wrote that Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani’s action "is a true expression of the spirit and message of Islam that believes in equal coexistence with the followers of all religions." He also stated that "the Baha’is, like the followers of all other religions, have the right to profess their religion unhindered."

Three founding members of the Bangladesh Minority Lawyers’ Association – Barrister Nikhilesh Dutta, Advocate Cyril Sikdar, and Advocate S. N. Goswami – made similar statements.

Barrister Nikhilesh Dutta, former Deputy Attorney General and social activist, who has been practicing law in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh since 1978, praised Ayatollah Tehrani, "who has initiated a positive note for the followers of the Baha’i religion through his noble gift of calligraphy to them". He further expressed hope that the people and the government of Iran would follow suit. Mr. Dutta was the first national who was called to the Bar in Bangladesh, in 1972. In 2007, in recognition of his services, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II conferred a knighthood on him.

Advocate Cyril Sikdar, former Ambassador of Bangladesh in Nepal, who has held a law practice in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh since 1976, stated that Ayatollah Tehrani’s statement is "a brave expression of the true feelings of sincere Muslims of the world". Mr. Sikdar also said that Ayatollah Tehrani’s call for religious tolerance is "in full accord with the beliefs and hopes of the Muslims of Bangladesh who strongly believe that people of all religions should be allowed to coexist and work on the progress of their country."

Advocate S. N. Goswami, who, in addition to co-founding the Bangladesh Minority Lawyers’ Association, is Founder-Editor of the monthly journal "Bangladesh Law Times", noted that Ayatollah Tehrani’s gift of calligraphy to the Baha’is of the world – and particularly to the Baha’is of Iran – "is a very praiseworthy act fully in line with the Teachings of the Holy Qur’an."

These four senior law officers join a rapidly growing number of individuals in countries across the world, including within Iran itself, who are raising their voices in support of Ayatollah Tehrani’s courageous stand for religious tolerance. The resounding call for an end to the relentless persecution of Iran’s Baha’is by their government has brought both consolation and reassurance to the Baha’is throughout the country, who are deeply grateful for the expressions of solidarity they are receiving from fellow citizens and other well-wishers further afield.

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