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Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS AP) – The key international Mideast mediators will confer with former British prime minister Tony Blair for the first time next week in his new role promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the U.N. said Friday.
Top officials from the Quartet – the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia – will meet on July 19 in Lisbon, Portugal, U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said.
“The meeting comes at a crucial moment and will be an opportunity to assess the recent events and discuss the way forward to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East,” she said.
“In particular, the Quartet principals will confer with the Quartet representative, Tony Blair, on how best to assist the Palestinian Authority in building its institutions and economy, which are vital for the creation of a viable Palestinian state,” Okabe said.
Hours after Blair stepped down as prime minister on June 27, the Quartet appointed him with a mandate to focus on mobilizing international support and assistance for the Palestinians, a job that will be even tougher now because of the sharp divide between Hamas, which wrested control of the Gaza Strip in early June, and Fatah, which controls the West Bank.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who will attend next week’s Quartet meeting, is increasingly concerned about the economic impact for Gaza and called for the opening of all crossings to allow humanitarian supplies and workers and commercial goods to enter the territory, Okabe said.
She said new World Bank figures showed that last month 3,190 businesses closed down, forcing 65,000 people into unemployment.
“If what is left of Gaza’s economy is allowed to collapse, poverty levels, already affecting an estimated two-thirds of households, will rise further and the people of Gaza will become near totally aid dependent,” Okabe said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Asociated Press

WASHINGTON – President Bush’s nominee for surgeon general insisted Thursday that he harbors no bias against homosexuals in spite of his 1991 writings viewed by some as anti-gay.
Dr. James Holsinger faced tough questioning at his Senate confirmation hearing over his views on homosexuality and how he would react if he were pressured to put politics ahead of science in his role as the nation’s doctor.
“I would resign,” Holsinger said emphatically.
Concerns about his independence were spurred by former Surgeon General Richard Carmona’s testimony two days earlier that the Bush administration muzzled him on issues such as abstinence education and stem-cell research because of politics.
A vote on the nomination of Holsinger, a Kentucky doctor, wasn’t expected for several weeks.
At Thursday’s hearing, he distanced himself from a paper he wrote 16 years ago that has been attacked by gay rights organizations and public health experts as inaccurate and inflammatory. The paper cited data showing elevated rates of disease among gay men, but some medical experts say he completely ignored other data that would contradict the paper’s point that homosexuality is an abnormal function.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, asked Holsinger on several occasions to address various aspects of his paper on homosexuality for a study committee of the United Methodist Church.
“Dr. Holsinger’s paper cherry picks and misuses data to support his thesis that homosexuality is unhealthy and unnatural,” Kennedy, D-Mass., said.
Holsinger said it was not intended to be a scientific paper and that he relied on the information available to him at the time.
“First of all, the paper does not represent where I am today. It does not represent who I am today,” Holsinger said.
Holsinger emphasized that the data he relied on came from the mid-1980s. He also said it represents a literature search that was done for him through a library.
“The issues that appeared in the review would not even be the major issues in front of our gay and lesbian community today,” he said.
Holsinger told the committee that he fought to ensure that a conference on women’s health include segments on the health needs of lesbians. At the time, he was chancellor of the University of Kentucky Medical Center.
“I fought fiercely for that even though I had a huge political pushback. In fact, our budget was being threatened in the state legislature,” Holsinger said.
Kennedy also raised the issue of Carmona’s allegations.
“His testimony showed that the office of the surgeon general has become a morass of shameful political manipulation and distortion of science,” Kennedy said. “Dr. Holsinger has a responsibility to provide strong assurances and a clear plan for seeing that these abuses are not repeated during his tenure, if he is confirmed.”
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said there was little doubt that Holsinger would be a strong administrator given his experience as undersecretary for the Veterans Affairs Department. He said some of the comments made about Holsinger make him wonder why anyone would allow their name to be submitted to the Senate for a position requiring confirmation.
“I’m deeply troubled, personally, as you might guess, by these allegations. Because I don’t feel that they represent who I am, what I believe, or how I have practiced medicine for the past 40 years,” Holsinger said.
“I can only say that I have a deep, deep appreciation for the essential humanity of everyone, regardless of their personal circumstances or their sexual orientation,” he said.
Holsinger said if confirmed, one of his first priorities would be to tackle the issue of childhood obesity. He talked about how in Kentucky, where he was secretary of the state’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services, he made an effort to put healthier foods in school vending machines and cafeterias.
Before the Senate hearing, gay rights groups, the American Public Health Association and 35 members of the House lined up in opposition to Holsinger’s nomination. The Kentucky doctor garnered the support of a prominent former surgeon general, Dr. C. Everett Koop, as well as the American College of Physicians.
Kennedy introduced a bill on Thursday that would require a surgeon general nominee to be drawn from a list prepared by the Institute of Medicine. The legislation would let the surgeon general submit budget requests publicly and hire his or her own staff.
Holsinger is a professor from the University of Kentucky’s College of Public Health. He worked for 26 years in a variety of positions at the Veterans Affairs Department, including stints as chief of staff or director at several VA medical centers.
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

By Omar Sacribey
Religion News Service

Muslim Americans and white evangelicals find themselves on opposite sides of many issues, but have more in common than other religious groups when it comes to religious fervor, scriptural literalism and social morality, according to a new report.
The report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that U.S. Muslims and evangelical Christians consistently scored closer than other groups, including black Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics.
On the question of religious vs. national identity, 47 percent of Muslims saw themselves as Muslims first and Americans second, while 62 percent of evangelicals said they were Christians first and Americans second. Similar scores were 55 percent for black Protestants, 31 percent for Catholics and 22 percent for mainline Protestants.
While black Protestants rated the highest (87 percent) when saying religion is “very important” in their lives, evangelicals came in at 80 percent and Muslims at 72 percent. Findings were significantly lower for Catholics (49 percent) and mainline Protestants (36 percent).
There was similar agreement on whether the Quran (for Muslims) and the Bible (for Christians) were the literal word of God: Half of Muslims and two-thirds of evangelicals and black Protestants agreed, compared to one-quarter or less of both Catholics and mainline Protestants.
Muslims and evangelicals scored the closest — and highest — when asked whether homosexuality should be discouraged as a way of life.
About six in 10 Muslims and evangelicals agreed, while less than half of other Christian groups did, with white Catholics the lowest, at 27 percent.
Politics was the one glaring difference between Muslims and evangelicals: about 60 percent of Muslims said they are Democrats or lean Democratic, while a similar number (57 percent) of evangelicals said they were Republicans.
“American Muslims, like many people of faith, seek improvements in family values and would like to see society encourage morality, not impose it,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Chunks of concrete are missing from the mosque’s minarets. The walls of a religious school painted with Islamic verses are peppered with bullet holes. Black flies swarm over a makeshift bunker, blasted apart under a stairwell.
A day after Pakistani commandos killed the last Islamic militants barricaded inside the Red Mosque complex, the army guided journalists around the shattered masonry and blackened interiors Thursday amid lingering questions over how many civilians died.
Officials say 108 people in all were killed during eight days of fighting that began with street battles between militants and security forces on July 3, but they haven’t provided a precise breakdown of casualties.
The government says 85 deaths occurred during the 35-hour battle that ended the siege, including nine soldiers and 19 bodies burned so severely they couldn’t be identified. It said earlier deaths included a soldier, a policeman, some militants and several civilians who were caught in the crossfire of the initial street fighting.
The military hoped to ease public skepticism and demonstrate how the heavily armed extremists turned one of the capital’s most prominent holy sites into a fortress.
Opening barriers of tangled barbed wire around the sprawling compound, soldiers escorted reporters through the bent-back metal gates of the Jamia Hafsa, a religious school for girls next door to the Red Mosque.
Signs of fierce room-to-room fighting were everywhere. Inside and out, the concrete and white plaster walls were riddled by gunshots from commandos who breached the southern walls of the four-story building and traded fire with its defenders.
Militants appeared to have prepared firing positions, some on the exterior fortified with sand bags. But the stiffest resistance came from basement rooms where pro-Taliban cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi was shot dead after refusing to surrender. He had spearheaded an increasingly violent vigilante campaign against vice in Islamabad.
The army said it had recovered 75 bodies inside the complex by late Thursday. Officials said none appeared to be women or children, but conceded that 19 bodies were burned beyond recognition.
Pakistani citizens and news media have questioned the government’s claim that virtually all noncombatants escaped harm during the savage fighting of the final battle, which began before dawn Tuesday and raged on for 35 hours.
“There’s no cover-up. Why should we?” Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani said.
Qazi Hussain Ahmed, chief of Pakistan’s biggest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, alleged Thursday that between 400 and 1,000 students and their teachers died in the army attack – but he offered no evidence. He said he would file a legal case against Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, over the deaths.
Thousands of girls and women aged from 4 into their early 20s studied the Quran at the Red Mosque school for females. There was also a school for young men.
The government said about 1,300 people fled unharmed during the weeklong standoff.
Around two courtyards inside the girls’ school, plain concrete rooms that once doubled as classrooms and sleeping quarters are littered with shattered glass and spent bullets. Bed rolls and school books were stacked against walls.
Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad pointed inside a small, charred, windowless room, saying a suicide bomber blew himself up with five or six hostages during the commando assault. He said the corpses were charred beyond recognition.
Next door, flies swarmed over chunks of masonry where militants had fashioned a bunker under a stairwell. It was not immediately clear if any human remains were underneath.
Arshad said a second suicide bomber detonated himself inside the white-domed Red Mosque – one of the most famous in the Pakistani capital.
Soldiers, who were still searching the complex for bodies and land mines, recovered two other suicide vests – one from the body of a fighter, Arshad said. The other was among an arsenal of the militants’ weapons and equipment that the army put on display.
Also on show were three crates of gasoline bombs fashioned from green Sprite bottles, gas masks, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, recoilless rifles, dozens of AK-47 assault rifles, pistols and two-way radios. Large plastic buckets held knives and homemade bombs the size of tennis balls.
The mosque sustained less damage than the school, although its entrance hall was burned out, the ceiling scorched and red walls above the oval doorway blackened. Daylight shone through hundreds of bullet holes in the corrugated roof.
The mosque’s two white minarets also had chunks of masonry missing. Arshad said militants had used them as vantage points. The white dome, however, appeared undamaged.
Arshad revealed that 164 commandos of the elite Special Services Group fought inside the mosque in the final battle, and said nearly a third of them became casualties – nine killed and about 40 wounded.
“With militants in different rooms, firing from behind pillars, and then going into basements and clearing it, you can understand the difficulties,” he said.