After three years of ISIS occupation, the Mass returns to Mosul

Credit: wideonet/Shutterstock.

– Following the liberation of Mosul, Iraq, from the hands of the Islamic State, Christians are cautiously returning to the city. And as they return, so does the Mass.

Fr. Luis Montes, a priest of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, celebrated Mass earlier this month at Saint George Monastery. The priest traveled to Mosul to record part of a documentary entitled Guardianes de la Fe (Guardians of the Faith), which seeks to show the reality of life for Christians in Iraq and Syria.

In a video posted on the Amigos de Irak (Friends of Iraq) Facebook page, Fr. Montes said that the Mass was celebrated Aug. 9 – a month after Mosul’s liberation – on the feast day of St. Edith Stein, who died a martyr in a Nazi concentration camp.

The priest said it was “a great gift of God” to be able to celebrate the feast day of a martyr in the monastery, which “surely gave many martyrs to the Church.”

Pointing to the damage to the monastery entrance, he said that he believes the lower level may have been “used as a prison at some time, (as) the Christians left their names there written on the walls as a witness.”

Located in the eastern part of the city, the monastery was badly damaged by ISIS militants.

“Rubble everywhere, the stone facing on walls knocked off, all the religious statues destroyed,” Fr. Montes said. “The grotto of the Virgin Mary destroyed…Crosses set into the walls were chopped off with sledgehammers so no trace would remain of anything that is Christian, of anything that is Jesus Christ.”

In the chapel where they celebrated Mass, the altar was stripped of its marble adornments, and the walls had been damaged.

The experience of celebrating the Eucharist amidst so much devastation was awe-inspiring, Fr. Montes said.

“In this place, which has been attacked for being Christian, the contemplation of the Mystery of the Cross, which is renewed in Holy Mass, had so much power,” he reflected.

“Some priests later told the young people that accompanied me that they believed that this was the first Mass” celebrated within the city of Mosul – which was among the areas hardest hit by ISIS – in the last three years, he added. “It’s really a gift from God.”

The priest said that he offered the Mass for Europe, “which suffers from having turned away from Our Lord God, so that the blood of the martyrs here in the Middle East may stir Europe, touch it, so that it awakens.”

The sight of so much desecration is painful, Fr. Montes acknowledged, and it is even more painful to think of the hatred for Christ that motivated the attacks.

But at the same time, he said, “there is such a beautiful satisfaction in knowing that one is serving a persecuted people.”

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A-10 Warthog Drops 2K Pound Bunker-Buster on ISIS Sniper Nest in Raqqa

A maintainer from the 447th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron prepares Lt. Col. Ben Rudolphi for flight in an A-10 Thunderbolt II July 11, 2017, at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Ramon A. Adelan)

IRBIL, Iraq — Proving it’s not too old for new tricks, an aging A-10 attack plane dropped a bunker-busting bomb for the first time in combat earlier in August against an Islamic State target in Syria, defense officials said.

Despite efforts to put it out to pasture, the 1970s-era A-10 Thunderbolt II, known affectionately as the “Warthog,” has been a workhorse in the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition since November 2014.

A dozen A-10s based at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey average 750 strikes a month against ISIS, according to an Air Force video that showed a combat-effective 2,000-pound, GPS-guided GBU-31 version 3 being loaded onto one of the airframes for the first time, alongside a general-purpose variant.

On Aug. 8, an A-10 dropped the bunker-buster on a building in the ISIS capital of Raqqa, where enemy snipers were targeting coalition troops and partnered Syrian Diplomatic Forces, a U.S. Air Force Central Command spokesman said.

“The weapon was selected for its ability to penetrate deeply into this particular structure,” Air Force Capt. Jose Davis said via email.

The 74th Fighter Squadron “Flying Tigers” deployed a dozen A-10s from Moody Air Force Base, Ga., to Turkey in July in support of the ISIS fight.

Regarded as “flying tanks,” the aircraft is beloved by ground forces for unmatched close air support capabilities, but the Air Force has said it can’t afford to maintain both the Warthogs and the multi-role F-35 meant to replace them. Lawmakers have fought to keep them flying into the next decade.

There are currently no A-10s supporting U.S. forces in Afghanistan in their dual missions of fighting terrorists and supporting Afghan forces, but defense officials are reportedly mulling a deployment of the aircraft under President Donald Trump’s new South Asia strategy, which would also add thousands of troops to the fight there.

Though the A-10’s first combat use of the bomb came this month, the bunker busters have already been used extensively against ISIS militants by other aircraft, Davis said — more than 7,500 have been dropped so far. Air Force F-15 and F-16 fighter jets and B-52 and B-1 bombers can also employ the bomb, which is accurate to within 10 feet “every day and in every condition.”

Senior Airman Joshua Coll, a weapons lead crew member who loaded the bombs, says in the Air Force video that he feels “absolute satisfaction” seeing the planes go out with bombs he loaded and return without them.

“That means that hostile targets died,” Coll said. “That means that we got the mission done.”

Coalition air support has proven critical in fighting ISIS, especially in its urban strongholds, where the group is dug in for a fight against U.S.-backed Iraqi and Syrian forces. That airpower is now heavily focused on helping Syrian Democratic Forces retake Raqqa, the capital of ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate and the coalition’s top priority now, where fighting is in its third month.

ISIS’s defenses have included underground tunnel systems and networks of passageways linking whole blocks of concrete houses, concealing fighter’s movements and protecting deadly arsenals. Snipers hidden inside multi-story concrete buildings have wrought havoc on civilians as well as com-batants.

But the jihadis lack any serious anti-aircraft capability, allowing coalition aircraft to loiter unmolested for long periods over their targets. The militants have used heavy machine guns on occasion to try and engage the circling warplanes and drones, but these have generally kept well above the automatic weapons’ maximum range. ISIS did manage to shoot down a low-flying Russian Mi-25 gunship in Syria last year, but this was accomplished using an anti-tank missile — a hit not likely to be repeated soon.

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Chinese cyber spies broaden attacks in Vietnam, security firm says

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Cyber spies working for or on behalf of China’s government have broadened attacks against official and corporate targets in Vietnam at a time of raised tension over the South China Sea, cyber security company FireEye said.

FireEye told Reuters the attacks happened in recent weeks and it had traced them back to suspected Chinese cyber spies based partly on the fact that a Chinese group it had identified previously had used the same infrastructure before.

“Where China has often focused on the government before, this shows they are really hitting the full commercial sector potentially in Vietnam and trying to gather a broad base of information there,” said Ben Read, who heads FireEye’s cyber espionage team.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China opposed all forms of illegal internet activities or stealing of secrets and also opposed any accusations from any side against any country on the issue without cast-iron proof.

Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said cyber attacks should be severely punished in accordance with the law and that it was important for countries to secure their networks.

Vietnam denies allowing cyber espionage although it has also been accused by FireEye of carrying out attacks.

STRAINS

Tension between China and neighboring Vietnam is at its highest in three years over the disputed South China Sea, where Vietnam has emerged as the most vocal opponents of Beijing’s extensive claims.

Vietnam suspended oil drilling in offshore waters that are also claimed by China in July under pressure from Beijing.

China has appeared uneasy at Vietnam’s efforts to rally Southeast Asian countries over the South China Sea as well as at its growing defense relationships with the United States, Japan and India.

China claims nearly all the South China Sea, through which an estimated $3 trillion in international trade passes each year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan also have claims.

FireEye said the attacks in Vietnam involved sending users documents in Vietnamese which appeared to be requests for financial information. A broad range of companies appeared to have been targeted, including financial institutions, it said without giving specific details.

When the user opened them, they delivered malware which could infect a computer and send back information to the cyber spies, potentially letting them into the computer network too.

FireEye linked the attacks to a team it calls Conimes because in the past it used the conimes.com domain. The team focuses on Southeast Asia, but its main target is Vietnam and even more so since tensions rose over the South China Sea, Read said.

He was unable to say exactly what information had been gathered.

Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang called earlier this month for tighter Internet controls to provide better protection against cyber threats as well as to prevent websites and social media publishing material damaging to the communist party.

Read said the attacks it had discovered on Vietnam were relatively unsophisticated and relied on users having pre-2012 versions of Microsoft Word.

“They are using comparatively simple techniques because apparently they work,” he said.

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Lebanon arrests Islamic State commander: state media

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BEIRUT – Lebanese authorities detained and interrogated a suspected Islamic State commander and referred his case to a special court, Lebanon’s state news agency NNA reported on Thursday.

Security forces arrested the man in Arsal, a town in northeastern Lebanon near the enclave Islamic State held until a Lebanese army offensive pushed them from it last week.

During interrogation the man confessed to participation in several attacks in Lebanon as well as recruitment, smuggling, kidnapping, arms procurement and financing Islamic State operations, NNA reported.

Also on Thursday, a military investigative judge charged 39 individuals of Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese nationalities with belonging to and promoting the ideology of Islamic State.

Islamic State has carried out several attacks in Lebanon in recent years, including a series of suicide bombings in the small town of al-Qaa in the Bekaa valley a year ago.

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Maps airdropped on Nineveh, showing province totally liberated

Nineveh – Maps were airdropped by Iraqi air forces over Nineveh province on Thursday, marking all regions of the province as Islamic State-free a few hours after the government declared victory over the militant group there.

Iraqi Mawazin News Agency said the maps marked the province as totally liberated, shortly after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared the recapture of Tal Afar town, the last militants’ hideout in Nineveh.

Iraqi government forces launched operations to retake Tal Afar on August 20th, and recently cornered the militants in Ayyadiya, in the northwest. They had recaptured Mosul, Islamic State’s former capital, east of Tal Afar, early July after three months of encounters.

The extremist group now holds a few remaining havens in Kirkuk, Anbar and Salahuddin provinces.

On Wednesday, the Joint Operations Command, which has led the operations against IS, said Kirkuk’s Hawija was the next target of anti-Islamic State offensives.

Iraqi forces, backed by a United States-led coalition and paramilitary troops, have been battling the group since 2014, when Islamic State’s supreme leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the establishment of a “caliphate” rule in Iraq and Syria. Baghdadi’s whereabouts remain a mystery, with conflicting reports regarding his survival made occasionally.

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US Flies Bombers, Fighters in Show of Force Against North Korea

In this photo provided by South Korea Defense Ministry, bombs dropped by U.S. Air Force B-1B bombers, F-35 stealth fighter jets and South Korean F-15 fighter jets hit a simulated target over South Korea, Aug. 31, 2017. South Korea Defense Ministry via AP

SEOUL, South Korea — The United States flew some of its most advanced warplanes in bombing drills with ally South Korea on Thursday, a clear warning after North Korea launched a midrange ballistic missile designed to carry nuclear bombs over Japan earlier this week, the U.S. and South Korean militaries said. North Korea hates such displays of U.S. military might at close range and will likely respond with fury.

Two U.S. B-1B supersonic bombers and four F-35B stealth fighter jets joined four South Korean F-15 fighters in live-fire exercises at a military field in eastern South Korea that simulated precision strikes against the North’s “core facilities,” according to the U.S. Pacific Command and South Korea’s Defense Ministry. The B-1Bs were flown in from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam while the F-35Bs came from a U.S. base in Iwakuni, Japan.

The North, which claims Washington has long threatened Pyongyang by flaunting the powerful U.S. nuclear arsenal, describes the long-range B-1Bs as “nuclear strategic bombers” although the United States no longer arms them with nuclear weapons. A strong North Korean reaction to the drills is almost certain.

The dueling military displays open up the risk that things will get worse as each side seeks to show it won’t be intimidated.

North Korea has made it clear that it sees its weapons program, which demands regular testing to perfect, as the only way to contest decades of U.S. hostility, by which it means the huge U.S. military presence in South Korea, Japan and the Pacific. Washington, in turn, seeks with its joint drills with Seoul and bomber flights to show that it will not be pushed from its traditional role of supremacy in the region. More missile tests, more bomber flyovers and three angry armies facing each other across the world’s most heavily armed border raises the possibility that a miscalculation could lead to real fighting.

The U.S. Pacific Command said the exercises were conducted in direct response to North Korea’s recent missile launch. Over the course of a 10-hour mission, the B-1Bs, F-35Bs and two Japanese F-15 fighters first flew together over waters near Kyushu, Japan. The U.S. and South Korean warplanes then flew across the Korean Peninsula and participated in the live-fire training before returning to their respective home stations, according to the Pacific Command.

“North Korea’s actions are a threat to our allies, partners and homeland, and their destabilizing actions will be met accordingly,” Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, commander of the U.S. Pacific Air Forces, said in a statement. “This complex mission clearly demonstrates our solidarity with our allies and underscores the broadening cooperation to defend against this common regional threat. Our forward-deployed force will be the first to the fight, ready to deliver a lethal response at a moment’s notice if our nation calls.”

In Beijing, North Korea’s ally China warned that war is not an option in finding a solution to Pyongyang’s growing nuclear capabilities.

Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Ren Guoqiang told reporters that all parties should exercise restraint and avoid words and actions that escalate tension.

The bombing exercise came as the United States and South Korea wrapped up their annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint military drills that involved tens of thousands of soldiers. North Korea condemns the annual U.S.-South Korea war games as rehearsals for an invasion and described Tuesday’s launch over Japan as a countermeasure against the drills. Washington and Seoul faced calls to postpone or downsize this year’s drills.

The United States often sends its warplanes to South Korea, mostly for patrols, when animosity rises on the Korean Peninsula, which is technically in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

North Korea on Tuesday flew a potentially-nuclear capable Hwasong-12 intermediate range missile over northern Japan and later called it a “meaningful prelude” to containing the U.S. territory of Guam. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the launch was a “curtain-raiser of its resolute countermeasures” against the U.S.-South Korea war games and called for his military to conduct more ballistic missile launches targeting the Pacific Ocean.

North Korea has been maintaining a torrid pace in weapons tests this year as it openly pursues an arsenal of nuclear-armed, intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching deep into the U.S. mainland. Experts say Kim wants a real nuclear deterrent against the United States to ensure the survival of his government and likely believes that it will strengthen his negotiating position when North Korea returns to talks.

Pyongyang had earlier threatened to fire a salvo of Hwasong-12s toward Guam, which is home to key U.S. military bases and strategic long-range bombers the North finds threatening. It also flight tested a pair of developmental ICBMs in July.

South Korean analysts said that the North’s threat against Guam and the launch over Japan on Tuesday are likely attempts to make launches over Japan an accepted norm and win itself greater military space in a region dominated by enemies.

The U.S. and South Korean militaries say the Hwasong-12 the North fired over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido flew for about 2,700 kilometers (1,677 miles). South Korea’s Vice Defense Minister Suh Choo-suk told lawmakers on Thursday that the North might have fired the missile at about half its maximum range.

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Houston Police Chief Has Message for Looters… “Let This Be a Stark Warning”

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In the ongoing aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in southeastern Texas, we have seen some of the best examples of the genuine humanity of Americans — but we have also seen the worst, as looters and thieves have inevitably emerged to try and take advantage of the misfortune of others.

But looting simply isn’t going to fly in the Houston area, at least not if the city’s police chief, county sheriffs and prosecuting attorneys have anything to say about it, which they most certainly do — presuming, of course, the looters survive the plethora of well-armed home and business owners. Local law enforcement officers have issued “a stark warning” to anyone thinking of exploiting the victims of this disaster for personal gain.

According to the New York Post, Houston Police Chief Art Acevado let looters know in no uncertain terms that they would be caught, and they would pay for their criminal actions, one way or another.

“We’re going to urge juries and judges to give you the most, the toughest sentence that you can possibly get,” the chief warned. “We’re going to push hard so that you don’t see the sunlight anytime soon.”

“This is the state of Texas, and we’re a welcoming city,” he added, “but we’re not going to tolerate people victimizing, especially committing armed robberies in our city.”

According to Fox News, at least 14 suspected looters have already been arrested since the storm brought several feet of rain and flooding to Houston and the surrounding area.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez took to Twitter Monday to announce: “To crooks out there, be warned! No looting & burglaries. We will not have it. My jail is open and you will be arrested & charged.”

His warning was echoed by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, who noted that Texas law allows for a life sentence to be imposed on criminals convicted of burglary in a disaster zone.

“People displaced or harmed in this storm are not going to be easy prey,” Ogg stated Tuesday. “Anyone who tries to take advantage of this storm to break into homes or businesses should know that they are going to feel the full weight of the law. Offenders will be processed around the clock without delay.”

Much the same message came from the district attorney of neighboring Montgomery County, Brett Ligon, according to the Houston Chronicle, who stated that significant jail time would be mandatory for anybody arrested for nefarious purposes in the midst of the disaster.

“Ligon announced today,” via Facebook post, “that his office will seek prison or jail time in each and every forthcoming case where the defendant stands charged with theft (looting), burglary, robbery, or any similar crime committed during Hurricane Harvey.”

“Leniency and probation will be off the table for these offenses committed during this time,” the district attorney’s office added.

It is doubtful that the law enforcement officials could have made their stark warning to looters any more clear — steal stuff from innocent victims during a time of great need and stress and you will regret it, big time.

Let’s all hope that the message was received loud and clear, and the criminal element of the Houston area keep their grabby hands to themselves for the duration of the rescue, recovery and clean-up efforts.

Please share this on Facebook and Twitter to let everyone know what the Houston area law enforcement leaders had to say about looters in their city.

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