Western navies said planning major drill off coast of Iran

Illustrative photo of a US naval ship with the 5th fleet in the Persian Gulf (Courtesy of the United States Navy)

Illustrative photo of a US naval ship with the 5th fleet in the Persian Gulf (Courtesy of the United States Navy)

A joint strike group of American, British and French forces will conduct exercise next week, reportedly including simulation of conflict with Tehran

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US Navy called in after Iran fires at cargo ship in Persian Gulf

A Maersk ship in February 2015. (photo credit: CC BY-SA Kees Torn, Flickr)

A Maersk ship in February 2015. (photo credit: CC BY-SA Kees Torn, Flickr)

Pentagon says Iranians board Marshall Islands-flagged Maersk Tigris; Iran claims ship is owned by US, held over financial dispute

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Saudi man gets 300 lashes, 6 years for helping woman convert to Christianity

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Saudi women are pictured in this undated photo. A Lebanese man was sentenced to 300 lashes with a whip and six years in prison for his role in helping a Saudi woman convert to Christianity and flee the kingdom in the latest example of the religious intolerance that grips the region.

A Lebanese man was sentenced to 300 lashes with a whip and six years in prison for his role in helping a Saudi woman convert to Christianity and flee the kingdom in the latest example of the religious intolerance that grips the region.

The court in the Eastern Saudi city of Khobar — situated on the coast of the Persian Gulf — also sentenced a Saudi man to two years in prison and 200 lashes for helping the young woman named Maryam — who has been dubbed “the girl of Khobar” — in her escape to Sweden to secure asylum.

Maryam, whose case has been closely followed in Saudi Arabia, criticized Saudi Arabia’s Sunni monarchy for instilling in her a hatred of Judaism and Christianity, according to the English-language Saudi Gazette. The Jeddah-based paper wrote that she “fell in love with the religions after she found peace in Christianity.”

“There is zero tolerance for any non-Muslim religions in Saudi Arabia.”

– Nina Shea, Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom

The two men, who worked with Maryam at an insurance company, were arrested last July following a complaint filed by the woman’s father, according to reports. The lawyer for Maryam’s family, Hmood al-Khalidi, expressed satisfaction with the severe punishments.

Maryam, who last year appeared in a YouTube video and proclaimed her conversion to Christianity, embraced Christianity after dreaming about climbing to the sky and hearing God say that Jesus is his son, according to the Gazette. But her unabashed faith did not go over well in her homeland, which has been singled out for its intolerance of religious beliefs other than Islam.

Saudi Arabia’s failure to guarantee religious freedom in its closed society prompted the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its new report to cite the Gulf monarchy ruled by the 88-year-old  King Abdullah as a “country of particular concern” because of its egregious violations of religious freedom.

The ongoing persecution of Christians and lack of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia has also triggered sharp criticism from Democratic and Republican lawmakers.  

“Until all people have the freedom to choose and practice their religion, we have an obligation to speak out for the voiceless and to develop policies that protect these communities,” Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., co-chair of the Caucus on Religious Minorities in the Middle East, told FoxNews.com.

The shocking punishments came as President Obama’s Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook, departed for Saudi Arabia. Rep Joe R. Pitts, R-Pa., a member of the Helsinki Commission and Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said the Obama administration should speak up for Maryam, as well as the men convicted of guiding her on her spiritual path.

“Freedom of religion is an internationally recognized human right,” Pitts said. “The Obama administration should speak out on this case and urge the Saudis to release these two men.”

A FoxNews.com press query to the U.S. State Department was not immediately answered.

Multiple FoxNews.com telephone calls and emails to  Nail Al-Jubeir, the Saudi Arabian Embassy spokesman in Washington, were not returned. Lebanon’s Ambassador to the U.S. Antoine Chedid did not immediately respond to a FoxNews.com query.

Lebanon’s  foreign affairs minister, Adnan Mansour, told the publication NOW that the case was “personal and not political” and was waiting for more information from the Lebanese Embassy in Saudi Arabia.

“There is zero tolerance for any non-Muslim religions in Saudi Arabia,” Nina Shea, the director of the Washington-based Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, told FoxNews.com. Shea, a leading expert on the persecution of Christians, added Saudi “imams promote the destruction and humiliation of Christians and Jews” during their services in the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina.

Shea, a co-author of the recently released, “Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians,” said a menu of penalties are available to the State Department, including economic sanctions in an attempt to change Saudi intolerance. Shea said the U.S. government has thus far exempted Saudi Arabia from punitive measures because of the oil trade.

“Religious freedom has not been a priority in the United States’ bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia, and, as a consequence, the U.S. government has not held the Saudis to account for reforms that would substantially improve conditions on the ground,” Dwight Bashir, deputy director for policy at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told FoxNews.com. “Since 2004, the United States has designated Saudi Arabia a severe violator of religious freedom, yet the U.S. government has waived any punitive action that such a designation mandates. Until the U.S. government lifts this waiver and prioritizes religious freedom in its relationship, you can expect limitations and abuses to continue.”

Iran: 37 killed in earthquake near nuclear plant in south

6.1 magnitude quake injures 850 people and cuts water and electricity to residents, but doesn’t damage Bushehr power plant

An Iranian woman receives medical treatment after a 6.1 magnitude earthquake struck southern Iran on Tuesday. Although 37 people were killed and 850 were injured, a nuclear plant in the region, Bushehr, was left unharmed. (photo credit: AP Photo/Fars News Agency, Mohammad Fatemi)

An Iranian woman receives medical treatment after a 6.1 magnitude earthquake struck southern Iran on Tuesday. Although 37 people were killed and 850 were injured, a nuclear plant in the region, Bushehr, was left unharmed. (photo credit: AP Photo/Fars News Agency, Mohammad Fatemi)

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — A 6.1 magnitude earthquake killed at least 37 and injured hundreds more in a sparsely populated area in southern Iran on Tuesday, Iranian officials said, adding that it did not damage a nuclear plant in the region.

The report said the earthquake struck the town of Kaki some 96 kilometers (60 miles) southeast of Bushehr, a town on the Persian Gulf that is home of Iran’s first nuclear power plant, built with Russian help.

“No damage was done to Bushehr power plant,” Bushehr provincial governor Fereidoun Hasanvand told state TV. He said 37 people had died so far and 850 were injured, including 100 who were hospitalized.

The plant’s chief, Mahmoud Jafari, confirmed the site’s condition to semi-official Mehr news agency, saying that it is resistant to earthquakes of up to magnitude eight.

Water and electricity were cut to many residents, said Ebrahim Darvishi, governor of the worst-hit district Shonbeh.

The UN’s nuclear watchdog agency said on its website that it had been informed by Iran that there was no damage to the plant and no radioactive release and, based on its analysis of the earthquake, was not seeking additional information. The International Atomic Energy Agency statement indicated that it was satisfied there was little danger.

Shahpour Rostami, the deputy governor of Bushehr province, told state TV that rescue teams have been deployed to Shonbeh.

Three helicopters were sent to survey the damaged area before sunset, said Mohammad Mozaffar, the head of Iran’s Red Crescent rescue department. He said damage was particularly bad in the village of Baghan.

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Iranian Jet Tries to Intercept U.S. Drone

An Iranian fighter jet tried to intercept a U.S. Predator drone over the Gulf but backed off.

Iranian-made jets fly over the sea off the coast of Chabahar city, south of Iran
AFP photo

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An Iranian fighter jet tried to intercept a U.S. Predator drone over the Gulf but backed off after encountering two American military aircraft, the Pentagon said Thursday, according to AFP.

No shots were fired in the confrontation Wednesday, officials said, but the United States renewed a vow that it would protect its forces in the region.

The Pentagon initially said one of the U.S. aircraft discharged a flare as a warning to the Iranian plane but officials later said no flare was let off.

The incident, which the Pentagon said took place over “international waters,” highlighted the tensions between the two arch-foes and the risks of an accidental clash escalating into a serious crisis.

At one point the Iranian F-4, an old U.S.-built warplane dating from the Vietnam War era, was within 16 miles of the unmanned Predator drone, spokesman George Little said, according to the AFP report.

The unarmed Predator, the workhorse of America’s fleet of robotic planes, was carrying out “a routine classified surveillance flight” over the Gulf when it was approached by the Iranian warplane, he said in a statement.

In November, an Iranian fighter jet fired at a Predator plane, provoking a strongly-worded protest from the United States.

As after the November incident, the Pentagon warned it would keep up surveillance flights over what it deems international waters and to safeguard U.S. forces in the region.

Little said that “we reserve the right to protect our military assets as well as our forces and will continue to do so going forward.”

Iran later accused the United States of carrying out “illegal and provocative acts” in the Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman, including repeated violations of Iranian airspace.

In December 2011, the Iranians captured a sophisticated Sentinel spy drone after it crashed on Iranian territory, in an embarrassment for Washington.

The United States expanded its military presence around the Gulf over the past year, deploying minesweepers and F-22 fighters to the area.

This came after Iran threatened to block the strategic Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for tough international sanctions imposed over its nuclear program.

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