Showing posts with label Lifestyle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lifestyle. Show all posts

U.S. evolves on same-sex marriage






STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • The president and the nation have shifted perspectives on same-sex marriage

  • Supreme Court ruling on California's same-sex marriage ban a critical test

  • Growing public support for gay marriage give proponents hope for change




Washington (CNN) -- The nation's growing acceptance of same-sex marriage has happened in slow and painstaking moves, eventually building into a momentum that is sweeping even the most unlikely of converts.


Even though he said in 2008 that he could only support civil unions for same-sex couples, President Barack Obama nonetheless enjoyed strong support among the gay community. He disappointed many with his conspicuously subdued first-term response to the same-sex marriage debate.


Last year, after Vice President Joe Biden announced his support, the president then said his position had evolved and he, too, supported same-sex marriage.


So it was no small matter when on Thursday the Obama administration formally expressed its support of same-sex marriage in a court brief weighing in on California's Proposition 8, which bans same-sex weddings. The administration's effort was matched by at least 100 high-profile Republicans — some of whom in elections past depended on gay marriage as a wedge issue guaranteed to rally the base — who signed onto a brief supporting gay couples to legally wed.


Obama on same-sex marriage: Everyone is equal


Then there are the polls that show that an increasing number of Americans now support same-sex marriage. These polls show that nearly half of the nation's Catholics and white, mainstream Protestants and more than half of the nation's women, liberals and political moderates all support same-sex marriage.


According to Pew Research Center polling, 48% of Americans support same-sex marriage with 43% opposed. Back in 2001, 57% opposed same-sex marriage while 35% supported it.


In last year's presidential election, same-sex marriage scarcely raised a ripple. That sea change is not lost on the president.


"The same evolution I've gone through is the same evolution the country as a whole has gone through," Obama told reporters on Friday.


Craig Rimmerman, professor of public policy and political science at Hobart and William Smith colleges says there is history at work here and the administration is wise to get on the right side.


"There is no doubt that President Obama's shifting position on Proposition 8 and same-sex marriage more broadly is due to his desire to situate himself on the right side of history with respect to the fight over same-sex marriage," said Rimmerman, author of "From Identity to Politics: The Lesbian and Gay Movements in the United States."


"I also think that broader changes in public opinion showing greater support for same-sex marriage, especially among young people, but in the country at large as well, has created a cultural context for Obama to alter his views."


For years, Obama had frustrated many in the gay community by not offering full-throated support of same-sex marriage. However, the president's revelation last year that conversations with his daughters and friends led him to change his mind gave many in that community hope.










Last year, the Obama administration criticized a measure in North Carolina that banned same-sex marriage and made civil unions illegal. The president took the same position on a similar Minnesota proposal.


Obama administration officials point to what they see as the administration's biggest accomplishment in the gay rights cause: repealing "don't ask, don't tell," the military's ban on openly gay and lesbian members serving in the forces.


Then there was the president's inaugural address which placed the gay community's struggle for equality alongside similar civil rights fights by women and African-Americans.


"Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well," Obama said in his address after being sworn in.


In offering its support and asserting in the brief that "prejudice may not be the basis for differential treatment under the law," the Obama administration is setting up a high stakes political and constitutional showdown at the U.S. Supreme Court over a fast-evolving and contentious issue.


The justices will hear California's Proposition 8 case in March. That case and another appeal over the federal Defense of Marriage Act will produce blockbuster rulings from the justices in coming months.


Beyond the legal wranglings there is a strong social and historic component, one that has helped open the way for the administration to push what could prove to be a social issue that defines Obama's second term legacy, Rimmerman said.


The nation is redefining itself on this issue, as well.


Pew survey: Changing attitudes on gay marriage


The changes are due, in part, to generational shifts. Younger people show a higher level of support than their older peers, according to Pew polling "Millennials are almost twice as likely as the Silent Generation to support same-sex marriage."


"As people have grown up with people having the right to marry the generational momentum has been very, very strong," said Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, a gay rights organization.


That is not to say that there isn't still opposition.


Pew polling found that most Republicans and conservatives remain opposed to same-sex marriage. In 2001, 21% of Republicans were supportive; in 2012 that number nudged slightly to 25%.


Conservative groups expressed dismay at the administration's same-sex marriage support.


"President Obama, who was against same-sex 'marriage' before he was for it, and his administration, which said the Defense of Marriage Act was constitutional before they said it was unconstitutional, has now flip-flopped again on the issue of same-sex 'marriage,' putting allegiance to extreme liberal social policies ahead of constitutional principle," Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said in a statement.


But there are signs of movement even among some high profile Republican leaders


Top Republicans sign brief supporting same-sex marriage


The Republican-penned friend of the court brief, which is designed to influence conservative justices on the high court, includes a number of top officials from the George W. Bush administration, Mitt Romney's former campaign manager and former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman.


It is also at odds with the Republican Party's platform, which opposes same-sex marriage and defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.


Still, with White House and high-profile Republican support, legal and legislative victories in a number of states and polls that show an increasing number of Americans support same sex-marriage, proponents feel that the winds of history are with them.


"What we've seen is accelerating and irrefutable momentum as Americans have come to understand who gay people are and why marriage matters," Wolfson said. "We now have a solid national majority and growing support across every demographic. We have leaders across the spectrum, including Republicans, all saying it's time to end marriage discrimination."


CNN's Peter Hamby, Ashley Killough and Bill Mears contributed to this report.






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Syria war is everybody's problem




Syrians search for survivors and bodies after the Syrian regime attacked the city of Aleppo with missiles on February 23.




STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Frida Ghitis: We are standing by as Syria rips itself apart, thinking it's not our problem

  • Beyond the tragedy in human terms, she says, the war damages global stability

  • Ghitis: Syria getting more and more radical, jeopardizing forces of democracy

  • Ghitis: Peace counts on moderates, whom we must back with diplomacy, training arms




Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns


(CNN) -- Last week, a huge explosion rocked the Syrian capital of Damascus, killing more than 50 people and injuring hundreds. The victims of the blast in a busy downtown street were mostly civilians, including schoolchildren. Each side in the Syrian civil war blamed the other.


In the northern city of Aleppo, about 58 people -- 36 of them children -- died in a missile attack last week. Washington condemned the regime of Bashar al-Assad; the world looked at the awful images and moved on.


Syria is ripping itself to pieces. The extent of human suffering is beyond comprehension. That alone should be reason enough to encourage a determined effort to bring this conflict to a quick resolution. But if humanitarian reasons were not enough, the international community -- including the U.S. and its allies -- should weigh the potential implications of allowing this calamity to continue.



Frida Ghitis

Frida Ghitis



We've all heard the argument: It's not our problem. We're not the world's policeman. We would only make it worse.



This is not a plea to send American or European troops to fight in this conflict. Nobody wants that.


But before we allow this mostly hands-off approach to continue, we would do well to consider the potential toll of continuing with a failed policy, one that has focused in vain over the past two years searching for a diplomatic solution.


U. S. Secretary of State John Kerry has just announced that the U.S. will provide an additional $60 million in non-lethal assistance to the opposition. He has hinted that President Obama, after rejecting suggestions from the CIA and previous Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to arm Syrian rebels, might be ready to change course. And not a day too soon.


The war is taking longer than anyone expected. The longer it lasts, the more Syria is radicalized and the region is destabilized.


If you think the Syrian war is the concern of Syrians alone, think about other countries that have torn themselves apart over a long time. Consider Lebanon, Afghanistan or Somalia; each with unique circumstances, but with one thing in common: Their wars created enormous suffering at home, and the destructiveness eventually spilled beyond their borders. All of those wars triggered lengthy, costly refugee crises. They all spawned international terrorism and eventually direct international -- including U.S. -- intervention.


The uprising against al-Assad started two years ago in the spirit of what was then referred to -- without a hint of irony -- as the Arab Spring. Young Syrians marched, chanting for freedom and democracy. The ideals of equality, rule of law and human rights wafted in the air.


Al-Assad responded to peaceful protests with gunfire. Syrians started dying by the hundreds each day. Gradually the nonviolent protesters started fighting back. Members of the Syrian army started defecting.


The opposition's Free Syrian Army came together. Factions within the Syrian opposition took up arms and the political contest became a brutal civil war. The death toll has climbed to as many as 90,000, according to Kerry. About 2 million people have left their homes, and the killing continues with no end in sight.








In fairness to Washington, Europe and the rest of the international community, there were never easy choices in this war. Opposition leaders bickered, and their clashing views scared away would-be supporters. Western nations rejected the idea of arming the opposition, saying Syria already has too many weapons. They were also concerned about who would control the weaponry, including an existing arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, after al-Assad's fall.


These are all legitimate concerns. But inaction is producing the worst possible outcome.


The moderates, whose views most closely align with the West, are losing out to the better-armed Islamists and, especially, to the extremists. Moderates are losing the ideological debate and the battle for the future character of a Syria after al-Assad.


Radical Islamist groups have taken the lead. Young people are losing faith in moderation, lured by disciplined, devout extremists. Reporters on the ground have seen young democracy advocates turn into fervent supporters of dangerous groups such as the Nusra Front, which has scored impressive victories.


The U.S. State Department recently listed the Nusra Front, which has close ties to al Qaeda in Iraq and a strong anti-Western ideology, as a terrorist organization.


Meantime, countries bordering Syria are experiencing repercussions. And these are likely to become more dangerous.


Jordan, an important American ally, is struggling with a flood of refugees, as many as 10,000 each week since the start of the year. The government estimates 380,000 Syrians are in Jordan, a country whose government is under pressure from its own restive population and still dealing with huge refugee populations from other wars.


Turkey is also burdened with hundreds of thousands of refugees and occasional Syrian fire. Israel has warned about chemical weapons transfers from al-Assad to Hezbollah in Lebanon and may have already fired on a Syrian convoy attempting the move.


Lebanon, always perched precariously on the edge of crisis, lives with growing fears that Syria's war will enter its borders. Despite denials, there is evidence that Lebanon's Hezbollah, a close ally of al-Assad and of Iran, has joined the fighting on the side of the Syrian president. The Free Syrian Army has threatened to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon if it doesn't leave Syria.


The possible outcomes in Syria include the emergence of a failed state, stirring unrest throughout the region. If al-Assad wins, Syria will become an even more repressive country.


Al-Assad's survival would fortify Iran and Hezbollah and other anti-Western forces. If the extremists inside the opposition win, Syria could see factional fighting for many years, followed by anti-democratic, anti-Western policies.


The only good outcome is victory for the opposition's moderate forces. They may not be easy to identify with complete certainty. But to the extent that it is possible, these forces need Western support.


They need training, funding, careful arming and strong political and diplomatic backing. The people of Syria should know that support for human rights, democracy and pluralism will lead toward a peaceful, prosperous future.


Democratic nations should not avert their eyes from the killings in Syria which are, after all, a warning to the world.


Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.


Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.






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Syria war is everybody's problem






STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • NEW: France considers sending Syrian rebels night-vision gear and body armor, a source says

  • Britain's foreign secretary says the UK will announce new aid soon

  • The statements after European Union loosens restrictions to allow nonlethal aid to rebels

  • The U.S. will also send non-lethal aid to rebels for first time, plus $60 million in administrative aid




Rome (CNN) -- The United States stepped further into Syria's civil war Thursday, promising rebel fighters food and medical supplies -- but not weapons -- for the first time in the two-year conflict that has claimed more than 60,000 lives and laid waste to large portions of the country.


Meanwhile, European nations began to explore ways to strengthen rebel fighters that stop short of arming them after a European Council decision allowing such aid to flow to Syria.


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the aid would help fighters in the high-stakes effort to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a conflict that has already spawned an enormous humanitarian crisis as refugees flee the fighting.


The ongoing fighting also poses the persistent threat of widening into a destabilizing regional crisis, including concerns that Hezbollah, Iran or others could gain control in Damascus after al-Assad's government falls.


"The United States' decision to take further steps now is the result of the continued brutality of a superior armed force propped up by foreign fighters from Iran and Hezbollah, all of which threatens to destroy Syria," Kerry said after meeting opposition leaders in Rome.


Kerry didn't say how much that aid would be worth, but did announce that the United States would separately give $60 million to local groups working with the Syrian National Council to provide political administration and basic services in rebel-controlled areas of Syria.








READ: U.S. weighing nonlethal aid to Syrian opposition


That's on top of $50 million in similar aid the United States has previously pledged to the council, as well as $385 million in humanitarian assistance, Kerry said.


"This funding will allow the opposition to reach out and help the local councils to be able to rebuild in their liberated areas of Syria so that they can provide basic services to people who so often lack access today to medical care, to food, to sanitation," he said.


Islamist Influence


That aid is partly an effort to hem in radical Islamist groups vying for influence in Syria after the fall of al-Assad, a senior State Department official told CNN.


"If the Syrian opposition coalition can't touch, improve and heal the lives of Syrians in those places that have been freed, then extremists will step in and do it," the official said.


Sheikh Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, president of the Syrian National Council, said concerns about Islamist influence had been overstated.


"We stand against every radical belief that aims to target Syria's diverse social and religious fabric," he said.


READ: Inside Syria: Exclusive look at pro-Assad Christian militia


U.S. officials hope the aid will help the coalition show what it can do and encourage al-Assad supporters to "peel away from him" and help end the fighting, the official said.


The opposition council will decide where the money goes, Kerry said.


But the United States will send technical advisers through its partners to the group's Cairo headquarters to make sure the aid is being used properly, the senior State Department official said.


Additional aid possible


The European Council carved out an exception in its sanctions against Syria on Thursday to allow for the transfer of nonlethal equipment and technical assistance for civilian protection only.


The council didn't specify what kind of equipment could be involved.


British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Friday on Twitter that his country would be pledging new aid because "we cannot stand still while the crisis worsens and thousands of lives are at stake."


A diplomatic official at the French Foreign Ministry told CNN that France is studying the possibility of supplying night-vision equipment or body armor.


"It is in the scope of the amendment," the official said.


In the United States, President Barack Obama is thinking about training rebels and equipping them with defensive gear such as night-vision goggles, body armor and military vehicles, according to sources familiar with the discussions.


The training would help rebels decide how to use their resources, strategize and maybe train a police force to take over after al-Assad's fall, one of the sources said.


READ: Syrian army in Homs is showing strains of war


Kerry did not announce that sort of aid Thursday, but said the United States and other countries backing the rebels would "continue to consult with each other on an urgent basis."


An official who briefed reporters said the opposition has raised a lot of needs in the Rome meetings and the administration will continue to "keep those under review."


"We will do this with vetted individuals, vetted units, so it has to be done carefully and appropriately," the official said.


Humanitarian crisis


The conflict began with demands for political reform after the Arab Spring movement that swept the Middle East and Africa, but descended into a brutal civil war when the al-Assad regime began a brutal crackdown on demonstrators.


At least 60,000 people have died since the fighting began in March 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in early January.


Another 940,000 had fled the country as of Tuesday, while more than one in 10 of Syria's 20 million residents have been forced to move elsewhere inside the country because of the fighting, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said.


The situation is nearing crisis proportions, with the dramatic influx of refugees threatening to break the ability of host nations to provide for their needs, Assistant High Commissioner Erika Feller told the U.N. Human Rights Council on Tuesday


"The host states, including Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and the North African countries, have been exemplary in their different ways, but we fear the pressure will start to overwhelm their capacities," she told the council, according to a text of her remarks posted on the United Nations website.


Al-Khatib said it's time for the fighting to stop.


"I ask Bashar al-Assad for once, just once, to behave as a human being," he said. "Enough massacres, enough killings. Enough of your bloodshed and enough torture. I urge you to make a rational decision once in your life and end the killings."


READ: Syrian war is everybody's problem


Jill Dougherty reported from Rome, and Michael Pearson reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Nick Paton Walsh and Elise Labott also contributed to this report.






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Why Italians keep voting for Berlusconi




















Photos: Berlusconi through the years


Berlusconi through the years


Berlusconi through the years


Berlusconi through the years


Berlusconi through the years


Berlusconi through the years


Berlusconi through the years


Berlusconi through the years


Berlusconi through the years


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Berlusconi through the years


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STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Scandal-plagued three time ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi finished second in Italy's election

  • Italians and non-Italians have very different views of Berlusconi, argues journalist Bill Emmott

  • For all his faults, Emmott says Berlusconi did better than most at listening to his voters




Editor's note: Bill Emmott is a British journalist and was the editor of The Economist from 1993 to 2006. His book "Good Italy, Bad Italy" was published in English in 2012, and he is the narrator of "Girlfriend in a Coma," a new documentary about Italy's current crisis.


(CNN) -- On the subject of Silvio Berlusconi Italians and non-Italians are, to paraphrase George Bernard-Shaw's famous quip about Britain and America, divided by a common political language.


We think we share the view that in a political world dominated by mass communications, there is little room for forgiveness about scandals, or other personal failures, or a poor record in office. Yet on those grounds, Berlusconi should have died a political death long ago, rather than coming a very close second in this week's Italian elections.



Bill Emmott

Bill Emmott



Foreigners, perhaps, will always remain baffled by Berlusconi's success in continuing to attract voters. But Italians, horrified by him though plenty of them are, tend to be a lot less surprised. That is because they think of him in context, rather than in isolation. In Italian politics, the context is all.


What this means, and what it meant for Berlusconi's remarkable feat in nearly doubling his share of the vote between his opinion poll ratings in November 2012 and the election itself, can be laid out in the following evidently misleading indicators:


He makes unbelievable promises. In part this is true: one of Berlusconi's traits is his willingness to say one thing today and the opposite tomorrow, to attract attention from different groups or on different occasions, totally without shame. Italians know this, and those who support him tend to see it as an endearing part of his character, part of his desire to entertain and to please. But also it is misleading: the key promise he made during the 2013 election campaign was entirely believable -- that he would cut or even abolish a dreaded property tax, known by its Italian initials as IMU.


His record makes him untrustworthy. Yes, on overall economic policy. But not on taxes. He has promised to cut them before, and has delivered on at least some of those promises. The promise to cut IMU was made in an incredibly artful way, as he wrote to voters saying he would pay them back for the tax from his own pocket, which very few will have believed. But that did not matter: it drew attention to the proposal in an eye-catching way, and reinforced the only important point -- that he would cut the tax.


Opinion: Italy's election leaves country, and eurozone, on financial high-wire










He is irresponsible. Yes, but so is almost everyone to the cynical Italian political mind. His plan for how to finance this tax cut had as many holes in it as a sieve, but that did not really matter. It would have to be financed by taxes on other people, or cuts in spending on other things. Fine, said his voters: at least this awful tax will go. In offering a relentless focus on that tax, he showed that he was listening to the pain of his voters and taking them seriously, rather than talking down to them like most other parties.


His trials and sex scandals make him a national shame. Not really, though at times his behavior has stretched even the Italian tolerance. But the context is important: plenty of people think the justice system works disastrously badly in Italy, so if Berlusconi is caught up in it -- like so many others -- then so what? And his sex scandals are really part of his own marketing plan: he cavorts with scantily clad young women in order to make himself look glamorous, young, entertaining and happy. Moreover, his antics with women act as a distraction from his other weaknesses, like a kind of tranquillizer for those who might otherwise get angry with him. A lot of Italians, especially young women, hate him for this. But enough either don't care or are sympathetic enough to him to mean that this does not harm him fatally in political terms.


His opponents are more statesmanlike and responsible. Yes, that is true of Mario Monti, the caretaker prime minister for the past year who then decided to run in the elections with a centrist list of candidates. But it is not particularly true of his big opponents -- including the left-wing Democratic Party, which has its own scandals, its own selfish interests and, during the election campaign, its own evidence of the abuse of political power in the case of Italy's third-largest (and oldest) bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, whose business was allegedly run and distorted in the interests of local Democratic Party politicians in that area. So the PD (by its Italian initials) is also viewed as selfish by the public, neutralizing Berlusconi's disadvantage on that measure. Since both the PD leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, and Monti are dull, leaden communicators who failed to offer any positive, hopeful message for their voters, the way was opened for Berlusconi.


News: Italy seeks way out of political chaos


Only one party in the election really stood for change: the Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo. This meant that Berlusconi's old-fashioned, tax-cutting message, geared towards preserving his own political power, had plenty of space in which to operate. And although Berlusconi did not stand for change, he was at least cheerful, smiling and entertaining.


Politics is now all about personalities, as was shown by the rise of Grillo, but he and Berlusconi are opposites in this regard. It is true that the discrediting of traditional political parties, combined with the preeminence of television, has given personalities a huge advantage in Italian politics, even if neither the PD nor Monti seemed able to grasp this. Personalities and even personal stories breed attention and loyalty, even if from different groups. One of the last Italian politicians to understand and exploit this was, unfortunately, Benito Mussolini.


Oh, and did I forget to mention that Berlusconi owns Italy's three main commercial TV channels and its biggest advertising sales agency, and has billions of euros in cash to hand around to supporters and allies? Well, that isn't a misleading indicator. But it is a reason, perhaps too obvious to dwell upon, for Berlusconi's continuing success at the ripe old age of 76.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are strictly those of Bill Emmott.






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Benedict: Pope aware of his flaws?




Pope Benedict XVI delivers his last Angelus Blessing to thousands of pilgrims gathered in Saint Peter's Square on February 24.




STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Sister Mary Ann Walsh: Pope Benedict acknowledged that he made mistakes

  • Walsh: In firestorm over scholarly quotes about Islam, he went to great lengths to atone

  • Walsh: Similarly, he quickly reversed a decision that had angered Jews and repaired ties

  • Even his stepping down is a nod to his humanity and his love of the church, she says




Editor's note: Sister Mary Ann Walsh is director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Northeast Regional Community. She is a former foreign correspondent at Catholic News Service (CNS) in Rome and the editor of "John Paul II: A Light for the World," "Benedict XVI: Essays and Reflections on his Papacy," and "From Pope John Paul II to Benedict XVI."


(CNN) -- One of the Bible's paradoxical statements comes from St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians: "Power is made perfect in infirmity."


The poetic statement proclaims that when we are weak, we are strong. Pope Benedict XVI's stepping down from what many consider one of the most powerful positions in the world proves it. In a position associated with infallibility -- though that refers to formal proclamations on faith and morals -- the pope declares his weakness.



Sister Mary Ann Walsh

Sister Mary Ann Walsh



His acceptance of frailty speaks realistically about humanity: We grow old, weaken, and eventually die. A job, even one guided by the Holy Spirit, as we Roman Catholics believe, can become too much for us.


Acceptance of human frailty has marked this papacy. We all make mistakes, but the pope makes them on a huge stage.


He was barely into his papacy, for example, when he visited Regensburg, Germany, where he once taught theology. Like many a professor, he offered a provocative statement to get the conversation going. To introduce the theme of his lecture, the pope quoted from an account of a dialogue between the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an unnamed Muslim scholar, sometime near the end of the 14th century -- a quote that was misinterpreted by some as a condemnation of Mohammed and Islam.


Opinion: 'Gay lobby' behind pope's resignation? Not likely


Twice, the pope emphasized that he was quoting someone else's words. Unfortunately, the statement about Islam was taken as insult, not a discussion opener, and sparked rage throughout the Muslim world.


The startled pope had to explain himself. He apologized and traveled two months later to Istanbul's Blue Mosque, where he stood shoeless in prayer beside the Grand Mufti of Istanbul. Later he hosted Muslim leaders at the Vatican at the start of a Catholic-Muslim forum for dialogue. It was a human moment -- a mistake, an apology and atonement -- all round.










A similar controversy erupted when he tried to bring the schismatic Society of St. Pius X back into the Roman Catholic fold.


In a grand gesture toward reconciliation, he lifted the excommunication of four of its bishops, unaware that one, Richard Williamson, was a Holocaust denier. This outraged many Jews. Subsequently the Vatican said the bishop had not been vetted, and in a bow to modernity said officials at least should have looked him up on the Internet.


In humble response, Benedict reiterated his condemnation of anti-Semitism and told Williamson that he must recant his Holocaust views to be fully reinstated. Again, his admission of a mistake and an effort to mend fences.


News: Scandal threatens to overshadow pope's final days


Pope Benedict XVI came from a Catholic Bavarian town. Childhood family jaunts included trips to the shrine of the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Altotting. He entered the seminary at the age of 13. He became a priest, scholar and theologian. He lived his life in service to the church. Even in resigning from the papacy, he embraces the monastic life to pray for a church he has ever loved.


With hindsight, his visit to the tomb of 13th century Pope Celestine V, a Benedictine monk who resigned from the papacy eight centuries before, becomes poignant.


In 2009, on a visit to Aquila, Italy, Benedict left at Celestine's tomb the pallium, a stole-like vestment that signifies episcopal authority, that Benedict had worn for his installation as pope. The gesture takes on more meaning as the monkish Benedict steps down.


We expect the pope to be perfect. Catholics hold him to be the vicar of Christ on earth. He stands as a spiritual leader for much of the world. Statesmen visit him from around the globe. He lives among splendid architecture, in the shadow of the domed St. Peter's Basilica. All testify to an almost surreal omnipotence.


Complete coverage of the pope's resignation


In this world, however, walked a vulnerable, human person. And in a paradox of life, his most human moment -- giving up the power of office -- may prove to be his most potent, delivering a message that, as St. Paul noted many centuries ago, "Power is made perfect in infirmity."


Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.


Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mary Ann Walsh.






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Iran plans own response to 'Argo'




(File photo) Argo tells the story of a rescue of U.S. diplomats from revolutionary Iran.




STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Ben Affleck's "Argo" tells the story of a dramatic rescue of U.S. diplomats from revolutionary Iran

  • Iranian state media criticize the movie as "replete with historical inaccuracies and distortions"

  • Iran's Art Bureau says it will fund its own film about the handing over of 20 U.S. hostages




(CNN) -- Ben Affleck has more than just a couple of Golden Globes to add to his resume.


His movie "Argo," about the suspenseful rescue of U.S. diplomats during the Iran hostage crisis, has also achieved the unusual honor of prompting Tehran to produce its own cinematic response.


Opinion: Latino should have played lead in 'Argo'


"Argo" was named best drama movie during the Golden Globes ceremony on Sunday night in Los Angeles, and Affleck won the award for best director, a category for which he was passed over in the recent Oscar nominations.










But his efforts to recreate on screen the drama of the secret operation by the CIA and Canada to extract six U.S. embassy workers from revolutionary Iran in 1980 haven't been overlooked by Tehran's Art Bureau.


'Argo' recognizes forgotten heroes of Iran hostage saga


It plans to fund a movie entitled "The General Staff," about 20 American hostages who were handed over to the United States by Iranian revolutionaries, according to a report last week by Mehr News, the official Iranian agency.


"This film, which will be a big production, should be an appropriate response to the ahistoric film 'Argo,'" said Ataollah Salmanian, the director of the Iranian film, according to Mehr.


"Argo" claims to be based on a true story rather than to constitute a scrupulous retelling of exactly what took place, and its deviations from reality have been documented.


But Iranian authorities have taken offense at the film's portrayal of the country and its people. "Argo" was officially viewed as "anti-Iranian" following its U.S. release last year, Mehr reported.


Iran's state-run broadcaster Press TV detailed its objections to the film in an online article on Sunday.


"The Iranophobic American movie attempts to describe Iranians as overemotional, irrational, insane, and diabolical while at the same, the CIA agents are represented as heroically patriotic," it complained.


In the movie, in which Affleck plays the lead role, the CIA operation is shown outwitting Iranian authorities through an elaborate plan based on pretending that the U.S. diplomats fleeing the country were part of team scouting locations for an outlandish science-fiction film.


But according to Press TV, the film is "a far cry from a balanced narration" and is "replete with historical inaccuracies and distortions."


On the other hand, "The General Staff," set to begin shooting next year, will be based on eyewitness accounts, Salmanian said.


The Art Bureau, which is to provide the financing, is affiliated with the Islamic Ideology Dissemination Organization, according to Mehr.


Press TV cited Salmanian as saying that his film would depict "the historical event unlike the American version which lacks a proper view of the story."


CNN's Samira Said contributed to this report.






Read More..

Vatican 'Gay lobby'? Probably not






STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Benedict XVI not stepping down under pressure from 'gay lobby,' Allen says

  • Allen: Benedict is a man who prefers the life of the mind to the nuts and bolts of government

  • However, he says, much of the pope's time has been spent putting out fires




Editor's note: John L. Allen Jr. is CNN's senior Vatican analyst and senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.


(CNN) -- Suffice it to say that of all possible storylines to emerge, heading into the election of a new pope, sensational charges of a shadowy "gay lobby" (possibly linked to blackmail), whose occult influence may have been behind the resignation of Benedict XVI, would be right at the bottom of the Vatican's wish list.


Proof of the Vatican's irritation came with a blistering statement Saturday complaining of "unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories," even suggesting the media is trying to influence the papal election.


Two basic questions have to be asked about all this. First, is there really a secret dossier about a network of people inside the Vatican who are linked by their sexual orientation, as Italian newspaper reports have alleged? Second, is this really why Benedict XVI quit?



John L. Allen Jr.

John L. Allen Jr.



The best answers, respectively, are "maybe" and "probably not."


It's a matter of record that at the peak of last year's massive Vatican leaks crisis, Benedict XVI created a commission of three cardinals to investigate the leaks. They submitted an eyes-only report to the pope in mid-December, which has not been made public.


It's impossible to confirm whether that report looked into the possibility that people protecting secrets about their sex lives were involved with the leaks, but frankly, it would be surprising if it didn't.


There are certainly compelling reasons to consider the hypothesis. In 2007, a Vatican official was caught by an Italian TV network on hidden camera arranging a date through a gay-oriented chat room, and then taking the young man back to his Vatican apartment. In 2010, a papal ceremonial officer was caught on a wiretap arranging liaisons through a Nigerian member of a Vatican choir. Both episodes played out in full public view, and gave the Vatican a black eye.









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In that context, it would be a little odd if the cardinals didn't at least consider the possibility that insiders leading a double life might be vulnerable to pressure to betray the pope's confidence. That would apply not just to sex, but also potential conflicts of other sorts too, such as financial interests.


Vatican officials have said Benedict may authorize giving the report to the 116 cardinals who will elect his successor, so they can factor it into their deliberations. The most immediate fallout is that the affair is likely to strengthen the conviction among many cardinals that the next pope has to lead a serious house-cleaning inside the Vatican's bureaucracy.


It seems a stretch, however, to suggest this is the real reason Benedict is leaving. For the most part, one should probably take the pope at his word, that old age and fatigue are the motives for his decision.


That said, it's hard not to suspect that the meltdowns and controversies that have dogged Benedict XVI for the last eight years are in the background of why he's so tired. In 2009, at the height of another frenzy surrounding the lifting of the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying traditionalist bishop, Benedict dispatched a plaintive letter to the bishops of the world, voicing hurt for the way he'd been attacked and apologizing for the Vatican's mishandling of the situation.


Even if Benedict didn't resign because of any specific crisis, including this latest one, such anguish must have taken its toll. Benedict is a teaching pope, a man who prefers the life of the mind to the nuts and bolts of government, yet an enormous share of his time and energy has been consumed trying to put out internal fires.


It's hard to know why Benedict XVI is stepping off the stage, but I doubt it is because of a "gay lobby."


Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.


Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John L. Allen Jr.






Read More..

Analysis: Italian election explained











Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader


Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader


Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader


Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader








STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Silvio Berlusconi is campaigning to win his old job back for the fourth time

  • The eurozone's third largest economy is hurting, with unemployment surpassing 11%

  • Pier Luigi Bersani of the center-left Democratic Party is expected to narrowly win

  • Italy's political system encourages the forming of alliances




(CNN) -- Little more than a year after he resigned in disgrace as prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi is campaigning to win his old job back -- for the fourth time.


Berlusconi, the septuagenarian playboy billionaire nicknamed "Il Cavaliere," has been trailing in polls behind his center-left rival, Per Luigi Bersani.


But the controversial media tycoon's rise in the polls in recent weeks, combined with widespread public disillusionment and the quirks of Italy's complex electoral system, means that nothing about the race is a foregone conclusion.


Why have the elections been called now?


Italian parliamentarians are elected for five-year terms, with the current one due to end in April. However in December, Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party (PdL) withdrew its support from the reformist government led by Mario Monti, saying it was pursuing policies that "were too German-centric." Monti subsequently resigned and the parliament was dissolved.






Berlusconi -- the country's longest serving post-war leader -- had resigned the prime ministerial office himself amidst a parliamentary revolt in November 2011. He left at a time of personal and national crisis, as Italy grappled with sovereign debt problems and Berlusconi faced criminal charges of tax fraud, for which he was subsequently convicted. He remains free pending an appeal. He was also embroiled in a scandal involving a young nightclub dancer - which led him to be charged with paying for sex with an underage prostitute.


MORE: From Venice to bunga bunga: Italy in coma


He was replaced by Monti, a respected economist and former European Commissioner, who was invited by Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano to lead a cabinet of unelected technocrats. Monti's government implemented a program of tax rises and austerity measures in an attempt to resolve Italy's economic crisis.


Who are the candidates?


The election is a four-horse race between political coalitions led by Bersani, Berlusconi, Monti, and the anti-establishment movement led by ex-comedian Beppe Grillo. Polls are banned within two weeks of election day, but the most recent ones had Bersani holding onto a slender lead over Berlusconi, followed by Grillo in distant third.


READ MORE: Will Monte Paschi banking scandal throw open Italy's election race?


The center-left alliance is dominated by the Democratic Party, led by Bersani. He is a former Minister of Economic Development in Romano Prodi's government from 2006-8 -- and has held a comfortable lead in polls, but that appears to be gradually being eroded by Berlusconi.


Italy's political system encourages the forming of alliances, and the Democratic Party has teamed with the more left-wing Left Ecology Freedom party.


The 61-year-old Bersani comes across as "bluff and homespun, and that's part of his appeal -- or not, depending on your point of view," said political analyst James Walston, department chair of international relations at the American University of Rome.


He described Bersani, a former communist, as a "revised apparatchik," saying the reform-minded socialist was paradoxically "far more of a free marketeer than even people on the right."


Bersani has vowed to continue with Monti's austerity measures and reforms, albeit with some adjustments, if he wins.


At second place in the polls is the center-right alliance led by Berlusconi's PdL, in coalition with the right-wing, anti-immigration Northern League.


Berlusconi has given conflicting signals as to whether he is running for the premiership, indicating that he would seek the job if his coalition won, but contradicting that on other occasions.


In a recent speech, he proposed himself as Economy and Industry Minister, and the PdL Secretary Angelino Alfano as prime minister.


Roberto Maroni, leader of the Northern League, has said the possibility of Berlusconi becoming prime minister is explicitly ruled out by the electoral pact between the parties, but the former premier has repeatedly said he plays to win, and observers believe he is unlikely to pass up the chance to lead the country again if the opportunity presents itself.


Berlusconi has been campaigning as a Milan court weighs his appeal against a tax fraud conviction, for which he was sentenced to four years in jail last year. The verdict will be delivered after the elections; however, under the Italian legal system, he is entitled to a further appeal in a higher court. Because the case dates to July 2006, the statute of limitations will expire this year, meaning there is a good chance none of the defendants will serve any prison time.


He is also facing charges in the prostitution case (and that he tried to pull strings to get her out of jail when she was accused of theft) -- and in a third case stands accused of revealing confidential court information relating to an investigation into a bank scandal in 2005.


Despite all this, he retains strong political support from his base.


"Italy is a very forgiving society, it's partly to do with Roman Catholicism," said Walston. "There's sort of a 'live and let live' idea."


Monti, the country's 69-year-old technocrat prime minister, who had never been a politician before he was appointed to lead the government, has entered the fray to lead a centrist coalition committed to continuing his reforms. The alliance includes Monti's Civic Choice for Monti, the Christian Democrats and a smaller centre-right party, Future and Freedom for Italy.


As a "senator for life," Monti is guaranteed a seat in the senate and does not need to run for election himself, but he is hitting the hustings on behalf of his party.


In a climate of widespread public disillusionment with politics, comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo is also making gains by capturing the protest vote with his Five Star Movement. Grillo has railed against big business and the corruption of Italy's political establishment, and holds broadly euro-skeptical and pro-environmental positions.


How will the election be conducted?


Italy has a bicameral legislature and a voting system which even many Italians say they find confusing.


Voters will be electing 315 members of the Senate, and 630 members of the Chamber of Deputies. Both houses hold the same powers, although the Senate is referred to as the upper house.


Under the country's closed-list proportional representation system, each party submits ranked lists of its candidates, and is awarded seats according to the proportion of votes won -- provided it passes a minimum threshold of support.


Seats in the Chamber of Deputies are on a national basis, while seats in the senate are allocated on a regional one.


The party with the most votes are awarded a premium of bonus seats to give them a working majority.


The prime minister needs the support of both houses to govern.


Who is likely to be the next prime minister?


On current polling, Bersani's bloc looks the likely victor in the Chamber of Deputies. But even if he maintains his lead in polls, he could fall short of winning the Senate, because of the rules distributing seats in that house on a regional basis.


Crucial to victory in the Senate is winning the region of Lombardy, the industrial powerhouse of the north of Italy which generates a fifth of the country's wealth and is a traditional support base for Berlusconi. Often compared to the U.S. state of Ohio for the "kingmaker" role it plays in elections, Lombardy has more Senate seats than any other region.


If no bloc succeeds in controlling both houses, the horse-trading begins in search of a broader coalition.


Walston said that a coalition government between the blocs led by Bersani and Monti seemed "almost inevitable," barring something "peculiar" happening in the final stages of the election campaign.


Berlusconi, he predicted, would "get enough votes to cause trouble."


What are the main issues?


There's only really one issue on the agenda at this election.


The eurozone's third largest economy is hurting, with unemployment surpassing 11% -- and hitting 37% for young people.


Voters are weighing the question of whether to continue taking Monti's bitter medicine of higher taxation and austerity measures, while a contentious property tax is also proving a subject of vexed debate.


Walston said the dilemma facing Italians was deciding between "who's going to look after the country better, or who's going to look after my pocket better."


He said it appeared voters held far greater confidence in the ability of Monti and Bersani to fix the economy, while those swayed by appeals to their own finances may be more likely to support Berlusconi.


But he said it appeared that few undecided voters had any faith in Berlusconi's ability to follow through on his pledges, including a recent promise to reverse the property tax.


What are the ramifications of the election for Europe and the wider world?


Improving the fortunes of the world's eighth largest economy is in the interests of Europe, and in turn the global economy.


Italy's woes have alarmed foreign investors. However, financial commentator Nicholas Spiro, managing director of consultancy Spiro Sovereign Strategy, says the European Central Bank's bond-buying program has gone a long way to mitigating investors' concerns about the instability of Italian politics.


Why is political instability so endemic to Italy?


Italy has had more than 60 governments since World War II -- in large part as a by-product of a system designed to prevent the rise of another dictator.


Parties can be formed and make their way on to the political main stage with relative ease -- as witnessed by the rise of Grillo's Five Star Movement, the protest party which was formed in 2009 but in local and regional elections has even outshone Berlusoni's party at times.


Others point to enduringly strong regional identities as part of the recipe for the country's political fluidity.


READ MORE: Italian Elections 2013: Fame di sapere (hunger for knowledge)







Read More..

Analysis: Italian election explained











Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader


Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader


Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader


Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader








STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Silvio Berlusconi is campaigning to win his old job back for the fourth time

  • The eurozone's third largest economy is hurting, with unemployment surpassing 11%

  • Pier Luigi Bersani of the center-left Democratic Party is expected to narrowly win

  • Italy's political system encourages the forming of alliances




(CNN) -- Little more than a year after he resigned in disgrace as prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi is campaigning to win his old job back -- for the fourth time.


Berlusconi, the septuagenarian playboy billionaire nicknamed "Il Cavaliere," has been trailing in polls behind his center-left rival, Per Luigi Bersani.


But the controversial media tycoon's rise in the polls in recent weeks, combined with widespread public disillusionment and the quirks of Italy's complex electoral system, means that nothing about the race is a foregone conclusion.


Why have the elections been called now?


Italian parliamentarians are elected for five-year terms, with the current one due to end in April. However in December, Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party (PdL) withdrew its support from the reformist government led by Mario Monti, saying it was pursuing policies that "were too German-centric." Monti subsequently resigned and the parliament was dissolved.






Berlusconi -- the country's longest serving post-war leader -- had resigned the prime ministerial office himself amidst a parliamentary revolt in November 2011. He left at a time of personal and national crisis, as Italy grappled with sovereign debt problems and Berlusconi faced criminal charges of tax fraud, for which he was subsequently convicted. He remains free pending an appeal. He was also embroiled in a scandal involving a young nightclub dancer - which led him to be charged with paying for sex with an underage prostitute.


MORE: From Venice to bunga bunga: Italy in coma


He was replaced by Monti, a respected economist and former European Commissioner, who was invited by Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano to lead a cabinet of unelected technocrats. Monti's government implemented a program of tax rises and austerity measures in an attempt to resolve Italy's economic crisis.


Who are the candidates?


The election is a four-horse race between political coalitions led by Bersani, Berlusconi, Monti, and the anti-establishment movement led by ex-comedian Beppe Grillo. Polls are banned within two weeks of election day, but the most recent ones had Bersani holding onto a slender lead over Berlusconi, followed by Grillo in distant third.


READ MORE: Will Monte Paschi banking scandal throw open Italy's election race?


The center-left alliance is dominated by the Democratic Party, led by Bersani. He is a former Minister of Economic Development in Romano Prodi's government from 2006-8 -- and has held a comfortable lead in polls, but that appears to be gradually being eroded by Berlusconi.


Italy's political system encourages the forming of alliances, and the Democratic Party has teamed with the more left-wing Left Ecology Freedom party.


The 61-year-old Bersani comes across as "bluff and homespun, and that's part of his appeal -- or not, depending on your point of view," said political analyst James Walston, department chair of international relations at the American University of Rome.


He described Bersani, a former communist, as a "revised apparatchik," saying the reform-minded socialist was paradoxically "far more of a free marketeer than even people on the right."


Bersani has vowed to continue with Monti's austerity measures and reforms, albeit with some adjustments, if he wins.


At second place in the polls is the center-right alliance led by Berlusconi's PdL, in coalition with the right-wing, anti-immigration Northern League.


Berlusconi has given conflicting signals as to whether he is running for the premiership, indicating that he would seek the job if his coalition won, but contradicting that on other occasions.


In a recent speech, he proposed himself as Economy and Industry Minister, and the PdL Secretary Angelino Alfano as prime minister.


Roberto Maroni, leader of the Northern League, has said the possibility of Berlusconi becoming prime minister is explicitly ruled out by the electoral pact between the parties, but the former premier has repeatedly said he plays to win, and observers believe he is unlikely to pass up the chance to lead the country again if the opportunity presents itself.


Berlusconi has been campaigning as a Milan court weighs his appeal against a tax fraud conviction, for which he was sentenced to four years in jail last year. The verdict will be delivered after the elections; however, under the Italian legal system, he is entitled to a further appeal in a higher court. Because the case dates to July 2006, the statute of limitations will expire this year, meaning there is a good chance none of the defendants will serve any prison time.


He is also facing charges in the prostitution case (and that he tried to pull strings to get her out of jail when she was accused of theft) -- and in a third case stands accused of revealing confidential court information relating to an investigation into a bank scandal in 2005.


Despite all this, he retains strong political support from his base.


"Italy is a very forgiving society, it's partly to do with Roman Catholicism," said Walston. "There's sort of a 'live and let live' idea."


Monti, the country's 69-year-old technocrat prime minister, who had never been a politician before he was appointed to lead the government, has entered the fray to lead a centrist coalition committed to continuing his reforms. The alliance includes Monti's Civic Choice for Monti, the Christian Democrats and a smaller centre-right party, Future and Freedom for Italy.


As a "senator for life," Monti is guaranteed a seat in the senate and does not need to run for election himself, but he is hitting the hustings on behalf of his party.


In a climate of widespread public disillusionment with politics, comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo is also making gains by capturing the protest vote with his Five Star Movement. Grillo has railed against big business and the corruption of Italy's political establishment, and holds broadly euro-skeptical and pro-environmental positions.


How will the election be conducted?


Italy has a bicameral legislature and a voting system which even many Italians say they find confusing.


Voters will be electing 315 members of the Senate, and 630 members of the Chamber of Deputies. Both houses hold the same powers, although the Senate is referred to as the upper house.


Under the country's closed-list proportional representation system, each party submits ranked lists of its candidates, and is awarded seats according to the proportion of votes won -- provided it passes a minimum threshold of support.


Seats in the Chamber of Deputies are on a national basis, while seats in the senate are allocated on a regional one.


The party with the most votes are awarded a premium of bonus seats to give them a working majority.


The prime minister needs the support of both houses to govern.


Who is likely to be the next prime minister?


On current polling, Bersani's bloc looks the likely victor in the Chamber of Deputies. But even if he maintains his lead in polls, he could fall short of winning the Senate, because of the rules distributing seats in that house on a regional basis.


Crucial to victory in the Senate is winning the region of Lombardy, the industrial powerhouse of the north of Italy which generates a fifth of the country's wealth and is a traditional support base for Berlusconi. Often compared to the U.S. state of Ohio for the "kingmaker" role it plays in elections, Lombardy has more Senate seats than any other region.


If no bloc succeeds in controlling both houses, the horse-trading begins in search of a broader coalition.


Walston said that a coalition government between the blocs led by Bersani and Monti seemed "almost inevitable," barring something "peculiar" happening in the final stages of the election campaign.


Berlusconi, he predicted, would "get enough votes to cause trouble."


What are the main issues?


There's only really one issue on the agenda at this election.


The eurozone's third largest economy is hurting, with unemployment surpassing 11% -- and hitting 37% for young people.


Voters are weighing the question of whether to continue taking Monti's bitter medicine of higher taxation and austerity measures, while a contentious property tax is also proving a subject of vexed debate.


Walston said the dilemma facing Italians was deciding between "who's going to look after the country better, or who's going to look after my pocket better."


He said it appeared voters held far greater confidence in the ability of Monti and Bersani to fix the economy, while those swayed by appeals to their own finances may be more likely to support Berlusconi.


But he said it appeared that few undecided voters had any faith in Berlusconi's ability to follow through on his pledges, including a recent promise to reverse the property tax.


What are the ramifications of the election for Europe and the wider world?


Improving the fortunes of the world's eighth largest economy is in the interests of Europe, and in turn the global economy.


Italy's woes have alarmed foreign investors. However, financial commentator Nicholas Spiro, managing director of consultancy Spiro Sovereign Strategy, says the European Central Bank's bond-buying program has gone a long way to mitigating investors' concerns about the instability of Italian politics.


Why is political instability so endemic to Italy?


Italy has had more than 60 governments since World War II -- in large part as a by-product of a system designed to prevent the rise of another dictator.


Parties can be formed and make their way on to the political main stage with relative ease -- as witnessed by the rise of Grillo's Five Star Movement, the protest party which was formed in 2009 but in local and regional elections has even outshone Berlusoni's party at times.


Others point to enduringly strong regional identities as part of the recipe for the country's political fluidity.


READ MORE: Italian Elections 2013: Fame di sapere (hunger for knowledge)







Read More..

Would the pope vote be hackable?




The Conclave of Cardinals that will elect a new pope will meet in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.




STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Bruce Schneier: Rules for picking a new pope are very detailed

  • He says elaborate precautions are taken to prevent election fraud

  • Every step of the election process is observed by people who know each other

  • Schneier: Vatican's procedures, centuries in the making, are very secure




Editor's note: Bruce Schneier is a security technologist and author of "Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust Society Needs to Survive." In 2005, before the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, Schneier wrote a piece on his blog about the process. This essay is an updated version, reflecting new information and analysis.


(CNN) -- As the College of Cardinals prepares to elect a new pope, security people like me wonder about the process. How does it work, and just how hard would it be to hack the vote?


The rules for papal elections are steeped in tradition. John Paul II last codified them in 1996, and Benedict XVI left the rules largely untouched. The "Universi Dominici Gregis on the Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of the Roman Pontiff" is surprisingly detailed.


Every cardinal younger than 80 is eligible to vote. We expect 117 to be voting. The election takes place in the Sistine Chapel, directed by the church chamberlain. The ballot is entirely paper-based, and all ballot counting is done by hand. Votes are secret, but everything else is open.



Bruce Schneier

Bruce Schneier



First, there's the "pre-scrutiny" phase.


"At least two or three" paper ballots are given to each cardinal, presumably so that a cardinal has extras in case he makes a mistake. Then nine election officials are randomly selected from the cardinals: three "scrutineers," who count the votes; three "revisers," who verify the results of the scrutineers; and three "infirmarii," who collect the votes from those too sick to be in the chapel. Different sets of officials are chosen randomly for each ballot.


Each cardinal, including the nine officials, writes his selection for pope on a rectangular ballot paper "as far as possible in handwriting that cannot be identified as his." He then folds the paper lengthwise and holds it aloft for everyone to see.


When everyone has written his vote, the "scrutiny" phase of the election begins. The cardinals proceed to the altar one by one. On the altar is a large chalice with a paten -- the shallow metal plate used to hold communion wafers during Mass -- resting on top of it. Each cardinal places his folded ballot on the paten. Then he picks up the paten and slides his ballot into the chalice.


Pope may change rules to allow earlier election


If a cardinal cannot walk to the altar, one of the scrutineers -- in full view of everyone -- does this for him.










If any cardinals are too sick to be in the chapel, the scrutineers give the infirmarii a locked empty box with a slot, and the three infirmarii together collect those votes. If a cardinal is too sick to write, he asks one of the infirmarii to do it for him. The box is opened, and the ballots are placed onto the paten and into the chalice, one at a time.


When all the ballots are in the chalice, the first scrutineer shakes it several times to mix them. Then the third scrutineer transfers the ballots, one by one, from one chalice to another, counting them in the process. If the total number of ballots is not correct, the ballots are burned and everyone votes again.


To count the votes, each ballot is opened, and the vote is read by each scrutineer in turn, the third one aloud. Each scrutineer writes the vote on a tally sheet. This is all done in full view of the cardinals.


The total number of votes cast for each person is written on a separate sheet of paper. Ballots with more than one name (overvotes) are void, and I assume the same is true for ballots with no name written on them (undervotes). Illegible or ambiguous ballots are much more likely, and I presume they are discarded as well.


Then there's the "post-scrutiny" phase. The scrutineers tally the votes and determine whether there's a winner. We're not done yet, though.


The revisers verify the entire process: ballots, tallies, everything. And then the ballots are burned. That's where the smoke comes from: white if a pope has been elected, black if not -- the black smoke is created by adding water or a special chemical to the ballots.



Being elected pope requires a two-thirds plus one vote majority. This is where Pope Benedict made a change. Traditionally a two-thirds majority had been required for election. Pope John Paul II changed the rules so that after roughly 12 days of fruitless votes, a simple majority was enough to elect a pope. Benedict reversed this rule.


How hard would this be to hack?


First, the system is entirely manual, making it immune to the sorts of technological attacks that make modern voting systems so risky.


Second, the small group of voters -- all of whom know each other -- makes it impossible for an outsider to affect the voting in any way. The chapel is cleared and locked before voting. No one is going to dress up as a cardinal and sneak into the Sistine Chapel. In short, the voter verification process is about as good as you're ever going to find.


A cardinal can't stuff ballots when he votes. The complicated paten-and-chalice ritual ensures that each cardinal votes once -- his ballot is visible -- and also keeps his hand out of the chalice holding the other votes. Not that they haven't thought about this: The cardinals are in "choir dress" during the voting, which has translucent lace sleeves under a short red cape, making sleight-of-hand tricks much harder. Additionally, the total would be wrong.


The rules anticipate this in another way: "If during the opening of the ballots the scrutineers should discover two ballots folded in such a way that they appear to have been completed by one elector, if these ballots bear the same name, they are counted as one vote; if however they bear two different names, neither vote will be valid; however, in neither of the two cases is the voting session annulled." This surprises me, as if it seems more likely to happen by accident and result in two cardinals' votes not being counted.


Ballots from previous votes are burned, which makes it harder to use one to stuff the ballot box. But there's one wrinkle: "If however a second vote is to take place immediately, the ballots from the first vote will be burned only at the end, together with those from the second vote." I assume that's done so there's only one plume of smoke for the two elections, but it would be more secure to burn each set of ballots before the next round of voting.


The scrutineers are in the best position to modify votes, but it's difficult. The counting is conducted in public, and there are multiple people checking every step. It'd be possible for the first scrutineer, if he were good at sleight of hand, to swap one ballot paper for another before recording it. Or for the third scrutineer to swap ballots during the counting process. Making the ballots large would make these attacks harder. So would controlling the blank ballots better, and only distributing one to each cardinal per vote. Presumably cardinals change their mind more often during the voting process, so distributing extra blank ballots makes sense.


There's so much checking and rechecking that it's just not possible for a scrutineer to misrecord the votes. And since they're chosen randomly for each ballot, the probability of a cabal being selected is extremely low. More interesting would be to try to attack the system of selecting scrutineers, which isn't well-defined in the document. Influencing the selection of scrutineers and revisers seems a necessary first step toward influencing the election.


If there's a weak step, it's the counting of the ballots.


There's no real reason to do a precount, and it gives the scrutineer doing the transfer a chance to swap legitimate ballots with others he previously stuffed up his sleeve. Shaking the chalice to randomize the ballots is smart, but putting the ballots in a wire cage and spinning it around would be more secure -- albeit less reverent.


I would also add some kind of white-glove treatment to prevent a scrutineer from hiding a pencil lead or pen tip under his fingernails. Although the requirement to write out the candidate's name in full provides some resistance against this sort of attack.


Probably the biggest risk is complacency. What might seem beautiful in its tradition and ritual during the first ballot could easily become cumbersome and annoying after the twentieth ballot, and there will be a temptation to cut corners to save time. If the Cardinals do that, the election process becomes more vulnerable.


A 1996 change in the process lets the cardinals go back and forth from the chapel to their dorm rooms, instead of being locked in the chapel the whole time, as was done previously. This makes the process slightly less secure but a lot more comfortable.


Of course, one of the infirmarii could do what he wanted when transcribing the vote of an infirm cardinal. There's no way to prevent that. If the infirm cardinal were concerned about that but not privacy, he could ask all three infirmarii to witness the ballot.


There are also enormous social -- religious, actually -- disincentives to hacking the vote. The election takes place in a chapel and at an altar. The cardinals swear an oath as they are casting their ballot -- further discouragement. The chalice and paten are the implements used to celebrate the Eucharist, the holiest act of the Catholic Church. And the scrutineers are explicitly exhorted not to form any sort of cabal or make any plans to sway the election, under pain of excommunication.


The other major security risk in the process is eavesdropping from the outside world. The election is supposed to be a completely closed process, with nothing communicated to the world except a winner. In today's high-tech world, this is very difficult. The rules explicitly state that the chapel is to be checked for recording and transmission devices "with the help of trustworthy individuals of proven technical ability." That was a lot easier in 2005 than it will be in 2013.


What are the lessons here?


First, open systems conducted within a known group make voting fraud much harder. Every step of the election process is observed by everyone, and everyone knows everyone, which makes it harder for someone to get away with anything.


Second, small and simple elections are easier to secure. This kind of process works to elect a pope or a club president, but quickly becomes unwieldy for a large-scale election. The only way manual systems could work for a larger group would be through a pyramid-like mechanism, with small groups reporting their manually obtained results up the chain to more central tabulating authorities.


And third: When an election process is left to develop over the course of a couple of thousand years, you end up with something surprisingly good.


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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bruce Schneier.






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