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Closer ties with Arab world on agenda of meeting of EU foreign ministers
by Suzanne Lynch

EU foreign ministers pledged to intensify efforts to combat terrorism at EU level and increase engagement with the Muslim world, as the EU held its first high-level meeting since this month’s terrorist attacks in Paris.

Among the proposals discussed was a plan to co-operate further with Arab states such as Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt, with ministers emphasising the need to engage with Arab allies through the Arabic language.

“I want immediately to improve our communication with the Arab-speaking populations both within the EU and in the world,” the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Moghernini, said after the meeting. “We need to improve our capacity to speak Arabic, to write in Arabic and to listen to the messages that are coming from the Arab world.”

The secretary general of the Arab League, Nabil al-Arabi, attended yesterday’s meeting, widely seen as a forerunner to next month’s summit where EU leaders are expected to focus on the resurgent terrorism threat in Europe.

Ministers also discussed a stalled EU directive to share passenger name records between countries which has returned to the political agenda in Brussels as EU member states struggle to contain the threat of terrorism coming from “foreign fighters” returning from Syria and Iraq.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan echoed the comments of a number of EU ministers yesterday by urging the European Parliament to expedite the directive through the parliamentary process. The proposal, which was published by the commission almost three years ago, has met resistance in the European Parliament due to concerns over data privacy rights.

As EU foreign ministers agreed to share information between member states, Belgium remained in a heightened state of alert yesterday, with the army continuing to protect strategic sites in the cities of Brussels and Antwerp.

Officials said yesterday that they had requested the extradition of a 33-year-old Algerian man detained by Greek police in Athens on Saturday in connection with last week’s terrorist threat in Belgium.

Two men were arrested in Brussels Airport yesterday afternoon by police, amid reports that they were travelling to Syria, via Athens.

On Thursday, members of the US-led coalition against Islamic State will gather in London for talks on the ongoing offensive in Iraq and Syria, at a meeting chaired by US secretary of state John Kerry and British foreign secretary Phillip Hammond.

Belgium, along with France, the Netherlands and the UK, joined the US offensive against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria last year, an intervention that was prompted in part by public outrage over the gruesome killing of western citizens, including US journalist James Foley.

The conflict in Ukraine and the EU’s relationship with Russia also featured during yesterday’s discussion, which took place against the backdrop of escalating violence in eastern Ukraine. A paper circulated by Federica Mogherini last week ahead of today’s meeting, which appeared to propose greater engagement with Russia on certain issues, met resistance by some member states last week.

EU ministers agreed on Monday that sanctions would not be relaxed under the current circumstances. “In light of the current events in eastern Ukraine, no one had the idea of loosening the sanctions,” German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.

EU appeals removal of Hamas from terror list

The EU will appeal a court decision ordering the removal of the Palestinian group Hamas from EU terrorism black list.

The European Union will appeal an EU court decision ordering the removal of the Palestinian group Hamas from the EU terrorism blacklist, foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said.

Mogherini said foreign ministers from the 28 member states decided at a meeting on Monday to appeal the decision taken by the General Court of the European Union on December 17.

"This ruling was clearly based on procedural grounds and did not imply any assessment by the court of the merits of designating the Hamas as a terrorist organisation," Mogherini said in a statement.

Last month's ruling by the EU's second highest court had said that the blacklisting of Hamas in 2001 was based not on sound legal judgments but on conclusions derived from the media and the internet.

Hamas was put on the EU terrorist list as part of broader measures to fight terrorism in the wake of the September 11 attacks and its funds were frozen.

Hamas, which has been in power in the Palestinian territory of Gaza since 2007, had appealed against its inclusion on the blacklist on several grounds.

Israel's closest ally the United States has urged the EU to keep up its sanctions on Hamas, saying the US position had "not changed" and Hamas is still a "designated foreign terrorist organisation".

Hamas slammed the EU appeal describing it as "immoral".

"The European Union's insistence on keeping Hamas on the list of terrorist organisations is an immoral step, and reflects the EU's total bias in favour of the Israeli occupation," Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, told AFP news agency.

"It provides it (Israel) with the cover for its crimes against the Palestinian people," he added.

The EU ministers were meeting in Brussels to discuss how to boost cooperation in the face of growing extremist threats following deadly Paris attacks and anti-terror raids in Belgium.

Good Catholics don’t need to breed ‘like rabbits’ – Pope Francis

Pope Francis defended the Catholic Church’s ban on contraceptives, stating that followers of the faith don’t have to breed “like rabbits” and there are other ways, including natural family planning, that could be used to regulate births.

“Some think – excuse me if I use the word – that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits – but no,” Pope Francis told journalists while on the plane from Rome to the Philippines on Monday.

He added that there are “licit” ways to control parenthood such as, “responsible parenting,” which is a method of abstaining from intercourse during the time a woman is ovulating.

The issue of contraception came to light during Pope Francis’ visit to the Philippines, where the local Church is against the government’s proposition to make contraceptives more accessible to the general public.

Francis said that he reprimanded a woman who put her life at risk by becoming pregnant after giving birth to seven children via cesarean section. He said she was “tempting God” and “that was an irresponsibility.”

The one-hour long news conference ended Francis’ week-long trip to Asia. The Pope also said he has plans to visit the Central African Republic, Uganda, Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay later this year.
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