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Terror in the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’

An act of terror.

An act of hate.

The world responded with love and compassion, fury and fight.

Early on the morning of June 12, a gunman armed with an assault rifle and a handgun went on a rampage at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida. He killed 49 people and wounded more than 50 others — some gravely.

The 29-year-old killer was an American who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, abused his wife, used slurs against blacks, Jewish people, women and gays — although he himself was a regular patron of Pulse. He went on to terrorize LGBT people in that place that existed to celebrate Pride and provide sanctuary.

Orlando — famously known as the “Happiest Place on Earth” — became the site of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, a massacre that left Americans mourning the many lost and struggling to address extremism, prejudice and gun access.

“I can’t stop crying. I can’t make any sense of it all,” said Henry Rivera of Orlando, a transgender man who works at a restaurant just outside Disney World. “Everything seems different now.”

Music, dancing, and terror

On June 11, more than 300 people crowded into the high-energy club on South Orange Avenue for Latin night, an evening that promised entertainment by two drag performers, as well as dancing and music — salsa, meringue, bachata.

Shortly after 2 a.m. on June 12, Omar Mateen, armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a Glock handgun, attacked the club, according to reports from the Orlando Police Department and FBI. As WiG to press, authorities were still compiling a detailed and complete timeline of what happened at Pulse.

Survivors described chaos as Mateen launched a barrage of bullets, striking people at the bar, on the dance floor, in the restrooms and elsewhere.

An off-duty Orlando police officer working as a security guard at the club responded to the gunfire. More officers arrived and Mateen retreated deeper into the club, then into a bathroom.

At 2:09 a.m. an alert was posted on Pulse’s Facebook page: “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.”

Dozens of people ran from the club, and more than 100 police officers responded to what became a standoff.

Police believe Mateen killed most of his victims in the first 30 minutes. Those remaining in the bar were either hostages or in hiding.

At 2:39 a.m., Eddie Justice texted his mother from the bathroom in the club:

“Call them mommy”

“Now”

“I’m still in the bathroom”

“Hes coming”

“Im going to die.”

Justice did die. His last text from the club was at 2:50 a.m.

At about 5 a.m., police used a controlled explosion and an armored vehicle with a battering ram to clear a way for people inside the club to escape.

Mateen died in an exchange of gunfire with police shortly after that.

Violent, conflicted and radicalized

The killer talked with police three times during the standoff, FBI Director James B. Comey said in a televised news briefing from headquarters in Virginia on June 13. Comey said calls from the killer to law enforcement began about 2:30 a.m. During those calls, Mateen, who was born in New York, claimed allegiance to the leader of Islamic State, as well as to the perpetrators of the 2013 Boston Marathon attack and to a Florida man who died as a suicide bomber in Syria.

“These are strong indications of radicalization by this killer and of potential inspiration by foreign terrorism organizations,” Comey said.

He added that the bureau, along with state and local law enforcement, were trying to understand “every moment of the killer’s path” leading up to the shooting.

The FBI was already familiar with Mateen. In May 2013, the bureau began investigating him after co-workers said the contract security guard made inflammatory comments and claimed a family connection to al-Qaida. He was interviewed twice but the case was closed.

Two months later, Mateen’s name came up as a casual acquaintance of a Florida man who blew himself up in Syria.

“Our investigation turned up no ties of any consequence between the two of them,” Comey said. “We will continue to look forward in this investigation and backward. We will leave no stone unturned.”

According to AP, the investigation found that Mateen, the son of an Afghan immigrant, was a body builder who attended a mosque in Fort Pierce, Florida, and wanted to become a police officer.

AP also reported there were questions emerging about whether Mateen was conflicted about his sexuality. He allegedly cased Gay Days at Disney World about a week before the shooting and was seen regularly at Pulse. He apparently used gay dating apps as well.

Mateen’s first wife, from whom he was divorced, has said he was abusive and suffered from mental illness. The killer’s father said Mateen expressed a hatred of gays, recently expressing anger at seeing two men kiss.

Mateen’s father also made homophobic remarks to the press, saying that it was wrong for his son to shoot gay people because their punishment should come from God.

“While the motive behind this crime remains unclear, our resolve to live openly and proudly remains undiminished. Now is a time for the whole nation to stand together against violence,” Rea Carey, the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, said June 12.

Chad Griffin, the president and CEO of the Human Rights Campaign, said, “This tragedy has occurred as our community celebrates Pride, and now more than ever we must come together as a nation to affirm that love conquers hate.”

Memorials and mobilizing

Vigils took place as early as June 12 and continued for days after the shooting.

Many of the observances included a moment of silence and a reading of the victims’ names (see “The slain, next page). Many vigils ended with candleholders singing “Over the Rainbow.”

Hundreds sang, “If happy little bluebirds fly/Beyond the rainbow why, oh, why can’t I?” at the end of a vigil June 13 in Sarasota, Florida, the hometown of Edward Sotomayor Jr., who recently helped to organize the first LGBT cruise from Florida to Cuba. Sotomayor was shot while trying to get his boyfriend to safety.

Many at the Sarasota vigil called the mass shooting a hate crime and, though there were demands for stricter gun control, the focus was on anti-LGBT violence.

“This attack was with guns, but our people have been killed with knives and bombs and fists, too,” said Patricia Callahan of Lakeland, Florida. “We can’t forget.”

Vigils took place across the country, at city halls and courthouses, plazas and parks, community centers and gay bars.

“This unimaginable atrocity has not only robbed countless people of their loved ones, it has also stolen a sense of safety within the LGBTQ community,” said GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis.

In New York City, many gathered outside the Stonewall Inn, considered the birthplace of the modern LGBT civil rights movement. There, they chanted, “No hate, no hate! More love, more love.”

In Wisconsin, multiple vigils took place, including in Milwaukee, Madison, Racine and Appleton.

There also were many memorials outside the United States. In Paris, U.S. and gay Pride flags flew at city hall and the Eiffel Tower was lit up like a rainbow.

Heads of state sent letters of condolence and issued condemnations. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said his country stands “shoulder to shoulder with our American brothers and sisters,” and Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah called the shooting a “senseless act of terror and hate.”

Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah urged “collective actions to end such attacks.”

At the United Nations, High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein decried insufficient gun control in the United States and criticized the irresponsible pro-gun propagandizing in the country.

‘America’s rifle’

Criticism also was leveled in the United States.

The massacre is “a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship or in a movie theater or in a nightclub,” President Barack Obama said June 12, in remarks from the White House. “And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be.”

Mateen was armed with the handgun and a Sig Sauer MCX semi-automatic rifle — marketed in the U.S. as a “modern sporting rifle.” He purchased it at the St. Lucie Shooting Center in Florida. Semi-automatic rifles also were used in mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut; Aurora, Colorado; San Bernardino, California; and elsewhere. The NRA calls that weapon class “America’ rifle.”

After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, the president dedicated the start of his second term to pushing legislation that would have banned certain assault-style weapons and capped the size of ammunition clips. The effort, however, failed in the U.S. Senate due to heavy opposition from Republicans who are backed by the National Rifle Association.

In the years since, some reforms have taken place at the state level. But GOP-headed states, including Wisconsin, have enacted measures to weaken gun control laws.

On June 13, Senate Democrats renewed calls for reform and Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ presumptive nominee for president, repeated her call to keep weapons of war off the streets and “out of the hands of terrorists or other violent criminals.”

Clinton and the president postponed a campaign visit to Green Bay scheduled for June 15, as the president made plans to visit Orlando on June 16 to “stand in solidarity with the community.”

 

The slain

As WiG went to press, these were the known dead in the Pulse terror attack:

Stanley Almodovar III, 23; Amanda Alvear, 25; Oscar A. Aracena-Montero, 26; Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33; Antonio Davon Brown, 29; Darryl Roman Burt II, 29; Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28; Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25; Luis Daniel Conde, 39; Cory James Connell, 21; Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25; Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32; Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31; Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25; Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26; Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22; Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22; Paul Terrell Henry, 41; Frank Hernandez, 27; Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40; Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19; Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30; Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25; Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32; Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21; Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49; Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25; Kimberly Morris, 37; Akyra Monet Murray, 18; Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20; Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25; Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36; Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32; Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35; Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25; Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27; Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35; Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24; Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24; Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34; Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33; Martin Benitez Torres, 33; Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24; Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37; Luis S. Vielma, 22; Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50; Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37; Jerald Arthur Wright, 31.

 

Donations and support

Equality Florida, the statewide LGBT civil rights group, established a GoFundMe page to raise money to support those injured and the families of those killed at Pulse. Donations are accepted at www.gofundme.com/pulsevictimsfund.

The Associated Press contributed to these reports.

For updates and continued coverage, go to www.wisconsingazette.com.

 

Stark contrasts as Clinton, Trump respond to shooting

The responses of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to the mass shooting in Orlando were a study in contrasts for the two presumptive presidential nominees — one of whom will likely be leading a country fearful of terrorism, gun violence and the often merciless intersection of the two.

 

The motive behind the rampage at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, was unknown when Trump and Clinton began weighing in — although a law enforcement source later said the gunman, identified by authorities as Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old American citizen, made a 911 call from the nightclub professing allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State.

As information began trickling out, Trump took to Twitter to say he was “praying” for the victims and their families. “When will we get tough, smart & vigilant?” he wrote.

Within a few hours, the presumptive Republican nominee was back on social media saying that he’d appreciated “the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”

After President Barack Obama did not use that same phrase to describe Mateen in his remarks from the White House, Trump released a statement saying the president “should step down.”

Trump kept up his criticism of the president on June 13. He told NBC’s “Today Show” that “there are a lot of people that think that maybe (Obama) doesn’t want to get” the terror threat facing the country.

Trump is hardly the first politician to try to capitalize on a tragedy, though he’s more blatant than most in connecting his electoral prospects to incidents of unimaginable suffering. Shortly after last year’s deadly attacks in Paris, Trump said, “Whenever there’s a tragedy, everything goes up, my numbers go way up because we have no strength in this country. We have weak, sad politicians.”

After a deadly December shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California, Trump stunned many in his own party by calling for a temporary ban on Muslims coming to the U.S. Rather than sink his political prospects, it helped propel the businessman to his first victories in the GOP primary.

For Trump’s detractors, his comments can appear jarring and crass. But he’s also tapped into a deep frustration among some voters who believe Obama has been handcuffed in his response to terror threats because he’s worried about offending Muslims in the U.S. and around the world.

“We can’t afford to be politically correct anymore,” Trump declared June 12.

Clinton, who is more schooled in the political customs of responding to tragedies from her years as a senator and secretary of state, was careful in her initial comments. The presumptive Democratic nominee also made her first remarks on Twitter early June 12, writing: “As we wait for more information, my thoughts are with those affected by this horrific act.”

Like Obama, Clinton prefers to avoid early missteps even if that leaves her looking overly cautious. On June 12, she waited for the president to declare the shooting an “act of terror” before doing the same.

Clinton didn’t avoid the prospect of a link to international terrorism in her statement, though she was vague in her language. In several televised phone interviews Monday morning, she warned against feeding propaganda by the Islamic State group that convinces new recruits the U.S. hates Islam.

“Turning against the Muslim American community is not only wrong, it’s counterproductive and dangerous,” she told MSNBC.

Clinton did use the shooting to raise the nation’s failure to keep guns “out of the hands of terrorists or other violent criminals.” Federal authorities said later Sunday that Mateen purchased at least two firearms legally within the last week or so.

Clinton and Obama postponed plans to campaign together on June 15 in Wisconsin, a decision driven both by political appearances and an expectation the president would need to spend his week overseeing the government’s response to the shooting.

Whether the tragedy in Orlando ultimately sways the trajectory of the general election campaign is unknown. If current trends hold, there will be more deadly mass shootings in the U.S. before voters head to the polls in November.

Other unforeseen events will likely also shape the race over the next five months, as the 2008 economic collapse did in the closing weeks of that year’s presidential campaign.

But as voters begin seriously weighing Clinton and Trump as their next commander in chief, the shooting left little doubt that the choice between the two candidates is stark.

Largest mass shooting in U.S. history, shooter known to FBI

A gunman armed with an assault rifle killed 50 people at a packed gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida on June 12 in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history which authorities described as a possible act of terrorism.

Fifty-three people were wounded in the rampage. It was the deadliest single U.S. mass shooting incident, eclipsing the 2007 massacre of 32 people at Virginia Tech university.

“Today we’re dealing with something that we never imagined and is unimaginable,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said, more than doubling an earlier estimate that about 20 bodies had been found.

Police killed the shooter, who was identified as Omar S. Mateen, a 29-year-old Florida resident and U.S. citizen. A top U.S. congressman said Mateen may have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State militant group.

U.S. officials cautioned, however, that they had no immediate evidence of any direct connection with Islamic State or any other foreign extremist group, nor had they uncovered any contacts between the gunman and any such group.

A police officer working as a security guard inside the Pulse nightclub exchanged fire with the suspect at about 2 a.m., authorities said. Pulse was crowded with some 350 revelers at a Latin music night.

“Everyone get out of pulse and keep running,” the club’s management wrote on Facebook as the incident unfolded.

A hostage situation developed, and three hours later SWAT team officers used armored cars to storm the club before shooting dead the gunman. It was unclear when the victims were killed.

Dozens of terrified patrons, some of whom had been hiding in restrooms, were rescued. One officer was injured when he was hit in his helmet while exchanging fire with the gunman, police said.

Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on a congressional intelligence committee, noted that the Orlando shooting took place during Ramadan, and that Islamic State leaders who control territory in Syria and Iraq have urged attacks during this time.

According to local law enforcement, the shooter had declared his allegiance to Islamic State, Schiff said in a statement, all of which “indicates an ISIS-inspired act of terrorism.”

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton tweeted a brief statement after the attacks, but did not speculate on the motives of the gunman.

ALLEGIANCE, INSPIRATION

FOX News Channel reported that Mateen was known to the FBI as recently as 2013, citing an unnamed source.

If confirmed as an act of terrorism, it would be the deadliest such attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001, when al Qaeda-trained hijackers crashed jetliners into New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing some 3,000 people.

A pair of ethnic Chechen brothers killed three people and injured more than 260 with a pair of homemade pressure-cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon in April 2013.

Asked if the FBI suspected the gunman might have had inclinations toward militant Islamism, including a possible sympathy for Islamic State, Ronald Hopper, an assistant FBI agent in charge, told reporters: “We do have suggestions that the individual may have leanings toward that particular ideology. But right now we can’t say definitively.”

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who sits on the Senate intelligence and foreign relations committees, told CNN he understood that the gunman had worked for a security company and so would have undergone some background checks.

President Barack Obama ordered the federal government to provide any assistance needed to Florida police investigating the shooting, the White House said.

The attacker was carrying an AR-15 style assault rifle and a handgun, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said. He was also carrying an unidentified “device”, said Orlando Police Chief John Mina.

Video footage showed police officers and civilians carrying some people away from the club and bending over others on the ground. Dozens of police cruisers, ambulances and other emergency vehicles could be seen in the area.

Dyer said 39 people were killed inside the club, two outside, and nine others died after being rushed to hospital.

The choice of target was especially heart-wrenching for members of the U.S. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, said LGBT advocacy group Equality Florida.

“Gay clubs hold a significant place in LGBTQ history. They were often the only safe gathering place and this horrific act strikes directly at our sense of safety,” the group said in a statement. “We will await the details in tears of sadness and anger.”

Orlando has a population of more than 270,000 and is the home of the Disney World amusement park and many other tourist attractions that drew 62 million visitors in 2014.

It was the second deadly shooting at an Orlando night spot in as many nights. Late Friday, a man thought to be a deranged fan fatally shot singer Christina Grimmie, a former contestant on “The Voice,” as she was signing autographs after a concert.

Man arrested in California

A man was arrested in California with assault weapons and possible explosives on Sunday and told authorities he was in the Los Angeles area for the gay Pride festival, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Additional reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Chris Michaud in New York and Mary Milliken in Los Angeles; Writing by Frank McGurty, Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis.

Friends and family members embrace outside the Orlando Police Headquarters during the investigation of a shooting at the Pulse night club.  — PHOTO: REUTERS/Steve Nesius
Friends and family members embrace outside the Orlando Police Headquarters during the investigation of a shooting at the Pulse night club. — PHOTO: REUTERS/Steve Nesius
Demetrice Naulings sobs outside the Orlando Police Headquarters where police are interviewing witnesses in the investigation of a shooting at the Pulse nightclub. — PHOTO: REUTERS/Steve Nesius
Demetrice Naulings sobs outside the Orlando Police Headquarters where police are interviewing witnesses in the investigation of a shooting at the Pulse nightclub. — PHOTO: REUTERS/Steve Nesius
Friends and family members embrace outside the Orlando Police Headquarters during the investigation of a shooting at the Pulse nightclub. — PHOTO: REUTERS/Steve Nesius
Friends and family members embrace outside the Orlando Police Headquarters during the investigation of a shooting at the Pulse nightclub. — PHOTO: REUTERS/Steve Nesius

 

 

To All Candidates Running for President: Reject Bigotry

Since the tragic attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the world has watched some American politicians react with hatred, bigotry and vile untruths. They have exploited the politics of nativism and fear, using the atrocities committed by a few individuals to cast blanket suspicion on whole nations and all Muslims.

America must be better than this.

We are a nation of immigrants founded on the principles of justice, equality, and democracy. Our commitment to these ideals has not always been perfect, and it is horrifying to hear politicians use past examples of national shame, such as the internment of Japanese Americans, to justify discrimination today.  Our nation and political leaders should instead set an example for people around the world with resilience and hope. Equality and religious freedom are principles enshrined in our founding documents and reflected in our laws. They are not mere concepts to be discarded in difficult times.

Calls to ban Muslims from entering the United States and prohibit the resettlement of refugees fleeing the Islamic State in Syria undermine core American principles by fomenting hate, division, and discrimination. Such hateful rhetoric has given rise to a tide of racism, hatred, and violence against law-abiding American Muslims. It is deeply distressing that hate crimes against American Muslims — and those who appear to be Muslim — are up when all kinds of hate crimes are down. This terrible fact cannot be divorced from the dangerous rhetoric that has seeped into the mainstream in recent weeks.

American Muslims are our neighbors, friends, and colleagues. They are us.

Our political leaders not only set the tone for our nation. They also are the primary messengers to the rest of the world.  When they call for compassion, dignity, and equality, the world listens. When they call for exclusion and defend bigotry, the world also listens. In a time of global uncertainty, American leaders must do the right thing by projecting the America we have always aspired to be.

We challenge every candidate for the presidency of the United States to stand up against bigotry and division, to oppose the exclusion of individuals from the United States on the basis of religion or nationality, and to affirm a commitment to equality for Americans of all races and of all faiths.

The future of America — and the world — is in your hands. Do the right thing. The whole world is watching.

Heavyweight legend Muhammad Ali weighs in on proposed ban on Muslims

Former boxing champion Muhammad Ali on Dec. 9 appeared to join the chorus condemning the proposal by Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump to temporarily stop Muslims from entering the country.

“We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda,” Ali, 72, said in a statement that appeared in a report by NBC News headlined: “Presidential Candidates Proposing to Ban Muslim Immigration to the United States.” Ali did not actually name Trump.

The Louisville, Kentucky-born Ali, a three-time world heavyweight champion who joined the Nation of Islam in 1964 and later converted to Sunni Islam, also took aim at Islamist extremists.

“I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world,” Ali said in the statement. “True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.”

“I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is,” he said.

Robert Gunnell, a spokesman for Ali, said later the statement “was not a direct response to Donald Trump. This statement was Muhammad Ali’s belief that Muslims must reject Jihadist extremist views.”

Asked by Reuters why the headline on the statement was later changed to “Statement from Muhammad Ali Calling on all Muslims to Stand Up Against Jihadist Radical Agenda,” Gunnell said in an email it was “not meant toward Trump so we edited the headline.”

Trump, who is seeking the Republican nomination for the November 2016 presidential election, has been harshly criticized by world leaders and fellow Republicans for saying that Muslims, including would-be immigrants, students and tourists, should be blocked from entering the country.

His proposal followed last week’s deadly shootings in San Bernardino, California, last week by a married couple inspired by Islamic State militants.

Israeli barber creates ‘magic’ skull cap to protect Jews from attacks

An Israeli barber has fashioned what he calls “magic” yarmulkes out of hair, designed to allow religious Jews to cover their heads without attracting unwanted attention from anti-Semites.

Shalom Koresh said his skullcap, known as a yarmulke in Yiddish and a kippa in Hebrew, was inspired by rising anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere. He said he has seen particular interest from buyers in France and Belgium.

“This skullcap is washable, you can brush it, you can dye it,” Koresh said in his salon in central Israel. “It was created so people could feel comfortable going to places where they are afraid to go, or places where they can’t wear it, and feel secure.”

France has seen a spike in anti-Semitic attacks in recent years. The killing of four French Jews in a hostage standoff at a Paris kosher market earlier this month has deepened fears among European Jews.

Officials in Israel are expecting – and encouraging – a new influx of Jewish immigrants following the Paris standoff. Since the attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has encouraged European Jews to move to the Jewish state.

Many Jews in Europe, especially France, say they feel unsafe walking around wearing the symbols of their faith. A 2013 European Union report found that one in five European Jews avoid wearing kippas or other Jewish symbols for fear of being harassed or attacked. The skullcap could also serve Jews traveling to the Middle East, where they encounter hostility in many Arab countries.

Koresh’s hairy skullcap, which he has dubbed the “Magic Kippa,” comes in an array of shades and colors. He sells them online, starting at 49 euros (56 dollars) for synthetic hair and 79 euros (91 dollars) for ones made of natural hair. The skullcap can be fastened onto the wearer’s real hair with hidden clips.

“You don’t feel a thing. It feels like it is part of your hair. There isn’t such a difference between this and a regular kippa. It feels the same,” said Maor Hania, who modelled a dark brown skullcap at Koresh’s salon.

Devout Jewish men traditionally wear skullcaps as a sign of respect and reverence for God. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, who teaches at a prominent Jerusalem yeshiva, said that Jewish skullcaps must be visible and not hidden, but added that under certain unforeseeable circumstances, such as a risk of attacks, the “Magic Kippa” may be valid.

“Our sages said that, for example, when we are in danger, then it’s possible (to hide it),” he said, adding that the wearer should consult his own rabbi for guidance.

The hairy kippa received mixed reactions among skullcap-wearing men in Jerusalem. Some said they felt ill at ease with the idea of hiding their identity abroad, but others welcomed the protection.

“It’s very dangerous in France right now and it’s dangerous for a person to walk outside with a kippa,” said Richard Altabe, who wore a regular black kippa atop his silver hair. “So if this is how they can maintain their religious commitment, why not?”

In Egypt, 8 convicted for same-sex wedding ceremony

An Egyptian court over the weekend convicted eight men for “inciting debauchery” following their appearance in an alleged same-sex wedding party on a Nile boat, sentencing each of them to three years in prison.

The Internet video shows two men exchanging rings and embracing among cheering friends. The eight were detained in September when a statement from the office of Egypt’s chief prosecutor said the video clip was “shameful to God” and “offensive to public morals.”

Egypt is a conservative majority Muslim country with a sizable minority of Christians. Homosexuality is a social taboo for both communities and only in recent years have fiction and movies included gay characters. Consensual same-sex relations are not explicitly prohibited, but other laws have been used to imprison gay men in recent years, including “debauchery” or “shameless public acts.” Same-sex marriage is unheard of in Egypt.

The verdict was received with protesting screams by relatives waiting outside the Cairo courthouse court. Some of them broke down and cried while others protested that medical examinations carried out by state doctors showed the defendants were not gay.

While inside the defendants’ cage for the hearing, the eight buried their heads in their hands or hid their faces under baseball caps. They covered their faces with pieces of cloth or paper when they were led by police out of the cage after they heard the verdict.

The verdict is the latest in a crackdown by authorities against gays and atheists. The campaign also targets liberal and pro-democracy activists and violators of a draconian law on street protests.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said in September that Egyptian authorities have repeatedly arrested and tortured men suspected of consensual gay conduct.

HRW condemned Saturday’s convictions as part of a widening campaign of intolerance in Egyptian government and society.

“Egypt’s government, evidently not satisfied jailing opposition members, students, and human rights activists, has found the time to prosecute (gays),” said Graeme Reid, HRW’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights director, in a statement. Reid called the sentencing “the latest signal that the new government will prosecute anyone to try to bolster its support.”

In April, four men were convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison for “debauchery” after allegedly holding parties that involved homosexual acts and where women’s clothing and makeup were found.

In 2001, Egypt made headlines around the world when 52 men were arrested in a police raid on a Nile boat restaurant and accused of taking part in a gay sex party. After a highly publicized trial in an emergency state security court, 23 of the men were convicted and sentenced to prison terms of one to five years for immoral behavior and contempt of religion.

Egypt’s crackdown on gays and atheists is taking place as the country of nearly 90 million people appears to be steadily moving to the right, with jingoism and xenophobia dominating the media as the army and security forces battle Islamic militants waging a campaign of violence against them in the Sinai Peninsula. The media, meanwhile, is targeting civil society groups and activists, accusing them of being foreign agents on the payroll of sinister foreign organizations.

Authorities say the country’s national interests must take precedence over everything else so Egypt can be spared the fate of countries like Syria, ravaged by a three-year-old civil war, or neighboring Libya, where radical Islamic militias control large areas of the oil-rich nation.

A much harsher crackdown targets members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the now-banned Islamist group that has been labelled a terrorist organization by the state. Authorities have killed hundreds of Islamists and jailed thousands since the military last year toppled the regime of Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Brotherhood.

Morsi’s ouster took place in July 2013 as millions of Egyptians staged street protests to demand his removal.

Broad coalition demands accounting of surveillance of Muslim leaders

A broad-based coalition of 45 organizations led by the American Civil Liberties Union is calling on the president to “provide a full public accounting” of surveillance against U.S. Muslim leaders.

The demand was prompted by new revelations, reported by journalists Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain and contained in documents secured by the ACLU, of U.S. intelligence targeting for surveillance leaders in the Muslim community in the United States. The White House has called for a review of training and policy materials for racial or religious bias but, according to the coalition, not yet offered a position on the surveillance concerns.

According to the reports, thousands of U.S. community leaders, activists and organization representatives came under surveillance by federal intelligence agencies. Greenwald reported on July 9 that the National Security Agency spied on organizational emails, phone records, member and donor lists, and civil rights strategies, among other information.

The coalition, in a letter to President Barack Obama, wrote, “The First Look report is troubling because it arises in this broader context of abuse. Documents obtained through an American Civil Liberties Union Freedom of Information Act request show that the FBI has been mapping a broad spectrum of communities, including American Muslim communities, the African American community and Latino American communities, without any basis for individualized suspicion. Under the guise of community outreach, the FBI targeted mosques and Muslim community organizations for intelligence gathering. It has pressured law-abiding American Muslims to become informants against their own communities, often in coercive circumstances. It has also stigmatized innocent Muslims by placing them on the No Fly List and other watch lists. In short, the government’s domestic counterterrorism policies treat entire minority communities as suspect, and American Muslims have borne the brunt of government suspicion, stigma and abuse.”

The letter continued, “These practices hurt not only American Muslims, but all communities that expect law enforcement to serve and protect America’s diverse population equally, without discrimination. They strike the bedrock of democracy: that no one should grow up fearful of law enforcement, scared to exercise the rights to freedom of speech, association and worship.”

The coalition includes:

Access

American Civil Liberties Union

American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

Amnesty International

Arab American Institute

Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus

Brennan Center for Justice

Center for Community Change

Center for Constitutional Rights

Council on American-Islamic Relations

Defending Dissent Foundation

Free Press

Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders

Human Rights Campaign

Human Rights Watch

Interfaith Alliance

Islamic Society of North America

Lambda Legal

Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund

Muslim Advocates

Muslim League Fund of America

Muslim Public Affairs Council

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

Legal Defense Fund

National Center for Lesbian Rights

National Center for Transgender Equality

National Coalition on Black Civic Participation

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

National Immigration Law Center

National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild

National Lawyers Guild

National Network for Arab American Communities

National Religious Campaign Against Torture

National Security Network

National Urban League

New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute

New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good

Partnership for Civil Justice Fund

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund

The Sikh Coalition

South Asian Americans Leading Together

Transgender Law Center

T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights

United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries

“The FBI has apparently been targeting American Muslim religious leaders for surveillance on seemingly bias-based suspicion of terrorism,” said Rea Carey of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “Our nation’s history is scarred with examples of secret surveillance of entire communities based purely on bias: it was wrong to surveil gay men and lesbians in the 50s, it was wrong to surveil African-American Civil Rights leaders in the 60s; it was wrong to surveil women’s rights leaders in the 70s, and it is wrong today to surveil civil rights leaders of the American Muslim community. We stand with a broad coalition of religious and civil rights leaders in calling on President Obama to initiate an investigation and end this practice immediately.” 

Abed Ayoub, policy director, of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said on July 10, “The magnitude of these revelations is shocking. The Obama administration, through its directives and instructions, has shown zero regard for protecting the Constitutional Rights of the Arab- and Muslim-American communities.”