Feeling a bit stifled by all the buzz about war against Iraq, Algerian Ambassador Idriss Jazairy and Syrian Ambassador Rostom Zoubi left for Saudi Arabia with their spouses last week for the hajj, or pilgrimage.
Planning to perform rituals while wearing seamless white robes that expose only their hands and faces, they set off on a trip that pious Muslims strive to make at least once in their lives. About 2 million Muslims are taking part this year.
On the eve of his departure last Thursday, Zoubi said he was in need of a "spiritual journey" to cleanse his soul from the wrenching thoughts of war coursing through Washington and the Arab world.
The five-day hajj begins with prayers atop arid Mount Arafat outside Mecca, followed by the feast of sacrifice, Eid al-Adha, which began Tuesday. The prayers and religious duties, which also involve collecting pebbles to throw at pillars symbolizing the devil, can be arduous for the frail or infirm. Pilgrims must walk long stretches in the heat and sleep in tents.
The Eid holiday commemorates the story of Abraham's willingness on Mount Arafat to offer his son as a sacrifice to God, and the appearance of a ram to sacrifice instead. The message is that if believers agree to do what God demands of them, He will prove merciful in offering them a choice.
Zoubi said he was expecting the excursion would not be too strenuous, because members of his party were going as guests of Saudi King Fahd.
According to a Saudi official in Washington, about 10,000 Americans traveled to Saudi Arabia for the hajj this year, or about one-third the usual.
He confirmed that Saudi Arabia's Council of Ulema, the highest council of Muslim clergymen, had issued a fatwa, or religious edict, prohibiting attacks by Muslims against non-Muslims. The ruling specifies that Muslims do not have the right to arbitrarily classify other persons as "infidels" and then make them targets.
It specifically referred to the bombing of buildings, ships and public or private facilities where innocent people could be killed. The official, who asked not to be identified, told Washington Post editors and reporters that this was the "first time" such a fatwa was issued.
The timing is significant because the hajj is a period when Muslim sensitivities are high. This year it coincided with planning for and debate over a U.S.-led war in the Persian Gulf region.
Advocate for E. Timor
Jose Luis de Oliveira, founder of Yayasan Hak, a human rights institute in East Timor, was in Washington last week to reiterate a call for an international tribunal to try a number of senior Indonesian army officers.
He said that so far 11 of 13 Indonesians accused of committing atrocities in East Timor have been acquitted following trials in Indonesian courts in Jakarta. In addition, only two East Timorese involved in militia activity organized by the Indonesian military have been found guilty, getting light sentences.
One militia leader, Erico Gutierres, who operated in the East Timorese capital Dili and was sentenced to five years in prison, is already free and has been seen in western Timor, the Indonesian side of the island, according to de Oliveira. He said Gutierres has had meetings with militias in camps there and was actively organizing dangerous actions.
The human rights activist said eight people have been killed in recent incursions into East Timor by militia members. "There has been no justice," he said in an interview last Friday after briefing staff members on Capitol Hill.
He also cited problems with Australia. Under international law, he said, if two countries lie closer than 400 miles, then the maritime boundary is a median line between the two. He said Australia has not been honoring that law and has been extracting oil in waters that belong to East Timor.
He asserted the East Timorese government was "strong-armed" into signing an interim Timor Sea Treaty on the day the country became independent, last May 20. In his view, the agreement gives Australia the majority of gas and oil resources in contravention of international law.
East Timor is among the poorest countries in Asia. The country's economy could hinge on the gas and oil revenue, de Oliveira said.
The treaty, ratified by East Timor last year, is pending in the Australian Parliament. Australian officials have rejected allegations that East Timor was treated unfairly in negotiations over the reserves.
Reviewing Rights Laws
Talks have begun to try to adapt the Geneva Conventions and international human rights law to the realities of modern-day terrorism and high-tech warfare.
An informal group of high-level experts convened at Harvard University last month. They included representatives from the Swiss, U.S. and other governments, as well as delegates from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Private advocacy organizations and human rights groups were not invited to the initial meeting, and some expressed concern about that. However, sources close to the process said they will be included in future sessions.
According to a summary of the meeting, the group's official goal is to address key challenges to international human rights law and the Geneva Conventions in contemporary conflicts, including "deliberate attacks against civilians and new forms of warfare against civilians" and the "impact of new high-tech warfare technology on human rights law." The participants indicated the importance of "focusing on the application of, rather than the creation of, new norms" for human rights law.