Sarah Obama, the 87-year-old step-grandmother of President Barack Obama, suddenly found herself at the centre of a religious tug-of-war last week in her native Kenya. Obama, a Muslim, accepted an invitation to attend a Seventh Day Adventist Church event, allegedy as an honorary guest. But local Muslim leaders protested, alleging that the event was part of a plot to convert Obama to Christianity now that she is a local celebrity. “Mama Sarah should not be forced by anybody to join Christianity since she is a Muslim,” said Sheik Mohamed Khalifa, of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya. “Muslims will not sit and watch one of their own being coerced by some religious leaders to convert to Christianity.” Obama ultimately did not attend, but according to her son, Saidi Obama—the U.S. President’s uncle—this was not because of any attempted conversion. “She was to attend as a VIP,” he told the Telegraph, “but in the end she had other commitments.”
Safety minister’s safety lesson
British Columbia’s Solicitor General and Minister of Public Safety John van Dongen resigned on Monday after being taken to task for unsafe driving. Last week, van Dongen was alerted by the Office of the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles—an agency for which he was responsible—that he is prohibited from driving for four months due to two recent incidents of excessive speeding. “I’m not proud of my driving record that triggered this prohibition,” van Dongen told CBC Radio. “I take responsibility for it.” B.C.’s NDP Leader Carole James called on him to resign early on, but Premier Gordon Campbell praised him for owning up to his mistakes. The premier has had his own dangerous driving misadventures. While on vacation in Maui in 2003, Campbell was arrested for impaired driving, and fined US$913. Van Dongen still plans to run as a Liberal candidate in the May 12 election.
Very, very cold feet
Megan McAllister, 25, stunned the public when she announced she would stand by her fiancé, the alleged “Craigslist killer” Philip Markoff, 23, and proceed with their Aug. 14 wedding in New Jersey. But last weekend, the leader of the wedding band the couple hired to play at their reception confirmed to People magazine that the nuptials have been called off, at least for now. “A family member of Megan’s told me there is no possibility of this wedding taking place this August,” said William Forte, founder and keyboardist for the B Street Band, a Bruce Springsteen tribute band. Markoff, a medical student, stands accused of the April 14 murder of 25-year-old masseuse Julissa Brisman, whom he found on the website Craigslist.
What the Heck?
Derek Gow, a British conservationist who operates a rare breeds farm on the Devonshire-Cornwall border, recently acquired a herd of 13 Heck cattle—an ancient, jumbo-sized breed of long-horned cattle that was resurrected by Adolph Hitler 70 years ago in an attempt to “purify” a countryside overrun with “racially degenerate” wildlife. Two scientists, brothers named Heinz and Lutz Heck, were retained by the Nazis to breed this species of “Aryan cow” back into existence. By the end of the Second World War, however, nearly all of them had been destroyed. Gow reportedly bought his nine Heck cows and four bulls from a Belgian conservation park that had bred the herd from the few animals that remained. “The Nazis wanted to recreate the aurochs to evoke the power of the folklores and legends of the Germanic peoples,” Gow told Britain’s Independent, adding, “I don’t think there is anything more sinister in owning Heck cattle than there is driving a Volkswagen.”
Brad Pitt, his parents, and his two oldest sons, Maddox, 7, and Pax, 5, turned up in Niagara Falls, Ont., last Saturday, arriving in a black SUV with tinted windows, to “explore the roar” on the Maid of the Mist boat tour. Clad in plastic blue ponchos, Pitt’s crew took photos of each other getting soaked on the upper deck while security stood by.
The timeless art of seduction
A new painting by the artist Filippo Panseca of flamboyant Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has set tongues wagging. Rendered in neo-classical style, the painting depicts Berlusconi, 72, naked, with an enormous pair of wings. “I did it as a joke!” Panseca told the Associated Press. “I’ve been doing all sorts of work for 50 years; I didn’t expect to raise such clamour with this.” The sticking point is that also pictured semi-nude in the painting is the premier’s minister of equal opportunity, Mara Carfagna, a 33-year-old former model to whom Burlusconi famously and publicly said two years ago, “If I weren’t married, I would marry you immediately.” (His wife demanded an apology.) Berlusconi also raised eyebrows last week when, among his list of candidates for the European Parliament elections in June, he included a Miss Italy contestant, a lingerie model, and a sexy reality-TV celebrity. In his defence, he said: “I want young faces, new faces, to give People of Freedom [his new party] a fresh image in Europe.”
Must-see terror TV
Javed Iqbal, 45, a Pakistani entrepreneur living in New York, has been sentenced to nearly six years in prison for using his satellite TV company to distribute a channel run by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, designated a terrorist organization in the U.S. Iqbal, a father of five with a sixth on the way, pleaded guilty, saying it was a case of poor judgment, and that he had no ideological ties to the organization. “He is a businessman,” his lawyer said, “and sought to provide services he thought would generate profits.” The lawyer was also quick to point out that the Hezbollah broadcasts made up only a sliver of the programming Iqbal made available to his customers (other fare included Christian shows and pornography). Still, regardless of his motives, assistant U.S. attorney Eric Snyder said, “He was, in a very real sense, Hezbollah’s man in New York City.”
American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who were detained by North Korean officials on March 17, have been formally charged and are set to stand trial in North Korea for “hostile acts” and illegally entering the country. If convicted of espionage, the women could face up to five years in a harsh prison camp, according to the Associated Press. Lee and Ling—the younger sister of CNN’s Lisa Ling—were in the region to report a story for Current TV on refugees fleeing Kim Jong-Il’s brutal regime. The women are alleged to have been on the Chinese side of the border when North Korean guards arrested them. Observers fear for their prospects: at a moment when global tensions over North Korea’s nuclear arms program are escalating, the two women are precious pawns. Koh Yu Hwan, a professor at Dongguk University in Seoul, told the London Times that having two Americans in custody was like having a “piece of rice cake rolling in for free.”
Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell’s proposed carbon tax has created a schism among prominent B.C. environmentalists. The David Suzuki Foundation, ForestEthics and Pembina Institute—who view the Liberal tax as a progressive step—have blasted the NDP for its proposal to scrap the tax in favour of a cap-and-trade system. Meanwhile, Vallhalla Wilderness Society director Anne Sherrod told reporters that David Suzuki’s support of the Liberals’ environmental policies—which critics say will increase coal production, expand fish farming, promote off-shore oil and gas drilling, and reduce wildlife protection—“is enough to make most environmentalists’ hair stand on end.” Alexandra Morton, a salmon advocate with the Raincoast Research Society, fired off a furious email to Suzuki and other Liberal supporters: “Your love-in with Campbell is a betrayal to all that are alive in B.C.,” she wrote. “Yeah, you got big headlines . . . now what. If Campbell gets re-elected you can take credit for all that follows.”
Anita Patel, the mother of Slumdog Millionaire’s boyish star Dev Patel, 19, has confirmed that her son and his on-screen love interest Freida Pinto, 24, are a real-life couple. The pair was recently photographed looking cozy together in Israel, where Pinto is currently working on Julian Schnabel’s latest film, Miral. They had tried to keep their romance a secret, but their Slumdog co-star Anil Kapoor was dropping hints to reporters, saying, “When I meet them, I feel there is something happening.” Pinto recently broke off her engagment to Rohan Antao, who blames Patel for coming between them. “I don’t know if they were having a sexual relationship but if I came face to face with him I would have things to say,” Antao said. “Now everywhere I go I see them on billboards. I am devastated.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, often accused of having a competitive streak, is reportedly embarrassed at international summits by how poorly his presidential jet measures up to Barack Obama’s Air Force One. To remedy this imbalance of symbolic power, Sarkozy has approved the purchase and retrofitting of an A330-200 jet for his own personal use at a cost of $280 million. While still not as big as Obama’s ride, Sarkozy’s new plane will be at least 10 metres longer and two metres higher than the aircraft used by other European leaders. It will feature desks for the president and his secretary, a meeting room for 12, seating for 60, a bedroom and private bath, an encrypted communications system and anti-missile protection. Critics say the president’s ego is driving this imprudent purchase. But according to Christian Frémont, head of the president’s private office, the current jet’s cramped spaces and shoddy phone reception are amateur hour: “On board, the president is sometimes cut off,” he said.