Thursday, December 22, 2005


Oh dear: Spotted in West Auckland ... one less sleigh-puller.

By Ana Samways

A reader writes: "My boss was excited to have received a Christmas package from the Motherland. It was a small package and the boss was anticipating a quality product from a civilised country that couldn't have been found in the colonies. She ripped into it to discover her friend has bought her 50 trees in Bolivia for £16 via the Oxfam website. The boss grumped that it was hardly a 'gift' because the gift-giver got all the altruistic vibes. I reckon she's got a point."

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Ali Pharaoh was in a branch of the ASB Bank this week when the very pleasant male teller who was serving her commented on her unusual surname. She writes: "I was hardly able to contain myself. His card was on the counter and I figured there must be many families with the surname Pashupathinaathan in his country of origin."

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Matthew Ebrey replies to Mr van der Schaaf's letter regarding colour-blind gamblers and Sky City's murky red suits. "I feel compelled to suggest that he is more worried than he needs to be. Firstly, the only games in the casino where suits matter are poker (where you hold the cards, thus doing away with quick decision-making), and a few minor derivatives of blackjack. Secondly, the cards have shapes on them which satisfactorily denote the suit. Most convincing, perhaps, is that my red-green colour-blind self was a blackjack, baccarat and poker dealer at Sky City for five years with no problems. Stick to the good old 'grassy knoll' if one is after a conspiracy theory."

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A reader named Sam tries to offer customer service ...

Customer: Do you have a picture book of dinosaurs?

Me: Sure.

We walk to the dinosaur books and I show him many books with various sketches and paintings of dinosaurs.

Customer: No, not pictures, photographs. Photos of dinosaurs, please. Where are those books?

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Yesterday Hugh thought he'd found Auckland's cheapest petrol. After filling up his tank and going to the counter the attendant asked for "3.15 thanks". Confused, Hugh asked, "Did you say 3.15?" She nodded without realising she had in fact read the time.

Editorial: Prayers for school to decide

Modern New Zealand has changed much in acknowledgment of its multi-racial population and diversity of religious and non-religious beliefs. Practices have been, and will continue to be, modified to reflect the new reality. But any change to the procedures of a particular institution must, first and foremost, reflect the views of the people who use it. If 91 per cent of parents at Remuera's Victoria Avenue Primary School say they wish to retain the Lord's Prayer at weekly assemblies, that should be the end of the matter.

The overwhelming vote in favour of the recital has, however, cut no ice with one parent, Nicki Butt, who says a prayer from any religion is not appropriate in a secular state school. Children, she says, should not be "coerced" into one religion from the age of 5 or 6. Miffed at Victoria Avenue School's response to her complaint, she has applied for a hearing at the Human Rights Tribunal.

Dr Butt seems bound for disappointment. This is territory previously traversed, unsuccessfully, by Andrew Williams, a former North Shore City councillor, and Matt Robson, during his final term as a Progressive MP. Both complained about the old English prayer that preceded sittings of their respective institutions, saying it failed to reflect the nature of modern society. Both received little change from human rights commissioners.

If anything, Dr Butt's case is even weaker. Victoria Avenue School sits in an area that has not undergone the dynamic change of many New Zealand communities. A Christian heritage remains the dominant feature. The Lord's Prayer has been recited throughout the school's 52-year history, and the vast majority of parents are happy for the practice to continue. The school's board of trustees, for its part, is, quite correctly, keen to reflect the community.

The Education Act is also unlikely to aid Dr Butt's case. It demands secular teaching, but leaves trust boards with some scope to determine the character of a school. Victoria Avenue School has seized upon a provision that allows schools to "close" for a limited time each week for the "purpose of religious instruction".

In practice, this creates no great problem for parents who do not wish their child to have to recite the Lord's Prayer. The school, quite reasonably, provides alternative activities until after the reading. This does not satisfy Dr Butt, who says she does not want her children "marginalised" by being taken out of assembly. If there is any marginalisation, however, the parents are the instigators. Those parents could, of course, also send their children to a school that does not share Victoria Avenue's customs.

Mediation between the parties has failed, and the case is now headed for the Human Rights Tribunal. That, in itself, is a sad commentary on modern attitudes. At the time of Andrew Williams' campaign on the North Shore, the Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Rosslyn Noonan, reprimanded those involved by noting this was an issue that she would expect "mature New Zealanders should be able to sort out". Tolerance, unfortunately, is often in short supply when tradition brushes up against the rights endowed by modern society.

Most commonly, that tolerance is demanded for the practices of minority groups. But it applies no less to mainstream thinking. In time, if the composition of its roll changes, Victoria Avenue School may decide to drop the Lord's Prayer, or adopt a new reading. For now, however, it is very much in tune with the community it serves.

Garth George: The true Christmas spirit brings comfort and cheer

What a sad and sorry season it would be for thousands of New Zealanders - and millions of people round the world - if it weren't for the ministrations of Jesus Christ, whose birth we traditionally celebrate on December 25.

Perhaps more than at any other time of the year there is evidence aplenty that the Saviour of the world is living among us, for his Spirit year after year unleashes in his disciples and followers a desire to serve their fellow man.

In his lifetime Jesus fed two multitudes, who had travelled to hear him preach, using just a few loaves of bread and a few cooked fish.

On Sunday his people will, in this country alone, provide meals for thousands at Christmas dinners in every city and many towns, organised just for those who would otherwise spend the day in hunger and loneliness.

A few loaves and fishes, however, will be replaced by many hundreds of kilograms of hams, turkeys, chickens, potatoes, salads and desserts.

Christ's missions and churches will also ensure that there is at least one gift for everyone, and there will be many for whom that gift is the only one.

Many thousands more New Zealanders will by now have received food and gift parcels from Christian charities which they will share in their impoverished homes on Sunday.

In prisons throughout the country fathers and mothers will know that their children, many of whom live in poverty, will receive a Christmas gift. It will come to them from Christ through his Prison Fellowship, whose annual Angel Tree programme provides.

Thanks to the burgeoning of our prison population, the fellowship found itself a month out from Christmas for the first time caught short of money for Angel Tree. Until this year it has had plenty from its committed contributors.

The plea went out to make up the shortfall and Christ's people - and many who are not -opened their hearts and wallets and every prisoner's child has been catered for.

Around the isolated settlements of the East Cape, where widespread poverty remains hidden from most of the nation, a lone Henderson woman has lately for the 10th year in a row sought out the poor and the destitute and in Christ's name provided for what needs as she is able.

Those for whom she provides physical and spiritual sustenance - food, clothing, bedding, books, toys, prayer - call her their "angel".

No one else seems to care much about the plight of these people. Says the angel: "If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't believe that conditions like this are possible in New Zealand. God sent me to East Cape."

In Manurewa a couple of Saturdays ago, local churches at short notice presented a Christmas festival at the request of the local community board in place of a defunct Santa parade.

Santa Claus was absent from the festival, but not noticeably, and instead of the expected 2000-odd people, it attracted a crowd estimated at its peak to number 6500.

Throughout New Zealand in recent weeks churches have presented exhibitions and tableaux telling the true Christmas story, which have brought enjoyment to tens of thousands of adults and children.

In Christchurch a couple of Fridays ago 1000 children packed St Christopher's Anglican Church in Avonhead - many of them bussed from schools in other suburbs - to see a Christmas extravaganza.

In Cathedral Square and at Spreydon Baptist Church in the garden city more than 20,000 people have seen Christmas displays which include grottos and toylands and mangers and all the things that draw oohs and aahs from spellbound children.

In Auckland the central-city Baptist Tabernacle's Christmas display has had to turn away school groups for lack of time and room; at Greenlane Christian Centre thousands will experience its annual Christmas drive-thru; and on the North Shore the Birkdale Community Church again staged its Christmas Wonderland tree display which drew 12,500 visitors.

In every case these events have involved scores of Christ's servants in thousands of hours of voluntary effort and financial sacrifice to bring alive the wondrous story of that first Christmas Day.

In cinemas throughout the nation The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will entertain tens of thousands over the festive season, thanks to the writings of C.S. Lewis, who served his Lord Jesus as one of the finest Christian writers of the 20th century.

A colleague of mine in the United States describes the Disney version of the Lewis classic as "one of the best religious films of all time".

It is, of course, just the latest contribution that Christianity has made to the world of art, without which it would be a poor thing indeed.

Meanwhile, in Bethlehem, just 500m from the purported site of the manger in which the Christ-child was born on that winter's night, 2000-odd years ago because there was no room at the inn, poor and destitute women of all races and creeds, married and unmarried, will in Israel's winter season give birth in warmth and comfort in the Holy Family Hospital, which was built by the Catholic Church on the orders of the late Pope John Paul II.

How much sicker and sadder and nastier the world would be without Christ and those of his disciples and followers who choose to do his bidding - and not just at this time of the year but all year and every year.

I wonder what the atheists, the humanists and the rationalists are doing for Christmas ...

Fran O' Sullivan: Not quite so fast, Pascal

Seattle was about shrinking the WTO, Cancun was about sinking the WTO, Hong Kong was about re-thinking the WTO.

World Trade Organisation boss Pascal Lamy - waxing lyrical at a midnight press conference - could be forgiven for drawing a demarcation line between his first ministerial meeting as director-general and the acrimonious collapse of the past two full-blown WTO meetings: Seattle in 1999 where Mike Moore (a former New Zealand Prime Minister) had to deal with large-scale, anti-globalisation riots, and, Cancun in 2003 where Supachai Panitchpakdi faced a walkout from the least developed nations.

Lamy rated the Hong Kong Government 19/20 for logistics. But on technical progress - the measure of what got done - he awarded the delegates a 12/20 score.

The French technocrat was overly generous.

The most that can be said about the draft declaration issued after six days of exhaustive politicking is that it keeps the talks alive. Agreement in principle was reached to eliminate export subsidies by 2013 with a substantial amount scrapped by 2011; agreements to eliminate cotton subsidies, classify various domestic subsidy structures, negotiate guidelines for services trade and different tiers for agriculture tariffs.

But the detail has been left to negotiations in Geneva in four months.

It defies credibility to believe Lamy can raise the trade talks tempo after having dramatically lowered expectations before the Hong Kong meeting.

PR fluff transformed some micro-movements into major wins leaving the major issues untouched. Take export subsidies - which dominated the news media agenda - and took up almost 30 hours of "green room" talks. The plain fact is the WTO trade ministers had agreed to end subsidies last year - the only thing missing was when.

This has been portrayed as a defeat for the European Union. But in reality, because the EU's two dominant economies - France and Germany face budgetary constraints as their populations age - axing bloated farmer subsidies was only a matter of time. The EU has better things to do with the €2.5 billion to €3.5 billion it will save.

Even the pledge to cut export subsidies is a conditional one in the "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" paradigm for WTO negotiations.

The devil is also in the detail.

Take the "duty-free, quota-free" access to WTO markets heralded as a win for least developed nations. The aim was for 99 per cent of products to fall into this category; the upshot was 97 per cent was agreed, leaving 3 per cent of LDC imports facing full tariffs. Rich countries can still get out their protectionist blankets by declaring some products"sensitive" - this will allow the US, for instance, to protect its textile sector by keeping Cambodian imports behind a tariff barrier. Hardly free trade or fair.

Similarly, the cotton agreement does not address domestic subsidies.

The WTO process has serious defects which make it difficult for Lamy to apply the accelerator in the new year when, as Moore says, "any of the 150 members can put their feet on the brakes at any time".

First: British PM Tony Blair's decision to get the G8 together - with some key developing countries - to push movement on big issues like tariff reductions is seen as "anti-democratic" by some smaller nations who believe it should have been addressed in Hong Kong where they would have had a voice.

Second: No full-scale ministerial meeting is scheduled in 2006 - adding further to the claims the process will disappear behind the major players' wall. After the South Korean farmers' Hong Kong riot no other WTO member has put itself forward as a candidate to host a meeting next year to get the final elements of the Doha Development Agenda in place.

Third: Power politics have shifted markedly in favour of the Brazil, India, China nexus which controls the G20 group of developing nations. The days when the "quad" (US, EU, Japan and Canada) ran the show are gone. But the US and EU have yet to work through an effective formula for the trade-off they must make with the new power players in an agriculture access for industry opening tit-for-tat.

Fourth: Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), welcomed by Lamy as part of the process in Hong Kong , have to work out whether they want to promote trade - or stop it.

The amount of frank disinformation promoted by some NGOs - who were trying to persuade less developed nations to mount another walkout - was unpalatable. The number of free-market NGOs - such as former Australian trade diplomat Alan Oxley's World Growth Forum - are hardly thick on the ground. This means the upside of expanding world trade is not promoted in a comprehensive fashion.

The ultimate issue facing the WTO is that the global trading system does not yet have the tools to deal with the rapid emergence of China and India which are putting the old laws of comparative advantage to the test.

This is the central issue which the WTO must confront - but so far there are no takers.

Brian Fallow: All round blame for tax's all round pain

No doubt Winston Peters and Peter Dunne will get some of the credit - or blame, depending on your point of view - for the scrapping of the carbon tax.

National may also take a bow for its "Axe the tax" campaign.

But make no mistake, this is Labour's policy.

The backdown on the tax was underpinned by a review completed before the shape of the Government was agreed in October.

Those agreements included undertakings to Mr Dunne and Mr Peters to have a cost-benefit analysis of the carbon tax before introducing legislation.

By then officials had already concluded that the carbon tax was more trouble than it was worth in terms of cutting emissions of the gases blamed for global warming.

The problem is, dropping it leaves a revenue hole of at least $350 million a year.

And at the same time the cost to the Government - that is, to the taxpayer - of New Zealand's international commitments is growing larger all the time.

The latest estimate, on Monday, was $440 million over the period 2008 to 2012.

That will now increase by $110 million because of the extra emissions the carbon tax was expected to prevent.

The estimate looks optimistic.

It is based on a price of US$6 a tonne for "carbon credits", as the tradeable rights to emit greenhouse gases are called.

That price looks more likely to go up than down as international carbon trading gathers pace, and as the kiwi dollar (hopefully) weakens.

So we have a growing liability and now no revenue to pay for it, at least not from those responsible for it.

Motorists and businesses may be pleased to avoid this tax.

Taxpayers more generally have no reason to cheer.

Brian Fallow: Europeans are still tilting at windmills

Vested interests of alpine proportions stand between the world and the promise of a trade round that would substantially lift living standards in the Third World.

The OECD estimates that agricultural protectionism cost taxpayers and consumers in developed countries more than $400 billion last year, of which the European Union accounts for nearly half. That sort of money buys a lot of distortion and inefficiency.

Those on the receiving end of this enforced largess naturally don't want it to end. Last week was good for them.

In the World Trade Organisation's ministerial meeting in Hong Kong, all the Europeans could be persuaded to do was to put a date, and a distant one at that, to what they already agreed to do in principle last year: End the export subsidies on farm products that depress prices in non-European markets. Better than nothing.

In equally fractious negotiations in Brussels over the EU Budget, all Britain could get for agreeing to pay an extra £1 billion ($2.57 billion) a year was a vague promise of a review of the common agricultural policy (CAP), with no commitment to reforming it.

On the crucial question of improving access to its markets for farm produce, Europe's arms remained resolutely folded. There was no improvement in Hong Kong on the offer it made in October, which was widely dismissed as inadequate.

The essential political deal that has to occur if the Doha Round is to succeed is a trade-off between better access for farm products in the rich markets of the north in exchange for better access to developing countries' markets for manufactured goods and services. That looks as elusive as ever.

A new deadline for a framework deal, April 30, has been set. The locomotive is still on the track, but the grade ahead is steep. There was no breakdown at Hong Kong but no breakthrough either.

Twenty years after New Zealand scrapped its farm subsidies and dismantled (most of) the protection surrounding its manufacturing sector, it is easy for us to be impatient, even scornful, of the reluctance of other countries to take even baby steps in the same direction. We forget, perhaps, that that transition was painful as well as liberating. But the pain passed and the benefits remain.

The British Treasury in a paper pleading the cause of CAP reform cites the New Zealand experience:

* Support to farmers fell from 35 per cent of farm incomes in 1983 to 13 per cent by 1987 and 3 per cent by 1994.

* Farm incomes fell 48 per cent in real terms between 1984 and 1986 but had fully recovered by 1989.

* By 1989, land values had fallen to 45 per cent of their 1982 level in real terms, reflecting the tendency for changes in farm incomes to be rapidly capitalised into land prices.

* Productivity growth in agriculture, which had run at 1.8 per cent a year between 1972 and 1983, more than doubled, averaging 4 per cent a year between 1985 and 1998.

Had the rest of the economy matched that productivity performance we would not be languishing in the bottom third of the OECD league table in per capita incomes.

"As an OECD market-based economy with a temperate climate, there are many similarities between New Zealand and many parts of the EU," HM Treasury says.

"And even where there are differences, some of these may actually suggest that the adjustment for EU farmers should be easier than it was for their New Zealand counterparts. New Zealand farmers are distant from many of their markets, whereas EU farmers operate within one of the world's biggest and wealthiest markets."

And how jealously guarded that market is.

Prohibitive tariffs - 100 per cent for beef, 101 per cent for butter, 60 per cent for lamb - mean that almost all the imported farm products that enter the European market do so by virtue of reduced-tariff quotas or other concessions.

The common agriculture policy costs Europeans €100 billion ($174 billion) a year. About half of that is consumers paying higher prices and half as taxpayers funding subsidy payments.

It estimates this costs the average family of four €950 ($1650) a year and is equivalent to an extra 15 per cent in value added tax (GST) on food.

Who benefits? By and large not the actual farmers, it would seem.

The OECD estimates that about 36 per cent of the CAP's market price support goes to the suppliers of inputs such as machinery, pesticides and fertilisers. A further 26 per cent benefits landowners, through pushing up the price of farm land. Only about half of that is owned by the farmers.

Ten per cent goes to those who work the land, and the remaining 28 per cent is lost through economic inefficiencies. It includes the forgone benefits of spending money on other things.

Theory suggests sustained increases in food prices encourage more intensive production on existing farmland and an expansion of farming to otherwise marginal land, the British Treasury says.

"This process bids up the price of agricultural inputs especially those, such as land or production quota, where supply is relatively fixed. Higher prices may initially boost returns from farming, but this benefit is soon eroded as agricultural costs are bid up."

The main beneficiaries of subsidy and protection are the owners of agricultural land, it says. Land prices in Britain rose 50 per cent after it joined the Common Market as the value of future CAP support was capitalised.

But, conversely, the removal of agricultural subsidies and cutting protection against the imports would not lead to the collapse of European farming, the Treasury argues.

There would be an initial squeeze on farm incomes (as in New Zealand) but as costs then fell incomes would recover.

Improved market access is key if developing countries are to benefit.

"Potential aggregate gains for developing countries from the removal of agricultural tariffs are much greater than potential gains from reductions in domestic support or export subsidies," HM Treasury says.

But the ability of developing countries to benefit from more open markets in Europe (and the United States and Japan) varies widely.

Some, such as Brazil, South Africa or Thailand are already relatively efficient producers and are more likely to be able to respond to better prices.

A larger group would be hobbled in the short term by constraints such as inadequate infrastructure or capital markets. For them, trade liberalisation is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for progress. Still, a chance would be a fine thing.

A third group stands to lose from the erosion of preferential access agreements for some commodities, often founded on past colonial relationships.

But relying on other people's willingness to pay more than they need to for what you produce is a rickety foundation to build a livelihood on, whether you live in Jamaica or France.

Barry Coates: Time for some ethics in trade deals

In Hong Kong, Oxfam was giving out fortune cookies to stressed trade delegates. Inside was a message "Don't let the trade talks crumble: make trade fair."

Maybe we were tempting fate, because our predictions didn't come true.

There had been a big build-up to the World Trade Organisation ministerial meeting . More than 17 million people signed the Make Trade Fair petition that was presented to the New Zealand minister, Jim Sutton, by Neil Finn at Auckland airport.

And millions more people had been mobilised through the Make Poverty History campaign around the world.

Meanwhile, Governments made promises that this would be a development round of trade talks, focusing on reforming the unfair agricultural trade rules that contribute to poverty among the 96 per cent of farmers who live in the developing world.

But in Hong Kong, things got worse. The rich countries arrived with promises of giving the poor countries "a trade round for free", but in negotiations behind closed doors they used all their negotiating power to get the round for free for themselves.

Instead of offering to end agricultural dumping, the EU and US instead demanded huge cuts in developing country tariffs and opening up of their services sectors.

Usually in these WTO talks, the rich countries are able to divide and rule, picking off individual countries with special deals.

This time, the developing country Governments were able to fend off most of the demands that would have undermined their development prospects and prevented them from using the same kind of policies that the rich nations and Asian tiger economies used to promote their domestic industries during their development.

But the developing countries were forced to defend their interests rather than focusing on the agriculture issues where reform is so badly needed to reduce poverty.

The New Zealand Government position was to press for agriculture reform, recognising that our farmers would also benefit from an end to trade-distorting subsidies, but they wanted developing countries to pay for it. They joined the EU and US to mount pressure on developing countries.

As in other trade negotiations, a few commercial gains for New Zealand exporters took precedence over Government policy aims to support development, defend the multilateral system and forge longer term relationships with trading partners in Asia.

By the end of the conference, developing countries had to give up a huge amount to get a promise from the EU to end only 3.5 per cent of their agricultural subsidies in eight years time. They either had to accept or walk out, risking the survival of the Doha round and even the multilateral trade system.

They accepted, but with bitterness and frustration.

It is time for the New Zealand Government to stop cosying up to the rich nations to get special deals, and instead start to defend the multilateral trade system from abuses of power and gross imbalances in trade rules.

It is time to look towards our future. Don't let our ethics crumble: make trade fair.

* Barry Coates is executive director of Oxfam New Zealand.

Irfan Yusuf: Family, friends and a sense of real unity

Christmas is traditionally a time for family and friends getting together and for exchanging gifts. Among my extended family and close friends, Muslim and non-Muslim, both will be done. And both sides of the Tasman are involved.

An uncle from Los Angeles visited Australia for the first time and his wife convinced me to take both of them to New Zealand.

Our trip coincided with the Sydney beach riots which made my relatives particularly desperate to leave Sydney although I joked: "Hey, you guys must be used to that sort of thing, coming from LA".

We were in New Zealand for five days, only enough time to drive a circle around the North Island. Despite our requests, my mother and aunt refused to remove their headscarves. As if the rioters were crossing the Tasman to cause more trouble. The closest we did come to cultural conflict was walking down the main street of Napier in search of breakfast. I noticed the locals staring. Naturally, I presumed the ladies' defiance over their headscarves was disturbing.

Then one of the locals shouted the real cultural reason for the stares. "Why are you wearing that damned Wallabies' jersey in New Zealand?"

Before leaving for New Zealand, I decided to deliver my Christmas gifts early. One recipient of this clean-shaven Islamic Santa's largesse was a Kiwi friend of mine who never met her Muslim dad.

This year she will receive a package of three books, including a selection of Rumi poems and the latest Deepak Chopra offering.

As usual, I will spend Christmas Day having lunch with my best mate. We both attended Sydney's only Anglican Cathedral School. Some years back, I introduced him to a Japanese friend. They instantly clicked. I was best man at their wedding.

It was a truly Australian event - an Anglican boy marrying a Buddhist girl with a Muslim best man, all taking place at St Andrews Cathedral.

At age 14, I was given my first translation of the Koran in English, a very old version first published in Lahore during the 1930s and made by a high-ranking Indian civil service named Abdullah Yusuf Ali. The Jesus story can be found in a chapter of the Koran named "Maryam" ( Arabic for Mary).

It begins with the usual supplication that commences all but one chapter: "In the name of God, Most Gracious and Most Merciful".

This supplication is used not only when commencing a reading of the Koran, but precedes virtually all the daily actions of a Muslim, both mundane and devotional.

The chapter describes how John the Baptist appeared on the scene. John (named Yahiya in classical Arabic) was born to Zachariah, and both father and son are revered as prophets.

Once John has been mentioned, Mary is introduced. She is described as withdrawing from her family "to a place in the East".

A messenger from God appears in her private chamber announcing she shall have the gift of a holy son.

Mary: How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?

Angel: So it will be: Thy Lord saith: "that is easy for Me: and We wish to appoint him as a sign unto men and as a Mercy from Us". It is a matter so decreed.

Following the birth, Mary took her son back to her family. Her father was a respected rabbi and Mary was always known for her modesty and chastity. When she was first publicly accused of sexual impropriety, she pointed to the baby Jesus.

The Koran describes the first miracle of Christ - his speaking from the cradle in defence of his mother.

His exact words were: "I am indeed a servant of God: He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet. And he hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me prayer and charity as long as I live.

"He hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable. So peace is on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised up to life again."

A number of Jesus' other miracles are mentioned in the Koran, as is Christ's ascension. It is not surprising then that in the place where it all happened, the Palestinian town of Beit Lahm (Bethlehem), Muslims and Christians both celebrate Christmas.

In many Muslim countries, Christmas is a public holiday. And when Christian leaders remind us that "Jesus is the reason for the season", our Muslim brethren should find nothing objectionable in this.

Christmas should remind us that, despite cultural and theological differences, the things that unite us are greater and more important than those which divide us.

* Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer.