Iraq Vows To Protect Christian Minority

With Christians increasingly targets of violence, Italy's Foreign Minister makes their safety a centerpiece of his Baghdad trip. Fate of Iraq's best-known Christian, former Saddam aide Tariq Aziz, also on agenda.

Baghdad - Pressed by Italy's Foreign Minister, Iraq has announced that it will form a parliamentary commission to investigate the recent spate of killings of Christians, and establish a special police task-force to guarantee that Christians are protected from future violence.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who met over the weekend with Premier Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi officials in Baghdad, said that he has received reassurances over the fate of Christians in the predominantly Muslim country. Christians have been the target of violence and persecution since the U.S-led invasion of 2003.

In the deadliest assault against Christians to date, an Oct. 31 attack killed more than 50 people at a Catholic cathedral in the Iraqi capital. "I have received important reassurances from premier al-Maliki, from the foreign minister, (Hoshyar) Zebari, from the president, (Jalal) Talabani, over the fact that Christians are a fundamental part of Iraqi culture and history," Frattini said after the meetings.

"There's a common commitment that everything should be done to prevent Christians from leaving Iraq," added Frattini. "If they did leave, that would be a sign that the terrorists had won."

Frattini made the protection of Christians a priority of his trip to Iraq, with increasing attention in Italy and at the Vatican since the Oct. 31 massacre. Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly expressed concern over the status of the Christian community in Iraq and their exodus from the region. On Sunday, speaking from St. Peter's Square for his traditional Angelus prayer, Benedict condemned religious intolerance: "the attacks that continuously take place in Iraq against Muslims and Christians, and violence in Egypt and Eritrea."

In Baghdad, Frattini said the Iraqi government-promoted parliamentary commission will be presided over by a Christian lawmaker. He said the Iraqi government has also promised to set up police units that include Christian soldiers and officers.

Still, the violence continued, as authorities reported that an elderly Christian couple was shot to death late Sunday inside their Baghdad home.

The situation for Christians in Iraq was at the center of talks between Frattini and his counterpart, Zebari, who said Iraq "will send a positive message out by reconstructing churches and protecting Christians." Zebari said his government's position is clear in rejecting any calls for Christians to leave the country.

Another topic of discussion has proved more controversial – an Italian request for pardon for Tariq Aziz, the No. 2 in Saddam Hussein's regime and for years the international face of Iraq. Aziz, a Christian, has been convicted by an Iraqi court in connection with the persecution of religious parties and faces a death sentence.

Zebari said the ultimate decision rests with Iraqi judges, but insisted Aziz's trial was fair. "All of Aziz's rights have been respected, it wasn't a secret or hidden trial, he had a defense, and everybody should respect the decision of Iraqi courts," the foreign minister said.

The Iraqi president, Talabani, expressed a different view. He said he is "opposed to capital punishment, expecially for Tariq Aziz, who is old and ill." He told Frattini that if Aziz were executed "it would send a negative signal to the Christian community."

Frattini was in Baghdad to inaugurate the new Italian Embassy to Iraq, which has just been moved to a new venue inside the "Green Zone."

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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