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CONNECT THE WORLD

Exodus of Christians

Aired December 22, 2010 - 16:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


BECKY ANDERSON, HOST: It's a particularly poignant time for Christians. But for many, this is not the season to be married. Tonight, CONNECT THE WORLD uncovers a growing state of often violent attacks against what is a religious minority in many parts of the world.

In Iraq, Christmas is canceled. That's the message from church leaders, who fear more attacks like this one if they celebrate openly.

There have been bloody clashes with the police in Egypt, where Christians say they're routinely discriminated against. And in Pakistan, a Catholic woman is on death row on what's being called a cruel blasphemy law.

Going beyond borders on the day's most important stories, on CNN, this is the hour we connect the world.

Well, does 2010 mark a watershed in what many call a clash of civilizations?

With a story of violence and persecution rarely told, I'm Becky Anderson in London.

Also tonight, of course, we are awaiting a speech from U.S. President Obama after the Senate approved a nuclear treaty with Russia.

It's a crisis that's snowballed to impact the world -- the latest on how European travel hubs are faring.

And one of the most tragic sights of the year -- Pakistan submerged. We'll look back as we continue our series of defining moments of 2010.

We kick off, though, this evening with our top story tonight.

For centuries, many Christians in Muslim majority countries lived side by side in peace with their neighbors. But in recent times, we're seeing a mass exodus across the Middle East, as many Christians no longer feel welcome or even safe in their own homelands.

We begin this part of the show with a report from Richard Greene.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RICHARD GREENE (voice-over): Across much of the world, 2010 has been a bad year for Christians.

In Egypt, protests over plans to build a church leave a Christian dead.

In Iran, a pastor sentenced to death for converting from Islam to Christianity.

And there's more, from Morocco to Afghanistan.

NINA SHEA, U.S. COUNCIL ON INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: The worst place of all, undoubtedly, is Iraq, where there was a recent church bombing. But we've also seen church attacks and village attacks in Egypt. We saw the deportation of scores of Christians in the relatively moderate country of Morocco. There is a pastor -- a Christian pastor on death row for apostasy in Iran. And in Pakistan now, for the first time, a Christian woman has been condemned to death for blasphemy.

GREENE: Pakistan's president says he won't let her be executed. But her case could be tied up in court for years.

Nina Shea says the rise of extremism in the Middle East is one of the reasons for the upsurge in violence. Religious freedom expert, Leonard Leo, says another problem is that governments aren't punishing people for attacking Christians.

"If you're not going to enforce the law, people are going to engage in violent behavior."

In many countries, Christians, vastly outnumbered, can't defend themselves from terrorists, militias or their own neighbors. And many of them have had enough.

SHEA: Christians are packing up and leaving. And we've seen this in Iraq, where the population has been cut in half since 2003. It's now down to about half a million people.

We've seen this in Egypt, as well. Lebanon is a place that was a majority Christian until a couple of decades ago. It's now down to a third of the population.

The Christian population in Iran has dwindled down. Throughout the entire region, there's probably no more than 15 million Christians.

GREENE: Christians aren't the only ones suffering. Religious minorities like Shia Muslims and the Baha'i are also facing persecution. But Christians are one of the largest minorities in the Middle East and this year, many of them won't be having a Merry Christmas.

Richard Greene, CNN, London.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

ANDERSON: An overview there of the threats facing Christians in the Middle East. But the persecution and discrimination stretch far beyond those borders, to places like Pakistan.

We asked three of our reporters to update us on the situation where they work and live.

Have a listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Jomana Karadsheh in Baghdad.

Like most of Iraq's minority groups, the Christians have not been spared the bloodshed of the past seven years. But the recent violence that started with that horrific siege of a Baghdad church in October that killed and injured dozens of Christians didn't stop there. Christians have found themselves being targeted in their own homes.

Now, it was a group affiliated with al Qaeda that claimed the church siege and promised the Christians more attacks.

Members of the community say that their lives have been paralyzed by fear, that they're almost house bound.

Before the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraq is estimated to have had more than a million Christians. But the violence and persecution that followed drove about half of them out. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, thousands of Christians have fled their homes in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul in recent weeks, as a direct result of the church siege and the other attacks. Most of those have gone to the country's Kurdish north, a relatively secure part of the country, while others have sought refuge in neighboring countries.

UNHCR describes this as a slow but steady exodus, raising concerns that the renewed violence and inadequate protection may just drive Iraq's remaining Christians out.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Paula Hancocks in Bethlehem. Thousands of Christians from across the world will be coming here to this city this week to see the place where Jesus is believed to have been born. But life is difficult for Palestinian Christians who actually live here. Many have moved away already. Back in 1948, 80 percent of this city was Christian. That percentage is now just 35 percent.

Now, a small number say that there are some tensions between Muslims and Christians here in the West Bank, but others say the main reason for moving away is the building of what Israel calls its security barrier and what the Palestinians call the separation wall and a land grab.

It currently surrounds Bethlehem on three sides. It's cut off the economy from Jerusalem. Unemployment is very high and Christians here in Bethlehem need to have a special permit to be able to visit Jerusalem, just a 10 minute drive down the road.

In Gaza, things are even more difficult for Christians. Just 3,000 Christians remain in the Gaza Strip. Many say that they were leaving because of fears of attacks by Islamic extremists and others say they're leaving because of Israel's blockade on Gaza.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: I'm Chris Lawrence in Islamabad. And as you can see from some of the Christmas decorations, Christians actually make up a little less than 2 percent of the population here in Pakistan.

In some of the more highly educated urban areas, their life isn't that bad. But for most of the rest of the population, it's tough and getting tougher, mainly because of Pakistan's blasphemy law, which allows Christians to be prosecuted for all kinds of crimes against the state religion of Islam.

Probably the most famous of these is Asia Bibi, a Roman Catholic mother of two who remains in prison and schedule to be executed for blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad. Already, a cleric has offered thousands of dollars of reward for anyone who kills her and the Taliban have promised retribution if the government spares her life.

And she's not alone. These charges are actually on the rise. Just last year, well over 100 people were charged with blasphemy here in Pakistan.

Chris Lawrence, CNN, Islamabad.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

ANDERSON: All right, well, lest we forget, the Koran, of course, has great respect Jesus, referring to him as a prophet and a messenger of God and even devoting an entire chapter to his mother, Mary.

So what is behind all this hostility toward Christians then and what can the world do about it?

Well, we're joined now by Fiyaz Mughal, he's the founder of Faith Matters; and Andy Dipper, CEO of Release International.

And I think we should begin, chaps, by saying that this isn't a question of Muslims against Christians by any stretch of the imagination, is it, Andy?

ANDY DIPPER, CEO, RELEASE INTERNATIONAL: No. Absolutely not. I mean around the world today, many minorities are being prosecuted by another majority. It just so happens in the countries that we have considered just now, in Pakistan, the -- the -- the sizeable Christian minority is being prosecuted. But, actually, it's the laws -- and that's perhaps (INAUDIBLE), but it's the laws that are being used unfairly to -- to abuse the minority.

ANDERSON: And we will talk about that.

Let's start off by asking Fiyaz who you think is doing the persecuting at this point?

FIYAZ MUGHAL, FOUNDER, FAITH MATTERS: I mean clearly, clearly, there are a number of factors and they're quite complex factors. We have mentioned the issue of laws and the implementation of laws. We have -- there is also, clearly, the issue of extremism on the agenda -- groups that are manipulating the lack of security in some of these countries to effectively create a base for them. And that base means if they attack the minority, they have some kind of resonance with the wider majority. And that's the kind of politicization we're seeing here.

And so we have groups that are fractured within countries, that are undertaking these attacks. We have a lack of laws being implemented. And occasionally, we have politicians who see this as a quick win situation. And I think that's a number of factors.

DIPPER: But, also, of course, it's very much a -- a family level and a community level. It's not just state-sponsored or even state permitted. It happens and extrajudicial killings are very widespread throughout the world. And that is one of the biggest problems, actually, for minorities around the world today.

ANDERSON: Let's remind ourselves, Pakistan, about two million Christians. That's slightly over 1 percent of the population. Egypt, about 10 percent of the population. Iraq, we're looking at less than half a million Christians at this point, less than 2 percent of the population. Afghanistan, for example, in the region, a few thousand Christians.

So is this getting worse at this point, Andy?

DIPPER: It's very clear that we are finding out more and more stories. It's difficult to sometimes assess, year on year, is it getting worse. We're seeing more cases. So on one level, it is getting worse, because we're being made aware of more cases. And the tragedy is that, actually, people are being treated incredibly harshly. The -- the assumptions that people are something that they're not is on the increase. There's a polarization in abuse (ph).

ANDERSON: How much damage, Fiyaz, has the global geopolitical agenda, widely perceived, of course, as -- as the West versus Muslim around the world, done to these con -- congregations?

Is that where the damage is?

MUGHAL: I mean, I think that a lot of the issue is the damage around geo -- geopolitical issues. It clearly is. I mean look at situation with Iraq. That's a prime example where an invasion has taken place and actually, throughout the last eight, nine, 10 years, security has been on and off, tenuous. And there have been ups and downs in terms of security in that country.

Geopolitics plays a big role in Lebanon. Lebanon was mentioned earlier. It's a big role in Lebanon. There are many players around the region trying to manipulate where Lebanon goes in the region, very clearly.

Pakistan, there are geopolitics in Pakistan. There are different regions which also vie for resources.

So I think geopolitics plays a major role, but on -- and the war on terror, the global war on terror has effectively, in many ways, trying to reinforce these identities.

ANDERSON: What, for want of a better word, does Christian H.Q. do to protect its congregations?

DIPPER: Well, of course, there is no single Christian H.Q. It's very much a, you know, a belief system that goes all around the world.

ANDERSON: But there are people running the organization.

DIPPER: Sure. But -- but the whole approach, really, of Christians all around the world isn't actually to adopt a protectionist stance, where they would have armed guards or they would fight back in any way. You know, the whole purpose of Christianity is it's a peace-loving religion. It's about drawing people to the love of Jesus. That's what Christmas is all about.

And that is the DNA of Christianity. And that is what really is, perhaps, a great -- the greatest vulnerability to Christians, because there are people out there that exploit that vulnerability.

ANDERSON: We talked at the beginning of the 21st century, so that would be post-9/11, about a clash of civilizations.

Are we seeing the evidence of that now on the streets of Cairo and Islamabad and Baghdad?

MUGHAL: I don't -- I don't believe that that is the case. And I don't believe that's the case for a number of reasons. There are numerous projects. What we don't see on the news wires are numerous projects where Christians and Muslim theologians, leaders, community leaders are trying to come together and coming together to try to keep communities together.

So there's a lot of work at civil society level that's taking place in Cairo, in Syria, in a lot of the countries in the region try to keep communities together.

And I think that is the -- the threads and those are the threads and the fibers that are keeping things going.

I do think there is a clash. However, we all need to be aware that that geopolitics is driving positions which are, slowly but surely, can become polarized but also quite rigid.

And so I think there needs to be greater investment in civil society work that ensures that actually people can be exposed to different narratives, can be exposed to different communities. And, actually, this is a positive thing for communities.

ANDERSON: Is this a watershed moment, do you think?

DIPPER: Well, I think this is the opportunity that actually all elements of society have to speak up. You know, Pakistan, taking that particular country as an instance, there are certain elements within Pakistani culture -- the reformers want to be able to able to -- they want to abolish -- apol -- abolish laws that have been used to mistreat minorities. But there are hardliners that want to reinforce those laws. There are some people that want to take Sharia law and twist it into something that it's not.

So this is a time, actually, for the moderate intellectual voice, if you like, to understand the context and to speak out.

What we should not do is allow fringe elements within societies to hijack the mainstream agenda.

ANDERSON: We're going to have to leave it there, guys.

Fascinating stuff.

We thank you very much, indeed, for coming in.

Before we move on, a look at a Christmas display that South Korea hopes won't come under attack. For the first time in seven years, South Korea has switched on Christmas lights in the shape of a tree near the demilitarized zone bordering the North. It had halted the tradition as part of a pact with North Korea to stop actions deemed cross border propaganda.

But with tensions on the rise, the South resurrected the tradition and sent marines to stand guard.

Wrapping up that part of the show, we are waiting for the U.S. president, Obama, to speak any minute now. He is expected to talk about a -- a new treaty signed with Russia on nuclear disarmament.

That's the shot.

We will bring you that, of course, as soon as he gets to the podium.

And later, the weather which has made travel in Europe a nightmare may be easing, but meteorologists are warning more winter storms are on the way. We're going to have a forecast up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OBAMA: To get out of here and spend some time with our families.

ANDERSON: And taking you straight to the White House, where President Obama is speaking.

OBAMA: But I just wanted to say a few words about the progress that we've made on some important issues over these last few weeks.

A lot of folks in this town predicted that, after the midterm elections, Washington would be headed for more partisanship and more gridlock. And instead, this has been a season of progress for the American people.

That progress is reflected -- is a reflection of the message the voters sent in November, a message that said it's time to find common ground on challenges facing our country. It's a message that I will take to heart in the new year, and I hope my Democratic and Republican friends will do the same.

First of all, I am glad that Democrats and Republicans came together to approve my top national security priority for this session of Congress, the New START treaty. This is the most significant arms control agreement in nearly two decades. And it will make us safer and reduce our nuclear arsenals, along with Russia.

With this treaty, our inspectors will also be back on the ground at Russian nuclear bases, so we will be able to trust, but verify.

We'll continue to advance our relationship with Russia, which is essential to making progress on a host of challenges, from enforcing strong sanctions on Iran to preventing nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists.

And this treaty will enhance our leadership to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and seek the peace of a world without them.

The strong bipartisan vote in the Senate sends a powerful signal to the world that Republicans and Democrats stand together on behalf of our security. And I especially want to thank the outstanding work done by Vice President Joe Biden, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator John Kerry, and the ranking Republican, Senator Richard Lugar, for their extraordinary efforts.

In fact, I just got off the phone with Dick Lugar and reminded him, the first trip I ever took as senator, foreign trip, was with Dick Lugar to Russia to look at nuclear facilities there. And I told him how much I appreciated the work he had done and that there was a direct line between that trip that we took together when I was a first-year senator and the results of the vote today on the floor.

This all speaks to a tradition of bipartisan support for strong American leadership around the world. And that's a tradition that was reinforced by the fact that the New START treaty won the backing of our military and our allies abroad.

In the last few weeks, we also came together across party lines to pass a package of tax cuts and unemployment insurance that will spur jobs, businesses, and growth. This package includes a payroll tax cut that means nearly every American family will get an average tax cut next year of about $1,000 delivered in their paychecks.

It will make a difference for millions of students and parents and workers and people still looking for work. It's led economists across the political spectrum to predict that the economy will grow faster than they originally thought next year.

In our ongoing struggle to perfect our union, we also overturned a 17- year-old law and a longstanding injustice by finally ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

As I said earlier today, this is the right thing to do for our security. It's the right thing to do, period.

In addition, we came together across party lines to pass a food safety bill, the biggest upgrade of America's food safety laws since the Great Depression. And I hope the House will soon join the Senate in passing a 9/11 health bill that will help cover the health care costs of police officers, firefighters, rescue workers, and residents who inhaled toxic air near the World Trade Center on that terrible morning and the days that followed.

So I think it's fair to say that this has been the most productive post-election period we've had in decades. And it comes on the heels of the most productive two years that we've had in generations.

That doesn't mean that our business is finished. I am very disappointed Congress wasn't able to pass the DREAM Act, so we can stop punishing kids for the actions of their parents and allow them to serve in the military or earn an education and contribute their talents to the country where they grew up.

I'm also disappointed we weren't able to come together around a budget to fund our government over the long term. I expect we'll have a robust debate about this when we return from the holidays, a debate that will have to answer an increasingly urgent question, and that is, how do we cut spending that we don't need, while still making investments that we do need, investments in education, research and development, innovation, and the things that are essential to grow our economy over the long run, create jobs, and compete with every other nation in the world?

I look forward to hearing from folks on both sides of the aisle about how we can accomplish that goal.

If there's any lesson to draw from these past few weeks, it's that we are not doomed to endless gridlock. We've shown in the wake of the November elections that we have the capacity not only to make progress, but to make progress together.

And I'm not naive. I know there will be tough fights in the months ahead. But my hope heading into the new year is that we can continue to heed the message of the American people and hold to a spirit of common purpose in 2011 and beyond. And if we do that, I'm convinced that we will lift up our middle class, we will rebuild our economy, and we will make our contribution to America's greatness.

Finally, before I take questions, I want to send a message to all those Americans who are spending Christmas serving our nation in harm's way. As I said in Afghanistan earlier this month, the American people stand united in our support and admiration for you.

And in this holiday season, I'd ask the American people to keep our troops in your prayers and lend a hand to those military families who have an empty seat at the table.

So with that, I'm going to take some questions, and I'm going to start with Karen Boren (ph).

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. You racked up a lot of wins in the last few weeks that a lot of people thought would be difficult to come by. Are you ready to call yourself the comeback kid?

And also, as you look ahead to 2011, are you worried that bipartisan agreement will be a lot harder to reach on issues like deficit reduction and maybe even tax reform?

OBAMA: Well, look, as I said right after the midterm elections, we took a shellacking, and I take responsibility for that. But I think what's happened over the last several weeks is it's not a victory for me, it's a victory for the American people.

And the lesson I hope that everybody takes from this is that it's possible for Democrats and Republicans to have principled disagreements, to have some lengthy arguments, but to ultimately find common ground to move the country forward.

That's what we did with taxes. Those arguments have not gone away. I still believe that it doesn't make sense for us to provide tax cuts to people like myself who don't need them when our deficit and debts are growing. That's a debate that's going to continue into 2011. And I know that Republicans feel just as strongly on the other side of that.

I think that we're still going to have disagreements in terms of spending priorities. It's vital for us to make investments in education and research and development, all those things that create an innovative economy, while at the same time cutting those programs that just aren't working. And there are going to be debates between the parties on those issues.

But what we've shown is that we don't have to agree on 100 percent to get things done that enhance the lives of families all across America. And if we can sustain that spirit, then regardless of how the politics play out in 2012, the American people will be better for it. And that's my ultimate goal.

Jake Tapper?

QUESTION: Thanks, Mr. President. Merry Christmas.

OBAMA: Merry Christmas.

QUESTION: I have a couple of questions about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." First of all, congratulations. What was your conversation like with Marine Commandant Amos when he expressed to you his concerns, and yet he said that he would abide by whatever -- whatever the ruling was? Can you understand why he had the position he did?

And then, on the other hand, is it intellectually consistent to say that gay and lesbians should be able to fight and die for this country, but they should not be able to marry the people they love?

OBAMA: You know, I don't want to go into detail about conversations in the Oval Office with my service chiefs. Jim Amos expressed the same concerns to me privately that he expressed publicly during his testimony. He said that there could be disruptions as a consequence of this.

And what I said to him was that I was confident, looking at the history of the military with respect to racial integration, with respect to the inclusion of women in our armed forces, that that could be managed, and that was confirmed by the attitudinal studies that was done prior to this vote.

And what he assured me of -- and what all the service chiefs have assured me of -- is that, regardless of their concerns about disruptions, they were confident that they could implement this policy without it affecting our military cohesion and good discipline and readiness. And I take them at their word.

And I've spoken to them since the vote took place, and they have all said that we are going to implement this smartly and swiftly, and they are confident that it will not have an effect on our military effectiveness. So I'm very heartened by that.

And I want to, again, give Bob Gates and Admiral Mullen enormous credit for having guided this process through in a way that preserves our primary responsibility to keep America safe and, at the same time, allows us to live up to our values.

Now, with respect to the issue of whether gays and lesbians should be able to get married, I've spoken about this recently. As I've said, you know, my feelings about this are constantly evolving. I struggle with this.

I have friends, I have people who work for me who are in powerful, strong, long-lasting gay or lesbian unions, and they are extraordinary people, and this is something that means a lot to them and they care deeply about.

At this point, what I've said is, is that my baseline is a strong civil union that provides them the protections and the legal rights that married couples have. And I think -- and I think that's the right thing to do.

But I recognize that, from their perspective, it is not enough. And I think this is something that we're going to continue to debate and I personally am going to continue to wrestle with going forward.

QUESTION: But the military does not recognize civil unions, right?

OBAMA: I understand. And -- and as I said, this is going to be an issue that is not unique to the military. This is an issue that extends to all of our society, and I think we're all going to have to have a conversation about it.

Dan Lothian?

LOTHIAN: Thank you, Mr. President. And happy holidays.

OBAMA: Happy holidays.

LOTHIAN: Can you give us an update on that car that you talk so much about being in the ditch. Can you give us an update as to where it is today? What kind of highway do you think it will be driving on in 2011? Who will really be behind the wheel, given the new makeup in Congress? And what do you think Republicans will be sipping and saying next year?

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Man, you gave some thought to that question, didn't you?

LOTHIAN: I did.

OBAMA: Well, I do think that the -- the car is on level ground. The car is the economy, and I think we are past the crisis point in the economy, but we now have to pivot and focus on jobs and growth.

And my singular focus over the next two years is not rescuing the economy from potential disaster but, rather, jump starting the economy so that we actually start making a dent in the unemployment rate, and we are equipping ourselves so that we can compete in the 21st century.

And that means we've got to focus on education, that means we have to focus on research and development, we have to focus on innovation. We have to make sure that, in every sector, from manufacturing to clean energy to high tech to bio-tech that we recognize that the private sector is going to be the driving force.

And what the government can do is to make sure that we're a good partner with them, that we're a facilitator that, in some cases, we're a catalyst, when it's a fledgling industry. And that means that we've got to look at some of our old dogmas, both Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, to think about what works.

If there are regulations that are in place that are impeding innovation, let's get rid of those regulations. Let's make sure that we're also protecting consumers and we're protecting the environment and protecting workers in the process, but let's find ways to do business that helps business.

People were doubtful about the approach that we took to the auto industry, but that was an example of -- there may be occasions, certainly during crisis, where a timely intervention that's limited and restricted, can end up making a difference.

And so, I think Democrats, Republicans, House, Senate, the White House, all of us have to be in a conversation with the private sector about what's going to ensure that we can export and sell our products, instead of just buying exports from someplace else. How do we make sure that the green technologies of the future are made here in America?

And how do we get all these profits that companies have been making since the economy recovered into productive investment and hiring. That's the conversation that I had with the 20 CEOs who came here, and that's a conversation I expect to continue in the months ahead.

But the answer about who drives, the American people are driving the car. They're the ones who are going to be making an assessment as to whether we're putting in place policies that are working for them. And both parties are going to be held accountable, and I'm going to be held accountable if we take a wrong turn on that front.

LOTHIAN: (inaudible)

OBAMA: You know, my sense is the Republicans recognize that, with greater power is going to come greater responsibility. Some of the progress that I think we saw in the lame duck was a recognition on their part that people are going to be paying attention to what they're doing as well as what I'm doing and what the Democrats in Congress are doing. Mark Knoller?

MARK KNOLLER, CBS CORRESPONDENT: Yes, sir. Mr. President, can you explain the anger and even outrage many Democrats felt when the tax cut bill extended tax cuts, not just for the middle class, but also for the wealthy? And is that a divide that you may be contributing to when you and the vice president talk about morally inappropriate tax cuts for the wealthy?

OBAMA: Look. The frustration that people felt about that was frustration I shared. And I've said that before. And I'll probably say it again. I don't think that, over the long run, we can afford a series of tax breaks for people who are doing very well and don't need it. Were doing well when Bill Clinton was in office. They were still rich then, and they will still be rich if those tax cuts went away.

So, this is going to be a debate that we're going to be having over the next couple of years, because I guarantee you, as soon as the new Congress is sworn in, we're going to have to have a conversation about how do we start balancing our budget, or at least getting to a point that's sustainable when it comes to our deficit and our debt.

And that's going to require us cutting programs that don't work. But it also requires us to be honest about paying for the things that we think are important. If we think it's important to make sure that our veterans are getting care that they need when they come back home from fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq, we can't just salute and wish them well and have a Veterans Day parade. We've got to make sure that there are doctors and nurses and facilities for post traumatic stress disorder, and that costs money.

If we say that education is going to be the single most important determinant for our children's success and this country's success in the 21st century, we can't have schools that are laying off so many teachers that they start going to four days a week, as they've done in Hawaii, for example.

We've got to make sure that young people can afford to go to college. If we want to keep our competitive edge in innovation, well, we've got to invest in basic research. The same basic research that resulted in the internet. The same basic research that invited -- that resulted in GPS. All those things original -- originated in research funded by the government.

So, we are going to have to compare the option of maintaining the tax cuts for the wealthy permanently versus spending on these things that we think are important. And that's a debate that I welcome. But I completely understand why, not just Democrats, but some Republicans, might think that that part of the tax package, we could have done without.

Having said that, I want to repeat. Compromise, by definition, means taking some things you don't like. And the overall package was the right one to ensure that this economy has the best possible chance to grow and create jobs. And there is no better anti-poverty program than an economy that's growing. There's no better deficit reduction program than an economy that is growing.

And if the economy started contracting, as it might have had we not gotten this tax agreement, then the choices that we would have to make would be even tougher.

KNOLLER: Sir, is there a divide between middle class and wealthy Americans?

OBAMA: I think middle class folks would confirm what the statistics say, which is that they had not seen a real increase in their incomes in a decade, while their costs have skyrocketed. That's just a fact.

What is also a fact is that people in the top one percent -- people in the top one-tenth of one percent, or one-hundredth of one percent have a larger share of income and wealth than anytime since the 1920s.

Those are just facts. That's not a feeling on the part of Democrats. Those are facts. And something that's always been the greatest strength of America is a thriving, booming, middle class, where everybody's got a shot at the American dream.

And that should be our goal. That should be what we're focused on. How are we creating opportunity for everybody, so that we -- celebrate wealth, we celebrate somebody like a Steve Jobs, who has created two or three different revolutionary products. We expect that person to be rich, and that's a good thing. We want that incentive, that's part of the free market.

But we also want to make sure that those of us who have been extraordinarily fortunate, that we're contributing to the larger American community so that a whole bunch of other kids coming up are doing well. And that means schools that work and infrastructure like roads and airports that function. It means --

BECKY ANDERSON, CNN HOST: And with that, we will leave President Barack Obama at the White House. We'll keep monitoring, of course, this press conference for you. Not quite a victory lap but, perhaps, one might say nearly so.

He said we're not doomed to endless gridlock in what Obama calls "the most productive post-election period in decades." The president celebrating what he calls "the most significant arms control treaty in nearly two decades."

Now, remember, this new START treaty, requiring the US and Russian nations to cut their arsenals to 1550 warheads and 700 launches, that is how he opened this news conference some minutes ago.

He also talked about the signing of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Repeal Act of 2010, signing that into law at a ceremony earlier today, as I say.

This, an important news conference at the end of what has been a difficult but, as Obama says, a productive couple of years. And as we enter 2011, talking there about what needs to be done in order to balance the books and get the American economy kickstarted once again. We'll leave that for the time being. Back to it, as I say, as and when we get some news.

All right, let's move on here. Thousands of stranded passengers across Europe finally starting their Christmas holidays as airport and rail operators make the most of a clear weather spell. We've got the very latest pictures for you, now, from some of the major transport hubs, which have been gridlocked by this arctic blast.

Let's start with Heathrow. It's operating at about 70 to 80 percent, we're told, now. Even so, some 400 flights were canceled on Wednesday and, as late as last night, confusion at Heathrow airport meant that one passenger plane to New York actually left completely empty. Imagine that.

BAA expects the airport to be fully open on Thursday, while British Airways says it would operate a full long-haul departure schedule both Thursday and on Friday.

The long lines have also been winding down at London's Eurostar terminal. The rail company has also stopped selling new pre-Boxing Day tickets, that's the 26th of December, of course, trying to get already booked passengers on trains in time for the 25th.

Germany's state rail carrier is urging people not to travel tomorrow, fearing an overload of its capacity. The rail network under heavy strain as it tries to clear the backlog. The airports are faring a little better, 1400 flights were expected out of Frankfurt, with all three runways now open.

All right. So, that is how things certainly stood about 20 minutes or so ago. Let's get the very latest status update of some of the worst- affected airports over the past couple of days. Here Guillermo is for you at CNN Center. What have you got, Guillermo?

GUILLERMO ARDUINO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: You see, I notice a smile in you. I have a smile, too. Things are running much better right now on both fronts. On the weather, things are much better. And also, here at airports, they are operating much better.

Heathrow and Britain continues to be the area where we have most of the problems. So, you see the red, there. I'm going to zoom in a little bit. So, you see, here, the reds? Those are airports that are reporting excessive delays. London City Airport is one, then Luton Airport is the other one, and London Heathrow. Let's see this one, the yellow. Gatwick is only with moderate delays.

So, you see, I'm going to take you now to what's going on in other places. For instance, let's start with the bad ones. We have Heathrow and still cancellations. But much better, Becky, en route here. Scheduled air -- some flights from Aberdeen, Dublin canceled, here. This is expected to -- was expected to go to T1, Aer Lingus, some British Airways. So, Heathrow still operating with some problems, but it is getting much better.

Also, we have some snow right now at Charles de Gaulle, but it's not affecting the airport for operations, but we see, here, on time, a flight from Istanbul, Turkish Airlines, 10:30, one-minute delayed flight from Rome. Then, some cancellations.

But most of it, remember, has to deal with, basically, backlog. Problems that were generated before because they were this much better.

Then, we get to Frankfurt. And Frankfurt is much better, still. Sixty-two minute delays, here, from London. I notice a pattern. Most of them coming from Britain are delayed or canceled. Then, some on time, like Istanbul and Berlin.

And finally, the best airport right now, Amsterdam. Everything is operating fine. I'm going to go down a little bit, so we see, we have a cancellation here. London Heathrow, as I told you, KLM, and then we have 35, 23-minute delays.

In general -- this is the point. In general, things are running much better all across the board, and the weather is improving in many, many parts of Europe, Becky.

ANDERSON: Remind people, just before we get the forecast from you, that it's the long-haul flights out of Heathrow that BAA hope will be operating absolutely perfectly over the next couple of days. Do be aware, those short-haul flights, as Guillermo's just been suggesting, some of those still a little bit iffy.

Let's get a forecast from you, Guillermo. What's the weather like going forward?

ARDUINO: Well, much better everywhere. We have a snowstorm right now, going through France, but we expect only two centimeters of snow. Germany in the snow -- in the northeast, where we can see some snow. Britain, forget about the snow, because it's gone. It's long gone, we're not going to see anymore snow. OK, that's very important.

You can take the graphic in general, Mark, to show our viewers. The cold air is returning, as you see. We still have a lot of clouds, Becky, so conditions are not ideal. The cold is still slipping in, but we have, here, the mild weather that is in combination with the cold air bringing some snow showers. Paris started -- Charles de Gaulle started to report some snow showers, but nothing significant.

Look at this. This is the last 12 hours. You see all the snow here in northern England and in the midlands and in Wales? Gone. It's dissipating, it's going away. The same for Ireland.

But when we go down south, here -- and if you're watching from any airport, we're thinking of you constantly. Especially Amsterdam or Paris. And things are -- you're going to see some snow falling, but things are not that bad. And the long-term forecast is improving.

Germany's going to see up to four centimeters of snow here in Berlin. But Paris, only 2.5, and London is saying good-bye to the snow.

So, on the one hand, I don't think we're going to see a white Christmas in London. But everybody's going to be much happier that things are going back to normal, Becky.

ANDERSON: That's right. All those who've got a bet on for a white Christmas are going to be very disappointed about what you've said today. Of course, there's always the chance --

ARDUINO: I know.

ANDERSON: Always the chance.

ARDUINO: I know, I'm sorry.

ANDERSON: all right, Guillermo, thank you for that.

ARDUINO: Thank you.

ANDERSON: Much better news, so far as the forecast, it seems. And so far as these flight schedules are concerned.

Just ahead on CONNECT THE WORLD, Ivory Coast's president says he will reach out to his rival, but anyone expecting Laurent Gbagbo to step down will be sorely disappointed. Find out what his advisor has to say about that, after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANDERSON: A spokesman for Ivory Coast opposition leader is calling for international help ousting President Laurent Gbagbo. The nation has descended into chaos since Mr. Gbagbo and his rival both claimed victory following last month's presidential runoff.

Well, it is a tug of war for the country's leadership, but the fallout has been deadly. Let's take a closer look at how this post-election crisis has been developing over the past 24 hours, shall we? A country, perhaps, on the brink of civil war.

The incumbent president, Mr. Gbagbo, says there is no dispute. He declared himself the one and only president on state television on Tuesday. He also invited an international committee to re-examine the facts of the electoral process.

Well, the US has now imposed a travel ban on Mr. Gbagbo, his wife, and 30 of his allies. The EU has also approved sanctions. France, meanwhile, is the latest country to urge its citizens to flee Ivory Coast. It has around 15,000 nationals in the country. Britain and the US has also asked people to leave.

And the World Bank is adding to Mr. Gbagbo's woes. It's freezing financing for the country. It's also coordinating with the West African economic and monetary union to withhold loans for his government.

On Tuesday, the head of the UN warned of a, quote, "real risk that Ivory Coast will return to civil war." The organization has extended its peacekeeping mission in the country, despite an expulsion order by Mr. Gbagbo. Our Richard Roth, now, takes a look at how Ivorians in the United States have been reacting to a political crisis as the United Nations secretary general gave his speech in New York.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CROWD (chanting): Gbagbo must go! Gbagbo must go!

RICHARD ROTH, CNN SENIOR UN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Outside the United Nations, where UN officials are meeting in crisis, urgent meetings, demonstration, here across the street. People loyal to Mr. Ouattara. Why is the demonstration being held? What do you want?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We want Mr. Gbagbo to step down. He is a real dictator. Every night he's killing people in Ivory Coast. We don't want him anymore. And people of Ivory Coast have chosen Dr. Alassane Dramane Ouattara to be the next president of the Ivory Coast.

ROTH: Who won this election?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Ouattara won the election. I've heard not a word. It seems that the United Nations does not want to intervene, France does not want to intervene, for -- because they cannot intervene in our domestic affairs.

I think, in order for them to promote justice, in order for them to promote democracy, something must be done. Because there is no justice without enforcement. There is no justice without -- there is no law without enforcement.

ROTH: Briefly, what do you think's going to happen?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, right now, we need US help. We need UN help to go to Ivory Coast to help us and get that dictator there out of Ivory Coast. They did not win the election. Right now, he's killing every night. He's going door-to-door. We need US help to get Gbagbo Laurent out of the United -- Ivory Coast.

ROTH: Thank you very much. Demonstrators are going to be staying here. They want Gbagbo out. They've lost relatives and friends over there, and they're worried about a return to civil war in their homeland. Richard Roth, CNN, outside the United Nations in New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANDERSON: All right. Well, their view is pretty clear, that Mr. Gbagbo should step down. And if his challenger is backed by the likes of the United Nations, the European Union and, indeed, the African Union, well, where do we go from here?

Well, I spoke to an advisor of President Gbagbo, Abdon Bayeto, and asked him what's gone wrong with the nation once seen as a haven for peace and prosperity. This is what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ABDON BAYETO, ADVISER TO PRESIDENT GBAGBO: The world is moving. The world is changing. There's a lot of political hungriness in this. People are very into political -- what to get in there, and what to have there, and resources. That's why the problem is occurring today.

ANDERSON: Ban Ki-moon has warned that the Ivory Coast faces a real risk of a return to civil war. Is that what Laurent Gbagbo wants?

BAYETO: No. Mr. Ban Ki-moon is the one who is accountable to the chaos in the Ivory Coast -- if there is chaos in Ivory Coast. In case of civil war.

ANDERSON: Why do you say that?

BAYETO: President just addressed it yesterday. He told people that he's not ready to shed any blood for an Ivorian. And he's even opened his arms for the opposition --

ANDERSON: But people are dying on the streets, Abdon.

BAYETO: But it's not --

ANDERSON: Will he share power?

BAYETO: We did share power in 2002. It got us nowhere. And this time, if we need to get somewhere, we need to still talk. Sit and talk, and then decided.

ANDERSON: Right.

BAYETO: But then, he called out on the international community to bring out a commission, for them to go and seek for the truth. Will that proof be ready? For us, it's ready to get to trying to kill him. At the moment, they're organizing to assassinate President Laurent Gbagbo. That's not right. America is backing this, to assassinate him.

ANDERSON: So, when you hear --

BAYETO: Assassination.

ANDERSON: That the UN, the AU, and the regional group of ECOWAS say Gbagbo should step down, what do you read into that?

BAYETO: They want to assassinate him. That's why you -- they're interfering, that's the way it's going on. That's wrong. To assassinate him. I don't think that's the issue for them to do. To assassinate him.

ANDERSON: No, they're asking him to step down. They're --

BAYETO: No.

ANDERSON: Not saying they're going to assassinate him.

BAYETO: We know that today they're saying some people in America -- in Ivory Coast, backed up by American, ECOWAS, even the French. They had a Ministerial Council today, and they decided to take him out. How will they take him out if it's not physical?

ANDERSON: How are we going to break this stalemate?

BAYETO: It's for them to realize their mistake. They went to early and too quick. They have to come back and accept the open hand the president offered to them to form that international commission, for them to come and seek the truth.

Because that's the way, the truth. What happened, and why we got where we are. If they're prepared to do that, you will see that it was an international plot and a hidden agenda. And people will be put to -- to the open. That's why they don't want it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANDERSON: Well, all right. That's the spokesman for Laurent Gbagbo at the moment. Earlier, we mentioned calls from Ivory Coast opposition members for the use of force to oust Mr. Gbagbo.

Opposition spokesman Patrick Achi spoke with my colleague, Hala Gorani, a short time ago on the phone from Abidjan. He's the spokesman for the opposition leader, who's also, of course, claimed the presidency, and that's a man called Ouattara. She asked him if there's any chance that the two candidates will ever get together and negotiate. This is what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PATRICK ACHI, OPPOSITION SPOKESMAN (via telephone): What negotiation? The first step of negotiation is to recognize that he has lost the election. Everybody else is telling him that. The international community, the African countrymen, the ECOWAS, everybody. He doesn't want to recognize that he has lost the election. What discussion, what negotiation could we -- can we really do with someone who says, "I won"?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANDERSON: And so, the chaos continues in Ivory Coast. Do stay with us. You're watching CONNECT THE WORLD. We've got a couple of minutes left. I'm Becky Anderson in London. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANDERSON: Right, well, you may think singing Christmas carols is a thing of the past. But if you do, you would be wrong, apparently. A new generation raised on iPods, iPads, and YouTube has found a way to update this ancient tradition. And as Jeanne Moos found out, they can be anywhere from a grocery store to the nearest shopping mall.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (singing): Hallelujah!

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Forget the halls.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (singing): Hallelujah!

MOOS (voice-over): Deck the malls with flash mobs.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (singing): Hallelujah!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): Hallelujah!

MOOS (voice-over): This was one of the best.

CHOIR (singing): The king of kings.

MOOS (voice-over): But "The Hallelujah Chorus" sprung on a food court of unsuspecting shoppers in Welland, Ontario, is now springing up everywhere, from a Nordstroms in California.

CHOIR (singing): Hallelujah.

MOOS (voice-over): To a food court in Albany, New York.

CHOIR (singing): King of kings, forever and ever.

MOOS (voice-over): Trend may have peaked when a flash mob caused such overcrowding --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Go home!

MOOS (voice-over): That a mall in Roseville, California had to be evacuated.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The one day I come to the mall, and they close it.

MOOS (voice-over): And that was even before the singing started.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the floors just went --

MOOS (voice-over): Engineers later declared the mall structurally sound, but would-be flash mobsters learned something.

MOOS (on camera): The secret to flash mob success is secrecy. Sh!

MOOS (voice-over): Don't let too many people know whether you're going bananas dancing in a New Jersey grocery store.

(MUSIC - "Jingle Bell Rock")

MOOS (voice-over): Or a university library in Spain.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALS (singing): Make my wish come true.

MOOS (voice-over): Or at the Vancouver airport.

(MUSIC - "Santa Claus is Coming to Town")

MOOS (voice-over): The Canadian flash mob that set the standard --

CHOIR (singing): Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

MOOS (voice-over): Was organized by a company called Alphabet Photography. They meant to send it out to their customers as an electronic holiday greeting. Jennifer Blakeley dreamed it up.

JENNIFER BLAKELEY, PRESIDENT, ALPHABET PHOTOGRAPHY (via telephone): This is a vision I had in my head while I was having a shower one day, singing in the shower. So, to see it on full, I was actually in tears almost.

MOOS (voice-over): They got permission from mall management, but only security knew what was going on when a community chorus and some music students started singing.

CHOIR (singing): Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

MOOS (on camera): I love the guy holding up the wet floors sign.

BLAKELEY: He is my favorite. I was like, "OK, which one of you wants to be the janitor?" And he was like, "Oh! Oh! I do!"

MOOS (voice-over): Twenty-five million YouTube views later, they've created a monster. "The Hallelujah Chorus" has even breached the newsroom.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hal-le-lu-jah!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (singing): Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

MOOS (voice-over): And over at ABC, they threw Diane Sawyer a birthday flash mob to celebrate her 65th.

CROWD (singing): Forever, and ever, you'll stay in my heart, and I will love you, forever --

MOOS (voice-over): Is it still a flash mob when everyone is in on it? Diane summed up what a perfect flash mob should be.

DIANE SAWYER, ABC ANCHOR: Well, thank you for this hallucination.

(LAUGHTER)

MOOS (voice-over): Jeanne Moos, CNN.

(APPLAUSE)

MOOS (voice-over): New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANDERSON: Nothing connects the world like a flash mob. I'm Becky Anderson. "BackStory is up next here on CNN, after a very quick check of the headlines for you.

END