Small town in southeastern Brazil honours Yasser Arafat

Arafat V signSAO PAULO (31 December 2004) AP -- THE NEW YEAR'S EVE celebrations in the small community of Paraiba do Sul will honour a figure the town's mayor says hasn't been honoured anywhere else in the West -- the late Yasser Arafat.

Moments before the clock rings in 2005, a fireworks and light show will serve as a backdrop to the unveiling of a life-sized statue of the Palestinian leader holding the traditional symbol of peace, the olive branch.

The 5-foot, 7-inch bronze statue will be part of an open-air memorial that includes a marble map of Palestine and a replica of the Palestinian flag, also in marble, Paraiba do Sul Mayor Rogerio Onofre said.

"It is the first time a memorial in Arafat's honour has been built in the Western world," Onofre said.

"We decided to build the memorial to demonstrate our solidarity with the Palestinian cause," Onofre said by phone. "We hope the memorial will encourage people to discuss the Middle Eastern crisis, which is the cause of all the violence and turmoil afflicting the world today."

Onofre acknowledged that the Arafat memorial has raised a storm of protest, "from representatives of Brazil's Jewish community."

"I have received more than 200 angry e-mails protesting our memorial," he said. "There are a lot of people who simply don't understand that the memorial is a call for reflection and peace. Peace represented by a man who for some was a terrorist but for others was a liberator."

One of the angry e-mails, posted on the Web site Paraiba do Sul's City Hall was from Abraham Shapiro, a leader of the Jewish community of Londrina, in southern Brazil.

The memorial, Shapiro said, is an "affront" because it honours a man "whose life was stained with blood and corruption."

Onofre said he supports a peaceful coexistence between Israel and the Palestinian people.

"Israel has the right to live in peace within internationally recognized frontiers and the Palestinians also have the right, and need, to an independent state," he said.

The protests of the Jewish community are counterbalanced by the "praise we have received from the Arab community," Onofre said.

"The people of the West Bank are aware of the homage that will rendered to Yasser Arafat and are extremely pleased with this recognition," read an e-mail sent by Hassan Elganal, president of the Palestine Movement of Brazil.

The New Year's Eve inauguration of the Yasser Arafat Memorial will be Onofre's last public act as mayor of Paraiba do Sul, a town of 37,000 people 250 miles northeast of Sao Paulo.

During his eight-year tenure, he has unveiled statues of Cuba's revolutionary icon Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Cuban President Fidel Castro, as well as Brazil's late Communist leader Luiz Carlos Prestes, among others.

Onofre, a socialist, said the people he decided to honour are "individuals who fought for their ideals."

Asked if referendums were held so that the citizens of Paraiba do Sul could decide which personalities to honour, the outgoing mayor said: "No. I and my cabinet made those decisions."

Onofre said that if could remain in office a few more years he would erect statues to former President Jimmy Carter, Mother Teresa and Mohandas Gandhi.

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