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Clerics Issue Fatwa Against Pakistan's Female Tourism Minister

A group of radical clerics has issued a religious decree against Pakistan's tourism minister after some local newspapers printed photographs showing her holding onto a male colleague after landing from a parachute jump in France.

The decree, or fatwa, was issued by a religious parallel court set up last week by a group of activist clerics in the Lal Mosque here. The clerics have also demanded that the government enact Islamic law, or Shariah.

The decree issued Sunday accuses the minister, Nilofer Bakhtiar, of un-Islamic behavior. The clerics urged the government of President Pervez Musharraf to "punish and fire her from the government."

Pakistani officials dismissed the fatwa, saying it had no legal, religious or moral authority. Human rights and political activists and many other Pakistanis have condemned the action and expressed support for her.

Bakhtiar also dismissed the criticism and, in an interview Monday, said the photographs were taken out of context and show her being congratulated for making the jump at a charity event.

After the photographs were published, incensed radical clerics and some other conservative Pakistanis latched onto the opportunity to not only criticize her but also to attack Musharraf for what he calls his approach of "enlightened moderation." The pictures, in their view, violated acceptable moral norms in this Muslim country.

Italy's Prime Minister Criticized Over Hostage Swap With Taliban

The government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi came under fierce attack on Monday after the Taliban said it had killed an Afghan hostage who was a colleague of the Italian journalist freed last month in a controversial prisoner swap.

That journalist, Daniele Mastrogiacomo of La Repubblica, was freed on March 19 in exchange for five Taliban fighters released by the Afghan government. Italy had lobbied Pakistan to make a deal. At the time, the Italian government spokesman said, "We think that the life of a person is very precious."

But on Sunday, the Taliban said it killed Mastrogiacomo's translator, Ajmal Naqshbandi, after failing to arrange another prisoner swap. Taliban fighters had already killed the men's driver.

The swap that led to Mastrogiacomo's release was roundly condemned by the United States, Britain and other allies, which argued that deals with terrorists only make civilians more vulnerable.

On Monday, there were fresh complaints in Italy by opposition parties and by a charity group that claimed that the government had paid millions of dollars to free an earlier hostage in Afghanistan. That group, Emergency, acted as a mediator in the case of Mastrogiacomo.

Gino Strada, the leader of the group, said Monday that Prodi's government paid $2 million in ransom that freed Gabriele Torsello, a journalist kidnapped in October.

McDonald's to Allow More Unions in Its China Outlets

A year after Wal-Mart Stores unionized all its stores in China under pressure from the government, McDonald's is cooperating with China's large state-controlled union to allow the formation of more unions in its 750 outlets here.

A McDonald's spokesman said on Monday that the company was working with union officials to help establish a union at its stores in southern Guangdong province, one of the country's wealthiest regions.

The announcement comes nearly two weeks after a state-controlled newspaper in Guangdong reported that some McDonald's, KFC, and Pizza Hut restaurants in Guangdong were violating the law by paying employees less than minimum wage and denying some workers full-time benefits.

Officials at McDonald's and at Yum Brands, which operates nearly 2,000 KFC and Pizza Hut outlets in China, say they obey the law. But McDonald's officials say they are now investigating the allegations.

Guangdong labor authorities quickly announced an investigation into the matter, and the country's largest state-run union, the All China Federation of Trade Unions, accused McDonald's and Yum of underpaying their workers.

Defaults Rise Among Safer Mortgages

Some of the problems afflicting mortgages made to borrowers with weak, or subprime, credit increasingly appear to be cropping up in loans made to home owners who were thought to be less risky.

The latest sign of possible further deterioration in the credit market came Monday as American Home Mortgage, a lender based in Melville, N.Y., said that it would earn less and pay out a smaller dividend because it was being asked to buy back and write down the value of loans known as "Alternative A," or Alt-A, that were made to borrowers with decent credit. Shares in the company tumbled 15.2 percent, to close at $21.92.

The announcement followed a disclosure last week by M&T Bank, a regional bank based in Buffalo, which said it would write down Alt-A loans that it would no longer sell because bids for the mortgages came in lower than it had expected.

Since the subprime mortgage market began deteriorating late last year, investors and analysts have kept a close watch on Alt-A loans, worrying that problems in higher-grade loans would prove to be a greater threat to the housing market and the economy.