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Saudi swordsman unconcerned about country's transition away from beheadings

Last week, the Saudi daily Al-Youm reported that Saudi Arabia is considering transitioning away from the state's institutionalized method of executing convicts: beheading by sword. Beheading -- the approach to carrying out death sentences in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century -- has long been practiced in the kingdom in observance of its strict interpretation of Islamic law, which seeks to mimic practices at the time of Mohammed. But a committee of Saudi government officials recently ruled that execution by firing squad would also be permissible under the national brand of sharia.

"This solution seems practical, especially in light of shortages of official swordsmen," the committee explained in a statement quoted by the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram. The committee also complained that official swordsmen have been known to show up late to executions.

Does this mean those few remaining swordsmen will be out of a job soon? It turns out the Saudi newspaper Okaz asked one of them: Mecca-based executioner Mohammad Saad al-Biishi. He says he's not concerned, citing the fact that he's already received firearms training. In the meantime, he'll keep on with the beheadings.

"I just returned from Ranyah governorate, where one of the judgments was implemented with a blow from a sword," he told the paper.

Even if the transition to firing squad occurs, al-Biishi is optimistic about the future of his profession, and has been apprenticing his son in beheadings. He acknowledges, though, that the government's concerns about a shortage of qualified swordsmen are justified. "This profession is not desired by many," he told Okaz, "despite the salary and personal reward we gain from it."

The execution business in Saudi Arabia is booming. Human rights groups estimate that approximately 70 people were beheaded in the kingdom last year, and 14 so far this year. The January execution of a Sri Lankan national, who was accused of the murder of a 4-year-old in her care as a maid while still a 17-year-old minor, prompted Sri Lanka to recall their ambassador from Riyadh last month.

Marya Hannun contributed to this post.

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Is Pope Francis just another great 'reformer'?

Yesterday's papal announcement has been followed by headlines heralding Pope Francis I as an agent of change within the Catholic Church: Pope Francis the Reformer?; Pope Francis has mandate to reform Church; Election of Pope Francis fuels hope for Catholic reform; Expect Pope Francis to bring change.

But is the hype over Pope Francis really all that unique? Here's a look at some other popes who have been called reformers at the outset of (or during) their tenures.

Benedict (2005-2013)

Yes, it's true that no one labeled conservative Benedict a reformer upon his election. In fact, more reform-minded Catholics were not pleased when he took office. But Pope Benedict has been called the "great reformer" on the issue of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. And he was the first pope to challenge the Vatican's longtime ban on contraceptives. Also, wasn't his ultimate act -- early resignation -- hugely reformist? After all, when Celestine resigned from the papacy in 1294, he earned a spot in Dante's Inferno for his "great refusal." Benedict ended his papal career with the illustrious title, "something of a reformer after all."

John Paul II (1978-2005)

Upon John Paul II's election, he made speeches promising to continue the reforms of his two predecessors. In particular, John Paul II was expected to reform the curia, something that John Paul I was unable to accomplish in his short reign. You might ask, doesn't Pope Francis also want to reform the curia? Yes, but apparently Francis wants to do it for real this time.

John Paul I (1978)

When John Paul was elected after only one day of deliberation in August 1978, scholars saw his choice of a name as a sign of his commitment to change. "It means he will keep reform paramount, and with the hope of combining the best both of the late Popes John and Paul," Monsignor Charles Elmer told the Associated Press at the time. Unfortunately, John Paul I died after 33 days as pope. Some conspiracy theories posit that John Paul I was murdered for his liberal beliefs.

Paul VI (1963-1978)

"Rome Believes New Pope Will Press for Reforms," read a New York Times headline on June 21, 1963, the day the conclave elected Pope Paul VI. Paul's VI pontificate, according to the article, was supposed to bring "an energetic continuation of the progressive course chartered by [his predecessor] Pope John XXIII." One book written about Paul ten years after he died is titled, Der Einsame Reformer, or The Lone Reformer.

Pope John XXIIII (1958-1963)

A few days after Pope John XXIII stepped out onto the balcony of St. Peter's, the New York Times reported that the new pontiff had made it clear that "he intended to give the church the vigorous leadership it needs." Though one of the main issues John XXIII faced at the time was how to address communism, the article also describes the pope as from the "progressive wing of the Catholic church ... that thinks that the Church could and should do more to meet the needs and the aspirations for the laboring masses." Sound familiar?

I'd continue, but I think you can all see where this list is heading. All I can say is, for an institution that's elected so many "reformers" to lead it, the Catholic Church has remained remarkably unchanged since, say, the Council of Trent.

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