Pope Francis Warns Political Populists Threaten Democracy in Europe and Elsewhere

Pope Francis warned Saturday that democracy in Europe and elsewhere is being threatened by populist politicians, who appeal to disgruntled citizens with easy solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. The pope’s remarks were made during a visit to Athens, Greece, widely viewed as the birthplace of democracy, the second and last stop on a Mediterranean trip aimed at calling attention to the plight of migrants and refugees. “We cannot avoid noting with concern how today, and not only in Europe, we are witnessing a retreat from democracy,” Francis said in a speech at the presidential palace. Francis did not name countries or world leaders, but he cautioned people to be wary of politicians with “an obsessive quest for popularity, in a thirst for visibility, in a flurry of unrealistic promises.” The pope said the birth of democracy thousands of years ago evolved into a “great house of democratic peoples” in the European Union, “and the dream of peace and fraternity that it represents for so many peoples.” He said the dream is being further jeopardized by financial and other hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic, potentially fueling nationalist sentiments and making authoritarianism seem “compelling and populism’s easy answers appear attractive.”  “The remedy is not to be found in an obsessive quest for popularity, in a thirst for visibility, in a flurry of unrealistic promises…but in good politics,” Francis declared. The pope said only multilateralism can effectively tackle poverty, the environment and other crises that confront the global community.  “Politics needs this, in order to put common needs ahead of private interests,” he said. Some information in this report also came from The Associated Press and Reuters. …

France’s Macron Defends Saudi Visit After Khashoggi Murder

French President Emmanuel Macron insisted Friday he hadn’t forgotten the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi as he defended his decision to visit Saudi Arabia during his Gulf tour. On Saturday, Macron will become one of the first Western leaders to meet the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, since Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Khashoggi’s murder sparked international outrage that continues to reverberate. But Macron said it was impossible to engage with the region while ignoring the powerful Saudis. “Who can think for one second that we can help Lebanon and preserve peace and stability in the Middle East if we say: ‘We’re not going to speak to Saudi Arabia, the most populated and most powerful country in the Gulf?’” he told media in Dubai, the first stop of his tour. “It doesn’t mean that I endorse anything, that I’ve forgotten, that we’re not demanding partners,” he said, adding that he was acting “for our country and in the interests of the region.” Macron will fly to the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah on Saturday after an overnight stay in Qatar, another resource-rich Gulf country where France will defend their World Cup football title next year. On Oct. 2, 2018, Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to file paperwork to marry his Turkish fiancée. According to U.S. and Turkish officials, a waiting Saudi hit squad strangled him and dismembered his body, which has never been retrieved.    …

Belarus Labels RFE/RL’s Telegram, YouTube Channels ‘Extremist’

A Belarusian court has designated the official Telegram channel of RFE/RL’s Belarus Service and some of the broadcaster’s social media accounts as extremist in a continued clampdown on independent media and civil society,  The decision to label RFE/RL’s accounts “extremist” – including its YouTube channel – was made by the Central District Court on December 3 based on information provided by the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption, known as GUBOPiK.  In a statement, GUBOPiK said that anyone subscribing to channels or other media designated as “extremist” may face jail time or other penalties, such as fines.  “RFE/RL adamantly rejects this ridiculous label,” RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said in response to the news.  “We are committed to continuing to provide objective news and information to the Belarusian people, who are in need of independent media more now than ever. The Lukashenko regime continues to make clear that their disregard for the truth and their efforts to restrict access to independent information know no bounds,” he added.  Authorities in Belarus have declared hundreds of Telegram channels, blogs and chatrooms “extremist” after the country was engulfed in protests following the August 2020 presidential election, which authoritarian ruler Alexander Lukashenko claimed to have won and that the opposition says was rigged.  In response, the government has cracked down hard on the pro-democracy movement, arresting thousands of people and pushing most of the top opposition figures out of the country. There have also been credible reports of torture and ill treatment, and several people have died.  Dozens of news websites have been blocked in Belarus and independent media shuttered as part of a sweeping crackdown on information in the wake of the protests.  Website blocked last year The website of RFE/RL’s Belarus Service has been blocked within Belarus since August 21, 2020, while the accreditations of all locally based journalists working for foreign media, including RFE/RL, were annulled by Belarusian authorities in October 2020.  Lukashenko, who has run the country since 1994, has denied any fraud in the election and refuses to negotiate with the opposition on a political transition and new elections.  The West has refused to recognize Lukashenko as the legitimate leader of Belarus and has imposed several waves of sanctions against the government and other officials accused of aiding and benefiting from the crackdown.  On Thursday, the European Union, the United States and other key Western allies further tightened the sanctions … Continue reading “Belarus Labels RFE/RL’s Telegram, YouTube Channels ‘Extremist’”

China Deepens Informal Alliance With Russia

China and Russia have strengthened their political, economic and military relations this year, despite their uneasy history in the past, as both countries say they resent what they call growing pressure from the West. So far this year, the two have held a series of military exercises and issued joint diplomatic statements aimed at Western countries. On November 27, for example, an essay by both countries’ ambassadors to Washington protested the upcoming U.S.-led Summit for Democracy for creating divisions in the world. Neither Russia nor China appeared on the list of 110 invitees. Russia depends on China’s massive industrial economy for oil and gas exports as environmental rules in the European Union complicate energy imports there, said Vassily Kashin, senior fellow at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He said two-way relations were at their strongest since the 1950s. “Most importantly, we have a common position concerning the global order, which is that we don’t like the U.S. global order, so this close partnership is based on common opposition to the U.S.-led global order,” Kashin said. Western democracies from the United States to Australia and throughout Europe have strengthened their own ties this year at a time of concern about China’s policies. Western governments have signaled opposition to Beijing’s aggressive language on Taiwan, its crackdown on dissenters in Hong Kong and its policies targeting a Muslim minority in China’s Xinjiang region. Countries, including the West and some in Southeast Asia, further resent China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” approach that has seen China’s Communist Party become more vocal about promoting its views among overseas audiences. In foreign relations, experts say Beijing has been using “increasingly assertive tactics” to “aggressively defend their home country,” often in the cyber world. China and Russia in turn hope to stop a return to U.S.-driven soft power of the Barack Obama-George W. Bush presidencies, when smaller countries saw the United States as “more acceptable leaders” among great powers, said Alan Chong, associate professor at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. Chinese soft power, Chong said, “has taken a hit” because of President Xi Jinping’s comments that make him sound strong at home at the expense of solidarity and friendship overseas. China sees U.S. President Joe Biden as “a very tough opponent,” he added. Western governments have called out China this year particularly over its perceived aggression toward Taiwan, a self-ruled island that … Continue reading “China Deepens Informal Alliance With Russia”

Biden Says He has a Plan to Protect Ukraine from Russia

U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters Friday he has been developing a set of initiatives that will make it “very, very difficult” for Russia to escalate the situation at its border with Ukraine, where Moscow has been building up troops and equipment for weeks. The situation at Ukraine’s eastern border has raised fears Moscow is planning to invade its neighbor. Russian aggression was the focus this week of a NATO foreign ministers meeting, with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warning Russia any escalation of the situation would come at a high price. Earlier Friday, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Russia has now massed more than 94,000 troops near Ukraine’s border, suggesting to him they could be preparing for a large-scale military offensive at the end of January. When asked about the situation during remarks Friday at the White House, Biden told reporters he has been in constant contact with U.S. allies in Europe, and with Ukraine. He said Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan have been engaged extensively. Biden said his administration is “putting together what I believe to be will be the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for (Russian President Vladimir) Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do. But that’s in play right now.” The president offered no details of what his initiatives might be. Diplomatic efforts have been underway to ease tensions in the region this week. Blinken met in Stockholm on Thursday with both Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. The Kremlin said Friday arrangements are also being made for a video call between Biden and Putin in the coming days. Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse. …

German Minister Warns Omicron Could Make Bad Situation Worse 

Top German health officials Friday warned that the omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was likely to worsen the fourth wave of infections the nation is facing and was threatening to overwhelm the health care system.  German Health Minister Jens Spahn and Lothar Wieler, president of the  Robert Koch Institute for Infectious Diseases, spoke with reporters in Berlin.  Spahn said that at the current rate of infection, Germany will almost certainly have more than 5,000 COVID-19 patients in intensive care units in coming weeks, with the number likely to peak around Christmas. The two health officials spoke a day after federal and state leaders announced tough new restrictions on unvaccinated people, preventing them from entering nonessential stores, restaurants, and sports and cultural venues. It was the same day Germany reported its first case involving the omicron variant.  Wieler said the nation should be prepared for the possibility omicron could lead to even more cases than the delta variant in a shorter period of time. He said restrictions announced Thursday must also be implemented nationwide to prevent infections from collapsing the health system. The German parliament is expected to consider a vaccine mandate. If approved, it would take effect in February.  Spahn noted that the share of unvaccinated residents who are infected and seriously ill is much higher than their share of the overall population. He said there was good news on the vaccination front: The nation is likely to meet its goal of administering 30 million booster doses before Christmas. He told reporters 10 million doses had already been injected, 10 million had been delivered and 10 million more were to be delivered next week. Spahn said the important thing now was to vaccinate more people each week until the end of the year.  The Koch Institute on Friday reported 74,352 new COVID-19 cases and 390 additional deaths.  Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse. …

Austria’s Ruling Party Names New Chancellor

Austria’s ruling party on Friday named Interior Minister Karl Nehammer to lead the conservative camp and the country after the shock resignation of former chancellor Sebastian Kurz as party head caused fresh political upheaval. “I wanted to announce that today I was unanimously appointed by the OeVP (People’s Party) leadership as party head and at the same time as the chancellor candidate,” Nehammer told reporters. The meeting of the party’s top brass came a day after Kurz, implicated in a corruption scandal, said he was quitting as party boss. Alexander Schallenberg, who took over as chancellor in October, said on Thursday that he was ready to resign as “the posts of chancellor and head of the party… should quickly be taken on by the same person”. It will now be up to Austria’s president to accept Nehammer’s nomination and swear him in, but this is mostly a formality. Kurz’s announcement that he would quit politics to dedicate time to his family, especially his new-born son, came just two months after he resigned as national leader. This followed his implication in a corruption scandal, bringing down a spectacular career, which saw him become the world’s youngest democratically elected head of government in 2017 at just 31. Besides naming Nehammer, the conservative party also nominated fresh faces for several other portfolios, the interior minister said. This includes a new finance minister after Kurz ally Gernot Bluemel also resigned on Thursday. Former army officer Born in Vienna in 1972, Nehammer worked in the army for several years before becoming a communications advisor. He became a lawmaker in 2017 and interior minister in January 2020 and faced the first jihadist attack in Austria, which killed four people. The interior ministry was strongly criticized for having failed to monitor the Austrian gunman responsible for the killings, even though they had been alerted to the danger. The scandal bringing down Kurz erupted in early October when prosecutors ordered raids at the chancellery and the finance ministry. They are probing allegations that Kurz’s inner circle used public money to pay for polls tailored to boost his image and ensure positive coverage in one of the country’s biggest tabloids. Kurz has denied any wrongdoing, saying he hopes to have his day in court to prove his innocence. Kurz, now 35, wrested control of the OeVP in 2017 and with his hard stance on immigration led it two to … Continue reading “Austria’s Ruling Party Names New Chancellor”

Blinken Dismisses Russian Claims It Is Threatened by Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with both the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers in Stockholm on Thursday, amid concerns over troops amassed at their common border. Blinken stressed America’s strong commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and called on both sides to seek a diplomatic solution, as VOA’s Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports. …

Serbia Sentences 4 Former Intelligence Officers in Journalist’s 1999 Murder

A Serbian court Thursday jailed four former intelligence officers for up to 30 years over the brutal 1999 murder of journalist Slavko Curuvija, a fierce critic of late strongman Slobodan Milosevic. The special court sentenced Serbia’s former secret police chief, Radomir Markovic, and the head of Belgrade’s intelligence branch, Milan Radonjic, to 30 years in prison, the Beta news agency said. Two other intelligence officers, Ratko Romic and Miroslav Kurak, were each given 20 years in prison. Kurak was sentenced in absentia. According to Serbian media outlet Cenzolovka, the group was convicted of premeditated murder “for the purpose of protecting the regime.” The four had been found guilty in 2019, but the decision was overturned and a retrial ordered. Shot 13 times Curuvija was one of the most critical voices in Serbia in the 1990s, attracting a wide readership as the owner and editor of two leading independent publications. He was shot 13 times in front of his Belgrade home during the NATO bombing campaign that was a response to the Milosevic government’s brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in the late 1990s. The journalist was killed just days after pro-government media outlets accused him of being a “traitor” and after he was accused on state media of calling on NATO to bomb. Journalists have long been targeted in Serbia, where reporters and editors critical of authorities have been assaulted and intimidated. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who served as information minister under Milosevic, regularly berates reporters during his near-daily public addresses. In 2020, 32 journalists were physically attacked and almost 100 reported threats, according to the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia. Press freedom groups called the sentences a victory, even though they remain subject to appeal. “The verdict is an important step in the right direction by Serbian authorities in breaking the cycle of impunity in crimes committed against journalists,” Attila Mong, of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, told VOA. Pavol Szalai, the head of the European Union and Balkans desk for the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, said threats continue against journalists throughout the region. “Before he was murdered, Slavko Curuvija was surveilled by the state, pressured by politicized judiciary, verbally attacked by politicians and subjected to a smear campaign in the pro-government media,” Szalai said. “These are all issues which Serbian journalists are still threatened with,” he said. “If the Serbian authorities can definitively bring … Continue reading “Serbia Sentences 4 Former Intelligence Officers in Journalist’s 1999 Murder”

Can Europe Compete With China’s Belt and Road Initiative?

The European Union this week launched a $340 billion “Global Gateway” fund to boost global infrastructure, which analysts say is aimed at rivaling China’s Belt and Road Initiative. But can it compete with Beijing’s billions?  The EU says its Global Gateway will finance high-quality digital, climate, and energy and transport infrastructure, including fiber-optic cables, road and rail, and renewable power, primarily in developing nations.  Green transition “It will invest around the world to support our priorities — that is, the green and digital transition,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told a press conference on Wednesday. “Think, for example, of investment in clean hydrogen. We have partner countries that have an abundance of renewable energy. Think of wind or solar to produce hydrogen, which is of interest for them as well as us, or think of underwater data cable connecting to continents,” she told reporters. “Global Gateway will also focus on transport links, health care capacity … it will also support schools and education systems.”  The fund will offer the equivalent of $340 billion through 2027, with the majority in loans rather than grants.  Democratic values “We want to take a different approach. We want to show that a democratic, value-driven approach can deliver on the most pressing challenges. We want to show that it can on one hand meet local needs, but also, on the other hand, tackle the global challenges we have. And thus, in a way also, of course, benefit the European Union, because Global Gateway is also about our strategic interests around the world,” von der Leyen said. The project is also clearly about geopolitics, said analyst Jonathan Holslag, a professor of international politics at the Free University of Brussels.  “The European Commission obviously does not want to say so, but the main objective behind the Global Gateway is to respond to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, China’s new Silk Road,” Holslag told VOA. “A lot of European companies have encountered huge competition from their Chinese rivals. They have also seen that countries are sliding into China’s orbit.”  Francesca Ghiretti, an analyst at Germany’s Mercator Institute for China Studies, told VOA the European Union should be strategic about which projects it selects, but foresees investment headed toward Africa and India. “We know so far Africa would be a big focus of Brussels, and probably also India, in light of the fact that in 2022 there are … Continue reading “Can Europe Compete With China’s Belt and Road Initiative?”

Two South Sudanese Migrants Rescued at Sea Tell of Dreams, Hopes

The tale of two South Sudanese brothers recently rescued in the Mediterranean Sea is a common one among the many African migrants seeking better lives in Europe. The two men left Libya on a flimsy boat, but the engine broke down and they were eventually picked up by the Ocean Viking rescue ship. Reporter Ruud Elmendorp was on board the rescue vessel and has their story.  Producer: Rob Raffaele. Camera: Ruud Elmendorp. …

US, EU, UK and Canada Announce New Belarus Sanctions

The United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada have announced a new round of sanctions against Belarus officials and entities, citing the government’s “ongoing attacks on democracy, human rights, and international norms, and for their brutal repression of Belarusians both inside and outside the country,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. The U.S. is targeting 32 officials and entities, including state-owned enterprises that support the government of President Alexander Lukashenko. Also sanctioned is Lukashenko’s son, Dmitry. The U.S. also placed restrictions on the Belarus government’s ability to borrow money.  Lukashenko has been cracking down on political dissent since the August 2020 elections, which the U.S. and EU called fraudulent. It is also accused of using migrants as political weapons against its neighbors, such as Poland. “Today’s actions demonstrate our unwavering determination to act in the face of a brutal regime that increasingly represses Belarusians, undermines the peace and security of Europe, and continues to abuse people seeking only to live in freedom. These sanctions are also in response to the Lukashenka regime’s callous exploitation of vulnerable migrants from other countries in order to orchestrate migrant smuggling along its border with EU states,” Blinken said. The EU sanctions are against officials involved in the migrant crisis, as well as against two airlines — state airline Belavia and Syrian airline Cham Wings — which it says are bringing migrants to Belarus to make the crisis worse. The U.K. announced it will freeze assets of state-owned OJSC Belaruskali, a large manufacturer of potash fertilizer. Canada said it would sanction the 32 individuals and entities named by the U.S. “Our position is clear,” Blinken said. “The United States calls on the Lukashenko regime to end its crackdown on members of civil society, independent media, the political opposition, athletes, students, legal professionals and other Belarusians; to immediately release all political prisoners; to engage in a sincere dialogue with the democratic opposition and civil society; to fulfill its international human rights obligations; to stop its coercion of vulnerable people; and to hold free and fair elections under international observation.” …

Germany to Tighten COVID-19 Restrictions on Unvaccinated

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her likely successor, current Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, Thursday announced new restrictions on the nation’s unvaccinated in an effort to fight the surge in new COVID-19 infections. Merkel and Scholz told reporters in Berlin that under the new rules, the unvaccinated will be excluded from nonessential stores and cultural and recreational venues. They made the announcement following a meeting with the governors of Germany’s 16 states. Merkel said parliament will also consider imposing a general coronavirus vaccine mandate as part of the country faces a fourth wave of infections. Germany’s Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases (RKI) says the nation once again Thursday exceeded 70,000 new cases in a 24-hour period. The infection rate stood at just more than 439 cases per 100,000 people, down for the third consecutive day. Merkel said the fact the nation was in the middle of such a strong fourth wave was depressing, “especially when I look at certain regions. That’s why I have worked hard up until the end so that we can break this fourth wave as quickly as possible.” Merkel called the tougher measures an “act of national solidarity,” as hospitals in the country are near capacity. Both Merkel and Scholz, who is expected to be elected chancellor by a center-left coalition next week, have expressed support for a vaccine mandate. If passed by parliament, it would take effect in February. About 68.7% of the population in Germany is fully vaccinated, below the minimum goal of 75% set by the government. Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse. …

UK Court Backs Meghan in Dispute over Privacy with Publisher

The Duchess of Sussex on Thursday won the latest stage in her long-running privacy lawsuit against a British newspaper publisher over its publication of parts of a letter she wrote to her estranged father. The Court of Appeal in London upheld a High Court ruling that the publisher of The Mail on Sunday and MailOnline website unlawfully breached the former Meghan Markle’s privacy by reproducing a large chunk of the handwritten letter she sent her father, Thomas Markle, after she married Prince Harry in 2018. Associated Newspapers challenged the decision at the Court of Appeal, which held a hearing last month. Dismissing the appeal, senior judge Geoffrey Vos told the court Thursday that “the Duchess had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of the letter. Those contents were personal, private and not matters of legitimate public interest.” The publisher said it was “very disappointed” and was considering an appeal to the U.K. Supreme Court. In a statement, Meghan, 40, condemned the publisher for treating the lawsuit as “a game with no rules” and said the ruling was “a victory not just for me, but for anyone who has ever felt scared to stand up for what’s right.” “What matters most is that we are now collectively brave enough to reshape a tabloid industry that conditions people to be cruel, and profits from the lies and pain that they create,” she said. Associated Newspapers published about half of the letter in five articles in August 2018. Their lawyers disputed Meghan’s claim that she didn’t intend the letter to be seen by anyone but her father. They said correspondence between Meghan and her then-communications secretary, Jason Knauf, showed the duchess suspected her father might leak the letter to journalists and wrote it with that in mind. The publisher also argued that the publication of the letter was part of Thomas Markle’s right to reply following a People magazine interview with five of Meghan’s friends alleging he was “cruelly cold-shouldering” his daughter in the run-up to her royal wedding. But Vos said that the article, which the Mail on Sunday described as “sensational,” was “splashed as a new public revelation” rather than focusing on Thomas Markle’s response to negative media reports about him. In their appeal, Associated Newspapers had also argued that Meghan made private information public by cooperating with Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand, authors of “Finding Freedom,” a sympathetic … Continue reading “UK Court Backs Meghan in Dispute over Privacy with Publisher”

Belarus Targets Journalists, Activists with Mass Raids

Authorities in Belarus raided the homes of dozens of journalists and activists Wednesday, according to a human rights group, in what appeared to be the biggest one-day crackdown on dissent in the past three months. Independent journalists, human rights advocates and activists in at least nine large Belarusian cities had phones and computers seized during the searches and were interrogated, the Viasna human rights center reported. In the capital, Minsk, authorities targeted 10 people accused of funding anti-government protests and spreading information deemed extremist. Some 300 chats on the popular messaging app Telegram have been designated extremist by authorities, and users of those chats can be sentenced to up to seven years in prison, if charged and convicted. Freelance journalist Larysa Shchyrakova said she was brought in for questioning after an hours-long search of her home in Gomel, a city 300 kilometers (186 miles) southeast of Minsk. Shchyrakova used to work with the Belsat TV channel, which authorities in Belarus have declared extremist. “I was being pressured to confess to funding the protests, but I refused to incriminate myself,” Shchyrakova told The Associated Press by telephone. “They took my phone, audio and video equipment, which was still in my home after the two previous raids.” Activists and journalists in Brest, Vitebsk, Mogilev, Grodno, Mazyr and other cities experienced similar raids and detentions on Wednesday. Leaders of regional branches of the United Civil Party, the oldest opposition party in Belarus, in Gomel and Rechytsa were targeted as well. “The new wave of repressions shows that the authorities in Belarus don’t feel confident and are forced to tighten the screws because discontent in the country is growing,” party leader Anatoly Lebedko told the AP by phone from Vilnius. “The situation with civic freedoms and human rights in Belarus is deteriorating rapidly, edging closer to the standards of North Korea,” Lebedko said. The authoritarian leader of Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko, survived months of unprecedented mass protests prompted by his August 2020 reelection in a vote the opposition and Western countries denounced as a sham. Lukashenko unleashed a violent crackdown on the demonstrators, with police arresting more than 35,000 and beating thousands. Since last year’s election, Lukashenko’s government has shut down the majority of independent media outlets and rights groups. According to human rights advocates, 889 political prisoners, including top opposition activists, remain behind bars in Belarus.    …

Paris Archbishop Who Had ‘Ambiguous’ Relationship Resigns

Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of the archbishop of Paris after he admitted to an “ambiguous” relationship with a woman in 2012. Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit said in a statement Thursday that he offered to step down “to preserve the diocese from the division that suspicion and loss of trust are continuing to provoke.” The Vatican said in a statement that the pope accepted Aupetit’s offer, and named Monsignor Georges Pontier to serve in the archbishop’s place. The resignation comes amid great upheaval in the French Catholic Church. A shocking report in October found some 3,000 French priests had committed sexual abuse over the past 70 years, and last year, the pope accepted the resignation of a French cardinal in connection with the coverup of sexual abuse of dozens of boys by a predatory priest. Aupetit wrote to Francis offering to resign following a report in Le Point magazine saying he had a consensual, intimate relationship with a woman. Aupetit told Le Point he didn’t have sexual relations with the woman. The article in Le Point relied on several anonymous sources who said they had seen a 2012 e-mail Aupetit sent by mistake to his secretary. Aupetit denied being the author of the email. Roman Catholic prelates take vows of chastity. At the time of the alleged relationship, Aupetit was a priest in the archdiocese of Paris. He became Paris archbishop in 2018. “I ask forgiveness of those I could have hurt and assure you all of my deep friendship and my prayers,” Aupetit said in his statement. He said he was “greatly disturbed by the attacks against me.” In an interview last week with Catholic radio Notre Dame, Aupetit said “I poorly handled the situation with a person who was in contact many times with me.” Calling it a “mistake,” he said he decided no longer to see the woman after speaking with Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the then-Paris archbishop, in 2012. Only the pope can hire or fire bishops, or accept their resignations. At 70, Aupetit is five years shy of the normal retirement age for bishops. The pope has refused to accept resignations from other prelates caught up in scandals that many would see as more egregious.. The former archbishop of the French city of Lyon, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, offered to resign in 2019 after a French court convicted him of failing to report a pedophile priest. … Continue reading “Paris Archbishop Who Had ‘Ambiguous’ Relationship Resigns”

US Calls on Russia to Cool Tensions with Ukraine 

A top U.S. defense official says Washington will not be alone if it needs to take action in response to Russia’s massive troop buildup along its border with Ukraine.  Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in Seoul for meetings with South Korean officials, said Thursday that while he would not speculate on how Washington will respond to Russia’s provocations against Ukraine, Moscow should know the U.S. will not be alone.  “Whatever we do will be done as a part of an international community,” Austin said during a news conference with his South Korean counterpart, further calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin to “lower the temperature in the region.”  “The best case, though, is that we won’t see an incursion,” the U.S. defense secretary added, noting Russia’s “substantial” troop presence in the border areas is only part of the problem.  “We also see troubling rhetoric, rhetoric in the info space,” Austin said. “We’ve heard President [Volodymyr]Zelenskiy expressed concern about efforts to undermine his administration.”  U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meeting with NATO counterparts in Latvia Wednesday, warned the U.S. was preparing to ratchet up economic sanctions against Moscow, if needed.  “We’ve made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high-impact economic measures that we have refrained from using in the past,” he said.  Blinken is scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later on Thursday in Stockholm.  Ukrainian officials have said Russia has positioned at least 90,000 troops along the border and in Crimea, which Moscow seized illegally in 2014.  But Russian officials have accused Ukraine of conducting its own military build up.  Earlier this week Russian President Vladimir Putin also repeated concerns about U.S. and NATO exercises in the Back Sea, and warned NATO against installing what he described as “strike systems” on Ukrainian soil.  “What are we to do in such a scenario? We will have to then create something similar in relation to those who threaten us in that way,” he said at an investment forum in Moscow. “We can do that now.”  Information from Reuters was used in this report.  …

Kurdish Family Laments Young Migrant Daughter Drowned in English Channel

Last week, a small inflatable boat capsized in the English Channel killing 27 migrants who were attempting to cross from France to the United Kingdom. The family of one of the victims spoke to VOA’s Ahmad Zebari from Soran, Iraqi Kurdistan, about the tragedy’s impact. Rikar Hussein narrates the story. Camera:  Ahmad Zebari  Produced by:  Ahmad Zebari …