German Police Arrest Suspect in Bombing of Soccer Team Bus

German police arrested a man Friday who is suspected of planting explosives targeting the bus of soccer team Borussia Dortmund last week, the office of the German federal chief prosecutor said.

The 28-year old man, a dual German and Russian national identified as Sergei V., had bought options on Borussia Dortmund’s stock before the attack, hoping to make a profit, it said in a statement.

The players’ bus was heading to their stadium for a Champions League match against AS Monaco April 11 when three explosions occurred, wounding Spanish defender Marc Bartra and delaying the match by a day.

The suspect is accused of attempted murder, inflicting serious bodily harm and causing an explosion, the prosecutor’s office said.

It said he had bought 15,000 put options, or contracts giving him the right to sell Borussia Dortmund’s shares at a pre-determined price, on the day of the attack, using a consumer loan he had signed the previous week.

“If the shares of Borussia Dortmund had fallen massively, the profit would have been several times the initial investment,” the prosecutor’s office said.

The serious injury or death of any of the soccer players could have resulted in such a slump, it said.

Library Releases Catalog of UN War Crimes Commission Documents

Holocaust denial just got a little harder.

The Wiener Library for the Study of Holocaust & Genocide is making the United Nations’ files on World War II war crimes more accessible by allowing the general public to search an online catalog of the documents for the first time beginning Friday. People will still have to visit the library in London or the U.S. Holocaust Museum to read the actual files.

The move is expected to increase interest in the archives of the United Nations War Crimes Commission, including the names of about 37,000 people identified as war criminals and security suspects. The commission operated in 1943-1949, but access to its records was restricted for political reasons in the early days of the Cold War.

Blow to Holocaust denial

“This is a whole hardware store of nails to hammer into the coffin of Holocaust denial,” said Dan Plesch, director of the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS University of London. “It’s the first time it is practically accessible to the general public as the commission initially intended.”

Plesch and other researchers campaigned for the U.N. to open access to the files, which he used to write the book “Human Rights After Hitler.” In 2014, the U.S. Holocaust Museum made the archive freely available at its reading room in Washington. Before that, the records had been largely locked away at the United Nations, which granted only limited access.

“Nobody has paid any attention to it,” said Ben Barkow, director of the Wiener Library. “It has been hidden in plain sight.”

War criminal prosecution

The documents detail Allied efforts to prosecute thousands of alleged Nazi and Japanese war criminals, from heads of state like Adolf Hitler to guards at the Auschwitz and Treblinka concentration camps.

The archive includes evidence gathered by local people who documented crimes long before the war ended and smuggled the information to Allied leaders in London.

“These people were meeting under aerial bombardment, dealing with affidavits smuggled out” of occupied countries, Plesch said. “Resistance movements were paying attention to the legal prosecution of oppressors.”

Atlantic Salmon Farms Shift to Open Seas, Trying to Shake Off Lice

Atlantic salmon farming companies are designing huge pens to raise fish in the open seas in a radical shift from calm coastal waters where marine lice have slowed growth of the billion-dollar industry.

The drive for new designs by Norway, producer of 54 percent of all farmed Atlantic salmon in 2016, will have to cope with ocean storms that can rip cages and free thousands of fish.

Escapees disrupt natural stocks by breeding with wild cousins.

“The industry has to develop and to solve the environmental challenges it has, especially linked to salmon lice,” Norwegian Fisheries Minister Per Sandberg told Reuters, referring to parasites that often spread infections resistant to antibiotics.

One in five salmon farmed in Norway dies before reaching maturity, partly due to tiny blood-sucking lice that latch onto the outside of the pink fish.

Lice, also a problem in other countries, tend to concentrate in the more stagnant waters of Norway’s bays and fjords where farms are now based. A shift offshore would expose farms to ocean currents that should help to sweep away the lice larvae.

The Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries is seeking innovative fish farm designs, both for offshore and coastal waters, in a two-year drive open until November 2017. So far it has approved a handful and is reviewing about 40 others.

Many borrow ideas from the offshore oil and gas industry.

The lure of offshore pens is that they would open almost unlimited areas for fish farms beyond bays and fjords, attracting investors and transforming the global aquaculture industry.

Norway produced 1.1 million tons of salmon in 2016, more than double the output of number two producer Chile, and earned $7.6 billion in exports. Smaller producers include Britain, the Faroe Islands and Canada.

But Norway’s production, by companies including Marine Harvest, SalMar and Leroy Seafood, has been little changed since 2012 due to lack of space and disease, even as rising demand has pushed prices to record highs.

Storm risks 

“We’ll take the project that works best, has no salmon lice, the lowest cost, no escapes and is industrial,” Marine Harvest’s chief executive officer Alf-Helge Aarskog told Reuters of a range of designs the company has proposed.

Nets in coastal farms sometimes tear in storms, harming wild stocks from Scotland’s Spey River to Norway’s Alta River, and offshore farms will be exposed to far stronger winds and waves. Last year, 126,000 salmon broke out of Norwegian farms.

“Escaped fish mix with the wild salmon – that creates problems with genetics,” said Ingrid Lomelde, of the WWF Norway Farmed fish are bred to grow fast and fatter than their sleek wild cousins. Interbreeding could produce fish too weak, for example, to leap up waterfalls to reach spawning grounds.

Among approved designs, SalMar is building what it calls the “world’s first offshore fish farm” to start in late 2017 — a floating circular construction 110 metres (360 ft) across that looks like a drilling rig, apart from huge nets dangling below.

The 700 million Norwegian crown ($82 million) yellow and white steel construction is being built at a Chinese yard, and will be big enough to raise more than a million salmon.

“We’re starting to install the anchoring systems,” off the coast of mid-Norway, chief financial officer Trond Tuvstein said. “No one wants escapes,” he said.

In Chile, Felipe Sandoval, head of industry group SalmonChile, said the government wanted more research into farming in more exposed and offshore areas. “We will have to wait a bit to see how this takes off,” he said.

Most approved designs in Norway are still on the drawing board, such as a sealed 44-metre (144.36 ft) tall egg-shaped tank by Marine Harvest where the fish swim inside in seawater filtered to keep out lice, or a 400-metre long farm by Nordlaks shaped like a supertanker.

Egg

Marine Harvest hopes to start building an “Egg” prototype in mid-2017, CEO Aarskog said. The sealed design would be suited for calm waters in fjords and is favored by environmentalists and river owners as a way of isolating any disease.

If successful, “the technologies will allow aquaculture in more exposed areas globally” including for other types of farmed fish such as sea bass or bream, said Tore Toenseth, an analyst at SpareBank 1 Markets in Oslo.

Huge new cages able to withstand storms could be used anywhere, from Japan to the United States, he said.

But river owners say not enough is done to protect wild stocks by the expansion of farming.

“It’s a very vulnerable system,” said Erik Sterud, of the river owners’ association Norske Lakseelver, who estimates there are now just 500,000 wild salmon off Norway against half a billion farmed fish.

Companies are willing to invest hundreds of millions of crowns in the new technologies partly because Norway will award licenses to operate the new fish farms, almost for free.

Pope Sets May 13 for Canonization of Fatima Siblings

Pope Francis confirmed Thursday he will use his upcoming visit to the Portuguese shrine at Fatima to canonize two Portuguese shepherd children who say they saw visions of the Virgin Mary 100 years ago.

 

Francis convened his cardinals to formally set the May 13 date for the saint-making Mass.

 

Originally, Francis had planned to travel to Fatima on May 12-13 to merely mark the anniversary of the apparitions, which turned the tiny northern Portuguese town into one of the world’s most popular Catholic pilgrimage sites.

 

But last month, Francis signed off on the miracle needed to make siblings Francisco and Jacinta Marto saints, leading to speculation he would also use the occasion of the visit to canonize them. Church officials say the miracle concerned an inexplicable cure of a Brazilian child.

 

The Marto siblings say the Virgin Mary appeared to them and their cousin six times above an olive tree in 1917 and told them three secrets. The brother and sister died of pneumonia two years later, at the ages of 9 and 11.

 

St. John Paul II beatified them in Fatima on May 13, 2000, the same day the Vatican revealed the third and final secret purportedly told to them. The first two had already been reported: a vision of “hell” interpreted as World War II, and the rise and fall of Soviet Communism. The Vatican said in 2000 that the third secret foretold the 1981 assassination attempt on John Paul.

 

John Paul credited the Fatima Madonna with saving him, and one of the bullets fired at him by a Turkish gunman in St. Peter’s Square 36 years ago is kept in the crown of the Fatima statue at the sanctuary. Francis is expected to pray before the icon during his visit.

 

With the Marto children soon to be declared saints, all that remains is the saint-making case of their cousin and co-visionary, Lucia de Jesus dos Santos, who became a Carmelite nun and died in 2005.

 

In February, Portuguese church officials turned over 15,000 pages of testimony and other documentation to the Vatican for review to determine if she can be declared to have lived a life of heroic virtue, the first step in the Vatican’s complicated saint-making process.

 

Trilateral Talks on Syria Postponed After US Backs Out

U.S., Russian and U.N. trilateral talks on Syria scheduled for Monday have been postponed, says U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura.

De Mistura says he does not know why the United States has decided against attending the meeting early next week, but believes Washington remains committed to the three-way discussions on the Syrian situation.   

“I would say that the indication I got from Washington is exactly that, that there is clearly an intention to maintain and resume these trilateral meetings,” he said. “And, the date and the circumstances were not conducive for this to happen on Monday, but that is certainly their intention.” 

In the meantime, de Mistura says he will be holding what he calls a very intense bilateral meeting on Monday with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov. He says there are many things to discuss regarding the upcoming meeting in the Kazakh capital, Astana, and on the Geneva peace talks.

“Regarding Astana, it is still on as forecast,” he said. “We will be involved again on a senior technical level in order to support what, at the moment, does not seem to be working, which is a cessation of hostilities.” 

Russia, Turkey and Iran are sponsors of the Astana negotiations on May 3 and 4, which will focus on arranging a cease-fire in Syria so peace talks in Geneva can proceed. 

De Mistura says he will be watching developments on the ground to make sure the talks, set to resume sometime in May, have the best possible chance of success.

Microsoft’s Gates: British Foreign Aid Cuts Could Cost African Lives

Billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates is urging British leaders not to back down from their commitment to foreign aid, saying it could cost lives in Africa.

Gates on Wednesday was in London, where campaigning has started for early elections called by Prime Minister Teresa May.

May has so far declined to say whether she will heed calls by fellow Conservatives to slash British foreign aid as part of her party platform.

Gates told the Guardian newspaper Wednesday that a British refusal to commit itself to targeted spending on foreign aid could hurt efforts to wipe out malaria in Africa.

“The big aid givers now are the U.S., Britain and Germany … and if those three back off, a lot of ambitious things going on with malaria, agriculture and reproductive health simply would not get done,” he said.

Gates said British funding has made an “absolute phenomenal difference” in eradicating tropical diseases that affect more than 1 billion people.

Many conservatives want the government to spend more money at home to combat domestic crises. Some also contend that foreign aid money is frequently squandered.

Gates said as a business executive who spends $5 billion a year helping developing nations, he hates wasting money. But he told an audience of British politicians and diplomats that no country can “build a wall to hold back the next global epidemic,” and that foreign aid combats socioeconomic problems “at the source.”

French Candidates Boost Security Ahead of Tense Vote

A feel-good Paris concert, a meeting with Muslim leaders and a blowout rally in Marseille – France’s presidential candidates are blanketing the country Wednesday with campaign events to try to inspire undecided voters just four days before a nail-biting election.

 

Crowds danced on a Paris plaza as Socialist presidential candidate Benoit Hamon held what is seen as a last-chance rally and concert. Hamon is polling a distant fifth place ahead of Sunday’s first-round election and has little chance of reaching the decisive May 7 runoff – a failure that could crush his party.

 

French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, who has dominated the campaign with her anti-immigration, anti-EU proposals, is appealing to her electoral base in hopes of maintaining a shot at the runoff.

 

She assailed recent governments for failing to stop extremist attacks in recent years and warned on BFM television that “we are all targets. All the French.”

 

The candidates have increased security in recent days. Authorities announced Tuesday that they had arrested two Islamic radicals suspected of plotting a possible attack around the vote.

 

Independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron reached out to the French Muslim community Wednesday, saying it’s fighting on a “common front” alongside the state against Islamic extremism.

 

Macron met with the head of leading French Muslim group CFCM, Anouar Kbibech. In a statement afterward, Macron insisted on the importance of respecting France’s secular traditions but said they shouldn’t be used to target Muslims. Some Muslims feel unfairly targeted by French laws banning headscarves in schools and full-face veils in public.

 

Also Wednesday, the Grand Mosque of Lyon issued an appeal urging Muslims to cast ballots instead of isolating themselves, “so that all the children of France, regardless of their skin color, their origins or their religion, are fully involved in the future of their country.”

 

Le Pen also defended her decision to force national news network TF1 to take down the European flag during an interview Tuesday night.

 

She said Wednesday that “I am a candidate in the election for the French republic” and that Europe is acting like France’s “enemy.”

 

Accusing the EU of taking away France’s sovereignty and hurting its economy, she wants to pull France out of the EU and the euro – which would devastate the bloc and badly disrupt financial markets.

Russia Blocks Security Council Statement on North Korea

Russia Wednesday blocked a draft U.S. statement in the U.N. Security Council condemning the latest North Korean missile test.

The statement said North Korea’s illegal ballistic missile activities are leading to a nuclear weapons delivery system and “greatly increasing tension in the region and beyond.”

The council also would have demanded that the North “immediately cease further actions in violation of the relevant Security Council resolutions and comply fully with its obligations under these resolutions.”

Members said they are concerned Pyongyang is diverting resources toward building missiles and bombs while the population has “great unmet needs.”

It is unclear why Russia blocked the statement, which is almost identical to a February council statement that Russia approved, condemning other ballistic missile tests.

But diplomats say Moscow objected to the removal of the words “through dialogue” in the latest statement when talking about a diplomatic solution in the North.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to preside over a Security Council meeting next week on North Korea. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will brief the members.

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley warned North Korea Wednesday not to “pick a fight” with the United States.

Turkey Defends Against Referendum Fraud Allegations

Turkey’s prime minister hit back Tuesday at European monitors who said more than 2 million votes could have been manipulated in Sunday’s closely contested referendum on expanding presidential powers.

Binali Yildirim, responding to criticism from the Council of Europe’s observer mission, said debate over the outcome of the referendum was “over,” and that “the people’s will had been reflected at the ballot box.”

He spoke in response to calls from the council to investigate alleged vote irregularities that several official observers said allowed as many as 2.5 million uncertified ballots to be counted.

Alev Korun, an Austrian member of the council’s observer mission, said the number of uncertified ballots would almost double the margin of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory — an electoral win that vastly broadens the power of the presidency.

Another observer, German lawmaker Andrej Hunko, told The New York Times “it seems credible that 2.5 million were manipulated, but we are not 100 percent sure.”

Separately, European monitors alleged that those who campaigned against Erdogan’s push for expanded powers faced numerous obstacles, including a lack of freedom of expression, intimidation and access to the media. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also alleged misuse of administrative resources by Erdogan ahead of Sunday’s vote.

Dramatic shift signaled

Sunday’s vote created a powerful executive presidency that largely sidelines the Turkish parliament and abolishes the Cabinet and the office of prime minister. Ministers will be directly appointed by the president, who also will set the national budget. The president also will appoint judges to the high court and the constitutional court.

The constitutional amendments also end the official neutrality of the presidency, allowing a president to lead a political party and declare states of emergency.

Critics argued the reforms were tantamount to creating an elected dictatorship, while Erdogan and his supporters said they would create a fast and efficient system of government better able to confront terrorism and a sluggish economy.

Unstamped ballots

Opposition complaints and calls for a new vote centered on a decision by electoral officials to use and tally ballots that did not have an official stamp, despite a 2010 law that requires such official validation. Additional complaints included the barring of nearly 200 opposition members from serving as election monitors and the temporary detention of other election observers.

On Monday, the head of Turkey’s electoral board, Sadi Guven, strongly defended his decision to allow the controversial ballots, citing high demand for ballots and saying similar procedures had been followed in the past.

“This is not some move we’ve done for the first time,” said Guven, speaking to reporters Monday in Ankara. “Before our administration took over, there had been many decisions approving the validity of unstamped ballots.”

Trump congratulates Erdogan

U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday congratulated Erdogan on his referendum victory.

The White House said in a statement the two leaders spoke by phone, with their conversation also including the need to hold Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accountable for a recent chemical attack. It further said the two leaders discussed the fight against Islamic State and “the need to cooperate against all groups that use terrorism to achieve their ends.”

US Intercepts Two Russian Bombers Off Alaska’s Coast

The U.S. military says it intercepted two Russian bombers in international airspace off Alaska’s coast.

Navy Commander Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman, said a pair of F-22 Raptor aircraft intercepted the Russian TU-95 Bear bombers on Monday.

Ross said the intercept was “safe and professional.”

North American Aerospace Defense Command monitors air approaches to North America and defends the airspace.

Fox News said Tuesday that the Russian planes flew within 100 miles (160 kilometers) of Alaska’s Kodiak Island.

It said the American jets escorted the Russian bombers for 12 minutes. The bombers then flew back to eastern Russia.

Migrants Flee Libya as Weather Warms and Libyan Patrols Loom

Warm weather and calm seas usually spur smugglers to send migrants across the Mediterranean come spring. But aid groups say another timetable might be behind a weekend spike: the looming start of beefed-up Libyan coast guard patrols designed to prevent migrants from reaching Europe.

Over Easter weekend, rescue ships plucked some 8,360 people from 55 different rubber dinghies and wooden boats off Libya’s coast, Italy’s coast guard said. Thirteen bodies were also recovered.

While such numbers are not unheard-of for this time of year, they come as Italy is preparing to deliver patrol boats to Libya as part of a new European Union-blessed migration deal.

Italy and Libya inked a deal in February calling for Italy to train Libyan coast guard officers and to provide them with a dozen ships to patrol the country’s lawless coasts. EU leaders hailed the accord as a new commitment to save lives and stem the flow of migrants to Europe, where the refugee influx has become a pressing political issue.

Aid groups, however, have criticized it as hypocritical and cruel, arguing that migrants who have already endured grave human rights abuses in Libya will face renewed violence, torture, sexual assault and other injustices if they are returned by the Libyan coast guard. Doctors Without Borders called it “delusional” while even the Vatican’s own Caritas charity said it was worrisome.

International Organization of Migration spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo said improved weather conditions certainly are fueling renewed flows in recent days. But he said smugglers are also telling their customers, “`You have to hurry up and leave the country right now because otherwise in a couple of months you will be rescued by the Libyan coast guard and you will be sent back,’ which is the last things that migrants would like to do.”

The United Nations refugee agency also cited the pending arrival of Italian patrol boats as a possible cause for the weekend’s high numbers, although spokeswoman Barbara Molinario said it was too early in the season to identify trends.

“For now it’s premature, even if 8,300 in 55 operations is a high number,” Molinario said.

Overall, Some 35,700 people have been rescued in the central Mediterranean route in 2017, up from 24,974 in 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said. Molinario noted that the numbers are constantly in flux and a week or two of poor weather could alter the year-on comparison. The IOM reports some 900 people are known to have died so far this year.

Some 800 people rescued over the weekend arrived in Sardinia on Tuesday, where officials struggled to find accommodation for them after some 900 were brought to the island by rescue boats last month. They hailed from Syria, Egypt and Libya, as well as more than a dozen other African countries.

The entry into force of the new Libyan patrols could heighten tensions that have already flared between the European Union and humanitarian organizations, which have assumed increasing role in rescuing migrants as their vessels tend to patrol closer to Libya’s territorial waters, and their numbers have skyrocketed in the last two years.

The European border agency Frontex has said these humanitarian aid ships in 2016 were responsible for 40 percent of all rescues, up from 5 percent a year earlier. Frontex has essentially accused them of encouraging smugglers to set migrants off in increasing numbers and on increasingly flimsy vessels, since rescue is so close at hand.

“While there is no question that saving lives is an obligation of whoever operates at sea … it seems the Libyan smugglers are taking full advantage of this fact, and they do so with impunity,” Frontex spokeswoman Izabella Cooper said.

The aid groups have denied being in cahoots with smugglers, but Catania’s chief prosecutor, Carmelo Zuccaro, testified to parliament last month about the phenomenon, in particular the funding behind the aid groups’ operations.

Cooper says there are both “push and pull” factors at play in the Libyan migration saga, with wars, poverty and famine pushing the migrants to Libya and the relative ease with which they then can reach Europe pulling them to make the risky crossing.

But behind it all is money: Europol reported that smugglers made some 5-6 billion euros in 2015, a peak year for arrivals in the EU, making it one of the most profitable activities for organized criminals in Europe. On the Libyan end, an EU military task force reported in December that Libyan coastal communities earned around 270-325 million euros a year from smuggling operations.

 Trisha Thomas in Rome contributed to this report.

British Prime Minister Calls for Early Election

British Prime Minister Theresa May announced Tuesday she will seek an early election on June 8.

Three weeks after officially launching the process for Britain to exit the European Union, May said opposition parties are threatening to derail the process and that parliament is not coming together in the same way as the nation.

“Division in Westminster will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit and it will cause damaging uncertainty and instability to the country, so we need a general election and we need one now,” May said.

The House of Commons must approve the call for new elections.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, welcomed May’s announcement, saying it will “give the British people the chance to vote for a government that will put the interests of the majority first.”

Trump Congratulates Erdogan on Turkey Referendum as Opposition Seeks Revote

U.S. President Donald Trump has congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his “referendum victory,” in a narrow vote that would create a powerful executive presidency from the current parliamentary system.

The White House said in a statement the two leaders spoke by phone, with their conversation also including the need to hold Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accountable for a recent chemical attack, the ongoing fight against Islamic State and “the need to cooperate against all groups that use terrorism to achieve their ends.”

Erdogan’s opponents are seeking a revote of Sunday’s referendum, and international monitors have questioned the fairness of the vote, saying it was contested on an uneven playing field.

At a news conference Monday in Ankara, monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the “No” campaign faced numerous obstacles including a lack of freedom of expression, intimidation and access to the media. The OSCE also alleged misuse of administrative resources by Erdogan.

 

The controversial decision to allow the use of ballots that did not have an official stamp was also criticized. “The Supreme Election Board issued instructions late in the day, that significantly changed, the validity criteria, undermining an important safeguard and contradicting the law,“ observed Cezar Florin Preda of the monitoring group at the Ankara press conference

 

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry released a statement saying it was “saddened” by the OSCE’s finding that the referendum fell short of international standards. The ministry called it “unacceptable” and accused the OSCE of political bias.

 

Under Turkey’s 2010 electoral law, all ballots require an official stamp as a measure aimed at preventing vote stuffing. The main opposition CHP alleges that as many as one-and-a-half million unstamped ballots could have been used, more than the winning margin in the referendum.

The CHP is now demanding the referendum be held again. “The only decision that will end debate about the legitimacy, and ease the people’s legal concerns is the annulment of this election,” declared Bulent Tezcan CHP deputy head, speaking at a press conference Monday.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim rejected opposition complaints in remarks to a group of legislators Tuesday. He said the opposition “should not speak after the people have spoken.”

Protests were held in several locations across Istanbul and in the capital, Ankara, over the handling of the vote; similar demonstrations were reported in other cities.

The only legal redress the CHP has to overturn the vote is with Supreme Election Board, which made the decision to use the unstamped ballots.

 

The head of the board, Sadi Guven, strongly defended his decision to allow the controversial ballots, citing high demand for ballots and saying similar procedures had been followed in the past.

“This is not some move we’ve done for the first time,” said Guven, speaking to reporters Monday in Ankara. “Before our administration took over, there had been many decisions approving the validity of unstamped ballots.”

 

Critics point out the previous use of unstamped ballots was before the introduction of the electoral law banning the practice. Guven said he did not know how many of the ballots were used, and admitted he made the decision after consulting with the ruling AK Party.

 

Many of the ballots are suspected of being used in the predominantly Kurdish southeast where strict security measures are in force due to an ongoing fight against Kurdish insurgent group the PKK. “No” campaigners in the region, said its observers, were prevented from monitoring many ballot stations. The OSCE also said its monitors too faced restrictions.

 

While the OSCE refused to be drawn in on whether the shortcomings and difficulties it highlighted were enough to ultimately affect the outcome of the vote, its assessment will likely embolden the opposition and add to growing international concern.

“The European politician will refer to the OSCE; even Americans have said it was going to wait for the OSCE report [before commenting on the referendum result], warns political columnist Semih Idiz of Al Monitor website. “It’s a complication for Erdogan but he will try and turn it to his advantage, by saying the West is up to its old tricks again.” Throughout the campaign, Erdogan played the nationalist card, accusing Western countries of conspiring against him and Turkey. Erdogan described the referendum as a victory against the crusaders.

Europe has so far avoided directly addressing the controversy, choosing to look beyond the result with calls on Erdogan to reach out to his opponents to ease the political polarization. The U.S. State Department called on Turkey to protect basic rights and freedoms as authorities work to resolve the contested results.

Turkey’s President Rejects Criticism from International Monitors Over Referendum

Turkey’s president has rejected international monitors’ criticism of the referendum that approved expanded presidential powers Sunday, saying the vote was the “most democratic election” seen in any Western country.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told supporters Monday outside his palace in Ankara that international election monitors should “know their place.”

He said Turkey will ignore findings by monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, calling the reports “politically motivated.”

Fairness questioned

The monitors have questioned the fairness of Sunday’s referendum, saying it was contested on an uneven playing field. At a news conference in Ankara, monitors from the OSCE said the “No” campaign faced numerous obstacles, including a lack of freedom of expression, intimidation and access to the media.

They also questioned the controversial decision by Turkey’s Supreme Court to allow the use of ballots that did not have an official stamp on them. The main opposition CHP alleges that as many as one-and-a-half million unstamped ballots could have been used, more than the winning margin in the referendum.

Opposition calls for new vote

Bulent Tezcan, deputy head of the CHP demanded the referendum be reheld, saying that would be the “only decision that will end the debate about the legitimacy” and ease people’s concerns.

Unofficial election results from Turkey’s electoral board said the “yes” vote took more than 51 percent while the “no” vote took just under 49 percent. Official tallies were expected to be released within 12 days of the vote.

The approval means the Turkish parliament will be largely sidelined, the prime minister and Cabinet posts will be abolished, and ministers will be directly appointed by the president and accountable to him. The president also will set the budget.

The constitutional amendments also end the official neutrality of the president, allowing him to lead a political party. The president will have the power to dissolve parliament and declare a state of emergency, while enjoying enhanced powers to appoint judges to the high court and constitutional court.

A divided nation

The referendum has divided the nation, with both supporters and opponents arguing that the future of the country is at stake.

Erdogan insists the reforms will create a fast and efficient system of governance that will allow Turkey to face the challenges of fighting terror and the slowing economy. Critics argue the constitutional reforms will usher in an elected dictatorship.

Erdogan spoke by telephone Monday with U.S. President Donald Trump, who according to a White House statement congratulated the Turkish leader on the referendum win.  The statement further said the two men talked about the situation in Syria, both the fight against Islamic State and holding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accountable for a chemical attack earlier this month.

US Notes Concerns of European Monitors in Turkey Referendum

The U.S. State Department said Monday it had taken note of concerns by European monitors of Turkey’s referendum and looked forward to a final report, suggesting it will withhold comment until a full assessment was completed.

An initial assessment by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said Sunday’s referendum, which granted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sweeping new powers, did not meet democratic norms.

“We look forward to OSCE/ODIHR’s final report, which we understand will take several weeks,” acting spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.

France’s Would-Be Presidents Rally in Paris Days Before Vote

As France’s unpredictable presidential campaign nears its finish with no clear front-runner, centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen hope to rally big crowds in Paris with their rival visions for Europe’s future.

Meanwhile, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, enjoying a late poll surge, is campaigning on a barge Monday floating through the canals of Paris. And conservative candidate Francois Fillon is taking his tough-on-security campaign to the southern French city of Nice, which was scarred by a deadly truck attack last year that killed 86 people.

The race is being watched internationally as an important gauge of populist sentiment, and the outcome is increasingly uncertain just six days before Sunday’s first round vote.

Le Pen’s nationalist rhetoric and Melenchon’s anti-globalization campaign have resonated with French voters sick of the status quo. Macron, meanwhile, is painting himself as an anti-establishment figure seeking to bury the traditional left-right spectrum that has governed France for decades.

The top two vote-getters Sunday of the 11 candidates on the ballot advance to the May 7 presidential runoff. The latest polls suggest that Le Pen, Macron, Melenchon and Fillon all have a chance of reaching the runoff — and as many as a third of voters remain undecided.

Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon insisted Monday that he, too, remains a contender.

“Things are evolving,” he said on Europe-1 radio.

The Socialists’ campaign has suffered from internal divisions and Socialist President Francois Hollande’s dismal image — he’s so unpopular that he declined to seek a second term.

Macron, a former investment banker well connected in the business world, fended off questions Monday about his elitist image on BFM television.

“The money I earned in my life, I earned it. I have not been given gifts,” he said.

He accused rivals of pandering to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and tried to distance himself from Fillon, whose austerity-focused campaign has been damaged by accusations that he misused taxpayer money to pay his wife and children for government jobs that they allegedly did not perform. French investigators are probing the case.

Fillon denies wrongdoing and is focusing instead on security issues that resonate with many voters after two years of deadly attacks across the country. French voters will cast their ballots under a state of emergency that’s been repeatedly extended as new violence has hit.

Macron and Le Pen are holding their last big rallies in the Paris region later Monday.

 

European Leaders Respond Cautiously to Turkey Vote

Germany said on Monday the close result in Turkey’s referendum on expanding Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s powers was a big responsibility for him to bear and showed how divided Turkish society was.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel also said Turkish authorities needed to address concerns about the content and procedure of Sunday’s referendum raised by a panel of European legal experts.

Erdogan declared a narrow victory in the vote, which marked the biggest overhaul of modern Turkish politics. Opponents said it was marred by irregularities and they would challenge the result.

Merkel and Gabriel, whose country has about 3 million residents of Turkish background, said they noted the preliminary result showing a victory for the “Yes” camp. Official results are expected within 12 days.

“The German government… respects the right of Turkish citizens to decide on their own constitutional order,” they said in a statement.

“The tight referendum result shows how deeply divided Turkish society is and that means a big responsibility for the Turkish leadership and for President Erdogan personally.”

They expected Ankara to have a “respectful dialogue” with all parts of Turkish society and its political spectrum after a tough campaign.

German integration commissioner Aydan Ozoguz warned against criticizing Turks living in Germany across the board over how they voted, telling regional newspaper Saarbruecker Zeitung that only around 14 percent of all German Turks living in Germany had voted “Yes” and added that most migrants had not voted.

German integration commissioner Aydan Ozoguz warned against criticizing Turks living in Germany over how they voted, telling regional newspaper Saarbruecker Zeitung that only around 14 percent of all German Turks living in Germany had voted “yes” and added that most migrants had not voted.

EU talks

Germany’s comments were echoed in France, where President Francois Hollande said: “It’s up to the Turks and them alone to decide on how they organize their political institutions, but the published results show that Turkish society is divided about the planned deep reforms.”

On Sunday, the European Commission said Turkey should seek a broad national consensus on constitutional amendments, given the narrow “Yes” majority and the extent of their impact. In March, the Venice Commission, a panel of legal experts at the Council of Europe, said the proposed changes to the constitution on which Turks voted, namely boosting Erdogan’s power, represented a “dangerous step backwards” for democracy.

Merkel and Gabriel pointed to the Commission’s reservations and said that, as a member of the Council of Europe and the OSCE security and human rights watchdog and an EU accession candidate, Turkey should quickly address those concerns.

“Political discussions about that need to take place as quickly as possible, both at the bilateral level and between the European institutions and Turkey,” Merkel and Gabriel said.

In a separate statement, France’s Foreign Ministry called on the Turkish government to respect the European Convention on Human Rights and its ban on the death penalty.

Erdogan told supporters on Sunday that Turkey could hold another referendum on reinstating the death penalty. Such a move would spell the end of Turkey’s accession talks with the European Union.

Austria, which has repeatedly called for halting membership talks, called once more for them to stop.

“We can’t just go back to the daily routine after the Turkey referendum. We finally need some honesty in the relationship between the EU and Turkey,” said Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, adding the bloc should instead work on a “partnership Agreement.”

During the campaign, Erdogan repeatedly attacked European countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, accusing them of “Nazi-like” tactics for banning his ministers from speaking to rallies of Turkish voters abroad.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek told Reuters on Monday he expected the “noise” between Ankara and Europe should die down after the European elections cycle. The French vote for a new president begins next Sunday. Germany votes in September.

 

Pilgrims Flock to Jerusalem to Celebrate Easter

Easter dawned in Jerusalem with a sunrise service at the Garden Tomb, where the faithful sang hymns of the resurrection. This holy site seeks to recreate the setting of the burial place of Jesus according to biblical accounts: “Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid” (John 19:41).

Facing an empty tomb carved into a rock in antiquity, the congregation proclaimed that “The Lord is risen!”

A short time later, bells rang out in the narrow cobblestone alleyways of Jerusalem’s Old City, summoning worshippers to Easter Mass at the 4th century Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The atmosphere in the cavernous church was mystical. Priests in festive robes chanted the Easter liturgy, as a fragrant cloud of incense rose into a golden rotunda, symbolizing the glory of the resurrection.

Pilgrims from all over the world gathered around the historic stone tomb believed to be the very place where Jesus rose from the dead. The ancient sepulcher has a fresh look: It was renovated for the first time in 200 years after the feuding denominations that control the site decided to bury their differences and allow the repairs in the name of Christian unity.

Pilgrims came from all over the world to experience Resurrection Day in the city where, according to the New Testament, the events took place.

“Being here where Christ was caused me to strengthen my faith,” Travis Cullimore, an American from San Francisco, California, told VOA. “It really provides a good perspective on who Christ is and what other people believe about Christ, and also it causes me to reflect on what I truly believe about Christ.”

There were also groups of Arab Christians in town, including Israeli citizens from Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth and members of the Coptic Orthodox Church from Egypt.

“It’s a holy place and we are blessed to be here,” said Sam Nicola, a Coptic Orthodox Christian from Cairo. “We are very fortunate to be here.”

A week ago on Palm Sunday, ISIS militants blew up two churches in Egypt killing more than 40 people. The bombings, which were not the first, raised further questions about the safety and future of the dwindling Christian community in Egypt.

“I’m not worried, no,” Nicola sighed, taking a fatalistic approach. “Whatever happens is happening, so whatever is meant to be is meant to be. [Terrorist] incidents happen everywhere, not only in Egypt; it happens everywhere.”

 

Nor was he perturbed by the Israeli police and soldiers who were patrolling the streets armed with pistols and assault rifles. “We have normal relations with Israel and there is no problem for us to come here,” he said. “We feel very safe.”

It was a big turnout this year because the Eastern Orthodox and Western churches, which use different calendars, celebrated Easter on the same day. The holiday was a multicultural experience, and not only because of the different Christian traditions.

The Old City was packed with Jewish pilgrims celebrating the weeklong holiday of Passover, one of three biblical Feasts of Pilgrimage; and the Christians and Jews mingled with the Palestinian Muslim shopkeepers in the Old City bazaar.

“I think all the people have the right to believe in God in their own way,” said Michael Price, an Israeli who came up to Jerusalem for Passover with his family. “The main thing is to coexist and live together in peace.”

Millions of Orthodox Christians Celebrate Easter

Millions of Orthodox Christians around the world have celebrated Easter in overnight services and with “holy fire” from Jerusalem, commemorating the day followers believe that Jesus was resurrected nearly 2,000 years ago.

 

This year the Orthodox churches celebrate Easter on the same Sunday that Roman Catholics and Protestants mark the holy festival. The Western Christian church follows the Gregorian calendar, while the Eastern Orthodox uses the older Julian calendar and the two Easters are often weeks apart.

 

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who is the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christian faithful, delivered a message of peace during the midnight service at the Patriarchate in Istanbul.

 

“Our faith is alive, because it is based on the event of the resurrection of Christ,” Bartholomew said.

 

In his official Easter message issued earlier in the week, Bartholomew urged strong faith in the face of the world’s tribulations.

“This message — of the victory of life over death, of the triumph of the joyful light of the [Easter] candle over the darkness of disorder and dissolution — is announced to the whole world from the Ecumenical Patriarchate with the invitation to experience the unwaning light of the resurrection,” his message said.  

 

In predominantly Orthodox Romania, Patriarch Daniel urged Christians to bring joy to “orphans, the sick, the elderly the poor … and the lonely.”

 

Late Saturday, Orthodox clerics transported the holy flame from Jerusalem by plane and it was then flown to other churches around the country. According to tradition the flame appears each year at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and is taken to other Orthodox countries.

In Russia, where Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion, President Vladimir Putin along with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his wife Svetlana attended midnight Mass at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral.

 

The cathedral is a potent symbol of the revival of observant Christianity in Russia after the fall of the officially atheist Soviet Union. It is a reconstruction of the cathedral that was destroyed by explosion under dictator Josef Stalin.

 

In Serbia, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Irinej, held a liturgy in Belgrade’s St. Sava Temple which outgoing president Tomislav Nikolic attended.

 

Irinej said in his Easter message that “with great sadness and pain in our hearts, we must note that today’s world is not following the path of resurrection but the road of death and hopelessness.”  He also lamented the falling birth rate in Serbia as “a reason to cry and weep, but also an alarm.”

 

Irinej evoked Kosovo, Serbia’s former province which declared independence in 2008. Hundreds of medieval Orthodox churches and monasteries are located there.

Orthodoxy is also predominant in Bulgaria, Ukraine and Moldova.

Calendar Brings Western, Orthodox Christians Together for Easter

Christians around the world on Sunday celebrated Easter – the day they believe Jesus arose from the dead.  It is the holiest day of the Christian calendar.  

Throngs of the faithful endured heavy security checks to secure a place in the Vatican’s flower-filled Saint Peter’s Square for Pope Francis’ celebration of Easter Mass and his delivery of his annual “Urbi et Orbi” –  “to the city and to the world” – Easter address.

Pope Francis denounced how migrants, the poor and the marginalized are treated.  He said they see their “human dignity crucified” every day through injustice and corruption.

The pope asked in his prayers for peace in the Middle East “beginning with the Holy Land, as well as in Iraq and Yemen.”

He said he hopes that Jesus’ sacrifice will inspire world leaders to “sustain the efforts of all those actively engaged in bringing comfort and relief to the civil population in Syria, prey to a war that continues to sow horror and death.”

In Florida, U.S. President Donald Trump attended an Easter church service in Palm Beach, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, daughter Tiffany and son Barron. Melania Trump’s parents also were there. The Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea was the site of the president and first lady’s wedding in 2005.

Easter is Christianity’s “moveable feast,” falling on a different date each year.  Western Christian churches celebrate Easter on the first Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox.  

This year, however, the date of the Roman Catholic and Protestant observance of Easter coincides with the Orthodox churches.  The two Easters are usually weeks apart, with the Western Christian church following the Gregorian calendar, while the Eastern Orthodox uses the older Julian calendar.

In Jerusalem, a sunrise service at the Garden Tomb, where worshippers sang hymns of the resurrection, set the biblical tone. Throughout the day, masses of different denominations of both Western and Eastern Christians coexisted in the same holy space.   

Wajeeh Nusseibeh, a Muslim man and member of one of the two families that guard and keep the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, said there were fewer people visiting the holy place this year than in the past.

Nusseibeh blamed that on tough economic times and security concerns among Middle Eastern Christians, who feel under threat in Iraq and Syria. “We hope to have peace next year,” he said. “And everyone accepts the other.”

The Old City also had Jewish pilgrims celebrating the weeklong biblical holiday of Passover— the story from the biblical Exodus celebrating the ancient Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian slavery.

Reports say many of the attendees were ultra-Orthodox Jews in dark suits and hats, but they were joined by others, including members of the Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community.

Armed Israeli police and soldiers patrolled the streets near the site of Christ’s tomb, but the atmosphere was calm.

In Egypt, however, authorities beefed up security after a suicide bomb attack on a Coptic Christian church last Sunday left dozens dead and more than 100 wounded.

Easter marks the end of Holy Week, which includes Maundy Thursday, the day of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. Holy Week also includes Good Friday, the day Jesus was crucified.

 

In predominantly Orthodox countries such as Russia and Serbia, government and church leaders attended midnight masses and held liturgy.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christian faithful, conveyed a message of peace during midnight mass at the Patriarchate in Istanbul, Turkey.

“Our faith is alive,” he said.

“This message – of the victory of life over death, of the triumph of the joyful light of the (Easter) candle over the darkness of disorder and dissolution – is announced to the whole world from the Ecumenical Patriarchate with the invitation to experience the unwaning light of the resurrection,” he said.  

Patriarch Irinej, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, delivered a gloomier Easter message. “With great sadness and pain in our hearts, we must note that today’s world is not following the path of resurrection but the road of death and hopelessness,” he said.

 

In Romania, another Orthodox Christian country, Patriarch Daniel asked members of the church to bring “joy to orphans, the sick, the elderly, the poor … and the lonely.”

Photo gallery: Christians around the world celebrate Easter

 

Quakeproofing Old Buildings

Traditionally built houses in old Europe are vulnerable to earthquakes, which again was demonstrated last August when a 6.2 magnitude quake devastated an area in central Italy. Italian engineers are researching ways to minimize the damage. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Feel Pain of Poor, Immigrants, Pope Francis Says at Easter Vigil

Pope Francis, leading the world’s Roman Catholics into Easter, urged them Saturday not to ignore the plight of immigrants, the poor and other vulnerable people.

In his homily at an Easter vigil Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, Francis recounted the biblical account of Jesus Christ’s mother, Mary, and Mary Magdalene, filled with grief, as they went to visit his tomb following the crucifixion.

Their grief, he said during the solemn ceremony, could be seen in the faces of many women today.

“In their faces we can see reflected all those who, walking the streets of our cities, feel the pain of dire poverty, the sorrow born of exploitation and human trafficking,” he said.

“We can also see the faces of those who are greeted with contempt because they are immigrants, deprived of country, house and family. We see faces whose eyes bespeak loneliness and abandonment, because their hands are creased with wrinkles.”

Serving the needy

Francis has used the period leading up to Easter to stress his vision of service to the neediest. On Good Friday, he lamented that many people had become inured to daily scenes of bombed cities and drowning migrants.

During Saturday’s service, he baptized 11 people, most of them adult converts to Catholicism, from Italy, Spain, the Czech Republic, the United States, Albania, Malta, Malaysia and China.

On Easter Sunday, the most important day in the Christian liturgical calendar, he will read his twice-annual “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the City and the World”) message in St. Peter’s Square.

Security has been tight for all of the pope’s Holy Week activities following recent truck attacks against pedestrians in London and Stockholm.

Turkey Launches Roundup of Islamic State Suspects Ahead of Vote

Responding to threats by the Islamic State group to disrupt Turkey’s constitutional referendum on Sunday, Turkish authorities have detained scores of people nationwide suspected of links to the outlawed terror group.

IS called on its followers to attack polling places during the referendum, in which voters will make a yes-or-no choice on whether Turkey should shift from its current parliamentary system of government to an executive presidency. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration has been campaigning hard and marshaling media resources to press for a “yes” vote, which would greatly expand the president’s powers.

In a directive to its followers, IS said, “Choosing a lawmaker other than God is a curse.” The admonition was published in the latest issue of Rumiyah, an online magazine the extremists use for propaganda and recruitment.

IS issued a similar call earlier this month in its Arabic newsletter El-Naba, asking its supporters in Turkey — including “lone wolves,” those who are not part of any organized cell or group of fighters — to sabotage the referendum in any way possible. The goal is to prevent Turks from voting, Islamic State said, adding: “Use whatever means you have at hand to create ultimate chaos.”

All who take part in the referendum, whatever their political sympathies, are heretics and infidels, IS said in a rallying call to its sympathizers: “We are asking all our brothers to target all polling places. Strike those places, burn them, destroy and demolish them. Kill all those heretics and polytheists who go to vote.”

Since the IS threats were issued, Turkish police and security forces have begun operations in provinces throughout the country, rounding up those suspected of ties to IS.

Security forces detained five people in Istanbul. Turkish media reports detailed more than 20 arrests linked to Islamic State in the provinces of Istanbul, Adana, Gaziantep, Kirikkale and Mersin.

There were no official reports on the total number of those detained nationwide, but it was believed that scores of suspects were arrested. The government-funded Anatolian news agency reported that those in custody were preparing “sensational attacks” in connection with the referendum.

Prosecutors in Mersin province, on the Mediterranean coast in southern Turkey, said they had received intelligence reports warning of possible attacks on Sunday. and that a number of suspects with links to IS had been arrested. A prosecutors’ statement added: “Turkish police are still looking for three more suspects. During searches at the suspects’ homes, police also found various printed IS publications, digital materials, a hunting rifle and some ammunition.”

Since Turkey took on a larger role in the coalition campaign against Islamic State in neighboring Syria and Iraq in mid-2015, the country has been targeted by IS militants several times.

Turkey recently concluded its Operation Euphrates Shield, an eight-month campaign in Syrian border areas aimed at crushing IS operations there.

Analysis: Turkey Faces Lose-Lose Choice in Referendum

Regardless of whether Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan succeeds in bolstering his increasingly authoritarian clout in Sunday’s constitutional referendum, one thing is clear: despite a crackdown on his critics and the media, the country is deeply divided, with signs that the gap is growing.

That is bad, not only for Turkey, but for just about everyone with interests in the region, given the country’s economic power and historically strategic location as a bridge between East and West – particularly with Syria’s civil war and the fight against so-called Islamic State raging on its border.

Despite the government’s efforts to severely limit campaigning against the changes that could extend Erdogan’s rule for a decade or more, polls show the election too close to call. That raises the possibility of violence no matter what the final results are, particularly with last July’s military coup attempt fresh in the public’s memory.

Only a few years ago, Turkey seemed well-entrenched as a flourishing democracy and well on the way to joining the European Union. It has huge potential with Europe’s youngest population: 19 million of the 75 million people are ages 15 to 29.

Today, it stands accused of human rights abuses that have included imprisoning more than 45,000 people, among them the leaders and nine other legislators from the second-largest opposition party in parliament, for alleged links to Kurdish terrorists.

Rallies for the “No” camp are banned due to possible terrorism; coverage of its arguments is severely limited. In fact, almost any opposition to the changes proposed in the referendum carries the risk of being labeled as terrorism.

The once-vibrant media have seen their freedoms severely curtailed, with many of journalists jailed. The judiciary’s power has been eroded. Unemployment is at 10.7 percent and up to 25 percent among the young who embody the future.

A shift from America’s sphere of influence to Russia’s seems possible, and the prospects of joining the EU are stalled, if not dead.

Still, Erdogan stands poised to further enforce his will with the proposed reforms, which would change the government from a parliamentary system to what opponents describe as a dictator-like executive presidency, extend presidential power over the judiciary, allow rule by decree and create a loophole in the limit of two five-year terms for the president.

The checks-and-balances system would essentially be gone.

“Erdogan has pursued this greater responsibility despite an increasingly disastrous record of governance,” Freedom House wrote in an analysis of the election.

“For nearly four years, Turkey has been trapped in a cascade of crises – protests, terrorist attacks, crackdowns, a coup attempt, purges and war. The only blow the country hasn’t suffered is an economic crash, but that too seems imminent, as tourism and foreign investment have cratered and Erdogan has subordinated fiscal and macroeconomic management to his short-term political agenda.”

Analyst Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy was equally harsh.

“The country’s deep social chasm gives even the most ardent optimist grave cause for concern,” he said.

Others say they have never seen the country more unstable despite the president’s growing authoritarianism.

After serving as prime minister for 11 years, Erdogan was elected president in August 2014. Despite having no clear mandate – opponents received 48 percent of the vote – he began changing the political landscape quickly, leading to the coup attempt. Since quashing it, he has further consolidated power with those who would choose a near-dictatorship over uncertainty and the rise of terrorism, which has hit Turkey hard.

Crises, including an estimated 3 million refugees from Syria’s civil war, have not undercut his position as Turkey’s most popular politician, based on the early successes of his party and bolstered by his argument that only a strong leader can deal with the country’s problems.

“I have been voting for Tayyip Erdogan for 17-18 years, and he never failed me,” says retiree Ibrahim Yazka, explaining why he will vote “yes.”

“If he wants, he can just sit in the presidential mansion and sign papers; but, this man loves this country so much that he can’t stop. He believes he should do more. That’s why I believe in him.”

The European Union and Council of Europe have voiced concern over the fairness of the campaign, highlighting the fact that it is being carried out under emergency rule introduced after July’s failed coup. Armed troops are prominent in opposition strongholds, creating an air of intimidation.

“Legitimate dissent and criticism of government policy are vilified and repressed,” Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, warned about the impact of emergency rule ahead of the campaign.

The friction with Europe has led to open animosity from Erdogan, who said German and Dutch leaders were using “Nazi practices” by resisting his efforts to have his deputies campaign for “yes” votes among the sizable expatriate communities living in neighboring countries.

 

On Good Friday, Pope Francis Seeks Forgiveness

Pope Francis, presiding at a Good Friday service, asked God for forgiveness for scandals in the Catholic Church and for the “shame” of humanity becoming inured to daily scenes of bombed cities and drowning migrants.

Francis presided at a traditional candlelight Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) service at Rome’s Colosseum attended by some 20,000 people and protected by heavy security following recent attacks in European cities.

Francis sat while a large wooden cross was carried in procession, stopping 14 times to mark events in the last hours of Jesus’ life from his sentencing to his death and his burial.

Similar services, known as the Stations of the Cross, were taking place in cities around the world as Christians gathered to commemorate Jesus’ death by crucifixion.

Pope speaks of shame, hope

At the end of the two-hour service, Francis read a prayer he wrote that was woven around the theme of shame and hope.

In what appeared to be a reference to the Church’s sexual abuse scandal, he spoke of “shame for all the times that we bishops, priests, brothers and nuns scandalized and wounded your body, the Church.”

The Catholic Church has been struggling for nearly two decades to put the scandal of sexual abuse of children by clergy behind it. Critics say more must be done to punish bishops who covered up abuse or were negligent in preventing it.

Violence ‘ordinary in our lives’

Francis also spoke of the shame he said should be felt over “the daily spilling of the innocent blood of women, of children, of immigrants” and for the fate of those who are persecuted because of their race, social status or religious beliefs.

At the end of this month Francis travels to Egypt, which has seen recent attacks by Islamists on minority Coptic Christians. Dozens were killed in two attacks last Sunday.

He spoke of “shame for all the scenes of devastation, destruction and drownings that have become ordinary in our lives.”

On the day he spoke, more than 2,000 migrants trying to reach Europe were plucked from the Mediterranean in a series of dramatic rescues and one person was found dead. More than 650 have died or are unaccounted for while trying to cross the sea in rubber dinghies this year.

Francis expressed the hope “that good will triumph despite its apparent defeat.”

Security increased

Security was stepped up in the area around the Colosseum after recent truck attacks against pedestrians in London and Stockholm. Some 3,000 police guarded the area and checked people as they approached. The Colosseum subway stop was closed.

Francis on Saturday is to say an Easter vigil Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and on Easter, the most important day in the Christian liturgical calendar, he reads his twice-annual “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the City and the World”) message in St. Peter’s Square. 

Opinion Polls: Any Scenario Possible in French Election

France’s presidential race looked tighter than it has all year Friday, nine days before voting begins, as two polls put the four frontrunners within reach of a two-person run-off vote.

The latest voter surveys may raise investor concerns about the outside possibility of a second round that pits the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen against hard-left challenger Jean-Luc Melenchon.

The election is one of the most unpredictable in modern French history, as a groundswell of anti-establishment feeling and frustration at France’s economic malaise has seen a growing number of voters turn their backs on the mainstream parties.

An Ipsos-Sopra Sterna poll showed independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and Le Pen tied at 22 percent in the April 23 first round, with Melenchon and conservative Francois Fillon at 20 and 19 percent respectively.

That 3 percentage point gap separating the top four was within at least one of poll’s margin of error, suggesting the race remains wide open.

Polls have consistently shown Macron would comfortably win the second round should he qualify for the May 7 vote.

But the most striking trend in past days has been the late surge in support for Melenchon, a former Trotskyist who would pull France out of NATO and, like Le Pen, possibly the European Union, too.

In the second poll showing the top four within three points of each other, BVA pollsters said: “All scenarios are possible for April 23.”

“A second round with Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen remains the most likely hypothesis, but nothing excludes that Francois Fillon or Jean-Luc Melenchon would qualify instead,” BVA said.

Polls show that about a third of France’s 45.7 million voters might abstain. While some analysts say a higher turnout would favor Macron and Fillon, BVA said Le Pen and Melenchon could also benefit if young and working class voters cast ballots in high numbers.

Melenchon’s progress, and the possibility of a showdown between the founder of the “France Unbowed” party and Le Pen, has alarmed investors. Voter surveys show that, should he reach the second round, Melenchon could win against Fillon or Le Pen.

Le Pen would not win the presidency whoever she faced in the run-off, polls indicate.

French judges investigating her alleged misuse of EU funds to pay for party assistants have asked for her parliamentary immunity to be lifted, though her legal woes have not been as harmful to her in the polls as the allegations of nepotism that have plagued Fillon’s campaign.

A third poll published Friday showed a six-point gap splitting the four main players in a first-round field of 11 candidates. The daily survey by Opinionway had Macron as leader at 23 percent and Melenchon the laggard at 17.

Russia’s Assertive Policy in Syria, Afghanistan Clashing with US

Russia on Friday hosted a trilateral foreign ministers meeting with Iran and Syria, as well as an international conference on Afghanistan, just days after a chilly Moscow reception for U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Russia’s increasingly assertive foreign policy in Syria and Afghanistan is clashing with U.S. goals, but analysts say both countries are needed for a negotiated peace. VOA’s Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.

Russia’s Policy in Syria, Afghanistan Clashing with US

Multi-nation talks on the prospects for Afghan security and national reconciliation, the third such round since December, began Friday in Moscow.

Eleven countries are taking part in discussions, including Afghanistan, China, Iran, Pakistan and India. Former Soviet Central Asian states have been invited to attend for the first time.

The United States was also invited to the Moscow talks but Washington didn’t attend, saying it was not informed of the agenda beforehand and was unclear of the meeting’s motives.

Just days after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s frosty reception by the Kremlin, which refused to stop support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the two countries are also at odds on how to fight the Islamic State group in Afghanistan.

Russia’s increasingly assertive foreign policy in Syria and Afghanistan is clashing with U.S. goals, but analysts say both countries are needed for a negotiated peace.

“I think it’s clear to, even to [the] Trump administration, that without cooperation and collaboration of Russia, it’s impossible to move forward or to achieve any meaningful result — be it on Syria or be it in Afghanistan,” Victor Mizin, of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, told VOA.

But others have stressed that this collaboration is possible even if the U.S. and Russia remain firm on some of their respective positions.

“There is certainly always room for cooperation both in Syria and Afghanistan,” Dmitry Verkhoturov, of the Center on Modern Afghanistan Research, told VOA. “But from my viewpoint, the key factor of this cooperation is that both sides, Russia and the U.S., should mutually recognize the right for an independent opinion, independent position, and an independent policy.”

Charles Kupchan, former senior director for European Affairs on the staff of the National Security Council in the Obama administration, says the Trump White House is still finding it’s footing in regard to Russian relations.

“I don’t think that there is a single point of view in the White House — in fact, one senses they are still finding their way through the woods. And whether it is on Russia or Syria or Arab-Israeli issues, different days bring different policy statements,” he told VOA’s Russian Service. “On the Russia account, I do think there has been a sobering up, in the sense that as a candidate and as an early president, I think [President Donald] Trump had a somewhat naive view about how easy it would be to reset the relationship with Russia. That he felt he could go in there as a businessman and sit down shoulder-to-shoulder with President [Vladimir] Putin and resolve everything.”

Having spent three years as a special assistant to the former U.S. president, Kupchan said stabilizing Russian ties is a notoriously difficult undertaking.

“Having worked with Russians on Ukraine and other issues, it’s tough going, and I think what the Trump administration is finding is simply that: It’s tough to find common ground with the Kremlin, and that the road ahead is likely to be one of differences of opinion rather than a reset that leads to a lasting rapprochement.”

Thursday, the U.S. dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on a reported Islamic State militant complex in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar.

Misha Gutkin of VOA’s Russian Service contributed to this report.

Turkey Ponders Re-evaluating, Suspending All Migrant Deals with EU

Turkey says it may re-evaluate or suspend all migrant agreements with the European Union if it does not receive a positive response from the bloc on visa-free travel for Turks.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said during an interview with broadcaster A Haber Friday the migrant deal and visa liberalization were a package, and therefore it was Turkey’s right to re-evaluate or suspend those if one element was not fulfilled.

Cavusoglu also said Turkey had no issues with Russia at present and would strengthen cooperation on a cease-fire and political solution in Syria, after a chemical attack blamed on Syrian government forces killed about 100 civilians in rebel-held Idlib province.

The attack prompted the United States to launch dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles from U.S. Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean on a Syrian air base.

The strike, the first direct U.S. action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and President Donald Trump’s biggest military decision since taking office, marked a dramatic escalation in U.S. involvement in Syria’s six-year war.

 

Russia Urged to End Torture, Killing of Gays in Chechnya

International organizations are demanding Russia investigate the abduction, detention and killing of gay and bisexual men in the country’s southern republic of Chechnya.

United Nations human rights experts on Thursday called on Russian authorities to “put an end to the persecution of people perceived to be gay or bisexual in the Chechen Republic who are living in a climate of fear fueled by homophobic speeches by local authorities.”

“It is crucial that reports of abductions, unlawful detentions, torture, beatings and killings of men perceived to be gay or bisexual are investigated thoroughly,” they added.

The appeals follow reports in the respected Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta that police in the predominantly Muslim republic of Chechnya have rounded up more than 100 men suspected of homosexuality and that at least three of them have been killed.

Chechen authorities have denied the reports, while a spokesman for leader Ramzan Kadyrov insisted there were no gay people in Chechnya.

“Nobody can detain or harass anyone who is simply not present in the republic,” Alvi Karimov told the Interfax news agency. “If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them since their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return.”

Separately, the director of the human rights office at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Michael Georg Link, said Thursday that Moscow must “urgently investigate the alleged disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment” of gay men in Chechnya.

Novaya Gazeta also reported this month that Chechen authorities are running secret prisons, branded “concentration camps,” in the town of Argun where men suspected of being gay are kept and tortured.

After two separatist wars in the 1990s, predominantly Muslim Chechnya became increasingly conservative under late President Akhmat Kadyrov and then his son Ramzan.