The World Today for April 28, 2017

NEED TO KNOW

Papal Visits, Fragile Relations

When bombs exploded at two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday, some wondered what that would mean for Pope Francis’s pending and much-anticipated visit to the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

They need not have worried. Despite the horrific attacks and intensified militant violence, the Vatican said Pope Francis’s two-day trip to Cairo starting Friday would proceed as planned, USA Today reported.

Francis’s trip is part of a wider attempt to boost interfaith relations in the country and reach out to Muslims to curb religious extremism, wrote Crux, a Catholic news site.

To that end, the Pope will pay a visit to Cairo’s Al-Azhar University and mosque, considered the world’s most renowned center of learning for Sunni Muslims.

He’ll also meet with the head of the Coptic Christian Church as well as the grand imam of al-Azhar.

The Pope’s visit comes at a time when Egypt’s relations with its Christian minority – who make up nearly 10 percent of the country’s 92 million people – have arguably hit a low point.

Copts – who make up the majority of Egypt’s Christians – in spite of having won greater freedoms to build churches and take pilgrimages under Sisi, often complain they feel like second-class citizens, neglected by police and security services in Egypt, wrote Crux.

And recently, Islamic militants have increasingly targeted them in attacks with the explicit goal of destabilizing the Egyptian government and boosting their image abroad.

As the Islamic State continues to lose control and territory in Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group is conducting “spectacular attacks” elsewhere in an attempt to resurrect its narrative and win new recruits, noted the Guardian.

Only two days after the Palm Sunday blasts killed more than 40 people, a gunman opened fire near a monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai and killed one policeman, reported the BBC.

Islamic State said its fighters were responsible for both that attack and the Palm Sunday bombings.

Egypt for its part has responded by bombing Islamic State hideouts in the Sinai Peninsula following the Palm Sunday attack, killing 19 militants, wrote Bloomberg.

Egyptian police arrested 13 people last weekend who are suspected of planning more attacks on Christians and other public institutions, too.

The government says it’s stepping up its campaign against the militants and tightening security ahead of Pope Francis’s visit.

That’s reassuring to Catholics worldwide.

But Egyptian officials have more work ahead if they want to calm long-standing grievances within their Christian community. And the Pope is coming partly to remind them of that.

WANT TO KNOW

Into the Quagmire

The killing of two US soldiers in Afghanistan on Thursday came as Donald Trump weighs America’s options to reverse recent gains by militants without wading deeper into the 15-year war.

Among the options on the table is sending in 3,000 to 5,000 more US troops, Reuters reported.

Officially, the US-led international force in Afghanistan ceased combat operations at the end of 2014. But Washington has found it impossible to pull out altogether for fear that militants will overthrow the government in Kabul.

The US presence in Afghanistan peaked at about 100,000 soldiers in 2011. It has now dwindled to about 9,000. Some 7,000 train and assist Afghan forces, while about 1,500 are a part of a counterterrorism unit, Reuters said.

On Thursday, two members of the US Special Forces were killed and another wounded in an operation targeting ISIS-K, the Islamic State terror group’s Afghanistan affiliate, in the Achin District of Nangarhar Province, CNN reported. More than 2,300 Americans have been killed and over 17,000 wounded since the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

Macedonian Mob

A mob of angry Macedonian nationalists stormed the parliament on Thursday, injuring Zoran Zaev, leader of the Social Democrats, and at least three others.

The attack came in protest against a vote to elect a new speaker supported by the Social Democrats and parties representing the country’s ethnic Albanian minority, the New York Times reported. About 200 protesters overwhelmed police to break into the building and attack the lawmakers.

After the most recent election in December, the Social Democrats and the Democratic Union for Integration cobbled together a narrow majority. But President Gjorge Ivanov has refused to give Zaev the mandate to form a government, citing “legal and political” reasons.

On Thursday, the coalition elected the Democratic Union for Integration’s Talat Xhaferi as speaker – setting him up to formally petition the president to ask Zaev to form a government. But their conservative opponents labeled the vote a coup.

With Macedonia keen to join the European Union, EU officials condemned the violence and called the vote a “positive note.” Earlier, former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who agreed to give up his post in January 2016, was criticized for pushing the country toward authoritarian rule.

Long Weekend

Brazil is gearing up for what could be its first general strike in more than two decades.

The country’s unions have called for nationwide strikes on Friday to protest President Michel Temer’s efforts to cut pension benefits and make it easier for companies to outsource jobs and hire temporary workers, Reuters reported.

It’s unclear how many workers will heed the unions’ call. Turnout may be strong not only because of actual anger over Temer’s austerity measures, but also because workers may be keen to extend a holiday weekend ahead of international Labor Day on Monday. The strike is expected to disrupt road and rail transport, factories and schools.

Former President Dilma Rousseff’s Workers Party grew out of the labor movement. Her supporters say her impeachment and removal over the manipulation of government accounts to show a smaller deficit amounted to a coup. Meanwhile, nearly a third of Temer’s cabinet and key congressional allies came under investigation for corruption earlier this month.

DISCOVERIES

Positive Peer Pressure

Scientists have long shown that negative lifestyle choices can be infectious within a peer group.

But according to a study published recently in Nature Communications, peer pressure can have some positive effects on physical activity as well.

First, researchers analyzed data from fitness trackers posted to a social networking site by more than one million American runners.

The trackers recorded the distance, speed and total time that folks in a social circle ran for more than five years, Science Magazine reported.

The researchers anchored their analysis to the weather to eliminate confounding variables.

They found that when runners ran longer distances on sunny days, their “friends” in another city would in turn increase the distance and running time of their own workout – even if the weather was dreary in their neck of the woods.

That suggests that exercise is linked to social influence, the researchers concluded.

Gender also played a role in the study: Men were more susceptible than women, especially when they saw that other males were pushing their limits.

Maybe peer pressure isn’t so bad after all.

Threats to Press Freedom around the World.

The following selection is part of a new, regular feature on press freedoms brought to you in conjunction with the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Highlighting Press Freedom

May 3 is World Press Freedom Day, a designation by the United Nations to highlight the state of press freedom throughout the world and to remember journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty. The Committee to Protect Journalists is marking the day by releasing its annual publication Attacks on the Press, which explores existing and emerging trends in media censorship by governments, non-state actors, and corporations worldwide. These tactics include financial pressure on journalists and news outlets, the exploitation of legal loopholes to avoid disclosure, and use of copyright laws and social media “bots” to curb criticism.

Traditional modes of censorship – imprisonment or violence, for example – are still widespread. The April 24 sentencing by a Cameroon military court of Radio France Internationale’s Hausa service correspondent, Ahmed Abba, to 10 years in prison on charges of “non-denunciation of terrorism” and “laundering of the proceeds of terrorist acts” underscores this point. As do the recent murders of journalists in Mexico.

To highlight the latter, CPJ will release its report in Veracruz, Mexico, one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Since 2010, CPJ has documented more than 50 cases of journalists and others affiliated with the media who have been killed or who have disappeared in Mexico.

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