The World Today for July 21, 2020

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COVID-19 Global Update

More than 180 nations worldwide have confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The following have the highest numbers worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*:

  1. US: 3,830,926 (+1.53%)
  2. Brazil: 2,118,646 (+0.97%)
  3. India: 1,155,338 (+3.32%)
  4. Russia: 776,212 (+0.77%)
  5. South Africa: 373,628 (+2.55%)
  6. Peru: 353,590 (0.00%)**
  7. Mexico: 349,396 (+1.50%)
  8. Chile: 330,930 (0.00%)**
  9. UK: 296,944 (+0.20%)
  10. Iran: 276,202 (+0.88%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

**Numbers have been adjusted by affected country



The Sacred, the Profane

In the 6th Century, the iconic Hagia Sophia was the preeminent cathedral in Eastern Christendom. In the 15th Century, it became a sultan’s mosque in the seat of the Ottoman Empire. Over the last 80 years, secular Turkish officials converted it into a museum that today is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Then on July 10, minutes after a Turkish court stripped the building of its museum status, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree declaring the Hagia Sophia, beloved by Muslims and Christian alike, now a mosque.

The move has caused an uproar.

From Russia, to Greece, to the United States to Europe, the anger and dismay over the move is palpable. Some worried about the symbolism, and the Christian masterpieces inside. Others fretted that access to non-Muslims would be cut off.

“Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay. “Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue.”

Erdogan had little time for the protestations. “Those who do not take a step against Islamophobia in their own countries … attack Turkey’s will to use its sovereign rights,” Erdogan said via a video-conference covered by Al Jazeera.

Christians have long debated the status of the Hagia Sophia, which means Holy Wisdom in Greek, the New York Times wrote. Ars Technica penned an excellent precis of the history of the elegant and gargantuan structure.

But Erdogan has promised to renew Turkey’s proud Islamic heritage in a country that is technically secular but whose citizens are overwhelmingly Muslim – and over the past decade, becoming more conservative. He has long campaigned to return the Hagia Sophia to its former glory as a mosque. Already, three other Byzantine church museums have become mosques under Erdogan, the latest in November, the famous Chora monastery church.

In fact, politics might explain why Erdogan undoubtedly gave officials the green light to move ahead with the conversion, the Financial Times wrote. The spectacle of hundreds of Islamists chanting “God is Great!” after the decision helped bolster the image of the pro-Islam strongman that he’s tried to cultivate since he first became prime minister in 2003, analysts said. Since then, Turkey, officially secular, has moved toward more and more religious rule-making. Analysts say Erdogan blames secular elites for the country’s problems. They add that this latest decision is undoubtedly intended to fire up his religious, conservative base even as his approval ratings are falling due to the sinking economy and his handling of the pandemic.

Case in point: Last year, opposition figures won the mayor’s race in Istanbul, suggesting Turks in the country’s most vital city were tiring of the president.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin, were angry, the Washington Post reported. Archbishop Elpidophoros, a Turkish citizen who heads the Greek Orthodox Church in the US, expressed sadness in a BBC interview. Reclaiming the building as a conqueror is no road to peace, he said. Pope Francis concurred.

Still, supporters of the move say it’s about time. Huseyin Gulerce, a pro-government columnist for the Star newspaper in Turkey, wrote, “We want back what already belonged to us.”

The problem is, many believe the Hagia Sofia belongs to everyone.



Ready, Get Set, Go!

An experimental vaccine against the novel coronavirus is safe and stimulates immunity to fight off the infection, researchers at Oxford University said Monday.

In a new study, the Oxford team, in cooperation with pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca described their vaccine as promising after being tested on more than 1,000 volunteers, the Washington Post reported.

The vaccine – named ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 – was made from a weakened and non-replicating version of the common cold virus. It was engineered to express a bit of the coronavirus that produces the spike protein the virus uses to enter and infect human cells.

The new study in the British medical journal, the Lancet, was accompanied by another on an experimental vaccine developed by Chinese researchers and tested on China’s military. It also boosted immune responses in most candidates, with a few side effects, such as fevers and headaches. It was labeled as giving “modest, positive results.”

Despite the promising outlook, neither vaccine has proven itself to protect individuals from infection or illness.

The Oxford vaccine is one of the 23 candidates currently being tested in clinical trials. More than 130 others are in preclinical trials.

To date, more than 13 million people are infected with the virus worldwide.


Donne’s Bells

Egyptian lawmakers approved sending troops to neighboring Libya Monday, a move that could further destabilize the war-torn North African nation, the Associated Press reported.

The military excursion is aimed at protecting Egypt’s western border with Libya if Turkish-backed forces there move to retake the coastal city of Sirte.

Libya descended into chaos after the ouster and death of longtime autocrat Muammar Gadhafi: It is currently divided between a government in the eastern part of the country allied with military commander Khalifa Haftar and the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli in the west.

Haftar is supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, while the Tripoli government is allied with Turkey, Qatar and Italy.

Analysts argued that the troop deployment could lead to direct conflict between Egypt and Turkey, which are both allies of the United States.

Stephanie Williams, acting head of the UN support mission in Libya, urged an “immediate ceasefire” and also called for an end to the violations of the UN arms embargo placed on the country.

Haftar’s forces launched an offensive to capture Tripoli in April 2019 but suffered a major blow last month when the GNA-allied forces, with Turkish support, forced them to retreat and vowed to retake Sirte, which was captured by Haftar earlier this year.


The Claws Come Out

The British government officially suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong Monday, following China’s recent imposition of a new national security law on the city, the BBC reported.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that the law was a “serious violation” of China’s international obligations. He also confirmed plans to open up a pathway to British citizenship for around three million Hong Kong citizens.

China imposed the law in response to last year’s anti-government protests. It makes activities that promote secession, subversion and collusion with foreign nations illegal.

Beijing criticized the move and has vowed to implement a “resolute response” if Britain decided to withdraw from extradition agreements.

The suspension further strains relations between the United Kingdom and China in recent weeks.

In his statement to parliament, Raab referenced the government’s decision last week to ban Chinese telecom giant Huawei from involvement in the country’s 5G network over security concerns.

He also highlighted China’s actions in Xinjiang province against Uighur Muslims after reports emerged of forced sterilization and detention of members of the minority group.


Uncanny Valley

Dolphins performing tricks in water parks often thrill adults and children alike but there’s a big debate raging over whether keeping marine animals in captivity for entertainment is a good thing.

To tackle that moral dilemma, former Disney creative director Roger Holzberg and his team have developed a prototype robot dolphin that looks – and behaves – similar to the real thing, CBC Radio reported. The robo-dolphin weighs nearly 600 pounds and moves exactly like the live mammal.

Holzberg explained that animatronic is partially autonomous, but can also be remote-controlled when children would like to play with it.

It took more than 20 years to develop the hyper-realistic mammal, and Holzberg hopes it will replace captive dolphins in aquariums and theme parks.

“My hope and my dream is that children who interact with these dolphins will fall in love with the ocean and the creatures that live (there) and will grow up to preserve them,” he said.

So far, a Chinese company is planning to use the animatronics in future aquarium projects in shopping malls and other venues. Holzberg said that the cost could go as high as $25.8 million but added that the animatronics don’t need any food, veterinary care or optimal water temperatures.

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