‘Super Mario Bros. Movie’ Hits $1 Billion, Is No. 1 for 4 Weeks

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” led ticket sales for the fourth straight weekend in U.S. and Canadian theaters with $40 million as the global haul for the Universal Pictures release surpassed $1 billion, according to studio estimates Sunday.

The Nintendo videogame adaptation dominated the month of April in theaters, smashing records along the way. Over the weekend, it faced little new competition, though that will change next week when Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” kicks off the summer movie calendar and is expected to move Mario to the side. Studios spent the last week at CinemaCon in Las Vegas promoting coming blockbusters and promising big returns at the summer box office.

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” was estimated to easily cross $1 billion in worldwide box office Sunday, making it the 10th animated film to reach that milestone and the first since 2019. With a domestic total thus far of $490 million, international sales are even stronger. The Illumination-animated release took in $68.3 million overseas over the weekend, pushing its international haul to $532.5 million.

Second place went to “Evil Dead Rise.” The horror sequel from Warner Bros. held well in its second week, especially for a horror film, dipping 50% with $12.2 million.

Among the weekend’s newcomers, the Judy Blume adaptation “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” fared the best. The Lionsgate release grossed $6.8 million in 3,343 locations, a decent start for the $30 million-budgeted coming-of age tale written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig (“The Edge of Seventeen”).

As expected, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” about an 11-year-old (Abby Ryder Fortson) going through puberty, drew an overwhelming female audience. With stellar reviews (99% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and strong audience scores (an “A” CinemaScore), “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret,” should play well through Mother’s Day.

Lionsgate also released the Finnish action movie “Sisu” in 1,006 locations. The film, about a prospector (Jorma Tommila) whose gold is stolen by Nazis, grossed an estimated $3.3 million. That was a solid result for the rare international film to receive a nationwide opening. Reviews have been good (93% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) for writer-director Jalmari Helander’s film.

“Sisu” managed to surpass the weekend’s most heavyweight new release: “Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World.” The film, from Sony’s Christian production company Affirm Films, gives a faith-based twist to the sports biopic. But after getting dinged by bad review, it didn’t punch very hard, with $3 million in 3,054 theaters.

Nida Manzoor’s “Polite Society,” about a British-Pakistani high-schooler (Priya Kansara) with dreams of becoming a stuntwoman, debuted with $800,000 in 927 theaters. The Focus Features film, one of the standouts of January’s Sundance Film Festival, blends kung-fu with Jane Austen in a story about London sisters.

One of the weekend’s biggest successes was a familiar box-office force. The Walt Disney Co.’s rerelease of “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi” grossed $4.7 million in just 475 theaters. Disney put “Jedi” (the 1997 special edition version) back into theaters to commemorate the 1983 film’s 40th anniversary.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.

  1. “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” $40 million.

  2. “Evil Dead Rise,” $12.2 million.

  3. “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” $6.8 million.

  4. “John Wick: Chapter 4,” $5 million.

  5. “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi,” $4.7 million.

  6. “Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” $4.1 million.

  7. “Air,” $4 million.

  8. “Ponniyin Selvan: Part Two,” $3.6 million.

  9. “The Covenant,” $3.6 million.

  10. “Sisu,” $3.3 million.

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Militia Attack Kills 8 Farmers in DR Congo

Eight farmers were killed Sunday in an attack blamed on a militant group targeting three villages in northeast DR Congo, a local official said.


Members of CODECO, or Cooperative for the Development of the Congo, attacked the villages of Duvire, Njalo and Bengi at around 5 a.m. (0300 GMT), Adubango Kivia told AFP from the district of Djugu in the Ituri province.


“We found eight bodies, including a woman. They’re farmers. They were shot dead and then chopped up by machete,” he added, accusing the militiamen of setting fire to scores of homes and plundering livestock.


Adubango Kivia said the militiamen “operated calmy” and called on Congolese soldiers to deploy “to secure the population and bring an end to massacres” in the area around 100 kilometers north of the provincial capital Bunia.


CODECO says it is protecting the Lendu community from another ethnic group, the Hema, as well as the DRC army.


The Hema are defended by the Zaire militia — while the province is also targeted by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) linked to the Islamic State jihadi group.


Eastern Congo is plagued by dozens of armed groups, many of which are a legacy of regional wars that flared in the 1990s and 2000s.


Ituri province is one of the violent hot spots, where attacks claiming dozens of lives are routine.


The last attack blamed on CODECO killed more than 40 people April 14 in villages around 60 kilometers (40 miles) from the provincial capital of Bunia.

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Arrest Made in Minneapolis Mosque Fires That Rattled Muslims

Minneapolis police arrested a man suspected of setting two fires that damaged mosques in the city last week as part of what the chief called “an attempt to inflict terror onto our Muslim community.”

Police Chief Brian O’Hara announced the arrest of 36-year-old Jackie Rahm Little early Sunday but didn’t provide details of how he was apprehended. He was charged with second-degree arson after the fires were set on April 23 and 24 and an arrest warrant was issued.

“Houses of worship should be safe places. Setting fire to a sacred facility, where families and children gather, is incredibly inhumane. And this level of blatant hatred will not be tolerated in our great city,” O’Hara said in a statement Sunday.

Leaders with the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations praised the arrest after the fires that had unnerved the Muslim community in the area.

“This arrest brings some relief to our community, which has been on edge for the past week,” said Jaylani Hussein, the group’s executive director. “We hope to learn more about the suspect’s motivations and any potential accomplices who may have incited these attacks on our houses of worship.”

One fire was set last Monday on the third floor of the Mercy Islamic Center. The center houses the Masjid Al Rahma mosque.

The criminal complaint against Little states that surveillance footage showed him entering the center carrying a bag with a gasoline can inside. A short time later, a staff member spotted a fire near offices. It was extinguished before it could spread very far.

The other fire was Sunday night in the bathroom of the mosque in the 24 Somali Mall. Worshippers extinguished the fire.

The two mosques are less than a mile apart. O’Hara had said earlier that the department suspected the same person was responsible for that blaze.

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Ukrainians Bury Children Killed in Russian Missile Attack

Relatives and friends cried next to coffins Sunday as they buried children and others killed in a Russian missile attack on this central Ukrainian city, while fighting claimed more lives elsewhere.

Almost all of the 23 victims of the attack Friday died when two missiles slammed into an apartment building in Uman. Ukrainian Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko said six children were among the dead.

Mykhayl Shulha, 6, cried and hugged relatives next to the coffin of his 11-year-old sister Sofia Shulha during Sunday’s funeral, while others paid respects to a 17-year-old boy.

As mourners held candles, crossed themselves and sang, the priest at the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God “Quick to Hear” waved a vessel containing incense over the coffins. He said the deaths had hit the entire community hard.

“I live nearby,” said Father Fyodor Botsu. “I personally knew the children, the littlest, from when they were very young, and I personally baptized them in this church. I’m worried with everyone since I have children and I’m a citizen of this country and have been living in this city for 15 years.”

He said he prayed “that the war should end, and peace should come to our homes, city and country.”

At the damaged building in Uman, people brought flowers and photos of the victims.

Russia’s 14-month-long war brought more deaths elsewhere Sunday.

The governor of a Russian region bordering Ukraine said four people were killed in a Ukrainian rocket attack. The rockets hit homes in the village of Suzemka, nine kilometers from the Ukrainian border, said Bryansk regional governor Alexander Bogomaz. He said two other residents were injured and that defense systems had knocked down some of the incoming shells.

Bryansk and the neighboring Belgorod region have experienced sporadic cross-border shelling throughout the war. In March, two people were reported killed in what officials said was an incursion by Ukrainian saboteurs in the Bryansk region.

Also Sunday, Gov. Oleksandr Prokudin said his Kherson region in Ukraine came under Russian artillery fire 27 times in the past 24 hours, killing one civilian.

An expected spring counteroffensive by Ukraine could be concentrated in the Kherson region, a gateway to Crimea and other Russian-occupied territory in the southern Ukrainian mainland. Ukrainian forces drove Russian forces out of the regional capital Kherson last year, a significant defeat for Russia.

Ukrainian President Volodymy Zelenskyy said the counteroffensive wouldn’t wait for the delivery of all promised military equipment.

“I would have really wanted to wait for everything that was promised,” Zelenskyy told Finnish, Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian journalists. “But it happens that the terms (of weapons deliveries and counteroffensive), unfortunately, do not coincide a little bit. And, I will say frankly, we pay attention to the weather.”

Ukraine is particularly hopeful that it will receive Western fighter jets, but Zelenskyy said his forces wouldn’t delay the counteroffensive for that, so as not to “reassure Russia that we still have a few months to train on the planes, and only then will we start.”

Zelenskyy said he spoke Sunday with French President Emmanuel Macron about the weapons supply and was pleased with its “speed and specificity.”

Macron’s office said he reiterated France’s commitment to provide Ukraine “all the aid necessary to restore its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” and discussed long-term European military aid.

The head of the Wagner mercenary group that is leading Russia’s battle in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut gave an even more precise timetable for the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The Ukrainian military will launch the counteroffensive by May 15 because by then strong rains will have stopped and the soil will be dry enough for tanks and artillery to move, Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a video interview with a Russian journalist posted Saturday.

In other battlefield developments, Ukraine’s northern command said the Sumy and Chernihiv regions, which border Bryansk and Belgorod, came under fire 11 times Sunday night.

In the Dnipropetrovsk region, a 48-year-old resident of Nikopol was killed, and two were injured, in Russian shelling, according to Gov. Serhii Lysak. He said six multi-story buildings and six private houses were damaged, as well as several other buildings, gas pipelines, and a power line.

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Sudanese Ex-PM Urges International Community to Push for Truce

Former Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok is calling on the international community to keep pressure on the warring sides in the Sudan conflict. Hamdok says the kind of engagement that enabled evacuations of foreigners could help bring a lasting truce. He spoke during the 2023 Mo Ibrahim Governance weekend in Kenya.

Answering questions from Mo Ibrahim, the founder of the Ibrahim Foundation, Hamdok said a strong, unified approach by the international community would help end the military fighting in Sudan, which he terms senseless.

According to the former prime minister, it is crucial to put clearly defined roles upon the military, which he said must stay away from politics. 

Hamdok was ousted in an October 2021 coup and he contends the current configuration is not to be trusted.

This week, U.N. Sudan envoy Volker Perthes called on the rival military factions to fully adhere to the agreed upon cease-fire. He said Sudan military commander Gen. Abdel Fattah al Burhan and Rapid Support Forces leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo appear to be “closer to negotiations” than they have been,” though Burhan informed the media he “would not sit down at the same table as the leader of the ‘rebellion.’”

Both military factions have defended their stance. Sudan’s military maintains the deployment of RSF troops in parts of the country are unlawful. In a statement Saturday, Dagalo said the RSF remains committed to a cease-fire and is working to open corridors for Sudanese residents and non-residents.

Citizens complained on social media, though, that Dagalo’s Rapid Support Forces had raided their homes and stolen money, gold and other possessions. VOA could not independently confirm the claims. 

More than 500 people have been killed and upwards of 4,000 have been wounded, according to the United Nations, in the conflict between Sudan’s military and the country’s paramilitary force that is entering its third week.

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Sudan’s Injured Get Some Relief as Medical Shipment Arrives

The first international cargo shipment with medical supplies landed Sunday in Port Sudan. It’s a glimmer of hope in the country, where a conflict between the armed forces and a paramilitary group has put thousands of innocent civilians at risk, including children, who are already severely malnourished. VOA’s Veronica Balderas Iglesias has the report. Video editor: Marcus Harton.

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US Homeland Security Chief Pledges Faster Processing of Immigration Cases

The U.S. Homeland Security chief Sunday pledged to use existing U.S. immigration laws to process thousands of migrants expected to try to cross its southwestern border with Mexico starting May 12. That is when President Joe Biden’s administration ends its use of a law linked to the coronavirus pandemic to quickly expel undocumented arrivals for health reasons.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told NBC’s “Meet the Press” show that when families arrive at the border, they “will be placed in immigration enforcement proceedings, removal proceedings. If they make a claim for relief, we will adjudicate that claim for relief swiftly.”

He said the outcome of the cases of the migrants seeking to remain in the United States could be resolved in “days or weeks. It is not going to [require] months and months,” and would be heard by immigration officials ahead of the backlog of 2 million existing immigration cases waiting to be settled in the U.S.

Mayorkas said if an unaccompanied child arrives at the border, “We follow the law and the law provides that we take custody of that child and we have 72 hours within which to transfer that child, that unaccompanied child, to the Department of Health and Human Services.”

“Then it is for the Department of Health and Human Services … to identify a relative or a sponsor in the United States, to whom they can transfer care of that child.” Mayorkas said. “We have, the law provides, for humanitarian relief for these children and we enforce that law.”

More than 2.4 million migrants have arrived at the U.S. border in the last year, many from Central American countries, but also from Caribbean nations, Africa, Ukraine and elsewhere. Many have been turned away, while others have escaped into the U.S. interior or assigned immigration court dates months and years into the future and released into the U.S.

Mayorkas laid out the scope of the problem facing the U.S. as migrants, many escaping poverty and political persecution in their homelands, attempt to flee to the world’s wealthiest country and a better life.

“This is a really tough challenge and has been, as we all recognize, for years and years,” Mayorkas said. “We are seeing a level of migration not just at our southern border, but throughout the hemisphere, that is unprecedented.”

“It is, I think, the greatest migration in our hemisphere since World War II,” he added.

When the coronavirus pandemic was deemed a widespread threat, U.S. law gave U.S. border officials the authority to quickly expel those crossing the Mexican-U.S. border to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. But those denied entry at the border often tried again and again to get into the United States, with no legal consequence.

Biden officials tried to end use of the coronavirus provision to keep out migrants to utilize the country’s normal migration laws, which calls for violators to be barred for five years from readmission to the U.S. But attorneys general in Republican-controlled states won court rulings that continued the health care-related migration decision until May 11.            

As a result, a new influx of migrants is expected starting May 12, even as existing migrant shelters in border towns and elsewhere in such large U.S. cities as New York and Chicago are overcrowded.

“Our approach is to build lawful pathways, cut out the ruthless smugglers, deliver lawful pathways so people can access humanitarian relief without having to take the dangerous journey from their home countries,” Mayorkas said. “And at the same time, if they arrive at our southern border in between ports of entry, we will deliver consequences.”

But he readily acknowledged “a broken immigration system” in the U.S., with Congress failing for decades to reform its migration laws.

“I just want to be clear that we are working within significant constraints,” he said. “We need people, we need technology, we need facilities, we need transportation resources, all of the elements of addressing the needs of a large population of people arriving irregularly at our southern border.”

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African American Woman Encourages Fellow Blacks to Emigrate to Ghana

Ghana has been encouraging African Americans to move to the West African nation since 2019, urging them to connect with their African roots and also to invest in the country. American Chaz Kyser has built a support system helping fellow African Americans, especially women, settle in Ghana, and to nurture their ideas for business. Senanu Tord reports from Accra, Ghana.

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Zelenskyy: Spring Counteroffensive Coming, With or Without Western Warplanes

A widely anticipated spring counteroffensive in Ukraine will push on even without Western fighter jets in the skies. This, from Ukraine’s president, who said waiting to train on advanced aircraft could signal a timeline to Russian forces on the ground. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke as more deadly attacks hit Ukraine. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi has more.

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UN Accuses Russia of Grave Human Rights Violations in Ukraine 

A large high-powered Russian delegation of 36 legal and human rights experts has failed to persuade a United Nations watchdog committee that the government has complied with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Russia was one of six state parties to the convention whose record came under review by the 18-member Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, CERD, during its latest three-week session, which ended Friday.

The committee, which monitors member states’ implementation of the convention, expressed deep concern about “the grave human rights violations committed during the ongoing armed conflict by the Russian Federation’s military forces and private military companies against those protected under the convention, particularly ethnic Ukrainians.”

Committee member Mehrdad Payandeh said that since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the committee has received reports of severe human rights violations and abuses including “instances and practices of excessive use of force, killings, extrajudicial and summary executions, enforced disappearances, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence” attributable to the state party.

The committee also has received information about the forcible transfer and deportation to the Russian Federation of inhabitants, particularly children from territories in Ukraine occupied under the effective control of the Russian Federation.

“We have addressed these concerns,” said Payandeh. “Again, the Russian Federation did not comment on those concerns or provide any more information.

“We raised our concerns in our concluding observations and recommended to the state party to investigate and to end these practices, so far as they are in violation of the convention,” he said.

The Ukrainian government in mid-April reported that more than 19,384 children have been deported to Russia and the fate of many thousands more remains unclear. The U.N. and human rights organizations say many children allegedly have been given for adoption to Russian families.

On March 17, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government’s children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, for the war crimes of unlawful transfer and the deportation of children.

Earlier in April, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe opened an investigation into the forcible transfer and deportation of children to the Russian Federation from parts of Ukraine under Russian control.

The U.N. committee said it also has received disturbing reports of incitement to racial hatred and propagation of racist stereotypes against ethnic Ukrainians and of alleged forced mobilization and conscription into the army both within the Federation and on other territories under its effective control. Payandeh noted that these practices “disproportionately affect members of ethnic minorities, including Indigenous peoples.”

CERD’s review of Russia’s record, which began April 12, got off to a shaky start. The Russian delegation refused to discuss and respond to questions posed by the committee on issues related to the armed conflict and the convention rights of residents of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, temporarily occupied by the Russian Federation. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol.

The Russians argued that it was inappropriate to discuss the issue of Crimea due to a case pending at the International Court of Justice.

“We laid our position that we did not find anything in the ongoing procedures in front of the International Court of Justice [that] would hinder us from assessing the situation,” said Payandeh.

“The refusal of the Russian Federation to address these issues did not hinder us from addressing them in our concluding observations.” But, he added, “It made our work more difficult, and we would have liked to engage in a constructive dialogue.

“The purpose of this exercise with the Russian Federation is to raise our concerns, to hear their observations and then to come to our conclusions,” he said.

The committee accused the Russians of destroying and damaging Crimean Tatar cultural heritage, of imposing restrictions on Crimean Tatar’s political and civic rights, as well as harassing, threatening and instigating the assassinations of human rights defenders, activists, lawyers, and journalists.

Committee members are calling on the Russian Federation to carry out impartial investigations into all reported cases of human rights abuse cited in its final observations. They are also seeking an end to the practice of forced mobilization and conscription of members of Crimean Tatars and Indigenous peoples in Crimea and in the ongoing armed conflict with Ukraine.

Russia has not yet commented on CERD’s report. The committee says it expects the Russian Federation to present a follow-up report within one year on questions raised regarding the armed conflict in Ukraine, on the rights of residents in Crimea and Sevastopol, as well as the situation of stateless persons, and undocumented and irregular migrants.

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Germany’s Climate Activists Find Sanctuary in Churches

Copies of a climate change petition along with photos of the signatories lay at the foot of the altar. Meters away, a dozen activists were undergoing street protest training.

Other members of the Letzte Generation (Last Generation) group were having a vegan brunch buffet in the pews, minutes before they were to march out through the imposing doors of Berlin’s St. Thomas Church for their latest demonstration to press the government to do more for the climate.    

The Protestant church has become the unlikely staging point for the climate activists in their latest two-week campaign to bring Berlin’s traffic to a standstill by gluing themselves onto the asphalt.   

In northeastern Berlin, Gethsemane Church — a key site in the peaceful revolution that brought down the Berlin Wall — is hosting an open discussion on climate change every evening this week, before handing the baton to another church next week.    

Although politicians including leading members of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government have blasted Letzte Generation’s road blockade protests, the churches have thrown open their doors to the activists.    

“We want to contribute to allowing the participants to remain in peace,” said the St. Thomas Church’s council in a statement.    

“The radicalization of the climate movement is the expression of the despair that too little is being done for the protection of the climate and thereby for the preservation of Creation. We’re taking this despair seriously and confronting it,” they added.    

The churches’ action is not without controversy, as surveys suggest a majority of the public frown on Letzte Generation’s protests.    

In a recent poll by national broadcaster ZDF, 82 percent of respondents felt the street blockades went too far.  

Scholz’s government, including the Greens, have also spoken out against the protests. Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck of the Greens has said the street blockades were “not a helpful contribution to climate protection” because they don’t win consensus; rather they “irritate people.”    

“The supposed saviors of the world in a church — what hypocrisy,” charged Focus magazine in a column.    

‘Jesus would have approved’  

Amid the accusations flying at the protesters, pastor Aljona Hofmann at Gethsemane Church said it was all the more important for both sides to have a platform to communicate directly and peacefully.    

“The strength of the church is to bring together people with different opinions, in order to sound out what we have in common and where do we diverge,” said the pastor.    

At her church in 1989, dissidents including environmental activists held candlelight vigils against the East German regime, helping build the popular pressure that toppled the despised Wall.    

Hofmann warned against drawing parallels with the church’s actions under communism. “We’re not living now in a dictatorship,” she stressed.    

“Each period has its own challenges.”    

She acknowledged, too, that not everyone in the congregation supported Letzte Generation’s modus operandi, but argued that it was vital to get people to “step out of their bubbles” and speak with each other.   

“Letzte Generation’s method is to hold sit-ins. That is perhaps not the method of other people.    

“Each person must find his or her own format, but what’s important is to begin to think about what can I or what can we, as a society, do” on the issue of climate protection, she said.   

Activist Axel Hake, 54, said the churches’ contribution “show how strong the backing from society is.” 

“It was in the last autumn that relevant groups in the society, including churches, began showing solidarity with us…,” he said.  

“That is a real signal that we are anchored in society.”   

To those in the congregation who question the churches’ action, activist Cosima Santoro, 68, herself a Catholic, said: “I think Jesus Christ would have fitted well with Letzte Generation.    

“He also caused disruptions. He still disrupts today.”

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Pope Francis Celebrates Mass on Final Day in Hungary

On his third and final day of his Hungary trip, Pope Francis celebrated Mass on Sunday in Budapest before tens of thousands of people in the historic Kossuth Lajos Square. Hungarian President Kataline Novak and Prime Minister Viktor Orban were among the attendees.

Throughout his trip in Hungary, Francis has urged Hungarians to remember and take in refugees from Ukraine and also refugees from the Middle East and Africa who are arriving on Europe’s shores in record numbers.

While Europeans have not always been charitable or receptive to the migrants from Africa and the Middle East, they have been more accepting of the Ukrainians who fled their homes after the Russian invasion.

Orban has said that migration threatens to replace Europe’s Christian culture.

At Mass on Sunday, Francis called on the clergy and lay people to become “increasingly open doors … be open and inclusive … help Hungary to grow in fraternity, which is the path of peace.”

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Known for Laughs, DC Dinner Spotlights Risks of Journalism

The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner — known for its fun albeit ferocious jabs at Washington — took a more solemn tone this year as President Joe Biden acknowledged the several American journalists under siege in authoritarian countries around the world.

“We are here to send a message to the country and, quite frankly, to the world: The free press is a pillar, maybe the pillar, of a free society, not the enemy,” Biden said in his speech.

The president and first lady Jill Biden, upon arriving at the Washington Hilton on Saturday, met privately with the parents of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who has been imprisoned in Russia since March. He was charged with spying, despite strong denials from his employer and the U.S. government. Some guests wore buttons with “Free Evan” printed on them.

Also among the 2,600 people attending the gala was Debra Tice, the mother of Austin Tice, who has not been heard from since disappearing at a checkpoint in Syria in 2012. U.S. officials say they operate under the assumption that he is alive and are working to try to bring him home.

“Journalism is not a crime. Evan and Austin should be released immediately along with every other American detained abroad,” Biden said. “I promise you, I am working like hell to get them home.”

The Bidens also made a beeline for Brittney Griner, the WNBA star and Olympic gold medalist who was detained in Russia for nearly 10 months last year before her release in a prisoner swap. Griner attended with her wife, Cherelle, as guests of CBS News.

“This time last year we were praying for you, Brittney,” Biden said to the basketball star.

The annual black-tie dinner drew a wide array of celebrities and media moguls to Washington, with parties being held across the capital. Among those in attendance were actor Liev Schreiber, singer John Legend and his wife, Chrissy Teigen, the model and television personality.

Actor and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opened the dinner with a pre-taped video about the importance of a free and independent press, calling reporters an “ally of the people.” Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were seated on the stage along with comedian Roy Wood Jr., a correspondent for The Daily Show, who was the featured entertainer.

While Biden spent the majority of his speech focused on the issue of press freedom, he took time to take jabs at some of his most vocal political critics. The occasion is a familiar and comfortable one for Biden, who attended several of the dinners as vice president to Barack Obama. The Washington event returned last year after being sidelined by the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Biden was the first president in six years to accept the invitation after Donald Trump shunned the event while in office.

But this year, he came not only as the commander in chief but as a presidential contender.

He started his punchlines with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, taking direct aim at a recent bill Republicans passed that would lift the debt ceiling in exchange for a series of budget cuts, including some of Biden’s key legislative achievements.

“The last time Republicans voted for something that hapless it took 15 tries,” Biden said, referring to the gruesome fight McCarthy endured to become speaker in January.

And he didn’t stop there, going after Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch about his age. “And you call me old?” he told the crowd.

Biden even made a couple of self-deprecating jokes, mostly surrounding criticism of his age as he mounts a second bid for reelection. “I believe in the First Amendment and not just because my good friend Jimmy Madison wrote it,” he said to a roaring crowd.

Wood, who took the stage after Biden, also zeroed in on the president’s age.

“We should be inspired by the events in France. They rioted when the retirement age went up two years to 64,” Wood said. “Meanwhile in America, we have an 80-year-old man, begging us for four more years.”

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Texas Town Upset by Book Ban Considers Closing Library

Attempts to ban books in libraries and schools in the United States nearly doubled last year to 1,269 from the prior year, the highest number of attempts in 20 years, according to a recent report from the American Library Association.

Books that have LGBTQ themes are the most likely targets, according to the report.

The issue of which books are in a library and school has become a flashpoint in communities across the U.S. with conservative lawmakers and groups saying they are turning to banning books to protect children from pornography. Civil liberty organizations, writers and librarians say book banning attempts are censorship.

In the midwestern state of Missouri, a new law that bans sexually explicit materials from schools has resulted in pulling books off the shelves. In the state of Florida, lawmakers recently passed three new laws related to controlling reading material.

In the northwestern state of Idaho, Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation that would remove the exemption public libraries currently have to existing laws that ban disseminating material harmful to minors.

One town in the state of Texas is considering going a step further — closing the public library.

‘A book’s never hurt anybody’

Llano is a rural town 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Austin, the state capital. There, officials are considering closing the library system after a federal judge overturned the local lawmakers’ decision to remove books.

“A book’s never hurt anybody,” according to J.R. Decker, who said his family has lived in Llano County for generations. “My government’s telling me the only thing they can protect my child from is books. They should be worried about gun violence and school safety.”

Decker was among the people who protested at a recent meeting regarding the library closure issue. Among those who spoke was Suzette Baker, a former Llano County librarian who says she was fired for insubordination after she refused to remove books.

“I would like to know how the ‘History of the KKK’ is pornographic? ‘How to be an Anti-Racist,’ how is that pornographic? It’s not,” she said at the hearing. “This is about taking away rights. This is not a communist nation. This is not a Nazi nation. You do not get to pick our reading material, it is ours.”

Book-ban supporter Rhonda Schneider spoke in support of banning certain books.

“The library is a vital part of our community, but they said, ‘It’s a safe space for kids,'” said Schneider. “It is not a safe space for kids. These are all books that are currently on the shelf in the Llano Library.” Schneider read off a paper printout a list of books, in which two people spoke graphically about sexuality.

Llano resident Emmett McPherson did not get called upon to speak but said he also thinks the library is unsafe for children.

“The only reason I am for closing the library is because we haven’t gotten these books that are definitely pornographic moved to an adult section,” said McPherson. “I am willing to close the whole library to keep them out of my children’s hands.”

While some of the books cited at the meeting may be objectionable to some, they are not pornographic, said Texas Library Association Executive Director Shirley Robinson.

“So first of all, there is a legal definition of pornography,” said Robinson. “And there are never any materials in any library — school, public or academic — that would meet that legal definition of pornography.”

Texas book ban efforts

There are nearly 40 bills in this Texas legislative session relating to libraries, some of which include criminal charges against librarians, Robinson said.

Many book ban challenges in Texas began in 2021 after a lawmaker contacted libraries asking if they had any books among a list of nearly 850 titles, Robinson said. Many of the titles were LGBTQ-related or were written by or about people of color, she added.

“Librarians are leaving the profession because there is this threat of potential criminal prosecution or just harassment within their communities,” Robinson said.

One librarian who quit is Lee Glover, who was an elementary school librarian in the Houston, Texas, area. Her school started shifting book approval decisions to parents, instead of librarians, after an increase in book challenges.

“I already have a whole list of protocols I have to follow before I can put a book into the library,” she said. “But now they want me to have parents come and review them before I order them?”

It’s the students who are the losers in the book banning battle, she said.

“We are the lifeline for so many kids,” said Glover. ‘We are the ones who put books in kids’ hands that can’t see themselves reflected anywhere else.”

For now, the Llano County library system remains open. At its recent meeting, county commissioners voted to take the library closure “off the agenda,” while they appeal the federal order to return the books back to circulation. That decision is expected in the fall.

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Details Revealed About King Charles III’s Coronation Service

It will be a coronation of many faiths and many languages.

King Charles III, keen to show that he can be a unifying figure for everyone in the United Kingdom, will be crowned in a ceremony that will for the first time include the active participation of faiths other than the Church of England.

Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh leaders will take part in various aspects of the coronation, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office said Saturday, as it revealed details of a service it described as an act of Christian worship that will reflect contemporary society.

The ceremony also will include female bishops for the first time, as well as hymns and prayers sung in Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic, as well as English.

“The service contains new elements that reflect the diversity of our contemporary society,” Archbishop Justin Welby, spiritual leader of the Church of England, said in a statement. “It is my prayer that all who share in this service, whether they are of faith or no faith, will find ancient wisdom and new hope that brings inspiration and joy.”

The coronation ceremony reflects Charles’ efforts to show that the 1,000-year-old monarchy is still relevant in a country that is much more diverse than it was when his mother was crowned 70 years ago. While the king is the supreme governor of the Church of England, the latest census showed that less than half of the population now describe themselves as Christian.

Built around the theme “Called to Serve,” the coronation service will begin with one of the youngest members of the congregation — a Chapel Royal chorister — greeting the king. Charles will respond by saying, “In His name and after His example, I come not to be served but to serve.”

The moment is meant to underscore the importance of young people in the world today, according to Lambeth Palace, the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The service will also include many historic elements underscoring the ancient traditions through which power has been passed on to new kings and queens throughout the centuries.

In the most sacred part of the service, the Archbishop of Canterbury will anoint the king with oil, consecrating him and setting him apart from his subjects.

A screen will cover Charles at this moment, and the anointing won’t be visible on television or to most people in the abbey, except for a few senior members of the clergy.

“When the screen which will surround the coronation chair is removed, the king is revealed to us all as someone who has taken on the responsibility of serving God and serving the people,” a Lambeth Palace spokesperson said while speaking on customary condition of anonymity.

This will be followed by the presentation of the coronation regalia, sacred objects like the orb and scepter that symbolize the monarch’s power and responsibilities.

In another innovation that reflects the changed religious landscape in Britain, members of the House of Lords from the Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh traditions will present the king with objects with no explicit Christian symbolism.

The new king will then be crowned and the refrain “God Save the King” will echo through the Abbey.

After Charles is crowned, the traditional homage of the peers will be replaced by an “homage of the people,” in which people in the Abbey and those watching on television will be invited to affirm their allegiance to the king.

Camilla will then be anointed, in a form similar to that of Queen Elizabeth, the queen mother, in 1937. However, Camilla’s anointing won’t be hidden behind a screen.

The congregation will also be invited to say the Lord’s Prayer in the language of their choice.

Just before Charles sets off in the Gold State Coach for a procession on the streets of London, the leaders and representatives of faith communities will deliver a greeting in unison. The greeting won’t be amplified out of respect for those who are observing the Jewish sabbath and are barred from using electrical devices, Lambeth Palace said.

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Russia Vows Harsh Response After Polish ‘Seizure’ of Embassy School

Russia on Saturday promised it would respond harshly to what it said was Poland’s illegal seizure of its embassy school in Warsaw, an act it called a flagrant violation of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations.

Polish state-run news channel TVP Info earlier reported that police showed up outside the Russian embassy school in Warsaw on Saturday morning.

When asked about the incident, a Polish foreign ministry spokesperson told Reuters the building housing the embassy school belonged to the Polish state.

Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement that the Polish authorities had entered the embassy school’s grounds with the aim of seizing it.

“We regard this latest hostile act by the Polish authorities as a blatant violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and as an encroachment on Russian diplomatic property in Poland,” the ministry said.

“Such an insolent step by Warsaw, which goes beyond the framework of civilized inter-state relations, will not remain without a harsh reaction and consequences for the Polish authorities and Polish interests in Russia,” it said.

Russia’s Investigative Committee said late on Saturday on the Telegram messaging app that it will give “a legal assessment” of the “seizure,” but it did not provide any further details.

Lukasz Jasina, a Polish foreign ministry spokesperson, told Reuters that it was Russia’s right to protest but that Poland was acting within the law.

“Our opinion, which has been confirmed by the courts, is that this property belongs to the Polish state and was taken by Russia illegally,” he said.

Sergei Andreyev, Moscow’s ambassador to Poland, had earlier told Russian state news agencies that the building housing the embassy school was a diplomatic one which Polish authorities had no right to seize.

The two countries’ fraught relations have soured further over the war in Ukraine with Warsaw positioning itself as one of Kyiv’s staunchest allies, playing a leading role in persuading allies to provide it with heavy weaponry.

In March 2022, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, Poland said it was expelling 45 Russian diplomats suspected of working for Moscow’s intelligence services.

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Dust to Dust? New Mexicans Fight to Save Old Adobe Churches

Ever since missionaries started building churches out of mud 400 years ago in what was the isolated frontier of the Spanish empire, tiny mountain communities like Cordova relied on their own resources to keep the faith going.

Thousands of miles from religious and lay seats of power, everything from priests to sculptors to paint pigments was hard to come by. Villagers instituted lay church caretakers called “mayordomos,” and filled chapels with elaborate altarpieces made of local wood.

Today, threatened by depopulation, dwindling congregations and fading traditions, some of their descendants are fighting to save these historic adobe structures from literally crumbling back to the earth they were built with.

“Our ancestors put blood and sweat in this place for us to have Jesus present,” said Angelo Sandoval on a spring day inside the 1830s church of St. Anthony, where he serves as mayordomo. “We’re not just a church, we’re not just a religion — we have roots.”

These churches anchor a uniquely New Mexican way of life for their communities, many of which no longer have schools or stores, and struggle with chronic poverty and addiction. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find the necessary resources to preserve the estimated 500 Catholic mission churches, especially since most are used for only a few services each year.

“When the faithful generation is gone, are they going to be a museum or serve their purpose?” said the Rev. Rob Yaksich, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows in Las Vegas, New Mexico, which oversees 23 rural churches. “This old, deep-rooted Spanish Catholicism is experiencing serious disruption.”

‘It’s our job now’

In the hamlet of Ledoux, Fidel Trujillo is mayordomo of the pink-stucco San Jose church, which he keeps spotless even though few Masses are celebrated here regularly.

“Our ‘antepasados’ (ancestors) did a tremendous job in handing over the faith, and it’s our job now,” Trujillo said in the characteristic mix of Spanish and English that most speak in this region. “I much prefer coming to these ‘capillas’ (chapels). It’s a compass that guides where your heart really belongs.”

Each mission church is devoted to a particular saint. When New Mexico’s largest wildfire last spring charred forests less than 100 yards from San Jose church, and Trujillo was displaced for a month, he took the statue of St. Joseph with him.

“Four hundred years ago, life was very difficult in this part of the world,” explained Felix Lopez, a master “santero” — an artist who sculpts, paints and conserves saint figures in New Mexico’s unique devotional style. “People needed these ‘santos.’ They were a source of comfort and refuge.”

In intervening centuries, most were stolen, sold or damaged, according to Bernadette Lucero, director, curator and archivist for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

“Saints are the spiritual go-to, they can be highly powerful,” said Victor Goler, a master santero who just completed conserving the altarpieces, or “reredos,” in Las Trampas’ mid-18th century church.

On a recent Sunday at Truchas’ 1760s Holy Rosary church, Lopez pointed out the rich decorative details that centuries of smoke and grime had hidden until he meticulously removed them with the absorbent inside of sourdough bread.

“I’m a devout Catholic, and I do this as meditation, as a form of prayer,” said Lopez, who’s been a santero for five decades and whose family hails from this village perched on a ridge at 7,000 feet (2,100 meters).

Faith that support will come

For the Rev. Sebastian Lee, who as administrator of the popular Santuario de Chimayo complex a few miles away also oversees these mission churches, fostering local attachment is a daunting challenge as congregations shrink even faster since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I want missions to be where people can taste culture and religiosity. They’re very healing, you’re soaked with people’s faith,” Lee said. “I wonder how to help them, because sooner or later one mission is not going to have enough people.”

The archdiocese’s Catholic Foundation provides small grants, and several organizations have been founded to help conservation efforts.

Exposed to rain and snow, adobe needs a fresh replastering of dirt, sand and straw every couple of years lest it dissolve.

That makes local buy-in and some kind of ongoing activity, even just funerals, fundamental to long-term preservation, said Jake Barrow, program director at Cornerstones, which has worked on more than 300 churches and other structures.

But with fewer priests and fewer faithful, taking some rural missions off the church’s roster might be inevitable, said the Rev. Andy Pavlak, who serves on the archdiocese’s commission for the preservation of historic churches.

Not everyone agrees. Running his hand over the smooth adobe walls he restored at the 1880s Santo Nino de Atocha chapel in Monte Aplanado, a hamlet nestled in a high mountain valley, Leo Paul Pacheco argued that the answer might hinge on the faith of future generations of lay people like him.

“They still have access to the same dirt,” Pacheco said as the adobe walls’ sand particles and straw sparkled in the sun. “They will provide.”

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Ethiopian Youth Festival Begins Months After Peace Deal

A U.S.-sponsored youth festival opened Saturday in Ethiopia with the theme “Be Inspired, Own Your Future.” The two-day festival is being held just months after a bloody two-year civil war ended in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and as peace talks begin with the rebel Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).

Nearly 20,000 youth from around the country are expected to take part over two days.

U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Tracey Ann Jacobson spoke about the importance of the festival during her opening remarks.

“The point of it is to provide job opportunities, to provide access to loans, to provide better opportunities for leadership and health care for young people throughout Ethiopia,” she said, “and I have seen it grow from a tiny seed that we started in March to this amazing program that we have today.”

Ethiopian Minister for Women and Social Affairs Ergoge Tesfaye spoke at the event about addressing the vulnerabilities of young people.

“Government and non-governmental institutions, other members of the community, as well as the youth themselves, need to understand that they are exposed to a variety of problems along with this untapped potential and providing necessary solutions and steps is expected from all of us,” she said.

Last week, the Ethiopian government started talks with representatives of the OLA in Tanzania after years of protracted communal conflict in Ethiopia’s Oromia region.

Entrepreneurs and creative individuals from across 17 cities in Ethiopia are showcasing their work at the Addis Ababa festival, but the event did not have representatives from the Tigray region because of the war’s impact.

Boni Bekele, from the Oromia region, had a booth for a clothing design shop at the market fair within the festival.

He said that he used to be able to work across the country in previous years but not anymore.

The government has made millions of young people lose hope, he said. But their strengths should be used, he said, and not just as soldiers, because that won’t transform a country. It’s philosophy, science and skills that can change a country, he said, adding that this must be a priority.

The youth festival also featured a tech village and an art gallery.

One of the artists presenting her work was 23-year-old Melat Shiferaw, who came from Dire Dawa in the eastern part of Ethiopia.

For her, though the current environment in the country is not encouraging, she hopes things will soon fall into place.

As humans, she said, we live not just thinking about today, but what we hope for tomorrow, hoping tomorrow will be better.

The festival, supported by USAID for five years, is expected to include participants from Tigray in coming years, as organizers finalize a post-conflict assessment in the region.

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US-Mexico Border, End of Title 42 Top Week’s Immigration News

Editor’s note: Here is a look at immigration-related news around the U.S. this week. Questions? Tips? Comments? Email the VOA immigration team: ImmigrationUnit@voanews.com.

US Immigration Officials Announce Border Plans as End of Title 42 Nears

The Biden administration on Thursday announced efforts to manage the flow of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border as the end of a pandemic-era policy known as Title 42 nears. In a briefing with reporters, administration officials said they are opening immigration processing centers in Latin America to provide migrants easier access to legal pathways to the U.S., including the refugee admissions resettlement program, and prescreening for other programs such as parole, family reunification, or existing labor pathways. Immigration reporter Aline Barros has the story.

US Braces for More Migrant Crossings as Border Restrictions Set to End

The Biden administration is devising a strategy for the possible arrival of tens of thousands more migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border after the anticipated end of COVID-19 restrictions next month, scrambling to find potential holding centers, speed up deportations and increase processing of refugees abroad. Reuters has the story.

Encounters, Apprehensions, Expedited Removal: Border Enforcement Explained

U.S. immigration officials reported more than 2 million migrant encounters along U.S. borders nationwide in fiscal 2022. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection — often referred to as the CBP — releases border enforcement data monthly to explain what is happening. It includes apprehensions, encounters, and removals, among other actions. But what do those terms mean? Immigration reporter Aline Barros explains.

US Sends First Deportation Flight to Cuba Since 2020

The United States on Monday sent its first deportation flight to Cuba since 2020, months after Cuba agreed for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic to accept flights carrying Cubans caught in the U.S.-Mexico border. Story reported by Reuters.

Mexico Migrant Camp Tents Torched Across Border From Texas

About two dozen makeshift tents were set ablaze and destroyed at a migrant camp across the border from Texas last week, witnesses said, a sign of the extreme risk that comes with being stuck in Mexico as the Biden administration increasingly relies on that country to host people fleeing poverty and violence. The Associated Press reports.

VOA’s New Documentary Series, 52 Documentary: Here to Help

Ian Netupsky is an American volunteer in Ukraine. He went there as soon as the war started and left only once since then – for a short time to set up a nonprofit back in the U.S. He has been helping refugees, transporting supplies, food, medicine, etc. to the eastern Ukrainian territories under siege. His main reasons for volunteering are his kids – he wants to make sure they can continue living in a world with freedom and democracy. Ian is accompanied by his dog, Bear, who makes people around him smile and feel better. The film follows Ian on his missions to Kyiv and Kharkiv.

Immigration around the world

Dozens of Bodies Float Ashore in Libya After Migrant Boats Sink

At least 57 bodies have washed ashore after two migrant boats sank in the Mediterranean off towns in western Libya, a coast guard officer and an aid worker said on Tuesday. Reuters reports.

UN Refugee Agency: Mass Exodus From Sudan Could Trigger Regional Instability

The United Nations refugee agency is appealing to states next to conflict-ridden Sudan to keep their borders open to people seeking safety and protection. Since fighting between the Sudanese army and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces erupted April 15, tens of thousands of Sudanese have abandoned their homes in fear for their lives. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

Report Recommends Major Immigration Reform in Australia

A government-commissioned report Thursday called for a thorough overhaul of Australia’s immigration system. According to the Migration Review, the system is outdated and does not meet the country’s current or future skills needs, and therefore requires a “long term and holistic” approach to find a solution. The report makes sweeping recommendations that will be considered by Australia’s left-leaning Labor government. Story by Phil Mercer.

Lithuania Legalizes Migrant Pushbacks

Lithuania’s parliament passed legislation Tuesday to make it legal to deny entry to asylum-seekers, the EU member’s latest move to fight illegal immigration from Belarus, to the dismay of rights activists. Story by AFP.

Migrants Walking Through Mexico Threaten Road Blockades

Around 3,000 migrants walking through southern Mexico in a mass protest procession threatened Monday to block roads or harm themselves unless the government agrees to talks or provides them with buses. The Associated Press reports.

News Brief

— The U.S. Department of Homeland Security so far in fiscal year 2023 increased removals and returns to 225,483, up from 170,896 over the same period in fiscal year 2022. The numbers are in addition to Title 42 expulsions on the U.S.-Mexico border, which reached 1,079,507 in that same timeframe.

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Russian Court Fines War Critic Who Asked for Prison Instead

A court in Russia convicted a woman from a Siberian city over social media posts condemning the war in Ukraine and punished her Friday with a steep fine even though both she and the prosecution asked for a prison sentence.

Marina Novikova, a 65-year-old lawyer, was found guilty of “spreading false information” about the Russian army, which was made a criminal offense after President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine more than 14 months ago.

Novikova’s posts on the messaging app Telegram decried the invasion and criticized the Russian government.

The court in Seversk, Novikova’s hometown, imposed a fine of 1 million rubles (more than $12,400), the Russian human rights and legal aid group OVD-Info quoted her husband, Alexandr Gavrik, as saying.

Prosecutors had requested a three-year prison sentence. Novikova herself pleaded with the court to send her to prison rather than the alternative: a fine of at least 700,000 rubles ($8,700) that the law allowed. She said she didn’t have the money to pay a fine of that size.

“I am prepared to pay the price for the right to remain a human … because I understand that there will be no acquittal,” Novikova was quoted by Russian media as saying in court.

An average salary in Siberia’s Tomsk province, where Seversk is located, is 56,000 rubles, or just under $700, according to official government statistics.

OVD-Info, which monitors protests and tracks arrests, said the case against Novikova was among the first ones launched under the new law that prohibited spreading false information about the Russian military. But the number of such prosecutions has mushroomed as part of the Kremlin’s crackdown on dissent since the start of the invasion of Ukraine.

The sweeping campaign of repression has been unparalleled since the Soviet era. It has effectively criminalized independent reporting on the conflict and any criticism of the war, with the authorities targeting not only prominent opposition figures who eventually received draconian prison terms, but people not known for anti-government activity.

A court in Moscow convicted a former police officer Monday of publicly spreading false information about the country’s military for criticizing the war in Ukraine to his friends over the phone. Semiel Vedel was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Authorities argued his phone conversations qualified as “public” because his phone was wiretapped in connection to another criminal case, and there was a third person listening in.

Last month, a Russian court convicted a single father over social media posts critical of the war and sentenced him to two years in prison. His 13-year-old daughter, who drew an antiwar sketch at school, was sent to an orphanage.

A recent report by the Russian Supreme Court said that in 2022, courts ordered citizens to pay fines for discrediting the military 4,439 times, the equivalent of about $1.8 million, according to independent Russian news site Mediazona.

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Armenia, Azerbaijan to Meet in US for Talks to Normalize Relations

Armenia and Azerbaijan will hold a new round of talks in Washington on Sunday to try to normalize relations, Yerevan said on Saturday, after weeks of rising tensions over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Armed forces from the two Caucasus neighbors have frequently exchanged fire amid disputes over the mountain enclave, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but populated mainly by ethnic Armenians.

Azerbaijan set up a new checkpoint last Sunday on the Lachin Corridor, a road to Karabakh that passes through Azeri territory, in a move that Armenia called a gross violation of a 2020 cease-fire.

“From April 30 Minister of Foreign Affairs of Armenia Ararat Mirzoyan will be in Washington DC on a working visit. The next round of discussions on the agreement on normalization of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan is scheduled,” the spokesperson, Ani Badalyan, said on her official Facebook page.

There was no immediate confirmation of the meeting by Azerbaijan.

Later on Saturday, the Armenian defense ministry said one of its soldiers had been injured by shot fired by Azeri forces near the village of Tegh in Armenia’s southern Syunik province, Tass news agency said.

Tegh is the last village on the Lachin Corridor in Armenia before it enters Azeri territory.

Russian peacekeepers were deployed in 2020 to end a war, the second that Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought over the enclave since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Despite years of attempted mediation between them, Armenia and Azerbaijan have yet to reach a peace agreement that would settle outstanding issues such as the demarcation of borders and return of prisoners.

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US Calls on Chinese Coast Guard to Stop Harassing Philippine Vessels

The United States called Saturday for China to stop harassing Philippine vessels in the South China Sea, pledging to stand with the Philippines at a time of simmering geopolitical tension.

“We call upon Beijing to desist from its provocative and unsafe conduct,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement.

The Philippines accused China’s coast guard of “aggressive tactics” Friday following an incident during a Philippine coast guard patrol close to the Philippines-held Second Thomas Shoal, a flashpoint for previous altercations located 105 nautical miles (195 km) off its coast.

The Second Thomas Shoal is home to a small military contingent aboard a rusty World War II-era U.S. ship that was intentionally grounded in 1999 to reinforce the Philippines’ territorial claims. In February, the Philippines said a Chinese ship had directed a “military-grade laser” at one of its resupply vessels.

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea with a “nine-dash line” on maps that stretches more than 1,500 km off its mainland and cuts into the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. An international arbitral ruling in 2016 dismissed that line as having no legal basis.

China’s foreign ministry said Friday the Philippine vessels had intruded into Chinese waters and made deliberate provocative moves.

The State Department said Washington “stands with our Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order.”

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AP Interview: Ukraine, Democracy ‘Must Win,’ Says Pelosi

“We thought we could die.”

The Russian invasion had just begun when Nancy Pelosi made a surprise visit to Ukraine, the House speaker then the highest-ranking elected U.S. official to lead a congressional delegation to Kyiv.

Pelosi and the lawmakers were ushered under the cloak of secrecy into the capital city, an undisclosed passage that even to this day she will not divulge.

“It was very, it was dangerous,” Pelosi told The Associated Press before Sunday’s one-year anniversary of that trip.

“We never feared about it, but we thought we could die because we’re visiting a serious, serious war zone,” Pelosi said. “We had great protection, but nonetheless, a war — theater of war.”

Pelosi’s visit was as unusual as it was historic, opening a fresh diplomatic channel between the U.S. and Ukraine that has only deepened with the prolonged war. In the year since, a long list of congressional leaders, senators and chairs of powerful committees, both Democrats and Republicans, followed her lead, punctuated by President Joe Biden’s own visit this year.

The steady stream of arrivals in Kyiv has served to amplify a political and military partnership between the U.S. and Ukraine for the world to see, one that will be tested anew when Congress is again expected this year to help fund the war to defeat Russia.

“We must win. We must bring this to a positive conclusion — for the people of Ukraine and for our country,” Pelosi said.

“There is a fight in the world now between democracy and autocracy, its manifestation at the time is in Ukraine.”

Looked beyond US borders

With a new Republican majority in the House whose Trump-aligned members have balked at overseas investments, Pelosi, a Democrat, remains confident the Congress will continue backing Ukraine as part of a broader U.S. commitment to democracy abroad in the face of authoritarian aggression.

“Support for Ukraine has been bipartisan and bicameral, in both houses of Congress by both parties, and the American people support democracy in Ukraine,” Pelosi told AP. “I believe that we will continue to support as long as we need to support democracy… as long as it takes to win.”

Now the speaker emerita, an honorary title bestowed by Democrats, Pelosi is circumspect about her role as a U.S. emissary abroad. Having visited 87 countries during her time in office, many as the trailblazing first woman to be the House speaker, she set a new standard for pointing the gavel outward as she focused attention on the world beyond U.S. shores.

In her office tucked away at the Capitol, Pelosi shared many of the honors and mementos she has received from abroad, including the honorary passport she was given on her trip to Ukraine, among her final stops as speaker.

It’s a signature political style, building on Pelosi’s decades of work on the House Intelligence committee, but one that a new generation of House leaders may — or may not — chose to emulate.

The new Speaker Kevin McCarthy hosted Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library this month, the Republican leader’s first foray as leader into foreign affairs.

Democrat Hakeem Jeffries took his own first trip abroad to as House minority leader, leading congressional delegations last week to Ghana and Israel.

Pelosi said it’s up to the new leaders what they will do on the global stage.

“Other speakers have understood our national security — we take an oath to protect and defend — and so we have to reach out with our values and our strength to make sure that happens,” she said.

‘A fight for everyone’

When Pelosi arrived in Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stood outside to meet the U.S. officials, the photo that ricocheted around the world a show of support for the young democracy fighting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

“The courage of the president in greeting us on the street rather than us just meeting him in his office was yet again another symbol of the courage of the people of Ukraine,” she said.

Pelosi told Zelenskyy in a video released at the time “your fight is a fight for everyone.”

Last year, in one of her final trips as speaker, Pelosi touched down with a delegation in Taipei, Taiwan, crowds lining the streets to cheer her arrival, a visit with the Taiwanese president that drew a sharp rebuke from Beijing, which counts the island as its own.

“Cowardly,” she said about the military exercises China launched in the aftermath of her trip.

Pelosi offered rare praise for McCarthy’s own meeting with Tsai, particularly its bipartisan nature and the choice of venue the historic Reagan library.

“That was really quite a message and quite an optic to be there. And so, I salute what he did,” she said.

In one of her closing acts as House speaker in December, Pelosi hosted Zelenskyy for a joint address to Congress. The visit evoked the one made by Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Britain, at Christmastime in 1941 to speak to Congress in the Senate chamber of a “long and hard war” at the start of World War II.

Zelenskyy presented to Congress a Ukrainian flag signed by frontline troops that Pelosi said will eventually be displayed at the U.S. Capitol.

The world has changed much since Pelosi joined Congress — one of her first trips abroad was in 1991, when she dared to unfurl a pro-democracy banner in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square shortly after the student demonstrations that ended in massacre.

After the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s Russia and China that remain front of her mind.

“The role of Putin in terms of Russia that is a bigger threat than it was when I came to Congress,” she said. A decade after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, she said, Putin went up.

“That’s where the fight for democracy is taking place,” she said.

And, she said, despite the work she and others in Congress have done to point out the concerns over China’s military and economic rise, and its human rights record, “that has only gotten worse.”

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Residents, Survivors: 136 Killed in Burkina Faso Massacre, Blaming Army

Residents and survivors of a massacre in a Burkina Faso village said Saturday 136 people including women and infants were killed, blaming the country’s security forces for the April 20 attack.

A prosecutor last week launched a probe into the massacre that took place in the northern village of Karma and surrounding areas, following reports that people wearing the uniforms of the Burkinabe armed forces had killed around 60 civilians.

The attack, one of the worst on civilians as the country battles armed militants linked to al Qaida and the Islamic State, has prompted condemnations and calls for an investigation by the United Nations Human Rights Office.

Burkina Faso is one of several West African nations struggling with a violent Islamist insurgency that has spread from neighboring Mali over the past decade, killing thousands and displacing more than 2 million.

The country’s military government has launched a large-scale offensive that it says is aimed at reclaiming swathes of territory controlled by armed insurgents.

Joy shattered

The government condemned the attack on Karma in an April 27 statement but gave no details on casualties.

Since then, more details have emerged.

A statement issued by the residents and survivors Saturday said the village was surrounded early in the morning April 20 by heavily armed men in Burkinabe military uniforms, on motorcycles, pick-up trucks and armored vehicles.

“The villagers initially rejoiced at their arrival, but their joy was quickly shattered by gunfire,” the statement said, adding they have counted 136 civilians killed and nine injured.

Neither Burkina Faso’s army nor the government responded to Reuters’ request for comment Saturday.

‘We are not fooled’

A representative of the residents and survivors, speaking at a news conference in Ouahigouya, the provincial capital around 15 km (9.32 miles) from Karma village, said the government’s statement bordered on indifference and contempt for the residents of Karma.

The statement sows confusion about the responsibility of security and defense forces for the massacre, he said.

“We, population and survivors of the events of Karma and [its] surroundings, have no doubt that it is the security and defense forces that are responsible for this carnage,” the statement said. “We are not fooled, we know our security and defense forces well.”

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