Vatican Bows to Pressure, Releases Retired Pope’s Letter

Stung by accusations of spreading “fake news,” the Vatican on Saturday released the complete letter by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI about Pope Francis after coming under blistering criticism for selectively citing it in a press release and digitally manipulating a photograph of it.

The previously hidden part of the letter provides the full explanation of why Benedict refused to write a commentary on a new Vatican-published compilation of books about Francis’ theological and philosophical background that was released to mark his fifth anniversary as pope.

In addition to saying he didn’t have time, Benedict noted that one of the authors involved in the project had launched “virulent,” “anti-papist” attacks against his teaching and that of St. John Paul II. He said he was “surprised” the Vatican had chosen the theologian to be included in the 11-volume The Theology of Pope Francis.

“I’m certain you can understand why I’m declining,” Benedict wrote.

The Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications said Saturday that it was releasing the full text of the letter because of the controversy over the “presumed manipulation” of information when the volume was launched Monday with great fanfare on the eve of Francis’ anniversary.

No intent to censor

It said its decision to withhold part of the letter at the time was based on its desire for reserve, “not because of any desire to censor.”

The so-called “Lettergate” scandal has embarrassed the Vatican’s communications operations and fueled the growing chasm between supporters of Francis’ pastoral-focused papacy and conservatives who long for the doctrine-minded tenure of Benedict.

A Twitter hashtag of  #releasetheletter went viral among Catholic conservatives as the scandal widened.

The Secretariat for Communication, in particular, was accused of spreading “fake news” for having omitted key parts of Benedict’s letter and — as The Associated Press reported — digitally blurring a photograph of the document where Benedict started to explain why he wouldn’t comment on the book.

Photojournalism industry standards forbid such manipulation of a photo, especially if it alters the content and meaning of the image, as it did.

Many commentators noted the irony of accusations that the Vatican’s communications office was spreading “fake news,” since Francis dedicated his annual message for the church’s social communications day to fighting “fake news” and the distortion of information. Francis has frequently criticized journalists for only giving half of the story.

Portion read aloud

The scandal began when the prefect of the communications office, Monsignor Dario Vigano, read part of Benedict’s letter aloud at the book presentation Monday. Vigano explained that he had sent Benedict the 11-volume set months ago in hopes of eliciting a theological commentary from the retired pope.

In the parts of Benedict’s letter that Vigano chose to read, Benedict confirmed that Francis has a solid theological and philosophical training and he praised the book initiative for showing the “interior continuity” between the two papacies. He wrote it was “foolish prejudice” to paint Francis as only a practical man devoid of theology and Benedict as a mere academic who knew nothing of the lives of ordinary faithful.

Vigano held up the letter as evidence of the theological continuity between the two papacies, an effort to blunt conservative critics of Francis’ mercy-over-morals priorities and emphasis on “discernment” over hard and fast doctrine.

But Benedict’s full caveat about his refusal to comment on the volume was never made public in Vigano’s presentation, press release or accompanying photo. That omission left the impression that the 91-year-old retired pope had read the volume and fully endorsed it, when in fact he hadn’t.

As a result, Vigano’s effort to show papal continuity effectively backfired. Benedict’s harsh criticism of German theologian Peter Huenermann, who penned one of the 11 books, laid bare the differences in theological approaches of the two popes.

The first hint there was more to the initial story came when a longtime Vatican reporter, Sandro Magister, published a transcript of what Vigano had read aloud at the presentation, which was more than what was included in the Vatican’s press release. Magister’s transcript of the letter contained Benedict’s initial explanation that he couldn’t read the 11 volumes because of  his age and other commitments, and therefore couldn’t comment on it.

Objection to Huenermann

Magister on Saturday reported that the omitted paragraph concerned Benedict’s objection to Huenermann, who has joined leading European progressive theologians since the 1980s in penning open letters attacking the policies of John Paul and Benedict.

Left unsaid is who was responsible for selecting Huenermann to write one of the 11 books in Francis’ anniversary anthology, given the author’s past attacks on the retired pope, who lives just across the Vatican gardens from Francis.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

Merkel, Xi Agree to Work on Steel Overcapacity Within G-20

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday discussed overcapacity in world steel markets and agreed to work on

solutions within the framework of the Group of 20 industrialized nations, Merkel’s spokesman said.

The two leaders emphasized close ties between the two countries, which are both facing planned U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs, and agreed to deepen the strategic partnership between them, Steffen Seibert said in a statement.

He said Merkel invited Chinese officials to visit Berlin for consultations, and Xi invited Merkel to visit China.

They also discussed the situation in North Korea regarding its nuclear and missile development efforts.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

International Presence at West Point Benefits Both Foreign and American Cadets

In June 2017, Montenegro, once considered a Balkan stronghold of pro-Russian sentiments, quietly celebrated its entry into NATO, infuriating the Kremlin. Before joining NATO, Montenegro sent its first cadet to West Point. Nevena Nikolic and her international peers at West Point are getting an opportunity to see the world and America through the lens of its prestigious military academy, where officials believe having foreign cadets is crucial. Milena Djurdjic of VOA’s Serbian Service has more.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

FIFA Finally Approves Video Review to Use at World Cup

FIFA has finally and fully approved video review to help referees at the World Cup.

Also Friday, the world soccer body lifted its three-decade ban on Iraq’s hosting of international events. The cities of Irbil, Basra and Karbala were given the go-ahead to stage official matches.

The last step toward giving match officials high-tech help in Russia was agreed to by FIFA’s ruling council, chaired by President Gianni Infantino.

“We are extremely happy with that decision,” Infantino said at a news conference in Bogota, adding it would lead to “a more transparent and fairer sport. We need to live with our times.”

FIFA will now look to sign a World Cup sponsor for video assistant referees (VAR) at the June 14-July 15 tournament.

The landmark decision on using technology came two weeks after FIFA’s rule-making panel, known as IFAB, voted to write VAR into the laws of soccer.

That move still left competition organizers to opt to use video review in their games, and FIFA’s ruling committee had to sign off on the World Cup decision.

FIFA council member Reinhard Grindel wrote on his Twitter account that clear communication would be important to make the system a success — and was promised on Friday by Infantino.

Referees can call on VAR to review and overturn “clear and obvious errors” plus “serious missed incidents” involving goals, penalty awards, red cards and mistaken identity.

Reviews lag

In 18 months of trials worldwide, reviews have often been slower than promised and communication has been unclear in the stadium.

“Obviously it is not perfect and we are not going to reach 100 percent perfection,” Infantino acknowledged. “What we definitely want to do is help.”

Controversy has been stirred even by the most experienced VAR officials who have handled many more games than most referees who will work at the 64-game World Cup.

Thirty-six referees, plus their teams of assistants, are being trained by FIFA for World Cup duty and many come from countries that do not use video review in domestic games.

The three Iraqi cities that got the go-ahead Friday to host official matches had been allowed to organize friendlies in the last year, provided the security situation was “stable.”

Iraq will host Qatar and Syria for a friendly tournament starting on March 21 in Basra.

“FIFA has given the green light for the resumption, but the organizers of the championship must take the final decision,” added Infantino.

‘No’ to Baghdad, for now

FIFA added that it could not “yet” agree to a request from the Iraqi authorities to organize matches in Baghdad, but Infantino promised that the city’s application would continue to be studied.

Iraq has not played full internationals on home turf since its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The ban, covering all but domestic matches, stayed in place after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

It was briefly lifted in 2012, but a power outage during an Iraq-Jordan match in Irbil led FIFA to promptly reinstate it.

Also Friday:

— FIFA reported a $192 million loss in its published accounts for 2017, after another year of stalled sponsor sales. But that was less than half of the $369 million deficit in 2016.

FIFA has backloaded more than $2 billion worth of broadcasting deals into the 2018 accounts and expects to exceed its revenue target of $5.6 billion and show a profit for the 2015-18 financial cycle.

—  The soccer body agreed to publish the voting choices of member federations in the 2026 World Cup bidding contest on June 13 in Moscow.

A North American bid combining the United States, Canada and Mexico is competing with Morocco for the right to host the first 48-team tournament in eight years’ time. Up to 207 FIFA members will vote, with the four bidding nations excluded.

— Infantino also answered with a firm “no” when asked whether Russia’s current political tensions with Britain could affect its hosting of the World Cup.

— FIFA failed to make progress on revamping national team competitions for women and youth squads. Discussions had begun on creating a global women’s league, and merging Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups staged every two years into single, annual Under-18 competitions.

Some information for this report came from AFP.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

Tens of Thousands Rally in Slovakia, Demand Early Election

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Slovakia Friday to call for snap elections, saying the prime minister’s resignation is not enough to address their concerns following the murder of an investigative journalist.

In a third day of demonstrations, protesters rallied in 35 towns and cities. About 50,000 people gathered in the capital, Bratislava, despite Thursday’s resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico and his government. Demonstrators chanted “early elections’’ and said the whole government needs to change.

Investigative journalist Jan Kuciak, 27, and his fiancee were found shot to death at home last month. Kuciak reported on fraud allegations against businessmen with political ties, and protesters have demanded a through investigation of his killing as well as of the alleged government corruption.

Police said Kuciak’s death was most likely related to his investigation into alleged ties between top Slovakia politicians and the Italian mafia. Nobody has been charged in the killings.

On Thursday, Slovak President Andrej Kiska accepted Fico’s resignation and asked Peter Pellegrini, Fico’s deputy prime minister, to form a new government. The move keeps the government’s current three-party coalition in power and avoids an early election.

This week’s demonstrations have been the largest in Slovakia since the 1989 Velvet Revolution that toppled Communism in the former Czechoslovakia.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

Georgian President: West Awakening to Russian Security Threat in Historic ‘Now Moment’

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili is calling for American and European leaders to capitalize on what he calls a palpable, growing international consensus about the scope, magnitude and immediacy of national security threats posed by Russian election interference and suspected assassination attempts on foreign soil.

“There is a ‘now moment’ here in the United States; there is a ‘now moment’ in London; there is a ‘now moment’ in Brussels … a moment of comprehension of the [threats] to security for all nations that are challenged by Russia,” Margvelashvili said in a sit-down interview with VOA’s Georgian Service on Thursday.

“We have seen murders in London. We have seen the murder of a retired Georgian peacekeeper in Tskhinvali,” he told VOA, referring to Archil Tatunashvili, who died while in custody of Russian-backed security officials in Georgia’s occupied breakaway region of South Ossetia.

“There are problems that unite us and now is the moment to unite — now is the moment to craft a joint response to the Russian Federation by Georgia and by allies of (the) EU and NATO,” he said. “We have to stand united in our values, in our challenges, and we must have a united rational response on better peace, security, and stability for these regions and alliances.”

Although Russia has denied any involvement in this month’s attempted murder of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain — even offering to assist in the investigation — leaders of Britain, France, Germany and the U.S. have jointly condemned the attack, blaming Moscow for “the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War.”

Russian tanks in Georgia

In Georgia, where Russian tank units maintain control over 20 percent of the terrain, a holdover from the August 2008 five-day war, officials have long espoused their conviction that Russia might one day attempt to annex portions of Ukraine, which it did in 2014.

Margvelashvili, who became president in 2013, is in Washington this week to meet with members of Congress and warn them against being naive about Russian aggression toward the West, a message his country has emphatically stressed since the 2008 invasion.

Although Georgia has enjoyed support from high profile legislators such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former vice president Joseph Biden, the current White House administration, while maintaining nonrecognition of Georgia’s two Russian-occupied, breakaway regions, has not revisited policy on Russian aggression in the region.

​NATO membership

Margvelashvili is also seeking to expand support for Georgian efforts to join NATO, which it has been seeking since 2002. NATO leaders pledged in 2008 to secure membership for Georgia and Ukraine but stopped short of granting the former Soviet republics Membership Action Plan (MAP) status, which would have expedited membership.

Critics of Georgia’s NATO accession say Tbilisi has not yet proven its fiscal readiness, arguing that the central Caucasus nation needs to improve its per capita income before it can assume the financial burden of NATO membership. Currently, Georgia’s per capita GDP is far below the NATO average, only one-fourth that of its Baltic neighbors to the north.

“There are [also] concerns in the Alliance about the Azerbaijani investigative reporter who was abducted, and the [fact that] Amnesty International issued a report expressing concern about issues in law enforcement and intelligence, saying there needs to be an independent assessment of these kinds of activities, further gains in that area,” former U.S. ambassador to Georgia William Courtney told VOA Georgian.

Georgia ready

Margvelashvili, however, insists Georgia has done its part.

“Georgia is committed” to securing NATO membership, he said, “and I believe Georgia is ready and even deserves NATO membership.”

“There are question regarding Georgia’s democratic developments both in [Washington] and Brussels, these questions are asked openly,” he said. “If we are unable to reform judiciary system, that would be a big challenge for our democracy and our place in European family.”

A top NATO official, who last week spoke with VOA Georgian on condition of anonymity, said NATO believes Georgia should be able to enter the alliance intact.

“Georgia will not be forced to choose between its territorial integrity and membership in NATO,” she said. “We call upon Russia to reverse its recognition of [Georgia’s occupied] territories, to stop the construction of borderlike obstacles along the administrative boundary lines and to abide by its international commitments.”

This story originated in VOA’s Georgian Service.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

After Britain, US Imposes New Sanctions Against Russia

The United States has imposed sanctions on several Russian organizations and individuals for alleged destructive cyberattacks and interference in the 2016 U.S. election. The 19 entities sanctioned Thursday include 13 individuals charged last month by Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller. U.S. President Donald Trump said Thursday Russia is likely behind the poisoning of a former Russian agent in Britain. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke has more.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

Putin Set to Secure Another 6 Years in Power Amid Heightened Russia-West Tensions

Russians vote Sunday for their next president, with Vladimir Putin all but certain to secure another six-year term. Putin remains popular among Russians who admire his strongman leadership. Eight candidates are running, but there are accusations the genuine political opposition has been silenced. The election comes at a time of high tension with the West following British accusations that the Kremlin directed the poisoning of a former double agent on British soil. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell has more.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

US Sanctions Russians for Election Meddling, Joins Condemnation of Nerve Agent Attack

The Trump administration is joining harsh international condemnation of Russia for a nerve agent attack in Britain blamed on Moscow, while for the first time imposing fresh sanctions — directly blaming Russia for election interference.

Asked by a reporter Thursday about the the poison attack targeting a former double agent in Salisbury, President Donald Trump replied, “It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it.”

He described the March 4 attempted assassination of the ex-spy as a “very sad situation.” He said the U.S. was taking the matter “very seriously, as I think are many others.”

Trump had appeared reluctant previously to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin or to take strong action against Russia.

The president has repeatedly declared there was no collusion between his election campaign and Russia and that U.S. investigations into such allegations are a “witch hunt.”

On Thursday, the U.S. government joined those of Britain, France and Germany in backing London’s conclusion holding Russia responsible for the nerve agent attack. The joint statement says “there is no plausible alternative explanation” and “Russia’s failure to address the legitimate request by the government of the United Kingdom further underlines Russia’s responsibility.”


The statement was issued shortly before Washington announced the blacklisting of five entities and 19 individuals for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and other malicious cyberattacks, including on America’s energy grid.

Among those targeted by the U.S. Treasury Department sanctions are two Russian intelligence agencies, the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), as well as 13 Russians already indicted by U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation of Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

“It’s more of the pressure we need to put on Russia. We’ve got to figure out some way to curtail their malign activities, whether it’s cyber or otherwise,” Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, a member of the Armed Services and Judiciary committees, told VOA.

Action ‘way overdue’

A Democratic senator, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who also sits on the Judiciary Committee, agreed with Tillis and said Thursday’s action was “way overdue,” accusing Trump administration members of going out “of their way to ignore all the attacks that Russia has made on us. Our intelligence services have been very clear. They tried to alter our elections and there is no question they’ll try it again.”

Leahy also told VOA that the administration’s response remained unsatisfactory, “but even a little bit is better than nothing.”

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin defended the administration’s response.

In a statement, Mnuchin said the administration “is confronting and countering malign Russian cyberactivity, including their attempted interference in U.S. elections, destructive cyberattacks, and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure. These targeted sanctions are a part of a broader effort to address the ongoing nefarious attacks emanating from Russia.”

The Treasury Department’s action blocks the 19 sanctioned individuals and five entities from doing any business in the U.S., while saying that Americans “are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.”

‘Ongoing’ attacks

Russian cyberattacks on critical U.S. industrial and other infrastructure are “long term and still ongoing,” a national security official told reporters on Thursday.

Another national security official, also speaking on condition of not being identified, singled out the FSB, saying it was targeting U.S. government cybersecurity specialists, diplomats, military and other personnel.

Treasury’s statement blamed Russia for interference in the 2016 U.S. election and destructive cyberattacks, including the June 2017 NotPetya incident, which it characterized as “the most destructive and costly cyberattack in history.” The U.S. said that attack disrupted global shipping, trade and the production of medicines, and prevented the creation of electronic records at several U.S. hospitals for more than a week.

Trump’s choice to lead the National Security Agency, the lead U.S. electronic spy agency, also expressed concern about Russia’s cyberactivity during his confirmation hearing on Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“Unless the calculus changes, we should expect continued issues,” said Army Lieutenant General Paul Nakasone, who has also been nominated to head the U.S. military’s Cyber Command.

VOA’s Michael Bowman on Capitol Hill and Jeff Seldin in Washington contributed to this report.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

Railroad Project to Connect Iran With Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan

The foreign ministers of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey and Iran held the first-ever quadrilateral meeting in Baku to discuss regional cooperation.

At the center of the discussions was the construction of Rash-Astara railroad, the 180-kilometer-long rail line that will connect the Iranian and Azerbaijani cities. The project is expected to be completed in three years.

“This project will herald the beginning of a new transportation corridor from the south to the west,” said Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov. The railroad will be connected with the already constructed Baku-Tbilisi-Kars line that links Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu expressed hope that the meeting of the four ministers will help boost regional cooperation, particularly the advancement of infrastructure projects in transportation and energy.

“This format will allow us to increase trade, attract investment to our countries. In our next meeting, we will discuss concrete projects,” he added.

According to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the project corresponds with the interests of the regional nations.

“The new transportation corridor will bridge two continents. The new corridor serves the interests of our countries and peoples,” he said.

The next meeting of the four ministers is to take place in Georgia.

In their final statement, the ministers expressed support for regional peace and stability based on mutual respect for territorial integrity.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.