‘Hands off Africa!’: Pope blasts foreign plundering of Congo
By Nicole Winfield, Jean-yves Kamale And Christina Malkia in Kinshasa
KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Pope Francis demanded Tuesday that foreign powers stop plundering Africa’s natural resources for the “poison of their own greed” as he arrived in Congo to a raucous welcome by Congolese grateful he was focusing the world’s attention on their forgotten plight.
Tens of thousands of people lined the main road into the capital, Kinshasa, to welcome Francis after he landed at the airport, some standing three or four deep, with children in school uniforms taking the front row.
“The pope is 86 years old but he came anyway. It is a sacrifice and the Congolese people will not forget it,” said Sultan Ntambwe, a bank agent in his 30s, as he waited for Francis’ arrival in a scene reminiscent of some of Francis’ earlier trips to similarly heavily Catholic countries.
Francis plunged headfirst into his agenda upon arrival, denouncing the centuries-long exploitation of Africa by colonial powers, today’s multinational extraction industries and the neighboring countries interfering in Congo’s affairs that has led to a surge in fighting in the east.
“Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa!” Francis said to applause in his opening speech to Congolese government authorities and the diplomatic corps in the garden of Kinshasa’s national palace.
Calling Congo’s vast mineral and natural wealth a “diamond of creation,” Francis demanded that foreign interests stop carving up the country for their own interests and acknowledge their role in the economic “enslavement” of the Congolese people.
“Stop choking Africa: It is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered,” said history’s first Latin American pope, who has long railed at how wealthy countries have exploited the resources of poorer ones for their own profit.
The six-day trip, which also includes a stop in South Sudan, was originally scheduled for July, but was postponed because of Francis’ knee problems, which were still so serious on Tuesday that he couldn’t stand to greet journalists in the plane heading to Kinshasa and forced him to use a wheelchair on the ground.
It was also supposed to have included a stop in Goma, in eastern Congo, but the surrounding North Kivu region has been plagued by intense fighting between government troops and the M23 rebel group, as well as attacks by militants linked to the Islamic State group.
The fighting has displaced some 5.7 million people, a fifth of them last year alone, according to the World Food Program.
Instead of travelling there, Francis will meet with a delegation of people from the east who will travel to Kinshasa for a private encounter at the Vatican embassy on Wednesday. The plan calls for them to participate in a ceremony jointly committing to forgive their assailants.
Sylvie Mvita, a student in economics in Kinshasa, said the pope’s arrival would focus the world’s attention and television cameras on Congo and the fighting in the east to show how its suffering has been forgotten by the rest of the world.
“This will allow the world to discover the atrocities of which our brothers in the east of the country are victims. And maybe for once, the little humanity that remains in some people will cause an awakening and the international community will not only be interested in what is happening in Ukraine but also in what is happening in this country,” she said.
President Felix Tshisekedi voiced a similar line in his speech to the pope, accusing the international community of forgetting about Congo and of its complicit “inaction and silence” about the atrocities occurring in the east.
“In addition to armed groups, foreign powers eager for the minerals in our subsoil commit cruel atrocities with the direct and cowardly support of our neighbor Rwanda, making security the first and greatest challenge for the government,” he said.
Rwanda has been accused of — and has repeatedly denied — backing the M23 rebels operating in Congo.
Francis’ tough words at the start set the tone for the trip, in which the pontiff is aiming to bring a message of peace, a warning to the international community to not look the other way and a recognition that Africa is the future of the Catholic Church.
The continent is one of the only places on Earth where the Catholic flock is growing, both in terms of practicing faithful and fresh vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
And Congo stands out as the African country with most Catholics hands down: Half of its 105 million people are Catholic, the country counts more than 6,000 priests, 10,000 nuns and more than 4,000 seminarians — 3.6% of the global total of young men studying for the priesthood.
That makes Francis’ trip, his fifth to the African continent in his 10-year pontificate, all the more important as the Jesuit pope seeks to reshape the church as a “field hospital for wounded souls,” where all are welcome, poor people have a special pride of place and rivals are urged to make peace.
Aid groups had hoped Francis’ six-day visit would shine a spotlight on the forgotten conflicts of Congo and South Sudan and their soaring humanitarian costs, and rekindle international attention amid donor fatigue that has set in due to new aid priorities in Ukraine.
Francis answered their call, pointing the finger at the role colonial powers such as Belgium played in the exploitation of Congo until the country, which is 80 times the size of Belgium, gained its independence in 1960, and neighboring countries are playing today.
Francis didn’t identify Belgium or any neighboring country by name, but he spared no word of condemnation, quoting Tshisekedi as saying there was a “forgotten genocide” under way.
“The poison of greed has smeared its diamonds with blood,” Francis said. “May the world acknowledge the catastrophic things that were done over the centuries to the detriment of the local peoples, and not forget this country and this continent.”
“We cannot grow accustomed to the bloodshed that has marked this country for decades, causing millions of deaths that remain mostly unknown elsewhere,” he said.
At the same time, he urged Congolese authorities to work for the common good and not tribal, ethnic or personal interests; and put an end to child labor and invest in education so that “the most precious diamonds” of Congo can shine brightly.
Congolese faithful were flocking to Kinshasa for Francis’ main event, a Mass on Wednesday at Ndolo airport that is expected to draw as many as 2 million people in one of the biggest gatherings of its kind in Congo and one of Francis’ biggest Masses ever.
Banners emblazoned with the pope’s image carried messages including “Pope Francis, the city of Kinshasa welcomes you with joy.”
Some women wore colorful dresses and skirts made of pagne, a wax print fabric featuring images of Francis, the Virgin Mary or the Vatican keys, in a celebratory sign of welcome.
Jean-Louis Mopina, 47, said he walked about 45 minutes to Kinshasa’s airport before the pope’s arrival on Tuesday.
“He has come like a pilgrim sent by God,” Mopina said. “His blessing will give us peace in our hearts.”
Christina Malkia in Kinshasa, and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.
Children lost in shooting were ‘feisty,’ a ‘shining light’
This undated photo shows Evelyn Dieckhaus a student at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tenn. Dieckhaus was one of six people killed on Monday, March 27, 2023, in the shooting at the school. (AP Photo)
By Adrian Sainz, Kristin M. Hall, Holly Meyer And Ben Finley in Nashville
NASHVILLE (AP) — Details from the rich, full lives of the three adults killed Monday at a Nashville elementary school have emerged quickly in the aftermath, but information on the three 9-year-old children — whose lives ended tragically young — has been slower to publicly surface from a community buried in grief.
The children slain at The Covenant School were Hallie Scruggs, described by an aunt as “always on the go”; Evelyn Dieckhaus, her family’s “shining light”; and William Kinney, whose family has said little publicly so far.
A woman who identified herself as Hallie’s aunt, Kara Scruggs Arnold, wrote on Facebook that Hallie was “incredibly smart, feisty enough to keep up with her 3 brothers and my 4 boys.”
Hallie had a “love for life that kept her smiling and running and jumping and playing and always on the go,” Arnold added in her post.
Hallie’s father Chad Scruggs is the lead pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, which is associated with The Covenant School. The private Christian school has about 200 students from preschool through sixth grade, as well as roughly 50 staff members, according to its website.
Evelyn was described as the Dieckhaus family’s “shining light” on a GoFundMe page that has been set up for them. But her family, too, was reluctant to talk about her or the enormity of their loss.
The adults who were killed were Katherine Koonce, 60, the head of the school, Mike Hill, 61, a custodian, and Cynthia Peak, 61, a substitute teacher.
In a video statement released Tuesday evening, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Peak was supposed to have dinner with his wife, Maria, after filling in as a substitute teacher at Covenant.
“Maria woke up this morning without one of her best friends,” Lee said, adding that Peak, Koonce and his wife had once taught together and “have been family friends for decades.”
Sandra McCalla, a former administrator at the high school Peak attended in Shreveport, Louisiana, said Peak served as the statistician at girls’ basketball games and track meets before graduating in 1979.
“She was busy in the background making good things happen,” said McCalla, who served as the principal of Captain Shreve High School for 30 years.
Chuck Owen, who knew Peak from childhood, said Peak’s father was a well-known doctor in Leesville, Louisiana, where the family lived before moving to Shreveport.
He said, “everyone knew her, knew her family” and that she was “just a sweet person from a sweet family.”
Owen added that Peak was a devout follower of God, and it did not surprise him that she was working at a Christian school.
“She told me that she got saved in college and that God’s love changed her life,” he said.
Nashville songwriter Natalie Hemby posted on Instagram that Peak “taught me how to swim. Keep my head above water… which is what we’re all trying to do right now.”
Peak’s family issued a statement saying their “hearts are broken,” and called Peak “a pillar of the community, and a teacher beloved by all her students.”
“She never wavered in her faith and we know she is wrapped in the arms of Jesus,” the statement said.
Koonce, the head of The Covenant School, was a woman of deep faith who saw educating kids as her mission.
“It’s what God called her to do,” close friend Jackie Bailey said.
“We’re in such shock,” Bailey added. “I was looking around my house, and every piece of cross stitch that I have on the wall, she did – she gave to me.”
One of them said: “A friend loveth at all times.”
“That’s Proverb 17:17,” Bailey said. “That’s the kind of person she was. She loved at all times.”
Bailey added: “If there was any trouble in that school, she would run to it, not from it. She was trying to protect those kids … That’s just what I believe.”
Koonce’s family said in a statement Wednesday that she “gave her life to protect the students she loved.”
“We are devastated by our loss but depending on our God for comfort and healing,” the family said. “It is our privilege to honor Katherine’s legacy and to celebrate her remarkable spirit.”
Before Koonce took the top role with Covenant, Anna Caudill, a former art teacher, worked with her for almost a decade at Christ Presbyterian Academy, another Christian school in the area connected to a Presbyterian Church in America congregation.
“She was an absolute dynamo and one of the smartest women I’ll ever know,” said Caudill, recalling how Koonce excelled at her day job while parenting her children, pursuing her masters and then her PhD, and writing a book.
Caudill, who grew up in several male-led Christian denominations, said Koonce was the first woman in such a setting to encourage her to keep learning and pursuing her life goals.
“She wasn’t Wonder Woman, but I never saw the two in the same place,” Caudill said.
Friends of Hill, the custodian, said they believed he would have died protecting the school’s children.
Pastor Tim Dunavant, of the Hartsville First United Methodist Church, said in a Facebook post that he hired Hill to work at Covenant more than a decade ago.
“I don’t know the details yet. But I have a feeling, when it all comes out, Mike’s sacrifice saved lives,” Dunavant wrote.
Hill’s family issued a statement saying, “We pray for the Covenant School and are so grateful that Michael was beloved by the faculty and students who filled him with joy for 14 years. He was a father of seven children … and 14 grandchildren. He liked to cook and spend time with family.”
Another pastor, Jim Bachmann, said Hill was “one of those people you cannot not like” and that he made a point of learning the names of all the students and talking to them.
Bachmann was the founding pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, which runs the school, and is the current pastor of Stephens Valley Church, where Hill was a member and sometimes served as a greeter.
On those occasions, Hill would “dress up like he was going to meet the president of the United States,” Bachmann said. He added, “Everybody loved Mike, and he loved them back.”
Associated Press reporters Travis Loller in Nashville and Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed to this story. Sainz reported from Memphis. Finley reported from Norfolk, Virginia.
Russia stops sharing missile test info with US, opens drills
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a cabinet meeting via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, March 29, 2023. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
By Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow
MOSCOW (AP) — Russia will no longer give the U.S. advance notice about its missile tests, a senior Moscow diplomat said Wednesday, as its military deployed mobile launchers in Siberia in a show of the country’s massive nuclear capability amid fighting in Ukraine.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies that Moscow has halted all information exchanges with Washington after previously suspending its participation in the last remaining nuclear arms pact with the U.S.
Along with the data about the current state of the countries’ nuclear forces routinely released every six months in compliance with the treaty, the parties also have exchanged advance warnings about test launches. Such notices have been an essential element of strategic stability for decades, allowing Russia and the United States to correctly interpret each other’s moves and make sure that neither country mistakes a test launch for a missile attack.
The termination of missile test warnings marks yet another attempt by Moscow to discourage the West from ramping up its support for Ukraine by pointing to Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal. In recent days, President Vladimir Putin announced the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to the territory of Moscow’s ally Belarus.
Last month, Putin suspended the New START treaty, saying Russia can’t accept U.S. inspections of its nuclear sites under the agreement at a time when Washington and its NATO allies have openly declared Moscow’s defeat in Ukraine as their goal. Moscow emphasized that it wasn’t withdrawing from the pact altogether and would continue to respect the caps on nuclear weapons the treaty set.
The Foreign Ministry initially said Moscow would keep notifying the U.S. about planned test launches of its ballistic missiles, but Ryabkov’s statement reflected an abrupt change of course.
“There will be no notifications at all,” he said in remarks reported by Russian news agencies when asked if Moscow would also stop issuing notices about planned missile tests. “All notifications, all kinds of notifications, all activities under the treaty. will be suspended and will not be conducted regardless of what position the U.S. may take.”
Ryabkov’s announcement followed U.S. officials’ statement that Moscow and Washington have stopped sharing biannual nuclear weapons data that were envisioned by the New START treaty. Officials at the White House, Pentagon and State Department said the U.S. had offered to continue providing this information to Russia even after Putin suspended its participation in the treaty, but Moscow told Washington it would not be sharing its own data.
The New START, signed in 2010 by then-Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers. The agreement envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance.
The inspections have been put on hold since 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Discussions on resuming them were supposed to have taken place in November 2022, but Russia abruptly called them off, citing U.S. support for Ukraine.
As part of the Russian drills that began Wednesday, Yars mobile missile launchers will maneuver across three regions of Siberia, Russia’s Defense Ministry said. The movements will involve measures to conceal the deployment from foreign satellites and other intelligence assets, the ministry said.
The Defense Ministry didn’t say how long the drills would last or mention plans for any practice launches. The Yars is a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of about 11,000 kilometers (over 6,800 miles). It forms the backbone of Russia’s strategic missile forces.
A Defense Ministry video shows trucks carrying the missiles driving from a base to go on patrol. The maneuvers involve about 300 vehicles and 3,000 troops in eastern Siberia, according to the ministry.
The exercise took place days after Putin announced a plan to deploy the tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, Russia’s neighbor and ally. Such weapons are intended for use on the battlefield and have a relatively short range and a much lower yield compared with the long-range strategic missiles fitted with nuclear warheads that are capable of obliterating whole cities.
Putin’s decision on the tactical weapons followed his repeated warnings that Moscow was ready to use “all available means” — a reference to its nuclear arsenal — to fend off attacks on Russian territory.
Ryabkov said Wednesday that Putin’s move followed the failure by Kyiv’s allies to heed previous “serious signals” from Moscow because of what he described as the “fundamental irresponsibility of Western elites before their people and international security.”
“Now they will have to deal with changing realities,” he said, adding: “We hope that NATO officials will adequately assess the seriousness of the situation.”
Russian officials have issued a barrage of hawkish statements since their troops entered Ukraine, warning that the continuing Western support for Kyiv raised the threat of a nuclear conflict.
In remarks published Tuesday, Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, which Putin chairs, sternly warned the U.S. and its allies against harboring hopes for Russia’s defeat in Ukraine.
Patrushev alleged that some American politicians believe the U.S. could launch a preventative missile strike on Russia to which Moscow would be unable to respond, a purported belief that he described as “short-sighted stupidity, which is very dangerous.”
“Russia is patient and isn’t trying to scare anyone with its military superiority, but it has unique modern weapons capable of destroying any adversary, including the United States, in case of a threat to its existence,” Patrushev said.
Troubled Silicon Valley Bank acquired by First Citizens
‘A miracle’: Advocate says help being planned for victims of Calgary house explosion
NewsAlert: $491B budget invests in clean electricity, health care
Saudi Aramco to invest billions in Chinese petrochemicals
Alberta1 day ago
‘A miracle’: Advocate says help being planned for victims of Calgary house explosion
Top Story CP1 day ago
NewsAlert: $491B budget invests in clean electricity, health care
Alberta12 hours ago
Three Hills RCMP charge man with sexual assault of four victims at Prairie College in Three Hills. Looking for more victims
Alberta8 hours ago
‘A crisis’: Calgary charity seeks one-month homes for Ukrainian refugees after influx
Alberta10 hours ago
Province trumpets $105 million in new health spending for Rural Health Facilities Revitalization Program
Alberta24 hours ago
Markstrom reigns over Kings as Flames win 2-1
Top Story CP1 day ago
Federal budget 2023 includes $59.5 billion in new spending, looks to increase revenue
Business1 day ago
Budget 2023: What you missed, from phone chargers and concert fees to air travel