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Pope Francis Holds Historic, Symbolic Meeting With Iraq’s Top Shiite Cleric

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PLAINS OF UR, Iraq (AP) — Pope Francis and Iraq’s top Shiite cleric delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence Saturday, urging Muslims in the war-weary Arab nation to embrace Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority during an historic meeting in the holy city of Najaf.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said religious authorities have a role in protecting Iraq’s Christians, and that Christians should live in peace and enjoy the same rights as other Iraqis. The Vatican said Francis thanked al-Sistani for having “raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history.

Al-Sistani, 90, is one of the most senior clerics in Shiite Islam and his rare but powerful political interventions have helped shape present-day Iraq. He is a deeply revered figure in Shiite-majority Iraq and his opinions on religious and other matters are sought by Shiites worldwide.

The historic meeting in al-Sistani’s humble home was months in the making, with every detail painstakingly discussed and negotiated between the ayatollah’s office and the Vatican.

Early Saturday, the 84-year-old pontiff, traveling in a bullet-proof Mercedes-Benz, pulled up along Najaf’s narrow and column-lined Rasool Street, which culminates at the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, one of the most revered sites in Shiite Islam. He then walked the few meters (yards) to al-Sistani’s modest home, which the cleric has rented for decades.

A group of Iraqis wearing traditional clothes welcomed him outside. As a masked Francis entered the doorway, a few white doves were released in a sign of peace. He emerged just under an hour later, still limping from an apparent flare-up of sciatica nerve pain that makes walking difficult.

The “very positive” meeting lasted a total of 40 minutes, said a religious official in Najaf, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media.

The official said al-Sistani, who normally remains seated for visitors, stood to greet Francis at the door of his room — a rare honor. Al-Sistani and Francis sat close to one another, without masks. Al-Sistani, who rarely appears in public — even on television — wore black robes and a black turban, in simple contrast to Francis’ all-white cassock.

The official said there was some concern about the fact that the pope had met with so many people the day before. Francis has received the coronavirus vaccine but al-Sistani has not. The aging ayatollah, who underwent surgery for a fractured thigh bone last year, looked tired.

The pope removed his shoes before entering al-Sistani’s room and was served tea and a plastic bottle of water. Al-Sistani spoke for most of the meeting. Francis paused before leaving al-Sistani’s room to have a last look, the official said.

The pope arrived later in the ancient city of Ur for an interfaith meeting in the traditional birthplace of Abraham, the biblical patriarch revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews.

“From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters,” Francis said. “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion.”

Religious leaders stood to greet him. While Francis wore a mask, few of the leaders on the tented stage did. The meeting was held in the shadow of Ur’s magnificent ziggurat, the 6,000-year-old archaeological complex near the modern city of Nasiriyah.

The Vatican said Iraqi Jews were invited to the event but did not attend, without providing further details. Iraq’s ancient Jewish community was decimated in the 20th century by violence and mass emigration fueled by the Arab-Israeli conflict, and only a handful remain.

The Vatican said the historic visit to al-Sistani was a chance for Francis to emphasize the need for collaboration and friendship between different religious communities.

In a statement issued by his office after the meeting, al-Sistani affirmed that Christians should “live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights.” He pointed out the “role that the religious authority plays in protecting them, and others who have also suffered injustice and harm in the events of past years.”

Al-Sistani wished Francis and the followers of the Catholic Church happiness, and thanked him for taking the trouble to visit him in Najaf, the statement said.

For Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority, a show of solidarity from al-Sistani could help secure their place in Iraq after years of displacement — and, they hope, ease intimidation from Shiite militiamen against their community.

Iraqis cheered the meeting of two respected faith leaders.

”We welcome the pope’s visit to Iraq and especially to the holy city of Najaf and his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani,” said Najaf resident Haidar Al-Ilyawi. “It is an historic visit and hope it will be good for Iraq and the Iraqi people.”

Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday and met with senior government officials on the first-ever papal visit to the country. It is also his first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and his meeting Saturday marked the first time a pope had met a grand ayatollah.

On the few occasions where he has made his opinion known, the notoriously reclusive al-Sistani has shifted the course of Iraq’s modern history.

In the years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion he repeatedly preached calm and restraint as the Shiite majority came under attack by al-Qaida and other Sunni extremists. The country was nevertheless plunged into years of sectarian violence.

His 2014 fatwa, or religious edict, calling on able-bodied men to join the security forces in fighting the Islamic State group swelled the ranks of Shiite militias, many closely tied to Iran. In 2019, as anti-government demonstrations gripped the country, his sermon lead to the resignation of then-prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

Iraqis have welcomed the visit and the international attention it has given the country as it struggles to recover from decades of war and unrest. Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State group in 2017 but still sees sporadic attacks.

It has also seen recent rocket attacks by Iran-backed militias against U.S. military and diplomatic facilities, followed by U.S. airstrikes on militia targets in Iraq and neighboring Syria. The violence is linked to the standoff between the U.S. and Iran following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord and its imposition of crippling sanctions on Iran. President Joe Biden has said he wants to revive the deal.

Francis’ visit to Najaf and nearby Ur traverses provinces that have seen recent instability. In Nasiriyah, where the Plains of Ur is located, protest violence left at least five dead last month. Most were killed when Iraqi security forces used live ammunition to disperse crowds.

Protest violence was also seen in Najaf last year, but abated as the mass anti-government movement that engulfed Iraq gradually petered out.

Abdul-Zahra reported from Baghdad. Associated Press journalists Anmar Khalil in Najaf, Iraq, and Samya Kullab in Baghdad contributed.



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Sex Toy Company Receives Award From Queen For ‘Outstanding Continuous Growth’

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British sex toy company Lovehoney has received a royal seal of approval.

The adult retailer was this week honored with The Queen’s Award for Enterprise “for outstanding continuous growth in overseas sales over the last six years,” per a press release on its website.

The accolade, announced by the official journal of record The London Gazette, allows the company in Bath, southwest England, to fly The Queen’s Awards flag at their office and use its emblem on marketing and packaging materials for five years. It also won the award in 2016.

“We are thrilled to have received official recognition from the Queen,” said Debbie Bond, Lovehoney’s chief commercial officer. “Her Majesty has been a wonderful supporter of Lovehoney as we have grown into being the world’s leading sexual wellness brand.”

“Royal patronage will help us to create more jobs at our Bath headquarters and in our international offices and spread the sexual happiness message globally,” added Bond, who said royal approval shows how shoppers “are embracing sexual wellness products as never before and appreciating their importance in improving overall well-being ― a particularly important message as we come out of lockdown after a stressful year living with the pandemic.”

The first Queen’s Awards — described on the United Kingdom government’s website as “the most prestigious awards for UK business” — were issued in 1966. This year, some 205 companies were honored for their work in innovation, international trade, sustainable development and promotion of opportunity through social mobility.





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Joe Rogan Admits He’s A ‘F**king Moron’ After Offering Selfish COVID-19 Vaccine Advice

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Wildly popular podcast host Joe Rogan admitted he’s a “f**king moron” and “not a respected source of information, even for me” when he addressed his selfish comments about young, healthy people not needing to get vaccinated from COVID-19.

Rogan, whose audience is in the hundreds of millions, drew backlash — and a rebuke from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert — when he said on an episode of his “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast released on Spotify last week that “if you’re a healthy person and you’re exercising all the time and you’re young and you’re eating well, I don’t think you need to worry about this.”

On Thursday, Rogan clarified in a video shared on YouTube that he was “not an anti-vaxx person.” “In fact, I said I believe they’re safe and I encourage many people to take them. My parents were vaccinated,” he explained. “I just said, ‘I don’t think that if you’re a young, healthy person that you need it.’ Their argument was, you need it for other people.”

“So you don’t transmit the other virus,” said his cohost.

“That makes more sense,” agreed Rogan. “But that’s a different argument. That’s a different conversation.”

Rogan, whose show was snapped up by Spotify in a $100 million deal last year, later attempted to explain away the comments by saying how he doesn’t plan what he says on air.

He’s often high or drinking alcohol during the shows, he said, before accusing “clickbaity” journalists of blowing his comments out of proportion.

“I’m not a doctor, I’m a fucking moron and I’m a cage fighting commentator who’s a dirty standup comedian who just told you I’m drunk most of the time and I do testosterone and I smoke a lot of weed but I’m not a respected source of information, even for me,” he said.

“If I say things, I’m always going ‘check on that Jamie, I don’t know if that’s true,’” Rogan added. “But I at least try to be honest about what I’m saying.”

A HuffPost Guide To Coronavirus



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Dozens Killed In Stampede At Jewish Religious Festival In Israel

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JERUSALEM (AP) — The director of an Israeli ambulance service has confirmed that nearly 40 people died in a stampede at a religious festival in northern Israel.

Eli Beer, director of Hatzalah, said he was shocked by the size of the crowd at the Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mount Meron. Police were quoted as saying some 100,000 people were there.

He told Army Radio that there were four to five times the number of people that should have entered a location like this. “Close to 40 people died as a result of this tragedy,” he said.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS EVENT. AP’s earlier story is below.

A stampede broke out early Friday at a Jewish religious gathering attended by tens of thousands of people in northern Israel, leaving 150 hospitalized, authorities said. Israeli media reported that as many as 44 people were killed and published photos of rows of bodies.

The disaster occurred at Mount Meron at the main celebrations of Lag BaOmer, a holiday when tens of thousands of people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gather to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is buried there. Large crowds traditionally light bonfires, pray and dance as part of the celebrations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “great tragedy,” and said everyone was praying for the victims.

 The incident happened after midnight, and the cause of the stampede was not immediately clear. Videos circulating on social media showed large numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews packed together in tight spaces.

A 24-year-old witness, identified only by his first name Dvir, told the Army Radio station that “masses of people were pushed into the same corner and a vortex was created.” He said a first row of people fell down, and then a second row, where he was standing, also began to fall down from the pressure of the stampede.

“I felt like I was about to die,” he said.

Zaki Heller, spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service, said 150 people had been hospitalized and confirmed there had been some deaths. Army Radio, citing anonymous medical officials, said the death toll had risen to 44.

Heller told the station “no one had ever dreamed” something like this could happen. “In one moment, we went from a happy event to an immense tragedy,” he said.

Photos from the scene showed rows of wrapped bodies.

The Israeli military said it had dispatched medics and search and rescue teams along with helicopters to assist with a “mass casualty incident” in the area. It did not provide details on the nature of the disaster.

It was the first huge religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. The country has seen cases plummet since launching one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns late last year.

Health authorities had nevertheless warned against holding such a large gathering.

But when the celebrations started, the Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, police chief Yaakov Shabtai and other top officials visited the event and met with police, who had deployed 5,000 extra forces to maintain order.

Ohana, a close ally of Netanyahu, thanked police for their hard work and dedication “for protecting the well-being and security for the many participants” as he wished the country a happy holiday.

Netanyahu is struggling to form a governing coalition ahead of a Tuesday deadline, and the national tragedy is sure to complicate those efforts.





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Gabrielle Union Talks Baby Kaavia’s Free Spirit: ‘Shade Is Her Super Power’

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Gabrielle Union recently talked about her daughter, Kaavia James, and her funny “shady” moments, characterizing those times as her 2-year-old’s “super power.”

“Shade is her super power because when Kaavia gives you a look, it’s either you’re not respecting her boundaries or something is happening that she doesn’t like,” the actor told People in an interview published Wednesday.

Union and her retired NBA star husband, Dwyane Wade, welcomed Kaavia in November 2018.

The couple has since poked fun at the toddler’s occasional adorably shady facial expressions — and hilarious side-eyes — like when a photo of Kaavia seated on a couch looking pensive and slightly unbothered became a meme last year.

Or when the little one looked less than pleased with the outcome of her face paint design at her second birthday party:

Inspired by Kaavia’s witty personality, Wade and Union created an Instagram account for the little girl, often using the hashtag ”#Shadybaby” in the posts’ captions. The couple also collaborated to write a Kaavia-influenced children’s book titled “Shady Baby” due for release next month.

Union explained in Wednesday’s People interview that she celebrates Kaavia’s freedom to be her authentic self amid a long history of harmful ways Black women and girls have been treated in society.

“The main takeaway is that she’s free to be this amazing, dynamic, shady at times, loving at times Black little girl when the world has not been so kind to Black girls and women,” she added.

In addition to Kaavia, Wade is father to Zaya, Zaire and Xavier. Union and Wade also parent his nephew Dahveon Morris.

Wade told People that he and Union make a point to encourage their children to be their true selves.

“If we allow our kids to be their true selves we don’t have to worry about them conforming with anything or anyone,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we push our kids to be their authentic selves?”

Last month, Kaavia took a side-eyeing break to enjoy a sweet play date with 2-year-old Cairo, the daughter of actors Tia Mowry and Cory Hardrict.

After some hugs, Kaavia generously took Cairo for a spin in her toddler-sized electric car:





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Anne Heche Says Ellen DeGeneres Didn’t Want Her To ‘Dress Sexy’

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Anne Heche took an unexpected swipe at former girlfriend Ellen DeGeneres this week during an online fashion retrospective.

In a short TikTok video Tuesday, Heche looked back at some of her favorite looks from years past, including the 1998 VH1 Fashion Awards and a memorable “Dancing with the Stars” routine from last fall.

The actor’s enthusiasm for nostalgia, however, notably dipped when she came upon a photo of her and DeGeneres from the 1998 Golden Globe Awards. The pair appear to have color-coordinated their outfits, with DeGeneres in a navy suit and Heche in a blue velvet gown and matching coat.

“Why do I look like a hippie? It’s because Ellen didn’t want me to dress sexy,” Heche, who has starred in films like “Donnie Brasco” and “Six Days, Seven Nights,” declared. After giving the look a zero out of 10 and a thumbs down, she added, “Bye, no!”

Heche and DeGeneres dated from 1997 to 2000. During their time together, the women were among Hollywood’s most-buzzed-about same-sex couples.

The former couple has remained mostly tight-lipped about the specifics of their relationship in the media. Heche, however, touched on her ex in a number of interviews timed to her appearance on “Dancing with the Stars” last year.

Chatting with Mr. Warburton magazine last year, she recalled angering Hollywood executives when she brought DeGeneres as her date to the premiere of 1997’s “Volcano.”

“I was told by Fox Studio executives that if I brought Ellen to the premiere, my contract would be terminated,” she told the publication. “I brought Ellen despite those threats, and we were escorted out of the theater before the lights came on by security and not allowed to attend the premiere party because they did not want any photos of us together.”



Ellen DeGeneres (left) and Anne Heche at the 1998 Golden Globe Awards.

“I was a part of a revolution that created social change,” she added, “and I could not have done that without falling in love with her.”

In an interview with Entertainment Tonight last October, Heche noted that she hadn’t spoken to DeGeneres “in years,” but would be open to a reunion under the right circumstances.

“With relationships, I think many of us have [been there], you come to a fork in the road, ‘What do you want and what do I want?’” she said. “Those goals, that intent in life, is determined by the individual. Her intent and my intent were different and that’s why we separated.”



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Elliot Page Emotionally Shares What’s Given Him The Most Joy Since Coming Out As Trans

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Elliot Page is sharing the moment that has brought him the most joy since he announced he was a transgender man in December 2020.

In a peek at an interview with Oprah Winfrey slated for release on her Apple TV+ series “The Oprah Conversation” on Friday, the 34-year-old said that he’s found “the most joy.”

“Getting out of the shower and the towel’s around your waist and you’re looking at yourself in the mirror and you’re just like, ‘There I am.’ And I’m not having the moment where I’m panicked,” he said, before breaking down in tears. “It’s being able to touch my chest and feel comfortable in my body for the — probably the first time.”

The actor added his tears were “tears of joy.”

Earlier this year, Page talked to Time magazine about his decision to get top surgery and described the experience as something that allowed for him to recognize himself. Page recalled puberty as “total hell” and told the publication that the surgery “has completely transformed my life.”

He also told the publication that he spent much of his energy being uncomfortable with his body and the surgery has helped bring that energy back.

Page notably came out to fans last year with a heartfelt Instagram post, sharing that he would be using the pronouns “he” and “they” and said: “I feel lucky to be writing this. To be here. To have arrived at this place in my life.”

He went on to say: “I love that I am trans,” Page wrote. “And I love that I am queer. And the more I hold myself close and fully embrace who I am, the more my heart grows and the more I thrive.”  



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India Adds Another 379,257 Virus Cases As Vaccines Open To All Adults

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NEW DELHI (AP) — India set another global record in new virus cases Thursday, as millions of people in one state cast votes despite rising infections and the country geared up to open its vaccination rollout to all adults amid snags.

With 379,257 new infections, India now has reported more than 18.3 million cases, second only to the United States. The Health Ministry also reported 3,645 deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing the total to 204,832. Experts believe both figures are an undercount, but it’s unclear by how much.

India has set a daily global record for seven of the past eight days, with a seven-day moving average of nearly 350,000 infections. Daily deaths have nearly tripled in the past three weeks, reflecting the intensity of the latest surge. And the country’s already teetering health system is under immense strain, prompting multiple allies to send help.

A country of nearly 1.4 billion people, India had thought the worst was over when cases ebbed in September. But mass public gatherings such as political rallies and religious events that were allowed to continue, and relaxed attitudes on the risks fed by leaders touting victory over the virus led to what now has become a major humanitarian crisis, health experts say. New variants of the coronavirus have also partly led the surge.

Amid the crisis, voting for the eighth and final phase of the West Bengal state elections began Thursday, even as the devastating surge of infections continues to barrel across the country with a ferocious speed, filling crematoriums and graveyards.



A coronavirus patient is shifted to a ward after admission at GTB hospital in New Delhi on April 29, 2021. 

More than 8 million people are expected to vote in at least 11,860 polling stations across the state. Election Commission has said social distancing measures would be in place.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party have faced criticism over the last few weeks for holding huge election rallies in the state, which health experts suggest might have driven the surge there too. Other political parties also participated in rallies.

The state recorded more than 17,000 cases in the last 24 hours — its highest spike since the pandemic began.

Starting Wednesday, all Indians 18 and older were allowed to register on a government app for vaccinations, but social media were flooded with complaints the app had crashed due to high use, and once it was working again, no appointments were available.

The vaccinations are supposed to start Saturday, but India, one of the world’s biggest producers of vaccines, does not yet have enough doses for everyone. Even the ongoing effort to inoculate people above 45 is stuttering.

One state, Maharashtra, has already said it won’t be able to start on Saturday.

Since January, nearly 10% of Indians have received one jab, but only around 1.5% have received both required doses.

Amid the acute shortage of oxygen and other hospital supplies, the White House said the U.S. will send more than $100 million worth of items, including 1,000 oxygen cylinders, 15 million N95 masks and 1 million rapid diagnostic tests. It said they will begin arriving Thursday, just days after President Joe Biden promised to step up assistance.

The U.S. and Britain have already sent a shipment of medical items. France, Germany, Russia, Ireland and Australia have also promised help.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has advised its citizens to leave India. An alert on the U.S. Embassy’s website warned that “access to all types of medical care is becoming severely limited in India due to the surge in COVID-19 cases.”

A HuffPost Guide To Coronavirus



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