Pope Francis’ Brazil trip spurs worries
RIO DE JANEIRO — Since taking the helm of the world’s biggest church in March, Pope Francis has waded into massive crowds with minimal protection to hug children and wash the feet of the faithful. He has surrounded himself with everyday worshippers at every turn, winning acclaim that he’s breaking down barriers between the Vatican and the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
Yet for Brazilian security officials charged with protecting the 76-year-old pontiff with the common touch, his seven-day visit this week is an uncommon security challenge.
In his first international trip as pope, Francis has built much of his schedule in the world’s biggest Catholic country around high-profile events that send him straight into unpredictable, potentially chaotic environments — without the protection of the bulletproof popemobile used by his two predecessors.
On Thursday, the pope will visit a tiny chapel founded in 1971 in the Varginha slum, one of Rio’s more than 1,000 hillside shantytowns. Many such slums cower under the control of dangerous drug gangs or deadly militias made up mostly of former and current police and firefighters. Police invaded Varginha in January to clear out traffickers, but the gangs remain a shadowy presence there.
The next day, Francis will hit Copacabana beach to walk the Stations of the Cross among an expected 1 million young Catholics gathered for World Youth Day festivities. Vatican officials have said he’ll travel to the beach past thousands of devotees in an open-topped vehicle, a plan that would put the thousands of police and soldiers dispatched to protect the pope on high alert and require more plainclothes security.
Mortar rounds kill at least 20 civilians
AMMAN, Jordan — Government troops fired mortar rounds that slammed into a main market in a town in northern Syria on Sunday, killing at least 20 civilians, activist groups said.
The mortar shells struck the town of Ariha, which is held mostly by opposition fighters, a few hours ahead of iftar, the meal that breaks the dawn-to-dusk fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees, two opposition groups tracking the violence in Syria, said at least 20 people were killed including two children and two women. It was not immediately clear what triggered the shelling.
Also Sunday, state media said government forces killed nearly 50 rebels in an ambush near Damascus.
Separately, Kurdish rebels freed the local commander of an al-Qaida-linked group in a town near Syria’s northern border with Turkey in return for 300 Kurdish civilians detained by the group, as part of an agreement to end rebel infighting that erupted a day earlier in the region.
Obama to begin series of speeches
WASHINGTON — Drawing renewed attention to the economy, President Barack Obama will return this week to an Illinois college where he once spelled out a vision for an expanded and strengthened middle class as a freshman U.S. senator, long before the Great Recession would test his presidency.
The address Wednesday at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., will be the first in a new series of economic speeches that White House aides say Obama intends to deliver over the next several weeks ahead of key budget deadlines in the fall. A new fiscal year begins in October, and the government will soon hit its borrowing limit.
The speech comes just a week before Congress is scheduled to leave for its monthlong August recess and is designed to build public pressure on lawmakers in hopes of averting the showdowns over taxes and spending that have characterized past budget debates.
In his economic pitch, Obama will talk about efforts to expand manufacturing, sign up the uninsured for health care coverage, revitalize the housing industry and broaden educational opportunities for preschoolers and college students. He will also promote the economic benefits of an immigration overhaul.
The White House is promoting the speech as part of an arc of economic messages from the president that began at Knox College in 2005, when Obama was in his first year in the Senate. Since then, Obama has sought to raise the profile of his economic agenda with periodic speeches, including one at Georgetown University in Washington in 2009 and one in Osawatomie, Kan., in 2011. The White House posted a video highlighting Obama’s previous economic addresses.
--- By Associated Press