Air pollution kills
More than 90 percent of the world’s kids—nearly 2 billion children—breathe toxic air that’s so polluted it puts their health at serious risk, the Geneva-based World Health Organization said this week. Some 600,000 children die each year from lower-respiratory infections caused by dirty air. The WHO’s new report found that the problem is worst in the Middle East, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. Burning fuels such as wood or paraffin indoors for heat, cooking, and light has an especially drastic effect on kids’ health, said WHO, which urged governments to promote cleaner alternatives. “Every child should be able to breathe clean air so they can grow and fulfill their potential,” said Tedros Adhanom, WHO’s director-general.
Torrential rains and high winds battered Italy this week, killing 11 people and inundating Venice. An exceptionally high tide flooded three-quarters of the canal city, forcing tourists and residents to wade through waist-high water. Strong winds lifted the water level by more than 5 feet, higher than the raised walkways normally erected in flooded parts of the city. Mayor Luigi Brugnaro said that the “Moses” project of underwater barriers being constructed in the lagoon—long delayed by cost overruns and corruption—would have prevented the flood.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has offered shelter, medical care, schooling, and jobs to the roughly 3,500 Central Americans still in the migrant caravan heading toward the U.S. border—if they stay in Mexico. The migrants said they will consider the offer when they reach Mexico City. Once 7,000-strong, the caravan has shrunk because some 1,700 members have applied for refugee status in Mexico, and hundreds of others, hungry and exhausted, have agreed to go home to Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador. “Of the friends that I have been with, all want to go back,” said Hasiel Isamar Hernandez, who decided to return to Honduras. The caravan is about 1,000 miles from the U.S. border. Meanwhile, a second caravan of 1,000 people crossed the Guatemala-Mexico border this week, despite Mexican police efforts to block them.
Convert the guerrillas
The Bogotá-based megachurch Avivamiento has begun building churches in areas once controlled by the leftist FARC militia, with the hope of converting ex-guerrillas to evangelical Christianity. Under a 2016 peace deal, FARC fighters turned in their weapons in exchange for a monthly salary and training in farming, but some are becoming frustrated with the slow pace of their rehabilitation. The evangelicals, a growing force in mostly Catholic Colombia, are bringing farm equipment and children’s programs to the transitional tent camps where the ex-militants live. One ex-fighter, Wilmer Pérez, told Religion News Service that a new church had given his camp a sense of community. “It makes us feel like a real town,” he said, “because every town has a church.”
Blasphemy ban lifted
In another sign of massive social change in Ireland, voters last week overwhelmingly voted to remove blasphemy as an offense from the country’s constitution. No one has been charged with blasphemy in the history of the Irish state, yet Ireland passed a law in 2009 that made the offense punishable by a fine of more than $28,000. All major parties supported the change, and 65 percent of voters chose to decriminalize blasphemy. “What we want to have in Ireland is a 21st-century constitution for a 21st-century republic,” said Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, the openly gay son of an Indian immigrant. “We’ve already reformed our constitution to allow for things like marriage equality and women’s right to choose.”
Sharp right turn
Brazil’s far-right president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro (see Best Columns: International), declared this week that he wanted the nation’s most famous anti-corruption judge to become his justice minister. Sergio Moro has led the massive anti-graft probe known as Operation Car Wash, which has secured prison sentences for top executives and politicians. Speaking to Record TV, owned by one of Brazil’s biggest evangelical leaders, Bolsonaro said he would try to loosen the country’s gun laws, saying more widespread gun ownership would help slash crime. He also pledged to withdraw government advertising from media outlets he deemed to be “lying” and to open up protected land to infrastructure projects. Meanwhile, the opposition has begun organizing what it calls the Resistance against Bolsonaro, who has a long history of making racist, homophobic, and misogynist comments.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ramped up the pressure on Saudi Arabia this week, demanding the kingdom identify exactly who authorized the killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “We cannot leave this issue unsolved,” Erdogan said. After offering conflicting stories for weeks, Saudi authorities have finally admitted that the Oct. 2 killing of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was a premeditated ambush. But they insist the 15 Saudi agents involved acted without the authority of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Erdogan hinted this week that he has evidence proving that Prince Mohammed—Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler—ordered the hit, and said he had shared the new information with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Bangui, Central African Republic
France has joined Muslim rebels in the Central African Republic in protesting the activities of Russian mercenaries in the war-torn country. Rebel leader Abdoulaye Hissene has accused President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, a Christian, of conspiring with the Kremlin to subvert the country’s struggling democracy, saying the ouster of the Muslim leader of CAR’s parliament last week was orchestrated by Russia. CAR has been in turmoil since 2013, when Muslim rebels overthrew the government; they were pushed back by a French military intervention that ended in 2016 with Touadéra being elected president of an effectively partitioned country. Recently, Touadéra has been using Russian mercenaries to help his troops fight in rebel areas. French Defense Minister Florence Parly said Russia’s intervention was “not contributing to the stabilization of the country.”
Rhinos and tigers as medicine
In what environmentalists called a “death warrant” for endangered rhinos and tigers, China lifted a decades-old ban on the use of rhino horn and tiger bone in traditional Chinese medicine. Chinese authorities said that only animals raised on farms can be slaughtered for medicine, but activists say poachers will simply label their illegal wild kills as farmed. “Not only could this lead to the risk of legal trade providing cover to illegal trade,” said Margaret Kinnaird of the World Wildlife Fund, “this policy will also stimulate demand that had otherwise declined since the ban was put in place.” China banned the trade in rhino and tiger body parts in 1993.
Protests broke out across Pakistan this week after the country’s Supreme Court ordered the release of an illiterate Christian woman who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy. Asia Bibi, 47, was convicted in 2010 of insulting the Prophet Muhammad—a charge she denied—during an argument with fellow farm laborers over use of a water bucket they did not want her, as a non-Muslim, to touch. The case led lawmakers to propose amending the blasphemy law, but after massive protests organized by conservative Muslim groups, the law was not changed. Two Pakistani government officials were assassinated in 2011 after voicing support for Bibi. The court this week upheld the law but said Bibi’s guilt had not been proven.
Plane crash mystery
A brand-new Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashed into the Java Sea just 13 minutes after takeoff in Indonesia this week, killing all 189 people on board. Lion Air Flight JT-610 from Jakarta to Pangkal Pinang behaved erratically during takeoff, when the plane’s automatic systems would have been controlling the ascent. The plane had been in operation only two months, and on its penultimate flight, pilots had reported a technical issue with maintaining airspeed, which technicians corrected. This time, just before air traffic control lost contact, the pilots requested a return to the airport, but did not indicate any emergency. “Something abrupt and very fast happened to the aircraft,” said former FAA safety inspector David Soucie.
Malnourished in Yemen
With Yemen on the brink of a catastrophic famine, the Trump administration this week called for a cease-fire in the country’s four-year civil war. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Iran-backed Houthi rebels should stop firing missiles at Saudi Arabia. He also called on the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition to halt airstrikes in populated areas. A Saudi-led blockade of Yemen, along with the Saudi-backed Yemeni government’s decision to stop paying 1 million civil servants in Houthi-controlled areas, has left many families destitute and hungry. Eight million Yemenis need food aid, and thousands have died of starvation and disease. “I can barely buy a piece of stale bread,” Ali al-Hajaji, who lost one son and has another who is critically malnourished, told The New York Times. “That’s why my children are dying before my eyes.”