France’s Outspoken Student Union Positions Itself at the Vanguard of Change

PARIS — A powerful government minister recently condemned it as an organization whose activities are racist and could lead to “fascism.” Lawmakers accused it of promoting “separatism” and of aligning with “Islamo-leftism” before demanding its dissolution.

France’s 114-year-old university student union, Unef, has a long history of drawing the ire of the political establishment — most notably over the years when it lobbied for the independence of the country’s most important colony, Algeria, or took to the streets against employment contracts for youths.

But the recent harsh attacks zeroed in on something that resonates just as deeply in a France struggling to adapt to social change: its practice of limiting some meetings to racial minorities to discuss discrimination.

In recent days, the controversy over Unef — its French acronym standing for the National Union of Students of France — spilled into a third week, melding with larger explosive debates roiling the country.

endorsed banning the group and others that organize restricted meetings, attaching a “Unef amendment” to President Emmanuel Macron’s law against Islamism, a political ideology the government blames for inspiring recent terrorist attacks. The National Assembly, controlled by Mr. Macron’s party, still needs to ratify the bill, expected to be one of the defining pieces of legislation of his presidency.

French Academy or literary prize juries, are structured in ways that stifle change.

The union’s transformation has reflected widespread changes among French youths who have much more relaxed attitudes toward gender, race, sexual orientation and, as recent polls have shown, religion and France’s strict secularism, known as laïcité.

Unef’s change — some hope and others fear — may portend larger social change.

“We scare people because we represent the future,’’ said Mélanie Luce, 24, Unef’s president and the daughter of a Black woman from Guadeloupe and a Jewish man from southern France.

In an organization dominated by white men until just a few years ago, Unef’s current leadership shows a diversity rarely seen in France. Ms. Luce is only its fifth female president and the first who is not white. Its four other top leaders include two white men, a woman whose parents converted to Islam, and a Muslim man whose parents immigrated from Tunisia.

interview about Unef’s practice of holding meetings limited to racial minorities.


In a subsequent radio interview of his own, the national education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, agreed with the host’s characterization of the restricted meetings as racist.

“People who claim to be progressive and who, in claiming to be progressive, distinguish people by the color of their skin are leading us to things that resemble fascism,” Mr. Blanquer said.

Mr. Blanquer has led the government’s broader pushback against what he and conservative intellectuals describe as the threat from progressive American ideas on race, gender and postcolonialism.

France’s culture wars have heated up as Mr. Macron shifts to the right to fend off a looming challenge from the far right before elections next year. His government recently announced that it would investigate universities for “Islamo-leftist” tendencies that “corrupt society.”

interview with a French newspaper.

Mr. Blanquer declined interview requests, as did Frédérique Vidal, the minister of higher education.

Aurore Bergé, a lawmaker from Mr. Macron’s party, said that Unef’s actions lead to identity politics that, instead of uniting people in a common cause, excludes all but “those who suffer from discrimination.”

“We’re driving out the others as if they don’t have the right of expression,” said Ms. Bergé, who recently unsuccessfully submitted an amendment that would have barred Muslim minors from wearing the veil in public.

Unef’s current top leaders say that in focusing on discrimination, they are fighting for France’s ideals of liberty, equality and human rights.

They view the recent attacks as rear-guard moves by an establishment that refuses to squarely face deep-rooted discrimination in France, cannot come to terms with the growing diversity of its society, and brandishes universalism to silence new ideas and voices, out of fear.

youth employment contract in 2006. Back then, the union was more concerned with issues like tuition and access to jobs, said Mr. Julliard, the first openly gay president of the union.

Mr. Julliard said that the union’s restricted meetings and its opposition to the Aeschylus play left him uncomfortable, but that young people were now “much more sensitive, in the good sense of the word,” to all forms of discrimination.

“We have to let each generation lead its battles and respect the way it does it, though it doesn’t prevent me from having an opinion,” he said.

William Martinet, a former president, said that the focus on gender eventually led to an examination of racism. While Unef’s top leaders tended to be economically comfortable white men from France’s “grandes écoles,” or prestigious universities, many of its grass-roots activists were of working-class, immigrant and nonwhite backgrounds.

Maryam Pougetoux, now one of the union’s two vice presidents.

“I don’t think that if I’d arrived 10 years earlier, I would have been felt as welcome as in 2017,” Ms. Pougetoux said.

But the reception was far different on the outside.

Last fall, when a hijab-wearing Ms. Pougetoux appeared in the National Assembly to testify on the Covid epidemic’s impact on students, four lawmakers, including one from Mr. Macron’s party, walked out in protest.

The wearing of the Muslim veil has fueled divisions in France for more than a generation. But for Unef, the issue was now settled.

Its leaders had long considered the veil a symbol of female oppression. Now they saw it simply as a choice left to women.

“To really defend the condition of women,” said Adrien Liénard, the other vice president, “is, in fact, giving them the right to do what they want.”

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Man Says He Found Shrimp Tails in Cinnamon Toast Crunch

Cereal is a staple of the American breakfast table, consumed by millions of people every day and tied, for many, with memories of childhood. So when a story began circulating this week about a disturbing discovery in a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, consumers were horrified.

None more so than Jensen Karp.

On Monday morning, he ate a bowl of his favorite cinnamon sugar-striped cereal. As he began filling a second bowl, “something plopped out of the box,” he said in an interview. “I picked it up, and I was like, ‘This is clearly a shrimp tail.’”

He looked in the bag and saw what appeared to be another tail. Both were encrusted with sugar. “I get really grossed out, and I’m medicated for O.C.D., so this is a total nightmare for me,” he said.

Mr. Karp, a 41-year-old comedian and writer in Los Angeles, took a picture of the contents and sent it to his wife, Danielle Fishel Karp, who played Topanga Lawrence-Matthews on “Boy Meets World.”

began selling Cinnamon Toast Crunch in 1984, documenting what he’d found. Soon after, he posted a picture of the items on Twitter. Eventually, Cinnamon Toast Crunch reached out to Mr. Karp through its brand Twitter account.

“Privately, they were still being very nice,” he said, offering to send a replacement box, which he politely declined. Then the brand issued a public statement on Twitter.

“After further investigation with our team that closely examined the image, it appears to be an accumulation of the cinnamon sugar that sometimes can occur when ingredients aren’t thoroughly blended,” the statement from Cinnamon Toast Crunch read. “We assure you that there’s no possibility of cross contamination with shrimp.”

That didn’t sit well with Mr. Karp, and he responded with frustration.

subsequent email, a General Mills representative advised Mr. Karp to send the items to his “local law enforcement” if he would not send them to the company.)

A friend connected him with a third testing company, which he is hoping to have test one of the tails to confirm that it is, in fact, shrimp. For now, he said, “I’m not considering legal action. Obviously, if I ate rat poop, we’re gonna have to readdress that.”

Mr. Karp is frustrated with how General Mills handled the situation. “All you have to do is say, ‘This is such a bummer, we’re going to look into it. We’re going to recall the ones from your Costco.’ Like, it’s such an easy PR thing to do,” he said. “But instead, they wanted to basically gaslight me.”

found to be contaminated with pieces of shrimp.

“Upon further inspection of the remaining cases of Lot #210082 Adkin blueberries, GMI discovered one shrimp and a shrimp tail on the outside of the cases,” the suit read. “The tainted blueberries were unsuitable for use in any GMI product, much less the intended product.”

Kyrie Irving Cinnamon Toast Crunch Nikes.”

Furthermore, staging the scenario would require craft skills he does not possess, he said. “There’s clearly things that wouldn’t be a prank,” he said. “I couldn’t do those things.”

For now, Mr. Karp said, his main concern is consumer safety.

“I just want you to fix it, you know, for other people,” he said, citing the possibility that shrimp could contaminate the cereal of people with shellfish allergies, or who keep kosher. “I’m not even like trying to say like, ‘Be better,’ or whatever. I’m literally just saying, ‘Go investigate it.’”

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Zappos Chief Executive is Looking For a Way Forward

It was never going to be easy to succeed Tony Hsieh, the celebrated chief executive of Zappos, who turned a tiny online shoe seller into a $1 billion behemoth through an obsessive focus on corporate culture and happy employees. But Kedar Deshpande took over at a particularly fraught time.

Zappos, which is owned by Amazon, was already navigating remote work and grappling with pandemic-driven changes in how people shop when Mr. Hsieh abruptly retired in August after two decades, which led Mr. Deshpande to be named C.E.O. Then in November, tragedy struck: Mr. Hsieh, 46, died from injuries suffered in a house fire in New London, Conn., sending shock waves throughout the roughly 1,500-person company, as well as tech and entrepreneurial circles.

Since then, it has been reported that Mr. Hsieh had been behaving erratically for months and that friends had considered staging an intervention last summer. The revelations brought new scrutiny to the circumstances of his exit from Zappos.

Mr. Deshpande, who was previously Zappos’s chief operating officer, said that when Mr. Hsieh told him last summer that he wanted to pursue other projects, he did not push back.

Las Vegas can survive without its chief architect.

has claimed that it is harder to get a job at Zappos than it is to get into Harvard.

Mr. Deshpande said Zappos employees had become closer in some ways in the past year as they brought family or pets into the remote-work fold.

“The Ones,” which is tailored for female sneakerheads and advertised as “powered by Zappos.”

VRSNL, a luxury site that has its own web address and no visible link to the shoe site. It features wares from designers like Dolce & Gabbana and Proenza Schouler. The company has been pouring new effort into product detail pages and informational videos catered to audiences like new runners, and even co-developing merchandise and campaigns with the brands it carries.

“What online fails to deliver, which physical delivers today, is around these different experiences,” Mr. Deshpande said. “Until you actually go and deliver on these experiences, people will go back to the physical, in my opinion, and they will stay online for only transactional experiences.”

The company refers to these efforts as “experience commerce,” and said the category was driving 25 percent of its investments. Outside of prompting consumers to explore more, Zappos is also trying to make online shopping more cohesive — all with the aim of getting consumers to spend more money over time.

“One of the challenges has been that when somebody walks into ‘online,’ somebody looking for a jacket, for example, we show them inventory next to each other — like a $30 jacket, $50, $100, $300,” Mr. Deshpande said. “This is a very disorienting experience.”

In his view, all of the efforts are in line with Zappos’s obsessive focus on service for the past 20 years, which he anticipates remaining its focus for the next 20 years.

While the company is still grieving Mr. Hsieh, Mr. Deshpande said, employees will continue to embody the values that he championed. He pointed to an instance during the holidays when one employee mentioned children missing out on meeting Santa Claus during the pandemic, leading to a multidepartment effort to set up Santa Zoom meetings for children around the country.

“To me, Tony’s legacy is around delivering this happiness to everybody,” Mr. Deshpande said. “This culture he has created or pioneered, it’s going to be alive.”

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Richard H. Driehaus, Champion of Classic Architecture, Dies at 78

Richard H. Driehaus, an avid investor who grew his grade-school coin collection into a fortune that he wielded to champion historic preservation and classical architecture, died on March 9 in a Chicago hospital. He was 78.

The cause was a cerebral hemorrhage, said a spokeswoman for Driehaus Capital Management, where, as chief investment officer and chairman, he had overseen some $13 billion in assets.

Mr. Driehaus (pronounced DREE-house) restored landmarks in the Chicago area and gave the city a palatial museum that celebrates the Gilded Age. He also established a $200,000 annual prize in his name for classical, traditional and sustainable architecture as a counterbalance to the $100,000 Pritzker Prize, funded by another Chicago family, which he viewed as a validation of modern motifs that were a “homogenized” rejection of the past.

He was immersed in the stock market from the age of 13, took nosebleed gambles on risky rising stocks, and in 2000 was named one of the 25 most influential mutual fund figures of the 20th century by Barron’s.

Institute of Classical Architecture & Art in 2012.

“The problem is there’s no poetry in modern architecture,” he said in an interview with Chicago magazine in 2007. “There’s money — but no feeling or spirit or soul. Classicism has a mysterious power. It’s part of our past and how we evolved as human beings and as a civilization.”

Asked whether he considered buildings designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, for example, to be appropriate, he told Architectural Record in 2015: “They’re mechanical, industrial, not very human. It’s like my iPhone, which is beautiful, but I wouldn’t want the building I live in to look like that.” He added: “Architects build for themselves and build for the publicity. They don’t really care what the public thinks.”

The first Richard H. Driehaus Prize, presented through the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, was awarded in 2003 to Léon Krier, a designer of Poundbury, the model British town built according to the Prince of Wales’s architectural principles. The first American laureate, in 2006, was the South African-born Allan Greenberg, who redesigned the Treaty Room Suite at the State Department.

Philanthropy magazine in 2012. “What my dad couldn’t do, I wanted to do.”

he decided that “this was the industry for me” and invested the money he made from delivering The Southtown Economist in stocks recommended by financial columnists. The stocks tanked, teaching him to research each company’s growth potential on his own.

He flunked out of the University of Illinois at Chicago, enrolled in Southeast Junior College and then transferred to DePaul, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1965 and a master’s in business administration in 1970. He worked for the investment bank A.G. Becker & Company, becoming its youngest portfolio manager, and for several other firms before starting his own, Driehaus Securities, in 1979. He founded Driehaus Capital Management in 1982.

He married when he was in his early 50s; the marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by three daughters, Tereza, Caroline and Katherine Driehaus, and two sisters, Dorothy Driehaus Mellin and Elizabeth Mellin.

“I never did anything until I was 50,” Mr. Driehaus told The New York Times in 2008. “I spent my early years making money for my clients. Now I’m ready to have some fun.”

He did, staging his own extravagant themed birthday parties for hundreds of guests at his mansion on Lake Geneva (at one gala, he made his grand entrance on an elephant) and indulging his passion for collecting.

He started with furnishings he provided to a bar called Gilhooley’s, then moved on to decorative arts and art nouveau for the landmark Samuel M. Nickerson mansion, a palazzo that he restored as the Richard H. Driehaus Museum. He also amassed a fleet of vintage automobiles.

He gave as good as he got, several hundred million dollars’ worth — to DePaul and to Chicago theater and dance groups, Catholic schools and other organizations often overlooked by major philanthropies. And he felt quite at ease being a very big fish in what he acknowledged was a smaller pond — but a more hospitable one.

“In New York, I’m just another successful guy,” he told the City Club of Chicago in 2016. “You can’t make an impact in New York. But in Chicago you can, because it’s big enough and it’s small enough and people actually get along enough.”

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Massive Hacks Linked to Russia, China Exploited U.S. Internet Security Gap

U.S. lawmakers and security experts are voicing concern that foreign governments are staging cyberattacks using servers in the U.S., in an apparent effort to avoid detection by America’s principal cyberintelligence organization, the National Security Agency.

When hackers recently targeted servers running Microsoft Corp.’s MSFT 0.25% widely used Exchange software, they employed U.S.-based computers from at least four service providers to mount their attack, according to an analysis by the threat intelligence company DomainTools LLC.

The attack that Microsoft disclosed last week affected at least tens of thousands of customers and has been linked by the software giant and other security researchers to China-based hackers. The Chinese Embassy in Washington on Tuesday didn’t directly address the charge that China was behind the Microsoft hack and referred to earlier comments from Beijing in which the government said it “opposes and combats cyberattacks and cyber thefts in all forms.”

It is the second major suspected nation-state hack unearthed in the past few months to have employed U.S. servers as a launchpad. Suspected Russian hackers used U.S.-based cloud services to support key stages of their attack that leveraged a hack at SolarWinds Corp. , the Austin, Texas, network software provider through which they penetrated U.S. government and corporate networks. In both cases, the hacks were disclosed by private-sector researchers, not the U.S. government.

The NSA, with its tens of thousands of employees, is one of the main U.S. government organizations responsible for protecting the U.S. in cyberspace. It has vast surveillance powers, though is generally prohibited from using them to collect intelligence on domestic targets, including computer servers inside the U.S. maintained by American companies.

“The combination of these two attacks definitely has pushed us to a tipping point in terms of the policy makers and the executive branch recognizing now that we need to do something,” said Glenn Gerstell, former general counsel at the NSA.

Microsoft President Brad Smith.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Associated Press

The SolarWinds hackers used cloud-computing systems run by Microsoft and Inc. to launch their attacks. At a Senate hearing last week, Microsoft President Brad Smith said the method was of obvious appeal to the Russians because it enabled them to circumvent U.S. intelligence collection. Amazon declined to appear at the hearing, prompting bipartisan ire from lawmakers, and hasn’t commented publicly on the use of its data centers in the SolarWinds attack.

“This is a sophisticated actor that apparently took the time to research legal authority. It knew that by operating from servers in the United States, it could evade some of the U.S. government’s best threat hunters,” Microsoft Corporate Vice President for customer security Tom Burt said of the Exchange hack.

Based on the internet addresses used, the hack emanated from lesser-known service providers such as DigitalOcean Inc., as well as servers in Hong Kong, the Netherlands, China and other jurisdictions, said Joe Slowik, a researcher with DomainTools. About half the servers identified as connected to the Exchange hack were in the U.S., according to the DomainTools analysis. DigitalOcean didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.

Security experts said Microsoft is caught in the middle of both attacks in part because its products are ubiquitous. It is also a major software provider to the U.S. government and large corporate clients, making Microsoft software flaws appealing targets to hackers trying to spy on U.S. networks, they said.

A suspected Russian cyberattack of the federal government has breached at least six cabinet-level departments. WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains what the hack means for President Joe Biden’s national security efforts. Photo illustration: Laura Kammermann (Video from 12/23/20)

The Microsoft Exchange attacks were carried out by at least four hacking groups, all of which have been linked to China, said Alexis Dorais-Joncas, a researcher with ESET, a security company that has been tracking the attack.

The attackers may have had other motivations, beyond skirting NSA detection, to use U.S.-based servers, Messrs. Slowik and Dorais-Joncas said. They may have been trying to improve the performance of their software or to avoid security tools that, for example, would block connections originating from China, they said.

Earlier this week, an anonymous hacker posted “proof of concept” code to the internet that could be used by other hacking groups to conduct further attacks on unpatched Microsoft Exchange servers. An internet scan conducted by search-engine company Shodan LLC this week has found more than 70,000 Exchange servers vulnerable to attack. Most of the entities hit by the widespread China-linked attack were law firms, higher-education facilities, or entities conducting research on infectious diseases, said James Alliband, a cybersecurity strategist with business-software provider VMware Inc.


What steps should lawmakers take in response to cyberattacks? Join the conversation below.

Even before the Exchange hack emerged, U.S. lawmakers from both parties were looking for ways to bolster U.S. cyber defenses, including reviving an oft-stalled effort to create a national data-breach notification law.

At a Congressional hearing last month on the SolarWinds hack, several senators asked tech company executives whether gaps in the ability to monitor domestic infrastructure created opportunities for malicious actors to evade potential detection by U.S. intelligence agencies.

Any attempt to write new laws granting the NSA or other intelligence services domestic surveillance authority would likely face sharp resistance from privacy advocates, who have long worried that new powers would lead to abuses. The NSA has been reluctant to be seen as expanding its espionage capabilities ever since the 2013 disclosures by Edward Snowden that revealed classified details about its domestic and international surveillance programs established following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, former officials have said.

“The government already has the authority to watch every bit of data going in and out of federal networks,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.). “Some in the government now want to ask for new, warrantless surveillance of Americans’ communications to distract Congress from asking unpleasant questions.”

Mr. Wyden added that America’s “$6 billion cyber shield failed to stop or detect the hacks.” The senator was referencing Einstein, a cyber-threat detection system used by the government to try to thwart hacking attempts by finding known malware. Einstein lacks the capacity to identify malware not previously seen in attacks.

That view has detractors, though. “It can’t possibly be the case that the Fourth Amendment ties our hands in such a way that we just have to sit there and watch the Chinese romp through our infrastructure,” said Mr. Gerstell, the former NSA top lawyer, referring to the U.S. Constitution’s protection of privacy against unreasonable searches.

Mr. Gerstell said it was unlikely that Congress would ever grant such authorities directly to the NSA and that an alternate proposal involving a different agency could be more palatable.

The NSA declined to comment and referred questions to the White House National Security Council, which didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is slated to receive separate briefings this week on the Microsoft Exchange hack from the Biden administration and Microsoft, a committee aide said.

“I think we’re going to be struggling for a long time to understand the scope and the scale of what has happened here,” said Katie Moussouris, the chief executive of Luta Security Inc.

Write to Dustin Volz at and Robert McMillan at

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Asian stocks set to follow Wall Street rally but China worries grow

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Asian stocks were set to track U.S. gains on Wednesday, as falling bond yields eased concerns about surging inflation, although focus will shift to Chinese markets amid worries about policy tightening in the world’s second-largest economy.

FILE PHOTO: A man stands on an overpass with an electronic board showing Shanghai and Shenzhen stock indexes, at the Lujiazui financial district in Shanghai, China January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 index rose 0.47% in early trading. Japan’s Nikkei 225 futures added 0.07%, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index futures rose 1.17%.

E-mini futures for the S&P 500 rose 0.10%.

“It’s looking like a pretty positive open by virtue of Wall Street’s solid lead,” said IG Markets analyst Kyle Rodda. “The real interest will be when China’s cash markets open – whether we could see a new direction form off the basis of stress about financial stability in China.”

On Tuesday, China’s benchmark Shanghai Composite index stood on the precipice of a correction as investors wrestled with the prospect of tighter policy and a slowing economic recovery.

With eyes on the $120 billion auctions of 3-, 10- and 30-year Treasuries this week, U.S. Treasury yields fell after a weak 7-year note sale that prompted a spike in yields two weeks ago was followed by another soft auction last week.

The yield on benchmark 10-year notes fell to 1.5281%, from 1.544% late on Tuesday.

Tuesday’s auction of $58 billion in U.S. 3-year notes was well received, with the next tests of investor appetite for government debt in the form of 10-year and 30-year auctions later this week.

On Wall Street, each of the major averages closed higher, led by a gain of nearly 4% in the Nasdaq, giving the tech-heavy index its best day since Nov. 4.

The index has been highly susceptible to climbing rates, and Monday’s retreat left it down more than 10% from its Feb. 12 close, confirming what is widely considered to be a correction.

“Today the 10-year is down a bit, and that takes pressure off valuations, so tech is performing well. The market is just about getting comfortable at this level of rates,” said Kristina Hooper, chief global market strategist at Invesco in New York.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average, after earlier topping 32,150, rose 0.1% to end at 31,832.74, the S&P 500 gained 1.42% and the Nasdaq Composite added 3.69%.

In Europe, stocks closed higher after extending gains from their best session in four months a day earlier as a rise in shares of oil and utility companies helped counter losses in miners.

The speedier rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in some countries and the planned $1.9 trillion U.S. stimulus package helped underpin a brighter global economic outlook, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said, as it raised its 2021 growth forecast.

In foreign exchange markets, the dollar index backed away from a 3-1/2-month high, allowing riskier currencies to move higher.

The dollar index fell 0.415%, with the euro down 0.01% to $1.1897.

The Australian dollar rose 0.06% versus the greenback at $0.772. The offshore Chinese yuan strengthened versus the greenback at 6.5158 per dollar.

Oil prices backed off early highs in choppy trading, with Brent dipping back to the $68 mark as investors weighed easing concerns over a supply disruption in Saudi Arabia with the likelihood of limited supply from OPEC+ output limits.

U.S. crude futures settled at $64.01 per barrel, down $1.04 or 1.60%. Brent crude futures settled at $67.52 per barrel, down 72 cents or 1.06%.

Gold surged more than 2% on the retreat in U.S. Treasury yields and the weaker dollar, staging a strong recovery from the nine-month low it hit in the previous session.

U.S. gold futures GCv1 settled up 2.3% at $1,716.90.

Reporting by Matt Scuffham; Editing by Sam Holmes

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Pope Begins an Iraq Visit Rich in Symbolism and Fraught With Risk

fuel a surge in coronavirus cases, undaunted by the precarious security situation and committed to offering support to a Christian community decimated by years of war.

It’s the first trip Francis has embarked on since the pandemic swept the world and the first time a head of the Roman Catholic Church has visited the country.

The journey promises to be as rich in symbolism as it is fraught with risk.

“I am happy to travel again,” the pope said, taking off his blue surgical mask to address reporters en route to Iraq. His Alitalia flight was accompanied by U.S. aircraft from the Ayn al Asad military base after entering Iraqi airspace.

By choosing Iraq as his first destination since the pandemic began, Francis waded directly into the issues of war and peace, and poverty and religious strife, in an ancient biblical land.

“This trip is emblematic,” he said, calling it “a duty to a land martyred for many years.”

He was welcomed by a small color guard and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

The pope left the airport complex in a black BMW, his window rolled down. He waved as he passed a small group of faithful waving Iraqi and Vatican flags behind a metal fence on the side of the highway.

The pope’s vehicle was surrounded by a police motorcycle escort as he drove past miles of concrete blast walls that were put up during Iraq’s sectarian violence.

After 2003, the road was one of the most dangerous in Baghdad, with frequent roadside bombs and suicide car bombs. Those are now in the past, and palm trees planted to beautify the road greet visitors.

As he arrived at the presidential palace, the pope’s car was flanked by members of Iraqi security forces on horseback. Francis emerged from that car, limping noticeably as he made his way along a red carpet.

The pope is known to suffer from sciatica, which he told reporters in 2013 was the worst thing that had happened to him in his early days as pope.

It was the start of what promised to be an arduous journey that will take the 84-year-old pontiff to battle-scarred churches and desert pilgrimage sites.

In an area known as the cradle of civilization, the modern history of Mesopotamia — now present-day Iraq — has been scarred by lasting hardship: three decades of despotic rule, followed by nearly two decades of war and a wave of carnage unleashed by the Islamic State.

Once a rich tapestry of faiths, Iraq has been hollowed out as orthodoxies hardened. Its Jews are almost completely gone, and its Christian community grows smaller every year. About one million have fled since the 2003 United States-led invasion. An estimated 500,000 remain.

That backdrop makes the pope’s visit on Saturday to the ancient city of Ur — traditionally held to be the birthplace of Abraham, who is revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike — all the more powerful.

To that end, his trip carries a motto from the Gospel of Matthew: “You are all brothers.”

But the pope’s agenda also casts a spotlight on the terrible toll wrought when divisions harden and violence takes over.

On Friday evening he met with priests, bishops and others at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad. Just over a decade ago, the church came under assault when attackers unleashed fusillade of grenades, bullets and suicide vests. At least 58 people were killed in the assault, which was carried out by an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

It was far from the deadliest massacre in the country, where tens of thousands of Muslims have died in war and sectarian fighting, but the attack tore at the heart of the Christian community.

An image of Francis is painted on the blast walls that now ring Our Lady of Salvation.

Francis made it clear that after Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI had to scuttle plans to visit the remaining Christians in the country, he would not cancel his own trip.

Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

The scars were still there for Pope Francis to see: bullet holes on the walls of Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, tangible reminders of a 2010 attack that accelerated an exodus of Christians from Iraq and tore at the heart of the community.

On Friday, light streamed in through the colored stained glass, illuminating the Arab script on the wood-paneled walls and falling on the masked clergy, nuns and seminarians who were distanced three to a pew.

A roar of joy could be heard outside when the pope — surrounded by guards and watched over by rooftop soldiers with heavy weaponry — arrived to greet the faithful outside the church.

As the pope walked into the church, making the sign of the cross, the church erupted in ululations and traditional music.

He shuffled down the red-carpeted central nave, followed by local priests, and took a seat on a wooden throne before the altar. There, Francis heard local bishops speak of the massacre of dozens of people and the general persecution of Christians in Iraq.

But Francis needed no reminding.

“We are gathered in this Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, hallowed by the blood of our brothers and sisters who here paid the ultimate price of their fidelity to the Lord and his church,” Francis said.

At least 56 people were killed in that 2010 attack, including worshipers, two priests, members of the security forces and bystanders.

Christians had been leaving Iraq since 2003, when the United States’ toppling of Saddam Hussein created a security vacuum. The rise of armed groups then led to a civil war. And the church attack was a stark reminder of the security forces’ limited ability to protect Christians and other Iraqis.

Francis on Friday acknowledged that the “daunting pastoral challenges that you daily face have been aggravated in this time of pandemic.” But, he said, despite the limitations of the pandemic, the faith of Christians should not be contained.

“We know how easy it is to be infected by the virus of discouragement that at times seems to spread all around us,” he said, adding that God had provided them with a faith that is “an effective vaccine” against that proverbial virus.

He acknowledged the hardships had driven so many Christians out of Iraq, but urged those present to think of the future, and the future of the church, by supporting young people.

Waiting for the pope’s arrival at Baghdad International Airport.
Credit…Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

On a bus going through the fourth of about 15 checkpoints they would pass through on their way to the Baghdad International Airport on Friday, Safa al-Abbia said that for him and other young Christians attending the arrival ceremony for Pope Francis in Iraq, it was hard to believe the visit was really happening.

It isn’t the first time Mr. Abbia, 29, will have seen the pope. Three years ago, as a leader of young Christians, he visited the Vatican.

“He said, ‘I promise you I will visit Iraq,’” said Mr. Abbia, a dentist. “At that time, I didn’t believe it. I thought it was impossible.”

About 1,000 Christians and twice as many Muslim Iraqis attended the airport ceremony. The road to the airport, adorned by Vatican and Iraqi flags, was lined with armored vehicles with SWAT teams in Iraq’s biggest security operation in years.

Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, is locked down for the pope’s three-day visit, with all but authorized vehicle traffic banned. Schools and government offices are closed.

Mr. Abbia said that with the pope’s visit, it felt as if Iraqi young people were being seen.

“Two years ago in Iraq, there was a revolution,” he said, using the word for the protest movement by young Iraqis that brought down the previous government before being crushed by security forces. “The first thing is to live in dignity, and the young people especially, they feel they don’t have the right to live in dignity in their country. So they are emigrating.”

Francis has expressed concern over the killings of unarmed protesters in Iraq and has frequently called for Iraqis and others to be able to live in dignity — including holding jobs and having access to public services.

Outside the airport, hundreds of the faithful lined the roads, holding flags and eager to wave as the pope passed by.

His drive to the presidential palace in Baghdad, about 20 minutes away, took him past the site of a U.S. drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani — an Iranian military leader — and a senior Iraqi security official a year ago.

The wreckage of one of the vehicles that was hit and the shrapnel-marked walls on the airport road have been preserved by Iraq’s government as a monument honoring the dead and in criticism of the attack.

“Iraq is not 100 percent secure, but the government is giving it special attention,” Mr. Abbia said of the pope’s visit. “All the world’s eyes are on us.”

Pope Francis and President Barham Saleh of Iraq arriving at the presidential palace.
Credit…Vincenzo Pinto/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Pope Francis, invoking the “age-old presence of Christians in this land,” said during his visit to Iraq on Friday that the country’s tragic recent history should serve as warning against allowing fanaticism to overwhelm faith.

He also appealed for the rights of minority groups to be respected.

Speaking at one of the nation’s many palaces — a remaining legacy of Saddam Hussein’s rule — the pope said that Iraq’s ancient history should serve as inspiration today.

The protection and respect Christians once found in this land, he said, could once again help sustain and protect Iraq’s nascent democracy.

“Their participation in public life, as citizens with full rights, freedoms and responsibilities, will testify that a healthy pluralism of religious beliefs, ethnicities and cultures can contribute to the nation’s prosperity and harmony,” he said.

The country, Francis said, knows the cost of allowing hatred to fester.

“Over the past several decades, Iraq has suffered the disastrous effects of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts often grounded in a fundamentalism incapable of accepting the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups,” he said.

But the blame, he said, must be shared.

“I come as a penitent,” the pope said, “asking forgiveness of heaven and my brothers and sisters for so much destruction and cruelty.”

He made his remarks after being welcomed by President Barham Salih, who praised him for making the journey.

“Your insistence on visiting Iraq despite the difficulties of the epidemic, and the difficult circumstances that our country is going through, doubles the value of the visit for Iraqis,” Mr. Salih said.

Although the coronavirus was not the focus of his visit, Francis acknowledged that his trip came as the world was “trying to emerge from the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.” He called for an equitable distribution of vaccines to countries where “fragility an instability” are all too familiar.

Hardly any Iraqis have been vaccinated against the virus, and social distancing restrictions are largely ignored.

Francis sought to also offer a message of hope, calling his visit “long-awaited and desired.” Noting that security and economic concerns continue to present serious challenges, he said it could also be a moment of opportunity.

“Following a crisis, it is not enough simply to rebuild,” he said. “We need to rebuild well so that all can enjoy a dignified life. We never emerge from a crisis the same as we were. We emerge from it either better or worse.”

Since Peter’s journey to Rome, traditionally dated to 44 A.D., trips taken by popes — known as the Vicars of Christ — have played an integral role in shaping how the world sees the Roman Catholic Church.

They also reflect the way popes see their role in the world.

The modern era of the papal trip began in October 1962, when John XXIII boarded a train at the tiny Vatican rail station to visit the Holy House of Loreto and the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. It was the first time a pope had left Rome since 1857, according to historians, after Pius IX famously declared himself a “prisoner of the Vatican” in 1870 to protest the loss of the Papal States.

A joint Kurdish and Christian orchestra and choir rehearsing at a stadium in the Kurdish town of Erbil on Monday.
Credit…Gailan Haji/EPA, via Shutterstock

After more than a year cooped up behind the Vatican walls, Francis traveled to Baghdad on Friday at a tense time in the pandemic, sending a message that flies in the face of many public health guidelines.

In his weekly address on Wednesday, the pope said he would not be deterred.

“I ask that you accompany this apostolic trip with prayer so that it can occur in the best way possible, bear the hoped-for fruit,” he said. “The Iraqi people await us.”

Francis, who was vaccinated in mid-January, has urged wealthy countries to give vaccine doses to poorer ones, and called a refusal to vaccinate “suicidal.”

The pope’s entourage has also been inoculated.

The possibility that Francis, who is 84, might inadvertently endanger an Iraqi population with practically no access to vaccines is not lost on his allies back in Rome.

“There is this concern that the pope’s visit not put the people’s health at risk — this is evident,” said the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest and close ally of Francis. “There is an awareness of the problem.”

The Vatican insisted that the trip would be a safe, socially distanced and sober visit devoid of the usual fanfare. A Vatican spokesman also played down the number of cases in Iraq when reporters asked how Francis could justify not delaying the trip.

Supporters worry that the pope’s goals for the visit could be eclipsed by any indication that he is contributing to the spread of the coronavirus by staging events where social distancing is hard to enforce.

Outside the presidential palace on Friday in Baghdad, where Pope Francis will meet with President Barham Salih.
Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

It is difficult to overstate the challenges for Iraq in hosting a visit by Pope Francis and his entourage in the midst of a pandemic and worries over possible attacks. Those challenges are perhaps matched only by the visit’s importance to Iraq’s international image.

The pope will crisscross the country by armored cars, planes and helicopters — each step carefully choreographed and secured in advance.

His first ride, from Baghdad’s airport to the presidential palace, took him past adoring crowds, but also the wreckage of a U.S. drone strike last year that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the powerful and shadowy spymaster at the head of Iran’s security machinery. The attack raised tensions between the United States and Iran in Iraq, a country caught in the middle. Just Wednesday, 10 rockets were fired at a military base in western Iraq that houses U.S. forces.

For Iraq, though, the absence of regular bombings is considered relative stability. And a successful visit by Francis is a chance to highlight to the world that Iraq isn’t all rocket attacks and suicide bombings.

The event is one of the country’s biggest peacetime security operations since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. To ensure the pope’s safety, hundreds of thousands of security personnel are on streets that are essentially emptied of citizens.

The Iraqi government has imposed a curfew in cities where the pope is visiting and banned travel between provinces. While it blamed rising coronavirus cases, the curfews also help maintain security.

The pope was formally welcomed by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. After that airport ceremony, Francis met with Iraq’s head of state, President Barham Salih. Mr. Salih, a Kurd whom the pope has previously met in Rome, has made minority rights a priority.

The pope has not only focused on praying for victims of violence in Iraq. He has also condemned attacks by the country’s security forces on unarmed protesters and emphasized the necessity of dignity for all Iraqis — demanded by young Iraqis in their calls for jobs and public services.

Mr. Kadhimi has pledged to deliver those very things, but he oversees a government that is riddled with corruption and struggles to provide basic services.

To illustrate, the Iraqi government invited the international news media to watch the visit unfold, accrediting 300 foreign journalists in addition to the papal traveling press. On Friday morning, they were told that none would be allowed to attend the arrival ceremony because of organizational problems.

The archeological site of ancient Ur, traditionally believed to be Abraham’s birthplace.
Credit…Mohammed Aty/Reuters

Francis has a busy schedule during the visit. He starts in Baghdad and is meeting with political officials, as is customary, before meeting with Catholic clergy and seminarians at Our Lady of Salvation, the Syrian Catholic church where an attack in 2010 killed more than 50 people.

On Saturday, he will fly to Najaf, the holiest city for Shiites in Iraq. There, he will meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a reclusive 90-year-old Muslim cleric who remains almost completely out of public life. The most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq, the ayatollah rarely meets with foreign dignitaries.

Another highlight of Francis’s day will be an interreligious meeting at the Plain of Ur, which tradition holds was the home of Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Francis will deliver a speech there and then return to Baghdad, where he will celebrate Mass at the Chaldean Church.

On Sunday, he is scheduled to fly to Erbil, in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has been the site of rocket attacks in recent days.

After meeting officials there, the pope will depart by helicopter for Mosul, a once religiously diverse city that has been laid to waste by war and by the Islamic State’s occupation of part of Iraq. Francis will deliver a prayer for war victims in the city’s Church Square.

He then travels to Qaraqosh, one of Iraq’s most vibrant Christian towns, whose community has been sharply eroded by violence and migration over the last decade. He will deliver a speech at a church and then return to Erbil, where he will celebrate an outdoor Mass at Franso Hariri soccer stadium.

He returns to Rome on Monday.

An Iraqi police officer walking through the bombed-out ruins of a centuries-old church that the Islamic State used for its occupation in Mosul’s Old City.
Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

In 2015, when the Islamic State’s bloody rampage was on the rise, Eliza Griswold chronicled the decimation of the Christian community in the region for The New York Times Magazine. Below is an excerpt that offers historical perspective on Christianity in Iraq.

Most of Iraq’s Christians call themselves Assyrians, Chaldeans or Syriac, different names for a common ethnicity rooted in the Mesopotamian kingdoms that flourished between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers thousands of years before Jesus.

Christianity arrived during the first century, according to Eusebius, an early church historian who claimed to have translated letters between Jesus and a Mesopotamian king. Tradition holds that Thomas, one of the Twelve Apostles, sent Thaddeus, an early Jewish convert, to Mesopotamia to preach the Gospel.

As Christianity grew, it coexisted alongside older traditions — Judaism, Zoroastrianism and the monotheism of the Druze, Yazidis and Mandeans, among others — all of which survive in the region, though in vastly diminished form.

From Greece to Egypt, this was the eastern half of Christendom, a fractious community divided by doctrinal differences that persist today: various Catholic churches (those who look to Rome for guidance, and those who don’t); the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox (those who believe Jesus has two natures, human and divine, and those who believe he was solely divine); and the Assyrian Church of the East, which is neither Catholic nor Orthodox.

When the first Islamic armies arrived from the Arabian Peninsula during the seventh century, the Assyrian Church of the East was sending missionaries to China, India and Mongolia. The shift from Christianity to Islam happened gradually. Much as the worship of Eastern cults largely gave way to Christianity, Christianity gave way to Islam.

Under Islamic rule, Eastern Christians lived as protected people, dhimmi: They were subservient and had to pay the jizya, but were often allowed to observe practices forbidden by Islam, including eating pork and drinking alcohol. Muslim rulers tended to be more tolerant of minorities than their Christian counterparts, and for 1,500 years, different religions thrived side by side.

One hundred years ago, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and World War I ushered in the greatest period of violence against Christians in the region. The genocide waged by the Young Turks in the name of nationalism, not religion, left at least two million Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks dead. Nearly all were Christian.

Among those who survived, many of the better educated left for the West. Others settled in Iraq and Syria, where they were protected by the military dictators who courted these often economically powerful minorities.

From 1910 to 2010, the percentage of the Middle Eastern population that was Christian — in countries like Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Jordan — continued to decline.

For more than a decade, extremists have targeted Christians and other minorities, who often serve as stand-ins for the West. This was especially true in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, which caused hundreds of thousands to flee.

With the fall of Saddam Hussein, Christians began to leave Iraq in large numbers, and the population shrank to less than 500,000 today from as many as 1.5 million in 2003.

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Why Is Pope Francis Visiting Iraq?

[Follow our live updates on the pope’s visit to Iraq.]

Pope Francis begins a three-day whirlwind tour of Iraq on Friday, despite worries that he could draw large crowds at a moment when the coronavirus appears to be resurgent in the country.

Continuing security concerns in a nation ravaged by years of war and conflict were also not enough to deter Pope Francis from fulfilling a promise to visit one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.

Such a visit has been the dream of several popes. John Paul II intended to go in 2000, but the trip was canceled as tensions in the region mounted. Benedict XVI was also invited but couldn’t go because of the war.

Iraq’s president, Barham Salih, invited Francis to visit in July 2019, hoping it would help the country heal after years of strife.

including an assault on Wednesday. That is on top of a persistent Islamic State presence two years after the terrorist group lost the last of the territory it controlled there.

The pope will be formally welcomed by Iraq’s head of state, President Barham Salih, a Kurdish politician who previously met Francis in Rome and has made minority rights a priority.

Francis will also meet with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who came to power after the previous prime minister resigned in 2019 amid sweeping antigovernment protests.

The pope’s most highly anticipated official meeting in Iraq will be with Ayatollah Sistani. The ayatollah’s messages, delivered through a representative, carry great weight. And he has changed the course of Iraqi history on issues such as elections.

The papal meeting will be a private one at the ayatollah’s modest home in Najaf. Officials there have said they do not expect any agreement between the two to be signed.

Christianity’s roots in Iraq extend back to the first decades of the faith. The tombs of biblical figures such as Jonah and Joshua are believed to be there.

Iraq’s Christian population was once a vibrant community of various Christian rites — including Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldean, Melkite and Syriac. But it has been culled by persecution, a devastating decade of war after the U.S. invasion in 2003, and then decimation at the brutal hands of the Islamic State from 2014 to 2017.

Many of the country’s surviving Christians fled to Canada, Jordan, Turkey and the United States. For Christians, the pope’s coming to bear witness to their suffering is a powerful show of solidarity.

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