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Italy's Renzi, First Western Leader In Post-Sanctions Iran

Matteo Renzi and Hassan Rouhani filmed on Iranian TV on Tuesday
Matteo Renzi and Hassan Rouhani filmed on Iranian TV on Tuesday

TEHRAN — Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's diplomatic visit to Tehran this week, the first by a Western leader since the Iranian nuclear deal, is seen back in Italy mostly as a smart business trip.

The focus of the two-day trip, which concludes Wednesday, has been in opening up trade between the two countries, after the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran after it had agreed last year to roll back its nuclear activities as part of a deal reached with the U.S., China, Russia, the UK, France and Germany.

Rome-based daily La Repubblica quoted Renzi as saying that in addition to commercial connections, "Iran and Italy are two great cultural powers, each with a great history, that want to create a great future together." He also said it would be important for the West to involve Iran in fighting against ISIS.

The allusions to cultural links may recall a widely-publicized kerfuffle in January, when Italian officials draped sheets over nude statues in Rome's Capitoline Museum ahead of Rouhani's visit with Renzi.

There was fresh criticism this week, too: Writing for Il Fatto Quotidiano, Middle East correspondent Tiziana Ciavardini acknowledged the economic opportunity for Italy, but took Renzi to task for avoiding the topic of human rights in Iran, including the continued high number of executions.

"That the Italian government does its part to incentivize bilateral relations between the two countries is certainly a positive step. If Italy needs to invest, then a country experiencing an economic upswing — assuming that's the case for Iran — is a welcome partner. But we're sure that some themes… will never be addressed," she writes. "I would have liked to see in Prime Minister Renzi the same tenacity that he exhibited in 2009."

Back then, Renzi was the up-and-coming mayor of Florence, which also happened to be a sister city to Isfahan in Iran. In a gesture of solidarity with young Iranians protesting against the alleged rigging of the 2009 national elections, Renzi draped a green flag, symbolic of the fight for democracy in Iran, over the facade of Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's historic city hall. Such democratic impulses in Italy were a far cry from the statue-covering episode of 2016, and also clearly not on Renzi's mind as he inked business deals this week in Tehran.

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A Refuge From China's Rat Race: The Young People Flocking To Buddhist Monasteries

Unemployment, stress in the workplace, economic difficulties: more and more young Chinese graduates are flocking to monasteries to find "another school of life."

Photograph of a girl praying at a temple during Chinese Lunar New Year. She is burning incense.

Feb 20, 2015 - Huaibei, China - Chinese worshippers pray at a temple during the Lunar New Yeat

Frédéric Schaeffer

JIAXING — It's already dawn at Xianghai Temple when Lin, 26, goes to the Hall of 10,000 Buddhas for the 5:30 a.m. prayer.

Still half-asleep, the young woman joins the monks in chanting mantras and reciting sacred texts for an hour. Kneeling, she bows three times to Vairocana, also known as the Great Sun Buddha, who dominates the 42-meter-high hall representing the cosmos.

Before grabbing a vegetarian breakfast in the adjacent refectory, monks and devotees chant around the hall to the sound of drums and gongs.

"I resigned last October from the e-commerce company where I had been working for the past two years in Nanjing, and joined the temple in January, where I am now a volunteer in residence," explains the young woman, soberly dressed in black pants and a cream linen jacket.

Located in the city of Jiaxing, over a hundred kilometers from Shanghai, in eastern China, the Xianghai temple is home to some 20 permanent volunteers.

Unlike Lin, most of them only stay for a couple days or a few weeks. But for Lin, who spends most of her free time studying Buddhist texts in the temple library, the change in her life has been radical. "I used to do the same job every day, sometimes until very late at night, writing all kinds of reports for my boss. I was exhausted physically and mentally. I felt my life had no meaning," she says.

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