Welcome to Monday, where U.S. airstrikes hit Iran-backed militia in Iraq and Syria, Sweden's prime minister resigns and a pet lion is rescued from TikTok fame. Die Welt also looks at the growing influence of a Russian mercenary group in several African countries.
• U.S. airstrikes in Iraq & Syria: The United States military says it carried out air strikes on "targeted operational and weapons storage facilities" linked to Iran-backed militia groups. The strikes late Sunday local time marks the second time the Biden administration has ordered strikes against armed groups. The UK-based NGO, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported at least five fighters killed and several others wounded.Syria's state-run news agency reports the death of a child.
• New COVID restrictions in Australia: With just over 3% of the population fully vaccinated, Australia has seen a rise in coronavirus infections connected to the highly infectious Delta variant. Prime Minister Scott Morrisson met with state and territory leaders to discuss renewed restrictions, such as locking down Sydney.
• Swedish Prime Minister resigns: After losing a historic no-confidence vote, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has opted to resign rather than calling a snap election. This decision leaves the parliament's speaker with the task of finding a new premier.
• CNN reports incriminating video of Ethiopian soldiers: CNN has uncovered new footage of Ethiopian soldiers passing around a phone "to document their executions of unarmed men." The video comes as a new update to the broadcaster's ongoing investigation into the January mass execution of at least 11 unarmed men in the Tigray region.
• Death toll rises to nine in Florida building collapse: Rescuers are continuing to search for survivors, as more than 150 people remain missing at the collapsed condo building near Miami. Over the weekend, the death toll rose to nine, but authorities fear that number will multiply.
• Police search for fan who caused Tour de France crash: A spectator holding up a large sign caused a crash at the Tour de France, involving German rider Tony Martin and several others, on Saturday. Now, police are searching for the fan and hope to charge her with "deliberately violating safety regulations." One rider was obligated to pull out of the Tour completely, while another eight are being treated for injuries.
• Cambodian officials confiscate TikTok-famous pet lion: Cambodian authorities confiscated a pet lion after discovering it was being used in a number of TikTok videos. The lion had reportedly been imported by a Chinese national and was being raised at a villa in the capital Phnom Penh.
Spanish language Florida-based daily El Nuevo Herald reports on the rising death toll from the partial collapse of a condo building near Miami as search and rescue efforts continue to find the 152 people still unaccounted for.
Putin's shadow army: Russian mercenaries enter African wars
The United Nations and several media have recently reported about a series of brutal attacks in the Central African Republic involving Russian mercenaries. The UN emphasized the role of the Wagner Group, Russia's best-known mercenary outfit, coordinated by a Kremlin-linked oligarch. The West is also watching the growing influence of the Russian organization in other parts of Africa, reports Christian Putsch in German daily Die Welt.
According to information from Die Welt sources, there are currently 7,191 mercenaries from the Wagner group deployed around the world, the majority in Syria, partly for onward travel to other countries. These include counter-terrorism units, telecommunications battalions, air defense and eight "political scientists' — most likely working on disinformation campaigns. The mercenaries had supported the advance of renegade General Khalifa Haftar towards the capital Tripoli, a mockery of international efforts for peace.
Formed around 2014, the group is said to have been involved in the wars in eastern Ukraine and Syria, always in line with Putin's interests. Wagner commander Dmitri Utkin, a former Russian intelligence officer with a fondness for the composer Richard Wagner, personally received a medal of valor from the Russian president. But the mastermind and main financier is probably Yevgeny Prigozhin. The oligarch is nicknamed "Putin's cook" because he once personally served the ruler in one of his restaurants.
For Wagner, autocratic countries are a prime target for new business. Putin is also focused on regaining Russia's lost influence in Africa. Since Russian trade volume on the continent is low, Putin relies on military cooperation. The Wagner Group is his handy instrument for delicate operations in which political responsibility and too much attention are to be avoided — but which, as in Libya, give him weight at international negotiating tables.
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Plane struck by lightning is exorcized by voodoo priests
What happens when lightning strikes a plane? First, thanks to modern safety features, it flies on and lands without incident. But in Togo, airport staff last week made sure one such plane was thoroughly checked, tested and … exorcized.
With bolts of lightning regularly striking airplanes, aeronautics has long since developed technologies to ensure the planes can withstand the impact, and pilots and passengers can safely continue their journey.
Yet last week in the West African country of Togo, an extra-layer of security was added after the plane landed safely: an exorcism ritual on the tarmac.
Like the millions who go to airport chapels before take off, religions around the world seem to have a special relationship with modern air travel. In Togo, where voodoo is widespread and highly respected, other measures are employed.
The Ethiopian Airlines plane that regularly serves the New York-Lomé route, was hit just before landing June 20 at the airport in Togo's capital. Slightly damaged and unable to take off again, a group of voodoo priests were called in to exorcize the plane the following day.
Algerian daily El Watan reports that the ceremony consisted of splashing the plane with water and pouring liquor as an offering to appease the anger of Hiébiésso, the "divinity of thunder" in Mina, a local language spoken in South Togo. (Here's a video of the rite)
"When lightning strikes, it is our duty, for the sake of people's security, to identify and purify the area struck by this natural phenomenon." said Togbé Assiobo Nyagblondjor, president of the country's traditional priests confederation.
Originally from Benin and Togo, the voodoo religion counts 50 million believers around the world, including many in the Caribbean, Brazil and the U.S. state of Louisiana.
While Togo is officially a secular state, voodoo is widely accepted. The president of the National Agency of civilian aviation, colonel Latta Gnama, was personally present at the ritual held on the tarmac. "Everything was done to help them in their task," he said.
Gnama also confirmed the necessary repairs to the damaged airplane were completed before the jet took to the air again. Either way you look at it, best to be double covered when flying.
Canada is being hit by a historic heat wave, with temperatures in Lytton, British Columbia reaching a record 46.1 °C (115 °F). Environment Canada has banned open fires, citing concerns of possible forest fires, and has also issued health and safety warnings to residents across Western Canada.
I can understand gays, lesbians and so on. But do you know who I do not understand at all? These transgender people.
— During a CNN Prima interview, Czech President Milos Zeman called transgender people "intrinsically disgusting to me," while defending Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's recent anti-LGBTQ+ comments. The two populist leaders are at odds with other heads of the European Union member countries, who have challenged whether countries that undermine basic civil rights should be part of the EU.
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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