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Russia begins its largest ever military exercise with 300,000 soldiers
Nato condemns Vostok-2018 drills with China as a rehearsal for large-scale conflict

The Guardian/Sept. 11, 2018

Russia has launched what it has called its largest ever military drill, with hundreds of thousands of troops joining Chinese soldiers in a show of force condemned by Nato as a rehearsal for large-scale conflict.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, is expected to attend the exercises after hosting an economic forum in Vladivostok where his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, is a guest.

The week-long exercise, known as Vostok-2018 (East-2018) “have kicked off” in far-eastern Russia, the defence ministry said on Tuesday.

Taking part in the drills are around 300,000 Russian soldiers, 36,000 military vehicles, 80 ships and 1,000 aircraft, helicopters and drones, as well as 3,500 Chinese troops.

The Russian defence ministry released video footage of military vehicles, planes, helicopters and ships getting into position for the initial stage of the drills.

Putin talked up Russia’s increasingly close ties with China as he met Xi in Vladivostok on Tuesday. “We have trustworthy ties in political, security and defence spheres,” the Russian leader said.

Xi said the two countries’ friendship was “getting stronger all the time”.

The military exercises come amid escalating tensions between Moscow and the west over accusations of Russian interference in western affairs and conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

The Russian army has compared the show of force to the USSR’s 1981 wargames in which between 100,000 and 150,000 Warsaw Pact soldiers took part in Zapad-81 (West-81) – the largest military exercises of the Soviet era.

But Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, said these exercises were even larger.

“Imagine 36,000 military vehicles moving at the same time: tanks, armoured personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles – and all of this, of course, in conditions as close to a combat situation as possible,” Shoigu said.

The exercises will be held across nine training ranges and three seas: the Sea of Japan, the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk.

Nato said Vostok-2018 “demonstrates Russia’s focus on exercising large-scale conflict”.

“It fits into a pattern we have seen over some time – a more assertive Russia, significantly increasing its defence budget and its military presence,” the alliance’s spokesman Dylan White said last month.

The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, dismissed such concerns on Tuesday. “These are very important drills but they are part of routine annual work to develop the armed forces,” he said.

Moscow has increased the number of its large-scale military exercises in the Caucasus, the Baltic and the Arctic in recent years.

Russia’s previous military exercise in the region, Vostok-2014, was almost half the size, with 155,000 soldiers participating.

Exercises in eastern Europe last year, Zapad-2017, saw 12,700 troops take part, according to Moscow. Ukraine and the Baltic states said the true number was far bigger.

Pope to meet U.S. bishops amid sex abuse scandal, allegations of Vatican coverup

The Associated Press/Sept. 11, 2018

Pope Francis will meet Thursday with a delegation of U.S. cardinals and bishops over the sex abuse and coverup scandal roiling the Catholic Church and his own papacy, the Vatican said Tuesday.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has said he wants Francis to authorize a full-fledged Vatican investigation into Theodore McCarrick, who was removed as a cardinal in July after a credible accusation he groped a teenager.

DiNardo has also said recent accusations that top Vatican officials - including the Pope - covered up for McCarrick deserve answers.

Vatican spokesperson Greg Burke said DiNardo would meet with Francis on Thursday in the Apostolic Palace, along with Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the Pope's top sex abuse adviser. Also involved are two officials from the U.S. conference, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez and Monsignor Brian Bransfield, according to a Vatican statement.

Francis ordered McCarrick, 88, to a lifetime of penance and prayer in July pending the outcome of a canonical trial into the groping allegation involving a teenage altar boy in the 1970s. After the allegation was publicized in June, it emerged that it was apparently an open secret - including at the Vatican - that McCarrick routinely invited seminarians and young priests into his bed and engaged in sexual misconduct.

The McCarrick scandal took on crisis proportions two weeks ago after the Vatican's former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, accused two dozen Vatican and U.S. cardinals and bishops of covering up for McCarrick for two decades.

Specifically, Vigano accused Francis of rehabilitating McCarrick from canonical sanctions. The Vatican hasn't responded to the accusations, but presumably the "clarifications" it has promised will come sometime after Francis meets with the top U.S. church leadership this week.

Francis has refused to comment directly about Vigano's claims, but nearly every day over the past two weeks his homily at morning mass has seemed somewhat related to the scandal.

On Tuesday, he drew Satan into the fray, suggesting that the devil was behind Vigano's revelations.

"In these times, it seems like the 'Great Accuser' has been unchained and has it in for bishops," he said. "True, we are all sinners, we bishops. He tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people."

Bishops, he said, should be men of prayer, and should know they were chosen by God and keep close to their flock.

In other eyebrow-raising comments Tuesday, a top aide to both Francis and former pope Benedict said the sex abuse scandal was such a game-changing catastrophe for the church that it amounted to the church's "own 9/11."

Archbishop Georg Gaenswein told a book presentation that he by no means was comparing the scandal to the nearly 3,000 people killed in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.

But he said the years-long scandal, and recent revelations in a Pennsylvania grand jury report, showed just "how many souls have been wounded irrevocably and mortally by priests from the Catholic Church."

And in Canada

Tragedy shakes communities that helped bring murder suspect to Canada

By Jason Proctor/CBC News/Sept. 11, 2018

The Vancouver church which assisted with the private refugee sponsorship of the man accused of killing 13-year-old Marrisa Shen will co-operate with police as their investigation into Ibrahim Ali continues.

St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church lead minister Dan Chambers issued a brief statement Tuesday in response to questions about Ali, a Syrian national who came to Canada with other members of his family in March 2017.

"We have nothing to say publicly as this is before the courts," Chambers wrote.

"The church will co-operate with the police, and we are keeping everyone involved in this in mind, hearts and prayers."

1st-degree murder

News of the first degree murder charge has shocked members of the tight-knit faith community which partnered with a group from Bowen Island to bring Ali and two brothers to the Lower Mainland 17 months ago.

The allegation throws a tragic light on a story that had been one of hope, community and generosity familiar to people across Canada who opened up their hearts and wallets to help refugees fleeing civil war in Syria.

Ali was arrested Friday night and made a court appearance by telephone from the Burnaby RCMP detachment the following day with the assistance of an Arabic translator.

The CBC listened to an audio recording of the proceedings, which lasted roughly 14 minutes, beginning with a judicial official reading the charge to the 28-year-old.

"Mr Ali, you're before the court today to deal with the following charge: Ibrahim Ali, on or about the 18th day of July 2017, at or near Burnaby in the province of British Columbia, did commit the first degree murder of Marrisa Shen."

Ali said he understood the charge.

He was remanded into custody until Friday morning, when he will appear in Vancouver provincial court to consult with counsel.

'Our collective priority'

Ali came to Canada through the private refugee sponsorship program, which allows groups of individuals to support refugees on their arrival with an agreement to provide care, lodging, settlement assistance and support.

Sponsorship groups agree to give material support for periods that range from 12 months to 36 months.

According to an article in the Bowen Island Undercurrent, one of Ali's brothers came to Canada as a government sponsored refugee four years before his siblings.

Residents on Bowen, a 20-minute ferry ride west of Horseshoe Bay, banded together to adopt and reunite a family torn apart by war.

They helped find housing, volunteered and raised money. They held bake sales, donated goods needed to set up house and a local trucking company lent its services for the move.

They also partnered with St. Andrew's-Wesley, which has a refugee task force as part of its commitment to justice and social action.

In March 2017, their efforts came to fruition with the arrival of Ali and two of his brothers, one of whom was accompanied by his wife and three young children.

Members of the groups which raised money gathered to greet them at Vancouver International Airport. A picture shows the smiling extended family hugging and holding flowers.

"Bowen's greatest attribute is its community. It is fundamental to our sense of well being. It's our collective priority," says a piece contributed to the Undercurrent at the time.

"Fifteen months ago, we, as an island put this collective ethos into practice by raising the means to sponsor a refugee family of seven from Syria."

'Robust checks'

The CBC contacted members of both the Bowen and St. Andrew's-Wesley groups following news of the charge against Ali, who is now a permanent resident. But all were reluctant to speak publicly.

The Facebook page that once celebrated the sponsorship project is no longer available. And church members were asked to refrain from speaking to the media.

Questions have been raised on social media about the screening process for privately sponsored refugees.

According to guidelines published by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, an officer at the Canadian visa office makes the final decision on whether a candidate is eligible for resettlement.

Applicants have to undergo medical examinations, as well as extensive criminal and security checks. They may also be required to produce supplemental documentation.

Immigration lawyer Zool Suleman told the CBC's Early Edition the screening process is very thorough.

"It's very unusual for someone with a significant criminal record to enter Canada as an immigrant," he said.

"There are very robust checks in place to keep an eye on this dimension of all immigrants who come here to become permanent residents."

Suleman - like police - warned against people using an unpredictable individual tragedy to tarnish a community whose Canadian experience has generally been one of hard work and success.

RCMP said Ali had no criminal record and was unknown to them before he came to their attention as part of the investigation into Shen's death.

The break in the case followed more than a year of frustration for Shen's family and the investigators tasked with cracking the case, which is one of the most extensive ever conducted by the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team.

Police have said little about the information which led them to Ali. None of the allegations against him have been proven in court.