French Iranian author wins top Spanish prize for graphic novel

Barcelona, Spain — French Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi, whose graphic novel “Persepolis” tells the story of a girl growing up in post-revolutionary Iran, was awarded Spain’s prestigious Princess of Asturias Prize for Communication and Humanity on Tuesday. 

The prize jury praised the 54-year-old as “one of the most prominent names in international comics, author of what is, for many, one of the best graphic novels ever published.” 

“Satrapi is a symbol of civic engagement led by women,” the jury said, calling her “an essential voice in the defense of human rights and freedom.” 

Born in Iran, Satrapi recounts in “Persepolis” her years as an outspoken teenager chafing at the Islamic revolution and its restrictions imposed on women, especially for one from a progressive family like hers. It also tells of the hardships of the Iran-Iraq war. 

At 14, her parents sent her to school in Vienna to avoid arrest over her defiance of the regime. She later returned to Tehran but left for France in 1994, embarking on her career as an author, film director and painter. 

Her animated film adaptation of “Persepolis” won her a nomination at the Academy Awards in 2008. 

Satrapi said it was “a great honor” to win the Spanish prize, which she dedicated to rapper Toomaj Saleh, who was sentenced to death last week in Iran. 

The verdict was seen by activists as retaliation for his music backing nationwide protests that erupted in 2022 following the death in police custody of the young Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini. 

“I take this opportunity to celebrate the fierce fight of my people for human rights and freedom. Today it is all the young people who lost their lives and the ones who continue the combat for liberty in Iran that are celebrated,” she said in a statement. 

Amini had been detained over an alleged breach of the Islamic republic’s strict dress rules for women. The months of unrest following her death on September 16, 2022, saw hundreds of people killed, including dozens of security personnel, and thousands more arrested. 

Satrapi last year coordinated the graphic novel “Woman, Life, Freedom” with a group of artists that illustrated the revolts. 

The 50,000-euro ($54,000) award is one of eight Asturias prizes covering the arts, science and other areas handed out yearly by a foundation named for Spanish Crown Princess Leonor. 

The awards will be handed out at a ceremony hosted by Spain’s King Felipe VI in October. 

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LogOn: Nigerian Artist Creates AI Fashion Show for Elderly

Images of African senior citizens walking a fashion runway created a buzz on social media, with AI-generated pictures challenging traditional depictions of elderly Africans. VOA’s Karina Choudhury has all the looks in this week’s episode of LogOn. Videographer: Samuel Okocha

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Rolling Stones show no signs of slowing down as they begin their latest tour

houston — Time marches on and all good things must come to an end. But don’t tell that to The Rolling Stones.

What many believe to be the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world showed no signs of slowing down anytime soon as they kicked off their latest tour Sunday night at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas.

The Stones have been touring for more than 60 years. Frontman Mick Jagger and lead guitarist Keith Richards are both 80, with guitarist Ronnie Wood not far behind at 76. Their tour is being sponsored in part by AARP.

But during a vibrant two-hour show, the Stones played with the energy of a band that was on tour for the first time.

“It’s great to be back in the Lone Star State,” Jagger told the packed stadium, filled with longtime fans, many wearing faded concert shirts from previous tours.

Jagger often strutted up and down the stage with seemingly boundless energy while Richards and Wood played many familiar guitar riffs beloved by fans. Jagger often led the audience in sing-alongs.

“The energy level is up and it’s always up with them. The age doesn’t show,” Dale Skjerseth, the Stones’ production director, said Friday before the concert.

The Stones have hit the road to support the release of their latest album, “Hackney Diamonds,” the band’s first record of original music since 2005.

Houston was the first stop on the band’s 16-city tour across the U.S. and Canada. Other cities on the tour include New Orleans, Philadelphia and Vancouver, British Columbia. The tour ends on July 17 in Santa Clara, California.

During Sunday’s 18-song concert set list, the Stones played several tracks off the new record, including the lead single, “Angry.” They also played classics including “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Honky Tonk Women” and “Start Me Up.”

After playing “Beast of Burden,” Jagger said that concertgoers in Houston had voted to include it on the set list.

“You can’t go wrong with that,” one man in the audience could be heard screaming.

The Stones also played some unexpected choices, including “Rocks Off,” from their 1972 double album “Exile on Main St.” and “Out of Time,” a 1966 song that Jagger said during the concert had not ever been played by the band in the U.S.

With the 2021 death of drummer Charlie Watts, the Stones are now comprised of the core trio of Jagger, Richards and Wood. On Sunday, they were backed by various musicians including two keyboardists, a new drummer, backup singers and a brass section.

While the stage was surrounded by a large collection of video screens projecting images throughout the show, the main focus of the concert was the band and their songs.

Before Sunday’s concert, Jagger spent time on Friday touring NASA’s Johnson Space Center in suburban Houston, posting photos on his Instagram account of him with astronauts inside Mission Control.

“I had an amazing trip to the space center,” Jagger said.

When asked if the band might be thinking about retiring, Skjerseth said he doubts that will happen.

“This is not the end. They’re very enthused,” he said.

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US and Mexico drop bid to host 2027 World Cup

new york — The U.S. Soccer Federation and its Mexican counterpart dropped their joint bid to host the 2027 Women’s World Cup on Monday and said they instead will focus on trying to host the 2031 tournament.

The decision left a proposal from Brazil and a joint Germany-Netherlands-Belgium plan competing to be picked for 2027 by the FIFA Congress that meets May 17 in Bangkok.

The USSF said the 2031 bid will call for FIFA to invest equally in the men’s and women’s World Cups.

FIFA said last year it planned to spend $896 million in prize money for the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Mexico and Canada. The governing body devoted $110 million in prize money for last year’s Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

“Hosting a World Cup tournament is a huge undertaking — and having additional time to prepare allows us to maximize its impact across the globe,” USSF President Cindy Parlow Cone said in a statement. “I’m proud of our commitment to provide equitable experiences for the players, fans and all our stakeholders. Shifting our bid will enable us to host a record-breaking Women’s World Cup in 2031 that will help to grow and raise the level of the women’s game both here at home as well as across the globe.”

In detailing the bid in December, the USSF proposed U.S. sites from among the same 11 to be used in the 2026 men’s World Cup. Mexico listed Guadalajara, Mexico City and Monterrey — its three sites for the men’s World Cup — and in addition for 2027 listed as possibilities Leon and Querétaro.

“We feel that moving our bid back to 2031 will allow us to promote and build up to the most successful Women’s World Cup ever,” MFF President Ivar Sisniega said in a statement. “The strength and universality of our professional women’s leagues, coupled with our experience from organizing the 2026 World Cup, means that we will be able to provide the best infrastructure as well as an enthusiastic fan base that will make all the participating teams feel at home and to put together a World Cup that will contribute to the continued growth of women’s football.”

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Tesla clears key regulatory hurdles for self-driving in China during Musk visit

BEIJING — Tesla has cleared some key regulatory hurdles that have long hindered it from rolling out its self-driving software in China, paving the way for a favorable result from Elon Musk’s surprise visit to the U.S. automaker’s second-largest market.

Tesla CEO Musk arrived in the Chinese capital Sunday, where he was expected to discuss the rollout of Full Self-Driving (FSD) software and permission to transfer driving data overseas, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.

The billionaire’s whirlwind visit, during which he met with Chinese Premier Li Qiang, came just over a week after he scrapped a planned trip to India to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, citing “very heavy Tesla obligations.”

On Monday, two separate sources told Reuters Tesla had reached an agreement with Baidu to use the Chinese tech giant’s mapping license for data collection on China’s public roads, which they described as a key step for FSD to be introduced in the country.

And a top Chinese auto association said on Sunday Tesla’s Model 3 and Y cars were among models that it had tested and found to be compliant with China’s data security requirements.

Data security and compliance have been key reasons why the U.S. electric vehicle maker, which rolled out the most autonomous version of its Autopilot software four years ago, has yet to make FSD available in China, its second-largest market

globally, despite customer demand.

Chinese regulators had since 2021 required Tesla to store all data collected by its Chinese fleet in Shanghai, leaving the company unable to transfer any back to the United States.

Musk is looking to obtain approval to transfer data collected in the country abroad to train algorithms for its autonomous driving technologies, the person said.

Musk’s visit to China, first reported by Reuters, was not flagged publicly and the person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media.

The plane that Musk arrived on departed from Beijing Capital Airport at 0517 GMT, according to Chinese flight tracking app Flight Manager and was headed to Anchorage, Alaska.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Musk’s departure.

Equity analysts at Wedbush called the surprise visit “a major moment for Tesla.”

Rival Chinese automakers and suppliers such as XPeng and Huawei Technologies have been seeking to gain an advantage over Tesla by rolling out similar software.

Retired newspaper commentator Hu Xijin said on his Weibo account that Tesla was the only foreign-funded automaker to meet China’s data compliance requirements and said that this would pave the way for Tesla cars to enter premises owned by government agencies and state-owned firms across China.

“This is not only a breakthrough in China, but also a significant demonstration for the entire world in solving data security issues,” he said.

Premier Li on Sunday praised Tesla’s development in China as a successful example of U.S.-China economic and trade cooperation.


China data

Tesla cars have for years been banned from entering Chinese military complexes over security concerns relating to cameras installed on its vehicles. Its cars have also been turned away from sites holding important political events, such as an annual summer leadership conclave the ruling Communist Party held in 2022.

He Xiaopeng, the CEO of XPeng whose XNGP Advanced Driver Assistance System is similar to FSD, said on his Weibo account he welcomed the entry of the Tesla technology into China.

“Only with the entry of more good products and technologies can the experience of the entire market and customers be improved, and it will allow the market’s development to accelerate in a healthy manner,” he said.

“Let a hundred flowers bloom,” he said, echoing a famous line from Chairman Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China.

The improved prospect of FSD entering China comes as Tesla shares have lost almost a third of their value since the start of the year, as concerns have grown about the EV maker’s growth trajectory. Last week, Tesla reported its first decline in quarterly revenue since 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic slowed production and deliveries.

Musk said last week that Tesla would introduce new, cheaper models using its current EV platforms and production lines and would offer a new “robotaxi” with self-driving technology. He said on X this month that he would unveil the robotaxi on Aug. 8.

China’s complicated traffic conditions with more pedestrians and cyclists than in many other markets provide more scenarios that are key for training autonomous driving algorithms at a faster pace, according to industry experts.

“If Musk is able to obtain approval from Beijing to transfer data collected in China abroad this would be a ‘game changer’ around the acceleration of training its algorithms for its autonomous technology globally,” Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said in a note.

Musk said this month that Tesla may make FSD available to customers in China “very soon,” in response to a query on X.

Besides meeting Li on the short trip to Beijing, Musk met the organizer of the ongoing Beijing auto show. The chairman of Chinese battery giant CATL Robin Zeng, a key Tesla battery supplier, also visited Musk’s hotel on Monday, according to a Reuters witness. Reuters could not immediately confirm with CATL if Zeng met with Musk.

Musk had been set on his cancelled India trip to announce $2 billion to $3 billion in new investments, including in a car plant, after India offered lower import taxes on EVs in return under a new policy.

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China set to launch high-stakes mission to moon’s ‘hidden’ side

BEIJING — China will send a robotic spacecraft in coming days on a round trip to the moon’s far side in the first of three technically demanding missions that will pave the way for an inaugural Chinese crewed landing and a base on the lunar south pole.

Since the first Chang’e mission in 2007, named after the mythical Chinese moon goddess, China has made leaps forward in its lunar exploration, narrowing the technological chasm with the United States and Russia.

In 2020, China brought back samples from the moon’s near side in the first sample retrieval in more than four decades, confirming for the first time it could safely return an uncrewed spacecraft to Earth from the lunar surface.

This week, China is expected to launch Chang’e-6 using the backup spacecraft from the 2020 mission and collect soil and rocks from the side of the moon that permanently faces away from Earth.

With no direct line of sight with the Earth, Chang’e-6 must rely on a recently deployed relay satellite orbiting the moon during its 53-day mission, including a never-before attempted ascent from the moon’s “hidden” side on its return journey home.

The same relay satellite will support the uncrewed Chang’e-7 and 8 missions in 2026 and 2028, respectively, when China starts to explore the south pole for water and build a rudimentary outpost with Russia. China aims to put its astronauts on the moon by 2030.

Beijing’s polar plans have worried NASA, whose administrator, Bill Nelson, has repeatedly warned that China would claim any water resources as its own. Beijing says it remains committed to cooperation with all nations on building a “shared” future.

On Chang’e-6, China will carry payloads from France, Italy, Sweden and Pakistan, and on Chang’e-7, payloads from Russia, Switzerland and Thailand.

NASA is banned by U.S. law from any collaboration, direct or indirect, with China.

Under the separate NASA-led Artemis program, U.S. astronauts will land near the south pole in 2026, the first humans on the moon since 1972.

“International cooperation is key (to lunar exploration),” Clive Neal, professor of planetary geology at the University of Notre Dame, told Reuters. “It’s just that China and the U.S. aren’t cooperating right now. I hope that will happen.”

South pole ambitions

Chang’e 6 will attempt to land on the northeastern side of the vast South Pole-Aitkin Basin, the oldest known impact crater in the solar system.

The southernmost landing ever was carried out in February by IM-1, a joint mission between NASA and the Texas-based private firm Intuitive Machines.

After touchdown at Malapert A, a site near the south pole that was believed to be relatively flat, the spacecraft tilted sharply to one side amid a host of technical problems, reflecting the high-risk nature of lunar landings.

The south pole has been described by scientists as the “golden belt” for lunar exploration.

Polar ice could sustain long-term research bases without relying on expensive resources transported from Earth. India’s Chandrayaan-1 launched in 2008 confirmed the existence of ice inside polar craters.

Chang’e-6’s sample return could also shed more light on the early evolution of the moon and the inner solar system.

The lack of volcanic activity on the moon’s far side means there are more craters not covered by ancient lava flows, preserving materials from the moon’s early formation.

So far, all lunar samples taken by the United States and the former Soviet Union in the 1970s and China in 2020 were from the moon’s near side, where volcanism had been far more active.

Chang’e-6, after a successful landing, will collect about 2 kilograms of samples with a mechanical scoop and a drill.

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Iran bans Egyptian TV drama on historical Islamic leader

Tehran, Iran — Iranian authorities have banned an Egyptian TV series depicting a medieval Persian figure over historical “distortions” and “a biased approach,” state media reported Sunday.

“The Assassins,” or “El-Hashashin” in Arabic, recounts the story of Hassan-i Sabbah, the controversial founder of an offshoot Shiite Muslim sect known for bloody political assassinations during the 11th century.

The 30-episode series about Sabbah and his band of assassins, who operated out of mountain bases in northern and western Iran, was first broadcast during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan which ended earlier this month.

The show has since gained popularity across the Middle East, but the head of Tehran’s audiovisual media regulatory body, Mehdi Seifi, said that “the broadcast of ‘El-Hashashin’ series… is no longer approved in Iran.”

“Its narrative of Islamic history includes many distortions, and it seems to have been produced with a biased political approach,” Seifi was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency, without elaborating.

IRNA said the series shows “a false image of Iranians” and quoted experts who argued it sought to link Iranians to the “inception of terrorism.”  

Another news agency, ISNA, said the series was a “perfect example” of the “modification and falsification of truth.”

The notorious legends of Sabbah and his medieval order have inspired multiple works of fiction over the years.

The remains of the Alamut castle, where the group resided, is today a tourist destination in northern Iran. 

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Prince Harry due in London, then Nigeria with Meghan

London — Prince Harry will return to Britain to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his Invictus Games in May, before joining his wife Meghan on a visit to Nigeria, his spokesperson said Sunday. 

Harry, the youngest son of King Charles, lives in the United States with Meghan and their two children after he gave up working as a member of the royal family in 2020. 

He has only returned to Britain on a few occasions since his departure from royal life, arriving for major events such as the funeral of Queen Elizabeth in 2022 and his father’s coronation in May 2023. 

His spokesperson said Harry would attend a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London on May 8 to celebrate the Invictus Games, the international sporting event that he founded for military personnel wounded in action. 

Harry served as a military helicopter pilot in Afghanistan and Invictus organizers said the service was designed to mark “a decade of changing lives and saving lives through sport.” 

It will include readings by Harry and the British actor Damian Lewis. Wounded veterans and members of the Invictus community will also attend. 

Harry will then be joined in Nigeria by Meghan, a former American actress who is known as the Duchess of Sussex. Harry’s spokesperson said the couple had been invited by the country’s chief of defense staff, its highest-ranking military official. 

No further details were given about the trip. 

Harry was last seen in Britain in February this year for a brief meeting with his father after the monarch announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer. 

The palace said Friday that Charles would return to public duties after he made good progress following treatment and a period of recuperation. 

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African farmers look to the past and the future to address climate change 

HARARE — From ancient fertilizer methods in Zimbabwe to new greenhouse technology in Somalia, farmers across the heavily agriculture-reliant African continent are looking to the past and future to respond to climate change.

Africa, with the world’s youngest population, faces the worst effects of a warming planet while contributing the least to the problem. Farmers are scrambling to make sure the booming population is fed.

With more than 60% of the world’s uncultivated land, Africa should be able to feed itself, some experts say. And yet three in four people across the continent cannot afford a healthy diet, according to a report last year by the African Union and United Nations agencies. Reasons include conflict and lack of investment.

In Zimbabwe, where the El Nino phenomenon has worsened a drought, small-scale farmer James Tshuma has lost hope of harvesting anything from his fields. It’s a familiar story in much of the country, where the government has declared a $2 billion state of emergency and millions of people face hunger.

But a patch of green vegetables is thriving in a small garden the 65-year-old Tshuma is keeping alive with homemade organic manure and fertilizer. Previously discarded items have again become priceless.

“This is how our fathers and forefathers used to feed the Earth and themselves before the introduction of chemicals and inorganic fertilizers,” Tshuma said.

He applies livestock droppings, grass, plant residue, remains of small animals, tree leaves and bark, food scraps and other biodegradable items like paper. Even the bones of animals that are dying in increasing numbers due to the drought are burned before being crushed into ash for their calcium.

Climate change is compounding much of sub-Saharan Africa’s longstanding problem of poor soil fertility, said Wonder Ngezimana, an associate professor of crop science at Zimbabwe’s Marondera University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology.

“The combination is forcing people to re-look at how things were done in the past like nutrient recycling, but also blending these with modern methods,” said Ngezimana, whose institution is researching the combination of traditional practices with new technologies.

Apart from being rich in nitrogen, organic fertilizers help increase the soil’s carbon and ability to retain moisture, Ngezimana said. “Even if a farmer puts synthetic fertilizer into the soil, they are likely to suffer the consequences of poor moisture as long as there is a drought,” he said.

Other moves to traditional practices are under way. Drought-resistant millets, sorghum and legumes, staples until the early 20th century when they were overtaken by exotic white corn, have been taking up more land space in recent years.

Leaves of drought-resistant plants that were once a regular dish before being cast off as weeds are returning to dinner tables. They even appear on elite supermarket shelves and are served at classy restaurants, as are millet and sorghum.

This could create markets for the crops even beyond drought years, Ngezimana said.

A greenhouse revolution in Somalia

In conflict-prone Somalia in East Africa, greenhouses are changing the way some people live, with shoppers filling up carts with locally produced vegetables and traditionally nomadic pastoralists under pressure to settle down and grow crops.

“They are organic, fresh and healthy,” shopper Sucdi Hassan said in the capital, Mogadishu. “Knowing that they come from our local farms makes us feel secure.”

Her new shopping experience is a sign of relative calm after three decades of conflict and the climate shocks of drought and flooding.

Urban customers are now assured of year-round supplies, with more than 250 greenhouses dotted across Mogadishu and its outskirts producing fruit and vegetables. It is a huge leap.

“In the past, even basic vegetables like cucumbers and tomatoes were imported, causing logistical problems and added expenses,” said Somalia’s minister of youth and sports, Mohamed Barre.

The greenhouses also create employment in a country where about 75% of the population is people under 30 years old, many of them jobless.

About 15 kilometers from the capital, Mohamed Mahdi, an agriculture graduate, inspected produce in a greenhouse where he works.

“Given the high unemployment rate, we are grateful for the chance to work in our chosen field of expertise,” the 25-year-old said.

Meanwhile, some pastoralist herders are being forced to change their traditional ways after watching livestock die by the thousands.

“Transitioning to greenhouse farming provides pastoralists with a more resilient and sustainable livelihood option,” said Mohamed Okash, director of the Institute of Climate and Environment at SIMAD University in Mogadishu.

He called for larger investments in smart farming to combat food insecurity.

A more resilient bean in Kenya

In Kenya, a new climate-smart bean variety is bringing hope to farmers in a region that had recorded reduced rainfall in six consecutive rainy seasons.

The variety, called “Nyota” or “star” in Swahili, is the result of a collaboration between scientists from the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization, the Alliance of Bioversity International and research organization International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

The new bean variety is tailored for Kenya’s diverse climatic conditions. One focus is to make sure drought doesn’t kill them off before they have time to flourish.

The bean variety flowers and matures so quickly that it is ready for harvesting by the time rains disappear, said David Karanja, a bean breeder and national coordinator for grains and legumes at KALRO.

Hopes are that these varieties could bolster national bean production. The annual production of 600,000 metric tons falls short of meeting annual demand of 755,000 metric tons, Karanja said.

Farmer Benson Gitonga said his yield and profits are increasing because of the new bean variety. He harvests between nine and 12 bags from an acre of land, up from the previous five to seven bags.

One side benefit of the variety is a breath of fresh air.

“Customers particularly appreciate its qualities, as it boasts low flatulence levels, making it an appealing choice,” Gitonga said.

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Pope visits Venice to speak to artists, inmates behind Biennale’s must-see prison show

VENICE, Italy — Venice has always been a place of contrasts, of breathtaking beauty and devastating fragility, where history, religion, art and nature have collided over the centuries to produce an otherworldly gem of a city. But even for a place that prides itself on its culture of unusual encounters, Pope Francis’ visit Sunday stood out.

Francis traveled to the lagoon city to visit the Holy See’s pavilion at the Biennale contemporary art show and meet with the people who created it. But because the Vatican decided to mount its exhibit in Venice’s women’s prison, and invited inmates to collaborate with the artists, the whole project assumed a far more complex meaning, touching on Francis’ belief in the power of art to uplift and unite, and of the need to give hope and solidarity to society’s most marginalized.

Francis hit on both messages during his visit, which began in the courtyard of the Giudecca prison where he met with the women inmates one by one. As some of them wept, Francis urged them to use their time in prison as a chance for “moral and material rebirth.”

“Paradoxically, a stay in prison can mark the beginning of something new, through the rediscovery of the unsuspected beauty in us and in others, as symbolized by the artistic event you are hosting and the project to which you actively contribute,” Francis said.

Francis then met with Biennale artists in the prison chapel, decorated with an installation by Brazilian visual artist Sonia Gomes of objects dangling from the ceiling, meant to draw the viewer’s gaze upward. He urged the artists to embrace the Biennale’s theme this year “Strangers Everywhere,” to show solidarity with all those on the margins.

The Vatican exhibit has turned the Giudecca prison, a former convent for reformed prostitutes, into one of the must-see attractions of this year’s Biennale, even though to see it visitors must reserve in advance and go through a security check. It has become an unusual art world darling that greets visitors at the entrance with Maurizio Cattelan’s wall mural of two giant filthy feet, a work that recalls Caravaggio’s dirty feet or the feet that Francis washes each year in a Holy Thursday ritual that he routinely performs on prisoners.

The exhibit also includes a short film starring the inmates and Zoe Saldana, and prints in the prison coffee shop by onetime Catholic nun and American social activist Corita Kent.

Francis’ dizzying morning visit, which ended with Mass in St. Mark’s Square, represented an increasingly rare outing for the 87-year-old pontiff, who has been hobbled by health and mobility problems that have ruled out any foreign trips so far this year.

And Venice, with its 121 islands and 436 bridges, isn’t an easy place to negotiate. But Francis pulled it off, arriving by helicopter from Rome, crossing the Giudecca Canal in a water taxi and then arriving in St. Mark’s Square in a mini popemobile that traversed the Grand Canal via a pontoon bridge erected for the occasion.

During an encounter with young people at the iconic Santa Maria della Salute basilica, Francis acknowledged the miracle that is Venice, admiring its “enchanting beaty” and tradition as a place of East-West encounter, but warning that it is increasingly vulnerable to climate change and depopulation.

“Venice is at one with the waters upon which it sits,” Francis said. “Without the care and safeguarding of this natural environment, it might even cease to exist.”

Venice, sinking under rising sea levels and weighed down by the impact of overtourism, is in the opening days of an experiment to try to limit the sort of day trips that Francis undertook Sunday.

Venetian authorities last week launched a pilot program to charge day-trippers 5 euros ($5.35) apiece on peak travel days. The aim is to encourage them to stay longer or come at off-peak times, to cut down on crowds and make the city more livable for its dwindling number of residents.

For Venice’s Catholic patriarch, Archbishop Francesco Moraglia, the new tax program is a worthwhile experiment, a potential necessary evil to try to preserve Venice as a livable city for visitors and residents alike.

Moraglia said Francis’ visit — the first by a pope to the Biennale — was a welcome boost, especially for the women of the Giudecca prison who participated in the exhibit as tour guides and as protagonists in some of the artworks.

He acknowledged that Venice over the centuries has had a long, complicated, love-hate relationship with the papacy, despite its central importance to Christianity.

The relics of St. Mark — the top aide to St. Peter, the first pope — are held here in the basilica, which is one of the most important and spectacular in all of Christendom. Several popes have hailed from Venice — in the past century alone three pontiffs were elected after being Venice patriarchs. And Venice hosted the last conclave held outside the Vatican: the 1799-1800 vote that elected Pope Paul VII.

But for centuries before that, relations between the independent Venetian Republic and the Papal States were anything but cordial as the two sides dueled over control of the church. Popes in Rome issued interdicts against Venice that essentially excommunicated the entire territory. Venice flexed its muscles back by expelling entire religious orders, including Francis’ own Jesuits.

“It’s a history of contrasts because they were two competitors for so many centuries,” said Giovanni Maria Vian, a church historian and retired editor of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano whose family hails from Venice. “The papacy wanted to control everything, and Venice jealously guarded its independence.”

Moraglia said that troubled history is long past and that Venice was welcoming Francis with open arms and gratitude, in keeping with its history as a bridge between cultures.

“The history of Venice, the DNA of Venice — beyond the language of beauty and culture that unifies — there’s this historic character that says that Venice has always been a place of encounter,” he said.

Francis said as much as he closed out Mass in St. Mark’s before an estimated 10,500 people.

“Venice, which has always been a place of encounter and cultural exchange, is called to be a sign of beauty available to all,” Francis said. “Starting with the least, a sign of fraternity and care for our common home.”

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Ukrainian duo heads to the Eurovision Song Contest

KYIV, Ukraine — Even amid war, Ukraine finds time for the glittery, pop-filled Eurovision Song Contest. Perhaps now even more than ever.

Ukraine’s entrants in the pan-continental music competition — the female duo of rapper alyona alyona and singer Jerry Heil — set off from Kyiv for the competition Thursday. In wartime, that means a long train journey to Poland, from where they will travel on to next month’s competition in Malmö, Sweden.

“We need to be visible for the world,” Heil told The Associated Press at Kyiv train station before her departure. “We need to show that even now, during the war, our culture is developing, and that Ukrainian music is something waiting for the world” to discover.

“We have to spread it and share it and show people how strong (Ukrainian) women and men are in our country,” added alyona, who spells her name with all lowercase letters.

Ukraine has long used Eurovision as a form of cultural diplomacy, a way of showing the world the country’s unique sound and style. That mission became more urgent after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied that Ukraine existed as a distinct country and people before Soviet times.

Ukrainian singer Jamala won the contest in 2016 — two years after Russia illegally seized the Crimean Peninsula — with a song about the expulsion of Crimea’s Tatars by Stalin in 1944. Folk-rap band Kalush Orchestra took the Eurovision title in 2022 with Stefania, a song about the frontman’s mother that became an anthem to the war-ravaged motherland, with a haunting refrain on a traditional Ukrainian wind instrument.

Alyona and Heil will perform Maria & Teresa, an anthemic ode to inspiring women. The title refers to Mother Theresa and the Virgin Mary, and the lyrics include the refrain, in English: “All the divas were born as the human beings” — people we regard as saints were once flawed and human like the rest of us.

Heil said the message is that “we all make mistakes, but your actions are what define you.”

And, alyona added: “with enough energy you can win the war, you can change the world.”

The song blends alyona’s punchy rap style with Heil’s soaring melody and distinctly Ukrainian vocal style.

“Alyona is a great rapper, she has this powerful energy,” Heil said. “And I’m more soft.”

“But great melodies,” alyona added. “So she creates all the melodies and I just jump in.”

Ukraine has been at the forefront of turning Eurovision from a contest dominated by English-language pop songs to a more diverse and multilingual event. Jamala sang part of her song in the Crimean Tatar language, while Kalush Orchestra sang and rapped in Ukrainian.

Ukraine’s Eurovision win in 2022 brought the country the right to host the following year, but because of the war the 2023 contest was held in the English city of Liverpool, which was bedecked in blue and yellow Ukrainian flags for the occasion — a celebration of Ukraine’s spirit and culture.

Thirty-seven countries from across Europe and beyond — including Israel and Australia — will compete in Malmö in two Eurovision semifinals May 7 and 9, followed by a May 11 final. Ukraine currently ranks among bookmakers’ top five favorites alongside the likes of singer Nemo from Switzerland and Croatian singer-songwriter Baby Lasagna.

Russia, a long-time Eurovision competitor, was kicked out of the contest over the invasion.

The Ukrainian duo caught a train after holding a news conference where they announced a fundraising drive for a school destroyed by a Russian strike.

The duo is joining with charity fundraising platform United 24 to raise 10 million hryvnia (about $250,000) to rebuild a school in the village of Velyka Kostromka in southern Ukraine that was destroyed by a Russian rocket in October 2022. The school’s 250 pupils have been unable to attend class since then, relying on online learning.

Teacher Liudmyla Taranovych, whose children and grandchildren went to the school, said its destruction brought feelings of “pain, despair, hopelessness.”

“My grandchildren hugged me and asked, ‘Grandma, will they rebuild our school? Will it be as beautiful, flourishing, and bright as it was?'” she said.

From the rubble, another teacher managed to rescue one of the school’s treasured possessions — a large wooden key traditionally presented to first grade students to symbolize that education is the key to their future. It has become a sign of hope for the school.

Alyona and Heil have also embraced the key as a symbol, wearing T-shirts covered in small metal housekeys.

“It’s a symbol of something which maybe some people in Ukraine won’t have, because so many people lost their homes,” Heil said. “But they’re holding these keys in their pockets, and they’re holding the hope.”

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Instagram, YouTube, smaller rivals likely to get boost from TikTok ban

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Olympic chief backs world doping body over positive Chinese tests

Lausanne, Switzerland — The head of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, has backed the World Anti-Doping Agency in a row over its handling of positive drug tests by 23 Chinese swimmers.

“We have full confidence in WADA and the regulations and that WADA have followed their regulations,” Bach told AFP in an exclusive interview Friday at the committee’s headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.

WADA has faced criticism since media reports last weekend revealed that the Chinese swimmers tested positive for heart drug trimetazidine (TMZ) — which can enhance performance — ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

The swimmers were not suspended or sanctioned after WADA accepted the explanation of Chinese authorities that the results were caused by food contamination at a hotel where they had stayed.

The head of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), Travis Tygart, has called the situation a “potential cover-up” with the positive tests never made public at the time.

Bach stressed that WADA was run independently, despite being funded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and he said he had learned of the positive tests via the media.

The IOC was awaiting the results of a new investigation ordered by WADA on Thursday, but Bach said the Chinese swimmers could compete at the Paris Olympics this year if cleared.

“If the procedures are followed, there is no reason for them not to be there,” the 70-year-old former German fencer added.

‘Iconic’ Paris

The Paris Games are set to be important to “revive the Olympic spirit” after the last COVID-affected edition in Tokyo in 2021 saw sport play out in empty stadiums, Bach said.

The hugely ambitious opening ceremony being planned by French organizers remains one of the biggest doubts, with infrastructure for the Games either already built or on track.

Instead of a traditional parade through the athletics stadium on the first night, teams are set to sail down the Seine on a flotilla of river boats in front of up to 500,000 spectators.

Worries about a terror attack have led to persistent speculation that the ceremony might need to be scrapped or scaled back dramatically.

“The very meticulous, very professional approach (from French authorities) gives us all the confidence that we can have this opening ceremony on the river Seine and that this opening ceremony will be iconic, will be unforgettable for the athletes, and everybody will be safe and secure,” Bach said.

Recent grumbling from Paris residents and negative media reports were typical of the run-up to any Olympics, he said, and also a symptom of broader anxiety.

“It’s part of our zeitgeist because we are living in uncertain times. And there are people who are skeptical. Some are even scared. Some are worried about their future,” the IOC president said.

Diplomatic tightrope

As with previous Olympics, international politics and diplomacy are set to intrude on the world’s biggest sporting event.

Bach reiterated his support for the IOC’s policy of excluding Russia from the Paris Games over the “blatant violation” of the Olympic charter when it annexed Ukrainian sporting organizations.

A small number of Russian athletes will be able to compete as neutrals in Paris, providing they have not declared public support for the invasion of Ukraine or are associated with the security forces.

Any Russian athlete that expressed political views on the field of play, including the “Z” sign that has come to symbolize Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war, could be excluded.

“Immediately a disciplinary procedure would be opened and the necessary measures and or sanctions be taken,” Bach said, adding: “This can go up to immediate exclusion from the Games.”

Addressing Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, he said between six and eight Palestinian athletes were expected to compete in Paris, with some set to be invited by the IOC even if they fail to qualify.

Bach dismissed any suggestion that the IOC had treated Russia differently over its invasion of Ukraine compared with Israel and its war in Gaza.

“The situation between Israel and Palestine is completely different,” he said.

He said he had been even-handed in his public statements on Ukraine, the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 and the subsequent Israeli invasion of Gaza.

“From day one, we expressed how horrified we were, first on the seventh of October and then about the war and its horrifying consequences,” Bach said.

Palestinian militants from Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, resulting in the deaths of about 1,170 people, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel’s retaliatory military campaign to destroy Hamas has killed 34,356 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.

Bach is in the last year of what should be a second and final four-year term according to IOC rules.

But some IOC members have suggested changing the organization’s statutes to enable him to stay at the helm — an issue he declined to address.

“The IOC Ethics Commission has given me the strict recommendation not to address this question before the end of (the) Paris (Olympics) and I think they have good reasons for this,” he said.

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Iran Risks Further Backlash for Death Sentence of Dissident Rapper, Says German MP

Washington — Iran’s handing of a death sentence this week to dissident rapper Toomaj Salehi has drawn outrage from the Islamic republic’s domestic and international critics, including a German lawmaker who says Tehran risks fueling the backlash if it moves toward executing the artist.

In an interview for the Friday edition of VOA’s Flashpoint Global Crises program, German parliament member Ye-One Rhie said the Iranian government is using the death sentence to monitor who is still reacting to developments in Salehi’s case and how they are reacting. Rhie has been acting as a “political sponsor” or advocate for the 33-year-old Iranian singer since shortly after his initial arrest in October 2022.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran is testing the waters,” Rhie said, noting that Tehran did the same when it staged an unprecedented aerial assault on Israel earlier this month. Israeli forces largely thwarted the attack with military assistance from a coalition of Western allies and Arab neighbors.

Iranian state-approved newspaper Shargh first reported the death sentence against Salehi in an article published Wednesday, citing one of his lawyers who vowed to appeal it.

Salehi was charged upon arrest with “spreading corruption on earth,” an offense punishable by death. Days earlier, he had posted videos on Instagram, showing himself joining a nationwide protest movement against Iran’s Islamist government and releasing a music video denouncing the government for 44 years of “failure.”

The rapper was sentenced last July to six years in prison, but Iran’s Supreme Court reviewed the ruling and declared it flawed, enabling his release in November. He was re-arrested two weeks later, after posting another video online complaining of being tortured in custody.

Wednesday’s report of Salehi’s death sentence drew swift condemnations from other dissidents and artists in Iran and from Iranian teachers’ trade unions.

VOA’s Persian Service also received and vetted several videos that appeared to show protest actions inside Iran. VOA could not verify the videos independently because it is barred from reporting inside Iran.

One video shows a banner with Salehi’s image on a bridge over Tehran’s Modarres Expressway, as a woman filming the scene says the date is April 25.

Another clip shows a Persian slogan citing Salehi scrawled onto a building’s exterior wall in an unidentified location. The graffiti says: “We will return to the streets with strength.”

Criticism of Salehi’s death sentence also came quickly from the United States and U.N. human rights bodies. In a Wednesday post on the X platform, U.S. Deputy Special Envoy for Iran Abram Paley said the U.S. “strongly” condemns the move. U.N. rights experts issued a statement Thursday demanding that Iran release Salehi immediately and reverse the sentence.

As those calls were made, some Iranian state media appeared to downplay the possibility of Salehi being executed. In articles published Thursday, they cited Iran’s Judiciary Media Center as saying that even if the Supreme Court confirms Salehi’s death sentence upon appeal, a Pardon and Forgiveness Commission would review the case for possible commutation.

Rhie said her efforts to raise international awareness of Salehi’s plight for the past year-and-a-half have kept his case on the radar and agenda of Western media and governments.

“It is important for the Iranian regime to know that Salehi has a status that they cannot touch. I would warn them against doing anything to him, because they don’t want to know what the backlash would be,” Rhie said.

While Iran has signaled that Salehi’s death sentence could be reversed, the German lawmaker said she will keep up her fight. “I don’t think that there is anything that will stop us from our activism,” she said.

VOA’s Persian Service contributed to this report.

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Nigerian company creates taxi system fueled by electric vehicles

As climate change wreaks havoc around the world, the need for sustainable solutions grows more urgent. In Nigeria, a private company recently introduced an Uber-style taxi system made of approximately 200 electric vehicles. The company says the fleet is a step toward a greener future. Gibson Emeka reports from Abuja, Nigeria. Amy Reifenrath narrates.

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Old style dresses help Namibian women look ahead

Victorian dress was forcibly imposed on Namibia’s indigenous ǂNūkhoe women by German colonizers in the late 1800s. Despite the origins, these styles persist today as a symbol of resilience. Lee Garises reports from Windhoek, Namibia. Camera: Jesaya Abraham

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