TIME faith

Episcopalians Vote to Allow Gay Marriage in Churches

Clergy can now perform religious weddings for same-sex couples

(SALT LAKE CITY)—Episcopalians have voted to allow religious weddings for same-sex couples, just days after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide.

The vote came Wednesday in Salt Lake City at the denomination’s national assembly. The measure passed by an overwhelming margin in the House of Deputies, the voting body of clergy and lay people at the meeting. The day before, the House of Bishops had approved the resolution, 129-26 with five abstaining.

The New York-based church of nearly 1.9 million members is known for electing the first openly gay Episcopal bishop in 2003. Since then, many dioceses have allowed priests to perform civil same-sex weddings.

Still, the church hadn’t changed its own laws on marriage until Wednesday.

Under the new rules, clergy can decline to perform the ceremonies.

TIME Courts

Family Sues After Student Dies During Fraternity Hike

Joshua Castaneda, Martha Castaneda, Maria Castaneda
Damian Dovarganes—AP Family members of late Armando Villa. Left to right: Joshua Castaneda, his mother Martha Castaneda, and aunt, Maria Castaneda react as California State University, Northridge, CSUN president Dr. Dianne Harrison, not seen, reads a statement regarding Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity activities that lead to the death of CSUN student Armando Villa, during a news conference at the CSUN campus in Northridge, Calif., on Sept. 5, 2014.

Armando Villa's family filed a lawsuit against California State University

(LOS ANGELES) — The family of a California college student who died during a grueling fraternity hike sued the organization and the school on Wednesday, saying the young man’s death was senseless and easily preventable.

Armando Villa, who attended California State University, Northridge, died a year ago Wednesday after the 19-year-old collapsed during an 18-mile hike organized by Pi Kappa Phi. The group was hiking in hot temperatures with little water and inadequate shoes, a school investigation found.

The investigation concluded that hazing was to blame.

Villa’s mother and stepfather filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the university, school administrators and the fraternity, alleging negligence and hazing. The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, seeks unspecified damages.

“We’re just looking for a little closure and justice,” Villa’s mother, Betty Serrato, told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “They’ve ruined a life and broken a family.”

The lawsuit alleges that fraternity members forced pledges to go on the dangerous hike without adequate supplies as a last ritual before they could become full-fledged members. The lawsuit says the university had a duty to oversee fraternity activities and should have been aware of and stopped any hazing that was happening.

The national fraternity’s CEO, Mark Timmes, declined to comment on the lawsuit, except to reiterate that the organization closed its chapter at the school after Villa’s death.

“Our thoughts and prayers remain with Armando’s family and all those affected by his passing,” Timmes said in a statement.

The university declined to comment on the litigation, but said in a statement that any claim that the school “was in any way responsible for the tragic death of Armando Villa is untrue.”

The school cited its investigation and said it banned the fraternity from ever operating on campus again.

“The death of Armando was a tragedy and our hearts continue to go out to his family and friends,” the statement said.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department opened a criminal investigation after Villa’s death, though results haven’t been released, including a coroner’s report.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Richard Biddle, who investigated the case, said he has turned it over to the district attorney’s office to consider whether charges should be filed. A district attorney’s spokesman said the case was under review.

“We want the truth. We still want to know what happened out there,” Serrato said. “We deserve that much at least.”

In September, university President Dianne Harrison condemned hazing while addressing Villa’s death.

“Hazing is stupid, senseless, dangerous and against the law in California,” Harrison said. “It is a vestige of a toxic way of thinking in which it was somehow OK to degrade, humiliate and potentially harm others.”

Harrison is among those named in the lawsuit. She didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

TIME medicine

Study Suggests Clue to Strange Link Between Swine Flu Vaccine and Narcolepsy

The immune system may have misidentified a protein in the vaccine

(WASHINGTON) — One vaccine used in Europe during the 2009 swine flu pandemic was linked to rare cases of a baffling side effect — the sleep disorder narcolepsy. Now new research offers a clue to what happened.

The vaccine Pandemrix never was used in the United States, and was pulled off the market abroad, but reports of narcolepsy in Finland and several other countries sparked questions globally about flu shot safety.

On Wednesday, an international team of researchers reported the problem may have been a case of mistaken identity by the immune system.

Narcolepsy is an incurable disorder that interferes with normal sleep cycles, leaving people chronically sleepy during the daytime and apt to abruptly fall asleep. No one knows what causes it, although patients have very low levels of a brain chemical named hypocretin that’s important for wakefulness. One theory is that a particular gene variant makes people susceptible, and that some environmental trigger, maybe an infection, pushes them over the edge.

About a year after mass vaccinations began against a new strain of H1N1 flu, called swine flu at the time, some European countries reported rare cases of narcolepsy in recipients of GlaxoSmithKline’s Pandemrix but not in people given other flu vaccines. Research found narcolepsy patients had that genetic predisposition, but no other explanation.

In the new study, Dr. Lawrence Steinman of Stanford University and colleagues found that the H1N1 virus contains a protein that is structurally similar to part of a brain cell receptor for that wakefulness chemical. They wondered if the flu-fighting antibodies generated by the Pandemrix vaccine might also latch onto those narcolepsy-linked receptors, leading to damage.

Colleagues in Finland sent blood samples that had been stored from 20 people diagnosed with vaccine-associated narcolepsy. Sure enough, 17 harbored antibodies capable of reacting both to flu and to those narcolepsy-linked receptors, Steinman’s team reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine. Recipients of another European vaccine, Novartis’ Focetria, didn’t harbor those cross-reactive antibodies.

Pandemrix contained much higher levels of the flu protein than Focetria, possibly because the two flu shots were made from different H1N1 subtypes, the researchers found.

The study doesn’t prove the link, Steinman stressed, calling for more research. It’s not clear how the antibodies could have gotten into the brain.

Moreover, some unvaccinated people who caught the flu harbor the antibodies, too, he said, and a study from China found H1N1 infection itself may increase narcolepsy risk.

It’s a plausible theory, said Dr. William Schaffner, a flu vaccine expert at Vanderbilt University who wasn’t involved in the new research.

Importantly, “this would also appear to be a solvable problem,” with manufacturing techniques to ensure that future vaccines don’t contain too much cross-reactive protein, he said.

However the narcolepsy puzzle turns out, the flu kills tens of thousands of people every year. “It’s really important to get vaccinated against flu,” Steinman said.

 

TIME Airlines

Feds Suspect Airlines Working Together to Keep Fares High

Justice Department investigating potential "unlawful coordination" among some airlines

(WASHINGTON)—The U.S. government is investigating possible collusion among major airlines to limit available seats, which keeps airfares high, according to a document obtained by The Associated Press.

The civil antitrust investigation by the Justice Department appears to focus on whether airlines illegally signaled to each other how quickly they would add new flights, routes and extra seats.

A letter received Tuesday by major U.S. carriers demands copies of all communications the airlines had with each other, Wall Street analysts and major shareholders about their plans for passenger-carrying capacity, or “the undesirability of your company or any other airline increasing capacity.”

The Justice Department asked each airline for its passenger-carrying capacity both by region, and overall, since January 2010.

Justice Department spokeswoman Emily Pierce confirmed that the department is looking into potential “unlawful coordination” among some airlines. She declined to comment further or say which airlines are being investigated.

On a day when the overall stock market was up, stocks of the major U.S. airlines ended the day down 1 to 3 percent on news of the investigation.

American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines all said they received a letter and are complying. Several smaller carriers, including JetBlue Airways and Frontier Airlines, said they had not been contacted by the government.

The airlines publicly discussed capacity early last month in Miami at the International Air Transport Association’s annual meeting. After hearing about that meeting, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., requested a Justice Department investigation.

The department had tried to block the most recent merger, the 2013 joining of American Airlines and US Airways, but ultimately agreed to let it proceed after the airlines made minor concessions.

Some Wall Street analysts argue that to remain financially strong, airlines should not expand capacity faster than the U.S. economy. And from January 2010 to January 2014, they didn’t.

In that 4-year period, capacity on domestic flights was virtually flat while the U.S. economy grew about 2.2 percent per year. From January 2014 to January 2015, however, the airlines expanded by 5.5 percent, topping the economy’s 2.4 percent growth for 2014.

Thanks to a series of mergers starting in 2008, America, Delta, Southwest and United now control more than 80 percent of the seats in the domestic travel market. They’ve eliminated unprofitable flights, filled more seats on planes and made a very public effort to slow growth to command higher airfares.

It worked. The average domestic airfare rose an inflation-adjusted 13 percent from 2009 to 2014, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. And that doesn’t include the billions of dollars airlines collect from new fees. During the past 12 months, the airlines took in $3.6 billion in bag fees and $3 billion in reservation-change fees.

That has led to record profits. In the past two years, U.S. airlines earned a combined $19.7 billion.

This year could bring even higher profits thanks to a massive drop in the price of jet fuel, airlines’ single highest expense. In April, U.S. airlines paid $1.94 a gallon, down 34 percent from the year before.

That worries Wall Street analysts and investors. Cheap fuel has led airlines to make money-losing decisions in the past, rapidly expanding, launching new routes and setting unrealistically low fares to lure passengers. Airlines already flying those routes would match the fare, and all carriers would lose money.

Such price wars are long gone, but today’s low fuel costs along with recent comments from airline executives have given the market jitters.

Airline stocks plunged in May after the chief financial officer of Southwest said at an industry event that the carrier would increase passenger-carrying capacity by 7 to 8 percent, an increase over an earlier target.

Wolfe Research analyst Hunter Keay, who hosted that May 19 conference, told investors in a note afterward that the big airlines are unhappy to be restraining growth while low-cost airlines like Spirit grow much faster. He urged the major airlines to “step up” and cut routes for the good of the industry.

On June 1, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said his airline would cap its 2015 growth at 7 percent. That sparked a rally in airline stocks, as investors were more assured that capacity growth would be limited.

Keay said Wednesday that he had not been contacted by the government and doesn’t think the airlines have been acting inappropriately.

“The analyst community is bringing up the subject. You certainly can’t fault an airline executive for responding to the question,” Keay said. “The capacity continues to grow at the airports people want to fly to and air travel remains a particular good value for the consumer, especially for the utility that it provides.”

TIME U.S.

Here’s How All Those “National Days” Get Made

Zoovio co-owner and creator of National Day Calendar Marlo Anderson, eats some homemade fudge as he poses for photos on National Fudge Day at his Mandan, N.D. business on June 16, 2015.
Will Kincaid—AP Zoovio co-owner and creator of National Day Calendar Marlo Anderson, eats some homemade fudge as he poses for photos on National Fudge Day at his Mandan, N.D. business on June 16, 2015.

The "National Day Calendar" is an online compendium of pseudo-holidays that charges $1,500 to $4,000 for "national day" proclamations.

(NEW YORK) — To most Americans, July 4 is Independence Day. But on Marlo Anderson’s calendar, it’s also Caesar Salad Day and Barbecued Spareribs Day.

Anderson is the mastermind of the National Day Calendar, an online compendium of pseudo-holidays that has become a resource for TV and radio stations looking to add a little levity to their broadcasts.

The 52-year-old co-owner of a VHS digitizing company in North Dakota started the calendar in 2013 and soon realized the site could also be a way for people to declare their own special days. So last year, he started charging $1,500 to $4,000 for “national day” proclamations.

“People certainly don’t need to use us. It’s just we really give it a jumpstart,” he said.

Marketing experts give Anderson credit for seizing on the desire by companies and groups for another way to promote themselves, though they question the effectiveness some of the resulting campaigns. It’s not the only reason for celebration, but food seems to be a common subject for special days.

Already, the National Day Calendar has given its blessing to more than 30 made-up holidays. A crouton maker paid for National Crouton Day (May 13), a seafood restaurant submitted National Fried Clam Day (July 3) and a craft beer maker came up with National Refreshment Day (fourth Thursday in July).

Anderson’s venture, which he says brings in roughly $50,000 a year, underscores the free-for-all nature of such days.

In 1870, Congress established the first four federal holidays with New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Since then, only six more annual federal holidays have been added, with the most recent being Martin Luther King Jr. day in 1983. But even the authority of those holidays is limited; although they’re broadly observed, they’re technically only legally applicable to federal employees.

A few dozen other dates are also recognized in the U.S. code, including Mother’s Day, National School Lunch Week and American Heart Month. Mayors, presidents and other lawmakers can declare days honoring individuals and causes too, although those usually aren’t widely observed.

Beyond that, there’s no single authority for declaring the legitimacy of special days, which can become part of culture in myriad ways, including marketing campaigns, advocacy efforts and folklore.

The often murky origins present an opportunity for the National Day Calendar, which has emerged to bestow an air of authority on special days. For a price, the site mails official-looking proclamations that Anderson prints out and frames at Zoovio, his VHS digitizing business.

Boston Market’s chief brand officer, Sara Bittorf, said the idea for National Rotisserie Chicken Day (June 2) came from the chain’s ad agency, but noted the day was one of few approved by the National Day Calendar’s selection committee.

Since the National Day Calendar doesn’t have its own staff, that selection committee is made up of four Zoovio employees.

Amy LaVallie, a committee member, said the general rule is to pick days with broad appeal. It’s why “National Sean Connery Day” was rejected, she said, but Boston Market’s submission passed muster.

“National Rotisserie Chicken Day, okay? People like chicken. Simple as that,” LaVallie said.

Still, some question the validity of Anderson’s calendar declarations.

“It seems like hokum to me, but more power to him,” said Robert Passikoff, president of Key Brands, a consulting firm. “Ask him if they have a P.T. Barnum day, and see if they’re celebrating a sucker born every minute.”

While special days give companies another way to promote a product, Passikoff said their effectiveness would depend largely on whether there’s a natural interest in the category. He said National Donut Day (June 5) gets a lot of attention because the pastries are popular and the day has interesting origins; the Salvation Army says it began during World War I when its workers gave soldiers coffee and doughnuts in the trenches.

As for a day celebrating rotisserie chicken, Passikoff questioned whether anyone would really care.

While the National Day Calendar is a quick way for companies to get recognition for a special date, it isn’t the only keeper of notable days.

In 1957, brothers William and Harrison Chase started Chase’s Calendar of Events as a reference for the media. The first edition was 32 pages, but the book has since mushroomed to 752 pages and includes federal holidays and events like musical festivals, as well as days celebrating things like squirrels, pooper scoopers and s’mores.

It costs $80 and is used by places like libraries and media outlets.

Holly McGuire, editor-in-chief of Chase’s, said she and her team try to gauge whether people actually “observe” particular dates when deciding what should be included in the book.

“Really, in the last 10 or 20 years, people have just been throwing them out there. They may take or not. We try to bring a little order to the chaos,” McGuire said.

For instance, McGuire said Chase’s doesn’t list a day for chocolate since there are about three floating about and she can’t figure out how they came to be. Yet the book lists a “Sneak Some Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor’s Porch Night,” which is intended to relieve people of squash from “overzealous planting.”

McGuire didn’t provide details on Chase’s methods for investigating the legitimacy of special days, but said a couple retweets on Twitter wouldn’t qualify.

“We’ve got a team and we’re constantly looking at things, kind of like dictionary editors do with new words,” she said.

People can submit special days for inclusion in Chase’s, but acceptance doesn’t hinge on payments.

At the National Day Calendar, by contrast, one-time proclamations for birthdays, anniversaries and other occasions are on sale for $19.99 or $39.99. The price for ongoing inclusion in the calendar is higher.

For $1,500, Anderson provides a framed proclamation. For $2,500, he helps arrange interviews with the media. And for $4,000 and travel expenses, he’ll show up to present proclamations at events. So far, Anderson says three groups have taken him on that offer.

This fall, he’s traveling to New York for National Dumpling Day (Sept. 26); the day was submitted by TMI Corp., a distributor of Asian foods.

TIME remembrance

‘Britain’s Schindler’ Nicholas Winton Dies at 106

An Oct. 28, 2014 file photo of the then 105 year-old Sir Nicholas Winton waiting to be decorated with the highest Czech Republic's decoration, The Order of the White Lion at the Prague Castle in Prague, Czech Republic. Winton, a humanitarian who almost single-handedly saved more than 650 Jewish children from the Holocaust, earning himself the label “Britain's Schindler,” has died. He was 106. The Rotary Club of Maidenhead, of which he was former president, said Winton died Wednesday, July 1, 2015, with his daughter Barbara and two grandchildren at his side. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)
Petr David Josek—AP The then 105 year-old Sir Nicholas Winton waiting to be decorated with the highest Czech Republic's decoration, The Order of the White Lion at the Prague Castle in Prague, on Oct. 28, 2014.

Winton rescued more than 650 Jewish children from the Holocaust

(LONDON) — He was just a 29-year-old clerk at the London Stock Exchange when he faced the challenge of his lifetime. Traveling with a friend to Czechoslovakia in 1938, as the drums of impending war echoed around Europe, Nicholas Winton was hit by a key realization.

The country was in danger and no one was saving its Jewish children.

Winton would almost single-handedly save more than 650 Jewish children from the Holocaust, earning himself the label “Britain’s Schindler.” He died Wednesday at age 106 in a hospital near Maidenhead, his hometown west of London, his family said.

Winton arranged trains to carry children from Nazi-occupied Prague to Britain, battling bureaucracy at both ends and saving them from almost certain death. To top it all off, he then kept quiet about his exploits for a half-century.

His daughter, Barbara, said she hoped her father would be remembered for his wicked sense of humor and charity work as well as his wartime heroism. And she hoped his legacy would be inspiring people to believe that even difficult things were possible.

“He believed that if there was something that needed to be done you should do it,” she said. “Let’s not spend too long agonizing about stuff. Let’s get it done.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron said “the world has lost a great man.” Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s former chief rabbi, said Winton “was a giant of moral courage and determination, and he will be mourned by Jewish people around the world.”

Born in London on May 19, 1909 to parents of German Jewish descent, Winton himself was raised as a Christian.

Late in 1938, a friend contacted him and told him to cancel the skiing holiday they had planned and travel instead to Czechoslovakia.

Alarmed by the influx of refugees from the Sudetenland region recently annexed by Germany, Winton and his friend feared — correctly — that Czechoslovakia soon would be invaded by the Nazis and that its Jewish residents would be sent to concentration camps.

While some in Britain were working to get Jewish intellectuals and communists out of Czechoslovakia, no one was trying to save the children — so Winton took that task upon himself.

Returning to Britain, Winton persuaded British officials to accept children, as long as foster homes were found and a 50-pound guarantee was paid for each one to ensure they had enough money to return home later. At the time, their stays were only expected to be temporary.

Setting himself up as the one-man children’s section of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Winton set about finding homes and guarantors, drawing up lists of about 6,000 children, publishing pictures to encourage British families to agree to take them.

The first 20 children arrived by plane, but once the German army reached Prague in March 1939, they could only be brought out by train.

So, in the months before the outbreak of World War II, eight trains carried children from Czechoslovakia through Germany to Britain. In all, Winton got 669 children out.

The largest evacuation was scheduled for Sept. 3, 1939 — the day that Britain declared war on Germany. That train never left, and almost none of the 250 children trying to flee on it survived the war.

The children from Prague were among some 10,000 mostly Jewish children who made it to Britain on what were known as the Kindertransports (children’s transports). Few of them would see their parents again.

Although many more Jewish children were saved from Berlin and Vienna, those operations were better organized and better financed. Winton’s operation was unique because he worked almost alone.

“Maybe a lot more could have been done. But much more time would have been needed, much more help would have been needed from other countries, much more money would have been needed, much more organization,” Winton later said.

He also acknowledged that not all the children who made it to Britain were well-treated in their foster homes — sometimes they were used as cheap domestic servants.

“I wouldn’t claim that it was 100 percent successful. But I would claim that everybody who came over was alive at the end of the war,” he was quoted as saying in the book about the Kindertransports “Into the Arms of Strangers.”

Several of the children he saved grew up to have prominent careers, including filmmaker Karel Reisz, British politician Alf Dubs and Canadian journalist Joe Schlesinger.

Winton served in the Royal Air Force during the war and continued to support refugee organizations. After the war, he became involved in numerous other charitable organizations, especially in Maidenhead.

A keen fencer who lost his chance to compete at the Olympics because of the outbreak of World War II, Winton worked with his younger brother Bobby to found the Winton Cup, still a major team fencing competition in Britain.

But for almost 50 years, Winton said nothing about what he had done before the war. It only emerged in 1988 when his wife Grete found documents in the attic of their home.

“There are all kinds of things you don’t talk about, even with your family,” Winton said in 1999. “Everything that happened before the war actually didn’t feel important in the light of the war itself.”

Winton’s wife persuaded him to have his story documented. It became well-known in Britain after the BBC tracked down dozens of “Nicky’s Children” and arranged an emotional reunion on prime-time television.

A film about his heroism, “Nicholas Winton — The Power of Good,” won an International Emmy Award in 2002. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair praised him as “Britain’s Schindler,” after German businessman Oskar Schindler, who also saved Jewish lives during the war.

Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2003 and also honored in the Czech Republic, where last year he received the country’s highest state honor, the Order of the White Lion.

“He was a person I admired for his personal bravery,” said Czech President Milos Zeman.

A statue of Winton stands at Prague’s central station, while a statue commemorating the children of the Kindertransport is a popular sight at London’s Liverpool Street Station.

Winton continued to attend Kindertransport events in Britain and the Czech Republic well beyond his 100th birthday.

Still, he rejected the description of himself as a hero, insisting that unlike Schindler, his life had never been in danger.

“At the time, everybody said, ‘Isn’t it wonderful what you’ve done for the Jews? You saved all these Jewish people,'” Winton said. “When it was first said to me, it came almost as a revelation. Because I didn’t do it particularly for that reason. I was there to save children.”

Winton’s wife Grete died in 1999. He is survived by his daughter Barbara, his son Nick and several grandchildren.

___

Associated Press Writers Danica Kirka and Jill Lawless in London and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed.

TIME conflict

Food Aid to Syrian Refugees Cut in Half Due to Funding Crisis

Mideast Lebanon Syrian Refugees
Bilal Hussein—AP Syrian refugee children play in the dirt street of a Syrian refugee camp in the town of al-Faour, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, Saturday, June 20, 2015.

The crisis may lead to a full halt to all food support for most refugees in Jordan

(AMMAN, Jordan) — The World Food Program says it had to cut in half food aid for Syrian refugees in Lebanon because of a funding crisis and may soon have to halt all food support for most refugees in Jordan.

Lebanon and Jordan are among five countries that host some 4 million Syrian war refugees. The U.N. refugee agency says funding levels for them have dropped dangerously low.

The WFP, which had to make cuts before because of a cash crisis, says that in July refugee food aid in Lebanon will drop to $13.50 per person per month. Those in Jordan escape cuts this month, but 440,000 urban refugees could be left empty-handed if funds don’t arrive by August.

The program says it needs $139 million to keep helping Syrian refugees through September.

TIME diplomacy

U.S. and Cuba Announce Embassy Openings

Head of US Interests Section in Havana delivers a letter from Obama to Cuban President Castro
Alejandro Ernesto—EPA Chief of Mission at the US Interests Section in Havana Jeffrey DeLaurentis (left) meets Cuban interim Foreign Minister, Marcelo Medina (right), in Havana, Cuba, on July 1, 2015.

Both countries will restore full diplomatic relations and reopen embassies July 20

(WASHINGTON) — President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that the U.S. and Cuba will reopen their embassies in Havana and Washington, heralding a “new chapter” in relations after a half-century of hostility.

“We don’t have to be imprisoned by the past,” Obama said from White House Rose Garden. “Americans and Cubans alike are ready to move forward.”

Cuban television broadcast Obama’s statement live, underscoring the new spirit.

The embassy agreement marks the biggest tangible step toward normalizing relations since the surprise announcement in December that the U.S. and Cuba were restarting diplomatic ties. The posts in Washington and Havana are scheduled to open July 20, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said.

Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Cuba for the opening of the U.S. Embassy.

For Obama, ending the U.S. freeze with Cuba is central to his foreign policy legacy as he nears the end of his presidency. Obama has long touted the value of direct engagement with global foes and has argued that the U.S. economic embargo on the communist island just 90 miles south of Florida was ineffective.

The president on Wednesday reiterated his call for Congress to lift the embargo, which he said has failed to bring political change in Cuba. However, he faces stiff resistance from Republicans, as well as some Democrats, who say he is prematurely rewarding a government that engages in serious human rights abuses.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said in a statement that opening a U.S. Embassy in Cuba “will do nothing to help the Cuban people and is just another trivial attempt for President Obama to go legacy shopping.”

The president also will face strong opposition in Congress to spending any taxpayer dollars for building or refurbishing an embassy in Havana. Congress would have to approve any administration request to spend money on an embassy.

The U.S. cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 after Fidel Castro’s revolution. The U.S. spent decades trying to either actively overthrow the Cuban government or isolate the island, including toughening the economic embargo first imposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Since the late 1970s, the United States and Cuba have operated diplomatic missions called interests sections in each other’s capitals. The missions are technically under the protection of Switzerland, and do not enjoy the same status as embassies.

Ahead of Obama’s remarks, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana delivered a letter from the White House to Cuba about restoring embassies in the countries’ respective capitals. U.S. Interests Section chief Jeffrey DeLaurentis arrived at the Cuban Foreign Ministry in Havana on Wednesday morning to hand-deliver the message.

In a highly unusual move, Cuban state television broadcast Obama’s remarks live with translation in Spanish.

While the opening of embassies marks a major milestone in the thaw between the U.S. and Cuba, significant issues remain as the countries look to normalize relations. Among them: talks on human rights; demands for compensation for confiscated American properties in Havana and damages to Cuba from the embargo; and possible cooperation on law enforcement, including the touchy topic of U.S. fugitives sheltering in Havana.

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the opening of embassies was part of the administration’s “common sense approach to Cuba.” However, he called for Cuba to recognize that it is out of step with the international community on human rights.

“Arrests and detentions of dissidents must cease and genuine political pluralism is long overdue,” Cardin said in a statement.

Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro met in April during a regional summit, marking the first time U.S. and Cuban leaders have met in person since 1958.

For Obama, the embassy announcements come amid what the White House sees as one of the strongest stretches of his second term. He scored major legislative and legal victories last week, with Congress giving him fast-track authority for an Asia-Pacific free trade deal and the Supreme Court upholding a key provision of his health care law.

The court also ruled in favor of gay marriage nationwide, an outcome Obama supported.

___

Associated Press writer Peter Orsi in Havana contributed to this report.

TIME Crime

Fire at Black Church in South Carolina Wasn’t Arson, Source Says

black church fire Greeleyville
Veasey Conway—AP A firefighter works at the scene of a fire at the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal church, early Wednesday, July 1, 2015, in Greeleyville, S.C.

The fire occurred as federal authorities also investigate a series of fires at black churches

(GREELEYVILLE, S.C.) — A fire that destroyed a black church that 20 years ago was a target of the Ku Klux Klan was not the work of an arsonist, a federal law enforcement source said Wednesday.

Preliminary indications are that the fire at the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville was not intentionally set and was not arson, the source said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly. The fire is still under investigation, the official said.

Greeleyville is a town of about 400 people around 50 miles north of Charleston, where a pastor and eight members of a historic black church were fatally shot June 17 in what authorities are investigating as a hate crime.

The fire occurred as federal authorities also investigate a series of fires at black churches in several Southern states. So far, there is no indication the fires are related.

On Wednesday morning, only the brick walls of the Greeleyville church remained. The roof had collapsed, and the long slender windows no longer had glass in them.

The side of the church facing the rural highway had a white cross that appeared charred.

Investigators were walking through the debris, taking pictures and examining the remains of the building.

Yellow crime scene tape kept reporters and nearby residents away from the building.

The image of orange flames coming from the same church the KKK burned down in June 1995 brought up painful memories, said Williamsburg County Councilman Eddie Woods Jr., who got out of bed to drive to the church after hearing about the fire.

“That was a tough thing to see,” Woods said. “It is hurting those people again. But we’re going to rebuild. If this was someone, they need to know that hate won’t stop us again.”

Two members of the Ku Klux Klan pleaded guilty to starting that fire and a second blaze at another predominantly black church.

Speaking at the church in 1996, President Bill Clinton implored people not to respond to what was a string of nearly three dozen church fires — many of them racially motivated — with the same hatred that drove the people who started the blazes. He gave the church a plaque to commemorate his visit, and noticed membership had grown four times over since the fire.

“The American people are the most religious, church-going people of any great democracy,” Clinton said. “We cannot let someone come into our democratic home, the home of our faith, and start torching our houses of worship.”

TIME Egypt

ISIS Claims Credit for Attacks on Egyptian Army Checkpoints That Kill 50

Egypt Sinai
Ibraheem Abu Mustafa—Reuters Smoke rises in Egypt's North Sinai as seen from the border of southern Gaza Strip with Egypt on July 1, 2015.

The attacks come two days after the assassination of the country's top prosecutor

(EL-ARISH, Egypt) — Islamist militants on Wednesday unleashed a wave of simultaneous attacks, including suicide car bombings, on Egyptian army checkpoints in the restive northern Sinai Peninsula, killing at least 50 soldiers, security and military officials said.

The coordinated morning assaults in Sinai came a day after Egypt’s president pledged to step up the battle against Islamic militants and two days after the country’s state prosecutor was assassinated in the capital, Cairo.

The scope and intensity of the attacks underscored the resilience and advanced planning by the militants who have for years battled Egyptian security forces in northern Sinai but intensified their insurgency over the past two years just as the government threw more resources into the drawn-out fight.

An Islamic State affiliate in Egypt claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attacks, saying its fighters targeted a total of 15 army and police positions and staged three suicide bombings, two of which targeted checkpoints and one that hit an officers’ club in the nearby city of el-Arish.

The authenticity of the claim could not be immediately verified but it was posted on a Facebook page associated with the group.

Except for the attack at the officers’ club, the rest took place in the town of Sheikh Zuweid and targeted at least six military checkpoints, the officials said. The militants also took soldiers captive and seized weapons and several armored vehicles, they added, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

At least 54 other soldiers were wounded, the officials said. As fighting raged, an army Apache gunship destroyed one of the armored carriers captured by the militants as they were driving it away, the officials added.

Egypt’s military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Samir, said clashes were still underway in the area between the armed forces and the militants. His statement put the number of soldiers killed so far at 10, but the conflicting numbers could not immediately be reconciled in the immediate aftermath of a major attack.

Samir’s statement, posted on his official Facebook page, said some 70 militants attacked five checkpoints in northern Sinai and that Egyptian troops killed 22 off them and destroyed three all-terrain vehicles fitted with antiaircraft guns.

The officials said scores of militants were besieging Sheikh Zuweid’s main police station, shelling it with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades and exchanging fire with dozens of policemen inside.

Northern Sinai has over the past two years witnessed a series of complex and successful attacks targeting Egyptian security forces, many of which have been claimed by a local affiliate of the Islamic State group.

Two of the six checkpoints attacked Wednesday were completely destroyed, the officials said. Army checkpoints in the area routinely have between 50 and 60 soldiers. The IS statement said the two checkpoints were hit by suicide bombers.

The attacks came just two days after the assassination in Cairo of the country’s top prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, and one day after President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi vowed to step up a two-year crackdown on militants.

Last week, Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani called in an audio message on IS followers to launch massive attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is now entering its third week.

Militants in northern Sinai, which borders Israel and the Gaza Strip, have battled security forces for years but stepped up their attacks following the July 2013 military ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi after days of mass street protests against his rule.

El-Sissi, then the nation’s army chief, led the ouster and went to become Egypt’s president, winning a landslide election a year ago on a ticket that emphasized security and economic recovery.

Wednesday’s attacks came in swift response to el-Sissi’s pledge the previous day to carry out justice for the prosecutor general’s assassination — and possibly move to execute Muslim Brotherhood leaders, an Islamist group from which Morsi hails.

Pounding his fist as he spoke Tuesday at the funeral of Barakat, who led the prosecution and oversaw scores of cases against thousands of Islamists, el-Sissi’s comments seemed to signal an even tougher campaign on the Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest Islamist group that is now outlawed and declared a terrorist organization.

Egypt has since Morsi’s ouster waged a crackdown that has led to thousands of arrests, mass convictions and death sentences. Morsi is among those condemned to die, but has a potentially lengthy appeal process ahead of him.

El-Sissi said the government was ready to brush aside criticisms and free the judiciary’s hand for a “battle” the country is prepared to wage.

“The judiciary is restricted by laws, and swift justice is also restricted by laws. We will not wait for that,” el-Sissi said.

Action will be taken within days “to enable us to execute the law, and bring justice as soon as possible,” he said. “We will stand in the face of the whole world, and fight the whole world.”

In a thinly veiled reference to jailed members of the Brotherhood, el-Sissi blamed the violence on those “issuing orders from behind bars,” and warned: “If there is a death sentence, it will be carried out.”

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