TIME Israel

Israel Rejects Gaza Cease-Fire As Fresh Protests Rage in West Bank

Palestinian supporters of Hamas take shelter while clashing with Israeli security forces on July 25, 2014 near Ramallah, West Bank.
Palestinian supporters of Hamas take shelter while clashing with Israeli security forces on July 25, 2014 near Ramallah, West Bank. Andrew Burton—Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has yet to successfully mediate a cease-fire

Palestinians marched on the Qalandia checkpoint, rocks and Molotov cocktails flew, and Israel Defense Forces soldiers responded with gunfire and tear gas. It’s 2014, but today it all looks achingly similar to 2000, the year the Second Intifada, or “uprising,” broke out.

Five West Bank Palestinians have been killed by IDF troops since Thursday night: two on Thursday night in Ramallah, and three more in the cities of Hebron and Nablus. A sixth Palestinian was killed by gunfire from a settler near the Hawara checkpoint south of Nablus, Israeli Radio reported.

“You’d better believe this is the start of the Third Intifada,” said Raed Froukh, 22. Froukh was part of a group of about 200 young Palestinians who threw rocks at Israeli soldiers Friday near a checkpoint on the outskirts of Ramallah – five minutes from the home of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – and then ran for cover when the troops began shooting in the direction of the youths.

“Israel has been killing our people in Gaza, is refusing to allow us pray in the al Aqsa mosque, and is now shooting live bullets at demonstrators,” said Froukh. “I think this will be worse than the first two intifadas which we witnessed. And as you can see, it’s all the factions coming together to fight the occupation and show resistance everywhere we can.”

The outburst of Israeli-Palestinian violence comes against the backdrop of intense diplomatic activity, led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, to reach a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. On Thursday, Hamas and the secular Fatah faction, led by President Abbas, presented a rare unified position, outlining joint demands for a ceasefire: First, they want Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza. Second, they want Hamas-affiliated Palestinians, released in 2011 in a prisoner exchange deal but re-arrested by Israel last month after the kidnapping and killing of three West Bank teenagers, set free once again. There are several other demands, including allowing Gazans to pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem: they used to be permitted there, but some haven’t left Gaza since the Second Intifada almost 15 years ago.

Israel, meanwhile, has a different condition: The complete demilitarization of the Gaza Strip. That would prevent Hamas from preparing for that seems like an inevitable next round of fighting, given how frequently conflicts between it and Israel have cropped up in recent years. Israel’s disarmament demand mirrors that of 28 European Union foreign ministers, who also called for Hamas to be stripped of its arms this week.

Demilitarization, though, is a key sticking point standing in the way of a cease-fire deal. Gershon Baskin is an Israeli peace activist who has been involved in other back-channel cease-fire and prisoner exchange negotiations between Israel and Hamas. He said that asking Hamas to lay down all of its weapons is clearly a non-starter for the Palestinian side.

“Israel has defined its demands of ceasefire, which are probably totally unrealistic,” Baskin said. “Israel wants a demilitarization of Gaza, and if that is their demand, they probably won’t get a cease-fire.”

But neither has Hamas shown flexibility on the other demand, that of an immediate end to the violence. It has patently rejected Kerry’s proposal for a two-stage cease-fire – an immediate cessation of all hostilities followed by a five-day or one-week period to negotiate the exact terms. Meanwhile, Israel’s cabinet on Friday also rejected Kerry’s idea, according to Israeli media.

While Kerry and the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, kept trying to find the right cease-fire formula, the fighting plodded on. The IDF continued to attack Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip Friday, and Hamas kept lobbing rockets into Israel.

Still, the world’s attention on Friday turned to the West Bank, on a day poised for upheaval. The bloodshed in Gaza, with the death toll standing at 832 Palestinians (and 38 Israelis, most of them soldiers), has West Bank Palestinians outraged. Throughout the week, Palestinians in the West Bank had been gearing up to hold a rally, dubbed the #48Kmarch, to protest IDF actions in Gaza. That demonstration, which attracted thousands of Palestinians, came after recent rioting in Shuafat, a Palestinian neighborhood of northern Jerusalem under Israeli control. Those protests followed the death of a Palestinian teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was kidnapped and killed earlier this month. The murder was allegedly committed by Israeli extremists in revenge for the June 12 kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank – Naftali Frenkel, Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Sha’er – which prompted Israel to launch a campaign of night raids and arrests around the West Bank. Following the raids and arrests, Hamas in Gaza began launching rockets at Israel daily, and about a week later, Israel launched “Operation Protective Edge,” its invasion of Gaza.

Thursday night and Friday also happened to be Laylat al-Qadr – usually translated as “Night of Destiny” or “Night of Power” – one of the holiest days of Ramadan. The killing of two Palestinians during the protests led Fatah and other Palestinian factions to declare Friday a “day of rage in support of bleeding, besieged Gaza.” Hamas spokesmen in the Gaza Strip urged Palestinians to use the moment launch a new intifada against Israel.

Samira Hamdan, 36, was one of many Palestinians who hung back and watched the slightly younger and mostly male Palestinians charge at the Israeli soldiers with rocks outside Ramallah, then attempt to escape to safety when the shooting ensues – a well-worn dance of years past.

“I am saddened to say that it really does feel like this is the Third Intifada,” she said. “This means more deaths and harsher conditions than ever before. But it’s not just Gaza or Mohammed Abu Khdeir. It’s the night invasions of homes, the re-imprisonment of released prisoners, and more deaths which have caused the Palestinian people to explode.”

- with reporting by Rami Nazzal in Ramallah

TIME foreign affairs

Why the Broadcasting Board of Governors Is Nothing Like RT

Russia Today Putin
An internal view of the former Russian RIA Novosti news agency headquarters, which is now Rossia Segodnya (Russia Today) global news agency since President Vladimir Putin signed a decree liquidating the former news agency, in the capital Moscow, on Dec, 12, 2013. Sefa Karacan—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Media supported by the U.S. government may serve the nation's interests — but they still adhere to the highest standards of journalism.

This week, a stirring new documentary from the Voice of America called “AIDS: Living in the Shadows” made its world premiere at the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. The 30-minute report — introduced by the British music legend and longtime AIDS activist Elton John — takes a global look at one of the most daunting side effects of AIDS: the stigma that makes its victims outcasts even within their own families.

The documentary takes audiences on a journey to Nigeria, Cambodia, Haiti, Uganda, Canada, and the United States to meet those living with HIV and AIDS. This is the most recent example of the excellent work done by VOA as it serves its audiences around the world while promoting the interests of the United States — in this case, helping halt a global pandemic.

Also this week, Time.com published an article regarding RT, an English-language propaganda outlet for the Kremlin. This article explored the many ways in which RT spreads distortions in support of the Russian government’s geopolitical aims, including outright lies that have prompted some of its top journalists to quit.

Amid all that, the article noted: “RT is neither the first nor the only outlet that exists to serve the state rather than its citizens. Nearly every major country has a thriving state-sponsored media. (The U.S. funds media organizations like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia that target foreign populations through the Broadcasting Board of Governors.)”

While it’s true that these media are, indeed, funded by the U.S. government, the arrangement differs in just about every other way from RT.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is an independent federal agency that oversees civilian U.S. international media (USIM), including the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. The BBG is one of the world’s largest news-gathering and reporting enterprises, with 61 language services, 50 overseas news bureaus, 3,500 employees, and 1,500 stringers among the five media entities.

These networks are founded on the belief that it is in the interest of the United States to communicate directly with the people of the world and for the people of the world to have access to accurate information about local, regional, and global events, including in the United States. The VOA Charter asserts, “To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners.” Our international audiences turn to VOA and the other BBG-supported media because they count on their accuracy and reliability. If these media were to engage in propaganda or false reporting, our audiences would simply tune us out and we would not be able to accomplish our mission. This is why we work to meet the highest standards of reporting and journalistic integrity.

These standards are at the very heart of USIM. VOA’s journalistic code states, “VOA reporters and broadcasters must strive for accuracy and objectivity in all their work. They do not speak for the U.S. government. …Furthermore, VOA professionals, careful to preserve the integrity of their organization, strive for excellence and avoid imbalance or bias in their broadcasts … Accuracy and balance are paramount, and together, they are VOA’s highest priority. …Though funded by the U.S. government, VOA airs all relevant facts and opinions on important news events and issues.”

The professional journalists around the world who work for our networks are tasked with presenting accurate and objective news and information for audiences in many countries where it is difficult or impossible to receive locally-produced, uncensored or unbiased programs. Our networks provide responsible discussion and open debate in places where this is rare in the media. And our reporters sometimes do so at great personal cost: One of our reporters in Pakistan was killed by the Taliban for doing his job in January 2012. Another reporter went missing in Syria in August 2012. One has stood up to harassment, slander and blackmail for her reporting on corruption in Azerbaijan, for which she was recently honored by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s “Courage in Journalism” award.

The credibility of USIM outlets is underscored by the many acclaimed, popular, private sector, and well-respected media that frequently cite our reporting. A few recent examples include a citation in the Wall Street Journal of a VOA story about corruption in Vietnam, a post in the New York Times China blog citing RFA’s reporting, a Washington Post article citing a Radio Liberty reporter, and the inclusion in this New York Times blog post of interviews of Russian citizens done by RFE/RL following the downing of MH17.

Our founding legislation mandates that our programs be conducted in accordance with the highest professional standards of broadcast journalism, and it provides guarantees against government interference in our journalists’ work; it also insists that our agency’s broadcasting standards be consistent with broad U.S. foreign policy objectives. The BBG’s mission is to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy. In the sense that informing international audiences with news that is consistently reliable and authoritative, accurate, objective, and comprehensive is beneficial to U.S. interests, yes — the BBG and its media do serve the state. However, by doing so through credible and balanced reporting, we serve both the state and the citizens of the world.

Shell is the Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. If you are interested in learning more about the BBG and USIM, visit www.bbg.gov.

TIME Israel

Israeli Media: Israel Rejects Gaza Truce Plan

Israeli APCs drive near the Israeli border with Gaza as the come out of the Gaza Strip July 25, 2014.
Israeli APCs drive near the Israeli border with Gaza as the come out of the Gaza Strip July 25, 2014. Nir Elias—Reuters

(JERUSALEM) — Israeli media say the country’s Security Cabinet has unanimously rejected a U.S. proposal for a temporary pause in Israel-Hamas fighting.

The proposal by Secretary of State John Kerry calls for a temporary truce during which Israel and Hamas would hold indirect talks about easing the border closure of the blockaded Gaza Strip. Hamas has demanded that Gaza’s crossings be opened.

Israel TV reports that on Friday evening, Israel’s Security Cabinet — which groups top ministers on security issues — rejected the proposal in its current form Friday, mainly because it would mean Israel has to cut short an ongoing effort to destroy Hamas military tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border.

There was no immediate Israeli government comment.

TIME Canada

Flight Makes Emergency Landing Due to ‘Agitated’ Passenger

The Sunwing flight headed to Panama was forced to return to Toronto after a passenger allegedly made threats concerning the plane's security

Sunwing Flight 772 was forced to make an emergency landing in Toronto at 8:55AM Friday because an “agitated customer made a direct threat against the aircraft,” an official at the Canadian airline said in a statement. The plane, which had departed at 7:00AM, was originally headed to Panama City.

Two U.S. F16 fighter jets from Toledo, Ohio were sent to escort the plane back to the airport, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) told Canada’s CBC News. Several officers with drawn guns boarded and removed the unruly passenger after the plane landed, one passenger told CBC. A Sunwing official said that the passenger was arrested by Peel police and is currently in custody, and that the craft is undergoing a “full security inspection” before returning to service.

Recent weeks have seen a rash of aviation disasters, with the crash of AH5017 in Mali, the crash of GE222 in Taiwan, and the downing of MH 17 in Ukraine last week.

 

TIME Middle East

Hamas Still Has Some Friends Left

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters at parliament in Ankara, Turkey, July 22, 2014.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters at parliament wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh, in Ankara, July 22, 2014. Burhan Ozbilici—AP

Though Egypt has turned its back on Hamas, other countries are coming in from the cold

With the fighting in Gaza intensifying daily, the ruling militant group Hamas is finding itself pushed to the limit. Trying to match Israel’s vast military might is an impossible task, and even finding the resources to launch rocket attacks against Israeli targets could only be achieved by heavy foreign investment.

But which country wants to invest in Hamas? The West certainly doesn’t. The militant Palestinian organization has been a firm fixture on the United States’ Foreign Terrorist Organizations list since 1997. Hamas’ only hope is its neighbors in the Arab World.

Hamas has two clear allies, according to Middle East experts: Qatar and Turkey. Both have given Hamas their public support and financial assistance estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Qatar also hosts Hamas’ political bureau which includes Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal,” says Shashank Joshi, Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “Qatar has a long history of providing shelter to Islamist groups, amongst them the Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban.”

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, which came to power in 2002, supports what Joshi calls “other neo-Islamist allies.” Though the Turkish government explicitly rejects the label “Islamist”, their social conservatism is inspired by an Islamic ideology that Hamas shares. Last year, Meshaal visited Turkey and met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for several hours.

Both Qatar — one of the world’s richest states — and Turkey are powerful allies to have, but Hamas might wish for more support given the breadth of the Arab World. It once had it, too. Hamas used to be strongly allied with both Iran and Syria, with the former giving Hamas an estimated $13-15 million a month as recently as 2011, as well as long-range missiles. Hamas’ political bureau used to be based in the Syrian capital of Damascus before its move to Qatar in 2012.

But relations cooled dramatically with Iran and Syria amid sectarian divisions following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Iran, a Shia-majority country, backed the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad whose Alawite faith is a branch of Shia Islam. Hezbollah, a powerful Shia Islamist group based in Lebanon, also took Assad’s side.

However Hamas, a Sunni-led faction, sided, as most of the Arab world did, with the rebels. Cue Tehran cutting their allowance, Hezbollah allegedly ordering Hamas members out of Lebanon, and Hamas packing their bags for Qatar.

“Iran’s relationship with Hamas was always problematic,” says Chris Doyle, director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding. “Hamas is a Palestinian Sunni group and Iran is Shia. Nevertheless, Hamas was their entry into the issue of Palestine.”

Seeking to regain its influence over this issue, Iran has attempted to foster a reconciliation with Hamas over the last 18 months. Farwaz Gerges, professor on the Middle East at the London School of Economics says the conflict in Gaza is the reason. “The current crisis has brought a kind of rapprochement between Iranian leaders and Hamas.”

Hezbollah too, Gerges notes, has invited Hamas back into the fold. On Monday, the Hezbollah-owned television channel Al Manar reported that Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, praised Meshaal for “the persistence of the Hamas resistance.” The TV station added he “strongly supported their rightful demands to end the current battle.”

Gerges is quick to point out that this doesn’t signal “a return to the warm days of the Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas leaders.” However he adds: “Out of this particular crisis, a new realignment might happen.” That may sound like good news for Hamas, but there’s another Arab country that is of late vehemently opposed to it. That would be Egypt, the largest and most influential country in the Arab world and the one responsible for drafting a potential cease-fire.

From 2012 to 2013, Hamas enjoyed Egypt’s munificence under the leadership of former President Mohamed Morsi, a longtime member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood of which Hamas is an offshoot. When Morsi was ousted last year and replaced with Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, Hamas knew the good times were over.

“The most devastating thing that has happened to Hamas is the ousting of Mohamed Morsi,” comments Gerges. Sisi, whose government has orchestrated a violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, destroyed Hamas’ tunnel network into Egypt and closed the border crossing at Rafah, devastating Hamas’ finances. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, two of Egypt’s financial backers, are also hostile to Hamas. Like Egypt, they view the Muslim Brotherhood as a clear domestic threat — and Hamas is guilty by association.

But perhaps Hamas doesn’t need Egypt. As the death toll continues to rise in Gaza, there is a groundswell of public sympathy across the Arab world for the group.

“Hamas in terms of people on the street is at the height of its political power in every single Arab country with the exception of Egypt,” says Gerges. “The longer the conflict continues, the more they gain in popularity. And for Hamas, what really matters is the public pulse.”

TIME Ukraine

Experts: MH17 Victims Could Have Remained Conscious During Fall

A firefighter and an armed man look at the remains and the corpses of passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 that was shot down over eastern Ukraine, July 17, 2014.
A firefighter and an armed man look at the remains and the corpses of passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 that was shot down over eastern Ukraine, July 17, 2014. Jerome Sessini—Magnum

A forensic analysis of the disaster

In the aftermath of the downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet, it has been widely assumed that death—or at least unconsciousness—came quickly for the 298 people aboard when the Boeing 777 came apart in the oxygen-thin, cold air at 33,000 feet. But some medical and aviation experts who spoke to TIME are questioning this assumption.

As photos from the MH17 debris field near Gravobo, Ukraine, have shown, many of the victims’ bodies appeared completely intact after falling from a great altitude. TIME asked experts to review photographs from the scene and found a minority view: some victims may have survived the aircraft’s disintegration and even experienced consciousness during the fall to Earth. The images were taken by French photographer Jerome Sessini, who was among the first at the crash site, and they focused on plane debris and victims’ bodies. (Some of Sessini’s work was recently published by TIME, but the photos reviewed by the experts also included images of human remains considered inappropriate for publication.)

The intact bodies are not out of the ordinary, according to Dr. Michael Baden, the former chief medical examiner of New York City and chief forensic pathologist for the New York State Police. Baden has investigated high-profile plane disasters like the TWA 800 crash in 1996 and the 2010 crash of a Polish government jet near Smolensk, Russia, that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski. As Baden explained, objects falling through the air reach what is called terminal velocity, an upper limit on speed dictated by such variables as air density and the falling object’s surface area—but not the height from which it is dropped. For a human body, terminal velocity is about 120 mph (193 k/h). Impact at that speed inflicts devastating internal injuries, but the skin tends to remain intact.

Baden says that many of the victims did exhibit minor burns and shrapnel wounds, most of which appeared non-lethal. He says this suggests that some of the passengers could have been alive and even conscious during their descent.

“The cause of death in the great majority of these people would have been impact with the ground,” he said. Unless they were affected by the initial explosions or shrapnel, and absent some pre-existing condition like lung or heart disease, they would have remained alive and even been conscious at some point during the approximately 3-to-4-minute fall.

“Even if there’s no oxygen, you’d catch your breath in four minutes,” he said. “You might have some brain damage, but you’d be alive, and you could be conscious,” he said. Autopsies, at least when there is such extensive damage to the head and brain, cannot allow doctors to pinpoint when exactly consciousness was lost, so it might never be possible to know for sure if Baden is right.

The deceleration that occurred as a result of the attack—which could have been the equivalent of driving into a wall at 500 mph—might have been less sudden than has been assumed. The Russian-made SA-11 suspected to have been used in the attack is designed not to strike the aircraft directly, but to explode before impact, instead releasing a cloud of shrapnel.

“The deceleration itself wouldn’t be rapid, it would almost be like someone pulling back on the throttles perhaps,” says Robert Benzon, a former Air Force pilot and veteran accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, now retired. Benzon speculated based on the nature of the missile that the decompression may have been somewhat gradual, and could have been survivable in the short term. “In my estimation what you’d have is a lot of small holes in the airplane,” he says, “so the decompression itself would be pretty slow.”

Several bodies were found still strapped into their seats. Robert Goyer, who is editor-in-chief of Flying magazine, said that airliner seats are designed to withstand tremendous G-forces, sometimes more than a human body can sustain. Even when the seat itself is torn from the surrounding structure of the plane, people are likely to remain belted in. He cited Juliane Koepcke, who in 1971 survived a two-mile fall into the Amazon rainforest, strapped to her seat all the while.

Photographs indicate that those who did stay in their seats tended to retain all of their clothing, but other passengers were found in states of undress. While Goyer said that it was common to see bodies stripped of clothes after falling a long distance through the air, Baden suspected other causes.

“You can lose a shirt or a headband or maybe even a jacket, but not pants and underwear and shoes and socks. It would seem to me, given the situation, that looters came,” he said. As further evidence, he noted indications in the photos that some of the bodies appeared to have been moved around, based on lividity—the dark discoloration of the skin that occurs in the lowest parts of the body, as blood settles due to gravity. (When this discolored skin is seen facing up, it suggests that a part of the body previously low to the ground was shifted from that position.) Baden also observed that none of the bodies pictured appeared to be wearing watches or jewelry.

The investigation into the tragedy was initially hindered by strife in the region, with some reports suggesting that rebels have threatened investigators, tampered with the plane debris, and moved bodies around. The Dutch government has since succeeded in negotiating the release of some of the passengers’ remains, which were kept on refrigerated train cars and eventually flown back to the Netherlands for a more thorough forensic examination.

TIME

Pictures of the Week: July 18 – July 25

From rising death toll on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the return of MH17 victims to the Netherlands, to wildfires in Washington and the fight to protect flamingos, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

 

TIME infectious diseases

Ebola Virus Suspected in Lagos, Nigeria

Members of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) put on protective gear at the isolation ward of the Donka Hospital in Conakry, Guinea on July 23, 2014.
Members of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) put on protective gear at the isolation ward of the Donka Hospital in Conakry, Guinea on July 23, 2014. Cellou Binani—AFP/Getty Images

Samples have been sent to the WHO for testing

The deadly Ebola virus that has killed hundreds across West Africa may have hit Africa’s most populous city, according to a Thursday statement from the country’s ministry of health.

Officials in Lagos, Nigeria are testing a Liberian man after he collapsed at the city’s airport displaying symptoms of the disease. Government representatives also expressed concern because the man worked and lived in Liberia where the disease is prevalent. Blood samples have been sent to the World Health Organization to be tested.

The virus has spread rapidly since an outbreak earlier this year, and health organizations have said they are struggling to control its spread.

In a statement, Nigerian health officials asked that residents “remain calm and take appropriate measures for the prevention and control of the disease.” These prevention measures include avoiding contact with people or animals suspected of having the disease.

While the outbreak has killed hundreds already in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, it could be especially damaging if it hit Lagos, an urban center with a population of 21 million.

TIME Israel

Israel Says Soldier Missing in Gaza Confirmed Dead

(JERUSALEM) — The Israeli military says an Israel soldier Hamas claimed to have captured in the Gaza Strip earlier this week was in fact killed in battle on that day.

The Islamic militant Hamas announced late Sunday that it was holding Oron Shaul and gave his purported military ID. An Israeli soldier in the hands of Hamas could have been a game changer in the current round of Israel-Hamas fighting and efforts to end it.

The military said in an announcement Friday that Shaul was killed in battle in Gaza on Sunday.

TIME Religion

Report: Pope Francis to Visit U.S. in 2015

Pope Francis Visits Molise
Pope Francis attends a meeting with young people at the Sanctuary of Castelpetroso in Campobasso, Italy on July 5, 2014. Franco Origlia—Getty Images

Set to visit Philadelphia in September 2015

Updated 12:16pm ET.

Pope Francis has long been rumored to attend the World Meeting of Families in the U.S. next September, and now Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput says Pope Francis has accepted his invitation to join the gathering, according to a report by Catholic News Service.

The report also quotes Vatican spokesman Frederico Lombardi saying Friday that the Holy Father has expressed “his willingness to participate in the World Meeting of Families.” The Archdiocese of Philadelphia clarified later Friday that the Vatican itself has not officially confirmed Pope Francis’ visit. “We still expect that any official confirmation will come approximately six months prior to the event,” stated a press release. “Archbishop Chaput has frequently shared his confidence in Pope Francis’ attendance at the World Meeting and his personal conversations with the Holy Father are the foundation for that confidence.”

The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family sponsors the World Meeting of Families every three years in a different city. The upcoming gathering is still more than a year away, and Pope Francis is likely to push for more activity on the issues of family and marriage before then — at least if his workrate continues at its current pace.

In October, Pope Francis will host an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome to discuss the topic, “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” It is only the third such Extraordinary Synod since Pope Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops in 1965, and it signals that issues of marriage and family—especially in changing modern times—are of special importance to Pope Francis.

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