TIME Military

The New Head of the U.S. Pacific Command Talks to TIME About the Pivot to Asia and His Asian Roots

SINGAPORE-ASIA-MILITARY-US-CHINA
Roslan Rahman—AFP/Getty Images U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Harry Harris, left, speaks to journalists during his visit to U.S.S. Spruance (DDG 111), Arleigh Burke–class guided-missile destroyer, docking in Sembawang wharves in Singapore on Jan. 22, 2014

Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr. sees his background as an Asian American as useful in helping the U.S. forge better relationships with its allies and other powers

On May 27 Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr. becomes the U.S. Navy’s highest-ranking Asian American ever when he assumes leadership of the U.S. Pacific Command at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Harris will be responsible for all military operations in a region stretching from California to the Indian Ocean, and from the Arctic Sea to Antarctica. He takes over at a critical time, as the U.S. “rebalances” to Asia and confronts an erratic and nuclear-armed North Korea and an increasingly powerful and assertive China.

It’s a job that takes Harris, 59, full circle. He was born in Japan to a Navy-enlisted man and Japanese mother, and raised on a subsistence farm in Tennessee. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Harris did postgraduate studies at Harvard, Georgetown and Oxford and spent much of his career as a naval flight officer aboard P-3 patrol planes, including three tours in Japan. Affable, direct and with a confessed weakness for “both kinds of music — country and western,” Harris talks to TIME contributor Kirk Spitzer about taking on one of the most challenging jobs in the U.S. military.

You’ve said that the most important event in your life was World War II, yet you weren’t even born then. What do you mean by that?
My dad had four brothers and all of them served in World War II, mostly in the Navy, in the Pacific theater. In fact, my dad was on the aircraft carrier Lexington just a couple of days before Pearl Harbor. They pulled out O.K., but the Lexington was sunk at the Battle of Coral Sea. Growing up in Tennessee, where he and all his brothers lived, they told sea stories about the war throughout my whole life. So I just knew that I was going to serve in the military.

The other thing is, in this job and living in Hawaii, World War II is all around you. I live in the Nimitz House, which was built for Admiral Husband E. Kimmel. He was in charge on Dec. 7, 1941. So not a day goes by that I don’t remember that one of the primary lessons of World War II is to be ready to fight and win the nation’s wars — and to be ready to fight tonight.

You’ve said that your mother had a great influence on your life. She was born into a wealthy family in Kobe, Japan, but ended up living on a small farm in America. How did that happen, and how much of an influence did she have on you?
I learned a lot from her. She lost her home, her school, members of her family and friends to bombing raids. After surviving that, she had nothing and she went to live with an aunt in Yokohama who helped her get a job on the big American naval base in Yokosuka. My dad was posted in Japan and Korea from 1946 until he retired in 1958. They met sometime in the early 1950s and got married and then I came along and they moved to Tennessee.

My dad bought a subsistence farm, with no running water or electricity. So that was pretty rough. But she adapted, and she adapted with a lot of grace. She became an American citizen in the mid-1970s and she always told me that her proudest moments were voting and jury duty. She was really thrilled that I went to the Naval Academy, of course. She never taught me the Japanese language because we had moved to a tiny town in the South, and she didn’t want me to be any more different than I already was. She wanted me to focus on being an American. But she taught me to be proud of both my Japanese roots and my Southern roots. And she taught me about the Japanese concept of giri, which means duty. I carry this with me to this very day.

You are the first Asian American to reach four-star rank in the Navy and the first to head U.S. Pacific Command. Did you have role models when you were young?
I can tell you that being a Japanese-American kid in Tennessee in the late 1950s and early ’60s, there weren’t a lot of role models out there. So that’s when my mother started telling me about the American nisei soldiers during World War II. They left a segregated nation — to fight for a segregated nation. They had no guarantee that when they got back home the things they had fought for would be returned to them. We’ve come a long way in the past six or seven decades because of them and folks like them who fought for what’s right. Their courage made a great difference in the lives of a whole bunch of people at that time, and even today. I’ve always said that I stand on the shoulders of giants, and I mean it.

Before being named commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in 2013, you worked as a military representative to two Secretaries of State: Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. What did you learn in that job?
I got to visit and meet with leaders from about 20 countries in the Asia-Pacific region and that’s really important to me in my present job and even more so in my next job. It reinforced something that I already knew, and that is that American leadership matters and it matters greatly to our friends, partners, allies and competitors abroad.

Your appointment as commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and more recently as head of Pacific Command, was met with great approval in Japan, but perhaps not so much in China, where there still seems suspicion of all things Japanese. Will it be difficult for you to manage expectations, on both sides?
People know when they look at me that I’m an American first, last and everything in between. I’m only ethnically [Eurasian] or ethnically [half-]Japanese. Protecting American interests is my focus. No doubt, Japan is a great ally of the United States and I do hope that my personal background has helped me enhance our relationship. But I think my background has also helped me forge critical relationships with South Korea, another important ally. My father served in the Korean War and I grew up with a deep appreciation for Korean culture.

And I can tell you that I was warmly received in China when I went there last year to finalize a new agreement among navies of the region to help communications at sea during unplanned encounters. This was an important step forward to help reduce tensions at sea and help avoid miscalculations. I’ve always tried to give China credit when they act in responsible ways that adhere to international law and norms, and enhance stability.

The Obama Administration has talked about an economic, diplomatic and military “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific region. Some skeptics wonder if it’s real, or just rhetoric.
Not only is the rebalance real, but the military part is well on its way. We’ve strengthened our security alliances and partnerships throughout the region. The Navy has already brought our newest and most capable platforms to the area, like the P-8 surveillance airplane, the Littoral Combat Ship, the Virginia-class submarine and new amphibious ships like the U.S.S. America. The Marine Corps has brought the V-22 Osprey out here to great effect and we’ll have the Joint Strike Fighter out here soon. The Navy has set a goal of moving 60% of the Navy out here by 2020 and we’re at about 55% in terms of surface ships now. So I can tell you the rebalance is real.

In your new job you’ll be responsible for an immense and diverse region: “From Bollywood to Hollywood, from polar bears to penguins,” as Pacific Command puts it. What are your priorities?
Our war-fighting readiness, our ability to fight tonight, will always be my top priority. We have to be ready for the unexpected. We have to be ready to prevent strategic surprises. When you are responsible for an area that covers half the worlds’ surface, you need friends. So building stronger relationships and working with our allies and partners, to foster a collective to the security challenges — that’s important.

You’ve expressed deep concern about recent Chinese actions, including construction of a string of artificial islands in the South China Sea — a “great wall of sand,” as you put it. Why should the U.S. be concerned?
I have been critical of China for a pattern of provocative actions that they’ve begun in the recent past. Like unilaterally declaring an air-defense identification zone over the East China Sea, parking a mobile oil platform off the Vietnam coast, and their lack of clarity on their outrageous claim — preposterous claim, really — to 90% of the South China Sea. All these examples, I think, are inconsistent with international laws and norms. They make China’s neighbors nervous, it increases tensions in the region, and I think they are destabilizing for peace in the region.

More than $5 trillion — that’s trillion with a t — of shipborne trade passes through the South China Sea annually. Freedom of navigation is critical. That’s why what China is doing in the South China Sea is troubling. They have manufactured land there at a staggering pace just in the last months. They’ve created about 2,000 acres of these man-made islands. That’s equivalent to about 1,500 football fields, if I get my math right, and they’re still going. They’ve also made massive construction projects on artificial islands for what are clearly, in my point of view, military purposes, including large airstrips and ports.

What do you worry about most? What keeps you awake at night?
The greatest threat we face is North Korea. They have an unpredictable leader who is poised, in my view, to attack our allies in South Korea and Japan. He is on a quest for nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them intercontinentally. He kills people around him who disagree with him, and that’s something we should always keep in mind. North Korea keeps me up at night.

TIME Saudi Arabia

World’s Biggest Hotel to Open in Mecca in 2017

mecca-mega-hotel
Dar Al-Handasah

It'll have 10,000 bedrooms and 70 restaurants

The world’s biggest hotel is set to open in Mecca in 2017, offering an unprecedented level of luxury to travelers and royalty alike in Saudi Arabia.

The Abraj Kudai will cost about $3.6 billion, featuring 10,000 bedrooms, 70 restaurants and four helipads, the Guardian reported on Friday. At 45 stories tall, the desert fortress-style hotel boasts 12 towers atop a 10-story podium, which contains a bus station, food courts, a shopping mall and an extravagant ballroom. But five floors will be off limits to the most guests — they’re reserved exclusively for the Saudi royal family.

The Abraj Kudai was funded by the Saudi Ministry of Finance and designed by the Dar al-Handasah group.

[Guardian]

TIME Ireland

Gays Wake Up to Changed Ireland, Let ‘New Normal’ Sink In

The unexpectedly strong willingness of Irish voters to change their constitution is expected to lead to a wave of gay weddings

(DUBLIN)—The gay couples of Ireland woke up Sunday in what felt like a nation reborn — some with dreams of wedding plans dancing in their heads.

Many weren’t rising too early, however, after celebrating the history-making outcome of Ireland’s referendum enshrining gay marriage in the constitution. The festivities began when the final result — 62 percent approval — was announced Saturday night, and ran until sunrise in some corners of Dublin, with tens of thousands of revelers of all sexual identities pouring onto the streets.

The unexpectedly strong willingness of Irish voters to change their conservative 1937 constitution is expected to lead to a wave of gay weddings in Ireland in the fall. The Justice Department confirmed Sunday it plans to publish a marriage bill this week, and with the support of all political parties, it should be passed by parliament and signed into law by June.

For Ireland’s most prominent gay couple, Sen. Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan, this victory is emotionally overwhelming. Since 2003 they have fought for legal recognition of their Canadian marriage. They took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, but suffered only setbacks and delays. Now, their day has come.

“For so long, I’ve been having to dig in my heels and say … Well, we ARE married. I’m a married woman!” said Zappone, a Seattle native who resettled with her Irish spouse in Dublin three decades ago. “Now that it has happened, at a personal level, it’s just going to take a long time to let that acceptance sink in.”

Zappone and Gilligan thrilled a crowd of thousands packed into the results center at Dublin Castle with a playful promise to renew their vows. Zappone dramatically broke off from a live TV interview, stared directly into the camera and asked Gilligan to marry her all over again. Gilligan declared to the rainbow flag-waving revelers: “I said yes to Katherine 12 years ago at our marriage in Canada. And now we are bringing the ‘yes’ back home to Ireland, our country of Ireland! Yes, yes, yes!”

In a more sober mood Sunday, the couple reflected on their long road to social acceptance, the unprecedented joy of the “yes” victory — and the legal work that remains to be done before they can get officially hitched in Ireland later this year.

“It took us hours to get a taxi (Saturday night) because so many people came up to us in tears, wanting to talk to us. They now felt so much freer, and proud,” said Zappone, who became Ireland’s first openly lesbian lawmaker when Prime Minister Enda Kenny appointed her to the Senate in 2011.

“There aren’t that many moments in life where you are surrounded with an exuberance of joy. These are rare moments. … We are now entering a new Ireland,” said Gilligan, a former Loreto nun who left the order in her mid-20s to pursue social justice projects as a lay Catholic. She wasn’t sure about her sexuality until Zappone walked into their first doctoral theology class together at Boston College in 1981.

“The door opened, and this gorgeous woman came in. I didn’t know I was lesbian. I’m a late learner,” Gilligan recalled with a laugh. “I fell in love with Katherine, and I went for it. I simply adored her, and I wanted to be with her forever and ever, and here we are!”

They married in Vancouver and sued Ireland in hopes of winning legal recognition, but in 2006 the High Court ruled that Irish law — while never explicit in defining marriage as solely between a man and woman — universally understood this to be the case. The Supreme Court sidestepped their appeal in 2012.

Months later Gilligan, who is in her late 60s, suffered a brain hemorrhage and was hospitalized. Zappone, yet again, faced bureaucratic presumptions when trying to see her wife, since hospital admissions didn’t recognize her as a spouse or family member. She could have lied and said they had an Irish-recognized civil partnership, a weaker form of marriage-style contract enacted into Irish law in 2010, but Zappone insisted on stating uncomfortable reality: “In those moments, I am married to her, and you have to recognize that,” she recalled.

The medical staff understood and, after Zappone had spent five weeks at Gilligan’s bedside, one of their Chinese doctors wrote them a long note of appreciation, wishing he had what they had.

What they won’t have, for many months to come, is an Irish-recognized marriage.

Article 41 of the family section of Ireland’s constitution now reads, “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”

But Zappone and her parliamentary colleagues must pass a same-sex marriage bill. Unlike in many other countries, the change faces no significant parliamentary opposition. Potentially thorny issues such as divorce — narrowly legalized in a 1995 referendum — and adoption shouldn’t pose roadblocks. Parliament recently passed another bill permitting couples and single people to adopt regardless of gender, reflecting the reality that more than a third of Irish children are being raised out of wedlock.

“Technically and legally we’ll probably have to wait until towards the end of the year,” Zappone said. “Then we’ll head towards the big day.”

By then, several commentators have noted, a new generation of Irish people should already be accepting the sight of a gay couple holding hands in the street, or exchanging their vows and kissing in front of their families.

“We’ve made it clear to the world that there is a new normal — that ‘ordinary’ is a big, capacious word that embraces and rejoices in the natural diversity of humanity. LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people are now a fully acknowledged part of the wonderful ordinariness of Irish life,” wrote Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole.

“LGBT people are us: our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends. We were given the chance to say that. We were asked to replace tolerance with the equality of citizenship,” O’Toole wrote. “And we took it in both arms and hugged it close.”

TIME russia

Hundreds of Russian Women Are Posting Selfies With Wrinkled Faces

Bride, Chechen Kheda Goilabiyeva, and fiancé, Chechen police officer Nazhud Guchigov, second right, stand in a wedding registry office in Chechnya's provincial capital Grozny, Russia
AP Bride, Chechen Kheda Goilabiyeva, and fiancé, Chechen police officer Nazhud Guchigov, second right, stand in a wedding registry office in Chechnya's provincial capital Grozny, Russia, on May 16, 2015.

In protest of an official's remarks defending a 17-year-old girl's arranged marriage

Hundreds of Russian women are posting selfies with wrinkled faces in protest of an official who defended a 17-year-old girl’s arranged marriage to a 47-year-old man.

The Instagram campaign began Saturday after Russia’s children’s rights minister Pavel Astakhov defended the marriage, saying “there are places where women have wrinkles at age 27 and they look 50 by our standards,” BBC reports.

“Let’s not be prudish,” Astakhov said. “Emancipation and sexual maturity happen earlier in the Caucasus.”

The bride, Kheda Goilabiyeva, and her fiancé, police officer Nazhud Guchigov, were married in in Chechnya two weeks ago. The wedding drew controversy because the minimum age for marriage under Russian law is 18, though in Chechnya the age is 16. The bride has said she married Guchigov willfully.

“This hashtag is about the oppression of women. Women’s rights are violated in Russia, especially in Chechnya,” one female activist told BBC.

[BBC]

TIME North Korea

Activists Cross Demilitarized Zone Between North and South Korea

The group wants to promote peace and reconciliation between the two sides

An international group of female activists crossed the border between North and South Korea on Sunday to promote peace between the two countries, which have yet to sign a peace treaty 60 years after the Korean War ended.

The group of about 30 women, WomenCrossDMZ, was taken by bus across the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), CNN reports, which was created by a 1953 armistice that halted, but never ended, the Korean War. The crossing was sanctioned by both sides, and included feminist Gloria Steinem and Nobel laureates Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland.

Several groups have criticized the march, arguing that the women should have crossed the North Korea–China border, which is more dangerous than the DMZ. Others called the crossing “empty,” blasting the activists for allowing North Korea an opportunity to cover up its record of human-rights abuses.

Read next: Gloria Steinem’s North Korea Peace Walk Draws Ire Despite Lack of Any Better Ideas

[CNN]

 

TIME Ireland

This Woman Proposed to Her Girlfriend Just Moments After Ireland’s Gay Marriage Vote

It's the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage through popular vote

One Irish couple wasted no time after the country became the first in the world to legalize gay marriage through popular vote.

Billie, 41, proposed to her girlfriend of six years, Kate Stoica, 26, in Limerick, Western Ireland on Saturday, just minutes after the referendum was passed, Mashable reported. Watch the video of the proposal below:

Read next: 20 Other Countries Where Same-Sex Marriage Is Legal Nationwide

[Mashable]

TIME Foreign Policy

U.S. Defense Chief Questions Iraq’s ‘Will to Fight’ ISIS After City’s Fall

"The Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight," Defense Secretary Ash Carter said

(WASHINGTON)—The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria’s takeover of Ramadi is evidence that Iraqi forces do not have the “will to fight,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said, in the harshest assessment yet from a high-ranking Obama Administration official of Iraqi fighters and the loss of the provincial capital.

Iraqi forces outnumbered their opposition in the capital of Anbar province, but failed to fight and pulled back from the city in central Iraq, Carter said on CNN’s “State of the Union” which aired Sunday. The Iraqis left behind large numbers of U.S.-supplied vehicles, including several tanks.

“What apparently happened is the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight. They were not outnumbered,” Carter said of the Iraqi forces. “In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force. That says to me, and I think to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight [ISIS] and defend themselves.”

The fall of Ramadi last Sunday has sparked questions about the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s approach in Iraq, a blend of retraining and rebuilding the Iraqi army, prodding Baghdad to reconcile with the nation’s Sunnis and bombing ISIS group targets from the air without committing American ground combat troops.

Carter defended the use of U.S. airstrikes as an effective part of the fight against ISIS but said they are not a replacement for Iraqi forces willing to defend their country.

“We can participate in the defeat of ISIL,” he said, using another acronym for ISIS. “But we can’t makeIraq … a decent place for people to live — we can’t sustain the victory, only the Iraqis can do that and, in particular in this case, the Sunni tribes to the West.”

The Pentagon this past week estimated that when Iraqi troops abandoned Ramadi, they left behind a half-dozen tanks, a similar number of artillery pieces, a larger number of armored personnel carriers and about 100 wheeled vehicles like Humvees.

Over the past year defeated Iraq security forces have repeatedly left behind U.S.-supplied military equipment, which the U.S. has targeted in subsequent airstrikes against ISIS forces.

Carter did not discuss any new U.S. tactics in the fight against ISIS.

TIME Ireland

Dublin Celebrates Through Tears as Same-Sex Marriage Vote Makes History

“This is the first time I’ve felt like an equal citizen"

Ireland made global history on Saturday by becoming the first country in the world to approve same-sex marriage through popular vote—sending thousands of people out into the streets of Dublin to celebrate as a sea of emotion engulfed the city.

Bearing rainbow flags and smiling through tears, gay and straight Dubliners joined together to hail the news that an overwhelming 62.1 percent of voters had said “yes” to gay marriage, in a referendum that many in Ireland called a “test of equality” and the “test of a true republic.”

Robert Stevenson, 62, who is from Dublin but now lives in the U.K., spoke through a convulsion of tears as he recalled how he was “suicidal” as a teenager and lost several friends to suicide because they were “filled with self-loathing” because of their sexuality.

“This is the first time I’ve felt like an equal citizen; I just can’t talk,” Stevenson said.

The vote was all the more striking because Ireland is a predominantly Catholic country. Many citizens have rejected the church’s influence in recent years, following a spate of revelations about child sexual abuse as well as the church’s history of cold treatment of gay people and women who got pregnant out of wedlock. Some saw the “yes” vote as a dismantling of Catholic rule in the country.

“It was the Catholic Church that rejected me, I didn’t reject it,” Stevenson said. “My mother is still part of it but I can’t be.”

He added that he would never forget “living in fear” in the ’60s and ’70s.

“I remember in this country people being beaten to death for being gay back then,” he said, “and I think of people being beaten to death in other countries now. After this moment, I have the privilege of being an equal citizen in my own country…and that is just wonderful.”

For several months, the Irish have been debating whether to bestow full equality on all citizens regardless of sexual orientation by changing the constitution to allow couples of the same sex marry. The overwhelming sentiment and emphatic vote in favor—over 70 pecent in some Dublin constituencies—reflects how Ireland has come a very long way from the country it once was.

In the middle of the cheers and impromptu renditions of the Irish national anthem on Saturday, 28-year-old Edward Smith, fought back tears.

“It’s about equality—it’s not just about the LGBT community; this is a huge leap forward for a tiny country in becoming a secular state,” he said.

“I always wanted to get married, and thought I’d have to go away,” he continued. “I never thought this would happen for me. The church in this country had no right to interfere in this referendum and people realized this; their campaign was ludicrous and hypocritical.

“After all, the church was responsible for so much that went wrong here; priests in this country were allowed to rape children, the Catholic Church sold babies belonging to unmarried mothers. I think the revelations about the church helped the ‘Yes’ side.”

Smith’s partner, 24-year-old Muiris O’Connell from rural Limerick, was also deeply moved by the vote.

“I hated myself all through my teens,” O’Connell said. “I’m from the middle of the country where being gay was almost unheard of and I never felt comfortable being myself. This referendum brought back so many memories; I always tried to neglect the truth and when I did think about myself, I always said, ‘I’m never going to have a normal life.’

“Today just proves that I can,” O’Connell continued. “Today is the definition of what a republic is; it’s Irish men and Irish women right around the country saying, ‘we love you.'”

Many in the Dublin crowd on Saturday were straight supporters of the law change who were thrilled by the vote.

“I raised generation who made this happen; I’m so proud of them” said 64 year old Breda Griffin from Dublin, who was with her husband and their 25-year-old daughter. “For over 20 years I’ve always fought for equality and rights for people outside the fold—whether they were gay, unmarried mothers or illegitimate children—anyone that wasn’t seen as normal

“But it’s this generation that has delivered and I couldn’t be prouder; I just couldn’t be happier.”

As the vote tallies came in and a “yes” vote became a foregone conclusion, 24-year-old Conor Galvin was at work at his computer, “trying not to cry,” he said.

“It was incredible; I have three siblings and one of my sisters is also gay. My Mum tagged us all in her Facebook status, saying “now I get to wear four hats.”

“There are just no words,” he said.

TIME El Salvador

Salvadorans Celebrate Beatification of Slain Archbishop Romero

Pilgrims carry a portrait of Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero to Romero's beatification ceremony in San Salvador, El Salvador
Moises Castillo—AP Pilgrims carry a portrait of Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero to Romero's beatification ceremony in San Salvador, El Salvador, on May 23, 2015.

He was declared a martyr for his faith this year by Pope Francis

(SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador)—Huge crowds filled a square in the Salvadoran capital Saturday for a ceremony to beatify Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was cut down by an assassin’s bullet 35 years ago and declared a martyr for his faith this year by Pope Francis.

It is the first step toward possible canonization, although many of the 260,000-plus faithful expected at the Savior of the World Plaza already credit him with miracles and refer to him as “Saint Romero of the Americas.”

Delegations from parishes all over the nation, many of them bused in from the countryside, filed into the square carrying white and yellow flags of the Roman Catholic Church.

“They can kill the prophet, but not the voice of justice,” intoned pilgrims from Our Lady of the Assumption in a suburb outside San Salvador.

“His words will remain for eternity,” said Marlene Sanchez, 26.

In life, Romero was loved by the poor, whom he defended passionately, and loathed by conservatives who considered him too close to left-leaning movements in the tumultuous years ahead of El Salvador’s 1980-92 civil war.

Romero was celebrating Mass in a cancer hospital chapel on March 24, 1980, when he was shot through the heart by a sniper who apparently fired from a car outside. The day before, Romero had delivered a strongly worded admonition to the U.S.-backed military to stop repressing civilians.

The trigger man has never been identified, and no one has been prosecuted for the killing. Alleged paramilitary death squad leader Roberto d’Aubuisson, who was named by a U.N. truth commission after the war’s end as the mastermind of the assassination, died in 1992 having maintained his innocence to the end.

Romero’s beatification was held up for years by church politics until Pope Benedict XVI “unblocked” the case in late 2012, after it was determined he had not been an adherent of revolutionary liberation theology as many claimed.

Saturday’s ceremony constitutes official church approval of Romero’s legacy, even if some conservatives in the Vatican and Salvadoran society still view his memory with distaste.

“The beatification … is a cause for great joy for Salvadorans and for those of us who rejoice at the example of the greatest children of the church,” Francis said in a statement. “Monsignor Romero, who built peace from the strength of love, gave testimony of the faith with his life, committed to the very end.”

U.S. President Barack Obama, who visited Romero’s tomb in 2011, called him “an inspiration for people in El Salvador and across the Americas.”

“He was a wise pastor and a courageous man who persevered in the face of opposition from extremes on both sides,” Obama said. “He fearlessly confronted the evils he saw, guided by the needs of his beloved pueblo, the poor and oppressed people of El Salvador.”

Cardinal Angelo Amato, the prefect of the Vatican’s saint-making office, began the ceremony in the late morning beneath a 60-foot-tall (18-meter-tall) monument depicting Christ atop a white pillar and blue globe. An urn held the shirt that Romero was wearing when he was shot.

Officials closed off about 2 square miles (5 square kilometers) of streets nearby to accommodate the crush of pilgrims and the hundreds of vendors selling commemorative T-shirts, key chains, bags, bracelets and coffee cups for $2 to $5 as well as copies of documentaries and movies inspired by Romero’s life.

Authorities set up 27 giant screens for the benefit of those far from the stage and deployed 3,700 police and soldiers to provide security. Hotels in the capital were at capacity, and officials predicted the event would generate $31 million in economic activity.

Celebrations were planned in Los Angeles, which is home to about 360,000 people of Salvadoran origin. Many of them arrived in the 1980s fleeing the Central American nation’s civil war, in which at least 75,000 people died and 12,000 more disappeared.

Also Saturday, tens of thousands of people gathered in the central Kenyan town of Nyeri to attend the beatification ceremony of Sister Irene Stefani, an Italian nun who worked for many years in the East African nation.

Stefani, who belonged to the Consolata Missionary Sisters, first came to Kenya in 1915 and died there in 1930 at the age of 39, according to a website dedicated to her beatification.

In her case, beatification comes after official verification of a 1989 miracle in Mozambique — a country Stefani never visited — that was attributed to her.

The miracle reportedly happened when a group of about 270 people in danger of death prayed to Sister Irene “and the little water in the baptismal font, measuring between four and six liters, was multiplied to enable them to drink and wash for four days, before help arrived from outside,” Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper reported, citing a priest in charge of Nairobi’s Consolata Shrine.

TIME Ireland

Chris O’Dowd Had No Doubt Ireland Would Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

He said a "yes" vote is a sign Ireland "is escaping the clutches of the Catholic Church, finally"

Before Ireland voted to legalize same-sex marriage on Friday, TIME asked the Irish actor Chris O’Dowd how he thought the country would vote in the historic referendum. “I think it’ll pass pretty easily, which is great,” he replied.

He also said that if same-sex marriage was approved, then “it’s a sign that Ireland is progressing with the rest of the world and is escaping the clutches of the Catholic Church, finally.”

Read the rest of the interview in the May 18, 2015 issue of TIME.

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