Pope shakes up Vatican communications operations

VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis announced Tuesday a shakeup of the Vatican's communications operations, replacing the longtime editor of the Holy See newspaper and naming a prominent Italian journalist to coordinate the editorial line of all Vatican media. Andrea Tornielli, Vatican reporter for Turin daily La Stampa, was named to the new position of editorial … Continue reading “Pope shakes up Vatican communications operations”

VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis announced Tuesday a shakeup of the Vatican's communications operations, replacing the longtime editor of the Holy See newspaper and naming a prominent Italian journalist to coordinate the editorial line of all Vatican media.

Andrea Tornielli, Vatican reporter for Turin daily La Stampa, was named to the new position of editorial director for the Dicastery of Communications, responsible for coordinating the Vatican's editorial operations.

In addition, the Vatican named an Italian writer and professor, Andrea Monda, to become editor of L'Osservatore Romano newspaper. He replaces Giovanni Maria Vian, a church historian and journalist who has headed the daily since 2007.

The Vatican's media operations have been undergoing a problematic reform process aimed at reducing redundancies and improving coordination. Among its victims was Vatican Radio and its vast multilingual broadcasts.

The first head of the revamped umbrella communications office, which gathered all Vatican media under one department, was forced to resign earlier this year after he misrepresented a letter from retired Pope Benedict XVI and released a doctored photo of it.

Francis named Paolo Ruffini, who had led the broadcaster of the Italian bishops' conference, to replace him — the first time a layman had been named to head a Holy See department. In a statement Tuesday, Ruffini said both Tornielli and Monda were bridge-builders who know how to speak to various generations and develop new means of communications.

Tornielli runs a must-read Vatican blog, Vatican Insider, and is the author of several books about Francis that benefited from access to the pope himself. Tornielli's latest was a forensic critique of an 11-page document by a retired Vatican ambassador accusing Francis of covering up for a disgraced ex-American cardinal.

Monda, for his part, has taught religion and literature at various pontifical universities since 2000 and has written cultural articles for Italian Catholic publications, the Vatican said.

L'Osservatore Romano, with its storied 150-year history and daily and weekly editions, had sought to retain a certain editorial independence from the rest of the Vatican's other media operations during the reform.

Under Vian's leadership, the paper broadened its cultural coverage and launched a women's monthly magazine, "Women Church World," among other things.

Terror charges issued in France’s Christmas market attack

PARIS – A man suspected of supplying the gun used in the Christmas market shooting attack that killed five people in Strasbourg has been handed preliminary terror charges, according to a French judicial official close to the investigation.

The official, who could not be named with the case ongoing, said the individual appeared Monday before a judge and was charged with criminal association with terrorists, as well as possessing and supplying arms in connection with a terrorist enterprise.

The man is suspected of furnishing the weapon that alleged gunman Cherif Chekatt used in the Dec. 11 attack, the judicial official said. He was remanded into custody.

Chekatt, 29, died in a shootout with police in Strasbourg on Thursday.

Two other people were arrested and detained Monday as part of the terror investigation the Paris prosecutor's office is conducting into the attack. They also were suspected of "playing a role in supplying the firearm," said the official.

Their arrests bring the number of suspects in custody since the attack to three; Chekatt's parents and two of his brothers were questioned by police last week and released.

The death toll from the attack increased to five Sunday night after a Polish man died of his wounds in a Strasbourg hospital. Barto Orent-Niedzielski, 36, lived in the city, where he worked at the European Parliament and as a journalist. The other casualties include a tourist from Thailand and an Italian journalist.

According to reports, Orent-Niedzielski fought the shooter and stopped him from entering a crowded club, possibly preventing more deaths.

Polish President Andrzej Duda wrote on Twitter that "I knew him by sight. I am shocked. I had not realized that he was the one mortally wounded protecting other people. Honor to his memory. RIP."

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Samuel Petrequin in Paris and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.

Vatican committee: Church credibility at risk over sex abuse

VATICAN CITY – Organizers of an upcoming Vatican summit on sex abuse prevention are warning that the credibility of the Catholic Church is in jeopardy over the abuse scandal and are urging participants to meet with victims personally before coming to Rome.

In a letter sent Tuesday to the presidents of bishops' conferences worldwide, organizers said the church must develop a "comprehensive and communal response" to the crisis, and that the first step is "acknowledging the truth of what has happened."

Pope Francis invited the church leaders to the Feb. 21-24 summit to respond to what has become the gravest threat to his papacy, as the sex abuse and cover-up scandal erupted in the U.S., Chile and elsewhere this year.

In revealing the first details of the preparations for the meeting, the Vatican said the summit would focus on three main areas: responsibility, accountability and transparency.

"Absent a comprehensive and communal response, not only will we fail to bring healing to victim survivors, but the very credibility of the Church to carry on the mission of Christ will be in jeopardy throughout the world," the organizers wrote.

"Each of us needs to own this challenge, coming together in solidarity, humility, and penitence to repair the damage done, sharing a common commitment to transparency, and holding everyone in the church accountable," they said.

It was signed by the four members of the preparatory committee for the meeting: Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, Mumbai Cardinal Oswald Gracias, as well as the Vatican's leading abuse experts Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna and the Rev. Hans Zollner.

They urged conference presidents to meet with victims before they come to Rome "to learn firsthand the suffering they have endured."

The appeal was clear evidence that throughout the church, many bishops continue to deny the scope of the problem and have never met with a victim.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said that doing so "is a concrete way of putting victims first and acknowledging the horror of what happened."

Francis announced he was convening the summit in September, signaling awareness at the top of the church that clergy sex abuse is a global problem and not restricted to some parts of the world or a few Western countries.

Francis is still working to recover from his botched handling of the sex abuse scandal in the Chilean church, sparked earlier this year when he repeatedly discredited victims of a notorious Chilean predator priest.

His papacy was then jolted by accusations from a retired Vatican ambassador that Francis himself rehabilitated a now-disgraced American ex-cardinal accused of molesting and harassing adult seminarians. Francis hasn't responded to the allegations, though he has ordered a limited investigation into them.

Spanish court gears up for high-stakes trial of separatists

MADRID – A preliminary hearing in a rebellion case against Catalan separatists Tuesday displayed some of the dynamics between defense and prosecutors expected during a trial that is likely to dominate Spanish politics.

Altogether, 18 former politicians and activists from the Catalonia region are charged with rebellion, sedition, disobedience and misuse of public funds for their parts in an attempt to secede from Spain last year.

At Tuesday's hearing, a panel of seven magistrates heard from defense attorneys who argued the trial should be heard by the top regional court in Catalonia rather than Spain's highest court in Madrid.

Prosecutors countered that Madrid was the proper venue, saying the events that led regional lawmakers to make a unilateral declaration of independence on Oct. 27, 2017 had ramifications outside of Catalonia.

The country's top court also has jurisdiction, prosecutors argued, because the secession attempt affected all Spaniards.

Supreme Court judges rejected similar defense appeals during the investigative stage of the case. A final decision is expected later this week.

If the top court keeps the case, former Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras, activist-turned-politician Jordi Sanchez and 16 other defendants are expected to appear there when the trial proceedings get underway at the end of January.

Four defendants are three weeks into a prison hunger strike to protest what they deem unfair treatment by Spain's judiciary. Central government authorities say there is no reason for the strike and the defendants' rights are guaranteed by Spain's independent judiciary.

The "trial of the century," as it's been labeled by domestic media, has taken a high political significance. Separatists in the northeastern region have made clear that they will use proceedings to prove that they are being tried for their ideas, and in particular for advancing a secessionist agenda.

In addition to prosecutors and state attorneys, a far-right party that has recently emerged in Spanish politics sits on the prosecution bench. Vox wants to use the trial to showcase its hard stance against nationalism and its defense of Spanish unity ahead of European and local elections in May next year.

Putin: Russia has enough missiles without violating treaty

MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday rejected the U.S. claim that Russia developed a new cruise missile in violation of a key nuclear treaty, arguing that Russia has no need for such a land-based weapon because it already has similar missiles on its ships and aircraft.

Washington warned this month it would suspend its obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in 60 days if Russia did not return to full compliance. The U.S. claims the 9M729 cruise missile breaches the INF, which bans all land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (300 to 3,400 miles.)

Moscow has repeatedly denied the accusation. Speaking to Russia's top military brass Tuesday, Putin rejected the U.S. claim of developing a land-based cruise missile, saying Russia now has similar air- and sea-launched weapons to do the job.

Putin said the Russian military has successfully tested air-launched Kh-101 and sea-launched Kalibr cruise missiles with a range of 4,500 kilometers (2,790 miles) in combat in Syria.

"It has probably made our partners worry, but it doesn't violate the INF treaty," Putin said.

Putin said the treaty signed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev didn't limit sea- and air-launched cruise missiles, which the Soviet Union didn't have at the time and the United States did in significant numbers.

The Russian president argued that the pact represented "unilateral disarmament" for the Soviet Union, adding: "God only knows why the Soviet leadership did it."

He emphasized that with Russian strategic bombers and navy ships now armed with long-range cruise missiles, it makes the development of similar land-based weapons redundant.

"It makes no difference whatsoever if we have a Kalibr-armed submarine or aircraft carrying missiles or similar weapons ashore," he said. "We can strike any targets within the range of 4,500 kilometers from the territory of Russia."

Putin added, however, that Russia could easily build such land-based missiles if the U.S. opts out of the INF Treaty, which he described as a key stabilizing factor.

"If we have similar air- and sea-launched systems, it wouldn't be that difficult for us to do some research and development to put them on land if needed," he said.

Putin added that Russia also has other new weapons that aren't banned by the INF, such as the air-launched Kinzhal hypersonic missile and the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, saying that they have significantly bolstered Russia's military capability.

"No one has hypersonic weapons yet, but we have it," he said.

Kinzhal has already been commissioned by the military, which put them in service with a squadron of MiG-31 fighter jets.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday that the aircraft carrying missiles have flown 89 patrol missions over the Caspian and the Black Seas this year.

Shoigu said the Avangard will enter service with the military next year.

Putin suggested that other countries that built intermediate-range missiles should be engaged in talks on a possible new agreement.

"Why not start talks on their accession to the treaty, or discuss parameters of a new agreement?" he said.

The Latest: Man convicted over ‘anti-migrant’ weapons

PARIS – The Latest on migration issues in Europe (all times local):

4:25 p.m.

A German court has convicted a man of unauthorized dealing in firearms over the sale in 2016 of weapons that he advertised as being usable to "shoot down asylum-seekers."

The Berlin state court sentenced the 35-year-old, identified only as Mario R. because of German privacy rules, to two years and 10 months in prison and confiscated 99,100 euros ($112,287) in proceeds.

The court said Tuesday the defendant sold the firearms, which could only fire rubber bullets but an expert deemed potentially deadly, online from Hungary between May and November 2016. The weapons were legal in Hungary but required a permit in Germany.

Large numbers of migrants arrived in Germany in 2015 and 2016. The court found that the defendant "exploited the mood in Germany in a particularly perfidious way."

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2:05 p.m.

French officials say that nine migrants, including a woman and child, have been rescued off the coast of Dunkirk after two distress calls from their small boat as they tried to sneak to Britain.

French maritime authorities in charge of the English Channel area said the migrants were located early Tuesday after a three-hour air and sea search.

A statement said the small boat was located 30 kilometers (about 20 miles) northwest of Dunkirk.

The large search party included a helicopter and three ships, and was later joined by two more helicopters from Belgium and Britain who searched the northern area of the English Channel.

Since fall, migrants have increasingly resorted to unguided sea crossings to reach Britain. Rescuers intercepted 18 migrants in two boats on Nov. 22.

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10:45 a.m.

Germany's highest court has thrown out complaints from the far-right Alternative for Germany party claiming Chancellor Angela Merkel's 2015 decision to allow in hundreds of thousands of migrants was a constitutional violation.

The party, known as AfD, argued that Merkel's decision not to refuse migrants' entry at Germany's borders violated parliament's right to participate and other principles.

But the Federal Constitutional Court said Tuesday that the three complaints didn't meet prerequisites for a constitutional hearing because the AfD "failed to sufficiently substantiate that the federal government's decisions on this matter violated or directly threatened its rights."

It also noted that while the AfD argued parliament should have been enlisted to draft a "migration management act," the party also stated its "unwillingness to participate in the introduction of a corresponding bill."

EU urges Kosovo to drop tariffs as political tensions mount

BRUSSELS – The European Union's top diplomat called Tuesday on Kosovo to lift tariffs on goods from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina as tensions rise between the former Serbian territory, and the EU and NATO.

Kosovo last month slapped a 100-percent tax on Serbian imports, apparently in retaliation after its bid to join the international police organization, Interpol, failed amid intense Serb lobbying.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that "it is in the interest of Kosovo to immediately revoke this decision." She urged Pristina to settle its grievances through dialogue.

Kosovo broke away from Serbia in 2008 and unilaterally declared independence. Belgrade doesn't recognize the move, nor do a small group of EU states, like Spain for example that fear that recognition might fuel breakaway tendencies in their own countries.

Mogherini's appeal came as Kosovo's prime minister accused her of mishandling EU-backed talks on normalizing ties with Serbia.

Ramush Haradinaj said the so-called Pristina-Belgrade dialogue led by Mogherini "has not given its expected products."

He said that while Serbia is taking major steps toward the EU integration, Kosovo residents remain "in a ghetto," not enjoying visa-free travel to EU countries even though it claims to have fulfilled the requirements.

A news conference planned between Mogherini and Haradinaj in Brussels on Monday was cancelled without reason. Mogherini said Tuesday it was because "we didn't have any news to give," and she noted that Haradinaj didn't raise her handling of the talks with her.

Haradinaj has said his government will only lift the tariffs once Serbia recognizes Kosovo's independence.

Mogherini, speaking alongside Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, expressed concerned about a return to conflict and warned that "the alternative to dialogue is very dangerous."

NATO ambassadors, meanwhile, were weighing Tuesday Kosovo's decision to transform its security force into an army.

Belgrade has warned that creating an army in a place it considers Serbian territory could result in an armed intervention.

But Kosovo's parliament on Friday overwhelmingly approved the army's formation in what President Hashim Thaci described as "an irreversible act."

NATO and the EU have criticized the move, and NATO could reduce cooperation with Kosovo security services, although it seems unlikely to cut the number of troops in its own security force there, KFOR.

"There is a long-standing agreement that NATO will have to re-examine our level of engagement with the Kosovo Security Force, should its mandate evolve," spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said in a statement.

She underlined that NATO's KFOR will continue "to ensure a safe and secure environment."

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Llazar Semini reported from Tirana, Albania.

Media freedom group records increase in journalists killed

PARIS – Media freedom group Reporters Without Borders said Tuesday it has recorded an increase in the number of journalists killed and imprisoned worldwide so far this year.

The Paris-based group, also known by its French acronym RSF, said 63 journalists died in relation to their jobs from Jan. 1 to Dec. 1, 2018, compared to 55 in 2017, as well as four media workers. Another 13 people it described as "non-professional journalists" — people who didn't have official media cards but who were involved in the production of news and information — also died, while 348 were held in detention around the world.

"Non-professional journalists play a fundamental role in the production of news and information in countries with oppressive regimes and countries at war, where it is hard for professional journalists to operate," RSF said in a report.

Of the 80 people in total listed as killed, the group determined 49 were deliberately targeted "because their reporting threatened the interests of certain people in positions of political, economic, or religious power or organized crime." The other 31 died in the field while reporting, RSF said, adding that the group was investigating a further 10 deaths to determine whether they were related to journalism.

The deadliest country for reporters in 2018 was Afghanistan, where 15 died in violent attacks such as bombings, followed by Syria with 11 and Mexico with nine. The U.S. made it into the top five deadliest countries for journalists this year for the first time, with six dying, including four who were among five people killed by a gunman who opened fire in the offices of Maryland newspaper Capital Gazette. Another two died while covering extreme weather.

A bright spot was Iraq, where no media deaths were reported so far in 2018, for the first time since 2003.

MSF listed China as the biggest jailer, holding 60 people, 46 of them described as non-professional journalists "who have tried to compensate for the Communist Party's increasingly tight control on the traditional media." Ten of those, the group said, were in danger of dying in Chinese prisons.

Turkey was the world's biggest jailer of professional journalists in 2018, according to the report, holding 33 of the total 179 being held in detention worldwide. In Egypt, 30 of the 38 journalists being held were still awaiting trial, the group said, including one who has already been held for more than three years without being officially charged.

French govt offers 300-euro bonus to protest-weary police

PARIS – Seeking to soothe police forces demanding improved working conditions, the French government on Tuesday proposed giving 300-euro ($340) bonuses to officers deployed to the aggressive and disruptive protests that started last month.

French President Emmanuel Macron committed to the idea of protest duty pay earlier this month. The government's offer came a day after two police unions announced work slowdowns to protest staffing and other budget issues.

French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner was to meet with police union representatives later Tuesday. It wasn't clear if the proposed premiums would calm the growing anger in police ranks.

"We are not for sale and we can't be bought. It's certainly not with this bonus that the crisis will be resolved," said Yves Lefebvre, of the Unite-SG Police FO union.

According to government figures, the bonus will be paid to 111,000 police officers and military personal and will cost 33 million euros ($37.5 million.) The National Assembly is expected to debate it during discussions on the 2019 budget.

Instead of a bonus, police unions are asking for the payment of thousands of hours of unpaid overtime work that has accumulated over the years.

The Alliance union urged the government to invest in rebuilding the country's police forces while calling for a work slowdown Wednesday. Alliance is encouraging police forces to stay inside their stations and only to respond to emergency calls.

The unions also have complained about what they said are strained resources as officers have been sent in to clear road blockades and to control trouble-makers at street demonstrations over the past month.

The yellow vest protests, named after the fluorescent safety vests French motorists must carry, started last month over rising fuel prices. They since have morphed into a mass show of dissatisfaction involving pensioners, people without jobs and small business owners.

The UNSA union threatened to mimic yellow vests protests and to occupy roundabouts if its demands were not met.

Major powers report progress on new Syria constitution body

GENEVA – The foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed Tuesday to facilitate convening the first session of a committee to draft a new Syrian constitution early next year, saying they hoped it will lead to the launch of a "viable and lasting" peace process.

In a joint statement read out by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, they said the work of the committee should be governed by a "sense of compromise and constructive engagement."

But U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said "there is an extra mile to go in the marathon effort" to ensure a credible, balanced and inclusive constitutional committee. He refused to elaborate in his comments to reporters in Geneva following the meeting.

De Mistura, who is stepping down on Dec. 31, is scheduled to brief the Security Council on Thursday.

The 150-member committee, which has been a year in the making, is intended to represent the government, the opposition and civil society and is seen by the U.N. and U.S. as key to holding free elections and ending the seven-year civil war that has killed more than 450,000 people.

The U.N. Syria envoy was authorized to put together such a committee at a Russian-hosted peace conference in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Jan. 30 but its formation has been hindered by disagreements and the U.N. has accused the Syrian government of blocking efforts to draft a new constitution.

At issue is the 50-member delegation representing civil society, experts, independents, tribal leaders and women which the government has been objecting to. There is already agreement on the 50-member delegation from the government and the 50-member delegation from the opposition.

"Slowly, we are reaching a conclusion," said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, suggesting there were still disagreements over which civil society groups would participate.

"We have reached an important step in our work toward the Syrian constitutional committee," he told reporters.

The Damascus government has previously told the U.N. envoy the constitution is a "sovereign" matter and that Damascus will not allow any foreign meddling in it.

The opposition has called for a new constitution that would allow for a political transition away from the Assad family's decades of rule. But after a string of major victories, the government shows little interest in making any concessions and has said it will only accept amendments to the current constitution.

On Monday, Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said that it's premature to talk about the start of the constitutional committee's work "due to the attempt of some western countries to intervene in its work."

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Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed reporting