Fox News Host Taking Leave After Mocking School Shooting Survivor

Fox News show host Laura Ingraham announced on her show late Friday that she is taking next week off, after almost a dozen advertisers dropped her show after the conservative pundit mocked a teenage survivor of the Florida school massacre on Twitter.

Eleven companies so far have pulled their ads after a pushback by Parkland student David Hogg, 17, who called for a boycott of her advertisers.

A Fox News Channel spokeswoman said Ingraham was taking a pre-planned spring vacation with her children.

Hogg took aim at the host’s show, “The Ingraham Angle,” after she taunted him on Twitter on Wednesday, accusing him of whining about being rejected by four colleges to which he had applied.

Hogg is a survivor of the February 14 mass shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the Parkland suburb of Fort Lauderdale. He and other classmates have become the faces of a new youth-led movement calling for tighter restrictions on firearms.

Hogg tweeted a list of a dozen companies that advertise on “The Ingraham Angle” and urged his supporters to demand that they cancel their ads.

On Thursday, Ingraham tweeted an apology “in the spirit of Holy Week,” saying she was sorry for any hurt or upset she had caused Hogg or any of the “brave victims” of Parkland.

But her apology did not stop companies from departing.

The companies announcing that they are cancelling their ads are: Nutrish, the pet food line created by celebrity chef Rachael Ray, travel website TripAdvisor Inc, online home furnishings seller Wayfair Inc, the world’s largest packaged food company, Nestle SA, online streaming service Hulu, travel website Expedia Group Inc and online personal shopping service Stitch Fix.

According to CBS News, four other companies joined the list Friday: the home office supply store Office Depot, the dieting company Jenny Craig, the Atlantis, Paradise Island resort and Johnson & Johnson which produces pharmaceuticals as well as consumer products such as Band-Aids, Neutrogena beauty products

and Tylenol.

Hogg wrote on Twitter that an apology just to mollify advertisers was insufficient.

Ingraham’s show runs on Fox News, part of Rupert Murdoch’s Twenty-First Century Fox Inc.


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Scientists Track Chinese Space Station’s Final Hours in Orbit

Scientists are monitoring a defunct Chinese space station that is expected to fall to Earth sometime this weekend — the largest man-made object to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in a decade.

The head of the European Space Agency’s debris office, Holger Krag, says China’s Tiangong-1 space station likely will fall to Earth Sunday.

Krag said it still not yet known where the space station will hit Earth, but said it would be extremely unlikely for anyone to be injured when it does.

“Our experience is that for such large objects typically between 20 and 40 percent of the original mass, of 8.5 tons, will survive re-entry and then could be found on the ground, theoretically,” he said.

“However, to be injured by one of these fragments is extremely unlikely. My estimate is that the probability to be injured by one of these fragments is similar to the probability of being hit by lightning twice in the same year,” Krag added.

China’s first space lab, Tiangong-1 — or “Heavenly Palace 1″ — was launched in 2011 as a facility for testing docking capabilities with other Chinese spacecraft and to explore the possibilities for building a larger permanent space station by 2023.

Chinese astronauts visited it several times flying aboard the Shenzhou spacecraft.

It was scheduled for a controlled de-orbit and eventual crash into the Pacific Ocean, but in September 2016 China’s space agency conceded it had lost contact with the station.

Krag, says the 8-and-a-half ton craft will re-enter the atmosphere at a speed of 27,000 kilometers per hour.

He said the space station is expected to fall between the areas of 43 degrees south and 43 degrees north, and everything outside that zone is considered safe.

“Northern Europe including France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland are definitely on the safe side. Southern Europe, the southern part of North America, South Asia, Africa, Australia and also South America are still within the zone today,” he said.

The re-entry area covers huge parts of the Earth’s oceans, so any surviving pieces of the space station are most likely to end up at the bottom of the sea.


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Scientist, Pop Culture Icon Stephen Hawking Mourned at Cambridge Funeral

Crowds lined the streets of Cambridge, England, on Saturday for the funeral of one of the world’s most famous scientists: physicist Stephen Hawking, who died March 14 at age 76.

The scientist, confined for decades to a wheelchair and voice synthesizer because of the disease ALS, was known for his charisma, curiosity, and a crackling sense of humor. His science books and television cameos made him a pop-culture icon.

Hawking described his research as seeking “a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”

Hawking’s funeral was held Saturday at the Cambridge University church known as Great St. Mary’s. As the funeral procession arrived, bells rang 76 times — once for each year of Hawking’s life.

In addition to Hawking’s family members, caretakers, former students, and admirers, the ceremony was attended by a number of famous faces. Among them was actor Eddie Redmayne, who played Hawking in an award-winning film biography of his life called The Theory of Everything, released in 2014.

Redmayne’s co-star, Felicity Jones, model Lily Cole, Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May, and Britain’s Astronomer Royal, the Lord Rees of Ludlow (Martin Rees), were also there.

The eulogy, read by professor Faye Dowker, praised Hawking as someone “revered for his devotion as a scholar to the pursuit of knowledge.”

Hawking will be given one last high honor: his remains are to be interred in Westminster Abbey among some of Britain’s most legendary intellectuals. Hawking will take his place next to 17th-century mathematical scientist Isaac Newton and near 19th-century evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin.

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Russia’s World Cup Drives Some Students to Rare Protests

Many students would be delighted to have the World Cup in town, but not Maria Cheremnova.


The 20-year-old physics student in Moscow is one of thousands campaigning against the June 14-July 15 soccer tournament, which is set to disrupt academic life across the country.


There will be a 25,000-capacity fan zone outside the main building at Russia’s prestigious Moscow State University during exam season. In other cities, exams have been brought forward and thousands of police are set to move into dorm rooms.


The Moscow fan zone – a public viewing area with a big screen, beer and music – is on prime real estate near the vast Luzhniki arena, the river and the main university building, a Stalin-era colossus that ranks among the Russian capital’s most recognizable structures.


 The building is also home to around 6,500 students. Residents say it doesn’t have great soundproofing.


“I came to university to study, not to watch football and listen to that noise,” Cheremnova said. “Imagine 25,000 people and the events at night. It’ll all be visible, with lights, a big screen, music and fans, who aren’t very quiet guys. It’s going to stop people sleeping before their exams. It’s just awful.”


 It will also mean extra strain on already struggling transport networks – the fan zone is two subway stops from Luzhniki stadium – and fans could damage a nearby nature reserve, Cheremnova claimed.

A group of Moscow State University students and recent graduates has gathered more than 4,600 signatures demanding the fan zone be moved to another location. They said more students and staff would have signed but feared retaliation from the university administration. When attempting to deliver the petition to the rector’s office, security guards blocked the way and elevator access was cut to that floor only, supposedly for repair.


Russian universities have little tradition of student protest. While they were hotbeds of activism before the Russian Revolution of 1917, in Soviet times access to a college education was closely linked to political loyalty and membership of groups like the Young Communist League.


World Cup organizers have revised earlier plans for Moscow’s fan zone to be larger and closer to the university. FIFA said “to lessen the impact of the event on students and the adjacent infrastructure of the university, it was agreed to move the stage away from the main building by several meters, to reduce the capacity to 25,000 spectators and to change access flows.”


Opposition not only in Moscow

Across Russia, the tournament has brought upheaval for students.


The Russian academic year often runs well into the summer months, and late June is usually prime time for exams.


In most of the 11 host cities, university dorms are due to turn into temporary barracks for police and National Guard troops brought in from out of town for the tournament.


Many universities have brought forward examinations, often by more than a month, to avoid the World Cup and free up dorm space for security forces.


That means semesters have been cut short with little warning, forcing students to cram more studies into less time. Cheremnova said that some Moscow State University students were told to prepare for earlier examinations, only for the decision to be reversed.

At the Southern Federal University in Rostov-on-Don, semesters run back-to-back since “the winter vacation was postponed until the summer period,” according to spokesman Andrei Svechnikov.


What’s angering students more than anything else is the prospect of being forced to move out of rooms they’ve paid for.


Despite official denials from the Education and Science Ministry that any students will be kicked out to make way for security forces, more than 2,800 students have signed a petition against alleged removals.


“There will be no forced eviction of students under this process,” the ministry told The Associated Press, adding that security forces will “not disrupt the learning process.”


The AP contacted 17 universities cited in local media reports as planning to evict students for the World Cup. Of those, six said no students would be forced to move, one said a small number would be required to move to other dorms, and 10 failed to reply.


In many cities, students report mixed messages from university officials over accommodation and study schedules.


Zhokhangir Mirzadzhanov, a student in the western city of Kaliningrad, said his university initially offered to buy tickets for students to leave the city and free up dorm space for the tournament but details remained unclear.


“There are a lot of simple issues that they still can’t answer,” he said. “What comes next, no one knows.”

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Tibetans Mark 60th Year of Dalai Lama’s Arrival in India

As New Delhi seeks to revive its frayed ties with China, the Tibetan government-in-exile in India launched year-long celebrations Saturday to mark the 60th year of the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama’s arrival in India, in the hill town of Dharamsala — instead of the Indian capital, as originally planned.


Accusing the Chinese of destroying Tibetan civilization, culture and identity, the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, urged Tibetans to strengthen efforts to make the return of the Dalai Lama to his native land a reality.


“Thousands and thousands of Tibetans have been killed and have died for the cause of Tibet. Many have burned themselves alive,” he said.  

Saying that he had fled Tibet under difficult circumstances, the Dalai Lama said it has been a time of mixed feelings of both sadness and happiness. “At the time, we had no idea what would happen in next 40 to 50 years. But today, we are commemorating 60 years in exile, so now we could see to a certain extent what would happen in the near future,” he said without elaborating.


The “Thank You India” event was moved out of the Indian capital to Dharamsala following a note by India’s top bureaucrat last month advising senior ministers and officials to stay away from the function, saying it coincided with a “very sensitive time” for relations with Beijing.


New Delhi’s caution toward a series of events planned by the Tibetans is seen as part of efforts to tone down its assertive stand toward China following a year when tensions between the Asian neighbors spiraled downward.  

‘Readjustment of China policy’

It marks a departure from India’s stance last year, when, ignoring strong protests from Beijing, New Delhi allowed the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh state, a territory disputed between the Asian giants.  


“These signals looked very hard line and hawkish,” says Manoj Joshi at the Observer Research Foundation. “I think there is a learning curve for the Modi government that one needs to be a bit careful in dealing with the Chinese on some of these issues. So there is a kind of readjustment of China policy.”


Besides moving the “Thank You India” function from New Delhi to Dharamsala, two other events have been scrapped — an interfaith prayer to be led by the Dalai Lama in New Delhi and a World Parliamentarians convention on Tibet.


Paying heed to Chinese sensitivities on the Dalai Lama, termed by Beijing a “dangerous separatist,” is a message from New Delhi to calm ties ahead of a series of meetings between Indian and Chinese officials, according to analysts.


India’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, visits Beijing in April and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to meet with President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a regional summit in June.

Relations between India and China hit their lowest point when troops from both countries were locked in a 70-day standoff on their Himalayan borders. But of late, the tone has been more positive as they try to reset ties.

New Delhi, however, did not completely ignore the “Thank You India” event meant to show gratitude to the Indian government and its people for their support of Tibetan refugees.

Junior Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma and a senior leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Ram Madhav, attended the function as the exile community sang songs thanking India for providing a home to the more than 125,000 Tibetans that live in the country.


Madhav hoped that the Dalai Lama would be able to find a solution to the Tibetan issue “through peaceful and democratic means that will facilitate your honorable return to your homeland.”


The Dalai Lama crossed into India from Lhasa on March 31, 1959, and has made India his home ever since.


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Trump’s Talk of a Syria Pullout Nothing New

President Donald Trump’s unscripted remark this week about pulling out of Syria “very soon,” while at odds with his own policy, was not a one-off: For weeks, top advisers have been fretting about an overly hasty withdrawal as the president has increasingly told them privately he wants out, U.S. officials said.


Only two months ago, Trump’s aides thought they’d persuaded him that the U.S. needed to keep its presence in Syria open-ended – not only because the Islamic State group has yet to be entirely defeated, but also because the resulting power vacuum could be filled by other extremist groups or by Iran. Trump signed off on a major speech in January in which then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid out the new strategy and declared “it is vital for the United States to remain engaged in Syria.”


But by mid-February, Trump was telling his top aides in meetings that as soon as victory can be declared against IS, he wanted American troops out of Syria, said the officials. Alarm bells went off at the State Department and the Pentagon, where officials have been planning for a gradual, methodical shift from a military-led operation to a diplomatic mission to start rebuilding basic infrastructure like roads and sewers in the war-wracked country.


In one sign that Trump is serious about reversing course and withdrawing from Syria, the White House this week put on hold some $200 million in U.S. funding for stabilization projects in Syria, officials said. The money, to have been spent by the State Department for infrastructure projects like power, water and roads, had been announced by Tillerson at an aid conference last month in Kuwait.


The officials said the hold, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, is not necessarily permanent and will be discussed at senior-level inter-agency meetings next week.


The officials weren’t authorized to comment publicly and demanded anonymity.


The State Department said it continually reviews appropriate assistance levels and how best they might be utilized. And the agency said it continues to work with the international community, members of the Coalition, and our partners on the ground to provide much needed stabilization support to vulnerable areas in Syria.


“The United States is working everyday on the ground and with the international community to help stabilize those areas liberated from ISIS and identify ways to move forward with reconstruction once there has been a peaceful political transition away from [Syrian President al-Bashar] Assad,” according to a statement from the State Department.

‘Very soon’

Trump’s first public suggestion he was itching to pull out came in a news conference with visiting Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on February 23, when Trump said the U.S. was in Syria to “get rid of ISIS and go home.” On Thursday, in a domestic policy speech in Ohio, Trump went further.


“We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon – very soon, we’re coming out,” Trump said.


The public declaration caught U.S. national security agencies off-guard and unsure whether Trump was formally announcing a new, unexpected change in policy. Inundated by inquiries from journalists and foreign officials, the Pentagon and State Department reached out to the White House’s National Security Council for clarification.


The White House’s ambiguous response, officials said: Trump’s words speak for themselves.


“The mission of the Department of Defense to defeat ISIS has not changed,” said Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman.


Still, without a clear directive from the president, planning has not started for a withdrawal from Syria, officials said, and Trump has not advocated a specific timetable.


For Trump, who campaigned on an “America First” mantra, Syria is just the latest foreign arena where his impulse has been to limit the U.S. role. Like with NATO and the United Nations, Trump has called for other governments to step up and share more of the burden so that Washington doesn’t foot the bill. His administration has been crisscrossing the globe seeking financial commitments from other countries to fund reconstruction in both Syria and Iraq, but with only limited success.


Yet it’s unclear how Trump’s impulse to pull out could be affected by recent staff shake-ups on his national security team. Tillerson and former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, both advocates for keeping a U.S. presence in Syria, were recently fired, creating questions about the longevity of the plan Tillerson announced in his Stanford University speech in January. But Trump also replaced McMaster with John Bolton, a vocal advocate for U.S. intervention and aggressive use of the military overseas.


The abrupt change in the president’s thinking has drawn concern both inside and outside the United States.


Other nations that make up the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State fear that Trump’s impulse to pull out hastily would allow the notoriously resourceful IS militants to regroup, several European diplomats said. That concern has been heightened by the fact that U.S.-backed ground operations against remaining IS militants in Syria were put on hold earlier this month.

‘Serious and growing concern’

The ground operations had to be paused because Kurdish fighters who had been spearheading the campaign against IS shifted to a separate fight with Turkish forces, who began combat operations in the town of Afrin against Kurds who are considered by Ankara to be terrorists that threaten Turkey’s security.


“This is a serious and growing concern,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said this month.


Beyond just defeating IS, there are other strategic U.S. objectives that could be jeopardized by a hasty withdrawal, officials said, chiefly those related to Russia and Iran.


Israel, America’s closest Middle East ally, and other regional nations like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are deeply concerned about the influence of Iran and its allies, including the Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah, inside Syria. The U.S. military presence in Syria has been seen as a buffer against unchecked Iranian activity, and especially against Tehran’s desire to establish a contiguous land route from Iran to the Mediterranean coast in Lebanon.


An American withdrawal would also likely cede Syria to Russia, which along with Iran has been propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and would surely fill the void left behind by the U.S. That prospect has alarmed countries like France, which has historic ties to the Levant.


In calling for a withdrawal “very soon,” Trump may be overly optimistic in his assessment of how quickly the anti-IS campaign can be wrapped up, the officials said. Although the group has been driven from basically all of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and 95 percent of its former territory in Syria, the remaining five percent is becoming increasingly difficult to clear and could take many months, the officials said.


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Pope Leads Good Friday Observances in Rome

Pope Francis presided over solemn Good Friday services amid tight security at Rome’s Colosseum for the Via Crucis procession. Italian police and army soldiers were on high alert, with Holy Week coinciding with a spate of arrests of suspected Islamic extremists around Italy.

Francis presided at a traditional candle-lit Way of the Cross procession around Rome’s ancient Colosseum. Some 20,000 people turned out to take part in the event with the pope on the most somber day in the Christian liturgical calendar, which commemorates the death of Jesus on the cross.

Rome authorities increased security this year with checks carried out as the faithful approached the area. Italian police carried out four raids against suspected supporters of Islamist terrorism, arresting seven people, including one man who was believed to have been planning a truck attack.

The Way of the Cross procession marks 14 events, called stations, beginning with Roman governor Pontius Pilate’s condemning Jesus to death, until his burial in a tomb. This year the meditations at each station were written by Catholic high school and college students in keeping with Francis’ decision to dedicate 2018 to addressing the hopes and concerns of young Catholics.

At the end, he delivered a meditation of his own, denouncing those who seek power, money and conflict. He prayed that the Catholic Church be always an “ark of salvation, a source of certainty and truth.”

Pope Francis also said many should feel “shame because our generations are leaving young people a world that is fractured by divisions and wars, a world devoured by selfishness where young people, children, the sick and the elderly are marginalized.”

The pope praised those in the Church who are trying to arouse “humanity’s sleeping conscience” through their work helping the poor, immigrants, and prison inmates.

Earlier, the pope presided over a solemn Passion of the Lord service in St. Peter’s Basilica which was kept open despite several pieces of plaster having come crashing down from a pillar of the church on Thursday. The damage was swiftly repaired.


Thousands of faithful filled the basilica. Francis lay prostrate in prayer on the marble pavement in front of the altar at the start of the chant-filled evening service. Later, the crucifix was carried in procession from the back of the basilica to the pope who then kissed it. The other concelebrants followed his example.

On Holy Saturday, in the evening, the pope will celebrate the solemn Easter Vigil in St. Peter’s Basilica, followed by the joyful Easter Sunday Mass marking what Christians observe as Christ’s resurrection.


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Australian Project to Probe Links Between Head Injuries in Sport, Disease

Researchers in Australia have begun an ambitious task to learn more about the long-term impacts of head injuries suffered by athletes. This week, the Australian Sports Brain Bank was launched in Sydney, and experts are encouraging players who have participated in all levels of sport – whether or not they’ve had a head injury – to donate their brains to the cause after they die.

The Brain Bank has been set up to investigate links between concussion, head injuries and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE.  It is a neurodegenerative disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

The Australian study is being supported by American researchers, who set up a similar brain bank a decade ago.

Dr. Chris Nowinski, head of the Boston-based Concussion Legacy Foundation which has examined the brains of deceased National Football League players, says the presence of CTE among them is pervasive.

“Any contact sport where you receive repetitive brain trauma puts you at risk for this disease.  We do not know at what risk but we have seen CTE in 110 of the first 111 players that we have studied, which has really surprised us.”

Nowinski believes energy from blows to the head during competition causes brain tissue to move.  Symptoms of CTE include depression, aggression and memory loss, and can take years or decades to appear.

The cause of CTE has yet to be established, but the disease has prompted a class action lawsuit in the U.S.

Australia’s Brain Bank is a joint venture between Sydney University and the city’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.  It hopes to obtain 500 brains over the next 10 years.


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Fired for Liking a Tweet on Tibet, US Worker Feels China’s Reach

In early January, Roy Jones was making $14 an hour, $5 above Nebraska’s minimum wage as a representative dealing with customers on social media for Marriott International Group, the international hotelier.

For Jones, a 49-year-old Omaha resident, it was a dream job despite the bot-generated tweets that flowed unceasingly onto what he described as the company’s Tweetdeck-like interface January 9. Sometimes there were “more than 3,000 tweets in front of me, I’m just processing them,” Jones told VOA Mandarin earlier this week.

On what Jones called a hectic shift, there was a tweet from Friends of Tibet, a pro-Tibetan independence organization, congratulating Marriott for recognizing Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan as countries.

The company, which has more than 300 hotels in China, had named the three in a survey sent to customers that asked in which country they lived and gave options including Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

A Marriott social media account “liked” the Friends’ tweet, setting off an international incident that exemplifies the challenges Western companies such as Apple, Mercedes, Delta and Zara face as they do business with China.

Now, more than two months later, Jones told VOA Mandarin he is still not sure how or what he did or even if he was the employee who actually responded to that tweet.

WATCH: Florida Senator Marco Rubio on China, Tibet and American Companies

He was, however, the employee the hotel company fired almost immediately, and since January, his case has attracted the attention of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee and who, as chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, spoke out in February on companies bowing to Beijing.

“Every week, it seems another major international company is publicly, and in some cases, shamelessly apologizing to the P.R.C. for some sort of ‘misstep’ related to Tibet … and otherwise sensitive issues,” Rubio said.

On March 25, although not mentioning Jones by name but calling out Marriott, Rubio tweeted: “This is the long arm of China. They can get an “American” company to fire an American worker in America.”

Last week at a Washington event, former U.S. Representative Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia who retired from Congress in 2015, took aim at the hotelier, saying, “There is cultural genocide taking place in Tibet. … I personally will never stay at a Marriott hotel unless Mr. Jones gets his job back.”

WATCH: Former Republican Congressman Frank Wolf Calls Out Marriott

On Friday, Marriott International Group did not respond to emails and phone calls from VOA asking for comment on the Jones case.

In January, soon after the “like” was registered on Twitter, Craig Smith, president of Marriott Asia Pacific Region, said in a statement quoted in the Wall Street Journal: “We made some mistakes in China earlier this year, which shows that some employees have poor understanding or insufficient attention to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity issues. These incidents are wrong and in no way represent the position of our company.”

Placing blame

What happened to Jones floored him. 

“My job is to help customers,” Jones told VOA earlier in this week. “Now that something went wrong, they want to push the blame on me.”

He’s not sure why. 

“My job isn’t to decide whether Tibet is a country,” he told his hometown newspaper.

Within 24 hours of the January 9 “like” going out, Chinese social media exploded even though Twitter is officially banned in China.

China’s netizens objected because, according to Beijing, Tibet is part of China. Supporters of Tibetan independence contend China occupies the area illegally.

Hong Kong, a British colony that reverted to Chinese control in 1997, retains its own government even though it is a special administrative region of China.

And Beijing considers Taiwan, a self-governing island, a wayward province and seeks the island’s reunification with China.

In that one survey, Marriott had touched on two of the so-called “Three Ts” — Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square, the site of June 1989 pro-democracy protests that ended with the deaths of hundreds of people — that are particularly sensitive topics in China.

On January 11, Marriott apologized to China’s government for referring to Tibet and Taiwan as countries.

That was when Jones learned that Marriott was suspending him. As he walked to his car after his meeting with the human resources department, Jones said his cellphone alerted him to a new story about Marriott.

That’s how he learned he was fired — a report he recalls as being in the China Daily, the state-run media — said that “termination proceedings are in process.”

His official termination letter stated January 14 as his last day with Marriott. It did not give a reason for his dismissal, Jones said.

The letter included a number to call about benefits and said any of his personal belongings at the office would be sent to his home. The box arrived the day before the letter, Jones said.

‘Surreal experience’

“It’s an absolute surreal experience. I feel like I’m in some kind of spy novel,” he told VOA.

Jones continues to be puzzled by the incident. He recalls that in school he learned “that people fought wars to keep the communist narrative at bay.”

Now, he admits he’s much more educated about China than he was before he was fired and feels that Beijing is “making a big push” to take its “narrative global.”

“There’s a bunch of stuff that China’s doing to the United States, and I don’t think that everybody’s putting the pieces together,” he told VOA.

“Somebody has to stand up and say something because obviously [what happened to me] this isn’t a right thing,” Jones said. “This is a wrong thing.”

“It’s just my idea,” he said with a sigh. “I’m just a guy who got fired. I used to make $14 an hour. What do I know?”

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Helping the Planet, One Burger at a Time

Chef Rob Morasco didn’t set out to make a planet-friendly burger.

But the 25 percent mushroom burger he created at food service company Sodexo not only has a lower carbon footprint, it’s also lower in calories, fat and salt.

It’s juicier, too.

“When you bite into it, it’s kind of like a flavor explosion,” Morasco said. “And you don’t taste the mushrooms, either.”

And because mushrooms are cheaper than beef, he could answer customer demand for antibiotic- and hormone-free burgers “without having to jack up the price,” he said.

Mushroom-blended burgers have been catching on among both chefs and environmentalists. In March, Sonic Drive-In became the first fast-food chain to offer them.

WATCH: These Burgers Are Better for the Planet, but You’d Never Know It

​2 million cars

Americans eat about 10 billion hamburgers each year, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI).

All those burgers take a toll on the planet.

Beef is “the most resource-intensive food that we commonly eat,” Richard Waite of WRI said.

Beef accounts for about half the greenhouse gases produced by the American diet, he added. Cows take far more feed, land and water than any other source of protein.

If every burger in America were blended with mushrooms, WRI estimates the greenhouse-gas savings would be like taking more than 2 million cars off the road.

It would save as much water as nearly 3 million American households use in a year. And it would reduce the demand for farmland by an area larger than the state of Maryland.

For the carnivore

Blended burgers are part of The Culinary Institute of America and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Menus of Change project, challenging chefs across the food industry to make their meals healthier and more sustainable.

Demand for meatless meals is growing along with rising health and environmental concerns. There are bean burgers, soy burgers, even beet-infused veggie burgers that “bleed.”

But it’s a limited market.

“The veggie burgers tend to cater to folks who identify as vegetarian or vegan, or actively want to be eating less meat,” Waite said.

On the other hand, blended burgers appeal to “the real carnivores, someone who really loves meat,” he added. “This is potentially a dish that could have broad mainstream appeal and also pretty big environmental benefits.”

Helps keep burgers juicy

Chefs say the mushrooms retain water, helping the burger stay juicy as it cooks.

Sonic Drive-In’s ads for its new Signature Slinger blended burger play up the juiciness and the lower calories.

“When you’re about something that is going to be better for you, it had better deliver the flavor first,” said Scott Uehlein, vice president for product innovation and development at Sonic Drive-In.

The company is piloting the burgers in a two-month trial run.

And the potential goes beyond burgers.

About 400 cafeterias, universities and hospitals are using Sodexo’s blended beef to prepare not only burgers, but lasagna, chili, meatballs, meatloaf and more. The company has adapted 30 popular recipes to use its mushroom blend.

“All those different things you can make with that product just like you would make with regular ground beef,” chef Morasco said.

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Mormon Conference Chooses New Leaders as Church Faces Scrutiny

A Mormon conference this weekend in Utah will usher in a new era of church leadership that comes as the faith grapples with heightened scrutiny about its handling of sexual abuse reports and one-on-one interviews between local lay leaders and youth.

Church President Russell M. Nelson will preside over the twice-annual gathering for the first time since taking office, and two new members will be chosen for an all-male top governing body.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints this week announced updated guidelines for the reporting of sexual abuse following news that a former prominent missionary leader was accused of sexually assaulting two women in the 1980s.

The new guidelines call on lay leaders to never disregard a report of abuse or encourage a person to stay in an abusive home. They also say children can bring a parent or other adult to one-on-one interviews with local church leaders. Parents previously were allowed only in a hallway or adjacent room. Youth can still go alone if they choose.

Some say the changes fall short.

On Friday, about 1,000 Mormons and ex-Mormons marched to the church’s Salt Lake City headquarters to deliver petitions demanding an end to the closed door, one-on-one meetings that start at age 12, along with the sexual questions they sometimes include.

Mormon spokeswoman Irene Caso said in a statement Friday the faith condemns any inappropriate behavior or abuse regardless of when or where it occurs, and that church leaders are given instructions for youth interviews.

The statement also seemed to express a willingness to change: “As with any practice in the Church, we continually look for ways to improve and adjust by following the Savior in meeting the needs of our members.”

Nelson is expected to speak at this weekend’s conference, but it’s unknown if he’ll address the issue or the larger topic of sexual misconduct that has been thrust into the national spotlight by the #MeToo movement. Church leaders usually focus their conference speeches on spiritual guidance and religious themes.

​Will Quorum diversify?

Nelson, a 93-year-old former heart surgeon, was appointed the 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in January following the death of president Thomas S. Monson, who served for a decade.

Both Nelson and Monson rose up church leadership ranks after being named to a governing body called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, modeled after Jesus Christ’s apostles. Members of the all-male panel serve under the church president and his two counselors and remain on the panel until they die.

Church members and scholars will be closely watching Saturday to see if the Utah-based church adds diversity to its top leadership tier, which is made up entirely of white men from the U.S. with the exception of one German, Dieter Uchtdorf.

More than half of the religion’s 16 million members live outside the United States, and some Mormons would like to see the church’s global footprint represented in leadership.

The last time there were openings on the Quorum, in October 2015, the church chose three Utah men.

Women aren’t allowed on the religion’s highest leadership councils or in the faith’s lay clergy that lead local congregations. Church officials say their doctrine states men and women are equal, but only men are allowed in the lay priesthood because the religion follows the “pattern set by the Savior when it comes to priesthood ordination.”

Patriarchal structure

A contingent of Mormons have advocated for years for a change in doctrine to allow women in the priesthood, including large rallies outside church conferences in 2013 and 2014, but the Mormon church remains committed to its patriarchal structure. Nine highest-ranking women in the church oversee three organizations that run programs for women and girls. These councils sit below several layers of leadership groups reserved for men.

The new leaders are likely to come from next-tier of church leaders, which is called the Quorum of the Seventy, which is where the last 12 men chosen were working before their selections.

The new Quorum members will join a panel undergoing a substantial turnover following a string of deaths as previous leaders succumbed to the effects of aging.

After Saturday, five of the 12 panel members will have been appointed in the past three years. Before 2015, it had been six years since a new member was chosen, and more than a decade since the leadership council had two openings.

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Sierra Leone Presidential Runoff Calm; Low Turnout Reported

Voting in Sierra Leone’s presidential runoff election seemed peaceful Saturday during the Easter holiday weekend, as citizens hoped to complete a process started on March 7.

The current president, Ernest Bai Koroma, is stepping down this year after serving two five-year terms.

Voters Saturday are casting ballots for either the ruling All Peoples Congress Party’s presidential candidate Dr. Samura Matthew Wilson Kamara, or the Sierra Leone People’s Party presidential candidate, Julius Maada Bio.

This is the second time opposition candidate Bio has run for the country’s top government job. He lost the 2012 election to President Koroma.

Reports said turnout seemed lower than in the first round of voting, possibly because of heavy security precautions. Reuters news agency reports that driving is banned, forcing voters to walk to their polling stations.

Saturday’s runoff was delayed for four days by a court challenge to the first-round results. The challenge cited “irregularities” that resulted in a temporary injunction to give the election commission more time to prepare.

The new president will have to contend with issues such as rebuilding after the country’s devastating Ebola virus epidemic of 2014-2016, as well as a mudslide in August that killed an estimated 1,000 people in the nation’s capital, Freetown.


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US Seeks Prison Time for Macau Billionaire in UN Bribery Case

The U.S. government on Friday asked a judge to sentence Macau billionaire Ng Lap Seng to more than six years in prison, after his conviction last July for bribing two U.N. ambassadors to help him build a multibillion-dollar conference center.

Prosecutors made their request in a filing with the U.S. District Court in Manhattan and are also seeking a $2 million fine.

The request came four weeks after Ng’s lawyers urged that their 69-year-old client be sentenced to time served and allowed to return to his family in China.

Lawyers for Ng did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Ng’s sentencing by U.S. District Judge Vernon Broderick is scheduled for May 11. Probation officials recommended a six-year prison term.

Macau project never built

Ng was convicted on all six counts he faced, including bribery, money laundering and corruption, after a four-week trial and less than a day of jury deliberations.

Prosecutors accused him of paying more than $1 million of bribes to officials including the late former U.N. General Assembly President John Ashe.

They said Ng hoped the conference center, which was never built, would pave the way for luxury housing, hotels, a shopping mall, marinas and a heliport, turning Macau into the “Geneva of Asia” and winning himself fame and greater riches.

“The defendant, a sophisticated, international businessman, repeatedly used his wealth and power to seek to corrupt decision-making at the United Nations,” prosecutors said in Friday’s filing. “That was a choice. It warrants substantial and meaningful punishment.”

Defense seeks leniency

Defense lawyers have said Ng’s goals were consistent with the types of public-private partnerships that the United Nations favors, and that other diplomats abused Ng’s trust.

In their sentencing request, they called it “far more reasonable” to conclude that Ng’s motivations were patriotic and philanthropic.

They also said there was “no chance of recidivism,” and that Ng could assure the court that once in China, he would not seek to return to the United States or conduct business there.

Ng has been allowed to live in his Manhattan apartment under 24-hour guard on $50 million bail. He was arrested in 2015.

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1 Baton Rouge Officer Fired, 1 Suspended in Deadly 2016 Shooting

A Louisiana police chief said Friday that he had fired the white officer who fatally shot a black man during a struggle outside a convenience store nearly two years ago, a killing that set off widespread protests.

Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul announced Officer Blane Salamoni’s firing less than a week after Louisiana’s attorney general ruled out criminal charges in Alton Sterling’s July 2016 shooting death.

Paul also suspended Officer Howie Lake II, the other officer involved in the deadly confrontation, for three days. Lake helped wrestle Sterling to the ground but did not fire his weapon that night.

“My decision was not based on politics,” Paul said during a news conference. “It was not based on emotions. It was based on the facts of the case.”

Both officers had remained on paid administrative leave since the shooting.

Police also released body camera footage and other videos of the officers’ deadly encounter with Sterling.

In the body camera footage of the encounter, an officer can be heard repeatedly using profanity as he shouts at Sterling and at one point threatens to shoot him in the head as Sterling asks what he did.

When Sterling complains that the officers are hurting him, one of the officers says to use a Taser on him, and an electric buzzing can be heard. The officer believed to be Salamoni then runs at Sterling, tackling him as the camera footage blurs with motion.

Someone yells, “He’s got a gun,” then gunshots ring out.

Salamoni shot Sterling six times during a struggle outside the Triple S Food Mart, where the 37-year-old black man was selling homemade CDs. Lake helped wrestle Sterling to the ground but didn’t fire his weapon.

After the shooting — as Sterling lies on the ground — an officer can be heard using profanity to say Sterling was stupid.

Gun recovered

The officers recovered a loaded revolver from Sterling’s pocket. As a convicted felon, Sterling could not legally carry a gun.

L. Chris Stewart, an attorney representing two of Sterling’s five children, said the newly released videos showed that Salamoni attacked Sterling without provocation, “like a wild dog.”

“The most obvious thing that stands out is Alton wasn’t fighting back at all,” Stewart said. “He’s trying to defuse it the whole time.”

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry announced Tuesday that his office would not charge either officer with state crimes. The Justice Department ruled out federal criminal charges last May.

Sterling’s death inflamed racial tensions in the state’s capital and led to protests in which nearly 200 people were arrested.

In June 2017, Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome called on Paul’s predecessor, Carl Dabadie Jr., to fire Salamoni. Dabadie refused, saying it would be improper and premature because the shooting remained under investigation.

Paul said Tuesday that he and three deputy chiefs would preside over a disciplinary hearing — closed to the public — before imposing any punishment. He detailed the results of that hearing at a news conference.

Salamoni’s attorney, John McLindon, had said Tuesday that he expected the officer to be fired. He called it “grossly unfair” that a disciplinary hearing was planned less than a week after the end of the criminal investigations. Lake’s attorney, Kyle Kershaw, said his client’s actions complied with department procedures.

Salamoni had served as a Baton Rouge police officer for four years before the shooting; Lake was a three-year veteran of the force. 

Two cellphone videos of the incident quickly spread on social media after the shooting.

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Poll: Few Blacks Believe US Has Achieved Goals of Civil Rights Movement

A new poll shows that only 1 in 10 African-Americans thinks the United States has achieved all the goals of the civil rights movement, nearly 50 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

The poll by the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released Friday shows that a majority of African-Americans believe there has been little or no progress on a range of civil rights issues, including fair coverage by the media, political representation and equal economic opportunities. 

The poll found that African-Americans were most pessimistic about the criminal justice system, with three-quarters saying there has been little or no progress on fair treatment by police. 

It found only one area — voting rights — where majorities of African-Americans believe a lot of progress or some progress has been made for racial equality since the civil rights movement. 

Thirty percent of Americans — 35 percent of whites and just 8 percent of blacks — said all or most of the goals of the civil rights movement have been achieved, according to the poll. Most of the remainder said partial progress has been achieved.

The poll shows that whites are more likely than blacks to think there has been progress in every area asked about in the poll.

Seventy-nine percent of African-Americans said blacks continue to face disadvantages to getting ahead in the United States, while only 44 percent of whites said the same. 

The poll also broke down the respondents by political party and found that 54 percent of Republicans compared to just 14 percent of Democrats think most or all of the goals of the civil rights movement have been achieved.

King was shot and killed on April 4, 1968, while he was at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. James Earl Ray, a segregationist, pleaded guilty of the killing and spent his life in prison before his death in 1998. 

The AP-NORC poll contacted 1,337 adults for the survey on February 15-19. 

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Trump Supporter Malloch Says He Will Testify to Mueller Grand Jury

An American academic who supports U.S. President Donald Trump and is a strong advocate of Britain’s exit from the European Union will testify next month before the federal grand jury considering evidence in the

investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s 2016 election campaign and Russia.

Theodore Malloch, the author of a forthcoming pro-Trump book and an ally of Nigel Farage, a former leader of Britain’s UK Independence Party, said in a statement emailed to Reuters on Friday by the book’s publisher that he was questioned by FBI agents when he landed at Boston’s Logan International Airport on Tuesday after a flight from London and was served with a subpoena to appear before the grand jury.

Malloch “is scheduled to testify in Washington, D.C., on April 13th under Robert Mueller’s grand jury investigation,” Hector Carosso, a representative of Skyhorse Publishing, said in a separate email.

Malloch’s book, The Plot to Destroy Trump: How the Deep State Fabricated the Russian Dossier to Subvert the President, is scheduled for publication May 1.

Mueller is investigating possible illegal coordination between Trump and his 2016 campaign and Russia. Trump and Russia have denied any collusion.

The FBI and Mueller’s team had no comment on Malloch or events at the airport in Boston.

Cellphone taken

Malloch said in his email that the FBI presented him with a document authorizing the agents to seize his cellphone. He said he handed it over and later was told the FBI had to send it to Washington for a “full assessment.”

He also said the FBI questioned him for about an hour about his career, government security clearances, and academic credentials. He said the agents then asked him about his role in the Trump campaign, which he said was informal and unpaid.

He said they also questioned him about his contacts with Trump supporter and political consultant Roger Stone, the WikiLeaks website and Jerome Corsi, a contributor to conspiracy theory websites.

In his statement, Malloch said he knew nothing about WikiLeaks, which published emails that U.S. intelligence officials concluded last year had been hacked from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign by the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.

Sources familiar with Mueller’s investigation say one avenue of inquiry is how the hacked emails made their way to WikiLeaks from Russia, and whether any Trump allies ever handled them.

WikiLeaks did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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