Author: Uponent

In Mecca’s sweltering heat, Muslims start this year’s Hajj pilgrimage

MINA, Saudi Arabia — In sweltering temperatures, Muslim pilgrims in Mecca converged on a vast tent camp in the desert Friday, officially opening the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Ahead of their trip, they circled the cube-shaped Kaaba in the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site.

More than 1.5 million pilgrims from around the world have already amassed in and around Mecca for the Hajj, and the number was still growing as more pilgrims from inside Saudi Arabia joined. Saudi authorities expected the number of pilgrims to exceed 2 million this year.

This year’s Hajj came against the backdrop of the raging war in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Palestinian militants, which pushed the entire Middle East to the brink of a regional war between Israel and its allies on one side and Iran-backed militant groups on the other.

Palestinians in the coastal enclave of Gaza were not able to travel to Mecca for Hajj this year because of the closure of the Rafah crossing in May when Israel extended its ground offensive to the strip’s southern city of Rafah on the border with Egypt.

Palestinian authorities said 4,200 pilgrims from the occupied West Bank arrived in Mecca for Hajj. Saudi authorities said 1,000 more from the families of Palestinians killed or wounded in the war in Gaza also arrived to perform Hajj at the invitation of King Salman of Saudi Arabia. The 1,000 invitees were already outside Gaza — mostly in Egypt — before closure of the Rafah crossing.

“We are deprived of (performing) Hajj because the crossing is closed, and because of the raging wars and destruction,” said Amna Abu Mutlaq, a 75-year-old Palestinian woman from Gaza’s southern city of Khan Younis who had planned to perform Hajj this year. “They (Israel) deprived us from everything.”

This year’s Hajj also saw Syrian pilgrims traveling to Mecca on direct flights from Damascus for the first time in more than a decade. The move was part of an ongoing thaw in relations between Saudi Arabia and conflict-stricken Syria. Syrians in rebel-held areas used to cross the border into neighboring Turkey in their exhausting trip to Mecca for Hajj.

“This is the natural thing: Pilgrims go to Hajj directly from their home countries,” said Abdel-Aziz al-Ashqar, a Syrian coordinator of the group of pilgrims who left Damascus this year for Hajj.

The pilgrimage is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and all Muslims are required to make the five-day Hajj at least once in their lives if they are physically and financially able to do it.

It is a moving spiritual experience for pilgrims who believe it absolves sins and brings them closer to God, while uniting the world’s more than 2 billion Muslims. It’s also a chance to pray for peace in many conflict-stricken Arab and Muslim countries, including Yemen and Sudan, where more than a year of war between rival generals created the world’s largest displacement crisis.

For many Muslims, the Hajj is the only major journey that they made in their life. Some spend years saving up money and waiting for a permit to embark on the journey in their 50s and 60s after they raised their children.

The rituals during the Hajj largely commemorate the Quran’s accounts of Prophet Ibrahim, his son Prophet Ismail and Ismail’s mother Hajar — or Abraham and Ismael as they are named in the Bible.

Male pilgrims wear an ihram, two unstitched sheets of white cloth that resemble a shroud, while women dress conservative, loose-fitting clothing with headscarves, and forgo makeup and perfume. They have been doing the ritual circuit around the cube-shaped Kaaba, counter-clockwise in the seven-minaret Grand Mosque since arriving in Mecca over recent days.

Saudi authorities have adopted security restrictions in and around Mecca, with checkpoints set up on roads leading to the city to prevent those who don’t have Hajj permits from reaching the holy sites.

Security authorities arrested many people who attempted to take pilgrims to Mecca who didn’t have Hajj permits, said Lt. Gen. Muhammad al-Bassami, head of Hajj Security Committee. Most of them were expelled from the country, while travel agents faced jail for up to six months, according to the Interior Ministry.

On Friday, the pilgrims made their way to Mina, officially opening the Hajj. They then will move for a daylong vigil Saturday on Mount Arafat, a desert hill where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have delivered his final speech, known as the Farewell Sermon. Healthy pilgrims make the trip on foot, others use bus or train.

The time of year when the Hajj takes place varies, given that Hajj is set for five days in the second week of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month in the Islamic lunar calendar.

Most of the Hajj rituals are held outdoors with little if any shade. When it falls in the summer months, temperatures can soar to over 40 Celsius. The Health Ministry has cautioned that temperatures in the holy sites could reach 48 Celsius. Many pilgrims carried umbrellas against the burning sun.

After Saturday’s warship in Arafat, pilgrims will travel a few kilometers to a site known as Muzdalifa to collect pebbles that they will use in the symbolic stoning of pillars representing the devil back in Mina.

Pilgrims then return to Mina for three days, coinciding with the festive Eid al-Adha holiday, when financially able Muslims around the world slaughter livestock and distribute the meat to the poor. Afterwards, they return to Mecca for final circumambulation, known as Farewell Tawaf.

In recent years, the annual pilgrimage has returned to its monumental scale after three years of heavy restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic. Last year, more than 1.8 million pilgrims performed Hajj, approaching the 2019 level when more than 2.4 million pilgrims participated in the pilgrimage.


India beats US at cricket’s Twenty20 World Cup

WESTBURY, New York — There was no upset this time for the United States as the home team was easily beaten by cricket heavyweight India at the Twenty20 World Cup on Wednesday.

Suryakumar Yadav’s half-century powered India to a seven-wicket win over the U.S., which had shocked Pakistan last week.

With the win, India reached the Super 8 round. The U.S. can advance by beating Ireland on Friday.

In a later match at Brian Lara Stadium in Trinidad, Sherfane Rutherford scored an unbeaten 68 from 39 deliveries to help the West Indies in their great escape — the co-hosts beat New Zealand by 13 runs.

The Caribbean lineup, 149-9 in its 20 overs, was 76-7 before its Rutherford-led recovery. Alzarri Joseph snared four New Zealand wickets and Gudakesh Motie took three — including New Zealand captain Kane Williamson for 1 — to restrict the Black Caps to 136-9 in reply.

On Long Island, Yadvav’s 50 runs came off 49 balls and included two boundaries and two sixes. He put on 72 runs off 65 balls in an unbeaten fourth-wicket stand with Shivam Dube, who scored 31 not out as India finished with 111-3 in 18.2 overs in reply to 110-8 by the United States.

Left-arm pacer Arshdeep Singh returned figures of 4-9 — including two wickets in the first over — to restrict the co-hosts after India had won the toss and opted to field at the Nassau County International Stadium.

India was in early trouble in its chase as Indian-born medium pacer Saurabh Netravalkar continued his golden run for the Americans.

After bowling the co-hosts to the upset over Pakistan, he celebrated the wickets of Indian superstars Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli.

Kohli was caught behind for a golden duck — dismissed off the first delivery he faced — in what surely will become a career highlight for Netravalkar. Sharma (3) fell to a slower delivery as Netravalkar finished with 2-18 in four overs.

Rishabh Pant scored 18 off 20 balls batting at No. 3 before he was bowled by Ali Khan delivery. With India struggling at 39-3 in 7.3 overs, the U.S. team momentarily raised visions of an even bigger shock.

West Indies advanceLeft-hander Rutherford turned the home team’s fortunes around, going to the crease with the West Indies reeling at 22-4 after 5.4 overs. Rutherford scored 18 off the last over that culminated with a six and a boundary.

The loss left New Zealand with a strong possibility it will not make the second round. If Afghanistan beats Papua New Guinea on Thursday, three-time runner-up New Zealand will be out of contention.

For most of the first half of the game, the Black Caps were on top.

But Rutherford went on the attack as the West Indies added 58-2 in the last five overs of their innings.

He was 15 off 14 deliveries when star allrounder Andre Russell was out for 14 in the 13th over, and he accelerated with the lower-order in a counter-attacking, 72-minute innings containing six sixes and two boundaries.

“It’s a good feeling, to help my team. That is what we live for and work hard for,” man-of-the-match Rutherford said during the innings break. “It was a very tough surface to start on. I think 149 is a brilliant score on this wicket.”

After the match, Rutherford had a more optimistic tone: “It is only the start of something big to come and hopefully we can keep winning and momentum going.”

New Zealand started well after winning the toss and fielding, with Trent Boult (3-16) bowling opener Johnson Charles to end the first over.

Tim Southee (2-21), recalled after missing New Zealand’s opening loss to Afghanistan, dismissed dangerman Nicholas Pooran for 12 in the fourth over, trigging a run of three wickets for three runs.

Lockie Ferguson deceived Roston Chase with a slower ball to make it 21-3 and skipper Rovman Powell (1) was caught behind off Southee five balls later.

Russell went on the attack but his dismissal — caught in the deep of Boult’s bowling — appeared to be an insurmountable setback until Rutherford took up the challenge.

“The quality of Sherfane’s innings was high,” New Zealand skipper Williamson said. “The batting depth in their side was beneficial for sure. We cannot make excuses and have to find ways.”


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Finland’s Lenin Museum closing as Russia relations chill

Finland’s Lenin Museum, the “most hated” in the country according to its director, is to close its doors at the end of the year for rebranding, as Finland’s historically good relations with Russia sour. Henry Wilkins visited the museum in the Finnish city of Tampere and has that story.


Jin, oldest member of K-pop’s BTS, finishes army service in South Korea

Seoul — Jin, the oldest member of K-pop phenomenon BTS, was discharged from South Korea’s army on Wednesday after 18 months of duty, the first member of the group to wrap up the mandatory national service that put their music careers on hold.

Jin, 31, wearing uniform and a black beret, appeared emotional as he hugged his colleagues at a military base in Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi province, television footage showed.

“I cried during the ceremony,” Jin said later during a livestream which racked up over 3 million views on the Weverse fandom platform.

“But it was so fun for the last year and six months. It’s such a relief I met so many amazing people,” he added, sending regards to his colleagues at the military base.

Shares of HYBE, the label which houses BTS, jumped 1.01% in early trade while the benchmark KOSPI index rose 0.35%.

South Korean media reported several other members of the septet who are currently serving in the military applied for leave to celebrate the occasion.

Among them was rapper RM, who greeted Jin with a saxophone to play the group’s hit single “Dynamite.”

Jin became the first member of the group to enlist in the military in December 2022. The final four members of the group began their service in December 2023, with the band expected to reunite in 2025 after they all complete their duty.

Jin plans to celebrate his discharge with an event in Seoul on Thursday where he will greet fans and stage a performance.

The group debuted on June 13, 2013, and has since become the face of K-pop, one of South Korea’s largest cultural exports.

South Korea requires all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 28 to serve between 18 to 21 months in the military or social service, but it revised the law in 2020 to let globally recognized K-pop stars delay signing up until age 30.


South Africa holds off Bangladesh, remains unbeaten in cricket’s T20 World Cup  

WESTBURY, New York — Spinner Keshav Maharaj bowled a six-run, two-wicket final over and South Africa held off Bangladesh by four runs to stay unbeaten in cricket’s T20 World Cup on Monday.

Bangladesh needed 11 from the last six deliveries to register a famous win, then needed a six off the last ball. Taskin Ahmed came to the crease after Bangladesh’s seventh wicket, and faced the last ball, a full toss by Maharaj. Ahmed swung and managed only one run.

On a typically tough batting pitch at Nassau County Stadium, South Africa successfully defended its lowly total of 113-6 and restricted Bangladesh to 109-7.

It was the lowest target — 114 — ever defended in a T20 World Cup, trumping India’s defense of 120 runs just the day before.

“That was not nice on the heart, but feels good that we got over the line,” said top-scorer Heinrich Klaasen, the player of the match. “This wicket is not great for stroke play. We got some information from the last game and applied it today. I think we got a decent total on the board. 

“We have had three pressure games now and I think we are through [to the next round].” 

Maharaj finished with 3-27 in four overs, while Kagiso Rabada (2-19) and Anrich Nortje (2-17) also bowled well.

South Africa firmed the top spot in Group D with three from three and was in pole position to secure a Super Eight spot. Bangladesh’s first loss in two matches kept it in second place.

South Africa chased down Sri Lanka and the Netherlands in its previous two matches at the ground and was made to bat first this time.

But it still fumbled another start. Pace bowler Tanzim Sakib trapped opener Reeza Hendricks for a golden duck and had Tristan Stubbs caught for a five-ball duck. 

Aiden Markram was bowled for 4. In between, Sakib bowled Quinton de Kock for 18 as the Proteas slumped to 23-4 in 4.2 overs.

David Miller came up with another rescue job after his half-century against the Netherlands. He scored 29 off 38 balls and put on 79 runs for the fifth wicket with Klaasen.

Klaasen top-scored with 46 off 44, including two fours and three sixes. The duo pushed South Africa past 100 before falling in the space of six deliveries.

The late strikes left South Africa hanging at just about a par total.

Bangladesh’s chase faltered at the start, too. It was down to 37-3 and then 50-4 at the halfway stage.

Nortje dismissed skipper Nazmul Shanto for 14, and sent back Shakib Al Hasan for just 3, picking up his eighth wicket in three games.

Litton Das was out caught off Maharaj, while Rabada had Tanzid Hasan caught behind for 9.

Towhid Hridoy and Mahmudullah put on 44 off 45 balls to bring Bangladesh back on track.

At 94-4 in the 18th over, Bangladesh was in the driver’s seat, then lost wickets rapidly to spiral out of control. It went from 94-4 to 108-7 in the space of 17 deliveries. 

Rabada returned to trap Hridoy but Maharaj’s left-arm spin turned the game in the final over.

South Africa completes the group stage against Nepal on Friday. Bangladesh has the Netherlands on Thursday. 


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Thousands turn out for LA Pride Parade, events

LOS ANGELES — Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Hollywood on Sunday for the L.A. Pride Parade, one of the biggest events during a month of celebrations honoring the LGBTQ+ community in and around Los Angeles. 

Rainbow flags ruled the day as revelers cheered the lively procession that featured “Star Trek” star and activist George Takei as the Icon Grand Marshal. 

“As someone who has witnessed the struggles and triumphs of our community over the years, I am filled with gratitude for the progress we have made and inspired to continue the fight for full acceptance and equality for all,” Takei said in a statement. 

The parade’s Community Grand Marshal was L.A. Fire Department Chief Kristin Crowley. The department’s first openly gay chief said she was “overjoyed” by the honor. 

Following the parade, the L.A. Pride Block Party offered DJs, live performances, food trucks and a beer garden. 

On Saturday night, Latin pop superstar Ricky Martin headlined a concert dubbed Pride in the Park at Los Angeles State Historic Park. 

Other events scheduled for Pride Month include celebrations at Dodger Stadium and Universal Studios Hollywood. 


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‘Bad Boys: Ride or Die’ boosts Will Smith’s comeback with $56M opening

New York — “Bad Boys: Ride or Die,” the fourth installment in the Will Smith-Martin Lawrence action-comedy series, opened with an estimated $56 million in theaters over the weekend, handing Hollywood a much-needed summer hit and Smith his biggest success since he slapped Chris Rock at the Academy Awards.

Expectations were all over the map for “Ride or Die” given the dismal moviegoing market thus far this summer and Smith’s less certain box-office clout. In the end, though, the Sony Pictures release came in very close to, or slightly above, its tracking forecast.

“Ride or Die,” produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, is Smith’s first theatrical test since his 2022 slap of Rock earned him a 10-year Oscar ban. The “Bad Boys” film was in development at the time and was momentarily put on hold, but ultimately went forward with about a $100 million production budget.

Smith starred in the Apple release “Emancipation,” but that film — released in late 2022 — was shot before the slap and received only a modest theatrical release before streaming.

This time around, Smith largely avoided soul-searching interviews looking back on the Oscars and instead went on a whistle-stop publicity tour of red carpets from Mexico to Saudi Arabia, where he attended what was billed as the country’s first Hollywood premiere. The 55-year-old Smith, who for years was one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, appeared on “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon,” the YouTube series “Hot Ones” and Friday, made a surprise appearance at a Los Angeles movie theater.

Given that “Bad Boys” trailed May disappointments like “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” and “The Fall Guy” – both of which struggled to pop with ticket buyers despite very good reviews – the “Ride or Die” opening counts as a critical weekend win for the movie business.

“The fact that a movie overperformed is the best possible news,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore. “It seems like all we’ve been doing over the past few weeks and almost since the beginning of the year, with a couple of exceptions, is try to figure out why seemingly well-marketed, well-reviewed movies have underperformed. This ignites the spark that the industry has been waiting for.”

“Ride or Die” still didn’t quite manage to match the opening of the previous “Bad Boys” film: 2020’s “Bad Boys for Life.” That movie, released in January 2020, debuted with $62.5 million. After the pandemic shut down theaters, it was the highest grossing North American release of that year, with $204 million domestically.

“Ride or Die” added $48.6 million internationally. Though reviews were mixed (64% on Rotten Tomatoes), audiences gave the film a high grade with an “A-” CinemaScore.

Black moviegoers accounted for 44% of ticket buyers, the largest demographic.

In the film, which comes 29 years after the original, Smith and Lawrence reprise their roles as Miami detectives. The plot revolves around uncovering a scheme to frame their late police captain (Joe Pantoliano). In one of the movie’s most notable scenes, Lawrence slaps Smith and calls him a “bad boy.”

Movie theaters will need a lot more than “Bad Boys: Ride or Die,” though, to right the ship. Ticket sales are down 26% from last year and more than 40% below pre-pandemic totals, according to Comscore. A big test comes next weekend with the release of Pixar’s “Inside Out 2.” After sending several Pixar releases straight to Disney+, the studio has vowed a lengthy, traditional theatrical rollout this time.

Last weekend’s top film “The Garfield Movie,” slid to second place. Also from Sony, the family animated comedy collected $10 million in ticket sales over its third weekend, bringing its domestic gross to $68.6 million.

The weekend’s other new wide release, “The Watchers,” failed to click with moviegoers. The horror film, directed by Ishana Night Shyamalan, daughter of M. Night Shyamalan, is about a stranded 28-year-old artist in Ireland. Following poor reviews, the Warner Bros. release grossed $7 million in 3,351 theaters.

That allowed “If,” the Ryan Reynolds imaginary friend fantasy, to grab third place in its fourth weekend of release, bringing the Paramount Pictures cumulative domestic total to $93.5 million. Rounding out the top five was “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” which added $5.4 million in its fifth weekend of release. It has grossed $150 million domestically and $360 million worldwide.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.

  1. “Bad Boys: Ride or Die,” $56 million.

  2. ”The Garfield Movie,” $10 million.

  3. “If,” $8 million.

  4. “The Watchers,” $7 million.

  5. “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” $5.4 million.

  6. “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga,” $4.2 million.

  7. “The Fall Guy,” $2.7 million.

  8. “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” $2.4 million.

  9. “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” $1.9 million.

  10. “The Strangers: Chapter 1,” $1.8 million.


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Meloni joins cultural elite celebrating Italian opera’s recognition as a world treasure

VERONA, Italy — Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni joined top political and cultural figures at Verona’s ancient Arena amphitheater Friday night for an open-air celebration of Italian lyric opera’s recognition by UNESCO as a global cultural treasure.

Conductor Riccardo Muti presided over an orchestra of 170 musicians from Italy’s 14 opera houses, joined by over 314 choral singers and a cast of global star opera stars who delivered a greatest hits of Italian opera from Verdi to Puccini, Donizetti to Bellini for an appreciative crowd. La Scala’s two star dancers, Roberto Bolle and Nicoletta Manni, also performed.

“I am here to testify to my enthusiasm and my pride for the fact that Italian lyric opera has received this great recognition,” Muti told the crowd. “Of course, this is an important moment, because recognition is never a point of arrival but a point of departure.”

“The great masterpieces are our heritage, which we Italians have given to the world,” Muti added in a prepared message for the television audience.

While UNESCO included Italian opera on its intangible cultural heritage list in December, the Arena proved a fitting place to celebrate the milestone. The ancient stone amphitheater built by the Romans is home to a popular summer opera festival that for generations has made opera accessible to the uninitiated with lavish productions. More than half of the 400,000 spectators at the Arena each summer are foreigners.

“We have brought together the entire Italian opera system to celebrate, together with the great singers of the world,” said the Arena’s deputy artistic director, Stefano Trespidi. “I am convinced that this evening will bring benefits to the entire music and opera system.”

Joining Italian opera stars like Luca Salsi, Francesco Meli and Vittorio Grigolo were international stars including German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, Australian soprano Jessica Pratt and Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez. Russian soprano Anna Netrebko canceled at the last minute due to illness.

Though a previous center-left government prepared the UNESCO bid for Italian lyric opera, the recognition has been embraced by Italy’s far-right-led government. Besides Meloni, also attending the gala were Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano — who has set out to replace foreign opera house directors with Italians — and Senate speaker Ignazio La Russa, both members of her Brothers of Italy Party.

The loudest applause was reserved for Italy’s nonpartisan president, Sergio Mattarella. And Muti seemed to be making a point against Eurosceptics on the far-right when he transitioned from the Italian anthem, with its “Brothers of Italy” refrain echoing the name of Meloni’s party, to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which is the European Union anthem.

Europeans are voting for European Parliament seats in an election that concludes Sunday and could determine whether far-right parties will have a greater say in the direction of the 27-member bloc.


Dornoch wins the first Belmont Stakes run at Saratoga Race Course

SARATOGA SPRINGS, New York — When Luis Saez first rode Dornoch at Saratoga Race Course last summer, he told trainer Danny Gargan, “You have the Derby winner.”

While that did not come true, Dornoch made good on that optimism Saturday by winning the first Belmont Stakes at Saratoga, hugging the rail and holding off Mindframe to spring a major upset in the Triple Crown finale at odds of 17-1.

The horse co-owned by World Series champion Jayson Werth won the Belmont five weeks after a troubled trip led to a 10th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. This time, Dornoch sat off leader Seize the Grey, passed the Preakness winner down the stretch and held on for a 1 1/2-length victory.

“I would put it right up there with winning on the biggest stage. Horse racing is the most underrated sport in the world, bar none,” said Werth, who won Major League Baseball’s championship with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008. “It’s the biggest game: You get the Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont. We just won the Belmont. This is as good as it gets in horse racing. It’s as good as it gets in sports.”

It’s the first win in any Triple Crown race for Gargan and the second in the Belmont for Saez, who said he never lost faith in Dornoch.

“He’s one of the top 3-year-olds in the country, and we’ve always thought it,” Gargan said. “We let him run his race, and he won. If he gets to run, he’s always going to be tough to beat.”

It’s the sixth consecutive year a different horse won each of the three Triple Crown races. Sierra Leone, the Derby runner-up who went off as the favorite, was third and Honor Marie fourth.

Dornoch paid $37.40 to win, $17.60 to place and $8.10 to show. Todd Pletcher-trained Mindframe paid $6.80 to place and $4.20 to show and Sierra Leone paid $2.60 to show after a jumbled start and more directional problems.

There were no such issues for Dornoch, who triumphed at the track known as the graveyard of favorites for its penchant for upsets.

“No one believed in this horse,” Gargan said. “It’s speechless. He’s such a talented horse.”

Despite there not being a Triple Crown on the line, it’s a historic Belmont because the race was run at Saratoga for the first time in the venue’s 161-year history. It returns next year while Belmont Park undergoes a massive, $455 million reconstruction with the plan for the Triple Crown race to go back to the New York track in 2026.

Having it at Saratoga necessitated shortening the race to 1 1/4 miles from the usual “test of the champion” 1 1/2-mile distance that has been a hallmark of the Belmont for nearly a century. The temporary change contributed to getting more quality horses into the field who previously ran in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or both. At 1 1/4-mile distance, Dornoch crossed the wire in a time of 2:01.64. 


Pope invites comedians such as Chris Rock, Whoopie Goldberg to Vatican

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis, who says he regularly prays “Lord, give me a sense of humor,” will welcome comedians from around the world to a cultural event in Italy to “celebrate the beauty of human diversity,” the Vatican said Saturday. 

Whoopi Goldberg, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien and Chris Rock will be among more than 100 entertainers at the Vatican on June 14. 

The pope “recognizes the significant impact that the art of comedy has on the world of contemporary culture,” a Vatican statement said. 

British comedian Stephen Merchant — the co-writer of the TV comedy series “The Office” — and Italian comedian Lino Banfi will also be at the event. 

The meeting will take place Friday morning, before the pope travels to Puglia to attend the Group of Seven (G7) leaders’ summit. 

“The meeting between Pope Francis and the world’s comedians aims to celebrate the beauty of human diversity and to promote a message of peace, love and solidarity,” the Vatican said. 

The audience has been organized by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Culture and Education and Dicastery for Communication. 

Goldberg last month said in an interview that she had offered the pope a cameo in “Sister Act 3,” in which she will reprise her comedy role of a singer who takes refuge in a convent and organizes a choir. 

“He said he would see what his time was like,” Goldberg said joking, when asked if the pope had accepted her offer. 


US shocks cricket world with win over powerhouse Pakistan

The United States cricket team beat Pakistan — a former world champion — on Thursday, achieving one of the biggest upsets in T20 Cricket World Cup history. This year’s tournament is being hosted by the United States and the West Indies. Saqib Ul Islam has more from the games in Dallas, Texas.


Methodist church regrets Ivory Coast’s split from the union as lifting of LGBTQ ban roils Africa

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Leaders of the United Methodist Church expressed regret over last week’s decision by the branch in Ivory Coast to leave the union following the church’s decision to repeal a long-standing ban on LGBTQ+ clergy but pledged to accept it.

The developments were the latest in a series of ripple effects in conservative Africa, which is home to the vast majority of United Methodists outside the United States, amid disputes on sexuality and theology that have shaken the Methodist churches.

In early May, delegates at the church’s first legislative gathering in five years voted overwhelmingly to remove a rule forbidding “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being ordained or appointed as ministers.

It was a sharp contrast to past General Conferences of the United Methodist Church, which had steadily reinforced the ban and related penalties amid debate and protests. The change doesn’t mandate or even explicitly affirm LGBTQ+ clergy, but it means the church no longer forbids them.

But each member church was free to decide for itself — and while some bishops favored staying on, others pushed to disaffiliate.

On May 28, Ivory Coast’s church voted to split from the United Methodists. With over 1.2 million members, the West African country’s church has one of the denomination’s largest overseas followers. The United Methodist Church has about 5.4 million members in the United States, and about 4.6 million in Africa, Europe and the Philippines, according to church figures.

In its first reaction following last week’s vote, the church’s Council of Bishops said on Wednesday that “while we grieve” Ivory Coast’s decision, “we commit to work with them through the process of becoming an Autonomous Methodist Church.”

“While we are not all of one mind in all things, the strength of our connection is love, respect, compassion and a shared commitment to faith in Jesus Christ,” the council said in a statement.

Elsewhere in Africa, hundreds of United Methodist Church members gathered at the church’s local headquarters in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, last Thursday to protests the church’s move to welcome LGBTQ+ members.

They sang religious songs, held placards with messages saying homosexuality is a sin and an abomination.

“Africa is not for sale. No to homosexuality,” read one placard held by an elderly woman. Church member James Kawaza reminded the gathering that “homosexuality is unlawful in Zimbabwe.”

“The church has aligned with the Rainbow Movement, and this is also a threat to our African traditions and human existence at large,” read a petition by church members, calling on their Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa to act.

Nhiwatiwa was not available for comment.

Zimbabwe’s Christian denominations — and others in Africa — have been vocal against any moves to welcome gays into the church.

In January, Catholic bishops in Africa and Madagascar issued a unified statement refusing to follow a declaration by Pope Francis allowing priests to offer blessings to same-sex couples, asserting that such unions are “contrary to the will of God.”

Chester Samba, director of GALZ, which represents the LGBTQ+ community in Zimbabwe, said he was not so hopeful for Zimbabwe and much of the continent to change their conservative stand.

“It is my hope that platforms for dialogue are created and supported to enhance understanding so that all may be welcome in the house of worship regardless of sexual orientation,” said Samba, whose members have over the years been targets of harassment and stigmatization.


From refugee camps to World Cup glory: Inspiring journey of Afghanistan cricket

Washington — When the parents of Karim Sadiq and Taj Maluk fled a wrecked Afghanistan torn apart by the 1979 Soviet invasion and infighting warlords, they didn’t imagine their children — Karim and Taj — would return to reunite the war-torn nation through cricket. 

Taj Maluk became the first coach of the Afghan national team. Fans refer to him as one of the founding fathers of Afghan cricket. Younger brother Karim Sadiq played a key role in Afghanistan’s qualification in the World Cup in 2010, creating history for the cricket-loving nation of more than 40 million. 

The brothers were brought up in a refugee camp called Katcha Garhi, in Peshawar, Pakistan. The family left a decent life in the eastern Nangarhar province to live in a sea of mud houses and poverty. 

“Life was all struggle those days,” Karim Sadiq recalls. “Doing odd jobs in the night and playing cricket in the daytime. We used a stick as a bat, used to make plastic balls from plastic waste material.” 

There was an old black-and-white TV set in their refugee camp where the young and elders watched international matches, including Pakistan winning the 1992 World Cup. These events had a huge influence on aspiring cricketers in Afghan refugee camps. 

The elder brother, Taj Maluk, searched for talent in refugee camps and founded the Afghan Cricket Club, which arguably laid the foundation of the future Afghanistan team. 

Another Afghan cricketer, Allah Dad Noori, also played a key role by pioneering a path for cricket in Afghanistan. 

Like the brothers, many international Afghan players, such as Mohammad Shehzad, Raees Ahmadzai, Mohammad Nabi, and the country’s first global star Rashid Khan, now captain, all grew up learning cricket and becoming cricketers in Peshawar, Pakistan. 

“It was our passion. We didn’t know then that Cricket would bring such happiness to the Afghan nation,” Karim Sadiq told VOA. “Cricket conveys a message that Afghanistan is not a country of war and drugs. It’s a country of love and sports.” 

In 2001, after the invasion of the U.S. forces against the Taliban rule, cricket flourished in Afghanistan, which became an associate member of the ICC, the world’s cricketing body. 

A new younger generation of cricketers emerged. Now, Afghanistan is a full member of the ICC’s elite club of 12 countries, and it enjoys the status of a test-playing nation. 

The Afghan team won many hearts in the 2023 World Cup after earning wins against the former world champions — Pakistan, England and Sri Lanka. 

“Afghan players fight for every match as they are fighting for the nation,” Pakistan’s former captain, Rashid Latif, who coached Afghanistan, told VOA. “T20 cricket needs aggression and Afghanistan players have it. They are capable of surprises in the World Cup.” 

Now, Afghanistan is playing in the T20 Cricket World Cup co-hosted by the United States and West Indies. It has strong contenders like New Zealand and West Indies in the group, along with minnows Papa New Guinea and Uganda. Some experts call it the “Group of Death” because only two teams will make it through the knockout stage. 

The Taliban banned all women’s sports and put restrictions on some men’s sports, but not cricket. There is speculation it’s because they enjoyed the game themselves or were apprehensive about the possible public reaction if they banned it, given its massive popularity. 

A few weeks ago, when Afghanistan’s team captain, Rashid Khan, visited Afghanistan to meet family and friends, Taliban officials presented him with bouquets and took selfies with the superstar. 

Rashid and his team members, including young superstars — batters Rehmanullah Gurbaz and Ibrahim Zadran, allrounder Azmatullah Omarzai, spinners Mujeeb-ur Rehman and Noor Ahmed — have arrived in the West Indies, as have their diehard supporters from Europe, Canada and the U.S. 

Back in Afghanistan, Karim Sadiq is now working to promote the sport, while his elder brother, 49-year-old Taj Maluk, has turned to religion. “Cricket is not just a game. It reunites Afghans and brings joy to the lives of people,” Taj Maluk told VOA. “We will pray for their success.” 

Karim Sadiq recalls when Afghanistan qualified for the T20 World Cup in 2010. “When we returned home, it was a festival. Everywhere, celebrating crowds held up the Afghan flag. We all wish to see such festivity again, to see Afghanistan become the World Champion.” 

Across Afghanistan, fans have made special arrangements to view the matches. Some have pooled their money to buy dish antennas. Others have decorated the hujras, or living rooms, with national flags. 

“Afghanistan is a wounded land. Cricket helps people stitch those wounds,“ said Shams ul Rahman Shirzad, a cricket fan in Nangarhar, from where the brothers Taj Maluk and Karim Sadiq hailed and once dreamed of having a national cricket team.  

This story originated in VOA’s Afghan service.