Daily: 16/02/2022

В Україну їде очільниця МЗС Великої Британії

Ще 6 лютого Ліз Трасс заявила, що вважає неправдивими заяви Москви про відсутність у неї планів нового вторгнення в Україну

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West Skeptical of Russian Troop Withdrawal as Ukraine Diplomacy Continues

Russia reiterated Wednesday that it had begun withdrawing some troops from close to the Ukrainian border. But many Western nations said there was little evidence of a pullback – and fear an invasion of Ukraine was still imminent. Henry Ridgwell reports.

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France: Decision on Iran Nuclear Deal Days Away; Ball in Tehran’s court

France on Wednesday said a decision on salvaging Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers was just days away and that it was now up to Tehran to make the political choice.

Indirect talks between Iran and the United States on reviving the tattered agreement resumed last week after a 10-day hiatus and officials from the other parties to the accord – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – have shuttled between the two sides as they seek to close gaps.

Western diplomats previously indicated they hoped to have a breakthrough by now, but tough issues remain unresolved. Iran has rejected any deadline imposed by Western powers.

“We have reached tipping point now. It’s not a matter of weeks, it’s a matter of days,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told parliament, adding that the Western powers, Russia and China were in accord on the outlines of the accord.

“Political decisions are needed from the Iranians. Either they trigger a serious crisis in the coming days, or they accept the agreement which respects the interests of all parties.”

Several other sources tracking the talks said that the next couple of days would be crucial in determining whether there was a way to revive the agreement.

The agreement began to unravel in 2018 when then-President Donald Trump withdrew the United States and reimposed broad economic sanctions on Iran, which then began breaching the deal’s limits on its uranium enrichment activity a year later.

Diplomats and analysts say the longer Iran remains outside the deal, the more nuclear expertise it will gain, shortening the time it might need to race to build a bomb if it chose to, thereby vitiating the accord’s original purpose. Tehran denies it has ever sought to develop nuclear arms.

Western diplomats say they are now in the final phase of the talks and believe that a deal is within reach.

‘Moment of Truth’

“We are coming to the moment of truth. If we want Iran to respect its (nuclear) non-proliferation commitments and in exchange for the United States to lift sanctions, there has to be something left to do it,” Le Drian said.

Iran’s foreign ministry said on Monday it was “in a hurry” to strike a new deal as long as its national interests were protected and that restoring the pact required “political decisions by the West.”

Ali Shamkhani, hardline secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, underlined Iranian wariness by saying on Wednesday that the 2015 accord had become economically worthless for Iran and he blamed the United States and European powers.

“The United States and Europe failed to meet their obligations under the (deal). The deal has now become an empty shell for Iran in the economic sphere and the lifting of sanctions. There will be no negotiations beyond the nuclear deal with a non-compliant America and a passive Europe,” he tweeted.

China’s envoy to the talks said on Wednesday Iran was being constructive by putting everything on the table in response to U.S. approaches. “They have not only adopted this straightforward approach but also made a political decision based on give and take,” Wang Qun told Reuters.

Bones of contention remain Iran’s demand for a U.S. guarantee of no more sanctions or other punitive steps in future, and how and when to restore verifiable restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear activity.

The agreement curbed Iran’s enrichment of uranium to make it harder for Tehran to develop material for nuclear weapons, in return for a lifting of international sanctions.

The Islamic Republic has since rebuilt stockpiles of enriched uranium, refining it to higher fissile purity, close to weapons-grade, and installed advanced centrifuges to speed up enrichment.

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Голови МЗС країн G7 зустрінуться 19 лютого у Мюнхені щодо кризи довкола України

Проходитиме зустріч одночасно з Мюнхенською конференцією з питань безпеки, запланованою на 18-20 лютого

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У США зафіксовано перший випадок одужання жінки із ВІЛ

Крім ВІЛ, пацієнтка мала лейкоз. У 2017 році їй провели трансплантацію стовбурових клітин, взятих від донора із генетичною мутацією, яка блокує проникнення ВІЛ у клітини

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Macron Hosts African Leaders Ahead of Expected Mali Withdrawal

President Emmanuel Macron hosts African leaders on Wednesday ahead of an expected announcement that France is withdrawing its troops from Mali after an almost decade-long deployment to battle a jihadist insurgency.

Multiple sources have told AFP that Macron will announce that French forces will leave Mali and redeploy elsewhere in the Sahel region, following a breakdown in relations with the ruling junta.

It remains unclear when, and how, Macron will make the announcement, which could come as part of Wednesday’s meeting or when he travels to Brussels on Thursday for a two-day EU-Africa summit.

The deployment in Mali of a European force known as Takuba — a project driven by Macron to spread the security burden in the troubled region — will also come to an end, the sources said.

The Mali deployment has been fraught with problems for France, with 48 of the 53 soldiers killed during its Barkhane mission in West Africa losing their lives in the country.

France initially deployed troops against jihadists in Mali in 2013 but the insurgency was never fully quelled, and new fears have now emerged of a jihadist push to the Gulf of Guinea.

The announcement of the withdrawal comes at a critical time for Macron, just days ahead of a long-awaited declaration from the president that he will stand for a new term in April elections.

It also coincides with Macron seeking to take a lead role in international diplomacy as he presses Russia to de-escalate in the standoff over Ukraine.

Multiple missions

The working dinner hosted by Macron on Wednesday starting at 1930 GMT will bring together the leaders of France’s key allies in the Sahel region — Chad, Mauritania and Niger.

Officials from Mali as well as Burkina Faso, which also recently experienced a coup, have pointedly not been invited.

Other African leaders will also be present along with European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, as well as Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

There are a total of 25,000 foreign troops currently deployed in the Sahel.

They include around 4,300 French troops, which under a reduction announced last year are due to fall to around 2,500 in 2023 from a peak of 5,400.

Other forces deployed in Mali are the U.N. peacekeeping mission MINUSMA established in 2013 and the EUTM Mali, an EU military training mission that aims to improve the Malian military’s capacity in fighting terrorists.

Some 2,400 French soldiers are deployed in Mali as part of the Barkhane operation as well as the EU Takuba force set up in 2020, which was intended to increase in numbers as French deployment was scaled back.

According to a French source, who asked not to be identified by name, even after departure France will for a period provide MINUSMA and EUTM with support in the air and medical back-up.

‘Reinvent partnership’

Relations between France and Mali have plunged to new lows after the junta led by strongman Assimi Goita refused to stick to a calendar to a return to civilian rule.

The West also accuses Mali of using the services of the hugely controversial Russian mercenary group Wagner to shore up its position, a move that gives Moscow a new foothold in the region.

Especially with the French elections looming, Macron’s priority is to ensure that any withdrawal does not invite comparisons with the chaotic American departure from Afghanistan last year.

Paris, however, intends to continue the anti-jihadist fight in the wider region, where movements affiliated with al-Qaida or the Islamic State group have retained an ability to attack despite the elimination of key leaders.

“We need to reinvent our military partnership with these countries,” said a French presidential source, asking for anonymity.

“It is not a question of moving what is being done in Mali elsewhere, but of reinforcing what is being done in Niger and of supporting the south more.”

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ВР продовжила до 1 серпня 2023 року угоду з Нідерландами щодо захисту розслідування катастрофи MH17

Літак «Малайзійських авіаліній», який виконував рейс МН17, був збитий 17 липня 2014 року в Донецькій області. Загинули 298 людей, громадяни 17 держав

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Нова кібератака на держустанови: СБУ «чітко бачить слід іноземних спецслужб»

«Є окремі ознаки подібності вчорашньої атаки із тією, яка мала місце 13 та 14 січня», каже представник Департаменту кібербезпеки СБУ

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On Day Russia Was Meant to Invade, Stoical Ukrainians Have No Time to Celebrate 

Everything is normal — or appears so.

Outside the grand nineteenth-century city hall in Lviv, the capital of western Ukraine where Western embassies hurriedly relocated consular staff from Kyiv earlier this week, the streets are bustling.

Children squeal with delight as they try to master their roller-skates in an outdoor skating rink nearby. Their breath steams in the chill evening air. Young lovers kiss, some argue, outside restaurants and bars. Older couples saunter through the narrow streets of Lviv’s historic center, seemingly in their twilight years without a care in the world.

Lviv is much more a tourist town than the Ukrainian capital but there are few foreign visitors here now thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, travel restrictions and the talk of war. Outside a bar a couple of inebriated middle-aged Dutchmen, among the few tourists, linger outside the White Rabbit strip club, debating whether to enter. Their discussion concludes much more rapidly than the diplomatic wrangling over Ukraine, and they stagger inside.

Workers hurry home as the evening turns colder.

But everything is not normal on the eve of the day Western intelligence agencies had warned Russia might invade Ukraine.

“We talk about war and whether Russia will invade all the time,” says Anastasia, a 25-year-old waitress. She moved from a small town in Central Ukraine to Lviv for work, and because she loves the city.

Her face clouds when she talks about Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin. “I have family in Russia, too,” she says. “I hope he doesn’t invade; he won’t invade; he can’t; maybe he will,” she says, confused by a riddle that’s also bewildering the statesmen of Europe.

Anastasia shrugs — it is a very Ukrainian gesture, indicating not indifference, just stoicism in the face of the unknown.

For eight years, since Russia annexed Crimea and fomented war in the Donbas region in the east of the country, Ukraine has been collectively shrugging its shoulders — its way of enduring threats and alarms and not allowing fear to disrupt ordinary life.

Carrying on

And that is what it did as Tuesday turned into Wednesday, the day the Russians were supposed to invade. The country shrugged its shoulders and carried on undaunted. In much the same way it has coped with the coronavirus pandemic, aware of the risks but decidedly reluctant to offer the virus any concessions, like actually wearing masks or frequently disinfecting hands.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy declared earlier this week February 16 a Day of Unity, signing decree number 53/2022. He called on Ukrainians to fly flags and sing the national anthem in unison. Ukrainian government officials stressed that Zelenskiy was not predicting an attack Wednesday but responding skeptically to foreign reports about when an attack was likely to come.

“They tell us Feb. 16 will be the day of the attack. We will make it a day of unity,” Zelenskiy said in a video address to the nation earlier this week. “They are trying to frighten us by yet again naming a date for the start of military action,” Zelenskiy said. “We will hang our national flags, wear yellow and blue banners, and show the whole world our unity,” he added.

In Lviv, a city all too accustomed through its seven centuries of turbulent and often violent history to invasion and assault, Unity Day was a subdued affair. For most people it was a day much like any other. They just carried on, generally maskless, neither optimistic nor pessimistic: just fatalistic.

“Every president declares this day or that day a holiday, but it is not a religious one,” said Dmitry, a newspaper vendor at a kiosk near St. George’s Cathedral. With a hint of exasperation in his voice, he added: “We are not unpatriotic, but carrying on as normal.”

Nearby at a cafe, Denys, a venture capitalist and equities dealer, says there’s normal and then there is “Ukrainian normal.” He asked for his company not to be identified in this article.

“We have lived with a crazy neighbor for a long time — some would say for centuries,” he says. “Until last week, we weren’t really worried. I think most Ukrainians thought this was just more of the same, not dissimilar to what we have seen since 2014,” he added.

“That changed last week because of an accumulation of factors — intensifying news coverage, embassies leaving Kyiv and airlines canceling flights,” says the father of a one-half-year-old, Mia.

Denys and his wife decided last week to relocate for a couple of weeks to Lviv. “It seemed prudent,” he explained as his blue-eyed daughter paraded around the cafe, dragging a blanket and chuckling. He and his partner and their families are originally from Donetsk, and they all left the city in a hurry in 2014, when armed Russian proxies seized the city.

“My company owns property in Lviv and we had a contingency plan for relocation, so we decided just to put it into operation.” He has never thought Putin would gamble by launching a full-scale invasion. “This has been more of an information war and maybe it will allow all sides to win: Joe Biden and other Western leaders being able to say they are peacemakers, and Putin able to present himself as the lone defender of the Russian people,” he says.

Denys plans to return to Kyiv Sunday, but he’s still scrutinizing the news to see if his hunch is correct.

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Офіційний Мінськ заявив, що після завершення військових навчань всі російські війська покинуть Білорусь

Масштабне перекидання в Білорусь російських військ та техніки під приводом навчань викликало занепокоєння країн Заходу та України

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На лінії розмежування затримали бойовика-розвідника – СБУ

Наразі слідчі СБУ повідомили затриманому про підозру за статтею про «участь у терористичній групі чи терористичній організації»

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Принц Ендрю досягнув мирової угоди з Вірджинією Джуффре у справі про сексуальне насильство

Вірджинія Джуффре звинувачувала принца Ендрю в сексуальному насильстві і стверджувала, що вона займалася з ним сексом, коли була неповнолітньою, з примусу

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Росія заявляє, що ешелон із військовою технікою після навчань залишив Крим

Техніка рухається до пункту постійної дислокації. Незалежного підтвердження інформації російського відомства наразі немає

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Pressure Groups Demand Church in Italy Submit to External Sexual Abuse Inquiry

Catholic groups Tuesday accused Italy’s Church of an “institutional failure” to confront clergy sexual abuse and demanded an independent national inquiry mirroring ones conducted in France and Germany. 

A collective of nine groups — seven headed by women — issued the demand during the launch of a campaign called “Beyond the Great Silence” and a hashtag, #ItalyChurchToo, inspired by the international #MeToo movement against sexual harassment. 

In an online news conference, Paola Lazzarini, head of Women for the Church, called for the opening of the archives of “all dioceses, convents and monasteries,” damages for victims and the uncovering of the truth, “however painful.” 

Globally, revelations of sexual abuse by clergy have so far cost the Church hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation. 

The Italian campaign aims to increase public pressure on the Church and the government for a national inquiry going back decades and rejects assertions from some Italian Catholic leaders that the Church has the resources to do the work itself. 

“Only independent investigations (elsewhere) have overcome the Church’s resistance to recognize its own institutional failure,” said anti-abuse advocate Ludovica Eugenio. 

Any Italian investigation “absolutely has to be impartial,” added Francesco Zanardi, head of Rete L’Abuso (The Abuse Network). 

Pope Francis has expressed shame at the Church’s inability to deal with sexual abuse cases and said it must make itself a “safe home for everyone.” 

The Vatican had no comment Tuesday. 

Italian bishops are due to decide in May on what type of abuse inquiry, if any, the country will hold. 

Antonio Messina, 28, one of the victims who participated in the news conference, says he was repeatedly abused when he was a minor by an adult seminarian who went on to become a priest. 

Without providing details, he said local church authorities in his hometown had tried to buy his silence. “The Church is not able to handle this (investigation),” he said. 

The German study, released in 2018, showed 1,670 clergymen abused 3,677 minors from 1946 to 2014. The French investigation, released last year and covering seven decades, said more than 200,000 children were abused in Catholic institutions. 

Zanardi said the figures would be higher in predominantly Catholic Italy because the country has traditionally had many more priests. 

 

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US Calls New Charges Against Kremlin Critic Navalny ‘Dubious’

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday he is “troubled by dubious new charges” against Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who went on trial Tuesday in a penal colony outside of Moscow.

Navalny is accused of embezzlement and contempt of court. If convicted, he could face up to 15 more years in prison. 

“Navalny and his associates are targeted for their work to shine a light on official corruption,” Blinken tweeted. He added a call for Russian authorities to release Navalny “and end their harassment and prosecution of his supporters.” 

The Kremlin critic was arrested in January 2021 and convicted of violating his parole by spending several months in Germany recovering from a poison attack. He was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.

At his new trial, Russian investigators say Navalny embezzled money donated to his FBK anti-corruption political organization. The contempt of court charge stems from Navalny allegedly insulting a judge during a previous trial. 

“It is just that these people, who ordered this trial, are really scared,” Navalny, 45, said during the hearing. “(Scared) of what I say during this trial, of people seeing that the case is obviously fabricated.”  

Navalny adamantly denies the accusations and calls them politically motivated.  

“I am not afraid of this court, of the penal colony, the F.S.B., of the prosecutors, chemical weapons, Putin and all others,” Navalny said in court, according to a video of his statement. “I am not afraid because I believe it is humiliating and useless to be afraid of it all.”

Navalny’s allies have denounced the case, and his lawyer says it is an attempt by the Kremlin to silence him.

“We believe the persecution of Navalny is illegal, is distinctly political in nature, and aimed at discrediting and removing him from political activity,” lawyer Olga Mikhailova said, according to Agence France-Presse. 

A longtime rival of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Navalny has accused the president of enrichening himself as well as other government officials through corrupt measures. His attempt at running in the 2018 presidential elections only aggravated his relations with the Kremlin. 

As of a few months ago Navalny and his associates have been added to a state registry of extremists and terrorists by Russian officials. 

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Nigerian Rights Group Sues Authorities Over Twitter Agreement

A Nigerian rights group has filed a lawsuit to force authorities to publish an agreement reached with Twitter in January to lift a block on the social media company. The rights group says the failure by Nigerian authorities to publish all the details of the agreement raises concerns about citizens’ rights and censorship.

A Nigerian rights group, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), said this week that authorities ignored its request last month to publish the agreement.

The lawsuit seeks a court order compelling authorities to publish details of the agreement reached with Twitter before the company restored access to the site in Nigeria.

Nigeria suspended Twitter last June for deleting a tweet from President Muhammadu Buhari that threatened regional separatists and referred to the 1960s war in the Biafra region.

Nigerian authorities lifted the ban in January, boasting that its new engagement with the company will create jobs and generate revenue for the country.

But rights groups are concerned the terms of agreement may include clauses that violate the rights of citizens, says Kolawole Oluwadare, a deputy director at SERAP.

“If this agreement has the tendency to impact on the rights of Nigerians to freedom of expression, it’s important that Nigerians have access to the agreement, scrutinize the terms and critique it if necessary, because of the effect it will have on our ability to use Twitter freely,” said Oluwadare. “How are we sure that those terms do not necessarily affect even the rights to privacy? I’m talking about the access of Nigerian government to the data of Nigerians.”

Nigerian authorities are often accused of trying to stifle free speech.

In 2019, lawmakers considered a bill that sought to punish statements on social media deemed to diminish public confidence in the president or government officials. The bill never passed.

This week, Nigerian Information Minister Lai Mohammed criticized Twitter and the Canadian government as having double standards citing the truckers protest against COVID-19 mandates in Canada.

“Twitter actively supported the EndSARS protesters and even raised funds,” said Mohammed. “These are the same entities that are now rushing to distance themselves from the protest in Canada and even denying them the use of their platforms.”

But Amnesty International spokesperson Seun Bakare has this to say: “International human rights laws are clear on standards that even platforms like Twitter and Facebook must uphold,” said Bakare. “They must uphold the fundamental tenets of freedom of expression, and access to information and they must not bend their rules just to please any government at all.”

Under its agreement with Twitter, Nigeria said the company agreed to be legally registered in the country, run a local office, appoint country representatives to interface with authorities, pay taxes and enroll officials in its partner support portals.

It remains unclear if Nigerian officials have the ability to monitor and block prohibited content.

An ECOWAS court of justice is scheduled to rule on SERAP’s lawsuit this week.

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US Defense Chief Austin in Brussels for High Stakes NATO Talks

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has arrived in Brussels for talks with NATO leadership and allied defense ministers, as tens of thousands of Russian troops have surrounded Ukraine from the north, south and east.

During the gathering on Wednesday and Thursday, Austin and his counterparts will discuss how to deter Russia from invading Ukraine while shoring up defenses on the alliance’s eastern flank.

“This really is a decisive moment for NATO, the likes of which we have not really seen potentially since NATO was established in 1949,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “This is where American leadership in NATO matters,” he told VOA.

The “underlying message” from NATO and the United States will be to protect the international rules-based order by calling out “egregious attempts to undermine the rule of law” and “upholding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states,” according to a senior defense official.

“We cannot allow an adversary to try to redraw borders by force without facing significant consequences,” the official added.

Austin will then travel to NATO members Poland and Lithuania, Russian neighbors that have watched the developments surrounding Ukraine with increasing concern.

While in Poland on Friday, Austin will meet with President Andrzej Duda before visiting U.S. troops. The United States will soon have about 9,000 troops in Poland after President Joe Biden earlier this month ordered nearly 5,000 additional troops to deploy there, citing security concerns due to Russia’s recent moves.

In Lithuania, Austin will meet with President Gitanas Nauseda and host a meeting with that country’s defense minister along with those from Estonia and Latvia.

President Joe Biden said Tuesday Russia has 150,000 troops surrounding Ukraine, including in Belarus to the north, the illegally annexed Crimea region to the south, and along the Russian border with Ukraine to the east. Russian ships are also exercising nearby in the Black Sea, which prompted a formal protest from Ukraine’s foreign ministry.

“I think of a boa constrictor that is squeezing Ukraine to force the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky to blink, to make some giant concession,” retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, who once commanded U.S. Army forces in Europe, told VOA.

Russia’s defense ministry announced Tuesday that some military units would pull back to their bases, a claim that Biden said the U.S. had not yet verified.

Meanwhile, Russian legislators passed proposals Tuesday calling on President Vladimir Putin to formally recognize the separatist-controlled regions of eastern Ukraine as independent states, in a move that could justify an incursion in an area it no longer recognizes as Ukraine’s territory.

The United States has pushed for a diplomatic solution to the tensions and has said it will not fight Russian forces in Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO.

The U.S. has shipped planeloads of lethal military aid to Ukraine in recent weeks, including Javelin anti-tank weapons and ammunition. A small number of U.S. troops had also trained Ukrainian soldiers through a program that started following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, but those troops were ordered by Austin to leave Ukraine a few days ago, citing concerns that a potential Russian invasion could come at any moment.

NATO allies have made multiple attempts to get Putin to pull his troops away from Ukraine’s border and have threatened severe economic sanctions should Russian troops invade.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrived in Moscow on Tuesday for talks with Putin. Biden called Putin on Saturday. French President Emanuel Macron spoke face to face with Putin last week.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, on the other hand, expressed his support for Putin during the heightened tensions over Moscow’s forces surrounding Ukraine.

Current and former U.S. officials have warned that an invasion of Ukraine could embolden other adversaries.

“If the United States with all of our allies, all of our partners and the combined diplomatic and economic power, cannot deter the Kremlin from … another attack on Ukraine, then I think the Chinese Communist Party leadership is not going to be terribly impressed by anything that we say about Taiwan or the South China Sea,” Hodges said.

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With COVID Rules Eased, Barcelona Embraces Festival’s Return

Crowds gathered in Barcelona’s historic downtown to watch in awe and snap cellphone photos as teams of people in colorful garb formed human towers rising into the air like the spires on the nearby medieval cathedral. 

A giant figure in bright blue dress and a floral crown paraded through the streets in representation of St. Eulàlia, the city’s patron, a 13-year-old girl who was crucified by Romans in the early fourth century for refusing to renounce Christianity. 

After two years of canceled or muted celebrations due to the pandemic, this Mediterranean city went all-out this past weekend to mark the February 12 feast, or “festa” in the Catalan language, of its longest-celebrated patron. 

With the most recent nationwide outdoor mask mandate lifted by the government just days earlier, Barcelonans were especially eager to revel in the three-day “festes de Santa Eulàlia,” with celebrations that make social distancing impossible and require painstaking choreography and training. 

Celebrated with a specific protocol since the 1600s, the festival has been gaining renewed popularity since the early 1980s. It includes solemn Masses, intricate dances and parades of “gegants,” larger-than-life historical and fantasy figures usually made of papier mâché and borne by revelers. 

While rooted in Catholic liturgy, today the festival is primarily a secular expression of pride and shared cultural identity in the Catalonia region in northeastern Spain, passionately celebrated even if most who take part don’t identify as believers. 

“The resurgence started with ordinary people who wanted to do something that would be their own, belonging to Barcelona,” said Nil Rider, a historian who helped organize an exhibit about St. Eulàlia at the cathedral’s Diocesan Museum. “This is living heritage that gives people an identity.”  

Foremost among the festival’s traditions are the “castells,” or “castles,” as the human towers are called, which have been performed for two centuries by neighborhood groups not only in Barcelona but in local festivals across Catalonia. 

Dozens of “castellers,” or group members, stand packed tightly together, compressing every inch of their bodies into each other to form a base. Progressively lighter-weight members then climb up to establish six or more human tiers until they form a support for the top performer, a young child wearing a mandatory helmet — and, this year, a KN95 face mask. 

“What we like is to achieve a challenge that we only are able to do together. It’s very identity-forming,” said Dan Esteban, a casteller and former head of the group representing the neighborhood of Poble Sec, just outside the medieval core. 

Two years of pandemic restrictions and lockdowns in hard-hit Spain have left people out of practice, and Esteban said the group wasn’t able to train at all until September. Even now fewer people than usual show up for twice-weekly sessions, which are crucial for getting everyone to work in concert since budging just an inch can bring the entire structure crashing down. 

Cristina Velasco also worried about recovering lost ground as she planned for this year’s “correfoc,” another traditional element of the festival in which adults and children parade in horned devil costumes alongside spinning fireworks displays. Sunday night’s would be the first full parade since the pandemic, with fewer children taking part as some turned to other activities and haven’t returned. 

“We have the feeling we have to do it because otherwise we will lose it,” said Velasco, who has been dressing up as a devil for 30 years and is president of the city’s federation of three-dozen neighborhood correfoc groups. 

Teaching youngsters the allegorical and historic origins of the correfoc tradition is vital, she said, even if “99% of people don’t even know where the devil came from.”  

Clutching a statuette of St. Eulàlia, 10-year-old Laia Castro, 10, waited patiently in line under a chilly drizzle to enter the majestic Gothic cathedral Saturday, the day commemorating the saint’s martyrdom. Descending into the crypt where the saint’s remains have been venerated since the 1330s, she signed a registry kept in the sacristy for girls named with the common diminutive for Eulàlia. 

“Really we’re not religious, but we like this celebration,” said her father, Albert Castro. 

He hopes for Laia to know the saint’s history and then make her own decision about faith: “And if she believes, she will know she did something extra today.”  

The Rev. Robert Baró Cabrera, director of the Cathedral’s cultural heritage patrimony, said the festival’s spotlight on identity and devotion to the saint offers “a powerful environment for evangelization” even as secularism continues to grow. 

“Our churches are both cultural and identity references,” he said. “If people want to find the roots of their identity, they can’t help but go into the church.”  

In one of the festival’s most evocative celebrations, a performer bearing a giant eagle figure with flowering branches in its beak paraded Friday night from city hall through the old quarter, accompanied by drums, bagpipes and flutes. 

Arriving at the soaring Gothic basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, built where St. Eulàlia was first buried after her martyrdom, the eagle entered the packed but hushed sanctuary and proceeded to pirouette in front of the altar in a six-century-old ritual. 

On hand were Loli García and her 4-year-old granddaughter, Ona, whom she brought to teach her about their roots and culture. 

“It’s one thing not to be religious, but they have to know the history,” García said as Ona stood on a pew and watched, spellbound. “I take her to all traditional Catalan celebrations, as I used to do with my daughter.”   

 

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