LISTEN: Urban Christian News Weekend Report #115

1. Residents in cyclone-ravaged Vanuatu hunkered in emergency shelters for a second straight night on Saturday after venturing out to find their homes damaged or blown away by the powerful storm. Packing winds of 168 miles per hour, Cyclone Pam tore through the tiny South Pacific archipelago early Saturday, leaving a trail of destruction and unconfirmed reports of dozens of deaths. Chloe Morrison, a World Vision emergency communications officer in the capital, Port Vila, said power remained out across Vanuatu later on Saturday and people on many of the outer islands had no access to running water or outside communications.

2. Kurdish fighters and Christian militiamen are making gains against the Islamic State group in northeastern Syria, with intense clashes amid airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition. Nasser Haj Mansour, a defense official in Syria’s Kurdish region, said the fighters captured the Christian village of Tal Maghas in Hassakeh province, which had been under the control of Islamic State militants. The Observatory for Human Rights airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition, the first in the area in days, were targeting Islamic State positions near Tal Tamr village, about 6 miles west of Tal Maghas. Syria’s main Kurdish force, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, called for air support from the U.S.-led coalition. The Islamic State group has been fighting YPG fighters and members of the Christian Syriac Military Council in Hassakeh for weeks, with dozens killed on both sides.

3. Police arrested 10 teenagers from a Los Angeles high school on Friday in connection with sexual assaults and unlawful sex acts against two fellow students. Police said the case came to their attention when administrators at Venice High School, a campus in a relatively affluent community near the beach in the west of the city, reported a suspected sexual assault to detectives on Tuesday evening. Investigators discovered that two female students at the school had been sexually assaulted between December 2013 and March 2015, both on and off campus. Officers set out on Friday to arrest 14 suspects, all boys aged 14 to 17. Eight suspects were taken into custody at the school, a ninth was arrested off campus and a 10th turned himself in later in the day

4. Iraqi forces and mainly Shi’ite militiamen battling to wrest full control of the city of Tikrit from Islamic State militants paused their offensive for a second day on Saturday as they awaited reinforcements. More than 20,000 troops and Iranian-backed Shi’ite fighters entered Tikrit on Wednesday, having retaken areas to the north and south in a campaign launched almost two weeks ago, Iraq’s biggest offensive against the militants yet. Islamic State fighters still hold about half the city and have booby-trapped buildings and laid improvised explosive devices and roadside bombs. More “well-trained forces” were needed for the street-by-street battles that recapturing the whole city would require.

5. A video that appears to show a man helping three British schoolgirls on their way to join the Islamic State group in Syria was released on Friday by a Turkish news channel. A Haber television said that the video was filmed in Gaziantep on Turkey’s border with Syria by the man, who was later detained by Turkish authorities. A Turkish government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment, confirmed the video came from the police but didn’t elaborate on the content.

6. Three men accused in a plot to travel to Syria to join forces with the Islamic State group pleaded not guilty on Friday to terrorism charges in federal court. Abdurasul Juraboev, Akhror Saidakhmetov, and Abror Habibov were indicted this week on charges of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, conspiracy and travel document fraud. Federal officials say Juraboev and Saidakhmetov had tickets to travel to Turkey but were really going to Syria. Habibov was arrested in Florida and extradited to New York this week. He is accused of helping Saidakhmetov with his travel arrangements after Saidakhmetov’s mother took his passport. The mother appeared in court, weeping, but did not comment. Saidakhmetov’s lawyer said his client was very concerned but maintains his innocence.

7. Pope Francis said on Friday he doesn’t expect to be Pope much longer, raising the questions — will Popes stepping down be the new norm? Or is Pope Francis just morbidly predicting his own death? In an interview with Mexican broadcaster Noticieros Televisa, Pope Francis said, “I have the feeling that my Pontificate will be brief: four or five years; I do not know, even two or three. But I feel that the Lord has placed me here for a short time, and nothing more.” This comes on the second anniversary of Pope Francis taking over after Pope Benedict stepped down.

8. President Barack Obama paid his condolences to the family of the American aid worker who died after being taken hostage by the Islamic State group. Obama met Kayla Mueller’s parents and brother on Friday in Arizona, where the Muellers live. The White House says Obama expressed his condolences and heard from Mueller’s family about her compassion and dedication to serving others. Obama is also praising the Muellers for setting up a foundation in their daughter’s name to improve other people’s lives.

9. The United States announced on Wednesday that it is sending small unarmed drones, armored Humvees and other assistance to Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed separatists. Lethal weapons were not included, to the dismay of some U.S. lawmakers. The White House said President Obama is still considering whether to send weapons to Ukraine’s military, weighing the risks that such aid could further inflame conflict in which more than 6,000 people have died. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, “That bloodshed is something that we’re trying to avoid and de-escalate. So the president is very mindful of the potential risk that’s associated with providing additional lethal military assistance to the Ukrainians.”

10. Thousands of people of different faiths have formed a human ring outside the synagogue in Copenhagen where a Jewish security guard was fatally shot last month. Organizer Niddal El-Jabr says the idea behind the show of unity was to “send a powerful statement” that “Jews should be able to have their religion in peace.” Saturday’s gathering was inspired by similar symbolic events in Scandinavia in recent weeks. On Feb. 27, Copenhagen’s mayor joined a “ring of peace” outside the nearby City Hall square. Police then had banned any events outside the synagogue, citing security. On Feb. 15, Omar El-Hussein killed Dan Uzan, the synagogue guard, hours after he fatally shot Danish filmmaker Finn Noergaard at a free speech event at another location in Copenhagen.

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