Pope Francis shuts Holy Door

Pope Francis on Sunday closed the Roman Catholic Church’s “Holy Year of Mercy,” a period that inspired hope among many followers but was also marred by conflicts around the world and infighting within the Church itself.

At a solemn ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica, Francis closed its “Holy Door,” through which the Vatican says some 20 million pilgrims walked since it was opened on 8 December to seek special blessings and symbolically pass from sin to grace.

Holy Years normally take place every 25 years unless a pope decrees an extraordinary one such as the one that closed on Sunday to bring attention to a particular need or topic.

The next one was to be held in 2025 but the 79-year-old Francis, concerned about growing divisions and conflict in the world and polarization among Catholics, called a special one on the theme of mercy, a major part of his push for a less judgmental and more inclusive Church.

Catholics around the world were asked to forgive each other and the pope made numerous appeals to world leaders to make gestures of peace and reconciliation.

In his homily at a Mass before 70,000 people in St. Peter’s Square, celebrated together with 17 new cardinals installed on Saturday, he called for the spirit of hope and mercy to continue.

Let us ask for the grace of never closing the doors of reconciliation and pardon, but rather of knowing how to go beyond evil and differences, opening every possible pathway of hope,” he said.

During the year, both Cuba and Paraguay responded to papal appeals by granting amnesties to prisoners and the pope held a historic meeting of reconciliation with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church after a rift of nearly 1,000 years.

But his many appeals for ceasefires in Syria and peace in places such as Ukraine during the year achieved little result.

Division also reared its head within his 1.2 billion member Church.

Last week, four conservative cardinals made a rare public challenge to Francis over some of his teachings in a major document on the family, accusing him of sowing confusion on important

In Rome, the year was a disappointment to hoteliers, who had hoped for a boom similar to one during the last Holy Year in 2000.

A majority of the pilgrims who came to the capital were Italian day-trippers and many who stayed overnight did so in low-cost residences, many run by the Church, or in private homes.

Romans were also critical of their civic leaders because most of the projects slated to improve public transportation, repair pot-holed streets and upgrade infrastructures for the Holy Year were never begun or left incomplete.

Reuters/Hauwa M.

Estonia’s president nominated Juri Ratas, the leader of a center-left, traditionally pro-Russian party, as Prime Minister on Sunday, after the previous coalition government collapsed earlier this month.

The installation of a new government in the smallest Baltic state comes amid heightened tensions in the region over both Donald Trump’s election victory in the United States and concerns over neighboring Russia, although the president said on Sunday that foreign policy would not change.

I am convinced that Juri Ratas will be able to form a strong and active government and I am convinced Estonia’s foreign policy and security course will not change,” Estonia’s president Kersti Kaljulaid said.

The Baltic States hope that Trump will not follow through on pledges during his election campaign to look at the level of their defense spending before deciding whether to defend the NATO members against Russia.

Ratas is chairman of the center-left Estonian Centre Party and wants to introduce tax rises.

Reuters/Hauwa M.

Rebels killed school children in Aleppo

Syrian rebel shelling of a school in government-held western Aleppo killed at least seven children on Sunday morning, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported.

Report said that at least 10 people had been killed in shelling of government-held parts of Aleppo, including children at the Saria Hasoun School in al-Farqan district.

Reuters/Hauwa M.

France to pick primary presidential candidate

Conservative presidential hopefuls in France face the judgment of voters in a primary race on Sunday and the victor looks likely to win the presidency in next spring’s election against a resurgent far-right.

With the French left in disarray under the deeply unpopular President Francois Hollande, opinion polls suggest that the center-right presidential nominee will meet and defeat the National Front’s eurosceptic, anti-immigration leader Marine Le Pen in a runoff for the Elysee palace next year.

Even so, after Britain’s shock “Brexit” vote and Donald Trump’s surprise U.S. election win, the French presidential vote is shaping up to be another test of strength between weakened mainstream parties and rising populist forces.

Former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, a moderate conservative, had appeared firmly on track to win the nomination of Les Republicains party. But over the past week the contest has been transformed into a nail-biting three-horse race.

Juppe has lost his lead in opinion polls to a last-minute surge by another Former Premier, Francois Fillon, Latest surveys show the two now running neck-and neck with Former President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Fillon promises to do away with the 35-hour working week, cut half a million public sector jobs and slash the cost of government – tough sells in a country where proposals for market-oriented reform often arouse protests.

I’m tagged with a liberal label as one would once, in the Middle Ages, paint crosses on the doors of lepers,” Fillon told a rally in Paris on Friday, drawing laughter.

But I’m just a pragmatist.”

For weeks, the bruising campaign battle focused on the duel between Juppe and Sarkozy. The two men present very different policy platforms to counter the populist tsunami that threatens mainstream parties in Europe.

Against a backdrop of deadly militant attacks on home soil and Europe’s migrant crisis, Sarkozy, 61, styles himself as the voice of France’s “silent majority“.

He vows to ban the Muslim veil from public universities and burkinis from beaches and wants to renegotiate EU treaties, reining in the powers of the European Commission and reforming the Schengen free-travel zone.

At a rally in the southern city of Nimes on Friday he warned of a France whose “identity and unity are threatened“.

Political Islam is doing battle against our values. There’s no room for compromise,” he said, speaking in a region that has produced one of the far-right’s two National Assembly lawmakers.

Juppe, 71, has sought to galvanize the political center-right, rejecting the “suicidal” identity politics of Sarkozy that he says will deepen rifts between France’s secular state and religious minorities.

But Juppe has struggled to rouse the passions of voters and all the momentum was against him on the eve of the vote.

France needs far-reaching and radical reforms,” Juppe told supporters in the northern city of Lille. “But be careful of going too far, we must remain credible.”

An admirer of late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Fillon headed Sarkozy’s conservative government between 2007 and 2012. He promises cost-cutting on a scale to which his rivals do not dare commit in a country with one of Europe’s highest public spending levels.

Much will depend on turnout at the 10,228 polling stations. It is the first center-right primary in which anyone who pays 2 euros and signs a paper of allegiance to the party’s values can vote.

Juppe needs a high turnout beyond core party supporters to win. A runoff will be held on 27th November if, as expected, none of the seven candidates wins more than 50 percent of the vote.

An Ifop-Fiducial survey on Thursday forecast an evenly split votes if Juppe and Fillon go head-to-head in a second round. Fillon would comfortably beat Sarkozy, the survey showed.

Should Sarkozy or Fillon emerge as her conservative opponent, polls and analysts suggest, Le Pen’s electoral prospects would improve.

BBC/Hauwa M.