THE POPE'S BIG DAY
-FIDEL CASTRO MEETS THE POPE… Fidel Castro has announced he will "happily" meet with Pope Benedict XVI - answering a question that has almost overshadowed the papal visit itself. Castro made the news at the end of a short opinion piece posted on the government's website. The other highlight of Benedict's trip - a Mass for some half a million people in Havana's Revolution Plaza - underway now.
-THE PROTESTS…There are reports that the so-called "Ladies In White" - a dissident group made up of relatives of political prisoners - will attempt to protest at the big mass today. Several of its members were stopped and some detained when they tried to attend demonstrations in Havana and Santiago de Cuba in the first days of the papal visit. The group has been asking for an audience with Pope Benedict to discuss human rights.
-THE CALLS FOR CHANGE…Pope Benedict's calls for more freedom and human rights are expected to sharpen today - thus far they have been met with limited and not so positive responses. In Santiago de Cuba Benedict prayed for greater freedom and renewal for all Cubans - a nudge to the government to open itself up to greater reforms. "I have also prayed to the Virgin for the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of difficulty." A top official in Havana quickly responded: "In Cuba, there will not be political reform," said Vice President Marino Murillo, Cuba's economic czar. Before he even arrived, Benedict called Marxism irrelevant for today's reality. And during a nearly hour-long meeting Tuesday with President Raul Castro - Benedict raised "humanitarian" issues, an apparent reference to political prisoners. Benedict asked that the government declare a holiday for Good Friday, when Catholics commemorate the death of Christ. The request, like so much of this trip, was a follow-up of sorts to Cuba's decision to declare Christmas a national holiday in honor of John Paul's 1998 visit. Cubans hadn't had Christmas off for nearly 30 years. "It's not that it changes reality in a revolutionary way, but it can be a sign of a positive step, as was the case of Christmas after John Paul's visit," said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
FUKUSHIMA RADIATION SPIKES
For the first time since the nuclear disaster last year, radiation levels inside the reactor 2 containment vessel - have spiked to alarming levels. TEPCO reported radiation levels between 31.9 and 72.9 sieverts, enough to kill a person within 7 minutes of exposure, according to NHK. The news came one day after an endoscope was inserted inside reactor 2, revealing dangerously low levels of water - and raising the possibility that the containment vessel may have been breached. TEPCO says these measurements don't change the status of the reactors at Fukushima - all 3 remain in a state of cold shutdown. However, they could delay the process to decommission the plant. Some Japanese media report, even robots would not be able to go in (the electric circuit could fail). This means TEPCO will now have to reassess their plans to scrap the plant, and even consider developing devices that can withstand such high levels of radiation.
FUKUSHIMA - MISSING FROM TEXTBOOKS?
Akiko FUJITA reports that new government-approved textbooks have prompted a debate about how Japan's triple disasters, including the Fukushima crisis, should be taught in high schools. Of more than 200 books, 24% mentioned the earthquake and tsunami, 7% touched on the Fukushima disaster, and just 1 book detailed the meltdown and radiation fallout that ensued. Time may be largely to blame for the omission. The deadline was in June, just months after the disasters.
IRAN: TWO ISRAELI HAWKS
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have turned into the odd couple of Israeli politics in whose hands sits the prospect of an attack on Iran - so writes the NYTimes. From opposite political traditions with distinct experiences and worldviews, the two have forged a tight bond, often excluding the rest of the Israeli leadership. For Mr. Netanyahu, an Iranian nuclear weapon would be the 21st-century equivalent of the Nazi war machine and the Spanish Inquisition - the latest attempt to destroy the Jews. Preventing that is the mission of his life. For Mr. Barak, who spurns talk of a second Holocaust and fear for Israel's existence, it is a challenge about strategy: "zones of immunity" and "red lines," the operational details of an assault on Iran's nuclear facilities. "All leaders have kitchen cabinets, but Netanyahu and Barak have established a kitchenette of two," remarked Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, in an interview. "They haven't discussed Iran with the rest of the government in weeks and have convinced themselves there is only one way to deal with Iran - their way."
U.N.: SYRIAN AUTHORITIES TARGET CHILDREN
Syrian authorities are deliberately and systematically targeting children, the United Nations' human rights chief, Navi Pillay, has told the BBC. She said she was deeply concerned about the fate of hundreds of children being held in detention. Ms. Pillay said President Bashar al-Assad could end the detentions and stop the killing of civilians immediately, simply by issuing an order.
TALIBAN'S ONLINE Q+A SERVICE
Worried about whether Islamic verses on Facebook are allowed? Or that suicide bombers kill innocent civilians? Afghanistan's Taliban have set up a new question-and-answer section on their website to address such issues. The facility on Voice of Jihad, the official website of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan - the Taliban's own name for their movement - allows readers to submit queries to spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, AFP reports.
AMNESTY: U.S. ACCUSED OF ABUSES ALONG MEXICO BORDER
U.S. policing along the Mexico border discriminates against Hispanics and Native Americans and contributes to the deaths of illegal immigrants, according to a study by the human rights group Amnesty International USA. The report, "In Hostile Terrain: Human Rights Violations in Immigration Enforcement in the U.S. Southwest," identifies what it says are systemic failures of federal, state and local authorities to enforce immigration laws without discrimination.
THAILAND: CHAOS AS FIREWORK FACTORY BLOWS UP
An accident at a firework factory in Thailand sent rockets spiraling into the sky, causing multiple explosions that set fire to warehouses and nearby trees. Residents were forced to flee as trees were set ablaze by fireworks shooting out the building in Saraburi province 72 miles northeast of Bangkok.
From Kirit RADIA in Moscow: RIA Novosti reports that the Kremlin plans to spend 26 million rubles, nearly $900,000, on a fancy reception to celebrate Vladimir Putin's inauguration on May 7. The report cites a government purchasing website that says some 1,000 guests will dine on delicacies like sturgeon in champagne sauce, fried crab, mini-ratatouille, etc. A spokesman told RIA Novasti the menu hadn't been decided yet. Guests will also enjoy the Kremlin's own premium vodka brand, Kremlin Award.
MANDELA'S LIFE: AN ONLINE GALLERY
From Bazi KANANI: Thousands of letters, pictures, and videos documenting the life of iconic South African leader Nelson Mandela are now just a few clicks away. With a grant from Google, Mandela's foundation created an online exhibit to make his legacy easily available to the world. Google hopes this project is the first of many to bring more content online about other great historical figures of the 20th century.
CHINA'S BIZARRE BUILDING BOOM
From USA Today: The apartment blocks rising skyward entice buyers by using foreign names such as "Oriental Hawaii," the European-style "Provence" and "Olive Valley." But the most exotic, eye-catching architecture in this Beijing suburb is very Chinese. "It was voted one of China's ugliest buildings," Zhao Pingping says of the bizarre Emperor Hotel, which offers accommodations in the shape of three 10-story, bearded deities representing the Chinese gods of good fortune, prosperity and longevity. "Some older residents hope the gods can bring good luck and security to our neighborhood, but I prefer modern styles. I could never stay there," says Zhao, 30, shuddering as she walks past the hotel with her infant son. An urbanization drive perhaps unparalleled in human history has turned China into a continent-sized construction site. Some of the new buildings have won international acclaim, such as Beijing's "Bird's Nest" stadium built for the 2008 Olympics. But far too many are eyesores, complain architects and online critics. When the architecture website www.archcy.com asked readers to vote for China's top 10 ugliest buildings, Li Hu, a Beijing-based partner at U.S. Steven Holl Architects, said, "Choosing 10 is very hard, choosing a million is perfectly possible."
MESSAGE FOR FOREIGN OLYMPIC ATHLETES AND COACHES: NO MARRYING ON U.K. SOIL
The Telegraph reports, foreign Olympic athletes and coaches will be forbidden from marrying while in Britain for the London 2012 Olympic Games. They are traveling under special visas - and the Home Office fears they will use them as an excuse to claim residency. The U.K. Border Agency has told Games family members: "While you are in the U.K., you will not be allowed to undertake a course of study; or marry or form a civil partnership, or give notice of marriage or civil partnership."
MASTERING THE ART OF HIP-HOP
Next time you feel awkward on the dance floor - pity these middle-aged teachers in Japan. As Akiko FUJITA reports, with students headed back to school (the school year starts in April here), middle school teachers are faced with a new hurdle - how to master the art of hip-hop dancing. New government education guidelines require all 7th and 8th graders to take dance and martial arts as part of their physical education curriculum. That means rhythmically challenged teachers, who have never heard of hip-hop, are being forced to enroll in dance courses themselves - so they can be experts when students arrive for classes. To be clear, hip-hop isn't the only dance option. Schools can also choose between folk dancing (includes traditional Japanese dancing), and "expressive" dancing. But hip-hop has been the most popular by far, largely because of the growing popularity of R&B and K-pop groups in Japan. Don't think I need to paint the picture for you - but a 50 year old Japanese man trying to let loose on hip-hop is quite amusing and uncomfortable at the same time. NHK has great video. The Ministry of Education says they decided to make dance and martial arts a requirement - to give students a "more fulfilling" experience, when it comes to P.E.
BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN SOCIETY RUN BY 'GANGS'
Nice undersea story from the BBC. Apparently male bottlenose dolphins organize gang-like alliances - guarding females against other groups and occasionally "changing sides". A team studying dolphins in Shark Bay, western Australia, says the animals roam hundreds of square kilometers, often encountering other dolphin groups. Only humans and the Shark Bay bottlenose are known to have these multiple levels of male alliances in their social network.
IT'S OFFICIAL: THE PANDAS HAVE MATED
Tokyo's Ueno Zoo says male panda Ri Ri and female Shin Shin have "officially" mated. The zoo has kept the animals in hiding, to allow the two privacy. But after Shin Shin showed "signs of excitement" in a matchmaking meeting Sunday, zookeepers concluded the mating period was over. Ueno Zoo re-opened its panda exhibit on Wednesday. The two animals have been on lease from China since February last year. It's been more than 20 years since a Panda cub was born at the Tokyo zoo.