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For decades Graham offered counsel and comfort to presidents

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He was rebuffed, then embraced, by Harry Truman. Confided in — and deeply hurt by — Richard Nixon. A source of reassurance for George H.W. Bush on the eve of war. The spark that finally turned George W. Bush toward sobriety.

The Rev. Billy Graham, who died Wednesday at age 99, was a fixture of the presidency to every man who has held the office back to the early years of the Cold War. He met all 12 of them, plus Donald Trump before he ran for office, and counseled most as they grappled with governing, politics and peace of mind.

Though most presidents have sought guidance from spiritual leaders, Graham’s role at the top echelons of American politics was unique, and there’s no obvious successor likely to fill his shoes as an adviser to leaders from both parties. The evangelical movement he helped turn into a political force is now most closely aligned with the Republican Party, including Trump, who has been publicly backed by numerous evangelical leaders.

“Many of the public religious figures are known in the public because of their stances politically,” said Mark Noll, an evangelical scholar at the University of Notre Dame. He said the current political and media polarization “makes it harder for a figure like Graham to emerge.”

For some of the presidents he advised, Graham offered more than just prayers, support and photo opportunities. Depending on the White House occupant and the era, he was a friend, negotiator and shrewd political adviser.

His first overtures to a president were rebuffed. His star rising, Graham pressed Truman, a Democrat, to attend his Washington crusade in 1952. But Truman wanted no part of Graham, whom he at first considered a publicity hound. After Truman left the White House, he received Graham at his home in Independence, Missouri, according to Graham’s website.

He had better luck with Truman’s successor, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. Graham urged Eisenhower to run for president and counseled him about the afterlife.

His close friendship with Nixon began in the late 1950s, before the Republican landed in the White House. The match was glued by their disdain for communism, Graham’s belief that Nixon was a man of high moral character— and both men’s ambitions. Graham considered endorsing Nixon in the 1960 election against Democrat John F. Kennedy, when Kennedy’s Catholicism became a divisive issue.

“I think the true story with Graham was he was far more partisan that he’s ever let on in public or that’s ever come to light,” said Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth College historian and author of “God in the White House.”

When Kennedy defeated Nixon, Graham agreed to play golf with the president-elect at the Kennedys’ Palm Beach, Florida, estate and drove around in Kennedy’s white Lincoln Continental.

“He missed a putt and Kennedy said, ‘Well, I thought you were a good golfer,'” said Grant Wacker of Duke Divinity School. Graham rolled with it, replying, “I am when I’m not playing with the president of the United States.” But Graham and Kennedy were never close.

Graham’s relationship with Nixon was complex and ultimately painful. When the Watergate scandal broke, Graham said he did not recognize the man he knew as modest and moral. “I did not absolve him — but neither did I judge him,” Graham wrote in his memoirs.

When tapes from Nixon’s White House were released in 2002, Graham was heard telling the president that Jews “don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country.” He apologized.

William C. Martin of Rice University, one of Graham’s biographers, said in a statement that Graham was stunned when told that some of Nixon’s aides had admitted using the pastor.

“‘I felt like a sheep led to the slaughter,'” Graham responded to Martin, author of “A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story.”

Graham took a lower political profile after Watergate, but he did not abandon politics. He urged President Gerald Ford to pardon Nixon and supported Jimmy Carter on the SALT disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union.

“A big myth is that he became apolitical after Watergate,” said Michael Long, an associate professor of religious studies and peace and conflict studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. “In some ways, he became even more political.”

Graham also was criticized by some conservative evangelicals for praying at the inauguration of Bill Clinton, a supporter of abortion rights — and then criticized again for publicly forgiving Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and praising Hillary Rodham Clinton for forgiving her husband.

Graham had a close relationship with the Bush family. Patriarch George H.W. Bush said that the pastor’s presence on the eve of the Persian Gulf War helped him avoid doubt, “even for a second … (about) the moral clarity of our mission that January night.”

Years later, his son, George W. Bush, recalled in an interview with Focus on the Family that he’d been drunk the first time he met Graham at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. The two went for a walk that launched Bush’s rejection of alcohol and embrace of Christianity.

“We started talking about religion,” the former president said in the interview. “And Billy sent me a Bible and I started reading the Bible.”

Graham kept a lower profile later in life, but still kept in touch with presidents. He accepted tributes from a trio of them — Carter, Clinton and the elder Bush — at the dedication of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 2010, President Barack Obama visited Graham at his home in Montreat, North Carolina.

Trump and his wife, Melania, attended Graham’s 95th birthday party in 2013. By the time Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, it was Graham’s son, Franklin, who spoke, declaring the rainy day “a sign of God’s blessing.”

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Follow Kellman at http://www.twitter.com/APLaurieKellman



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COVID-19: Millions of Indians travel to celebrate Maha Kumbh Mela despite rising coronavirus rates | World News

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They have gathered in their millions in the temple town of Haridwar, in Uttarakhand.

Hindu pilgrims have come to celebrate Maha Kumbh Mela, a religious festival that happens once every 12 years.

And today is a very auspicious day in the religious calendar to take a dip in India‘s River Ganges.

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Millions will gather this month to celebrate a Hindu festival, despite experts warning against it
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Coronavirus rates have increased in India the last few months, with the country in the midst of a second wave

All this amid a raging pandemic.

The festival has been been flagged as a super spreader as more than 50 million people are expected to attend this month-long event.

The country registered almost 170,000 new cases in the last 24 hours, the highest number of COVID-19 cases anywhere in the world.

With more than 13.5 million cases, India is second only to the United States.

In the same period, 839 people died, taking the total number of COVID-19 related deaths to 170,209.

Millions will gather this month to celebrate a Hindu festival, despite experts warning against it
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Millions will gather this month to celebrate the Hindu festival, despite experts warning against it

Sarasswati Dattani, 56, has travelled over 400 miles (644km) from Rajasthan with her husband.

She tells Sky News: “Our children had tried to stop us because of coronavirus.

“I am not afraid, Mother Ganga is with us all the time.

“People are getting the virus sitting at home. We have to die once, it’s all in God’s hands.”

Raghav, 25, from Jalandhar in Punjab, says “coronavirus could not stop me from my belief in God, our faith is far stronger than anything at the moment.

“I have also come to pray that this pandemic gets over soon.”

The devotees come from every part of the country and a majority are from smaller towns and villages.

The fear among health activists is that rural India will be exposed to the virus.

Speaking to Sky News, Dr Atulya Mishra, who is the medical officer in charge of a section of the banks, said: “People are very irresponsible, they do not follow any of the COVID-19 behaviour protocols.

Millions will gather this month to celebrate a Hindu festival, despite experts warning against it
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Health experts have urged people not to travel but people are not following guidance

“We provide them with face masks but people don’t wear them.

“We put our lives on the line while the public takes the virus very lightly. It is very frustrating for us health workers.”

The administration has enforced COVID-19 protocols – pilgrims must wear face masks and are only allowed to attend with a negative PCR test result.

Millions will gather this month to celebrate a Hindu festival, despite experts warning against it
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People will take a dip in the River Ganges during the month-long festival

But in reality, social distancing is almost impossible to enforce.

India is in the midst of a second wave.

The low number of cases in the winter months had lulled people into believing it’s over.

Opening up society, a low fatality rate and vaccinations have led to Indians letting their guard down.

The festival will also mean people take a dip in the River Ganges
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The festival is seen as a super spreader event

For many weeks the country has been immersed in state elections.

The prime minister, his cabinet and leaders of all political parties are campaigning at rallies with thousands in attendance.

Roadshows expose every nook and corner.

Experts have also said the new variants of the virus are far more infectious but less lethal.

Genome sequencing of all cases in Punjab show around 80% of them are due to the UK variant.

While millions will make their way to the Maha Kumbh over the next few weeks, the rising number of cases are sure of grave concern for the government.

India began its vaccination programme on 16 January but less than 1% of the population have been fully vaccinated.

Though the process had a slow start it has picked up pace over the last few weeks.

India may have one of the lowest fatality rates in the world, but it can ill afford a severe burden on its already inadequate and creaking public health care system.

For decades successive governments have spent just over 1.2% of the GDP on healthcare.

Over 70% of its citizens rely on expensive private health care and one illness can push a family into poverty.

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China deploys jets and bombers into Taiwanese airspace in ‘biggest incursion to date’ | World News

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Twenty-five Chinese military aircraft have entered Taiwanese airspace in the largest reported incursion to date, according to officials.

Taiwan‘s government has complained in recent months after repeated missions by China‘s air force near the island.

The incursions have been concentrated in the southwestern part of Taiwan’s air defence zone.

Pic AP
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Chinese vessels and aircrafts have conducted drills near Taiwan for several years, but in the last 12 months the actions have stepped up. Pic AP

The latest mission on Monday involved 14 J-16 and four J-10 fighter jets – and four H-6K bombers, which can carry nuclear weapons.

Two anti-submarine aircraft and an early warning aircraft also took part, Taiwan’s defence minister said.

It is believed to be the largest incursion by the Chinese air force into Taiwanese airspace, and officials said combat aircraft were dispatched to intercept and warn the intruders away.

Missile systems were also deployed to monitor the Chinese vessels as the aircraft flew in an area close to Thailand’s Pratas Islands, according to the defence ministry.

It came just three days after the US issued new guidelines that will deepen its ties with Taiwan.

The latest guidelines from the US State Department will mean American officials can meet more freely with their Taiwanese counterparts.

America, like most countries, has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, but it has watched on as tensions between Beijing and the island nation have stepped up in recent years.

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Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu has vowed the island nation will ‘fight to the very last day’ if China attacks

Washington’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last Friday that the US is concerned about China’s aggressive actions against Taiwan – and warned it would be a “serious mistake” for anyone to try to change the status quo in the Western Pacific by force.

Mr Blinken’s statement came after Taiwan scrambled an aircraft to broadcast a warning message after 12 Chinese jets flew over its airspace on 7 April.

The tense start to 2021 comes after a report released by a government-backed think tank found that China made a record 380 incursions into Taiwan’s defence zone last year.

China describes Taiwan as its most sensitive territorial issue and a red line the US should not cross.

Beijing sees the island as a breakaway province that will one day become part of the country again. It has never renounced the possible use of force to bring about eventual unification.

However, Taiwanese people see themselves an independent state and the dispute with their giant neighbour has left relations frayed with the constant threat of violence.

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January 2021: Taiwan military simulates China attack

China has in the past described its missions as being to protect the country’s sovereignty and deal with “collusion” between Taipei and Washington.

Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu has previously said the country will fight “to the very last day” if China attacks.

More widely, China continues to exercise its muscle in the South China Sea.

Over the weekend, military activity near the Philippines spiked as a Chinese aircraft carrier entered the region, and the US military is preparing joint drills with the Philippine military nearby.

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Off-duty Italian police officers find stolen Roman statue in Belgium – a decade after it vanished | World News

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A first-century Roman statue has been recovered by two off-duty Italian police officers almost a decade after it was stolen.

The statue was stolen from the Villa Marini Dettina, an archaeological site on the outskirts of Rome, in November 2011 and has now been found in an antique shop in Belgium.

It was discovered by the off-duty officers from the Italian police’s archaeological unit.

The Togatus statue, featuring a headless Roman wearing a draped toga, is valued at €100,000 (£86,000).

The statue is believed to be worth 100,000 (£860,000) and was stolen from an archaeological site near Rome. Pic: AP
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The statue is believed to be worth 100,000 (£860,000) and was stolen from an archaeological site near Rome. Pic: AP

The two officers were on assignment in Brussels when they took a walk after work in the Sablon neighbourhood, known for its antique shops.

They spotted a statue that they suspected was from Italy and confirmed their suspicions when they cross-referenced it with their stolen antique database.

An Italian businessman, who used a Spanish alias, has been referred to prosecutors for further investigation. He is alleged to have received and exported the statue abroad, police said.

Italian authorities have been attempting to recover stolen antiques for years.

In 2019, a dozen pieces of artwork were returned to Italy by private auction house Christie’s. The items featured a marble fragment from the sarcophagus in Rome’s catacombs of St Callixtus, a piece worth £50,000.

In June 2020, officials found a stolen Banksy mural in Italy that was taken from the Bataclan concert hall in Paris.

The image was created in memory of the victims of the 2015 terrorist attack in the French capital. It was cut out and removed from the concert hall in 2019.

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