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When the coronavirus forced churches to close their doors and give up Sunday collections, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte turned to the federal government's signature small business relief program for more than $8 million.

The diocese's headquarters, churches and schools landed the help even though they had roughly $100 million of their own cash and short-term investments available last spring, financial records show. When the cash catastrophe church leaders feared didn't materialize, those assets topped $110 million by the summer.

"I am gratified to report the overall good financial health of the diocese despite the many difficulties presented by the Covid-19 pandemic," Bishop Peter Jugis wrote in the diocese's audited financial report released last fall.

As the pandemic began to unfold, scores of Catholic dioceses across the U.S. received aid through the Paycheck Protection Program while sitting on well over $10 billion in cash, short-term investments or other available funds, an Associated Press investigation has found. And despite the broad economic downturn, these assets have grown in many dioceses.

Yet even with that financial safety net, the 112 dioceses that shared their financial statements, along with the churches and schools they oversee, collected at least $1.5 billion in taxpayer-backed aid. A majority of these dioceses reported enough money on hand to cover at least six months of operating expenses, even without any new income.


Defend or rebuke? House GOP faces difficult vote over Greene

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans will be forced to go on the record, defending or rebuking Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has drawn bipartisan condemnation over her embrace of far-right conspiracy theories, as well as her past endorsement of violence against Democrats.

The politically agonizing vote expected Thursday, which will determine whether the Georgia Republican is stripped of her committee assignments, underscores tension over the best political path forward that has riven the party since Donald Trump lost the White House.

Democrats issued an ultimatum earlier in the week, telling House Republicans to strip Greene of her committee assignments — or they would. Bipartisan pressure built after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called Greene's "loony lies" a "cancer" for the party. 

But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Wednesday ruled out taking action. Instead, he accused Democrats of a "partisan power grab" for targeting Greene, who once suggested that a Jewish-owned financial firm may have been involved in a plot to spark California wildfires using a space laser.

"If this is not the bottom, I don't know what the hell is," House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said before a resolution was sent to the House floor to strip Greene of her posts.


Study finds COVID-19 vaccine may reduce virus transmission

AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine shows a hint that it may reduce transmission of the virus and offers strong protection for three months on just a single dose, researchers said Wednesday in an encouraging turn in the campaign to suppress the outbreak.

The preliminary findings from Oxford University, a co-developer of the vaccine, could vindicate the British government's controversial strategy of delaying the second shot for up to 12 weeks so that more people can be quickly given a first dose. Up to now, the recommended time between doses has been four weeks.

The research could also bring scientists closer to an answer to one of the big questions about the vaccination drive: Will the vaccines actually curb the spread of the coronavirus?

It's not clear what implications, if any, the findings might have for the two other major vaccines being used in the West, Pfizer's and Moderna's. 

In the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, dismissed the idea of deliberately delaying second shots, saying the U.S. will "go by the science" and data from the clinical trials. The two doses of the Pifzer and Moderna vaccines are supposed to be given three and four weeks apart.


Stuck in DC, Biden team pitches rest of US on big virus aid

WASHINGTON (AP) — Even as President Joe Biden gathers with senators and works the phones with Capitol Hill to push for a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, his team is increasingly focused on selling the plan directly to voters.

His administration has done 60-plus interviews with national TV and radio shows. There have been spots on local TV news and briefings last week with more than 50 groups including General Motors, Meals on Wheels America and Planned Parenthood. One of the main goals is to stop people from getting bogged down in the tangle of partisan deal-making and convince them that every penny of the "go big" package is needed.

"The public is not getting caught up in process — what they want is results," said Cedric Richmond, the White House director of public engagement. "People these days are not worried about the inside-the-beltway terminology. They're looking at who's doing what to help."

The president told House Democrats on Wednesday that he views the package's proposal for $1,400 in direct payments to individuals as a foundational promise to voters and he cannot break that pledge in his first legislative action. It represents a strategic bet by the White House that voters will suspend their partisan beliefs to evaluate the plan and support its massive scope.

Biden has suggested he may be flexible on the $1.9 trillion topline figure for the plan and on ways to more narrowly target who gets direct payments. But the $1,400 amount — on top of $600 in payments approved in December — appears to be non-negotiable.


Myanmar blocks Facebook as resistance grows to coup

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's new military government has blocked access to Facebook as resistance to Monday's coup surged amid calls for civil disobedience to protest the ousting of the elected civilian government and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Facebook is especially popular in Myanmar and the ousted government had commonly made public announcements on the social media site.

Internet users said the disruption began late Wednesday night, and mobile service provider Telenor Myanmar confirmed in a statement that mobile operators and internet service providers in Myanmar had received a directive from the communications ministry to temporarily block Facebook.

Telenor Myanmar, which is part of the Norwegian Telenor Group, said it would comply, though was concerned the order was a breach of human rights.

"Telecom providers in Myanmar have been ordered to temporarily block Facebook. We urge authorities to restore connectivity so that people in Myanmar can communicate with family and friends and access important information," said a Facebook spokesperson.


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Crime, conflict, chaos crushing Afghan hopes for tomorrow

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Every morning when Khan Wali Kamran left for work, he was afraid his children might be killed in Kabul's streets before he got home in the evening. Finally, he couldn't take it anymore, and a month ago he sent his four children to live with his parents in his home village.

He's not the only one afraid. Afghanistan is supposed to be moving toward peace after decades of war, but to the people of the capital Kabul, turmoil only seems to be getting worse.

Frequent bombings have everyone on edge. It's not just dramatic attacks like one that killed dozens at a university last year. There's also been a string of targeted killings, like the bomb planted on the car of a prominent cleric that detonated Tuesday in the middle of busy morning traffic, killing him and his driver — one of four such bombings that day. 

The tensions are increased because it's not clear who is behind the attacks. Some are claimed by the Islamic State group, who took responsibility for the cleric's killing and the killing of a judge Wednesday in eastern Nangarhar province. But many go unclaimed, blamed by the government on the Taliban who have denied responsibility for most attacks, raising suspicions that militias run by prominent warlords both allied with and opposed to the government are creating chaos.

Then there's the surge in crime. Armed robbers brazenly rob shops or even mug people in broad daylight in public parks crowded with people, stripping them of money and phones at gunpoint. Cars stuck in traffic can be ransacked by thieves. 


'Not like every time:' Beirut blast victims want the truth

BEIRUT (AP) — Days after a massive explosion ripped through Beirut's port and disfigured the Lebanese capital, family members of some of the 211 people killed in the blast demanded an international probe. 

It was a swift vote of no confidence in the authorities' ability to investigate one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and one of the nation's most traumatic experiences. 

The skepticism was justified. Lebanon, a country wrought by political violence and assassinations, has a history of unfinished prosecutions and buried secrets. 

Six months after the Aug. 4 blast, the domestic investigation has been brought to a virtual halt by the same political and confessional rivalries that thwarted past attempts to uncover the truth in major crimes. 

What started as an investigation into how nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive fertilizer component, were stored in Beirut port for years with politicians' and security agencies' knowledge has taken a turn, wading into a web of murky international business interests in the explosives trade and global shipping.


'Eye of the storm': Diverse east London grapples with virus

LONDON (AP) — Taxicab driver Gary Nerden knows colleagues who got seriously ill from COVID-19. He knows the area of east London where he lives and works has among the highest infection rates in the whole of England. But since he can't afford not to work, he drives around picking up strangers for up to 12 hours a day, relying on a flimsy plastic screen to keep him safe. 

"I've got people telling me they won't wear a mask, saying they're exempt," said Nerden, 57. "I've got diabetes, I have to look after myself. I wipe the handles, the seat belt, after every customer, but that's all I can do, really."

Nerden and his wife, a hospital administrative worker, live in the outer London borough of Redbridge, which in mid-January had the country's second-highest rate of residents testing positive for the coronavirus: 1,571 cases per 100,000 people. Official figures estimated that at one point, 1 in 15 people there had COVID-19 — even after the government imposed a third national lockdown to control a fast-spreading, more contagious variant of the virus.

Redbridge and its surrounding areas, which lie on a commuter belt between the capital's northeast and coastal Essex, have been dubbed the "COVID triangle" because they all topped England's worst infection rates in recent weeks. While case rates have come down significantly, local leaders said the situation remained critical and the borough was still "in the eye of the storm." 

They say the area's large number of essential workers in public-facing jobs, combined with dense housing and high levels of poverty, contribute to why the virus has hit it much harder than most places in the U.K. Those factors also make fighting the pandemic there particularly challenging. 


Prayer breakfast gives Biden fresh chance to call for unity

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is expected to address the National Prayer Breakfast, a Washington tradition that calls on political combatants to set aside their differences for one morning.

The breakfast, set for Thursday, has sparked controversy in the past, particularly when President Donald Trump used last year's installment to slam his political opponents and question their faith. Some liberals have viewed the event warily because of the conservative faith-based group that is behind it.

Still, Biden campaigned for the White House as someone who could unify Americans, and the breakfast will give the nation's second Catholic president a chance to talk about his vision of faith. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said the event will be "an inclusive and positive event" that "recognizes the teachings of Jesus, but is not limited to Christianity."

Coons also told reporters that Biden's remarks would take a different tack than those of Trump.

"There have been significant changes in tone and focus from President Obama to President Trump to what I hope and expect will be a different tone and focus under President Biden," said Coons, an honorary co-chair of this year's gathering.


1 tweet from Rihanna on farmer protests gets India incensed

NEW DELHI (AP) — It took just one tweet from Rihanna to anger the Indian government and supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party. The pop star linked a news article in a tweet drawing attention to the massive farmer protests that have gripped India for more than two months.

Now, senior government ministers, Indian celebrities and even the foreign ministry are urging people to come together and denounce outsiders who try to break the country.

"It is unfortunate to see vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda on these protests, and derail them," India's foreign ministry said in a rare statement Wednesday, without naming Rihanna and others who followed her suit. 

Tens of thousands of farmers have been hunkering down at the Indian capital's fringes to protest new agricultural laws they say will leave them poorer and at the mercy of corporations. The protests are posing a major challenge to Modi who has billed the laws as necessary to modernize Indian farming. 

Their largely peaceful protests turned violent on Jan. 26, India's Republic Day, when a section of the tens of thousands of farmers riding tractors veered from the protest route earlier decided with police and stormed the 17th century Red Fort in a dramatic escalation. Hundreds of police officers were injured and a protester died. Scores of farmers were also injured but officials have not given their numbers.

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