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Pope Meets with Iraqi Leaders; U.N. Security Council Split on Response to Myanmar Coup, Violence; E.U. Pressuring Vaccine Makers to Honor Delivery Contracts; Oprah's Interview with Harry and Meghan. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired March 6, 2021 - 03:00   ET




MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The pope and the grand ayatollah, a history making meeting in Iraq.

Protesters, in Myanmar, taking to the streets to mourn a 19-year-old killed by police.

And easing of lockdown. The encouraging news from the U.K., as schools, in England, prepare to reopen.

Hello, welcome to CNN NEWSROOM everyone, I am Michael Holmes.


HOLMES: Now we begin in Iraq, where Pope Francis makes history on day 2 of his visit to the country. A short time ago he met with the grand ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a leading Shia cleric. The meeting was supposed to have lasted about a half hour but lasted twice that.

Now the pontiff is heading for the plane of Ur, the Biblical site considered to be the birthplace of Abraham. It is the next stop on his trip, seeking to build interfaith relationships and shine a light on the plight of Iraqi Christians. CNN's Ben Wedeman, following all of this for us from Baghdad.

Let's start with Najaf. Of course, a holy city for Shia Muslims, meeting with Ali al-Sistani certainly, one of the most senior and powerful, Shia clerics. Speak to the significance of this meeting.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The grand ayatollah, playing a critical role in modern Iraqi history, back in 2005, for instance, he issued an edict, basically saying, yes, go participate in elections at the time of the U.S. occupation in 2014.

He called on all able-bodied men to go join the fight against ISIS, essentially, saving Iraq at a time when the Iraqi army was collapsing. This is a man who, normally, does not get involved in the daily nuts and bolts of politics. But does sort of set the tone for much of Iraq's politics. Therefore, beyond even that, really, he is one of the leading

authorities of Shia Islam. So for Pope Francis to even be able to meet with a man who is 90 years old and normally doesn't meet with foreign dignitaries, of course, the topic of their discussion is interfaith dialogue and understanding between Christianity and Islam.

Back in 2019, Pope Francis signed a declaration of fraternity with the grand imam, a sort of leading authority of Sunni Islam. So, he is making sure he is keeping his bases covered in trying to resume a dialogue between Christianity and Islam.

And, another important thing, in Shia Islam, there are two competing centers of thought. One, of course, Najaf, where the grand ayatollah lives. The other is Qom in Iran. In Iran, of course, the supreme religious authority is Ali Khamenei, who is also the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

And, these are two different philosophies about the role of the clerics and politics. In Iran, basically, it is a rule by the clerics; whereas here in Iraq, the philosophy of the grand ayatollah is that, yes, you can provide guidance in critical moments but you do not involve yourself in the nuts and bolts of politics.

So certainly, for the grand ayatollah to be willing and happy to meet with Pope Francis is hugely significant.

HOLMES: Good to have you there, Ben, thank you so much, appreciate that.

We want to go now to Delia Gallagher, who is traveling with the pontiff, on the line from Ur, the next stop after Najaf.

Delia, fill us in with what the pope will be doing there and the significance of Ur. It is a place of significance for all faiths.

DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN VATICAN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Michael. I think that's why this place was chosen.


GALLAGHER: The pope, as soon as he arrives about 10 minutes, is going to start an interreligious meeting, with the various representatives of different religions, here, in Iraq. In this place, the plain of Ur, it is a historic place. It used to be a great place for tourism, they tell, me in the '60s and '70s, before the troubles began.

It has a wonderful monument called the Ziggurat, which is a big tourist site or at least was in Iraq. Of course, it is considered to be the birthplace of Abraham, who is said to be the father of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

So, a very symbolic place for the pope to hold this interreligious meeting, which, as you've been discussing with Ben is, of course, one of the major deals of this trip. With 2 elements, one is for peaceful coexistence in Iraq, the other is for the pope's larger agenda for religious dialogue, particularly, with Islam. On that note, we heard from the Vatican a little bit about what the

pope and the grand ayatollah spoke about. They say that the two spoke for 45 minutes about the importance, the pope did, of the importance of friendship, respect, dialogue, for the good of Iraq and the good of the region and for all of humanity.

It says that he begged Sistani and the Shia community, in particular, for raising his voice on behalf of those who were persecuted and for promoting the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people.

So I think the pope really sees in the ayatollah a figure of moderation, a figure of great importance for Shia Islam and is wanting to develop a relationship with him, such as he has already established and has a good relationship, frankly, with the grand imam, who is the leader of Sunni Muslims. So you can see the pope working both branches of Islam.

Part of his larger agenda, really, for religions to work together. That is what the pope thinks he is for and that is his job, to talk to these world leaders, these religious leaders, especially those with such an important religious component to some of the conflicts we see today -- Michael.

HOLMES: Fascinating stuff. Delia, the interfaith aspect of this, obviously important to the pope, it is important work in the region. I remember in 2011, I was at St. Joseph's Church in Baghdad and the fear of Christians there, as they prepared for Christmas back then, nearly 10 years ago.

And this was a year after the massacre at the other main church in Baghdad. There listening to how they were saying that so many people have fled, so many people had left the country when, in fact, the number of Christians in Iraq has fallen precipitously.

Does the pontiff feel like he will be encouraging Christians, perhaps, to return to Iraq?

GALLAGHER: Oh, he already has, Michael. That was part of his talk last night at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, the site of that terrorist attack in 2010. We've already said, this is an ancient Christian community.

And it is important that it continue and working both sides there, talking to the Christians, because, obviously, many of them have fled and, may not want to come back, also, for discriminatory reasons, for difficulty finding work.

But he is also talking to the Iraqi authorities and that was part of his speech to them, yesterday and, of course, he doesn't say it so directly. But he is really encouraging fair treatment, nondiscrimination of all religions here, obviously, particularly, with the Christian community in mind.

He wants to see that community continue, if not thrive, in the future. That would be a terrible, historical tragedy but also a modern one for Christians -- Michael. HOLMES: Absolutely. Great to have you there, Delia, great to have you, traveling with the pope there on the plains of Ur.

Pro-democracy protesters, out in cities in Myanmar today. They are not leaving, despite tear gas and, of course, the escalating violence from police and military forces. We have not heard any reports of casualties so far today.

But military leaders, certainly, have shown that they are not afraid to kill protesters. So far, at least 55 people have died in the crackdown. CNN's Will Ripley, tracking the latest developments for us from Hong Kong.

As we said, this is clearly an army willing to open fire on its own people, but those people just are not backing down.


WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That is what makes the images that are coming out right now for Myanmar so extraordinary. Really, it does take an act of bravery for these people who are unarmed, to go into the streets and stare down and chant to a military that is, increasingly, showing the world that it will shoot to kill.

The military has been saying that some of the protesters have been armed, meaning a handful of them, with things like smoke grenades or, picking up rocks but the protesters, by and large, are out there in numbers.

And military officers are using live ammunition as you. Mentioned, 55 people killed since February 1st. On Wednesday, it was the bloodiest day in these 4 weeks of protests. You are talking about 38 people, at least, killed in one single day.

Of all those who died, half of them are under 25 years old. These are people who came of age after 2011, after the military, which had 50 years of brutal dictatorship, where any sort of dissent was quickly crushed, they grew up in an era of hope, with greater democratic reforms, with elections.

This is a fledgling attempt at democracy. Last November, when the National League for Democracy won by a landslide and military proxy parties just got a handful of votes, endangering the scales of power that were already stacked in favor of the military leaders, they declared widespread voter fraud, unfounded, declared a state of emergency, they moved in.

But the people of Myanmar, particularly the young people who grew up with a taste for what it feels like to be able to choose your leaders, they are standing up and saying, this is not the future that they wanted. Even if it means that there is, literally, blood running in the streets. As these young people, some of them under 20, are losing their lives. Michael.

HOLMES: That is such a good point, they were born after the military rule of the past. I'm curious, do we know how organizers move this?

It's young people, they are on the streets, they are gathering in numbers.

Are they organized?

Is there a central control?

RIPLEY: From what we have gathered and, of course, we aren't able to be on the ground there in Myanmar. But we are in contact with people all over the country, who say that this is, very much, a grassroots effort. People who are members of a student union or a civil union or a neighborhood association, will, through word of mouth, gather and organize in their local communities.

That is why you are not seeing one mass demonstration, in one location but, instead, multiple demonstrations, happening in multiple locations, across the country. It makes it harder for the military to stay on top of all of it, because it is less organized.

They kind of spontaneously pop up but it just goes to show, how widespread across Myanmar, the outrage is. Also, the sense of fear that people will be pulled out of their homes in the middle of the night and arrested, as a result of this.

Well over 1,000 people have been arrested so far, in addition to those protesters, those peaceful protesters, who have paid with their lives for standing up to this brutal military dictatorship.

HOLMES: Great reporting there, Will, thank you so much, Will Ripley for us in Hong Kong.

Now the Czech Republic, dealing with one of the world's worst coronavirus outbreaks right now. It is reaching out to Germany, to Poland and Switzerland, hoping to transfer some patients out of the country.

The north of France under lockdown this weekend. Cases have been rising at a steady rate since after the holidays and France is aiming to vaccinate at least 10 million people by the middle of next month.

Meanwhile, Canada has given Johnson & Johnson's vaccine the green light. It is the fourth one there so far.

And, the European Union, also urging coronavirus vaccine makers to step it up and honor their contracts. CNN's Nina dos Santos, standing by for me in London. She joins us now.

It has become rather complicated and fraught, in terms of the vaccine rollout in Europe.

What is the latest?

NINA DOS SANTOS, CNNMONEY EUROPE EDITOR: It has been well internally botched, that some people would say. Even the European Union Commission recognizes it made mistakes in cementing deals with big drug makers early on to cover the amount of people that live in this area.

We talk about hundreds of millions of people. Those drug makers whose vaccines have been approved, including Pfizer BioNTech, Moderna and of course, AstraZeneca's vaccine, developed largely in a post Brexit Britain.

It is the latter of those 3 that really is facing the ire of the E.U., even if the other two face their own production setbacks. Remember, BioNTech has had to change its manufacturing procedures to upscale production in Belgium, which means that there are curtailments of supplies to the E.U.

Similar for Moderna but really, AstraZeneca is the one they are currently starting to block shipments of.


DOS SANTOS: The Italians blocked a shipment about two days ago bound for Australia, around 250,000 doses, with the Italian minister taking to the British airwaves, on BBC radio, saying that the company had had only delivered 40 percent of the commitments that it had contractually signed with the E.U.

And then, we had further E.U. commissioners, then talking to the media and saying, this company had, systematically, underdelivered on its promises of vaccine supplies. AstraZeneca consistently rejected that, saying the E.U. failed to understand how difficult it was to ramp up production so quickly, for us to get those doses out.

Either way, the distribution of these doses, whether it is AstraZeneca or other vaccines, continues to be woefully inadequate.

Just to put statistics into a comparison here, you can see the stark relief between the U.K., which is vaccinating nearly a third of its people, and the E.U., only 8 percent of citizens so far, being covered.

What this is doing is that this is fragmenting E.U. unity even further. We have some countries breaking ranks, now starting to submit their own deals like Denmark and Austria, with Israel for extra supplies.

There is concern there about the rollout and approval of some of these vaccines and their ability to keep up with new variants. Remember, on the eastern side of Europe, there are countries like Hungary that are breaking ranks altogether and deciding to cover their people with the Sputnik V vaccine produced in Russia.

That has not been recognized and approved by the European Medicines Agency. This is a disparate and tense time for those vaccine manufacturers. The relationship between the public and the private sector.

If you think this is a big battle, Michael, remember, from here on, we will then need to have the discussions about whether or not these vaccines can be certified, and people can start to move thereafter. Michael.

HOLMES: A long road. Nina dos Santos, in London, thank you.

Brazil, seeing an alarming spike in COVID cases now. Health experts fear that that could happen elsewhere if people let their guard down. The World Health Organization officials saying people need to stay vigilant, even as vaccines ramp up.


DR. MICHAEL RYAN, WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION: Now is not the time for Brazil or anywhere else, for that matter, to be relaxing. When I say this, I have the same feeling myself.

The arrival of vaccine is a moment of great hop, but it is always, potentially, also, is a moment where we lose concentration. If I think I'm going to get a vaccine in the next few weeks, the next 6 weeks, the next 2 months, maybe I'm not so careful anymore. Maybe I think I'm through this, right?

You don't need a whole lot of people to start thinking like that to give the virus opportunities to spread.


HOLMES: Meanwhile, the WHO says that its report into the origins of the virus will be out by mid-March. WHO scientists traveling to Wuhan, China, last month as part of that investigation.

It is past 3 am in Washington and the U.S. Senate, is still, in session. Working to push through the President Biden's sweeping coronavirus relief bill. Lawmakers are voting on amendments to the bill, right now. They are expecting to keep at it all night long.

It looks as if the overall bill now has enough votes to pass after moderate Senate Democrat, Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, agreed to a compromise with the Biden administration and the rest of his own party.

Prince Philip remains in the hospital following a heart procedure. Just ahead, we have a live report on his condition.

Plus, the latest on Oprah Winfrey's bombshell interview, which may just rattle the royal family. We will be right back.





HOLMES: The next few days will, likely, be taxing ones for the royal family. Oprah Winfrey's highly anticipated interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex is on Sunday.

This, of course, as Prince Philip is in the hospital recovering from a heart procedure. Anna Stewart, joining me from outside of Prince Philip's hospital in London.

You never really do hear much from the palace in terms of details when it comes to a situation like this with Prince Philip.

But what can we read into what we do know?

ANNA STEWART, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, he has spent 18 nights in hospital, and he is been 2, but 3 trips. He went to St. Barts Hospital, where he had a procedure for a pre-existing heart condition. The palace said it was a success.

And 2 days after the procedure, he was actually taken back here to the small private hospital in central London, King Edward VII's hospital.

He is expected to stay here for a number of days for continued treatments, we don't know whether it is in relation to the heart condition or continued treatment for an infection, which, we know, he was having before he went to St. Barts.

He is expected to stay here for a number of days, and I do not suspect we will get any heads up when he leaves but, hopefully, it is soon.

HOLMES: Indeed, 99 years old.

Now what everyone is going to talk about is the next 24-36 hours, Meghan Markle and the Oprah interview.

What do we make of what we know of the content but also, the timing of this interview and what the fallout could be like?

STEWART: In terms of the content, from the promos clips we've seen, they seem to be fairly explosive. I think the most interesting news was that Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, who calls them the firm, said played an active role in perpetuating falsehoods about them.

We need to see this in the context of the wider interview, before we make much sense of it. But the timing is fascinating, Michael. On one hand, people are pointing to it be insensitive while Prince Philip is so unwell and remains in hospital. Others think of it being quite calculated. Tomorrow the royal family will mark Commonwealth Day, on Monday.


STEWART: We will see them do it virtually this year instead of going to Westminster Abbey. Her Majesty The Queen, plus all of the senior members of the royal family, will be working together for a BBC program hours ahead of this Oprah broadcast.

What is also interesting about this timing is, of course, last year, Commonwealth Day commemorations were the last official engagement that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex gave before their big break with the royal family.

HOLMES: Anna Stewart, thank you so much, really appreciated that, there in London for us. Much to cover.

Finally, only a pastry chef could turn the coronavirus into something sweet.


HOLMES (voice-over): The Black Madonna Cafe in Prague, making a strawberry banana flavored dessert shaped like a vaccine, with a vial of pink gin on top. Customers even get a vaccination certificate, along with the pastry.

The cafe is known for its coronavirus-shaped cake. The Czech Republic, of course, as we've been reporting, has been hit hard by the pandemic. Health officials even asking neighboring countries to take in COVID-19 patients because their hospitals are overwhelmed.


HOLMES: I'm Michael Holmes, thank you for spending part of your day with me, do follow me on Twitter and Instagram @HolmesCNN. I will try to figure out stories on Instagram one day.

Live pictures here from the plains of Ur, where the pope is, again, continuing his interfaith journey, visiting the place said to be the birthplace of Abraham. Obviously, a crucial figure in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Robyn Curnow will be here in 30 minutes.