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Pope, Iraq’s top Shia cleric hold historic meeting

Pope Francis and Iraq’s top Shia cleric delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence Saturday, urging Muslims in the war-weary Arab nation to embrace Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority during an historic meeting in the holy city of Najaf.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said religious authorities have a role in protecting Iraq’s Christians, and that Christians should live in peace and enjoy the same rights as other Iraqis. The Vatican said Francis thanked al-Sistani for having “raised his voice in defence of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history.

Al-Sistani, 90, is one of the most senior clerics in Shia Islam and his rare but powerful political interventions have helped shape present-day Iraq. He is a deeply revered figure in Shia-majority Iraq and his opinions on religious and other matters are sought by Shias worldwide.

The historic meeting in al-Sistani’s humble home was months in the making, with every detail painstakingly discussed and negotiated between the ayatollah’s office and the Vatican.

Early Saturday, the 84-year-old pontiff, travelling in a bullet-proof Mercedes-Benz, pulled up along Najaf’s narrow and column-lined Rasool Street, which culminates at the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, one of the most revered sites in Shia Islam. He then walked the few metres to al-Sistani’s modest home, which the cleric has rented for decades.

Pope Francis arrives to meet with the Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in Najaf, Iraq on Saturday. (Vatican Media/Reuters)

A group of Iraqis wearing traditional clothes welcomed him outside. As a masked Francis entered the doorway, a few white doves were released in a sign of peace. He emerged just under an hour later, still limping from an apparent flare-up of sciatica nerve pain that makes walking difficult.

The “very positive” meeting lasted a total of 40 minutes, said a religious official in Najaf, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media.

The official said al-Sistani, who normally remains seated for visitors, stood to greet Francis at the door of his room — a rare honour. Al-Sistani and Francis sat close to one another, without masks.

The official said there was some concern about the fact that the Pope had met with so many people the day before. Francis has received the coronavirus vaccine but al-Sistani has not.

The Pope removed his shoes before entering al-Sistani’s room. Al-Sistani spoke for most of meeting. Francis was served tea and a plastic bottle of water, but only drank the latter. Francis paused before leaving al-Sistani’s room to have a last look, the official said.

The Pope arrived later in the ancient city of Ur for an interfaith meeting aimed at urging Iraq’s Muslims, Christians and other believers to put aside historic animosities and work together for peace and unity. Ur is the traditional birthplace of Abraham, the biblical patriarch revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Pope Francis, left, attends an inter-religious meeting near the archaeological area of the Sumerian city-state of Ur, 20 kilometres south-west of Nasiriyah, Iraq on Saturday. (Andrew Medichini/The Associated Press)

“From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters,” Francis said. “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion.”

Religious leaders stood to greet him. While Francis wore a mask, few of the leaders on the tented stage did. The meeting was held in the shadow of Ur’s magnificent ziggurat, the 6,000-year-old archaeological complex near the modern city of Nasiriyah.

The Vatican said the historic visit to al-Sistani was a chance for Francis to emphasize the need for collaboration and friendship between different religious communities.

In a statement issued by his office after the meeting, al-Sistani affirmed that Christians should “live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights.” He pointed out the “role that the religious authority plays in protecting them, and others who have also suffered injustice and harm in the events of past years.”

WATCH | Pope Francis visits Iraq in his first trip during the pandemic:

Pope Francis is on a historic visit to Iraq despite the global pandemic. After a year of laying low in Vatican City, he’s resumed his travels with a message of unity for a country ravaged by religious violence. 2:04

Al-Sistani wished Francis and the followers of the Catholic Church happiness, and thanked him for taking the trouble to visit him in Najaf, the statement said.

For Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority, a show of solidarity from al-Sistani could help secure their place in Iraq after years of displacement — and, they hope, ease intimidation from Shia militiamen against their community.

Iraqis cheered the meeting of two respected faith leaders.

“We welcome the Pope’s visit to Iraq and especially to the holy city of Najaf and his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani,” said Najaf resident Haidar Al-Ilyawi. “It is an historic visit and hope it will be good for Iraq and the Iraqi people.”

1st trip abroad since start of pandemic

Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday and met with senior government officials on the first-ever papal visit to the country. It is also his first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and his meeting Saturday marked the first time a pope had met a grand ayatollah.

On the few occasions where he has made his opinion known, the notoriously reclusive al-Sistani has shifted the course of Iraq’s modern history.

In the years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion he repeatedly preached calm and restraint as the Shia majority came under attack by al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremists. The country was nevertheless plunged into years of sectarian violence.

His 2014 fatwa, or religious edict, calling on able-bodied men to join the security forces in fighting the group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) swelled the ranks of Shia militias, many closely tied to Iran. In 2019, as anti-government demonstrations gripped the country, his sermon lead to the resignation of then-prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

Iraqis have welcomed the visit and the international attention it has given the country as it struggles to recover from decades of war and unrest. Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State group in 2017 but still sees sporadic attacks.

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Biden to meet virtually with Trudeau on Tuesday in first meeting with a foreign leader

U.S. President Joe Biden’s first official meeting with a foreign head of government will be a virtual encounter on Tuesday with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“The president will highlight the strong and deep partnership between the United States and Canada as neighbours, friends and NATO allies,” the White House said in a statement on Saturday.

The Prime Minister’s Office said meeting agenda items include the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recovery, job creation, maintaining cross-border supply chains, climate change, energy, defence and security, and diversity and inclusion.

In a statement, Trudeau said he looked forward to the meeting and working with Biden to end the pandemic. 

The lengthy video meeting is expected to last more than one hour and will include a one-on-one chat between the leaders, as well as an expanded session between U.S. and Canadian cabinet members and officials. 

The U.S. president’s Keystone XL pipeline cancellation is expected to come up but will not likely be a main focus of the meeting. 

The detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China is also expected to be raised by Trudeau, according to a source who spoke to CBC News confidentially.

Cross-border tensions won’t disappear

Biden has already had a series of phone conversations with a number of leaders, starting with Trudeau, shortly after his Jan. 20 inauguration.

The new administration has signalled its desire to improve relationships with traditional American partners by scheduling his first calls, and now a first meeting, with the country’s democratic allies. 

WATCH | What Biden’s first call with Trudeau means for Canada-U.S. relations:

Despite disagreement over Keystone XL, U.S. President Joe Biden’s phone call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signals a likely return to normal U.S.-Canada relations. 1:51

But the first weeks of the Biden administration have illustrated how cross-border irritants have not, and will not, disappear with a change in president. 

The new administration has cancelled a major pipeline project from Canada; promised a Buy American policy in its infrastructure purchases — though it’s still unclear how extensive that policy will be; and continued former president Donald Trump’s export restrictions on vaccines produced in the United States.

Conversely, Biden has de-emphasized relationships with non-democratic figures that had been cozier during the Trump era.

The White House has said Biden would not deal directly with Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman because the crown prince is not officially the country’s ruler. It also said Biden planned to speak with allied leaders before figures such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, though he did eventually talk to Putin in the second week of his presidency.

Biden emphasizes ‘shared democratic values’

The new U.S. president emphasized that point in a speech addressing the Munich security conference on Friday.

Biden promised to enforce NATO’s mutual-defence pact and called this a key moment in the struggle for democracy.

He contrasted his view of democratic alliances to that of his predecessor, without explicitly naming Trump. 

“Our partnerships have endured and grown through the years because they are rooted in the richness of our shared democratic values. They’re not transactional. They’re not extractive,” Biden said.

“In too many places, including in Europe and the United States, democratic progress is under assault…. We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future direction of our world. Between those who argue that … autocracy is the best way forward and those who understand that democracy is essential to meeting those challenges. Historians will examine and write about this moment. It’s an inflection point.”

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Pfizer Canada head says company ‘extremely committed’ to meeting vaccine delivery targets

The head of Pfizer Canada says the pharmaceutical giant is entirely focused on meeting its upcoming delivery targets and that it’s possible the company could continue to accelerate shipments of its COVID-19 vaccine to the country.

“Pfizer is extremely committed to meeting its contractual obligations, and we have every intention of meeting the four million commitment by the end of March that the prime minister has been talking about,” Pfizer president Cole Pinnow said Sunday on Rosemary Barton Live.

“As long as we’re honouring our contract, we don’t really feel that it’s value added to talk about hypotheticals,” Pinnow said, when asked by CBC Chief Political Correspondent Rosemary Barton about potential penalties for missed deadlines.

The early months of Canada’s COVID-19 inoculation campaign have been beset by disruptions to the delivery schedule. But on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the country’s vaccine supply would see a boost in the months ahead.

Pfizer is now set to deliver 2.8 million more shots between April and June than originally planned. Deliveries previously earmarked for later in the year have also been moved up, meaning Canada will receive 6.2 million more doses than expected between July and August. Four million extra doses of the Moderna vaccine are also expected to arrive this summer.

As far as the Pfizer-BioNTech product is concerned, Pinnow said it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the company’s deliveries to Canada could be shifted forward again.

“We’re going to continue to look for opportunities to accelerate delivery. We recognize that we want to bring back as much vaccine to Canadians as soon as possible.”

Belgian plant provided Pfizer with ‘certainty’

Pfizer’s shipments to Canada dropped in recent weeks as the company’s manufacturing plant in Puurs, Belgium, underwent upgrades to increase the production of its vaccine. 

The company told the Globe and Mail last November that Canada would be sent doses from Pfizer’s plant in Kalamazoo, Mich., but the company backtracked on that statement earlier this year.

“We were working to accelerate the delivery to Canada of [the vaccine], based upon the accelerated review process that Health Canada had put in place,” Pinnow told Barton. “So as part of that, we re-evaluated what our supply chain plan was going to be.”

A driver pulls his truck out of the Pfizer plant in Puurs, Belgium, on Dec. 21, 2020. Work to scale up manufacturing operations at the facility is now complete. (Valentin Bianchi/The Associated Press)

When he was U.S. president, Donald Trump signed an executive order late last year aimed at ensuring Americans are given priority for receiving vaccines developed or procured by the United States government.

“There was some uncertainty with the prior administration, and so we wanted to have confidence in where we were sourcing the product, and we felt that Belgium really provided us with more certainty at the time,” Pinnow said.

Contracts under wraps

Canada is projected to receive 40 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by September — the federal government’s target month to vaccinate all Canadians seeking a jab.

But under the agreement the country has signed with the pharmaceutical company, Canada can receive up to 76 million doses in total.

“We’re always open to talking about incremental demand or incremental supply,” Pinnow said.

Last week, federal Procurement Minister Anita Anand told Barton she was in talks with pharmaceutical companies about disclosing elements of the contracts Canada signed with its vaccine suppliers.

Procurement Minister Anita Anand told CBC’s Rosemary Barton that Ottawa cannot release information from its deals with vaccine suppliers without approval from companies. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Ottawa and Pfizer have made public delivery schedules shared by suppliers, but other details — including how much Canada has paid per dose — remain under wraps.

“I think both the government and Pfizer recognize that there are commercial and geopolitical sensitivities to releasing details in the contract,” Pinnow said Sunday. “And so at this point, we’re both honouring the contract, and there really isn’t the need to release those details.”

The Pfizer Canada head also said that while it’s too soon to determine whether Canadians will need a booster shot of the vaccine in the years ahead, COVID-19 likely won’t be eradicated right away.

“We’re in the process of analyzing all the known variants, and we’ll continue to monitor for others that might crop up in the future,” Pinnow said. “The scientific opinion right now seems to come to consensus that this virus will become endemic in the population in one capacity or another.”

WATCH | Too early to say if COVID-19 booster shots will be needed, Pfizer Canada head says:

Pfizer Canada president Cole Pinnow told Rosemary Barton that while the pharmaceutical company is studying coronavirus variants, it’s still too early to know whether COVID-19 booster shots will become a reality. 1:30

You can watch full episodes of Rosemary Barton Live on CBC Gem, the CBC’s streaming service.

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Electoral college voters from 50 states meeting to lock in votes for U.S. president

Presidential electors are meeting across the United States on Monday to formally choose Joe Biden as the nation’s next president.

Monday is the day set by law for the meeting of the electoral college. In reality, electors meet in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to cast their ballots. By 1 p.m ET, Vermont, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Georgia, Indiana and Nevada were among the states that had done so.

Nevada held its ceremony over Zoom due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The results will be sent to Washington and tallied in a Jan. 6 joint session of Congress over which Vice-President Mike Pence will preside.

The electors’ votes have drawn more attention than usual this year because President Donald Trump has refused to concede the election and continued to make baseless allegations of fraud, including in Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

There have been concerns about safety for the electors, virtually unheard of in previous years.

A protester holds a banner as Michigan electors gathered Monday to cast their votes for the U.S. presidential election at the state capitol in Lansing, Mich. (Emily Elconin/Reuters)

Threats of violence in Michigan

Legislative offices there were closed Monday in Michiagan over threats of violence. The 16 electors will meet in the Senate chamber in a ceremony headed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Biden won the state by 154,000 votes, or 2.8 percentage points, over Trump.

Amber McCann, spokesperson for Mike Shirkey, the Republican senate majority leader in Michigan, said the closures were made on recommendations from law enforcement.

“The decision was not made because of anticipated protests, but was made based on credible threats of violence,” she said.

Whitmer was targeted in an alleged kidnapping plot that led to arrests in October.

Meanwhile, a Republican lawmaker was disciplined Monday for not denouncing potential violence in Michigan.

State Rep. Gary Eisen of St. Clair Township told WPHM-AM that he planned to help with an unspecified “Hail Mary” GOP plan to challenge the election, conceding the “uncharted” action likely would not change the result.

Asked if he could guarantee people’s safety, Eisen said “No.”

House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Speaker-elect Jason Wentworth, both Republicans, removed Eisen from committee assignments. In a statement, they said threats or suggestions of violence in politics are never acceptable, including “when the public officials open the door to violent behaviour and refuse to condemn it. We must do better.”

Biden to give televised address after votes occur

Biden is planning to address the nation Monday night, after the electors have voted. Trump, meanwhile, is clinging to his false claims that he won the election, but also undermining Biden’s presidency even before it begins.

“No, I worry about the country having an illegitimate president, that’s what I worry about. A president that lost and lost badly,” Trump said in a Fox News interview that was taped Saturday.

Former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who was influential in mobilizing Democrats to vote in Georgia, walks onto the Senate floor at the state capitol in Atlanta as the state began its process of casting electoral college votes. (John Bazemore/The Associated Press)

Following weeks of Republican legal challenges that were easily dismissed by judges, Trump and Republican allies tried to persuade the Supreme Court last week to set aside 62 electoral votes for Biden in four states, which might have thrown the outcome into doubt.

The justices rejected the effort on Friday.

Biden won 306 electoral votes to 232 votes for Trump, well above the threshold of 270 votes needed to win. Biden was leading in the popular vote count by about seven million votes.

Voters can’t go rogue, Supreme Court says

In 2016, Trump won the electoral college despite losing the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton by nearly three million votes. The formal vote earned extra attention when some Democratic activists called for electors to “go rogue” against Trump. In the end, seven electors broke ranks — choosing people like Colin Powell and Bernie Sanders — an unusually high number but still far too few to sway the outcome.

In 32 states and the District of Columbia, laws require electors to vote for the popular-vote winner. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld this arrangement in July.

Electors almost always vote for the state winner anyway because they generally are devoted to their political party. There’s no reason to expect any defections this year. Among prominent electors are Democrat Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Republican Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota.

The voting is decidedly low tech, by paper ballot. Electors cast one vote each for president and vice-president.

The electoral college was the product of compromise during the drafting of the Constitution between those who favoured electing the president by popular vote and those who opposed giving the people the power to choose their leader.

Each state gets a number of electors equal to their total number of seats in Congress: two senators plus however many members the state has in the House of Representatives. Washington, D.C., has three votes, under a constitutional amendment that was ratified in 1961.

With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, states award all their electoral college votes to the winner of the popular vote in their state.

The bargain struck by the nation’s founders has produced five elections in which the president did not win the popular vote. Trump was the most recent example in 2016.

Mo Brooks, a conservative Republican congressman, has vowed to file challenges when Congress reviews the vote on Jan. 6, though it is all but certain both chambers would reject his effort. Democrats control the House, while several moderate Republicans in the Senate have already publicly accepted Biden’s victory.

Biden is scheduled to be inaugurated as the 46th U.S. president on Jan. 20.

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British PM and EU leader plan in-person meeting in hopes of reaching post-Brexit deal

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen plan to meet in person to see whether a last minute trade deal can be hammered out, officials said Monday.

Johnson and von der Leyen said after a lengthy Monday phone call that “significant differences” remained on three key issues. They said they were planning to discuss the differences “in a physical meeting in Brussels in the coming days.”

The two leaders spoke for the second time in 48 hours as their trade teams remained locked in stalled negotiations in Brussels.

Gaps remain on fishing rights, fair-competition rules and the governance of future disputes, with just over three weeks until the two sides’ current economic relationship unravels at the end of the year.

Any breakthrough would now have to come from the leaders themselves.

Despite intensified efforts, Johson and von der Leyen’s joint statement said the leaders “agreed that the conditions for finalizing an agreement are not there due to the remaining significant differences on three critical issues: level playing field, governance and fisheries.”

While Britain left the European Union politically on Jan. 31, it remains within the bloc’s tariff-free single market and customs union through Dec. 31. Reaching a trade deal by then would ensure there are no tariffs and trade quotas on goods exported or imported by the two sides, although there would still be new costs and red tape.

Both sides would suffer economically from a failure to secure a trade deal, but most economists think the British economy would take a greater hit, at least in the short term, because Britain does almost half its trade with the bloc.

Johnson and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Nov. 21 that the two countries had reached an interim post-Brexit trade agreement. The Canada-United Kingdom Trade Continuity Agreement extends the elimination of tariffs on 98 per cent of goods exported between the two countries and sets the stage for negotiations toward a permanent and more ambitious deal in the new year.

WATCH | What we know about the Canada-U.K. interim trade deal:

The two countries have agreed to ‘roll over’ the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). 5:35

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Ontario reports a record-breaking 939 cases of COVID-19, prompting emergency provincial cabinet meeting

Ontario reported 939 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday — its highest-ever daily number of new cases.

It is also the second day in a row the province is seeing record-breaking daily figures, trumping the previous record of 797 set Thursday. Doctors are also sounding the alarm about an increased number of COVID-19 patients being admitted to intensive care units.

Friday’s update has prompted Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet to hold an emergency meeting to consider tighter public health measures to try to contain the spread of the coronavirus. That meeting is set to take place this morning, and Ford is scheduled to hold a news conference at 2:30 p.m. ET, which you’ll be able to watch live in this story.

The increase, while startling, is consistent with modelling from epidemiologists who forecast last month that Ontario’s second wave of the pandemic was accelerating at a pace that put the province on track to hit 1,000 new cases per day by mid-October. 

Toronto, Peel, and Ottawa continue to account for the majority of the province’s daily figures, with 336, 150, and 126 cases respectively, Health Minister Christine Elliott said in a series of tweets.

Other areas that saw double-digit increases include:

  • Halton Region: 59
  • Simcoe-Muskoka: 28
  • Durham Region: 32
  • Hamilton: 40
  • Middlesex-London: 24
  • Waterloo Region: 13
  • York Region: 68
  • Windsor-Essex: 18
  • Niagara Region: 10
  • Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph: 16

Friday’s update brings the province’s total to 57,681 cases of the virus since the outbreak began in late January. 

An additional 724 cases of the virus are now considered resolved, Elliott confirmed in the tweet.

Sources say restrictions recommended for hot spots

The government’s pandemic advisers will recommend cabinet put Ontario’s COVID-19 hot spots under a modified version of the province’s Stage 2 restrictions, according to two sources. 

The measures being recommended to cabinet Friday include the closure of:

  • Indoor food and drink service in restaurants, bars, nightclubs and food courts.
  • Cinemas, casinos and conference venues.
  • Gyms and fitness centres.

Cabinet is also being urged to put capacity limits on real estate open houses and guided tours and to shutter interactive exhibits at tourist attractions, such as museums where there is a high risk of transmission of the virus. Team sports would be limited to training activities, with no games or scrimmages permitted. 

The recommended closures do not extend to schools, child-care centres, colleges, universities or courtrooms. 

Two additional sources said the recommendation is to apply the stricter measures to Toronto, Peel Region and Ottawa. The nation’s capital has seen a sharp rise in new COVID-19 cases over recent weeks, along with outbreaks and deaths in long-term care homes. 

Toronto Mayor John Tory called the recent surge in numbers “troubling.”

“The status quo is not acceptable,” he said on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning on Friday. “We really need to get into a new regime.”

For Stage 2 of Ontario’s reopening plan, which was in place during May and June, bars and restaurants were banned from seating customers indoors, cinemas and gyms were closed and schools remained shut. 

Dr. David Williams, the province’s chief medical officer of health, indicated during a news conference Thursday afternoon that he has recommended tighter restrictions to cabinet but declined to offer any specifics. 

Toronto’s medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa asked the province last week to order a 28-day closure of indoor service at restaurants, as well as indoor fitness and recreation facilities, to try to rein in the spread of COVID-19 in the city. 

Under strain

This all comes with many hospitals in the province filled to capacity and intensive care units in some GTA hospitals reporting few available beds.

The Ontario Hospital Association urged the province on Sept. 28 to put the GTA and Ottawa back to Stage 2, with restriction on indoor dining and bars, places of worship, weddings, gyms, movie theatres and other non-essential businesses.   

The province’s COVID-19 testing system is also under strain, with appointments at assessment centres in the hardest-hit areas being snapped up shortly after they become available and some people having to wait days to get tested. The Ministry of Health last week changed the criteria to get a test, limiting eligibility primarily to people with symptoms of COVID-19 or those who’ve been exposed to a confirmed case. 

Nearly one-tenth of Ontario’s 4,800 publicly-funded schools have reported cases of COVID-19, and a similar proportion of the 630 long-term care homes in the province are battling outbreaks of the coronavirus.    

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U.S. Marine Corps general positive for COVID-19 days after Pentagon meeting

The assistant commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps has tested positive for the coronavirus, days after he and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were in a Pentagon meeting with a coast guard leader who was infected with the virus.

The Marine Corps said Wednesday that Gen. Gary L. Thomas, tested positive for COVID-19. He attended a meeting of the joint chiefs on Friday, when the commandant was not able to be there. U.S. officials said none of the other top military leaders in the meeting — including Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — have so far tested positive.

Thomas and the others have been in self-quarantine since Tuesday when they found out that Adm. Charles W. Ray, the vice commandant of the coast guard who was at the meeting, had tested positive.

“At this time we have no additional senior leader positive test results to report,” said the Pentagon’s chief spokesman Jonathan Hoffman. “We will continue to follow CDC guidance for self-quarantining and contact tracing.”

Ray attended the joint chiefs meeting Friday in the so-called Tank — the classified meeting room in the Pentagon. Officials said that is where most of the military leaders were exposed to him, but he also had other meetings with officials.

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Orlando Bloom Opens Up About Being Celibate for 6 Months Before Meeting Katy Perry

Orlando Bloom Opens Up About Being Celibate for 6 Months Before Meeting Katy Perry | Entertainment Tonight

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Meghan Markle and Prince Harry ‘Decided It Wasn’t Necessary’ for Her to Join the Royal Meeting

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry ‘Decided It Wasn’t Necessary’ for Her to Join the Royal Meeting | Entertainment Tonight

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Queen Elizabeth calls family meeting for Monday to discuss ‘next steps’ for Harry and Meghan

Queen Elizabeth will meet with members of the Royal Family on Monday at her Sandringham estate in eastern England to agree on “next steps” after Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, decided to “step back” as senior royals, Buckingham Palace said Saturday.

The palace said “a range of possibilities” was on the table, but the Queen was determined to resolve the situation within “days not weeks” after Harry and Meghan announced their news without consulting the monarch.

As the British media went into meltdown over the news, the Queen moved quickly to take back control, summoning her son and heir, Prince Charles, and grandsons, Princes William and Harry, to a crisis meeting to sort things out.

Elizabeth, who assumed the throne in 1952, has weathered family crises before, and is determined not to let her grandson and granddaughter-in-law weaken the House of Windsor or undermine the monarchy.

Harry’s next scheduled public appearance is a rugby event at Buckingham Palace on Thursday. Meghan, meanwhile, has flown to Canada, where the couple and their eight-month-old son, Archie, spent a six-week Christmas break; according to Reuters, citing British media, Meghan is expected to join Monday’s meeting by telephone if the time difference allows.

Harry and Meghan announced this week they plan to “balance” their time between the U.K. and North America, with Canada their likely base. Meghan is American, but lived in Toronto for several years while filming the TV show Suits.

Harry, left, and Meghan, right, recently spent a six-week Christmas break in Canada with their eight-month-old son, Archie. (REUTERS)

The prince and the former actress married in 2018, and broadcasts of their Windsor Castle wedding were watched around the world. Harry, 35, is sixth in line to the British throne, a former British army officer and one of the Royal Family’s most popular members.

He has spent his entire life in the public eye, but has not always been happy with scrutiny by a media he blames for the death of his mother, Princess Diana. She died in a car crash in Paris in 1997 while being pursued by photographers.

Some columnists have been critical of Meghan, depicting her as a meddling American interloper into the Royal Family; others highlighted her biracial heritage with words like “exotic.” In 2017, Harry accused the media of directing “a wave of abuse and harassment” at his then-girlfriend that included articles with negative “racial undertones.”

Brexit, Prince Andrew highlight difficult 2019 for Queen

Harry and Meghan’s shock decision to become part-time royals who earn their own money came after a rough year for the Queen. In September, she was drawn into the U.K.’s political discord over Brexit when Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked her to suspend Parliament as lawmakers tried to thwart his plans to take Britain out of the European Union. The Supreme Court ruled that the suspension was illegal and Johnson had misled the monarch about his reasons for it.

In November, her son Prince Andrew gave a disastrous television interview about his friendship with the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. His awkward performance failed to silence questions about the Queen’s second son, who has relinquished royal duties and patronages after being accused by a woman who says she was an Epstein trafficking victim and claims to have slept with the prince.

In her annual televised message to the nation on Christmas Day, the Queen appeared to allude to both national and family divisions when she said that the path to harmony and understanding “is not always smooth, and may at times this year have felt quite bumpy.”

She urged people to “set aside past differences and come together in the spirit of friendship and reconciliation.”

Ironically, some of Meghan and Harry’s unhappiness may stem from the Queen’s efforts to strengthen the monarchy by making it more lean and slimmed down. An image released by Buckingham Palace last week of the Queen and the three heirs next in line to the throne — Charles, William and William’s son, Prince George — appeared to underscore who the Windsors see as their core members.

“From Harry and Meghan’s point of view, they’re just being driven out,” Tom Bradby, an ITV television anchor who is close to the couple, said.

This handout photo provided by Buckingham Palace of Queen Elizabeth, bottom right, and the next three in line to the throne — Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince George — appeared to underscore who the Windsors see as their core members. (Ranald Mackechnie/Buckingham Palace via AP)

The discord comes at a delicate time for the monarchy. The Queen remains robust, but, at age 93, she has handed over a growing number of public duties to Charles and William. Her husband of 72 years, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, has retired from public life and was recently hospitalized.

“It’s hard not to think that if the Duke of Edinburgh had been around and in circulation more, that perhaps this particular situation wouldn’t have got out of control,” Majesty magazine managing editor Joe Little said. “The Queen may be head of state, but the duke is still very much head of the family, although inevitably at 98 and a half, he’s much less hands-on than he used to be.”

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