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Prelate's mass baptism affirms birthrate effort

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) -- The patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church presided over the baptism of about 400 babies in a Tbilisi cathedral Sunday as part of an effort credited with helping raise the birthrate in this former Soviet republic.

Patriarch Ilia II has promised to become the godfather of all babies born into Orthodox Christian families who already have two or more children. Since he began the mass baptisms in 2008, he has gained nearly 11,000 godchildren.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has said the patriarch deserves much of the credit for the rising birthrate, which in 2010 was 25 percent higher than in 2005. The number of abortions also declined by nearly 50 percent over the same five-year period.

In his annual address to parliament in February, Saakashvili said the government would give parents a one-time payment the equivalent of about $600 for a third child and double that amount for a fourth child.


President emphasizes close ties to South

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) -- Sudan's president says the conflict with South Sudan will not affect close relations between the two peoples.

Omar al-Bashir's comments Sunday come days after his government accepted an African Union plan to resume talks with South Sudan, after recent fighting brought the two nations back to the brink of war.

South Sudan won independence from Sudan last year, but the two sides have not agreed on border demarcation or sharing of oil revenues.


Turkish leader upbeat on toppling of Assad

BEIRUT (AP) -- President Bashar Assad's grip on Syria is getting weaker by the day, and "victory is close," Turkey's prime minister said Sunday in an address to thousands of cheering Syrians who fled a brutal crackdown on an anti-regime uprising.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan's cross-border taunt during a rare visit to a refugee camp, delivered while standing atop a bus and protected by snipers on rooftops, came a day before Syria was to hold parliament elections.

Syrian opposition groups dismiss today's elections as an attempt to salvage Assad's tattered legitimacy and asked voters to stay away.

Assad's opponents say elections cannot be held under the threat of gunfire. Activists said that at least five people were killed by army gunfire Sunday. In late March, the United Nations said 9,000 people have been killed during the conflict, now in its 14th month.

Turkey hosts around 23,000 Syrian refugees.