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September 1st, 2011
10:24 AM ET

My Faith: Rep. Keith Ellison, from Catholic to Muslim

By Chris Welch, CNN

Minneapolis, Minnesota (CNN) -Prior to 2006, few people even knew that then-Minnesota state legislator Keith Ellison was a Muslim. Because of his English name, he said, no one thought to ask.

But five years ago, when he ran for a seat in the United States House of Representatives - a race he would go on to win - word of his religious affiliation began to spread.

“When I started running for Congress it actually took me by surprise that so many people were fascinated with me being the first Muslim in Congress,” said Ellison, a Democrat now serving his third term in the House.

“But someone said to me, ‘Look Keith, think of a person of Japanese origin running for Congress six years after Pearl Harbor–this might be a news story.’”

Though Ellison's status as the first Muslim elected to Congress is widely known, fewer are aware that he was born into a Catholic family in Detroit and was brought up attending Catholic schools.

But he said he was never comfortable with that faith.

“I just felt it was ritual and dogma,” Ellison said. “Of course, that’s not the reality of Catholicism, but it’s the reality I lived. So I just kind of lost interest and stopped going to Mass unless I was required to.”

It wasn’t until he was a student at Wayne State University in Detroit when Ellison began, “looking for other things.”

He doesn’t have an elaborate explanation of what led him to convert to Islam in college, though he said he was “drawn to the multi-national congregation.”

“I would really like to hear somebody who is really articulate about the elements of their faith conversion. I'm not,” he said. "I investigated it, it worked for me, and it made me have a sense of inspiration and wonder, and I became a Muslim. It's been working for me ever since.”

Ellison's political opponents have made his faith an issue in his congressional campaigns.

“I would caution [opponents] that it doesn't work. People are not hateful like that," he said. "If you come up saying, ‘Vote for me because Ellison is a Muslim and I’m not,’ nine out of ten voters are going to see that as the silliness that it is.”

“It doesn't hurt my feelings at all," he said. "In fact I actually feel sorry for these people.”

And he said he has never had a second thought about converting.

“My faith and my identity as a Muslim - I never saw it as something that made my job harder," he said. "It’s just an aspect of who I am. It's the time that we live in. We have to respond to the realities of the world we’re in.”

But Ellison acknowledges that his faith has given him something of a national profile, not always in ways that are welcome.

In March, he testified in nationally televised congressional hearings, called by Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, to explore what King said was radicalization in American Muslim communities.

At the hearing, Ellison choked up as he described the sacrifices of Muslim Americans who tried to save others in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Without any of my choosing or desire I became somewhat of a symbolic figure," Ellison said. "And I urge anyone to avoid becoming a symbolic figure if you can. But I ended up in that position, so I just figured why not talk about it? Why not help try to bring people together with it?”

“Faith really should be a bridge, not a wall," Ellison said. "Because at the end of the day we should be focusing on what you believe, not what your religion is.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Islam

soundoff (1,073 Responses)
  1. apartisan

    Muslims may not be too much further from God than Catholics, but neither is close enough. Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by Christ, and no one comes to Christ except the Father draws him.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • claybigsby

      Proof needed otherwise this is nothing more than speculation.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • ticcle

      By the time you get your proof, it's too late...

      September 1, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • Severinus

      Catholics are Christians apartisan, so I don't get your comment.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  2. Sagebrush Shorty

    Wonder when he will change his name to something more Islamic.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • Muneef

      Do not think it is important changing name but can use a Kin name to be known by...

      Just wonder if Muslims would be required to change their names if they convert to Christianity?

      September 1, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  3. gerald

    Ellison claims to be Muslem. Muslems claim to be pro life yet Ellison is pro-abortion. What gives?

    September 1, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Stevie7

      Plenty of Christians – nearly half of Catholics – are pro choice. Plenty Christians in our government in congress are pro choice. One can have a belief in god and differ from you on when life begins.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • Bob

      Hey Stevie, when life begins is a a question of scientific fact, not religious opinion oir belief.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • CalgarySandy

      Abortion is not taken up in the Holy Books.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  4. jona

    Typical CNN crap. Ellison is cleverly hiding his true self. Watch him .. watch what he DOES.. not what he says. Many muslims have no problem lying to everyone else.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Darth Vadik, CA

      Paranoid much???

      September 1, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • SayWhaaa

      Yeah he becomes a werewolf at night. Better stock up on those silver bullets

      September 1, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • sander

      So do many Christians. and you point is?

      September 1, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Alfonzo Muchanzo

      From what I hear it is actually true that Islam permits lying as long as the person is trying to convert people, or take over infidels.

      Christianity does not support such deed as this. Only love, forgiveness, hope, and understanding is its true message (politicians who profess Christianity are generally doing so just for their benefit and therefore not Christians).

      September 1, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • SayWhaaa

      To you always believe what you hear Alfonzo?? Or is it that you hear what you want to hear.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • Alfonzo Muchanzo

      @saywaaa – Well I heard it on a news program and have not personally researched it so I didn't state it as fact. Maybe instead of blabbering pointless rhetoric you could confirm or deny.....or not say anything if you don't know. Thanks for playin clown.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Fred1

      @ Alfonzo Muchanzov: Christianity does support lying. The great Paul himself supported lying
      "For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged as a sinner?" Romans 3:7 (KJV)

      September 1, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  5. wearejustparticles

    I fyou silly people would put all of that energy into humanity instead of "GOD" this wouldnt be such a bad place. I know of nothing more ridiculous than following somethign that does not exist, never seen, heard , touched, smelled, nothing, zippo. Might as well follow the ghost of frankenstein, losers.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      When you stoop to denigrating others in your attempt to make your point, you fail in the effort.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • Void

      Being an Atheist does not mean you are smart. It does not mean that you arbitrarily inhabit a higher moral plane than any given theist. It does not make you in any way, shape, or form, superior to any other living human being. Being an Atheist does not imply that you have more knowledge of the universe and its machinations. It doesn't mean you have all the answers. It doesn't imply you have any answers at all. All of the above must be pursued and achieved outside the pinhole scope of your theological (dis)beliefs.

      And being an Atheist does not come with a license to berate, to be dismissive or smug.

      Sincerely,
      An Atheist.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • raptor57

      your right ...i can not see, smell or taste oxygen therefore it does not exist

      September 1, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • Fred1

      @raptor57: If take oxygen away from you, You will suffer terribly and die within minutes. If you take god away from me nothing will happen at all

      September 1, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  6. Colin

    The answer to all this supersti.tious nonsense – magic horsey rides to Jerusalem, humans levatating into heaven, talking snakes, men walking on water and the absurd notion of sky-gods and life after death – is to make school prayer compuslory.

    We set up a very simple physics or chemistry experiment. Say, a strip of blue litmus paper with a test tube of an acidic solution poised above it. We have all the students in class pray to god that it will not turn red when the test tube is upended and the acid pours on it. We then upturn the test tube and see what happens.

    It will, of course, turn red.

    We do this experiment every day, sometimes substi.tuting red litmus paper for blue litmus paper and an alkali solution for the acid solution – with the appropriate change in the prayer. We can also do other simple experiments – two identical poles of a magnet always being repulsive, with the students praying that they will attract.

    We do these experiments every day of every year for their entire high school experience, with the children praying each day that the result will be different. As we know, their prayers to their gods will fail every day of every week of every year. Every single time, without doubt and 100% guaranteed.

    After a few months of repeated failures, the students are invited to bring along their priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, and other religious authority figures to lead their prayers. They can all pray, chant, implore and bob to their various sky-deities that the litmus paper does not turn red. We can also bring in some gulf War veterans who lost limbs, and they can pray for their recovery.

    We even have special “open” days where they are invited to bring along the Pope, Archbishop of Canterbury, Dalia Lama, head of the Orthodox Church, the USA’s most sacred rabbi etc., etc. to join their prayers.

    As we know, their prayers to their gods will still fail every day of every week of every year. Every single time, without doubt and 100% guaranteed. A couple of practical realities we would have to guard are the occasional “flop” where, for example, a bad batch of acid has been delivered and the litmus paper does not change color (we don’t want anybody to claim that a prayer was answered) or intentional sabotage by those with a religious agenda, but that is no different to the risks of any other science experiment.

    In this manner, prayer can “put up or shut up.” It is preferable to me that we expose the children to prayer in their formative years and let them see for themselves how utterly worthless it is, rather than try to keep prayer from them. The constant radio silence from above and the stoic indifference with which their prayers are met every day will help the students understand:

    (i) that there is no god listening and that praying is a futile exercise when the results can REALLY be tested;

    (ii) the complete superiority of the scientific method over religious supersti.tions, as science accurately predicts the results of each experiment every time;

    (iii) the silliness of still believing in Bronze Age sky-gods in the 21st Century;

    (iii) the frailties of their religious leaders as they scurry for excuses –“god won’t be tested”, “god moves in mysterious ways” etc; and

    (iv) the weakness of human nature as the religious right moves to shut the experiments down.

    Tex Governor Rick Perry is correct. Children would learn a lot from praying in school.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • raptor57

      so in reality my laptop was made by descendants of apes

      September 1, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • Colin

      Raptor is a classic case of the bad education I am talking about. I mean, have a look at his/her comment? Right? This is the 21st Century, and we have a person suggesting that a Bronze Age Middle Eastern mythology is historically accurate!!

      Can you just imagine how ignorant (s)he must be of history, physics, anthropology, archeology, paleontology, astronomy, geology and about a dozen other disciplines.

      The flapping simpleton probably thinks the Flintstones is a doc.umentary.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • raptor57

      @ colin, bad education. is there such a thing ? it's a simple question. am i a descendant of apes?
      for the record. raptor57 is a he with an engineering degree

      September 1, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Colin

      No, you are a descendent of a hominid that was the common ancestor of the three species of apes (chimpanzee, bonobo and gorilla) and hom.o sapiens. That is why 98.4% of your DNA is identical to that of a chimpanzee.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • Sue

      Raptor, given your level of ignorance about evolution, you might well be a descendent of recent apes. However, most of us, unlike you, are as Colin says, descendents of a much earlier stem species, after many, many generations. Far more generations, in fact, than you will find in the bible, that evil work of fiction.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  7. Huh?

    Here I see lot of idiots who doesnt even about Christianity but talking about Islam. Muslims respects Jesus more than Christian do. Muslims knows more than Christians about Jesus. Please grow up you haters!

    September 1, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • gerald

      Islam contradicts who Christ is. How can you say it knows more about him. The Christ of Islam is a false Christ.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • Huh?

      Well. In Quran it says Jesus was a prophet like Muhammad(swat) and there is a full length of chapter about Jesus(Easaa) in Quran. That time people mistook Jesus as god and stuff. Thats the reason muslims always says please read Quran if you have any questions as Quran havent changed since it was revealed.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • thommen

      That is Absurd. The Jesus you know is a Twisted version of the true one. The Jesus you know is a prophet, born of soil even though He was born through a virgin , the Jesus I know is God.,not a prophet. The Jesus of Muslims is made to lead many away from the true Jesus.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • Stevie7

      The jesus I know, if he existed, may or may not have said the things attributed to him in the bible because the gospels were written decades after the fact. No other similar account would be taken seriously. You don't know jesus – you have a belief in what you think he is.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • CalgarySandy

      I don't know if Muslims know more about Jesus than Christians but if they read their Q'uran they know quite a bit. They certainly know more about Jesus than Christians do about Muhammad. Very few Christians know anything about Christianity or the Bible. A recent study shows that atheists know more about the Bible and the history of the Christianity than most Christians. One reason for that is that many people raised in radical Fundamentalist Churches flee for their sanity. They were raised on the Bible day in and day out so they do know it. In my case, I studied European History, after that abusive upbringing , in university and it cannot be understood without understanding what they believed about the Church. I used what I was forced to learn to assist me in what I wanted to learn. You can study the Crusades without knowing much about Islam but if you are an honest scholar then you learn it. It was the Christians who assaulted the Muslims and not the other way around.
      Anyone who has not read the entire Christian Bible in a good translation and the Q'uran cannot legitimately claim to know anything about the roots of either religion.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • claybigsby

      "The Christ of Islam is a false Christ."

      prove it...otherwise this is nothing but speculation.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Huh?

      So, Jesus is god? How can a god die? or if he is dead how is gonna give you rewards for your deeds?

      September 1, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • SayWhaaa

      You are right that Muslims respect Jesus more than Americans. For Americans the words "Jesus Christ" has turned into just a shock statement. I mean the way networks defile "God" is appalling and yet American Christians stay mum, they just chalk that up to Freedoms and then they wonder why their kids have absolutely no respect for their religion and are becoming atheists.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • John

      Really? not in the country where i live, Indonesia!

      September 1, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  8. robjh1

    Next...

    September 1, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  9. DamianKnight

    @Bruce,

    "1) No. We don't have to agree that "the Bible is the Word of God." You don't even know what you mean by that. Scriptures were written and arranged by people. The content can be judged as-is, on its own merits. We do not need to bring the Authority of God into the picture to derail the whole discussion from the get-go.

    2) No. The Church did not come from the Bible. The Bible came from the Church. The Bible is NOT the basis for Christianity. Not in the least. The Bible didn't even exist until about the 4th century, some 300 years after the ministry of Jesus.

    Scripture is certainly a useful tool in theology, however its proper place is not as you describe."

    Any church, claming to be Christian, yet does not follow the Bible, is not a Christian church. I don't know of a single denomination of Christianity that doesn't claim that the Bible is the Word of God.

    Further, Merriam-Webster tends to disagree with you as to the definition of Christianity.

    Definition of CHRISTIANITY
    1: the religion derived from Jesus Christ, based on the Bible as sacred scripture, and professed by Eastern, Roman Catholic, and Protestant bodies "

    Further, the only written works we have of what Jesus may or may not have said, that I am aware of, is the Bible. Since Christian literally means "Christ Follower", and they aren't using the Bible to follow His words, what are they following?

    September 1, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • DamianKnight

      Ack, didn't hit reply first. Bad Damian. No donut. Go on with your lives. Nothing to see here.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Laughing

      FAIL

      September 1, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • ttwp

      FALSE...the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul were being circulated to the churches in the 1st Century. It was not compiled into what we know as the Bible until a few hundred years later...but the Gospel and letters of Paul and others were used by the churches very early (50AD – 100AD).

      September 1, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Bill Wagner

      Christianity is not fully the teachings of Jesus. The religion itself is based on a doctrine that was made by Paul several hundred years after the time of Jesus. Watch Bible Scholar Bart Ehrman on youtube: "Misquoting Jesus" to learn more.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • DamianKnight

      Sorry, folks, this was from another thread that I (as Laughing so eloquently put it) "failed" to attach to it. Only half the words are mine. 🙂 A lot of the first part was a quote.

      And, just to be clear, the writings of Paul were less than a hundred years after the death of Christ. Paul is believed to have been executed around AD 67. Since Christ was crucified somewhere between AD 30 and AD 33, Paul's writings were merely 30 or so years after.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  10. sisi

    I'm sure he is a moderate, so he may not want to convert all non muslims and if they will not convert kill them, as his religion dictates.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • raptor57

      the only difference between a moderate and an extremist is patience. your a fool

      September 1, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  11. Dave

    I did not know that Democrats nominated people for office who believe women are sub-human. Then again, it is the party that supported slavery prior to the Civil War and segregation after the Civil War, so perhaps I should not be surprised!

    September 1, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • IU Hoosier

      You might want to look again, buddy. John F. Kennedy, Democrat, was the one who proposed a Civil Rights Act in 1963 and Lyndon B. Johnson, also a Democrat and Kennedy's successor, was the one who signed it into law as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Granted, many Democrats did support the continuation of slavery in the antebellum United States, but some did not, which caused a schism within the party (hence two Democrats running for president against Lincoln in 1860). Abraham Lincoln, a Republican who is remembered for his Emancipation Proclamation which freed black slaves said himself, "If I can preserve the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it. If I can preserve the Union by freeing all the slaves, I will do it." Also, his proclamation, when issued on January 1, 1863, only freed those slaves in the Confederacy who resided in areas under Union control which, at the time, was very little of it. And many Republicans sided with him on both issues. You need to educate yourself fully on the history of the United States before you make assumptions like this. Muddling historical fact is what gets many Americans into trouble. Neither party was perfect then, just as they definitely aren't perfect now.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • mrboot

      And now republicans support all those things. might how the tides have turned. Keeping popping up cain and bachman as symbols of "look how tolerant we are" while you preach 1.9 billion of this earths Islamic worshippers are evil. sad.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • SayWhaaa

      If you think todays Republican party is the party of Lincoln you are a total idiot. Today's repubs are more like the Aryan Brotherhood

      September 1, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  12. Hashim

    For more insight into Chrisitianity versus Islam read the novel .... king of Bat'ha

    September 1, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  13. Lawlz

    THEREALTOM: "Have you read any books by Stephen Hawking lately?"

    Ah, yes. A fallacious invocation of authority. Stephen Hawking believes the universe self started, therefore the universe self started.

    However, what happens when you place, say, Leibniz and Newton onto the balance? What about Plantinga or Lemaittre?

    Does it become a numbers game? Whoever has more scientists and intellectuals on their side ultimately wins?

    "hawking"

    You do realize Hawkings' new book did not, in fact, defeat the cosmological argument, right? Merely asserting that a first cause is unnecessary doesn't get rid of the logical impossibility of an infinite regress of causes.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • um...

      Argumentative, boring, etc.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  14. CliffClaven

    Spy for Jihad

    September 1, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • churchofcoltrane

      Spy for Cheers.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Bill Wagner

      Spy for CliffClaven is a retard

      September 1, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  15. Adrian

    God is omnipotent and infallible, except in the area of sales and marketing, where apparently he/she/it can not even grasp the most basic tenets of consistent brand marketing.

    Oh wait.

    Maybe all of these gods and goddesses are the invention of humans.

    Gee, what a concept.

    Too bad no one who has figured that out can get elected in America.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • Lawlz

      adrian: "God is omnipotent and infallible, except in the area of sales and marketing, where apparently he/she/it can not even grasp the most basic tenets of consistent brand marketing. ... Oh wait. ... Maybe all of these gods and goddesses are the invention of humans."

      You do realize that the existence of a god and religion are not coextensive, right?

      September 1, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Greg G.

      Lalz: the belief in ANY god / gods / devil / demons / supernatural ANYthing at work in the universe around you BEGS a structure, and that structure BECOMES "religion" and evolves from there.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  16. dollydocker

    you americans crack me up , personally i am of the view that anything the divides peoples fosters inhumanity and there is no doubt that all faith based beliefs in particular the abrahamic cults are good at dividing peoples ,the question should have nothing to do with religious belief ,the only relevant issue is how one lives their life . you dont need religion to lead a decent and productive life, when your boys were asked to sit in the trenches in WW I;WWII ,vietnam ,korea, and the middle east ,and take one for the team ,do you think any one asked them what their religion was .

    September 1, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Greg G.

      In full agreement with everything you said. Except one thing; I'm an American, an atheist American.
      There's more of us that you might think.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
  17. David G

    I find the over message of what he says postive and would like to add one minor change... Truth + Love + Compassion = Respect

    September 1, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  18. cherrypieguy

    WHAT A BUNCH OF CRAP........RELIGION IS SO IN NOWADAYS.......ESPECIALLY IF YOUR BLACK AND YOU CAN CONVERT TO MUSLISM IN FRONT OF AN AUDIENCE.........HEY BIBLE THUMPERS.....WAKE UP...THERE IS NO GOD YOU MORONS.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      You lose all credibility when you begin by calling people names.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  19. Lawlz

    martin: "what is wrong with asking religions to stay out of science and medicine. Do you even know how far we would be in terms of curing disease IF the religious Right stayed out of things like research and medicine???"

    Nothing, if religion has nothing to do with the science in question. But blaming the "religious Right" for the state of science is dishonest. If you're talking about stem cell research, the question is whether or not harm is being done. And stopping or preventing harm is within the proper power of the state. It doesn't matter if causing harm is also seen as "sinful" by one group or another.

    "Why MUST I endure your Christ, hanging from a cross in public, when you do not want a pagan to run naked through your street??"

    You're making assumptions about the religious beliefs I do or do not have.

    But regardless, a cross can hang in public because it causes no harm and is not obscene. Public nudity, however, is seen as obscene and unnecessary, because most of the public would rather see you with your clothes on. Hence, society says some amount of clothing is required in public.

    It's very simple, really.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Lawlz

      martin: "Why MUST I endure your Christ, hanging from a cross in public, when you do not want a pagan to run naked through your street??"

      Much less, your own bigoted, anti-religious beliefs are irrelevant to whether or not someone can hang a cross, wear a burqa or cross themselves in public. You have no power to stop them, just as they have no power to stop you from being an atheist.

      September 1, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  20. Marie

    I don't have anything against anyones religion. However, I cannot understand how its justified to treat women as they do. I am not speaking about everyone when i say that, I have done my research and I just can't wrap my head around the disrespect.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Man

      Marie
      In islam women given a high status and teaches to respect for women, but the culture and people has made the changes not islam. please use the authentic sources for reasearch . http://www.witness-pioneer.org/vil/Books/ZakirNaik/ZakirNaik_GenderIssue.htm#D._Educational_Rights_to_a_Woman

      September 1, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.