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Atheist group targets Muslims, Jews with ‘myth’ billboards in Arabic and Hebrew
The American Atheists' president acknowledges that the pair of new billboards will likely cause a stir.
March 1st, 2012
05:00 AM ET

Atheist group targets Muslims, Jews with ‘myth’ billboards in Arabic and Hebrew

By Dan Merica, CNN

(CNN) – The billboard wars between atheists and believers have raged for years now, especially around New York City, and a national atheist group is poised to take the battle a step further with billboards in Muslim and Jewish enclaves bearing messages in Arabic and Hebrew.

American Atheists, a national organization, will unveil the billboards Monday on Broadway in heavily Muslim Paterson, New Jersey and in a heavily Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood, immediately after the Williamsburg Bridge.

“You know it’s a myth … and you have a choice,” the billboards say. The Patterson version is in English and Arabic, and the Brooklyn one in English and Hebrew. To the right of the text on the Arabic sign is the word for God, Allah. To the right of the text on the Hebrew sign is the word for God, Yahweh.

Dave Silverman, the president of American Atheists, said the signs are intended to reach atheists in the Muslim and Jewish enclaves who may feel isolated because they are surrounded by believers.

“Those communities are designed to keep atheists in the ranks,” he says. “If there are atheists in those communities, we are reaching out to them. We are letting them know that we see them, we acknowledge them and they don't have to live that way if they don’t want to.”

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Silverman says the signs advertise the American Atheists’ upcoming convention and an atheist rally, called the Reason Rally, in Washington next month.

Atheists have long pointed to surveys that suggest atheists and agnostics make up between 3% and 4% of the U.S. population. That number increases when Americans unaffiliated with any religion are included. The Pew Center’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey found that 16% are unaffiliated, though only a fraction of those are avowed atheists and agnostics.

Silverman acknowledges that the pair of new billboards will likely cause a stir.

“People are going to be upset,” he says. “That is not our concern.”

“We are not trying to inflame anything,” he continued. “We are trying to advertise our existence to atheist in those communities. The objective is not to inflame but rather to advertise the atheist movement in the Muslim and Jewish community.”

The billboards will be up for one month and cost American Atheists, based in New Jersey, less than $15,000 each, according to Silverman.

Mohamed Elfilali, executive director of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, laughed when he learned the Arabic billboard would go up in the same town as his office. He says he’s surprised that someone is spending money on such a sign.

“It is not the first and won’t be the last time people have said things about God or religion,” Elfilali says. “I respect people’s opinion about God; obviously they are entitled to it. I don’t think God is a myth, but that doesn’t exclude people to have a different opinion.”

But Elfilali bemoaned the billboards as another example of a hyper-polarized world.

“Sadly, there is a need to polarize society as opposed to build bridges,” he says. “That is the century that we live in. It is very polarized, very politicized.”

The Brooklyn billboard is likely to raise eyebrows among Jews, in part because Orthodox Jews don't write out the name of God, as the billboard does.

“It is an emotional word, there will be an emotional response," said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of Yeshiva University's Center for the Jewish Future. "People will look at it in a bizarre way. People won’t understand why someone needed to write that out.”

To get around the prohibition, Jews usually use only one Hebrew letter in place of the word. In the Torah scroll, though, the word is found and it is pronounced Adonai, which means “my master.”

Rabbi Serge Lippe of the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue was more dismissive than outraged about the billboards.

“The great thing about America is we are marketplace for ideas,” he says. “People put up awful, inappropriate billboards expressing their ideas and that is embraced.”

But Lippe acknowledged that there are a lot of agnostic and atheist Jews. A recent Gallup survey found 53% of Jews identified as nonreligious. Among American Jews, 17% identified as very religious and 30% identified as moderately religious.

“When you have two Jews in the room, you have three opinions,” joked Lippe.

American Atheists have used the word “myth” to describe religion and God on billboards before. Last November, the organization went up with a billboard immediately before the New Jersey entrance to the Lincoln tunnel that showed the three wise men heading to Bethlehem and stated “You KNOW it’s a Myth. This Season, Celebrate Reason.”

At the time, the American Atheists said the billboard was to encourage Atheists to come out of the closet with their beliefs and to dispel the myth that Christianity owns the solstice season.

The Christmas billboard led to a “counter punch” by the Catholic League, a New York-based Catholic advocacy group. The Catholic League put up a competing billboard that said, “You Know It's Real: This Season Celebrate Jesus."

Silverman says his group’s billboard campaigns will continue long into the future.

“There will be more billboards,” Silverman says. “We are not going to be limiting to Muslims and Jews, we are going to be putting up multiple billboards in multiple communities in order to get atheists to come out of the closet.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Atheism • Islam • Judaism • New York • United States

soundoff (5,946 Responses)
  1. BTW

    These guys are behaving exactly like the very thing they criticize. Are they evangelizing everyone to join their non-church? Fanaticism comes in many flavors, some of them don't have anything to do with beliefs and religion... and you have a choice

    March 1, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  2. Kim

    Why is this such a big deal? Everytime I drive down I-71 to Cincinnati I have to see giant billboards telling me I'm going to hell. If you don't like what the billboard says, don't look at it. These are simply letting some people know that they are not alone.

    March 1, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • ski2xs

      Actually, to be completely honest here. I'm just here to poke fun at athiests who attempt to claim their belief in the non-existence of a deity doesn't qualify as a religion.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Kim

      Just curious – how do you justify saying atheism is a religion?

      March 1, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Kim

      The very definition of religion is the "belief of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods."

      March 1, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • MK

      Those billboards on 71 are very obnoxious, very in-your-face.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • ski2xs

      Because it's a belief. . . It's not a 'non-belief' as many athiests WANT to believe. . . it's a belief that there is no-deity.

      Therefore by classical definition it's a religion. It's a belief dealing with a deity. . .whether or not it deals with the existence or non existence of one. 🙂

      March 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Maelius

      Actually a belief is not the same as the organized, political, and corrupt stage known as religion.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Is that like the belief that stars are actually pinholes in the curtain of night? Actually, they are very large balls of burning gas very, very far away.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  3. pat

    I was raised (by atheist parents) to respect other people's religions. The problem with that is religion is being blended with politics, and while I would like to think that religious groups have no say over my life, It seems that if I don't counter their beliefs, my political view will be marginalized. Also, there is a lot more you could put on a billboard and still be within your first amendment rights if all you wanted to do is question religion. A billboard that tells a believer there is no god amounts to the same thing as a billboard that tells an atheist there is a god.

    March 1, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Deez

      Well said.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • MK

      Agree with Deez

      March 1, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • brian

      Great post.
      I think people can believe in what ever, but there are a few things that make me annoyed.
      People preach about the bible, and its good but ignore the hate within. (owning slaves, women < men, kill non believers).
      People twist it into what they think, then use it. religious people with 0 understanding of any science hide behind 'its in the bible' no matter how ridiculous their claim (i.e. noahs ark).

      The thing that angers me the most is seperation of church and state. Now people like santorum are all about putting christianity into the government.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  4. Mike - WA

    ... "atheists and agnostics make up between 3% and 4% of the U.S. population" Not likely. When you filter out all of the people that claim to believe in gods, goddesses and fairies purely for political, business or social reasons that number is more like 40% – 50%, if not higher. A large number if people claim belief in god(s) because of pier pressure and to get along or profit in the societies they live in.
    I tend to agree with spud1954 that "you only have two choices....believe in a creator or believe that the universe created itself". But that is like saying we exist so we must have started somewhere. That premise does not by default mean that any of the religions of the world have any idea what the truth is. Since no one can ever prove anything they claim to be true, organized religions must be based on myth.

    March 1, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  5. Eats Biggest Fish

    What a waste of money... And no offense to all you atheists out there... you already belief in something, man. Your God is yourself and other men. So in reality you are a believer (as in a religion) in something, yourselves and knowledge. So basically atheism is the worship of man and himself.

    March 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Mike

      Wow, how wrong and confused you are.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Kevin

      What a shockingly ignorant view of atheism. You should probably start with the dictionary, and go from there.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Drumcode

      Fail

      March 1, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • IslandAtheist

      No, the Vatican is a waste of money, this was money well spent.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Deez

      Atheists believe you only have one life, so cherish it. Everyone else only has one life as well, so don't hurt them in the process of living yours.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • QS

      So $15,000 per billboard is a waste of money to try to get people to stop fearing their own non-belief, but tens of millions donated by the LDS to stop loving couples from being able to share equal marriage rights was money well spent. Got it.

      Do people honestly not see how religion gets a free pass on its discriminatory ways and that, if nothing else, we Atheists are simply trying to show people there is a different way that isn't as rooted in bullying and oppression as religion is?

      March 1, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • ski2xs

      See how quickly they line up to protest that? They have a hard time swallowing the fact that atheism is in itself a religion. They fight that tooth and nail because it labels them in the exact same manner as they attempt to label those who believe in a deity.

      There chasing a smile on a dog here. In the overdramatic and animated attempts to sidestep that label, they only make themselves out to be the ones who are shortsighted and weakminded.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • DK

      You should attend an athiest meeting or maybe read a book because you have no idea what you're talking about

      March 1, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • blablablathisthread

      You have no idea what atheists "believe". Atheism is NOT the worship of oneself or man; it is the LACK of worship to ANYTHING! Why does there have to be a "God" for a person to be a "good person"? There doesn't need to be one. Why must I "worship" a "power"? That is CONTROL! All religions try to control what their "flock of sheep" say and do. Atheism does not. Atheism is the realization that all MAN MADE RELIGIONS are just that, manmade, are fictional, and have hurt civilization throughout history.

      And NO, the terrible crimes of tyrants such as Stalin and Mao do NOT represent atheism. True atheism is the belief in SCIENTIFIC FACT, not to brutalize people. A state that was "truly founded upon the principles of atheism would be the greatest place on earth; a place of reason, compassion, logic, knowledge and beauty, where each fellow knew his and her fellows as people to be cherished, not chastised and shackled into conformity through propaganda and war crimes."

      RELIGION has killed more life than anything else (besides natural disasters). Those of fanatical faith often scream and shout, saying "Stalin and Mao etc. were atheists and have killed millions!" Though sadly they were (and by no means represent all of atheists), they did NOT DO SO IN THE NAME OF ATHIESM, THEY DID IN THE NAME OF CONTROL, such as religion does. THEY WERE EVIL PEOPLE! Atheism as a whole is NOT EVIL BUT BEAUTIFUL! Religion as a whole IS EVIL.

      And, if you really want to debate numbers, those of faith ALWAYS fail to acknowledge the OVER 150 MILLION DEATHS OF THE INDIGINOUS AMERICA'S POPULATION BY THE SPANISH, aka Christians. That alone is more dead then every other war COMBINED.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • ski2xs

      And what 'Scientific fact' is that BlaBla??

      Please, present your science here. Last time I checked we can't even explain. . .in scientific/math terms. . strong quantum forces.

      But then, perhaps you're on the edge of a Nobel?

      March 1, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • blablablathisthread

      In time we shall know the answer to any question. Simply because we currently "do not know", those of faith wish to bash atheists and claim "but we of faith do know the answer!" You do not.

      1000 years ago, we did not know anything about molecular biology. 500 years ago we did not know anything about mechanical flight. 100 years ago we did not know anything about electronics and "cyberspace" such as the internet. Knowledge is ever increasing, compounding upon itself to reveal even more clues, and eventually answers to our questions.

      Religion "claims" to have "all the answers right now" without any actual proof. Then you come at me with "what is proof" argument; you only make yourself look like a simpleton. Scientific fact is "proof", not claiming that the words in a terribly written book is "proof".

      You asking me to "provide evidence" is a clear case of fallacy ski2xs. Rather than examine your own beliefs, to ask questions, you simply shut down and force others to prove you wrong. We simply do not have all the answers that you are looking for.

      So what?

      You are obviously a person of faith ski2xs, a person who cannot even "question" their own faith. As an atheist, I question EVERYTHING, even to the point of questioning myself "questioning", and even my own "beliefs". There is as much evidence for your "traditional God" as "The flying spaghetti monster", yet you only belief in the first. Why? Out of fear, and upbringing. Christianity especially is guilty of STEALING MATERIAL FROM OTHER OLDER FAITHS, FACT! You say that you are correct, yet your own "origin story" can't even bother to be original?

      You then say "I don't belief out of fear, but out of faith". How is that different? "Believe in me, God, or suffer forever in a pit of fire!" That is the very definition of tyranny through FEAR OF PAIN.

      "Any who would require worship is not worthy of it, and so any God is less than anything but failure and falsehoods, for they REQUIRE your slavery"

      March 1, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  6. TCGO

    I am an Atheist. I do not force my opinion on anyone, nor do I believe anyone should force their opinions on me. Rational thought, emotion, faith, acceptance of diversity, respect, caring; all are welcome. I live a moral life because I wish to and believe it is the right thing to do. I support the billboards. Everyone is allowed to have their opinions and express them.

    March 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  7. Red

    Whenever I'm considering showing my support for an atheist group, some kind of commentors really turn me off. asdf and Mike have only really shown me that there's nothing to offer aside from bashing other people. I don't believe in God, but other people are certainly all we have. It's embarassing as a human being to see them being treated so pathetically.

    March 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • asdf

      Sorry to "embarrass" you – what exactly have I said that's so embarrassing?

      March 1, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  8. pablo

    You may be safe telling this to Christians because they are tolerant and broad minded but I suspect the muslims will not take it very well..

    March 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  9. Mike

    Why is it that most scientists around the globe do not believe in god....?

    March 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Dan J

      That has to be the dumbest comment I've seen. There's no correlation.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • TheFatherofLies

      Scientists like evidence. All of creation may be your evidence and it is indeed here but a "benevolent" or otherwise higher power is not necessarily the source of our reality. Because a higher power is only one possible answer, scientists err on the side of caution (at least publicly) that there is no God rather than to discredit themselves in an unsubstantiated belief in one of the many thousands of god's man has created over the course of his short history on earth.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  10. Hooligan

    I am an atheist and I think this is a stupid idea. I hate it when they ram their faith down MY throat... I don't think it's very productive to ram our lack of faith down THEIRS.

    March 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • AGuest9

      You will reach a breaking point, Hooligan. When your children or your career are threatened.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • brian

      aguest9
      What do you mean? Your post is ridiculous.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • DK

      Haven't you noticed that it's ok to say rotten prejudice crap to athiests...things you'd never say to a religious person...and nobody thinks anything of it. Do you think that's going to get any better in this political climate???

      March 1, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • QS

      There are still states that allow discrimination against gay people in the workplace. And regardless of what anybody says, the only reason people discriminate openly against gay people this way is because of religion.

      So the comment regarding career is valid. What if you are Atheist and your child gets bullied by other kids at school because they don't celebrate Christmas...because of course, you aren't "normal" if you don't celebrate a specificially religious holiday, right?

      This is what Atheists, like me, are dealing with these days and who, like me, are fed up with the concept that religion MUST be respected no matter what simply because it is typically falsely perceived as being wholly benevolent, when in truth it divides people more than unites them.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • AGuest9

      @brian, one day a group will show up with lawyers at your childrens' school and want to teach religion as science. This has happened in several states, and many more have bills in their legislatures to permit nonsense such as creationism/"Intelligent Design" and "alternatives" to big bang cosmology to be taught. The children will graduate high school with a pathetic excuse for a biology course which teaches nothing about genetics, natural selection, evolution, or immunology. They will be ill-prepared for chemistry and pre-med courses.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  11. Tom from Neptune

    This is America and they have a right to freedom of speech just like anyone else. I think these billboards are hilarious!! The people who get mad at this just need to get over themselves.

    March 1, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  12. pablo

    These are the same kind of people that would tell little children that there is no Santa Claus. Why not let people alone to believe in something that gives them comfort, whether true or not. No one one knows for sure.

    March 1, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • JohnR

      It's an outreach to atheists who feel trapped in these traditional subcultures.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Woggy

      Living in a bubble of fiction may make you feel better but its not better for you in the long run.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Mike

      Religion destroys buildings.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • asdf

      wouldn't you tell a deluded 40 year old that there's no Santa Claus? especially when they use his existence to justify doing terrible things?

      March 1, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • MK

      Both "god" and Santa Claus punish you for "misbehaving".

      March 1, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  13. Woggy

    Somehow I doubt a billboard will change those with deep religious convictions, its more likely to anger them.

    March 1, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Colin

      Maybe you should read the article?

      March 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • JohnR

      Somehow I doubt that more than a small fraction of the religious can read for comprehension.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  14. YeahItsMe72

    I don't know who's right or wrong, but the religions definitely have a good gig going not having to pay taxes. Not only do the swindle people out of their money weekly but then they legally don't pay taxes on it. It's a nice little racket they've worked out for themselves.
    But as long as people feel better about themselves and can look down on others who don't believe I guess it's all good.

    March 1, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  15. Scott

    I feel sorry for atheists. God has given everyone a conscience, and an innate knowledge that God exists. They have to resort to bashing religion on billboards and the internet to try to convince themselves that they are right. They spend their entire lives trying to overcome their conscience by attacking others, but it never helps. It's sad to watch.

    March 1, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Slovensko

      Spot on.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • jimtanker

      As oppposed to threatening people with eternal damnation on a billboard? S T F U!

      March 1, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Drumcode

      What? I'm an atheist and I'm not attacking anyone, as a matter of fact I don't think about this kind of stuff on daily basis. You don't need to believe in anything to be a good person.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • BRC

      And your response to those of us that have never had any belief, feeling, inclination, or indication that there is any sort of god, that are quie happy with our lives even without thinking there are supernatural or supreme beings would be?

      March 1, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • asdf

      I feel sorry for religious. Everybody knows that they end up making decisions about their morality regardless of what book they ascribe to, and they know deep down that their story is just that. They spend their whole lives ignoring all evidence because they are afraid to give up on their crutch. Its sad.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Chris

      Uhm, is that not what religions do, too? Bash on other religions because one is right and one is wrong? Freaking sheep..."Judge not..."? That is ALL religions do...judge you on 1) if you are religious and 2) which religion you are...religion is a man-made farce to keep people like you donating 10% so they can sit on gold thrones...idolize much? Thought so.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Matt

      I feel sorry for someone who is held captive by primitive beliefs in non-existent deities

      March 1, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • brian

      I feel sorry for religious people. Having such capable minds to learn, explore and think freely.. only to never use it because a 2000 year old.

      I believe in theory, experiment and evidence.. not a book that believes women < men, slavery is acceptable and to kill non-believers.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • AGuest9

      I feel sorry for some of the religious posters here. Just by reading their posts and responses, you can tell how blinded they are. Billboards will never reach them. Talking to them will never reach them. They are as indoctrinated as any cult. They will follow their priests, ministers, imams, rabbis to the end, believing in a life after this one.

      I used to think it was the old European women from three or four generations back that had religion and superst.ition fed to them in equal amounts – even some as recent as my mother's generation with the nuns' stories about lying before communion and having their tongue fall out of their mouths, or having the stone lions in front of the protestant church come to life and eat them or having the earth open up and swallow them because they didn't go to confession. This does a lot to push people away. It also does much more to keep the fearful near.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • MK

      "God has given everyone a conscience, and an innate knowledge that God exists." That is not innate, it is upbringing. Just think, if you been raised in the middle east, you'd be believing in 7 virgins.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Scott

      asdf: What's sad about living a respectable life and being happy? What evidence are you referring to? There is none that I've every seen.

      As for the rest of you, Christians don't attack people. They try to win people over with love, because they care about them. Big difference. I've been a Christian my entire life, and I've never felt "trapped". I have my own free will. There is nothing oppressing about living a good life and being happy knowing that you will spend an eternity in paradise. That's why Christians are happy people, and that's why atheists only pretend to be happy. And if I'm wrong, so what? I lived a good life, left behind a quality memory of myself, and don't ever even know that I was wrong. If an atheist is wrong, they lived a miserable life trying to ignore their conscience, they find out they were wrong, and then they spend an eternity being tormented in Hell.

      I can be at peace in my life. Can you?

      March 1, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  16. arfaha

    God, Allah, Yahwe basically mean the same thing. If anyone disagree – well it;s too bad! Stop being ignorant for once, wake up and smell the reality.

    March 1, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  17. Dan

    Oy! This should be the biggest problem we have to deal with. New?

    March 1, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Chaim

      I believe the word you want is "Nu", not "New".

      March 1, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  18. Webfoot

    I have some friends who are non believers. I love them ... great people. I'm not a believer that thinks morality cannot exist outside religious faith. I can hardly stand those that think atheists have cannot have morals without belief in God. To respond to “momoya” I will say that at the this point in time in my faith journey, I am choosing to hold onto my belief in God, and that His son Jesus suffered for our sins. My faith is being buoyed by my choice, rather than faith alone. It’s a struggle sometimes. A character in book that I read recently was asked if she believed in God; her response “ ….I know there’s a devil and everything has it’s opposite…..”

    March 1, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • momoya

      I was with you up until the last sentence. Humans are evil and good enough to more than account for the acts attributed to either god or the devil.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  19. Don

    Abraham Lincoln, many of the Founding Fathers of this country, Susan B. Anthony, and Frederick Douglass would probably be proud if they lived in contemporary times...

    And without a doubt... the great Christopher Hitchens...

    March 1, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Nah

      An argument from authority, eh?

      Do fallacies count as deep thought for you?

      March 1, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  20. bg in oregon

    This is great. Long live common sense .....and science.

    March 1, 2012 at 1:34 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.