Signs of the Times

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — After eight bleak years, Jesus’ birthplace finally has a Christmas season to cheer about. Hotels are booked solid through January, Manger Square is bustling with tourists, and Israeli and Palestinian forces are working to make things go smoothly. Bethlehem’s economic fortunes are closely tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tourism blossomed in the 1990s, when peace hopes were alive, but was crushed by the outbreak of fighting in 2000. Christmas after Christmas, tourists were scared off by Palestinian violence and Israeli travel restrictions. With calm gradually returning to the West Bank, Bethlehem has again become a magnet for Christmas pilgrims. Palestinian officials say 1.3 million tourists have visited the West Bank this year, nearly double last year’s level. The total for 2008 could rise to 1.6 million. The tourism boom has created 12,000 new jobs, said Palestinian Information Minister Riad Malki.

Human-Smuggling Ring Broken Up by Investigators

ARIZONA REPUBLIC — Investigators have broken up a Phoenix smuggling ring that transported as many as 10,000 illegal immigrants in two years around the country, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard announced Friday. Goddard called the network “the Greyhound bus lines of human smuggling” because the smugglers hauled immigrants in as many as 10 vans from Phoenix-area drophouses to 22 other states. They did business mostly in cash, collecting hundreds of dollars for each immigrant from employers and relatives in other states on arrival and, after taking a cut, smuggling payments to cartels across the border in Mexico, authorities said. Driving bags full of cash south across the border has become a key smugglers’ tactic to skirt an Arizona crackdown on wire-transfer payments. Authorities arrested 21 suspects, including a person suspected of being a local kingpin. Thirty-five have been indicted by a state grand jury, and investigators are seeking dozens more. All but two of the suspects identified Friday were in the country illegally, prosecutors said.

170 Arrested in Global Child Porn Investigation

WASHINGTON (CNN) — More than 170 people around the globe, including at least 61 in the United States, have been arrested in a major operation targeting international child pornographers, officials said Friday. So far, Operation Joint Hammer has rescued 11 girls in the United States, ages 3 to 13, who were sexually abused by child pornography producers, U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey and representatives of the European Union said at the Justice Department Friday. Dozens more were located in Europe, including several young female victims in Ukraine. Authorities found connections between producers, distributors and customers in nearly 30 countries as a single investigation grew to a global inquiry into the dark corners of brutality and child abuse.

India Navy Arrests 23 Pirates in Gulf of Aden

NEW DELHI (AP) — The Indian navy says it has arrested 23 pirates who threatened a merchant vessel in the Gulf of Aden. Navy spokesman Commander Nirad Sinha says Indian forces repulsed the pirates Saturday as they were about to board the merchant ship. He says the pirates are from Somalia and Yemen, two countries surrounding the Gulf of Aden. Somali pirates have become increasingly brazen, and recently seized a Saudi supertanker loaded with $100 million worth of crude oil.

Will United Nations Cave to Homosexual Pressure?

France has introduced a resolution before the United Nations General Assembly to decriminalize homosexuality. The decision represents just one step in the overall plan of homosexual strategists, according to Matt Barber of Liberty Counsel. “It’s a brave new world out there, and homosexual activists have infiltrated the ranks of the United Nations. So I will not be surprised if this resolution does in fact pass,” he contends. With the Obama administration taking over in January, Barber believes America’s ambassador to the U.N. will support homosexuality, and with a particular purpose. “The whole idea here, of course, being to silence opposition of homosexual behavior, particularly religious opposition rooted in sincerely held religious beliefs,” he adds. If the resolution succeeds, Barber fully expects a push to begin for recognition of homosexual “marriage” that could become a party of international treaties, binding signatory nations to recognition.

Ice Storms leave New Englanders in Dark

FITCHBURG, Mass. — A vicious ice storm that snapped power lines and tree limbs across New England has left hundreds of thousands of people in the dark and cold and it may be weeks before electricity is restored everywhere. Throughout New England, convoys of utility trucks were working through the night to reconnect power lines cut by ice-laden tree limbs that sagged into the lines or fell on them. Hotels overflowed with people looking to keep warm and find food. The storm knocked out electrical service to 1.4 million homes and businesses late last week. More than 570,000 customers still lacked power Sunday afternoon in Upstate New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine.

As New Englanders scraped their way out of the devastating ice storm, Arctic air slid into the Upper Midwest on Sunday night. The frigid front could bring a crippling blizzard with it, according to the National Weather Service. The wind chill — which gauges how wind speed makes one feel colder than the temperature — had fallen to minus 37 at Devil’s Lake, N.D., by late Saturday, according to the National Weather Service in Grand Forks. The wind chill could fall to minus 55 by this morning across the region, according to the service. The temperature at Denver International Airport plunged to minus 15 degrees, breaking a 107-year record.

Heavy Rains Pound Italy; Rome Declares Emergency

ROME (AP) — Rome declared a state of emergency as the swollen Tiber river threatened to flood Friday and the death toll from the heavy rains battering much of Italy rose to four. The Civil Protection Department said the Tiber had risen about 16 feet in the past two days and warned it might burst its banks. Officials evacuated Gypsy camps along the Tiber’s banks and boats broke loose from their moorings in the surging water. The smaller Aniene river, which flows into the Tiber, already overflowed, forcing officials to close down some streets in Rome and evacuate hundreds of people. “It is as if there has been an earthquake,” Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno told the daily La Repubblica. Italy has been hit by days of bad weather, and TV footage has shown entire neighborhoods flooded or submerged by mud.

White House, Treasury say they Won’t Let Automakers Fail

WASHINGTON — The White House and the Treasury gave strong indications Friday that the U.S. government, at least temporarily, would help prop up the American auto industry. “Because Congress failed to act, we will stand ready to prevent an imminent failure until Congress reconvenes and acts to address the long-term viability of the industry,” Treasury spokeswoman Brookly McLaughlin said. And White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the administration is considering using the Wall Street rescue fund to prevent the USA’s strapped carmakers from failing.

Sweden Plans $3.4B Auto Bailout; Won’t Buy Saab, Volvo

STOCKHOLM — The Swedish government on Thursday unveiled a 28 billion kronor ($3.4 billion) support package for the nation’s ailing auto industry but insisted it won’t buy Volvo or Saab from their U.S. owners. The plan offers credit guarantees, emergency loans and research funds to boost companies in what’s called the “Swedish automotive cluster,” the center-right government said. Carmakers Volvo and Saab have appealed to the Swedish government for support because of the financial woes of their U.S. owners, Ford Motor and General Motors, which are focusing on saving their American brands.

GM to Temporarily Close 20 Plants to Slash Output

NEW YORK (AP) — General Motors said Friday it will temporarily close 20 factories across North America and make sweeping cuts to its vehicle production as it tries to adjust to dramatically weaker automobile demand. GM said it will cut 250,000 vehicles from its production schedule for the first quarter of 2009. Many GM plants will be shut down for the whole month of January, he said, and all told, the factories will be closed for 30% of the quarter.

Fifth Georgia Bank Closed, 24th Nationwide Failure in 2008

NEW YORK — Regulators on Friday closed Haven Trust Bank, marking the 24th U.S. bank failure this year, and the fifth in Georgia. The FDIC said Winston-Salem, N.C.-based BB&T has agreed to assume all of the bank’s deposits, including those that exceeded the insurance limit. The FDIC estimated that the resolution of Haven Trust Bank will cost the federal deposit insurance fund $200 million. The 24 U.S. bank failures so far this year compare with three for all of 2007 and are far more than in the previous five years combined. It’s expected that many more banks won’t survive the next year of economic turmoil.

Job Cuts Adding to Growing Number of Housing Defaults

USA TODAY — Unemployment is now the cause of almost half of all foreclosures on conventional mortgages, raising concerns that mounting joblessness will stall any housing recovery and could cause more foreclosures next year. The increase in unemployment as a cause is a significant shift from 2007, when foreclosures were primarily driven by the large number of homeowners who had taken on risky loans. Many were first-time home buyers or those who bought during the housing boom that ended in 2006. Now, layoffs and the recession are playing the pivotal role in driving mortgage defaults. The 4.3 million people collecting unemployment is the most since 1974, the Labor Department says. During the first half of the year, about 46% of the 90-day delinquencies on conventional, conforming loans were because of a loss of income, vs. 36% in 2006, according to mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Job losses exacerbate the situation for homeowners with risky mortgages.

States’ Funds for Jobless Are Drying Up

NEW YORK TIMES — With unemployment claims reaching their highest levels in decades, states are running out of money to pay benefits, and some are turning to the federal government for loans or increasing taxes on businesses to make the payments. Thirty states are at risk of having the funds that pay out unemployment benefits become insolvent over the next few months, according to the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Funds in two states, Indiana and Michigan, have already dried up, and both states are borrowing from the federal government to make payments to the unemployed. Unemployment taxes are collected by states from employers, but the rate varies from state to state per employee. In good times states build up trust funds so that when unemployment is high there is enough money to cover the requests for benefits, which are guaranteed by the federal government.

U.S. homes lose $2 trillion in value during 2008

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — American homeowners will collectively lose more than $2 trillion in home value by the end of 2008, according to a report released Monday. The real estate Web site Zillow.com calculated that home values have dropped 8.4% year-over-year during the first three quarters of 2008, compared with the same period of 2007. Some 11.7 million Americans are now “underwater,” owing more on their mortgage balances than their homes are worth.

Ø JJ Commentary: Home prices were way over-valued, which people then borrowed against. A deadly combination when the bubble bursts.

After-School Cuts Stir Fears of Kids Home Alone

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Directors of after-school programs around the nation fear the deepening recession will force more children to spend afternoons home alone or on the street as cash-strapped governments slash funding and donations shrink. Several Boys & Girls Clubs in South Carolina announced plans to close Friday and many of the group’s 4,300 programs are trimming hours, consolidating locations and cutting field trips to get by, said Kirk Dominick, an executive vice president with Boys & Girls Clubs of America. After-school programs of all kinds are hurting nationwide, especially in rural areas, at a time when parents need affordable care more than ever, said Jodi Grant, executive director of Washington-based Afterschool Alliance, which is pushing for federal support.

Gov. Palin’s Home Church Damaged by Arson

ANCHORAGE (AP) — Gov. Sarah Palin’s home church was badly damaged by arson, leading the governor to apologize if the fire was connected to “undeserved negative attention” from her failed campaign as the Republican vice presidential nominee. Damage to the Wasilla Bible Church was estimated at $1 million, authorities said Saturday. No one was injured in the fire, which was set Friday night while a handful of people, including two children, were inside, according to Fire Chief James Steele. Authorities didn’t know whether Palin’s connection to the church was relevant to the fire.

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