Christmas Cheer Abounds in Sunny Bethlehem

A festive mood gripped a sunny Bethlehem on Friday as tourists flocked in record numbers to celebrate Christmas in the town where Jesus Christ was born. “It’s amazing. To be in the birthplace of Christ on Christmas, you can’t get better than that,” said Brady MacCarl, 22. MacCarl was among thousands of people packed into Manger Square in unseasonably warm weather under clear blue skies. At least 90,000 people were expected to flood the town over the Christmas period. Crowds lined the square, most of them Palestinian Christians, but Muslim women sporting headscarves were also visible in the crowd. Palestinian security forces channeled visitors behind security barriers as troupes of scouts from Christian towns and villages across the West Bank marched through the city. Manger Square is home to both the Church of the Nativity, built over the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born, and St Catherine’s Church, where the Christmas Eve midnight mass was to be celebrated.

More than 500 members of the Gaza Strip’s tiny Christian community left the blockaded territory on Thursday to participate in Christmas celebrations in Jesus’ traditional birthplace of Bethlehem. The Israeli military coordinated the rare passage to the West Bank ahead of the holiday, saying it was part of its goal to ensure freedom of worship for all religions. About 3,500 Christians live in Gaza among 1.5 million Muslims. Relations have traditionally been good, though there has been sporadic violence against Christians since the Islamic Hamas movement wrestled control of the strip three years ago. Christians currently comprise less than 2% of the population in the West Bank and Gaza, compared to about 15% in 1950. Like many other Christian communities across the Middle East, many have moved abroad to flee political tensions or in search of economic opportunities.

Christmas, Afghan-Style for U.S. Troops

There will be no Christmas turkey and trimmings for US marines at Patrol Base Talibjan this year — a chemically heated meal of preserved meat is all the infantry men expect. The troops — living in unheated tents in the Taliban heartland of Musa Qala district, in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province — will climb out of their sleeping bags as usual, plan patrols and hope the day ends without casualties. Small glimpses of Christmas decorate the humble surroundings. A plastic tree is decorated with baubles and fairy lights, large stockings hang empty on a wire wall and a Christmas star made from snack food tubes tops the tree. Christmas mail was slow to arrive at this outpost on a remote, frozen plateau, but modern technology allows the marines to contact home briefly via the Internet and satellite phone.

Navy chaplain Father William Kennedy, who stays on a larger base in southern Helmand, says the lack of presents and austere environment can be a humble reminder of the Christian holiday’s true meaning. At the marines’ main military base in Helmand — Camp Leatherneck — the seasonal celebrations take on a more celebratory tone as more than 100 troops gather in a plywood chapel for a Christmas concert. A military brass band strikes up “O Come All Ye Faithful” and the congregation, all in desert camouflage uniforms and some equipped with assault rifles, belt out the carol, reading the words off a projector screen.

Today’s Shepherds Alone on the Range in U.S.

This Christmas they are out there still, watching their flocks at all hours, in snow, rain and fog, so we can eat our lamb and wear our wool. They are from places you might expect — the Peruvian and Chilean highlands, mostly — working in a place you might not, here in the USA. About 1,500 shepherds will spend Christmas in the deserts and valleys of the Mountain West, working and living in conditions not that different from those of first-century Judea. They will be on foot and in the open, alone except for a few dogs and lots of sheep. They will sleep in cramped, battered trailers lit by kerosene lantern or candle, without electricity, running water or toilets. It has been a half-century since Americans were willing to trail sheep on the open range, a job the writer Robert Laxalt has called “the region’s most denigrated occupation.” So ranchers import men on guest visas to work three-year contracts and then leave the USA when their contract is up. Some shepherds return after signing up for another three years.

  • · There were shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them ...Luke 2:8-9

Pricey Twelve-Day Gifts

The price of the whimsical gifts in the classic, “Twelve Days of Christmas” surged 9.2 percent this year, according to the 2010 PNC Christmas Price Index. This marks the largest percentage increase since 2003. Pull out your wallets, and maybe a loan application, because the annual survey compiled by PNC Wealth Management, estimates the cost of the gifts to top $23,439 in 2010. That’s a $1,974 increase from last year’s Christmas Price Index. The price of a pear tree, four calling birds, and six geese-a-laying remained unchanged from last year. Given this is first time in three years the federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised, the eight-maids-a-milking hourly rate remains unchanged at $7.25 an hour. Five Gold Rings went up by 30 percent. The fine feathered friends featured in the song saw some of the biggest increases. The two turtle doves were up 78.6 percent and the three French hens increased a whopping 233 percent since last year. The lords-a-leaping jumped eight percent due to rising entertainment costs. The nine ladies dancing, well perhaps your true love won’t notice they’re missing, since they were the most expensive gift clocking in at $6,294.03.

Lame Duck Congress Adjourns after Busy Session

Despite partisan rancor and a recent election that shifted power to the Republicans, lawmakers left Capitol Hill on Wednesday for Christmas after giving President Obama almost everything on his wish list. In a final flurry of legislative dealmaking that capped one of the busiest sessions of Congress in years, the Senate passed a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, and both chambers cleared a bill to help survivors of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Not only did Congress pass a series of controversial measures Obama had requested, it did so with some Republican support.

  • · The recent election shifting power to the right seemed only to energize the liberal majority to enact their agenda before the new Congress is seated. Republican complicity was shameful.

Wilderness Rules Restored for Public Lands

The Obama administration plans to reverse a Bush-era policy and make millions of undeveloped acres of land once again eligible for federal wilderness protection, Interior Secretary Ken Salaar said Thursday. Salazar said his agency will repeal 2003’s so-called “No More Wilderness” policy adopted under former Interior Secretary Gale Norton. That policy stated that new areas could not be recommended for wilderness protection by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. It opened millions of acres in the Rocky Mountain region to potential commercial development. Environmental activists have been calling on the Obama administration to restore protections for potential wilderness areas. Salazar announced Thursday that the agency will resume evaluating lands that could be designated as wilderness areas.

Men Less Healthy than Women

As a general rule, men take lousy care of their health. They shrug off injuries. They hate going to the doctor for anything. They pay little heed to warning signs for major health issues. And the results of all that manliness are evident in the statistics. According to the U.S.
Dept. of Health and Human Services: One in five American men has heart disease. One in three adult men in the United States has high blood pressure. Three in four American men are overweight. Men overall are less healthy and have a shorter life span than women, according to the Men’s Health Network, a national nonprofit group that promotes healthy living for men. And more than half of all premature deaths among men are preventable. Men lead women in nine out of the top 10 causes of death. “If you look at the data, women are 100% more likely than men to seek preventative care. It’s really scary,” said Scott Williams, vice president of the Men’s Health Network, a national nonprofit group that promotes healthy living for men.

Sudden Infant Deaths Most Common on New Year’s Day

A new study finds that more babies die of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in the United States on New Year’s Day than any other day of the year. Researchers suspect it has something to do with parents who drink heavily the night before and put their children in jeopardy. “Alcohol-influenced adults are less able to protect children in their care. We’re saying the same thing is happening with SIDS. They’re also less likely to protect the baby from it,” said study author David Phillips, a sociologist. SIDS kills an estimated 2,500 babies in the United States each year. Some researchers think genetic problems contribute to most cases with the risk boosted when babies sleep on their stomachs.

Stroke Deaths Higher from Fried Fish

The steep rate of death from stroke in a swath of southern states often referred to as America’s “stroke belt” may be linked to a higher consumption of fried fish in that region, new research suggests. A study published in today’s Neurology shows people living in the stroke belt — which comprises North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana — eat more fried fish and less non-fried fish than people living in the rest of the country. Stroke belt residents were 32% more likely to eat two or more servings of fried fish each week than those in the rest of the country. “Differences in dietary fish consumption, specifically in cooking methods, may be contributing to higher rates of stroke in the stroke belt and also among African Americans,” says study author Fadi Nahab, medical director for the Stroke Program at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

Arizona‘s Unmarried Partners to Lose Health-Care Benefits, but Not Gays

On Jan. 1, Arizona will cut off health-care benefits to about 600 heterosexual, unmarried domestic partners of state employees. Gov. Jan Brewer and the Legislature made the benefit change as part of budget cuts in 2009. They intended to eliminate benefits for a much broader group, including adult children and gay partners of state employees. However, the new federal health-care law and a court ruling have forced the state to continue covering those groups, leaving opposite-sex partners the only class impacted by the cuts. The state is appealing the court ruling, and if it succeeds, the 408 same-sex partners of state employees also will lose benefits.

  • · Such unintended consequences often evolve from the tangled webs woven by intrusive government

Economic News

Economic reports Thursday were mostly positive: Slightly fewer people applied for unemployment benefits last week, Americans spent at a moderate pace in November and orders for long-lasting manufactured goods outside of the volatile transportation category rose by the largest amount in eight months. The recent decline in the number of people seeking benefits has encouraged economists. Applications have fallen more than 20,000 the past month. Unemployment benefits rolls dropped 103,000 to little more than 4 million in the week ended Dec. 11th That doesn’t include millions of laid-off workers who are receiving emergency aid under extended unemployment benefits programs. About 4.7 million people are receiving extended benefits for up to 99 weeks. All told, about 8.9 million people got unemployment benefits the week of Dec. 4, latest data available. That was about 150,000 fewer people than the previous week.

The usual end-of-the-year skid in gas prices isn’t happening in 2010. As a result, it is likely that Phoenix will see an average price of at least $3.30 a gallon by summer, analysts say. Several stations in the Phoenix area already are selling regular fuel for $3 a gallon, prices not seen since October 2008. The average price of regular gasoline in Phoenix was $2.91 Wednesday, according to AAA Arizona, about 34 cents higher than a year earlier.

Sales of new homes rose 5.5% last month from October to an annual rate of 290,000 units, while existing home sales in November rose 5.6% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.68 million. Demand has steadily improved since bottoming in July following the end of the buyers’ tax credit. Despite signs of improvement, economists and home builders say next year will remain tough. Home prices, down almost 30% from their 2006 peak, will fall 5% to 7% more before potentially rebounding later in the year, experts estimate. Banks will repossess 1 million U.S. homes next year, on top of 1 million this year, says market researcher RealtyTrac.

More troubled homeowners are dropping out of the Obama administration’s main foreclosure-relief program, which has been widely criticized for failing to help more people keep their homes. But the program reached more homeowners in November than in October. The number of new trial modifications increased to about 30,000, from about 24,000 in October. And the number of trial modifications that turned permanent rose to about 31,000, from about 26,000 the previous month. The Treasury department said Wednesday that about 774,000 homeowners have dropped out of the program as of last month. That’s about 54% of the more than 1.4 million people who applied. Some 505,000 homeowners have secured lower payments permanently. That’s about 35% of the number who enrolled on a trial basis.

Russia

Russia‘s lower house of parliament on Friday gave preliminary approval to a U.S.-Russian arms treaty, but decided to delay further moves until next month. The Kremlin-controlled State Duma voted 350-58 to approve the New START treaty in the first of three required readings. The legislators said they would proceed further after returning from the New Year’s vacation that lasts until Jan. 11. The New START treaty, which was ratified Wednesday by the U.S. Senate, would limit each country’s strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current ceiling of 2,200. It also would re-establish a system for monitoring and verification, which ended last year with the expiration of a previous arms control deal.

Iraq

Iraq’s Christian leaders called off Christmas celebrations amid new al-Qaeda threats on the tiny community still terrified from a bloody siege on a Baghdad church. Christians across Iraq have been living in fear since the assault on Our Lady of Salvation Church as its Catholic congregation was celebrating Sunday Mass. Sixty-eight people were killed. Days later Islamic insurgents bombed Christian homes and neighborhoods across the capital. On Tuesday, al-Qaeda insurgents threatened more attacks on Iraq’s beleaguered Christians, many of whom have fled their homes or the country since the church attack. A council representing Christian denominations across Iraq advised its followers to cancel public celebrations of Christmas out of concern for their lives and as a show of mourning for the victims.

Iraqi officials say a Shiite militia leader, his wife and three children have been killed in a bombing targeting their home south of Baghdad. The Mahdi militia forces are loyal to radical cleric Mugtada al-Sadr. They often terrorized Sunni neighborhoods during the height of  Iraq’s sectarian fighting in 2006 and 2007, and the militia’s fighters have been targets of retribution.

Pakistan

Some 150 militants attacked five security posts in Pakistan’s tribal area near the Afghan border overnight, sparking a clash that killed 11 soldiers and 24 insurgents, officials said Friday. The fighting in the Mohmand tribal area shows that insurgents in the region retain significant ability to coordinate and mount complex assaults, despite multiple military offensives against Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in Pakistan’s northwest.  Mohmand has been a trouble spot for years and the focus of multiple army operations. Its border location makes it a valuable transit point for insurgents seeking to travel to Afghanistan, where U.S. and NATO forces are fighting.

Iran

Iran is operating a worldwide recruitment network for nuclear scientists to lure them to the country to work on its nuclear weapons program, officials have told the Daily Telegraph. They claim that the country is particularly reliant on North Korean scientists but also recruits people with expertise from African countries to work on developing missiles and nuclear production activities. North Korea relies on an lucrative financing agreement with Iran to fund its expanding nuclear activities. In return for Iranian money and testing facilities, North Korea sends technology and scientists. Mohamed Reza Heydari, a former Iranian consul in Oslo, told The Daily Telegraph, that he had personally helped scores of North Koreans enter the country while working for the foreign ministry’s office in Tehran’s Imam Khomenei airport.  “The North Koreans were all technicians and military experts involved in two aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. One to enable Iran to achieve nuclear bomb capability, and the other to help increase the range of Iran’s ballistic missiles.”

Haiti

Since the massive earthquake, the situation for women has gotten even worse, rights groups say. Rapes have gone up threefold in Port-au-Prince, according to Refugee International, a Washington-based group. A report issued by the group this fall, “Haiti: Still Trapped in the Emergency Phase,” detailed that the camps had become dangerous places for women. It alleged that the camps are guarded poorly if at all. Rape was already a serious problem in Haiti even before the earthquake. The United Nations reported in 2008 that almost half of the girls and young women living in slums like Cité Soleil and Martissant had been raped. “Living in squalid, overcrowded camps for a prolonged period has led to aggravated levels of violence and appalling standards of living,” the report states.

Italy

Package bombs exploded at the Swiss and Chilean embassies in Rome on Thursday, injuring the two people who opened them. The interior minister said anarchists were believed responsible and linked the attacks to similar bombings at embassies in Greece last month. All embassies in the Italian capital city were informed of the blasts and Italian diplomats abroad were urged to take precautions. No one immediately claimed responsibility, but investigators were following the “anarchist-insurrectionalist path” given that a similar letter bomb campaign in Athens last month was claimed by Greek radical anarchists.

India

Police searched India’s financial capital on Friday for four men who authorities believe entered Mumbai to carry out a terrorist attack, a top police official said. Authorities issued a terror alert for the city, where a three-day terrorist seige in 2008 killed 166 people. Since then, police tend to take even minor threats seriously and have periodically raised the alarm, but there have been no subsequent attacks in the city. Police have received credible information that at least four men belonging to the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group have entered the city and were planning to strike during the holiday season.

Earthquakes

A magnitude 6.3 earthquake rattled Japan’s southern Bonin Islands on Thursday morning, the U.S. Geological Survey reported, a day after a stronger quake jolted the region and sent residents scrambling to community centers. No tsunami alert was issued Thursday, unlike the aftermath of the magnitude 7.4 quake a day earlier that triggered a brief alert. There were no immediate reports of damage. Japan is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries.

Weather

California residents who endured flooding, mudslides and evacuations during a week-long onslaught of rain now have another problem: contaminated water and fouled beaches. The rain washed trash, pesticides and bacteria into waterways, prompting health warnings. Many beaches were closed because of sewer overflows. More than 200 homes were ordered evacuated for more than 24 hours in suburbs of Los Angeles below steep hillsides that burned in 2009 and where mudslides inundated homes and backyards in February. Sixty people were rescued and more than 30 homes evacuated Wednesday when water surged through Dove Canyon, a gated Orange County community. In Highland, about 65 miles east of Los Angeles, two creeks overflowed, swamping as many as 20 homes in up to 3 feet of mud. Up to 40 homes and around 100 residents were evacuated. In northwestern Arizona, homes along a flooded wash teetered on the edge as residents scurried to gather belongings. Five vacant homes were lost in the rural area and nearly two dozen homes were damaged.

Part of Paris Charles de Gaulle airport was evacuated Friday due to the accumulation of snow on the roof, and hundreds of flights were canceled because of a shortage of de-icing fluid, authorities said. Part of the roof of that terminal collapsed in 2004, shortly after the state-of-the-art building was inaugurated. Four people were killed, media reports at the time said. About a foot of snow had fallen on the roof Friday by the time authorities decided to close the terminal. French authorities earlier Friday asked airlines to cancel half their morning flights to and from the airport because de-icing fluid is running low, they said. Then, early in the afternoon, they asked airlines to scrap a third of their flights for the rest of the day.

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