Mystery Christmas Tree on I-17 in Arizona

Once upon a time on a Thanksgiving weekend long ago, an unassuming juniper tree on Arizona Interstate 17 became more than just a tree. Under cover of darkness, parties unknown adorned the evergreen with ribbons and ornaments and tinsel so that motorists between Phoenix and Flagstaff might smile and admire its cheery demeanor. As sometimes happens, the secret trimming became a holiday tradition, and it became a subject of Arizona lore. The spectacle was dubbed “Mystery Christmas Tree.” For about three decades, travelers eagerly awaited a glittering diversion in the median near Milepost 254, just north of the Sunset Point rest area. Investigative journalists tried — and failed — to identify the anonymous decorators.

Then the little tree’s life was imperiled. A wildfire burned along the freeway and right up to the trunk, scorching lower boughs and browning some branches. Yet the intrepid juniper survived, and motorists began referring to it by a new name: “Miracle Christmas Tree.” Glenn Brown, fire chief in Mayer, says first responders were mistakenly credited with saving the tree’s life. “It was a higher power than us,” he says. “We did nothing.” But, as of Monday afternoon, the tree remained unadorned for the first time in memory.

Rhode Island Outraged Over “Holiday Tree”

A Rhode Island lawmaker is calling Gov. Lincoln Chafee “Governor Grinch” after he defied lawmakers and decided that the state would have a “holiday tree” instead of a “Christmas tree.” Rep. Doreen Costa sponsored a resolution last January declaring the tree customarily erected in December be referred to as a “Christmas tree and not as a ‘holiday tree’ or other non-traditional terms.” “He is refusing to honor what’s passed in the House of Representatives,” she said. “That’s more concerning than anything else.” So Costa has decided to erect her own Christmas tree – at the State House. And she plans on lighting it on Dec. 6 – the same day Chafee plans to host the official “holiday” tree lighting event. Costa said her yuletide defiance has generated lots of support in the state.

More Than 700 Unborn Saved in 40 Days

More than 700 unborn children were saved from abortion during pro-life group 40 Days for Life’s fall campaign, according to the Baptist Press. The semi-annual campaign, which focuses on peaceful prayer vigils outside abortion clinics, was held this fall at a record 301 sites in the United States and abroad, and 40 Days staff received reports of 732 unborn babies protected from abortion from Sept. 28 to Nov. 6. More than 5,000 unborn children have been saved since the 40 Days effort began in Texas in 2004; the effort went national in 2007.

‘Arab Spring’ Means ‘Christian Winter’ For Millions of Persecuted Christians

Millions of Christians in the Middle East and Africa are enduring what some are calling a “Christian Winter” in the midst of the “Arab Spring,” a movement of political unrest that has given way to Muslim domination and rising hostility against Christians, according to Christian Freedom International (CFI). Secular regimes are being replaced with Islamic states that have instituted sharia (Islamic) law, which is enforced on citizens of all religions. For the small Christian minorities, it has resulted in increased persecution, discrimination, violence and even death. “The Arab Spring is truly a Christian winter for these persecuted people,” said Robert Sweet of CFI, adding that there was a concerning lack of action on the part of Western Christians to assist and speak out for their Middle Eastern counterparts.

L.A., Philadelphia Police Arrest 250 Occupy Protesters

Los Angeles police dressed in riot gear moved in on protesters camped outside City Hall early Wednesday and arrested more than 200 protesters who refused orders to leave. After a long evening of anticipation, police moved swiftly just after midnight in an effort to evict protesters and retake the park surrounding City Hall that for two months has been the campsite of Occupy L.A. demonstrators. It was the same situation in Philadelphia, as riot-suited officers confronted demonstrators, arresting about 50 who refused to clear a street. Aside from a few isolated cases, there appeared to be little resistance on the part of most protesters.

Feds Shut 62% of Medical-Pot Outlets around San Diego

Following through on a crackdown announced last month, federal authorities have shut 62% of medical marijuana dispensaries in and around San Diego and expect to close more in the next two weeks. The Justice Department says that although California permits marijuana use with a doctor’s prescription, the sale and distribution of pot are still illegal under federal law. Last month, the four U.S. attorneys in the state announced the crackdown, which they said was targeted at the “commercial marijuana industry,” particularly operations near schools, parks and athletic fields. They threatened to prosecute landlords and operators and seize their property if they did not shut down in 45 days. 139 of 222 dispensaries in San Diego and Imperial counties had closed by the end of last week. About 9% more are to shut down in the next two weeks.

Rise in PTSD Cases from Two Wars Strains Military Resources

Ten thousand combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder flooded into VA hospitals every three months this year, pushing the number of patients ill from the disorder above 200,000 and straining resources. The increase is more than 5% per quarter, according to data obtained by USA TODAY, and it occurs as the VA struggles to move veterans quickly into therapy. New mental health patients at about a third of VA hospitals wait longer than the department’s goal of 14 days or less to be seen and treated. “Demand for mental health care is only going to continue to grow as thousands more troops return home,” says Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., head of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Medicare to Pay for Obesity Prevention

Medicare announced Tuesday it will pay for screenings and preventive services to help recipients curb obesity and the medical ailments associated with it, primarily heart disease, strokes and diabetes. Thirty-four percent of U.S. adults are obese. Officials expect that percentage to rise to 50% by 2030. The new Medicare benefits will include face-to-face counseling every week for one month, then one counseling appointment every other week for the following five months for people who screen positive for obesity. If the person continues to lose weight, he or she may continue face-to-face counseling every month for six additional months. However, it doesn’t cover treatment provided by dietitians and psychologists.

Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendment Sought

Some supporters of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution are turning to a method last used by the founding fathers: A constitutional convention. And they’re already halfway to their goal. At least 17 of the 34 states necessary have petitioned Congress for a convention to propose a balanced budget amendment, including Alabama, Louisiana, North Dakota, Texas and Utah. The Constitution provides two ways to propose amendments: By a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress, or by a convention that has been requested by two-thirds of the states. Either way, three-fourths of the states (now 38) must ratify the amendment. All 27 amendments to the Constitution have gone the congressional route. But repeated attempts to add a balanced budget amendment have failed in Congress — most recently this month, when it fell 23 votes short in the House. The Senate is scheduled to vote before the end of the year.

Plan to Save Euro on Hold

Under pressure to deliver shock treatment to the ailing euro, European finance ministers failed to come up with a plan for European countries to spend within their means. A comprehensive plan is needed before Europe’s central bank and the International Monetary Fund would consider stepping in to stem an escalating threat to the global economy. The ministers delayed action on major financial issues — such as the concept of a closer fiscal union that would guarantee more budgetary discipline — until the heads of state meet next week in Brussels. Tuesday night, finance ministers for the 17 countries that use the euro did hand Greece a promised $10.7 billion rescue loan to fend off its immediate cash crisis. Nevertheless, stock markets in Europe rallied Wednesday on hopes that the Dec. 9 meeting of leaders will finally deliver a plan.

Economic News

The world’s major central banks made it easier Wednesday for banks to get dollars if they need them, a coordinated move to ease the strains on the global financial system. Stock markets rose sharply on the move. The European Central Bank, U.S. Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the central banks of Canada, Japan and Switzerland are all taking part in the operation, which is designed to “provide liquidity support to the global financial system.”

Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services has lowered its credit ratings for many of the world’s largest financial institutions, including the biggest banks in the U.S. Bank of America and its main subsidiaries are among the institutions whose ratings fell at least one notch Tuesday, along with Citigroup, Goldman Sachs Group, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo.

American Airlines and American Eagle’s parent company AMR have filed for Chapter 11 reorganization saying it’s in the best interest of the companies and its shareholders. The decision comes as it tries to “achieve a cost and debt structure that is industry competitive and thereby assure its long-term viability and ability to continue delivering a world-class travel experience for its customers.”

Charitable giving is trickling back up as the economy heals, but it could take years to return to pre-recession levels, non-profit leaders say. Giving totaled $291 billion in 2010, according to the 2011 annual report by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. That’s up 3.8% from 2009 and follows two consecutive years of declines. This year shows little change thus far.

The shopping season’s biggest online holiday was more popular than ever yesterday as consumers rushed to the Web for exclusive Cyber Monday deals. Online traffic was up 43% from last year and online sales were up 18% over Cyber Monday 2010.

For people looking to move up the economic ladder, the worst place in the nation to live is Nevada, according to a report released Monday. Nevada scored 21.3 out of 100 on the Opportunity Index, putting the state in last place in the ranking. The ranking is based on criteria in three general categories: Economy, education and community health and civic life. Nevada had the lowest scores in the nation of the percentage of high school students who graduate on time and the number of preschool-aged children enrolled in school. Plus, the report said 11.2 percent of Nevada teenagers are not in school or working.

Mass strikes began across the United Kingdom Wednesday, with up to 2 million public sector workers walking off jobs in schools, hospitals and police stations to protest proposed pension reforms. The strike appeared to be having a limited impact on many public services, the government said, although more than half of the country’s schools were closed.

Middle East

Rockets fired from Lebanon struck northern Israel early Tuesday for the first time in more than two years, drawing a burst of Israeli artillery fire across the tense border. No casualties or major damage were reported. Israeli guns shelled the area where the fire had originated. The Israeli military said it did not expect Tuesday’s incident to touch off a wider conflict with Lebanon. In a statement, however, it said it regarded the attack as “severe” and held the Lebanese government and army responsible for preventing rocket fire at Israel.

Iran

Hard-line Iranian students stormed British diplomatic sites in Tehran on Tuesday, bringing down the Union Jack flag, burning an embassy vehicle and throwing documents from windows in scenes reminiscent of the seizing of the U.S. Embassy compound in 1979. The mob surged past riot police into the British Embassy complex — which they pelted with petrol bombs and stones — two days after Iran’s parliament approved a bill that reduces diplomatic relations with Britain following London’s support of recently upgraded Western sanctions on Tehran over its disputed nuclear program. The act drew a sharp rebuke from London. British Prime Minister David Cameron called it “outrageous and indefensible” and warned the Iranian government will face “serious consequences” for “its unacceptable failure” to protect diplomats in line with international law. Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague said Wednesday that the UK was ordering the immediate closure of the Iranian embassy in London, and Britain was shutting down its embassy in Tehran.

Pakistan

NATO forces may have been lured into attacking friendly Pakistani border posts in a calculated maneuver by the Taliban, according to preliminary U.S. military reports on the deadliest friendly fire incident with Pakistan since the Afghanistan war began. The NATO airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers over the weekend in an apparent case of mistaken identity. A joint U.S.-Afghan patrol was attacked by the Taliban early Saturday morning. While pursuing the enemy in the poorly marked border area, the patrol seems to have mistaken one of the Pakistan troop outposts for a militant encampment and called in a NATO gunship and attack helicopters to open fire.

A newly built church in a Karachi slum that can seat as many as 5,000 worshipers is a testament to the resilience and hope of Pakistani Christians amid persecution in the violent, Muslim-majority country, the Washington Post reports. The three-story St. Peter’s of Karachi is the largest yet in Pakistan, and was built on the site of a smaller church in an area that is home to around 15,000 Christians. “There were so many people here it was not possible for us to accommodate them on Sundays,” said Father Saleh Diego. New churches built in Pakistan are typically in poor Christian neighborhoods — ghettos of extreme poverty often separated from their Muslim neighbors by high walls — so there is usually no direct opposition to their construction.

Egypt

The Muslim Brotherhood said on Wednesday it was leading in the initial count of results from the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary election. The overall outcome will not be known until January. The election is spread over six weeks with different parts of the country voting separately in three phases, each of which may be followed by run-off votes. Under an elaborate system that makes it difficult to predict the outcome, two-thirds of the 498 elected seats go to political parties and the rest to individuals.

Libya

A U.N. report says former Libyan revolutionaries are still holding about 7,000 people, and some reportedly have been subjected to torture and ill treatment. Many of the inmates have no access to due process in the absence of a functioning police force and judiciary. Sub-Saharan Africans, in come cases accused or suspected of being mercenaries who worked with Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, constitute a large number of those held.

Libya’s civil war is over, but the country is full of independent militias who have not been reintegrated into normal life or absorbed into the new national army. Throughout the capital, there are checkpoints manned by brigades of fighters who use trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns and other heavy weapons even though the city was liberated from government forces in August. Libya’s new leaders admit that it will be difficult asserting authority over these brigades.

Tunisia

Tunisian authorities have extended the North African nation’s state of emergency for the rest of the year. Tunisia has faced intermittent bouts of violence and unrest in recent months. Some of the protests have involved hard-line Muslims or youths angry about high unemployment. Interim President Fouad Mebazza signed the decree extending the state of emergency for the fourth time since it was first enacted during street unrest after the fall of Tunisia’s longtime autocratic leader in January. There has also been some spillover from neighboring Libya’s civil war.

Syria

Christian Today reports of growing concerns for the future of Christians in Syria, including the thousands of Iraqi immigrants seeking refuge there. Christians in Syria fear that if Assad falls, the nation will descend into further chaos as Iraq did post-Saddam Hussein — with militant Islamists rising to power and freely wreaking havoc on the Christian community. Many Syrian Christians have stayed away from the anti-Assad protests because of the reasonable amount of religious freedom they enjoyed under his rule. Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo of the Barnabus Fund says, “Syria has been very much a safe haven for Christians in the Middle East, one of the few Arab countries where they were treated with respect and had equality with the Muslim majority. Syria also has a history of welcoming in persecuted Christians from other countries. But I greatly fear that within the near future we will see a new Iraq developing in Syria.” The U.S. State Department has instructed all U.S. citizens to leave Syria “immediately.”

Kosovo

A German NATO officer and a soldier were shot and wounded and about 23 Austrian and German soldiers injured in clashes with Serb protesters in northern Kosovo throughout Monday after the military alliance’s troops used heavy machinery to remove trucks and buses blocking a main road in the tense region. The violence near the town of Zubin Potok, some 60 kilometers (40 miles) northwest of Pristina comes after months of tensions, following a decision by Kosovan authorities to extend their authority in areas under de-facto Serb rule. For months Serbs have used soil, rock and concrete barriers to block any such moves. NATO has threatened to remove the barriers because they cut off supply to a military base in the north. NATO has ultimate authority over security in Kosovo.

Myanmar

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has begun a historic visit to the long-isolated Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar to test the country’s first civilian government in decades on its commitment to reform, including severing military and nuclear ties with North Korea. Clinton arrived Wednesday in the capital of Naypyidaw on the first trip by a U.S. secretary of state to the nation (formerly known as Burma) in more than 50 years. She is to meet senior Myanmar officials Thursday before heading to the commercial capital of Yangon, where she will see opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is returning to the political scene after years of detention and harassment.

China

China is taking control of the world’s oil supplies. In Iraq, China’s national petroleum company beat out three U.S. oil giants to win long-term rights to develop a huge 17 billion barrel oil field. In Saudi Arabia, China signed so many new contracts that they now get more Saudi oil than America. China also recently bought a Canadian-based company controlling $1 trillion of oil and natural gas reserves in Kazakhstan. In Brazil, China invested $10 billion in oil giant Petrobras, securing 160,000 barrels of oil a day for the next 10 years.

Earthquakes

An earthquake with a magnitude of 6 shook the capital Manila and other areas of the northern Philippines. There are no immediate reports of damages or injuries. Movement in the Manila Trench off the country’s western coast set off the earthquake Wednesday but it occurred deep under the ocean floor and did not cause any destruction.

Weather

World temperatures keep rising, and are heading for a threshold that could lead to irreversible changes of the Earth, the United Nations weather office said Tuesday. 2011 is tied for the 10th-hottest year since records began in 1850, the office said in its annual assessment of average global temperatures. Arctic sea ice has also shrunk to record-low volumes this year, it said. The 13 hottest years on the books all have occurred in the last 15 years.

  • The problem is records only go back 161 years, whereas natural cycles take thousands of years. However, this is a supernatural, end-time cycle.

Fierce winds up to 80 mph are expected to rake some California areas later this week. The National Weather Service says the fall windstorm is expected to begin early Thursday and continue through Friday. Weather service forecasters in Oxnard are calling it a possible 5- to 10-year Santa Ana wind event in the Los Angeles area. Blowing dust and sand could lower visibilities to near zero in some areas.

In unusual topsy-turvy weather pattern brought rare November snow and cold to the southern USA on Monday. The snow, up to 4 inches in some spots, caused travel trouble Tuesday morning in parts of Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. Meanwhile, unusual warmth continued Monday along the Eastern Seaboard and into New England. While Starkville, Miss., shivered at 39 degrees, in Portland, Maine, about 1,200 miles to the northeast, the temperature was a balmy 63 degrees. A record-high temperature of 70 degrees was recorded Sunday and Monday at Washington’s Dulles International Airport.

  • Record high of 71 degrees at Prescott Airport too

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