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Associated Press

Posted on December 25, 2012 at 6:02 AM

Christian celebrate Christmas in ancient Bethlehem church marking Jesus' birthplace

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Pilgrims and locals celebrated Christmas Day on Tuesday in the ancient Bethlehem church where tradition holds Jesus was born, candles illuminating the sacred site and the joyous sound of prayer filling its overflowing halls.

Overcast skies and a cold wind didn't dampen the spirits of worshippers who came dressed in holiday finery and the traditional attire of foreign lands to mark the holy day in this biblical West Bank town. Bells pealed and long lines formed inside the fourth-century Church of the Nativity complex as Christian faithful waited eagerly to see the grotto that is Jesus' traditional birthplace.

Duncan Hardock, 24, a writer from MacLean, Va., traveled to Bethlehem from the republic of Georgia, where he had been teaching English. After passing through the separation barrier Israel built to ward off West Bank attackers, he walked to Bethlehem's Manger Square where the church stands.

"I feel we got to see both sides of Bethlehem in a really short period of time," Hardock said. "On our walk from the wall, we got to see the lonesome, closed side of Bethlehem ... But the moment we got into town, we're suddenly in the middle of the party."

Bethlehem lies 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of Jerusalem. Entry to the city is controlled by Israel, which occupied the West Bank in 1967.

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Snow, sleet expected to complicate holiday travel in US midsection; tornado threat in South

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Forecasts of snow, sleet and freezing rain threatened to complicate Christmas Day travel around the nation's midsection Tuesday as several Gulf Coast states braced for a chance of twisters and potent thunderstorms.

A blizzard watch was posted for parts of Indiana and western Kentucky for storms expected later Tuesday amid predictions 4 to 7 inches of snow could fall in coming hours. Much of Oklahoma and Arkansas braced under a winter storm warning of nasty travel conditions forecasting a mix of rain and sleet early on.

Some mountainous areas of Arkansas' Ozark Mountains could see up to 10 inches of snow amid warnings that travel could become "very hazardous or impossible" in the northern part of the state, the National Weather Service said.

Elsewhere, areas of east Texas and Louisiana braced for possible thunderstorms as forecasters eyed a swath of the Gulf Coast from east Texas to the Florida Panhandle for the threat of any tornadoes.

Storms that were to begin erupting during the day Tuesday along the Gulf Coast could bring strong tornadoes or winds of more than 75 mph, heavy rain, quarter-sized hail and dangerous lightning in Louisiana and Mississippi, the National Weather Service said.

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Officials: NY gunman led quiet life before killing 2 firefighters, injuring 2 others in ambush

WEBSTER, N.Y. (AP) — A man who set his house on fire then lured firefighters to their deaths in a blaze of flames and bullets had attracted little attention since he got out of prison in the 1990s for killing his grandmother, authorities said.

But two months ago, William Spengler's mother died, leaving the 62-year-old ex-con in a Lake Ontario house with his sister, who he "couldn't stand," a friend said.

Spengler set a car and a house in his neighborhood ablaze early Monday, luring firefighters to the neighborhood and then killed two, wounded two others and injured a police officer while several homes burned around him, police said. Spengler then killed himself. His sister, Cheryl, was missing.

About 100 people attended an impromptu memorial vigil Monday evening in Webster, a suburb of Rochester. Dozens of bouquets were left at the fire station, along with a handwritten sign that said, "Thanks for protecting us. RIP."

Spengler, had been living in the home in Webster, a suburb of Rochester, with his mother and sister since his parole in 1998. He had served 17 years in prison after the beating death of his 92-year-old grandmother in 1980, for which he had originally been charged with murder but pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter. His mother, Arline, died in October.

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From 'Odd Couple' to 'Quincy M.E.,' Jack Klugman's everyman characters stuck with audiences

LOS ANGELES (AP) — For many, Jack Klugman will always be the messy one.

His portrayal of sloppy sportswriter Oscar Madison on TV's "The Odd Couple" left viewers laughing but it also gave Klugman the leverage to create a more serious character, the gruff medical examiner in "Quincy M.E." His everyman ethos and comic timing endeared him to audiences and led to a prolific, six-decade acting career that spanned stage, screen and television.

Klugman died Monday at age 90 in suburban Northridge with his wife at his side. His sons called on his fans to embrace their father's tenacious and positive spirit.

"He had a great life and he enjoyed every moment of it, and he would encourage others to do the same," son Adam Klugman said.

The cause of Klugman's death was not immediately known. Adam Klugman said his father had been slowing down in recent years, but wasn't battling cancer, which robbed him of his voice in the 1980s. Klugman taught himself to speak again, and kept working.

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Charles Durning, Oscar-nominated king of the character actors, dies at 89 in NYC

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Charles Durning, the two-time Oscar nominee who was dubbed the king of the character actors for his skill in playing everything from a Nazi colonel to the pope, died Monday at his home in New York City. He was 89.

Durning's longtime agent and friend, Judith Moss, told The Associated Press that he died Monday of natural causes in his home in the borough of Manhattan.

Although he portrayed everyone from blustery public officials to comic foils to put-upon everymen, Durning may be best remembered by movie audiences for his Oscar-nominated, over-the-top role as a comically corrupt governor in 1982's "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas."

Many critics marveled that such a heavyset man could be so nimble in the film's show-stopping song-and-dance number, not realizing Durning had been a dance instructor early in his career. Indeed, he had met his first wife, Carol, when both worked at a dance studio.

The year after "Best Little Whorehouse," Durning received another Oscar nomination, for his portrayal of a bumbling Nazi officer in Mel Brooks' "To Be or Not to Be." He was also nominated for a Golden Globe as the harried police lieutenant in 1975's "Dog Day Afternoon."

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New taxes for Obama's health overhaul kick in Jan. 1; a budget deal could tighten the squeeze

WASHINGTON (AP) — New taxes are coming Jan. 1 to help finance President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. Most people may not notice. But they will pay attention if Congress decides to start taxing employer-sponsored health insurance, one of the options in play if lawmakers can ever agree on a budget deal to reduce federal deficits.

The tax hikes already on the books, taking effect in 2013, fall mainly on people who make lots of money and on the health care industry. But about half of Americans benefit from the tax-free status of employer health insurance. Workers pay no income or payroll taxes on what their employer contributes for health insurance, and in most cases on their own share of premiums as well.

It's the single biggest tax break allowed by the government, outstripping the mortgage interest deduction, the deduction for charitable giving and other better-known benefits. If the value of job-based health insurance were taxed like regular income, it would raise nearly $150 billion in revenue in 2013, according to congressional estimates. By comparison, wiping away the mortgage interest deduction would bring in only about $90 billion.

"If you are looking to raise revenue to pay for tax reform, that is the biggest pot of money of all," said Martin Sullivan, chief economist with Tax Analysts, a nonpartisan publisher of tax information.

It's hard to see how lawmakers can avoid touching health insurance if they want to eliminate loopholes and curtail deductions so as to raise revenue and lower tax rates. Congress probably wouldn't do away with the health care tax break, but limit it in some form. Such limits could be keyed to the cost of a particular health insurance plan, the income level of taxpayers, or a combination.

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At Christmas, many join Newtown, Conn., in remembering shooting victims; 'they'll feel loved'

NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) — As residents prepared to observe Christmas less than two weeks after a gunman killed 20 children and six educators at an elementary school, people sharing in the town's mourning brought offerings of cards, handmade snowflakes and sympathy.

Tiny empty Christmas stockings with the victims' names on them hung from trees in the neighborhood where the children were shot. On Christmas Eve, residents said they would light luminaries outside their homes in memory of the victims.

"We know that they'll feel loved. They'll feel that somebody actually cares," said Treyvon Smalls, a 15-year-old from a few towns away who arrived at town hall with hundreds of cards and paper snowflakes collected from around the state.

At the Trinity Episcopal Church, less than 2 miles from the school, an overflow crowd of several hundred people attended Christmas Eve services. They were greeted by the sounds of a children's choir echoing throughout a sanctuary hall that had its walls decorated with green wreaths adorned with red bows.

The church program said flowers were donated in honor of Sandy Hook shooting victims, identified by name or as the "school angels" and "Sandy Hook families."

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Venezuelan vice president says he spoke with Chavez, who is up and walking after cancer op

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro said late Monday night that he had spoken by telephone with President Hugo Chavez and that the leader is up and walking following cancer surgery in Cuba.

It was the first time a top Venezuelan government official had confirmed speaking personally with Chavez since the Dec. 11 operation. Venezuelan officials have given few specifics on Chavez's condition, and have yet to offer information on his long-term prognosis.

Maduro told state television station Venezolana de Television that the Christmas Eve conversation lasted about 20 minutes. He said the president was walking and doing some recovery exercises. He added that Chavez had given him guidance on budgetary matters for 2013.

"He was in a good mood," Maduro said. "He was walking, he was exercising."

"He wants to send a hug from the comandante to all the girls and boys in the country who will soon be receiving a visit from baby Jesus," he added. Venezuelan tradition has it that baby Jesus delivers gifts to children on Christmas, along with Santa Claus.

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Obama faces tough decisions, including fiscal cliff, when he returns from Hawaiian respite

WASHINGTON (AP) — It's hardly a secret that Barack Obama, like every president no doubt, muses about his ultimate legacy and spot in the presidential pantheon. He approaches his second term confronting tough and shifting challenges that will play big roles in shaping the rest of his presidency and his eventual place in history.

In the coming months, Obama will have to decide where to be ambitious, where to be cautious, and where to buy time.

He draws political strength from his surprisingly easy re-election in a bad economy. It's partly offset, however, by Republicans' continued control of the House, plus their filibuster powers in the Senate.

Some of the big issues awaiting the president's decisions are familiar, long-simmering problems. They include immigration and the need for a tenable balance between taxes, spending and borrowing.

Another issue, gun control, jumped to the national agenda's top tier this month following the massacre of first-graders and teachers in a Connecticut school. And the issue of climate change remains unresolved.

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Bethlehem enjoys merry Christmas as thousands of pilgrims flock to Jesus' biblical birth town

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Thousands of Christians from the world over packed Manger Square in Bethlehem Monday to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the ancient West Bank town where he was born.

For their Palestinian hosts, this holiday season was an especially joyous one, with the hardships of the Israeli occupation that so often clouded previous Christmas Eve celebrations eased by the United Nations' recent recognition of an independent state of Palestine.

Festivities led up to the Midnight Mass at St. Catherine's Church, next to the fourth-century Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.

"From this holy place, I invite politicians and men of good will to work with determination for peace and reconciliation that encompasses Palestine and Israel in the midst of all the suffering in the Middle East," said the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal in his annual address. "Please continue to fight for a just cause to achieve peace and security for the people of the Holy Land."

In his pre-Christmas homily, Twal said the road to actual freedom was still long, but this year's festivities were doubly joyful, celebrating "the birth of Christ our Lord and the birth of the state of Palestine."

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