The bells of Bethlehem rang out under grey skies on Christmas morning across streets whose closed pastel or green shutters were like an Advent calendar that nobody had turned up to open.
Shopkeepers and hotel owners in the Palestinian city reported far lower business than the years before coronavirus closures halted the arrival of wealthy foreign tourists, devastating the economy of the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
In Manger Square, hundreds of Christians – mostly those who live, work or study in Israel and the occupied West Bank – gathered near the tree and crib to sing carols and bring some cheer to the scene outside the Church of the Nativity.
But Joseph Giacaman, whose family has sold souvenirs around the square for a century, said business was around 2% of pre-pandemic years. “We were closed until three weeks ago. I have sold maybe two or three olive wood cribs. In normal years, we’d sell three or four each day throughout the year,” he said.
The back streets were virtually empty.
Star Street had been renovated in recent years in the aim of drawing crowds, but here as elsewhere the Omicron variant dashed those hopes in November when Israel began closing its borders.
‘OPEN HEARTS TO HOPE’
Earlier in December, Bethlehem mayor Anton Salman had sought to bolster morale by walking along the cobbled street at night, shaking hands of those selling mulled wine and olive wood carvings. But the market’s opening could not continue its momentum with no foreign coach parties to sell to.
Across town, Bethlehem’s grandest hotel, the Jacir Palace, lay closed and padlocked.
And in the nearby Nativity Hotel, receptionist Victor Zeidan said he was doing a 12-hour shift at lower pay to get a rare day’s work checking in Palestinian Christian and Filipino care workers who briefly boosted occupancy.
“I haven’t even celebrated this year, I didn’t get much work before so now I am taking the chance,” he said.
Jerise Qumsieh, of the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, told Reuters that this year was better than last because there were at least some domestic visitors compared with the tighter restrictions of 2020, but that foreign tourism was “zero”.
Nevertheless, in the early hours of Saturday the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, urged a reduced midnight mass congregation to search for hope.
“In this time of health emergency and prolonged political emergency, many different voices are heard in families: some undermine confidence, take away hope, extinguish love; others, however, are more encouraging,” he said.
“We need to seek and find the voice that leads us to Jesus and to salvation, that opens hearts to hope.”
(Reporting by Stephen Farrell in Bethlehem; Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)
Britain’s MI5 spy service warns lawmakers over Chinese agent of influence
Britain’s domestic spy service MI5 has warned lawmakers that the Chinese Communist Party has been employing a woman to exert improper influence over members of parliament.
MI5 sent out an alert and picture of the woman named Christine Lee on Thursday alleging she was “involved in political interference activities” in the United Kingdom on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party.
Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, who circulated MI5’s alert to lawmakers, said MI5 had found that Lee “has facilitated financial donations to serving and aspiring parliamentarians on behalf of foreign nationals based in Hong Kong and China“.
Hoyle said Lee had been involved with the now disbanded all-party parliamentary group, Chinese in Britain.
Britain’s interior minister Priti Patel told reporters that Lee’s behaviour was currently below the criminal threshold to prosecute her, but she said that by putting the alert out the government was able to warn lawmakers about Lee’s attempts to improperly influence them.
Patel said it was “deeply concerning” that an individual working on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party had targeted lawmakers.
Lee is the founder of a law firm, which has offices in London and Birmingham, according to a government official. A woman who answered the phone at the Birmingham office said: “We are not taking any calls now”. A request for comment left at the London office went unanswered.
The law firm lists on its website one of its roles as legal adviser to the Chinese embassy in Britain.
The Chinese embassy in London said in a statement that China does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.
“We have no need and never seek to ‘buy influence’ in any foreign parliament,” it said. “We firmly oppose the trick of smearing and intimidation against the Chinese community in the UK.”
Barry Gardiner, a lawmaker for the opposition Labour Party, said he had received hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations from Lee and said he has been liaising with intelligence services “for a number of years” about her.
“They have always known, and been made fully aware by me, of her engagement with my office and the donations she made to fund researchers in my office in the past,” Gardiner said.
Gardiner employed Lee’s son as a diary manager but he resigned on Thursday.
Iain Duncan Smith, a former leader of Britain’s governing Conservative Party who has been sanctioned by China for highlighting alleged human right abuses in Xinjiang, called for an urgent update from the government on the issue.
He questioned why the woman had not been deported and called for a tightening of the accreditation process for people gaining access to parliament, which he said was too lenient.
Lee is listed under the Christine Lee & Co law firm as a British national in financial filings with Companies House, Britain’s corporate registry.
Former defence minister Tobias Ellwood told parliament of her alleged activity: “This is the sort of grey-zone interference we now anticipate and expect from China.”
Britain’s relations with China have deteriorated in recent years over issues including Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Last year MI5 urged British citizens to treat the threat of spying from Russia, China and Iran with as much vigilance as terrorism.
British spies say China and Russia have each sought to steal commercially sensitive data and intellectual property as well as to interfere in domestic politics and sow misinformation.
The Chinese ambassador to Britain was banned from attending an event in the British parliament last year because Beijing imposed sanctions on lawmakers who highlighted alleged human right abuses in Xinjiang.
China placed the sanctions on nine British politicians in March last year for spreading what it said were “lies and disinformation” over the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the country’s far west.
(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Christopher Cushing)
Microsoft board to review sexual harassment, discrimination policies
Microsoft Corp will review the effectiveness of its sexual harassment and gender discrimination policies and practices in response to a shareholder proposal that passed at its latest annual meeting, the company’s board said on Thursday.
The review will produce a transparency report with results of any sexual harassment investigations in recent years against the company’s directors and senior executives, including allegations that a board committee probe beginning in 2019 involved Bill Gates, the board said.
Data on the number of cases investigated and their resolution is also expected to be part of the review along with steps that have been taken to hold employees, including executives, accountable for sexual harassment or gender discrimination.
Microsoft said last year it conducted a probe into co-founder Bill Gates’ involvement with an employee almost 20 years ago after the company was told in 2019 that he had tried to start a romantic relationship with the person.
Gates stepped down from the Microsoft board in 2020. In previous public comments, a spokesperson for Gates has denied that his departure was linked to the probe.
A request for comment sent to Bill Gates at his Gates Foundation email address was not immediately returned.
Microsoft‘s board said it has hired outside law firm Arent Fox to assist in the review, at the end of which Arent would make public a version of the report detailing its findings and recommendations.
(Reporting by Stephen Nellis in San Francisco and Mehr Bedi in Bangalore; Editing by Richard Chang and Shailesh Kuber)
Canada opens probe into Tesla’s heating system following consumer complaints
Canada’s auto safety regulator said on Thursday it has opened an investigation into the heating system of Tesla Model 3 and Model Y vehicles following 16 consumer complaints about its performance during cold weather.
Transport Canada said it is concerned that a malfunctioning heating and air-conditioning system “may affect windshield defogging/defrosting and therefore driver visibility.”
“A company is required to notify Transport Canada and all current owners when they become aware of a defect that could affect the safety of a person. … These notices are commonly referred to as ‘safety recalls,’” it said.
The regulator said it has informed Tesla of the investigation.
Tesla did not respond to a Reuters request for comment. In 2020, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted, “Model Y heat pump is some of the best engineering I’ve seen in a while.”
A number of Tesla owners complained that the heat pumps are failing in extreme cold temperatures, according to Drive Tesla Canada, a Tesla news provider. The report said the heating problems happened even after Tesla early last year replaced faulty sensors in heat pumps in some 2020-2021 Model 3 and Model Y vehicles to address the issue.
The U.S. safety regulator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, did not have an immediate comment on the issue.
(Reporting by Hyunjoo Jin; Additional reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Leslie Adler)
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