Today's Story Line

Russia's parliamentary elections were supposed to set the stage for next year's presidential elections. If so, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is sitting pretty. Or is he? The mercurial rise and fall of some candidates also underscores the uncertainty of a vote that is still six months away.

Underground Christians beware. The Chinese government is finding broad uses for a law passed to crack down on the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

International donors are digging deep to help fund a new nation: East Timor. But money is only part of the rebuilding process.

If you want to truly ring in the new year, Britain will be the most sonorous place to be.


MEMBERS ONLY: The Monitor's Kevin Platt says the Beijing government's concern about religion is not only evident toward what it considers illegal sects, but also in the treatment of "legal" churches. At the Xuanwumen Church in Beijing, where he attends mass on Christmas Eve, plainclothes police are posted at the door. "They don't speak to me, a Westerner. But they ask the Chinese people coming to the service if they are members. If they aren't, they're turned away," says Kevin. Inside, during the service, more plainclothes police circulate among the parishioners, asking questions. "The whole feeling you get - although this is supposed to be a state-sanctioned church - is that it's a forbidden place."

XANANA'S INCREDIBLE JOURNEY: The Monitor's Cameron Barr was struck by how far Jos Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmo has come in recent months. The East Timorese leader spent six years as a political prisoner at Cipinang Prison in Jakarta. He was released in September, received a hero's welcome when he returned to the island the following month, and was in Tokyo last week to get money for building a new nation. "There he was," says Cameron, "standing in the ballroom of the posh Okura Hotel, surrounded by representatives from two-dozen nations ready to write him a check for half a billion dollars. It doesn't get much better than this."

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