Sri Lanka claims world's tallest artificial Christmas tree
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka unveiled a towering Christmas tree, claiming to have surpassed the world record despite construction delays and a shorter-than-planned finished product.
The 238-foot artificial tree in capital Colombo is 59 feet taller than the current record holder, organizers said. The tree's steel-and-wire frame is covered with a plastic net decorated with more than 1 million natural pine cones painted red, gold, green and silver, 600,000 LED bulbs and topped by a 20-foot-tall shining star.
The tree costs $80,000 and was criticized by the Catholic Church as a "waste of money." The church suggested that the funds better be spent on helping the poor.
Hundreds of port workers and volunteers struggled for four months to put up the tree in time for the holidays. Work was suspended for six days in early December after Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith — representing the island nation's 1.5 million Catholics — lambasted the project. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe responded to the criticism by saying the tree was not being built with public money but with donations from individuals and private firms.
Guinness World Records has yet to confirm if this is the tallest artificial Christmas tree. The current record is held by a Chinese firm that put up a 180-foot tree-like tower of lights and synthetic foliage, ornaments and lamps in the city of Guangzhou last year.
Sri Lankan organizers said they wanted the tree to help promote ethnic and religious harmony in the Buddhist-majority island nation, where a long civil war ended in 2009 but reconciliation remains a challenge.
"This is just to show the world that we can live as one country, one nation," said Arjuna Ranatunga, a former cricket player and the minister of ports and shipping. He said Sri Lanka still is still grappling with issues regarding religion, caste and race.
Minority Christian and Muslim communities complain of state-sponsored discrimination, and there are allegations of widespread abuses against minority ethnic Tamils both during and after the war.
Canadians sent home for trying to sneak cat into New Zealand
WELLINGTON, New Zealand — A Canadian woman who authorities say managed to hide her 4-year-old pet cat Bella in her handbag during a trans-Pacific flight had her vacation cut short when border agents discovered the ruse at a New Zealand airport.
The woman was refused entry into the country and she, her husband and the cat were forced to catch the next flight home, Ministry for Primary Industries spokesman Craig Hughes said Thursday. He called the woman's actions "reckless and dangerous."
New Zealand has strict regulations for importing pets. Cats and dogs from most approved countries must have an implanted microchip and be quarantined for a minimum of 10 days after arrival.
Hughes said the couple, both in their mid- to late 20s, managed to conceal the cat from the flight crew and other passengers during the 7,000-mile flight from Vancouver to Auckland.
"Apparently it was a very quiet cat. Very docile," Hughes said, adding that it may have been drugged to make it drowsy.
He said the traveling couple said they had nothing to declare upon arrival but border agents then determined their muddy boots needed inspecting. Agents then moved the couple's bags to an X-ray machine.
Hughes said the woman was "very reluctant" to have her small handbag X-rayed and insisted it had already been checked. She finally admitted there was a cat inside, Hughes said, but then said she'd told a ticketing agent about Bella when she purchased her ticket.
Hughes said even if the woman's story were true, which he doubted, it was still unacceptable to bring a cat across the border without declaring it. He said foreign cats could bring with them ticks and diseases that aren't present in New Zealand.
He said the woman got upset about being sent back home.
"She had plans to have a nice holiday with her husband in New Zealand," Hughes said. "And her cat."