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BEIJING (AP) — China’s government on Wednesday accused Washington of misusing national security as an excuse to hurt commercial competitors after President Donald Trump signed an order banning transactions with payment services Alipay and WeChat Pay and six other apps.

Tuesday’s order escalated a conflict with Beijing over technology, security and spying accusations that has plunged U.S.-Chinese relations to their lowest level in decades. It followed confusion in financial markets after the New York Stock Exchange announced last week it would remove three Chinese phone companies and then withdrew that plan Monday.

“This is another example of the U.S.’s bullying, arbitrary and hegemonic behavior,” said a foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying. “This is an example of the United States over-generalizing the concept of national security and abusing its national power to unreasonably suppress foreign companies.”

Beijing will take unspecified “necessary measures” to protect Chinese companies, Hua said, repeating a government statement made following previous U.S. sanctions announcements. It rarely has been followed by action.

Trump’s order cites unspecified concerns about apps collecting Americans’ personal and financial data and turning it over to China’s communist government.

Hua ridiculed that argument, pointing to U.S. government intelligence gathering.

“This is like a gangster who wantonly steals but then clamors to be protected from robbery,” Hua said. “How hypocritical and ridiculous it is.”

Chinese smartphone apps face similar opposition in neighboring India, which has blocked dozens of them on security grounds amid a military standoff over a disputed section of border between the two countries.

Trump in August issued orders banning dealings with the popular Chinese-owned video app TikTok and the WeChat messaging app.

Those and this week’s order take effect after President-elect Joe Biden is due to be sworn in Jan. 20, leaving open the question of whether the government will go ahead with it.

A representative for Biden’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Alipay is part of the empire of billionaire Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group and financial platform Ant Group. WeChat Pay is operated by rival tech giant Tencent. The others named in the order are CamScanner, QQ Wallet, SHAREit, Tencent QQ, VMate and WPS Office.

The Trump administration also has imposed curbs on access to U.S. technology for Chinese telecom equipment maker Huawei and some other companies. A November order bans American investors from buying securities issued by companies deemed to be linked to China’s military.

U.S. tech companies worry Beijing might retaliate by making it more difficult to do business in the world’s second-largest economy.

Political analysts expect Biden to try to resume cooperation with Beijing on issues such as climate change and the coronavirus. But few expect big changes due to widespread frustration with Beijing’s trade and human rights record and accusations of spying and technology theft.

Trump administration officials indicated they hadn’t consulted with the president-elect’s team before the latest order.


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ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The Greek government relented and allowed limited attendance at churches celebrating the feast of the Epiphany on Wednesday, reversing a ban on attendance designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Not all churches opened their doors to the faithful during services but, in those that did, congregations were limited from 25 to 50 people, for the largest churches, and, in some cases of overflow, the faithful were allowed in, a few at a time, for private prayers after the service was over.

As per a previous agreement between the Greek Church and the government, the traditional blessing of the waters conducted each year on the Epiphany, on Jan. 6, took place inside the churches and not in the open, in rivers and beaches, as is customary.

The Orthodox Church celebrates Jesus’ baptism during the Epiphany.

The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece had reacted angrily Monday to the ban which was imposed, without consultation, they claimed, the previous Saturday and had decided unanimously it would openly challenge it. The government had also responded strongly, saying no one can choose which laws to follow.

During Christmas, churches operated under the same restrictions they did Tuesday. A few priests who had flouted the rules concerning limited attendance, social distancing and mandatory masks for the congregation had been arrested, fined 1,500 euros ($1,840) and given three-month suspended sentences, while congregants were fined 300 euros (about $370) each.

In the end, both sides appeared to draw back from open conflict. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Archbishop of Athens Ieronymos met Tuesday during the swearing-in ceremony of the new ministers appointed in Monday’s Cabinet reshuffle and are said to have discussed the issue. Police were present outside churches Wednesday, but were told by their superiors to be discreet and limit themselves to “suggestions.”

In the northern city of Thessaloniki, where there is a stronger presence of religious zealots, some called for the blessing of the waters at sea, near the city’s iconic White Tower. Police and coast guard forces are spread across the city’s waterfront to prevent the event from taking place. At least three people have been detained so far.

Greece has tightened its lockdown until Jan. 11 to allow schools to reopen on that date. Retail shops and hairdressers that were open for the holidays were shut down and churches were supposed to close, as well.

___

Thanassis Stavrakis in Athens, and Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, contributed to this report.


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By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) -WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange will discover on Wednesday if he will be allowed to taste freedom after years of self-incarceration and jail time, following victory in his battle to avoid extradition from Britain to the United States.

A British judge on Monday rejected a request from U.S. authorities for Assange, 49, to be sent across the Atlantic to face 18 criminal charges of breaking an espionage law and conspiring to hack government computers.

The charges relate to the release by WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands of confidential U.S. military records and diplomatic cables which U.S. officials say put lives in danger.

Although Judge Vanessa Baraitser accepted the U.S. legal arguments in the case, she said Assange’s mental health issues meant he would be at risk of suicide if he were extradited.

The U.S. Department of Justice says it will continue to seek his extradition and will appeal against her verdict.

In the meantime, Assange, who is currently being held in the top-security Belmarsh Prison in southeast London, will seek to be freed on bail at a hearing on Wednesday.

If Baraitser grants his request at a hearing that was due to begin at 1000 GMT, Assange would be able to enjoy freedom for the first time in more than eight years.

“We’re just being positive that there’ll be a good outcome, that he’ll be able to walk free,” Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor of WikiLeaks, told reporters outside the court.

Admirers hail Australian-born Assange as a hero for exposing what they describe as abuses of power by the United States. But detractors cast him as a dangerous figure who has undermined the security of the West, and dispute that he is a journalist.

WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables that laid bare often critical U.S. appraisals of world leaders, from Russian President Vladimir Putin to members of the Saudi royal family.

Assange made international headlines in early 2010 when WikiLeaks published a classified U.S. military video showing a 2007 attack by Apache helicopters that killed a dozen people in Baghdad, including two Reuters news staff.

FREEDOM?

In June 2012, Assange fled to London’s Ecuadorean embassy after losing his bid to prevent extradition to Sweden, where he was wanted for questioning over alleged sex crimes.

He remained in the embassy, living in confined conditions, until being dragged out in April 2019. Although the Swedish case against him had been dropped by then, he was jailed for breaching British bail conditions and his supporters forfeited sureties of 93,500 pounds ($127,076).

He has remained behind bars after completing his jail term pending the outcome of the U.S. extradition case, which would include any appeal by the United States. Baraitser has previously refused him bail, saying he remained a flight risk.

Assange’s partner Stella Moris, with whom he had two children while holed up in the embassy, said they could not celebrate as long as he was still in prison.

“We will celebrate the day he comes home,” she said.

Assange’s lawyer Edward Fitzgerald said on Monday that the extradition ruling cast a new light over the bail decision. But Nick Vamos, lawyer at London-based firm Peters & Peters and former head of extradition at Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service, said he expected his bid not to succeed.

“To do so, he would have to point to some change in circumstances, for example the COVID-19 risk in Belmarsh, other than the extradition judgment in his favour,” Vamos said. “I expect his bail application to fail.”

($1 = 0.7358 pounds)

(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Catherine Evans and Alex Richardson)


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