Signs of the Times

WHO, CDC Report Drop in Measles Deaths Worldwide

ATLANTA (AP) — Measles deaths worldwide declined dramatically to about 200,000 a year, continuing a successful trend, global health authorities reported Thursday. From 2000 to 2007, annual measles deaths dropped 74%, largely because of vaccination campaigns, according to a report from the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other organizations. Measles has long been a leading cause of death of young children globally and still kills more than 500 a day. But health officials estimate 11 million deaths were avoided in the decline. The most dramatic improvements were seen in Africa and in Greater Middle Eastern countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, where measles deaths dropped by about 90%.

India: Abducted Pastor Escapes

ASSIST News Service reports that Gospel for Asia missionary N. Chauhan has escaped from his abductors after spending a day in captivity and torture. Chauhan was in a marketplace in Madhya Pradesh, India, when a group of anti-Christian extremists began questioning him. Chauhan could feel their animosity and refused to answer their questions about his ministry. The angry group dragged him to a secluded house and beat him. Hours later, the mob brought in a Bible and tried to force Chauhan to stomp on it. The missionary refused, and was rewarded with more severe beatings. Chauhan managed to escape when captors untied him by a dark road to let him relieve himself. He ran nine miles to another Christian’s home, where he was able to contact worried Christian leaders.

Poll: Calif. Gay Marriage Ban Driven by Religion

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Voters’ economic status and religious convictions played a greater role than race and age in determining whether they supported the Nov. 4 ballot measure outlawing same-sex marriage in California, a new poll shows. The ban drew its strongest support from both evangelical Christians and voters who didn’t attend college, according to results released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California. People who identified themselves as practicing Christians were highly likely to support the constitutional amendment, with 85% of evangelical Christians, 66% of Protestants and 60% of Roman Catholics favoring it. Age and race, meanwhile, were not as strong factors as assumed. According to the poll, 56% of voters over age 55 and 57% of nonwhite voters cast a yes ballot for the gay marriage ban. The poll also showed that the measure got strong backing from voters who did not attend college (69 percent), voters who earned less than $40,000 a year (63 percent) and Latinos (61 percent).

TV More Gay than Ever

NEWSMAX — The number of gay and lesbian characters on television has more than doubled this season on American broadcast networks. There are currently 16 gay characters regularly featured on network scripted shows. Gays and lesbians now comprise 2.6% of the network TV universe, up from 1.1% in 2007 and 1.3% in 2006. Conservative Family Research Council’s Peter Sprigg says that he is “convinced that for the most part, these characters are placed on TV for propaganda purposes, to persuade people to be more accepting of homosexual conduct.”

Conservatives form Rival Group to Episcopal Church

WHEATON, Ill. (AP) — Theological conservatives upset by liberal views of U.S. Episcopalians and Canadian Anglicans formed a rival North American province Wednesday, in a long-developing rift over the Bible that erupted when Episcopalians consecrated their first openly gay bishop. The announcement represents a new challenge to the already splintering, 77-million-member world Anglican fellowship and the authority of its spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. The new Anglican Church in North America includes four breakaway Episcopal dioceses, dozens of individual parishes in the United States and Canada, and splinter groups that left the Anglican family years ago. It is unprecedented for an Anglican national province to be created where any other such national church already exists. But traditionalists say the new group is needed to represent the true historic tradition of Anglican Christianity.

Ø JJ Commentary: We need more conservative Biblical fundamentalists to leave liberal un-Biblical churches and denominations and stand up for the absolute truth of God’s Word. It’s time, or even past time, to take a stand.

Fertility Patients Unsure what to Do with Leftover Embryos

USA TODAY — Perhaps half a million embryos lie frozen in U.S. clinics, and many are likely to continue to do so because fertility patients feel they don’t have satisfactory options for dealing with embryos left over from their treatment, research out Thursday suggests. In what they describe as the largest and only multi-center study of its kind in the USA, researchers surveyed patients with frozen embryos at nine fertility clinics. Only about two-thirds of the 1,020 respondents said they were likely to use their embryos. But whether they reported wanting another baby or not, more than half of the respondents said they were “very unlikely” to donate extra embryos to another couple trying to have a baby. That finding contradicts the conventional wisdom, says lead author Anne Lyerly, a Duke University obstetrician/gynecologist and bioethics researcher. The most popular option was donating the embryos for research, the survey found. Among patients who reported they didn’t want a baby, four out of 10 said they’d be “very likely” to donate their leftover embryos for research. The problem, Lyerly says, is that a ban on federal funds for research involving embryos prevents most fertility patients from choosing that option.

Americans Pass Economic Woes to Churches

A new study from the Barna Group shows that fears and disruptions in the economy have induced one in every five households to decrease donations to churches or other religious centers. Over the last three months, 22 percent have stopped giving entirely, and even 48 percent of givers in “upscale” housholds were likely to have reduced their donation. The report found that families with “serious financial debt, “downscale” households, and those who lost 20 percent or greater in their retirement fund or stock portfolio value were most likely to cut back. Among the 20 percent total who cut back at least somewhat, 28 percent had reduced their gifts by half or more. Christian Post reports that George Barna, head of the Barna Group, said, “The giving patterns we’re witnessing suggest that churches, alone, will receive some $3 billion to $5 billion dollars less than expected during this fourth quarter.” Churches can usually expect greater giving in the last quarter, Barna said, but need to prepare for a 4 percent to 6 percent dip below usual.

November Retail Sales are Worst in 30 Years

Retailers took another battering in November with sales that slumped worse than they had in decades, making continued dire predictions for December seem all the more likely. Even Black Friday promotions that lasted through much of November couldn’t stop the bleeding. The Goldman Sachs-International Council of Shopping Centers index of 37 stores reported that sales dropped 2.7% for November, making it the worst month since at least 1969, when the index started. Target’s monthly sales were down 10.4%, Macy’s dropped 13.3%, Kohl’s declined 17.5% and Nordstrom was down 15.9%. As has been the pattern during much of the downturn-turned-recession, Wal-Mart remained the only winner, with a 3.4% increase in same-store sales over the previous year.

60% of CEOs see Job Cuts as AT&T, DuPont, United slash thousands

AT&T, United Airlines and DuPont joined the layoff parade Thursday, as the number of people drawing unemployment benefits hit a 26-year high. AT&T  announced plans to cut 12,000 jobs, about 4% of its work force. DuPont says it will cut 2,500 jobs, mostly in its businesses that serve the U.S. and European auto and construction markets, plus 4,000 contractors. United Airlines plans to furlough 1,088 workers at bases around the country, according to layoff notices and the unions that represent the workers. Those announcements came as the Labor Department said the number of people claiming unemployment benefits reached a 26-year high 4.09 million, the most since December 1982, when the economy was in a steep recession. And a survey by the Business Roundtable showed that 60% of CEOs polled said they plan to cut workers the next six months, up from 32% in the third quarter. The CEOs also became gloomier about capital investments and sales. Fifty-two percent said they plan to cut capital expenditures in the next six months, up from 10% in the third quarter, while 45% said they expect their sales to drop, up from 7%.

The Labor Department says U.S. employers cut 533,000 jobs last month. That’s the biggest cuts we’ve seen since December 1974. The unemployment rate rose from 6.5% in October to 6.7% in November. All told, 10.3 million Americans were unemployed during the month. The report points to a rapidly deepening recession. Adding in those who have given up looking for work and people working part-time because they can’t find full-time work, unemployment was 12.5% in November, up from 11.8% in October and highest since the department began tracking the number in 1994.

Phoenix – The state will hire 45 new employees at its unemployment benefits office here to handle the soaring number of claims. The positions are exempt from a state hiring freeze imposed by Democratic Gov. Napolitano because they are federally funded. Some laid off workers are waiting nearly a month to get their first unemployment insurance check rather than the usual 10 days.

Union to Big 3 Auto-Makers: We will make sacrifices

DETROIT – Worried about their jobs and warned that failure could lead to a depression, hundreds of leaders of the United Auto Workers voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to make concessions to the struggling Big Three, including all but ending an often-derided program that let laid-off workers collect up to 95 percent of their salaries. Leaders also agreed to let the cash-starved automakers delay billions in payments to a union-administered trust set up to take over health care for blue-collar retirees starting in 2010. In addition, they decided to let the Detroit leadership begin renegotiating elements of contracts signed with the automakers last year, a move that could lead to wage concessions.

Ø JJ Commentary: Unions killed the U.S. auto industry making it impossible to compete against foreign manufacturers

European Central Bank makes its Biggest Ever Rate Cut

FRANKFURT (Reuters) — The European Central Bank cut interest rates by three-quarters of a percentage point Thursday, its biggest move ever, as inflation plummets and the euro zone economy sinks deeper into recession. The move takes the ECB’s main refinancing rate to 2.50%, lowest in nearly 2-1/2 years and marks the third cut in barely two months amidst signs the financial crisis is biting hard into the economy. Other central banks have taken even more aggressive moves, with the Swedish central bank cutting by a record 175 basis points or 1.75 percentage points, while the Bank of England cut rates by 100 basis points to 2.0%, their lowest level since 1951.A basis point is one-hundreth of a percetage point.

Oil hits near 4-year Low on Weak Economic News

VIENNA (AP) — Oil prices sank Thursday to lows last seen nearly four years ago as more bleak news from the world’s largest economy boosted views that crude could tumble below $40 by the end of the year. Oil prices have tumbled about 69% since peaking at $147.27 in July. But trader and analyst Stephen Schork suggested that the price decline had some ways to go before bottoming out, despite the arrival of the cold season in the U.S. and elsewhere in the Western hemisphere, which traditionally drives up demand. Investors were dismayed at more poor economic news from the U.S. The Institute for Supply Management said Wednesday its services sector index fell to 37.3 in November from 44.4 in October. The reading was significantly lower than the 42 the market expected. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has signaled it plans to lower output quotas at a Dec. 17 meeting, adding to a production cut of 1.5 million barrels a day in October.

Canadian Prime Minister Shuts Down Parliament

OTTAWA (AP) — Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper shut down Parliament on Thursday in an unprecedented attempt to keep his government in power, fending off a no-confidence vote he was all but certain to lose. Less than two months after winning re-election, Harper successfully asked the unelected representative of the head of state for the power to close down Parliament until January, hoping to buy enough time to develop a stimulus package that could prop up the economy. Three opposition parties have united against Harper, charging he has failed to insulate Canada from the global financial crisis.

Ø JJ Commentary: People want someone to blame and the person at the top becomes the target. But neither Harper nor Bush nor any head of state is directly to blame for the financial crisis. Greedy banks, realtors and mortgage buyers bear the immediate blame, while decades of government debt-producing policies are the long-term culprit.

U.S. Combat Deaths Hit Five-Year Low

USA TODAY — U.S. combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan last month dropped to the lowest combined level since the United States began fighting the two wars more than five years ago. Eleven American servicemembers died in combat in the conflicts in November. Seven others died in non-hostile incidents. The highest monthly total for combat deaths in both wars was 129 in November 2004. Security in Iraq has improved dramatically over the past year, despite a number of high-profile bombing against civilian targets in recent weeks. Afghanistan is a more complicated picture. There was only one U.S. combat death in November, the lowest level since February. However, 11 other coalition troops died there last month. Fighting in Afghanistan tapers off in the winter when snow makes much of the terrain impassable.

Iraq approves U.S. Security Pact

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s three-member presidential council on Thursday approved a security pact with the United States that sets out a three-year timeframe for the full withdrawal of American troops, a spokesman said. The panel’s approval was the final step for the agreement, which replaces a U.N. mandate that expires on Dec. 31. It came one week after Iraq’s parliament signed off on the deal following months of tough talks between U.S. and Iraqi negotiators that at times seemed on the point of collapse, and then days of hardscrabble dealmaking between ethnic and sectarian groups. The agreement provides a legal basis for American troops in Iraq after the expiration of the U.N. mandate, but it includes the caveat that it should go before voters in a referendum to be held by the end of July. The agreement provides a legal basis for American troops in Iraq after the expiration of the U.N. mandate, but it includes the caveat that it should go before voters in a referendum to be held by the end of July.

10 killed, more than 100 Hurt in Iraq Truck Blasts

BAGHDAD (AP) — Two suicide bombers in explosives-laden trucks took aim at police stations in the former Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah on Thursday, killing at least 10 people and wounding more than 100, Iraqi officials said. The apparently coordinated blasts struck within minutes of each other outside the concrete barriers surrounding two police stations in different sections of Fallujah. Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, is in Anbar province and saw some of the fiercest fighting of the war before local Sunni tribal leaders joined forces with the Americans against al-Qaeda in Iraq. The city, which is largely sealed off by checkpoints, has been relatively peaceful in recent months but attacks have continued. Thursday’s bombings came three months after the U.S. handed control of the province to the Iraqi government. Political tensions also have been high in Anbar as rival Sunni groups jockey for power before Jan. 31 provincial elections.

India: Evidence shows Pakistani Muslim Militants Linked to Mumbai Attack

MUMBAI, India (AP) — India has evidence that two senior leaders of a banned Pakistani militant group orchestrated the 60-hour siege of India’s financial capital that killed 171 people, Indian officials said Thursday. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met in Islamabad with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who said he will take “strong action” against elements in his country that were involved in last week’s terrorist attacks. The nearly three-day assault was carried out by 10 suspected Muslim militants against upscale hotels, a restaurant and other sites across Mumbai.

Zimbabwe Declares National Health Emergency

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe has declared a national emergency over its cholera epidemic and the collapse of its health system due the country’s economic crisis. “Our central hospitals are literally not functioning,” Minister of Health David Parirenyatwa was quoted as saying by the state-run Herald newspaper on Thursday. The United Nations puts deaths from the cholera epidemic at more than 500. The outbreak is blamed on lack of water treatment and broken sewage pipes in a country that once had a sophisticated infrastructure. The European Commission said Wednesday it was providing more than $12 million for drugs and clean water while the International Red Cross was also releasing more funds to deal with cholera in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has been paralyzed since disputed elections in March. President Robert Mugabe and the opposition are wrangling over a power-sharing deal. The country is suffering from the world’s highest inflation and Zimbabweans face daily shortages of food and other basic goods.

Riots Were Religious, Not Political, Nigerians Say

The Christian Post reports that Christians in Jos, Nigeria, resent the international media’s spin on the riots that rocked the city Friday, saying that election results had little to do with the violence. A local source told Christian Solidarity Worldwide, “As usual they took Jos by surprise, and are now hiding behind election results to launch and excuse their mayhem.” Rioters targeted Christian businesses, churches and clergymen’s homes early Friday morning, armed with guns, spears and machetes. The Chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria in Plateau State, the Most Rev. Ignatius Kaigama, said, “We were surprised at the way some of our churches and property were attacked and some of our faithful and clergy killed,” he continued. “The attacks were carefully planned and executed. The questions that bog our minds are why were churches and clergy attacked and killed? Why were politicians and political party offices not attacked if it were a political conflict? Why were the business premises and property of innocent civilians destroyed?”

Earthquake Hits Northern Japan

TOKYO (AP) — The Meteorological Agency says an earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 6.1 jolted the coast of northern Japan. There were no immediate reports of damage or casualties. The agency said the quake hit off the coast of Miyagi, about 180 miles north of Tokyo, at 8:23 a.m. on Thursday. It said there was no danger of a tsunami from the quake. Japan is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries.

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