Signs of the Times

Atheist’s Protest Silences Lord’s Prayer in N.J. Town Council

NEWTON, N.J. — For nearly 60 years, the town council here started its meetings by reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Council members felt the passage gave them guidance and inspiration. That tradition ended recently after the council’s attorney advised members they should heed a request by a resident, an avowed atheist, to stop the practice. Doug Radigan told the council at its Dec. 22 meeting the prayer was too Christian and was offensive to him. He asked for a secular replacement. Council members said they were saddened — but not really surprised — they had to end a tradition begun in 1952. “It’s not a surprise, but I’m disappointed that we had to cave into this or we would’ve been open to a lawsuit,” said longtime Councilwoman Thea Unhoch. “You can’t even say ‘Merry Christmas’ anymore.”

Ø JJ Commentary: End-time persecution of all things Christian is well underway.

Jakes, Caldwell, Wuerl Join Inaugural Services

NEW YORK (AP) — Bishop T.D. Jakes, the Dallas megachurch pastor, will preach at the private church service that President-elect Barack Obama will attend the morning of his inaugural,. The next day, an interfaith National Prayer Service will be held in the National Cathedral to cap the inauguration, featuring Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu clergy, along with pastors from mainline Protestant, evangelical and Orthodox Christian traditions. Jakes will give the sermon Tuesday at St. John’s Episcopal Church, dubbed the “Church of the Presidents,” sits across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. Roman Catholic Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington will deliver a prayer for the nation. The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, a United Methodist from Houston, will be among those leading responsive prayers. Caldwell is close to President George W. Bush, participated in his inaugurals and officiated at the wedding of Bush’s daughter, Jenna, to Henry Hager last May. However, the pastor backed Obama in 2008.

A Muslim scholar chosen to speak at President-elect Barack Obama’s inaugural prayer service Wednesday is the leader of a group that federal prosecutors say has ties to terrorists. Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, is one of many religious leaders scheduled to speak at the prayer service at Washington’s National Cathedral. Mattson has been the guest of honor at State Department dinners and has met with senior Pentagon officials during the Bush administration. She also spoke at a prayer service at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Mattson, who was elected president of the society in 2006, is a professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut. But in 2007 and as recently as last July, federal prosecutors in Dallas filed court documents linking the Plainfield, Indiana-based Islamic society to the group Hamas, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization. Prosecutors wrote in July that they had “a wide array of testimonial and documentary evidence expressly linking” the group to Hamas and other radical groups.

Ø JJ Commentary: Tolerance and inclusiveness mean that everyone and every ideology must be accepted. Such is the slippery slope of relativism.

Israel, Palestinians Agree to One-Week Cease-Fire

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Militants in Hamas-ruled Gaza agreed Sunday to a week-long cease-fire with Israel, after three weeks of violence that Palestinian medics say has killed more than 1,000 people and turned Gaza’s streets into battlegrounds. Sunday’s announcement came about 12 hours after Israel declared its own unilateral cease-fire. Hamas’ Syrian-based deputy leader, speaking for the militant Palestinian factions, said on Syrian television that the cease-fire will give Israel time to withdraw and open all the border crossings to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. An Israeli security chief told Cabinet ministers the military operation “is not over” and that the next few days would be critical to determining whether it would be relaunched. The military said no one was injured by more than a dozen militant rockets that struck southern Israel ahead of the announcement from deputy Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouk on Syrian television. The United States and Israel have agreed to a plan that would provide U.S. support for monitoring the border with Egypt, in the hopes it will provide Israel assurances Hamas will not rearm.

Israel plans to pull all of its troops out of the Gaza Strip by the time President-elect Barack Obama is inaugurated Tuesday, but only if Hamas militants hold their fire, Israeli officials said. “We didn’t set out to conquer Gaza. We didn’t set out to control Gaza. We don’t want to remain in Gaza and we intend on leaving Gaza as fast as possible,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said. The cease-fire in Gaza could present new opportunities for achieving a broader peace in the Middle East, analysts said Sunday, despite concern over unresolved issues such as how to seal the smuggling tunnels Hamas militants use to arm themselves. It is a fragile peace. Although Israeli troops began pulling out of Gaza on Sunday, the Israeli government still warns it will respond forcefully if Hamas resumes firing rockets into Israel. Gaza residents slowly emerged from their homes Sunday to confront overflowing rubble, collapsed roofs and the task of returning to what passes as normal life.

S. Korea on Alert after North’s Military Threat

SEOUL (AP) — South Korea said its army remained on alert Sunday, a day after North Korea threatened military action in response to Seoul’s hard-line stance against its communist regime. The latest harsh rhetoric from the isolated regime appeared aimed at heightening tensions on the divided peninsula and could be a test for Barack Obama days before he is sworn in as the new U.S. president. The North’s Korean People’s Army called South Korean President Lee Myung-bak a “traitor” and accused him of preparing a military provocation, according to a statement carried Saturday by the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency. Pyongyang said it was adopting “an all-out confrontational posture” and warned of a “strong military retaliatory step.” South Korea immediately put its forces on alert.

Russia, Ukraine Reach Gas Deal

MOSCOW (AP) — The prime ministers of Russia and Ukraine announced a deal early Sunday to settle the gas dispute that has drastically reduced supplies of Russian gas to Europe for nearly two weeks. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Ukraine will pay 20% less than the European price for the gas this year. This means a substantial increase for Ukraine in the first quarter but the price could fall significantly later in the year as gas prices are expected to drop. Ukraine Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said natural gas supplies would resume once the two countries’ gas companies sign a contract. It was not clear how soon this would happen. Russia’s Gazprom and Ukraine’s Naftogaz, both state controlled, were told to prepare the documents. The 27-nation European Union normally receives about one-fifth of its gas supplies through Ukraine. Nations in eastern Europe that rely on Russia have been left with virtually no new supplies.

Rights Group: Uganda Rebels Killed 620 in Congo

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Ugandan rebels in eastern Congo have ruthlessly killed at least 620 people in the past month, and vulnerable civilians in the region desperately need protection, human rights groups said. Human Rights Watch said many of the attacks carried out by Lord’s Resistance Army rebels appeared to have been premeditated. Researchers from the New York-based organization gathered testimony and evidence on a two-week mission to the region with staff from the Congolese rights group Justice Plus. The Lord’s Resistance Army has fought in northern Uganda for two decades, and rights groups have accused it of cutting off the lips of civilians and forcing thousands of children to serve as soldiers or sex slaves. The conflict has spilled into Sudan and Congo. The latest attacks were apparently stirred up when Uganda’s army, backed by Congolese and Sudanese soldiers, launched an operation Dec. 14 aimed at routing the rebels from Congo.

Taliban Threats Close Pakistan Schools

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — In a dark echo of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, violent religious extremists in Pakistan are moving to restrict girls’ education as they seek to impose a draconian version of Islamic law on a beleaguered population. In a northern valley where Taliban guerrillas have been waging a bloody war against security forces for more than a year, hard-liners have blown up or burned down some 170 schools, most of them for girls. Then in December, a warning by militants in a pirate radio broadcast: All schools for girls should close by Jan. 15. This week, an association representing 400 private schools for boys and girls in the Swat valley said they would all remain closed after the winter break because of the threat.

Interior Issues Offshore Drilling Plan

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Interior Department on Friday issued a detailed proposal for widespread oil and gas drilling off both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts in areas that have not had energy exploration for decades. The proposal, issued in the Bush administration’s final days, calls for oil and gas leases to be made available within two to six years “in areas of hydrocarbon potential” from New England to Florida and off the length of California. Until recently these regions of the Outer Continental Shelf have been declared off limits to drilling by Congress and by presidential executive order. It will be up to President-elect Barack Obama whether to proceed with Interior’s revised five-year leasing plan that would cover the years 2010 to 2015. He could scale it back or scrap it altogether. Interior officials said they wanted to give the next administration maximum flexibility to expand offshore drilling.

It’s Been a Tough Week for Newspapers

The Tucson Citizen is up for sale and will close by March 21 if no “viable” buyer emerges, Gannett Co. Inc. has announced. The afternoon paper — Arizona’s oldest continuously published newspaper — is being sold because of “dramatic changes in our industry and the difficult economy,” Robert J. Dickey, president of Gannett’s U.S. Community Publishing division, told employees. The Minneapolis Star Tribune filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection because of declining revenues. Last Friday, the Hearst company put the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on the block and said it would halt printing in 60 days if it cannot be sold.

Layoffs Mount at Hertz, AMD, Pfizer; Circuit City Liquidates

Layoff announcements mounted Friday as thousands of job cuts at Hertz, AMD, Wellpoint and Pfizer came on the heels of news that Circuit City Stores will liquidate the company, laying off 30,000 U.S. employees. Circuit City said it reached an agreement with liquidators to sell the merchandise in its 567 U.S. stores after failing to find a buyer or refinancing. The nation’s second-biggest consumer electronics retailer says it will begin close-out sales Saturday.

Hertz already has trimmed its work force by 22% in the last two years. The new reductions will bring staffing to 32% below August 2006 levels. According to CapitalIQ, the company currently has about 29,350 workers in total, who operate about 8,100 locations in 144 countries.

Advanced Micro Devices said it plans to cut 1,100 jobs, 9% of its global staff, and slash the remaining employees’ pay as the chipmaker hopes its third round of layoffs in a year can help it get through a brutal market for computer sales.

Health insurer WellPoint said Friday that it will cut about 1,500 jobs. The company, based in Indianapolis, will eliminate about 3.5% of its staff, which currently totals more than 42,000. The cuts include 900 unfilled positions and 600 employees.

Published reports said drug giant Pfizer plans to lay off nearly a third of its 8,000 salespeople. Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal say Pfizer will cut as many as 2,400 sales representatives. Pfizer, the world’s No. 1 drugmaker by revenue, declined to comment on the reports, which come the same week as it confirmed it is cutting the jobs of up to 800 scientists and other research staff.

Britain Tries another Bank Rescue: Insuring Bad Assets

LONDON — Britain announced a second rescue plan for the country’s ailing banks Monday, hoping to thaw lending by offering to insure banks against large losses on bad assets they hold. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the government will offer to insure banks against default on toxic loans in exchange for legally binding commitments to make credit more available to British businesses and home buyers who are struggling in an economic downturn.

Royal Bank of Scotland said Monday that its losses for the full-year could be as much as 28 billion pounds ($41.3 billion), which would be the biggest loss ever by a U.K. corporation. The largest full-year loss previously reported by a U.K. corporation was 15 billion pounds by Vodafone in 2006.

Caribbean Islands Slammed

The Caribbean is facing its worst tourism downturn since the Sept. 11 attacks, due to a double blow from the world economic crisis and sweeping airline cutbacks, especially by the region’s dominant carrier, American Airlines. While some islands have other industries, such as banking or oil refineries to pick up the slack, the Caribbean relies on tourism more than any other region in the world — with two-thirds of visitors coming from the USA. Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, the Bahamas’ tourism minister, says this downturn differs from the one that followed the Sept. 11 terror attacks. “This is much deeper,” he says. “All sectors, all price levels are affected.”

FDA: ‘Postpone’ Eating Foods Containing Peanut Butter

USA TODAY — The Food and Drug Administration says Americans should “postpone” eating cookies, crackers, candy and ice cream that contain peanut butter or peanut paste while the agency works to establish which products are tainted with the strain of salmonella typhimurium which has sickened 474 people nationwide and is implicated in six deaths. “Product specific information will become available in the next few days,” says Stephen Sundlof, director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. While snack products are potentially contaminated, supermarket peanut butter is not. It appears that the only peanut butter linked to the outbreak was an institutional brand sold in 5 to 50 pounds tubs to schools, hospitals and nursing homes under the King Nut and Parnell’s Pride label. It was never sold at the retail level and is not available at supermarkets and grocery stores, FDA says.

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