Volcano

Iceland’s Institute of Earth Sciences reports that as of Thursday, the  Eyjafjallajökull volcano was producing 10 times less lava and ash as it did during its first three days of eruption. The eruption is also much less explosive that in was at first. It’s estimated that the volcano has produced a total of about 3,280 million cubic feet of erupted material, a combination of lava and tephra (volcanic materials such as dust, ashes, or pumice).

European airports sent thousands of planes into the sky Thursday after a week of unprecedented disruptions, but shifting winds sent a new plume of volcanic ash over Scandinavia, forcing some airports in Norway and Sweden to close again. But nearly all of the continent’s 28,000 other scheduled flights, including more than 300 flights on lucrative trans-Atlantic routes, were going ahead.

Bishops Resigns Over Sex Abuse

Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday accepted the resignation of an Irish bishop who admitted he didn’t challenge the Dublin church’s policy of covering up the sexual abuse of children by priests. Bishop James Moriarty of Kildare is the third Irish bishop to resign in four months as a result of the Irish sex abuse scandal. Another two have offered to go, as the Vatican comes under increasing pressure to get rid of the bishops who covered up for priests who sodomized and molested children for decades unchecked. Belgium’s longest serving bishop resigned Friday, saying he was “enormously sorry” for having sexually abused a young boy about 25 years ago. Hundreds of people have come forward in recent months, including in Benedict’s native Germany, accusing priests of raping and abusing them while bishops and church higher-ups turned a blind eye.

Vatican to Finance Adult Stem Cell Research

The Vatican will finance new research into the potential use of adult stem cells in the treatment of intestinal and possibly other diseases, officials announced Friday. The Vatican has agreed to donate $2.7 million to the research, which is led by the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine. The church is opposed to embryonic stem cell research because it involves the destruction of embryos, but it supports the use of adult stem cells. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI said adult stem cell research respects human life, which according to church teachings begins at conception. The Vatican has drawn criticism for its opposition to embryonic stem cell research. But the Vatican insists there are scientifically viable alternatives.

  • So far, only adult stem cell research has resulted in any substantial breakthroughs

Army disinvites Graham to Pentagon Prayer Day

Evangelist Franklin Graham’s invitation to speak at a Pentagon prayer service has been rescinded because his comments about Islam were inappropriate, the Army said Thursday. Graham, the son famed evangelist Billy Graham, in 2001 described Islam as evil. More recently, he has said he finds Islam offensive and wants Muslims to know that Jesus Christ died for their sins. “We’re an all-inclusive military,” Collins said. “We honor all faiths. … Our message to our service and civilian work force is about the need for diversity and appreciation of all faiths.” The Military Religious Freedom Foundation had raised the objection to Graham’s appearance, citing his past remarks about Islam.

  • “All-inclusive” and “diversity” of faith implies that all have equal merit, meaning none are true. Islam is a false religion that promotes forced conversions or death to all non-Muslims. It is an evil religion.

Report Says Health Care will Cover More, Cost More

President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul law is getting a mixed verdict in the first comprehensive look by neutral experts: More Americans will be covered, but costs are also going up. Economic experts at the Health and Human Services Department concluded in a report issued Thursday that the health care remake will achieve Obama’s aim of expanding health insurance adding 34 million to the coverage rolls. ut the analysis also found that the law falls short of the president’s twin goal of controlling runaway costs. The report projected that Medicare cuts could drive about 15 percent of hospitals and other institutional providers into the red, “possibly jeopardizing access” to care for seniors.

Some 3 million middle-class Americans will be required to pay a penalty for not getting health insurance under the Obama administration’s new health care law, raising questions about the president’s willingness to break a campaign promise by increasing taxes on some families earning less than $250,000. A Congressional Budget Office analysis released Thursday said the average cost of the penalty will be slightly more than $1,000 apiece in 2016.

Banks Receiving Government Aid Cut Loans, Increased Salaries

Banks that received federal assistance during the financial crisis reduced lending more aggressively and gave bigger pay raises to employees than institutions that didn’t get aid, a USA TODAY/American University review found. The reduction of credit during the worst of the recession raises questions about whether the $247 billion assistance program achieved one of its primary goals: to stimulate the economy by reviving the flow of credit to businesses and individuals. The amount of loans outstanding to businesses and individuals fell 9.1% for the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2009, at banks that participated in TARP compared with a 6.2% drop at banks that didn’t. Average pay at banks getting aid rose 9.4% in the program’s first year. By contrast, non-TARP banks increased salaries 1.8%.Government-aided banks increased branches by 2.7% while non-TARP banks cut branches by 1.2%.

  • Government boondoggle, greedy banks, taxpayer angst

Americans See Obama Inviting Attack

Nearly two of three Americans surveyed in a new poll believe the United States is more likely to be targeted in an attack – either by a hostile military or a terrorist organization – because of the policies of President Obama. Citing the possibility of either a terrorist attack or a military assault on U.S. shores, the poll, the first national assessment to address the issue, asked, “Do you think the current policies of the Obama administration are making it more or less likely that the U.S. will suffer such an attack?” Forty-six percent responded much more likely and another 13.6 percent somewhat more likely. Only about 28 percent said somewhat less likely or much less likely. Even a combined 28 percent of Democrats conceded an attack was somewhat more or much more likely. The categories included more than 92 percent of Republicans and more than 60 percent of independents.

Obama Pushing Israel to Carve Up Jerusalem

The Obama administration is pushing Israel to hand the Palestinian Authority full control of a major neighborhood in Jerusalem as a so-called confidence-building gesture to jumpstart Israeli-PA negotiations, according to WorldNetDaily.com. According to sources in both the PA and in the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Obama administration has demanded from Israel as “confidence-building gestures” toward the Palestinians ahead of any negotiations that Israel to transfer to the PA the town of Abu Dis, a largely Arab neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem that borders key Jerusalem roadways and is home to about 12,000 residents. Some Arab homes in the neighborhood are built illegally on Jewish-owned land.

Government Program Moves People Out of Nursing Homes

A program, known as Money Follows the Person, is the nation’s most ambitious effort to move people out of nursing homes and other long-term-care facilities. It aims to help them live on their own and also save tens of millions of dollars for Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for the poor and disabled that pays for two-thirds of nursing home bills in the U.S. Nationally, nursing home care averages about $75,190 per patient each year. Care in the home, through such services as meals-on-wheels and daily visits by a health aide, averages $18,000 a year, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute.

The program gives nursing home residents personal and financial help to live on their own or in small group settings, as well as payments for costs such as apartment security deposits, household furniture and alterations to make homes or cars accessible to the handicapped. Congress established Money Follows the Person in 2005, and states set a combined goal of moving out more than 37,000 residents from nursing homes and other facilities by 2013. Two years later, just 5,774 residents have moved nationally.

Ocean Life at Risk from Alarming Rise in Acid Levels

With the oceans absorbing more than 1 million tons of carbon dioxide an hour, a National Research Council study released Thursday found that the level of acid in the oceans is increasing at an unprecedented rate and threatening to change marine ecosystems. The council said that the oceans are 30 percent more acidic than they were before the Industrial Revolution started roughly 200 years ago and that the oceans absorb one-third of today’s carbon-dioxide emissions. As the ocean becomes more acidic, scientists have raised concerns about dissolving coral reefs and potential effects on fish and other sea life. For example, studies have shown that increasing seawater acidity affects photosynthesis, nutrient acquisition, growth, reproduction and individual survival of certain sea life. Unless emissions are reined in, ocean acidity could increase by 200 percent by the end of the century and even more in the next century, scientists warn.

  • During the Great Tribulation, one-third of ocean life is prophesied to die (Rev. 8:8-9)

Thrift Stores Struggle to Stay Open

Non-profit groups across the country say they are hurting from a recession-fueled decline in thrift store donations, and the pain is being passed down to thrifty shoppers, who increasingly rely on second-hand stores to stretch in hard times. The groups, such as the Salvation Army, rely on thrift shop sales to finance their charitable operations. “Demand is up, but donations are down,” says Major Man-Hee Chang, who is in charge of the Salvation Army’s thrift stores. Salvation Army donations are off 20% in California and other Western states. The South and Mid-Atlantic have also seen declines in clothing and household item donations. Goodwill Industries International CEO Jim Gibbons says demand at Goodwill’s stores “is going through the roof” because of the recession. “The demand and need is … 10 times bigger than our ability to keep up with it,” he says. One-quarter of the local Goodwill operations report donation declines.

U.S. Debt to Hit $20 Trillion in 10 Years

While the global financial system remains transfixed by the problems of Greece and several other European countries risking default over their massive debts, the real threat is whether the credit standing and currency stability of the world’s biggest borrower, the United States, will be jeopardized by its disastrous outlook on deficits and debt. That’s the fear raised in a devastating Op-Ed on the Financial Times website written by Robert Altman, a former deputy U.S. Treasury secretary under President Clinton. “America’s fiscal picture is even worse than it looks,” Altman writes. “The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office just projected that over 10 years, cumulative deficits will reach $9.7 trillion and federal debt 90 percent of gross domestic product. The CBO projects the size of the federal debt to increase by nearly 250 percent over 10 years, from $7.5 trillion to a whopping $20 trillion.

Economic News

Home sales rose more than expected in March, reversing three months of declines, as government incentives drew in buyers and kicked off what’s expected to be a strong spring selling season. The National Association of Realtors said Thursday that sales of previously occupied homes rose 6.8% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.35 million last month, the highest level since December. New-home sales rose 26.9% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 411,000 last month as buyers snatched up properties ahead of the tax credit that’s set to expire.

First-time claims for jobless benefits fell 24,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 456,000. The drop comes after claims rose in the previous two weeks. The four-week average of claims, which smooths volatility, increased 2,750 to 460,250. Applications for jobless benefits peaked during the recession at 651,000 in March 2009. A normal level is about 350,000. The tally of people continuing to claim benefits, meanwhile, dropped by 40,000 to 4.65 million.

Employers in March added 162,000 jobs, the most in three years. But the pace of the economic recovery and job creation hasn’t been robust enough to quickly drive down the unemployment rate. It’s been stuck at 9.7% for three months, close to its highest levels since the 1980s.

A wholesale price index rose more than expected last month as food prices surged the most in 26 years. The Labor Department also said the Producer Price Index rose 0.7% in March. The jump in food prices and a rise in gas prices pushed up the index. Excluding volatile food and energy costs, wholesale prices rose just 0.1%.

New orders for durable manufactured goods dropped last month. But excluding the volatile transportation sector, orders rose the most since the recession began. The report is a sign that the once-battered manufacturing sector is healing.

Greece

Markets hammered Greece on Thursday after the EU revised the debt-ridden country’s deficit and debt figures upward, sending Greece’s borrowing costs to unsustainably high levels and pushing Athens closer to an expensive rescue. Further bad news emerged as ratings agency Moody’s Investor Services downgraded its rating on Greece’s debt. Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou on Friday called for the activation of a joint eurozone-International Monetary Fund financial rescue to pull his country out of a major debt crisis. Saying financial-market pressure threatened to derail Greece‘s economy with high borrowing costs, Papandreou said he had made a formal request for the plan’s activation. The IMF’s managing director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, promised “to move expeditiously on this request.”

Israel

Israel’s southernmost city of Eilat was targeted Thursday morning by two Katyusha rockets fired from the Egyptian Sinai, but the 107 mm rockets overshot the Red Sea resort and instead landed in the open sea and one in an industrial zone in the neighboring Jordanian city of Aqaba. The IDF is still investigating the source of the attack. The attempted rocket attack on the city follows a “concrete” warning earlier this week by the Israeli Counter-Terrorism Bureau that terrorists were planning to attack or kidnap Israeli citizens visiting the Sinai. In 2005, an al-Qaida linked terror cell fired rockets from inside Jordan at the Eilat airport.

Iraq

Iraqi officials say a series of explosions mainly targeting Shiite worshippers have killed at least 58 people. The violence appeared to be an attempt by insurgents to demonstrate they are still a potent force days after Iraqi authorities announced the killings of the top two al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders in what was seen as a major blow. The biggest of Friday’s bombings targeted the offices of an anti-U.S. Shiite cleric in the vast slum of Sadr City in Baghdad. Police and hospital officials said at least 25 people were killed and more than 100 wounded there. At least 33 people were killed in other explosions, including in western Iraq.

Afghanistan

NATO agreed Friday to begin handing over control of Afghanistan to the Afghan government this year, a process that if successful would enable President Obama to meet his target date of July 2011 for starting to bring U.S. troops home. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the 28-nation alliance is on track with its new strategy for winding down the war in Afghanistan, despite security setbacks and a continuing shortage of foreign trainers for the fledgling Afghan police and army. He said a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, agreed on what it will take to create conditions enabling Afghans to assume control of their own country. He was not specific about what those conditions will be, but said progress in that direction is important in order to avoid further erosion of public support for the war effort.

U.S. government contractor deaths in Afghanistan more than doubled last year as violence and American troop levels increased. The Labor Department received at least 141 insurance claims for contractor deaths in Afghanistan last year, up from 55 in 2008, department records show. U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan doubled to 311 last year. The department collects the claims figures as part of a workers’ compensation program that provides benefits for injuries or deaths at companies doing U.S. government work overseas. The program paid out about $200 million in 2008, up from $9.4 million in 2001, when the war in Afghanistan began.

Pakistan

Militants ambushed a Pakistani army convoy traveling in a tribal region filled with insurgent groups focused on the war in neighboring Afghanistan, killing seven soldiers, the military said Friday. The attack Thursday could raise pressure on Islamabad to wage an offensive in the North Waziristan tribal region, which has largely escaped Pakistani army action in recent years despite U.S. pressure for a crackdown. Sixteen soldiers also were wounded in the attack, one of the worst known to have occurred against the army in the region in several months. Pakistan has carried out several army operations in its semiautonomous tribal belt, where al-Qaeda and various Taliban factions have long thrived.

Thailand

Soldiers and civilians hauled away bloodied victims after a series of grenade attacks Thursday in a new burst of violence in Thailand’s chaotic capital — the scene of a tense, weekslong standoff between anti-government protesters and security forces. Three people were killed and 75 people wounded, according to the government’s Erawan emergency center. Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said attackers shot five M-79 grenades from a nearby area where the anti-government Red Shirt protesters are encamped. The Red Shirts consist mainly of poor rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006 after months of demonstrations by the Yellow Shirts. With the “People’s Alliance for Democracy” (yellow shirts) calling for an appointed parliament, and the red shirts claiming to represent the majority after having won 30+ % in the last election, a quick solution is not in sight.

Russia

The president of Georgia confirmed Wednesday that his country seized a shipment of highly enriched uranium, and blamed Russia for creating the instability that allows nuclear smugglers to operate in the region. President Mikhail Saakashvili declined to divulge details of the seizure but said the uranium was intercepted last month coming into his country in the Caucasus region of southeast Europe. Saakashvili’s government no longer controls two breakaway sections of Georgia, separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which declared independence after the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, and the president said the smuggling is evidence of a security black hole in the Islamic area.

Mexico

Some Mexican companies complain they are being unfairly accused of money laundering as the United States and Mexico launch new efforts to dismantle the financial empires of drug traffickers. Since 2006, the U.S. Treasury has nearly doubled the number of Mexican companies listed on its international blacklist of alleged drug traffickers and terrorists, from 121 to 220. It is also pouring millions of dollars into software and training to help Mexican authorities investigate financial crimes. But some companies say U.S. authorities have gone overboard by blacklisting law-abiding firms and freezing their assets.

Troops battled a suspected drug gang in a wealthy neighborhood on the outskirts of Mexico City and captured an alleged major trafficker with a $2 million U.S. bounty on his head, officials announced on Thursday. Jose Gerardo Alvarez Vazquez — known as “El Indio” or “El Chayan” — is suspected of being responsible for a spike in violence in states near the capital as part of a struggle for control of the Beltran Leyva drug cartel. Authorities said Alvarez Vazquez, 45, was arrested along with 14 other suspected drug traffickers during a Wednesday night shootout in Huixquilucan, just west of the capital.

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