Signs of the Times (1/13/12)

Nigeria, Egypt, Iraq Claim Majority of Christian Martyrs in 2011

More Christians were killed for their faith in northern Nigeria, Egypt and Iraq in 2011 than anywhere else in the world, with 398 martyred in those three countries alone, Open Doors USA reports. The World Christian Encyclopedia defines martyrs as “believers in Christ who lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility;” many Christians who die as a result of persecution are not counted as martyrs. Northern Nigeria had a total of 300 confirmed martyrs — although the true total is thought to be much higher — as Muslim extremists grew more routine and organized in their attacks. In Egypt, at least 60 Christians were killed, followed by Iraq with 38 confirmed deaths. Most were at the hands of Islamic extremists, but there were exceptions. Twenty-seven Egyptian Coptic Christian protesters lost their lives in one day alone in the Maspero Massacre in Cairo on Oct. 9, and in Iraq, at least 21 Christians were killed just in Baghdad at the hands of those who sought to ethnically cleanse Christian neighborhoods.

Tim Tebow Makes John 3:16 Most Searched Item on Google

Not only did Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow lead his team to a stunning victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday in the NFL AFC wildcard playoff game, but his performance led to an explosion of Google searches for John 3:16 when the facts and figures emerged, TIME reports. Tebow threw for exactly 316 yards — averaging 31.6 yards per completion — and fans soon began pointing out the allusion to John 3:16, which Tebow famously painted in his eye black in 2009 when he led the Florida Gators to victory in the college national championship game. By Monday morning, John 3:16 was ranked as the top-searched item on Google, followed by “Tebow” and “Tim Tebow.” Coincidence or not, Tebow’s passing yards had millions of people discovering the verse where Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life.”

World’s Nuclear Stocks are Not Secure

A new report shows that President Obama is a long way from reaching his goal of locking down all the world’s nuclear weapons material by next year. The report by the U.S.-based Nuclear Threat Initiative grades the 32 countries believed to possess such material and suggests that many have far to go. Despite a push by the Obama administration to galvanize international efforts to keep terrorists from obtaining the ultimate weapon, the report concludes that there is not yet even a global consensus about what the priorities should be or how materials should be tracked and protected. The assessment comes ahead of a second summit of world leaders on nuclear security set to convene in March in Seoul. Obama hosted the first summit two years ago in Washington.

Obama Formally Requests $1.2T Debt-Limit Hike

President Obama has sent a letter to Congress formally requesting a $1.2 trillion increase in the nation’s debt ceiling. The request is likely to trigger a fierce election-year debate over the nation’s $15 trillion-plus debt, but the ceiling increase is likely to go through because of a deal Obama and Congress struck back in August. Under the agreement, Congress can reject the requested increase within 15 days, but then Obama has the right to veto it. Two similar increases in the debt ceiling have been enacted since the August agreement. Leaders of the Republican-run House have indicated they will seek to oppose the debt limit hike, but that effort may well run aground in the Democratic-run Senate.

  •  As the President and Congress play political football, the debt crisis continues onward, unabated

Obama Seeks Power to Merge Federal Agencies

President Obama will ask Congress today for greater authority to merge federal agencies as a way to shrink the government and save money. Obama will specifically ask to merge six different trade and commerce agencies that have overlapping programs. Obama notes that President Reagan had similar authority during the 1980s. They are: the Commerce Department’s core business and trade functions; the Small Business Administration; the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative; the Export-Import Bank; the Overseas Private Investment Corporation; and the Trade and Development Agency. The goal would be one agency designed to help businesses thrive. The administration said the merger would save $3 billion over 10 years by getting rid of duplicative overhead costs, human resources divisions and programs. From 1,000 to 2,000 jobs would be cut, but the administration would do so through attrition; that is, as people routinely leave their jobs over time.

Another Bill To Turn American Citizens Into Enemies Of The State

On the heels of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), otherwise known as the “Indefinite Detention Act,” comes another draconian bill designed to give the federal government the power to turn American citizens into enemies of the state for virtually any reason it deems necessary. Congress is considering HR 3166 and S. 1698 also known as the Enemy Expatriation Act, sponsored by Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Charles Dent (R-PA). This bill would give the US government the power to strip Americans of their citizenship without being convicted of being ‘hostile’ against the United States. In other words, you can be stripped of your nationality for ‘engaging in, or purposefully and materially supporting, hostilities against the United States.’ Legally, the term ‘hostilities’ means any conflict subject to the laws of war but considering the fact that the War on Terror is a little ambiguous and encompassing, any action could be labeled as supporting terrorism.

  • U.S. detention camps are being built, fusion data centers are gathering information on American citizens, laws are being changed, all in preparation for a time of planned subversion of discontent

Just 5% of Patients Accrue Half of Health Care Spending

Five percent of Americans accounted for 50% of all health care costs, about $36,000 each, according to a federal report released Wednesday. And, only 1% accounted for 22% of overall health care costs, about $90,000 per person. While the report showed how a tiny segment of the population can drive health care spending, the findings included good news – the trend is down. In 1996, the top 1% of the population accounted for 28% of health care spending. The report says the characteristics of patients in the top 10% of health care spenders are: 60% were women; 40% were 65 or older; 80% were white. Twenty-five percent of Hispanics were in the bottom half of health care spenders, the report showed, while only 7% of Hispanics were in the top 10% of spenders.

Record Number of Americans 55 and Older are Working

Although the recession and its aftershock have culled older faces from the workplace, more Americans over 55 are employed than ever before, according to the latest government statistics reported by The Washington Post. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a 12% increase (3.1 million) in the number of 55-and-older workers. By contrast, there’s been a 6.5% drop (6.5 million) in workers 25 to 54 years old. Those figures include people 75 and older, whose ranks have also increased since the recession. Fear of not having enough money to live on in retirement is one of the “primary economic forces” cited by experts, the Post writes.

Economic News

The Federal Reserve announced Monday that household borrowing on credit cards, car loans, student loans, and other kinds of installment debt rose at a 9.9% seasonally adjusted rate in November – the biggest monthly increase since November 2001 (following the events of September 11). Curiously, IHS Global Insight economist Paul Edelstein told the Wall Street Journal, “Consumer credit growth is a positive sign for the recovery in that it signals increasing demand and willingness to spend.”

  • Increased spending is good for an economy. But increasing borrowing to spend is not. Let’s not forget how we got here.

The number of people applying for weekly unemployment benefits spiked last week, largely because companies let go of thousands of workers after the holidays. The Labor Department said Thursday that applications jumped 24,000 to a seasonally adjusted 399,000, most in six weeks. That followed three months of steady declines that brought applications to the lowest level in more than three years. In the 30 months since the recession officially ended, nearly 1 million people have dropped out of the labor force — they aren’t working, and they aren’t looking — according to data from Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Retail sales barely rose in December, but the gain was enough to push sales to a record for 2011. It was the largest annual increase in more than a decade. Sales inched up 0.1% in December to a seasonally adjusted $400.6 billion. For all 2011, sales totaled a record $4.7 trillion, a gain of nearly 8% over 2010. It was the largest percentage increase since 1999.

About 1.9 million homes entered the foreclosure process in 2011, fewest since 2007 when the recession began. The decline does not necessarily indicate the housing market is getting better, as many foreclosures have been delayed due to confusion over documentation and legal issues involved in the process. There have also been problems with the way some lenders were handling foreclosures. Specifically, they have been signing off on home foreclosures without first verifying documents — a practice referred to as “robo-signing.” Many of the largest U.S. banks reacted by temporarily stopping all foreclosures, re-filing previously filed foreclosure cases and revisiting pending cases to prevent errors.

JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s largest bank, reported a sharp drop in quarterly earnings Friday morning, hit by big losses from its investment banking and trading divisions.

The U.S. trade deficit widened in November for the first time in five months, largely because of a spike in the price of imported oil. Still, exports fell for a second straight month, a sign that Europe’s slowdown has begun to affect the U.S. economy. The trade gap rose 10.4% to $47.8 billion. Overall exports dropped 0.9% to $177.8 billion. But American exports to Europe fell more sharply — nearly 6%. Many economists say Europe may already be in another recession.

The Chinese are worried about inflation and their voracious gold consumption is proof. Mainland China’s gold imports from Hong Kong jumped 483% over the past year.

Middle East

A new aircraft carrier strike group has entered the Arabian Sea and another is on its way, a Pentagon official said in a news briefing Wednesday — a shuffling of the U.S. fleet amid rising tensions with Iran. Officials said there is no connection between the fleet movements and threats from Iran, however, the arrival of the USS Carl Vinson comes on the heels of Iranian military exercises in the Persian Gulf and threats to block the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil transit route. U.S. Navy Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert told a Center for a New American Security forum on Wednesday that the US has no intention of leaving the Persian Gulf anytime soon.

Iran

A hard-line Iranian newspaper called Thursday for retaliation against Israel, a day after the mysterious killing of a nuclear scientist in Tehran with a magnetic bomb attached to his car. Provocative hints from Israel reinforced the perception that the killing was part of an organized and clandestine campaign to set back Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which the U.S. and its allies suspect are aimed at producing weapons. Iran’s nuclear confrontation with the West had already been escalating in the weeks before the killing, with the U.S. tightening sanctions against Tehran, and Iranian officials warning that they would shut a waterway vital to global oil shipping in response. The Wednesday assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan — at least the fourth targeted hit against a member of Iran’s nuclear brain trust in two years — has heightened tensions even further.

A senior U.N. nuclear agency team will visit Tehran on Jan. 28 with Iran saying it is ready to discuss allegations that it was involved in secret nuclear weapons work after years of refusing to do so, diplomats said Thursday. For more than three years, Tehran has blocked IAEA attempts to follow up on U.S. and other intelligence alleging covert Iranian work on nuclear arms, dismissing the charges as baseless and insisting all its nuclear activities were peaceful and under IAEA purview.

Afghanistan

The Taliban’s political wing is ready to enter peace talks to end the war in Afghanistan, but the insurgents will in the meantime continue their armed struggle, the group said Thursday. The militant movement’s e-mailed statement suggests that efforts to bring Afghan factions to the table are gathering momentum, but also highlights some of the roadblocks on the way to any settlement — in particular, the Taliban’s insistence that the government of President Hamid Karzai is an illegitimate “stooge” of the West. One of the international community’s and Afghan government’s conditions for reconciliation is that the Taliban must accept the Afghan constitution, meaning they must recognize Karzai’s government.

Pakistan

Pakistani intelligence officials said an American missile strike close to the Afghan border has killed four foreign Islamist militants. The victims in Thursday’s attacks in North Waziristan region were driving in a car when the missile hit. It was the second such drone strike in three days. Drone strikes had been suspended for weeks following a mistaken attack that killed many Pakistan security guards.

Yemen

Yemeni security officials said 20 fighters have been killed in new clashes between an ultraconservative Islamist group and former Shiite rebels in the country’s north. The Hawthis fought a bloody six-year war against Saleh’s government that ended with a cease-fire last year. Yemen’s Salafis practice a hard-line interpretation of Islam similar to al-Qaeda’s. The fighting pitted Shiite Hawthis against Sunni Salafi Islamists. Tensions between the groups have reignited since President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed a U.S.-backed deal in November to pass power to his vice president. Yemen has been badly shaken by 10 months of protests calling for Saleh’s ouster.

Myanmar (Burma)

Burma, also known as Myanmar, freed some of its most famous political inmates Friday, sparking jubilation outside prison gates while signaling its readiness to meet Western demands for lifting economic sanctions. Myanmar’s government also signed a cease-fire agreement Thursday with ethnic Karen rebels in a major step toward ending one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies and meeting a key condition for better ties with the West. The talks between officials and Karen National Union leaders were part of efforts by Myanmar’s new, nominally civilian government to seek international legitimacy through democratic reforms after years of military repression. The Karen group has been fighting for greater autonomy for more than 60 years, in a guerrilla campaign in eastern jungles that dates back to before Myanmar’s independence from Britain. It has been the only one of Myanmar’s major ethnic groups never to have reached a peace agreement with the government. The new government that took office after November 2010 elections has embarked on reforms to try to end its international isolation. Western governments had imposed political and economic sanctions on Myanmar because of repression under the military junta.

Horn of Africa

The number of successful pirate attacks in the Horn of Africa region declined nearly 50% last year, the first significant drop since the international community established counterpiracy naval forces in the area three years ago. The number of successful pirate attacks dropped to 24 last year, from 45 in 2010, according to NATO. Many other attacks were disrupted by naval vessels or merchant ships that were able to evade pirates, most of whom are based in Somalia. NATO and other forces in the region attribute recent progress against pirates to the increase in naval ships and the use of armed guards and other security measures taken by merchant vessels transiting the region.

Haiti

Hundreds of thousands of Haitians still live in miserable conditions and nearly half of $4.5 billion pledged by governments for reconstruction has yet to be disbursed two years after one of the most devastating earthquakes in the Western hemisphere. The quake killed more than 200,000 and left 1.5 million homeless. As Haiti today observes the second anniversary of a disaster that leveled 300,000 buildings and left its economy and government in ruins, half a million people still live in tents, the United Nations reports. Few have access to water, sanitation and other basic services, 60% are jobless and the world’s largest cholera outbreak has killed 7,000 people and infected 500,000 more. The slow progress comes despite promises by the international community that the chronically poor nation with tremendous needs before the disaster would be rebuilt better than before.

Hungary

Over 300 religious groups – including several Christian denominations – have lost official recognition in Hungary under the country’s controversial new constitution. The code, which came into effect on 1 January, introduces a new law on religion. It grants state recognition to 14 religious groups and decertifies the rest, meaning that over 300 denominations lose their official status, including their tax exemptions and freedom to run state-funded schools. These include a number of major Protestant denominations, including Episcopalians, Methodists and all but one of the evangelical churches, as well as many small Catholic orders. No version of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism can operate with state approval any longer. The day after the new constitution came into force, tens of thousands of Hungarians took to the streets of Budapest in protest. The European Union and United States have also asked for the law to be withdrawn.

Weather

The upper Midwest and Northeast looked ahead to more snow today and into early Saturday following a bitterly cold storm that disrupted travel and put an end to the recent stretch of mild, spring-like weather. As of Friday morning, Chicago had picked up almost 5 inches of snow. The storm forced the cancellation of more than 525 flights at Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports. Friday morning, heavy snow led to school closings and travel headaches in parts of Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. Lake-effect snow could top a foot near Lakes Michigan, Erie and Ontario later Friday and into early Saturday. Winter weather advisories and warnings remained in place Friday morning across the Great Lakes area, interior Northeast, and in northern New England.

Heavy snow fell in Alaska’s largest city Thursday, adding to what already has been the snowiest period for Anchorage since records have been kept. The weather service counts a snow year from July to June. From July 1 through Tuesday, Anchorage has received 81.3 inches of snow. A new snowfall of 8-16 inches is expected. About 150 miles to the southeast of Anchorage, the Prince William Sound community of Cordova has already been buried under 172 inches of snow since Nov. 1 and is trying to dig out from recent storms.

At least 15 people were injured and at least 60 buildings were damaged when a possible tornado struck in western North Carolina Wednesday afternoon. The storms struck in Rutherford and Burke counties as a cold front moved through the western Carolinas. The storm cell that caused the damage had dumped some hail in northwestern South Carolina before moving into North Carolina. The American Red Cross opened a shelter in Icard. The relief agency said at least 15 people had checked into the shelter at a church.

Even in a year marked by severe storm outbreaks, lightning killed fewer Americans in 2011 than any year on record, according to data released Wednesday by the National Weather Service. Although 2011 was a hellish year for tornado deaths across the country, with more than 500 people killed, only 26 people died as a result of a lightning strike. This is less than half the recent average of 55 deaths per year, and continues a downward trend in lightning deaths over the past few decades. In the 1940s, although the USA’s population was less than half what it is today, lightning killed more than 300 Americans each year, on average. Why the decrease in deaths? “More than anything it’s due to ongoing public education efforts from the weather service to keep people from being struck by lightning,” says meteorologist John Jensenius, the agency’s expert on lightning safety. People now recognize a dangerous weather situation and getting to a safer place.

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