Signs of the Times (1/30/12)

Church-Burning Video Used to Promote Atheist Event at Ft. Bragg

Atheists are using a music video that celebrates the burning of churches and synagogues to promote an upcoming atheist-themed festival at Fort Bragg. “Rock Beyond Belief” is scheduled to be held on the parade field at Fort Bragg in March. The event was created in part as a response to a Billy Graham Evangelistic Association event that was held last year. There will be a number of bands performing – the most famous of which is Aiden. They are featured in a video on the “Rocky Beyond Belief” website that includes images of burning churches and bloody crosses. The website labels the song as the “atheist anthem.” Among the lyrics: “Love how they burn your synagogues, love how they torch your holy books.”

  • If Christians were to use violent images to promote their events the hue and cry would be deafening. In this case, most silence. How about applying the new hate speech statutes?

Catholics Blast Federal Birth Control Mandate

From Maine to Phoenix to southern Louisiana, Catholic churches across the USA this weekend echoed with scorn for a new federal rule requiring faith-based employers to include birth control and other reproductive services in their health care coverage. Dozens of priests took the rare step of reading letters from the pulpit urging parishioners to reach out to Washington and oppose the rule, enacted this month. The rule requires nearly all employers to provide their employees access to health insurance that covers artificial contraception, sterilization services and the “morning after” birth control pill. The mandate exempts churches but applies to Catholic universities, Catholic-based charities and to groups affiliated with Methodists, Baptists and other denominations.

  • It is unconscionable for the federal government to impose its secular immorality on faith-based organizations, but such is the ongoing war to marginalize Christianity

Former Obama Faith Adviser Glad Religion is Dying

Shaun Casey, the religious affairs adviser to President Obama during his 2008 campaign, said this week at a panel discussion on “God and Politics” that the demise of religious society in America was a good thing, CNSNews.com reports. “I, frankly, am glad American civil religion is dying,” said Casey, an associate professor of Christian ethics at D.C.’s Wesley Theological Seminary. “But it does raise the practical question, what does bind us together in some way as a country? We need some substitute for that and I don’t think we’ve found it yet.” Casey was hired by Obama’s campaign in June 2008 to “focus on outreach to evangelical voters,” although he had been informally advising the campaign for a year prior.

  • Faith advisor advocating demise of faith? Shows what Obama really believes.

St. Louis Honors Iraq War Veterans

Thousands of people braved a cold January wind Saturday in St. Louis to honor their Iraq War veterans. The parade, borne out of a simple conversation between two St. Louis friends a month ago, was the first big welcome-home in the U.S. for veterans of the war since the last troops were withdrawn from Iraq in December. About 600 veterans, many dressed in camouflage, walked along downtown streets lined with rows of people clapping and holding signs with messages including “Welcome Home” and “Thanks to our Service Men and Women.” Some of the war-tested troops wiped away tears as they acknowledged the support from a crowd that organizers estimated reached 100,000 people.

Mortgage Deal Draws Detractors from All Sides

A draft settlement between states and mortgage companies that would let the nation’s biggest banks pay out billions to compensate for a raft of foreclosures has public interest groups across the political spectrum hopping mad over a deal they say was forged behind closed doors and is being strong-armed by the Obama administration. The draft proposal, which was sent to state officials Monday for approval, is supposed to overhaul the mortgage industry and help homeowners. In it, the country’s five largest mortgage lenders offer to pay out as much as $25 billion to cover new terms for homeowners driven out by foreclosure. But people who lost their homes are unlikely to get them back or see much financial benefit from the deal. Liberals complain that the federal government is letting the banks off the hook for a foreclosure crisis that critics say could’ve been avoided had the banks been more upstanding about their deals. Conservatives claim the administration is trying to fast track a deal that amounts to extortion of banks that followed federal government rules to expand access to loans.

New Federal Crime Unit to Investigate Mortgage Fraud

The U.S. government dispatched 55 prosecutors, FBI agents and analysts Friday to a new financial crimes enforcement unit focusing on home mortgage abuses that fueled the 2008 economic collapse. For the first time since the crisis, federal investigators will be joined by state law enforcement officials as part of a working group that, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said, would launch the “broadest, deepest investigation into what blew up the economy.” The unit is expected to plunge deeper into the causes of “massive market failures” that continue to harm homeowners, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said. Residential mortgage-backed securities are the huge investment packages of what turned out to be near-worthless mortgages that bankrupted many investors and contributed to the nation’s 2008 financial crisis.

Occupy Oakland Protest Turns Ugly

About 400 people were arrested Saturday during a chaotic day of Occupy protests that saw demonstrators break into City Hall and burn an American flag, as police earlier fired tear gas and bean bags to disperse hundreds of people after some threw rocks and bottles and tore down fencing outside a nearby convention center. Riot police fought running skirmishes with anti-Wall Street protesters, firing tear gas and bean bag in clashes that injured three officers and at least one demonstrator.  Dozens of police officers remained on guard outside City Hall around midnight following the most turbulent day of protests since November, when Oakland police forcefully dismantled an Occupy encampment. An exasperated Mayor Jean Quan said, “People in the community and people in the Occupy movement have to stop making excuses for this behavior.”

Feds to Enforce No-Camping Rules at Occupy D.C. Sites

Combining research with citizen science, the project uses photos and actual ladybugs submitted by people across the country to map where certain ladybug species are found, study differences between them and breed them. Regulations ban camping on U.S. parklands, but the Park Service has not enforced the prohibition at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza since protesters arrived in October. Round-the-clock vigils are allowed, however, to protect First Amendment rights. Occupiers will have to remove tents, bedding, storage containers and all fire-making materials or risk citation or arrest. The Park Service today distributed fliers detailing the no-camping rules. One protester at McPherson Square told The Washington Post that some occupiers may choose to be arrested.

Unions, Occupiers Protest at Super Bowl Village

A mix of union members and Occupy protesters from across Indiana marched through Super Bowl Village on Saturday in opposition to the state’s proposed right-to-work legislation. About 75 marchers weaved through packed crowds at the pre-game street fair in downtown Indianapolis in the first of what could be several such protests before the big game Feb. 5 at Lucas Oil Stadium. Saturday was the second straight day of right-to-work protests in the Super Bowl Village. Organizers of the march say the protests will likely continue if Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signs the divisive bill into law this week. Supporters of the legislation, mostly Republicans, insist the measure helps create a pro-business climate that attracts employers and increases jobs. Opponents say the measure only leads to lower wages and poorer quality jobs.

Tax Evaders in Greece, Spain and Italy Beware

In Greece, tax officials fly helicopters over residential areas to spot swimming pools of the alleged poor. In Italy, inspectors raid elite ski resorts to catch the down-and-out in their Ferraris. In Spain, taxmen snoop about homes rented to sun-seeking vacationers — then visit the owners who neglected to report the income. Evading taxes is almost a national pastime in European nations such as Greece, Spain and Italy, and for years their governments largely looked the other way. Many people admit they cheat, and EU officials blame part of the economic mess on a culture of tax evasion in debtor nations that has cost billions in revenue that could be used to shore up their finances. But that is changing abruptly.

Greece is pushing back with a “naming and shaming” campaign. This week, the Greek Economics Ministry published the names of 4,151 individuals who owe a total of more than $19 billion in taxes including a famous singer, a professional basketball player and a former newspaper publisher. In Italy, where one out of four pay no taxes, the focus is on tax evasion by the super-rich. Tax evasion ran rampant under the leadership of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi who was also a tax dodger and who once famously said that evasion of high taxes was a God-given “right.” One of his successor’s first actions has been to clamp down on “the pretend poor,” as Italian media have dubbed the super-rich tax evaders. In Spain, officials also declared “an open season” on tax evasion. They have capped cash transactions at $1,300 and are cracking down on tax havens. Spain has taken hundreds of tax evaders to court, and tax police have caught about 200,000 individuals who had not declared income from rental properties.

California Passes Auto Emission, Hybrid Rules

California air regulators have unanimously passed sweeping auto emission standards that include a mandate to have 1.4 million electric and hybrid vehicles on state roads by 2025. The California Air Resources Board on Friday adopted the new rules, which require that one-in-seven of new cars sold in the state in 2025 be an electric or other zero-emission vehicle. The plan also mandated a 75-percent reduction in smog-forming pollutants by 2025, and a 34 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over roughly the same time. Automakers worked with the board and federal regulators on the greenhouse gas mandates in an effort to create one national standard for those pollutants. California’s auto emissions standards are often more strict than federal ones. Currently 14 other states have adopted them.

President Obama Says He Makes Mistakes 24/7?

The commander-in-chief acknowledged that he second guesses himself constantly on the job during an interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer last Thursday night. “I make a mistake, you know, every hour, every day,” he said. As Obama heats up his election-year rhetoric, he’s compiling an expanding list of Bush-like malapropisms. For example, in attempting to rebut claims that he’s stoking the fires of class-warfare, he said, “Nobody envies rich people,” Obama told a House Democratic retreat in Cambridge, Md. “Everybody wants to be rich.”

  • While amusing, these and other “misspoken” items highlight Obama’s tendency to speak out of both sides of his mouth to win approval, regardless of the truth. He simply cannot be trusted.

Economic News

Europe’s crippling debt crisis dominated the world’s foremost gathering of business and political leaders, but for the first time the growing inequality between the planet’s haves and have-nots became an issue, thanks largely to the Arab Spring uprisings, the “Occupy” movement and other protests around the globe. The mood at the end of the five-day meeting in Davos was somber and more than 2,500 VIPs headed home Sunday concerned about what lies ahead in 2012. There were no answers to the widening inequality gap, but there was a mounting realization that economic growth must include the poor, that job creation is critical, and that affordable food, housing, health care and education need to part of any solution.

Many EU nations say they want Germany to do more to bolster an emergency fund to back bailouts of heavy debtor nations such as Greece, Italy and Spain. Germans are not in the mood to hand out more money. “It doesn’t make sense if we keep promising more money but don’t address the causes of the crisis,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. As European leaders meet Monday in Brussels to forge a closer fiscal union as a way to ease the European debt crisis, doubts are growing over the effectiveness of the agreement.

Fitch downgraded the sovereign credit ratings of Belgium, Cyprus, Italy, Slovenia and Spain on Friday, indicating there was a 1-in-2 chance of further cuts in the next two years. In a statement, the ratings agency said the affected countries were vulnerable in the near-term to monetary and financial shocks.

Gasoline prices could be edge higher this spring, thanks to the bankruptcy of a European refiner, the industry’s latest casualty. The U.S. east coast already sees the threat of a temporary spike in gasoline to $4 or more per gallon for the summer driving season and could pay some of the highest prices in the nation, due to the shutdown of refining capacity in that market. Over the last several years, the refining industry has shut down about 1 million barrels per day of refining capacity aimed at the east coast. The bankruptcy filing last week by Swiss-based Petroplus, which operated five refineries or 4% of European capacity, adds another uncertainty.

Low cattle supplies in 2012 are expected to drive up beef prices for the second year in a row, stretching consumers still coping with high unemployment and only modest wage increases. The Agriculture Department reported Friday there were about 91 million head of cattle in the U.S. on Jan. 1, down 2% from a year ago and the lowest level since 1952. Retail beef prices, now near record levels, will likely rise 4% to 5% this year following a 10% increase in 2011.

Middle East

After a series of meetings in Amman, Jordan, as organized by the Quartet for Middle East Peace (the U.S., UN, EU and Russia), the Palestinians have declared the peace proposals dead on arrival. They are especially upset because Israel continues to maintain that Jerusalem is the capital city of the Jewish state and will remain under Israeli control. The Jerusalem Prayer Team notes, “This is crucial to the spiritual battle taking place. Satan wants the Holy City. He declared in Isaiah 14 that he would rule the world from the ‘sides of the north’—an ancient reference to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. The Holy City must not be divided. It is critical to Israel’s survival…it is critical to God’s prophetic plan for the world…and we need to be doing everything we can to support the Jewish people and defend the city of Jerusalem.”

The Pentagon is rushing to send a large floating base for commando teams to the Middle East as tensions rise with Iran, al-Qaeda in Yemen and Somali pirates, among other threats. In response to requests from U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, the Navy is converting an aging warship it had planned to decommission into a makeshift staging base for the commandos. Unofficially dubbed a “mothership,” the floating base could accommodate smaller high-speed boats and helicopters commonly used by Navy SEALs, procurement documents show.

Afghanistan

France and Afghanistan agree NATO should speed up by a year its timetable for handing all combat operations to Afghan forces in 2013, President Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday, raising new questions about the unity of the Western military alliance. Sarkozy also announced a faster-track exit for France, the fourth-largest contributor of troops in Afghanistan — marking a distinct break from previous plans to adhere to the U.S. goal of withdrawing combat forces by the end of 2014. The proposal comes a week after four unarmed French troops were killed by an Afghan soldier described as a Taliban infiltrator.

Syria

Syrian troops stormed rebellious areas near the capital Sunday, shelling neighborhoods that have fallen under the control of army dissidents and clashing with fighters. At least 62 people were killed in violence nationwide Violence had surged once again in Syria on Friday, with government forces using heavy artillery to bombard several towns, while the United Nations debated a resolution on ways to end the bloodshed, intensifying the diplomatic pressure on Damascus. A military crackdown that ebbed when an Arab League monitoring team began its work in the country more than a month ago resumed this week with heightened force. The Arab League halted its observer mission to Syria on Saturday, sharply criticizing the regime of President Bashar Assad for escalating violence in recent days that has killed at least 80 people across the country.

The rising bloodshed has added urgency to new attempts by Arab and Western countries to find a resolution to the 10 months of violence that has killed at least 5,400 people as Assad seeks to crush persistent protests demanding an end to his rule. But the initiatives continue to face two major obstacles: Damascus’ rejection of an Arab peace plan which it says impinges on its sovereignty, and Russia’s willingness to use its U.N. Security Council veto to protect Syria from sanctions.

Iraq

A suicide car bomber struck a Shiite funeral procession Saturday, killing 33 people as suspected al-Qaida militants stepped up apparent efforts to provoke a counterattack by Shiite militias on Sunnis that could pave the way toward open sectarian warfare now that U.S. troops have left Iraq. The powerful Friday blast — the second deadliest attack in Iraq this month — set nearby stores and cars ablaze. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Zafaraniyah in southwestern Baghdad. But the bombing resembled previous attacks by al-Qaida in Iraq.

Iran

A U.N. nuclear team arrived in Tehran early Sunday for a mission expected to focus on Iran’s alleged attempt to develop nuclear weapons. In unusually blunt comments ahead of his arrival in Tehran, Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts urged Iran to work with his mission on probing the allegations about Iran’s alleged attempts to develop nuclear weapons, reflecting the importance the IAEA is attaching to the issue. Tehran has refused to discuss the alleged weapons experiments for three years, saying they are based on “fabricated documents” provided by a “few arrogant countries.”

Russia

Thousands of cars flying white ribbons or white balloons circled central Moscow on Sunday in a show of protest against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The cars jammed the inner lanes all along the nearly 10-mile Garden Ring, which has as many as 16 lanes of traffic at its widest points. More protesters stood along the side of the road waving white ribbons and flags as the vehicles passed. White ribbons became an opposition symbol during protests that broke out after a fraud-tainted Dec. 4 parliamentary election won by Putin’s party. Putin is running in a March 4 presidential election to reclaim the post he held from 2000 to 2008. He is expected to win, but is under pressure to show he can win fairly.

Nigeria

A U.S. citizen kidnapped by gunmen in Nigeria’s oil-rich southern delta has been freed after a week in captivity, the U.S. Embassy said Friday. The man had been released after being kidnapped in Warri in Delta state on Jan. 20. The embassy declined to offer any other details, citing privacy rules. It was not immediately clear whether a ransom had been paid to secure his release, though many companies working in the region carry kidnap insurance and simply pay a negotiated price to see their employees freed.

Sudan

Militants apparently captured 29 Chinese workers after attacking a remote worksite in a volatile region of Sudan, and Sudanese forces were increasing security for Chinese projects and personnel there. China has close political and economic relations with Sudan, especially in the energy sector. The Foreign Ministry in Beijing said the militants attacked Saturday and Sudanese forces launched a rescue mission Sunday in coordination with the Chinese embassy in Khartoum. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army is a guerrilla force loyal to the southern movement and hail from a minority ethnic group now in control of much of South Sudan, which became the world’s newest country only six months ago in a breakaway from Sudan. An estimated 3,000 people have been killed and over 100,000 displaced in the ethnic violence that has engulfed South Sudan’s Jonglei state. Entire villages have been burnt to the ground.

Earthquakes

An earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 6.3 has struck on the coast of central Peru. The quake was recorded at 11 minutes after midnight, nine miles from the city of Ica, which was badly damaged by a major 8.0 earthquake in August 2007 and also suffered damage in a quake last October. Monday’s quake was at a depth of 24.4 miles USGS maps showed the epicenter exactly on the Pacific Ocean coastline. Civil defense officials reported nearly 100 injuries.

Weather

Sequels to the northern lights, like last week’s polar sky shows, are likely headed for Earth on a once-a-month basis for the next year or two, solar physicists say. A strong solar storm grazed Earth’s magnetic field last week, delivering beautiful auroral lights to the polar skies. The S3-class storm, on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scale that rises from S1 to S5, represents the opening salvo in the coming peak of outbursts over the next year or so. The current cycle was slow in getting cranked up, but appears headed for its normal peak in 2013, part of an 11-year cycle that has been documented by astronomers for centuries. Where the sun’s magnetic field becomes tangled, cooler sunspots result, some a mere 5,000 degrees. Those sunspots are draped by strong magnetic fields that spit out solar storms, outbursts of charged particles and radiation shot into space.

The supposed ‘consensus’ on man-made global warming is facing an inconvenient challenge after the release of new temperature data showing the planet has not warmed for the past 15 years. Based on readings from more than 30,000 measuring stations, the data was issued last week without fanfare by the Met Office and the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit. It confirms that the rising trend in world temperatures ended in 1997. The figures suggest that we could even be heading for a mini ice age to rival the 70-year temperature drop that saw frost fairs held on the Thames in the 17th Century. Climate scientists told the U.K.’s Daily Mail on Sunday that, after emitting unusually high levels of energy throughout the 20th Century, the sun is now heading towards a ‘grand minimum’ in its output, threatening cold summers, bitter winters and a shortening of the season available for growing food.

  • Climatologists and economists are proving that predicting the weather and world finances are woefully inexact sciences

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