Archive for March, 2012

Signs of the Times (3/31/12)

March 31, 2012

Supreme Court Wraps-Up Health-Care Debate

Several U.S. Supreme Court justices seemed receptive Wednesday to the idea that portions of the Obama administration’s sweeping health care law can survive even if the court declares the heart of the law — which requires all Americans to have health insurance — unconstitutional. The last of three days of extended hearings on the 2-year-old health-care law spent much time dealing with hypothetical arguments by both supporters and opponents: Does the whole law collapse if the so-called individual mandate — the requirement that all Americans acquire health insurance — is ruled to be an unconstitutional government intrusion in the rights of citizens? When the court rules in June, the decision will have a major impact on the lives of virtually all Americans and will reanimate the political fight over how to deal with the country’s high medical costs, regardless of the outcome. Health care consumes 17 percent of the nation’s economy.

The fate of President Obama’s landmark health care law likely will be decided Friday in an oak-paneled conference room adjoining the chambers of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. There, the nine justices will meet alone to discuss the case that transfixed Americans for three days of oral arguments this week. When all have had their say, they will vote in order of seniority. That initial decision may be altered as drafts of majority and dissenting opinions are written, circulated and rewritten, often many times. It might even be reversed during the lengthy writing process if one or more justices switch sides. For most of the next three months, only the justices and 39 law clerks — four per justice and one each for the three living retired justices — will be privy to the ruling. And even in an age of Twitter and YouTube, it won’t leak – or so the experts say.

Family Healthcare Costs to Exceed $20,000 This Year

Three days of Supreme Court arguments have left the fate of the 2010 health care reform law uncertain. What is certain, however, is that health care costs are continuing to eat away at consumers’ budgets. The cost to cover the typical family of four under an employer plan is expected to top $20,000 on health care this year, up more than 7% from last year. In 2002, the cost was just $9,235. The projected increase marks the fifth year in a row that health care costs will rise between 7% and 8% annually. While employers still shoulder a majority of health care expenses, employees have been paying a larger portion of the total amount every year.

Arizona Dems, Moderate GOP Block Birth-Control/Gun/Immigration Bills

A fissure between moderates and conservatives within Arizona’s Republican party has become more obvious at the state Legislature. On Wednesday, the political split led to the downfall of a controversial bill to allow employers and insurance companies to opt out of covering contraception for religious reasons. The divide also is the reason bills to allow guns on college campuses and require schools to check students’ citizenship status failed to gain traction this session. But while the death of the contraception bill has Democratic lawmakers celebrating, experts say it’s not likely a sign that one of the nation’s most conservative legislatures has suddenly had a change of political heart — lawmakers have still introduced bills promoting conservative causes.

Obama Expands His Executive Power

Despite campaign promises to refrain from using executive powers to bypass Congress, President Barack Obama is increasingly doing just that, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday. From helping rebels in the Libyan revolution to granting states waivers from the No Child Left Behind education act, Obama is finding it easier to push his agenda without asking for approval from elected senators and representatives, the paper said. And that is not sitting well with either Republicans or Democrats who are keen to defend their own turf against what they see as an overreaching executive. “When he ran for president, Barack Obama promised to roll back President George W. Bush’s use of executive power, a defining point of the Bush presidency,” Laura Meckler wrote in the Journal piece. Three years into his first term, Mr. Obama has developed his own expansive view of going it alone.

  • Very little of what Obama pledged during his election campaign turned out to be real, so let’s not be fooled or cajoled by his reelection rhetoric. He’s amply displayed his power-monger, socialistic methods.

Sovereign Movement on the Rise in U.S.In the past three years, there has been growing concern over activities of so-called “sovereign citizens who “claim to exist beyond the realm of government authority,” according to a January FBI bulletin to state and local law enforcement officials warning of the potential for violence. The sovereign movement, estimated by the Southern Poverty Law Center to number 100,000 ardent followers and about 200,000 sympathizers across the country, is rooted in an ideology that rejects government authority at its most basic levels, from its power to tax to the enforcement of criminal laws, including common traffic regulations. The number of ‘sovereigns’ has swelled dramatically within a national anti-government network of related “patriot” and “militia” groups. Since 2008, the number of groups surged from 149 to 1,274 in 2011, the law center reported this month.

  • While mostly extremists, the increased numbers indicate an overall growing frustration and suspicion of the federal government’s means and motives. The accelerating slide into socialism and globalism is a very real concern.

Autism More Common than Previously Thought

New research showing one in 88 U.S. children have autism spectrum disorders is focusing national attention on the need for earlier diagnosis and treatment, especially in rural and minority communities. Figures released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a 23% increase in autism spectrum cases from 2006 to 2008, and 78% increase since 2002. The largest increases in autism prevalence were found among black and Hispanic children, who have lagged behind whites in previous counts. Numbers are higher for boys, with one in 54 8-year-olds now considered to have autism, Asperger’s or a related condition. No one knows why the condition is five times more likely to affect boys than girls. It’s also not known whether increases are because of better counting or something in the environment — or a mixture of both. Researchers are examining air pollution, nutrition, medications, environmental toxins and other factors as possible contributors.

  • While researchers continue to reject vaccinations as a source, many continue to believe that this is the primary causal agent.

Economic News

U.S. consumers boosted their spending in February by the most in seven months. But Americans’ income barely grew and the saving rate fell to its lowest point in more than two years. Consumer spending rose 0.8% last month, doubling January’s 0.4% increase. Income grew 0.2%, matching January’s less-than-stellar increase. And when taking inflation into account, income after taxes fell for a second straight month. The saving rate dropped to 3.7% of after-tax income in February. That was the lowest level since August 2009. The saving rate had been 4.3% in January and it had averaged 4.7% for all of last year.

Initial claims for unemployment benefits fell 5,000 to 359,000 last week. The four-week moving average of claims for jobless benefits also fell to 365,000, more evidence of an improving labor market. Claims under 375,000 are considered to be indicative of expanding employment.

Nationally, 84% of those responding to an AAA survey released earlier this month say they’ve changed their routines as a result of soaring fuel prices. Better planning — combining errands into a single trip — was the most common way cited. Some 16% say they’re less affected because they bought or leased a more fuel-efficient vehicle.

The Federal Reserve is propping up the entire U.S. economy by buying 61 percent of the government debt issued by the Treasury Department, says Lawrence Goodman, a former Treasury official and current president of the Center for Financial Stability. He warns that if the situation is not “normalized” the whole economy risks a severe shock.

Canada’s conservative government released its 2012 budget today, and the penny is among the $5.2 billion in cuts. After 150 years, the last Canadian penny will be minted in April. The royal mint will stop distributing pennies to financial institutions in the fall and start working to withdraw them from circulation. It now costs 1.6 cents to produce every copper-nickel cent, and the government estimates it loses $11 million a year producing and distributing pennies.

Religious Freedom Group Names Worst Offenders

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report listing the nations most prone to violating religious freedom, WORLD News Service reports. Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) — named by USCIRF as those most in need of close monitoring by the State Department — include Burma, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam, where governments sanction discrimination and violence against unpopular and minority religions.

Middle East

Israeli analysts said the involvement of terrorist groups connected to Iran in Friday’s “Global March to Jerusalem” to press Palestinian demands in neighboring countries and world capitals could lead to violence. March organizers said they hope that thousands of people will hold protests on Israel’s borders from neighboring countries to demand the “liberation” of Jerusalem and Palestine. March 30 marks the date in 1976 when six Israeli Arabs were killed during violent protests against the government confiscating Palestinian land. Despite the stated intention of a non-violent protest, Iran, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are assisting in the march. Hezbollah and Hamas are both U.S.-designated terror groups that have waged attacks against Israel.

The IDF and Israel Police deployed thousands of riot control troops armed with tear gas and stun grenades in Jerusalem and along Israel’s borders with Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan on Friday, placing the West Bank under a full closure and taking other tight security measures as the ‘Global March to Jerusalem’ activists threatened disruptions and confrontations to mark the 36th anniversary of Land Day riots in 1976 that ended violently. Palestinian rioters burned tires and threw stones at police near the Kalandiya checkpoint while PA police prevented protesters in Bethlehem from reaching the IDF checkpoint. Lebanese troops and police, as well as UN forces, were also out in force along the Lebanese border to keep protests there under control. Protests in the Palestinian cities of the West Bank as well as in front of Israeli embassies around the world were planned for the afternoon and evening.

Iraq

The annual Arab League summit meeting opened in the Iraqi capital on Thursday with only 10 of the leaders of the 22-member in attendance amid a growing rift between Arab countries over how far they should proceed to end the one-year conflict in Syria. The Arab League took little action to address Syria crisis, deferring to UN. But the summit, held in a renovated marble palace with gold-encrusted dates for dessert, still marked a triumph for host Iraq. Lackluster attendance, and an ineffectual statement on Syria did not detract from Iraq’s triumph at conducting the summit for the first time since 1990, after it was twice delayed over security worries and anger by the Sunni Muslim Gulf states at Iraq’s Shiite-led government.

Syria

Clashes and protests broke out across many parts of Syria Friday, further complicating a peace mission by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan who urged the government to lay down its weapons first to immediately end the country’s yearlong crisis. As angry protesters lamented inaction by Arab countries, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to work out how to help the opposition in talks with Saudi Arabia, the biggest advocate for arming the rebels against President Bashar Assad. Her visit comes ahead of a 60-nation weekend gathering of the so-called “Friends of the Syrian People” in Istanbul. The meeting is an effort to find ways to aid Syria’s fractured opposition, which has been frustrated by the government’s military gains on the ground. The U.S. is seeking to unify Syria’s opposition movement and find ways to further isolate Assad’s regime.

However, the violent year-long uprising that aimed to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria has ended, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad al-Makdissi said Saturday. He added that the presence of Syrian Army soldiers in cities was “for defensive purposes … to protect the civilians.” Makdissi’s remarks come after a series of victories for the Syrian army in the cities of Hama, Homs and Idlib, which were former rebel strongholds, the report said.

  • Statements from the Assad regime have been bizarre, at best, throughout this prolonged ordeal, so it remains to be seen whether this is just another PR strategy

Egypt

Two days after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton approved resuming military funding to Egypt — expressing optimism in its “significant progress toward democracy” — Islamists asserted control over yet another part of the country’s transition to a new government, CNSNews.com reports. On Sunday, it was announced that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Nour party would comprise roughly 70 of the 100 seats on Egypt’s new constituent assembly, which will be responsible for crafting the country’s new constitution. With Islamists leading the constitution-drafting process, sharia (Islamic law) is expected to be a major factor, and the Muslim Brotherhood appears increasingly likely to play a primary role in determining the nature of post-Mubarak Egypt as the country prepares for presidential elections in two months.

France

French police detained 19 people Friday as they launched a crackdown on suspected Islamist extremists in cities around the country, the French president said, promising more raids to come. Tensions are high following a spate of killings in southern France by a radical Islamist that left seven people dead and two wounded and ended up with police killing the gunman last week after a 32-hour standoff. The head of Forsane Alizza, a radical Muslim group that formed two years ago, was among the detained. In October 2011, a preliminary inquiry was opened into the Forsane Alizza organization.

Pakistan

A suspected U.S. drone fired two missiles at a house in northwest Pakistan early Friday morning, killing four militants in an attack that comes as Pakistani officials have stepped up their calls for the strikes to end. The attack could complicate U.S. efforts to get Pakistan to reopen its border crossings to supplies meant for NATO troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan shut the border last November in retaliation for American airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan’s parliament is debating a revised framework for its relationship with the U.S. that Washington hopes will result in NATO supply routes reopening. But a key demand is that the U.S. stop drone attacks, which are very unpopular in Pakistan because many people believe they mostly kill civilians — a claim denied by the U.S. and contradicted by independent research.

Thailand

Suspected Muslim insurgents set off a series of bombs as shoppers gathered for lunch Saturday in a commercial hub of Thailand’s insurgency-plagued south, killing ten people and wounding 100 others. Three blasts occurred within a 100-yard radius and minutes apart in Yala city, a main commercial hub of Thailand’s restive southern provinces. The first bomb was hidden inside a motorcycle parked near a shopping area and detonated by a mobile phone at about noon. Within minutes, a second bomb hidden in another motorcycle exploded, followed by a third explosion from a device placed in a car that set fire to nearby buildings.

Yemen

An airstrike killed four al-Qaeda militants and wounded four others on Friday in a southern district of Yemen that has been under the group’s control for around a year. An unmanned U.S. drone launched the strike on a vehicle carrying seven militants in the district of Azan. A security official said the attack may have killed some al-Qaeda leaders in the group who were attending Friday prayers and left together. A second drone airstrike on Friday, just a few kilometers from the first strike, hit a building believed to be used by al-Qaeda near a main market in the town of Azan. Four residents were wounded. A gas pipeline in the same region was attacked later in the day in an operation likely carried out by militants.

Mali

The West Africa regional bloc says its sealing its borders with Mali and closing the country’s bank account following a coup that overthrew Mali’s democratically elected president. The closure of borders with many neighboring nations also cuts off Mali’s supply of gasoline. A group of mutinous soldiers seized power last week in a coup, overthrowing President Amadou Toumani Toure, who remains in hiding. Several thousand people took to the streets this week in support of the military takeover, indicating that frustration with Toure is more widespread than just among the mutinous soldiers. Mali’s coup leader responded to the threat of sanctions by saying he plans to hold elections and rapidly return the country to its established order but gave no timetable for immediate action, falling short of demands by West African countries.

Wildfires

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said he was preparing to order a stop to government-prescribed burns like the one that may have caused a deadly wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes near Denver. Meanwhile, some 400 firefighters from several states were focusing on building containment lines around the 6-square-mile wildfire, which broke out Monday. Until now, the fire’s erratic pattern has forced firefighters to focus on protecting homes, not stopping the burn. As of Saturday morning, the fire was still only 45% contained and had consumed 4,140 acres.

Weather

Kids in the nation’s “snow belts” didn’t have a white Christmas — but they’ll have an early summer vacation. At least nine of the snowiest U.S. cities had less than 60% of their average snowfall this year, and schools across the nation are deciding what to do with an unusually high number of leftover emergency weather days. Many schools will let students finish the year early.

For the second weekend in a row, the East and West Coasts will slog through damp and cool weather, while most of the central and southern USA will enjoy sunny skies and near-record temperatures well into the 80s.

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Signs of the Times (3/28/12)

March 28, 2012

‘October Baby’ Opens as #8 Movie in America

The pro-life move, October Baby, opened across America this past weekend and finished eighth overall in ticket sales. The American Family Association notes, “Our hope and prayer is that with your continued support, the word of mouth for OCTOBER BABY will continue growing, allowing the film’s impact to increase exponentially. Your American Family Association has made a huge financial contribution to making sure the strong pro-life message of October Baby is shared across the country. With your movie ticket purchase, you are helping bring more Christian-based films to the theater…and sending a strong message to Hollywood that these are the types of films you want more of.” The producers of October Baby have assigned 10% of the profits of the movie to the Every Life is Beautiful Fund, which will distribute funds to frontline organizations helping women facing crisis pregnancies, life-affirming adoption agencies, and those caring for orphans.

Poll: Mississippi Most Religion, VT/NH Least

The latest Gallup Poll finds Mississippi is the most religious state, with Vermont and New Hampshire ranking as the least. Overall, Gallup says, “America remains a generally religious nation, with more than two-thirds of the nation’s residents classified as very or moderately religious.” But “dramatic regional differences” highlight and underscore the nation’s deep divisions, which spill over into politics and culture. Gallup found that 59% of Mississippians described themselves as “very religious,” followed by 57% in Utah and 56% in Alabama. Louisiana, Arkansas and South Carolina came in at 54%. New England — where the persecuted Pilgrims landed — continues to be a home for Americans focused less on religion than elsewhere in the union. Only 23% of the residents in Vermont and New Hampshire said they were “very religious,” followed by Maine (25%) and Massachusetts (28%).How did our most populous states rank? California, 35%; New York, 32%; Texas, 47%; Illinois, 39%; and Florida, 39%.

  • New York and California tend to drive the USA politically and are among the least religious states

Supreme Court Bores into Health Care Law’s Mandate

The nine justices of the Supreme Court sent an unmistakable reminder to President Obama and Congress from a packed, hushed courtroom Tuesday: When it comes to landmark statutes that must stand the test of time, such as the 2010 health care law, they will have the last word. Questioning whether the law’s central requirement that Americans buy health insurance fundamentally alters the government’s relationship with its citizens, the high court’s conservative justices suggested they might be willing to send lawmakers back to the drawing board just months before a presidential election — particularly if they can’t find a way to uphold the law without significantly expanding the power of the federal government. With the court’s four liberal justices seemingly aligned in favor of the law, two others — Justice Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice John Roberts— demonstrated by their questions that their votes will be pivotal when the case is decided in June. Without support from at least one of them, the law is unlikely to survive. The court’s historic three-day, six-hour review of the issue ends today, when the justices will consider its Medicare expansion and whether the rest of the law can survive if the insurance mandate doesn’t.

States’ Anti-Illegal Immigration Bills Hit Roadblocks

Republican state legislators are struggling to pass laws this year that would give local police more powers to crack down on illegal immigrants. After Arizona passed its landmark illegal immigration bill in 2010, legislators in Utah, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Indiana followed and passed similar laws last year. But portions of all those laws have been blocked by federal courts and will face costly legal challenges, which could ultimately be decided when the Supreme Court reviews Arizona’s law next month. Republican lawmakers say the threat of those lawsuits, some led by the Department of Justice, is one reason legislative leaders have put the brakes on immigration bills, or abandoned them altogether, as they wait to see how this election year plays out.

Support in U.S. for Afghan War Drops Sharply

After a series of violent episodes and setbacks, support for the war in Afghanistan has dropped sharply among both Republicans and Democrats, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. The survey found that more than two-thirds of those polled — 69 percent — thought that the United States should not be at war in Afghanistan. Just four months ago, 53 percent said that Americans should no longer be fighting in the conflict, more than a decade old. The increased disillusionment was even more pronounced when respondents were asked their impressions of how the war was going. The poll found that 68 percent thought the fighting was going “somewhat badly” or “very badly,” compared with 42 percent who had those impressions in November.

One Nation Under Surveillance

The four-way traffic cameras at virtually every intersection. Police secretly attaching GPS tracking devices to citizens’ automobiles. Invasive TSA pat-downs and nude X-ray scannings – after first being required to raise your hands as though you were being arrested. Internet sites that track your online activities so thoroughly they almost seem to know what you’re thinking. In its March issue of Whistleblower magazine, WorldNetDaily asks, “Did you know that the ordinary-looking white van next to you on the highway may house government agents peering at you via backscatter X-ray scanners? Or that Miami and several other U.S. cities are experimenting with drones to spy on their citizens? Do you know how easy it is to track your every movement through your cell phone? Mesmerized by the amazing convenience and connectedness made possible by gee-whiz consumer electronics, most Americans don’t realize their world is rapidly coming to resemble the totalitarian society described by novelist George Orwell in “1984,” one characterized by universal surveillance.” WND concludes that in today’s America, “Big Brother is watching in ways Orwell never dreamed.”

  • Look for more and more drones in the sky, as the federal government continues to step up its unprecedented monitoring of civilian activities.

Job Growth Expected from Cheap Natural Gas

The nation’s fast-growing supply of cheap natural gas is setting off a manufacturing revival that’s expected to create hundreds of thousands of jobs as companies build or expand plants to take advantage of the low prices. Royal Dutch Shell announced this month that it chose a site near Pittsburgh for a facility to convert ethane from locally produced natural gas into ethylene and polyethylene, used to make plastics that go into packaging, pipes and other products. It’s among nearly 30 chemical plants proposed in the U.S. in the next five years. The projects would expand U.S. petrochemical capacity by 27% and employ 200,000 workers at the factories and related suppliers. As U.S. natural gas prices soared in the late 1990s, chemical makers moved overseas, laying off 140,000 employees. But the U.S. has seen a natural gas boom in recent years, with producers using new drilling techniques to extract fuel from shale formations in Texas, Pennsylvania and other regions. U.S. natural gas prices, at slightly more than $2 per million British thermal units, are about 75% below Western European rates.

Giving Finally Rebounding for Majority of Churches

Churches suffered from plummeting donations after the recession began in 2008. But in the past year, a majority of congregations experienced giving increases because of a better economy, higher attendance and more church teaching on giving. The fourth annual “State of the Plate” constituency survey of more than 1,360 congregations revealed that 51 percent of churches saw giving increase in 2011, up from 43 percent in 2010 and 36 percent in 2009. Giving increases were greatest among larger churches, with more than 70 percent of megachurches — 2,000 or more in weekend attendance — experiencing giving increases last year. Heartland states saw the biggest rebound, with nearly 55 percent of churches experiencing giving increases

Economic News

U.S. companies ordered more long-lasting goods last month, showing businesses are willing to buy equipment and machinery even after an investment tax credit was halved. The Commerce Department said Wednesday that orders for durable goods rose 2.2% in February after a steep drop in January. Greater demand for machinery, computers, autos and aircraft drove much of the increase. Orders for so-called “core” capital goods, a good measure of business investment plans, rose 1.2%. Demand for these goods fell in January by the most in a year, after the full tax credit expired.

Home prices are still dropping, but the pace is moderating and expectations are growing that the bottom is near. Prices fell 0.8% in January from December, according to the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller 20-city index. S&P described the home sales market as off to a “rocky start” this year, but the decline was less than the 1.1% drop in December and the 1.3% decline in November.

The price of an average gallon of regular gas surpassed the $3.90 mark Wednesday, moving to within a dime of the $4 threshold. The price has risen for 19 consecutive days. The current price compares to just below $3.70 a month ago, and $3.59 a year ago. Gasoline averages more than $4 a gallon in 10 states and the District of Columbia. At $4.55 a gallon, Hawaii has the nation’s highest pump price.

Primarily as a result of ongoing low interest rates, Americans spent just 5.8% of their after-tax income paying interest on mortgages, credit cards, car loans and other debt, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. That’s the smallest share since 1977 and a steep drop from a record high of 9.1% in 2007. Household interest payments fell to an average of $469 per month at the end of last year, down from a peak of $728 in 2007, after adjusting for inflation. Three-fourths of the interest savings stem from falling rates, the rest from a reduction in debt.

Middle East

The new regime taking power in Egypt is taking steps to make life in Israel as difficult as possible. They have been steadily reducing the flow of natural gas to Israel—the main source of Israel’s electricity generation. Now there are reports that Egypt has completely shut off the transmission of the vital resource. That means that Israel is faced with going into the summer months without enough electricity for the population.

Drought and uprisings are threatening to undermine the Middle East’s economy, Arab officials said Tuesday as they discussed plans to boost the region’s stability at the start of a key summit in Baghdad. For the first time in a generation, leaders from 21 states gathered in Iraq for the Arab League’s annual summit. Iraq is hoping the summit will better integrate its Shiite-led government into the Sunni-dominated Arab world, and has deployed thousands of soldiers and police forces across Baghdad to prevent insurgent threats from upending it. As in Iraq, where the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers are drying up, water resources also are strapped elsewhere across the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates and Jordan say their ground water is rapidly depleting, and the Dead Sea is drying up. Much of the problem is due to the failure of governments in the region to manage growth and use of the major rivers.

  • The waters drying up is but a physical manifestation of the spiritual darkness enveloping this area where the One True God first established human civilization

Syria

Arab countries, divided over how to stop Syria’s bloodshed, are calling upon the Syrian regime to halt its crackdown on civilians, let in humanitarian groups and free detainees, according to recommendations Wednesday by foreign ministers preparing for a summit this week. Even before Arab heads of state began their Thursday summit in the Iraqi capital, Syria sharply rejected any measures they take. A Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdessi, said Damascus would “not deal with any initiative” that might come out of the 22-member Arab League. The rejection reflected Damascus’ refusal to work with the League after the pan-Arab body suspended Syria’s membership as punishment for the bloody crackdown on protesters demanding the ouster of President Bashar Assad.

Syrian activists are urging international humanitarian organizations to urgently go to the northern Syrian town of Saraqeb, where they say security forces have killed more than 40 people in the past four days. They say the Syrian army launched a massive military assault on the opposition town on Sunday, leaving a trail of death and destruction. The U.N. says that over the past year more than 9,000 people have been killed in the violence.

Iran

Iranian oil exports have fallen significantly in March, industry sources said on Friday, as some buyers stop or scale back purchases to abide by Western sanctions aimed at slowing Tehran’s nuclear program. Crude exports from Iran appear to have fallen this month by around 300,000 barrels per day (bpd), or 14 percent, according to estimates from industry consultant Petrologistics and a leading European oil company. It is the first sizable drop in oil shipments from the OPEC producer since the European Union announced in January plans to embargo Iran’s crude from July and Washington and Brussels sanctioned Iran’s central bank.

Tunisia

Islamic law will not be enshrined in Tunisia’s new constitution, preserving the secular basis of the North African nation, Tunisia’s ruling Islamist Ennahda Party said Monday. The decision marks a break between the moderate Islamist Ennahda and an increasingly vocal minority of ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis who have been demanding Islamic law in a country long known for its progressive traditions. In many other Muslim countries, Shariah is enshrined in the constitution as the source of all legislation.

Mali

The body representing nations in western Africa has suspended Mali and has put a peacekeeping force on standby in the most direct threat yet to the junta that seized control in a military coup last week. A delegation of five African presidents will head to Mali within the next 48 hours to try to “restore constitutional order.” There is no immediate plan to deploy the peacekeepers who will be put on standby in the event that a military intervention is needed.

Cuba

Pope Benedict XVI prayed for freedom and a renewal of Christian faith Tuesday before a religious icon that is a powerful symbol of the Cuban nation on the second day of a visit to the communist-run island. Before arriving, he accused the socialist state of not living in reality or caring for its people. Leaders here said there would be no moves toward democracy following five decades of one-party rule led by Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl. The Cuban government pardoned 2,900 prisoners in December ahead of this papal visit. Amnesty International reported this month that the Cuban government wages a permanent campaign of harassment and short-term detentions of political opponents to stop them from demanding respect for civil and political rights.

Earthquakes

A strong earthquake shook northern Japan on Tuesday, but no damage was reported and there was no risk of a tsunami. The Japan Meteorological Agency recorded a 6.4 preliminary magnitude. The agency said there may be a small change in sea levels but did not issue tsunami warnings. The epicenter was off the coast of Iwate and was about 10 kilometers (6 miles) below the sea surface. Iwate is in the region heavily damaged by last year’s massive 9.0 earthquake and tsunami.

Wildfires

A wildfire devoured 7 square miles of a mountainous area southwest of Denver. It was still out of control Tuesday night. Two people are dead and one is missing. a wildfire devoured 7 square miles of a mountainous area southwest of Denver. It was still out of control Tuesday night.. Residents of 6,500 more homes north of the evacuation area were warned Tuesday afternoon to be ready to leave. The fire, which has consumed 4,500 acres, erupted on Monday. It may have been a controlled burn that reignited, fanned by strong winds.

Weather

As the USA simmers through its hottest March on record — with more than 6,000 record high temperatures already set this month — a new study released Sunday shows that average global temperatures could climb 2.5 to 5.4 degrees by 2050. The study findings are based on the results of 10,000 computer model simulations of future weather overseen by researchers at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. It is a faster rate of warming than most other models predict.

The Obama administration has requested $770 million in federal funds to combat the effects of global warming in developing countries, a new congressional report details, continuing its policy of using foreign aid to combat the effects of global warming in the developing world. Despite another year of $1 trillion deficits, the Obama administration continues to pursue its policy of using foreign aid funds for anti-global warming measures – known as the Global Climate Change Initiative (GCCI). According to the Congressional Research Service, the government has spent a total of $2.5 billion on GCCI since 2010 on overseas anti-global warming efforts in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

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Signs of the Times (3/26/12)

March 26, 2012

Growth of Christianity in Iran ‘Explosive’

The number of Muslims coming to Christ from Islam — often called Muslim Background Believers or Secret Believers — is growing faster and faster in Iran, especially among young people, Open Doors USA reports. Forty years ago, an estimated 200 Muslim Background Believers were living in Iran, but today the number is around 370,000. The growth is happening in all regions, but mostly in Iran’s larger cities, and the house church movement has triggered many secret meetings. According to Open Doors workers, the growth of Christianity “has everything to do with Iranians getting to know the real face of Islam, the official religion of Iran, and the mistrust of the people toward the government and leaders.” Open Doors is using discipleship training to strengthen the Iranian church, and many are also coming to Christ through Christian programming on satellite TV. The government of Iran sees Christianity as a threat, but despite increasing crackdowns in attempts to stop the growth, the network of Iranian Christians has only become stronger.

Pope Calls for Less Violence in Mexico

Pope Benedict XVI landed in Mexico on Friday to throngs of faithful who gathered at the tarmac and lined more than 20 miles of his route into the city. From the time the pontiff boarded his plane in Rome, he took on the subject of Mexican drug war violence that has killed more than 47,000 people in the last six years, saying it is “destroying humanity and our youth.” Benedict called on Mexicans to conquer a materialistic culture that feeds drug trafficking and said the church can be a healing force. “The great responsibility of the church is to educate the conscience, teach moral responsibility and strip off the mask (from) the idolatry of money that enslaves mankind, and unmask the false promise, this lie that is behind” the drug culture, he said.

Religious Rallies Across USA Protest Birth-Control Mandate

Thousands of people rallied Friday in an estimated 140 cities nationwide to protest mandatory insurance coverage for birth control, which opponents say threatens religious freedom. Crowd estimates ranged from dozens to hundreds to thousands, according to various news reports. Protesters were characterized as being mostly conservative Catholics, evangelicals and abortion opponents. In several, bishops, priests, other religious leaders and lawmakers excoriated crowds to fight the employer mandate, which would require Catholic hospitals and universities and other religious organizations to provide contraception coverage to their employees. The protest, timed to mark the second anniversary of President Obama’s signing of the Affordable Care Act, was organized by “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” and local groups.

  • This real issue isn’t contraception, but the intrusion of federal government into private, religious affairs

Healthcare Law Reaches High Court

Health coverage for more than 30 million people. The power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce. President Obama’s re-election. The reputation of the Supreme Court and the legacy of its chief justice. And to hear some tell it: liberty itself. All that and more could be at stake today when the Supreme Court begins three days of historic oral arguments on a 2010 health care law that has become a symbol of the nation’s deep political divide. Passed by Democrats along strictly partisan lines and still two years short of full implementation, the law is designed to extend health coverage to more than 30 million uninsured people, ban insurers from discriminating against those with expensive ailments, and require nearly all Americans to buy insurance or pay penalties. Americans remain divided on whether the law was a good or bad idea. Many Americans also are confused about the law’s standing: A poll this month by the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation found 42% were either unsure of the law’s status or believed the Supreme Court had already overturned it.

  • In all of human history, health insurance only came into being over the past century. Now the entitlement generation considers it a fundamental right. The key issue here is federal enforcement of what should be individual choices within a private industry.

New Counterterrorism Guidelines

The Obama administration has approved guidelines that allow counterterrorism officials to lengthen the period of time they retain information about U.S. residents, even if they have no known connection to terrorism. The changes allow the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), the intelligence community’s clearinghouse for terrorism data, to keep information for up to five years. Previously, the center was required to promptly destroy — generally within 180 days — any information about U.S. citizens or residents unless a connection to terrorism was evident. The guidelines have prompted concern from civil liberties advocates.

  • Counterterrorism will be an excuse for the federal government to exercise unlawful constraint and restraint against those opposed to its socialistic, globalistic objectives

Arizona’s Illegal-Immigration Population Plunges

The size of Arizona’s undocumented-immigrant population has dropped significantly in recent years and is now near its lowest level in a decade, according to new government estimates. Based on 2010 census data, estimated there were 360,000 illegal immigrants in Arizona as of January 2011. That is down 110,000 from a year earlier. It also is down 200,000 from the peak in 2008, when an estimated 560,000 illegal immigrants lived in Arizona. Experts say the the primary factor behind the exodus was the lack of jobs during the recession, but tighter border enforcement and tough immigration laws also played a role.

State Lawmakers Push to Take Over Federal Land

Another “sagebrush rebellion” is spreading through legislatures in Arizona and other Western states with a series of formal demands that the federal government hand over title to tens of millions of acres of forests, ranges and other public lands, but not military bases, Indian reservations, national parks and some wilderness areas. If the federal government fails to comply by the end of 2014, the states say they will begin sending property-tax bills to Washington, D.C. While the original sagebrush rebellion grew out of conflicts over management of federal lands, often as specific as keeping a forest road open, the new takeover movement owes more to “tea party” politics, with a strong focus on reducing the scope of federal influence and opening land to more users. Supporters say federal agencies have mismanaged the land and blocked access to natural resources, depriving the states of jobs and revenue from businesses ready to develop those resources. With the state in control, the backers say, loggers could return to forests where endangered species halted work decades ago and miners could regain access to ore outside the Grand Canyon.

  • We have moved so far away from Constitutional states’ rights that any move away from federal encroachment is a good thing on principle alone

Few U.S. Cities Ready for Aging Baby Boomers

Few communities have started to think long term about how to plan and redesign services for aging baby boomers as they move out of the workforce and into retirement. Even more troubling, dwindling budgets in a tight economy have pushed communities to cut spending on delivering meals to the homebound and shuttling folks who can no longer drive to grocery stores and doctor’s offices. These cuts, advocates for older Americans say, are coming when the services are needed more than ever. And those needs will grow tremendously over the next two decades. The nation’s population of those 65 and older will double between 2000 and 2030, according to the federal Administration on Aging. That adds up to one out of every five Americans — 72.1 million people.

Soldiers Diagnosed with PTSD Returned to War

It is still not known if the soldier accused of killing 17 Afghans was ever diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder — but even if he had been, that alone would not have prevented him from being sent back to war. The Army diagnosed 76,176 soldiers with PTSD between 2000 and 2011. Of those, 65,236 soldiers were diagnosed at some stage of their deployment. Many returned to the battlefield after mental health providers determined their treatment worked and their symptoms had gone into remission. For some Americans, Bales is the epitome of a soldier afflicted by war’s psychological wounds, pushed by the Army beyond his limits. Military officials say they have to rely on their mental health experts to decide whether someone is mentally fit to go back into war, and they cannot make a blanket policy of not redeploying troops diagnosed with PTSD.

  • The military has been stretched thin by two long wars and no draft. They have unconscionably pushed servicemembers and reservists into multiple deployments, severely compromising psychological boundaries

Navajo Nation Eyes Grand Canyon for Development

The vast 27,000-square-mile Navajo reservation abuts Grand Canyon National Park. Generations of Navajo families have grazed livestock on a remote but spectacular mesa that overlooks the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. No significant development has occurred at the eastern flank of the Grand Canyon where the rivers meet. But ancestral tradition and the tranquility of the landscape could change. That’s if the Navajo government’s proposal for a resort and aerial tramway that would ferry tourists from the cliff tops to water’s edge is realized. Tribal leaders say they’re losing out on tourist dollars and jobs for Navajos by leaving the land undeveloped. The National Park Service and environmental groups, are opposing the large-scale development.

U.S. Inches Toward Goal of Energy Independence

All across the USA, the oil and gas industry is vastly increasing production, reversing two decades of decline. Using new technology and spurred by rising oil prices since the mid-2000s, the industry is extracting millions of barrels more a week, from the deepest waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the prairies of North Dakota. At the same time, Americans are pumping significantly less gasoline. Taken together, the increasing production and declining consumption have unexpectedly brought the United States markedly closer to a goal of energy independence that has eluded policymakers for decades. In 2011, the country imported just 45 percent of the liquid fuels it used, down from a record high of 60 percent in 2005.

  • Good start, but still a long way to go. Even more important than economic considerations is the security of not having our fate in the hands of OPEC.

Economic News

Sales of new U.S. homes fell in February for the second straight month, a reminder that the depressed housing market remains weak despite some improvement. New-home sales dropped 1.6% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 313,000 homes. Sales have fallen nearly 7% since December. While a mild winter and three months of strong job growth have lifted re-sales, those conditions haven’t benefited the new-home market. The current pace is less than half the 700,000 that economists consider to be healthy. However, the median sales price for new homes surged in February more than 8%, to $233,700. That’s the highest median price since June.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says the U.S. job market remains weak. “Despite the recent improvement, the job market remains far from normal,” Bernanke said. “The number of people working and total hours worked are still significantly below pre-crisis peaks.” Bernanke cautioned that he doesn’t expect the unemployment rate to keep falling at the current pace without much stronger economic growth. He is concerned that the recovery could falter again as it did last year. Americans aren’t seeing big pay increases, gas prices are rising, and Europe’s debt crisis could weigh on the U.S. economy.

The amount Americans owe on student loans is far higher than earlier estimates and could lead some consumers to postpone buying homes, potentially slowing the housing recovery, U.S. officials said. Total student debt outstanding appears to have surpassed $1 trillion late last year, said officials at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a federal agency created in the wake of the financial crisis. That would be roughly 16% higher than an estimate earlier this year by the Federal Reserve Bank. CFPB officials say student debt is rising for several reasons, including a surge in Americans going to college in recent years to escape the weak labor market. Also, tuition increases—which many colleges say are needed to offset big cuts in state funding—have many students taking out bigger loans.

Middle East

The former head of Israel’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau revealed this week that jihadist groups around the world have joined together to attack Israeli targets and Jewish people wherever and whenever they can. General Nitzan Nuriel said that Iran is pushing these terrorists, many of whom it has funded and trained, to launch these attacks as an attempt to derail a possible military strike against their nuclear program. The brutal murder of three children and a teacher at a Jewish school in France this week was just the latest and most deadly in a string of recent attacks.

The Palestinians will receive $88.6 million in U.S. developmental aid, more than half the assistance that has been on hold for six months, after top Republicans who control the House of Representatives dropped their opposition. Republicans said the money could be spent with the understanding that they are not used for assistance and recovery in Hamas-controlled Gaza; road construction projects in the West Bank, except if directly related to security and projects with permits from Israel in other areas; and trade facilitation, tourism promotion, scholarships for Palestinian students and other aid for the Palestinian Authority agencies and ministries. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, said she will continue to block the remaining $58.6 million because part of the money is for Gaza assistance and recovery.

The high-profile Christ at the Checkpoint conference of evangelical leaders from America was held in Bethlehem earlier this month. The conference slammed Christian Zionists for the plight of the Palestinians. Speakers called the “occupation a structural sin” and said that Christ would be standing with the Palestinians, not the Jews in the conflict. The conference did not address the murder of innocent Jewish men, women, and children by brutal terrorists.

  • Christians are falling prey to New World Order media hype and abandoning Biblical foundations. Satan is using any excuse to eliminate Israel. Christian complicity is shameful and sinful.

Syria

Streets of Damascus that used to be crowded until late at night stand mostly empty after sunset as Syrians stay home, fearing robberies and kidnapping. Reports of thefts, armed robberies and house break-ins have swelled, an apparent sign of criminals taking advantage of the turmoil as the regime of President Bashar Assad wages a bloody, nationwide crackdown against an opposition demanding his ouster. The government blames members of the opposition or army defectors for much of the crime. The opposition, in turn, blames the regime, saying it is allowing the lawlessness so it can tell the public that the uprising has brought chaos.

  • The real culprit is the end-time spirit of lawlessness that is rapidly expanding its influence as God’s hand of restraint is being removed (2Thess. 2:7)

Syrian troops backed by tanks stormed the northwestern town of Saraqeb Friday amid intense shelling in the latest push by regime forces in their attempt to regain rebel-held areas. The troops were accompanied by pro-government gunmen known as shabiha and plainclothes security agents who arrived in buses and started conducting raids and detaining people. Saraqeb, in the northern province of Idlib that borders Turkey, has been held by army defectors for months. The attack on Saraqeb came 11 days after troops retook Idlib city, the provincial capital, which had been under rebel control for months.

Libya

Libyan tribesmen have closed the country’s main border crossing with Egypt, complaining of a rise in crime and rampant smuggling of drugs and weapons across the frontier. Tribal elders and residents affected by the lawlessness decided the only solution was to take matters into their own hands. The closure of the Salloum crossing reflects of Libya’s new leaders’ struggles to fully secure the country and stamp their authority on the former rebels who helped topple Moammar Gadhafi’s regime last year. The transitional government has trained a number of security officers in border protection, and some have already been sent to work on Libya’s main crossing on its western border with Tunisia.

Afghanistan

A man in an Afghan army uniform shot and killed two British soldiers Monday inside a NATO base in southern Afghanistan. The attack appeared to be the latest in a string of so-called “green on blue” attacks in which Afghan security forces have turned on their international colleagues or mentors. Such attacks have become increasingly common over the past year, particularly since the burning of Qurans at a U.S. base in February and the massacre of seventeen civilians by a U.S. soldier.

Mali

Demonstrators in Mali’s capital are demanding a return to constitutional order days after mutinous soldiers claimed power in a coup. About a thousand people, including members of youth movements and political parties, gathered Monday in central Bamako. Junta spokesman Lt. Amadou Konare on Sunday warned demonstrators to “exercise prudence” on Monday, which marks the 21-year anniversary of the last coup. The ouster of President Amadou Toumani Toure just two months before he was to step down after elections threatens the cause of democracy. Many of the rebel troops who toppled Toure had just returned home from fighting as mercenaries for ousted Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi.

Cuba

Pope Benedict XVI is set to land in Cuba Monday for what will be a delicate exercise in diplomacy between the country’s dissidents, who are anxious for their voices to be amplified by a papal visit, and the historically atheist government that is in need of an air of legitimacy. Dissidents have complained of threats from authorities. Oswaldo Payá claims that members of his Christian Liberation Movement have received threats from state security, banning them from taking part in papal ceremonies. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 and is one of the country’s foremost dissidents. The government expelled priests and nuns as well as seized church property after the revolution in 1959. There are no plans for Fidel Castro to meet with the pope, though Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said that the pope would be available if the elder Castro — who was excommunicated by Pope John XXIII in 1962 — desired an audience.

Earthquakes

A magnitude-7.2 earthquake struck central Chile on Sunday night, prompting authorities to urge evacuations for a long stretch of the coast as a precaution against a tsunami. There were no immediate reports of casualties or major damage. The quake struck 20 miles north-northwest of Talca, where residents said it lasted about a minute and was the strongest they had felt since the city was rocked hard by the huge quake that devastated central Chile two years ago. Panic struck in other cities, with people running out of skyscrapers and many places were left partly or totally without electrical power. Phone service collapsed due to heavy traffic.

Weather

Heavy rain that pounded Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast brought the threat of flooding to some areas, but it also put an end to an already diminishing drought.Between 4 and 10 inches of rain fell across the area — with the heaviest rains on the Gulf Coast. That and more regular rains during the late winter ended a drought that extended back into 2010.

Maple syrup producers across the North have had their season cut short by unusually warm weather. While those with expensive, modern vacuum systems say they’ve been able to suck a decent amount of sap from their trees, producers who still rely on traditional taps and buckets, have seen their year ruined. Maple trees generate the most sap when cool days are followed by freezing nights. The flow begins when daytime temperatures creep into the 40s, but in some areas, nighttime temperatures have been warmer than that in the past week. Once trees bud, collection stops because hormones produced in the trees spoil the sap’s taste.

A grapefruit-sized hailstone that hit Oahu, Hawaii, on March 9 has been confirmed as the largest hailstone on record in Hawaii. The final measurement of the hailstone was 4 1/4 inches long, 2 1/4 inches tall, and 2 inches wide. The previous state record hailstone was 1 inch in diameter. The record-setting hailstone was dropped by a supercell thunderstorm on the windward side of Oahu and produced large hail in Kaneohe and Kailua. Supercells are the largest, strongest and longest-lasting thunderstorms. Numerous reports of hail with diameters of 2 to 3 inches and greater were reported.

  • End-time weather will continue to grow more extreme. “And great hail from heaven fell upon men, each hailstone about the weight of a talent.” (Rev. 16:21)

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Signs of the Times (3/23/12)

March 23, 2012

Documentary Presents the Rich History of Christianity in America

As the first nation in the history of the world based on a concept of religious freedom, the United States became a place of unprecedented religious diversity and experimentation. Now, a new documentary series examines the history of Christianity in America, from the first European Christian settlers to the myriad expressions of the faith in the 21st century. Produced with the support of a grant from Lilly Endowment, Inc., People of Faith: Christianity in America (www.peopleoffaithseries.com) presents four hundred years of history in three hours. The series shows how American Christianity, woven into the nation’s fabric from its founding, morphed over the centuries. “America became a religious place from the very beginning…because the people who settled this country had a genius for framing questions in religious terms,” says Scott Appleby of the University of Notre Dame.

  • One of Secular Humanism’s main objectives is to perpetrate the revisionist lie that America was not founded as a Christian nation. Unfortunately, they are succeeding in altering public opinion.

Utah Legislature Passes 72-Hour Abortion Waiting Period

The Utah legislature has approved a bill to lengthen the waiting period for a woman seeking an abortion from 24 to 72 hours, Baptist Press reports. The state Senate passed the bill with a 22-6 vote March 8, two days after the House of Representatives approved it, 59-11. Republican Rep. Steve Eliason, the bill’s sponsor, said before the House vote: “An abortion cannot be undone. … Why would we not want to afford a woman facing a life-changing decision 72 hours to consider ramifications that could last a lifetime?” If enacted, the legislation would tie Utah with South Dakota for the longest waiting period in the country, though a federal judge has blocked South Dakota’s 72-hour waiting period from taking effect.

Planned Parenthood Abortions Up, Facilities Down in 2011

Though Planned Parenthood’s annual report for 2011 shows an increase in the number of abortions it performed, pro-lifers see the decrease in abortion facilities as a victory. Jim Sedlak of the American Life League (ALL) tells OneNewsNow that Planned Parenthood closed more facilities than it opened in 2011, marking the sixth straight year of facility decline. “They opened 11 new facilities, and they closed 47 of their existing facilities,” he reports. “So at the end of 2011, Planned Parenthood now has 749 clinics across the country.” That is the lowest count since 1984, according to Sedlak, and is due in part to states eliminating or reducing funding for the clinics. While the number of clinics dropped, the number of medical and surgical abortions performed by the agency increased 41 percent.

  • The blood curses brought on by Planned Parenthood have greatly contributed to America’s decline

Gay Marriage Push Also Promotes Polygamy

Polygamy has had very little support in the U.S. since the Republican Party in 1854 declared it, along with slavery, one of the “twin relics of barbarism,” and Congress banned it in 1862. The Mormon church officially abandoned plural marriage in 1890. But when the California Supreme Court ruled in 2010 in favor of homosexual marriage, one dissenting justice warned that it would not be illogical to expect that support for polygamy soon would follow. In fact, a polygamous group in Utah just last month challenged a ban on the practice in court, and now a new WND/Wenzel Poll, conducted exclusively for WorldNetDaily, there is a surprisingly high level of support developing across the U.S. A full 22 percent of the respondents say there is no legal justification for denying polygamy, based on the fact that legislation and judicial decisions have affirmed the validity of same-sex “marriage” for homosexuals.

  • Once the fabric of God’s ordained social order is ripped open, all sorts of deviations will follow

UK Churches Soon Forced to Conduct Gay Marriages?

Church of England lawyers say a law to allow same-sex marriages in England would force Christians to conduct gay weddings in church, the Daily Mail reports. As Parliament seems “in due course to legislate for same-sex marriage, as recently suggested by the Prime Minister,” CofE lawyers insist that existing equality laws would make churches offer weddings to gay couples if the law permitted them to marry. The equality laws, introduced in 2007 and then enshrined in the 2010 Equality Act, have already disrupted 11 Roman Catholic adoption agencies because they are no longer allowed to decline to place children with gay couples.

Government Launches Prison LGBT Affirmative Action Plan

The Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced this month a new plan to begin recruiting employees who will serve as lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) representatives for each prison facility, CBN News reports. The LGBT representatives will serve as members of each prison’s affirmative action committee, and will devote 20 percent of their workday to “coordinat[ing] activities and programs designed to cultivate LGBT cultural awareness both within and outside the institution.” Pat Nolan of Prison Fellowship Ministries said: “No sex is allowed in prison, so why on earth would the central office require that there be a person in every prison to promote the sexuality of one part of the population? It’s truly bizarre and it makes no sense at all from a management-of-the-prison perspective. It seems to us this is just a political move; it has nothing to do with running better prisons.”

Immigration Issues Divide Denominations

The Bible tells its followers to obey the law, but it also tells them to welcome strangers and foreigners. That has left some Christians divided over the issue of immigration reform. Supporters of Alabama’s tough immigration law say the Bible teaches that the government’s job is to enforce the law and those who break it should be punished. However, opponents say the whole heart of the Gospel is in Matthew 25, where Jesus said, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me. ” The American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian legal group, filed a brief in federal court supporting the Alabama law. That measure, which the Obama administration is challenging, prohibits undocumented immigrants from entering into “business transactions” with the state, requires police to check immigration status during traffic stops and makes it a crime for U.S. citizens to knowingly assist undocumented immigrants.

  • Welcoming strangers and foreigners is Biblically sound, but so are its many admonitions to uphold the law. Jesus says to render unto ‘Caesar’ the things that are the government’s prerogative. Those who enter the country legally should be treated with respect, those who don’t should be deported.

NOM Urges Starbucks Boycott

The National Organization for Marriage is urging consumers across the globe to “Dump Starbucks” because the massive international corporation has taken a corporate-wide position that marriage between one man and one woman should be eliminated and that same-sex marriage should become the norm. As such, Starbucks has declared it will use its influence and resources in a culture war against at least half its US customers, and against the vast majority of its international consumers who do not share Starbucks’ position. On January 24, 2012, the Starbucks corporation issued a memorandum to all “U.S. Partners” declaring that same-sex marriage “is aligned with Starbucks business practices” and “is core to who we are and what we value as a company.” Starbucks also used its resources to participate in a legal case seeking to overturn a federal law declaring marriage as the union of one man and one woman. “In taking these actions, Starbucks has declared a culture war on all people of faith (and millions of others) who believe that the institution of marriage as one man and one woman is worth preserving,” NOM states.

How Many Deployments are Too Many?

After nearly 11 years of war and hundreds of millions of dollars in research on the mental health of troops, the military is no closer to understanding how many deployments are too many for individual soldiers, researchers say. Military leaders have said the nation has never fought wars this long with this small of a military, deploying troops over and over. Yet questions about how many times a soldier can recycle into combat without psychological harm remain unanswered. The issue of multiple deployments was one of many raised following the March 11 massacre of 16 civilians in Afghanistan, allegedly by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. Bales, 38, was on his fourth combat deployment when the shootings occurred. Many of the issues reported about Bales — repeated combat exposure, physical injuries and personal finance and career problems — are common stresses on troops, scientists say. Yet 107,000 service members have deployed three or more times without incident.

  • It all depends on how we define ‘incident.’ The level of PTSD and other mental illnesses is high, despite the military’s efforts to downplay the effects of prolonged exposure to war.

U.S. Security at Risk over Foreign Water Shortages

Water shortages, polluted water and floods will increase the risk of instability in nations important to U.S. national security interests, according to a new U.S. intelligence community assessment released Thursday. “During the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will almost certainly experience water problems – shortages, poor water quality, or floods – that will contribute to the risk of instability and state failure and increase regional tensions,” the report states. The assessment focused on seven key river basins located in the Middle East, Asia and Africa that are considered strategically important to the United States. The report indicates water supplies will not keep up with the increasing demand posed by a growing world population. Food markets are threatened by depletion of ground water in some agriculture areas of the world. Unless corrective steps are taken, food production will decline. The study does not name specific countries, because it is based on a classified national intelligence estimate.

Expectations Low for Nuclear Summit

As leaders from more than 50 nations prepare for a major summit on nuclear security next week in Seoul, efforts to achieve President Obama’s lofty goal of locking down loose nuclear material around the world by 2014 could be losing steam, analysts say. The United States has not enacted two key international treaties, despite the Obama administration announcing at the 2010 summit in Washington that it had accelerated the push to ratify the treaties. One pact, which has 77 member states, calls for criminalizing the possession or use of sensitive materials and creates guidelines for extradition and prosecution of those linked to a nuclear plot. The second deals with protecting non-military nuclear material. There is concern among some Democratic lawmakers about a provision in U.S. legislation tied to the pacts that would make an act of nuclear terrorism a capital offense subject to the death penalty. The slashing of $293 million from the National Nuclear Security Administration in Obama’s 2013 budget does not bode well for future progress against nuclear proliferation.

Nearly 40% of Women have Never Been Married

Nearly 40% of women have never been married, and fewer are in a first marriage, according to a new government report. Among the 12,279 women studied, the percentage of never-marrieds rose to 38% from 33% in 1995. The highest percentage of women who have never married was among blacks (55%), followed by U.S.-born Hispanics (49%), Asians (39%) and whites (34%).The percentage of women who said they were in a first marriage declined to 36%, from 44% in 1982. The data reflect not only the “delay in getting married for the first time” but also “that more people are cohabitating.” 1995 data found that 50% of all women’s first marriages survived. The new data show that 52% of women’s first marriages survived the 20-year mark.

  • The breakdown of God’s natural social order continues unabated as the end-times continue to evolve

U.S. Asian Population Booming

The Asian proportion of the United States population grew faster than any other racial group, according to “The Asian Population: 2010,” a census brief released Wednesday. “Asian” was defined as any person whose ancestry originates among the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia or the Indian subcontinent – including countries such as China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Thailand, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and Vietnam. Between the 2000 Census and 2010 Census, the number of people identifying as Asian or Asian plus another race rose 45.6%, yielding a total of 17.3 million people. The U.S. population as a whole grew by 9.7%.Four million respondents identified as Chinese or Chinese in combination with another race or ethnicity, forming the largest single ethnic group. In second place were Filipinos, with 3.4 million. There were 3.2 million Asian Indian respondents, and Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese respondents each numbered one million or more.

Economic News

The Conference Board’s index of leading economic indicators rose 0.7% in February, after a 0.2% increase in January. The gain pushed the index to its highest point since June 2008. Leading indicators are designed to anticipate economic conditions three to six months out. The index’s steady rise has coincided with other data that suggest the recovery is picking up.

Weekly applications for unemployment benefits dropped 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 348,000, lowest since February 2008. Applications have steadily declined since last fall.

Phoenix may open its libraries longer, hire more paramedics and offer extra classes at senior centers later this year as officials consider the most significant budget expansion since the recession decimated city finances and forced cuts to services. Even after expanding some services, city officials are projecting a surplus of $10 million to $15 million in the general-fund budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year that begins July1

Forget $4 a gallon. In Alaska, you could be paying more than over $5 a gallon, even $6 gallon in one town. Alaska may have one of the country’s biggest oil-producing states, but it doesn’t appear to be helping with gas prices. Alaska is the second most expensive state overall for gas prices after Hawaii. California is third.

Greece is already beating some of its deficit-reduction targets, as figures released Wednesday show that its central budget deficit for the first two months of 2012 had shrunk by more than half compared with the same period last year.

China has released a string of worrisome reports, the latest on Thursday, signaling that its manufacturing sector is contracting.

Middle East

Prime Minister Netanyahu last week spoke to the Knesset in Jerusalem and delivered a stern denunciation of Iran’s proxy war against Israel: “The dominant factor that motivates these events in Gaza is not the Palestinian issue. The dominant factor that motivates these events in Gaza is Iran. Gaza equals Iran. Where do the missiles come from? From Iran. Where does the money come from? From Iran. Who trains the terrorists? Iran. Who builds the infrastructure? Iran. Who gives the orders? Iran. Gaza is a forward operating base for Iran.”

A “March on Jerusalem” is scheduled for March 30th. Various groups in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the so-called West Bank (Judea and Samaria) are planning massive demonstrations on that day as they march on Israel’s borders. Last year’s events saw nearly a dozen Israeli soldiers injured as they attempted to maintain peace and control of the border crossings. The concern this year is the strong evidence of Iranian ties to this event, particularly through their relationships with Hamas and Hezbollah. There is great concern that they will attempt to provoke violence among the protestors or that they will use this event as cover for a new round of terrorist attacks within Israel.

Syria

The previously divided U.N. Security Council sent a strong and united message to the Syrian government and opposition on Wednesday to immediately implement proposals by international envoy Kofi Annan to end the yearlong bloodshed. A nonbinding statement approved by the 15 council members and read at a formal meeting spells out Annan’s six proposals which include a cease-fire first by the Syrian government, a daily two-hour halt to fighting to evacuate the injured and provide humanitarian aid, and inclusive Syrian-led political talks “to address the legitimate concerns of the Syrian people.” The U.N. estimates that well over 8,000 people have been killed over the past year. In a bid to win support from Russia and China, which have twice vetoed European and U.S.-backed resolutions condemning President Bashar Assad’s crackdown on protesters, France watered down the statement to eliminate possible consideration of “further measures” which could include sanctions or military action.

Yemen

Navy ships shelled suspected al-Qaeda positions in the southern province of Abyan, killing 29 militants. The rocket and artillery barrage, spread out over a 24-hour period that ended early Thursday, struck alleged al-Qaeda targets around the city of Zinjibar, Abyan’s provincial capital. Zinjibar is one of several southern towns captured last year by al-Qaeda militants who are taking advantage of the country’s political turmoil to seize territory.

France

An Islamic extremist who boasted of killing seven people to strike back at France died Thursday after jumping from his window, gun in hand, in a fierce shootout with police. The death of Mohamed Merah, 23, ended a more than 32-hour standoff with an elite police squad trying to capture him alive. Merah was wanted in the deaths of seven people, three paratroopers, three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi, all killed over 10 days. Merah boasted to being proud of the seven slayings he carried out in three motorcycle shooting attacks around the southwestern city of Toulouse. They are believed to be the first killings inspired by Islamic radical motives in France in more than a decade.

Chechnya

Though Islam first arrived in Chechnya around 500 years ago, decades of religious repression under communism made it difficult to practice. Now mosques are packed with worshipers every day. Many Chechens welcome the Islamic revival after nearly two decades of vicious war against Russian troops in which an estimated 200,000 Chechens were killed. For the younger Chechens, Islam is becoming the cornerstone of identity. TV stations are increasing the volume of programming devoted to Chechnya’s rising Islamic influence. Chechen schools must now promote Islam.  “Chechnya is now actively positioning itself not only as a relatively autonomous part of Russia but also as a Muslim center,” said Russian analyst Nikolai Petrov of Carnegie Moscow Center.

Mali

Soldiers looted the presidential palace Thursday in one of the few established democracies in this corner of Africa, hours after ousting Mali’s president just about one month before he was due to leave office anyway. A coup announcement was broadcast on state television. President Amadou Toumani Toure’s whereabouts remained unclear. The mutinous soldiers imposed a nationwide curfew, warning people to stay off the streets until further notice. Land borders were closed, and a flight headed to the capital of Bamako was forced to make a U-turn in the air after the airport closed. The soldiers said they intended to hand over power to an elected government, though it appeared highly unlikely that Malians would head to the polls as scheduled on April 29. More than a dozen candidates were expected to run, though the incumbent was not taking part as he already had served the maximum two terms.

Sudan

Hundreds of thousands of people originating from the mainly Christian, mainly African, South Sudan are effectively being forced out of Sudan, having been stripped of their citizenship. They have until 8 April either to leave the strongly Islamic and Arab northern country or to be treated as foreigners under a regime that is extremely hostile to non-Muslims and non-Arabs. The deadline was announced last month. An estimated 500,000-700,000 people, who are mainly Christians of Southern origin, are affected by the ultimatum. After the South voted to secede in January 2011, Sudan removed citizenship rights from all those of Southern origin.

China

Police in Xinjiang, China raided a house church on Sunday and took more than 70 Christians into custody, China Aid reports. The house church, which has been meeting for nearly 20 years, was stormed by more than 10 officers around 10 p.m.; police announced that the meeting was “unapproved” and “illegal” and ordered an immediate end to it. After forcing each Christian there to be photographed, officials took them to local police stations for questioning, not releasing some for two days. Police also confiscated the Christians’ Bibles, hymnals, notebooks and other materials, but refused to provide a receipt for the confiscated items as required by law. The pastor and his wife who were hosting the meeting were called into the local police station Monday for additional questioning and were threatened by police, who ordered them to stop holding meetings in their home.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan was ranked on the Open Doors 2012 persecution watch list as the world’s No. 7 worst persecutor of Christians, and according to Mission Network News, it has been living up to its ranking so far this year. During the last few months, basic religious rights have been defied multiple times. Last month, police raided an unregistered church, confiscating church property and fining the pastor more than $3,000 — a cost of 100 times the minimum monthly wage. Just a few days before the church raid, police raided a Christian woman’s home, fining her 20 times the minimum monthly wage and handing over her Christian books to the regional Muslim Board. A few weeks later, a Baptist church was also raided and will be fined. The increasing number of raids and fines — routinely used by authorities to confiscate religious material — has many concerned. “It really does seem like Uzbekistan is beginning to step up its campaign against unregistered churches and groups of any kind,” said Joel Griffin of the Slavic Gospel Association. He said it could be an indication of even worse persecution to come; already, numerous pastors have been arrested across central Asia.

Vietnam

A church leader in Vietnam was beaten unconscious with iron bars by a gang of thugs believed to have been hired by the authorities. The attackers had reportedly just been released from prison and apparently have connections with the local authorities, who try to prevent Christian ministers from conducting services and funerals. Such groups are hired to attack church leaders and Christians in Kon Tum province in the central highlands, which the government has declared a “no religion zone”. In a challenge to the authorities, the Bishop of Kon Tum, Michael Hoang Duc Oanh, has announced that he will take an Easter service in the parish where Luy was attacked.

Earthquakes

An earthquake rocked central Mexico on Tuesday, cutting electricity and phone service and sending startled residents into the streets from the capital to the Pacific resort city of Acapulco. The magnitude-7.4 quake struck 12 miles below ground, about halfway between Acapulco and the colonial town of Oaxaca. At least 800 homes collapsed in Igualapa, CNN reports. Igualapa is a city of about 10,000 people in the coastal region south of Chilpancingo.

A minor earthquake occurred this week near the eastern Wisconsin city where researchers have been investigating a series of unexplained booming sounds, federal geologists said Thursday. The U.S. Geological Survey said the 1.5-magnitude earthquake struck Tuesday just after midnight in Clintonville, a town of about 4,600 people about 40 miles west of Green Bay. Earthquakes can generate seismic energy that moves through rock at thousands of miles per hour, producing a sonic boom when the waves come to the surface.

Weather

The surreal heat that’s baking much of the central and eastern USA has unleashed an unusually early and intense blast of tree pollen, making life miserable for tens of millions of people who suffer from seasonal allergies. Atlanta, for example, smashed an all-time record of 9,369 particles of pollen per cubic meter on Tuesday, coating the city with a thin, yellow layer of pollen. The previous record for Atlanta was about 6,000. Allergists are all reporting patients with severe allergy symptoms, due to the recent warm weather. One of out five Americans — roughly 50 million people — have allergies, says the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. More than 2,000 record high temperatures have been set already this month.

Skiers stripped down to shorts and bikini tops to keep cool Wednesday as they got in a few final sun-drenched, slushy runs, bidding what could be an early goodbye to a season that has disappointed all around. An unprecedented spell of record temperatures soaring into the 80s had New England skiers dodging dirt patches and exposed rocks as melting snow spelled potentially millions in losses for those who make their living off winter tourism and sports. The number of visits at its resorts in the nation’s biggest skiing state is down 7.4 percent so far this season. That represents losses of millions of dollars in revenue for ski resorts, retail stores and hotels.

Agriculture officials say losses from Texas’ historic drought are more than $2 billion more than previously thought. The Texas AgriLife Extension Service now estimates crop and livestock losses at $7.62 billion for 2011. 2011 was the driest year in state history.

Wildfires

Although warmer weather is being embraced by many snow-accustomed residents in the Plains and Upper Midwest, the unseasonably dry conditions have turned the region’s vast grasslands into a tinderbox. Wildfires have already scorched thousands of acres, destroyed rural homes and caused two deaths. Three years of excessive snow and rain fed grass growth before this winter’s relatively light snowpack, which left grass standing 4 or 5-feet tall in some areas dried out — creating perfect fuel for wildfires. Plus, the nice weather is luring people outside. Experts say the majority of grassfires are sparked by humans. Fire warnings were issued Wednesday in North Dakota and Wisconsin because of strong winds and dry conditions, while a burn ban in Minnesota is taking effect Monday.

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Signs of the Times (3/20/12)

March 20, 2012

9/11 Facts Erased from Textbooks

Who perpetrated the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – a group of men merely fighting “for a cause,” or a band of radical Muslims bent on violent jihad? According to a new, comprehensive study of 6th-12th grade textbooks used by schools across the country, America’s children are being taught a very different answer to that question than many alive to witness 9/11 remember. The non-profit organization ACT! for America Education studied 38 textbooks from popular publishers like McGraw Hill and Houghton Mifflin, for example, to determine whether American schoolchildren are being taught the truth about Islam and its role in 9/11. “This report shines a bright light on a pattern of errors, omissions and bias in the textbooks reviewed,” explained ACT! For America Education founder Brigitte Gabriel.

“To give you just one example of the errors our research uncovered, in discussing the 9/11 attacks, the textbooks typically fail to mention the perpetrators were Muslims or that they acted in the cause of Islamic jihad. In one book the terrorists are portrayed as people fighting for a cause. Omitting this vital information, that jihad was the motivation for the attacks, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for today’s young teens, who don’t remember 9/11, to really understand what happened that day – and why.” According to the executive summary of the report, “The full report reveals a pattern of historical revisionism, omissions and bias in the presentation of all aspects devoted to Islam in these textbooks.”

  • How can this be? The New World Order elitists have been revising historical textbooks for decades to promote global socialism and marginalize Christianity and America.

Supreme Court Rules Against Campus Christian Clubs

The Supreme Court has turned down an appeal from Christian groups that challenged a discrimination policy at California state universities. The justices on Monday are leaving in place a federal appeals court ruling that found that the policy doesn’t violate the Constitution. The policy says officially recognized campus groups can’t discriminate based on religion or sexual orientation. A Christian fraternity and a sorority at San Diego State University sued in 2005, arguing that the policy violates their religious freedom. The groups are restricted to Christian members. The Christian campus groups have said they have a right to run their organizations according to biblical standards, which include a declaration that homosexuality is a sin.

  • Tolerance continues to extend to all things except Christianity, just as the Bible foresaw

Atheists to Conduct ‘Reason Rally’

Atheists, humanists, skeptics and free thinkers are descending on the hallowed civic ground of the National Mall this Saturday for a Reason Rally. Called together by word-of-Web and social media, they plan to head for Washington just like religious groups do — to strut their strength as a voting block, lobby for public policy and raise their social profile. Organizers expect more than 10,000 people to celebrate unbelief, dance to punk band Bad Religion, hear a score of speakers led by celebrity British atheist Richard Dawkins, and shout out for separation of church and state. Shouting out (quietly) for God will be a small band of Christians from TrueReason.org, says Tom Gilson of Yorktown, Va., who does strategy work for Christian missions. They plan to venture “into the lion’s den” to pass out booklets refuting atheism and water bottles and to “offer a better message … that reason, properly applied, comes from God and leads back to God.”

  • The rapid rise in atheism and secular humanism is a clear end-time sign that the great “falling away” is well underway (2Thess. 2:3)

President Obama Signs Executive Order to Control all Resources

On March 16th, President Obama signed a new Executive Order which expands upon a prior order issued in 1950 for Disaster Preparedness, and gives the office of the President complete control over all the resources in the United States in times of war or emergency. The National Defense Resources Preparedness order gives the Executive Branch the power to control and allocate energy, production, transportation, food, and even water resources by decree under the auspices of national defense and national security.  The order is not limited to wartime implementation, as one of the order’s clauses includes the command and control of resources in peacetime determinations. The Obama administration appears to be preparing for an expected crisis that will require the need to override Constitutional authority and claim dominion over all resources in the United States under the guise of national defense.

  • With the rise in federal disaster preparedness creating increasing controls over both individuals and states, the direction of the nation points strongly towards some event or disaster that the feds will argue requires massive federal oversight on a national as well as local scale. The New World Order has always used manufactured crises as an excuse to further tighten their grip over the masses.

Health Care Debate Ramps Up

From a Zumba fitness class in Las Vegas to Tea Party rallies on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, health care is about to take the political stage it left two years ago. Proponents and critics of the law signed by President Obama in 2010 will hold rallies and other events, run TV ads, flood the mail and post videos online in an effort to influence a deeply divided public on the eve of the law’s two-year anniversary and ahead of three days of Supreme Court arguments. Since 2010, the landmark health care law has taken a back seat to the economy, taxes, spending and now gas prices in terms of public attention. The next two weeks, however, could be crucial in determining its future. On one side of the debate are the White House, Cabinet officials, the Obama re-election campaign and dozens of liberal groups holding events across the country every day this week. And when the court sessions begin March 26, activists will open a media operations center next door at a United Methodist church. On the other side are Tea Party protesters and conservative groups, along with Republicans in Congress and the Republican National Committee. They plan larger demonstrations, particularly in the days immediately before and during the court’s deliberations.

  • This debate is about more than just health care, but rather the direction of federal government which has been increasingly moving toward socialism and away from individual freedoms and free-market capitalism

Community Colleges Downsize Programs

Community colleges across the USA, faced with tight budgets and competing priorities, are downsizing or shuttering programs that in many cases have been held near and dear for years by students and other local constituents. State funding cuts are one culprit. For instance, state funding for California community colleges has been slashed $809 million, or 12%, since 2007-08. Another driver: a growing emphasis on improving degree-completion rates and retraining displaced workers. President Obama has made both central to his higher education agenda. Two-year schools, established to serve the needs of their local communities, “can’t do it all anymore,” says Suzanne Miles, Pima Community College’s interim president. “The challenge of this decade for community colleges is to make hard choices about whom they will serve, and in what ways,” says Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement.

Economic News

The federal government debt has grown more under President Obama in less than one term than it did under President George W. Bush in two terms. Since taking office on Jan. 20, 2009, the federal debt under Obama has increased by $4.93 trillion, according to Treasury Department figures. During the Bush years, the national debt went up by $4.89 trillion. The total federal debt now exceeds $15.5 trillion.

The Commerce Department says builders broke ground at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 698,000 homes last month. That’s down 1.1% from January but up almost 35% from a year earlier. Building permits, a gauge of future construction, jumped 5.1% last month to the highest level in more than a year. Construction of single-family homes, which makes up roughly 70% of housing starts, dipped in February to a 457,000 annual rate after rising four straight months to an 18-month high. A jump in volatile apartment construction offset the decline.

Gasoline prices are continuing their march again this week, rising nearly 4 cents to an average of $3.867 a gallon nationally for self-serve regular. California remained the nation’s highest region for gas, averaging $4.375 a gallon in the weekly survey. Even the refinery-rich Gulf Coast, which usually has some of the lowest gas prices in the nation, saw a nickel-a-gallon rise to $3.698 a gallon.

Used compact-car prices are rising in tandem with the soaring price of gas, and they could go up as much as 20%, according to Kelley Blue Book. Used compact cars rose 0.4% in February but price increases started picking up toward the end of the month, going up 1.3% during the week ended March 2.

Judeo-Christian Persecution

A motorcycle gunman opened fire Monday in front of a Jewish school in the French city of Toulouse, killing a rabbi, his two small sons and one other child. It was at least the third motorcycle killing in France in a week, shocking the country and prompting strong emotions and high-level discussions in Israel. French prosecutors were studying possible terrorist links, but the motive for Monday’s attack was unclear.

A text message that circulated by mobile phone in Yemen said that “holy warriors” had killed “a senior missionary” in the central city of Taiz, shortly after the teacher was shot dead Sunday by two gunmen on a motorcycle. A statement from the International Training Development Centre in Taiz identified the victim as Joel Shrum, an American development worker living in Yemen with his wife and two children since 2010.

Iraq

A torrent of bombings and shootings ripped across eight Iraqi cities on Tuesday, targeting police and Shiite pilgrims and killing 46 people. The deadly wave undermined the government’s hopes for stability ahead of next week’s meeting of the Arab world’s top leaders. Authorities have feared al-Qaeda or its Sunni sympathizers would try to thwart this year’s Arab League summit. The gathering is to be held in Iraq for the first time in a generation. Plans for Baghdad to host the meeting last year were postponed, in part because of concerns about Iraq’s security. In all, eight cities were hit Tuesday in what appeared to be coordinated attacks against police and government officials.

  • Hopes that Iraq and Afghanistan can be peacefully resolved are illusory, because the Bible has already told us that this people group would be wild and murderous (Gen. 16:12). Islam is an unstable religion that promotes violence and lawlessness because it comes from Satan.

Syria

Syrian security forces clashed Monday with gunmen in an upscale neighborhood of the capital Damascus that is home to embassies and senior officials in one of the worst confrontations in the tightly-controlled city center in the country’s yearlong uprising. At least three people were killed. Damascus has been largely free of the daily shootings and deaths reported across the country since the uprising against Assad began in March last year. But the capital has witnessed several major bomb attacks targeting security facilities, most recently on Saturday.

A Russian military unit has arrived in Syria, according to Russian news reports, a development that a United Nations Security Council source told ABC News was “a bomb” certain to have serious repercussions. Russia, one of President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest allies despite international condemnation of the government’s violent crackdown on the country’s uprising, has repeatedly blocked the United Nations Security Council’s attempts to halt the violence, accusing the U.S. and its allies of trying to start another war.

  • A Russian/Persian alliance is a key end-time sign (Ezek. 38-39)

Pakistan

A Pakistani parliamentary commission demanded on Tuesday an end to American drone attacks inside the country as part of proposed new terms of engagement with the United States. The demand could complicate efforts to rebuild U.S.-Pakistani ties that were all but severed by U.S. airstrikes in November along the Afghan border that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The attack also led to Pakistan’s closure of NATO supply lines to Afghanistan. Washington wants to rebuild its relationship with Pakistan, which is important to the success of striking a deal with insurgents in neighboring Afghanistan. But U.S. officials also say the drone strikes are key to success against al-Qaida and the Taliban, and has kept up the attacks despite public opposition by the Pakistani army and government.

Cuba

The White House is protesting the detention of a dissident group in Cuba in advance of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the communist-run island. Members of Damas de Blanca — the “Ladies in White” — had asked to meet with the pope; the group consists of family members of dissidents who have been in Cuban jails for years. Cuban authorities detained about 70 members of the Ladies in White over the weekend, including 18 who staged its weekly Sunday march in the Cuban capital. Ladies in White member Magaly Norvis Otero Suarez told Reuters that 16 of the women were arrested Saturday evening when they attempted to stage a march in central Havana and another 36 were detained Sunday morning as they prepared to go to Mass at Santa Rita Catholic Church, then stage their silent march along 5th Avenue, Miramar’s main boulevard.

Weather

Residents and businesses from southeast Texas north through western Missouri braced for flooding Tuesday after a violent band of storms brought heavy rain, hail and at least one tornado, with more of the same forecast for the next several days. The National Weather Service said a tornado touched down Monday evening about 25 miles southwest of San Antonio. The twister damaged several homes, trapping some people inside their mobile homes, but no fatalities were reported. The fresh crop of storms comes after two tornadoes damaged homes and railcars in North Platte, Neb., on Sunday. The EF3 twister with winds up to 165 mph injured four people. Flooding remains a serious concern across the affected areas.

Winter may “officially” end early Tuesday, but for much of the central and eastern USA, spring is already feeling more like summer. Temperatures have climbed into the 70s and 80s across much of the eastern two-thirds of the nation over the past few days — including an all-time March record of 79 degrees in International Falls, Minn., on Sunday. Albany, N.Y., and Concord, N.H., set record-low snowfall totals for the winter season. In the contiguous 48 states, only a few cities in the Western mountains and in the Southwest — such as Denver, Flagstaff and Albuquerque — saw more snow this winter than last. Nationally, it was the third-least-snowy winter in 46 years of snow records.

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Signs of the Times (3/17/12)

March 17, 2012

Arizona Abortion Bill Stirs Debate on Fetal Pain

Debate surrounding this year’s battle over abortion-restriction legislation at the Arizona Legislature — and in at least two other states — has come down to a question of pain. Can a fetus feel pain, and at what gestational age does that ability develop? Abortion opponents believe it happens at 20 weeks. Abortion-rights supporters vehemently disagree. Both sides cite physicians who agree with them. Both sides cite medical research that they say scientifically proves their stance. But the science takes them only so far. Beyond that, it still comes down to a battle of beliefs. In the past 10 years, about a dozen state legislatures have debated and passed laws requiring that women seeking abortions be told that the fetus feels pain. In 2010, Nebraska was the first to ban abortions after 20 weeks based on the theory of fetal pain. Last year, Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas and Oklahoma passed similar laws. This year, Arizona, Michigan and Georgia are considering bans.

  • The Bible says in many places, “the life is in the blood.” Science has shown blood is formed after 6 days.

Supreme Court to Consider ‘Limiting Principle’ of Obamacare

Can Congress require Americans to buy broccoli? How about gym memberships? Or Chevy Volts? Those or similar questions are likely to be posed to the Supreme Court later this month as it considers whether requiring Americans to buy health insurance is a law with a “limiting principle.” If President Obama’s health care law — his landmark legislative achievement — is to withstand legal challenge, government lawyers must convince a majority of justices that the health care marketplace is unique. By not buying insurance, their argument goes, millions of Americans transfer $43 billion in health care costs to others in the form of higher premiums. In dozens of briefs challenging just that argument, however, opponents of the law contend that the “minimum coverage requirement” — more commonly known as the individual mandate — would set a precedent that could apply to vitamin supplements, daily newspapers or kidney donations.

  • Give the federal government an inch and they take a mile. No such thing as a ‘limiting’ principle for them

Initial Impact of Obamacare More Negative than Positive

Two years after President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, some provisions have taken effect, while others still have two years to wait. In a recent poll by the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation, two in three Americans said they have not been affected by the law yet. Only 14% said they have benefited; 21% said they have been affected negatively. A study by Aon Hewitt estimates that the law raised costs by an average of 1.5% in 2011. Projection for 2012: 0.6%. Among the enacted provisions:

  • People uninsured for at least six months can join a new federal or state insurance plan. Children with pre-existing conditions must be covered.
  • Insurers cannot impose lifetime dollar limits on essential benefits, such as hospital services. More than 20,000 people hit their lifetime limits in 2009.
  • All new health plans must provide certain preventive services, such as mammograms and colonoscopies, without deductibles or co-payments. This affected about 54 million people in 2011.
  • About 2.5 million young adults without private insurance can stay on their parents’ plans until they turn 26.
  • Employers are eligible for federal assistance to provide health coverage to early retirees not yet eligible for Medicare. States are eligible for federal aid to cover certain additional low-income individuals and families.
  • Up to 4 million small businesses are eligible for federal tax credits if they offer insurance coverage to their workers.

Millions Could Receive Insurance Rebates in 2012

Millions of Americans stand to receive insurance company rebates by the end of the summer, as a result of a new requirement in the federal health care overhaul that strictly governs how insurers spend their cash.  Based on rules that were issued at the end of last year, Washington will require insurers to spend between 80 and 85 percent of premium dollars on medical care. Insurance companies that violate the rule will be required to effectively refund their customers. The insurance industry, along with a slew of state officials, have been fighting the policy. But while insurers say the rules could jeopardize plans across the country, customers are nevertheless expected to receive a rebate windfall starting this year. Preliminary estimates indicate as many as 9 million Americans could receive up to $1.4 billion in rebates. That’s an average of roughly $160 a person, though the amounts are likely to vary.

Conviction Shows Online Actions Have Consequences

The conviction of ex-Rutgers student Dharun Ravi sends a message to social media users that actions and words played out across the Web could lead to a prison sentence, legal and digital experts say. Ravi, convicted of invasion of privacy and other charges for electronically spying on his freshman roommate during a gay encounter, could face up to 10 years in prison in a case likely to have lasting implications on how people use the internet. The jury looked not only at Ravi’s use of the webcam to spy on his roommate but at the Twitter messages he sent to determine his intent — a key factor in deciding whether he committed a bias crime. The roommate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide in September 2010, days after he discovered Ravi had secretly set up his laptop webcam to record him. John Verdi, general counsel at the Electronic Public Information Center, said the case means people “aren’t going to be exempt from liability just because they are hiding behind a Twitter handle.”

Big Pharma Pushes Drug to ‘Cure Racism’

As part of the headlong rush towards a Brave New World society, the establishment is feverishly pushing pharmaceutical drugs that chemically castrate an individual’s ‘aberrant thoughts’, with the latest proposal claiming that people can be given a drug to “cure” racism. A study conducted by Oxford University experimental psychologist Dr Sylvia Terbeck into the heart disease drug Propranolol, published in the journal Psychopharmacology, found that the drug “may have the unusual side-effect of combating racism.” “Volunteers given the beta-blocker, used to treat chest pains and lower heart rates, scored lower on a standard psychological test of “implicit” racist attitudes,” reports the Telegraph. “They appeared to be less racially prejudiced at a subconscious level than another group treated with a “dummy” placebo pill.”

  • The move toward ‘transhumanism’ (i.e. enabling humans to attain ‘evolution 2.0) is well underway because the elitist New World Order seeks to develop improved methodologies of controlling the masses while enhancing their own capabilities. The dangers, both physical and societal, are enormous.

Study: Faith, Family Most Important to Reduce Race-Based Achievement Gap

According to a new study, the race-based achievement gap — the statistic that whites, on average, do better in school than blacks and Latinos — is greatly reduced among blacks and Latinos who have high levels of religious participation, personal religiosity and parental involvement, the Christian Post reports. William Jeynes, professor of education at California State University and author of the study, said the most important factor that correlated with blacks and Latinos closing the achievement gap with whites was religion — being actively involved in a religious institution and placing a high personal importance on faith. A stable family — either a two-parent home or a high rate of parental involvement in the student’s education — was the second most important factor in narrowing the gap. Jeynes found that existing programs designed to reduce the achievement gap only had a small, insubstantial impact. “In a public school setting, we should not proselytize, but if a child already has [a high level of religiosity], why not give a gesture of encouragement,” Jeynes said. “Faith is excluded from any such conversation and I really believe that’s hurting kids.”

‘Cash Mobs’ Descend on Small Businesses

Organized groups of do-gooders — “cash mobs,” modeled after public-spectacle “flash mobs” — are descending upon small businesses, snapping up merchandise and rallying at pubs afterward to celebrate their pro-community mission. The shopping sprees have taken place in dozens of cities from San Diego to Buffalo. The packs organize on platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, where they get details on where and when a strike will occur. The altruistic acts provide much-welcomed economic and emotional support for small-business owners

Economic News

After a 31-cent jump in the past month, regular gasoline averages $3.82 nationwide. Barring a major disruption in supplies from the Middle East, pump prices are expected to top out at about $4 nationally by Memorial Day weekend — about where they reached in 2011 and below July 2008’s record $4.08. Nearly one-third of the nation’s drivers now fork out $4 or more for a gallon of gasoline.

The consumer price index rose 0.4% in February, the biggest gain in 10 months, driven by a 6% spike gain in energy costs. However, the core inflation measure that excludes energy and food prices rose just 0.1%.

Pennsylvania’s cap­ital city, Har­ris­burg, is defaulting on $5.3 mil­lion of debt pay­ments. So far in 2012, there have been 21 defaults on muni debt totaling $978 mil­lion, according to Richard Lehmann, pub­lisher of Dis­tressed Debt Secu­ri­ties Newsletter, who expects the pace of defaults to increase. During the same period in 2011, there were 28 defaults totaling $522 mil­lion, while the full-year total was a whop­ping $25.2 bil­lion

Full-time employ­ment con­tinues to fall like a rock. Labor sta­tis­tics don’t report that the majority of new jobs “cre­ated” are part-time jobs without ben­e­fits. Exac­er­bating the problem is the fact that part-time jobs are often little more than minimum-wage jobs. The percent of employed people working full-time fell to 64% last week, down from over 66% last August.

Afghanistan

President Hamid Karzai on Thursday demanded NATO troops pull out of rural areas like the one where a U.S. soldier killed sixteen civilians. However, he has no authority to make such a move and the U.S. military maintains the village outposts are critical to keeping the Taliban out of cleared areas. The soldier, who has not been named, was flown to a U.S. military facility in Kuwait. The Taliban on Thursday said it was suspending talks with the United States, though such talks were preliminary and the Taliban has thus far refused a main demand that it recognize the Karzai government for talks to proceed further.

Iran

The US Navy is moving additional minesweeping ships and aircraft into the Persian Gulf in a highly visible reinforcement of US President Barack Obama’s warning on Wednesday that the time remaining for a diplomatic solution to the standoff over Iran’s renegade nuclear program is fast running out. The minesweepers will enhance the Pentagon’s ability to counter one of Iran’s most effective weapons, which would be especially dangerous in the shallow waters of the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, through which a large amount of the world’s daily oil supply flows. The British and French navies also maintain minesweepers in the Gulf, along with a handful of ships from the Arab countries. Meanwhile, the efforts to confront Iran using economic and diplomatic sanctions also continued on Thursday, with the Belgian based SWIFT system governing bank transfers announcing that it would no longer facilitate business with Iranian banks, effectively cutting them off from international financial transactions.

Iran’s oil exports will probably decline by 50 percent when European sanctions take full effect in July, the International Energy Agency said. Shipments will fall by at least 800,000 barrels a day. Iran exported just below 2 million barrels a day last month, compared with 2.6 million in November.

Syria

Twin bombings struck government targets in the Syrian capital early Saturday, killing security forces and civilians and leaving carnage in the streets. At least 27 people were killed and 97 wounded in twin car bomb blasts that hit intelligence and security buildings in the Syrian capital. President Bashar Assad’s regime blamed the explosions in Damascus on the “terrorist forces” that it claims are behind the revolt. Preliminary information indicated the blasts were caused by car bombs that hit the aviation intelligence department and the criminal security department. The bombings were the latest in a string of suicide attacks in Syria, which have killed dozens of people since late December.

Libya

Thousands of Libyan protesters rallying Friday in an eastern city to press for an autonomous region were attacked by armed men wielding rifles and knifes. Protesters panicked and fled the square which was then occupied by the armed men. Benghazi militia fighters, who are responsible for security in the city, then deployed forces and chased the attackers. The demonstrators were showing their support for a declaration by tribal leaders and militia commanders in the oil-rich eastern Barqa state to create an autonomous region. Barqa makes up almost half of Libya. But the move to create an autonomous region has created a strong backlash among opponents who fear it will eventually lead to the disintegration of the country.

Egypt

The Egyptian parliament voted unanimously Monday to support a document declaring Israel its number one enemy, CBN News reports. The document, prepared by the Committee on Arab Affairs, calls for a complete overhaul of Egypt’s policies with Israel — including demanding a total cessation of natural gas exports to Israel, activating an Arab boycott against Israel and all international companies that do business with Israel, and calling for the immediate deportation of Israeli Ambassador Yaakov Amitai and the recall of Egypt’s ambassador to Israel. “Egypt after the revolution will never be a friend of the Zionist entity, the first enemy of Egypt and the Arab nation,” the statement read. Since the fall of the Mubarak regime last year, an interim military government has been in place in Egypt, which still maintains diplomatic relations with Israel based on the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries. However, as the document indicates, Egypt’s new Islamist-dominated parliament is eager to cut ties with the Jewish state.

Hundreds of Egyptian activists rallied in Cairo on Friday, lambasting a recent military tribunal ruling that cleared a military doctor of charges he forced a “virginity test” on female activists. The issue of the virginity tests has become a rallying cry by pro-democracy youth activists who say it is an example of how the revolution they helped bring about has been hijacked by the military generals who took power after the mass uprising last year forced longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak to step down. The generals have been harshly criticized for rights violations and practices, such as the “virginity tests,” that resemble those of security forces under Mubarak where female victims of sexual abuse are often more vilified than their abusers.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, the nation’s highest Islamic authority, said no Christian churches should be allowed in the Arabian Peninsula — which includes the nations of Yemen, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, CBN News reports. Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, responding to a question by a delegation from Kuwait asking about a Kuwaiti parliamentarian’s call to remove all churches there, said it was “necessary to destroy all the churches in the region.” Abdullah cited an Islamic hadith quoting the prophet Muhammad, who said on his deathbed, “There are not to be two religions in the [Arabian] Peninsula,” meaning only Islam could exist there; Abdullah later added in clarification: “Kuwait [is] a part of the Arabian Peninsula and therefore it is necessary to destroy all churches in it.” Christianity is forbidden in Saudi Arabia and there are no churches there.

Laos

Christians in two provinces in Laos are facing an ultimatum: recant their faith or be expelled from their villages, ASSIST News Service reports. Khamla, a new believer and the only known Christian in the entire Viengphuka district of Luang Namtha Province, has been told to recant or leave his village, and 10 Christian families — comprising some 65 believers — in the Pakoo district of Luangprabang Province have been given until March 18 to comply with the same order. Other Christian families in other villages are at similar risk, and some who have already been expelled after refusing to recant are struggling to survive. Religious liberty is enshrined in the Laos constitution, but it is restricted by two laws forbidding anything that could cause social division. Virtually all religious activity must be approved by government officials, and Christians refusing to recant their faith are routinely punished by denial of services and ultimately expulsion from their village.

Weather

The first three months of 2012 have seen twice the normal number of tornadoes. And 36 states set daily high temperature records Thursday. The unusual warmth will continue across most of the nation east of the Rockies this weekend. High temperatures will soar into the 70s and 80s. Severe storms flooded roads, homes and businesses Thursday in parts of southern West Virginia. State highways officials said that 11 roads and bridges in Logan County alone were closed due to high water, washouts and rock falls.

A tornado ripped through a Michigan village leaving more than 100 homes in splinters. Initial estimates indicate the tornado that hit Dexter, northwest of Ann Arbor, Thursday evening was packing winds of around 135 mph. It was on the ground for about a half hour and plowed a path about 10 miles long. The storm, which flooded roads and tossed trees, was part of a slow-moving system packing large hail, heavy rain and high winds. Gusts downed power lines, sparking fires. There were no reports of serious injuries or fatalities.

Even by Alaska standards, this winter is unusual for the hardy residents of the state’s largest city. Near-record snowfall buried Anchorage neighborhoods, turning streets into canyons with walls of snow on each side. The snow’s weight collapsed the roofs of some buildings. Moose are fleeing into the city to get away from too-deep snow in the wild. Love or hate it, some residents are hoping for more, at least another 3.3 inches. Then they could say they made it through the winter when the nearly 60-year record of 132.6 inches was broken.

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Signs of the Times (3/15/12)

March 15, 2012

Christian Workers Have No Right to Wear a Cross in U.K.

As two British Christian women are defending before the European Court of Human Rights their right to wear a cross to work, British officials are preparing to make the case against them, CBN News reports. According to the London Telegraph, officials plan to argue that since wearing a cross is not a “requirement” of Christianity, employers can prevent workers from doing so — and even fire them for it. The case has drawn criticism from many Christians, who argue that people of other religions, such as Sikhs and Muslims, have been given special protections for their clothing and symbols. Lord Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, said it was just another example of Christianity being marginalized in the public square. “The reasoning is based on a wholly inappropriate judgment of matters of theology and worship about which [the courts] can claim no expertise,” he said.

Kids of Lesbians More Likely to Be Gay

According to a recent study published in the Archive of Sexual Behavior, 64 percent of children raised in lesbian households consider having homosexual relationships, compared to 17 percent raised by heterosexual parents, Baptist Press reports. Girls raised by lesbian mothers are seven times more likely to consider a same-sex encounter and twice as likely to identify as lesbian or bisexual than girls raised by heterosexual parents. “We already know that girls who grow up without fathers are more likely to be sexually adventurous, and it has a lot to do with being fatherless,” says Glenn T. Stanton of Focus on the Family. “Two lesbians … can’t give a girl the kind of positive attention and other-gendered affirmation she needs from a dad.” While girls raised by lesbians tend to be more sexually experimental, boys raised by lesbians, on the other hand, tend to be more sexually reticent. “Boys without male role models tend to be either overly super-macho, trying to see how many girls they can get, or wallflowers,” Stanton said. “It’s not that they don’t want to go in the water — they’re not inclined to go anywhere near the water. … They haven’t developed emotionally and psychologically in the same ways.”

22 Arrested in Azerbaijan in Plot against US, Israeli Embassies

Officials in Azerbaijan have arrested 22 people suspected of plotting attacks on the American and Israeli embassies in the capital Baku, the Agence France Presse is reporting. The plot was reportedly on behalf of Azerbaijan’s neighbor, Iran, according to the national security ministry. The ministry said in a statement to AFP that those arrested were recruited beginning in 1999 and trained at military camps in Iran to gather information on foreign embassies and organizations in Azerbaijan. Their training included weapon use and spy techniques to stage attacks. Firearms, cartridges, explosives and espionage equipment were found during the arrest. The former Soviet nation of Azerbaijan is reported to have purchased hundreds of millions of dollars to weapons from Israel, allegedly angering Iran

10 Years Later, No Child Left Behind Gets Failing Grade

Ten years have passed since President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind (NCLB), making it the educational law of the land. A review of a decade of evidence demonstrates that NCLB has failed badly both in terms of its own goals and more broadly. It has neither significantly increased academic performance nor significantly reduced achievement gaps, even as measured by standardized exams. In fact, because of its reliance on one-size-fits-all testing, labeling and sanctioning schools, it has undermined many education reform efforts. Many schools, particularly those serving low-income students, have become little more than test-preparation programs.

  • Federal control almost always yields degradation of results, whereas free-markets and freedom of choice are what made this country great

U.S. Solar and Wind Industries Expand

Despite last year’s bankruptcies of several solar manufacturers, including government-backed Solyndra, the U.S. solar and wind industries continue to expand in the face of obstacles this year. Newly installed solar panels produced 109% more electricity nationwide last year than in 2010, reaching a record 1,855 megawatts, as the price of these panels plummeted by more than 50%. Solar power, which now produces less than 1% of U.S. electricity, is forecast to generate 10% by 2020, according to Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. Wind power increased 31% last year, says the American Wind Energy Association, and venture capital invested in clean technology grew from $3.8 billion in 2010 to $4.3 billion last year.

Economic News

Fewer people sought unemployment benefits last week, adding to signs that the job market is strengthening. The jobs report said applications for unemployment aid dropped 14,000 to a seasonally adjusted 351,000. That matches a four-year low reached last month. The steady decline has coincided with the best three months of hiring in two years. From December through February, employers have added an average of 245,000 jobs per month.

Higher gas prices drove the government’s wholesale price index up last month. Excluding the big jump in gasoline, inflation elsewhere was mostly tame. The producer price index rose 0.4% in February, the most since September. But, the so-called “core” index, which excludes food and gas prices, increased 0.2%, the smallest gain in three months. In the past twelve months, wholesale prices increased 3.3%.

The Federal Reserve says four of the nation’s 19 largest banks have failed to show they have enough capital to survive another serious economic downturn. That list includes Citigroup, the nation’s third-largest bank. SunTrust, Ally Financial and MetLife also failed the stress test this year.

The U.S. current account deficit, which includes the trade balance of goods, services and investment flows, widened at the end of 2011 to the largest quarterly gap in three years. The current account trade deficit increased 15.3% to $124.1 billion in the 2011’s final three months. For the year, the current account deficit rose 0.6% to $473.4 billion, the biggest imbalance since 2008. A bigger trade deficit hampers economic growth since it means more goods and services are being imported while U.S. companies are making fewer sales overseas.

Eurozone

European countries are realizing how difficult it will be to adhere to the strict rules against overspending that they have chosen as the key policy response to a two-year old debt crisis. At a meeting here Tuesday, European Union finance ministers agreed to sanction Hungary over its high deficits, but gave in to pressure from some countries to reconsider the ruling in June. That push followed a decision by the finance chiefs of the 17-country eurozone Monday night to give Spain some leeway on cutting this year’s deficit. At issue is not only a deepening recession in many economies — which critics say makes budget cuts counterproductive — but also the difficulty countries have in punishing a fellow sovereign state.

Middle East

Though the pace of attacks has lessened slightly since the weekend, there have been more than 250 rockets fired into southern Israel this week. The Israeli “Iron Dome” missile defense system has functioned well, destroying many of the larger rockets before they could reach their targets, and limiting the damage done by the attacks. Yet despite that defensive success, there has still been a number of Jewish civilians injured and a great deal of property damage. More than a million Israelis spent part of the last few days in bomb shelters, and children missed several days of school during the worst of the attacks. Though it has received very little attention in the media, this round of attacks is really just a trial run for the terrorists sponsored by Iran to test their ability to strike at Israel if and when war breaks out.

Afghanistan

Afghans took to the streets Thursday to demand a U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 civilians be prosecuted in Afghanistan as word spread that the American military moved him out of the country. “The reason we are protesting is because of the killing of innocent children and other civilians by this tyrant U.S. soldier,” said Sardar Wali, a university student. “We want the United Nations and the Afghan government to publicly try this guy.” Meanwhile, the U.S. military completed a 48-hour probable cause assessment and the servicemember continued to be confined. The soldier, who has not been named, could face the death penalty if found guilty in a court-martial of gunning down the civilians, including nine children, in two villages of Kandahar province before dawn Sunday.

Determined to show momentum in a war marred by setbacks, President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron said for the first time Wednesday that NATO forces will hand over the lead combat role to Afghanistan forces next year as the U.S. and its allies aim to get out by the end of 2014. Obama said he still plans to gradually withdraw forces through 2014 as Afghan forces take on more responsibility.

Syria

The Syrian army has recaptured most of the northern rebel stronghold of Idlib near the Turkish border, pushing hundreds of military defectors out of a major base they had held for months even as pockets of resistance kept up their fight on Tuesday. The Human Rights Watch said Thursday that activists have compiled a list of at least 114 civilians killed since the assault on Idlib began Saturday. The three-day operation to capture the city followed a similar offensive to dislodge the opposition from another key piece of territory it had controlled, the Baba Amr district in central Homs. The two victories gave President Bashar Assad’s regime unmistakable momentum as it tries to crush the armed opposition fighters. A pledge Tuesday from Syria’s staunch ally Russia that Moscow will continue selling weapons to the regime was yet another boost. And a diplomatic bid by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan to broker a cease-fire and start negotiations failed over the weekend.

Iran

In the past several months, Iran appears to have increased its political outreach and arms shipments to rebels and other political figures in Yemen as part of what American military and intelligence officials say is a widening Iranian effort to extend its influence across the greater Middle East. Iranian smugglers backed by the Quds Force, an elite international operations unit within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, are using small boats to ship AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and other arms to replace older weapons used by the rebels. American officials say the Iranian aid to Yemen mirrors the kind of weapons and training the Quds Force is providing the embattled government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. It also reflects a broader campaign that includes what American officials say was a failed plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States in October, and what appears to have been a coordinated effort by Iran to attack Israeli diplomats in India and Georgia earlier this year.

Iran’s parliament grilled President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday over a long list of accusations, including that he mismanaged the nation’s economy and defied the authority of the country’s supreme leader. Ahmadinejad is the first president in the country’s history to be hauled before the Iranian parliament, a serious blow to his standing in a conflict pitting him against lawmakers and the country’s powerful clerical establishment. Iran’s constitution gives parliament the legal right to question the president, but the body had never before taken that step. The unprecedented move undermines Ahmadinejad’s prestige and could set the stage for his subsequent impeachment should lawmakers determine his answers were unsatisfactory.

Somalia

Three people, including a suicide bomber, were killed in a bomb attack inside the government compound in Somalia’s capital on Wednesday. Six others were injured, and the death toll may rise. The blast happened near the home of the former parliamentary speaker. Villa Somalia is a heavily fortified compound in the heart of the city where the most senior Somali government officials, including the president, have their offices. Some also live inside the compound.

Earthquakes

A series of earthquakes rattled Tokyo and northeast Japan late Wednesday evening but caused no apparent damage or injury in the same region hit by last year’s devastating tsunami. The strongest tremor, off Hokkaido island, was 6.8 magnitude and caused tidal changes that prompted some communities to issue evacuation orders or tsunami advisories to residents nearest the coast. A swelling of 20 centimeters (8 inches) was observed in the port of Hachinohe in Aomori, northern Japan, about one hour later. The earthquake felt in Tokyo was magnitude 6.1 and centered just off the coast of Chiba, east of Tokyo, at a rather shallow 6 miles below the sea surface.

A strong earthquake has struck about 110 miles east of Kandrian in the Asian island nation of Papua New Guinea. There are no immediate reports of damage or injuries. The U.S. Geological Survey says the magnitude-6.4 quake struck Thursday morning local time about 372 miles northeast of the capital, Port Moresby. The quake struck at a depth of 29 miles.

Weather

Authorities declared a state of emergency Monday in four south Louisiana parishes — Lafayette, Acadia, St. Landry and St. Martin — after floodwaters from heavy overnight thunderstorms inundated dozens of homes with up to 7 feet of water on some streets. some areas saw up to 19 inches of rain. Search-and-rescue teams responded to about 150 calls for help, either from homes or vehicles. No deaths or injuries were immediately reported.

As office workers from Chicago to New York City enjoy lunches outdoors this week, let’s all give a hearty thank you, in part, to …the Madden-Julian Oscillation. Far-flung climate patterns hundreds or even thousands of miles away are helping fuel the nation’s bizarre, record-shattering March heat. Three global climate patterns — the Madden-Julian Oscillation, La Niña and the Arctic Oscillation — are contributing in some way to this surreal March, according to the Weather Channel. All of these patterns are coming together in such a way to fuel continued warmth in the eastern USA. Chicago, for example, was a record-breaking 81 degrees Wednesday afternoon, a whopping 35 degrees above the average high of 46 degrees. Washington, D.C., also soared to 80 degrees, far above the average of 55 degrees.

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March 13, 2012

Atheists Likely to Outnumber Christians in England in 20 Years

According to a new study, Christianity is waning in England and could be outnumbered by nonbelievers within 20 years, the Religion News Service reports. The study, conducted by the British Parliament, showed there were 41 million Christians in Britain, down nearly 8 percent since 2004. Meanwhile, the number of nonbelievers was 13.4 million, up 49 percent over the same period. Researchers at the House of Commons Library concluded Christianity had declined to 69 percent of the population while atheists had increased to 22 percent. “If these populations continue to shrink and grow by the same number of people each year, the number of people with no religion will overtake the number of Christians in Great Britain in 20 years,” the study said. It also found that from 2004-2010, the number of Muslims in England grew by 37 percent, to 2.6 million. The Hindu and Buddhist populations also grew substantially, and the number of Jews slightly decreased.

  • The end-time “falling away” is underway in earnest (2Thess. 2:3)

Leftward Tilt Causing Methodist Decline

Membership at the United Methodist Church, once the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., and other mainline denominations continues to decline, and the head of an “ecumenical alliance of Christians” says politics is a likely reason for that. The denomination’s 2010 membership was a little over 7.5 million, which represents a drop of nearly 109,000 members from the previous year — reportedly the largest dip since the 1970s. Mark Tooley, president of The Institute on Religion & Democracy, says, “As the church moved left theologically starting with the early 20th century, especially in the 1920s, it also moved left politically.” And on that journey, much of Methodism seemed to forget the original recipe of its success in early America, which was not involvement with the details of politics, but was focused on proclamation of the gospel, the preaching of salvation, and the transformation of individual lives.” Tooley points out that the Methodist Church in Africa, which clings to the Bible, has grown considerably. Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church USA, which has tangled over social issues like homosexuality, has also seen a decline, dropping below the two-million-member mark.

  • It’s not just political drift, but rather compromising the Word of God by adopting the more ‘tolerant’ and ‘inclusive’ dogma of new age secular humanism

Prayer Movement in Hollywood This Week

Thousands of Christians will unite in Hollywood this Thursday to pray for the entertainment industry because of the major influence it has on the country and the world. TheCry Hollywood, a full day of prayer for entertainment media, is set to take place at 2:00 p.m. at Universal City’s Gibson Amphitheater. Organizers explain that the event is “not a concert. It’s not a conference. It’s a cry.” “The whole heart of the day is to pray … to fast … to worship, and to believe God [will] move in the heart of entertainment media in a way that will impact the whole nation and the world,” details Faytene Grasseschi, the event director. TheCry Hollywood’s director is urging Christians to pray for Hollywood and the entertainment industry, as it is a primary cultural authority of the day.

Banks Foreclosing on Churches in Record Numbers

New data shows a shocking trend: Banks are foreclosing on religious institutions at an alarming rate. Much like individuals who lose the capability to continue paying their mortgages, churches, too, are feeling the financial crunch. In fact, since 2010, more than two hundred houses of worship have experienced foreclosures. In 2011, 138 churches were sold by banks, an annual record, with no sign that these religious foreclosures are abating. That compares to just 24 in 2008 and only a handful in the decade before.

  • The Bible says in many places that Christians should not take on debt. Churches spend far too much money on buildings and not enough on the Gospel.

Planned Parenthood Accused of 87,000 Fake Claims

A lawsuit alleging that Planned Parenthood submitted more than 87,000 fraudulent claims – and pointing out that there could be an $11,000-plus penalty for each case – has been unveiled in a Texas dispute by attorneys representing former Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson. The case alleges the nation’s abortion industry giant submitted “repeated false, fraudulent, and ineligible claims for Medicaid reimbursements” through the Texas Women’s Health Program. “Americans deserve to know if their hard-earned tax money is being funneled to groups that are misusing it,” said Michael J. Norton, an ADF senior counsel. “No matter where a person stands on abortion, everyone should agree that Planned Parenthood has to play by the same rules as everyone else. The case was filed originally under a federal law that allows “whistleblowers” with inside information to expose fraudulent billing by government contractors.

Justice Dept. Blocks Texas Voter ID Law

The Department of Justice rejected a new Texas voter ID law, saying the state failed to show that its photo-ID requirement would not discriminate against minority voters, particularly Hispanics. The law, passed by the Republican-controlled state Legislature last year, requires voters to show a Texas driver’s license or a Department of Public Safety identification card. Proponents of such laws say the measures are aimed at combating voter fraud. Advocacy groups for minorities and the poor dispute that and argue there is no evidence of significant voter fraud. The New York Times says the decision by the department’s Civil Rights Division follows a similar move against a South Carolina voter ID law and “brought the Obama administration deeper into the politically and racially charged fight over a wave of new voting restrictions, enacted largely in recent years by Republicans in the name of combating voter fraud.”

  • We need a photo-license to drive a car, to board an airplane, why not for the important act of voting? Opposition is pure politics since illegal immigrants vote Democratic.

Food Stamps Used to Buy Drugs and Guns

Many food stamp recipients have traded their benefits with corrupt retailers in exchange for cash they used to buy drugs and weapons. That’s just one of the outrageous examples of abuse in the food stamp program revealed when Phyllis Fong, the Department of Agriculture’s inspector general, testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “By giving a recipient $50 in cash for $100 in benefits, an unscrupulous retailer can make a significant profit. Recipients, of course, are then able to spend the cash however they like. In some cases, recipients have exchanged benefits for drugs, weapons, and other contraband.” The latest estimate places the number of food stamp recipients in this fiscal year at about 46.3 million, up from 30.8 million at the beginning of fiscal year 2009.

Electric Cars Facing Dark Days

These are dark days for electric cars, darker than even a few months ago despite gas prices headed past $4 a gallon in parts of the nation. Sales for the plug-in electric vehicle industry aren’t meeting expectations for several companies, causing some to rethink goals and others to fold. General Motors will stop making the Volt for five weeks starting March 19. Sales are below expectations, though stronger this year than those of the competing plug-in Nissan Leaf. Bright Automotive, which hoped to sell hybrid plug-in delivery vans, said last month it’s closing its doors. Meanwhile, for the first two months of this year, Toyota sold more than 10 times as many hybrid Priuses than all plug-in electric vehicles on the market. The Prius and other similar hybrids are not plug-ins, using a combination of gas and battery power.

Property Tax Collections Start Downward Trend

More than five years after real estate prices began to tumble, Americans are finally starting to get property tax breaks on their devalued homes. Cities, counties and school districts today collect 20% more in property taxes than they did in 2006, when home values were one-third higher than now, but the tax tide is slowly starting to recede. Last year, property tax collections rose just 1.2% — and actually declined 0.9% when adjusted for inflation. That’s the first time property tax collections have fallen below the inflation rate since 1995 and only the third time in 40 years. If the downward trend continues, property taxes may actually bring in fewer dollars this year than last even before adjusting for inflation. That hasn’t happened since the Great Depression. Most states have complex laws that make property tax declines rare, small or long-delayed, even when home values plummet. This makes the property tax stable during economic turmoil, unlike the income or sales tax. Public schools get about 40% of this money. The rest flows to other local governments.

Deficits Push N.Y. Cities and Counties to Desperation

Last week, Suffolk County, one of the largest counties outside New York City, projected a $530 million deficit over a three-year period and declared a financial emergency. Its Long Island neighbor, Nassau County, is already so troubled that a state oversight board seized control of its finances last year. And the city of Yonkers said its finances were in dire straits. Even as there are glimmers of a national economic recovery, cities and counties increasingly find themselves in the middle of a financial crisis, reports the New York Times. The problems are spreading as municipalities face a toxic mix of stresses that has been brewing for years, including soaring pension, Medicaid and retiree health care costs. And many have exhausted creative accounting maneuvers and one-time spending cuts or revenue-raisers to bail themselves out.

  • The deficit crisis will begin hitting the U.S. in earnest later this year starting in cities and counties, since they can’t print money like the federal government can.

Economic News

Americans stepped up spending on retail goods in February, which could be evidence that a stronger job market is boosting the economy. Consumers bought more autos, clothes and appliances. The Commerce Department says retail sales increased 1.1% last month, biggest gain since September. Department stores had their biggest gain in more than a year.

Fueled partly by rising gas prices, public transportation ridership across the USA increased by 2.3% in 2011 over the previous year. Americans last year took 235 million more trips on buses, trains and subways than in 2010. That’s the most ridership since 2008, when gas prices soared to a national average of $4.11 a gallon in July. Greater use came despite more than eight out of 10 transit systems either cutting service, increasing fares or both in recent years.

Over the past decade, the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity belongs to the 55 to 64 age group. The 20 to 34 age bracket has the lowest rate – despite high-profile startups like Facebook or new star Pinterest. A study by the Kauffman Foundation shows that about 23% of new entrepreneurs in 2010 were in the 55 to 64 age group, compared with 15% in 1996.

The job outlook is brightening for younger workers, who were hit hard in the recession and play a vital role in the economy. Jobs for 25-to-34-year-olds increased by 116,000 to 30.5 million in February. Their unemployment rate fell from 9% in January to 8.7%, the lowest since January 2009. For workers overall, the jobless rate was unchanged at 8.3% in February.

Eurozone

Hundreds of thousands of people in 60 cities across Spain took part in demonstrations on Sunday called by the country’s main trade unions to protest the government’s tough new labor changes and cutbacks. The rallies are the unions’ first trial of strength before a general strike called for March 29 to oppose the recently approved austerity measures. The overhaul, passed by decree last month and confirmed in Parliament Thursday, slash the cost of firing workers and ease conditions under which they can be dismissed.

Known for their work ethic, Swiss citizens appear to be leading the way on European austerity, rejecting a minimum six weeks paid holiday a year. Swiss polls closed Sunday on several national referendums, including one pushed by a union to raise the minimum holiday from four weeks to the standard used in Germany, Italy, Russia and other European nations. The Swiss heeded warnings from government and business that more vacation would raise labor costs and put the economy at risk.

Middle East

Israel halted its airstrikes against Gaza Strip militants early Tuesday and rocket fire from the Palestinian territory ebbed as a cease-fire ending four days of clashes appeared to be taking effect. Both sides had indicated they have no interest in seeing the fighting spiral into all-out war, and Egyptian intelligence officials brokered a truce. Twenty-four Palestinians, including five civilians, died in the cross-border fighting that erupted on Friday with Israel’s killing of a militant commander. There were no Israeli fatalities, but the lives of 1 million people living in southern Israel were disrupted by frequent sirens warning them to take cover from incoming rockets.

News reports from both America and Israel have confirmed that Israeli leaders in Washington earlier this week asked for American military help to allow them to launch an effective strike against Iran’s nuclear program. Specifically, the Jewish leaders asked for advanced “bunker buster” bombs designed to take out reinforced underground sites like the Iranian Fordo nuclear facility. Also requested were aircraft for in-flight refueling. Both of these items would be vital to ensuring a strike was actually effective in halting Iran’s nuclear weapons development. Neither government will confirm the status of the discussions, but Israeli news outlets have suggested that President Obama agreed to supply the needed equipment if Israel would promise not to strike Iran before the November elections.

Syria

Opposition activists have declared Tuesday a day of mourning across Syria as the death toll from a year of government attacks escalates. More than 8,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict. “Violations of human rights are widespread and systematic,” Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, president of the U.N. General Assembly, said Monday. Syrian activists said Monday that pro-government gunmen have killed at least 22 people — including children — in the latest violence in the embattled central city of Homs. State media in Damascus confirmed the deaths but blamed “armed terrorists.” The Local Coordination Committees said 45 were “murdered.” Homs has been one of the hardest hit cities in violence since an uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime began in March last year.

Afghanistan

A U.S. service member walked out of his base in southern Afghanistan before dawn Sunday and started shooting Afghan civilians, going house to house in two villages, killing 16 people in their homes. NATO forces have detained the U.S. service member who is accused of going on the shooting spree in two villages. The Taliban vowed revenge Monday for the “inhumane attack” U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan have stepped up security following the shootings Sunday in Kandahar province out of concern about retaliatory attacks. Taliban militants opened fire Tuesday on an Afghan government delegation visiting one of the two villages in southern Afghanistan where the attacks occurred. The gunfire killed an Afghan soldier who was providing security for the delegation.

Pakistan

A suicide bomber attacked a funeral attended by an anti-Taliban politician in northwest Pakistan on Sunday, killing at least 13 mourners and wounding 30 others. The politician, Khush Dil Khan, escaped unhurt in the blast on the outskirts of Peshawar, the main city in the northwest. Islamist militants are fighting a vicious war against Pakistani security forces in and around Peshawar, which lies close to border regions with Afghanistan where extremists hold sway. Many hundreds have been killed over the last few years.

Japan

People across Japan prayed and stood in silence on Sunday to remember the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck the nation one year ago, killing just over 19,000 people and unleashing the world’s worst nuclear crisis in a quarter century. The earthquake was the strongest recorded in Japan’s history, and set off a tsunami that swelled to more than 65 feet in some spots along the northeastern coast, destroying tens of thousands of homes and bringing widespread destruction. The tsunami also knocked out the vital cooling systems at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, causing meltdowns at three reactors and spewing radiation into the air. A 12-mile area around the plant is still off limits. All told, some 325,000 people rendered homeless or evacuated are still in temporary housing. While much of the debris along the tsunami-ravaged coast has been gathered into massive piles, very little rebuilding has begun.

The government says the crippled Fukushima plant is basically stable and radiation has subsided significantly, but the plant’s chief acknowledged to journalists visiting the complex recently that it remains in a fragile state. Enormous risks and challenges lie ahead at the plant, including locating and removing melted nuclear fuel from the inside of the reactors and disposing spent fuel rods. Completely decommissioning the plant could take 40 years. Only two of Japan’s 54 reactors are now running while those shut down for regular inspections undergo special tests to check their ability to withstand similar disasters. They could all go offline by the end of April amid local opposition to restarting them. The Japanese government has pledged to reduce reliance on nuclear power, which supplied about 30% of the nation’s energy needs before the disaster.

Russia

More than 20,000 protesters streamed down a central Moscow avenue Saturday to denounce Vladimir Putin’s presidential election win, but the crowd’s relatively small size compared to recent protests suggested the opposition movement has lost some momentum. Some of the new political energy that has emerged in Russia in recent months, however, is being channeled into local politics and civic activism. Two men in their 20s who had both just won seats on municipal councils were among those who addressed the crowd Saturday to call on Muscovites to get involved in how their city is run, starting with their own neighborhoods. It was Putin who originally disposed of the direct election of governors, and it is he who has overseen the banning of most opposition candidates from state-controlled media.

  • Putin’s reelection signals a return to greater totalitarianism in which ‘civic activism’ at the local level is not going to have a major impact

China

Chinese police rescued more than 24,000 abducted women and children across the country last year. Trafficking in women and children is a big problem in China, where traditional preference for male heirs and a strict one-child policy has driven a thriving market in baby boys, who fetch a considerably higher price than girls. Girls and women also are abducted and used as laborers or as brides for unwed sons. A report from the ministry said police rescued 8,660 abducted children and 15,458 women in 2011 as nearly 3,200 human trafficking gangs were broken up. The number of total victims is presumably much higher since most cases are not successfully resolved or even reported.

Weather

Forget spring fever, try summer fever. For much of the country, the unusual warmth will keep on rolling this week. On the heels of the nation’s fourth-warmest winter on record, high temperatures this week will soar to as much as 35 degrees above average, and dozens if not hundreds of weather records will be likely set from the Midwest to the Northeast. For most of the central and eastern USA, temperatures will be more typical of May than March.

Record floodwaters inundated parts of southern Louisiana early Tuesday after intense rains caused flash flooding and prompted hundreds of rescues. Estimates by the National Weather Service put total rainfall at 12 to 18 inches across the region, with possible amounts of 20 or more inches in some areas. Floodwaters were cresting overnight for Bayou Vermilion at Carencro at 5.5 feet over flood stage and 12 inches above the record set in May 2004.

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Signs of the Times (3/10/12)

March 10, 2012

Pope Denounces ‘Powerful’ Gay Marriage Lobby in U.S.

Pope Benedict XVI waded deep into U.S. campaign politics Friday, urging visiting U.S. bishops to beef up their teaching about the evils of premarital sex and cohabitation, and denouncing what he called the “powerful” gay marriage lobby in America. As debate over health care coverage for birth control rages in the United States, Benedict said there was an urgent need for Catholics in America to rediscover the value of chastity — an essential element of Christian teaching that he said had been subject to unjust “ridicule.” U.S. bishops are currently locked in an election year battle with the Obama administration over federal funding for birth control. In addition, bishops have been at the forefront of the campaign against same-sex marriage, with at least five U.S. states scheduling ballot measures on the issue in coming months.

Obama’s “Faith-Based Farce”

The man who guided President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiatives from 2002 to 2006 says the office has become a “faith-based farce” under President Barack Obama, and should be shut down. Jim Towey is now president of Ave Maria University, one of a number of church-affiliated institutions suing to block Obama’s contraceptive coverage mandate. He accuses Obama of turning the faith-based office into “nothing but a political outreach operation” to get clergy behind his agenda.

  • Recent appointments and pronouncements indicate that this has now become an anti-faith political propaganda machine

Texas Abortion Law Dries Up Fed Funding

The federal government will stop funding a Texas health program that serves 130,000 low-income women because of a state law that bars abortion-affiliated clinics from getting public money, a top U.S. health official said Friday. The federal money, which covers 90 percent of the state’s $40 million program, will be phased out between May and September because the law violates federal regulations requiring that women have a choice in medical care, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Friday. The new Texas law requires abortion doctors to show or describe an ultrasound image to a patient before the procedure. The announcement came a day after Texas Gov. Rick Perry pledged to find state money to keep the program afloat, though details remain scarce about where the money would come from. Texas suffered massive spending cuts last year due to a $15 billion deficit. Perry blasted Sebelius’ announcement, insisting Medicaid rules give states the right to determine which clinics are qualified to provide women’s health care.

  • Mean-spirited payback from the pro-abortion Obama administration

Solar Storm Not as Strong as Experts feared

A solar storm struck Earth’s magnetic field early Thursday morning, delivering “a pretty good shock” but not causing any of the geomagnetic disruptions that scientists feared. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rated the resultant solar storm at a “G1” level, a minor storm, largely because the outburst’s magnetic field aligned with Earth’s in a way that minimized damage. The storm was the second such geomagnetic storm directed at Earth this year, with more on the way as the sun ramps up its 11-year cycle of outburst activity.

Fracking Waste Tied to Earthquakes

A dozen earthquakes in northeastern Ohio were almost certainly induced by injection of gas-drilling wastewater into the earth, Ohio oil and gas regulators said Friday as they announced a series of tough new regulations for drillers. The regulators noted that the seismic activity was clustered around the well bore. The improper placement of the Youngstown well stemmed in part from inadequate geological data being available to regulators, the report states. Among the new regulations: Well operators must submit more comprehensive geological data when requesting a drill site, and the chemical makeup of all drilling wastewater must be tracked electronically.

Northeastern Ohio and large parts of adjacent states sit atop the Marcellus Shale geological formation, which contains vast reserves of natural gas that energy companies are rushing to drill using a process known as hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing or fracking involves freeing the gas by injecting water into the earth, but that water needs to be disposed of when companies are done with it. Municipal water treatment plants aren’t designed to remove some of the contaminants found in the wastewater, including radioactive elements. A common practice is to re-inject it into the ground, a practice banned in some states.

BofA will Reduce 200,000 Underwater Mortgages

Bank of America is providing mortgage relief to about 200,000 homeowners whose home values have fallen below what they owe on their mortgages. BofA will reduce the amount owed by the homeowners as much as $100,000 in some cases. The move will help the bank reduce the amount of penalties it owes to the government’s Housing & Urban Development agency by $850 million. Those penalties were imposed to resolve investigations into abusive home lending and fraudulent foreclosure practices. About 11 million American households are “underwater” on their mortgages, meaning they owe more than their homes are worth. The settlement with five mortgage lenders is expected reduce loans for only about 1 million of those homeowners and send checks to others who were improperly foreclosed upon.

Government Records Highest-Ever Monthly Deficit

The U.S. government just notched its highest ever monthly deficit, with the red rink running to an estimated $229 billion in February. The Congressional Budget Office, in a preliminary analysis, reported that the February 2012 deficit broke last year’s monthly record of $223 billion. The CBO projected that for the first five months of the fiscal year, the federal government is running a $578 billion deficit. The projected deficit this year is once again projected to top $1 trillion.

Economic News

Employers added 227,000 in February, a gain of more than 200,000 jobs for a third straight month, adding to evidence that the recovery is building momentum. The unemployment rate, which has fallen for five straight months, held steady at 8.3%. The employment gains came from across many industries and up and down the pay scale. Manufacturing, restaurants and hotels, retail, and professional services such as accounting all reported job gains.

Slightly more people applied for U.S. unemployment benefits last week. But the overall level stayed low enough to suggest the job market is strengthening. Weekly applications increased by 8,000 to a seasonally adjusted 362,000. The four-week average, which smooths week-to-week fluctuations, remained at roughly 355,000. That’s essentially unchanged from last week’s level, which was the lowest in four years.

Household wealth rose 2.1% in the October-December quarter, the most in a year. Still, it would have to rise 13% more to regain its pre-recession peak. Corporations are also wealthier. They held a record $2.2 trillion in cash at the end of the year. Americans’ stock portfolios rose nearly 10% last quarter to drive the gains. Still, few Americans are seeing much return on their biggest investment. Home values dropped 1.3% in the fourth quarter to roughly $16 trillion. They have now fallen nearly 24% since the recession began.

The U.S. trade deficit surged to the widest imbalance in more than three years in January as imports hit an all-time high, reflecting big demand for foreign-made cars, computers and food products. U.S. exports to Europe fell, raising concerns that the debt crisis in that region could dampen U.S. economic growth. The January trade deficit widened to $52.6 billion, the biggest gap since October 2008. Imports rose 2.1% to a record $233.4 billion. Exports were up a smaller 1.4% to $180.8 billion. Exports to Europe fell 7.5%.

Greece

Greece has cleared a major hurdle in its race to avoid imminent bankruptcy after persuading the vast majority of its private creditors to slash the value of their Greek bond holdings, a move that should pave the way for the country’s second massive international bailout. Greece’s Finance Ministry said Friday that 85.8% of private investors holding its Greek-law bonds had signed up to the deal, and that it aimed to use legislation forcing those creditors still holding out of the deal to participate. The deal will see private bond holders accepting a face-value loss of 53.5% in exchange for new bonds with easier repayment terms for Greece. A total of $273 billion out of Greece’s $487 billion national debt is in private hands.

Japan

All but two of Japan’s 54 commercial reactors have gone offline since the nuclear disaster a year ago, after the earthquake and tsunami, and it is not clear when they can be restarted. With the last operating reactor scheduled to be idled as soon as next month, Japan — once one of the world’s leaders in atomic energy — will have at least temporarily shut down an industry that once generated a third of its electricity. With few alternatives, the prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, has called for restarting the plants as soon as possible, saying he supports a gradual phase-out of nuclear power over several decades. Yet, fearing public opposition, he has said he will not restart the reactors without the approval of local community leaders. Japan has so far succeeded in avoiding shortages, thanks in part to a drastic conservation program that has involved turning off air-conditioning in the summer and office lights during the day. It has also increased generation from conventional plants that use more expensive natural gas and other fossil fuels in a nation already uneasy about its reliance on foreign sources of energy.

Ghana

President Obama praised Ghana counterpart John Evans Atta Mills yesterday during his visit to the White House, saying his country has become an inspiration in Africa. “Ghana has proven to be a model for Africa in terms of its democratic practices,” Obama said, citing free elections and anti-corruption efforts. You’ve seen high growth rates over the last several years. Food productivity and food security is up. There’s been strong foreign investment.” Though challenges remain in Africa, Obama said, “it’s important for us to also focus on the good news that’s coming out of Africa.”

  • Unfortunately, the bad news out of Africa, and worldwide, outweighs the good by increasing margins as end-time ‘gross darkness’ continues to spread. That trend won’t reverse until Jesus returns.

Middle East

A violent flare-up that began when Israel killed a leading militant commander in the Gaza Strip has so far killed 12 militants. The killing also unleashed a barrage of rockets by furious Palestinian militants from the coastal territory toward Israel’s southern border communities. One of those rockets seriously wounded an Israeli civilian and sent families scattering into bomb shelters. The Palestinian militants were killed in seven airstrikes overnight and on Saturday morning. Some 20 more civilians were wounded by flying shrapnel from the exploding missiles, some of which targeted militants deep in civilian areas of the crowded territory. The flare-up began midmorning Friday, when an Israeli airstrike targeted the commander of one of the militant groups behind the abduction of an Israeli soldier five years ago.

Iran

The Iranian authorities are rounding up Christians across the country in a wave of arrests targeting ordinary church members. Since Christmas, security agents have conducted sweeps of house churches in Ahwaz, Shiraz, Esfahan, Tehran and Kermanshah. Christians have been seized in their homes and workplaces. Entire congregations have been gathered up in some swoops. On 21 February, the authorities raided a house church in Kermanshah and arrested all 13 Christians who had gathered for worship. The authorities’ unrelenting efforts to quash the spread of the Gospel in the Islamic Republic of Iran are failing as the Church continues to grow rapidly. An Iranian Christian told Barnabas Fund: “I feel sorry for the Iranian authorities because they don’t realize that they’re up against the Holy Spirit.”

Syria

Syrian troops pushed ahead with a new assault on the northern region of Idlib on Saturday, shelling one of the centers of the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule and sending families fleeing for safety as armed rebels tried to fend off the attack. Thick black smoke billowed into the sky. The military operation has raised fears that the regime is planning a new all-out offensive in Idlib like the bloody siege last month that captured a restive part of the city of Homs, further south. While the fighting raged, U.N. envoy Kofi Annan met with Assad in Damascus during a high-profile international mission to mediate an end to the country’s yearlong conflict, but there were no details released yet from the meeting.

Egypt

Egypt officially started on Saturday the process of holding its first-ever free presidential elections, with the door opening for candidates to submit their applications. Politicians from the era of deposed president Hosni Mubarak, ex-military officers, and moderate and hardline Islamists are expected to become the front-runners in a vote that is scheduled to start May 23. The elections follow decades of authoritarian rule, with all of the country’s former presidents elevated from the ranks of the military and usually approved by referendum. Mubarak, who was forced to step down last year after an 18-day mass uprising last year, was elected to his last term in 2005. Those were Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential elections, but they were widely rigged. The country’s ruling military council, which took over power after Mubarak’s fall, has pledged to transfer power to elected civilian authorities after the name of the new president is announced in June 21.

Yemen

Yemeni air forces targeted militant hideouts in the south, killing at least 18 suspected al Qaeda insurgents Saturday. In a separate action, 18 additional militants were killed in airstrikes. The first airstrikes occurred in the Yemen province of al-Baitha in areas used as launching pads for militant attacks. In a separate action, the air force carried out five airstrikes in the towns of Jaar and Zinjibar in Abyan province, killing 18 suspected Ansar al-Sharia militants. The attacks targeted caches of weapons and equipment seized by the Islamist militants earlier this week.

Bahrain

Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters flooded a major highway in Bahrain on Friday in one of the largest opposition rallies in months against the Gulf nation’s rulers. Security forces fired tear gas at smaller groups attempting to reach a heavily guarded square that was once the hub of the uprising. The march was called as a show of resolve by a Shiite-led rebellion against Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy more than a year after the Arab Spring-inspired protests began. The main procession was mostly peaceful, but breakaway groups were driven back by tear gas as they headed toward Pearl Square, which was the center of the uprising for weeks last year until it was stormed by security forces. The demonstration is also a reply to Bahrain’s Sunni leadership, which has portrayed the uprising as losing steam ahead of next month’s lucrative Formula One Grand Prix car race. It was canceled last year because of violence on the tiny island.

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Signs of the Times (3/8/12)

March 8, 2012

Virginia Governor Signs Pre-Abortion Ultrasound Bill

Gov. Bob McDonnell on Wednesday signed into law a controversial bill that requires women to have non-invasive abdominal ultrasound exams before undergoing abortions. The Republican governor’s signature means the mandate takes effect in July for abortion providers across Virginia. The bill not only sparked protests the past three weeks by angry women’s rights groups and others that led to 30 arrests at the Capitol Saturday, it subjected Virginia to scorn by columnists and political talk shows and ridicule from television comedians.

  • Mockery is the chief weapon of godless, irrational demagogues

Utah Lawmakers Pass Abstinence-Only Sex Education Curriculum

The Utah Legislature has passed a controversial bill mandating an abstinence-only sex education curriculum for Utah public schools or allows schools to drop the subject altogether. The bill, which passed Tuesday largely along party lines, defines sex education as abstinence-only and bans instruction in sexual intercourse, homosexuality, contraceptive methods and sexual activity outside of marriage. The measure now goes to Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, who is expected to sign it. Republicans sponsored the bill in response to what they viewed as inappropriate material being presented in classrooms, specifically materials produced by Planned Parenthood. Under current law, parents can opt to keep their children out of the program.

Twelve States Propose Eliminating Permits for Concealed Weapons

Legislatures in a dozen states are considering laws that would eliminate requirements that residents obtain permits to carry concealed weapons. Gun-control advocates view the efforts as part of a long-range strategy to eventually weaken gun laws across the country. But supporters say armed, law-abiding citizens prevent crime pointing out that Crime rates are low in four states — Alaska, Arizona, Vermont and Wyoming — that already allow residents to carry without a permit. States that have been or are considering bills in current legislative sessions include Colorado, Iowa, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota and Virginia.

Dozens Arrested in California Education Protests

A day of boisterous protests over cuts to higher education that included thousands of students swarming the state Capitol ended with dozens of arrests after demonstrators refused to leave the building. Authorities on Monday evening arrested 72 people, most of whom will be charged with trespassing. Protesters chanted “We’re doing this for your kids,” as one by one they were lifted by the arms, handcuffed with plastic ties, and led away. Students angry over steep tuition increases and fewer courses at California’s public universities and colleges waved signs and chanted, “They say cut back; we say fight back.” Tuition has nearly doubled in the past five years, to $13,000 for resident undergraduates at University of California schools and to $6,400 at California State University schools. Community college fees are set to rise to $46 per unit by this summer, up from $20 per unit in 2007.

  • The economy’s a mess, particularly in California, but no one is willing to sacrifice anything to fix the problem, rendering collapse almost inevitable

Solar Storm Headed Toward Earth

The biggest solar storm in five years is expected to bombard the Earth on Thursday, potentially upsetting airplane flights, GPS systems and electric power grids. The first effects of the storm will come at about 7 a.m. ET, says Joe Kunches of the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo. Kunches says the storm should last about a day. On the “G1 to G5” scale of geomagnetic storm intensity, with G5 being the worst, Kunches says this storm is expected to be a G3, considered to be a “strong” one. The storm has the potential to trip electrical power grids, although Kunches said power companies around the world have been alerted for possible outages. Solar storms can also disrupt GPS systems or make them less accurate. The storm can lead to communication problems and added radiation around the North and South poles, which will probably force airlines to reroute flights. NASA reports that the current increase in the number of solar storms is part of the sun’s normal 11-year solar cycle, during which activity on the sun ramps up to the solar maximum, which should peak in late 2013.

Drug Companies have Paid $8 billion in Fraud Fines

The nation’s largest drug makers have paid at least $8 billion in fines for repeatedly defrauding Medicare and Medicaid over the past decade, but they remain in business with the federal government because they are often the sole suppliers of critical products, records show. Government investigators say their hands are tied with the tools they have. They can exclude Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies from providing medications to Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries as punishment for bad behavior, but that would leave beneficiaries without drugs patented through a particular company. Or they can fine the companies and force them to enter corporate integrity agreements that require government oversight and a promise not to defraud the government again — a promise that often goes unkept.

  • Drug companies are the among the most corrupt organizations on earth

Economic News

Consumer borrowing rose by $17.8 billion in January, the Federal Reserve said Wednesday. That followed similar gains in December and November. The gains for those three months were the largest in a decade and helped consumer borrowing climb to a seasonally adjusted $2.5 trillion. That nearly matches the pre-recession borrowing level. Many economists believe the rise in borrowing is a sign that consumers are feeling more confident about the economy. But consumers are also borrowing more at a time when their wages have not kept pace with inflation.

Some economists say the real reason for the recent fast drop in unemployment isn’t that there are suddenly so many new jobs — it’s that far fewer people than expected are looking for work. Nearly three years into the recovery, the unemployment rate has tumbled even though new job gains are far smaller than in past recoveries. One factor is the 1.1 million discouraged unemployed workers — some of whom won’t come back into the job market even as it improves. Another is the growing number of retirements among the Baby Boomer generation, a generational demographic shift that’s converging with a slowly accelerating economic recovery.

The U.S. economy is improving faster than economists had expected. They now foresee slightly stronger growth and hiring than they did two months earlier. Those are among the findings of an Associated Press survey late last month of leading economists. The economists think the unemployment rate will fall from its current 8.3% to 8% by Election Day. The U.S. economy has been improving steadily for months. Industrial output jumped in January after surging in December by the most in five years. Auto sales are strong. Consumer confidence has reached its highest point in a year. Even the housing market is showing signs of turning around.

  • The European debt crisis will trigger a domino breakdown of the economic order later this year, upsetting these rosy predictions

Israel

In a speech before the chief American-Israel lobby group late Monday, Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu said he was running out of patience with international sanctions meant to force Iran to give up their nuclear program and vowed not to gamble with Israel’s security. “I will never let Israel live under the shadow of annihilation,” said Netanyahu, in his address before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Hours after meeting with President Obama and other administration officials, Netanyahu took a tough line with Iran and members of the international community that don’t share Israel’s position that time is running out to deal with Tehran.

Iran

Iranians say they are feeling the pinch of sanctions in the price of meat and other daily essentials, but in spite of growing popular anger toward the government, analysts believe little will change. The United States and the European Union have stepped up sanctions on Iran in response to the country’s development of nuclear capabilities and have frozen the Iranian central bank’s assets. Inflation is now at over 20%. But, if Western governments are counting on economic deprivation to bring radical change in Iran, analysts say they are likely to be disappointed. “History shows that sanctions do not yield regime change — this is particularly true for states that emerged out of revolutions,” said Middle East analyst Arshin Adib-Moghaddam.

Iran will grant U.N. inspectors access to a military complex where the U.N. nuclear agency suspects secret atomic work has been carried out, the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported Tuesday. Tehran had previously banned U.N. inspectors from visiting the Parchin installation, southeast of Tehran, but a statement by Iran’s permanent envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency said the visit will now be allowed in a gesture of good will. However, it would require an agreement between the two sides on a guidelines for the inspection, ISNA reported.

  • Just more stalling tactics by Iran. ‘Guidelines’ will become another stumbling block.

Syria

Syria’s president defied mounting international pressure to end the year-old crackdown on an uprising against him and said Tuesday he was determined to go on fighting what he called “foreign-backed terrorism.” The international outcry against Syria has been growing louder by the day. On Monday, U.S. Sen. John McCain called for airstrikes against the country, saying the United States has a moral and strategic obligation to force out Assad and his loyalists. President Obama has resisted calls to step into the turmoil in Syria to stop Assad’s bloody crackdown on protesters. He told a news conference Tuesday that the international community has not been able to muster a campaign against Syria like the one in Libya that ousted Gadhafi last year.

The military crackdown has turned to southern Daraa province, where the uprising began a year ago. Troops shelled a village in Daraa and clashed with military defectors. Syria’s deputy oil minister announced his defection in an online video that emerged Thursday, making him the highest ranking official to abandon President Bashar Assad’s regime since the country’s uprising erupted a year ago. There has been a steady stream of army defections who have joined a group of dissidents known as the Free Syrian Army, now numbering in the thousands, but civilian government officials have remained largely loyal to Assad’s regime.

Libya

Tribal leaders and militia commanders have declared a semiautonomous region in oil-rich eastern Libya. Thousands of major tribal leaders, militia commanders and politicians made the declaration Tuesday in a ceremony held in the eastern city of Benghazi. Vowing to end decades of marginalization under ousted ruler Moammar Gadhafi, the gathering named a council to run the affairs of the newly created region. Libya’s National Transitional Council, the interim central government, has repeatedly voiced its opposition to the creation of an eastern region, warning it could eventually lead to the breakup of the North African nation.

Libyan militias that are sitting on stockpiles of portable anti-aircraft missiles will probably not relinquish them until they reach a broad political agreement with the country’s fledgling central government. “Their ultimate leverage is they’re armed,” said Andrew Shapiro, an assistant secretary of State who oversees efforts to account for the missiles, which are prized by terrorists. “They’re not going to give that up until they are satisfied that their interests are being taken into account.” The missiles are small enough to fit in the trunk of a car and can be used to attack civilian aircraft.

Afghanistan

Commanders plan to reduce the number of U.S. troops by about half in southwestern Afghanistan — once the heartland of the Taliban insurgency — amid signs that the militants there have been weakened and local Afghan forces are growing in strength. The number of U.S. troops in the southwestern region is expected to decline to about 10,000 by October, down from nearly 20,000 at the end of last year. The White House has ordered that 23,000 U.S. troops withdraw by October as part of a plan to bring the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to pre-surge levels. These military wins are considered key milestones on the long and daunting road out of Afghanistan — with a targeted withdrawal of U.S. combat forces by the end of 2013.

But the reluctance of everyday Afghans to embrace a pillar of the Western-backed government — its judiciary — shows the limits of a decade of U.S. nation-building efforts in a country with deeply rooted traditions and a citizenry with fluid allegiances. “The limited, unresponsive, and unreliable nature of the Afghan justice system is a central source of Afghans’ grievances with their government and has opened the door to Taliban shadow governance,” according to the U.S. State Department’s Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy.

  • No Islamic society will embrace Western-style justice.

Nigeria

Members of the Muslim jihadist group Boko Haram are vowing to “eradicate Christianity” in Nigeria. Reports coming out of Nigeria over the past several days show that the group whose name means “Western education is evil” is launching a new terror campaign aimed at killing Christians and Jews in northern Nigeria. The Nigerian news site Bikya Masr reports that the jihadi group has declared war on all Christians living in northern Nigeria. Estimates put the casualties in Boko Haram’s campaign at more than 100 dead since Christmas.

  • Allah, god of hate, murder and evil: Jesus, God of Love, Forgiveness and Salvation for all. You choose.

Laos

A pastor has been released from prison in Laos after being locked up for nearly 13 years because of his Christian activities, ASSIST News Service reports. Bounchan Kanthavong was set free Feb. 2, having been arrested in June 1999 and sentenced to 12 years in jail for treason and sedition. According to the ministry Barnabas Fund, Bounchan’s only “crimes” appear to have been receiving Bible training and sharing his faith with customers in his clothing shop; his actions were perceived as a threat to national security and the traditional Lao religion of spirit worship, and were thus interpreted as treason. Lao authorities warned him repeatedly to stop practicing and sharing Christianity, and ordered him to cease all worship activities at his shop, but his witness led to around 70 people accepting Christ. Following his arrest, his wife took over the leadership of their Christian community, which has grown to more than 3,000 believers today. Bounchan refused to renounce Christ to leave prison early, and his health suffered during his time in jail.

Russia

Tens of thousands of demonstrators protesting alleged voting irregularities Monday were met by security forces who arrested more than 200 people. Chased by rows of riot police, demonstrators blocked traffic on Moscow’s main thoroughfare chanting “Putin is a thief!” and “Revote!” Putin, president from 2000 to 2008 before becoming prime minister because of term limits, won more than 63% of Sunday’s vote, which the opposition and independent observers said was marred by massive fraud. It was also Putin who disposed of the direct election of governors, and it is he who has overseen the banning of most opposition candidates from state-controlled media. Many people seeking more democratic freedoms expressed desperation that Putin’s victory will end their hopes.

  • Russia is returning to its totalitarian roots as it prepares for its end-time role as the bear from the north

Honduras

Poverty, crime and corruption have overwhelmed Honduras, a fledgling democracy engulfed in political chaos and designated the murder capital of Latin America. Gang and drug violence has risen sharply in Central America, and Honduras is one of the countries struggling to combat it. Drug cartels bribe security forces and judges to look the other way, according to the World Bank. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world at 82 homicides per 100,000 people in 2010, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The turmoil has prompted many Hondurans to flee north.

  • The end-time spirit of lawlessness continues to expand its influence just as the Bible prophesizes

Weather

Afghan authorities say an avalanche has destroyed a village in northeastern Afghanistan, with scores feared dead. Officials said Tuesday that at least 50 people have been confirmed dead, but that they expect the toll to rise. The avalanche occurred Sunday night in Darwaz district. Two hundred people lived in the village and initial reports are that only three women and one child survived.

Indiana’s homeland security agency says snow that fell overnight on southern Indiana is creating new hazards for residents cleaning up after Friday’s deadly tornadoes. The roads and ground are slippery as residents resume searching their ruined homes for valuables and cleaning up storm debris. Snow is also adding to the misery of storm victims cleaning up in West Liberty, Ky., where a tornado demolished the downtown and neighborhoods in the eastern Kentucky town. Thousands of business owners are assessing damage and struggling to reopen following the massive 10-state tornado outbreak. Early estimates are that 580 businesses and homes were destroyed or seriously damaged in Kentucky’s Clark County in the storms on Friday.

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