Signs of the Times (4/13/12)

Arizona Passes Bill Banning Most Abortions after 20 Weeks

A measure signed by Gov. Jan Brewer will bar most abortions in Arizona after 20 weeks of pregnancy, a ban supporters say protects both mothers and fetuses but one that abortion-rights advocates say is among the most restrictive in the nation. It bans all abortions after 20 weeks except in a “medical emergency” where an abortion would prevent the mother’s death or “substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.” Seven states have similar restrictions. The bill signed into law Thursday makes other changes to abortion regulations, including the requirement of an ultrasound 24 hours before the procedure. The law becomes effective 90 days after the Legislature ends its session, which is likely to occur later this month.

Catholic Bishops to Rally for ‘Religious Freedom’

The nation’s Catholic bishops are calling on the faithful to pray and mobilize in a “great national campaign” to confront what they see as a series of threats to religious freedom, and they are setting aside the two weeks before July 4 for their “Fortnight for Freedom” initiative. The exhortation is contained in a 12-page statement released Wednesday by the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, and its chief concern is the Obama administration’s proposal to provide contraception coverage to all employees with health insurance, including those who work for religious groups. The document cites a number of other perceived threats to religious freedom besides the contraception policy, such as harsh immigration laws that could impede the church’s social ministry and university policies targeting campus student religious groups.

  • That typically cautious Catholic bishops are becoming so vocal and demonstrative is symptomatic of the underlying socialistic angst vexing our once great and Christian country.

Vanderbilt Faith Groups Form Coalition to Oppose ‘All-Comers’ Policy

A coalition of 11 Christian student groups at Vanderbilt University are insisting they should be allowed to choose their leaders based on shared faith and not the university’s “all-comers” policy, the Religion News Service reports. The groups, which are calling themselves Vanderbilt Solidarity, joined together to oppose the university’s policy that campus groups, and their leadership positions, must be open to all students; the religious groups say they cannot be led by students who do not share or profess their group’s faith. “Until recently, Vanderbilt explicitly protected the freedom of all student organizations to select members and leaders who shared and supported the group’s purpose, including — for religious groups — its faith,” the Solidarity groups said Monday. Stating that the policy violates “the central tenets of our faith,” the religious groups applied for registered status on campus, but included their own constitutions containing faith-based requirements for leadership positions. If the school does not recognize the constitutions, the groups would be considered unregistered next year. Solidarity’s decision comes two weeks after the campus Catholic group, Vanderbilt Catholic, decided not to register as an official student organization because of the policy. Beth Fortune, vice chancellor for public affairs, said the university stood behind its policy. “This debate is about nondiscrimination, not religious freedom,” she said.

  • All other freedoms now seem to trump “religious” freedom in today’s secular society

Drought Expands Across USA

The USA hasn’t been this dry in almost five years. Still reeling from last year’s devastating drought that led to at least $10 billion in agricultural losses across Texas and the South, the nation is enduring another unusually parched year. A mostly dry, mild winter has put nearly 61% of the lower 48 states in “abnormally dry” or drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly federal tracking of drought. The drought is expanding into some areas where dryness is rare, such as New England. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, stream levels are at near-record or record lows in much of New England. More than 63% of Georgia is now in severe or extreme drought.

Trouble also looms for water-dependent California. The state Department of Water Resources announced last week that water content in California’s mountain snowpack is 45% below normal. Arizona qualified for federal disaster relief with 100% of the state in some level of drought, with Maricopa County suffering through extreme drought conditions. Drought aid allows farmers and ranchers to apply for low-interest federal loans due to unprecedented agricultural production losses.

Economic News

Inflation stayed cool in March, as energy costs began to plateau after a three-month surge, keeping overall growth in consumer prices modest. The consumer price index rose 0.3% in March, the , the Labor Department announced Friday. Excluding the more-volatile prices of food and energy, the so-called core inflation monthly increase was 0.2%.The price of gasoline rose 1.7% in March, the government said, while total energy inflation rose a more modest 0.9% because of falling prices for electricity and natural gas. Food prices rose 0.2%. For the last 12 months, consumer prices have risen a total of 2.7%.

This year’s surge in gasoline prices appears to be over, falling short of the record highs some had feared heading into peak summer driving season. Prices have held at a national average of $3.92 a gallon the past week, below 2011’s $3.99 high and July 2008’s record $4.11. Analysts say the national average could dip to $3.70 a gallon by early May.

Three key economic indicators out Thursday suggest hiring remains weak even as growth continues to pick up and inflation remains in check. On the employment front, initial claims for jobless benefits rose 13,000 to a seasonally adjusted 380,000 for the week ended April 6, suggesting that a hiring slowdown in March may not quite have ended. On the bright side, the U.S. trade deficit fell to $46 billion in February, the lowest in four months and narrowed by record-high exports. And U.S. wholesale prices were flat in March after a drop in energy prices offset rising costs for food and pickup trucks. The figures suggest that modest growth isn’t spurring inflation.

A new study finds that only about a third of hybrid owners buy another hybrid. Hybrid models have more than doubled since 2007, but just 35% of hybrid owners bought another hybrid when returning to the market in 2011. If you factor out the high-loyalty Toyota Prius, hybrid loyalty drops to 25%.

Middle East

As radical Islamic groups are rising to power across the Middle East as a result of the so-called Arab Spring, Christians are fleeing persecution in droves. However, CBN News reports, there is one safe haven still left in the region — Israel. Since Israel’s re-founding in 1948, the number of Christians has increased by 1,000 percent. “Christians are in every aspect, every realm of Israeli society,” says Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the U.S. “They’re in the Knesset. They’re on the Supreme Court, they’re in academia. The Israeli Defense Forces was at one point printing out Hebrew versions of the New Testament because there’s so many Christians swearing in for duty.” Oren said Arab Christians living in the Jewish state were among the most educated and prosperous in the Middle East. “And we protect them,” he said. Israel’s overall acceptance of Christians remains a stark contrast to the Palestinian-controlled areas of Gaza and the West Bank, where Christians are frequently persecuted and even killed.

  • The end-time conversion of Israel is underway

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has refused to commit to Israel not attacking Iran before the US presidential elections. Netanyahu has only agreed to wait on an Israeli military move until the fall of the year. Sources also said that Netanyahu agreed to give more time to “a dialogue” with Iran, accompanied by harsher sanctions. Netanyahu believes that after the fall season, the nuclear installations in Iran will enter ‘the zone of immunity’ from Israeli attacks, and Israel will no longer have the option of defending itself militarily.

The Egyptian government is trying to gain control over the Sinai Peninsula after Israel delivered a threatening message to the country in the wake of the recent rocket attack. Israel had intimated that if Egypt doesn’t gain control over the region soon, Israel will step in. Rockets, which landed near Eilat likely originated in the Sinai Peninsula, technically part of Egypt, but has become a “no man’s land” since the Egyptian revolution. Egypt denied all prior knowledge of the attack.

The Middle East Quartet (Russia, EU, UN, U.S.) expressed concern on Monday over “ongoing settler violence and incitement in the West Bank” and called on Israel to take “effective measures, including bringing the perpetrators of such acts to justice. In a statement issued following the meeting, the senior diplomats called on the international community to ensure the contribution of $1.1 billion in assistance to meet the Palestinian Authority’s 2012 recurrent financing requirements.

  • The Quartet is not only pro-Palestinians, but quite anti-Israel, fulfilling end-time Bible prophecy

Syria

In the first major test of a U.N.-brokered truce, thousands of Syrians poured into the streets Friday for anti-government protests, activists said. Security forces responded by firing in the air and beating some protesters, but there was no immediate sign of widescale shelling, sniper attacks or other potential violations of the cease-fire. A major outbreak of violence at a chaotic rally could give government forces a pretext for ending the peace plan, which aims to calm a year-old uprising that has killed 9,000 people and pushed the country toward civil war. The truce is at the center of international envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point plan to stop the bloodshed and launch talks on a political transition. Annan expressed cautious optimism that the plan has been “relatively respected” despite the continued presence of government troops and heavy weapons in population centers.

Iran

The six world powers gathering for nuclear talks beginning today are sharply divided over how best to curb Iran’s ambitions while defusing the possibility of a disastrous new military confrontation in the volatile Middle East. Officials from the six countries that will bargain with Iran have acknowledged in recent days significant differences over what a nuclear accord should look like, and under what conditions Iran could be granted partial relief from international sanctions that have put an unprecedented squeeze on the economy there. Partly because of the continuing disagreements, the six powers — the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — are expected to skip the usual step of working out a common position before sitting down with Iran on Saturday in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city. Diplomats say the lack of an accord could allow greater flexibility in negotiations, but some acknowledge that Iran probably will try to exploit the divisions to gain an advantage.

North Korea

North Korea’s widely condemned rocket splintered into pieces over the Yellow Sea soon after takeoff Friday, an embarrassing end to a launch that Pyongyang had infused with national pride during a week of high-level political meetings and celebrations. The satellite the rocket was carrying was unable to enter into orbit. World leaders were swift to denounce the launch, calling it a covert test of missile technology and a flagrant violation of international resolutions prohibiting North Korea from developing its nuclear and missile programs.

Pakistan

Pakistan’s parliament has unanimously approved new guidelines for the country’s troubled ties with the United States on Thursday, in what could be an important step in putting relations back on track. Washington has been eagerly awaiting the results of the parliamentary review, saying it will be key to reopening supply lines to NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan. Islamabad closed the supply lines in November to protest U.S. airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border. The new guidelines call for an end to U.S. drone strikes, but also stated that the supply lines should be reopened, albeit with a higher fee charged to U.S. and NATO forces. The government will now formulate policy based on the guidelines.

Afghanistan

Roadside bombings on Wednesday killed a local Afghan government official and a NATO service member. So far this year, 102 members of U.S.-led coalition have been killed in Afghanistan. Separately, the Helmand provincial governor’s office said three local Afghan policemen were killed in Musa Qala district on Tuesday when a suicide bomber on a motorcycle blew himself up near their vehicle. The three were responding to an earlier attack that killed four policemen at the district police headquarters building.

Nigeria

A suicide car bomber detonated his explosives Sunday morning on a busy road in Kaduna, Nigeria after attempting to drive into a church compound holding Easter services and apparently being turned away by a security guard, the Christian Science Monitor reports. At least 38 were killed in the blast, which damaged the nearby All Nations Christian Assembly Church and the ECWA Good News Church and left debris strewn across the major road where many were gathered at restaurants and shops. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but suspicion falls on Boko Haram, the radical Islamist sect responsible for hundreds of killings in Nigeria this year alone. Christians have been increasingly targeted on holy days, such as the Christmas Day bombing of a church in Madalla that killed at least 44.

Mali

Mali is threatened with partition as the rebellion flares in the north and political uncertainty grips the capital, Bamako. Mali’s neighbors and western governments are looking on anxiously as drug traffickers and Islamist groups affiliated with al Qaeda take advantage of the vacuum — in a region already blighted by hunger, poverty and weak government. A Christian leader has been beheaded and others are being threatened with similar treatment as Islamist militants run amok in Mali. A vast country of few inhabitants (15 million) and searing desert, Mali lies at an awkward intersection in Africa. To the north is a 1,200 kilometer border with Algeria, to the east Niger with its own restive Tuareg minority, to the west Mauritania. All four countries are dealing with the growing presence of Islamist groups affiliated with al Qaeda. The latest revolt, launched by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA, is more serious than previous rebellions. Its fighters now control several important towns in the north, including Gao on the river Niger and the fabled city of Timbuktu. An area the size of Texas is now beyond the government’s control. The MNLA has declared independence for Azawad.

Earthquakes

A massive earthquake off Indonesia’s western coast triggered tsunami fears across the Indian Ocean on Wednesday, sending residents in coastal cities fleeing to high ground. The U.S. Geological Survey said the first magnitude-8.6 quake was centered 20 miles beneath the ocean floor around 269 miles from Aceh province where memories of a 2004 tsunami that killed 170,000 people in the province alone, are still raw. A wave measuring less than 30 inches high, rolled to Indonesia’s coast. There were no other signs of serious damage. But just as the region was sighing relief, a magnitude-8.2 aftershock hit.

A pair of strong earthquakes rocked Mexico’s Gulf of California only minutes apart early Thursday, the U.S. Geological Survey reported. The quakes — magnitude 6.9 and 6.2 — were centered about 85 miles northeast of Guerrero Negro in the Mexican state of Baja California, or 325 miles south-southwest of Phoenix in the United States. Both epicenters were shallow, a little more than six miles underground. People as far north as Tucson, Arizona, reported feeling them.

A strong earthquake struck a sparsely populated area in the mountains of western Mexico on Wednesday, and caused tall buildings to sway more than 200 miles away in Mexico City. People evacuated some buildings in the capital, but the city government said helicopter flights detected no signs of damage. The U.S. Geological Survey reported a reading of 6.5 magnitude for the quake. A quake of that magnitude is capable of producing severe damage in an urban area, but this one occurred about 41 miles below the surface and a tremor’s power to cause damage is often dissipated when it is so deep.

Weather

The United Nations says that flooding from two days of rainfall in Haiti has killed six people and displaced 700 others. Two people died in a landslide in the area of Limbe and two others drowned while trying to cross a river. Two bodies were pulled from the water near the coastal town of Anse-a-Foleur. The floods also damaged 125 homes, as well as much crops and livestock. The rainfall displaced 700 people and 68 of them moved into shelters. The annual rainy season had already killed 6 people. They died last month in the capital area after mudslides crashed through their homes.

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