Signs of the Times (10/9/12)

Pope Convenes Bishops to Confront ‘Tsunami’ of Secularism

Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council revolutionized life inside the Roman Catholic Church, hundreds of bishops from around the world are gathered in Rome to confront an external threat: a mounting tide of secularization. The Synod of Bishops on “New Evangelization” brings together 262 top church leaders for a three-week summit at the Vatican, joined by lay experts and representatives of other Christian groups. In a wide-ranging speech aimed at setting the tone for the bishops’ discussion, Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl called on Christians to “overcome the syndrome of embarrassment” about their faith with a more assertive offense against the “tsunami of secular influence” that is sweeping away “marriage, family, the concept of the common good and objective right and wrong.”

Protestants No Longer the Majority in U.S.

For the first time in its history, the United States does not have a Protestant majority, according to a new study. The percentage of Protestant adults in the U.S. has reached a low of 48 percent, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Among the reasons for the change are the growth in nondenominational Christians who can no longer be categorized as Protestant, and a spike in the number of American adults who say they have no religion. The Pew study, released Tuesday, found that about 20 percent of Americans say they have no religious affiliation, an increase from 15 percent over the last five years.

PCUSA Members Increasingly Favoring Same-Sex Marriage

According to a recent survey by Presbyterian Research Services, support for same-sex marriage among Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) members and pastors has considerably increased since 2005, the Christian Post reports. In 2005, 23 percent of PCUSA members supported same-sex marriage; in 2012, the number had increased to 34 percent. Among pastors, support for same-sex marriage in 2005 was 35 percent; in 2012, it is at 49 percent. Though the PCUSA’s General Assembly voted this summer to keep the traditional marriage definition in the denomination’s constitution, “longer term, the effect of generational change will be felt: 75 percent of young adult advisory delegates at the General Assembly supported the redefinition of marriage,” Marcum said. “Hence, the next effort to change the marriage definition might well succeed. Indeed, it’s possible that this year’s effort would have succeeded, save for arguments that such a radical redefinition was too much change in the denomination, too soon.”

  • “Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first.” (2Thessalonians 2:3)

Fall TV Season Sees Record LGBT Presence

The new fall TV season will see an increase in the number of gay and bisexual characters, CBN News reports. According to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), it will be the highest level ever. A new GLAAD report titled “Where We Are on TV” shows that 4.4 percent of actors on prime-time shows portray lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender characters — up from 2.9 percent in 2011. ABC has the highest amount, with 10 out of 194 being LGBT, and the report also saluted CBS as “much improved,” at 2.8 percent.

  • A very real sign that the period Jesus called “the beginning of sorrows” is accelerating toward the Tribulation (Matt. 24:8)

Dutch Euthanasia Deaths Increase by 18 Percent

The annual number of reported deaths by euthanasia in the Netherlands rose by 18 percent to 3,695 in 2011 — a number that has doubled since 2006, Baptist Press reports. According to a Sept. 25 report, sizable increases were also reported in the euthanasia of people in early stages of dementia and those with psychiatric problems; reported euthanasia deaths for dementia patients doubled to 49 and increased for psychiatric patients from two to 13. However, according to the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (EPC), the statistics fall short of the reality in the Netherlands — a July study by the journal The Lancet showed 23 percent of euthanasia deaths went unreported in 2010. Therefore, the actual number of euthanasia deaths in 2011 was “more likely” 4,544, the EPC said. Combined with its estimate of 226 deaths by assisted suicide, which is a separate category, the Netherlands likely had a total of 4,770 assisted deaths last year, according to the EPC.

  • Yet another sign of the downward march into end-time “deep darkness” (Isaiah 60:2)

A Dangerous New World of Drones

A decade ago, the United States had a virtual monopoly on drones. Not anymore. According to data compiled by the New America Foundation, more than 70 countries now own some type of drone, though just a small number of those nations possess armed drone aircraft. The explosion in drone technology promises to change the way nations conduct war and threatens to begin a new arms race as governments scramble to counterbalance their adversaries. Late last month, China announced that it would use surveillance drones to monitor a group of uninhabited islands in the South China Sea that are controlled by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan. Last Tuesday, Iran disclosed details of a new long-range drone that can fly 1,250 miles, which puts Tel Aviv easily in range.

The Israeli air force shot down an unmanned drone Saturday over the northern Negev desert. The Israeli Defense Forces spotted the drone, which did not carry any weapons or explosives, hovering over Gaza before it entered Israeli airspace. The IDF declined to discuss the drone’s route or whether it had flown over military installations. It was not clear where the drone originated. Military officials, however, said it does not appear that it took off from Gaza, which along with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Mediterranean Sea forms the western border of the Negev. Israeli security experts point the finger at Israel’s longstanding rival Hezbollah, the Shiite militia based in southern Lebanon.

A convoy of more than 100 vehicles left Islamabad, Pakistan, on Saturday on a march toward South Waziristan to protest U.S. drone attacks. The group includes about 35 members of the U.S. anti-war group Code Pink. The U.K. advocacy group Reprieve and former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s sister-in-law, Lauren Booth, are also part of the convoy. The counterterrorism drone strike program in Pakistan has long been controversial. American officials insist that the choice and execution of the strikes — begun under President George W. Bush and ramped up under President Barack Obama — meet strict standards and that cases of civilian deaths or injuries are extremely rare. But a study released last month by Stanford Law School and New York University’s School of Law said the drone attacks have killed far more people than the United States acknowledges.

Border Shooting Likely an Accident

This week’s fatal shooting of a U.S. Border Patrol agent and the wounding of another in Arizona was likely the result of friendly fire, the FBI said late Friday. “While it is important to emphasize that the FBI’s investigation is actively continuing, there are strong preliminary indications that the death of United States Border Patrol Agent Nicholas J. Ivie, 30, and the injury to a second agent was the result of an accidental shooting incident involving only the agents,” James Turgal, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Phoenix division, said in a statement. The U.S. Border Patrol agent killed last week in a shooting in southern Arizona apparently opened fire on two fellow agents thinking they were armed smugglers and was killed when they returned fire.

Scant Oversight of Drug Maker in Fatal Meningitis Outbreak

A growing national outbreak of meningitis has been caused by the very medicine that was supposed to help the victims. Health officials say they believe it was contaminated with a fungus. The rising toll — 8 dead, 105 ill and thousands potentially exposed — has cast a harsh light on the loose regulations that legal experts say allowed a company to sell 17,676 vials of an unsafe drug to pain clinics in 23 states. Federal health officials said Friday that all patients injected with the steroid drug made by that company, the New England Compounding Center in Framingham, Mass., which has a troubled history, needed to be tracked down immediately and informed of the danger. Some doctors and clinics have turned away from major drug manufacturers and have taken their business to so-called compounding pharmacies, like New England Compounding, which mix up batches of drugs on their own, often for much lower prices than major manufacturers charge — and with little of the federal oversight of drug safety and quality that is routine for the big companies.

Economic News

A tentative recovery in the global economy is running out of steam and growth could weaken further due to Europe’s debt crisis and inaction over a looming fiscal squeeze in the United States, the International Monetary Fund said Monday. The IMF said growth would be even weaker than forecast if eurozone leaders fail to take further measures to support ailing members of the 17-nation currency union, and if the United States drives headlong over the so-called fiscal cliff — a $7 trillion program of automatic tax increases and spending cuts that start taking effect at midnight on Dec. 31.

Understanding how the unemployment rate is calculated explains why the rate went down unexpectedly last month. The numbers come from a survey of individuals. The unemployment rate can go down because more people have jobs. But it can also go down if a growing number of people say they have given up looking for work. And for much of the past year the bulk of the reason for the drop in the unemployment rate, which peaked at 10% in late 2009, has been the shrinking workforce.

The federal government logged a $1.1 trillion deficit in fiscal year 2012 ending Sept. 30th — marking the fourth straight year of trillion-dollar shortfalls. As a share of the economy, the deficit fell to roughly 7%, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates released Friday. That’s down from 8.7% in 2011, and well below the bruising 10.1% recorded in 2009 during the depth of the economic downturn. Deficits as a share of GDP in the past four years have been the highest since 1947. The decline is thanks largely to an uptick in revenue. Compared to last year, the federal government collected 6% more in fiscal 2012. A big reason was the jump in corporate tax receipts, which rose a whopping 34%.Spending, meanwhile, fell 2%. That decline, however, is due mostly to shifts in the timing of payments, CBO said.

Deadlocked lawmakers and defense contractors alike have been raising alarm about the more than half-trillion dollars in defense cuts poised to take effect starting in January because of Congress’ failure to reach a more balanced deficit-reduction deal. But there’s another side to that budget ax that rarely gets mentioned — another $500 billion in non-defense cuts that could do serious damage to education, research, safety net and other programs. All those areas would be cut by nearly 8 percent over the next 10 years. Washington has already signaled drastic consequences for the automatic, across-the-board cuts known as sequestration, including the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office which says the cuts could stunt economic growth, increase unemployment and send the country into another recession. But state officials are also living in a state of uncertainty and anxiety over the non-defense cuts, as they consider where to find the money to cover the planned reduction in federal support.

Gasoline prices in California rose to another all-time high on Sunday. AAA reported in its latest update on Sunday that the statewide average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline was $4.655. AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge report said the national average both Saturday and Sunday was about $3.81 a gallon, the highest ever for this time of year. However, gas prices in some states have started decreasing, which is typical for October.

Eurozone

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Athens Tuesday to protest a visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is viewed by many Greeks as being behind their country’s suffering. Critics see Merkel as the main enforcer of the European Union-imposed austerity measures that have left a large number of Greeks unemployed and streaming to soup kitchens for a hot meal. Police estimate as many as 25,000 people have turned out to demonstrate in central Athens, despite a ban on protests in certain areas amid beefed-up security for Merkel’s visit. A number of arrests were made in Syntagma Square, near the Greek parliament building, with missiles thrown at police as tensions began to rise.

Middle East

The IDF hit an Al-Qaida inspired terrorist cell inside the Strip Sunday night to prevent what it called a “large and complex terrorist attack on Israelis” which they were planning on launching “from the Sinai Peninsula.” The Islamist terror militia Hamas, which rules the Strip, joined Islamic Jhihad in launching a barrage of rockets into Israel to retaliate for the strike. Over the course of Sunday and Monday, over 50 rockets rained down on Israel’s south.

Philippines

The Philippines has reached a preliminary agreement with Muslim rebels after 15 years of talks, the president announced Sunday, marking a major milestone after decades of militant insurgency in the nation’s troubled south. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front has fought for decades for an independent Islamic state in southern Philippines. It has been blamed for rampant attacks in the region. President Benigno Aquino III described the deal as a “framework agreement” for establishing a new autonomous region to be administered by Muslims in the south. It also provides a framework on issues such as power structure and revenues in the southern region. The new autonomous region will be named Bangsamoro. The preliminary deal marks a major milestone after years of negotiations with the Moro group to help end an insurgency that has killed tens of thousands.

  • Deals with Islamist insurgents generally don’t work out except in their long-term favor

Syria

Dual car bombs exploded near an air force intelligence compound outside Damascus overnight, an opposition group said Tuesday. “We fear that hundreds of regime forces have been killed in this attack because the compound hosts a large number of regime forces,” said Rami Abdulrahman of the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “We also fear for the lives of hundreds if not thousands of anti-government detainees that are being held in the basements of the air force security compound.” Air force intelligence in Syria tortures detainees, using beatings and electric shocks and burning them with hot water and acid, according to Human Rights Watch. The barrage of explosions, gunfire and shelling reported from the Damascus area early Tuesday, suggesting the civil war may be zeroing in further on the Syrian capital.

Turkey

Turkish soldiers returned fire Sunday after a shell from Syria landed near a border village, state media reported, as clashes between the two neighbors entered a fifth day. Clashes between the two started Wednesday when shelling from Syria hit the Turkish town of Akcakale, killing five civilians and injuring nine others. The U.N. Security Council condemned the shelling and appealed for restraint from both countries. Syria “is not seeking any escalation with any of its neighbors, including Turkey,” Bashar Ja’afari, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters Thursday after expressing his government’s “deepest condolences” over the shelling.

Libya

Libya’s General National Congress rejected Prime Minister-elect Mustafa Abushagur’s crisis government proposal Sunday. The “no confidence” vote results in the automatic dismissal of Abushagur as prime minister-elect less than a month after he was appointed, while keeping the current government in place until a new one is formed. Members postponed a decision on setting a new timetable for appointing a new prime minister and the deadline for forming a government. The GNC, Libya’s first elected body in almost half a century, came to power after a July national vote with two primary tasks — to appoint a government and oversee the drafting of a constitution.

Jordan

Thousands of protesters gathered in downtown Amman, Jordan, Friday to demand political change. The demonstration came less than a day after King Abdullah II dissolved the country’s parliament and called for early elections close to the new year. The peaceful rally called for constitutional reforms, with protesters complaining that the king has too much power. They demanded that representatives be able to run for election in a democratic system rather than be under his control. Many said Jordan’s economy is hurting, and too many people cannot afford the high cost of living and are being burdened by high inflation. Unemployment is too high, they said, and young people especially are without work. The complaints have been echoed for some time in Jordan and gained steam when the Arab Spring began to sweep North Africa and the Middle East in 2010 and 2011. Popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have ousted longtime leaders from power.

Iraq

Despite a United Nations call for restraint, Iraqi authorities have executed dozens of inmates in recent months. Authorities executed 11 prisoners Sunday and six others Thursday after terrorism convictions, officials said. More than 100 people have been put to death since November, according to a CNN tally. The execution of large groups of prisoners has drawn attention from human rights advocates, who have raised concerns about the fairness of trials and transparency of court proceedings. After 34 inmates were executed on one day this year, the United Nations’ top human rights official said she was shocked and called on the country to implement a moratorium on the death penalty.

Iran

Senior Iranian clerics intensified their anti-Western criticism on Friday, calling the near-collapse of the national currency this past week a consequence of an American-led conspiracy to wage an economic war on Iran, and predicting that the pressure would ease. Proponents of stricter economic penalties against Iran have been emboldened by the currency crisis, calling it evidence that the sanctions are working. Mark D. Wallace, chief executive of United Against Nuclear Iran, a New York-based group that has worked to persuade multinational companies to sever business ties with Iran, said that by its calculation Iran’s currency had fallen by 80 percent in the past year. In a statement on the group’s Web site, he called for an economic blockade on Iran to increase the pressure, saying ‘the regime must be forced to choose between having a nuclear weapon or a functioning economy.

Iranian scientists are nearing completion of a nuclear warhead, having already successfully tested an implosion system and neutron detonator at a secret site while enriching uranium to weapons grade, according to a former Iranian intelligence officer. The information comes from Hamidreza Zakeri, formerly with the Islamic regime’s Ministry of Intelligence and National Security, or MOIS. Zakeri, who has in the past provided credible information on another site to Western intelligence agencies, said that after the revelation of the existence of the Iranian atomic research facility in Lavizan-Shian, the team of scientists moved to a secret location.

Volcanoes

Fresh lava and ash spewed Sunday from a volcano in northeast Indonesia, casting haze over the crater and prompting authorities to warn nearby residents. The volatile activity continued Sunday, though authorities could not immediately ascertain how many additional, separate eruptions had occurred. Those living within 1.5 miles of the volcano, which is in the Pacific island nation’s North Sulawesi province, are being told to limit outdoor activity. The volcano has been active since last Friday, with some eruptions spewing ash 1,500 meters into the air.

Weather

An upper-level wind pattern tapping Arctic air is shoving a cold front south into the U.S. Billings, Mont. went from a high of 82° last Tuesday to just over 2″ of snow the following day, their first snow of the season. The town of Sedgwick, Colo. had a daytime high of 90° Wednesday followed by a freeze the following morning. Grand Forks picked up its first snow of the season (2-3″) Thursday, just two days after a high of 80°.Similarly, Denver registered two straight days with highs in the low 80s Tuesday and Wednesday.

Devastating spring freezes and a historic drought have stripped some charm from rustic fall destinations, leaving some corn too short to create mazes, orchards virtually devoid of apples and fall colors muted. Extreme weather has forced agritourism ventures in the heart of the country to scramble to hold onto their share of an industry that generates hundreds of millions of dollars each year. For many farms and orchards, autumn is the peak agritourism season as families seek out a taste of rural life with outings to explore corn mazes, take hay rides and pick their own apples or pumpkins.

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