Signs of the Times (11/22/12)

Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever. (Psalm 188:1)

Middle East Peace Accord Holds

The Gaza cease-fire deal reached Wednesday marks a startling trajectory for Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi: an Islamist leader who refuses to talk to Israelis or even say the country’s name mediated for it and finally turned himself into Israel’s de facto protector. The accord inserts Egypt to an unprecedented degree into the conflict between Israel and Hamas, establishing it as the arbiter ensuring that militant rocket fire into Israel stops and that Israel allows the opening of the long-blockaded Gaza Strip and stops its own attacks against Hamas. In return, Morsi emerged as a major regional player. He won the trust of the United States and Israel, which once worried over the rise of an Islamist leader in Egypt.

Morsi hails from the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful political group and Hamas’ own parent organization. Brotherhood leaders, including Morsi, refuse to speak to Israeli officials. Morsi hasn’t even said the name of the country publicly since he was inaugurated in late June, though he has referred to its people as “Israelis.” In ideology, the Brotherhood supports the use of force against Israel to liberate “Muslim lands.” The group opposes Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. But since coming to power, the group has had to yield to pragmatism. The Brotherhood and Morsi have promised to abide by the peace accord. Through a military operation and through dialogue, Morsi has tried to rein in Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula who have attacked Egyptian security forces and staged attacks across the border into Israel.

Middle East Fallout

Iran has supplied military aid to the Islamist group Hamas in Gaza, Iran’s parliament speaker said Wednesday, reports AFP. “We are proud to defend the people of Palestine and Hamas … and that our assistance to them has been both financial and military,” Ali Larijani said without elaborating. Iran has never made a secret of its support for Israel’s foes Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, but generally avoids mention of sending military aid. Israel has accused Iran of supplying Hamas with its Fajr 5 missile, used to target Tel Aviv since Israel launched its offensive on Gaza on Nov. 14. The Fajr 5 rocket can hit targets up to 75 kilometers (46 miles) away, a far greater range than the home-produced Qassam rockets used in the past by Palestinian militants in Gaza to target Israel.

In the digital age, war isn’t contained to the ground. The Israeli government on Sunday said it has been hit with more than 44 million cyberattacks since it began aerial strikes on Gaza last week. Anonymous, the hacker collective, claimed responsibility for taking down some sites and leaking passwords because of what it calls Israel’s “barbaric, brutal and despicable treatment” of Palestinians. Israel and the military wing of Hamas have been criticized for using ready-to-share images on social media to spread spin about the conflict.

A bomb ripped through an Israeli bus near the nation’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, wounding at least 10 people. In the past week, Israeli airstrikes have destroyed many of the underground channels that connect Gaza to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt as part of its operation to stop the seemingly relentless rocket attacks against Israeli cities and towns.

Masked gunmen publicly shot dead six suspected collaborators with Israel in a large Gaza City intersection Tuesday. The Hamas military wing, Izzedine al-Qassam, claimed responsibility, saying the six were killed because they gave Israel information about fighters and rocket launching sites. Israel relies on a network of local informers to identify its targets in Gaza; the killings brought to eight the number of suspected informers being shot dead in public since Israel began its military offensive against Hamas.

Atheist Bullies Shut Down Christmas Displays

Once again, atheists have shut down the First Amendment rights of Christians and Jews with the blessings of a federal court. For 60 years, the city of Santa Monica, California, has allowed private Nativity and Hanukkah displays in its Palisades Park, which overlooks the ocean and the famed Santa Monica Pier. For 60 years, the city of Santa Monica, California, has allowed private Nativity and Hanukkah displays in its Palisades Park, which overlooks the ocean and the famed Santa Monica Pier. Atheist Damon Vix wasn’t content with just putting up his protest booth three years ago. Last year, he recruited a bunch of other atheists to flood the city with applications, packing what was supposed to be a fair lottery. The atheists managed to steal 18 of the 21 spaces, leaving only three for Christian and Jewish groups. They only actually used half of the spaces, leaving the others empty. The ones they did use were filled with signs and displays insulting people who believe in God. Rather than step in and do something to preserve a community tradition, Santa Monica city officials this year chickened out and just banned all holiday booths in the park. A federal judge this week rejected the request by the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee to allow the display this year while its lawsuit against the city proceeded.

Judge Rejects Hobby Lobby’s Case Against ObamaCare

A federal judge Monday rejected Hobby Lobby Stores Inc.’s request to block part of the federal health care overhaul that requires the arts and craft supply company to provide insurance coverage for the morning-after and week-after birth control pills. The Oklahoma City-based company and a sister company, Mardel Inc., sued the government in September, claiming the mandate violates the owners’ religious beliefs. The owners contend the morning-after and week-after birth control pills are tantamount to abortion because they can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in a woman’s womb. They also object to providing coverage for certain kinds of intrauterine devices. In his ruling denying Hobby Lobby’s request for an injunction, Heaton said that while churches and other religious organizations have been granted constitutional protection from the birth-control provisions, “Hobby Lobby and Mardel are not religious organizations.”

Court Halts Abortion Pill Mandate for Tyndale House Publishers

A federal court Friday stopped enforcement of the Obama administration’s abortion pill mandate against Tyndale House Publishers, a Bible publisher represented by attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom, the ADF reports. The administration opposed the order, arguing that Tyndale wasn’t “religious enough” for an exemption from the mandate — a component of Obamacare that forces employers to provide insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception. Obama administration rules say for-profit corporations are categorically non-religious, even though Tyndale is strictly a publisher of Bibles and Christian materials and is primarily owned by the non-profit Tyndale House Foundation. The court, however, wrote in its opinion accompanying a preliminary injunction order in Tyndale House Publishers v. Sebelius that “the beliefs of Tyndale and its owners are indistinguishable.” ADF senior legal counsel Matt Bowman said: “Bible publishers should be free to do business according to the book that they publish. The court has done the right thing in halting the mandate while our lawsuit moves forward. For the government to say that a Bible publisher is not religious is startling. It demonstrates how clearly the Obama administration is willing to disregard the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom to achieve certain political purposes.” The court’s order is the third nationwide against the mandate and the second obtained by ADF attorneys.

Student Expelled for Refusing Location Tracking RFID Badge

After months of protesting a policy requiring high school students to wear an RFID-enabled ID badge around their necks at all times, Andrea Hernandez is being involuntarily withdrawn from John Jay High School in San Antonio effective November 26th. Civil liberties lawyers at the Rutherford Institute said that they are in the process of filing a temporary restraining order petition to prevent the school from kicking Hernandez out until further appeals can be made to resolve the matter. Andrea, backed by her family, has claimed the policy violates her religious beliefs and unduly infringes on her privacy. The controversial ID badge includes the photo and name of each student, a barcode tied to the student’s social security number, as well as an RFID chip which pinpoints the exact location of the individual student, including after hours and when the student leaves campus.

Fracking Boom Gains Momentum

Political obstacles to oil and gas production are starting to fall away at the state and local levels as voters, elected officials and courts jump on the energy boom bandwagon. Voters are rewarding local politicians who support production. Ballot measures are distributing potential tax windfalls broadly. And most state legislatures are focused on managing the economic and environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, so the drilling boom can speed up rather than slow down. The trend is crucial to the nation’s energy future because oil and gas production is regulated and taxed almost entirely by state and local governments. The federal government’s role is largely advisory, except on federal lands and on pipelines. Most states were caught off guard when fracking turned Pennsylvania into a major natural gas producer in 2009. Fracking could produce oil or gas in as many as 36 states. Result: The USA will become the world’s No. 1 producer of natural gas in 2015 and oil in 2017, overtaking Russia and Saudi Arabia, respectively, predicts the International Energy Agency.

Social Media Snags 4 U.S. Residents Supporting Taliban

Jihadist social media postings helped lead to the arrest and charging of four Los Angeles area men, who were allegedly on their way to Afghanistan to train with the Taliban and join al Qaeda. They were also plotting to kill American soldiers and bomb government installations, according to a joint statement Monday by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles. One of the men, a U.S. citizen born in Afghanistan, encouraged two of the others to embrace violent Islamic doctrine by introducing them online to radical teachings. The three exposed their connection to each other and their radical leanings explicitly on Facebook for over a year. And one of them detailed his intentions to participate in jihad in an online chat with an FBI employee.

Economic News

Claims for unemployment benefits fell last week following an earlier surge related to Superstorm Sandy. About 410,000 people filed for first-time unemployment benefits during the week ending November 17, down 41,000 from the previous week. Revised data show during the week ending November 10 initial claims spiked by 90,000, the largest increase in a single week since September 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In the four weeks before Sandy, an average of 367,000 new claims for unemployment benefits were filed each week.

Builders started construction last month on the most single-family homes and apartments since July 2008, more evidence that the housing recovery is gaining momentum. The Commerce Department says housing starts jumped 3.6% in October from September to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 894,000. Housing starts are 87% above the annual rate of 478,000 in April 2009, the recession low. That’s still short of the 1.5 million annual rate considered healthy.

Americans cranked up their use of credit cards in the third quarter, racking up more debt than a year ago, while also being less diligent about making payments on time. The average credit card debt per borrower in the U.S. grew 4.9% in the July-to-September period from a year earlier. At the same time, the rate of credit card payments at least 90 days overdue hit 0.75%, up from 0.71% in the third quarter of last year. While higher, the late payment rate is rising from historically low levels.

Syria

Syrian rebels seized a key military base with artillery stockpiles in the country’s east Thursday, strengthening their hold in an oil-rich strategic province bordering Iraq. The rebels have been making advances in the Deir el-Zour province recently, and the capture of the base followed the seizure of a military airport in the same area last week. The base was considered the last stronghold for regime forces in the eastern province. Syrian rebels and opposition groups accused government forces of bombing a building by a hospital late Wednesday in the besieged city of Aleppo, where at least 40 people died as the conflict rages on. In Damascus, two mortar shells struck the upscale neighborhood of Mazzeh during the morning rush hour Thursday, injuring at least one person. The neighborhood is home to a number of foreign embassies and has been targeted several times in the past few days.

Pakistan

A Taliban suicide bomber struck a Shiite Muslim procession near Pakistan’s capital, killing 23 people in the latest of a series of bombings targeting Shiites during the holiest month of the year for the sect. The bomber attacked the procession around midnight Wednesday in the city of Rawalpindi, located next to the capital, Islamabad. At least 62 people were wounded by the blast, including six policemen. Police tried to stop and search the bomber as he attempted to join the procession, but he ran past them and detonated his explosives. Earlier Wednesday, the Taliban set off two bombs within minutes outside a Shiite mosque in the southern city of Karachi, killing at least one person and wounding several others. Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan said, “We have a war of belief with Shiites,” Ahsan told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location. “They are blasphemers. We will continue attacking them.”

  • As the Bible notes, descendants of Ishmael will not only fight outsiders but themselves as well: “He shall be a wild man; His hand shall be against every man.” (Genesis 16:12) I believe this applies now to all the Islamic sects that were spawned by the Arab Muhammad

China

Chinese church leaders do not expect major changes after China’s ruling Communist Party announced a new leadership team Thursday in Beijing, Open Doors USA reports. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will succeed Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao as top Politburo Standing Committee members and take over the presidency and premiership, respectively, in March 2012. Xiao Yun (not his real name), Open Doors director for China, said it is unlikely the leadership change will affect China’s policy toward the church. “As long as we communicate with the government, they leave us alone,” one house church leader stated. Yun said: “For now, the Chinese church expects it can continue to grow both in size and in depth. The government will keep close watch, that’s for sure, but severe oppression is something of the past. I like to say the government is improving, but on the other hand there are still some Christians in jail because of their faith. Christians are among the 400 minority groups … that are still persecuted by society and sometimes the government.” The majority of the Christians, however, experience growing freedom. China is ranked No. 21 on the 2012 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 worst persecutors of Christians, compared to No. 16 last year and No. 13 in 2010.

Congo

Congolese rebels took control of the eastern city of Goma and part of the border with Rwanda on Tuesday after days of heavy clashes. The rebels took control of the government radio station in Goma and were seen walking through town, entering government and police buildings. The rebels are part of the M23 rebel group, which has been engaged in heavy fighting with Congolese army forces in the region since last Thursday. Though 1,500 United Nations peacekeeping troops are in Goma and have control of the airport there, a U.N. spokesman said the situation is at a “critical stage.”

Persecution Watch

Gunmen shot five members of a family in Madauchi-Zonkwa, Kaduna state, in northern Nigeria on Nov. 13 before setting their house ablaze with the victims inside, Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports. According to pastor Bitrus Titus of Living Faith Church in Zonkwa, the sound of gunfire lasted for close to an hour without any intervention from security personnel. He added that the victims’ corpses were burnt beyond recognition. The attack prompted young men in the Christian community to take to the streets in protest, demanding that soldiers stationed nearby be removed from their post. The Rev. Yunusa Nmadu, CEO of CSW Nigeria, said: “We are saddened by yet another attack on a predominantly Christian community and urge the relevant security agents to live up to their responsibilities, especially since there has been a long-standing threat that the community and others around would be attacked after the April 2011 presidential electoral violence in Kaduna state. Our hearts go out to the relatives and friends of the family that has been affected.”

A Pakistani court on Tuesday dismissed blasphemy charges against Rimsha Masih, a Christian teenager whose case prompted international outrage. The high court in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad found that the accusations against her were legally unsound. The court’s decision follows weeks of uncertainty for Rimsha and her family, who were forced to go into hiding because of the furor surrounding the case. Rimsha’s ordeal began in August when she was arrested over allegations she had burned pages of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, for cooking fuel. She denied the charges, which carried the possible sentence of life in prison. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws “don’t help protect religious harmony,” said Mustafa Qadri, Amnesty International’s Pakistan researcher.

Islamic extremists from Somalia’s rebel al Shabaab militants killed a Christian in Somalia’s coastal city of Barawa on Nov. 16, accusing him of being a spy and leaving Islam, Morning Star News reports. The extremists beheaded 25-year-old Farhan Haji Mose after monitoring his movements for six months, underground Christians in Somalia said. Mose drew suspicion when he returned to Barawa in December 2011 after spending time in Kenya, which is nearly 83 percent Christian, opposed to Somalia, which is close to 100 percent Muslim. Mose had converted to Christianity in 2010 while in Kenya. Sources said a crowd assembled in Barawa to watch the slaughter of Mose. The extremists accused Mose of being a spy for foreigners and of embracing the “foreign religion of Christianity.” Al Shabaab rebels have killed dozens of Christian converts from Islam since embarking on a campaign to rid Somalia of Christianity. The extremists, variously estimated at 3,000 to 7,000, seek to impose a stricter version of sharia (Islamic law) on Somalia.

Weather

The Pacific Northwest took a punch to the gut with drenching downpours and damaging hurricane-force winds Monday. Falling trees killed at least one person, and there were reports of flooding and landslides.

The average New Jersey beach is 30 to 40 feet narrower after Superstorm Sandy, according to a survey that is sure to intensify a long-running debate on whether federal dollars should be used to replenish stretches of sand that only a fraction of U.S. taxpayers use. Routine storms tear up beaches in any season, and one prescription for protecting communities from storm surge has been to replenish beaches with sand pumped from offshore. Places with recently beefed-up beaches saw comparatively little damage. The federal government picks up 65 percent of the cost, with the rest coming from state and local coffers.

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