Signs of the Times (12/28/12)

Iranian Pastor Shares Joy Despite Imprisonment

Jailed Iranian pastor Behnam Irani, who last month was denied hospitalization despite his critical condition, wrote a letter from his prison cell before Christmas, ministering to Christians in his country and thanking God for letting him share “very little of” Jesus’ suffering on the cross, the Christian Post reports. “Despite the pressure and difficulties in prison, I am pleased to share, what is like a fountain, my Christian joy with you in the new Christmas days to come,” wrote Irani, who is currently serving a six-year sentence. “My brothers and sisters, I love you all. Christ has given you to me on Calvary. Even if I were sentenced to many years behind bars for the salvation of one of you, there would never be any complaint.” Before his arrest in 2011 for “acting against the interests of national security,” Irani was leading the Church of Iran in the city of Karaj. He has been tortured in prison and was denied hospitalization for a bleeding ulcer. Several times he was found unconscious in his prison cell, raising fears for his well-being. His wife and two children have said they are afraid that unless the beatings stop and he is offered proper medical care, he could die in prison soon. Yet suffering has not robbed Irani of the joy Jesus gives.

Justice Refuses to Block Morning-After Pill Mandate

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has denied a request to block part of the federal health care law that requires employee health-care plans to cover the morning-after pill and other emergency contraceptives. Hobby Lobby Stores and sister company Mardel Inc. sued the government, claiming the mandate violates the owners’ religious beliefs. Justice Sotomayor said the companies may continue to challenge the regulations in lower courts, but the mandate kicks in next week. So company officials must now decide whether to violate their faith or face fines of $1.3 million a day beginning Jan. 1 if they ignore the law. Opponents say the drugs cause abortions and that the U.S. has no business mandating insurance coverage for them.

Public Schools Promoting Islam

Texas public school curriculum is teaching students that “Allah is the Almighty God.” The private curriculum, CSCOPE, is being used in 70 percent of K-12 public school classes. Critics find that the program teaches that “Allah alone is the Creator” as fact, without any opposing viewpoint. In addition, portions of the Quran are handed out to accompany the PowerPoint presentation. CSCOPE, which is independent of the Texas State Board of Education, also teaches that the Boston Tea Party was carried out by a band of terrorists and that the Second Amendment is limited to state-run organizations. But because the program operates outside the board of education, public review of the content is not permitted. Even parents are denied access to this online program.

  • Can you imagine the media outrage if similar Christian material was forced on public school students?

Out-of-Wedlock Births Society’s ‘New Norm’

The number of children being born outside of marriage has increased sharply, according to a new study by the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values, CBN News reports. The report focuses on what it calls “middle America,” the nearly 60 percent of Americans who complete high school but not college. Among that group, 44 percent of children are now born outside of marriage — up from 13 percent in the 1980s. “Marriage in middle America is at a tipping point, with unwed childbearing threatening to become a new norm,” said study co-author Brad Wilcox. Research shows children born or raised outside of marriage are more likely to suffer from a range of social and emotional problems, including drug use, depression, attempted suicide and dropping out of high school.

More Than Half of U.S. homes Don’t Use Landline

Over half of Americans don’t have or use a land line telephone. A recent survey found that more than one-third of American homes (35.8 percent) had only wireless telephones during the first half of 2012 while 15.9 percent of all households had both landline and wireless telephones but received all or almost all calls on the wireless phones. This means 51.7% of U.S. homes don’t have or didn’t use their landlines in the first half of 2012. Six in 10 adults aged 25–29 (60.1 percent) lived in households with only wireless telephones. That number drops as household members get older. More than half of all adults renting their home (58.2 percent) had only wireless telephones. This rate is more than twice as large as the rate for adults owning their home at 23.2 percent. The poor like wireless too. Adults living in poverty were more likely (51.8 percent) than adults living near poverty (42.3 percent) and higher income adults (30.7 percent) to be living in households with only wireless telephones.

White House Meeting Last Stab at Fiscal Deal

Amid partisan bluster, top members of Congress and President Barack Obama were holding out slim hopes for a limited fiscal deal before the new year. But even as congressional leaders prepared to convene at the White House, there were no signs that legislation palatable to both sides was taking shape. The Friday afternoon meeting among congressional leaders and the president – their first since Nov. 16 – stood as a make-or-break moment for negotiations to avoid across-the-board first of the year tax increases and deep spending cuts. Although there were no guarantees of a deal, Republicans and Democrats said privately that any agreement would likely include an extension of middle-class tax cuts with increased rates at upper incomes.

Economic News

U.S. consumer confidence tumbled in December, driven lower by fears of sharp tax increases and government spending cuts set to take effect next week. The Conference Board said Thursday that its consumer confidence index fell this month to 65.1, down from 71.5 in November. That’s the second straight decline and the lowest level since August.

The U.S. government will hit the $16.4 trillion federal debt limit Monday and turn to “extraordinary measures” to continue borrowing, the Treasury Department said Wednesday, beginning a countdown until Congress either passes legislation to allow for more borrowing or the government defaults on its debt. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner said the government could buy roughly two months’ more time before it would be unable to meet all its obligations.

First-time claims for unemployment benefits fell to 350,000 the week ended Dec. 22, down 12,000 from the previous week. That’s the lowest figure since March 2008. Weekly applications are a proxy for layoffs. They have mostly fluctuated this year between 360,000 and 390,000. At the same time, employers have added an average of 151,000 jobs a month in the first 11 months of 2012. That’s just enough to slowly reduce the unemployment rate.

U.S. holiday retail sales this year were the weakest since 2008, when the nation was in a deep recession. In 2008, sales declined by between 2 percent and 4 percent as the financial crisis that crested that fall dragged the economy into recession. Last year, by contrast, retail sales in November and December rose between 4 percent and 5 percent.

Americans bought new homes last month at the fastest pace in more than two and a half years. The Commerce Department says sales of new homes rose 4.4% in November to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 377,000. New home sales have increased 15.3% in the past year, although the improvement comes from depressed levels. Sales remain below the 700,000 that economists consider healthy.

Persecution Watch

At least 12 Christians, including a pastor and a deacon, were killed by unknown gunmen in separate attacks in northern Nigeria on Christmas Eve, International Christian Concern reports. Witnesses said the gunmen also set a church on fire in connection with the attacks. Late on Christmas Eve, gunmen opened fire on the Evangelical Church of West Africa in Peri, killing the pastor and five worshipers. In a separate attack, gunmen attacked worshipers at the First Baptist Church in Maiduguri, killing a deacon and five church members. The Islamist group Boko Haram is suspected to be behind the attacks, even though the group has yet to claim responsibility. Boko Haram, which is fighting to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria’s north, is known to target Christians, their places of worship, and government institutions.

Middle East

Israel has advanced the process of building 942 more settler homes in east Jerusalem under a new fast-track plan to tighten its grip on the territory, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of a future state. About 40,000 Israelis live in the area. “With God’s help, we will continue to live and build in Jerusalem, which will remain united under Israeli sovereignty,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said the new Israeli announcement was a “red line” that would block the chance for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which a Palestinian state would be established alongside Israel.

  • Jerusalem is the only city which God claims as His own; for that reason it is called the “City of God.” He declares in II Chronicles 33:7, “In this temple and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put My Name forever.


The official approval of Egypt’s disputed, Islamist-backed constitution Tuesday held out little hope of stabilizing the country after two years of turmoil and Islamist President Mohammed Morsi may now face a more immediate crisis with the economy falling deeper into distress. Morsi signed a decree Tuesday night that put the new constitution into effect after the election commission announced the official results of the referendum held over the past two weekends. It said the constitution has passed with a 63.8 percent “yes.” Turnout of 32.9 percent of Egypt’s nearly 52 million registered voters was lower than most other elections since the uprising nearly two years ago that ousted authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak

In a clear sign of anxiety over the economy, the turbulence of the past month and expected austerity measures ahead have some Egyptians hoarding dollars for fear the currency is about to take a significant turn for the weaker. The battle over the constitution left Egypt deeply polarized at a time when the government is increasingly cash-strapped. After a spate of resignations of senior aides and advisers during the constitutional crisis, Morsi appeared to have lost another member of his government late Tuesday night when his communications minister posted on his Twitter account that he was resigning.


Syrian rebels fully captured a northern town near the Turkish border on Tuesday after weeks of heavy fighting and attacked a regime air base in a neighboring province. The air base is in Aleppo province, where opposition fighters have already captured three other large military bases in recent months. Rebels have also laid siege to the international airport in the city of Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital, and launched an offensive on the police academy near the city. With steady rebel gains across the north, President Bashar Assad’s regime is having increasing difficulty sending supplies by land to Aleppo province, especially after rebels cut a major thoroughfare from Damascus.


Militants in Pakistan killed two security forces and abducted 21 others in an assault on two military camps Thursday. More than 200 people suspected to be members of the Taliban conducted the raid. The Pakistan Taliban confirmed they had the security forces in custody. The northwestern region of Pakistan — near the volatile border with Afghanistan — has a large militant presence. On Saturday, the Pakistani Taliban carried out a suicide bombing targeting a Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial official in downtown Peshawar, Bashir Bilour. The official was among 10 people killed; 17 other people were wounded.


Rigorous new sanctions against Iran’s banking, shipping and industrial sectors took effect on Saturday, as part of the European Union’s effort to force Tehran to scale back its nuclear program. The toughest EU measures yet, they include bans on financial transactions, sales to Iran of shipping equipment and steel, and imports of Iranian natural gas, adding to earlier bans, including on the OPEC producer’s oil. They reflect heightened concern over Iran’s nuclear goals and Israeli threats to attack Iranian atomic installations if diplomacy and other measures fail to deliver a solution. The new sanctions mark a significant change of policy for the 27-member bloc, which previously sought mainly to target specific people and companies with economic restrictions. It has lagged the United States in imposing blanket industry bans because it is anxious to avoid penalizing ordinary Iranian citizens, while punishing the Tehran government. The European Commission said the new law brought the number of entities subject to sanctions to 490 and the total number of persons to 105. The latest companies added to the banned list include energy and steel distribution firms and financial companies.”

Central African Republic

The president of the Central African Republic asked Thursday for help from other nations to stave off rebel advances that threaten his rule. The former French colony asked France and the United States to help ensure “the rebels return home…instead of destroying and killing Central Africans,” President Francois Bozize said. Amid indications that the rebels may try to take the capital, Bangui, the United Nations began relocating dependents and nonessential staff. The U.S. Embassy in Bangui suspended operations Friday “as a result of the deteriorating security situation. Attacks on several cities by the coalition of rebel groups known as “Seleka” have undermined peace agreements; rebels say they are fighting because the government has broken promises.


Nicaraguan authorities say they’ve ordered the evacuation of some 300 families living on the flanks of the country’s highest volcano after it began spewing hot gas and ash Tuesday. A yellow alert was declared Wednesday in a 1.8-mile radius around the San Cristobal volcano to allow the evacuation of residents who would be at highest risk during a significant eruption. Fifteen eruptions had been recorded over the last day at the volcano northeast of the capital of Managua. The volcano has emitted regular small eruptions, but larger ones are unpredictable.


About 30 twisters hopscotched across the Deep South Tuesday to Wednesday with brutal winds, that knocked down countless trees, blew the roofs off homes and left many Christmas celebrations in the dark. The storms were blamed for three deaths, several injuries, and left homes from Louisiana to Alabama damaged. In Mobile, Ala., a tornado or high winds damaged homes, a high school and church, and knocked down power lines and large tree limbs in an area just west of downtown. Earlier in the day, winds toppled a tree onto a pickup truck in the Houston area, killing the driver, and a 53-year-old north Louisiana man was killed when a tree fell on his house.

Holiday travelers in the nation’s much colder midsection battled treacherous driving conditions from freezing rain and blizzard conditions from the same fast-moving storms. Icy roads already were blamed for a 21-vehicle pileup in Oklahoma. The snowstorm that caused numerous accidents pushed out of Oklahoma late Tuesday, carrying with it blizzard warnings for parts of northeast Arkansas, where 10 inches of snow was forecast. Freezing rain clung to trees and utility lines in Arkansas and winds gusts up to 30 mph whipped them around, causing about 71,000 customers to lose electricity for a time. Christmas lights also were knocked out with more than 100,000 customers without power for at least a time in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

Winter Storm Euclid dumped a swath of heavy snow from California’s Sierra to the Northeast during the Christmas holiday week. Little Rock, Arkansas recorded its snowiest Christmas Day (9″) and snowiest single day since Jan. 6, 1988. The Christmas Day blizzard dumped more than 15 inches of snow on the state, causing massive damage to power lines that have affected more than 200,000 customers many of whom might be without power through New Year’s Day. The heaviest snowfall was reported in Woodford, Vermont: 27 inches. Upstate New York reported 20 inches while Pennsylvania saw 15 inches.

2012 was a year of weather extremes: the warmest year on record, a devastating late-season hurricane, and a drought that is still growing well into winter. However, there was one area in which the U.S. actually received a bit of a break: tornadoes. “At this point (Dec. 26), the U.S. as a whole is on pace to have the quietest tornado year since at least 2002 and possibly 1989,” says Tornado Expert Dr. Greg Forbes. There have been 922 tornadoes versus the ten-year average of 1334.

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