Signs of the Times (2/11/13)

Pope Benedict XVI to Resign

Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he will resign Feb. 28, ending eight years as head of the world’s Catholics because the 85-year-old pontiff is too infirm to carry on. He is the first pope to resign in 600 years. “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths due to an advanced age are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” he told the cardinals. The pope said that “both strength of mind and body are necessary” to oversee the world’s 1 billion Catholics, “strengths which in the last few months, have deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope in 2005 after the death of John Paul II. It was announced that the pope will retire to a small monastery where some contemplative nuns live on the Vatican grounds. The announcement comes as a surprise to many Catholics in Rome though they were aware that the pope was ill.

Plan B Use ‘Skyrocketing’ in NYC Schools

The New York Post has uncovered the fact that this Plan B giveaway program, part of the Reproductive Health Project, is far more extensive than originally thought. Forty separate “school-based health centers” distributed nearly 13,000 doses of the “morning-after pill” during the 2011-2012 school year — up from 10,720 in 2010-11 and 5,039 in 2009-10. “Handouts … to sexually active students have skyrocketed under an unpublicized project,” the exclusive article asserts. Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council (FRC) says the program allowing thousands of girls as young as 14 to receive emergency contraception and other forms of birth control from the New York public schools without parental consent is an infringement on parental rights. “This suggests that there is a desperate need for abstinence education in the New York City public schools to explain to young people the dangers of early sexual activity or of sexual activity outside of the context of marriage,” he asserts. According to city officials, more than 6,000 New York girls got pregnant by age 17 last year, and more than half chose to have abortions.

  • Immorality continues to escalate as the period Jesus calls “the beginning of sorrows” rolls onward (Matt. 24:8)

Christian Music Bouncing Back

Christian recording artist TobyMac’s blend of rap, hip-hop, rock and soul raced up the charts last year and shattered many stereotypes along the way. “Toby blows everybody’s perception of what Christian or gospel music is because Toby makes Jesus look cool,” Billboard Magazine’s Deborah Evans Price told the PBS program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.” TobyMac’s album “Eye on It,” which was released last August, was the first Christian album since 1997 to debut at No. 1 on Billboard’s all-genre chart, and only the third Christian album ever to do so. Many experts say thanks to artists like TobyMac, the contemporary Christian music industry is experiencing a revival, with strong sales, record-breaking tours, and new success in the mainstream charts. For three consecutive weeks last fall, the Billboard 200 chart included Christian albums that debuted in the Top Ten. In mid-January, Christian artist Chris Tomlin’s new album “Burning Lights” opened at No. 1.

Visions of Jesus Appearing to Muslims

“Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions,” asserts the promise of God from the book of Joel. Yet some of those men reportedly seeing visions and dreams are neither Jews nor Christians, but Muslims. What’s more, Middle East evangelists report the dreamers are coming to Christianity because of their visions of Jesus. Christian Middle East evangelist Hazem Farraj told CBN that he hears from Muslims who report having dreams or visions of Jesus. Tom Doyle, an evangelist, pastor and the E3 Partners Ministry director for the Middle East and Central Asia says it’s true: Muslims are coming to Christianity through dreams and visions. “Great things are happening in the Muslim world,” Doyle said in an email to WND. “It’s all very unexpected.”

Northeast Recovering Quickly from Snowstorm

After one of the worst snowstorms in a century (see Weather below), life in the Northeast is returning to normal faster than many expected. Electric power is back in most places. Airports are open. Amtrak and commuter trains are mostly running. Warm weather is on the way. What remains is plenty of shoveling and plowing. New England states will dodge a second big storm that dropped a foot of snow Sunday on the Great Plains, says AccuWeather meteorologist Brian Edwards. That storm is now on track to head north into Canada and cause rain, but no snow, on New England and New York. The rain will be absorbed by the snowpack and could cause fog and flooding in urban areas.

Automatic Sequester Cuts Due March 1

Some 600,000 poor women and children will no longer get free milk and cheese, 70,000 children would get kicked out of early childhood intervention programs that help poorer children catch up to middle-class peers, heading into kindergarten, and some 2,100 fewer food inspections will take place if federal budget cuts expected to kick in March 1 actually take place. The White House warned Friday that some $85 billion in budget cuts coming as a part of the “sequester” will end up carving some 9% from non-defense programs and 13% from defense programs. Federal agencies notified hundreds of thousands of federal workers that furloughs could be around the corner.

The cuts are a part of a larger effort to trim $1.2 trillion from federal deficits over ten years. President Obama this week started pushing Congress to delay the cuts by a few months, allowing time to pass a more comprehensive new budget that both cuts expenses and hikes taxes. House Republicans want to replace the defense cuts with more non-defense cuts, something Democrats reject. Entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, which fall under mandatory spending, would be largely protected from the cuts. Congressional Democrats and Republicans appeared far apart Sunday on a deal to avert $85 billion in federal spending reductions next month, with a top House Republican saying the cuts appear “inevitable.”

DHS Declares Borders Secure

The effort in Washington to pass immigration reform is headed for a potential showdown over border security – with the Senate and White House plans putting different emphasis on the issue, and Democrats and Republicans appearing to disagree over the extent of the problem. The likely conflict was highlighted last week when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared U.S. borders secure and said Republicans have a flawed argument about border security needing to precede comprehensive immigration reform. She said the Republicans have failed to recognize yearly improvements in contraband seizures and the number of people caught trying to cross the border illegal.

  • Most of the reductions in improved border numbers are due to the recession. To say the border is secure is a gross misrepresentation. This is the same DHS head who once declared right-wing Christians and returning veterans as the primary threat to U.S. security.

Some Republican Governors Switch, Expand Medicaid

Once largely united in resisting the Obama administration’s new health care overhaul, a growing number of Republican governors are now buying into parts of the system as the financial realities of their states’ medical costs begin to counterbalance the fierce election politics of the issue. This week, Michigan’s Rick Snyder became the sixth GOP governor to propose expanding his state’s health insurance program to cover more low-income residents, in line with the Democratic administration’s strong recommendation. Eleven Republican governors have rejected the idea while a dozen, who have been mostly critical, have not announced a decision.

  • Once the Supreme Court declared Obamacare legal, the die was cast.

Flu Activity Decreasing in U.S.

Flu season is still upon us, but it appears to be winding down. As of Feb. 2, the percentage of people visiting the doctor for flu-like illness in the United States was 3.6 percent, down from 4.2 percent for the week ending Jan. 26. Nineteen states are reporting high levels of flu activity, down from 24 states the week before and 13 states are reporting low levels of flu activity, up from four states the previous week.

Economic News

The first half of 2013 is expected to be sluggish as government spending cuts dampen growth and a payroll tax increase crimps consumer spending. The nation’s economy and job-creating engine will start to purr later this year as business activity picks up — more than offsetting federal government cutbacks, predict economists surveyed by USA TODAY. They expect unemployment to fall from 7.9% to 7.5% by year-end.

Despite an improving economy and an unemployment rate ticking downward, many people remain unemployed, some for years. U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned that long-term unemployment remains a serious problem, with 40 percent of the unemployed out of work six months or more. Higher salary requirements usually equate to longer searches. And someone older than 55 could spend on average 30 weeks looking for a job.

U.S. gasoline prices jumped nearly a quarter per gallon over the past two weeks as higher crude oil prices and refinery shutdowns drove prices upward. The average price of a gallon of regular stood at $3.59 a gallon on Friday. While U.S. crude prices have stayed relatively stable, prices on international markets have gone up substantially in recent weeks.

Persecution Watch

Two church leaders in Kenya were attacked last Thursday morning by unknown gunmen in the city of Garissa, Open Doors USA reports. Pastor Abdi Welli was pronounced dead on arrival at a hospital and Pastor Ibrahim Makunyi of the East Africa Pentecostal Church was immediately rushed to a hospital, where his condition was described as stable and out of danger. Garissa is a violence-stricken city in Kenya’s northeast, and the Islamic terrorist group al Shabaab has been targeting Christians and churches in the area. “The attack today is the latest in increasing violence, especially in the Garissa area,” said Open Doors USA spokesman Jerry Dykstra. “It was reported by Open Doors that 22 Christians were killed in incidents last year and over 100 seriously injured or maimed.”

Human-rights activists say the situation for Christians in Syria is growing more intense and that the ever-shrinking Christian population is near the breaking point. “In Syria, again in the name of democracy, the U.S. is supporting jihadis who are eradicating the nation’s Christians,” says Middle East Forum fellow and analyst Raymond Ibrahim. “U.S.-backed freedom-fighters are driving away Syria’s indigenous Christians. Christians in the Middle East are running out of places to survive.” Syria’s Christians have also been the victims of inhumane violence. Rebels kidnapped and killed a Christian cab driver, then fed his body to dogs.

  • Obama’s policy of Islamic appeasement and support is bad news for Christians in the Middle East

Middle East

In regard to President Obama’s March trip to Israel and the West Bank, the Jerusalem Prayer Team notes that, “The timing of this is all about politics. Though Prime Minister Netanyahu won the most votes in the recent election, the Knesset is very closely divided, and he must form a coalition government with members from a number of different political parties. President Obama has made no secret of his view that Jerusalem must be divided, and much of it given to the Palestinians to form a capital for their new state. This visit strengthens those in Israel who support that plan. The animosity of Mr. Obama toward Mr. Netanyahu is no secret—and now it is breaking out into the open.”

The Israeli military says it has driven out some 100 Palestinian activists who had pitched an illegal tent camp near the city of Hebron in the southern West Bank. Saturday’s operation marked the fifth time in the past month Israeli forces broke up a Palestinian encampment. The Palestinians aim to draw attention to Israel’s control of territory they seek for a future state. In particular, they say they are protesting what they describe as a broad Israeli policy to prevent Palestinians from building in West Bank areas controlled by the Jewish state.

Heads of state from across the Islamic world will meet in Cairo Wednesday to tackle crises ranging from Syria’s civil war to the battle against Islamist terrorists in Mali. Syria will not be represented at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit even though much of the debate is expected to be focused on the conflict that has ravaged that country for almost 23 months, leaving tens of thousands dead. The meeting will gather leaders of 26 of the OIC’s 57 states, with Egypt’s first Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, assuming the organization’s rotating presidency.

Syria

Iran and its Lebanese-based ally, Hizbollah, are reportedly trying to build a network of militias inside Syria to protect their interests there in case President Bashar al-Assad falls. The Washington Post said Iran’s goal appears to be to have reliable operatives in Syria in case the country fractures into ethnic and sectarian enclaves. Iran claims to be backing as many as 50,000 militiamen in Syria. Efforts to find a political solution to the nearly two-year-long conflict, which has killed more than 60,000 people, appear to be deadlocked.

President Barack Obama rejected calls from four of the most senior members of his foreign policy team to arm the rebels fighting to overthrow the Syrian regime. Leon Panetta, the US defense secretary, disclosed that he and the Pentagon supported a proposal by Hillary Clinton before she stood down as Secretary of State last week to supply rebel forces with weapons. Gen Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, also agreed with Mrs Clinton’s plan, which received the further backing of David Petraeus, Mr Obama’s CIA director until late last year. Obama resisted pressure from his colleagues, rejecting their plan at the height of his re-election campaign last year.

  • Political expediency always trumps other objectives

Iraq

Assailants fired rockets and mortar rounds at a refugee camp for Iranian exiles outside Baghdad on Saturday, killing six people and wounding dozens. Nearly three dozen rockets and mortar shells struck the camp, home to some 3,100 people, before daybreak. More than 100 were wounded, several in serious condition. There was no immediate claim of responsibility. The facility houses members of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq or MEK, the militant wing of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran. Iraq’s Shiite-led pro-Iranian government considers the MEK a terrorist group and is eager to have it out of the country. The refugee camp is located in a former American military base known as Camp Liberty, adjacent to Baghdad’s international airport. It is meant to be a temporary way station while the United Nations works to resettle the residents abroad. They are unlikely to return to Iran because of their opposition to the regime.

Afghanistan

An Afghan government panel has acknowledged that almost half of detainees it interviewed in Afghan prisons have been tortured but denies systematic abuse of the inmates. The panel’s findings are the result of a two-week fact-finding mission and follow a U.N. report last month that said Afghan authorities are still torturing prisoners despite promises of reforms. The complaints have prompted NATO to stop many transfers of detainees to the Afghans.

Tunisia

Members of the president’s party in Tunisia will quit the coalition government. The move threatens to worsen a political crisis, set off after an opposition leader was assassinated there last week. The Congress for the Republic Party, which counts Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki among its ranks, has three ministers and two secretaries of state in the government. The five officials will “continue to shoulder their responsibilities within their respective departments to avoid any administrative vacuum.” The killing of Chokri Belaid was the country’s first high-profile political assassination since Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” that toppled President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali two years ago and spawned the Arab Spring.

India

Anxious relatives were searching for missing family members Monday in a northern India city that is home to one of the world’s largest religious gatherings, unsure if their loved ones were caught in a stampede that killed 36 people or had simply gotten lost among the tens of millions of pilgrims. People thronged to the main hospital in Allahabad to see if their relatives were among 36 dead and 30 people injured in Sunday evening’s stampede at the city’s train station. Tens of thousands of people were in the station waiting to board a train when railway officials announced a last-minute change in the platform, triggering the chaos. An estimated 30 million Hindus took a dip Sunday at the Sangam — the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna and the Saraswati rivers — as part of the 55-day Kumbh Mela, or Pitcher Festival.

Venezuela

Venezuela’s government announced Friday that it is devaluing the country’s currency, a long-anticipated change expected to push up prices in the heavily import-reliant economy. Officials said the fixed exchange rate is changing from 4.30 bolivars to the dollar to 6.30 bolivars to the dollar, a rise of 46.5%. The devaluation had been widely expected by analysts in recent months, though experts had been unsure about whether the government would act while President Hugo Chavez remained out of sight in Cuba recovering from cancer surgery. By boosting the bolivar value of Venezuela’s dollar-denominated oil sales, the change is expected to help ease a difficult budget outlook for the government, which has turned increasingly to borrowing to meet its spending obligations.

Weather

Snow totals from the nor’easter that struck New England this past Friday and Saturday measured 2-3 feet. Five states had locations that recorded 30″ or more (Conn., N.H., Mass., Maine, N.Y.). Hamden, Conn. came in with the top total of 40 inches. All-time snowfall records were set in Portland, Maine (32”) and Hartford, CT (25”). Peak wind gusts over 60 mph were recorded throughout the region with the highest gusts reported in Cuttyhunk, MA (83mph), Westport, CT (82mph) and Mt. Washington, NH (81mph). Roads across the Northeast were impassable and cars were entombed by snow drifts on Saturday. Hundreds of drivers spent a fearful, chilly night stuck on highways in the blizzard that plastered New York’s Long Island with more than 30 inches of snow, its ferocity taking many by surprise despite warnings to stay off the roads. Some people found the snow packed so high against their homes they couldn’t get their doors open.

The strong winds led to significant coastal flooding from New England to parts of the Mid-Atlantic Seaboard.  Hardest hit was coastal Massachusetts. Mid-morning Saturday, just over 664,000 customers were without power, mainly in Massachusetts.  One of the outages was at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth, Mass.  Authorities said there was no threat to public safety. About 400,000 homes and businesses remained without power early Sunday. At least nine deaths in the U.S. were blamed on the snowstorm, including an 11-year-old boy in Boston who was overcome by carbon monoxide as he sat in a running car to keep warm while his father shoveled Saturday morning.

Residents shaken by a tornado that mangled homes in Mississippi were waking up Monday to a day of removing trees, patching roofs and giving thanks for their survival. More than a dozen in the state were injured. It appears a single tornado caused the damage in Forrest, Marion and Lamar counties. Hundreds of homes are damaged in Forrest County, along with a couple dozen in the other two. The sheer scope of the damage was slowing officials’ assessment.

Blizzard conditions in western Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas snarled traffic and closed schools and businesses Monday. The storm, part of the same system that spawned tornadoes in the South on Sunday, dumped a foot or more of snow in some areas. Several highways were closed in Minnesota, including Interstate 94 and Highways 10 210. Sheriff’s deputies in Grant and Douglas counties assisted drivers who became stranded. In the Dakotas, Interstate 29 remains closed between Sioux Falls, S.D. and Grand Forks, N.D. I-94 in North Dakota is closed between Fargo and Jamestown, and I-90 in South Dakota is closed between Sioux Falls and Wall. No travel is advised in other parts of the region.

  • End-time weather will continue to grow more and more extreme

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