Signs of the Times (3/15/13)

New Pope Chosen

On Wednesday, throngs jamming St. Peter’s Square roared with joy as Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, stepped onto the balcony as the new pope. The election of the new pope shocked the Catholic world with a series of pontiff firsts: a Jesuit from Latin America who chose a name honoring St. Francis of Assisi. The pope chose his name after Francis of Assisi, the saint of the poor who preached a radical return to the gospel in a medieval church steeped in pomp, luxury and power struggles with worldly leaders. Not only is he the first Latin American pope, the first Jesuit pope, and the first non-European pope in more than a millennium, Francis appears to be the first pope bent on shaking the ritualized world of Vatican traditions and taboos. Pope Francis, 76, is considered a straight-shooter who calls things as he sees them, and is a follower of the Catholic Church’s most conservative wing. He is already taking heat in the mainstream media over his well-documented stand against gay marriage.

An author who predicted that Pope Benedict XVI would be the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to resign believes the election today of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the 266th Roman Catholic pontiff lines up with a medieval prophecy that would make him the “final pope” before the End Times. Tom Horn, author of the book “Petrus Romanus: The Final Pope is Here,” told WorldNetDaily that Bergoglio’s selection was a “fantastic fulfillment of prophecy.” His book examines St. Malachy’s “Prophecy of the Popes,” said to be based on a prophetic vision of the 112 popes following Pope Celestine II, who died in 1144. Horn said a pope of Italian descent would fulfill the prophecy, noting Bergoglio is the son of Italian parents and a Jesuit. Horn said the name “Petrus Romanus” in the prophecy “implies this pope will reaffirm the authority of the Roman Pontiff over the Church and will emphasize the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Faith and the Roman Catholic Church above all other religions and denominations, and its authority over all Christians and all peoples of the world.” Horn points out the Jesuits order was organized “to stop Protestantism from spreading

‘The Bible’ Sees Big Numbers for History Channel Again

The second week of History Channel’s “The Bible” miniseries may not have delivered the ratings of the previous week’s record-breaking premiere, but the two-hour telecast still saw big numbers, Entertainment Weekly reports. “The Bible” had 10.8 million total viewers Sunday night, down 18 percent from its premiere, but still No. 1 in all of television from 8 to 10 p.m. More than 50 million cumulative viewers have seen at least a portion of the series since it began on March 3.

ICE Confirms 2,228 Immigrants Released

U.S. immigration-enforcement officials acknowledged Thursday that they released 2,228 illegal immigrants last month due to budget constraints, including more than 600 convicted criminals, some of whom had multiple drunken-driving and other serious offenses. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton’s testimony during a House subcommittee hearing drew an immediate and sharp rebuke from Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and several Republican members of Congress. “The American people were initially told there were hundreds, not thousands of individuals released,” Brewer said in a written statement. “We were assured they were low-level detainees of little public risk. As we now know, neither of these claims was accurate.” The releases came to light as Obama was warning Americans that the sequester could devastate many federal programs, prompting Republicans to accuse his administration of using scare tactics to drum up support for tax hikes to avoid some of the cuts.

Drones Killing Innocent Pakistanis, U.N. Says

The United States has 8,000 drones, unmanned planes and helicopters flown by a remote control. They are outfitted with a video camera to help the operator spot targets and often armed with weapons used to neutralize them. The New America Foundation estimates that U.S. drones in Pakistan, drones have killed between 1,953 and 3,279 people since 2004 – and that between 18% and 23% of them were not militants. A study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that since 2004, Pakistan has had 365 drone strikes that have killed between 2,536 and 3,577 people — including 411 to 884 civilians. U.N. Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson says, “Adult males carrying out ordinary daily tasks were frequently the victims of such strikes,”

Physicists Find ‘God Particle’

The search is all but over for a subatomic particle that is a crucial building block of the universe. Physicists announced Thursday that they believe they have discovered the subatomic particle predicted nearly a half-century ago that will go a long way toward explaining what gives electrons and all matter in the universe size and shape. The elusive particle, called a Higgs boson, was predicted in 1964 to help fill in our understanding of the creation of the universe. Its existence helps confirm the theory that objects gain their size and shape when particles interact in an energy field with this key particle. The ongoing hunt for the Higgs entailed the use of CERN’s atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider, which cost $10 billion to build and run in a 17-mile tunnel beneath the Swiss-French border.

  • If only the scientists would discover God through the particles that He created, worshiping Him instead of His creation

Bat-Killing Fungus Spreads South

A deadly fungal infection that has killed millions of bats has been confirmed for the first time in Georgia and South Carolina, report federal officials, raising the syndrome’s spread to 22 states. First seen in an upstate New York cave in 2006, white-nose syndrome spreads among closely-clustered hibernating bats, sapping their winter reserves. It has led to the deaths of more than 5.4 million bats since then, killing more than 90% of them in some afflicted caves. There is no treatment yet for the syndrome. Biologists are experimenting with altering cave conditions to make them less hospitable to the fungus responsible for the syndrome, but they expect it to spread to caves nationwide at some point.

Drought, Wildfires Shrink Monarch Butterfly Population

Monarch butterflies — one of the sure signs of spring and summer — may not be as plentiful this year across the USA, in part because of the ongoing drought and recent wildfires in Texas that ravaged their food sources. The butterflies usually fly north across Texas this time of year, as they migrate from Mexico into the USA. In 2012, Texas endured its hottest year on record, according to the National Climatic Data Center. This came on the heels of the state’s driest year on record in 2011. The lack of rain and raging fires diminished the main food source for butterfly larvae (milkweed) and also decreased food sources for adult butterflies (such as wildflower nectar).

Deluge of Sick Sea Lion Pups in CA

– Sick and malnourished sea lion pups are stranding themselves on Southern California beaches in some of the largest numbers seen in over a decade, perplexing scientists and leading one care facility to declare itself near capacity. Officials at the facility, the only one of its kind in Orange County, said they were caring for over 90 sea lions on Wednesday. Last year in March, the facility was caring for only 10 sea lions, which was an average number. The last time they saw such an onslaught of the mammal pups this early in the year was 1998, when an “El Nino” weather pattern warmed the waters off the California coast.

Huge Mosquitos Plague Florida

As if deadly sinkholes and Burmese pythons weren’t enough, now Florida may find itself contending with another summer of giant mosquitoes that pack a ferocious bite. Dubbed gallinippers, the quarter-sized mosquitoes hatch after a flood or rainstorm, and saw a bumper crop after Tropical Storm Debby struck Florida last summer. Now another rainy season could produce even more. A gallinipper is 20 times the size of a typical mosquito, “and it’s mean, and it goes after people, and it bites, and it hurts,” says Anthony Pelaez of Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry. A gallinipper bite “feels like you’re being stabbed.” What’s more, they may be resistant to bug repellent and like to strike fish, wild animals, and pets.

  • End-time pestilence will come in many shapes and forms, from microbes to mosquitos to locusts

Auto Crashes Top Killer of Youth

Twenty teenagers dead in five automobile crashes in five states. All within one week. Motor vehicle wrecks continue to be the number one killer of youths in the United States. Such accidents took the lives of about a quarter of 15- to 24-year-olds who died in 2010. They significantly outpaced the other top culprits: firearm wounds, homicides, suicides and accidental poisonings.

GOP Unveils $4.6 Trillion Plan to Cut Deficit

House Republicans unveiled a budget Tuesday that would balance the nation’s books in 10 years without raising taxes but by eliminating President Obama’s health care law, revamping Medicare for future retirees and creating just two tax brackets for individuals — 10% and 25%.By cutting $4.6 trillion in current spending over the next decade, the budget would achieve balance between what the government spends and what it collects in revenues by 2023. The conservative blueprint stands no chance of gaining traction with Senate Democrats or Obama, but the plan is a starting point for renewed debate about how to balance the budget. The measure would Cut the growth of the public debt to an estimated $14.2 trillion by 2023 instead of the nearly $20 trillion estimated by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

Economic News

Americans spent more at the gas pump and less at department stores in February, but overall, retail sales were stronger last month. Retail sales climbed at an annual rate of 1.1% in February, as strength in auto sales helped show that consumers are not scared off by this year’s tax hikes. Higher gasoline prices also drove spending higher, but sales still rose 0.6% last month, excluding spending at the pump. Retail sales were 4.6% higher than a year ago.

The number of U.S. homes repossessed by lenders last month fell 11% from January and declined 29% from February last year, tumbling to the lowest level since September 2007. All told, 45,038 U.S. homes completed the foreclosure process in February. That’s less than half of the 102,000 homes lost to foreclosure in March 2010, when home repossessions peaked.

Initial claims for unemployment benefits fell by 10,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 332,000, hitting a five-year low. The number of claims have fallen 13% since November. Employers have added an average of 200,000 jobs per month from November through February, up from about 150,000 a month in the previous four months.

U.S. wholesale prices rose in February by the most in five months, pushed higher by more expensive gas and pharmaceuticals. But outside those increases, inflation was mild. The producer price index grew a seasonally adjusted 0.7% in February from January, the Labor Department said Thursday. That’s up from 0.2% in the previous month. Wholesale gas prices increased 7.2%. Wholesale prices have risen just 1.7% in the past 12 months. The Consumer Price Index, the government’s key measure of inflation, showed prices rose 0.7% in February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Year-over-year, inflation was up 2%.

The effects of the sequester have spread to the hallowed halls of education. Both graduate students and the parents of undergrads have been quietly receiving letters from the federal Department of Education. The letters say the fees on their Direct PLUS loans from the government are being raised from 4% to 4.2% as a direct result of the automatic budget cuts that kicked in this month because Congress and the White House couldn’t come to a fiscal agreement.

The top 10 percent of taxpayers paid over 70% of the total amount collected in federal income taxes in 2010, the latest year figures are available, CNN reported Tuesday. That’s up from 55% in 1986. The remaining 90% of U.S. taxpayers bore just 29% of the tax burden, down from 45% in 1986. And 47% of all Americans pay hardly anything at all — a fact that got Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney into political hot water last year.

Persecution Watch

Five Iranian Christian converts who were detained late last year will reportedly begin trial in Iran’s Revolutionary Court this week, according to a human rights group following the case, Fox News reports. The five men were among seven arrested in October when security forces raided an underground house church in the city of Shiraz during a prayer session. They will be tried at the Revolutionary Court in Shiraz’ Fars Province on charges of disturbing public order, evangelizing, threatening national security and engaging in Internet activity that threatens the government, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide. “Judging from recent cases, it is likely that, at the very least, those detained may face lengthy prison sentences,” said CSW spokesperson Kiri Kankhwende. According to Kankhwende, the crackdown on Christian converts and house churches comes as the government is leading up to June’s presidential elections. “There has been a noticeable increase in the harassment, arrests, trials and imprisonment of converts to Christianity, particularly since the beginning of 2012,” Kankhwende said.

Students at a Massachusetts charter school will perform a biblical play of Genesis with gay characters, despite objections from many who say it’s offensive to Christians, CBN News reports. The play is a 1998 comedy called “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told,” and in a letter to parents, administrators at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Public Charter School said it was consistent with the school’s philosophy and appropriate for a high school audience. But they did admit to receiving email petitions and phone calls describing the production as “blasphemous and hateful.” According to some of the messages, opponents said they planned to organize protests through local churches.

  • Imagine the hue and cry if the play satirized Islam or even gays. Only Christianity is considered a legitimate target for intolerance

Middle East

Unrest is growing in the Palestinian territories ahead of President Barack Obama’s first visit to Israel on March 20th. Riots and protests have erupted throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip in recent days, prompting some Israeli officials and Middle East observers to warn that Obama’s visit could spark a third intifada (or uprising). Hamas officials have warned that Obama’s visit will further fracture its relations with the Palestinian Authority and have even stated that a presidential visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount will be viewed as a declaration of war.

Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached an agreement Thursday to form a new coalition government that is expected to try to curb years of preferential treatment for the country’s ultra-Orthodox minority and may restart peace efforts with Palestinians. The new coalition will be the first in a decade to exclude ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. Although Netanyahu’s bloc emerged as the biggest faction in the Jan. 22 election with 31 seats, he struggled to form a coalition with the necessary 61-seat majority in the 120-member parliament. His new coalition is expected to control 68 seats. The ultra-Orthodox make up about 10 percent of Israel’s 8 million citizens. Through the coalition government system, they have traditionally wielded disproportionate influence by ensuring a parliamentary majority for a string of prime ministers. With the exception of a three-year period in the early 2000s, they have served in every government since the late 1970s. This time, Netanyahu was forced to drop his plans to bring the ultra-Orthodox, his traditional partners, back into the coalition.

  • Israel continues its march toward secularism and away from its spiritual foundations

Iran

Iran is more than a year away from developing a nuclear weapon, but that does not mean the United States will wait for it to become a reality, President Barack Obama said in an interview that aired Thursday on an Israeli television station. “I have been crystal clear about my position on Iran possessing a nuclear weapon. That is a red line for us. It is not only something that would be dangerous for Israel. It would be dangerous for the world,” Obama told CNN affiliate Israeli Channel 2 TV before a scheduled visit next week to the country.

Syria

Bashar al-Assad’s regime has lost control of much of Syria’s long desert border with Iraq, as Sunni jihadist groups in both countries grow in strength, according to Western counter-terrorism officials and analysts. The resurgence of al Qaeda in Iraq and the growing power of groups like the Nusra Front in Syria pose a broader threat: a cross-border alliance of militant Sunni groups capable of challenging governments in both Damascus and Baghdad and carving out a haven in a region where governments are struggling to exert control.

Afghanistan

The American commander in Afghanistan told his forces to intensify security measures on Wednesday, issuing a strongly worded warning that a string of anti-American statements by President Hamid Karzai had put Western troops at greater risk of attack both from rogue Afghan security forces and from militants. An array of Afghan political leaders issued a joint statement criticizing Mr. Karzai and saying his comments did not reflect their views. And though American military and diplomatic officials have mostly refrained from replying publicly to Mr. Karzai’s criticism, in private they have expressed concerns that relations between the allies had reached a worrisome low point right at a critical point in the war against the Taliban.

Iraq

A string of explosions tore through central Baghdad within minutes of each other on Thursday, followed by a coordinated assault by gunmen who raided a government building and battled security forces in the streets. The attack left at least 22 people dead and dozens wounded. The fighting lasted about an hour, ending with security forces storming the building, killing the gunmen and evacuating hundreds of people who had hunkered down in their offices. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the attack bore the hallmarks of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi arm. The group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq, frequently uses car bombs and coordinated blasts in an effort to undermine Iraqis’ confidence in the Shiite-led government.

Pakistan

A separatist group fighting the Pakistani government for years has deployed a new weapon in its arsenal, police said: child bombers. Police in the southwestern Balochistan province say they have arrested a group of children as young as 8 that the United Baloch Army has been using to carry out attacks. All the children belong to extremely poor and down-trodden families. The militant group paid them $25 to $50 to drop off packages carrying bombs with timer. The militant group uses children because they seldom arouse suspicion.

Egypt

The announcement of a religious police force to uphold Muslim morals in Egypt is the latest chilling sign of the country’s move towards becoming an Islamic state. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, an informal group, shares its name with the much-feared religious police (“mutawaah”) in Saudi Arabia. Opponents fear that the Islamists will abuse their position and force people, especially women, to adhere to strict, oppressive shariah law. There are concerns also for the country’s minority Christian community, who could be subjected to the indiscriminate enforcement of sharia law.

Falkland Islands

Residents of the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina voted overwhelmingly to remain a British Overseas Territory, an official said late Monday. The question put to voters was: “Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?” More than 99% of voters said yes. Just three people voted no. Turnout was 92%.But the Argentinian Embassy in London said Friday that the referendum had no legitimacy, characterizing it as “a further attempt by the British to manipulate the question.” The two countries went to war over the territory in 1982. Now, renewed rhetoric between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the islands has escalated to a fever pitch.

Earthquakes

A modest but widely felt earthquake rolled through a wide swath of Southern California late Monday morning but there were no immediate reports of damage. The 9:55 a.m. quake had an estimated magnitude of 4.7 with several aftershocks of lesser magnitude. The epicenter was about a dozen miles from the Riverside County desert community of Anza, about 100 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

A small earthquake also jolted Northern California on Thursday morning, but there were no immediate reports of damage or injuries. The U.S. Geological Survey says a quake with a preliminary magnitude of 4.6 struck at 2:09 a.m. Thursday in Lake County. It was centered near the small rural community of Cobb, about 70 miles northwest of Sacramento. Some reports say it was felt as far away as San Francisco, some 70 miles away.

Weather

High pressure centered over the Four Corners will continue to expand, allowing temperatures to surge again Friday in the Southwest. Temperatures in cities such as Phoenix, Ariz., and Palm Springs, Calif., are expected to make it into the 90s for the second day in a row. Palm Springs got an early jump on the warmth, with the “heat wave” starting back on Tuesday, reaching 90 degrees, following with a warm 95 on Wednesday. Phoenix set a record high Thursday, also at 95 degrees.

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