Signs of the Times (6/10/13)

Praying for America

On Sunday, June 30, 2013, over one and a half million people in thousands of churches in all 50 states will be on their knees, praying for our nation. To join this movement, visit Call2Fall.com.  Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, says, “In 2009, I was challenged by an elderly lady to use my influence to call our nation to “our knees” in prayer (see 2 Chron.7:14). That same day I read about the Continental Congress’ call to prayer in 1775 that resulted in 3 million colonial Americans gathering on their knees in repentant prayer for our troubled, fledgling country. That was the beginning of Call2Fall.” FRC is partnering with the National Day of Prayer, the Congressional Prayer Caucus, Intercessors for America and many others who are collaborating to call America to pray.

30 Days of Prayer for Muslim World

Muslims around the world are getting ready for Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month, starting this year on July 9. Christians are also gearing up again for the 30 Days of Prayer for the Muslim World, an international movement that has united millions of Christians in concerted prayer for the Muslim world. This prayer focus, coordinated in North America by WorldChristian.com, began in 1993, and coincides annually with the 30 days of Ramadan, a time of the year when Muslims are much more deeply aware of spiritual matters. WorldChristian.com reports, “Much has happened since this worldwide prayer focus began. While we see disturbing sound bites from the Muslim world almost nightly on TV, there are now also confirmed reports of an unprecedented turning of Muslims to Jesus. WorldChristian.com annually publishes a new full-color, 50+ page 30 Days prayer booklet, available in adult and kids versions. Each day focuses on a specific issue or area of the Islamic world. As you read and pray through it, you’ll gain a better understanding and a heart for Muslims. To get your copy of the 30 Days booklets go to WorldChristian.com

NSA Taps Data from Nine Major Internet Providers

The National Security Agency and the FBI are siphoning personal data from the main computer servers of nine major U.S. Internet firms, The Washington Post and the London-based Guardian reported Thursday night. James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, acknowledged existence of the program Thursday night and blasted the reports as “reprehensible” and inaccurate. Clapper said the program does not allow the targeting of U.S. citizens or any person in the United States. He ordered information about the program declassified so that the public can understand what information is being collected. Clapper said the data collection is authorized by Congress and “is designed to facilitate the acquisition of foreign intelligence information concerning non-U.S. persons located outside the United States.”

According to the New York Times, “With little public debate, the N.S.A. has been undergoing rapid expansion in order to exploit the mountains of new data being created each day. The government has poured billions of dollars into the agency over the last decade, building a one-million-square-foot fortress in the mountains of Utah, apparently to store huge volumes of personal data indefinitely. It created intercept stations across the country, according to former industry and intelligence officials, and helped build one of the world’s fastest computers to crack the codes that protect information.”

NSA Secrets Leaker Seeks Asylum

Edward Snowden, the man behind of one of the biggest leaks in the history of U.S. intelligence, is a former technical assistant for the CIA who is now holed up in a Hong Kong hotel, in danger of running out of money and hoping to find asylum somewhere in the world. U.S. Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, called Snowden “a defector” who should be turned over to the United States with an eye toward harsh prosecution. Snowden, 29, identified himself this weekend in American and British newspapers as the person who exposed details of a top-secret American program that collects vast streams of phone and Internet data.

Mainstream Media Turning Against Obama

The New York Times editorial board, which twice endorsed President Obama and has championed many planks of his agenda, on Thursday turned on the president over the government’s mass collection of phone data — saying the administration has “lost all credibility.” The Times has criticized the escalation of the lethal drone program, and it lashed out after the Justice Department acknowledged seizing reporters’ phone records last month. The report that the National Security Agency has been collecting phone records from millions of Verizon subscribers appeared to be the last straw. An editorial published late Thursday said the administration was using the “same platitude” it uses in every case of overreach — that “terrorists are a real menace and you should just trust us.”

Acceptance of Homosexuality Varies by Nation, Survey Says

The world is divided over the acceptance of homosexuality, a survey released Tuesday finds, the Religion News Service reports. There is broad acceptance of homosexuality in North America, the European Union and much of Latin America, according to the Pew Research Center survey, which was conducted by telephone and face to face in 39 countries among 37,653 respondents from March 2 to May 1. Juliana Horowitz, the report’s lead author and a senior researcher at Pew, said: “I can’t think of any question we have asked where we have this sort of global polarization. In North America, Europe and several countries in Latin America, we have really high acceptance of homosexuality. In predominantly Muslim nations and in sub-Saharan Africa, we have equally widespread views on the other side.”

African nations and predominantly Muslim countries are among the least accepting of homosexuality. For example, about 98 percent of people in Nigeria say homosexuality should not be accepted. In Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country, 93 percent say homosexuality should be rejected. About 60 percent of Americans say society should accept homosexuality — a substantial increase from 2007, when 49 percent said homosexuality should be accepted. In several countries, younger respondents expressed more acceptance of homosexuality than older people. For example, in Japan, 83 percent of those younger than 30 say homosexuality should be accepted, compared with 71 percent of those ages 30-49, and 39 percent of those 50 and older. The survey is the first in the series “LGBT in Changing Times” that the center will release in the weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage.

National Organization for Marriage Stands Up to Congress

NOM’s Chairman of the Board John Eastman went viral — and it’s the result of his amazing courage and eloquence in standing up to some Democrats in Congress who argued traditional marriage supporters have no right to the same tax-exempt status that gay rights groups have. When, shamefully, Rep. Earl Blumenauer said that NOM should be stripped of our nonprofit status because we oppose gay marriage, it was John Eastman who put him in his place. “Representative Blumenauer, it’s your kind of statement that have empowered IRS agents to make determinations about which organizations qualify for the public good and which do not.” The crowd burst into applause as Blumenauer, bow-tie in place looked sheepish. “The notion that defending traditional marriage doesn’t qualify as a defense of the public good is beyond preposterous,” Eastman said, as some in the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

House Votes to Resume Deporting Young DREAM Act Immigrants

The Republican-controlled House voted Thursday to resume the deportation of hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children, the first immigration-related vote in either chamber of Congress this year and a measure of the daunting challenge facing supporters of a sweeping overhaul of existing law on the subject. The party-line vote of 224-201 was aimed at blocking implementation of President Barack Obama’s 2012 election-year order to stop deportations of many so-called DREAM Act individuals. The vote was largely symbolic. It nevertheless stood as a stark warning from conservatives who dominate the ranks of the Republican House majority about attempts in the Senate to grant a chance at citizenship to an estimated 11 million immigrants residing in the country illegally.

Vermont 17th State to Decriminalize Marijuana

Vermont has become the 17th state to get rid of criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a measure into law Thursday. The law replaces criminal penalties with civil fines similar to a traffic ticket for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana or five grams of hashish. The law also treats possession of such amounts of marijuana by people under age 21 the same as underage possession of alcohol, including referral to court diversion for a first offense, potential civil penalties and/or license suspension, and criminal penalties for a third violation. Previously, possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana was punishable by a six- to 24-month jail term. Vermont legalized the use of medical marijuana in 2004.

Seniors Face Serious Income Shortage

Seniors in almost every state in the country are falling short when it comes to affording their golden years, according to a study released Monday. Nationwide, seniors are living off of a median household income of $35,107, roughly 57% of the median income of their younger counterparts ages 45 to 64, according to an analysis of 2011 U.S. Census Bureau data by Interest.com, a financial information website owned by Bankrate.com. “We found that many senior citizens are significantly underfunded and risk running out of money,” said Mike Sante, the site’s managing editor. Financial planners recommend that retirees save enough to replace at least 70% of their pre-retirement income.

Economic News

Employers added a better-than-expected 175,000 jobs in May, providing further evidence of a resilient labor market despite huge federal spending cuts and global economic turmoil. Businesses added 178,000 jobs, while federal, state and local governments cut 3,000. The unemployment rate rose to 7.6% from 7.5%, the Labor Department said Friday, as the labor force, which includes people working and looking for work, increased by 420,000.

After trailing men through most of the jobs recovery since 2010, women this year are keeping pace and their unemployment rate has fallen far more rapidly. While the unemployment rate for men 16 and over rose to 7.9% from 7.7%, the jobless rate for women fell to 7.1% from 7.3%.

American families’ wealth grew by $3 trillion in the first quarter to reach an all-time high of $70.4 trillion, the Federal Reserve said Thursday. That topped the previous peak of $68 trillion in the third quarter of 2007, just before the recession began. In the January-March quarter, gains in stocks and mutual funds accounted for about half the nation’s $3 trillion increase in wealth. Rising home prices made up about one-fourth. The rest came from higher pension fund reserves, greater ownership of cars and other goods and lower debts. But Americans are still 11% poorer than in 2007, after adjusting for inflation and population growth.

Census Bureau data out this week show that the size of new homes keeps rising even as Americans over the past two generations have had fewer children. At 2,306 square feet, the typical new home is about 50% larger than its 1973 counterpart while the typical family is 10% smaller and the typical household 15% smaller. Industry observers say plus-sized houses fill an increasingly important role as smaller families come to expect more of their home and as multigenerational families proliferate, with aging grandparents, adult children and even friends added to the household mix.

The United States is the only developed country in the world without a single legally required paid vacation day or holiday. By law, every country in the European Union has at least four work weeks of paid vacation. Austria, which guarantees workers the most time off, has a legal minimum of 22 paid vacation days and 13 paid holidays each year. The average private sector U.S. worker receives a total of 16 paid vacation days and holidays. One in four Americans does not have a single paid day off. Some nations giving workers a generous combination of paid, legally-protected vacation days and holidays currently are struggling economically. To make matters worse, workers who have vacation and paid holidays also tend to have much higher levels of other benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans,

Persecution Watch

Last Tuesday morning, gunmen surrounded the village of Rubuki in Nigeria’s Nasarawa State, killing at least 16 people and destroying at least 25 homes, Open Doors USA reports. The motive for the attack is unknown, but it appears that the perpetrators may have been members of the Islamist group Boko Haram escaping the government clampdown under the state of emergency in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states. The Nigerian government carries on efforts to bring an end to the Boko Haram insurgency; on Wednesday, Boko Haram was officially banned while the U.S. government declared a $7 million bounty for the capture of its leader, Abubakar Shekau. Boko Haram has killed hundreds of Christians and moderate Muslims and has a goal of establishing sharia law in all of Nigeria.

A Christian village in Syria was savagely attacked and almost 40 of its residents, including women and children, killed by opposition fighters, as UN investigators warned of increasing radicalization among the rebels. The village of Dweir on the outskirts of Homs, near the border with Lebanon, was invaded on May 27th. The following day, independent United Nations investigators warned that the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad is becoming increasingly radicalized and that the civil war is producing ever worse atrocities. The villagers who managed to escape the onslaught fled to Raman district, where Barnabas Aid is providing them with assistance.

Middle East

A senior member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party said in an interview broadcast Sunday that the Israeli government will not accept a Palestinian state with the borders favored by the Palestinians and the international community, a new hurdle to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to restart peace talks in his latest visit to the region. The Palestinians say final borders between Israel and a future Palestine must be based on the 1967 lines. Israeli hardliners oppose a broad withdrawal from the West Bank on both security and religious grounds.

The situation on Israel’s northern border got a little more unstable Thursday evening as Austria announced that it will withdraw the 380 peacekeeping troops it has stationed on the Golan Heights as part of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) mission to monitor the border between Israel and Syria. “If at a time when a few bullets are fired, these forces run away from where they are needed to keep the peace, then what is it worth?” one Israeli official asked. “Even as part of peace agreements, Israel cannot place its security in the hands of international forces instead of relying on the presence of IDF soldiers

Syria

Thousands of Hezbollah’s fighters from Lebanon have streamed into Syria to help  President Bashar Assad take a stronghold for the rebels in Qusair this week and the seizure may turn the two-year conflict in his favor. While the West debates whether to intervene on the side of the rebels, and pushes for peace talks this month in Geneva, Hezbollah and its patron Iran have gone all in to keep Syria in the hands of an anti-American dictator. Iran is a Shiite Muslim theocracy and the Assad regime is headed by Alawites, who are a Shiite offshoot. The rebels are mostly Sunni. In addition, Syria has long been a conduit for Iranian weapons transfers to Hezbollah.

Iraq

Back-to-back car bombings at a market in central Iraq killed at least 14 people on Monday, officials said, the latest in a spike in violence that has ravaged the country in recent weeks. The explosions also wounded 34 people. Iraq is facing a spike in violence, with recent monthly death tolls rising to levels not seen since 2008. According to the United Nations, at least 1,045 Iraqi civilians and security personnel were killed in May.

Suicide attackers rammed car bombs on Friday into a bus carrying Iranian pilgrims and a police checkpoint west of Baghdad, killing 19 people in all, in the latest bout of violence to rattle Iraq. Since the 2003 invasion, foreign pilgrims from Iran and other countries have poured into Najaf, whose Imam Ali shrine is one of the holiest sites for Shiite Muslims. The attacks follow the deadliest two months in Iraq in half a decade, raising fears the country is descending into a renewed wave of widespread killing like the one that drove the nation to the brink of civil war following the U.S.-led invasion.

Afghanistan

Seven heavily armed Taliban fighters launched a pre-dawn attack near Afghanistan’s main airport Monday, apparently targeting NATO’s airport headquarters with rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and at least one large bomb. Two Afghan civilians were wounded and all the attackers were killed after an hours-long battle. It was one of three attacks on state facilities Monday morning by insurgents around the country.

A man in an Afghan army uniform turned his weapon on American trainers working with him in the country’s east on Saturday, killing three of them, while an attacker with a grenade killed an Italian soldier in the west, officials said. The shooting in Paktika province was the latest in a string of so-called “insider attacks” in which Afghan forces open fire on their own comrades or international troops. The incidents threaten to shake the confidence and trust of the two sides as the 2014 withdrawal of most of the international forces approaches.

Mexico

In just the last few weeks there have been stories of 12 young people allegedly abducted in daylight from a Mexico City club; the death by beating of Malcolm X’s grandson, also in the capital; the kidnapping of a U.S. Marine reservist from his father’s ranch; the freeing of 165 people, including two pregnant women, who had been held prisoner; and the case of an Arizonan mom traveling on a bus who was arrested and jailed, accused of smuggling drugs. At least 60,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence from 2006 to 2012, according to Human Rights Watch. Other observers put the number even higher. Outside of war zones, more Americans have been killed in Mexico in the last decade than in any other country outside the United States, and the number of U.S. deaths jumped from 35 in 2007 to 113 in 2011.

Wildfires

The growth in the Thompson Ridge fire burning in the Valle Caldera National Preserve and the Santa Fe National Forest near Jemez Springs led to the closure of several New Mexico highways. The blaze had grown to 33 square miles by Sunday evening. It was only 40 percent contained. An evacuation order remains in effect for Thompson Ridge, Rancho de la Cueva and Elk Valley. Meanwhile, crews reported no growth in another northern New Mexico wildfire. The size of the Tres Lagunas fire north of Pecos remained at more 15 square miles. Its containment grew slightly to 45 percent. New Mexico is experiencing the most severe drought in the nation.

Weather

Tropical Storm Andrea brought heavy rain, storm surge flooding, tornadoes and high winds to the eastern Gulf Coast and East Coast.  Andrea made landfall at 5:40 p.m. on June 6, 2013 about 10 miles south of Steinhatchee, Fla. in Dixie County. A preliminary count of 10 tornadoes touched down associated with Andrea downing trees and power lines, ripping apart roofs and tearing off shingles. In the Florida panhandle, up to 6.5 inches of rain fell in just 5 hours closing several roads. Tropical Storm Andrea was moving quickly toward the coast of Georgia and the Carolinas early Friday, promising sloppy commutes and waterlogged vacation getaways through the beginning of the weekend.

The first named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season made Friday the wettest on record for many cities and towns in the northeastern U.S. The National Weather Service says Andrea dumped 6.64 inches of rain on Gales Ferry, Conn. The 4.16 inches that fell on New York City’s Central Park was more than double the previous June 7 record, set in 1918. The 3.5 inches of rain that fell at Philadelphia International Airport doubled the 1.79 inches that fell in 1904. Newark, N.J., saw 3.71 inches, breaking the previous mark of 1.11 inches set in 1931. Cars were submerged in floodwaters on Long Island and about 50 residents were displaced by a rising stream in Chester, Pa.

The rain-swollen Mississippi River on Thursday slowly receded along earthen levees and sandbags that have thus far held up, but storms expected to blow through the nation’s midsection could keep water levels stubbornly high for a while. Crests of the Mississippi at many points along it have widely been among the top 10 on record, although they fell well short of the heights reached during the disastrous Great Flood of 1993. A 250-mile stretch of the Mississippi that’s been closed for days to barge traffic because the river’s rise made currents and drifting debris unsafe for navigation could reopen, perhaps as early as Friday. That navigational headache comes months after shipping along the Mississippi was perilously close to being halted altogether after the nation’s worst drought in decades made river levels nearly too low for barge traffic.

The swollen Elbe River breached another levee early Monday on its relentless march toward the North Sea, forcing German authorities to evacuate 10 villages and shut down one of the country’s main railway routes. As the surge from the Elbe pushed into rural eastern Germany, there was some relief further upstream as the river slipped back from record levels in Magdeburg, the capital of Saxony-Anhalt state. To the south, the Danube hit a record high Sunday evening in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, then began to ease back Monday. Weeks of heavy rain this spring have sent the Elbe, the Danube and other rivers such as the Vltava and the Saale overflowing their banks, causing extensive damage in central and southern Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. At least 21 flood-related deaths have been reported.

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