Signs of the Times (7/1/13)

Wildfire in Arizona Kills 19 Firefighters

An elite crew of firefighters trained to battle the nation’s fiercest wildfires was overtaken by an out-of-control blaze in Arizona, killing 19 members as they tried to protect themselves from the flames under fire-resistant shields. It was the most firefighters killed battling a wildfire in the U.S. since 1933. The lightning-sparked fire, which spread to over 8,300 acres with zero containment amid triple-digit temperatures, also destroyed 200 homes and sent hundreds fleeing from Yarnell, a town of about 700 residents about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. Residents huddled in shelters and bars, watching their homes burn on TV as flames lit up the night sky in the forest above the town. The disaster Sunday afternoon all but wiped out the 20-member Hotshot fire crew based in nearby Prescott, leaving the city’s fire department reeling.

Evangelicals Score Highest on Patriotism

When it comes to God and country, white evangelicals report the most intense patriotic feelings in a new poll, with more than two-thirds (68 percent) saying they are extremely proud to be an American. That figure was markedly higher than for white mainline Protestants (56 percent), minority Christians (49 percent), Catholics (48 percent) and religiously unaffiliated Americans (39 percent), according to the study, conducted by the Washington-based Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service. White evangelicals are also more likely than any other religious group surveyed to believe that God has granted the U.S. a special role in history (84 percent) and to say they will likely attend a public July 4th celebration (62 percent). On the other end of the spectrum, relatively few religiously unaffiliated Americans believe in a God-given American exceptionalism, (40 percent) or plan to attend a public Independence Day celebration (48 percent).

Chick-fil-A CEO: ‘Founding Fathers Would Be Ashamed’ of Supreme Court Ruling

Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy has spoken out against gay marriage once again. Following the Supreme Court rulings Wednesday striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and opening the door for same-sex marriages in California, Cathy took to Twitter to criticize the rulings, CBS reports. “Sad day for our nation; founding fathers would be ashamed of our gen. to abandon wisdom of the ages re: cornerstone of strong societies,” Cathy tweeted. It was later deleted from his account. Cathy created a firestorm last year when he spoke out in favor of traditional marriage, leading to protests and boycotts of Chick-fil-A. Thousands of supporters though flocked to restaurants nationwide last August for “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” to stand behind the company’s platform.

New White House Study Finds… Guns Save Lives!

A new report commissioned by the White House titled Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-related Violence suggests what many self-defense gun proponents have been saying for years – that guns save lives. The report, ordered under one of President Obama’s 23 Executive Orders signed in the wake of the Sandy Hook incident, asked the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Research Council and other federal agencies to identify the “most pressing problems in firearms violence.” To the surprise of the authors and those who would no doubt have used the report to further restrict access to personal defense firearms, the study found that gun ownership actually saves lives and those who have a firearm at their disposal improve their chances of survival and reduce their chance of injury in the event they are confronted by a violent criminal: “Studies that directly assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns (i.e., incidents in which a gun was “used” by the crime victim in the sense of attacking or threatening an offender) have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies.”

Police Confiscate Guns From Flooded Town

The town of High River, Alberta, flooded, and then police came in, evacuated the population … and confiscated the residents’ guns out of their empty houses. Several news sources report tensions are high since news broke police have also been gathering residents’ firearms. “I find that absolutely incredible that they have the right to go into a person’s belongings out of their home,” resident Brenda Lackey told the Calgary Herald. “This is the reason the U.S. has the right to bear arms,” said Charles Timpano at the checkpoint, where he and others have gathered to demand reentry into High River. The police, thus far, insist the gun confiscation is only for the citizens’ safety and that the firearms will be returned.

NSA Spied on European Union, Nations Protest

The diplomatic fallout over allegations the National Security Agency spied on European Union institutions threatened to escalate on Monday as Germany said it was summoning the U.S. ambassador over the breach in trust. The German news weekly Der Spiegel reported Sunday that the NSA had bugged EU offices in Washington, New York and Brussels. The report cited secret U.S. documents allegedly obtained by the NSA leaker and former contractor Edward Snowden. The United States also taps half a billion phone calls, emails and text messages in Germany in a typical month and has classed its biggest European ally as a target similar to China, according to secret U.S. documents quoted by a German news magazine.

French President Francois Hollande is demanding that the United States immediately stop its alleged eavesdropping of the European Union. The European Parliament has demanded an explanation from Washington and warned that EU-U.S. relations could suffer as a result. European officials, angered over the new revelations, said the program could threaten ongoing negotiations on a trans-Atlantic trade treaty.

Immigration Reform Bill Passes Senate, On to House

Immigration-reform advocates and opponents are turning their attention to the House of Representatives after Senate passage of a landmark immigration-reform bill to boost border security and provide a pathway to citizenship for many of the estimated 11million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. The Senate passed the historic 1,200-plus-page bill on Thursday by a vote of 68-32. Fourteen Republican senators joined all 52 Democrats and two independents to pass the bill, which was crafted by a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators from both parties. The far-reaching legislation is the first comprehensive immigration-reform bill to clear the Senate since 2006. That year, the bill died in the House, which reform supporters fear poses a similarly steep challenge this year. Speaker John Boehner vowed that the House will take up its own legislation rather than vote on the bipartisan Senate bill.

Lawmakers Fail to Reach Student Loan Deal

Interest rates on student loans are set to double on Monday after lawmakers failed to find a bipartisan solution to keep the federally subsidized borrowing costs down. The Senate adjourned Thursday night for the July 4 recess without approving a student loan rate package. With the current, 3.4 percent interest rate on Stafford loans — the most popular funding for college students – set to expire on July 1, a host of 11th-hour fixes all failed to generate support from both sides of the aisle. Without new legislation the cap rises to 6.8 percent. The higher rates would add about $3,000 to the total interest on a $23,000 student loan repaid over 10 years.

Texas Lawmakers Back to Continue Abortion Fight

Round two of Texas’ fierce ideological battle over abortion limits was set to begin Monday, less than a week after a Democratic filibuster and hundreds of raucous protesters threw the end of the first special session into chaos. The Legislature’s Republican majority has vowed to pass wide-ranging abortion restrictions quickly and easily this time, even as opponents mobilize for more protests. Governor Perry said he expects lawmakers to get their work done more quickly this time, making it harder for a filibuster to talk any proposed legislation to death.

ObamaCare Contraception Mandate Opponents Reject Compromise

The Obama administration’s final compromise for religiously affiliated nonprofits that object to covering birth control in their employee health plans is being met with criticism from some opponents of the so-called contraceptive mandate in ObamaCare. The final plan simplifies how insurers provide the coverage separately from faith-based groups and gives religious nonprofits more time to comply. The changes are unlikely to resolve objections from faith groups that the requirement violates their religious freedom. More than 60 lawsuits have been filed challenging the rule. The cases are expected to reach the Supreme Court. “This doesn’t solve the religious conscience problem because it still makes our non-profit clients the gatekeepers to abortion and provides no protection to religious businesses,” said Eric Rassbach, an attorney representing many Christian clients, including Hobby Lobby.

U.K. to OK Creating Babies with DNA from 3 People

Britain may allow a controversial technique to create babies using DNA from three people, a move that would help couples avoid passing on rare genetic diseases, the country’s top medical officer says. The new techniques help women with faulty mitochondria, the energy source in a cell, from passing on to their babies defects that can result in such diseases as muscular dystrophy, epilepsy, heart problems and mental retardation. About one in 200 children is born every year in Britain with a mitochondrial disorder. For a woman with faulty mitochondria, scientists take only the healthy genetic material from her egg or embryo. They then transfer that into a donor egg or embryo that still has its healthy mitochondria but has had the rest of its key DNA removed. The fertilized embryo is then transferred into the womb of the mother. The British press has labeled it the creation of a “three-parent baby.” Similar research is going on in the U.S., where the embryos are not (yet) being used to produce children.

  • There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death. (Proverbs 14:12, 16:25)

FDA Shuts Down 1,677 Online Pharmacies

The prices may look tempting, but ordering from an online pharmacy is often a bad deal, according to Interpol and the U.S Food and Drug Administration, announcing a crackdown Thursday on thousands of websites. The FDA said it has shut down 1,677 sites for selling counterfeit or substandard medication, or for selling drugs without appropriate safeguards. Other sites received regulatory warnings. Officials said they also arrested 58 people and seized more than $41 million worth of illegal medicines. Several sites had sleek interfaces and names that could easily be confused with legitimate pharmacy retailers. For example, the FDA shuttered Walgreens-Store.com; the well-known drugstore chain’s website is actually Walgreens.com. “These products can have none of the active ingredient that people need for the treatment of their disease. They can have too much or too little (of the ingredient); they can have toxic ingredients,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

Student Loans Weighing Heavy on Millennials

Countless Millennials across the country find themselves tethered to student debt loads, stuck between the desire to become fully independent adults and not being able to afford the financial and cultural milestones traditionally associated with young adulthood. Rising tuition costs and an anemic job market are feeding this vicious cycle, as a generation with more student loan debt than any other is struggling to find its economic footing. The Project on Student Debt found that two-thirds of 2011 graduates had an average student loan debt of $27,500. That’s in stark contrast with 1993, when less than half of students graduated with debt, and those who did averaged $9,350,according to data from the Project on Student Debt. In today’s dollars, that’s about $15,000.

Economic News

Homebuyers got blindsided by an interest rate hike of more than half a percentage point Thursday, the biggest increase in more than 26 years. Now, many shoppers don’t know whether they should scramble for a loan or wait on the sidelines. Mortgage rates have risen by a full percentage point over the past two months.

U.S. home prices have risen for 14 straight months, but one set of buyers has been increasingly on the sidelines: first-time home buyers. In May, first-time buyers accounted for 28% of existing-home purchases, down from 34% a year before and 36% two years ago. Home loans are harder to get than before the housing bust, especially for first-time buyers.

Unemployment across the 17 European Union countries that use the euro hit another all-time high in May. Eurostat, the EU’s statistics office, said the Eurozone’s unemployment rate rose 0.1 percentage point in May to the new all-time high of 12.1%. There were 19.22 million people unemployed, 67,000 higher than the previous month. Nearly one in four people aged under-25 in the Eurozone are out of work. However, it is the U.S. that has the world’s worst unemployment rate among 25-to-34 year-olds at 26.2% in 2011.

Persecution Watch

Syrian Christians are asking why the United States supports extremists who want to turn Syria into an Islamic state, according to CBN News. That testimony came during a congressional hearing on Syria’s religious minorities on Tuesday. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who chairs the House subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, called on President Barack Obama to defend the rights of Syrian Christians. Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, testified that Islamic insurgents were targeting Christians for “ethno-religious cleansing.” Christian Solidarity International CEO Dr. John Eibner said displaced Christians were asking him, “Why is the U.S. at war against us?” He added that the U.S. should work with Russia to negotiate peace rather than help Sunni Muslims turn the country into an Islamic state.

Local authorities have taken the citizenship and farmland of six Christian families in Laos, promising to reinstate them only when the 16 people give up their Christian faith, Voice of the Martyrs reports. Laotian authorities and village party members confiscated the registration papers of the families, saying they would be returned if they renounced their faith. Next, they also took the deeds to their land. The families said, “We are willing to die rather than renounce our faith.” Voice of the Martyrs is helping the believers with food and fuel.

Middle East

US Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement on his way back to Washington Monday that “real progress” had been made towards restarting negotiations during his visit to the region, which included long meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “They (Netanyahu and Abbas) have spent hours working through language, working through ideas, and the effort that they and their teams have put into this convinces me of their interest in being successful,” Kerry said in a press release. However, declining to go into details Kerry added that “we have all agreed that the best way to serve this effort is not to be floating ideas or possibilities out there for everybody to tear apart and evaluate and analyze.”

As an intermittent supply of arms to the Syrian opposition gathered momentum last year, the Obama administration repeatedly implored its Arab allies to keep one type of powerful weapon out of the rebels’ hands: heat-seeking shoulder-fired missiles. The missiles, American officials warned, could one day be used by terrorist groups, some of them affiliated with Al Qaeda, to shoot down civilian aircraft. But one country ignored this admonition: Qatar, the tiny, oil- and gas-rich emirate that has made itself the indispensable nation to rebel forces battling calcified Arab governments and that has been shipping arms to the Syrian rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad since 2011, reports the New York Times. Since the beginning of the year, according to four American and Middle Eastern officials with knowledge of intelligence reports on the weapons, Qatar has used a shadowy arms network to move at least two shipments of shoulder-fired missiles, one of them a batch of Chinese-made FN-6s, to Syrian rebels who have used them against Mr. Assad’s air force.

Egypt

A young American in Egypt was killed Friday in Alexandria while photographing clashes between opponents and supporters of President Mohammed Morsi. Andrew Pochter was a 21-year-old teacher from Chevy Chase, Md., working in Egypt as an intern for a non-profit education organization. A medical official told the Associated Press the man died from a gunshot wound Fighting began when thousands of anti-Morsi demonstrators marched toward the Brotherhood’s headquarters, where up to 1,000 supporters of the president were deployed, protecting the building. One other person was killed with 85 wounded. Tens of thousands opponents of President Mohammed Morsi also rallied Friday in Cairo, raising the specter of a second revolution in just three years.

Anti-government protesters in Egypt on Monday stormed the Cairo headquarters of President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood Islamist group. The six-story building in an eastern Cairo was ransacked and set on fire, and activists say at least five protesters were killed during the clashes between armed Morsi supporters barricaded inside the building and young protesters pelting it with firebombs and rocks. The fresh outbreak of violence comes after millions across the country on Sunday took to the streets to demand that the president resign. Opposition groups have given Morsi until Tuesday to step down.

Pakistan

Two separate bomb blasts in different parts of Pakistan on Sunday killed a total of at least 47 people and wounded more than 90 others. The attacks are the latest in a series of violent acts that have struck Pakistan in recent weeks, underscoring the daunting challenges faced by security forces and the new government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Hundreds of Shiites, including many Hazaras, have been killed in bloody attacks over the past year and a half by extremist groups in Pakistan, a predominantly Sunni Muslim country. Human rights groups have criticized the failure of authorities to clamp down on Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni organization that has admitted carrying out much of the violence against Shiites.

Iran

Sanctions on Iran by the U.S. signed into law in January, and implemented and expanded via executive order in early June come into effect on Monday.The law, signed in January as part of the annual national defense authorization act, targets the Iranian energy, shipping and shipbuilding sectors, barring the sale, supply or transfer of ‘significant’ goods or services by non-U.S. companies. But the executive order goes even further than that. It targets the Iranian Rial, giving the U.S. the power to place sanctions on foreign financial institutions conducting ‘significant’ transactions involving the currency. The goal, senior administration officials said in June, was to make the Rial useless outside of Iran. Individuals or foreign financial institutions found providing material support to anyone already under sanctions against Iran are themselves subject to sanctions, the order says. The order authorizes sanctions against those who sell, supply or transfer to Iran goods or services that aid in making light and heavy vehicles such as passenger cars, trucks, buses, minibuses, pick-up trucks and motorcycles. The sanctions focused on the auto sector but also target foreign financial institutions.

Croatia

Croatia formally became the newest member of the European Union on Monday, marking an end to a 10-year campaign for a Balkan state that emerged from the ruins of a bloody civil war. The nation of 4.4 million people is the 28th member of the EU, and the second Balkan country that rose out of the ashes of Yugoslavia to join the union. Slovenia became a member in 2004. With a low credit rating and a political class stained by accusations of endemic corruption, Croatia’s challenges are unlikely to disappear overnight. It is three years into a debt crisis that is plaguing countries across southern Europe. Last year, unemployment peaked at 17.3% which is behind only Greece and Spain.

Africa

President Obama unveiled a new initiative to double access to electric power in sub-Saharan Africa with an initial $7 billion investment from the U.S. during a speech at the University of Cape Town Sunday. Private power companies such as General Electric and Symbion Power will also make an additional $9 billion in commitments to the project. Obama is in South Africa as part of a week-long trip to three countries on the continent. His first stop was in Senegal. On Monday, Obama will head to Tanzania in east Africa. His stay in South Africa has been overshadowed in part by the critical condition of 94-year-old former president Nelson Mandela who has been in hospital for more than three weeks due to a recurring lung condition.

North Korea

North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator will meet senior Russian officials next week to discuss ending the embattled nation’s nuclear program, Russia’s foreign ministry said. The meeting is “part of efforts to resume the six-party talks” related to North Korea’s controversial nuclear program. Those talks involving officials from North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, the United States and Russia have been at a virtual standstill since 1999.

Weather

The heat wave that is gripping the western U.S. is one of the worst in years, with desert locations in the Southwest seeing temperatures approach 120 degrees. The blazing heat wave threatened to ground airliners and raised fears that pets will get burned on the scalding pavement. The heat was so punishing that rangers took up positions at trailheads at Lake Mead in Nevada to persuade people not to hike. Tourists at California’s Death Valley took photos of the harsh landscape and a thermometer that read 121 Friday. The mercury there was expected to reach nearly 130 through the weekend. Phoenix hit 119 degrees by mid-afternoon, breaking the record for June 29th, its fourth hottest day in history. Las Vegas tied its all-time record high Sunday for any month of the year, 117 degrees at McCarran International Airport.

Two people were missing after heavy rains inundated the northeast and led to severe flooding in some areas, officials said Saturday. A woman in upstate New York’s Mohawk Valley is unaccounted for after her mobile home was washed away by rising waters Friday. In Pennsylvania, officials said an 86-year-old Clinton County man was swept into a rain-swollen creek Thursday while trying to retrieve an ATV. One part of the county received about 7 inches of rain in an hour Thursday night.

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