Signs of the Times (11/5/13)

In Midst of Syrian War, Giant Jesus Statue Arises

A giant bronze statue of Jesus has gone up on a Syrian mountain, apparently under cover of a truce among three factions in the country’s civil war. Jesus stands, arms outstretched, on the Cherubim Mountain, overlooking a route pilgrims took from Constantinople to Jerusalem in ancient times. The statue is 40 feet tall and stands on a base that brings its height to 105 feet. It took three days to raise the statue. That the statue made it to Syria and went up without incident on Oct. 14 is remarkable. The project took eight years and was set back by the civil war that followed the March 2011 uprising against President Bashar Assad. Christians and other minorities are all targets in the conflict, and the statue’s safety is by no means guaranteed. It stands among villages where some fighters, linked to al-Qaida, have little sympathy for Christians. The project, called “I Have Come to Save the World,” is run by the London-based St. Paul and St. George Foundation.

Gay Rights Legislation Advances in Senate

The Senate pushed a major anti-bias gay rights bill past a first, big hurdle Monday, a clear sign of Americans’ greater acceptance of homosexuality nearly two decades after the law prohibiting federal recognition of same-sex marriage. The vote of 61-30 essentially ensured that the Senate has the votes to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that would prohibit workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. Final passage, possibly by week’s end, would cap a 17-year quest to secure Senate support for a similar discrimination measure that failed by one vote in 1996, the same year Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act. Reflecting the nation’s shifting views toward gay rights and the fast-changing political dynamic, seven Senate Republicans joined with 54 Democrats to vote to move ahead on the legislation.

  • The advance of the LGBT agenda is an end-time phenomena that exemplifies the ongoing decline of morality and the increased influence of the anti-Christ spirit (2Timothy 3:1-5, 1John 2:18)

Appeals Court Rejects Obamacare Contraception Mandate

A federal appeals court struck down Obamacare’s controversial birth control mandate, declaring that requiring contraception coverage in employee health plans is unduly burdensome for business owners who oppose birth control on religious grounds. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled 2-1 last Friday in favor of Francis and Philip Gilardi, the Roman Catholic owners of Ohio-based Freshway Foods and Freshway Logistics, who argued that the provision in the new healthcare law would violate their religious freedom. Two of the judges on the panel disagreed with parts of the ruling, saying the rights of religious people do not extend to the companies they own. Religious conservatives have blasted the requirement as a violation of First Amendment rights.

Obama Creates Climate Change Task Force

Through the stroke of a pen, President Obama on Friday used his executive powers to elevate and take control of climate change policies in an attempt to streamline sustainability initiatives – and potentially skirt legislative oversight and push a federal agenda on states. The executive order establishes a task force of state and local officials to advise the administration on how to respond to severe storms, wildfires, droughts and other potential impacts of climate change. The task force includes governors of seven states — all Democrats — and the Republican governor of Guam, a U.S. territory. Fourteen mayors and two other local leaders also will serve on the task force.

  • ‘Sustainability’ is the code word for a worldwide effort, formerly known as Agenda 21, to take advantage of climate change as the basis for implementing one-world control over virtually all aspects of life.

NSA Running Amok

From thousands of classified documents, the National Security Agency emerges as an electronic omnivore of staggering capabilities, eavesdropping and hacking its way around the world to strip governments and other targets of their secrets, all the while enforcing the utmost secrecy about its own operations, reports the New York Times. It spies routinely on friends as well as foes, as has become obvious in recent weeks; the agency’s official mission list includes using its surveillance powers to achieve “diplomatic advantage” over such allies as France and Germany and “economic advantage” over Japan and Brazil, among other countries. James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, has repeatedly dismissed such objections as brazen hypocrisy from countries that do their own share of spying. But in a recent interview, he acknowledged that the scale of eavesdropping by the N.S.A., with 35,000 workers and $10.8 billion a year, sets it apart.

Since Edward J. Snowden began releasing the agency’s documents in June, the unrelenting stream of disclosures has opened the most extended debate on the agency’s mission since its creation in 1952. The scrutiny has ignited a crisis of purpose and legitimacy for the N.S.A., the nation’s largest intelligence agency, and the White House has ordered a review of both its domestic and its foreign intelligence collection. While much of the focus has been on whether the agency violates Americans’ privacy, an issue under examination by Congress and two review panels, the anger expressed around the world about American surveillance has prompted far broader questions.

  • The NSA’s growth and reach reveals an underlying principle of federal governance: give them an inch and they’ll take a mile. Many laws and agencies are launched with noble intentions, but power-hungry politicians and avaricious bureaucrats always find ways to attain their selfish, often nefarious objectives

Google ‘Outraged’ by NSA Snooping

Allegations of intrusive data collection by the National Security Agency have “shocked” and “outraged” executives at Google, according to chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt. “I was shocked that the NSA would do this — perhaps a violation of law but certainly a violation of mission,” Schmidt told CNN. “This is clearly an overstep.” Schmidt was speaking just days after documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the agency has apparently tapped into the fiber optic cables that carry data between the servers of major American tech companies including Google. Google said last week that it has “long been concerned about the possibility of this kind of snooping” and is now working to extend the encryption of internal traffic.

Small Businesses Race to Renew Health Plans

Thousands of small businesses around the U.S. are racing to renew their health insurance policies Dec. 1 to beat large premium increases their brokers say will hit them Jan. 1 when the Affordable Care Act takes full effect. Some health insurance brokers also say 2014 may be the last year many of the companies even offer health insurance. Insurance brokers from several states told USA TODAY that 60% to 80% of their small-business clients — those with 50 employees or fewer — are renewing their policies early to skirt the law. Companies with more than 50 employees aren’t allowed to adjust their renewal dates. Many companies are still waiting to hear what rates they’ll be facing in 2014, as state insurance commissioners are backlogged with tasks related to ACA compliance.

Obamacare Website Down Nightly for Fix-Ups

The part of the problem-plagued Obamacare website that allows people to apply for coverage will now be taken offline nightly between 1 and 5 a.m. ET, according to a banner now appearing atop the site’s home page. “Additional down times may be possible as we work to make things better,” the banner adds. The nighty blackout comes amid furious efforts to fix the website and a new warning by the White House that initial enrollments are likely to fall short of expectations.

Millions Could Get Free Health Insurance

Millions of people could qualify for federal subsidies that will pay the entire monthly cost of some health care plans being offered in the online marketplaces set up under President Obama’s health care law, a surprising figure that has not garnered much attention, in part because the zero-premium plans come with serious trade-offs. The bulk of these plans are so-called bronze policies, the least expensive available. They require people to pay the most in out-of-pocket costs, for doctor visits and other benefits like hospital stays. A large number of those who qualify have incomes that fall just above the threshold for Medicaid, the government program for the poor.

Food Stamp Cuts Create High Demand for Food Banks

Food banks across the country, stretched thin in the aftermath of the recession, are bracing for more people coming through their doors in the wake of cuts to the federal food stamp program. Food stamp benefits to 47 million Americans were cut starting Friday as a temporary boost to the federal program comes to an end without new funding from a deadlocked Congress. Food banks served 37 million Americans in 2010, up from 25 million in 2006, according to the most recent numbers available. With supplies low, food banks plan to do one of two things when their food supply runs low: they will serve a set number of people and cut off the line when they run out of food baskets or they will put less food in the baskets so they can make more of them.

US No Longer Seen as Land of Opportunity

Just 52 percent — the lowest on record ‚ of the approximately 1,000 adults polled say America has plenty of economic opportunity, down from 57 percent in 2011 and 81 percent in 1998. Plus, almost half say future generations will enjoy less economic opportunity than the current generation does. Democrats are the more likely to have lost faith in the ability to improve their economic lot, with a 20-percentage-point drop, compared with losses of 16 points among independents and 14 points among Republicans.

Economic News

Financial firms are cutting tens of thousands of jobs because of a slowdown in the mortgage business, the sluggish economy, the growth of online banking and new regulations. The sector announced 49,000 layoffs the first nine months of 2013, most among all industries. The cutbacks represent a reversal from 2011 and 2012 when financial firms had begun contributing to overall U.S. job growth after recovering more slowly than other sectors from the 2008 financial crisis.

Surging oil and gas production is nudging the nation closer to energy independence. But new research suggests the boom could peter out long before the United States reaches this decades-old goal. Many wells behind the energy gush are quickly losing productivity, and some areas could hit peak levels sooner than the U.S. government expects, according to analyses presented last week at a Geological Society of America meeting in Denver. Unless more wells are drilled, the Bakken shale of North Dakota and Montana loses 44% of its production after a year and the Eagle Ford shale of Texas, 34%. Most of the nation’s major shale regions produce both oil and gas.

The Eurozone emerged from a recession lasting six quarters earlier this year but has struggled to gain momentum since. Gross domestic product across the 17-nation region will shrink by 0.4% in 2013, after contracting by 0.6% in 2012. The euro hit a two-year high against the dollar last week. The impact of harsh austerity measures in 2011 and 2012 has begun to fade this year, and Eurozone government spending will rise in 2014, but paying down debt remains a priority for companies and households.

Syria

Al Qaeda has swept to power with the aim of imposing a strict Islamist ideology on Syrians across large swathes of Syria’s rebel-held north, according to a CNN survey of towns, activists and analysts that reveals an alarming increase in al Qaeda-linked control in just the past month. Al Qaeda-backed militants known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are the predominant military force in northern Syria, according to activists and seasoned observers, and have a powerful influence over the majority of population centers in the rebel-held north. The swift al Qaeda expansion poses a severe policy dilemma for the United States and its European allies who have long delayed their promised armed assistance to rebel groups as they struggled with fears that the weapons could end up in the hands of al Qaeda-backed extremists.

Egypt

The trial of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi adjourned almost as quickly as it began Monday after a defiant Morsi rejected the charges against him and asserted his claim that he remains the “legitimate president” of the country. Morsi, who was flown to court at a police academy in eastern Cairo, was defiant as the trial began and broke out in chants with other defendants, disrupting the hearing, Egyptian security officials said the trial would resume Jan. 8, allowing defense lawyers to review the new documents in the case.

Attacks on vessels using Egypt’s Suez Canal and increased terrorist activity in the Sinai Peninsula are opening up a new front in the war on terror, posing a serious threat to a crucial international trade route and with it global shipping, warn analysts. On Aug. 31, an rocker-propelled grenade attack targeted the COSCO Asia container ship as it passed through the Suez Canal, while a separate attack on another vessel occurred July 29. Both attacks have been claimed by the Furkan Brigades, a new militant jihadist group operating in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, though no significant damage was recorded in either incident.

Pakistan

The Pakistani Taliban’s top council met Saturday to choose a new leader to replace the militant movement’s chief, killed in a U.S. drone strike the day before, intelligence officials and commanders in the movement said. The death of Hakimullah Mehsud, a ruthless leader known for attacking a CIA base in Afghanistan and a bloody campaign that killed thousands of Pakistani civilians and members of the security forces, is a heavy blow for the militant group. But the drone strike came as the Pakistan government was trying to negotiate a peace agreement with the Tehreek-e-Taliban. The strike threatened to worsen already fragile U.S.-Pakistan relations as some Pakistani politicians called the strike an attempt to sabotage the peace talks.

Iraq

Violence across Iraq killed nearly 1,000 people in October, the United Nations said Friday, as the world body’s representative there called on leaders to take bold action to stop the “current mayhem” gripping the country. Car bombings, shootings and other attacks have been on the rise all year, intensifying fears that widespread sectarian conflict again may overwhelm the country. Widespread chaos nearly tore the country apart in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Iran

Tens of thousands of demonstrators packed the streets Monday outside the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran in the biggest anti-American rally in years, a show of support for hard-line opponents of President Hassan Rouhani’s historic outreach to Washington. Such protests occur every year outside the former embassy compound to mark the anniversary of the 1979 takeover following the Islamic Revolution. But the latest demonstration is the largest in years after calls by groups such as the powerful Revolutionary Guard for a major showing, including chants of ‘death to America’ that some of Rouhani’s backers have urged halted. Opponents of thawing relations with the U.S. say they will not back down, opening the prospect of deeper internal rifts and tensions that could put pressure on Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to reconsider his backing of Rouhani’s groundbreaking exchanges with the U.S.

An Iranian newspaper says more than 50 people were hospitalized in a southern city where air pollution levels spiked this week. The head of provincial health department, Mohammad Hossein Sarmast, as saying that at least 5,000 people rushed to the city hospitals in Ahvaz seeking medical assistance after pollution levels increased. Acid rain may have caused symptoms such as shortness of breath among those admitted to hospitals. Ahvaz is located in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, which is dotted with oil wells and factories, and is among Iran’s most polluted cities.

Pakistan

The Pakistani government is under pressure to block NATO supply routes to Afghanistan this month if the United States continues its campaign of drone strikes in northwestern Pakistan. The demands from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the opposition party led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, come amid anger in Pakistan over the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, in a U.S. drone strike last week. The Pakistani government had been working on proposed peace talks with the extremist group when Mehsud was killed.

Somalia

Somali pirates and their peers hijacking vessels in the region made about $400 million in ransom over the past eight years, according to a report published Friday. The report, Pirate Trails, was conducted by the United Nations crime unit, Interpol and the World Bank. It tracks the underbelly of the pirate world in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Seychelles and Somalia. Most of the funds came from exchanging captives for ransom, an increasingly sophisticated process mostly controlled from Somalia. In total, 179 ships were hijacked off the coast of Somalia and Horn of Africa between April 2005 and the end of 2012. About 85% were released for ransom.

Mali

Gunmen abducted and killed two French radio journalists on assignment in northern Mali on Saturday, French and Malian officials said, grabbing the pair as they left the home of a rebel leader. The deaths come four days after France rejoiced at the release of four of its citizens who had been held for three years by al-Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa. France launched a military intervention in January in its former colony to try and oust jihadists from power in Kidal and other towns across northern Mali. Separatist rebels have since returned to the area.

Volcanoes

A volcano in western Indonesia has erupted again, unleashing volcanic ash high into the sky and forcing the evacuation of villagers around its slope. The National Disaster Mitigation Agency says the 8,530-foot -high Mount Sinabung erupted early Sunday. It says authorities are working to evacuate residents from four villages located within the danger zone of 2 miles. So far, nearly 1,300 villagers have been relocated to safer areas. The volcano, located in North Sumatra province, last erupted Oct. 24. In September, more than 15,000 people were forced to flee when it rumbled to life after being dormant for three years. Mount Sinabung is among more than 120 active volcanoes in Indonesia,

Weather

Dangerous storms marched east on Halloween night and into Friday morning, creating numerous reports of flooding and wind damage. At least 22 confirmed tornadoes touched down on Thursday, most of which were rated EF0 and EF1, though an EF2 tornado touched down near Baker, Mo. This is a new record for the most confirmed tornadoes on any Halloween on record in the U.S. In addition, two additional tornadoes touched down just after midnight in the early hours of Nov. 1, bringing the event total to 24 tornadoes. A 9-year-old boy died at a Nashville hospital after being struck by a downed power line on Thursday evening.

Tuesday, snow will spread out into the Plains from western Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and western South Dakota into parts of eastern South Dakota, far northwest Iowa, Minnesota, northern Wisconsin and the western U.P. of Michigan. The snow may become locally heavy for some in central Nebraska through Tuesday night, and accumulations should become more significant from southern South Dakota northeastward Tuesday evening.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center says Tropical Storm Sonia has been downgraded to a tropical depression as it hit land in Mexico. The center of Sonia reached the coast of Sinaloa near the city of El Dorado early on Monday. Even though Sonia was weakening, heavy rains are still possible in Sinaloa, western Durango, and southern Chihuahua. While the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season has given the U.S. a breather, Mexico has been hit by eight hurricanes and tropical storms this year’

Some of the world’s top climate scientists say wind and solar energy won’t be enough to head off extreme global warming, and they’re asking environmentalists to support the development of safer nuclear power as one way to cut fossil fuel pollution. Four scientists who have played a key role in alerting the public to the dangers of climate change sent letters Sunday to leading environmental groups and politicians around the world. The letter urges a crucial discussion on the role of nuclear power in fighting climate change. Environmentalists agree that global warming is a threat to ecosystems and humans, but many oppose nuclear power and believe that new forms of renewable energy will be able to power the world within the next few decades.

Asian Lady Beetles, or ladybugs, have swarmed the Southeast in record numbers thanks to mild weather conditions over the last few years. The pretty little bugs appear to pose no threat to humans, but when they swarm in large numbers, there can be consequences. The ladybugs can make their way into homes and become a nuisance. When they die, their bodies and shells can become food for other pests, which could lead to infestations of roaches or rodents. A couple of hard freezes could eliminate a large chunk of the population, but until that occurs, expect to see plenty of ladybugs in the south.

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