Archive for December, 2013

Signs of the Times (12/31/13)

December 31, 2013

New Year, 40,000 New Laws

Not everyone subscribes to a New Year’s resolution, but Americans will be required to follow new laws in 2014. Some 40,000 measures taking effect range from sweeping, national mandates under Obamacare to marijuana legalization in Colorado, drone prohibition in Illinois and transgender protections in California. Although many new laws are controversial, they made it through legislatures, public referendum or city councils and represent the shifting composition of American beliefs.

  • The also represent another surge in big-brother government as it gains more and more control over every facet of our lives

Congress Letting 55 Tax Breaks Expire

Congress is letting a package of 55 popular tax breaks expire at the end of the year, creating uncertainty — once again — for millions of individuals and businesses. Lawmakers let these tax breaks lapse almost every year, even though they save businesses and individuals billions of dollars. And almost every year, Congress eventually renews them, retroactively, so taxpayers can claim them by the time they file their tax returns. Trade groups and tax experts complain that Congress is making it impossible for businesses and individuals to plan for the future. “It’s a totally ridiculous way to run our tax system,” said Rachelle Bernstein, vice president and tax counsel for the National Retail Federation. “It’s impossible to plan when every year this happens, but yet business has gotten used to that.”

  • Our dysfunctional government seldom allows taxes to expire but tax breaks are always on the table as our voracious federal bureaucracy grows fatter and fatter

Boy Scouts Open Ranks to Gay Youth on Jan. 1

The Boy Scouts of America will accept openly gay youths starting on New Year’s Day, a historic change that has prompted the BSA to ponder a host of potential complications — ranging from policies on tentmates and showers to whether Scouts can march in gay pride parades. Some churches are dropping their sponsorship of Scout units because of the new policy and some families are switching to a new conservative alternative called Trail Life USA. But massive defections haven’t materialized and most major sponsors, including the Roman Catholic and Mormon churches, are maintaining ties. The new policy was approved in May, with support from 60 percent of the 1,400 voting members of the BSA’s National Council. The vote followed bitter nationwide debate, and was accompanied by an announcement that the BSA would continue to exclude openly gay adults from leadership positions.

  • The insidious gay agenda continues to spread its immoral cancer throughout society, a key marker of the inexorable march toward end-time moral decay.

Education Dept. to Recognize All Legal Same-Sex Marriages for Federal Financial Aid

The U.S. Department of recently announced new guidance on the use of “marriage” and “spouse” in the federal student aid programs, including on the completion of the federal student aid form (FAFSA). The new guidance is based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor, which struck down a key part of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. Under the new guidance, the Department will recognize a student or a parent as married if the couple was legally married in any jurisdiction that recognizes the marriage, regardless of whether the marriage is between a couple of the same sex or opposite sex, and regardless of where the student or couple lives or the student is attending school. This guidance impacts all questions concerning marriage and marital status on the FAFSA.

Abortion Groups Keep Population Control on the UN Agenda

As nations perform a 20-year review of population policies that include family planning and abortion, the UN agency in charge of the review has put abortion groups at the helm. They want countries to spend more money on policies that have an overall effect of reducing populations. Governments spent $60 billion last year on population policies that originated at the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development. Recipients of that money include the United Nations Population Fund, International Planned Parenthood Federation, Marie Stopes International, Ipas, and groups that promote abortion, contraception and sterilization as a panacea for the world’s problems.

  • Population control by any means necessary is a key goal of the New World Order globalists to maintain ‘sustainable’ life on earth

Federal Judge: NSA Phone Surveillance Legal

A federal judge ruled on Friday that the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of millions of Americans’ telephone and Internet records is legal and a critical component of the country’s effort to combat the threat of terrorism. The decision by U.S. District Judge William Pauley contrasts with a ruling earlier this month by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon and increases the likelihood that the issue will go before the U.S. Supreme Court. Leon had granted a preliminary injunction against the collecting of phone records, saying the program likely violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on unreasonable search. In the 54-page opinion issued in New York, Pauley said the sweeping program “represents the government’s counter-punch” to eliminate al-Qaeda’s terror network by connecting fragmented and fleeting communications.

NSA Unit Hacks into Computers

A German magazine, citing internal documents, claims the NSA’s hacking unit uses James Bond-style spy gear to obtain data, including intercepting computer deliveries and outfitting them with espionage software. Der Spiegel’s revelations relate to a division of the NSA known as Tailored Access Operations, or TAO, which is painted as an elite team of hackers specializing in stealing data from the toughest of targets. Der Spiegel said TAO had a catalog of high-tech gadgets for particularly hard-to-crack cases, including computer monitor cables specially modified to record what is being typed across the screen, USB sticks secretly fitted with radio transmitters to broadcast stolen data over the airwaves, and fake base stations intended to intercept mobile phone signals on the go. Some of the attacks described by Der Spiegel exploit weaknesses in the architecture of the Internet to deliver malicious software to specific computers.

  • If we could trust NSA/Government officials to only focus on terrorism then we need not be concerned. If, however, we suspect officials will use their powers to suppress dissent and promote socialism/globalism, then we need to be very concerned.

Federal Health Market Surpasses 1 million Signups

A December surge propelled health care sign-ups through the government’s rehabilitated website past the 1 million mark, the Obama administration said Sunday, reflecting new signs of life for the problem-plagued federal insurance exchange. However, the administration had projected more than 3.3 million overall would be enrolled through federal and state exchanges by the end of the year. Of the more than 1.1 million people now enrolled, nearly 1 million signed up in December, with the majority coming in the week before a pre-Christmas deadline for coverage to start in January. The figures tell only part of the story. The administration has yet to provide a December update on the 14 states running their own exchanges. While California, New York, Washington, Kentucky and Connecticut have performed well, others are still struggling.

  • Falling so far short of its goals is cause for concern, because Obama needs millions of mostly younger, healthy Americans to sign up to keep costs low for everyone.

Affordable Care Act Rates Misquoted for 2000 Arizonans

At least 2,000 Arizonans who thought they bought bargain Affordable Care Act insurance from Health Net have learned that their rates will be more expensive than what they initially agreed to purchase. Health Net’s prices for some plans sold directly to consumers and through the federal marketplace, healthcare.gov, quoted rates less expensive than those the health insurer filed with state insurance regulators. The Arizona Department of Insurance noticed the discrepancy and ordered Health Net to mail letters to customers who purchased incorrectly priced plans. The bottom line for affected consumers: Preferred-provider organization, or PPO, plans will be 7 to 13 percent more expensive than what Health Net quoted.

Reported Sexual Assaults in Military Rising

Heightened attention to the crime of sexual assault in the U.S. military may be causing more people to come forward and report problems. Defense officials cite the increased awareness as a possible reason the number of reported sexual assaults rose by more than 50% this year. More than 5,000 reports of sexual assault were filed during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, compared to the 3,374 in 2012. The increase suggests that confidence in the system is growing and that victims are more willing to come forward. While cautious in their conclusions, officials said surveys, focus groups and repeated meetings with service members throughout the year suggest that the number of actual incidents — from unwanted sexual contact and harassment to violent assaults — remained largely steady.

A&E Lifts Ban on Duck Dynasty Star

The “Duck Dynasty” family says they are excited to return to work after A&E Network announced Friday it would resume filming their hit show with Phil Robertson next spring in a reversal of its decision last week to suspend him for comments he made about homosexuality. In an exclusive statement to FoxNews.com, the family said it was “excited to keep making a quality TV show for our dedicated fans, who have showed us wonderful support. We will continue to represent our faith and values in the most positive way through ‘Duck Dynasty’ and our many projects that we are currently working on. The outpouring of support and prayer has encouraged and emboldened us greatly.” The removal of the 67-year-old family patriarch triggered support from gay rights organizations but objections from many fans of the show, including political figures such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, forced A&E to reconsider.

Colorado Allows Recreational Marijuana

As Colorado prepares to be the first U.S. state to allow recreational marijuana sales, starting Jan. 1, hopeful retailers like Williams are investing their fortunes into the legal recreational pot world — all for a chance to build even bigger ones in a fledgling industry that faces an uncertain future. Officials in Colorado and Washington, the other state where recreational pot goes on sale in mid-2014, as well as activists, policymakers and governments from around the U.S. and across the world will not be the only ones watching the experiment unfold. So too will the U.S. Department of Justice, which for now is not fighting to shut down the industry.

Economic News

The retail-worker strikes that swept the nation in 2013 did not move Congress to raise the minimum wage, but a growing number of states are taking action. The minimum wage will rise in 13 states this week, and as many as 11 more states plus Washington, D.C., are expected to consider increases in 2014. However, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers hasn’t increased since 1991.Tipped workers are those who wait on tables in restaurants, serve guests at hotels, cut hair in salons and park cars at garages.

Stocks closed relatively flat Monday but the Dow Jones industrial average managed to rise slightly to post its 51st record close of the year in the second-to-last trading session. With just one more trading session left in 2013, the S&P 500 is on track for an annual gain of 29%, the biggest since 1997. With dividends included, it’s up 32%.

U.N. Human Rights Council Fails to Protect Religious Freedom

Human Rights Without Frontiers International, a non-profit advocacy organization based in Brussels, released a report on Monday highlighting what we’ve long known to be true: The U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is a joke. Eight of the UNHRC’s 47 member states, including newly elected Morocco, China and Saudi Arabia (their three-year terms begin Wednesday), imprisoned people in 2013 for breaking laws that restrict religious freedom. The five current member states to do the same were India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Libya and South Korea. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the U.N. General Assembly adopted in 1948, clearly states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or beliefs.” The resolution establishing the UNHRC declares that member states “shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” Yet at least eight member states are failing, epically, to do so. In 2013.

Middle East

Rockets from Lebanon struck northern Israel Sunday, causing no injuries but sparking an Israeli reprisal shelling in a rare flare-up between the two countries. Residents of the northern Israel town of Kiryat Shmona awoke to a pair of large explosions. Lebanon’s state news agency said its border area was shelled after the rockets hit Israel. The agency said over 20 shells hit the mountainous region around the southern Lebanese border area of Rachaya. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the government of Lebanon of “not lifting a finger” to stop the “war crimes” committed in its territory by Hezbollah guerrillas.

The familiar rhythms of Christmas season in the Holy Land have been disturbed by a new development: the rise of an independent voice for Israel’s Christian community, which is increasingly trying to assert its separate identity. For decades, Arab Christians were considered part of Israel’s sizable Palestinian minority, which comprises both Muslims and Christians and makes up about a fifth of the country’s citizens, according to the Israeli government. But now, an informal grass-roots movement, prompted in part by the persecution of Christians elsewhere in the region since the Arab Spring, wants to cooperate more closely with Israeli Jewish society—which could mean a historic change in attitudes toward the Jewish state. Of Israel’s 8 million citizens, about 130,000 are Arabic-speaking Christians (mostly Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox), and 1.3 million are Arab Muslims. As a minority within a minority, Arab Christians in Israel have historically been in a bind. Fear of being considered traitors often drove them to proclaim their full support for the Palestinian cause, but now that’s changing with many openly proclaiming their allegiance to Israel.

Syria

A Syrian government airstrike hit a crowded vegetable market in a rebel-held neighborhood of the northern city of Aleppo on Saturday, killing at least 21 people. For nearly two weeks, President Bashar Assad’s warplanes and helicopters have pounded opposition-controlled areas of the divided city. Activists say the aerial assault has killed more than 400 people since it began Dec. 15. The campaign comes in the run-up to an international peace conference scheduled to start Jan. 22 in Switzerland to try to find a political solution to Syria’s civil war. Some observers say the Aleppo assault fits into Assad’s apparent strategy of trying to expose the opposition’s weakness to strengthen his own hand ahead of the negotiations.

The Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OCPW) said Saturday that it did not expect to meet a December 31 deadline for transporting the most potent chemical weapons in the Syrian regime’s arsenal out of the country. Plans called for the weapons, which include around 20 tons of mustard gas, to be transported from 12 storage sites across Syria to the northern port of Latakia, where a Norwegian frigate would collect them. The weapons would then be taken to Italy, where a U.S. Navy will take the weapons into international waters and destroy them using a specially equipped titanium tank.

Iran

Iran is taking steps to improve its ability to speed up uranium enrichment that could delay implementation of a nuclear deal with six world powers because Tehran’s moves are opposed by the United States and its allies. Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, said late Thursday that his country is building a new generation of centrifuges for uranium enrichment but they need further tests before they can be mass produced… But two officials familiar with Iran’s nuclear activities said Tehran has gone even further by interpreting a provision of the interim Geneva nuclear deal in a way rejected by many, if not all, of the six powers that sealed the Geneva deal with Iran.

  • Not the least bit surprising. Why does our government not realize that the Iranians can never be trusted?

South Sudan

Twenty-five thousand young men who make up a tribal militia known as the “White Army” are marching toward a contested state capital in South Sudan, an official said Saturday, dimming hopes for a cease-fire. The “White Army” gets its name from the white ash fighters put on their skin as protection from insects. Seeking an end to the nearly two-week crisis in which an estimated 1,000 people have been killed, leaders from across East Africa announced on Friday that South Sudan had agreed to a “cessation of hostilities” against forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, whom the government accuses of leading a coup attempt Dec. 15 that erupted into spiraling violence. But Machar rejected that, saying in an interview with the BBC that any cease-fire had to be negotiated by delegations from both sides. In addition to those killed, tens of thousands are seeking shelters at United Nations camps. East African nations had set Tuesday as a deadline for the two sides fighting in South Sudan to talk. Instead, they fought heavily in the key town of Bor, undermining efforts to bring more than two weeks of violence to an end.

Central African Republic

Heavy weapons fire rang out in the north of Central African Republic’s capital Bangui on Monday during inter-religious clashes and the Red Cross said at least four people were killed. French and African troops have struggled to contain violence between Muslim Seleka rebels and Christian militias that has already killed 1,000 people this month and displaced hundreds of thousands. The country’s Christian majority has complained of waves of looting and killing by Djotodia’s loose band of militias who seized power in March with the aid of fighters from Chad and Sudan. Violence intensified in early December after Christian militias launched reprisal attacks on Seleka forces, raising fears of generalized conflict in the country.

Russia

Two suicide bombings within 24 hours killed at least 31 people in the southern Russia city Volgograd, highlighting the terror threat Russia faces as it prepares to host the Winter Games in six weeks. A suicide bombing on a trolleybus early Monday killed 14 people, Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry says, a day after another suicide bombing killed at least 17 at a railway station in the city. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, but they came several months after Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov called for attacks against civilian targets in Russia.

China

Authorities in western China said Monday that police fatally shot eight “terrorists” who had attacked them using knives and explosives in the latest in a string of violent incidents in the region. The group of nine attacked officers and burned police cars in Shache County, which is near the famed Silk Road city of Kashgar. It’s the latest outbreak of deadly unrest in Xinjiang, a large, resource-rich region that is home to the Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim ethnic group.

China, which has the world’s largest number of smokers, appears to be making another effort at limiting smoking by banning officials from lighting up in public. Officials are not allowed to smoke in schools, hospitals, sports venues, on public transport or any other places where smoking is banned, or to smoke or offer cigarettes when performing official duties.

Environment

Something is killing starfish up and down the West Coast and no one knows what. A mysterious illness that first appeared in June in Washington state has now spread from Sitka, Alaska, to San Diego. Starfish first waste away and then “turn into goo,” divers say. Whatever is causing it can spread with astonishing speed — a healthy group of starfish can die in just 24 hours. “It’s widespread, it’s very virulent and it’s unlike anything we’ve seen in the past,” said Pete Raimondi, a marine ecologist at the University of California-Santa Cruz who is one of the lead researchers in an international effort to track the outbreak. The ailment seems to hit starfish the hardest, with smaller numbers of sea urchins and sea cucumbers reported falling to it. No one knows what percentage of the West Coast’s starfish are affected but in some areas they’ve been wiped out.

Sixteen bald eagles have died in north and central Utah this month from similar symptoms of a mystery illness, state wildlife officials said Friday. Wildlife officials have said the illness could be encephalitis, which is caused by West Nile Virus, though other experts said it seems too late in the year for that. The symptoms include head tremors, signs of seizures, weakness in legs and feet and a paralysis of the bird’s wings. The animals are being tested and officials hope for some preliminary results as soon as next week.

Volcanoes

A rumbling volcano in western Indonesia that has been spewing lava and clouds of gas high into the sky let out a new, powerful burst Tuesday, prompting warnings for airplanes and triggering panic among villagers. Nine eruptions Tuesday sent lava and searing gas tumbling out of Mount Sinabung in North Sumatra province. The volcano started spitting clouds of gas and lava as high as 23,000 feet in the air late Monday, but no casualties were reported. More than 19,000 people have been evacuated from villages in a danger zone 3 miles around the crater.

Weather

Another Arctic blast has invaded parts of the Midwest, just in time to ring in 2014. In the wake of a strong cold front, bitterly cold temperatures have anchored themselves over the northern tier of the country. Sunday, Minneapolis saw a 32 degree temperature swing; starting the day at 29 degrees, at midnight, temperatures plummeted to 3 below zero by 10 a.m. And factoring in the winds, it felt closer to 20 below. The combination of the frigid air mass and gusty winds will drop wind chills as low as 30 below zero from the Dakotas into Minnesota and northern Wisconsin.

Thousands of residents were still without power Saturday from Michigan to Maine and were becoming more and more frustrated with each passing hour that their homes have remained dark and cold since before Christmas. They’re scrambling to buy or borrow generators to keep pipes from freezing. Some have fled their homes while others are choosing to stay or have nowhere else to go. With frigid temperatures descending upon the region, cold and weary utility crews worked Monday to finish restoring electricity for customers who’ve been in the dark for more than a week as another winter storm takes aim at the region.

Signs of the Times (12/27/13)

December 27, 2013

Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem

If there is a heart of the Christmas celebration, it’s Bethlehem. Thousands gathered in the cradle of Christianity on the site where Jesus is believed to have been born — the West Bank city of Bethlehem —  to kick off Christmas celebrations. Tourists, Christian pilgrims and residents packed Manger Square to watch choral groups, performers, clowns, giant Santas and marching bands from across the West Bank. Palestinian police snipers flanked the rooftops, and police heavily guarded the crowd outside the Church of Nativity who were gathered to see the arrival of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal. The erection of Israel’s separation barrier with the West Bank, a high concrete wall around the town, did not stop the procession today, which began in south Jerusalem at Mar Elias Monastery. Three gates in the concrete wall were opened for Christmas to allow the procession from Jerusalem to enter Bethlehem. Twal gave a message spreading peace and love to all the nations of the world. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh arrived later on Christmas Eve to participate in the celebrations and attend the annual midnight mass.

Another Bethlehem Miracle

Two weeks before Christmas, one of the most powerful storms to hit the Middle East in a century dumped several inches of snow on the hills of Bethlehem. In addition to shuttering schools and businesses, the storm caused runoff to trickle down the walls of the Church of the Nativity, built above the traditional birthplace of Jesus. Fortunately, the water damage was relatively minor, church officials say, thanks to a rare cooperative venture already underway to repair the basilica’s roof, leaky windows and old wooden beams, about 1,500 years old. In what some are calling the biggest miracle in Bethlehem since the birth of Jesus, the three churches that share responsibility for the Nativity church put aside centuries of tense relations this past year to ensure the job gets done. The original Church of the Nativity, built in A.D. 330 by the Roman Emperor Constantine, was mostly destroyed 200 years later. The existing church was built on the same site. Rainwater has been damaging the church’s infrastructure and artwork for more than a century, but infighting over which church has authority prevented a resolution until now.

  • Denominational infighting has created confusion and contempt among non-believers, greatly diminishing ongoing evangelistic efforts.

VA Bans Christmas Cards to Troops

According to the Liberty Institute, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is refusing to allow school children to give Christmas cards to veterans if those cards say “Merry Christmas” or “God bless you.” Religious liberty lawyers have sent the VA a letter demanding they immediately lift the ban. Susan Chapman is a teacher at Grace Academy of North Texas and, at a parent’s suggestion, organized a project for students to take cards to wounded military veterans to thank them and cheer them up during the holidays. She attempted to deliver those cards to a VA hospital in Dallas on Dec. 22. However, VA staff reportedly stopped her when she entered the facility, telling her that gifts or messages with religious content were not permitted by VA policy. “It is so sad that the VA is sending a message to our children that after all the veterans have done to fight for freedom across the world, the children have no freedom to say Merry Christmas to these honorable men and women,” Chapman said.

Security Concerns Rise Amid Surge in US Arms Deals

U.S. arms deals with foreign governments have surged under the Obama administration, as part of an apparent push by the White House and State Department to have allies “share the burden” of providing security. The increase, though, has raised concern that the weapons and military equipment could fall into the wrong hands or be used by unstable governments against their own people – or us. “With very little public debate, the Obama administration has embarked on a course that could undermine U.S. national security,” the Center for International Policy cautioned in a report that cited efforts to loosen export controls. The sharp uptick in sales from U.S. weapons manufacturers has been tracked by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. According to its database, sales to foreign buyers rose from $6.9 billion in 2009 to more than $8.7 billion in 2012. The United States now accounts for nearly one-third of all global arms sales.

Deportations by Federal Government Down in 2013

The federal government deported 368,644 people last fiscal year, a 10 percent decrease from the previous year and the first time deportations dropped since President Barack Obama took office in 2008. The decrease comes as Obama has been under growing pressure from immigration advocates and some members of Congress to ease up on record deportations. At the same time, the president has been trying to avoid appearing lax on enforcement in order to persuade Congress to pass reforms that include a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants in the country illegally. Immigrant advocates say, however, that the decrease isn’t enough and vow to continue fighting deportations, while enforcement proponents say Obama’s administration should be deporting more people, not fewer. One of the reasons Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported fewer people in 2013 is that the agency is focusing more attention on catching and removing serious criminals, whose cases take more time, ICE officials said.

White House Again Stretches Health Care Sign-Up Deadline

The Obama administration said Tuesday that it would provide more time for people to sign up for health insurance if they could show that they missed the Tuesday deadline for applications because of problems with the federal health care website. In effect, the administration was stretching the deadline once again, after a last-minute surge of interest among people seeking coverage. The administration hailed what it described as “amazing interest” in new health insurance options and said the federal website alone received “two million site visits” on Monday. It was not clear on Tuesday how many people would be affected, or how consumers would prove that website errors had prevented them from signing up by the deadline on Tuesday night.

Poll: Economy Not Improving

Despite a recent string of positive economic news, Americans say they aren’t feeling the improvements. A new CNN/ORC poll released Friday showed people were pessimistic that the economy was improving. Nearly 70% said the economy is generally in poor shape, and only 32% rated it good. More rural than urban dwellers said the economy was in poor shape. And just over half expected the economy to remain in poor shape a year from now. Behind those numbers are the long-term unemployed, the under-employed and those who have dropped out of — or never even entered — the workforce. They’re not sharing in the surging stock market, and many are about to lose jobless benefits.

Some 1.3 million Americans are set to lose their unemployment benefits Saturday, escalating a battle between proponents of smaller government and advocates for the jobless who say the move will hurt the overall economy. Federal emergency benefits will end when funds run out for a program created during the recession to supplement the benefits that states provide. The cutoff will initially affect 1.3 million people, but 1.9 million more will lose benefits by mid-2014 when their 26 weeks of state paychecks run out. Benefits average about $300 a week.

Economic News

New-home sales slipped 2.1% in November and the number of Americans applying for mortgages has fallen 63% since a May peak, reflecting a cooling housing market and higher borrowing rates. Applications are now at a 13-year low. The drop-off follows a 1 percentage point increase in mortgage rates from historic lows last spring. The average for a 30-year mortgage is 4.47%. Home sales stalled and began to fall once rates steadily increased after May. That ended a year and a half of rising mortgage applications since the housing bust. Rates could rise further as the Federal Reserve scales back its economic stimulus.

The Commerce Department report issued Tuesday says orders for durable goods jumped 3.5% in November compared with October, when orders had fallen 0.7%. The increase was led by a 21.8% jump in demand for commercial aircraft, which can be volatile. Core capital goods, a category that tracks business investment, rose 4.5%, the biggest gain since January. This category is seen as a gauge of business plans to expand and modernize and as a measure of business confidence. Various barometers have signaled strength in manufacturing, which should translate into support for the overall economy going into 2014.

The price of a stamp is about to go up — and more so than expected. A panel overseeing the U.S. Postal Service approved a three-cent hike from the current price of 46 cents. It will take effect on January 26. That includes a one-cent increase – to keep pace with inflation – and an additional two cents are intended to be temporary and to recoup losses the Postal Service suffered during the recession. The agency is in deep trouble with the shift away from mail and to the Internet. It reported a $5 billion loss in the most recent fiscal year, and a $16 billion loss in 2012.

  • There is no such thing as ‘temporary’ government price/tax increases

Iraq

The United States is quietly rushing dozens of Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones to Iraq to help government forces combat an explosion of violence by a Qaeda-backed insurgency that is gaining territory in both western Iraq and neighboring Syria. The move follows an appeal for help in battling the extremist group by the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who met with President Obama in Washington last month. But some military experts question whether the patchwork response will be sufficient to reverse the sharp downturn in security that already led to the deaths of more than 8,000 Iraqis this year, 952 of them Iraqi security force members, according to the United Nations, the highest level of violence since 2008.

Iraqi officials say a car bomb went off near a Baghdad church during Christmas Mass, killing at least 15 people. Wednesday’s explosion took place in the city’s southern Dora neighborhood, which has a small Christian populationAnother car bomb went off at an outdoor market where many Christians shop, bringing the death total to 38 with over 70 wounded. Iraq’s dwindling Christian community, which is estimated to number about 400,000 to 600,000 people, has often come under attack by al-Qaeda and other insurgents. The latest attacks come as Iraqi security forces are carrying out a massive military operation in Iraq’s western desert, hunting for al-Qaeda and militant hideouts near the border with Syria.

Lebanon

A powerful car bomb tore through a business district in the center of Beirut, the Lebanese capital, Friday, killing a prominent pro-Western politician and at least five other people in an assassination certain to hike sectarian tensions already soaring because of the civil war in neighboring Syria. The blast, which wounded more than 70 others, set cars ablaze, shredded trees and shattered windows in a main street of the posh downtown Beirut area of five-star hotels, luxury high-rises and high-end boutiques. The bomb targeted the car of Mohammed Chatah, a former finance minister and a senior aide to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hariri, a Sunni politician, heads the main, Western-backed coalition in Lebanon, which is engaged in bitter feuding with the militant Shiite Hezbollah group, a top ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Syria

A deadly air offensive that has claimed more than 500 lives in the Syrian city of Aleppo continues, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees. The group said that at least 30 people were killed and dozens injured in airstrikes on the Sukari neighborhood of Aleppo. Another neighborhood, Qibalia, was also shelled, the LCC said. The Syrian government has continued to fire relentlessly on rebel-held sections of the city after days of continued air assaults.

Egypt

A bomb blast hit a public bus in the Egyptian capital Cairo on Thursday, wounding five people, the Interior Ministry said, in an attack that raised concerns that a wave of violence blamed on Islamic militants that has targeted security forces and military for months is increasingly turning to hit civilians. The blast came a day after the government declared its top political nemesis, the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist organization, accusing it of being behind the violence. Egypt saw the deadliest bombing yet earlier this week, when a suicide bomber hit a police headquarters in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura on Tuesday, killing 16 people, mainly police.

Afghanistan

A suicide car bomber attacked a convoy of international troops in an eastern district of the Afghan capital Kabul on Friday, killing three service members and wounding six Afghans. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the insurgent group was behind the attack. The bomber struck the convoy about a half mile from NATO’s Camp Phoenix base. Twelve coalition troops have died in Afghanistan so far this month, including six U.S. soldiers who died in a helicopter crash Dec. 17.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul was hit by indirect fire before dawn on Christmas Day but no Americans were hurt, as attacks elsewhere in Afghanistan killed at least six people Wednesday. Two rounds struck the sprawling embassy compound. Indirect fire can refer to either mortars or rockets. The Taliban promptly claimed they fired four rockets at the American Embassy on Wednesday and said they inflicted heavy casualties. But the insurgents often exaggerate their claims. Elsewhere, an Afghan official said a bicycle bomb was remotely detonated in front of a restaurant at a bazaar in Puli Alam, the capital of Logar province, 37 miles east of Kabul, killing six people and wounding 13.

Thailand

Rock-throwing protesters trying to halt preparations for elections fought police in the Thai capital on Thursday, escalating their campaign to topple the country’s beleaguered government. At least 48 people were wounded, three of them police officers. Security authorities fired rubber bullets and tear gas toward the demonstrators, who were attempting to force their way into a sports stadium being used by candidates to draw lots for their position on polling papers. Four election commissioners had to be evacuated from facility by helicopter because of the fighting outside.

South Sudan

Evidence of atrocities including mass killings emerged Tuesday in South Sudan, and the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to send thousands more troops to protect civilians in the young nation convulsed by violence. The council’s vote could nearly double the size of the U.N. peacekeeping force in the country, allowing for up to 12,500 military troops and 1,323 police to patrol there. U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Toby Lanzer tweeted that more accounts were reaching him of human rights abuses amid the widening violence that has stoked fears of an all-out civil war in the world’s newest country. “Mass extrajudicial killings, the targeting of individuals on the basis of their ethnicity and arbitrary detentions have been documented in recent days,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a statement.

Weather

As repair crews worked around the clock to restore power, hundreds of thousands in parts of the central and northeastern USA were set to wake up to a cold and dark Christmas. The fierce winter storm that brought a White Christmas to many northerners also delivered a dark Christmas to those who lost power in Michigan, Maine, Vermont and New York State after a weekend ice and snowstorm rolled across the region. More than 150,000 people who lost power in a storm Saturday in the northeast continue to wait for repair crews to restore their service. Freezing temperatures have not helped matters, as the ice won’t melt from the power lines, causing new outages even as others are fixed. Officials in Maine said many residents should not expect to get their power back until Friday at the earliest, with some not until Sunday.

A severe winter storm caused major travel problems in parts of western Europe Tuesday, stranding passengers travelling for Christmas at Paris and London airports and leaving hundreds of thousands of homes without power. Land travel was also affected by landslides and fallen trees and flooded roads. The storm caused four deaths in Britain, including a man who jumped into a fast-flowing river to try and rescue his dog. The storm also unleashed powerful winds. London’s Heathrow airport recorded a 60 mph gust overnight. Across the English Channel, nearly all long-haul flights out of Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport were delayed because of the storm. Electricity provider ERDF said the winds left nearly 200,000 homes in western France without electricity.

Army troops were deployed in Espirito Santo state on Thursday to help distribute food, water and medicine to victims of the floods and mudslides that have punished southeastern Brazil for more than 10 days, killing at least 39 people. Army engineers were expected to arrive later Thursday to help repair highways, roads and bridges damaged by the floods. More than 60,000 people were driven from their homes and forced to seek shelter in public buildings or the homes of friends and relatives.

Flooding and landslides caused by heavy rains have killed at least eight people on the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent, officials said Wednesday. Five people were reported missing. In the heavily hit area of North Leeward in northwestern St. Vincent, a family of five was killed when a house was swept into their home. The emergency office said nine houses had been destroyed and 15 others were damaged. Several communities remained isolated because of damaged bridges or blocked roads.

A Chinese ice-breaker is expected to arrive today to rescue the 74 people stranded aboard an ice-trapped expedition cruise ship in Antarctica. The Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy has been stuck at sea since Christmas morning, when it was seized by ice on the edge of the continent. The ship contacted the Australian Maritime Safety Authority for assistance, and three ice-breakers that were in the region are now racing through blizzard conditions to reach the vessel.

Signs of the Times (12/24/13)

December 24, 2013

Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men! (Luke 2:10-14, NKJV)

Troops Told Not to Say ‘Christmas’

Don’t say Christmas. That’s the message that was conveyed to a group of soldiers at Camp Shelby by an equal opportunity officer from the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, according to a soldier who attended a recent briefing. Two weeks ago, a routine meeting was held at the Mississippi base with various leaders of the 158th Infantry Brigade. During the meeting, they discussed an upcoming Christmas football tournament. The equal opportunity officer immediately objected to the usage of the word “Christmas.” “It’s unbelievable that the Army would ban ‘Christmas’ like it’s a bad word,” said Michael Berry, an attorney with the Liberty Institute, a legal firm representing the unidentified soldier.

Huge Reprieve for Ministries Fighting Abortion Mandate

A federal judge granted almost 200 evangelical ministries relief from the Obamacare abortion mandate while their cases proceed through the courts. The Becket Fund announced the ruling calling it an early Christmas present that came just more than a week before the January 2014 deadline that would have forced the ministries to either abandon their beliefs about the sanctity of life or face crippling fines. The class-action lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate include all the non-exempt religious  organizations providing health benefits through GuideStone Financial Resources of the South Baptist Convention and are included in the courts protection. Attorneys are calling the ruling released Friday a tremendous victory for the ministries and for religious freedoms.

Utah Turns to Higher Court to Halt Gay Marriage

Utah state lawyers have again turned to a Denver-based federal appeals court in their bid to put a stop to gay couples getting married, saying the state should not be required to abide by one judge’s narrow view of a “new and fundamentally different definition of marriage.” About 700 gay couples have obtained wedding licenses since U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby on Friday declared Utah’s gay marriage ban unconstitutional, but lawyers for the state are trying every legal avenue to halt the practice. Shelby on Monday denied their bid to temporarily stop gay marriage while the appeals process plays out, and they quickly went to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Utah is the 18th state where gay couples can wed.

Christian Group Plans 100-Foot Jesus Statue in Muslim-Dominated Nazareth

As Christians from across the globe flock to the Holy Land in time for Christmas prayers and ceremonies, some in the community in Nazareth are seeking to reaffirm the historical importance of their town by erecting a statue of Jesus that would tower more than 100 feet above the city. The plan is for the statue of Jesus to be sit atop Mount Precipice, also known as the Mount of the Leap of the Lord, the promontory where according to Luke 4:29-30, a mob attempted to drive Jesus off the hilltop only for him to pass through them without injury. The statue is inspired by the iconic Christ the Redeemer figure that dominates the city of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, but would be even taller. The demographics of Nazareth have changed considerably in recent years, with the Christian community becoming a minority while the Muslim population has grown to 70 percent of the 80,000 residents of the northern Israeli town. Muslims and Christians have co-existed in Nazareth for many years, but lately many of Nazareth’s Christians have left to live elsewhere, uneasy at the changing face and apparent new direction of their town.

Satan is Leading War on Christmas

Pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, says Satan is leading the war on Christmas in the United States through judges, pastors and all sorts of other people. Jeffress maintains that the war on Christians is real and anyone who says it isn’t is either being very “naïve” or “intentionally deceptive. “But it is also part of a larger war against Christianity that’s being waged around the world. We’re not suffering as Christians who are being martyred in other countries. Not yet, anyway, but make no mistake about it. This is all part of the same war and we’ve got to push back against it on every front,” Jeffress said in an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly.

Backlash over A&E’s Ouster of the Duck Commander Grows

The fallout from A&E’s decision to suspend Phil Robertson from the hit reality TV show Duck Dynasty continues to be the dominate story on the Internet. As we reported yesterday, Robertson’s interview with GQ magazine and the subsequent outcry led to his ousting. The backlash has been growing. Within minutes of A&E’s announcement, websites, Facebook pages, and petitions sprang up in support of the beleaguered star, including the “We Stand with Phil” page that has attracted 1.2 million likes as of this writing. Governor and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is encouraging people to “Stand with Phil and Support Free Speech,” According to Huckabee, “In recent days, a small, but vocal and militant group of same-sex marriage advocates have co-opted religious liberty to force industry and government to go beyond tolerating homosexuality. Any deviation from Biblical and traditional marriage is to be embraced, but there is no deviation tolerated from those who want to force acceptance, approval, and activism of same sex marriage.” With the reality show’s future in jeopardy, Daystar has extended an offer to air Duck Dynasty during primetime hours. Cracker Barrel on Sunday reversed its decision to pull some Duck Dynasty-themed products from its shelves. Meanwhile, “Duck” merchandise is flying off the shelf at many other retail outlets becoming one of the season’s top sellers.

Pastor Sentenced to Jail for Bible Teaching on Homosexual Behavior

ConservativeByte.com reports that Swedish pastor Ake Green was sentenced to a month in jail on June 29, 2004, for showing “disrespect” to homosexuals in a sermon at his church in the small town of Borgholm that he titled “Are people born with homosexual orientation or is it the result of influence by evil powers?” In 2002, the Swedish Parliament had enacted a law that criminalized expressions of “disrespect” against homosexuals. Just before the law was enacted, the Swedish Prime Minister made it clear that referring to homosexual behavior as “unnatural” would be a criminal act. With a growing intolerance for religious teaching on the subject following “hate crimes” legislation in 2009, could American ministers soon find themselves in the same position? ConservativeByte.com also observes, “It is amazing that Leftist hero and Obama buddy Louis Farrakhan can talk about beheading and stoning gays to death and you won’t hear a word from the media.”

  • Socialistic European countries foreshadow the future of the U.S.

NSA Declassifies Documents to Justify Snooping

In the face of growing skepticism over the National Security Agency’s practice of collecting bulk phone and Internet records, the director of national intelligence on Saturday declassified several documents detailing the program. The latest declassification of documents comes during a week in which a federal judge ruled the NSA’s bulk collection was likely unconstitutional and a White House task force questioned the effectiveness of the program. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a statement announcing the release that President George W. Bush first authorized the spying in October 2001, as part of the Terrorist Surveillance Program, weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. Approval for the bulk collection was eventually shifted to the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court, a secret court that considers government requests for electronic surveillance for intelligence-gathering purposes. The documents released include legal arguments by two former national intelligence directors under Bush who state their legal case for why it was essential to keep secret the practice of bulk data collection. The unclassified documents are part of an ongoing court case that was filed in 2006. But in recent days, both advisers of President Obama and a Bush appointed federal judge have offered very different assessments about the utility and legality of the practice.

Deadline Extended to Sign Up for Obamacare

The deadline to sign up through the federal and state health exchanges for insurance coverage beginning Jan. 1. was extended to Christmas Eve. If you want insurance starting on starting on Jan. 1, you need to sign up today. HealthCare.gov surpassed 1 million visitors as of 5 p.m. ET, Monday. More than 60,000 people hit the landing page when it was too busy to accommodate them, and left an e-mail address so they could be alerted when the site wasn’t busy.

Obamacare Support Drops to New Low

Support for the country’s new health care law has dropped to a record low, according to a new national poll. And the CNN/ORC International survey released Monday also indicates that most Americans predict that the Affordable Care Act will actually result in higher prices for their own medical care. Only 35% of those questioned in the poll say they support the health care law. Sixty-two percent say they oppose the law, up four points from November. Sixty-three percent say they believe the new law will increase the amount of money they personally pay for medical care, which may not be a good sign for a law known as the “Affordable Care Act.”

Surge in Children Crossing US-Mexico Border

The number of children caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has surged over the last two years, raising questions about whether the Obama administration’s changing immigration policies are creating a magnet. Statistics released late last week show 24,668 “unaccompanied alien children” were placed last year in the care of the federal agency that, by law, is responsible for them. That’s nearly double the number from 2012, and nearly quadruple the number in years past. Chris Crane, who heads The National ICE Council immigration officer union, said agents are being “overrun” with children crossing the border.  As is often the case with immigration statistics, it’s unclear what is driving the increase. The surge could be driven in part by better enforcement, and immigration officers doing a better job catching border crossers. But critics point to other factors. A federal judge in Texas claimed earlier this month that the Department of Homeland Security has been delivering children smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border to their illegal immigrant parents. In June 2012, the administration decided to give a reprieve to young illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.

Weak U.S. Credit Card Security

The U.S. is the juiciest target for hackers hunting credit card information. And experts say incidents like the recent data theft at Target’s stores will get worse before they get better. That’s in part because U.S. credit and debit cards rely on an easy-to-copy magnetic strip on the back of the card, which stores account information using the same technology as cassette tapes. “We are using 20th century cards against 21st century hackers,” says Mallory Duncan, general counsel at the National Retail Federation. “The thieves have moved on but the cards have not.” In most countries outside the U.S., people carry cards that use digital chips to hold account information. The chip generates a unique code every time it’s used. That makes the cards more difficult for criminals to replicate. Just days after acknowledging a massive hack of customer credit card data, Target is now facing several class-action lawsuits. And more could be on the way.

Economic News

Shopping in stores just crawled along this holiday season, leaving a pile of unsold inventory. That means bigger-than-usual after-Christmas sales. Amazon.com’s “2013 After-Christmas Sale” is already rolling with such offers as 70% off on select clothing, shoes, watches and jewelry. Old Navy launched its “After Holiday Sale” on Sunday with markdowns up to 75%. Sales growth this year is likely to be the weakest since 2009: 3.2% according to some experts. However, online retail sales are projected to grow 13.5% over last year.

Planned fee increases that would have added to the cost of millions of mortgages will be postponed. Currently, borrowers seeking loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are set to pay higher upfront fees starting April 1. The fees, ordered by the Federal Housing Finance Agency earlier this month, are meant to help safeguard banks against risky borrowers who might default. But housing experts say they will add thousands of dollars to the cost of all mortgages insured by Fannie and Freddie, with the biggest hits taken by borrowers with less than perfect credit histories. On Friday, the incoming chief of the FHFA, Mel Watt, said he intends to postpone the fees — and perhaps even cancel them — until more analysis is done. The FHFA oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Persecution Watch

A group of rights lawyers and churchgoers supporting a jailed Chinese Christian pastor were attacked by hired thugs on Christmas Eve at his house in central China, his wife and a lawyer said. Wang Fengrui, his wife, said dozens of thugs kicked and punched members of the group on Tuesday when they attempted to leave the house in Henan province. Three lawyers and an assistant had traveled to Nanle County to seek meetings with Pastor Zhang Shaojie and his aides, who were arrested more than a month ago over a land dispute and have been denied access to lawyers. Five churchgoers who were at Zhang’s house along with the lawyers had hoped to hold a prayer meeting on Monday to rally support for him, but were prevented by authorities.

Middle East

A bomb police say was planted by Palestinian terrorists exploded on a public bus shortly after it was evacuated Sunday, resulting in no serious injuries. A passenger on the No. 240 bus in Bat Yam, a town south of Tel Aviv, spotted a suspicious-looking backpack and alerted the driver. Detecting wires inside the bag, the driver evacuated the passengers and called the bomb squad. The blast comes at a difficult time for U.S.-brokered peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, who returned to the negotiating table during the summer for the first time in five years. Although not claiming responsibility, the Islamist terror militias Hamas and Islamic Jihad issued statements that they “welcomed” the attack.

A bitter winter has descended on the Middle East region, bringing heavy snow, rain and sub-zero temperatures. This is just the start of what meteorologists are forecasting will be one of the harshest winters in Syria for 100 years adding to the misery of the war-torn country.

Egypt

A powerful explosion believed to be caused by a car bomb ripped through a police headquarters in Mansoura, a Nile Delta city north of Cairo early on Tuesday, killing 12 people and wounding more than 100, leaving scores buried under the rubble. The country’s interim government accused the Muslim Brotherhood of orchestrating the attack, branding it a “terrorist organization.” It was the first major bombing in the Nile Delta, spreading the carnage that has marked Egypt’s turmoil over the past months to a new area and bringing it closer to Cairo. Previous deadly violence has mostly taken place in the volatile Sinai Peninsula and in Suez Canal-area cities east of the Egyptian capital.

Pakistan

The issue of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws has always been alive in the public discourse and an attraction for the media not only in Pakistan, but internationally, too. Now it will be reverberating even more around the corridors of power after the Federal Sharia Court of Pakistan ordered the Pakistani government to remove the option of life imprisonment for blasphemy. This means that crimes of blasphemy should be punished exclusively by the death sentence. This was the conclusion of a five-member bench headed by Justice Fida Hussain, which was formed to explore this question after a contempt of court petition was filed by lawyer Hashmat Habib on December 4. Habib’s complaint was that the 1990 decision had not been implemented and so the court should now issue orders to rectify this, as well as initiate court proceedings against those who have hitherto failed to implement the decision.

South Sudan

American citizens were safely evacuated from a war-torn South Sudan city on Sunday, one day after four U.S. troops were injured when their aircraft drew fire during a failed airlift attempt. An unspecified number of Americans and citizens from other “partner nations” were flown Sunday from Bor, the scene of intense fighting for the past week, to the capital of Juba on United Nations and U.S. civilian helicopters. About 380 Americans and 300 citizens of other nations have been evacuated in recent days to Nairobi and other locations. About 150 U.S. Marines are poised to enter turbulent South Sudan to help evacuate Americans and provide security for the U.S. Embassy. Also Sunday, South Sudan’s central government lost control of the capital of a key oil-producing state as renegade forces loyal to a former deputy president seized more territory in fighting that has raised fears of full-blown civil war in the world’s newest country.

Thailand

Tens of thousands of protesters marched through Thailand’s capital on Sunday, paralyzing traffic and facing off with police outside the prime minister’s residence in their latest bid to force her from office. The rally came a day after Thailand’s main opposition Democrat Party announced that it would boycott early elections called for Feb. 2, a move that appeared to have emboldened the protest movement. The protesters split into more than a dozen groups scattered around central Bangkok, including in some of the capital’s main shopping areas. One of the groups gathered outside Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s home, but she was not inside at the time. Hundreds of riot police blocked the flag-waving crowd from moving past the home’s outside gate.

Weather

A storm system swept across the central and southern U.S. on Saturday, bringing tornadoes and wind gusts that ripped roofs from barns and hurled trees into power lines. At least two people were killed. Wind caused the roof of a fitness center in a strip mall to collapse in Senatobia, 40 miles south of Memphis, Tenn. At the storm’s height, more than 22,000 people lost power in northern Mississippi. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of residents lost electricity after heavy rain and strong gusts of up to 60 mph whipped northern Louisiana. Some areas had as much as three inches of rain.

Monday morning started slowly, as communities from the Midwest to New England continued to recover from a winter storm that brought a mix of snow, ice and severe weather. The storm threw a wrench into a busy pre-Christmas travel weekend as hundreds of flights were delayed or canceled. By Monday morning, airlines were beginning to recover. Power outages continues for chunks of communities in Michigan and northern New England. The storm left at least nine people dead and more than 400,000 without power this weekend before it began pushing up into Canada. The weekend storm was a study in extremes. Its northern edge featured sleet and freezing rain that sparked travel advisories in New York and New England. Several inches of snow fell from Wisconsin to Oklahoma. On the other hand, many eastern cities saw record high temperatures. However, a cold front is now moving eastward. Thousands of Ontario, Canada, residents made do without power Monday in the aftermath of storms that toppled trees and brought down power lines. Meanwhile, residents in the upper Midwest prepared for bitter cold wind chills.

Signs of the Times (12/21/13)

December 21, 2013

Millennials Share Christ More than Any Other Generation

A Barna study is revealing the truth about U.S. Millennials, the generation born after 1980. Skeptics argue that Millennials put social justice above their faith and are leaving the church in droves But Barna’s study shows Millennials are sharing the gospel more than any other generation. “By a previous generation’s standards, they seem low-key, a little disengaged or disinterested,” notes Greg Jao with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. “But when you actually watch their behavior, you begin to see the Millennial generation … is highly engaged with their faith.” According to Jao, Millennials are embracing a message known by the mission’s community all along, based in James 2:14-17. “An authentic Christian witness in this era requires both word—the proclamation of the gospel and an invitation to receive Jesus Christ—as well as the need to live out the implications of the gospel, both personally and socially,” he says.

  • What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

Duck Dynasty Star Suspended for Anti-Gay Statement

Phil Robertson, of the A&E hit reality series Duck Dynasty, has angered the gay rights group GLAAD with comments he made about homosexuals in the January issue of GQ and has been suspended from the show. When asked what is sinful, the 67-year-old Robertson family patriarch answered, “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there—bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.” Paraphrasing 1Corinthians, he said, “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.” The Duck Dynasty family issued a statement Thursday evening supporting patriarch Phil Robertson and threatening to quit the show if he’s not reinstated.

  • The intolerant gay activists failed to note that Robertson condemned all sexual sin, not just LGBT. But in these anti-Christ, pro-gay end-times any hint of disapproval is widely and loudly condemned.

Judge Strikes Down Utah’s Same-Sex Marriage Ban

A federal judge struck down Utah’s same-sex marriage ban Friday in a decision that brings a growing shift toward allowing gay marriage to a conservative state where the Mormon church has long been against it. U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby issued a 53-page ruling saying Utah’s law passed by voters in 2004 violates gay and lesbian couples’ rights to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment. Shelby said the state failed to show that allowing same-sex marriages would affect opposite-sex marriages in any way. “In the absence of such evidence, the State’s unsupported fears and speculations are insufficient to justify the State’s refusal to dignify the family relationships of its gay and lesbian citizens,” Shelby wrote.

  • The effects of same-sex marriage are not micro but macro, moving the U.S. further and further away from God’s sacrosanct foundation of family structure, clearly delineating the overall decline in end-time morality

School Choir Omits Key Lyrics from ‘Silent Night’

You might wonder why a school choir would even choose to sing “Silent Night” if they intended on cutting key lyrics from the song. But, that’s exactly what happened at Ralph J. Osgood Intermediate School in Long Island, N.Y., reports The Blaze. The Kings Park Central School District has since apologized after parents complained about the missing words during the fifth grade concert. “Christ the Savior is born,” “Holy infant so, tender and mild,” “round yon virgin, mother and child” and “Jesus, Lord at thy birth” were all removed from the student rendition. One parent, Kevin McDonald, spoke to Newsday about the incident. “’Silent Night’ at its core is a religious song. It’s a sacred Christian hymn that tells the story about the birth of Jesus,” he said. “What was performed was inappropriate and disrespectful to the Christian faith.”

  • The absurd lengths that Satan and the anti-Christ spirit will go to is so transparent that it’s mind-boggling that people can’t see it for what it is, but “delusions” have “seared their consciences” just as the Bible foretells. (2Thessalonians 2:11-12, 1Timothy 4:1-2)

Children in Fatherless Families Suffer Wide Range of Negative Consequences

The Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre recently conducted a study on the effects of fatherlessness on children, and the results are startling: The absence of a father during critical growth periods leads to impaired social and behavioral abilities in adults and even causes a misshapen prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision-making and moderating social behavior. Dr. Paul Vitz further shows the adverse effects of fatherlessness, or “defective” fathers, on the social and behavioral skills on prominent atheists in his controversial, updated book, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism. He documents how being disappointed in one’s earthly father, whether through death, absence or mistreatment, often leads to a rejection of God. A biographical survey of influential atheists of the past four centuries — Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, among many others — shows that this “defective father hypothesis” provides a consistent explanation of the “intense atheism” of these thinkers. A survey of the leading defenders of Christianity over the same period — G.K. Chesterton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Edmund Burke, among others — confirms the hypothesis, finding few defective fathers.

Obama Urged to Sharply Curtail N.S.A. Data Mining

A panel of outside advisers urged President Obama on Wednesday to impose major oversight and some restrictions on the National Security Agency, arguing that in the past dozen years its powers had been enhanced at the expense of personal privacy. The panel recommended changes in the way the agency collects the telephone data of Americans, spies on foreign leaders and prepares for cyberattacks abroad. But the most significant recommendation of the panel of five intelligence and legal experts was that Mr. Obama restructure a program in which the N.S.A. systematically collects logs of all American phone calls. The experts briefed Mr. Obama on Wednesday on their 46 recommendations, and a senior administration official said Mr. Obama was “open to many” of the changes.

Budget Deal Wins Final Approval in Senate

The Senate on Wednesday approved a two-year budget deal, sending it to President Obama’s desk and staving off the threat of a partial government shutdown. The bill cleared the Senate on a 64-36 vote. It passed despite the objections of Republican senators to a provision that cuts billions from military retiree benefits. The majority of lawmakers, though, were eager to avoid another budget brawl two months after the last showdown. The bill earlier passed the House on a strong bipartisan vote. The bill would set in place a spending plan for the next two years, while undoing some of the sequester spending cuts — to the chagrin of fiscal conservatives. Unclear is how lawmakers will address a looming deadline, early next year, to raise the debt ceiling.

Obamacare Mandate Relief Criticized by Insurers

Americans whose insurance policies were canceled this year will be excused from paying fees due to the individual mandate, the Department of Health and Human Services said in a letter sent to lawmakers. The Affordable Care Act already included a “hardship exemption,” and several lawmakers had argued that having a policy unexpectedly canceled because it did not fit the coverage requirements of the new law should qualify as a hardship because it comes through no fault of the consumer. Those whose plans were canceled will also be able to buy catastrophic coverage, which previously had been available only to people younger than 30. Those policies tend to cover fewer things and cost less than the policies now required by the law. The move, though, was criticized by the insurance industry as a shift that would cause “tremendous instability.”

Affordable Health Care Not So for Middle Class

The New York Times reports that the Affordable Health Care act clearly benefits those at the low end of the income scale, and rich people can continue to afford even the most generous plans. But many people are caught in the uncomfortable middle: not poor enough for help, but not rich enough to be indifferent to cost. The NYT analysis shows the cost of premiums for people who just miss qualifying for subsidies varies widely across the country and rises rapidly for people in their 50s and 60s. In some places, prices can quickly approach 20 percent of a person’s income. Experts consider health insurance unaffordable once it exceeds 10 percent of annual income. By that measure, a 50-year-old making $50,000 a year, or just above the qualifying limit for assistance, would find the cheapest available plan to be unaffordable in more than 170 counties around the country. Americans scrambling to secure health insurance under the nation’s health-care law must sign up by Monday if they want their new coverage to start on Jan. 1.

Massive Data Breach at Target

Target says that its stores have been hit by a major hack attack involving up to 40 million credit card accounts. The retailer said that the unlawful access to customer information took place between Nov. 27 and Dec.15. Earlier, the Secret Service confirmed that it is investigating the massive data violation involving shoppers’ personal credit-card information. The breach involves the theft of information stored on the magnetic stripe on the backs of cards used at nearly all of Target’s stores around the country. A cybersecurity expert who discovered the breach of credit card information from Target says the stolen information is already being used and those responsible may never be caught.

More Cities Ban Polystyrene Foam

Polystyrene foam – commonly referred to by the brand name Styrofoam — is cheap, strong and light and used in everything from consumer goods packaging to take-out food containers. And it’s increasingly unwelcome in communities across the USA. The New York City Council last week passed a ban on polystyrene foam food containers, as well as the sale of loose polystyrene foam “peanuts” used in packing. Both go into effect July 1, 2015. Albany County, N.Y., passed a law in November banning use of polystyrene foam food containers, joining the ranks of such cities as Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; Seattle; and Amherst, Mass. Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray is also proposing a ban there. The bans are the result of decades-long campaigns by environmental advocates who maintain that it’s not very good for the environment. Polystyrene foam doesn’t break down well, and it’s easily dispersed by the wind creating a litter problem as well.

More US Sailors Sick from Fukushima Radiation

When the USS Ronald Reagan responded to the tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011, Navy sailors including Quartermaster Maurice Enis gladly pitched in with rescue efforts. But months later, while still serving aboard the aircraft carrier, he began to notice strange lumps all over his body. Testing revealed he’d been poisoned with radiation, and his illness would get worse. And his fiance and fellow Reagan quartermaster, Jamie Plym, who also spent several months helping near the Fukushima nuclear power plant, also began to develop frightening symptoms, including chronic bronchitis and hemorrhaging. They and 49 other U.S. Navy members who served aboard the Reagan and sister ship the USS Essex now trace illnesses including thyroid and testicular cancers, leukemia and brain tumors to the time spent aboard the massive ship, whose desalination system pulled in seawater that was used for drinking, cooking and bathing.

Economic News

The U.S. economy grew at a solid 4.1% annual rate from July through September, the fastest pace since late 2011 and significantly higher than previously believed. Much of the upward revision came from stronger consumer spending. The Commerce Department’s final look at growth in the summer was up from a previous estimate of 3.6%. The economy expanded at a 2.5% rate in the second quarter.

Stocks jumped Friday after the government said the economy grew at a faster-than-expected rate in the third quarter, with the key benchmark indexes finishing the day at record highs. The Dow Jones industrial average ended up 48.68 points, 0.3%, to 16,227.76 — a record high. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index closed up 9.09 points, 0.5%, to 1,818.69 — also a record high.

The Federal Reserve finally did what it had hinted about doing way back in May: It announced that it was going to start dialing down, or “tapering,” its market-friendly $85 billion-per-month bond-buying program in January. Starting next month, the nation’s central bank said it would start trimming its purchases by $10 billion per month. Despite fears that the stock market would crumble at the first sign that the Fed’s quantitative easing program, or QE, would start going away, the Dow Jones industrial average rallied 293 points, or 1.8%, to its biggest gain since Oct. 10, and to a new all-time high of 16,167.97. The private economy “has largely completed its healing process,” New York Federal Reserve Bank president William Dudley said.

Persecution Watch

The Archbishop of Baghdad, Louis Raphael I Sako, has called on the West to help put an end to the “mortal exodus” of Christians from the Middle East. Sako, who is also Patriarch of Babylon, told a conference in Rome, “Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives”, that the West must assist the Muslim nations of the Middle East in “modernizing Islam’s approach to religious freedom” and “convince Muslim nations that their repression and persecution of their minority Christian communities is not only harming the Christians, but is harming the societies themselves”. Sako, a keynote speaker at the conference run by the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, said the situation in Iraq over the past 10 years has gone from bad to worse, and that he can see similar situations unfolding in Egypt and Syria. Sako said that more than 100 Egyptian churches have been attacked. In Syria, he said 67 churches have been attacked and 45,000 Christians have left the country.

Iran

A bipartisan group of senators will soon introduce legislation that would level new sanctions against Iran, defying pleas from President Obama for Congress to wait while the administration works toward a comprehensive deal. Lawmakers are circulating legislation to impose additional sanctions that would kick in after the six-month negotiating window to reach a comprehensive deal on Iran’s nuclear program runs out, or if Iran fails to hold up its end of the bargain in the interim.

Iraq

Two roadside bombs exploded at an outdoor market in northern Iraq Friday, killing nine people and wounding 23 others, police said. The blasts occurred in quick succession in Tuz Khurmatou, according to Tikrit police officials. The city is located about 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Baghdad.

Syria

The commander of Syria’s main Western-backed rebel group appealed for unity in the insurgency’s ranks Friday, trying to ease rifts with Islamic extremist rivals ahead of an international peace conference for Syria in January, over which the opposition is sharply divided. In a sign of the bitterness over the talks, the leader of one of the most powerful militant factions, the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, vowed to torpedo the talks and branded as a traitor anyone in the opposition who joins the gathering with the government of President Bashar Assad. The contrasting rhetoric underscored the enormous difficulties that lie ahead even as officials meeting in Geneva confirmed attendance by both the opposition and Assad’s government at the first face to face talks to try and end a savage, 3-year-old war that has killed over 120,000 people and uprooted millions of others.

Egypt

Egypt’s prosecutors have referred ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi to a third trial, on charges of organizing prison breaks during the 2011 uprising and abducting policemen in collaboration with foreign militants. These charges are separate from two other trials that Morsi already faces — over inciting the killings of his opponents and for conspiring with foreign groups to destabilize Egypt. Saturday’s case refers to Morsi’s jailbreak with other Brotherhood leaders that took place in January 2011, during the uprising against his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.

India

India’s foreign minister has demanded that the U.S. drop federal charges against an Indian diplomat who was arrested and strip-searched while being held on visa charges. The demand came one day after a federal prosecutor defended the diplomat’s treatment, saying that she was given coffee and offered food while detained. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said diplomat Devyani Khobragade was afforded courtesies most Americans wouldn’t get — such as being allowed to make phone calls for two hours to arrange child care and sort out personal matters — after she was discreetly arrested by State Department agents outside her children’s Manhattan school. Khobragade was arrested last week on charges she lied on a visa application about how much she paid her housekeeper, an Indian national. Prosecutors say the maid received less than $3 per hour for her work.

Central African Republic

Former rebels in the Central African Republic killed almost 1,000 in a two-day rampage earlier this month, Amnesty International said, as together with Human Rights Watch it warned of a surge in sectarian violence. The country has seen violence and chaos since the Muslim-backed Seleka militia and other rebel groups from the marginalized northeast seized the capital Bangui in March. President Francios Bozize fled to Cameroon, and Michel Djotodia, who had been one of the Seleka leaders, made himself President. Djotodia later officially disbanded the Seleka, but as many as 15,000 kept their arms and instead continued to wreak havoc in Bangui and elsewhere. They mainly targeted Christian communities, which in turn formed their own vigilante group, the anti-balaka (literally “anti-machete”)

South Sudan

Attackers killed two Indian army peacekeepers in South Sudan and wounded a third one in the chest, the United Nations said Friday. In addition at least two of the 30 civilians who took refuge at the United Nations’ Akobo base were killed in the attack Thursday. It may have been as many as 20 who died in that attack U.N. officials estimated. Deadly clashes have raged South Sudan for days after a reported coup attempt in the capital over the weekend. The government of neighboring Kenya will send troops into South Sudan to help evacuate 1,600 Kenyan citizens.

Uganda

A spokeswoman for Uganda’s parliament says lawmakers have passed a long-shelved law that punishes “aggravated homosexuality” with life imprisonment. The new law does not have the death penalty, which was in the draft legislation when it was first introduced in Uganda’s parliament in 2010. The original bill was condemned by world leaders who said it was draconian and United States President Barack Obama described it as “odious.” Homosexuality already had been illegal in Uganda, but the lawmaker who wrote the bill that passed Friday argued that a tough new law was needed because homosexuals from the West threatened to destroy Ugandan families and were allegedly “recruiting” Ugandan children into gay lifestyles.

Philippines

A mayor from the southern Philippines, his wife and two others have been fatally shot in a daring attack at a Manila airport terminal that also wounded four other people. Men on a motorcycle fired at Labangan Mayor Ukol Talumpa and his wife as they stepped out of Terminal 3 on Friday. Gun crime and political violence occur with grim frequency in the Philippines. But the shooting Friday at Terminal 3 of Ninoy Aquino International Airport appeared particularly brazen.

Weather

After several weeks of brutally cold temperatures, eastern residents are in for an early Christmas gift this weekend: The thermometer is forecast to go UP, not down. After weeks of back-to-back winter storms and cold air outbreaks, the pattern will turn to record warmth ahead of a storm system in the nation’s heartland this weekend. Saturday, highs in the 70s will spread as far north as the Nation’s Capital, and 80s will warm much of Florida, south Georgia and south Alabama. Almost 60 locations will flirt with, or break daily record highs Saturday.

A snowstorm blasted northern Utah on Thursday, causing power outages, dozens of traffic accidents and the temporary shutdown of Salt Lake’s airport after a cargo plane slipped on a runway. The storm moved in before dawn with freezing rain, then left 8 inches of snow around Logan before heading south. The system has hovered over Salt Lake County, and forecasters predict the area will see half a foot of snowfall by Saturday.

 

Signs of the Times (12/18/13)

December 18, 2013

Voice of the Martyrs Launches Frontline Ministry Fund

Secret in-country printing… Underground seminaries training house-church pastors… Horses capable of carrying Bibles at high altitudes… Solar-powered video projectors for remote villages… Balloons and parachutes dropping Scripture into restricted nations and dangerous areas… Christian workers willingly serve on the front lines in areas hostile to the gospel. “Our friends often ask us what they can do to directly support our brothers and sisters who faithfully serve Christ in the face of hostility and persecution. In response, The Voice of the Martyrs is officially launching a new designated fund – the Front-Line Ministries Fund. We invite you to stand with your brothers and sisters in Christ around the world who are advancing the kingdom in restricted and hostile nations.

Judge Derails NSA Phone Data Program

A federal judge ruled Monday that the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records likely violates the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable government searches and seizures.in a major setback for the controversial spy agency. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon granted a preliminary injunction against the program, but he also stayed his final decision “pending appeal,” giving the U.S. government time to fight the decision over the next several months. Even after the appeals court rules, the Supreme Court will probably have the last word. The ruling was the first major legal defeat for the NSA since former contractor Edward Snowden began exposing secrets about the NSA’s data collection over the summer.

Federal Judge Strikes Down Part of Utah Law Banning Polygamy

A federal judge on Friday struck down part of a Utah law making polygamy illegal. Family advocates say the ruling, if carried out, will harm children. The family of Kody Brown — made famous by the TLC reality series “Sister Wives” — filed suit against the law in 2011. In his opinion, U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups claims the part of the law making cohabitation illegal violates the Constitution. Jeff Johnston, sexuality and marriage analyst for Focus on the Family, said this case “piggy-backs on same-sex cases that legalize same-sex marriage.” “What these cases do,” he said, “is put adults ahead of the children. That’s the way we’ve moved in our culture — we’ve made marriage more about the wants and needs of adults rather than kids. The judge is just following this ‘logic,’”

Budget Compromise Clears Senate Procedural Hurdle

A federal budget compromise that already passed the U.S. House cleared a key procedural hurdle Tuesday in the Senate, increasing the likelihood it will win final congressional approval this week. President Barack Obama has signaled his support for the plan worked out by the budget committee leaders in each chamber that would guide government spending into 2015 to defuse the chances of another shutdown such as the one that took place in October. Tuesday’s vote overcame a Republican filibuster attempt that required 60 votes in the 100-member chamber to proceed on the budget measure. The count was 67-33, with a dozen Republicans joining the 55 Democrats and independents in support of the plan. Final approval in the Senate requires a simple majority of 51 votes. The budget plan easily passed the House last week on a 332-94 vote.

Six Million Insurance Policies Cancelled

According to Fox News, nearly six million people have had their coverage cancelled since the ACA became because their plans failed to meet the required essential health benefit guidelines, which provide coverage for things like maternity care and ambulatory services. It’s been more than a month since President Obama announced an administrative fix to allow people to keep their cancelled health-care plans through 2014, but that doesn’t mean all policyholders will get their old plan plans back. The president said Americans could keep their plans through 2014 at the discretion of both state regulators and insurance companies and states have had a mixed response to the fix: 30 states said they would allow insurers to re-instate previously-cancelled plans including New Jersey, South Dakota and Texas, 14 states and Washington, D.C. said no to the president’s offer, and five states are still undecided

Hispanics Abandoning Obama

They were among President Obama’s best supporters, but support for the president and his signature health insurance scheme is quickly dying among Hispanics. A recent Gallup poll showed Obama’s approval rating among Hispanic down 23 percent, to 52 percent in November from 75 percent in December 2012. That’s not good news for the president, who is in desperate need of Hispanic support for the Affordable Care Act. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation report found that Hispanics account for 32 percent of the nation’s non-elderly uninsured population — just the group he needs to buy into Obamacare to make it a success. But the Spanish language website, cuidadodesalud.gov, isn’t finished. The pages where customers select a plan are still in English. And then there’s a lack of general information with many Hispanics not even knowing about the healthcare law.

29 Mass Killings, 147 Victims in 2013

In the year since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School horrified the world and prompted calls for laws that would prevent mass killings, little has changed. The violence and victims in 2013 are in line with the average since 2006 — 29 mass killings and 147 victims a year, according to an exclusive USA TODAY database. The perception of a dramatic increase is understandable given the attention killings receive, says criminologist James Alan Fox, professor of criminology at Northeastern University and co-author of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. Mass killings account for just 1% of all murders nationally.

Colorado Sheriffs Refuse to Enforce New Gun Laws

Colorado’s package of gun laws, enacted this year after mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., has been hailed as a victory by advocates of gun control. But if a majority of the other county sheriffs in Colorado offer any indication, the new laws — which mandate background checks for private gun transfers and outlaw magazines over 15 rounds — may prove nearly irrelevant across much of the state’s rural regions. Some sheriffs are refusing to enforce the laws, saying that they are too vague and violate Second Amendment rights. Many more say that enforcement will be “a very low priority,” as several sheriffs put it. All but seven of the 62 elected sheriffs in Colorado signed on in May to a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the statutes. The resistance of sheriffs in Colorado is playing out in other states, raising questions about whether tougher rules passed since Newtown will have a muted effect in parts of the American heartland, where gun ownership is common and grass-roots opposition to tighter restrictions is high.

North Dakota Sees Surge in Homeless Population

The oil boom in North Dakota has created tens of thousands of jobs, but its homeless population is skyrocketing with willing workers unable to find housing. While homelessness nationwide has declined in the past year, the number of people living in shelters or on the streets in North Dakota has tripled to 2,069. And that increase is likely understated since it doesn’t count all the homeless people who are staying in motels, RVs or other people’s homes. Meanwhile, North Dakota has become the nation’s second largest oil producing state, boasting the fastest-growing economy in the country. The oil companies have been hiring like crazy, paying high wages to those who are willing to relocate. The town of Williston, which is at the center of the action, has seen its population more than double from 14,715 people in 2010 to 33,547 last year as workers flock to the area. Unemployment is around 1% in Williston and less than 3% in North Dakota as a whole — compared to 7% nationwide. And while a number of new housing developments are in the works, they’re not coming online fast enough to keep up with the number of people who need housing.

Economic News

Rising home prices helped lift 4.2 million U.S. homeowners out of underwater territory on their home loans in the past year. As of the third quarter, 6.4 million homeowners with a mortgage still owed more on their homes than they were worth. That’s down almost 40% from 10.6 million a year earlier. Almost 13% of homeowners with a mortgage still in negative equity territory. In the third quarter, Nevada had the highest percentage of mortgaged properties in negative equity at 32.2%, followed by Florida, 28.8%, Arizona, 22.5%, Ohio, 18% and Georgia, 17.8%.

The cost of living was unchanged last month as lower gas prices saved Americans money and offset price increases elsewhere, the government reported Tuesday. November’s unchanged inflation rate followed a 0.1% drop for October in the Consumer Price Index. Consumer prices overall have risen 1.2% for the past 12 months. The so-called core inflation index, which excludes volatile food and energy prices, rose 0.2% in November and has increased 1.7% for the past 12 months.

TD Ameritrade’s Self-Employment and Retirement Survey found that 40% of the self-employed are not saving regularly for retirement, and 28% are not saving at all. The problem plagued all age groups: 29% of Generation X and 32% of Generation Y who were self-employed are not saving for retirement.

Holiday shoppers are busy online, while physical stores have some work to do to salvage what has been a challenging season so far, retail experts said Monday. Channel Advisor clients are generating same-store sales growth of more than 30% on Amazon.com so far this holiday, compared to the same period last year. On eBay, that number has been in the mid-20% range. In contrast, physical store retailers have had a tougher holiday season so far, with sales lagging a few percentage points behind last year.

Persecution Watch

It is estimated there are only 330,000 Christians left in Iraq, as many have fled the country due to violence and persecution. Pastor Tariq* tells Open Doors that “churches are targets for terrorists, especially on Christmas Day. Many Christians stay home because they are too afraid.” Tariq and Human*, another pastor, say that in the past, many families would purchase a Christmas tree, decorate the house and make special food. They would also buy new clothes and visit relatives and friends. However, because the situation is worsening in Iraq, they can’t do these activities anymore.

Three Coptic Christians in Egypt were given long prison sentences on Sunday over the death of a Muslim in a sectarian clash even though no one has been prosecuted in the deaths of at least five Christians in the same clash, raising allegations that the military-backed government was breaking its promise to curb bias against Christians. Beshoy Tamry, a Coptic Christian activist with the Maspero Youth Union, said many Christians had hoped for more equitable treatment after Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted in July. “But today proved that nothing changed,” he said. “The regime has not changed its system of using the judiciary against Christians.”

Lebanon

The government of Lebanon cried out to the world for help Monday over the strain the civil war in neighboring Syria is putting on its country. It needs a record amount of cash. The exodus of people fleeing lives and homes ripped apart by bombs and bullets for the safety of Lebanon does not appear ready to abate anytime soon. Aid workers from 60 agencies need more money than ever to tackle the mounting humanitarian crisis. And the coffers are nearly empty. Next year’s budget is only 5% funded so far, the United Nations says. The government in Beirut made an official plea for donations to help cover the $1.89 billion the U.N. thinks is needed to cover a projected 4 million Syrian civil war refugees and the communities they have flooded into.

Iran

Iran said Saturday it has successfully sent a monkey into space for a second time, part of an ambitious program aimed at manned space flight. The launch of the rocket was Iran’s first use of liquid fuel. It reached a height of 72 miles. It said the monkey was returned to earth safely. Iran frequently claims technological breakthroughs that are impossible to independently verify. The Islamic Republic has said it aims to send an astronaut into space.

Iraq

Another day of widespread violence has left at least 25 people dead across Iraq on Monday. At least four Iraqi police officers were killed and four others wounded when a car bomb exploded outside a police station in Baiji. Minutes after the initial explosion, gunmen stormed the station and clashes erupted between them and Iraqi security forces. At least four Iraqi soldiers were killed and four others were wounded when a suicide car bomber attacked a military base in Azham. Also Monday, militants stormed Tikrit’s city council building, clashed with Iraqi security forces and occupied the facility for a time. There are hostages and an unknown number of casualties. Local authorities have imposed a curfew in the city until further notice.

Yemen

Militants staged a deadly attack on Yemen’s Defense Ministry on Thursday, ramming the building with an explosives-laden vehicle, followed by gunmen who battled security forces inside. At least 52 people died in the attack in the capital, Sanaa, which targeted a military hospital. A Defense Ministry official said four foreign doctors were among the dead. Also, a relative of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi died in the attack. Yemen is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, believed by many analysts to be the most dangerous affiliate of the terror network. The impoverished Middle Eastern nation also faces a growing separatist movement in the south and is frequently wracked by violence.

South Sudan

Fighting in South Sudan has killed up to 500 people, U.N. diplomats said Tuesday, and the United Nations fears the violence in the oil-rich East African country is “largely along ethnic lines.” The United States ordered its citizens to leave South Sudan immediately. The president of South Sudan, which is also the world’s newest country, has blamed the violence on a coup attempt Sunday by soldiers loyal to his former deputy, who belongs to a different ethnic group. As many as 20,000 people have taken refuge with the U.N. mission in the capital, Juba. South Sudan has been plagued by ethnic tension since it broke away from Sudan in 2011.

China

Chinese state media say 16 people were killed when assailants attacked police officers in the restive western region of Xinjiang. Two police officers died in the attack while 14 attackers were shot and killed. Another two assailants were arrested. Xinjiang has long been home to a simmering rebellion against Chinese rule among parts of the Muslim Uighur population.

Ukraine

Russia will buy Ukrainian debt and slash the price Kiev pays for its gas, President Vladimir Putin says, throwing an economic lifeline to its neighbor, rattled by protests calling for closer economic ties with Europe instead. Amid a backdrop of continuous demonstrations in Kiev, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych met Putin in Moscow on Tuesday, where the deal was announced. They agreed on a joint economic plan of action, covering areas such as industry, agriculture, defense, construction and transport. Under the deal, Putin said Moscow would buy $15 billion in Ukrainian debt by investing in its national welfare fund. In addition, the cost of Russian gas supplied to Ukraine was cut from more than $400 per 1,000 cubic meters to $268.50.

Chile

Michelle Bachelet’s landslide presidential victory was the biggest in eight decades, yet turnout was the lowest since Chile’s return to democracy, suggesting she’ll lack a clear mandate to push for radical change when she begins her second turn in the office next year. Bachelet, a moderate socialist, ended her 2006-10 presidency with 84% approval ratings despite failing to achieve any major changes. This time, Chilean leftists vow to hold her to her promises, which include a $15 billion spending program to overhaul education, improve health care and reduce the vast gap between rich and poor.

Wildfires

A wildfire burning near the Central California coastline had destroyed 15 homes and grew to more than 500 acres in size late Monday. The so-called Pfeiffer Fire was sparked at around midnight Monday in the Los Padres National Forest and had grown as large as 550 acres by sunrise. No injuries were reported, but the fire spread quickly across the landscape near the Big Sur region, which is in the midst of one of the driest years in its history. Wildfires are rare occurrences so late in the year. The slow-moving fire near state Highway 1 had consumed 769 acres, or a little over a square mile, by Tuesday night and was 20 percent contained.

Weather

A winter storm whipped the Northeast over the weekend with six to sixteen inches of snow. Albany got at least 12 inches, the weather service said; the storm left another 16 inches in Biddeford, Maine. The storm spared major metropolitan areas like Boston and New York City, but some areas in Maine and along the U.S.-Canada border saw significant snow. The eastward-moving storm dropped snow earlier across the Midwest and western Pennsylvania, with 9 inches reported in Urbana, Illinois. On Tuesday, much of the northeast escaped with up to a few inches of snow, but totals were much higher in Boston and northern New England, where snow fell late into the night, causing slippery conditions, minor accidents and delays.

  • Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of distress, for the day of war and battle?” Job 38: 22-23

Meanwhile, record high temperatures were recorded in Phoenix and Tucson Arizona, both at 83 degrees Tuesday. Further south, Argentina’s power grid was unable to handle the extreme heat Tuesday. Power outages are plaguing Buenos Aires as temperatures soar above 95 degrees (35 Celsius) and everyone tries to turn on their air conditioners at once. Thousands in the capital and its suburbs are without power or water, since many buildings depend on pumps for water pressure. Government critics say years of energy subsidies and price freezes have left the industry unprofitable and unwilling to invest in improvements to the system.

Fueled primarily by phenomenal warmth in Russia, the Earth as a whole had its warmest November on record, according to data released Tuesday by scientists at the National Climatic Data Center. Russia had its warmest November since national records began in 1891. The USA, and much of North America, was one of the only parts of the world that was cooler than average. In November, the USA was 0.3 degree below average. November marked the 345th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th-century average.

Flooding from heavy rains forced some 40,000 Gaza Strip residents from their homes Saturday, including thousands who were taken to safety in boats and military trucks. The downpour that began late Wednesday was part of a storm that covered parts of Israel and the West Bank with snow, paralyzed Jerusalem and left thousands in Israel without power. Israeli TV stations showed footage of armored personnel carriers rescuing motorists and said it was the most severe snow storm in decades. Even Gaza with its milder coastal climate saw some snow, though lower-lying areas were mainly hit by flooding. Rescue efforts were hampered by fuel shortages and rolling power cuts that have become more severe in recent months, since Egypt tightened a border blockade of the territory, ruled by the Islamic militant Hamas since 2007.

Signs of the Times (12/14/13)

December 14, 2013

Planned Parenthood Report: $540 Million in Tax Dollars, 327,000 Abortions

National pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List released a fact sheet on information Wednesday from Planned Parenthood’s latest fiscal year report, revealing that while Planned Parenthood’s abortion rate declined by 2 percent, abortions still accounted for 93.8 percent of Planned Parenthood’s pregnancy services. Prenatal care services dropped 32 percent in one year, and 52 percent since 2009. Adoption referrals are also down 4.5 percent in one year. In 2012, Planned Parenthood performed 327,166 abortions, a 2% drop from 2011. In 2002, Planned Parenthood performed 227,385 abortions, meaning they perform 100,000 more abortions than they did 10 years ago. For every adoption referral, Planned Parenthood performed 149 abortions. The fact sheet also details Planned Parenthood’s finances, showing that during fiscal year 2012-2013, Planned Parenthood reported receiving $540.6 million in taxpayer funding, with $58.2 million in excess revenue, and more than $1.3 billion in net assets.

Catholic Bishop Defies Pope, Calls Mandela’s Support for Abortion ‘Shameful’

The Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence, R.I., says that while there’s much to admire in Nelson Mandela’s life and public service, the former South African president’s support for abortion was “shameful.” Bishop Thomas Tobin, in a statement posted Sunday on the diocesan website, criticized Mandela’s decision in 1996 to sign legislation liberalizing South Africa’s abortion laws. Tobin wrote, “We can only regret that his noble defense of human dignity did not include the youngest members of our human family, unborn children.” Tobin’s comments stand in contrast to those of Pope Francis, who in a telegram to South African President Jacob Zuma last week praised Mandela’s steadfast commitment to “promoting the human dignity of all” his nation’s citizens.

Judge Orders Mountain-Top Cross Removal

A giant cross that has stood on a Southern California mountain for decades must be removed because it violates the constitutional separation of church and state, a judge ordered this week. The order Thursday by U.S. District Judge Larry Burns continues a long legal battle about the 43-foot cross atop Mt. Soledad in San Diego. Burns ordered that the cross would have to be removed within 90 days. But the cross may be able to stay if the case is appealed. Bruce Bailey, president of the Mount Soledad Memorial Association, said his organization plans to appeal, which would mean the cross would stay as the decades-long legal battle continued.

Kansas City Prayer Booths Reducing Crime

The Christian Post reports that Kansas City has installed “prayer phone booths” throughout its city to encourage residents to take time to kneel and pray throughout their day. The booths come equipped with a lowering kneel bar and instructions so passerby may use the device properly, and one local media outlet has noted that the booths’ presence in inner city areas is proportional to the decrease in crime rate. Citizens of Kansas City reportedly lobbied city council for the “prayer booths” to be placed around the city on public park space as “public service monuments of arts and counseling to the people of Kansas City.” Since their installment a couple months ago, the prayer booths have reportedly been used 100,000 times per week. According to Topeka News, some of the booths were installed in inner city areas with high crime rates several years ago, and city data confirms that crime has reportedly reduced in those areas in a proportionate manner to the number of people using the prayer booths. The booths are advertised to passersby as being nondenominational. There is a clear “warning” sign on the booth that states that although they may be used for religious purposes, the city is not forcing or condoning any religious participation.

1300 Weapons Recovered in Dominican Republic Guns-for-Bibles Program

Evangelicals and local authorities are asking some residents of violent Dominican Republic neighborhoods to put down their weapons and pick up a Bible. Santo Domingo authorities recovered more than 1,300 firearms, knives, and machetes in communities known for corruption and violence, in a guns-for-Bibles program, aimed at reducing the country’s crime rate.  Church leaders went into some dangerous neighborhoods to spread the word of God to gangsters and other criminals as part of the recent month-long initiative. The government has resorted to deploying military forces to patrol the streets to aid local authorities in several of the country’s crime-ridden cities.

HHS Obstructing Congressional Investigation of Healthcare.gov

The Health and Human Services Department has told contractors working on the problem-plagued ObamaCare website not to release documents to congressional investigators, a mandate slammed as “criminal obstruction” by House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa. The Dec. 6 letter from CMS official Daniel Kane says that although the department understands Congress’ need for documents to continue its probe into the issues with Healthcare.gov, the agency is concerned about security risks from releasing testing information to third parties. The letter was sent after the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee contacted 11 of the top contractors on the ObamaCare website as part of its investigation into its problems.

Insurance companies and health officials analyzing insurance applications submitted through HealthCare.gov are reportedly still grappling with significant online enrollment errors despite the Obama administration’s push in November to improve the glitch-ridden website. Thousands of applicants from the federally-run ObamaCare website have received inaccurate assignments to Medicaid or to the private marketplace, or have received incorrect denials, The Wall Street Journal reported late Friday.

Health Sign-Up Pace Still Lagging

With time running short, the nation’s health-care rolls still aren’t filling up fast enough. New sign-up numbers Wednesday showed progress for President Barack Obama’s health-care law, but not enough to guarantee that Americans who want and need coverage by Jan. 1 will be able to get it. Crunch time is now, as people face a Dec. 23 deadline to sign up if they are to have coverage by New Year’s Day. The Health and Human Services Department reported that 364,682 people had signed up for private coverage under the law as of Nov. 30. That is more than three times the October figure but still less than one-third of the 1.2 million that officials had projected would enroll nationwide by the end of November. The administration’s overall goal is to sign up 7 million people by March 31, when open enrollment ends.

Budget Deal Could Prevent Another Shutdown

Congressional negotiators reached a bipartisan budget compromise on Tuesday that would prevent another government shutdown, if approved by the House and Senate. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said Tuesday the deal with his Senate counterpart, Patty Murray, would set spending levels, reduce the deficit, and relieve some of the arbitrary, forced spending cuts — known as sequestration. The pair found common ground just days before a Friday deadline to settle the matter. President Barack Obama called the development a good first step. Both the House and Senate must still weigh in, but opponents in both parties immediately raised concerns about the agreement, which, if passed by Congress, would mark a significant departure from repeated budget showdowns in recent years.

The proposal will raise 2014 spending for the full fiscal year to $1.012 trillion. It would save $85 billion while eliminating $63 billion in forced spending cuts to the military and other programs through sequestration to achieve total deficit reduction of $23 billion. Specifically, it rolls back sequestration cuts to education, medical research, infrastructure investments, and defense jobs for the next two years. The deal did not include a proposal to extend unemployment benefits, which Democrats were pushing for this week. The Republican-dominated House of Representatives passed the compromise spending plan Thursday easing across-the-board federal spending cuts and designed to prevent future government shutdowns.

Economic News

Wholesale prices dropped in November for the third consecutive month, pushed down by cheaper gasoline and home heating oil costs. The Labor Department says the producer price index, which measures prices before they reach the consumer, declined 0.1% in November. This comes after decreases in October and September. Gas costs tumbled 0.7% last month after a steep drop in October. The costs for new cars also fell 0.8% in November. Energy costs have kept inflation low over the past 12 months. Prices have risen just 0.7% in that period. Excluding volatile energy and food prices, wholesale costs increased 0.1% in November and 1.3% in the past 12 months.

It’s not looking good for 1.3 million long-term unemployed workers who were overlooked by a budget deal reached by key lawmakers late Tuesday. Federal unemployment benefits will expire on Dec. 28. And with the House scheduled to leave town for the year this Friday, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that Congress will agree to extend the recession-era program that fills the gap when state unemployment insurance runs out for workers who can’t find a job. Extending benefits is a priority for Democrats and President Obama, but most Republicans have been cool to the idea.

Persecution Watch

A pastor and his two young sons were among at least 400 people killed in the worst outbreak of violence to rock the Central African Republic (CAR) since a coup by Islamist rebels in March. As the carnage continued over three days of fighting, thousands of Christian civilians fled their homes, many seeking refuge at Bangui airport, which is being guarded by French forces. Two thousand Christians sought refuge at the Central African Republic’s airport, fleeing violence from mostly Muslim ex-rebels. The French military, which controls the Bangui airport, guarded the area as the Christians sought safety from Seleka soldiers with machetes and guns. The UN Security Council had passed a motion last week to allow the French to protect civilians in the country from the violence, which is considered to be the worst the nation has seen since March. Approximately 2,000 Central Africans took refuge at the airport— and that most, if not all, were Christian.

Christian leaders in Tanzania are in mounting danger and also facing opposition from the authorities; a youth worker was hacked to death in a brutal machete attack, while several pastors are facing false criminal charges. Eliya Meshack was killed while leading an overnight prayer session in Gilgal Christian Worship Centre in the Ilemela district of Mwanza province. He died on the spot, while two other Christians were seriously injured. Eliya’s wife Marry said that they had been receiving threats for more than six months, which they reported to the police, but no action was taken. A number of church leaders have been killed or injured in violent attacks this year.

Iran

More than two weeks after a landmark deal with Iran, House Republicans and Democrats called the Obama administration’s approach to nuclear negotiations naive and signaled that they will slap more sanctions on the country despite warnings that doing so would torpedo the United States’ best chance in years at rapprochement. Secretary of State John F. Kerry appeared to make no headway Tuesday in an urgent appeal to Congress to hold off on new sanctions. A bipartisan lineup of House lawmakers challenged his assertion that punitive new trade measures would undermine fragile diplomacy with Iran’s government. Even Democrats who applauded the administration’s diplomatic overture to Iran said they wanted to hedge their bets by maintaining sanctions pressure on the country. Iran ha quit nuclear talks with the major powers on Friday, accusing Washington on Friday of going against the spirit of a landmark agreement reached last month by expanding its sanctions blacklist.

The public is reacting skeptically to last month’s multilateral agreement aimed at freezing parts of Iran’s nuclear program. Overall, more disapprove than approve of the deal, and there continues to be broad skepticism about whether Iranian leaders are serious about addressing international concerns over the country’s nuclear program. The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center and USA TODAY, conducted Dec. 3-8 among 2,001 adults, finds that 43% disapprove of the agreement between the U.S. and Iran over its nuclear program, 32% approve of the deal, while 25% do not offer an opinion. The public’s doubts about the intentions of Iran’s leaders are as high as they were last month before the nuclear agreement. By roughly two-to-one (62% to 29%), those who have heard at least a little about the agreement say Iran’s leaders are not serious about addressing concerns over the country’s nuclear program.

Syria

Influencing events in Syria just got a lot harder for the Obama administration and its allies. Despite receiving months of training, diplomatic support and aid from the West, the Free Syrian Army’s command has lost control of its headquarters and supply depots in northern Syria to the recently formed Islamic Front — another sign that the balance among rebel forces is tipping toward Islamic militant groups away from more secular brigades. There are conflicting reports about just how they were taken over and what they held. The head of the SMC, Gen. Salim Idris, told CNN that only food and other humanitarian supplies were taken; other FSA officials say guns and two tons of ammunition were removed.

Yemen

A U.S. drone mistakenly targeted a wedding convoy in Yemen’s al-Baitha province after intelligence reports identified the vehicles as carrying al Qaeda militants, two Yemeni national security officials told CNN on Thursday. The officials said that 14 people were killed and 22 others injured, nine in critical condition. “This was a tragic mistake and comes at a very critical time. None of the killed was a wanted suspect by the Yemeni government,” said a top Yemeni national security official. Residents in Radda were outraged about the attack and called on the Yemeni government to put an end of drone strikes in their region.

Australia

For five days, same-sex couples could get married in Australia’s capital city of Canberra. But that fleeting window was slammed shut Thursday by the Australian High Court, which ruled that a recent local law legalizing same-sex marriage was invalid. That means that the marriages of the couples who took advantage of the law to tie the knot — 27 according to local media — will be annulled. The high court said Thursday that the federal Marriage Act, which doesn’t permit same-sex marriage, takes precedence over the law passed by the legislative assembly in Canberra.

India

India’s Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a 2009 lower court decision to decriminalize homosexuality, dealing a blow to gay activists who have fought for years for the chance to live openly in India’s deeply conservative society. The judges said only lawmakers and not the courts could change a colonial-era law criminalizing homosexuality. Lawyers and supporters of gays, lesbians and transsexuals vowed to continue pressing for the removal of the law, which they say encourages discrimination, even if it is rarely invoked by prosecutors.

Uruguay

The passage of a landmark marijuana legalization measure Tuesday means Uruguay is set to become the first country in the world to have a system regulating legal production, sale and consumption of the drug. It places the South American country at the vanguard of liberal drug policies, surpassing even the Netherlands, where recreational drugs are illegal but a policy of tolerance is in place. The proposed law would allow individuals to grow up to six plants of marijuana and possess as many as 480 grams for personal use. Marijuana clubs of anywhere from 15 to 45 members would also be allowed and granted permission to grow up to 99 plants at a time. Users would have to register, and those claiming to use cannabis for medical reasons would have to show a doctor’s prescription. Marijuana would also be sold at licensed pharmacies. Conservative critics of the measure have said it promotes drug addiction.

Ukraine

Riot police moved in on pro-Western protesters in the center of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, with force in the early hours of Wednesday, leading to reports of injuries on both sides. Hundreds of officers used chainsaws and brute force to tear down barricades put up by demonstrators around the city’s Independence Square, or Maidan, which has been the focus of protests. The demonstrators are angry at the refusal of Ukraine’s Russian-allied president, Viktor Yanukovych, to sign an agreement that would strengthen cooperation with the European Union. Protesters have been gathering around the clock to demand the resignation of the government in a crisis that threatens the leadership of President Viktor Yanukovych. Earlier Thursday, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told reporters Ukraine’s leader intended to sign a deal for closer ties with the union.

China

China’s first lunar rover is expected to land on the moon on Saturday, less than two weeks after it blasted off from Earth, according to Chinese media reports. The landing will make China one of only three nations — after the United States and the former Soviet Union — to “soft-land” on the moon’s surface, and the first to do so in more than three decades. On landing, Chang’e-3 will release Jade Rabbit (called Yutu in Chinese) — a six-wheeled lunar rover equipped with at least four cameras and two mechanical legs that can dig up soil samples to a depth of 30 meters. The solar-powered rover will patrol the moon’s surface, studying the structure of the lunar crust as well as soil and rocks, for at least three months.

Environment

The federal government is getting involved in the fight against citrus greening disease, in hopes of saving Florida’s, and possibly the entire nation’s citrus crop. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Thursday that it’s creating an “emergency response framework” to battle citrus greening. It will gather various groups, agencies and experts to coordinate and focus federal research on fighting the disease. The citrus greening bacteria, which is spread by an insect, causes trees to produce green, disfigured and bitter fruits by altering nutrient flow to the tree, eventually killing it. It threatens Florida’s $9 billion citrus industry. Growers and scientists suspect that many of Florida’s 69 million citrus trees are infected, with some estimates as high as 75 percent. This year’s orange crop is expected to be the smallest in 24 years, largely due to greening.

Weather

Utilities, airports and road crews are on high alert as wintry weather heads toward the Northeast again, bringing with it ice and perhaps a foot or more of snow in parts of New England. The storm, which was forecast to move from the Ohio into New England over the course of the weekend is likely to affect travel and shoppers looking to hit stores as Christmas approaches. The National Weather Service said 6 to 12 inches of snow are expected from Saturday to Sunday in New England. It said up to 14 inches are possible along the Maine coast.

A snowstorm forced a lockdown in Jerusalem on Friday, with police blocking access to and from the ancient city, while Egypt’s main ports on the Mediterranean and the Red Sea remained closed for the third straight day due to bad weather. Israelis were told over media and public broadcasts on Friday not to enter or leave Jerusalem and some 1,500 people were evacuated from stranded vehicles overnight. Rare snow also fell in Cairo’s suburbs, the port city of Alexandria and a blanket of white covered St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai. The cold weather was part of a storm which has been pounding much of Lebanon and parts of northern Syria since Wednesday, pushing temperatures below zero and dumping snow and heavy rains. The snow has heaped another layer of misery on the already grim existence of many of the more than 2 million Syrians who have fled the civil war raging in their homeland.

The rapid melting in the Arctic eased up this year. Overall Arctic temperatures didn’t soar quite as high, and Greenland ice sheets and summer sea ice didn’t melt as much. However, Central Alaska’s summer was one of the warmest on record, coming months after its coldest April since 1924, NOAA said. Fairbanks experienced a record 36 days of more than 80 degrees. And snow cover in May and June was near record low levels in North America and broke a record for the least snow in Eurasia.

Signs of the Times (12/10/13)

December 10, 2013

Kansas City School Bans Christian Posters, Allows Profane Ones

OneNewsNow.com reports that the Alliance Defending Freedom organization has stepped in and filed a lawsuit on behalf of a seventh-grader who was confronted at a school dance by a school counselor who traumatized the student by telling her what she was doing was “illegal.” According to ADF, officials at Robert E. Clark Middle School destroyed the flyers after tearing them down, resulting in only a few students getting word of the September event. “That negative response from the school – being pulled out, called out at a dance and reprimanded for putting up your posters when everything else under the sun has been allowed – absolutely was traumatic for her,” says Matt Sharp, ADF legal counsel. A variety of posted material can be found on the campus, says ADF, including a hand-made poster of a tombstone with the letters “R.I.P.” and a poster of rap artist Lil Wayne with the words “Good Kush and Alcohol” – a reference to one of his profanity-laden songs that demeans women and glorifies sexual promiscuity.

  • The anti-Christ spirit has blinded unbelievers to such an extent that they can no longer see or understand the ludicrousness of their hostile antipathy.

Judge Rules Baker Must Provide Wedding Services to Gay Couples despite Religious Convictions

A Denver baker who adamantly refused to provide a cake for a same-sex wedding must offer his services to gay couples, a judge ruled last Friday. Judge Robert N. Spencer said Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips must comply with the order despite his religious beliefs or pay fines, according to the Associated Press. The order reportedly said his shop discriminated against a couple “because of their sexual orientation by refusing to sell them a wedding cake for their same-sex marriage.” The baker’s lawyer, however, said the order forces him to violate his religious beliefs. Nicolle Martin, an attorney for Masterpiece Cakeshop, said the judge’s order puts Phillips in an impossible position of having to choose between making a living and adhering to his Christian faith.

School Bans Christmas and the Colors Red & Green

Godfatherpolitics.com writes, “Progress report from the front lines of the war on Christmas — you know, the war that according to atheists, leftists and the lamestream media doesn’t exist? An elementary school in Frisco, Texas, under the pretense of not offending anyone, has banned talk of Christmas or the wearing of red and green from its annual ‘Winter Party.’ In an email, Nichols Elementary School’s PTA told parents that children attending the Winter Party would be forbidden from mentioning Christmas or any other religious holiday, wearing red or green, or displaying Christmas trees. Not only is the school being politically hyper-correct, it’s also breaking Texas’ “Merry Christmas Law,” which was passed to prevent just this sort of liberal nonsense.”

Supreme Court to Decide Obamacare Abortion Mandate

The American Center for Law & Justice is challenging Obamacare’s mandate for health insurance to cover the Plan B, morning-after abortion pill. The ACLJ says, “The Obama Administration’s abortion-pill mandate represents one of the worst violations of religious liberty in our nation’s history. President Obama’s edict forcing Americans to violate their faith – to pay for life-ending abortion pills – is blatantly unconstitutional. The ACLJ has been challenging the HHS Mandate since day one – successfully stopping enforcement against our clients in all seven of our cases. Now, one of our cases is pending before the Supreme Court, and the high Court will decide the fate of the Mandate. We are preparing to file one of the most important Supreme Court amicus briefs in ACLJ history.”

Planned Parenthood Pushes Sex Ed on Five-Year-Olds in New Zealand

The New Zealand Family Planning Association is an affiliate of the International Planned Parenthood Federation [IPPF]. The NZFPA wants five year olds to know what a condom is. Lifenews.com observes, “We are now depriving very young children of their innocence and initiating them into the web of sexualization that permeates our society. The Federation is at the forefront of promoting a worldwide culture of death. Family Planning proclaims that they support the right of women to choose, this is a lie. The China Family Planning Association is a member of the IPPF. The IPPF supports China’s one child family planning policy with forced abortions, sterilizations and imprisonment for those who dare violate this policy.”

Congress Races against End-of-Year Clock

Payments to doctors, the price of milk, long-term jobless benefits and more are all on the line this week as lawmakers scramble to beat several end-of-year deadlines — and all by Friday. Though Dec. 31 is still a few weeks away, congressional sources say the House plans to adjourn at the end of this week. With the Senate returning from its latest recess on Monday that leaves just five days when both chambers are in session. After a year in which little was accomplished even by congressional standards, the deadlines are piling up. Lawmakers are also facing a Jan. 15 deadline to pass a budget or risk another partial government shutdown, though congressional negotiators reportedly are closing in on a possible deal. Long-term unemployment aid, a prickly issue on the Hill, is expected to expire on Dec. 28 for 1.3 million workers who’ve been without a job for longer than six months. Ahead of a very busy week, congressional leaders got to work trading blame for the lack of progress to date.

Obama: Final Iran Deal Less Than ‘50/50’

President Obama said Saturday that he believed that the chances of a final, comprehensive nuclear agreement being struck with Iran are less than 50-50.  However, Obama defended the interim deal struck between the U.S., Iran, and five other world powers last month in Geneva, saying that diplomacy had to be tested as a solution to the crisis and was the best way to prevent Tehran from acquiring automatic weapons. The president’s remark was startling. Obama has tried to allay the fears of many Israelis and some Americans that his administration last month promised to ease economic pressure too much in return for too few Iranian concessions. The comment nevertheless pointed to the difficult talks that await as the U.S. and its negotiating partners — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — work toward a final pact next year.

  • Diplomacy only aids and abets a rogue nation hell-bent on destroying Israel and establishing Islam as the world’s religion through violent force

Tech Giants Form Coalition against NSA Snooping

Torched by disclosures the National Security Agency tapped into its data and spied on people and businesses, some of tech’s biggest names have banded together to form what is essentially an anti-NSA coalition. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo lead the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, announced late tonight, to rein in the vast tentacles of the NSA and — perhaps — salve the worries of privacy-conscious consumers. The coalition hopes to limit the federal government’s authority to collect user information, protect citizens’ privacy, and impose more legislative oversight and accountability of organizations like the NSA. Each of the participating companies — which also include LinkedIn and AOL — have taken technological, legal and PR steps to assure customers that their personal information is safe, in hopes of preserving their brand names and not losing business in the U.S. and abroad. That may be the case in China, where IBM, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and, most notably, Cisco Systems have reported substantial drops in sales since the NSA surveillance program came to light.

More Obamacare Website Woes

The federal health care exchange is incorrectly determining that some people are eligible for Medicaid when they clearly are not, leaving them with little chance to get the subsidized insurance they are entitled to as the Dec. 23 deadline for enrollment approaches. When consumers applying for insurance put their income information into subsidy calculators on HealthCare.gov — the exchange handling insurance sales for 36 states — it tells them how much financial assistance they qualify for or that they are eligible for Medicaid. If it’s the latter, consumers aren’t able to obtain subsidies toward the insurance, although they could buy full-priced plans. Brokers are reporting that some of their clients are in insurance limbo as they wait for the error to be corrected by HHS or their states so they can reapply.

For months, the Obama administration has heralded the low premiums of medical insurance policies on sale in the insurance exchanges created by the new health law. But as consumers dig into the details, they are finding that the deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs are often much higher than what is typical in employer-sponsored health plans, reports the New York Times. Until now, it was almost impossible for people using the federal health care website to see the deductible amounts, which consumers pay before coverage kicks in. But federal officials finally relented last week and added a “window shopping” feature that displays data on deductibles.

Calif. Health Exchange Shares Consumers’ Data Without Permission

The California health exchange has admitted it has been divulging contact information for tens of thousands of consumers to insurance agents without their permission or knowledge in an effort to hit deadlines for coverage. Covered California said it was handing out consumer information as part of a pilot program to help people enroll ahead of a Dec. 23 deadline to have health insurance in place by the new year, according to the Los Angeles Times. The consumers in question had gone online to research insurance options, but didn’t ask to be contacted. Social Security numbers, income and other information were not provided to the agents, but names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses were made available, exchange officials said.

  • Online data is never truly private or safe, but government giveaways of personal info is outrageous

NSA Not Only Agency Tracking Cellphone Data

The National Security Agency isn’t the only government entity secretly collecting data from people’s cellphones. Local police are increasingly scooping it up, too. Armed with new technologies, including mobile devices that tap into cellphone data in real time, dozens of local and state police agencies are capturing information about thousands of cellphone users at a time, whether they are targets of an investigation or not, according to public records obtained by USA TODAY,

About one in four law-enforcement agencies have used a tactic known as a “tower dump,” which gives police data about the identity, activity and location of any phone that connects to the targeted cellphone towers over a set span of time, usually an hour or two. A typical dump covers multiple towers, and wireless providers, and can net information from thousands of phones. At least 25 police departments own a Stingray, a suitcase-size device that costs as much as $400,000 and acts as a fake cell tower. The system, typically installed in a vehicle so it can be moved into any neighborhood, tricks all nearby phones into connecting to it and feeding data to police. The federal government funds most of the purchases, via anti-terror grants.

Economic News

A surging stock market and a steady recovery in home prices drove Americans’ wealth to a record last quarter. The nation’s wealth rose 2.6% from July through September to $77.3 trillion, the Federal Reserve said Monday. Household wealth has been rising gradually since bottoming at $57.2 trillion in 2008. Early this year, America finally regained all the wealth it had lost to the Great Recession. When Americans feel richer, they typically spend more and fuel economic growth.

U.S. taxpayers no longer own any of automaker General Motors. The Treasury sold the last of its remaining 31.1 million GM shares today. It started with 500 million shares in 2010. The taxpayer loss on the GM bailout is $10.5 billion. The Treasury department said it recovered $39 billion from selling its GM stake, and had put $49.5 billion of taxpayer money directly into the GM bailout.

There are more than 22,000 homeless children in New York, the highest number since the Great Depression, according to the New York Times.

Persecution Watch

A Christian woman was recently held by Muslim terrorists in Nigeria and ordered to convert to Islam or die. Nineteen-year-old Hajja told Reuters she was held by the group Boko Haram and told to renounce Christianity or perish. Members of Boko Haram threatened to slit her throat if she did not give up her faith in Christ. Hajja’s last name has not been released as she has family in northern Nigeria, who could be in danger if identified. “They told me I must become a Muslim, but I refused again and again,” Hajja said. “They were about to slaughter me, and one of them begged me not to resist and just before I had my throat slit, I relented. They put a veil on me and made me read from the Koran.” Boko Haram made Hajja a domestic slave. She was forced to clean and prepare meals for the terrorist militia. Hajja’s testimony of captivity included Boko Haram using her as bait to lure civilian Nigerians working with the military into death traps. She witnessed Boko Haram militia slashing the throats of captured civilians.

  • What does it say about a religion that forces conversion under the threat of death? That it’s of Satan, that’s what.

Thailand

Desperate to defuse Thailand’s deepening political crisis, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved the lower house of Parliament on Monday and called for early elections. But the moves did nothing to stem a growing tide of more than 150,000 protesters vowing to overthrow her in one of the nation’s largest demonstrations in years. Analysts said the steps came too late and are unlikely to satisfy opponents who want to rid Thailand of her powerful family’s influence. The protesters are pushing for a non-elected “people’s council” to replace her democratically elected government. Thailand has been plagued by major bouts of upheaval since Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, was toppled in a 2006 army coup that laid bare a deeper conflict between the elite and educated middle class against Thaksin’s power base in the countryside, which benefited from populist policies designed to win over the rural poor.

South Korea/China

South Korea on Sunday announced an expansion of its air defense zone following China’s move to establish a similar zone that has been criticized by Beijing’s neighbors. The new South Korean zone includes a submerged reef that is South Korean-controlled but also claimed by China and enlarged parts of airspace that is also covered by the Chinese zone. The new South Korean zone also overlaps with parts of the Japanese air defense zone. South Korea earlier requested China to redraw its air defense zone because it partly overlaps with South Korea’s but Beijing rejected it. The U.S., Japan and other countries have also protested the Chinese zone. Beijing said last month that all aircraft entering the vast area must identify themselves and follow Chinese instructions. U.S., Japan and South Korea have flown military reconnaissance flights in the area without notifying China in defiance of Beijing’s announcement.

Earthquakes

A magnitude-4.5 earthquake recoded in central Oklahoma by the U.S. Geological Survey has been followed by two smaller earthquakes. No injuries or damage were reported. The USGS says the magnitude-4.5 quake was recorded at 12:10 p.m. Saturday near Arcadia, about 14 miles northeast of Oklahoma City. The agency reports that temblor was followed by a 2.8-magnitude earthquake at 1:26 p.m. about 10 miles northeast of Oklahoma City and a magnitude-3.1 tremor at 5:58 p.m. about 6 miles northeast of the city. Oklahoma is crisscrossed with fault lines that generate frequent small earthquakes, most too weak to be felt. But after decades of limited seismic activity in this region, earthquakes have become more common in the last several years.

Weather

A swath of heavy snow and ice that hit the eastern USA on Sunday from West Virginia to Philadelphia. The snow came from an arctic blast of frigid air that froze highways in the middle of the country over the weekend and knocked power out to thousands of homes. The system dumped 6 to 12 inches in a swath that stretched from northern West Virginia to Philadelphia and east into New Jersey.

On Saturday morning, temperatures dropped as low as -42 in Jordan, Montana. Cold weather has forced thousands of flights to be cancelled or delayed across the country Sunday, leaving many travelers frustrated for yet another day. The tracking website Flightaware.com estimates more than 2,000 flights were cancelled nationwide as of Sunday afternoon and more than 6,000 flights were delayed. That follows two days of similarly difficult travel conditions. Cold weather has affected much of the country, but hit Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport particularly hard. The airport said more than 400 departures were cancelled for the day. It is also still trying to clear out thousands of travelers who have been sleeping at the terminal or in nearby hotels who have been waiting for a flight out since Thursday night. Cold weather turned the region into an “ice rink” Thursday night. That forced 3,000 people to stay the night Thursday, which swelled to 4,000 Friday. As flights began to slowly resume, that figure dropped to 2,000 for Saturday night.

  • East Antarctica recently set a record for coldest temperature ever — 135.8 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. The old record had been -128.6 degrees.

Signs of the Times (12/7/13)

December 7, 2013

Mandela’s Faith was His Foundation

Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s anti-apartheid icon, died Thursday. One facet of his life the mainstream media leave out of their reports is that he was a strong, lifetime Christian. One of Nelson Mandela’s famous quotes was also an expression of a deeply Christian idea – “until I changed myself, I could not change others”. That expression of being born again, the need for internal revival before one can lead others to their own change, was just one of many expressions of faith Nelson Mandela shared throughout his life. He attended a Methodist church school growing up, and was baptized in a small Methodist stone church in the Eastern Cape village of Qunu. In his autobiography, “The Long Walk to Freedom” he talked of his early experiences with Christianity, praising its engagements with the society around him: “The Church was as concerned with this world as the next: I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church.”

Abortion Rates Fall to Lowest Level in Over 30 Years

The Center for Disease Control expanded on its figures it released last week showing that abortions dropped another three percent in 2010 and are down 8 percent over the last two years. The new report shows the abortion rate has fallen to its lowest point in over 30 years. The new report says:  “The abortion rate has dropped almost continuously since 1980. The abortion rate in 2009 (18.5) was 32% lower than in 1990 (27.4). The 2009 abortion rate for teenagers (16.6 per 1,000) was less than one-half the rate in 1991 (37.4) and 1990 (40.3).” Among pregnant unmarried women, the abortion rate fell from 47.7 per 1,000 in 1990 to 28.9 per 1,000 in 2009. Among pregnant married women, the abortion rate fell from 10.6 per 1,000 to 6.1 per 1,000 over the same time. Combined, the rate fell about a third and is the lowest since 1976 — just three years after the Supreme Court allowed virtually unlimited abortions in Roe v. Wade. The pregnancy rate also declined to its second-lowest level in 30 years, falling from 115.8 per 1,000 to 102.1 per 1,000, with the largest declines coming in teen pregnancy rates. The abortion rate among teens has not fallen as dramatically as the pregnancy rate.

  • This ongoing victory is the result of strong prayer and activism efforts. However, the curse of shed blood continues to stain America’s spiritual landscape, requiring even more warfare.

Obama Lied About Kenyan Uncle

In yet another example of White House dissembling and the subservient mainstream media rolling over, the White House admitted Thursday that Liar-in-Chief Obama not only knows a Kenyan uncle who faced deportation, but that the president lived with this uncle in the eighties. When asked in 2011, the White House said there was no record of the two ever meeting. The media accepted that false information without ever following up or even asking if the president had been asked. The Boston Globe now reports that at a recent deportation hearing, the president’s uncle, Onyango Obama, testified that “his famous nephew had stayed at his Cambridge apartment for about three weeks. At the time, Onyango Obama was here illegally and fighting deportation.” Obviously, this testimony directly contradicted the 2011 statement from the White House. Faced with the contradiction, the White house offered the following explanation: “The press office had not fully researched the relationship between the president and his uncle before telling the Globe that they had no record of the two meeting. This time, the press office asked the president directly, which they had not done in 2011.”

  • What a terrible moral example the leader of the once-free world has set for our youth, exhibiting virtually all the end-time personality characteristics enumerated in 2Timothy 3:1-5

Obamacare the Biggest Expansion of Welfare State in U.S. History

Obamacare is going to be the biggest expansion of the welfare state in U.S. history.  It is being projected that a decade from now 17 million Americans will be receiving Obamacare subsidies and an additional 21 million Americans will have been added to the Medicaid rolls.  In addition, it is being projected that bringing millions upon millions of new people into the Medicaid program will also cause enrollment in many other federal welfare programs such as food stamps to surge.  At a time when we are already running trillion dollar deficits, is this really something that the government should be taking on?  Right now, the percentage of Americans that are financially dependent on the U.S. government is already at an all-time high, and Obamacare is going to cause the level of government dependence to go much, much higher.

  • How much weight can the “safety net” actually carry before it breaks entirely? We’re going to find out the hard way.

Internet Giant Offered to Build Obamacare Website for Free

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) told Bill Hemmer on America’s Newsroom Thursday that an unidentified internet ‘giant’ offered to build the Obamacare website for free. This was confirmed during testimony today before a Congressional committee. Issa, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman, said the Obama White House turned down the offer. The Obama administration blew over a billion dollars so far to build the failed Obamacare website when they could have had it done better for nothing.

  • But then Obama’s tech buddies wouldn’t have received vast sums for their shoddy work.

3.7 Million Visited HealthCare.gov This Past Week

More than 3.7 million people visited HealthCare.gov since the website was upgraded last weekend, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said Friday. Also, CMS communications director Julie Bataille said, the percentage of duplicate or incorrect forms from the website to insurers has dropped from 25% to 10%.”This week, the site remains stable and experienced no unexpected downtime,” Bataille said. As technicians fixed the initial problems that plagued the site since its Oct. 1 opening, many of the other problems that had been causing difficulties with insurer forms were also fixed. However, the Obama administration announced Friday that enrollment records for one in four Americans who selected health plans on HealthCare.gov in October and November could contain errors, raising concerns that consumers who think they have coverage won’t actually be enrolled on Jan. 1.

Mass Hack Attack Affects 2 Million Internet Accounts

Almost 2 million accounts on Facebook, Google, Twitter, Yahoo and other social media and Internet sites have been breached, according to a Trustwave, a Chicago-based cybersecurity firm. The hackers stole 1.58 million website login credentials and 320,000 e-mail account credentials, among other items, the firm Trustwave reported. Included in the breaches were thefts of 318,121 passwords from Facebook, 59,549 from Yahoo, 54,437 from Google, 21,708 from Twitter and 8,490 from LinkedIn. The list also includes 7,978 from ADP, the payroll service provider. ADP, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter told CNN they have notified users and reset passwords for compromised accounts. Google declined to comment.

States Not Expanding Medicare to Lose Billions in Federal Funds

The 20 states choosing not to expand Medicaid will lose billions of dollars in federal funds, according to a new study released Thursday. By 2022, Texas could lose $9.2 billion by not expanding Medicaid as allowed under the Affordable Care Act, while Florida could lose $5 billion over that period. Georgia could lose $2.9 billion, while Virginia could lose $2.8 billion. “There are no states where the taxpayers would actually gain by not expanding Medicaid,” said Sherry Glied, lead author on the study. Under the Affordable Care Act, states may expand their Medicaid programs to include anyone who falls beneath 138% of the federal poverty level, or about $32,500 for a family of four. Many of the states not expanding Medicare have said increasing Medicaid coverage would add to the federal deficit. Others have long opposed the law since its passage in 2010.

Arizona Forestry Division Fined over Yarnell Hill Fire that Killed 19

Arizona forestry officials knowingly disregarded wildfire-planning rules, sent crews into hazardous areas without adequate safety provisions and then failed to withdraw 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots as the Yarnell Hill Fire raged toward them last summer, a state safety commission ruled Wednesday. The Arizona Division of Forestry has been fined $559,000 by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health for workplace violations during the Yarnell Hill fire that left 19 elite firefighters dead. The state forestry division has 15 days to appeal the citations, which accuse the organization of mismanaging the fire when it failed to prioritize the safety of firefighters over the protection of non-defensible structures and property. It also accuses the state forestry division of failing to develop the necessary action plans and fire analysis to combat the wildfire as well as failing to provide necessary and key incident command personnel. The report could result in criminal charges against the state agency and its employees, legal sources say.

Deal to Boost Global Trade Reached at WTO Summit

A deal to boost global trade has been approved by the World Trade Organization’s 159 member economies for the first time in nearly two decades, keeping alive the possibility that a broader agreement to create a level playing field for rich and poor countries can be reached in the future. “We have put the world back into the World Trade Organization,” TO Director-General Roberto Azevedosaid. “For the first time in our history, the WTO has truly delivered.” Trade ministers had come to the four-day WTO meeting on the resort island of Bali with little hope that an agreement would be reached after years of inertia in trade negotiations. The centerpiece of the agreement reached in Bali was measures to ease barriers to trade by simplifying customs procedures and making them more transparent.

  • Another step toward a one-world government, not necessarily a bad thing, but Scripture prophesies that it will become the instrument of Satan and the anti-Christ to take control (Rev. 13:7-8)

Regulation Nation

A new report on the government’s regulatory actions was released just before Thanksgiving, and it contains more than 3,300 rules — which the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) estimates will, together with other regulations, cost more than $1.8 trillion to implement on an annual basis. At a time when the economy is still struggling to zoom out of its post-recession rut, businesses worry that the crush of regulation is another sandbag weighing down the recovery. “Back in the ’90s, the federal budget itself was not even $1.8 trillion,” said Wayne Crews, vice president of policy for CEI. “Now we have this entire $1.8 trillion hidden tax of government compliance and intervention cost imposed in the economy.”

America in Worse Fiscal Shape than Detroit

Boston University Economics Professor, Laurence Kotlikoff, says, “The country is in worse fiscal shape by many miles than Detroit.  So, the country is essentially bankrupt.”  Dr. Kotlikoff estimates the long term debt and liabilities of America are more than $200 trillion.  He is spearheading a bill in Congress called The Inform Act.  It is an attempt to wake up the nation to our dire financial situation so something can be done to fix this enormous problem.  Dr. Kotlikoff explains, “The bill has been endorsed by over 1,000 economists, including fifteen Nobel Prize winners in economics . . .Never in the history of this country have this many top economists from all political persuasions endorsed a piece of legislation like this.”  Dr. Kotlikoff and his fellow economists all contend, “The country needs to do honest accounting.”  The professor charges the government is “disguising the true problem.”   Dr. Kotlikoff says, “The government is printing mountains of money to pay its bills.  The Fed is printing 29 cents of every dollar that Uncle Sam is spending.”

  • The coming economic meltdown will be far worse than the recent so-called Great Recession

Economic News

The U.S. economy added 203,000 jobs in November and the unemployment rate fell to 7.0% — the lowest level since November 2008. This is encouraging news for the 11 million Americans who remain unemployed. The job market has been improving for three years now, but at a frustratingly slow pace. Still, the job market has a long way to go until it’s entirely healed. The United States lost 8.7 million jobs in the aftermath of the financial crisis. As of November, it had gained about 7.4 million of those jobs back.

Only about 63% of Americans over the age of 16 participate in the job market — meaning they either have a job or are looking for one. This percentage is near its lowest levels since 1978, driven partly by Baby Boomers retiring, but also by workers simply giving up hope.

Benefits for 1.3 million workers will expire Dec. 28 if Congress fails to extend a recession-era program by the end of this month. President Obama’s is pushing Congress to extend federal unemployment benefits by another year, and Republicans say they’re willing to consider the idea. The White House Council of Economic Advisers and Department of Labor issued a joint report touting how jobless benefits buoy the economy, while keeping 2.5 million workers out of poverty each year.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 23,000 to a seasonally adjusted 298,000, declining for a third straight week, the Labor Department said on Thursday. The four-week moving average for new claims, which irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 10,750 to 322,250, the lowest level this year.

Average U.S. rates for fixed mortgages rose sharply this week. Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday the average rate on the 30-year loan jumped to 4.46% from 4.29% last week. Rates have risen a full percentage point since May after the Federal Reserve signaled it might slow its bond purchases by year’s end.

Persecution Watch

France has warned that the Central African Republic is “on the verge of genocide” as the Christian majority continues to be terrorized by rampaging Islamist fighters. The country has been in a state of anarchy since a coup by the Seleka rebels in March, which resulted in the installation of CAR’s first Muslim president, Michel Djotodia. Although he dissolved the 25,000-strong Seleka militia in September, many have been absorbed into the army or else have refused to disarm, continuing their killing, raping and looting atrocities. The Muslim fighters have targeted Christian communities, razing entire villages to the ground.

A missionary has been killed and several churches set ablaze in attacks by Nigeria’s Islamist group Boko Haram in neighboring Cameroon. The Nigerian missionary, David Dina Mataware, with the Christian Missionary Foundation (CMF), was killed recently by suspected Boko Haram militants in Ashigashia, a village which straddles the Nigeria-Cameroon border. He was murdered on the same day as the kidnapping of a French priest, Father Georges Vandenbeusch, but the death was not reported by the media, a church leader told World Watch Monitor, even though both incidents happened in the same area. The kidnap was claimed by Boko Haram “in an operation coordinated with Ansaru,” its spokesman told Agence France Presse. Ansaru is a Boko Haram splinter group that has attacked several Western and Nigerian targets.

Middle East

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel opened the door for the U.S. to sell missile defense and other weapons systems to U.S.-friendly Gulf nations, with an eye toward boosting their abilities to counter Iran’s ballistic missiles. Hagel made it clear that the emerging global agreement that would limit Iran’s nuclear program doesn’t mean the security threat from Iran is over. Instead, he laid out steps to beef up defense cooperation in the Gulf region, while at the same time insisting that America’s military commitment to the Middle East will continue.

  • How many times do we have to arm Muslim nations only to have them turn on us later?

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Jerusalem Wednesday evening for another round of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. However, indications abounded that the Israeli officials he will be meeting with are for more interested in discussing Iran than the Palestinians and the PA officials, for their part, have publicly voiced doubts and pessimism over the future of the peace process. “US bias in favor of Israel does not serve peace,” declared PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi.

Syria

Syrian activists say government airstrikes on a rebel-held city have killed at least 12 people, including five children. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the air raids — seven strikes in total — hit the northeastern city of Raqqa on Saturday. Rebels captured Raqqa, the capital of the province of the same name, in March. It’s the only major urban center to fall entirely under opposition control since the Syrian co

A group of chemical weapons declared by Syria has been destroyed, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Friday. The weapons, labeled Category 3 chemical weapons, are unfilled munitions or other equipment designated to deploy chemical agents. The OPCW also verified that parts of buildings that housed chemical weapons production facilities have been destroyed.

Iran

In 2013, the Iranian regime executed over 500 people, jailed over 800 political prisoners and added over 3,000 centrifuges to bring its total to 19,000. The interim agreement reached in Geneva leaves Iran with the ability to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb in 2 months. Further, it does not address the regime’s sponsorship of terrorism and daily human rights violations, reports United Against Nuclear Iran, a program of the non-profit American Coalition Against Nuclear Iran, Inc.

Afghanistan

Coalition and Afghan officials are continuing to plan for a U.S. military advisory role after 2014 when the current combat mission ends despite the political uncertainty created by President Hamid Karzai’s reluctance to sign a security agreement, U.S. officials say. Karzai’s reluctance to sign the agreement soon has raised the prospect that all coalition forces could be removed by the end of next year. “I have not been told to plan for a zero option, but clearly, I understand that it is a possibility, given the current impasse,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said.

Yemen

Militants staged a deadly attack on Yemen’s Defense Ministry on Thursday, ramming the building with an explosives-laden vehicle, followed by gunmen who battled security forces inside. At least 30 people, including four foreign doctors, died in the attack in Yemen’s capital of Sanaa as well as 10 soldiers and 9 militants. The initial blast was powerful enough to damage surrounding structures. It took several hours for security forces to regain control of the building. Yemen is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, believed by many analysts to be the most dangerous affiliate of the terror network.

Central African Republic

Months after a coup escalated chaos and violence in the Central African Republic, a French military operation has begun in the capital, Bangui, France’s defense minister said Friday. The French deployment, along with that of African forces, was unanimously approved Thursday by the U.N. Security Council. The council also voted to impose an arms embargo on the Central African Republic, which is east of Cameroon and north of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Security Council resolution, put forward by France, authorizes an African Union-led peacekeeping force to intervene with the support of French forces to protect civilians, restore humanitarian access and stabilize the country. After two days of clashes in the capital, the number of corpses delivered to a hospital morgue in the city rose Friday afternoon to 92, with 170 people treated for injuries. Violence has raged in the country since a coalition of rebels deposed President Francois Bozize in March, the latest in a series of coups since the nation gained independence. Christian vigilante groups have formed to battle Seleka, the predominantly Muslim coalition behind the president’s removal.

Environment

Severe pollution choked Shanghai and other cities in China for a second day Friday, disrupting hundreds of flights and forcing schools to close. Residents of Shanghai — a city of 23 million — woke up Thursday to heavy smog, which cut visibility to below 200 meters in most districts. International flights, ferries and long-distance bus services were canceled or delayed, and children and the elderly were told to stay indoors. China’s leaders are facing growing pressure to clean up the country’s air after decades of prioritizing economic growth over environmental standards. A study published earlier this year found that severe pollution has slashed an average of five and a half years from life expectancy in northern China. Researchers found higher rates of stroke, heart disease and cancer among people living north of China’s Huai River.

Wildlife workers in boats struggled unsuccessfully Wednesday to coax nearly four dozen pilot whales out of dangerous shallow waters in Florida’s Everglades National Park, hoping to spare them the fate of 10 others that already had died. The whales are stranded in a remote area near Highland Beach, the western boundary of Everglades National Park and about 20 miles east of where they normally live. It takes more than an hour to reach the spot from the nearest boat ramp and there is no cellphone service, complicating rescue efforts. Rescuers were trying to surround the whales, which were in roughly 3 feet of salt water about 75 feet from shore, and herd them back to sea, but so far the whales are not cooperating. The short-finned pilot whales typically live in very deep water and are known for their close-knit social groups, meaning if one whale gets stuck or stays behind, the others are likely to stay behind or even beach themselves as well. Pilot whales are among the largest of the oceanic dolphins, exceeded in size only by the killer whale.

Weather

Arctic air has spread across the western states and into the Plains and Upper Midwest Wednesday with temperatures falling as low as 37 degrees below zero in Wyoming. Denver recorded a low of 13 degrees below zero which beat the old record of 5 degrees below zero set in 2008. Other record lows included Ely, Nevada (-17), Great Falls, Montana (-23) and Medford, Oregon (-18). Wednesday’s official high in Dallas was 80 but Thursday night brought freezing rain, sleet and a low in the 20s. It’s turned travel into a nightmare, left regions freezing in bone-chilling darkness, and made snow over the neon lights of Las Vegas a possibility.

A treacherous ice storm coated everything in its path Thursday with up to an inch of frozen water from Texas to Tennessee where 426,000 electricity customers are without power. The governors of Tennessee and Arkansas declared states of emergency ahead of the storm. More than 181,000 customers were without power in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area as of Friday morning. People across the country prepared for icy conditions expected to last through the weekend after cold rain and winds lashed the south-central U.S. on Friday, killing at least four, disrupting thousands of flights, and knocking out power to hundreds of thousands.

Gale-force winds hit Scotland on Thursday, leaving thousands of homes without electricity. Winds gusting up to 114 miles per hour were measured in the Scottish Highlands, and many roads and bridges were closed. All train services in Scotland were suspended. Thousands of people in Britain face a second day of flooding Friday as the country confronts its worst tidal surge in 60 years after a powerful storm with hurricane-force gusts roared across northern Europe. Traffic ground to a halt on icy highways and train service was canceled in large parts of Sweden. Tens of thousands of people lost electricity. Scores of flights were canceled at airports in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany and Poland. More than 1,000 people spent the night at Copenhagen airport where 200 flights were canceled.

Signs of the Times (12/4/13)

December 4, 2013

Christian Church Growing in India

Ministries in India are reporting significant growth in the Christian Church among middle and upper caste Indians and the younger Indian generations. Long recognized as one of the most diverse nations in the world, India is currently the second-most populous nation on earth, with over 1.2 billion residents. Experts predict that India will soon eclipse China as the world’s most populous country. According to Operation World, 74% of India’s populace identify as Hindu, 14% describe themselves as Muslim, and 6% are Christian. However, Christianity is by far the fastest-growing of all major religions in India. Traditionally, Christianity has largely been limited to lower castes in India, so the spread of the Gospel across other cultural boundaries has been encouraging to missions groups. “With more than 71 million claiming Christianity, India is now the eighth largest Christian nation in the world,” Dick McClain, president and CEO of The Mission Society, explained. “Yet with 456 languages and more than 2,611 distinct people groups, India still has more people groups unreached with the Gospel than any other nation—88 percent of its population.”

Supreme Court Ends Liberty University Lawsuit over ObamaCare

The Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear a challenge to ObamaCare brought by a Virginia-based Christian university, ending for now one of the biggest remaining legal fights against the health care law. The justices, in turning away the lawsuit from Liberty University and leaving in place a federal appeals court ruling dismissing it, did not comment on their decision. The decision comes less than a week after the high court agreed to hear a separate challenge from Hobby Lobby and one other company to the law’s so-called contraception mandate — the requirement on most employers to provide access to contraceptive coverage. But Liberty University’s case was more expansive. The university had mounted a major challenge to the law, going after the contraception mandate but also the requirement on employers to provide coverage.

Internet Giants Countering Government Spying

Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter are engaged in a costly tech arms race, with their businesses and cultures at stake. Not against one another but a common foe: the National Security Agency. The tech juggernauts are investing in security technology, lobbying efforts and good old-fashioned PR to thwart U.S. government snooping of their data systems, often without their cooperation or knowledge. For months, the narrative has focused on data breaches and spying as tech’s biggest players quietly stewed over a sense of government betrayal, while assessing threats to their brands because of consumer outrage over invasion of their privacy. The breaches, and their threat to company reputations, are collateral damage of the government’s war on terrorism. Google, Facebook and others are pouring money into security, mirroring an industry-wide trend. Cyber IT budgets are expected to soar from $65 billion this year to $93 billion in 2017, says tech market researcher Gartner.

Security a Sorry Site on HealthCare.gov

Family Research Council observes, “It doesn’t matter how healthy you are, everyone signing up for ObamaCare is in a high-risk pool when it comes to online security. While the White House boasts that HealthCare.gov is more functional than ever, internet experts beg to differ. For those applicants lucky enough to make it past the exchange’s home page (and that still isn’t many), “proceed at your own risk” seems to be the motto from most insiders — including HHS’s own. The website’s data protections are so lax that administration officials worry about “high exposures” of personal information. Everything from medical histories to payment details could be leaked into the public domain, a sign of monumental problems lurking beneath the site’s band-aided facade. David Kennedy, a hacker trained to test websites, testified on the Hill about the huge cracks in HealthCare.gov. The bottom line? User beware. “When you develop a website, you develop it with security in mind,” Kennedy told House members. “And it doesn’t appear to have happened this time.”

Insurers Say ObamaCare Site Producing Flawed Forms

Despite the Obama administration’s claim that HealthCare.gov is “vastly improved,” insurance companies are still grappling with error-riddled files fed to them from the flawed website. The lingering glitch could cause major problems weeks down the road, resulting in people thinking they’ve signed up when insurance companies have no record of them doing so. These so-called “back-end” problems were largely glossed over when federal health officials confidently claimed over the weekend they had met their own goals for improving the website by Dec. 1. But insurers continue to deal with the same set of problems that have shaken their confidence for weeks in the system they have to rely on to enroll new customers.

Northern U.S. Border Now Poses Biggest Terrorist Threat

A top official with the Department of Homeland Security warned that the “nearly unguarded” northern border has become the most likely point of entry into the country for terrorists. The U.S.-Canada border extends for about 5,500 miles, and there are more than 120 land points of entry — not to mention vast stretches of open prairie along the border. Brandon Judd, president of Homeland Security’s National Border Patrol Council, told a House committee, “If we selectively limit manpower to current locations with high volumes of illegal crossings, all we have really achieved is shifting the point of illegal entry to a different location.”

U.S. Students Test Scores Only Average Internationally

American high school students posted only average scores on a key skills test administered to kids in 65 countries across the industrialized world. After more than a decade of comparisons, U.S. students scored just below the international average in math, which was the focus of this year’s Program for International Student Assessment. The test, given every three years, examines how well 15-year-olds can apply math, reading and science to real-world situations. The U.S. average is about even with countries such as Norway, Portugal, Italy, Spain and Russia. Other countries such as Singapore, Finland and South Korea scored well above the international average. What’s perhaps most revealing is that a few unlikely countries such as Vietnam, Ireland and Poland are now among the top scorer. Poland in 2009 scored comparably with the USA but have now outpaced it in all three subjects. Vietnam, which participated this year for the first time, outscored the USA in math and science, but not reading.

  • Our secularized, anti-God public schools are a bureaucratic disaster, spending way more money per student than many countries which post much higher test scores. Christian parents should either send their kids to the rapidly growing charter schools or homeschool.

Homeschooled Children Ordered to Attend Public Schools

A nationally-recognized homeschool organization has filed a friend of the court brief in support of a mother who was homeschooling her children until she was ordered by the court to send them to school to socialize. Therese Cano of Florida has been in an ongoing child visitation battle with her husband, and during the process of arbitration, the court had appointed a psychologist and a guardian ad litem to oversee the matter. During a recent hearing, the psychologist testified that the children, who were being homeschooled by their mother, were doing well academically. However, the guardian ad litem told the court that her “gut reaction” was that the children should be sent to public school where they could socialize with others. As a result, the judge ordered that the children attend public school and lectured Cano about keeping them at home. Cano’s husband, Alejandro, had raised no objection to the way the children were being schooled. The Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) decided to file an amicus brief in support of the right to homeschool and to prove that homeschooled children receive adequate socialization.

Schools Rethinking Zero Tolerance Policy

Faced with mounting evidence that get-tough policies in schools are leading to arrest records, low academic achievement and high dropout rates that especially affect minority students, cities and school districts around the country are rethinking their approach to minor offenses. In the past two decades, schools around the country have seen suspensions, expulsions and arrests for minor nonviolent offenses climb together with the number of police officers stationed at schools. The policy, called zero tolerance, first grew out of the war on drugs in the 1990s and became more aggressive in the wake of school shootings like the one at Columbine High School in Colorado. But several large school districts, including Los Angeles, Baltimore, Chicago and Denver, are backing away from the get-tough approach. Rather than push children out of school, districts like Broward County in Florida are now doing the opposite: choosing to keep law-breaking students in school, away from trouble on the streets, and offering them counseling and other assistance aimed at changing behavior. These alternative efforts are increasingly supported, sometimes even led, by state juvenile justice directors, judges and police officers.

Supreme Court Refuses to Rule on States Internet Sales Taxes

The Supreme Court won’t referee the fight between states and online retailers over taxing Internet sales, leaving states free to tax remote sellers and increasing pressure on Congress to resolve the long-running dispute. The high court’s decision Monday left intact a New York appeals court ruling that Amazon.com and most other online retailers must collect state sales taxes when they pay affiliates to promote links to their products. By refusing to hear Amazon’s case, the justices sent reverberations to a dozen states with similar laws: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Texas and Vermont. The Illinois and Colorado laws are tied up in court. The issue of Internet sales taxes has vexed lawmakers for nearly two decades. They are caught between serving Main Street “brick-and-mortar” businesses that pay taxes their online rivals sidestep, and their political desire to avoid being seen as raising or creating new taxes.

Dangerous “Knockout Game” Incidents Increasing

The Christian Emergency Network reports that a game known as the “knockout game” has grown in popularity over the past few weeks. Designed for an individual or group of individuals to approach an unwitting victim on the street and attempt to knock him/her unconscious in a single punch, this is a concerning trend developing nationwide. According to law enforcement, media, and community reports, recent suspected knock out game attacks have been reported in New York, Ohio, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and other locations. CEN encourages an increase in your situational awareness and to contact your local law enforcement immediately if you see any “knockout game” suspicious activity.

Up to 27 Million Americans ‘Underemployed’

While the official unemployment rate last year was 8.1 percent, a far greater percentage of working-age Americans were “underemployed.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the underemployment rate in 2012 was 14.7 percent, amounting to 23.1 million people. Underemployed Americans include involuntary part-time workers and “marginally attached” workers — those who have not looked for work within the last four weeks but have sought a job within the last year and are available for employment. As troubling as that may be, the actual figures are likely much worse. Gallup estimated that the nation’s underemployment rate stood at 17.4 percent in August, meaning that there are more than 27 million underemployed workers.

Federal Reserve Has Created Giant Asset Bubble Worldwide

The Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program is brewing asset bubbles around the world, says David Stockman, White House budget director under President Ronald Reagan. The central bank is purchasing $85 billion of Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities a month. “The Fed is exporting this lunatic policy worldwide,” Stockman told CNBC. “Central banks all over the world have been massively expanding their balance sheets, and as a result of that there are bubbles in everything in the world, asset values are exaggerated everywhere.” The global results of the easing won’t be pretty, Stockman says. “It’s only a question of time before the central banks lose control, and a panic sets in when people realize that these values are massively overstated.”

Economic News

Private sector employers added 215,000 jobs in November according to ADP. That’s the strongest level of hiring in a year. The ADP jobs report also showed that small businesses (those with fewer than 50 employees) accounted for 102,000 of the new jobs, while large businesses with more than 500 employees added 65,000 positions. Hiring picked up in construction, manufacturing and the financial sector.

The holiday shopping season got off to a sluggish start with retail sales falling despite longer store hours and Black Friday deals. Sales dropped 2.8% the week ending Nov. 30, compared to the previous week. But sales rose 2.5% over the same period last year.

Thanksgiving became a billion-dollar online shopping day for the first time this year as more consumers used tablets to browse for deals from their couches and e-commerce companies ramped up promotions. Thanksgiving online sales came in at $1.06 billion in the U.S. Thanksgiving Day revenue for leading online retailers rose nearly 40% from last year.

Online shoppers also spent record amounts of money on Cyber Monday. The day widely regarded as the Super Bowl of online sales marked a shift in shopping preferences as smartphones and tablets drove nearly a third of traffic — and for some retailers, more than half. Overall sales were $2.3 billion, up 16% on compared with last year.

The city of Detroit officially became the largest municipality in U.S. history Tuesday to enter Chapter 9 bankruptcy after a judge declared it met the specific legal criteria required to receive protection from its creditors. The landmark ruling ends more than four months of uncertainty over the fate of the case and sets the stage for a fierce clash over how to slash an estimated $18 billion in debt and long-term liabilities that have hampered Detroit from attacking pervasive blight and violent crime.

Illinois lawmakers approved a landmark pension reform package Tuesday that would cut retirement benefits for teachers, nurses and other retired and current state workers. The legislation comes after years of debate on how to fix the state’s ailing retirement system — considered the most troubled in the country. The plan will reduce annual cost-of-living increases for retirees, raise the retirement age and impose a limit on pensions for the highest-paid workers. Legislative leaders of both parties crafted the deal, which they say will save $160 billion over the next three decades — savings desperately needed to help fill the state’s $100 billion pension shortfall.

Persecution Watch

The mother superior of a Syrian convent says 12 nuns have been abducted by opposition fighters and taken to a rebel-held town. Febronia Nabhan, Mother Superior at Saidnaya Convent, said Tuesday that the nuns and three other women were taken the day before from another convent in the predominantly Christian village of Maaloula to the nearby town of Yabroud. Syrian rebels captured large parts of Maaloula, some 40 miles northeast of the capital, on Monday after three days of fighting.

A church in eastern China has written a letter to the Chinese government, demanding permission to stage a protest against the detention of 23 members of its congregation. The Nanle County Church in Puyang, Henan province, which comes under the “official” state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), claims the majority of those detained, including the church’s leader, Fan Ruiling, “have not received a criminal charge, nor any written notice, nor have their families been told where they are detained.” Four other church leaders—Zhang Shaojie, Zhao Guoli, Wu Guishan and Zhang Cuixia—were arrested. The church says their whereabouts are “unknown and no one knows whether they are alive or dead.”

World’s Most Corrupt Nations

Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia are seen as the most corrupt nations in the world, according to Transparency International’s latest survey, released Tuesday. More than two thirds of the 177 countries included in the 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index scored below 50, where 0 indicates the country’s public sector is seen as highly corrupt and 100 as very clean. Denmark and New Zealand performed best with scores of 91. Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia tied last with 8 points each. The U.S. did not change from last year, ranking 19th with a score of 73. Myanmar saw the biggest improvement, rising from 172nd position in 2012 to 153rd place this year. The Corruption Perceptions Index is based on perceptions of corruption in public institutions like political parties, police and justice systems according to experts and business people.

Middle East

Gunmen shot dead a senior Hezbollah commander outside his home Wednesday in southern Beirut, an attack that the Iranian-backed group quickly blamed on arch-enemy Israel. Israeli officials denied any involvement. Hezbollah ceremoniously announced the death of Hassan al-Laqis and described him as one of the founding members of the group, suggesting he was a high-level commander close to the Shiite party’s leadership. His shooting death comes as Lebanon faces increasing sectarian violence pouring over from the civil war in neighboring Syria, where Hezbollah forces fight alongside President Bashar Assad’s troops, angering the mainly Sunni rebels seeking to oust him. Hezbollah strongholds have been the target of car bomb attacks and suicide bombers attacked the Iranian Embassy in Beirut last month, killing 23 people. Sunni militant groups have claimed responsibility for those attacks, calling it retaliation for Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria.

Intensifying sectarian and clan violence has presented new opportunities for jihadist groups across the Middle East and raised concerns among American intelligence and counterterrorism officials that militants aligned with Al Qaeda could establish a base in Syria capable of threatening Israel and Europe. The new signs of an energized but fragmented jihadist threat, stretching from Mali and Libya in the west to Yemen in the east, have complicated the narrative of a weakened Al Qaeda that President Obama offered in May in a landmark speech heralding the end of the war on terrorism, observes the New York Times.

Israel

Israel’s renewed connection to the UN Human Rights Council was endorsed on Monday by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who declared that “at a time when the scourge of global anti-Semitism is on the rise, it is more important than ever for Israel to have a strong voice that can be heard everywhere.” The statement followed Israel’s admittance to the Western European and Others Group of nations in Geneva earlier in the day, which automatically gives Israel national rights at the Human Rights Council.

Israeli President Shimon Peres told reporters accompanying him in Mexico over the weekend that he would not accept an extension of his seven-year term in office when it ends on 15 July, 2014. The announcement ended months of suspense and paved the way for other candidates to begin their campaigns to replace him. A handful of other Knesset members are believed to be contemplating a campaign but none have yet gained the endorsement of Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Syria

A United Nations fact-finding team has found “massive evidence” that the highest levels of the Syrian government are responsible for war crimes in the nation’s long-running civil war, the U.N.’s human rights chief said Monday. The panel’s members have “outlined their view that the facts point to the commission of very serious crimes, war crimes, crimes against humanity,” Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told reporters in Geneva, Switzerland. “They point to the fact that the evidence indicates responsibility at the highest level of government, including the head of state,” meaning President Bashar al-Assad. Pillay said the evidence also shows that rebels have committed war crimes.

Iran

Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that it was the Bush administration’s inaction on Iran that forced the US to make a nuclear deal with that country. However, a Fox News review of reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and analyses prepared by leading research institutions — including the Arms Control Association, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Federation of American Scientists — shows that Iran added at least 14,000 centrifuges — nearly a 400 percent increase under Obama. Roughly 74 percent of the centrifuges Iran now has on hand were installed since the Obama-Biden team assumed office.

Iraq

Acts of terror and sectarian violence killed 659 Iraqis and injured almost 1,400 in November, according to casualty figures released by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. Bombings account for many of the deaths, but U.N. officials warn that they’re seeing a surge in execution-style killings that “have been carried out in a particularly horrendous and unspeakable manner.” Two groups of execution-style killings were discovered Wednesday when Iraqi security forces found 13 unidentified bodies — each shot in the head. So far this year, 7,157 civilians and 952 Iraqi security forces have died in sectarian violence, according to U.N. figures.

Libya

Al-Qaeda’s American spokesman says the U.S.’s kidnapping of an al-Qaeda suspect from Libya is a crime of piracy, urging Libyans to attack U.S. interests everywhere. Adam Gadahn, a former Osama bin Laden spokesman, said in an audio speech posted on militant websites late Saturday that Abu Anas al-Libi had no role in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa because he had left al-Qaeda and formed a new group. U.S. Special Forces snatched al-Libi off the streets of Tripoli in October and detained him on a U.S. warship before bringing him to the U.S. to stand trial. “The kidnapping is a new episode in a series of U.S. crimes of piracy,” he said, urging Libyans to “stand up for revenge” and attack U.S. foreign and domestic interests.

Thailand

Police in Thailand fought off mobs of rock-throwing protesters armed with petrol bombs who tried to battle their way into the government’s heavily-fortified headquarters Sunday, as gunshots rang out in Bangkok and the prime minister fled a police complex during the sharpest escalation yet of the country’s latest crisis. The protests, aimed at toppling Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration, have renewed fears of prolonged instability in one of Southeast Asia’s biggest economies. Sunday marked the first time police have used force since demonstrations began in earnest a week ago — a risky strategy that many fear could trigger more bloodshed. Tensions eased in Thailand on Tuesday as police took down barricades in the capital and allowed anti-government demonstrators to enter the compounds of government buildings.

Nigeria

Hundreds of Boko Haram militants attacked an Air Force base and a military checkpoint in the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri early Monday. The number of casualties is unknown. The governor of Borno state has imposed a strict 24-hour curfew forcing citizens to remain indoors and all air traffic in the state has been halted. Borno is one of three embattled states in northeastern Nigeria that have been under a state of emergency since May as the region is the hotbed for Boko Haram Islamists trying to impose a strict version of Sharia, or Islamic law. Last week Human Rights Watch said Boko Haram has abducted scores of women and girls and used children as young as 13 in their campaign of violence. The report says Boko Haram has killed 3,000 people since 2009.

China

Vice President Joe Biden voiced strong opposition Tuesday to China’s new air defense zone above a set of disputed islands, showing a united front with an anxious Japan as tension in the region simmered. Standing side by side in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Biden said the U.S. is “deeply concerned” about China’s attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea. “This action has raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation,” he said. The U.S. and Japan have refused to recognize China’s air defense zone above tiny islands that China and Japan both claim. The U.S. and its allies are concerned China’s move is part of a broader strategy to assert increasing authority in the region.

Volcanoes

A strong, shallow earthquake rocked parts of eastern Indonesia early Sunday, but there were no immediate reports of damage or injuries. The U.S. Geological Survey said the 6.3-magnitude quake was centered 212 miles northwest of Saumlaki, a coastal town in Maluku province, at a depth of 5.5 miles beneath the sea. The world’s largest archipelago, Indonesia is prone to earthquakes due to its location on the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin.

Weather

Bitterly cold arctic air plunged southward across much of the West and eventually will expand across the Plains and Midwest. This will send temperatures to their lowest levels of the season – and in some cases, potentially the coldest in several years. Along with the cold comes a nasty bout of snow and ice from a major winter storm.

Two people are dead from torrential rains that lashed Cuba for more than 24 hours, island authorities said Saturday. The deluge caused multiple collapses in dwellings in Havana, Communist Party newspaper Granma reported. A man and a woman were killed in one structure that caved in. Over eight inches of rain fell in a 24-hour period.

The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season, which officially ended on Saturday, had the fewest hurricanes in 30 years, casting doubt on claims from climate change alarmists that global warming will lead to more frequent and stronger storms. No major hurricanes formed in the Atlantic basin for the first time since 1994, thanks in large part to “persistent, unfavorable atmospheric conditions over the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea, and tropical Atlantic Ocean,” according to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Thirteen named storms formed in the Atlantic basin this year. But only two, Ingrid and Humberto, became hurricanes. The average number of named storms is 12, but the average number of Atlantic hurricanes is six.