Signs of the Times (12/4/13)

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.

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