Signs of the Times (12/27/13)

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.

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