Signs of the Times (2/21/14)

Groups Rent Theaters for Premiere of ‘Son of God’

Christian leaders, including megachurch pastor Rick Warren, plan to rent every screen in numerous multiplex theaters across 10 cities for the premiere of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s upcoming Jesus film, “Son of God,” on Feb. 27. The unusual move reflects the confidence Christian leaders have in Burnett and Downey’s work in the wake of “The Bible,” a hit miniseries on the History channel. The “Son of God,” an adaption from “The Bible” series, opens in theaters nationwide Feb. 28. The couple behind the show, producer Burnett and former “Touched by an Angel” star Downey, have enlisted interdenominational support from religious leaders such as Texas megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes and Roman Catholic Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles. The couple has also tapped Compassion International, a large evangelical relief organization, to distribute tickets to churches. The couple are close with Houston megachurch leaders Joel and Victoria Osteen, who flew to Morocco to see the filming and have bought 8,000 tickets to distribute.

Arizona Legislature OKs Controversial Religious Rights Bill

The Arizona Legislature has passed a controversial religion bill that is again thrusting Arizona into the national spotlight in a debate over discrimination. House Bill 2153, written by the conservative advocacy group Center for Arizona Policy and the Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom, would allow individuals to use religious beliefs as a defense against a lawsuit. The bill has been described by opponents as discriminatory against gays and lesbians. Opponents have dubbed it the “right to discriminate” bill and say it could prompt an economic backlash against the state. Proponents, however, argue that the bill is simply a tweak to existing state religious-freedom laws to ensure individuals and businesses are not forced to do something that goes against their beliefs. Governor Brewer is expected to sign the bill in the next few days.

  • The rights of private individuals and organizations have been trampled by the gay rights agenda. It’s time to level the playing field.

Most Pastors say Religious Liberty Declining

American pastors are more than a bit uneasy about religious liberty these days, according to a survey by LifeWay Research. The survey found that seven out of 10 senior pastors at Protestant churches said religious liberty is on the decline in America. About seven in 10 also said Christians have lost or are losing the culture war. Seventy percent agree with the statement, “Religious liberty is on the decline in America.” Twenty-seven percent disagree. Self-identified evangelical pastors (81 percent) are more likely to agree than mainline pastors (47 percent). Evangelical pastors (79 percent) are more likely than mainline pastors (60 percent) to say Christians are losing or have lost the culture war.

  • Mainline denominations are part of the problem, surrendering Biblical principles for political correctness

IRS Decision Looms: Silence the Christians

Time is running out for Christians to file their objection to IRS plans to restrict Christian and other conservative non-profit groups from distributing voter guides and legislative scorecards, holding get-out-the-vote campaigns and even voter registration activities. The IRS is proposing regulations that will give them the authority to invent rules that could ultimately shut down conservative organizations like AFA, Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and the Tea Party, according to the American Family Association. AFA General Counsel Patrick Vaughn says, “The proposed regulations are consistent with the IRS’ scandalous suppression of Tea Party applications for tax exemption. The IRS seems to have decided that it may have to process Tea Party applications, but it can render the organizations impotent.”

United States’ Press Freedom Ranking Drops Sharply

An increased focus on cracking down on whistleblowers has significantly dropped the United States’ press freedom ranking in the world, a new report says. Reporters Without Borders’ annual Freedom Index report ranked the United States 46th in the world regarding freedom of information, a drop of 13 spots from 2012. The report cited the trial and conviction of Private Bradley Manning, the pursuit of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and the Justice Department’s seizure of Associated Press phone records in an effort to find the source of a CIA leak, among other cases. A federal “shield law” to help journalists protect sources is an “urgent” need in the United States, said the report, which also blasted the United Kingdom for its detention of the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who first broke Snowden’s bombshell NSA revelations. David Cuillier, the president of the Society of Professional Journalists, told FoxNews.com on Monday he agreed with the report’s findings and believes the journalism climate in the United States continues to get worse.

  • Freedom of the press was a foundational principle in the USA, but has slipped badly as government becomes more intrusive and socialistic

Iranian Hacking of Navy Computers More Extensive than First Thought

An Iranian hack of the Navy’s largest unclassified computer network reportedly took more than four months to resolve, raising concern among some lawmakers about security gaps exposed by the attack. The Wall Street Journal, citing current and former U.S. officials, reported late Monday that the cyberattack targeted the Navy Marine Corps Internet, which is used by the Navy Department to host websites, store nonsensitive information, and handle voice, video, and data communications. The paper reported that the hackers were able to remain in the network until this past November. That contradicts what officials told the Journal when the attack was first publicly reported this past September. At the time, officials told the paper that the intruders had been removed. “It was a real big deal,” a senior U.S. official told the Journal. “It was a significant penetration that showed a weakness in the system.”

Fourth Georgia Hospital Closes due to Obamacare Payment Cuts

The fourth Georgia hospital in two years is closing its doors due to severe financial difficulties caused by Obamacare’s payment cuts for emergency services. Many hospitals in the 25 states that rejected the Medicaid expansion are facing similar financial problems. The federal government has historically made payments to hospitals to cover the cost of uninsured patients seeking free medical care in emergency rooms, as federal law mandates that hospitals must care for all patients regardless of their ability to pay. Because the Affordable Care Act’s authors believed they would force all states to implement the Medicaid expansion, Obamacare vastly cut hospital payments, the Associated Press reports. However, the Supreme Court ruled that states could reject the Medicaid expansion in 2012, as part of the decision that upheld Obamacare generally.

Judge Strikes Down Nebraska Law Facilitating Keystone Pipeline

A Nebraska judge on Wednesday struck down a law that allowed the Keystone XL pipeline to proceed through the state, a setback for the project that would carry oil from Canada to Texas refineries. Lancaster County Judge Stephanie Stacy issued a ruling that invalidated Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman’s approval of the route. Stacy agreed with opponents’ arguments that a law passed in 2011 improperly allowed Heineman to give TransCanada eminent domain powers within the state. The ruling could cause more delays in finishing the pipeline. State officials who defended the law are likely to appeal to the Nebraska Supreme Court. Nebraska lawmakers may have to pass a new pipeline-permitting law.

Economic News

Existing home sales in January fell to the lowest level in 18 months as extreme winter weather continued to pummel the housing market. Sales of existing homes declined 5.1% from December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.62 million, the National Association of Realtors said Friday. Analysts also cited other obstacles, including tight credit, higher prices, higher mortgage rates and limited inventory.

A plan by President Obama and fellow Democrats to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would cost roughly 500,000 jobs but increase wages for roughly 16.5 million Americans, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Tuesday. Increasing the minimum wage has emerged as a key part of Obama’s second-term agenda.

The value of U.S. crops fell 9.8% last year as prices declined for major crops, including corn and soybeans, from 2012’s record high levels. Corn and soybean harvests declined during the drought of 2012, driving prices to record highs and increasing the value of field crops. But in 2013, an abundance of grain — owing to the record 13.9 billion bushels of corn and third-largest soybean crop — sent prices downward.

Investment funds dumped nearly $40 billion worth of gold in 2013 as the brighter world economic outlook encouraged a switch into riskier assets. Global demand for gold fell 15% to its lowest level since 2009, due to the sell-off by gold-backed ETFs and declining purchases by central banks. That was reflected in the price of the precious metal — it slumped by nearly 30% over the course of 2013. But the rout would have been much worse without soaring demand from bargain-hunting consumers, particularly in China. Last year, China overtook India as the world’s biggest market for gold.

U.S. taxpayers have recouped all of the $187 billion they gave mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in one of the most expensive bailouts of the financial crisis. The milestone was reached after Fannie Mae reported Friday it will pay Treasury an additional $7 billion in profit from the end of last year.

Persecution Watch

A disturbing study guide entitled “Zionism Unsettled” has been published by an arm of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) The publication is filled with distorted facts and a historical narrative so extreme that some Jewish groups are calling it “hate speech.” It vilifies Israel and Zionism while ignoring Palestinian terrorism, calls for the annihilation of the Jewish State, and absconds Arab leaders of their culpability in the plight of the Palestinian people. The study guide proves that the PCUSA has aligned itself with the most radical of positions by equating Zionism with racism, comparing it to centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, and calling for a rethinking of the Holocaust to include the plight of the Palestinians.

Islamist militants have killed over 100 civilians in the Christian village of Izge, near the border of Cameroon in north-eastern Nigeria. Armed men attacked the remote village on Saturday, slaughtering dozens of innocent people and forcing many others to flee. They also detonated bombs and set fire to homes, terrifying the local community in another string of recent attacks. Izge, the population of which is largely Christian, has been under emergency rule since May last year when President Goodluck Jonathon authorized increased military powers to tackle ongoing violence in the north-eastern regions of Nigeria. However, there were no military forces present in the village on Saturday.

A bus full of South Korean Christians who saved money for years in order to visit biblical sites in Egypt and Israel were attacked Sunday by a suicide bomber. Four people were killed in the bombing, including the Egyptian driver, a church member, and two South Korean guides. At least 14 others were injured. Thirty-one churchgoers on the bus came from a Presbyterian church south of Seoul. On Sunday, the church group was about to enter Israel from the Egyptian border town of Taba after visiting an ancient monastery in Sinai when the bomber struck.

Middle East

Iran’s army chief of staff pounded the war drums again this past week, claiming that the Islamic Republic is “ready for decisive battle” with either Israel or America. General Hassan Firouzabadi repeated warnings that have been issued by other members of the government and military of Iran regarding their ability to strike back in retaliation for any attack. The Jerusalem Prayer Team notes that, “There is a tendency to dismiss these kind of statements as the ravings of madmen. But I can tell from having met many of Iran’s leaders in person that while their ideas are radical, they are deadly serious about their intentions. The destruction of Israel and God’s Chosen People is the chief goal they seek…and there are powerful spiritual forces of darkness standing behind them, encouraging their evil efforts.”

  • The Bible exhorts us to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6)

Iran

Iranian and U.S. negotiators began meeting Tuesday for a new round of talks over a nuclear program that Iranian leaders are vowing to keep despite a threat from the U.S. Senate of harsh sanctions should the talks fail. Though Iran agreed to limit some of its technology in an initial agreement in November it has since said it will not roll back centrifuges that can enrich uranium into bomb material, nor will it abandon a plutonium plant project in Arak or open up for full inspection a secret plant in Fordow. Iran is in violation of U.N. sanctions that call on it to immediately halt uranium enrichment, and the U.S. and European powers have sought a permanent end to Iran’s enrichment. But U.S. negotiators have indicated President Obama may accept a low-level enrichment program. The US and do agree on one thing ahead of Tuesday’s negotiations: a long-term nuclear agreement will be very difficult, if not impossible to attain.

Syria

Hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians have fled rebel-held parts of the city of Aleppo in recent weeks under heavy aerial bombardment by the Syrian government, emptying whole neighborhoods and creating what aid workers say is one of the largest refugee flows of the entire civil war. The displaced, as many as 500,000, have flooded the countryside, swelling populations in war-battered communities that are already short on space and food. Most of the refugees have fled into Turkey, where many have described a harrowing journey that left them in desperate condition, broke, hungry and, in many cases, sick or wounded. Much of the human tide flowing out of northern Syria has landed in Kilis, a once-quiet border town, where Syrians now nearly outnumber the original 90,000 Turkish inhabitants.

As Syria’s war nears the start of its fourth year, Iran has stepped up support on the ground for President Bashar al-Assad, providing elite teams to gather intelligence and train troops, sources with knowledge of military movements say. This further backing from Tehran, along with deliveries of munitions and equipment from Moscow, is helping to keep Assad in power at a time when neither his own forces nor opposition fighters have a decisive edge on the battlefield. Assad’s forces have failed to capitalize fully on advances they made last summer with the help of Iran, his major backer in the region, and the Hezbollah fighters that Tehran backs and which have provided important battlefield support for Assad.

Lebanon

Two suicide bombers blew up their cars Wednesday trying to hit an Iranian cultural center in a Shiite district in southern Beirut, killing at least four people and wounding more than a hundred. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades said it had carried out the simultaneous bombings as retaliation for the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces. It was the latest in a string of deadly bombings targeting Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon.

North Korea

A stunning catalog of torture and the widespread abuse of even the weakest of North Koreans reveal a portrait of a brutal state “that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” a United Nations panel reported Monday. North Korean leaders employ murder, torture, slavery, sexual violence, mass starvation and other abuses as tools to prop up the state and terrorize “the population into submission,” the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights (COI) in North Korea said in its report. The commission said it would refer its findings to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for possible prosecution. It also said other options include establishing of an ad hoc tribunal by the United Nations.

Thailand

Clashes between police and anti-government demonstrators in Bangkok left two people dead and 57 others injured Tuesday as riot police attempted to clear out protest camps around the Thai capital. The violence erupted after police moved into several locations around the city to detain and remove protesters who have been camped out for weeks to press for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s resignation. They have blocked access to government offices since late last year and occupied key intersections around Bangkok for about a month. Until now, the police had refrained from dispersing them for fear of unleashing violence.

Ukraine

The standoff between Ukrainians who want European-style democracy and a government that is aligned with Russia erupted Tuesday in an explosion of violence that left 25 dead. The Ukrainian Health Ministry reports that another 241 people have been hospitalized. Thousands of police armed with stun grenades and water cannons rushed at protesters in a camp in Ukraine’s capital after weeks of calm in which the two sides appeared to be on the verge of a compromise. Fierce clashes between police and protesters in Ukraine’s capital erupted again Thursday with at least 22 people reported killed after a truce between the government and the opposition dissolved. The two sides are locked in a battle over the identity of this nation of 46 million, whose loyalties are divided between Russia and the West. A tentative deal that promises early elections was reached Friday in a fresh bid to resolve Ukraine’s political crisis following all-night talks with leaders

Somalia

More than 850,000 people in Somalia are in desperate need of food and “in crisis and emergency conditions,” the director of U.N. humanitarian operations said Tuesday. Another 2 million Somalis are considered to be “food insecure.” Somalia has long been a rudderless nation plagued by cyclical drought and famine and decades of armed conflict. Its population is estimated to be about 10 million.

Militants wearing suicide vests and carrying guns and grenades attacked the presidential palace on Friday, the latest attack in the violence-prone Somali capital of Mogadishu. The country’s president was reported to be unharmed, though others were killed.

Venezuela

Security forces raided the headquarters of a major Venezuelan opposition party accused of fomenting recent violence after last week issuing an arrest warrant for the party’s leader Leopoldo López on charges of murder and terrorism. López is a hardline member of the country’s opposition and has backed recent student protests. However, he has been in hiding since the arrest warrant was issued. Critics of the government suspect that it is doing it utmost to capture him before a major march planned for Tuesday in which the 42-year-old, once touted as the country’s next president, has said he will surrender to authorities.

Weather

Weather across the United States has been pretty manic the past few days. There were blizzard warnings across the upper Midwest. Thunderstorms, tornadoes and flooding rains pummeled the eastern third of the country. A bout of severe storms began on Thursday with more than 225 reports of wind damage or high wind gusts from portions of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio to the Tennessee Valley and Gulf Coast. A few tornadoes were also reported, particularly in Illinois where at least a dozen were reported. The storms will move to the east coast Friday.

After dumping heavy snow on the Midwest Monday, Winter Storm Rex moved swiftly through the Northeast and New England Tuesday, bringing another shot of snow to New York City and Boston. Parts of New England racked up the heaviest snow totals Tuesday. In New Hampshire, 12 inches of snow were reported Tuesday night in New Boston. In Maine, nearly 10 inches of snow fell in Kennebunk. The storm snarled travel across the region. More than 4,500 flights had been canceled within, into or out of the United States.

“The worst drought that California has ever seen” has become even worse. It has been a month since Gov. Jerry Brown said the state was facing perhaps “the worst drought that California has ever seen since records (began) about 100 years ago.” New numbers released Thursday are painting an even dimmer picture with the historic drought worsening, particularly in the southern half of the state. Brown has already called for a voluntary 20% conservation effort statewide.

The United Kingdom turned to the hefty task of clean-up after a powerful succession of winter storms left widespread flooding and damage behind. An estimated 5,800 properties had been flooded and thousands of homes have been evacuated. More than 30,000 people England and Wales were still without power Sunday after high winds lashed the region. In Hertfordshire, a 20-foot-deep, 35-foot-wide sinkhole opened up Sunday morning and nearby homes were forced to evacuate. Conservationists warn that the flooding could wreak tremendous damage on wildlife and ecosystems, and that Britain could have an “absolutely devastating environment incident” on its hands.

The U.S. was odd man out in January. While the country shivered through a bitterly cold month, much of the rest of the world was warmer than average. Globally, Earth had its fourth warmest January since record keeping began in 1880, according to a climate report released Thursday by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

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