Signs of the Times (3/12/14)

Support for Israel Fading in Evangelical Circles

Support for Israel today isn’t as unquestioned as it once was in evangelical circles. Today evangelical leaders on both sides say that the millennial generation sees the conflict differently – viewing it with a perspective of neutrality and empathy for both sides. The Pew Research Center conducted a survey among evangelical leaders which showed lower support for Israel than many expected. In fact, when asked if they sympathize more with Israelis or with Palestinians, a majority of American evangelical leaders (49%) expressed neutrality. Of the leaders polled, thirty percent stated support for Israelis, and 13% for the Palestinians. “What is happening is that the hard line of Christian Zionists was not successfully passed forward to the next generation, because it was based on theological themes that are now being questioned by younger evangelicals,” says David Gushee is professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Atlanta.

  • Modern Israel is a secular state focused on Judaism as a nationality not a faith. They need our prayers (Psalm 122:6) more than ever as end-time pressures are threatening their ongoing existence with numerous Muslim nations calling for their extinction while Israel seeks only to protect itself.

Texas Pro-Life Law Shuts Down 13 Abortion Clinics

Two more Texas abortion providers said they will shut down this week, saying their doctors were unable to get admitting privileges to nearby hospitals as required under new restrictions enacted by the state last year. Proponents of new regulations say they were designed to protect women’s health. Women’s rights groups have complained that they were designed to put abortion clinics out of business and have already succeeded in eliminating a third of them. Women in parts of Texas now must drive for hours to reach a clinic. The reduction will cut the number of abortion providers in the state to 19 from 32 before the restrictions went in place, according to the group and state data.

Atheists Want Iconic 17-foot Cross Removed from 9/11 Museum

Atheists are trying to oust the “Miracle Cross” from the 9/11 museum, arguing that its inclusion would violate the Constitution’s separation of church and state. But Eric Baxster of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty told MyFoxNY that the cross is part of the story of 9/11 and that museums don’t censor history. The 17-foot cross-shaped beam was discovered in the devastation at Ground Zero and became a symbol of comfort and hope after the horrific terrorist attack. But the group American Atheists says the cross is a part of religious history and is challenging its inclusion in the new National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum which opens in May. The group said the cross should not be in a museum that is on Port Authority property and financed by taxpayers.

Obama Decrees Broad Expansion of Overtime Pay

President Obama this week will seek to force American businesses to pay more overtime to millions of workers, the latest move by his administration to confront corporations that have had soaring profits even as wages have stagnated. On Thursday, the president will direct the Labor Department to revamp its regulations to require overtime pay for several million additional fast-food managers, loan officers, computer technicians and others whom many businesses currently classify as “executive or professional” employees to avoid paying them overtime. Obama’s decision to use his executive authority to change the nation’s overtime rules is seen as a challenge to Republicans in Congress, who have already blocked most of the president’s economic agenda and have said they intend to fight his proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from $7.25.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein Publicly Accuses CIA of Criminal Activity

The head of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee accused the CIA Tuesday of criminal activity in improperly searching a computer network set up for lawmakers investigating allegations that the agency used torture in terror investigations during the Bush administration. Democrat Dianne Feinstein, in an extraordinary speech on the Senate floor, publicly aired an intense but formerly quiet dispute between Congress and the spy agency. She said the matter has been referred to the Justice Department for further investigation. Feinstein’s accusation is the latest storm to hit the U.S. intelligence community, which has been reeling from former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden’s revelations about its mass surveillance programs. While the monitoring outlined by Feinstein appears far more limited than in the NSA scandal, the backlash could be significant because it involved the panel that oversees the CIA’s programs and funding. The criticism by Feinstein is particularly biting because she has been one of the main defenders of intelligence agencies at a time that they have been sharply criticized at home and abroad.

Expert: U.S. Near ‘Crisis’ of Secrecy

U.S. government agencies are coming up with more sophisticated ways to deny, delay and derail requests for information from journalists and the public, a University of Arizona professor told a Senate panel Tuesday. The government is using the Freedom of Information Act as “a tool of secrecy, not openness,” said David Cuillier, an associate professor and director of the University of the Arizona School of Journalism. Cuillier is also president of the Society of Professional Journalists. “I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say we are approaching a crisis when it comes to access to information,” Cuillier testified at the hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It becomes too much of a temptation — if you screw up in government, just mark it top secret,” Leahy said. A 2013 report by openthegovernment.org found federal agencies invoked “exemption 5” to the Freedom of Information Act to withhold information from the public 79,000 times in 2012. That was a 41 percent increase from the previous year.

Concealed-Gun Ruling Widens Debate in California

California has the most gun-restrictive laws in the country, but last month the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the “good cause” component to carry a concealed weapon in a San Diego County case. In the ruling, a three-member panel found that “a responsible, law-abiding citizen has a right under the Second Amendment to carry a firearm in public for self-defense.” On Wednesday, the appellate court also found Yolo County’s good cause requirement unconstitutional. Ventura County has also dropped the “good cause” requirement and has seen an increase in permit applicants. California Attorney General Kamala Harris and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence moved to appeal, asking that the ruling be reviewed by a full 11-judge panel.

States Take the Lead on Immigration Reform

State legislators are fed up with Congressional inaction on immigration and they’re taking action, reports Newsmax. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 437 immigration-related laws and resolutions were enacted in 2013 up from 267 in 2012. The surge began in 2006 when the number of bills introduced in state legislatures doubled and then tripled in 2007. Some of the new laws relax restrictions on undocumented workers, including eligibility for driver’s licenses and in-state tuition rates. But other initiatives are requiring employers to use E-verify to establish workers’ citizenship status. Thirty-five of the new laws center on forms of identification. Thirteen states have passed laws that enable illegals to take driver tests and acquire licenses. Fifteen states have passed legislation for in-state tuition rates to undocumented residents.

4.2 Million Have Signed Up for Obamacare

More than 4.2 million have signed up for insurance on the Obamacare exchanges through February, leaving the administration with one more month to hit its enrollment target of 7 million. It remains to be seen whether enrollment will hit the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office’s projections that 6 million people would enroll in the exchanges for 2014, though many insurers have said sign-ups were running close to expectations. Sign-ups slowed last month, with fewer than 950,000 picking plans, according to federal data released Tuesday. Officials said they don’t have a tally of how many people have paid yet, but insurers interviewed have indicated the figure is running in the 80% range. Those who don’t pay will have their policies voided. Also, 83% of people signing up for policies were eligible for federal subsidies to defray the cost of premiums and out-of-pocket costs.

It’s also unclear how many of those who’ve signed up were previously uninsured — a key target group of health reform. Officials said they don’t have figures yet, but pointed to outside studies that showed some uninsured are gaining coverage. Gallup reported Monday that the percentage of Americans without health insurance fell to 15.9% in 2014, compared with 17.1% in the fourth quarter last year. The number of young people picking policies surpassed 1 million in February, but their share of sign-ups remained steady at 25%, lower than projected. Younger enrollees are crucial to Obamacare’s success because they are thought to be healthier and less expensive, and insurers are hoping to attract those ages 18 to 34 to offset costs incurred by older, sicker enrollees. If not enough enroll, it could cause next year’s premiums to jump.

Record Number of Americans Riding Public Transit

Americans are boarding public buses, trains and subways in greater numbers than any time since the suburbs began booming. Nearly 10.7 billion trips were taken in 2013, the highest total since 1956, according to ridership data reported by transit systems nationally and released Monday by the American Public Transportation Association. Transit ridership has now fully recovered from a dip caused by the Great Recession. With services restored following economy-driven cutbacks, ridership numbers appear set to continue what had been a steady increase. “People are making a fundamental shift to having options” aside from a car in how they get around, said Michael Melaniphy, president and CEO of the public transportation association. “This is a long-term trend. This isn’t just a blip.”

Economic News

Bitcoin exchange MtGox faced a massive hacker offensives last month, coming under 150,000 Denial of SErvice attacks a second for several days ahead of its spectacular failure. The Tokyo-based exchange, which filed for bankruptcy protection in February and admitted losing half a billion dollars in the digital currency, has come under serious cyber-attacks in particular since about February 7, the Yomiuri Shimbun reports. While MtGox faced hacker attempts to steal Bitcoins, the exchange also confronted massive distributed denial-of-service attacks. Under DDoS attacks, hackers hijack multiple computers to send a flood of data to the target, crippling its computer system.

Market angst has been fueled by jitters that China’s economy is beginning to slow. Stocks have been down this week after China reported lower exports in February which has fueled worries of a further slowdown in the world’s second-largest economy. Recent falls in Chinese copper and iron prices have added to the poor sentiment. The price of oil dropped below $99 a barrel Wednesday as fears of a China slowdown would create weaker demand.

Four Central European nations are urging the United States to boost natural gas exports to Europe as a hedge against the possibility that Russia could cut off its supply of gas to Ukraine. Ambassadors from Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic made their appeal Friday. The letter from the four nations asks Congress to support speedier approval of natural gas exports, noting that the “presence of U.S. natural gas would be much welcome in Central and Eastern Europe.” Ukraine is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas, and previous disputes between Ukraine and Russia have led to gas supply cuts.

Middle East

Israel expressed regret Tuesday over the killing of a Palestinian judge from Jordan, who was shot by Israeli soldiers at a border crossing, and promised Amman that it would carry out a joint investigation into his death. The Israeli military had denounced Judge Raed Zeiter as a “terrorist,” saying he was shot dead Monday after he attacked soldiers at the Allenby Bridge crossing, also known as the King Hussein Bridge, while making his way to the West Bank. The Israeli military said Zeiter had tried to seize a soldier’s weapon. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank city of Ramallah condemned what it called the shooting “at close range” by Israeli troops. In a separate incident Monday, Israeli soldiers shot dead a 20-year-old Palestinian in the West Bank. The military said Palestinians had hurled rocks at an Israeli vehicle and bus near Beit Eil, and soldiers at the scene responded with gunfire.

Ukraine

Russian forces tightened their grip on Crimea on Sunday despite a U.S. warning to Moscow that annexing the southern Ukrainian region would close the door to diplomacy in a tense East-West standoff. Moscow mounted pressure on Ukraine Saturday, with Russia’s foreign minister denouncing the new Ukrainian authorities as puppets of armed radicals and pro-Russia forces in Crimea trying to flush Ukrainian soldiers out of the few military bases still under their control. The regional parliament in Crimea has set a March 16 referendum on leaving Ukraine to join Russia, and senior lawmakers in Moscow said they would support the move, ignoring sanctions threats and warnings from U.S. President Barack Obama that the vote would violate international law.

Dozens of Ukrainian computer networks, including those run by the Kiev government, have been infected by an aggressive virus known as “Snake” or “Ouroboros,” and experts say that there’s every chance that Russia is behind it. The Financial Times reported that the virus has been deployed aggressively since the start of 2013. Of 22 recorded infections, 14 have occurred since the start of 2014, while protests raged against President Viktor Yanukovych’s government. The virus not only allows its employer access to computer networks for surveillance purposes, but can also act as a “digital beachhead” for software that can disrupt vital computer networks, such as those that control power supplies for banking operations.

Syria

Rebels in Syria freed more than a dozen Greek Orthodox nuns on Monday, ending their four-month captivity in exchange for Syrian authorities releasing dozens of female prisoners. The release of the nuns and their helpers, 16 women in all, is a rare successful prisoner exchange deal between Syrian government authorities and the rebels seeking to overthrow the rule of President Bashar Assad. But it is unlikely to soothe the fears of many Syrian Christians that their ancient minority is in danger should rebels come to power.

Libya

Western countries voiced concern that tensions in Libya could slip out of control in the absence of a functioning political system, and they urged the government and rival factions to start talking. Two-and-a-half years after the fall of former leader Muammar Gaddafi, the oil-rich North African state is struggling to contain violence between rival forces, with Islamist militants gaining an ever-stronger grip on the south of the country. With violent disputes between rival tribal factions disrupting exports of Libyan oil, the lack of a stable political foundation is causing growing concern for energy-hungry western countries, several of which were involved in overthrowing the Gaddafi government. The weak government in Tripoli is struggling to control well-armed former anti-Gaddafi rebels and Islamist militias, while parliament was stormed by protestors over the weekend who blamed the politicians for the growing chaos.

Central African Republic

Entire Muslim communities are being wiped out in attacks by anti-Balaka militias in the Central African Republic. The CAR has been beset by violence since March last year, when a coalition of rebel groups, led by Michel Djotodia under the Séléka banner, drove out President Bozizé in a coup. The rebels had previously been fighting to gain power across the north of the country where the Muslim minority, around 14 per cent of the total population, is largely based. The violence has since spread throughout the country, resulting in hundreds of thousands of people being internally displaced, while at least 20,000 have fled the country. Thousands have lost their lives.

Although CAR leaders contend that the conflict is political, not religious, Séléka soldiers are labelled as a Muslim force intent on establishing an Islamic state, while the anti-Balaka is widely known as ‘Christian militia’. Despite the presence of French and African Union peacekeepers in the northwest of the country, local Muslims are being repeatedly targeted by anti-Balaka forces. Thousands of mosques, community buildings and homes have also been torched and burned down across the north-west, and in other places, Muslims are starving to death as anti-Balaka forces have forbidden people to sell them food.

India

At least 20 police officers were feared killed Tuesday in a Maoist raid in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh. The morning attack targeted a police security team of about 40 personnel in Sukma district in the assault believed to involve 200 rebel fighters. The Maoists ambushed the police team, which included state and armed federal personnel, as it provided security to construction workers. India’s home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde described the rebels as a “major threat” to national security. At least 97 security personnel and as many guerrillas were killed in Maoist assaults last year. The rebels, officials say, aim to seize power through an armed liberation struggle. Since the 1960s, the militants have said they are fighting for the dispossessed. In addition to targeting police, the insurgents also attack infrastructure such as roads, bridges, railways, and power and telecommunication networks.

Earthquakes

A strong earthquake rattled the Northern California coast and was widely felt across the region, but authorities said early Monday that there were no reports of any injuries or damage. The magnitude 6.9 quake struck at 10:18 p.m. PDT Sunday and was centered 50 miles west of Eureka and about four miles beneath the Pacific seabed, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It was followed by about a half dozen aftershocks, including one of magnitude 4.6. This was the strongest quake off of the northern California coast since 1992.

A minor earthquake shook western areas of Los Angeles. The U.S. Geological Survey says the magnitude-3.2 tremor occurred at 8:16 p.m. Friday. The quake was centered 1 mile southeast of Marina del Rey at a depth of 6 miles. Residents reporting on the USGS community response Internet page characterize the intensity as weak to light.

Weather

Winter Storm Vulcan is intensifying into a powerhouse storm, and may become a full-fledged blizzard in spots, as it pushes across the Midwest and into the Northeast now through Thursday. It will also dump heavy snow just across the border in the most heavily populated region of Canada. Up to 18 inches of snow fell in parts of central and southwest Montana on Monday and Monday night. The Northern Black Hills of South Dakota saw up to 8 inches of snowfall by the time snow ended there Tuesday. After skipping over the Central Plains with a meager mixture of snow and rain, Vulcan has become a force to contend with east of the Mississippi River. Winter storm warnings have been issued for parts of nine northeaster U.S. states and five Canadian provinces in anticipation of heavy snow and high winds. The potent snowstorm is forecast to blast portions of the Midwest and Northeast Wednesday and Thursday with as much as 2 feet of snow. If enough snow falls, the storm could break Detroit’s seasonal snowfall record and give Chicago its second snowiest winter. It also could bring the heaviest snowfall of the year to Burlington, Vt., where 12-16 inches are forecast.

Yet another winter storm brought a round of snow and ice to parts of the Southeast and mid-Atlantic last Friday and Saturday, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands and leaving road conditions messy. Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency for North Carolina, where at least 245,000 utility customers were still without power Saturday afternoon. On Friday, train service between Charlotte and Raleigh was disrupted. Power lines came down across the tracks, leaving a train stuck for several hours before it returned to Salisbury, where passengers could catch buses. Another trainwas delayed in High Point because of fallen trees. Tens of thousands remain without power in North Carolina Monday morning, and utility companies say it could be days before power is restored.

Ice jams and melting snow have caused flooding in several locations around Wyoming and Montana, forcing several evacuations and prompting flood warnings. In Montana, four major rivers were under flood warnings. The National Weather Service in Billings says warnings are along the Gallatin River near Bozeman, Musselshell River from Harlowton to Roundup, Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River near Billings, and the Tongue River near Miles City. The flooding is from ice jams in the Yellowstone River. The National Weather Service has issued flood warnings and advisories for much of the central and southwestern parts of Montana. Warm temperatures are causing the heavy snowfall from February to melt causing avalanches and flooded roadways.

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