Signs of the Times (6/19/14)

Charitable Giving to Religious Groups is Down

Americans are slowly pulling themselves out of a charitable slump — except when it comes to religious groups. The latest Giving USA report, perhaps the most-read annual study on philanthropy, shows a slight downturn for churches and other religious organizations against an improving charity landscape. American individuals, groups, foundations and corporations gave $335 billion in 2013 — a 3 percent increase from 2012 (adjusted for inflation). It’s the fourth consecutive year in which giving rose after taking a beating during the recession that officially ended in 2009. But religious groups saw donations drop 1.6 percent from 2012 to 2013. That contrasts to healthy jumps in education (7.4 percent), the arts and humanities (6.3 percent) and environmental and animal groups (6 percent).

  • The end-time anti-Christ spirit promotes the religion of secular humanism (the worship of man, Satan’s counterfeit) at the expense of the Church

Religious Activities on Résumé Cut Hiring Potential

New research from the Religious Affiliation and Hiring Discrimination shows that listing faith-based activities on a resume will lower an applicant’s chance of getting a job. The recently released studies published in the Washington Times say that “applicants who expressed a religious identity were 26 percent less likely to receive a response from employers.” The results of the study are concerning because they suggest that many employers held a bias against religion when looking at resumes.

  • The age of ‘tolerance’ applies to everything except religion, especially Christianity

U.S. Captures Suspected Leader of Benghazi Attack

United States Special Forces have captured the suspected leader of the 2012 attack on the United States mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others, White House and Pentagon officials said Tuesday. Apprehension of the suspect, Ahmed Abu Khattala, is a major breakthrough in the two-and-a-half-year-old investigation into the attack. President Obama vowed swift action to bring the perpetrators to justice, but efforts to identify and prosecute the attackers were stymied by the chaos of the event and the broader mayhem in Libya. Mr. Obama’s handling of the attack and aftermath became a lightning rod for Republican critics. They accused him of misleading Americans about the circumstances behind it for his own political purposes and for failing to aggressively pursue those responsible. The execution of the raid appears to signal that the investigators are confident in their case.

Border Patrol Overwhelmed by Flow of Illegal Immigrants

The number of illegal immigrants is so high that the Border Patrol can barely cope. From last October to the end of May, 162,000 people from countries “other than Mexico” have entered the United States across the southern border. That’s a nearly 100 percent increase from the previous year. Three-quarters of those crossed in the Rio Grande Valley. Among them were 47,017 unaccompanied children, sent by family in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador or Nicaragua to join relatives in the United States. The unaccompanied minors present a complex problem for authorities. They can’t be immediately sent back – and they can’t be left alone in the U.S. to fend for themselves. They are supposed to be handed off to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours, but the sheer numbers of children has left some of them languishing in crowded Border Patrol stations longer than that. And as many children as have crossed the border, their numbers are eclipsed by the “family units” racing to get into the United States. They are traveling hundreds of miles with small children, knowing that under U.S. law, they will not be deported immediately. Many of them are in the advanced stages of pregnancy and will likely have a child that will become an American citizen.

  • The lack of border security is a direct result of the Obama administration’s lax enforcement and even outright encouragement of illegal immigration

Obama’s Foreign Policy Ratings Hit New Low

Facing a number of challenges — including renewed violence in Iraq, Russian adventurism in Ukraine, Iran’s nuclear program and trading Guantanamo five terrorists for an awol U.S. soldier — President Obama’s foreign policy approval ratings have hit new low marks. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll says only 37% approve of Obama’s handling of foreign policy overall — a new low — while 57% disapprove, which is a new high for this survey. Obama’s overall approval rating is 41%, tied for his all-time law mark in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

U.S. Health Care: Most Expensive, Least Effective

The U.S. health care system is the most expensive among large developed nations. And it produces the worst results. According to a new study from The Commonwealth Fund, The United States health care system is the most expensive in the world, but this report and prior editions consistently show the U.S. underperforms relative to other countries on most dimensions of performance. Among the 11 nations studied in this report — Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States — the U.S. ranks last, as it did in the 2010, 2007, 2006, and 2004 edition. Most troubling, the U.S. fails to achieve better health outcomes than the other countries, and as shown in the earlier editions, the U.S. is last or near last on dimensions of access, efficiency, and equity. The United Kingdom ranks first, followed closely by Switzerland. Not only did the United States rank 11th out of the 11 countries covered in the report, average cost for health care per capita in 2011 was $8,508. New Zealand was the least expensive per capita at $3,182. The Commonwealth Fund is a private foundation

  • The Commonwealth Fund is hardly unbiased. According to their website, they are “a private foundation that aims to promote a high performing health care system that achieves better access, improved quality, and greater efficiency, particularly for society’s most vulnerable, including low-income people, the uninsured, minority Americans, young children, and elderly adults.” Sounds like an Obamacare commercial. Everything depends on how you measure things. Still, our high cost doesn’t yield the performance it should.

Phoenix VA Gave $10 Million in Bonuses in Last 3 Years

Newly released records show the Phoenix VA Health Care System paid out roughly $10 million in bonuses during the past three years, when some staff manipulated patient wait-time records to trigger bonuses as veterans died awaiting care. The Arizona Republic, after asking for bonus records at least 10 times since March, obtained the data Friday from the Department of Veteran Affairs under the federal Freedom of Information Act. Bonus payouts increased significantly under Sharon Helman, who became director of the Phoenix VA in February 2012. She was placed on administrative leave last month with two other top staff members amid accusations of mismanagement stemming from the bonus scandal. Records show 4,188 bonuses were paid over the past three fiscal years to more than 2,150 employees, including doctors, nurses, administrators, secretaries and cleaners. The bonus totals increased from $2.5 million in 2011, to $3.5 million in 2012 and $3.9 million in 2013. The issue of bonuses being paid to VA staff while veterans were denied care has infuriated the public and members of Congress. “(The) VA’s sordid bonus culture is a symptom of a much bigger organizational problem: The department’s extreme reluctance to hold employees and executives accountable for mismanagement that harms veterans,” said House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla.

The Social Security Cash Crunch Congress Can’t Ignore

It’s highly unlikely that Congress will reform Social Security any time soon. But there is a near-term cash crunch in one part of Social Security that lawmakers must resolve in the next year or two. The trust fund for Social Security disability benefits, which is separate from the fund for retirement benefits, is on track to be insolvent — most likely by the end of 2016 but no later than 2017. So unless Congress acts to replenish the fund beforehand, the program will only be able to pay an estimated 80% of promised benefits to 8.8 million disabled workers, plus the benefits paid to their spouses and dependents if the disabled worker was the primary breadwinner. The current average monthly payment for a disabled worker is $1,146.

Half of Recent College Grads Need Financial Support from Family

Today’s college grads are drowning in debt, now with half of them needing financial support from their families and many living at home. A unique, multi-year study by researchers at the University of Arizona found that more than half of recent college graduates are still relying on their parents or other family members for financial support. Less than half of the 20-somethings surveyed by the University of Arizona were employed full-time, and 20% were working part-time. Unsurprisingly, unemployed college graduates were much more likely get help from family (75%), but nearly half (48%) of college grads who have jobs are getting help, too, they found. With the average student debt load hovering just under $30,000 in the U.S., it’s not hard to imagine why young college graduates may be struggling financially. And on top of debt, their job prospects haven’t been so great either. As many as 40% of young adults are considered underemployed today

Economic News

Housing starts fell 6.5% in May but remained just above a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1 million, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday. Permits, a gauge of future construction activity, fell by 6.4% to an annual rate of 991,000 after three months above a 1 million pace.

Consumer prices last month posted their sharpest increase in 15 months as inflation continued a recent acceleration from unusually low levels. The consumer price index jumped 0.4% after rising 0.3% in April, the Labor Department said Tuesday. Over the past 12 months, prices have increased 2.1%. The rise in prices was broad-based, with food, energy, housing, apparel and other costs among those increasing. The unusually sharp rise in inflation last month could help prompt the Fed to begin to raise interest rates earlier in 2015 than expected.

Persecution Watch

Pope Francis expressed his concern for the extremely high rate of Christian persecution in an interview with “La Vanguardia” magazine, calling it “stronger than in the first centuries of the Church.” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that Christians have been targeted for violence in 151 countries between 2006 and 2012. About 100 million Christians are persecuted around the world, with conditions worsening for them most rapidly in Syria and Ethiopia, according to an annual report by Open Doors, a group supporting oppressed Christians worldwide.

A new report from the Association of Victims of Abduction and Forced Disappearance (AVAFD) states that more than 550 Egyptian Christian women and girls have been kidnapped since 2011. The kidnapped women are then forced to adopt Islam and marry their captors. The AVAFD reported that the women’s ages ranged from 14 to 40. Many of the women are raped; many are not even sought after by police. Authorities instead claim the women left their families by choice. AVAFD founder, Ebram Louis said that kidnappings have increased in Egypt since Hosni Mubarak fell from power. “Before the revolution, five or six girls would disappear each month. Now the average is 15.”

At least three people have been killed and 52 injured after Buddhist mobs rampaged through Muslim areas in southwest Sri Lanka, police say. The outbreak of religious violence followed a large rally Sunday by the Bodu Bala Sena, a hardline Buddhist nationalist group led by monks, in the town of Aluthgama, about 60 kilometers south of Colombo. The rally was prompted by the alleged assault of a monk by Muslim youths days earlier. After the rally, violence erupted on both sides as the demonstrators marched through Muslim neighborhoods, allegedly chanting anti-Muslim slogans. Muslim homes and shops were gutted in the violence, which has prompted Muslims in the region to gather in mosques for safety.

Middle East

Israeli soldiers clashed with Palestinians during an arrest raid early Thursday in the most violent confrontation so far in the weeklong search for three missing Israeli teens believed to have been abducted in the West Bank. The military said about 300 Palestinians took to the streets when the soldiers entered Jenin at about 2 a.m. Some opened fire at the troops, others threw explosive devices or rocks at the soldiers. It said soldiers retaliated with live fire. The military said 30 Palestinians were arrested in the overnight raid. Israel has blamed the Islamic militant group Hamas for the abductions and has launched a widespread crackdown on the militant Islamic group, arresting scores of members while conducting a feverish manhunt for the missing youths. Hamas has praised the abduction of the teenagers, but has not claimed responsibility for it.

Islamist politicians swept elections across the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, stepping close to power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Morocco and undermining the thesis of Qaeda-style militants that violence offered the only hope for change, reports the New York Times. Today, those politicians are in frantic retreat from Riyadh to Rabat, stymied by their political opponents, stalked by generals and plotted against by oil-rich monarchs. Instead, it is the jihadists who are on the march, roving unchecked across broad sections of North Africa and the Middle East. Now they have seized control of territory straddling the borders of Iraq and Syria where they hope to establish an Islamic caliphate. “Rights cannot be restored except by force,” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the surging Qaeda breakaway group, declared last year after the Egyptian military removed President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood from office, calling the more election-minded Muslim Brotherhood “a secular party in Islamic clothes” and “more evil and cunning than the secularists.”

Ukraine

Ukraine’s President on Wednesday announced that he will implement a unilateral cease-fire to ease the crisis in the restive eastern part of the country. Ukrainian forces are putting their arms down only shortly, President Petro Poroshenko said, a period during which he expects separatist groups to disarm. The plan offers amnesty to those who didn’t commit serious crimes. An escape corridor will be offered for those who disarm to leave Ukraine. The plan would also include the closure of the Ukraine-Russia border and changes to the constitution to decentralize power. Russia and Ukraine have been engaged in a tense standoff since March, when Russia annexed Crimea and massed troops along its border with Ukraine. Moscow has since begun to withdraw those forces.

Iraq

As Sunni militants strike ever closer to Baghdad, both Iran and the United States are deepening their involvement in war-torn Iraq, with the commander of Tehran’s elite Quds force helping out the Iraqi military and the U.S. beefing up security for its embassy in the capital. Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan Ibrahim said Iraqi security forces killed 56 “terrorists” and wounded 21 just outside the capital in the last 24 hours in clashes with the al-Qaeda -breakaway group known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, referred to as ISIL or ISIS. The Levant is a traditional name for the region including Iraq and greater Syria. Insurgents have also seized the strategic city of Tal Afar near the Syrian border, while an army helicopter was shot down during clashes west of Baghdad.

Iraq’s army claimed Wednesday it had repelled an attack on the nation’s largest oil refinery and killed 40 militant. As Islamic militants continue their murderous advance in Iraq, the Pentagon is moving more firepower and manpower into the region to prepare for whatever U.S. President Barack Obama orders. Already at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, dozens of Marines and Army troops have moved in to beef up security. Another 100 personnel are in the region to provide support if needed, the Pentagon said. The aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush and five other warships are now in the Persian Gulf. More than 500 Marines and dozens of helicopters are on standby. There’s a growing chorus — both in Washington and in the Arab world — that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has to go if there’s any hope of unifying Iraq as Islamic militants advance south toward Baghdad. the White House is now focused on a political transition that would move Iraqis toward a more inclusive government — one without al-Maliki that would include Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions.

Egypt

Egypt’s newly elected President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has sworn in the country’s new Cabinet. The government of about 30 ministers is led by Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab. The Cabinet also includes four women and several technocrats. It’s the first Cabinet under el-Sissi, the country’s former army chief and defense minister who last July led the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Nigeria

An explosion ripped through a viewing center on Tuesday for people watching World Cup Soccer in Damaturu in northern Nigeria, killing at least 21 people. Witnesses said the blast happened after a suicide bomber steered a tricycle packed with explosives to the venue where people were viewing the game between Brazil and Mexico. Damaturu is a town in the state of Yobe, one of three northeastern Nigerian states under a state of emergency since May due to attacks by the militant group Boko Haram, according to the Guardian, a Nigerian news organization.

Kenya

Christian and Muslim leaders united Tuesday (June 17) to demand government action after a deadly terror attack in Kenya’s coastal region. The Rev. Peter Karanja, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, demanded that the government take decisive action to stem the rising stream of insecurity. Sheik Abdullahi Abdi, the National Muslim Leaders Forum chairman, said Kenyan Muslims were opposed to anyone using Islam to justify attacks on innocent civilians. On Sunday and Monday, armed gunmen stormed Mpeketoni town and nearby villages, killing more than 60 people — an attack described as the worst since the Nairobi Westgate shopping mall attack in September. The gunmen held the town hostage for more than four hours, burning houses, hotels and banks and even attacking the local police station. The Islamic militant group al-Shabaab said it executed the attack as revenge for the Kenyan army’s presence in Somalia, the killing of Muslim scholars in the coastal region and the oppression of Muslims.

Columbia

After making the controversial decision to open formal peace negotiations with the rebel group that has been waging a war in Colombia for 50 years, President Juan Manuel Santos was re-elected in an narrow runoff over the weekend that many viewed as a national referendum on those peace talks. Now comes the hard part. The negotiations between Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have been ongoing for two years now. Held mostly in Cuba, the two sides have met regularly and slowly come to some basic agreements on how to overhaul land ownership in the country and whether former guerrillas can participate in future governments. Some of the hardest issues remain, including whether the government can prosecute combatants who have engaged in human rights violations and how to compensate victims of the many years of bloodshed.

Argentina

After the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a double-barreled defeat to Argentina Monday in that nation’s continuing efforts to escape its creditors, President Cristina Fernandez said her country can’t comply with the demand to pay up. Fernandez, in a nationally televised address, said Argentina is willing to negotiate, but will be unable to pay its debts within the next two weeks, as the court has ordered. “What I cannot do as president is submit the country to such extortion,” Fernandez said. The high court refused to consider Argentina’s appeal of lower court rulings in New York that it remains liable for debts to holdout creditors who earlier refused to accept its restructured debt offerings. And the justices ruled in a separate case that the holdout creditors have the right to seek the debtor nation’s hidden assets around the world. Fernandez said experts are working to find a solution that would enable Argentina to honor their debts and avoid default.

Wildfires

On the New Mexico-Arizona border, residents of two Native American communities were forced to leave their homes as strong winds fanned the flames of a wildfire burning in the Chuska Mountains. The fire ballooned to more than 17 square miles, forcing Navajo Nation police to issue an evacuation order for parts of Naschitti and nearby Sheep Springs. About 400 people live in the area, and fire managers said more evacuations could be possible. The fire was burning unchecked across dry pinon, juniper and brush. Gusts grounded all air support and hampered other efforts to directly attack the fast-moving flames. Authorities did sweeps of sheep herding camps in the hills and evacuated some people. The fire has since burned through those areas.

In northern Arizona, a 12-acre wildfire that broke out in Oak Creek Canyon was 25 percent contained. The fire that broke out Monday afternoon was just north of a blaze that charred 31 square miles last month in the scenic canyon between Sedona and Flagstaff.

Weather

At least one person has died and scores more injured after tornadoes struck in Nebraska on Monday. The fatality and fifteen injured were all in the tiny town of Pilger. On its website, the village of Pilger, Nebraska, about 380 residents strong, touts itself as “The little town too tough to die.” But after twin tornadoes struck Monday afternoon, wiping out most of this town 85 miles northwest of Omaha, residents could be faced with their biggest challenges yet. “The co-op is all gone. The office buildings, the convenience store, all the bins. It’s all gone. It’s just all gone. The big Lutheran church on the east side of town is all gone. It’s terrible. It’s really terrible,” said Stanton County Commissioner Jerry Weatherholt.

A tornadic supercell rolled through Wessington Springs, South Dakota, damaging numerous homes and buildings. All of the town’s residents were accounted for and only one person had to be treated for injuries. At least 11 homes are damaged to the point of being uninhabitable, Koch said. Three businesses on the south end of town also were a total loss. In addition, strong storms packing powerful winds punched through parts of the Great Lakes, Ohio Valley and East Wednesday. A 78 mph wind gust was clocked near Morningside, Maryland, just after midnight early Thursday morning. A gust to 77 mph accompanied severe thunderstorms southwest of Aurora, Illinois Wednesday evening. As of early Thursday morning, just under 46,000 customers were without power in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

As summer approaches, snow fell over the higher elevations as an upper-level low swirled over the Northern Rockies. A spring deluge that has dumped nearly 5 inches of rain and more than a foot of snow in parts of Glacier National Park has tourists seeking cover and rivers spilling over their banks from the mountain runoff. A winter storm warning was issued earlier for higher elevations, and more than 14 inches of snow had already fallen at the Sperry Chalet in the park east of Lake McDonald. The storm has pounded northern Montana over the past two days, and the National Weather Service issued a flood warning Wednesday for a broad swath of territory from the northern Rocky Mountain Front to east of Cut Bank.

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