Signs of the Times (1/23/15)

American Bible Society Names Most Godless Cities in America

The American Bible society released its list most and least godless cities for 2015, based upon how often residents read the Bible. The most godless cities were mostly clustered in the northeast. Providence, R.I. was named most godless, keeping its title from 2014. Behind Providence was, New Bedford, Mass., Albany, N.Y., Boston, Mass., San Francisco, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Las Vegas. The top 10 most Bible-minded cities all fell in America’s Bible belt, with Chattanooga, Tenn. taking the lead. Research was gathered from phone and online surveys in which participants answered the question, “How many times do you read the Bible outside of church or a synagogue?” The study determined that 27 percent of American’s are Bible-minded.

House Passes Anti-Abortion Bill

As hundreds of thousands of abortion foes surged through the city on their annual protest march to the Supreme Court Thursday, Republicans muscled legislation through the House tightening federal restrictions on abortions. The vote came after internal divisions forced them into an embarrassing fumble of a similar bill. Even as a White House veto threat all but ensured the bill would never become law, the House voted by a near party-line 242-179 to permanently bar federal funds for any abortion coverage. The measure would also block tax credits for many people and businesses buying abortion coverage under President Barack Obama’s health care law. GOP leaders pushed the measure to the House floor hours after abruptly abandoning another bill banning most late-term abortions because a rebellion led by female Republican lawmakers left them short of votes.

More Abortion Clinics Closing

As pro-life supporters from around the nation gathered in Washington, D.C. Thursday to mark the 42nd memorial of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that decriminalized abortion in the U.S., Operation Rescue announced that two more abortion facilities have permanently closed. “Today, as pro-lifers, we should be encouraged that our efforts have not been in vain. Abortion clinics are closing in record numbers due to their tireless work of men, women, and young people all across this nation,” said Operation Rescue President Troy Newman. “America is beginning to reject abortion, and that is evidenced in closed clinics and historically low abortion numbers. When abortion clinics close, lives are saved!” In the past two years, Operation Rescue has documented the closure of 155 abortion facilities. Today, there are 549 surgical abortion clinics in the U.S., compared to 2,176 in 1991.

State of the Union – Partisan

In Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, President Obama unveiled a host of new plans for the last two years of his presidency even as he faces for the first time a House and Senate united under Republican control. In his State of the Union Address, President Obama laid out an ambitious program of “middle class economics” that includes a tax hike on the wealthy, new tax breaks for child care, and programs that include two free years of community college, lower interest rates on mortgage insurance and new requirements for paid sick leave. Obama’s call for cooperation comes as he threatens to veto eight bills from a new Congress that convened just two weeks ago.

Boehner Snubs Obama, Invites Netanyahu to Address Congress

House Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress without consulting the White House, an apparent challenge to President Obama’s policy on negotiations with Iran. Netanyahu accepted the offer and will address a joint session on Feb. 11, according to a congressional aide. Boehner, R-Ohio, asked Netanyahu to address the threats posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the rise of the Islamic State. The invite came a day after the president’s State of the Union Address in which Obama warned Congress against enacting new economic sanctions against Iran.

Churches in Niger Burned over Latest ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Cover

Forty-five churches burned in the African country of Niger during the weekend in protests over depictions of the prophet Muhammed published in a French weekly that led to a Jan. 7 terror attack. At least 10 people have died in the torchings fueled by cartoons published in the weekly Charlie Hebdo, according to the BBC. Hotels and bars also burned during the fires, as well as a school and an orphanage, the BBC and Agence France Presse reports. More than 90% of Niger’s 7.5 million people are Muslim. In Niamey, Niger, 128 people were injured in the protests.

New Police Radars See Inside Homes

At least 50 U.S. law enforcement agencies have secretly equipped their officers with radar devices that allow them to effectively peer through the walls of houses to see whether anyone is inside, a practice raising new concerns about the extent of government surveillance. Those agencies, including the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service, began deploying the radar systems more than two years ago with little notice to the courts and no public disclosure of when or how they would be used. The technology raises legal and privacy issues because the U.S. Supreme Court has said officers generally cannot use high-tech sensors to tell them about the inside of a person’s house without first obtaining a search warrant. The radars work like finely tuned motion detectors, using radio waves to zero in on movements as slight as human breathing from a distance of more than 50 feet.

TSA Says it Confiscated a Record Number of Guns in 2014

A record 2,212 firearms — most of them loaded — were discovered in travelers’ carry-on bags at U.S. airports last year, according to 2014 statistics to be released Friday by the Department of Homeland Security. The total number of firearms discovered at airport security checkpoints rose 22% from 2013. Transportation Security Administration officers found an average of six firearms per day in passengers’ carry-on bags or on their bodies. More than 80% of the guns were loaded.

World Economic Forum under Lockdown

With the recent Islamic terrorist attack in France, the World Economic Forum being conducted this week in Davos, Switzerland, is locked down behind 26 miles of fencing and a no-fly zone that restricts flights from neighboring countries from coming within a 25-mile radius of town without prior authorization. Large groups of soldiers and police flank the town’s main street while cameras atop buildings scan for anything amiss. The Swiss Air Force is conducting surveillance flights over the town using helicopters, prop planes and fighter jets.

Economic News

If there was any doubt that lower oil prices were a gift to the nation’s big airlines, Delta Airlines estimates that it will save more than $2 billion in fuel costs this year. However, as crude oil prices continue slipping, pink slips are mounting in the oil patch. Oilfield services provider Baker Hughes said Tuesday it plans to lay off about 7,000 employees — or about 11% of its workforce — in the wake of a nearly 60% drop in the price of crude oil. Some experts predict that crude oil prices could go below $40 per barrel, which would shut down 20% to 30% of the U.S. shale industry as the declining price makes production too expensive. Williston, North Dakota, says the self-proclaimed ‘Oil Boomtown’ could lose 20,000 jobs by June.

The world economy will grow by just 3.5% in 2015, and by 3.7% in 2016, according to the latest estimate from the International Monetary Fund. Both estimates are down 0.3 percentage points from the group’s previous forecast, made in October. One bright spot was the United States: The IMF revised its estimate for U.S. economic growth to 3.6% this year, up half a percentage point from the October forecast.

The European Central Bank announced Thursday that it will unleash an aggressive, $1 trillion shock-and-awe monetary stimulus program to shore up ailing economies across the Eurozone. The monetary policy shift, which would see the ECB buy sovereign bonds and other assets as part of a quantitative easing plan to stave off the looming threat of deflation and spur growth, mirrors central bank action already taken in the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan. Earlier Thursday, the ECB decided to leave benchmark interest rates, the cost of borrowing at the central bank, at 0.05%.

China’s economy grew 7.4% last year, its slowest rate since 1990 but still close to the government’s target. The Chinese government has cut interest rates to try to spur the economy amid fears of overcapacity and the nation has rolled out a series of big-ticket infrastructure projects — from multi-billion-dollar airports to high-speed rail projects. At the same time, China is trying to transform its economy from low-end manufacturing to more high-tech goods.

Middle East

Israel is on high alert for possible attacks from the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah following an airstrike on Hezbollah fighters in Syria, Israeli defense officials said Tuesday. Israel has boosted deployment of its “Iron Dome” anti-missile aerial defense system along its northern frontier, which borders Lebanon and Syria, and has increased surveillance activities in the area. Hezbollah claims Israel carried out Sunday’s strike on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, which killed a prominent Hezbollah fighter, a senior Iranian general, and five other Hezbollah members. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its role in the strike. The IDF has deployed dozens of tanks, aircraft, artillery, air defense units and thousands of troops to the north of Israel amidst threats against Israel from the Lebanese Shi’ite terror militia Hezbollah and its Iranian masters.

A Palestinian man stabbed nine passengers on a Tel Aviv bus Wednesday, in what Israeli police said was a terror attack. The 23-year-old man from the West Bank city of Tulkarem was later shot in the leg by police after he got off the bus. He is under arrest and is being questioned. Four of the victims were seriously wounded. Hamas spokesman Izzat al-Risheq praised the attack.

Islamic State

Iraq’s prime minister on Wednesday appealed to the U.S.-led coalition and the international community to do more to help his country win the war against the Islamic State group, saying the assistance pledged so far falls short of the nation’s urgent needs. Haider al-Abadi said the coalition has stalled on key issues, particularly commitments on training Iraqi forces and weapons deliveries. “We are in this almost on our own,” he said. “There is a lot being said and spoken, but very little on the ground.” The fall of the western city of Fallujah a year ago this month kicked off the Islamic State group’s dramatic blitz across Iraq. In June, the extremists captured Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. The Iraqi military crumbled, with troops abandoning the battle and leaving heavy weapons, which were later seized by the militant group.

Foreign ministers from more than 20 countries are meeting in London on Thursday to discuss how to fight the Islamic State group. The talks, hosted by British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, are looking at ways to stop the flow of recruits and cut off the group’s funding. A U.S.-led coalition has been carrying out airstrikes against the extremists since August. “This isn’t going to be done in three months or six months,” Hammond told Sky News ahead of the meeting. “It’s going to take a year, two years to push ISIL back out of Iraq but we are doing the things that need to be done in order to turn the tide.” The coalition fighting ISIS has killed more than 6,000 fighters, including half of the top command of the terror group, U.S. diplomatic officials said Thursday.

Yemen

The Syria-based terror group ISIS is active and recruiting inside the Middle Eastern state of Yemen, already a hotbed of terrorist activity, CNN reported. The disturbing information comes from a Yemeni official, who told CNN on Wednesday that ISIS has a presence in at least three provinces in southern and central Yemen, and there is now a “real competition” between ISIS and the Yemen-based terror group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. That competition manifested itself in a gun-battle between the two groups in Yemen’s eastern provinces last month

Yemen’s President resigned Thursday night shortly after his prime minister and the Cabinet stepped down: seismic changes in the country’s political scene that come just one day after the government and Houthi rebels struck a tentative peace deal meant to end days of turmoil. Houthis are Shiite Muslims who have long felt marginalized in the majority Sunni country. The resignations of Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and other officials are the latest fallout from the Houthis’ move in recent days to gain power in the capital, which included kidnapping Hadi’s chief of staff on Saturday and taking over the presidential palace on Tuesday. The chaos in Yemen is cause for concern far beyond the country’s borders. For the United States and its allies, Yemen’s government has been a key ally in the fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based group linked to attacks such as the recent slaughter at French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Iran

The Obama administration on Wednesday paid $490 million in cash assets to Iran and will have released a total of $11.9 billion to the Islamic Republic by the time nuclear talks are scheduled to end in June, according to figures provided by the State Department. The $490 million release, the third such payment of this amount since Dec. 10, was agreed to by the Obama administration under the parameters of another extension in negotiations over Tehran’s contested nuclear program that was inked in November. Iran will receive a total of $4.9 billion in unfrozen cash assets via 10 separate payments by the United States through June 22, when talks with Iran are scheduled to end with a final agreement aimed at curbing the country’s nuclear work, according to a State Department official.

  • We’ve been paying Iran to obfuscate and stall while they keep their nuclear program going

Syria

American support for a pair of diplomatic initiatives in Syria underscores the shifting views of how to end the civil war there and the West’s quiet retreat from its demand that the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, step down immediately. The Obama administration had maintained that a lasting political solution requires Mr. Assad’s exit. But facing military stalemate, well-armed jihadists and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the United States is going along with international diplomatic efforts that could lead to more gradual change in Syria. That shift comes along with other American actions that Mr. Assad’s supporters and opponents take as proof Washington now believes that if Mr. Assad is ousted, there will be nothing to check the spreading chaos and extremism. American planes now bomb the Islamic State group’s militants in Syria, sharing skies with Syrian jets.

Saudi Arabia

As Saudis gathered Friday to the mourn the death of King Abdullah, his half-brother and handpicked successor, Crown Prince Salman, moved quickly to establish himself as the new king, name his own successor and promise a smooth transition. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who was hospitalized with pneumonia in December, died early Friday at the age of 90. Salman, the 79-year-old former defense minister, was enthroned as king under a long-standing agreement among the royal family that controls the country. Abdullah’s half-brother Moqren was named crown prince. King Salman promised in a nationally televised speech to continue the policies of his predecessors.

Somalia

Three organizations claiming to do vital relief work on behalf of the United Nations in ravaged Somalia diverted millions of dollars intended for food, water, medicine, and other relief services for thousands of the most desperately suffering people in the world, according to confidential U.N. reports obtained by Fox News. Some of the money may have gone to terrorists. Most of the aid supplies and services the organizations claimed to deliver never existed, according to U.N. investigators. Much of the missing money from the U.N.-administered Common Humanitarian Fund (CHF) for Somalia, the probers concluded, was diverted into the pockets of the officials involved.

Ukraine

Russian military forces and equipment have entered Ukraine, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk says, according to a report from Ukraine’s state-run media on Monday. The equipment includes tanks, GRAD multiple rocket systems, BUK and SMERCH systems, radio electronic intelligence systems. Meanwhile, fighting in the east continued. Government forces and pro-Russia rebels have been battling for control of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions since April, after Russia annexed Ukraine’s southeastern Crimea region the previous month.

The Ukrainian army retreated Thursday from key airport strongholds in the country’s conflict-battered eastern region, handing a symbolic gain for pro-Russian rebels amid a surge in violence that threatens to further unravel peace efforts. The clashes at the Donetsk airport are part of escalating tensions in Ukraine amid a disintegrating cease-fire deal. A rebel shelling killed at least seven people at a bus stop in Donetsk early Thursday.

Bangladesh

Thirty-one people have been killed and more than 7,000 arrested in weeks of political unrest in Bangladesh, as the country’s opposition mounts mass protests demanding fresh parliamentary elections. The dead were mainly killed by arson attacks on buses and cars, with over 200 buses torched in recent weeks, police said. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), along with 19 allied parties are protesting last year’s elections arguing that they were rigged. Voting was conducted under neutral caretaker governments in Bangladesh from 1991 until 2010, when the system was scrapped by the governing Awami League.

Cuba

The United States and Cuba are taking their first steps toward normalizing relations. A congressional delegation met Monday with Cuban officials in Havana, and high-level talks between the two countries are set to begin this week. The congressional delegation led by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., represented the first meeting between the two governments since President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced last month they would re-establish diplomatic relations. The delegation spoke for several hours Monday with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez about the changes coming.

Environment

A Montana pipeline burst sent as much as 50,400 gallons of oil gushing into the Yellowstone River, prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency. Residents in nearby cities were told not to drink the tap water. The massive oil spill happened when the 12-inch pipeline, which crosses the Yellowstone River, ruptured Saturday about 5 miles upstream from Glendive. The Bridger Pipeline company has shut down the pipeline. Adding to the problems, the weather: the Yellowstone River is partially frozen, making it difficult to clean up the mess.

Weather

A clipper weather pattern has developed across the northern tier of the United States this week, bringing snow to many states from the Midwest to the Northeast. Clipper systems are fairly common in the winter when the weather pattern features a dip, or a developing dip, in the jet stream east of the Rockies. Disturbances in the upper atmosphere and/or low pressure systems near the surface of the earth dive down across the Midwest from Canada and charge eastward rapidly. A winter storm brought significant snowfall to the Southern Rockies and Southern Plains Thursday, and has headed east bringing snow to the Mid-Atlantic region. The winter storm is expected to continue up the East Coast, bringing snow to the Northeast Friday. A total of 11 inches of snow has been reported 7 miles northeast of Amarillo, Texas.

Record-breaking warmth is in the offing for parts of the West late this week, and unseasonably mild weather will resume across much of the Midwest as well after a brief midweek cool-down. In the Midwest, the persistent warmth will likely cause ice to grow thinner on lakes and ponds, making it more dangerous to venture out onto the ice for fishing or other recreational activities. In the West, the warm weather will likely aggravate the ongoing drought in California, especially as it continues to eat away at what little snowpack there is in the Sierra Nevada. Meanwhile, waves reaching thirty feet high were pounding Hawaii.

More than 200,000 people are homeless in two Southern Africa nations after a one-two punch from torrential rains, which included a disturbance that turned into a tropical storm. Nearly 200 people died in the nations of Mozambique and Malawi, while at least 236,000 more lost their homes. Flooding was especially severe in the capital Antananarivo, where more than 30,000 people have been displaced. The Madagascan government has set up temporary shelters in schools and other public buildings to help those who lost their homes.

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