Signs of the Times (6/27/16)

Pope Francis Says Christians Should Apologize to Gays

In a groundbreaking statement about homosexuality, Pope Francis says Christians and the Catholic Church should seek forgiveness from gay people and others they have offended or treated poorly in the past. “I repeat what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: that they must not be discriminated against, that they must be respected and accompanied pastorally,” the pope told reporters Sunday aboard the papal plane returning from Armenia to Rome. In 2013, Francis reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality, saying that homosexual acts were sinful but not homosexual orientation.

  • Jesus tells us to love everyone, even our enemies: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:38) and “I say to you, love your enemies” (Matthew 5:43). Thus, we must also love gays even as we speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) that homosexuality is a sin (Romans 1:26-27)

Supreme Court Strikes Down Abortion Restrictions

The Supreme Court delivered its most significant ruling on abortion in a generation Monday, striking down restrictions on Texas clinics and doctors that threatened to make the procedure more difficult for women to access. The divided court, acting on the last day of a term in which it became shorthanded after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, ruled 5-3 that the Texas law’s restrictions go beyond the type permitted under the court’s 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The ruling could have an impact beyond the Lone Star State by prompting legislatures and courts to reconsider other limits on abortion. Legislatures across the nation have imposed some 250 restrictions in the past five years. If the law, called H.B. 2, were fully implemented, the number of clinics in the nation’s second largest state would have been reduced from more than 40 to about 10.

Justice Stephen Breyer ruled for the majority that states cannot impose restrictions that pose an undue burden on women seeking abortions without sufficient medical reasons. Texas had argued that the restrictions — requiring clinics to meet surgical-center operating standards and doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals — were necessary to protect women’s health. Abortion rights advocates said that by adding delays and distance to the obstacles women face, the medical risks would only rise. Breyer was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented. The ruling could have an immediate impact on other cases that had been working their way toward the Supreme Court from Louisiana, Mississippi, Wisconsin and several more states in which restrictions have been challenged by abortion rights supporters.

  • And so the murder of millions of innocent babies continues unabated

In Latin America, Requests for Abortions Rise as Zika Spreads

In Latin American countries, where abortion is highly restricted if not downright illegal, pregnant women are seeking abortions at significantly higher rates, a new study shows. In the absence of universal abortion availability, women in Latin America have in recent years turned to Women on Web, a nonprofit that provides online access to abortion medications, specifically mifepristone and misoprostol — which are not the so-called morning-after pills. Researchers found that in places where governments issued health advisories about Zika and pregnancies, requests for abortions through Women on Web jumped by up to 108%. These were not necessarily requests from women who’d even contracted the Zika virus, the report said. These were women who feared they might get it. In countries where health advisories were not issued, the numbers generally went up far less.

Supreme Court Blocks Obama’s Immigration Plan

The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked President Obama’s immigration executive actions, in a tie decision that delivers a win to states challenging his plan to give a deportation reprieve to millions of illegal immigrants. The justices’ one-sentence opinion on Thursday effectively kills the plan for the duration of Obama’s presidency. The 4-4 tie vote sets no national precedent but leaves in place the ruling by the lower court. In this case, the federal appeals court in New Orleans said the Obama administration lacked the authority to shield up to 4 million immigrants from deportation and make them eligible for work permits without approval from Congress. Texas led 26 Republican-dominated states in challenging the program Obama announced in November 2014. The case dealt with two separate Obama programs. One would allow undocumented immigrants who are parents of either U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents to live and work in the U.S. without the threat of deportation. The other would expand an existing program to protect from deportation a larger population of immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

Supreme Court Upholds University of Texas Affirmative Action Plan

The Supreme Court, 4-3, upheld the race-conscious admissions program at the University of Texas Thursday, saying that the plan, that takes race into consideration as one factor of admissions, is constitutional, rejecting a challenge brought by a white woman to the affirmative action program. The court’s three more conservative justices dissented. In his scathing dissent, Justice Samuel Alito called the program “discriminatory” and questioned how it could be upheld. Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his majority opinion that the Texas plan complied with earlier court rulings allowing colleges to take account of race in pursuit of diversity on campus. Eight states prohibit the use of race in public college admissions: Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington.

Supreme Court Rules Domestic Abusers Can Lose Gun Ownership Rights

Gun ownership rights can be denied to people who commit reckless acts of domestic violence, the Supreme Court ruled Monday in a decision that brought a blistering dissent from Justice Clarence Thomas. The 7-2 ruling, written by Justice Elena Kagan and endorsed by conservative as well as liberal justices, upheld the sentences imposed on two Maine men who had argued their misdemeanor convictions for domestic abuse should not trigger a federal gun control statute. Thomas and Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented. The federal law was intended to deny guns to people convicted of violent acts against family members, based in part on research showing they are more likely to use guns domestically in the future. Thomas, whose questions from the bench during oral argument in February were his first in a decade, said the result was a denial of a Second Amendment right. “We treat no other constitutional right so cavalierly,” he said in his dissent.

Britain Votes to Leave European Union

The British public voted to leave the European Union in a historic referendum Thursday. The departure is dubbed “Brexit” — Britain’s exit from the 28-member bloc. The margin of victory for “Brexit” in the referendum was 52% to 48%, according to a final tally announced early Friday. “Leave” supporters argued that severing ties with the EU is the only way to reduce high levels of immigration and ensure the U.K.’s sovereignty. The “remain” camp said jobs, the economy, national security and the U.K.’s standing on the world stage would be compromised outside the bloc. Prime Minister David Cameron, who led the campaign to remain in the EU, announced he will step down. “We should aim to have a new prime minister in place by the start of the Conservative Party conference in October,” he said in a speech outside Downing Street on Friday soon after the vote tally was announced.

More than 3 million UK citizens have signed an official online petition calling for a re-do of the Brexit referendum, generating so much traffic on Saturday that Parliament’s website temporarily crashed. Leaders of the European Union leaders will hold a summit in Brussels next week “to start a wider reflection on the future of our Union,” EU Council President Donald Tusk told reporters on Friday. The United Kingdom’s historic vote to leave the European Union is emboldening far-right, anti-immigrant parties across Europe to push for their own referendums to leave the political bloc as an expression of independence and freedom.

Economic News

On Friday, after the Brexit vote, the British pound fell 11% to a 31-year low and Britain’s main stock index nosedived 8.7% to 5,790 points shortly after the open Friday. U.S. stocks also plummeted, with the Dow off 601 points Friday, wiping out a record $2.1 trillion from global markets. Early Monday trading is down around 300 more points. Bitcoin prices surged Friday as the vote sent investors out of stocks, commodities and the British pound.

The Brexit vote could prompt the Federal Reserve to delay hiking interest rates amid predictions of a global slowdown resulting from the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. The Brits’ decision to leave the EU, rendered in a national referendum Thursday, triggered selloffs in financial markets worldwide. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is down 3% Friday. The British Pound tumbled to its 30-year low, and the dollar is up about 3% against major currencies. Many multinational companies and global banks have used the U.K. as its gateway to the European market. But they’re now expected to shrink their presence in the country as its unfettered access to the continental economy will likely shrink.

Germany has mandated that all new cars registered in the country will have to be emissions-free by the year 2030. And to make this a reality, the government has cut a deal with automakers to jointly spend $1.4 billion on incentives to boost electric car sales. They’re hoping to sell 500,000 EVs by 2020. So they’re subsidizing the EV industry with demand for the lithium used in the batteries surging.

OPEC’s 13 member countries saw oil export revenues slump to their lowest level in a decade last year. Crude revenues fell nearly 46% to $518 billion in 2015, according to OPEC’s annual bulletin published Wednesday. Collapsing world oil prices also meant that OPEC countries spent more importing goods than they raised from exports for the first time in 17 years. The cartel posted a combined current account deficit of just under $100 billion in 2015, compared with a surplus of $238 billion in 2014. Crude prices dropped a whopping 35% last year to levels not seen since the global financial crisis.

Persecution Watch

A local pastor is battling a Colorado city over his church’s Jesus-related ads on public transit benches. The controversy in Colorado Springs involves ads on about 20 bus stop benches that say “Jesus is Lord.” Pastor Lawson Perdue of Charis Christian Center said he was told that the ads will no longer be allowed if they refer to Jesus. According to Perdue, the city transit agency told him that if the name Jesus was allowed, hate messages would have to be allowed, too, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported. “Don’t we have the freedom of speech in the United States?” Perdue told the paper. “Isn’t that a constitutional right?”

Migrant Update

Over 650 migrants arrived in Messina, Sicily, on Sunday morning after being rescued from the Mediterranean Sea earlier this week. They were rescued by the SOS Mediterranee and the medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).

Israel

As the second anniversary of the Israel-Gaza war nears, the Israeli government is taking an extraordinary step to avert a new war with Hamas militants who govern the Palestinian strip. Israel recently announced plans to build an underground wall along its 37-mile border with Gaza to thwart Hamas’ sophisticated underground network of tunnels and bunkers. Hamas, which said Gazans are gearing up for the next war, used tunnels to smuggle weapons, supplies and fighters to attack Israel during the 50-day conflict that began July 8, 2014. “The purpose is to keep Hamas deterred, and we are minimizing their ability to build up their forces,” military intelligence director Herzi Halevy said last week.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Monday that an agreement has been reached between Israel and Turkey to return to full diplomatic relations six years after a rupture prompted by the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident. The agreement is reported to include compromises on several issues both countries consider vital national interests, while leaders in Ankara and Jerusalem said it will make the turbulent Middle East a little bit more secure.

Islamic State

A senior Iraqi commander declared Sunday that the city of Fallujah was “fully liberated” from Islamic State group militants after a more than month-long military operation. Iraqi troops have entered the northwestern al-Julan neighborhood, the last area of Fallujah to remain under IS control. Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi said the operation, which began late May, “is done and the city is fully liberated.” The Iraqi army was backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and paramilitary troops, mostly Shiite militias. Fallujah had been under the control of Islamic State militants since January 2014. Fallujah was the scene of some of the bloodiest urban combat with American forces. In 2004, more than 100 U.S. troops died and another 1,000 were wounded fighting insurgents in house-to-house battles. IS extremists still control significant areas in northern and western Iraq, including the country’s second-largest city of Mosul.

Syria

Health workers pulled lifeless bodies out from under mounds of rubble after airstrikes reportedly hit and killed 25 children in the eastern part of the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, a U.N. agency said. Three air attacks targeted heavily crowded areas, including a mosque during prayer time on Saturday, in the town of al-Quriyah, UNICEF said in a statement. Deir Ezzor city, the provincial capital, has been a hotbed of conflict since ISIS militants captured the northern suburbs in January. The city has been a critical junction for ISIS, with roads east and south toward Iraq and west to areas it controls in Homs province, including Palmyra. It is also surrounded by some of ISIS’ most valuable oilfields, which have been intensively targeted by both U.S. and Russian airpower in recent months.

Lebanon

A group of suicide bombers detonated their explosives in a northeastern Lebanese village near the border with Syria on Monday, killing five people and wounding at least 15. The National News Agency said the blasts occurred in the predominantly Christian village of Qaa, only few hundred yards away from the border. It said four suicide bombers were involved in the rare multiple attack. Four members of the military were among the wounded. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.

Jordan

Weapons shipped into Jordan for Syrian rebels by the Central Intelligence Agency and Saudi Arabia were stolen by Jordanian intelligence operatives and sold to arms merchants on the black market, the New York Times reported, citing American and Jordanian officials. Some of the stolen weapons were used in a shooting in November that killed two Americans and three others at a police training facility in Amman. The theft of the weapons has led to a flood of new weapons available on the arms black market, the New York Times said.

Somalia

Gunmen, bolstered by a suicide bomber detonating explosives in a vehicle, attacked a popular hotel in the Somali capital Mogadishu Saturday, leaving at least fourteen people dead. A car bomb was detonated at the gate of the hotel as the attackers poured in. Police say the attack on a hotel in the Somali capital ended Sunday, with at least 14 people killed, including two of the gunmen. Islamic extremist group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the assault. The al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab group has been waging a deadly insurgency across large parts of Somalia and often carries out such attacks.

Wildfires

A new wildfire in California has killed two and burned more than 150 structures and forced the evacuation of nearly a dozen communities in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains. Three firefighters have suffered smoke inhalation injuries battling the Erskine Fire, which has consumed around 30,000 acres near Lake Isabella in Kern County. about 40 miles northeast of Bakersfield. About 1,500 additional structures remain threatened. Hillside homes along dirt roads were consumed by heavy flames in Squirrel Mountain Valley, a community of about 500 people. California Gov. Jerry Brown issued a state of emergency for Kern County, California, Friday. Two elderly residents in Lake Isabella were killed when they were overcome by smoke as they tried to flee. Authorities fear that there may be additional victims amid the rubble left behind by the explosive fire.

Elsewhere in the West, a forest fire near the Colorado-Wyoming line exploded in size and forced campers to evacuate. A shift in the wind turned a blaze burning slowly in a heavily wooded area with no permanent residents into a fast-moving threat, growing from 1 square mile to about 5. Trees killed by a beetle infestation were fueling the flames 140 miles north of Denver and 2 miles from Wyoming. In southwest Utah, a fire forced evacuations of at least 185 homes in the town of Pine Valley, about 35 miles north of the city of St. George.

In eastern Arizona, firefighters expected to keep a wildfire spanning some 67 square miles from moving any closer to a rural town. The flames threatening the community of Cedar Creek made no significant movement in the last 24 hours thanks to sparse vegetation. In central New Mexico, more evacuees were expected to return home as firefighters inched closer to snuffing out a massive wildfire that ignited last week. The nearly 28-square-mile blaze in the mountains south of Albuquerque is more than halfway contained after destroying at least two dozen homes.

There are at least 66 million dead trees in California, according to the U.S. National Forest Service, and they may provide more tinder to the already volatile wildfire situation in the state. The Forest Service, in a statement released Wednesday, blamed the tree die off on four years of consecutive drought, a “dramatic” rise in bark beetle infestation and warmer temperatures. The trees are located in six counties across 760,000 acres in the southern Sierra Nevada region of the state and could contribute to a more destructive wildfire season.

Weather

At least 26 people have died and more than 100 homes have been destroyed in West Virginia after heavy rains flooded several towns. Both Virginia and West Virginia have declared states of emergency due to the devastating event that has been described as “complete chaos.” “Roads destroyed, bridges out, homes washed off foundations,” said Greenbrier County Sheriff Jan Cahill. “Multiple sections of highway just missing. Pavement just peeled off like a banana. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

At least 12 tornadoes touched down in Illinois Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, and thousands were left without power across the Midwest as a severe weather outbreak swept through the region. Several mobile homes at a trailer park were destroyed and two children suffered minor injuries. The storms then marched toward Chicago, and at Soldier Field, some 50,000 soccer fans attending the Copa America semifinal game between Chile and Colombia were asked to clear the stands and seek shelter Wednesday evening. The severe storms rolled eastward through Indiana later Wednesday evening, damaging several buildings, a radio tower and downing numerous trees across the state.

At least 51 people have been killed after a tornado — accompanied by hailstorms, thunderstorms and lightning — hit eastern China early Thursday afternoon. The severe weather swept through parts of Yancheng city in Jiangsu Province around 2:30 p.m. local time, injuring dozens. Scores of cars were swept away and factories were flattened in Yancheng city after the extreme weather hit populous regions.

The tropical northern Pacific Ocean is in the midst of its biggest tropical cyclone drought in at least 45 years, immediately following one of its most hyperactive seasons on record. There hasn’t been a single named storm of at least tropical storm intensity anywhere in the North Pacific Basin since Hurricane Pali became a January oddball just north of the equator and well southwest of Hawaii. By mid-June 2015, there had already been eight tropical cyclones, including three super typhoons of Category 5 equivalent intensity.

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