Signs of the Times (11/21/16)

Churches with Conservative Theology Have Better Growth Rates

A five-year study has revealed that churches that adhere to more conservative theology tend to have better growth rates. ChristianToday.com reports that the study, called “Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy” was conducted by Canadian researchers who interviewed 2,225 churchgoers and 29 clergy members in the province of Ontario. The study’s lead researcher, David Haskell, noted that the study showed that growing churches, “held more firmly to the traditional beliefs of Christianity and were more diligent in things like prayer and Bible reading.” For example, 71 percent of clergy in growing churches read the Bible daily, while only 19 percent of clergy in declining churches did so. Additionally, 100 percent of clergy in growing churches said it was “very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians,” compared to only 50 percent of clergy in declining churches who said the same.

Pope Allows Priests to Forgive Abortion

Pope Francis has extended the powers of Catholic priests to forgive abortions, making the announcement in an apostolic letter released Monday. Pope Francis has extended the powers of Catholic priests to forgive abortions, making the announcement in an apostolic letter released Monday. “I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life. In the same way, however, I can and must state that there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father,” the letter states. “May every priest, therefore, be a guide, support and comfort to penitents on this journey of special reconciliation,” the letter says.

Election Protests Ebbing

Since Election Day, thousands of people have taken to the streets nationwide. Demonstrations surged in the days after Trump’s election, though they seem now to be ebbing.  But many of the protesters who took to the streets in cities across the country over the past week didn’t cast a ballot for the candidate who could have beaten him, reported the Washington Post. The NBC affiliate in Portland found that of more than 100 protesters arrested there last week, more than half did not vote in the state. Clinton still won Oregon, along with most of the other states where the biggest protests have erupted. Since Election Day, thousands of people have taken to the streets nationwide. Demonstrations surged in the days after Trump’s election, though they seem now to be ebbing.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has counted more than 700 cases of hateful harassment or intimidation in the US since Election Day. “They’ve been everywhere — in schools, in places of business like Walmart, on the street,” SPLC President Richard Cohen said Monday. Recent days have witnessed ugly episodes of racist or anti-Semitic pro-Trump graffiti along with threats or attacks against Muslims. “If it helps, I will say this, and I will say right to the cameras: Stop it,” Trump said in an interview that aired Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

After the cast of the Broadway show “Hamilton” embarrassed and lectured Vice president-elect Mike Pence who was in the audience about needing to establish an “inclusive” administration Friday, the Twitterverse soon exploded with opposing points of view. President-elect Trump tweeted that the cast “rude” and should apologize to Pence. Soon calls for a boycott of the show were trending on Twitter under the hashtag #BoycottHamilton.

The Detroit News reported that an Electoral College elector from Michigan, who’s bound to vote for Donald Trump, has been threatened in order to convince him to vote for Hillary Clinton. You have people saying ‘you’re a hateful bigot, I hope you die,’” elector Michael Banerian said. “I’ve had people talk about shoving a gun in my mouth and blowing my brains out. And I’ve received dozens and dozens of those emails. Even the non-threatening-my-life emails are very aggressive.”

Police Ambushes Continue

St. Louis Police have killed a gunman they say ambushed an officer in a shooting on Sunday. “This officer was not trying to pull this car over,” St. Louis Police Department Police Chief Sam Dotson said. “This officer was driving down the road and was ambushed.” To take precaution against further attacks, Dotson said all St. Louis officers will be partnered up on patrol for the foreseeable future. Earlier in the day Sunday, a San Antonio police officer was fatally shot during a traffic stop. San Antonio Police Chief William McManus described the shooting as a targeted attack that resembled police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. One person was in custody Sunday after shooting a Florida police officer. Sanibel police said the incident occurred at around 8 p.m. The Sanibel police chief said the officer was wounded during a routine traffic stop. The shooter fired at the officer and then fled the scene.

Trump Settles Trump University Lawsuits

Donald Trump has agreed to pay $25 million to settle three lawsuits against Trump University. The deal will keep the president-elect from having to testify in a trial in San Diego that was set to begin November 28. The settlement ends a suit brought by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, as well as two class action suits in California. About 6,000 former students are covered by the settlement. The victims will receive at least half of their money back. “While we have no doubt that Trump University would have prevailed at trial based on the merits of this case, resolution of these matters allows President-Elect Trump to devote his full attention to the important issues facing our great nation,” a Trump Organization spokesperson said. On Saturday morning, Trump tweeted he settled the lawsuit for a “small fraction” because he wants to focus on the task at hand.

White House Office of Personnel Management Regresses on Cyber-Security

The White House Office of Personnel Management, two years ago the focus of the worst cybersecurity intelligence breach in U.S. history, is actually regressing in its efforts to provide adequate defenses against further cyber-intrusions, according to a new report by the agency’s own Inspector General. The report is depressing news for an agency that has been in more-or-less continuous turmoil since a devastating cyber-attack in March 2014 stole the sensitive personal information of some 25 million U.S. government employees, including millions of security clearance files, from the agency files and those of two of its important contractors. The fingerprint data of some 5.6 million of those employees was also stolen. Despite improvements that the Inspector General acknowledges, the agency known as OPM is still stumbling toward an adequate response to the disaster, along with other high-profile and expensive efforts to modernize its information technology and security, and has had a “significant regression” in complying with information security requirements along the way.

Dakota Pipeline Protests Escalate

Police and about 400 people who were protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline clashed Sunday evening as demonstrators set cars on fire and police launched tear gas and water at the crowds. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department described Sunday’s events as an “ongoing riot.” Protesters set fire to two trucks and several parts of the bridge, police said. On Sunday night, police released a statement saying that the protesters “attempted to flank and attack the law enforcement line from the west,” describing their actions as “very aggressive.” Officers tried to disperse the crowds with water cannons. Physicians and tribal healers with the Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council called for “the immediate cessation of use of water cannons” over concerns of hypothermia in the cold weather conditions. They criticized the “potentially lethal use of these confrontational methods against people peacefully assembled.” But police say the protesters are not peaceful and that water was used to put out fires as well as to control the crowds.

Obama Blocks New Oil, Gas Drilling in Arctic Ocean

The Obama administration is blocking new oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean, handing a victory to environmentalists who say industrial activity in the icy waters will harm whales, walruses and other wildlife and exacerbate global warming. A five-year offshore drilling plan announced on Friday blocks planned sale of new oil and gas drilling rights in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Alaska. The plan allows drilling to go forward in Alaska’s Cook Inlet southwest of Anchorage. Besides Cook Inlet, the plan also allows drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, long the center of U.S. offshore oil production. The blueprint for drilling from 2017 to 2022 can be rewritten by President-elect Donald Trump, in a process that could take months or years.

Zika Update

The World Health Organization declared an end to its global health emergency over the spread of the Zika virus, prompting dismay from some public health experts still wrestling with the epidemic. An agency advisory committee said it ended the emergency because Zika is now shown to be another dangerous mosquito-borne disease like malaria or yellow fever, and should be treated, like them, as an ongoing problem, not an exceptional situation. Committee members repeatedly emphasized that they did not consider the Zika crisis over. Like all mosquito-borne diseases, Zika is seasonal and may repeatedly return to countries with the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry it, said Dr. Peter Salama, executive director of the W.H.O.’s health emergencies program.

Migrant Update

An estimated 350 migrants are believed to have died in six incidents on the Mediterranean in just three days this week, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a statement. While the number of people attempting to crossing into Europe has dropped sharply this year — down to 343,589 from 1.02 million in 2015 — more people than ever are losing their lives on the journey. More than 4,600 migrants are presumed to have died after attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe this year, the UN said Friday, following the latest deadly capsizings on the route. “This means that 1,000 more deaths have been recorded this year than during the same period last year,” the IOM said in a statement Friday.

Economic News

U.S. stocks rose to record levels Monday aided by a jump in oil prices and a pullback in the dollar. The S&P 500 index rose 10 points, or 0.5%, at 2,192, trading above its closing record. The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 55 points, or 0.3%, to 18,922, while the Nasdaq Composite Index advanced 31 points, or 0.6%, to 5,353, setting its intraday record at 5,359.90. Since Election Day and the surprise presidential election win for Donald Trump, the Dow has climbed 2.9%, the S&P 500 has gained 2%, and the Nasdaq has risen 2.5%.

Oil prices rose to a three-week high Monday as investors continued to bet that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries will reach a production deal at the end of the month. Light, sweet crude for December delivery gained $1.27, or 2.7%, to $47.79 a barrel, trading at the highest level since Oct. 31. Prices were buoyed by news that the energy ministers from two of OPEC’s most reluctant members in terms of cutting output, Iraq and Iran, are backing the proposal. The cartel meets Nov. 30 when it will formally decide on strategy for the first half of 2017.

Eight million Americans could get a lower interest rate on their student loans, and many of them might not even know it. That’s the estimated number of borrowers eligible to refinance their debt, according to a new report from Credible, an online student loan marketplace. It’s roughly one-third of all people who are currently paying down student loans. Federal loans, which make up most of the country’s student debt, come with much lower interest rates now than they did a decade ago. But the government doesn’t allow people with older loans to refinance at current rates. Instead, you have to turn to a private lender to refinance both federal and private loans. Some banks now offer student loan refinancing and a handful of online lenders have recently launched specifically for this purpose

Islamic State

Intelligence experts estimate that the Islamic State extremist group has between 60 and 80 operatives planted in Europe to carry out attacks, the Dutch counterterrorism coordinator said Friday. Dick Schoof said in an interview with The Associated Press that would-be fighters are also heeding messages from the militant group telling them not to go to Syria and Iraq, but to prepare attacks in Europe. Schoof said military operations to oust the Islamic State from its self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq are scattering the extremist group’s fighters and supporters abroad. This will likely lead to a gradual increase of refugees that will pose a danger to the national security of the Netherlands and other European countries, he said.

Turkey

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for an overhaul of the United Nations on Monday, saying its Security Council had failed to address the Syria conflict and other global challenges. Erdogan gave an unabashed speech in Istanbul at the closing of a NATO meeting, where he slammed the Security Council’s concentration of power, reiterating that “the world is bigger than five.” The Security Council, responsible for international peace and security issues, includes five permanent member states — the United States, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom — which all hold the power to veto decisions or resolutions. The Council has been widely criticized as ineffective over its inaction in the Middle East, failing to push through decisions on conflicts since they broke out after the Arab Spring in 2011. That’s because Russia — an ally to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government — has used its veto power five times regarding the Syrian conflict. China also used its veto power four times.

Syria

More than 1,000 people have died in airstrikes and shelling in the Syrian city of Aleppo since a short-lived ceasefire broke down 60 days ago, according to a UK-based monitoring group. The figure includes deaths in rebel-held eastern Aleppo, in government-controlled western Aleppo and in the surrounding countryside, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Friday. The group’s tally comes as Russian-backed Syrian government forces once again pummel eastern Aleppo. Of the 1,086 dead, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented across the city since then, 231 were children and 98 were women. More than 4,000 people were injured on both sides of the war-torn northern city over the same period, the group said.

Iraq

Iraqi paramilitary forces are in a raging battle to take a key ISIS stronghold west of Mosul, but their presence is prompting fears that the fighting could result in the escalation of sectarian violence in Iraq. Further complicating the Mosul offensive, the Iraqi Prime Minister has maintained that Kurdish forces must withdraw from towns captured from ISIS once the terror group has been defeated. Tensions are mounting between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government over future control of the territory in northern Iraq. Kurdish fighters, known as Peshmerga, are playing a critical role in the battle to defeat the terror group, fighting alongside Iraqi government troops and other forces in the coalition to retake Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province. But cracks are emerging in the anti-ISIS partnership over the question of what the semiautonomous Kurdish Regional Government plans for areas it captures from the terror group.

Afghanistan

An Afghan official says that at least 27 civilians have been killed after a suicide bomber attacked a Shiite mosque in the capital, Kabul. At least 35 others were wounded in the attack. The suicide attack took place inside the Baqir-ul Ulom mosque in western Kabul. The attacker was on foot and detonated his suicide vest among the crowds inside the mosque.

Yemen

The Saudi-led military coalition declared a 48-hour ceasefire in Yemen on Saturday, on the condition that Shiite rebels abide by it and allow humanitarian assistance into besieged cities, namely Taiz. The Saudi news agency SPA carried a statement from the coalition that said the truce would take effect at 12 p.m. Yemeni time on Saturday and that it could be renewed. The coalition warned the rebels, known as Houthis, against any sort of military movement. The ceasefire comes at a time that forces loyal to the Saudi-backed, internationally-recognized government have made advances in the key western city of Taiz, which has been besieged by the rebels for the past year. Activists in Taiz said that rebel shelling continued in the city, despite the ceasefire.

Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s banks are running out of cash and there’s a sense of distrust, panic and frustration among locals. Since the hyperinflation of 2009, many have begun hoarding cash. The cash liquidity crunch is extreme. Locals are forced to queue for hours outside banks for the chance to withdraw a maximum of $50 from their account each day — and some are even being turned away simply because the banks don’t have enough cash in their vaults.

Environment

Miami Beach is one of the most noted tourist destinations in the world, with its posh high-rise hotels and suntanned beachgoers, but it’s facing a problem that strikes at the core of the city’s identity. It’s losing its sand. While rising sea levels have put Miami Beach in dire need of a solution to losing its picturesque sand, the issue is far from new for the state of Florida. Significant beach erosion occurred along the state’s East Coast with hurricanes Hermine and Matthew. After Hurricane Matthew, Atlantic coast counties from south of the Space Coast to the Georgia border were assessing lost sand and faced with reclaiming the beaches. From 1996 to 2015, water levels for Miami Beach for high and low tide rose about 4.2 inches, according to data from the University of Miami.

The Dead Sea, a salt lake nestled by Israel, Jordan and the West Bank, is shrinking at an alarming rate — about 3.3 feet per year, according to the environmentalist group EcoPeace Middle East. And human actions are largely to blame. The Dead Sea needs water from the other natural sources surrounding it, such as the Jordan River basin. But around the 1960s, some of the water sources it relied upon were diverted. Israel, for instance, built a pipeline during that time so it could supply water throughout the country. Mineral extraction industries are another main reason the water levels are declining, experts say. The Dead Sea’s minerals have been hailed for their therapeutic properties and can often be found in cosmetics and other consumer products. Last year, Israel and Jordan signed a $900 million deal in an effort to stabilize the Dead Sea’s water levels. It entails building a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea so that both countries would be able to not only supply water to Israel and Jordan but also to pump much needed water — some 300 million cubic meters annually — into the Dead Sea.

Earthquakes

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit New Zealand this week lifted the seabed two meters (about 6.5 feet), leaving seaweed-covered rocks and marine animals exposed above tide level. “Much of the northeastern coast of the South Island was uplifted during the earthquake. We know this from photos of rock platforms covered in seaweed and marine animals such as crayfish and paua (sea snails) stranded above tide levels,” GNS Science, a New Zealand government-owned research institute, said in a report. New Zealand is regularly hit by earthquakes because it sits in between the Indo-Australian and Pacific tectonic plates.

Weather

Winter Storm Argos will continue to hammer parts of the interior Northeast Monday with heavy snow and strong winds, leading to whiteout conditions in parts of New York state and northern New England, with snowfall rates of over 1 inch per hour in spots. Several locations in New York state have already picked up well over a foot of snow, so far. More than 17,000 customers were left in the dark in the Rochester, New York, area on Sunday evening, due to a combination of heavy snow and 30-40 mph wind gusts taking down power lines.

Earlier, at least two were killed in fatal crashes after Winter Storm Argos moved across parts of the Intermountain West, through the Plains and into the Northeast. Parts of the region were clobbered by a heavy round of snow – the first of the season, for many. The snowstorm dumped more than a foot of snow on parts of Wyoming and Montana Thursday before marching eastward into the Plains and Midwest on Friday. Nearly two feet fell on parts of Minnesota. Schools were canceled in some parts of the upper Midwest ahead of the storm’s arrival, and authorities urged drivers to stay home when the heavy snow started to fall. The Minnesota State Patrol says there were nearly 450 crashes and 860 spinouts statewide as the storm marched across the country. At least two deaths happened on icy roads Friday. Winter Storm Argos will produce snow and strong winds over mainly interior portions of the Northeast through Monday.

Storm Angus, the first named winter storm of the season, hit the United Kingdom with full-force Sunday, flooding roads, downing trees and prompting rescues throughout the region. A gust to 84 mph was clocked on the island of Guernsey. Angus also unleashed its fury on the low countries of The Netherlands and Belgium Sunday. Gusts of at least 60 mph were clocked at both Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport and Rotterdam The Hague Airport. A new, weaker system was also hitting the south of England Monday, leading the U.K. Met Office to issue dozens of flood alerts, including amber flood warnings — the second most severe kind of warning — for portions of southwest England.

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