News and Views 2014 – September/October

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RELIGIOUS

Since 1999, the U.S. State Department has tracked the world’s worst abusers of religious rights. As the most recent report notes, it has never lacked for material. Persecutions of people of faith are rising across the globe. Among the most worrying trends, according to the State Department, are “authoritarian governments that restrict their citizens’ ability to practice their religion.”  The eight worse countries are:  Sudan, Burma, China, Entrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan.—CNN, 5/15/2014

Tiananmen Square 1989

Tiananmen Square 1989

A China expert says the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre caused many Chinese intellectuals to lose faith in communism and become Christians.  Loyola University of Maryland Professor Carsten Vala says Christianity has become influential among Chinese scholars and other elites 25 years after the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters that left hundreds and perhaps thousands dead. At a Brookings Institution forum on Christianity in China, Vala and University of California-San Diego Professor Richard Madsen said Chinese officials are now frightened that the faith’s explosive growth threatens their hold on power.—AP, 6/4/2014

The Jewish community of Ukraine is understandably nervous. Since the deposition of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovich earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly asserted his right to intervene in his western neighbor’s affairs in order to protect Russian- speakers, as well as Jews and other ethnic minorities. Many Jews are afraid of being placed into the middle of a conflict in which both sides have used accusations of anti-Semitism to discredit the other.—Jerusalem Post, 5/30/2014

Patriarch Bartholomew I, the primary leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians said in an interview that he and Catholic Pope Francis are planning a gathering in Nicaea in 2025 “to celebrate together, after 17 centuries, the first truly ecumenical synod.”  In 1054, theological disagreements led to a schism that divided Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians. This is a call back to a time before the schism, before the fundamental disagreements that kept popes and patriarchs from talking to each other for more than 900 years.—The Atlantic, 5/31/2014

America’s Catholic population is rising by one percent annually, but seminary enrollment is flat. An inadequate supply of priests already has forced hundreds of parishes to close or consolidate.  Priests aren’t getting any younger, either. Their average age is 63.—USA Today, 5/25/2014

The nation’s largest Protestant denomination saw membership decline for the seventh straight year in 2013, according to an annual report released Wednesday. The report by the Southern Baptist Convention’s publishing arm, Lifeway Christian Resources, puts total membership in the Nashville-based SBC at 15.7 million. That’s down from 15.9 million in 2012, a decrease of a little less than 1 percent. Weekly church attendance decreased more than 2 percent last year, falling to 5.8 million as a weekly average for the year.—AP, 5/28/2014

A pregnant woman was stoned to death by her own family in front of a Pakistani high court for marrying the man she loved. Nearly 20 members of the woman’s family, including her father and brothers, attacked her and her husband with batons and bricks in broad daylight before a crowd of onlookers in front of the high court of Lahore.  Hundreds of women are murdered every year in Muslim-majority Pakistan in so-called “honor killings” carried out by husbands or relatives as a punishment for alleged adultery or other illicit sexual behavior, but public stoning is extremely rare.—AP, 5/27/2014

SOCIAL

In Gallup’s annual survey of the public’s faith in 17 key institutions, TV news has fallen to a new low, with only the U.S. Congress ranking below it in terms of public esteem. Just 18 percent of U.S. adults say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in TV news, down from 23 percent who gave those answers last year. The previous record low was in 2012, when just 21 percent said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in TV news.  Faith in newspapers has also fallen to 22 percent, down from 23 percent last year and tying the record low in 2007. And less than one in five Americans (19%) said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in “news on the Internet,” a lower level than when the category was last included by Gallup in their 1999 survey. Faith in the U.S. Congress currently stands at seven percent, down from 10 percent last year.—Gallup Poll, 6/19/2014

Cancer Cells

Cancer Cells

A class of drug currently being used to treat leukemia has the unexpected side-effect of boosting immune responses against many different cancers, reports a new study. The drugs, called p110δ inhibitors, have shown such remarkable efficacy against certain leukemia in recent clinical trials that patients on the placebo were switched to the real drug. The new study, led by scientists at University College London and the Babraham Institute, Cambridge and published in Nature, provides the first evidence that such drugs can significantly restrict tumor growth and spread and reduces the chances of relapse for a broad range of cancers. The research was funded by Cancer Research UK, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.—Good News Network, 6/18/2014

According to new data released this week, May 2014 is officially the warmest May in recorded history. Both NASA and the Japan Meteorological Agency have tentatively ranked May at the top of historical measurements. The exceptionally warm month was egged on by a building El Niño in the tropical Pacific, which is  shifting weather patterns worldwide and supercharging the Earth’s temperature, which could help make 2014 the warmest year since human records have been kept, and probably for much longer. El Niño’s effects should peak between October and December and will likely continue into early 2015.—Slate, 6/18/2014

POLITICAL

An 89-year-old Philadelphia man named Johann Breyer has been taken into custody after a German arrest warrant charged him with abetting genocide as an Auschwitz camp guard.  Breyer has admitted he was a guard at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in occupied Poland during World War II, but said that he was stationed outside the facility and had nothing to do with the wholesale slaughter of around 1.5 million Jews and others behind the gates. The German investigation comes after years of failed U.S. efforts to have Breyer stripped of his American citizenship and deported.—AP, 6/19/2014

Jobbik Party

Jobbik Party

The rise of far-right politics in Europe reached new heights in the April 7th elections in Hungary when “Jobbik,” the self-professed “radical right-wing” political party which has often been accused of blatant anti-Semitism, won 20.54% of votes, making it the third largest party in the country and the single largest extreme right party in Europe. Hungary however, is not alone. In the last decade, in particular in the wake of the EU’s economic crisis and ongoing influx of immigrants into Europe, the continent’s far-right parties’ popularity has made dramatic leaps.—Bridges for Peace, 5/21/2014

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government has decided to drop the word “occupied” when describing Israel’s settlements [neighborhoods] in East Jerusalem.  The move was announced following a fiery debate in the Australian legislature. Australia’s Attorney General George Brandis elaborated on the call, saying it was “unhelpful” to invoke history when speaking about the flashpoint area, citing what the Australian Associated Press called the ongoing Middle East peace process.—AP,  6/5/2014

The movement of thousands of foreign fighters into Syria to join the fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was listed as a “Key Terrorism Trend of 2013” on the State Department’s annual terrorism report. As of December 2013, there were estimated to be up to 11,000 individuals from 74 countries in Syria — nearly double its April 2013 estimate. The number has grown since December, said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the Director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, so the high-end estimates are well past 2,000 at this point. It is quite possible between 2,000 and 3,000 foreign fighters from Western countries have entered Syria and Iraq.—King’s College (London), December, 2013

Liechtenstein is returning $227 million looted by Nigeria’s late military dictator after the Nigerian government made a deal with his eldest son to drop corruption charges against the son. But a leading advocacy group warned that any returned money likely will be stolen again and called the government move “a celebration of corruption.” With the charges dropped, supporters of Mohammed Abacha, son of the late dictator Gen. Sani Abacha, said that paves the way for him to run for governor of northern Kano state on the ticket of the ruling People’s Democratic Party of President Goodluck Jonathan.—AP, 6/19/2014

Nigeria’s ousted central bank governor, Lamido Sanusi, was named Emir of Kano, making an outspoken government critic one of the most influential leaders in the largely Muslim north.Sanusi, who regularly railed against the government’s record on corruption, was suspended from his post at the bank in February by President Goodluck Jonathan in a decision that alarmed international investors. His move into such a revered position, after the death of his great-uncle the last emir on Friday, could unsettle some in Jonathan’s administration which rules over a religiously divided country and is facing national elections in 2015. The emir is the second-highest Muslim authority in Nigeria.—Reuters, 6/9/2014

Hindu statesman Rajan Zed will deliver a prayer to open the U.S. House of Representatives. He plans to start and end the prayer with “Om”, the mystical syllable containing the universe, which in Hinduism is used to introduce and conclude religious work.  Zed received an invitation from House Chaplain Reverend Patrick J. Conroy “to open the United States House of Representatives with prayer as our guest chaplain”. .—World Religion News, 6/16/2014

FINANCIAL

Highway to India

Highway to India

The newly-elected government in India plans to plant 2 billion trees along the network of National Highways across the country to employ jobless youth.  “The length of National Highways in the country is one lakh kilometre. I have asked officials to come out with a plan to plant 200 crore (2 billion) trees along these stretches which in turn would create jobs for the unemployed on the one hand and protect the environment on the other,” Road Transport, Highways, Shipping and Rural Development Minister Nitin Gadkari said here today.—Financial Express, 6/19/2014

Using the sun’s strong energy as a power source is a great idea, and good for the environment. But solar batteries only work well in outdoor conditions when the sun is shining. That handicap will be overcome within a few months, thanks to a collaboration between two Israeli companies, Sol Chip and Tadiran Batteries.  Sol Chip’s energy harvesting approach is designed to enable autonomous operation of devices and systems powered by a “plug and play” solar energy source. The miniature chip eliminates the need for an expanded solar panel area and provides a perpetual power supply for disruptive technological applications, such as precision agriculture and the Internet of Things (IoT).—Israel21c, 5/26/2014

Uber Technologies Inc. faces more than 30,000 taxi and limo drivers across Europe in the region’s biggest protest against the smartphone app that’s threatening to upend the car-service industry. Uber’s app allows customers to order a ride from drivers who don’t have taxi licenses. The protests also mark an increasing backlash against the likes of room-booking service Airbnb Inc. and video-streaming provider Aereo Inc. as they clash with traditional industries arguing the competitors should be subject to the same regulations.—Bloomberg, 6/10/2014

A Swedish startup called Klarna has discovered a way to get people to complete more purchases over the Internet: Don’t ask for money up front.  Klarna uses a sort of honor system, requiring customers to enter only their name, shipping address and e-mail account, where they’ll receive a message with instructions on how to pay. There’s also a printed invoice inside the box when their purchase arrives. Customers have two weeks to settle up by entering their credit card or bank account number or by setting up an installment plan.—Bloomberg, 6/3/2014

Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang oversaw the signing of trade and investment deals worth some $4.6 billion with Greece during a visit expected to help boost the recession-plagued country’s economy.  Li expressed support for bailed-out Greece’s economic revival effort. He also said China plans to increase its purchases of Greek government bonds when new ones are issued in a sale expected later this summer.—AP, 6/19/2014

At an event in its hometown of Seattle on Wednesday, Amazon showed off the Amazon Fire Phone. It’s a 4.7-inch, Android-based Smartphone with a high-definition display, a quad-core 2.2 GHz processor, and a 13-megapixel camera.—Slate, 6/18/2014

ISRAEL

Jewish immigration from Ukraine has more than doubled since the start of the year over 2013 figures, the agency said. Israel has seen 762 immigrants arrive from Ukraine between January and April, compared to 315 over the same period a year ago.—Reuters, 5/27/2014

Israel’s cabinet approved 100 million shekels (US $28.8 million) to assist farmers and others willing to assist with the Biblical Shmita (Sabbatical) year. The Shmita is biblical command to let the Land of Israel lie fallow, or rest agriculturally, every seven years. It is originally commanded in the biblical books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and it is linked to significant blessings from Heaven for keeping the commandment. This is the most the government has ever done for the Shmita.  Of the 100 million shekels allotted to helping with keeping the commandment, 45 million will go towards farmers who don’t work their fields, and 20 million will go to fruit tree producers. The Shmita begins on the holiday of Rosh Hashannah (Jewish New Year or the Feast of Trumpets) which begins in the evening of September 24.—The Mideast Update, 6/1/2014

For the past 14 years, the team behind “The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition” has been laboring on a project to sift through the text of the Torah and reverse the accumulated imperfections and changes, returning the books of the Hebrew Bible to something like their original versions. The first volume is due out later this year. The text of the Hebrew Bible now being used descends from what is called the Masoretic text, which was assembled between the sixth and 10th centuries by Jewish scribes and scholars in present-day Israel and Iraq. But even among the various versions of the Masoretic text there are subtle differences.—Jewish Daily Forward, 5/16/2014

Israel’s chief rabbis called for the country to maintain control of the Temple Mount after the IDF liberated it in 1967, according to research presented in the Knesset. MK Moshe Feiglin (Likud Beytenu) co-hosted a conference in the Knesset on sovereignty over the Temple Mount with Professors for a Strong Israel. According to a document from 1967, then chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim said that Jews should oversee the site – either alone or in cooperation with other religions – because it belongs to the Jewish people.  Then-chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman was quoted as saying, “the site of the Holy Temple should belong to the rabbinate. As for the mosque…we will not give up ownership of the land on which the mosque was built.”—Jerusalem Post, 5/26/2014

Tel Aviv University researchers, led by Professor Shlomo Bunimovitz and Dr. Zvi Lederman, recently uncovered a seal, measuring 15mm (about a half-inch) in diameter, which depicts a human figure next to a lion. The seal was discovered at the archaeological site of Beit Shemesh, located between the biblical cities of Zorah and Eshtaol, where Samson was born, flourished, and was finally buried—this according to the book of Judges [chapters 13–16].The scene engraved on the seal, the time period, and the location of the discovery all point to a probable reference to the story of Samson, the legendary heroic figure whose epic exploits included a victory in combat with a lion [Judg. 14:5–6].—Bridges for Peace archive.

Palestine Power Generating Company has become the first company to sign a contract with the Leviathan Gas Field. The agreement will supply the Palestinian energy company with [US] $1.2 billion worth of natural gas in order to generate electricity from a power station that it will establish next to Jenin.  The gas reservoir west of Haifa, owned in part by Israeli companies Delek Drilling, Avner Oil and Gas, and Ratio Oil Exploration, and which will be operated by plurality shareholder American company Noble Energy, contains about 550 billion cubic meters of natural gas. Over the course of 20 years, 4.75 billion cubic meters will be sold to the Palestinian company.—Ynet News, 4/2/2014

For generations, Jaffa has been a city divided by two communities that continue to grow increasingly apart. Palestinians and Israelis live together but often segregated lives.  Over a ten-week period, Pierre Dulaine teaches Jewish and Palestinian children to dance side by side, hand in hand, and compete together, working as a team. Dulaine, a four-time world champion ballroom dancer, is fulfilling a life-long dream, having taken his New York City program, Dancing Classrooms, back to his city of birth, Jaffa.  The program supports Dulaine’s belief that dance can overcome hatred and provide the first steps towards real change.–Good News Network, 6/19/2014

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