News and Views- Nov/Dec 2017

November/December 2017, Volume 99, Number 6

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The US State Department has released its annual International Religious Freedom Report for 2016. The annual report provides a detailed and factual overview of the status of religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories, and documents reports of violations and abuses committed by governments, terrorist groups, militias, and individuals. The State Department’s document is highly critical of terrorist groups like Daesh, as well as a number of countries, including China, Saudi Arabia or Turkey, among others. “Many governments around the world used discriminatory laws to deny their citizens freedom of religion or belief. No one should have to live in fear, worship in secret, face discrimination because of their beliefs,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a press conference. According to Tillerson,”almost 80% of the global population live with restrictions on or hostilities to limit their freedom of religion. Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that human rights abuses, and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root. We cannot ignore these conditions.” — U.S. State Department, 8/21/2017

The proportion of Protestants in the United States who don’t identify with a specific denomination doubled between 2000 and 2016, according to a new Gallup poll. About 1 in 6 Americans are non- denominational Christians. The growing popularity of nondenominational identity is the result of two trends: the decline in the number of Protestants overall, and shrinking denominations themselves. Not only are the major mainline churches continuing to see their numbers fall, the country’s largest Protestant denomination — the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) — has lost a million members in the past 15 years. Prior to 2000, half of all Americans belonged to a specific Protestant denomination. Now, just 30 percent do. — Christianity To- day, 7/20/2017

The eastern Indian state of Jharkhand has cleared the draft of an “anti-conversion bill” that could mean four-year prison sentences and 100,000 rupee nes (US$1,500) for those found to have forced an- other person to change religions, reports The New Indian Express. Jharkhand will become the latest state to have an “anti-conversion law”, alongside Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. The bill arose out of concerns in the BJP-led state about a significant rise in the Christian and Muslim populations. India’s most recent census in 2011 showed that Christians (29.7%) and Muslims (28.4%) had a higher rate of growth than Hindus (21%) since Jharkhand’s last census in 2001. — World Watch Monitor, 8/3/2017

One year on from the introduction of penalties in Russia for ill-defined “missionary activity” — which the Russian authorities also impose in Crimea, which they occupied in March 2014 — Forum 18 found 13 such administrative cases brought in Crimea against individuals (Article 5.26, Part 4). Eight of these — including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Protestants and a Muslim — are known to have been fined about ten days’ average local wages each. Some were punished for participating in religious meetings of a community they belonged to. — Forum 18, 7/24/2017

A $2 million restoration of Egypt’s largest synagogue is the start of a government effort to keep alive the legacy of the Jewish community, whose members have largely left for Israel, France and elsewhere since the middle of the last century. Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany announced his agency would fund the restoration of the Prophet Elijah Synagogue, including repairing the rain-damaged roof of the women’s gallery. The 160-year-old structure is itself an 1850s-era restoration of a sanctuary damaged when French forces bombarded the Mediterranean port city. The 700-seat Italianate synagogue is one of four buildings on a compact city block that once comprised the Jewish community living in Alexandria’s historic center. — Religious News Service, 7/27/2017

As the rise of the Islamic State terrorist organization has devastated Christian communities in northern regions in Iraq such as Mosul and Nineveh Plains, Christianity has also suffered in many other regions of Iraq in the past 15 years. The Christian persecution advocacy group reported that as many as eight churches in Baghdad were forced to close by the Vatican this May “after nearly seven years of low to no attendance.” “After the regional Catholic Church authority visited the churches, the Vatican decided that it was best to close the doors for good,” the ICC report states. “While this makes logistical sense, it represents a symbolic defeat for the Church in the capital of Iraq.” As over 1 million fewer Christians live in Iraq than they did in 2003, the emigration of Iraqi Christians, who once comprised 10 percent of Iraq’s total population, can be divided into three different stages, one Baghdad resident told ICC – Christian Post, 8/1/2017


China’s influence across Africa has been deepening for decades — China surpassed the U.S. as the continent’s biggest trading partner in 2009 — and Ghana, a rapidly developing democracy of 26 million people on West Africa’s Atlantic coast, has been one of the relationship’s greatest beneficiaries. Yet Chinese entrepreneurs in Ghana are increasingly overstepping the once tightly prescribed limits of state control, and the widening presence of Chinese migrants selling cheap, low-quality goods at Ghanaian markets is undercutting — and infuriating — local sellers. In 2013, the Ghanaian government arrested 168 Chinese nationals on suspicion of illegal gold mining, following reports of environmental devastation and social unrest. Then came the gambling. Chinese slot machines began appearing throughout rural Ghana early last year. In the country’s Northern Region — an area about the size of West Virginia, home to 2.5 million people — the machines have proliferated widely and precipitated an epidemic of gambling addiction that the government has been unable, or unwilling, to quell. — Los Angeles Times, 8/8/2017

Doctors in the Netherlands have been scraping cells from patients needing organs and growing a mini version in petri dishes. The experiment to help people with rare forms of cystic fibrosis in the Netherlands aims to grow mini intestines for every Dutch patient with the disease to figure out, in part, what treatment might work for them. So far, doctors have grown miniguts — just the size of a pencil point — for 450 of the Netherlands’ roughly 1,500 cystic brosis patients. These so-called organoids mimic features of full-size organs, but don’t function the same way. However, they are helping scientists unravel how organs mature and providing clues on how certain diseases might be treated. — AP, 8/24/2017

Fetal surgery is considered so new that those organizations that normally track such things cannot provide specific data on the number of such procedures at hospitals throughout the country. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is among the leading institutions performing such surgeries, assisting expectant mothers carrying babies with known defects from all 50 states in the U.S., and more than 60 countries worldwide. Since 1995, the hospital has cared for more than 21,100 expectant parents and performed more than 1,586 surgeries. — Bucks County Courier Times, 8/24/2017

Safety systems to prevent cars from drifting into another lane or that warn drivers of vehicles in their blind spots have been found to have lower crash rates than the same type of vehicles without such systems. The lane-keeping study looked at police crash data from 25 states between 2009 and 2015 for vehicle models where the systems were sold as optional. Lane-keeping systems lowered rates of single-vehicle, sideswipe and head-on crashes by 11 percent, and crashes of those types in which there were injuries, by 21 percent, the study found. They found the technology cut the fatal crash rate by 86 percent. — AP, 8/24/2017


North Korea carried out its sixth and by far its most powerful nuclear test to date. The underground blast triggered a magnitude 6.3 earthquake and was more powerful than the bombs dropped by the US on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the second world war. — The Guardian, 9/4/2017

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has said the bill for reconstruction after Hurricane Harvey could be as high as $180 billion. Many areas are still battling floodwater. The devastating hurricane made landfall in the state a week ago and has been blamed for at least 47 deaths. About 43,000 people are being housed in shelters. — BBC, 9/3/2017

Iran has leased a military airfield from the Syrian government in the center of the country in order to station fighter aircraft. Iran is also negotiating with the Syrians to establish a land base for Shiite militiamen and a port in the city of Tartus. The land base would be an Iranian autonomous base capable of supporting 5,000 Iranian militiamen believed to be mercenaries from Afghanistan and Pakistan under the command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. These steps represent a move by Iran to establish a long-term presence in Syria and pose a threat to Israel. They also represent an annexation plan by Iran to take control of a series of territories in the Middle East with the goal being to create territorial and maritime contiguity from Iran to Lebanon, Sudan, the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, and on to Iraq and Jordan before reaching the Israeli border. — Ynet News, 7/14/2017

Yemen has seen the largest outbreak of cholera recorded in recent memory in any country in a single year. The country’s raging two-year conflict has turned it into an incubator for lethal cholera: primitive sanitation and water systems put Yemenis at risk of drinking feces-contaminated water; wells are dirtied by runoff from rainfall on piles of garbage left uncollected for weeks; farmland is irrigated with broken sewers due to lax oversight and corruption; medical intervention is delayed due to unpaid government employees and half of the country’s health facilities are out of service. One in every 120 Yemenis is now suspected of being sick with cholera, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. — AP, 8/11/2017

$ Financial

Two affiliates of Lehman Brothers, the U.S. investment bank that collapsed in 2008 and fueled an economic crisis, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The affiliates own residential mortgage-backed securities, real estate and stock in First Data Corp (FDC.N), which helps process credit card transactions, among other assets, and will generate $485 million cash, which will be used to settle debts. Administrators have spent years winding down Lehman’s holdings and have distributed around $147 billion to creditors, according to court records. Lehman remains one of the largest U.S. bankruptcies, even after the distributions to creditors. There are still hundreds of creditor claims and legal disputes for the $7 billion in assets held by the estate. The memory of Lehman’s dramatic failure has sparked regulatory efforts to prevent another damaging collapse. The U.S. Federal Reserve recently finalized a rule aimed at making it easier to wind down large banks. — Re- uters, 9/1/2017

One of the many shattered expectations post-2008 was the idea that we will see a period of debt deleveraging, as would have been expected in the aftermath of a serious financial crisis. In fact, global debt has been growing at a rate of about 5% per year since 2007, while the global economy has been growing by about 3% per year. According to McKinsey, global debt was $87 trillion in the year 2000. It grew to $142 trillion in 2007, just before the financial crisis hit and then it hit $199 trillion by the middle of 2014. Latest reports suggest that it reached $217 trillion in 2016. — Seeking Alpha, 4/11/2017

Today, 11 percent of the $1.325 trillion of federal student loans outstanding is severely delinquent or in default, higher than the mortgage default rate at the peak of the foreclosure crisis in 2010, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. — Reuters, 7/25/2017

We’re in the middle of the greatest bubble of the decade: $100 Billion worth of cryptocurrency with little intrinsic value. A long-term system will emerge — but not before a handful of visionaries, and hucksters, take billions from the greater fools. — Forbes 7/27/2017

As arctic ice pushes a little farther north each year, it is spurring talk of a gold rush in the remote Arctic for abundant natural resources, prized shipping routes and business opportunities in tourism and fishing. The Arctic, including the fabled Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific, is among the last regions on earth to remain largely unexplored. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that up to 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of oil waiting to be found are inside the Arctic Circle. Precious minerals also slumber beneath the icy surface, along with rare earth elements, lithium and cobalt, used in batteries for electric cars and handheld devices, said the director of the Geological Survey of Norway. — AP, 8/24/2017


According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), tourism to Israel has seen a record rise during the first half of 2017, with a whopping 1.74 million visitors arriving in the Jewish state over the past six months. The number translates to a 26% increase on the 2016 figures for the same period. Three months ago, April registered the highest-ever number of international visitors for any month since the rebirth of the State of Israel in May 1948. — Bureau of Tourism, July 2017

The Labor and Social Services Ministry called on Israeli members of the extremist ultra-Orthodox Lev Tahor, or “Pure Heart” cult to “come home,” offering each family unprecedented absorption benefits. The ministry appealed to dozens of families in the sect with the hope they will return to Israel following the death of their leader, Rabbi Shlomo Erez Helbrans, who drowned in Mexico. Sometimes described in the media as the “Jewish Taliban,” Lev Tahor was founded in the 1980s and practices an extreme form of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. It also advocates anti-Zionism. — Jerusalem Post, 7/25/2017

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) believes that the Jewish people have no claim to the spot where Abraham, the father of the Jews, is buried. According to the cultural arm of the United Nations (UN), the resting place of patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and matriarchs, Sarah, Rebekah and Leah, is, in fact, an historical Palestinian site — one that requires protection from the offspring of the very people who are buried there. UNESCO made this decision during the World Heritage Committee’s 41st annual summit in Krakow, Poland, when it passed an anti-Israel resolution to label Hebron “Islamic” and designate the Old City of Hebron, home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, as a Palestinian heritage site in danger. Twelve of the 21 member states voted in favor of the resolution, while three nations opposed it. A further six countries abstained. This type of vote usually takes place by a show of hands, but three countries, namely Poland, Croatia and Jamaica, requested a secret ballot. — Bridges for Peace, 7/10/2017

On Monday, the Jewish state’s Energy, Water, and National Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz, and Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, were among the high-ranking officials who gathered in a field outside the Palestinian-governed city of Jenin to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the inauguration of a Palestinian-run power plant. The Al-Jalameh Substation, which The Times of Israel describes as “the first-ever piece of Palestinian-owned electricity infrastructure,” is the first of four stations to be constructed in Judea and Samaria that will operate under the management of the PA. Through these four stations, the PA will ultimately have the necessary electricity flow to power up the towns and cities it governs. — Bridges for Peace, 6/10/2017

The People’s Republic of China con rmed its intention to play a leading role in future Middle Eastern affairs through efforts to bring an end to the decades of strife and conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. — Bridges for Peace, 8/2/2017

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