2014-March/April Issue-Article 06 News and Views

PBI News


Campaigners in England are attempting to launch a legal challenge to the Christian coronation of future monarchs in an attack on the most powerful symbol of the union between church and state. They expect to challenge article 9 of the European convention on human rights, on the grounds that allowing the Church of England to perform such a ceremony limits the rights of conscience of the many people who do not subscribe to its beliefs, and article 14, which prohibits discrimination of any kind. The coronation service confers no powers, as the new monarch becomes monarch when their predecessor dies, and there is no law requiring a coronation. The Coronation Oath Act of 1688 stipulated elements of the ceremony, but not that it was required to take place. — The Guardian, 11/10/2013

There are parts of the world today where to be a Christian is to put your life in danger. From continent to continent, Christians are facing discrimination, ostracism, torture, even murder, simply for the faith they follow. Christian populations are plummeting and the religion is being driven out of some of its historic heartlands. In Iraq, the Christian community has fallen from 1.2 million in 1990 to 200,000 today. In Syria, the horrific bloodshed has masked the hemorrhaging of its Christian population. Collective punishment is becoming more common, with people being attacked for the alleged crimes, connections or connotations of their coreligionists, often in response to events taking place thousands of miles away. — The Telegraph, 11/14/2013

For people at high risk of depression because of a family history, spirituality may offer some protection for the brain, a new study hints. Parts of the brain’s outer layer, the cortex, were thicker in high-risk study participants who said religion or spirituality was “important” to them versus those who cared less about religion.” Our beliefs and our moods are reflected in our brain and with new imaging techniques we can begin to see this,” said Myrna Weissman, a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Columbia University and chief of the Clinical- Genetic Epidemiology department at New York State Psychiatric institute. — Reuters, 12/31/2013

For centuries, the German Catholic Church has been operating a type of dual-accounting system. Every year, the state directly finances Germany’s Protestant and Catholic churches with approximately $680 million to compensate for the expropriations under Napoleon in 1803. Christian churches further levy an annual tax from their members (8 to 9 percent of their income tax, depending on the state). The system brought the Catholic Church a record $7.1 billion in revenue last year. However, the 27 Catholic dioceses also possess undisclosed pots of money. These include assets such as real estate or bonds, which are recorded in a kind of shadow budget that, until recently, only the bishop and his closest aides were privy to. “I would estimate the total wealth of the Cologne diocese at 3 billion euro [$4 billion], and not 166.2 million euro [$225.8 million] as it declared, for instance,” he says. — Christian Science Monitor, 11/3/2013

The Talmud, the book of Jewish law, is one of the most challenging religious texts in the world. But it is being read in larger numbers, partly thanks to digital tools that make it easier to grasp. The 07:53 train from Inwood to Penn Station in New York contains a study group who are peering down at ancient Hebrew and Aramaic text and discussing fine points of Judaic law. The group started 22 years ago, to help Long Island’s Jewish commuters find their way through the “book,” which stretches to well over 10 million words across 38 volumes. When someone asked Einstein, shortly before his death, what he would do differently if he could live his life again, he replied without hesitation: “I would study the Talmud.” — BBC, 10/29/2013


Scientists at the Thousand Oaks biotech firm Amgen set out to double-check the results of 54 landmark papers in their fields of cancer research and blood biology. They found that of the 53 landmark papers, only six could be proved valid. A group at Bayer Health Care in Germany similarly found that only 25% of published papers on which it was basing Research and Development projects could be validated, suggesting that projects in which the firm had sunk huge resources should be abandoned. Berkeley biologist Michael Asian says that the drive to land a paper in a top journal — Nature and Science lead the list — encourages researchers to hype results, especially in the life sciences. —Los Angeles Times, 10/27/2013

A mysterious diner has been tipping thousands of dollars on restaurant bills across the country. The anonymous tipper’s Instagram account is “tipsforJesus.” The account has nearly 30,000 followers. Its profile reads, “Doing the Lord’s work, one tip at a time.” —Arizona Republic, 12/5/2013

Ten percent of brain scans spot something unrelated to the reason for the scan and may require more testing. — AP, 12/15/2013

Bexar County’s (San Antonio, Texas) Biblio Tech is the nation’s only bookless library. The library looks a lot like an Apple Store: rows of glossy iMacs and iPads mounted on a tangerinecolored bar. The space is more economical than traditional libraries, despite the technology, since the library doesn’t need to accommodate printed books. The library is an effort to raise San Antonio’s literacy rate, which ranks 60th in the nation. — AP, 1/4/2014

A new study by an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania focuses on a personality trait she calls “grit,” defined as “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them.” Angela Duckworth’s research suggests that when it comes to high achievement, grit may be as essential as intelligence. — American Radio Works, 12/12/2013

Belgium came a step closer to introducing the right to grant euthanasia for terminally ill children, breaking what is an almost universal taboo, when a parliamentary committee voted it through by a large majority. The law, which still has to go to a vote of the full parliament that analysts say is likely to pass, would make Belgium the first country in the world to remove the age limit for the procedure. — Reuters, 11/27/2013

Dozens of gatherings dubbed “atheist mega-churches” by supporters and detractors are springing up around the U.S. after finding success in Great Britain earlier this year. Gatherings in San Diego, Nashville, New York and other U.S. cities have drawnhundreds of atheists seeking the camaraderie of a congregation without religion or ritual. The founders, British duo Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans hope to raise more than $800,000 that will help atheists launch their popup congregations around the world. —AP, 11/10/2013

Since 2006, there have been more than 230 mass killings in America and they are far more common than most people realize. They happen about every two weeks and have claimed nearly 1,200 lives in the past eight years. FBI data indicates that about 1 in 4 is family-related killings. Nearly 60 percent of victims knew their killers, even if they were not the main target. — USA Today, 12/5/2013

New studies suggest the beginnings of life on this planet could have occurred deep underground. Researchers have found microbes up to 3.1 miles below the Earth’s surface — tiny organisms that are almost exactly the same on opposite sides of theplanet. That points to a possible common ancestor about 3.5 billion years ago, which is when earthly life began, the paper explains. Scientists pulled such microbes from fissures in rocks as widespread as North America, Japan, Europe, South Africa, and even, according to Red Orbit, deep hydrothermal vents in the Caribbean. The samples were more than 97% identical, or practically the same species, according to researcher Matt Schrenk, who notes that some may “live as deep as (6 miles) into the Earth.” — USA Today, 12/14/2013

The death toll from Typhoon Haiyan that struck the central Philippines on November 8 passed 6,000 with nearly 1,800 missing. The homes of more than 16 million people were either flattened or damaged by the typhoon. — AP, 12/15/2013


Nearly six months after the mass uprising-cum-coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, the key cleavages of Egypt’s domestic political conflict are not only unresolved, but irresolvable. The generals who removed Morsi are engaged in an existential struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood: They believe they must destroy the Brotherhood — by, for instance, designating it a terrorist organization — or else the Brotherhood will return to power and destroy them. — The Atlantic, 1/2/2014

The National Security Agency tracks the locations of nearly 5 billion cell phones every day overseas, including those belonging to Americans abroad. The NSA inadvertently gathers the location records of tens of millions of Americans who travel abroad annually, along with the billions of other records it collects by tapping into worldwide mobile network cables. — Washington Post, 12/5/2013

A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) organization has taped yellow stickers on Israeli products reading “For justice in Palestine, Boycott Israel.” Among the many items found carrying the yellow boycott sticker is a pack of dates from the Jordan Valley. One of the stickers read: “Organic datesproduce of West Bank [Judea and Samaria]; Israeli Settlement Produce.” — Ynetnews, 11/5/2013

When Russians celebrated the Day of National Unity, marchers waving imperial flags and shouting racist slogans paraded through cities across the country while ethnic minority citizens and migrants from the former Soviet Union stayed out of sight to avoid a beating. Russians are growing increasingly nationalistic, according to the latest polls, and Muslims from the Caucasus and migrant workers from Central Asia are facing more and more hostility. — Washington Post, 11/11/2013

A sit-in by police seeking pay raises in Argentina’s second largest city prompted hours of looting, robberies, injuries and vigilante mobs trying to protect their neighborhoods before the provincial government agreed to the officers’ demands and peace returned to the streets. — AP, 12/5/2013


In 2013, gold had its worst slump in more than 30 years. The price of gold rose every year from 2001 to 2012 as investors sought protection against inflation. Gold lost 28 percent of its value last year, the worst drop since 1981. — AP, 1/2/2014

The European Commission has fined a group of major global banks a total of $2.3 billion for colluding to profit from the manipulation of key interest rates. The commission is only the latest to punish banks for profiting from manipulating interest rates after similar cases brought by U.S. and national European market regulators. — AP, 12/5/2013

The city of Detroit officially became the largest municipality in U.S. history to enter Chapter 9 bankruptcy after a judge declared it met the specific legal criteria required to receive protection from its creditors. At the heart of Detroit’s estimated $18 billion deficit is a $3.5 billion hole in its city pension system and healthcare liabilities for more than 21,000 retired employees. — Detroit Free Press, 12/5/2013

Exports from the U.S. in October reached an all-time high, narrowing the trade gap to $40.6 billion, according to the Commerce Department. — AP, 12/5/2013

A new paper from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management published findings that suggest businesses with head offices in places with high levels of “religiosity” were less likely to experience stock price crashes as a result of not disclosing bad financial news. And it didn’t matter whether those at the top were religious or not. Just being in a town where social norms are influenced by religious codes of behavior was enough to rub off on the companies operating there. “The researchers used data from 1971 to 2000 about the number of churches and church membership in U.S. counties from the American Religion Data Archive.” — Science Daily, 12/20/2013


Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement greenlighting the construction of a Red Sea-Dead Sea pipeline. The Red Sea-Dead Sea Conduit, also known as the Two Seas Canal, will carry some 100 million metric cubes of water to the north annually, thus hopefully slowing down the process of the Dead Sea’s desiccation. A joint water purification plant will be formed and Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians will share the water. Some 200 million metric cubes of water will be pumped from the Red Sea annually, some 80 million of which will be desalinated in a special facility to be built in Aqaba, Jordan; 30-50 million cubic meters will be allocated to Israel for usage in the Arava and Eilat. The Jordanians will receive 30 million cubes for their own southern region and an additional 50 million cubes of gray-water from the Kinneret for the north. The Palestinian Authority will receive some 30 million cubes from the Kinneret — either desalinated water or gray-water at production cost — which will increase water supplies for West Bank [Judea and Samaria] residents. The entirety of the pipeline will be laid in Jordan, thus circumnavigating issues raised by environmental organizations in Israel. Barring unexpected delays, the construction of the pipeline and purification facility will be completed within four to five years. — Ynetnews, 12/9/2013

After half a century of decline, Britain’s Jewish community is growing as Orthodox birthrates soar, according to a new report. The report, titled “Britain’s Jewish Community Statistics 2012,” suggests that four out of every 10 Jewish births are among the most traditional, Orthodox Jewish sects. — Washington Post, 11/13/2013

This past week winter arrived with a fierce storm, bringing snow to Mt. Hermon, flooding to Tel Aviv and a combination of rain, wind, sleet, graupel (formed when droplets of water freeze on a falling snowflake) and snow to Jerusalem. The snowfall is said to be the heaviest in the city since 1953. Along with the flooding, ice and snow, southern Israel experienced a minor earthquake south of Mount Hebron. About 10 km [6.2 mi] north of the city of Arad, an earthquake with a magnitude of 3.4 on the Richter scale was felt. No injuries or damage have been reported. — Bridges for Peace, 12/13/2013

A small but growing movement by Jewish activists is demanding the right to pray at the site of their destroyed temple. Each week, hundreds of Jews ascend the creaky wooden ramp built above the Western Wall and enter what is often called the most contested real estate on Earth. Many then embark upon a game of hideandseek with their police escorts — whispering forbidden prayers while pretending to talk into cellphones, and getting in quick but banned bows by dropping coins and then bending to pick them up. Some political leaders, many in Netanyahu’s party, want Israel to assert more, not less, control over the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Old City, including the place known to Jews as the Temple Mount. — Washington Post, 12/2/2013

Attendance at synagogues and religious events in Tel Aviv has been growing for the past few years, and kosher restaurants are on the rise. Part of this reflects an influx of immigrants, mostly Orthodox and Conservative/traditional, who have instilled a distinctly Diaspora-style, synagogue-based model of community to the scene. Part is also due to more Shabbat-observant Israeli singles moving to Tel Aviv from other cities. But part, too, is due to increased interest in religious activities among Israel’s secular Jews. Today, the city boasts dozens of active synagogues, social, civic, and religious organizations. Those who get involved are primarily single young professionals — a mix of immigrants and native Israelis, traditional Jews of all streams. — The Tablet, 12/11/2013


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