Haitian voters are set to cast ballots on March 20 for the country's first presidential runoff in 25 years. But experts worry that the nation may face the same chaos and fraud that launched days of violent protests after last year's elections. Officials announced on Feb. 3 that President René Préval's handpicked candidate, Jude Celestin, won't be on the ballot. Instead, pop singer Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly will face former first lady Mirlande Manigat. The announcement ended months of intense speculation over how the Haitian government would handle international calls for Martelly to replace Celestin on the ballot after widespread fraud tainted the November elections.
But a central question remains: Can election officials effectively prepare for a presidential runoff in 40 days? Scores of Haitians complained that massively disorganized and incorrect voter lists blocked fair voting in the November contests. Haitian officials haven't announced a detailed plan for preventing the same problems in the March runoff. One thing seems certain: If already-tense Haitian voters face another chaotic vote, the country could face another descent into worsening chaos.
Indonesian Christians increasingly are the target of angry religious mobs. On Feb. 8, Muslims set two churches on fire and raided a Christian school and health center, beating a parish priest who tried to stop them. The attacks occurred after a Christian received a five-year sentence for calling Islam a cruel religion-a sentence the attackers considered too lenient. The Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace found that attacks against Indonesian churches have risen from 12 incidents in 2009 to 75 incidents in 2010. U.S. ambassador to Indonesia Scot Marciel noted "with concern" the church bombings and asked the Indonesian government to "protect the rights of all communities."
Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., surprised constituents by announcing that she plans to resign this month to become the president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Smithsonian think tank. Her solidly Democratic district means party members will line up for a spot in a June special election. Also resigning from the House: New York Republican Christopher Lee after a report that the 46-year-old husband and father had emailed a shirtless photo of himself to a woman in response to her personal ad on Craigslist. "I regret the harm that my actions have caused my family, my staff and my constituents," Lee said in a statement. "I deeply and sincerely apologize to them all."
Adoptions in decline
The U.S. State Department reported in January that American adoptions of foreign children dropped last year by 13 percent-the lowest level for international adoptions since 1995. Americans in 2010 adopted 11,059 children from overseas, a dramatic decline from an all-time high of 22,990 in 2004. Factors contributing to the downturn:
• Guatemala, once the No. 1 source for international adoptions, halted most overseas adoptions in 2008.
• China remained Americans' top source for foreign adoptions in 2010, but a series of tougher restrictions on adoptive parents cut the numbers of adoptions from 5,900 in 2008 to 3,400 last year. (Americans adopted 14,500 Chinese children in 2005, according to UNICEF.)
• Russian authorities have limited international adoptions, drastically reducing the number of American adoptions since 2004.
At least one country saw an increase: Ethiopia ranked second for U.S. adoptions, placing 2,500 children last year.
Time of prayer
The 59th annual National Prayer Breakfast held in Washington on Feb. 3 included heartfelt discussions on a topic that, according to keynote speaker and Hollywood film director Randall Wallace, has sometimes been missing at previous NPB gatherings: prayer.
Saying prayer "sifts our souls like sand," Wallace, who wrote Braveheart and directed Secretariat, challenged the audience of more than 3,000 from 140 nations to "open your heart before God almighty and say I will lose my life and I will win it, loving in all the ways you lead my heart to love."
President Barack Obama then provided the nation with a rare glimpse into his own religious beliefs, describing how "my Christian faith . . . has been a sustaining force for me over these last few years." Obama said that he "came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace him as my Lord and Savior" two decades ago while working as a community organizer for a group of churches in Chicago. In a speech that seemed designed to confront questions surrounding his religious beliefs, Obama, often paraphrasing Scripture, outlined his daily prayer life in detail. He said he regularly prays for humility, wisdom, the ability to show compassion and help those who are struggling, and that he might walk closer to God.
"When I wake in the morning, I wait on the Lord, and I ask him to give me the strength to do right by our country and its people," Obama said. "And when I go to bed at night, I wait on the Lord, and I ask him to forgive me my sins and look after my family and the American people and make me an instrument of his will."
When a Chick-fil-A franchise operator in Pennsylvania decided to provide a marriage conference with free brownies and chicken sandwiches, some gay-rights advocates had a cow. Spurred on by activist websites such as Change.org, gay-rights student groups at five universities asked administrators to ban Chick-fil-A vendors from school property, prompting the South Bend campus of Indiana University to briefly suspend the nation's second-most-popular chicken sandwiches from its diners (they were reinstated after a review).
Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A, famous for closing its fast-food restaurants on Sundays, supports traditional marriages through such programs as its WinShape Foundation marriage retreat, which offers counseling to couples. Critics say the company's agenda-and voluntary food donations like that to the Pennsylvania marriage conference, to be hosted in February by the Pennsylvania Family Institute-makes it "anti-gay." But some advocates of gay rights think the issue is being overblown.
Chick-fil-A will serve all customers "with dignity and with dedication," said company president Dan T. Cathy in carefully worded statements addressing the controversy. "We will not champion any political agendas on marriage and family. . . . At the same time, we will continue to offer resources to strengthen marriages and families."
Looking to 2012
A Republican and a Democrat added their names to the growing list of senators who will not seek reelection in 2012. Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., on Feb. 10 said he would not run again because, after five terms in the House and three in the Senate, "it is time." Kyl added: "Some people stay too long, and there are other things to do in life." One day earlier, freshman Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., said he would "return to the private sector, where I have spent most of my professional life" after finishing his term. Five senators-two Republicans, two Democrats, and independent Joe Lieberman-have now announced plans to retire after 2012.
Caught on camera
Live Action, a pro-life group known for its undercover videos exposing abortion providers, released a video on Feb. 1 showing a Planned Parenthood employee advising an alleged pimp on how to get abortions and contraceptives for his underage sex workers. In the Jan. 11 video, a man and woman posing as a pimp and a prostitute tell Amy Woodruff, a Planned Parenthood office manager in Perth Amboy, N.J., that they are running a prostitution ring involving underage immigrants. In the 11-minute edited video, Woodruff advises that the girls lie about the age of their sexual partners and give as little information as possible so she is not obliged to report it. She tells the man he can get a price reduction if the girls pretend they're students, adding, "We wanna make it look as legit as possible." Live Action on Feb. 4 released more videos taken at other clinics. Before Live Action released the videos, Planned Parenthood issued a Jan. 24 press release stating that 11 Planned Parenthood centers experienced similar encounters in a single week and had notified U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder of a possible trafficking ring, but that it believed the man may be affiliated with Live Action. On Feb. 1 Planned Parenthood fired Woodruff.
For the second time, a federal appeals court has ruled that a judge in Ohio violated the Constitution by displaying a poster that included the Ten Commandments. In 2004, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Richland County Judge James DeWeese to take down a Ten Commandments poster. In 2006, he replaced that poster with another that included the Commandments, seven "Humanist Precepts," and the commentary, "Either God is the final authority, and we acknowledge His unchanging standards of behavior. Or man is the final authority, and standards of behavior change at the whim of individuals or societies." DeWeese argued that the poster was about "warring legal philosophies." On Feb. 2 the 6th Circuit ruled that the poster violated the First Amendment by setting forth "overt religious messages and religious endorsements."