Sgins of the Times (8/6/13)

Many Embassies Remain Closed

The U.S. State Department announced that 19 embassies and consulates in the Middle East and Africa will be closed through Saturday, including a small number of additional posts that were not shuttered on Sunday. A press release said the closures were out of an “abundance of caution” and not an “indication of a new threat.” The new embassies ordered to shut down through Saturday include facilities in central and east Africa, including the capitals of Burundi and Rwanda. Authorities also closed a third embassy in Saudi Arabia. Among those closed Sunday but to reopen Monday: posts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Bangladesh. Security was beefed up in Cairo and elsewhere as U.S. embassies and consulates closed because of the threat.

A worldwide travel alert remains in effect until Aug. 31. That alert warns U.S. citizens that al-Qaeda and affiliated groups continue to plan terrorist attacks particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. The State Department on Tuesday ordered non-essential personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen to leave the country. A pair of suspected U.S. drone strikes killed four al Qaeda militants in Yemen as the United States maintained a heightened security alert in the country and urged all Americans to leave immediately. The potential terror attacks are thought to be in retaliation for all the drone strikes in Yemen over the past two years that have killed several al-Qaeda leaders. Concerns about a possible attack, at least two major U.S. cities (New York and San Francisco) have stepped up their security.

Last-Minute Deal: Congress Exempts Itself from ObamaCare

Moments before shuttering Capitol Hill for a month-long recess, Congress exempted 11,000 members and staff from ObamaCare. News of Friday’s last-minute deal making is especially frustrating since part of ObamaCare’s original sell to the American people was that lawmakers and aides had to use the plan. According to The Wall Street Journal, both parties went ballistic when they learned staff would incur dramatically higher healthcare costs. “Democrats in particular, begged for help,” and President Obama leapt into action telling them in a closed-door meeting that “he would personally moonlight as H.R. manager and resolve the issue.” He did … for Congress.

“A behind-closed-doors deal announced after Congress is safely away from the crime scene. This is exactly why America rightly hates Washington,” charged Sen. David Vitter (R-LA). Hundreds of politically connected companies and unions have also gotten exemptions. The Teamsters had warned that Obamacare is so complex that an army of “navigators” must be hired to sign people up, and Democratic Senator Max Baucus, who is the outgoing head of the Finance Committee referred to the effort to administer the law as a potential “train wreck.”

More U.S. Companies Buckle Under LGBT Pressure

The Human Rights Campaign’s list of LGBT-friendly businesses is long and quickly growing — almost 300 Fortune 500 businesses offer workplaces with insurance, employment and retirement policies friendly to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered workers. When HRC first released the Corporate Equality Index a decade ago, only 13 businesses made the list. Still, not all companies have jumped on the rainbow train. Both Wal-Mart and Exxon Mobil, Fortune’s top two companies, got less-than-perfect scores. Exxon Mobil received a negative 25 for supporting conservative groups that oppose homosexuality. Rob Schwarzwalder, executive vice president of the Family Research Council, believes that LGBT-friendly companies miss a bigger picture in light of current profit: “Companies that actively and openly affirm homosexuality as a valid choice of life and behavior are failing to recognize the toll that homosexual unions will take on society if they become fully legitimated.”

  • LGBT acceptance is one of the clearest signs of the prophesied decline of end-time morality (Matt. 24:12, 2Tim. 3:1-5)

Abortions Down in Arizona

There were 1,061 fewer abortions in 2012 than in 2011, according to Arizona data released last week. Anti-abortion advocates used the numbers to claim victory, while abortion-rights advocates fretted that they reflect a drastic decline in women’s access to reproductive health care in the state. Since Gov. Jan Brewer took office in 2009, Arizona has passed some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation. Several of those laws, some of which have been delayed for years by court battles, went into effect in late 2011 and resulted in Planned Parenthood of Arizona halting abortions at seven clinics. Women seeking an abortion in Arizona must meet with a doctor at least 24hours in advance and agree to an ultrasound. Only a physician may now perform abortions. Parental consent for a minor’s abortion must be notarized.

IRS Harassment of Pro-Life Groups Persists

The Thomas More Society says it has “irrefutable evidence” the IRS is continuing to harass pro-life groups that are applying for tax-exempt status. “Despite claims to the contrary, the IRS continues to target and harass pro-life and conservative charities, illegally questioning their religious activities and withholding their tax exemptions,” says Peter Breen, Society vice president and senior counsel. One pro-life organization was told that to obtain tax-exempt status it would have to commit to stop praying and demonstrating at abortion clinics.

DEA Covers Up Program Used to Investigate Americans

A secretive U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration unit is funneling information from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records to authorities across the nation to help them launch criminal investigations of Americans. Although these cases rarely involve national security issues, documents reviewed by Reuters show that law enforcement agents have been directed to conceal how such investigations truly begin – not only from defense lawyers but also sometimes from prosecutors and judges. The undated documents show that federal agents are trained to “recreate” the investigative trail to effectively cover up where the information originated.

More States Banning International Law in Courts

A growing number of states are targeting what they see as a threat to their court systems: the influence of international laws. North Carolina last month became the seventh state to pass legislation barring judges from considering foreign law in their decisions, including sharia. Six other states — Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Tennessee — have already enacted similar legislation since 2010, and at least 26 have introduced such measures. Sharia, or Islamic law, is both a moral code and religious law that governs all aspects of Muslim life, ranging from religious obligations to family relationships. Many of the bills, including North Carolina’s, would apply only in situations in which invoking foreign law would violate a person’s constitutional rights.

Germany Pulls Out of Information Sharing Pact with U.S.

Germany has canceled a decades-old agreement on information-sharing with Britain and the United States, in the wake of controversy sparked by American leaker Edward Snowden’s disclosures about mass surveillance programs. Foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said cancellation of the pact — which dates back to the late 1960s — “was a necessary and a correct consequence resulting from the latest debates in regards to protect privacy.” Other European nations, including France, have also voiced concern. The row blew up after German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that classified leaks by Snowden detailed NSA bugging of European Union offices in Washington and New York, as well as an “electronic eavesdropping operation” that tapped into an EU building in Brussels.

Virginia Gun Crime Drops as Gun Sales Soar

Amid calls nationwide for stricter gun control laws, Virginia is experiencing a unique trend: the state’s gun-related crime is declining but firearms sales are increasing. Firearms sales rose 16 percent to a record 490,119 guns purchased from licensed gun dealers in 2012. During the same period, major crimes committed with firearms dropped 5 percent to 4,378. “This appears to be additional evidence that more guns don’t necessarily lead to more crime,” said Thomas R. Baker, of Virginia Commonwealth University.

Obamacare Creates Difficulties for Public Unions

Cities and towns across the country are pushing municipal unions to accept cheaper health benefits in anticipation of a component of the Affordable Care Act that will tax expensive plans starting in 2018.  The so-called Cadillac tax was inserted into the Affordable Care Act at the advice of economists who argued that expensive health insurance with the employee bearing little cost made people insensitive to the cost of care. In public employment, though, where benefits are arrived at through bargaining with powerful unions, switching to cheaper plans will not be easy. Cities including New York and Boston, and school districts from Westchester County, N.Y., to Orange County, Calif., are warning unions that if they cannot figure out how to rein in health care costs now, the price when the tax goes into effect will be steep, threatening raises and even jobs.

Most New Jobs are Part-Time and Low Wages

U.S. employers added a disappointing 162,000 jobs in July, but some economists are even more concerned about the types of jobs the economy is generating. Job growth in recent months has skewed toward part-time work in low-wage industries. Retailers led job gains with 47,000, and restaurants and bars added 38,000. All told, four low-paying sectors — retail, restaurants, temporary staffing firms and home health care — accounted for 60% of the jobs added in July, though they make up just 22% of total employment. The trend appears to have improved the job prospects of less educated Americans. Employment for high school graduates increased by nearly 400,000 in July, while payrolls for those with at least a four-year college degree fell by 256,000.

Economic News

Government statistics are hiding the true unemployment rate. While the Bureau Labor Statistics says the unemployment rate has been around 7.5 or 7.6 percent in recent months, it’s really 14.3 percent. What’s the difference? The commonly cited unemployment number ignores people who want to work but are no longer actively seeking jobs and counts part-time workers as employed even if they’d prefer full-time jobs.

According to the government’s latest jobs report, 12.6% of black Americans were unemployed. That’s down from a high of 16.5% in August of 2011 and its lowest level since December 2008. But the current unemployment rate for blacks is considerably higher than the rate of 7.4% for the overall population.

Home prices rose in June for the 16th consecutive month nationwide but at a slower pace than in recent months. June home sales prices were up 11.9% year-over-year and up 1.9% from May. But that’s a slower month-to-month rise than 2.6% in May from April and the 2.8% increase in April from March.

The U.S. homeownership rate, which soared to a record high 69 percent in 2004, is back where it was two decades ago at 65%, before the housing bubble inflated, busted and forced more than 7 million Americans from their homes.

Despite booming sales of new vehicles in the past year, the average age of America’s auto fleet has hit another record. The average age of all cars and trucks now stands at 11.4 years, up from 11.2 years last year, says research firm Polk. A decade ago it was 9.7 years. New car sales on track this year to come close, maybe even top, 16 million for the first time since 2007. Auto sales bottomed in 2009 at 10.4 million, according to Autodata.

Persecution Watch

The congregation of a church in Sugankerni, Batticaloa district of Sri Lanka, was attacked when a worship service was raided by Hindu extremists on 16 June. A mob armed with clubs, knives and swords entered the building, shouting demands that the Christians stop worshipping and the church be closed down. The extremists beat the worshippers, leaving the pastor and other Christians injured, and caused serious damage to the building. Christians in Hindu-majority Batticaloa are under pressure from Hindu extremists in other ways as well; for example they are denied land for burying their loved ones.

Praise God that the Vietnamese government has made an unusual move in support of persecuted Christians! Four persecuted Christian families from an ethnic minority in the Central Highlands were resettled by the authorities into a new area following a campaign of aggression against them. Their animist former neighbours became increasingly hostile after the families converted to Christianity. The new believers’ homes were targeted in a succession of night-time raids, during which their possessions were destroyed and their houses damaged beyond use.

Egypt

Al-Qaeda’s leader is condemning the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi, but also blaming the ousted Egyptian leader for trying to “satisfy America” by abandoning jihad. Ayman al-Zawahrisays Morsi, toppled in a July 3 coup after millions took to the streets demanding his overthrow, was targeted by a conspiracy of secularists, Coptic Christians, and Egypt’s “Americanized” army for being Islamist. But he also condemned Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood for having “tried its best to satisfy America and the secularists” by relinquishing “jihad,” usually invoked by al-Qaeda to mean armed struggle. Morsi was Egypt’s first freely elected president.

Supporters of Egypt’s ousted President Mohammed Morsi have expanded their vigils in Cairo, starting a third near the capital’s international airport. That’s in defiance of threats from authorities to break-up their sit-ins. Thousands of supporters already set up tents and blocked traffic. On the other side of town, an official said security forces lobbed tear gas canisters at pro-Morsi supporters who tried to storm a complex housing most of Egypt’s private television stations. The expanding protests follow threats from authorities that they would besieged and break up pro-Morsi vigils, describing them a “threat to national security.”

Syria

Syrian President Bashar Assad dashed hopes for a quick or peaceful end to the conflict in his country when he gave a speech before prominent community leaders on Sunday evening. As recently as the Spring, Assad’s regime looked on the verge of defeat, but was rescued by support from the Lebanese Shi’ite terror militia Hezbollah and Iran, as well as a steady supply of weapons, money and diplomatic support from Russia. UN investigators have accused the regime of quietly promoting a campaign of terror against groups suspected of supporting the rebels, including unlawful killing, torture, sexual violence, indiscriminate attacks and pillaging. Much of this has been done by Shi’ite militias operating under the protection of the regular army.

Meanwhile, analysts assess that Syria has effectively split into three semi-autonomous zones, each with its own independently operating security agencies, courts and other state infrastructure. The regime still controls the coast and an arc of territory running south through Damascus and down to the Jordanian border, whereas the opposition controls most of the north, center and east of the country. In the northeast corner, Kurdish tribes have carved out a zone of their own.

Iraq

A series of attacks across Iraq on Sunday have killed fifteen people, including a judge. Violence has been on the rise in Iraq all year, but the number of attacks against civilians and security forces has spiked during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began early last month. The surge in the bloodshed is raising fears of a return to the widespread killing that pushed the country to the brink of civil war after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Algeria

About 300 people in a restive northern region of Algeria joined a public lunch Saturday during Ramadan to protest what they say is persecution of people who refuse to observe the religious fast. The protest lunch was highly unusual for North Africa, where people can be arrested for not fasting during the Muslim holy month. It was held as a demonstration against the decision of security forces to question three young people who were eating outside last week in the Kabylie region during the 18-hour daily fasting period.

Russia

An international backlash against Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law is gathering speed, from calls for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia to gay bars in Los Angeles planning “vodka-dumping” protests. The furor follows concern sparked by the Russian Parliament’s overwhelming support for a new law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors.” It bars the public discussion of gay rights and relationships anywhere children might hear it. As Russia prepares to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in the resort city of Sochi, there is also great concern about what the legislation will mean for gay athletes and visitors to the country.

Mexico

Mexican cartels are recruiting hit men from the U.S. military, offering big money to highly-trained soldiers to carry out contract killings and potentially share their skills with gangsters south of the border, according to law enforcement experts. The involvement of three American soldiers in separate incidents, including a 2009 murder that led to last week’s life sentence for a former Army private, underscore a problem the U.S. military has fought hard to address. Using American servicemen could make it easier to carry out a murder in the U.S. since they can more easily move across the border. And the lure of quick money has proven tempting for theses soldiers given the dismal military pay scale.

Earthquakes

A strong earthquake shook northeastern Japan on Sunday in the same region devastated by a giant tsunami and temblor 2-1/2 years ago, but there were no immediate reports of damage or injuries. The quake with a preliminary magnitude of 6.0 struck shortly after midday, and was centered off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, and 30 miles below the seabed. The quake shook a wide region, including Fukushima and Iwate prefectures. There was no risk of a tsunami, the Japan Meteorological Agency said. Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility that runs Fukushima Dai-ichi, said no problems were reported there or at another one of its nuclear plants in Fukushima, and that there were no power outages and radiation monitors did not show any change.

Weather

The once parched Midwest is again dealing with heavy rains that have produced flash flooding in Kansas and Missouri.  Drivers have been urged to stay off Hutchinson, Kan. streets after more than 4 inches of rain deluged the town and caused widespread flooding.  The Hutchinson News reports even large military-type vehicles couldn’t get through some streets Sunday morning. Tuesday morning travel was made difficult by serious flash-flooding in several central Missouri counties, as well as a few water rescues after some residents tried to drive through floodwaters.

People who live in an area near Colorado Springs that saw the most destructive wildfire in state history are trying to figure out how to get home after a road collapsed, leaving a wide chasm on their main route. The washout Sunday was the latest in a series of floods that have swept away cars and blocked highways across Colorado over the past few months. County road crews said they are working on a temporary fix on the rural road about 10 miles northeast of Colorado Springs.

Flash flooding ravaged areas around Afghanistan’s capital, killing more than 70 people and destroying dozens of houses. Seven others were killed in eastern Nuristan and Khost provinces due to floods. Fast-moving waters washed away small villages in the Sorubi district, located in Kabul province. The water destroyed a hospital, many shops and vehicles, not to mention wiping out hundreds of cattle.

Heavy rains that caused flash floods and collapsed houses in different parts of Pakistan have killed 53 people over the past three days. Civil and military authorities have launched rescue and relief efforts to deal with the crisis. Flooding was especially bad in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, because of the southern city’s faulty drainage system.

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