Signs of the Times (9/3/13)

Syrian Pastor Pours Out His Heart in Poignant Prayer

The eyes of the world are focused on Syria. Open Doors received the prayer of a pastor, one of their partners in Syria in the relief work there. It is a moving and heart-breaking prayer. It gives insight into the suffering of the people who have decided to stay in war-torn Syria: “I weep for my country! I am so sad and speechless…They advise me to leave my country … to emigrate. I respond saying:

  • I’m staying … for the church of Jesus … that the message of Jesus may remain a light guiding those who are lost and afraid.
  • I’m staying … because the harvest is plentiful … and the suffering is huge … a deep wound, a sense of despair.
  • I’m staying … to follow in the footsteps of my Master who went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil.
  • I’m staying … because I’m busy in the ministry of saving souls (or can someone like me run. … Lord give me strength).

Do pray:

  • That the cup of war be taken away from our country of Syria.
  • That the Lord may crush the conspiracy of the evil ones … and their war plans … and consider their threats.
  • That He may send the power of His Holy Spirit on His church that it may reach out to the suffering souls … who — harassed and helpless — are like sheep without a shepherd.
  • That the Lord may give us to speak with great boldness and that many wonders and signs be performed. And souls return to Christ, and there be singing and praises.
  • That the Lord may send more help that the house of the Lord may have food to satisfy the needs of the internally displaced … hundreds of whom are without any shelter.
  • That the Lord may send more support for the wounded and the sick who need surgery, medication and healing.
  • That the Lord may send those who can help us build a center for children affected by the war, that we may be able to take care of those who have lost their supporters, and enable them to get back on their feet.
  • That the Lord may send those who can help our children who are now disabled, and have special needs.”

Obamacare Impacts Employers Unequally

Employers are just beginning to learn the financial ironies of the federal health law. While the Affordable Care Act will provide access to insurance for millions more Americans, it is not a law of equality for employers. Small nonprofits that pay no taxes can get tax credits. Some businesses that currently provide generous insurance may stop. And organizations could fork over more money covering part-time workers than full-time workers. The impact differs according to how an employer’s workforce is structured and the generosity of its health benefits. The law encourages employers to provide coverage through penalties and incentives, but employers say they don’t understand the rules — many of which are still being written. And premiums are going up because insurers are passing along the cost of having to cover people with pre-existing conditions.

Homelessness Down

Despite a deep recession and a slow, fitful jobs recovery, one key indicator of the nation’s economic well-being has quietly improved nearly every year since 2005: homelessness. The number has dropped 17% in that span: An estimated 129,000 fewer Americans were homeless in 2012 than in 2005, even after a mortgage crisis kicked thousands out of their homes. Advocates for the homeless give much of the credit to a bigger federal investment in housing, part of it from the Obama administration’s stimulus program in 2009 and 2010. As part of the stimulus, Congress set aside funding for housing, medical and mental health services and preventive measures such as helping renters at risk of homelessness repay rent. Many people just need temporary help to fend off eviction, often because of unpaid rent or utility bills. Only about 20% are chronically homeless.

Economic News

The economy may be in a recovery — the national unemployment rate fell from 7.6% to 7.4% in July, and the August jobs report comes this Friday — but hundreds of thousands of other workers, a sustainable full-time job remains elusive. Of nearly 1 million U.S. jobs created this year, 80% — four of every five — were part time and most had meager or no benefits.

It took a few months, but forced federal budget cuts are costing hundreds of science and medical research jobs. Nearly half of the recipients who get federal science funding say they’ve recently laid off or will lay off scientists and researchers, thanks to $85 billion in forced spending cuts, called sequester, that kicked in March 1. And as more research grants don’t get renewed, the layoffs will get worse, experts say.

Persecution Watch

Eritrean authorities arrested 30 members of the Church of the Living God gathered for prayer on the evening of Aug. 24 in the Kushet suburb of the capital Asmara, Open Doors USA reports. The group includes 12 women. Sources say they are held at Police Station 5 in Asmara and are under pressure to recant their faith. Since the beginning of the year, the religious atmosphere in Eritrea has deteriorated, with authorities arresting at least 261 Christians. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported that the government of Eritrea continues to incarcerate prisoners under inhumane condition, and officials continue to deny access to organizations like The Red Cross to investigate the state of prisons. “The church in Eritrea is deeply saddened by the continued scrutiny and distrust from the government and highly appreciates the prayers of our brothers and sisters around the globe,” commented an Open Doors source who remains anonymous for security reasons.

In a recent report released by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the non-partisan group says about 12,000 people have been killed since the start of 2012 in the largely anti-Christian violence that has swept across northern Nigeria, International Christian Concern reports. The report also outlines attacks against Muslim leaders and critics, as well as state and private institutions. USCIRF gathered the information from multiple sources, and said it only included the attacks claimed by the Islamic group Boko Haram, so the impact could be even greater. USCIRF has recently recommended to the U.S. government that Nigeria needs to be designated a “Country of Particular Concern” for its violations of religious freedom.

Middle East

Even as ongoing crises in Syria and Egypt rivet the world’s attention, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority quietly continued on Tuesday as representatives from each side met for the sixth parley in the current round of negotiations. The meetings have been held in almost total secrecy, with no media coverage and even their location is not being announced. “The negotiations have been serious, and US special envoy Martin Indyk and his team have been fully briefed on the bilateral talks and also participated in a bilateral negotiating session,” said a US State Department statement this week.

Syria

Saying military invention is needed now, Syrian rebels expressed disappointment after President Obama announced Saturday he would seek congressional approval for military action against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. In a news conference Saturday, Obama said congressional leaders have agreed to schedule a debate and vote on taking military action in Syria when they return to session on September 9th. Analysts, however, say that the impact of American military intervention would be far less significant than the Syrian opposition wants.  A Syrian state-run newspaper on Sunday called President Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval before taking military action against Syria “the start of the historic American retreat.” Germany and Italy called for military action only if the U.N. Security Council passes a resolution authorizing such an attack, which is unlikely because of Russian opposition. Israelis were questioning whether the U.S. is committed to wiping out neighbor Syria’s chemical weapons.

Syrian rebels in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta have admitted to Associated Press correspondent Dale Gavlak that they were responsible for last week’s chemical weapons incident which western powers have blamed on Bashar Al-Assad’s forces, revealing that the casualties were the result of an accident caused by rebels mishandling chemical weapons provided to them by Saudi Arabia. Rebels told Gavlak that they were not properly trained on how to handle the chemical weapons or even told what they were. It appears as though the weapons were initially supposed to be given to the Al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra.

The number of refugees fleeing Syria’s bloody civil war has surged past the 2 million mark, with almost 5,000 people crossing into that country’s neighbors every day, according to a new report from the United Nations Refugee Agency issued Tuesday. The report estimated that another 4.25 million Syrians have been displaced within the country’s borders. As of the end of August, the agency counted 716,000 refugees in Lebanon, 515,000 in Jordan, 460,000 in Turkey, 168,000 in Iraq and 110,000 in Egypt. It said over half of them were children.

  • Syria is a quagmire of poor options: prop up a brutal dictator or risk aiding al-Qaeda rebel groups? The best option is staying out of it for now

Iraq

Deadly violence erupted at a contentious Iranian exile camp inside Iraq early Sunday, leaving international observers scrambling to determine the cause of the bloodshed and the number of casualties. The dissidents alleged that more than 50 were killed and accused the Iraqi government. Baghdad said an internal dispute was to blame.

Afghanistan

Militants attacked a U.S. base in Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan on Monday, setting off bombs, torching vehicles and shutting down a key road used by NATO supply trucks. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the strike in the Torkham area, the latest in a surge of attacks in Afghanistan as U.S.-led foreign troops reduce their presence en route to a full withdrawal by the end of next year. NATO confirmed an “unsuccessful coordinated attack by enemy forces” but said none of its personnel were killed. The military alliance generally does not release information on wounded troops. No members of the Afghan security forces or civilians were killed or wounded.

Japan

Radiation at a tank holding contaminated water at a crippled Japanese nuclear power plant has increased by a factor of 18, the plant’s supervisor announced Sunday. The storage tank at the Fukushima nuclear power plant contained a radiation of 1,800 millisieverts per hour. That amount of radiation would kill an exposed person in four hours. By contrast, a reading of the same tank taken on August 22 found radiation of just 100 millisieverts per hour. TEPCO recently acknowledged the chronic leaking of radiation-tainted underground water into the Pacific, plus a 300-ton (80,000-gallon) seepage from one of more than 1,000 storage tanks. The leak was the firth and worst from a tank since the crisis began.

Brazil

The Brazilian government condemned a U.S. spy program that reportedly targeted the nation’s leader, labeled it an “unacceptable invasion” of sovereignty and called Monday for international regulations to protect citizens and governments alike from cyber espionage. In a sign that fallout over the spy program is spreading, the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported that President Dilma Rousseff is considering canceling her October trip to the U.S., where she has been scheduled to be honored with a state dinner. The action came after a report aired Sunday night on Globo TV citing 2012 documents from NSA leaker Edward Snowden that indicated the U.S. intercepted Rousseff’s e-mails and telephone calls, along with those of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, whose communications were being monitored even before he was elected as president in July 2012.

Wild Fires

The 2-week-old Rim Fire moved up a spot to fourth on California’s list of large wildfires dating back to 1932 when it grew to 368 square miles — an area larger than the cities of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose combined. A relatively cool and humid Labor Day allowed fire crews to make major progress Monday toward corralling a massive wildfire searing the edge of Yosemite National Park. The fire was 70 percent contained at nightfall, up from 45 percent some 24 hours earlier, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Full containment is not expected until Sept. 20.

Weather

When city students arrived for the first day of school under the blazing temperatures of a Midwest heat wave, staff greeted them with some unusual school supplies: water bottles, fans and wet towels to drape around their necks. As temperatures soared past 90 last week, some Midwest schools gave students extra water and bathroom breaks or canceled after-school activities. Districts from St. Joseph, Mo., and Frankfort, Ind., sent kids home early. In Fargo, N.D., five schools got the week off, and schools in Minneapolis closed down, too. This year’s late August heat exposed a tug-of-war in school districts that are under pressure to start school earlier than ever but are unable to pay to equip aging buildings with air conditioning. Parents who worry hot classrooms are a disadvantage for their kids are issuing an ultimatum: Make classes cooler or start the year later.

A late afternoon severe thunderstorm deposited up to eight inches of accumulated hail near the town of Hay Springs, Neb. on Aug. 30. According to the National Weather Service office in North Platte, Neb., golf-ball size hail (1.75 inches in diameter) lasted 15-20 minutes. Straight-line wind gusts around 60 mph also snapped trees and damaged a gymnasium roof in Hay Springs. A swath of the High Plains from southeast Wyoming and northeast Colorado to the Texas Panhandle is called “Hail Alley”.

Tornadoes tore through eastern Japan on Monday, injuring dozens of people, at least one seriously, and destroying some buildings. Kyodo News reported that the tornadoes toppled power lines, blew roofs off homes and sent debris flying, smashing windows at an elementary school. The Japanese word for tornado is tatsumaki, which means dragon whirls/spiraling dragons.

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