Signs of the Times (9/5/14)

Federal Court Upholds Ten Commandments Monument

A Ten Commandments monument in North Dakota does not violate the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause as it serves more as a historical display than a religious one, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this past week. The monument had been donated over 50 years ago by the Fraternal Order of Eagles and sits in Fargo’s Civic Plaza, a public location in the city. Since 2002, the Red River Freethinkers have been fighting against the presence of the monument, asserting that it serves as a government endorsement of Christianity. However, a number of residents disagreed with the notion, and petitioned for an ordinance that would grandfather in the monument. The City Commissioners soon adopted the ordinance, and also forbid any new monuments from being erected in the plaza.

“Blasphemy Challenge” Encourages People to Curse God

An internet challenge is calling upon people to post a clip of them cursing God or rejecting the Holy Spirit’s work in their lives. The so-called “Blasphemy Challenge” is a way to promote atheism, according to supporters. Promoters are even sending free DVD documentaries against Christianity to teens who complete the challenge and post their video online. “It exposes the crock that is Christian doctrine,” one of the project’s organizers told Fox News. The challenge comes from Mark 3:29 when Jesus says, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.”

Saudi King Warns the West: You Are Islamic State’s Next Target

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has warned that the West will be the next target of the radical Islamists sweeping through Syria and Iraq, unless there is “rapid” action. “If we ignore them, I am sure they will reach Europe in a month and America in another month,” he said in remarks quoted by Saudi Press Agency on Saturday. “Terrorism knows no border and its danger could affect several countries outside the Middle East,” said the king. The Islamic State (IS) group has prompted widespread concern as it advances in both Syria and Iraq, killing thousands of people and forcibly converting adherents of other faiths. Lack of action would be “unacceptable” in the face of the phenomenon, King Abdullah said.

Jihadists Steal Commercial Jets, Raise 9/11 Fears

The Algerian news site al-Fadjr said 11 aircraft went missing from Tripoli International Airport during fighting between militias. Intelligence agencies have warned the jets could be used in attacks in North Africa, and said one or more of the planes may be used to strike targets on Sept. 11 to mark the anniversary of terrorist attacks on the USA. The date also marks the second anniversary of the Libyan terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, which killed four Americans including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Images surfaced online this week of militants posing with the jetliners taken when they overran Tripoli airport last month in a fierce battle that left much of the airport and its aircraft damaged.

Al-Qaeda Expands to Indian Sub-Continent

Al-Qaeda commander Ayman al-Zawahari released a videotape Thursday announcing plans for a new wing of the terrorist group dedicated to waging jihad in the Indian subcontinent. “Our brothers in Burma, Kashmir, Islamabad, Bangladesh, we did not forget you and will liberate you from injustice and oppression,” he said, according to a translation from The Indian Express. Al-Zawahari calls on Indians to “break all borders created by Britain in India, unite under the credo of the one god.” The new organization, translated as Organization of The Base of Jihad in the Indian Sub-Continent, also released online manifestos. The group’s leaders are believed to be Pakistani nationals.

6,000 Missing on Student Visas

The Obama administration is unable to locate 6,000 foreign nationals who have entered the United States on student visas, raising concerns about the government’s ability to track potential terror suspects who may already be in the country. Peter Edge, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official who oversees investigations into visa violators, told ABC News, “Some of them could be here to do us harm.” According to ABC News, U.S. immigration officials have had difficulty keeping track of the escalating number of foreign students entering the United States. In the past year alone, 58,000 students overstayed their visas. “They just disappear,” Oklahoma GOP Sen. Tom Coburn told ABC News. “They get the visas and they disappear.” The news comes as Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans to block British jihadists with passports from re-entering Britain as the threat of violence from the Islamic State intensifies.

Microsoft Defies Court Order, Will Not Give Emails to US Government.

Despite a federal court order directing Microsoft to turn overseas-held email data to federal authorities, the software giant said Friday it will continue to withhold that information as it waits for the case to wind through the appeals process. Judge Loretta Preska, the chief of the US District Court in Manhattan ruled on July 31 that Microsoft was required to hand over email messages stored in an Ireland data center to US prosecutors investigating a criminal case. But she suspended the order temporarily amid complaints from international companies—and tech companies in the US—that argued that allowing US authorities to search and seize data held internationally was illegal. On Friday, however, she lifted that suspension after prosecutors successfully convinced her that her order was not appealable. The removal of the suspension legally requires Microsoft to hand over the email immediately, but so far they have refused to do so.

Large Race Gap in America’s Police Departments

In hundreds of police departments across the country, the percentage of whites on the force is more than 30 percentage points higher than in the communities they serve, according to an analysis of a government survey of police departments. Experts say that diversity in the police force increases a department’s credibility with its community. Disparities in the racial makeup of police departments and their communities are most pronounced in smaller Midwestern cities, like Ferguson, where minorities make up at least two-thirds of the population but the police force is 78% white. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. this week will launch a broad civil rights investigation into the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department, according to two federal law enforcement officials.

Unshackled from Limits, Wealthy Political Donors Give Millions to Candidates

The Supreme Court did away with the limit on how much individuals could donate to federal candidates and party committees in April. Since the ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, more than 300 donors have seized the opportunity, writing checks at such a furious pace that they have exceeded the old limit of $123,200 for this election cycle, according to campaign finance data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research organization. Among them are Las Vegas casino titans and New York hedge fund managers, Silicon Valley investors and Texas oil barons. Their ranks include well-known billionaires such as George Soros, Sheldon Adelson, and Charles and David Koch. Together, 310 donors gave a combined $11.6 million more by this summer than would have been allowed before the ruling. Their contributions favored Republican candidates and committees over Democratic ones by 2 to 1.

800,000 Suicides per Year Worldwide

Every 40 seconds someone in the world takes their own life, a global tally of more than 800,000 suicides a year, according to a landmark United Nations report on the subject. The research found that suicide killed more people each year than conflicts and natural catastrophes, accounting for more than half of the world’s 1.5 million violent deaths annually. The global rate was estimated at 11.4 per 100,000, Men are almost twice as likely as women to take their own lives — rising to as many as three times more male victims than female in some richer countries. On average, high-income countries had a slightly higher suicide rate — 12.7 per 100,000 people — than low- and middle-income nations, where the rate was 11.2. The most suicide-prone countries were Guyana (44.2 per 100,000), followed by North Korea (38.5), South Korea (28.9), Sri Lanka (28.8), Lithuania (28.2), Suriname (27.8), Mozambique (27.4), Nepal and Tanzania (24.9 each) and Burundi (23.1). The U.S. rate was 12.3 per 100,000.

Economic News

U.S. employers added 142,000 jobs in August as payroll growth fell significantly after six months of solid gains, the Labor Department said Friday. Last month’s increase breaks a string of six straight months of 200,000-plus gains. However, the unemployment rate fell to 6.1% from 6.2% in July, the Labor Department said. Some other labor market indicators in August were modestly encouraging. The number of Americans out of work at least six months fell by 192,000 to 3 million. The long-term unemployed still make up 31% of all the jobless. And the so-called underemployment rate — which includes discouraged workers who’ve stopped looking for jobs and part-time employees who prefer full-time work as well as the unemployed – fell to 12% from 12.2%.

The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose a bit more than expected last week, remaining at levels consistent with strengthening labor market conditions. Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 302,000 for the week ended Aug. 30, the Labor Department said on Thursday.

The U.S. trade deficit narrowed in July to $40.5 billion, down $300 million from June, to its lowest level since January, the Commerce Department said Thursday. Growth in exports outpaced that of imports in July. Total exports of goods and services were $198 billion in July while imports totaled $238.6 billion. From July 2013 to July 2014, the U.S. trade deficit in goods and services has increased $1.1 billion. Exports were up $8.1 billion, or 4.3%, and imports were up $9.2 billion, or 4.0%.

About 7.1 million Americans were employed in construction-related occupations last year — and only 2.6% were women. That percentage has scarcely budged since the 1970s, while women have made gains since then in many other fields. Even in firefighting — where they historically were unwelcome — women comprise a greater share of the workforce at 3.5%. One factor, according the National Women’s Law Center, is pervasive denigration and sexual harassment of women at work sites.

Persecution Watch

Cuba’s communist government has increased its oppression of religious institutions, according to a Christian watchdog group, with reports of religious liberty violations almost doubling in the last six months. This year’s violations included government authorities beating pastors and lay workers, dragging politically dissident women away from Sunday services, and enforcing arbitrary detentions, church closures, and demolitions, Christian Solidarity Worldwide said. Todd Nettleton, with Voice of the Martyrs, agreed that government persecution is on the rise in Cuba. “It does seem like the government is paying more attention to the churches and making much of a concerted effort to control religious expression in Cuba,” Nettleton said. Cuba’s constitution claims to allow religious freedom, but that right, as well as others, are ignored if the government claims they conflict with communism, CSW said.

Boko Haram an the Islamic extremist group, has begun occupying churches in the country’s northeastern region, church officials there said. The militant group, which church leaders and analysts view as an African variation of the Islamic State, is also beheading men, forcing Christian women to convert to Islam and taking them as wives, officials said. “Things are getting pretty bad,” said the Rev. John Bakeni, the secretary of the Maiduguri Roman Catholic diocese in northeastern Nigeria. “A good number of our parishes in Pulka and Madagali areas have been overrun in the last few days.”

A Florida school district has decided to replace its use of local pastors as high school football chaplains and replace with the position with life coaches following a complaint from a prominent atheist organization. The Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter to the Orange County Public School District’s attorney this past March, stating that its use of pastors as chaplains amounts to “illegal religious activity.” “It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district to offer a Christian minister unique access to befriend and proselytize student athletes,” the letter states. In response to FFRF’s letter, last month, district attorney Diego Rodriguez sent out a memo to the superintendent and others, advising that it is unlawful for Christians or other religious representatives to serve as chaplain. “Having a team chaplain is not permitted as it is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion,” he wrote.

Middle East

Syrian rebels clashed with government troops on Monday in the Golan Heights, where Al Qaeda-linked insurgents abducted U.N. peacekeepers last week. The fighting was focused around the town of Hamidiyeh in Quneitra province near the disputed frontier with Israel, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Observatory said there were casualties on both sides but did not have exact figures.

Israel came under fire Monday for claiming close to 1,000 acres of land in the Palestinian West Bank. Israel announced Sunday that the land in and around the Wadi Fukin valley, would become “state land,” clearing the way for the development of a new Israeli settlement. The affected land lies near Bethlehem and close to Bitar Ilit — one of the biggest Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Farmers in the area have 45 days to appeal Israel’s decision to claim the land. “The seizure of such a large swathe of land risks paving the way for further settlement activity, which is illegal under international law and runs totally counter to the pursuit of a two-state solution,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement Monday.

  • The U.N. and the world in general takes the two-state solution as a given and then judges Israel from that position. However, they forgot to get God’s stamp of approval. Bethlehem is a Judeo-Christian city, not the Palestinian enclave it has become.

Islamic State (ISIS)

The fight in northern Iraq against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria appeared to be the first time American warplanes and militias backed by Iran had worked with a common purpose on a battlefield against militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, even though the Obama administration said there was no direct coordination with the militias. Should such military actions continue, they could signal a dramatic shift for the United States and Iran, which have long vied for control in Iraq. They could also align the interests of the Americans with their longtime sworn enemies in the Shiite militias, whose fighters killed many United States soldiers during the long occupation of Iraq.

Ukraine

Russian military forces have been spotted in both major rebel-held cities in eastern Ukraine, an official said Tuesday, prompting Ukraine to declare it now has to fight the Russian army, not just the separatists. The country’s defense minister said Ukraine’s armed forces are expanding their strategy from just fighting separatists to facing the Russian army in a war that could cost “tens of thousands” of lives. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that he and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko have agreed on a plan to settle the conflict and called on Kiev to pull out its troops from the disputed areas and for rebels to stop their military operations, particularly in Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine’s government and separatist leaders signed a ceasefire deal Friday following talks in Belarus, Donetsk separatists said, raising hopes of an end to the nearly five-month conflict that has wracked eastern Ukraine.

Russia

NATO members meeting this week in Wales agreed to create “a very high-readiness force” to deal with Russian aggression in Ukraine and other international conflicts, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Monday. He said this “spearhead” force would be able to “travel light, but strike hard if needed.” NATO will look at possible upgrades to infrastructure that could include airfields and ports, he said. With NATO leaders expected to endorse a rapid-reaction force of 4,000 troops for Eastern Europe this week, a senior Russian military official said on Tuesday that Moscow would revise its military doctrine to account for “changing military dangers and military threats.”

President Obama reassured the Baltic nations Wednesday that the United States and other NATO allies will protect them from the kind of Russian aggression on exhibit in nearby Ukraine. “We will defend the territorial integrity of every single (NATO) ally,” Obama told an audience in Tallinn, Estonia.. Obama used the speech to denounce Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, calling it a brazen assault on the territory” of that nation.

Iran

“Amid signs that Iran’s military is resisting efforts to open its nuclear program to deeper inspection, the Obama administration on Friday imposed sanctions on several Iranian organizations, including one run by the reclusive scientist who is widely believed to direct research on building nuclear weapons. In a statement, the White House said the sanctions were a continuation of its strategy to crack down on groups suspected of seeking to avoid or violate existing sanctions, even as ‘the United States remains committed’ to striking an accord by late November that includes ‘a long-term, comprehensive solution that provides confidence that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.’

North Korea

Three Americans being held in North Korea were allowed to speak to the media on Monday, and plead for their release. Kenneth Bae, Jeffrey Fowle, and Matthew Miller called on the White House to send a high-ranking official to negotiate their release, and delivered messages to their families back home. Fowle has been held captive by the North Korean government since around the time of his arrival in the country on April 29. He is accused of leaving a Bible in a nightclub, and is expected to face trial within a month for proselytizing. The atheist country has held Korean-American Kenneth Bae in prison for over 20 months—the longest North Korean imprisonment of an American since the Korean War. Bae was working in the country as a tour guide, but officials allege that Bae’s North Korean tour company was a front for Christian evangelical missions. North Korea alleged that Matthew Miller arrived in their country, tore up his tourist visa, and proclaimed that he is seeking asylum in the country. Miller refused to comment on whether that allegation is correct. He has been detained since April 10th.

India

Decades of sex-selective abortion have created an acute lack of women in certain parts of India. Traffickers capitalize on the shortage by recruiting or kidnapping women ensnared in poverty to sell as brides. It’s a cycle influenced by poverty, but one that ultimately is perpetuated by India’s disdainful attitude towards women evidenced by the increasing number of gang-rapes.

Volcanoes

A creeping lava flow from Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano moved within one mile of homes in lower Puna Thursday, prompting the mayor of Hawaii’s Big Island to declare a state of emergency for the county. Although the lava flow has been described as “very slow-moving,” scientists at Hawaii’s Volcano Observatory warned it could reach the Kaohe Homesteads subdivision in five to seven days. No evacuations were ordered as of Thursday evening, but the emergency proclamation will help streamline efforts if families do need to leave.

Wildfires

The Happy Camp Complex fire has burned more than 77,000 acres in California’s Klamath National Forest since it was ignited by a lightning strike Aug. 11. The fire is just 19 percent contained. It’s expected to grow further due to high winds and extremely dry conditions. Communities in Siskiyou County were forced to evacuate. Officials said they didn’t have an estimate for the number of homes in the evacuation area, but nearly 750 homes are threatened. Historically, September and October are the months where California sees the largest and most damaging wildfires, and conditions this year still remain critically dry.

Weather

Snow fell on the Labor Day weekend in parts of northern Alaska and Wyoming, providing a gentle reminder that summer is on its last legs. The National Weather Service in Fairbanks to issue the first winter storm warning anywhere in the U.S. since mid-June. Another winter storm warning was issued for Denali National Park, where up to 14 inches of total snow accumulated through Tuesday, potentially prompting closure of parts of the Denali Park Road. Barrow, Alaska, was blanketed by its first significant snowfall of the season Tuesday, turning the town into a winter wonderland just one day after Labor Day. Officially, 4.4 inches of snow fell Tuesday in America’s northernmost city, about 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle (2012 population: 4,346).

Some residents of the Midwest are laboring to clean up damage after severe storms struck parts of the Plains and Midwest on Labor Day, spawning at least two confirmed tornadoes and possibly several more. The National Weather Service in Gaylord, Michigan, confirmed two EF1 tornadoes in Kalkaska and Otsego counties, uprooting hardwood and softwood trees and tossing them onto houses. Thunderstorms exploded across portions of southern Kansas, northern Oklahoma, and western and central Missouri early Monday evening. Some of the storms were large, rotating thunderstorms called supercells. One of these supercells produced a tornado near Cedar Vale, Kansas.

As Hurricane Norbert bears down on Baja California, a hurricane warning has been issued for the western coast of the Baja Peninsula. In addition, tropical storm warnings have been extended farther north along the peninsula. Hurricane Norbert, the ninth hurricane of a busy eastern Pacific hurricane season, will eventually have some peripheral impacts in parts of the Southwest U.S.

The southwestern U.S. has at least a 50 percent chance of experiencing a decade-long drought this century thanks to global warming, and the region’s chances of a “megadrought” — one that lasts multiple decades — lies anywhere from 20 to 50 percent, according to a new study. Most of California already is in “exceptional drought,” the most severe drought category, according to the latest report from the Drought Monitor. Much of the rest of the region — especially across large swaths of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma — are in moderate or severe drought. What scientists call a megadrought could last three decades or more.

California is in the third year of one of the state’s worst droughts in the past century, one that’s led to fierce wildfires, water shortages and restrictions, and potentially staggering agricultural losses. The dryness in California is only part of a longer-term, 15-year drought across most of the Western USA, one that bioclimatologist Park Williams said is notable because “more area in the West has persistently been in drought during the past 15 years than in any other 15-year period since the 1150s and 1160s.”

 

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