Signs of the Times (9/20/14)

Christian Schools Produce Better Citizens than Public Schools

An education think tank has released a new study that maintains Christian schools produce better citizens than public centers of education. The March 2014 research produced by Cardus Religious Schools Initiative at the University of Notre Dame says students in Christian schools don’t “foster an attitude of isolation” like some critic’s claim. The study found Evangelical Protestant students are more regular church attenders, get married earlier in life, have more children, divorce less and widely contribute more to the communities in which they live than public school students.

High School Cheerleaders Lead Stadium in Pre-Game Prayer

A group of high school cheerleaders in Tennessee were recently told that a longstanding tradition of praying before football games over the loudspeaker would be prohibited. Oneida High School had been pressured by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union to drop the public prayer, and the stadium observed a moment of silence in its place. At a recent game, Oneida cheerleader Asia Canada began reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The rest of the cheerleading squad soon joined in reciting the prayer, along with the opposing team’s cheerleaders and all of the fans. The school has now decided that it will continue the practice of a student-led spoken prayer, though not over the loudspeaker.

ASU Admits Constitutional Error in Banning Crosses from Football Helmets

Arkansas State University football players will once again be permitted to place cross decals on their helmets after thousands contacted the school. The supporters argued that ASU’s previous orders to remove the crosses was religious discrimination and violated freedom of speech. Charisma News reports that 25,000 people e-mailed ASU demanding that the football players’ crosses be put back in place after the American Family Association (AFA) sent an Action Alert to its 1 million supporters. An ASU player also contacted Liberty Institute, which contacted ASU President Charles Welch.

  • Christians are beginning to fight back against increasing discrimination and persecution. Pray that there would be more laborers taking the risk to confront hate and intolerance

House Votes to Authorize Aid to Syrian Rebels in ISIS Fight

An unusual but overwhelming coalition in the House voted Wednesday to authorize the training and arming of Syrian rebels to confront the militant Islamic State, backing President Obama after he personally pleaded for support. The 273-to-156 vote was over a narrow military measure with no money attached, but it took on outsize importance and was infused with drama, reflecting the tension and ambiguity of members wary of the ultimate path to which any war vote could lead. There was rare unity between House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader, who strongly backed the training legislation and sought to portray it as a modest measure. And the opposition included the equally unlikely pairings of antiwar Democrats and hawkish Republicans. The Senate gave overwhelming approval on Thursday to the measure on the training and arming of Syrian rebels.

U.N. to Flood U.S. with Muslim Refugees

Under the “Refugee Resettlement Program,” whole Muslim communities from hostile nations are to be imported into the United States, circumventing whatever immigration laws that are still intact. This is made even more dangerous by how the organization determines who the refugees are and who aren’t. It’s the UN, driven largely by the world’s largest international body, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The OIC is a modern day caliphate made up of 56 countries and the Palestinian terrorists, reports Vision to America. “With millions of Christians expelled, ethnically cleansed or worse from the Middle East you might think these were the refugees the US would welcome to our shores. You’d be wrong, Obama has opened the gates to a flood of terror-linked Muslim immigrants,” notes FreedomOutpost.com.

HealthCare.gov Still has Serious Security Issues

Despite efforts to protect patient information on the HealthCare.gov website, a new government watchdog report released Thursday says security issues are still a concern. According to the Government Accountability Office report, “weaknesses remained in the security and privacy protections applied to HealthCare.gov and its supporting systems.” The agency presented its findings to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. In the report, the GAO makes six recommendations to the Department of Health and Human Services to implement security and privacy controls to protect sensitive material. The report also makes 22 recommendations to resolve technical weaknesses in security controls.

Home Depot Hack Exposes 56M Credit Cards

Home Depot says roughly 56 million payment cards may have been compromised in a massive cyber breach of the home improvement retailer’s payment network. The company released details of the incident on Thursday. It is the first time Home Depot has spoken to the magnitude of the breach, which is now confirmed to have been bigger than the infamous 2013 attack on Target — that breach impacted 40 million cards. Home Depot, which discovered the incident on Sept. 2, says customized malware is believed to have been present on its network from April 2014 up until this month. The company claims perpetrators used the unique software code to penetrate its payment systems and avoid detection. News of the incident broke in early September when security blogger Brian Krebs reported multiple banks found evidence that the retailer may have been penetrated. Before 56 million of its customers’ credit cards were compromised, Home Depot was slow to raise its defenses against hackers despite alarms from security experts as far back as 2008.

Economic News

The number of people applying for U.S. unemployment benefits dropped by a sharp 36,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 280,000, a sign that the job market is strengthening once again. The total number of people collecting benefits during the first week of September was 2.43 million, the fewest since May 2007. The unemployment rate fell to 6.1 percent from 6.2 percent, but only because some of those out of work gave up looking.

Employers added just 142,000 jobs last month, according to the Labor Department, down from 212,000 in July. That followed a six-month streak of monthly job gains in excess of 200,000. However, increased hiring has yet to lift most Americans’ paychecks. Wage growth has barely outpaced inflation since the recession ended more than five years ago.

Consumer prices fell in August for the first time in 16 months as gasoline prices tumbled. The consumer price index dropped 0.2% after rising 0.1% in June, the Labor Department said Wednesday. Over the past 12 months, prices have risen 1.7%.Excluding volatile food and energy costs, price were unchanged, the first time so-called core prices have not increased since October 2010. Core prices are up 1.7% over the past year.

Construction of single-family homes fell 14.4% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 956,000 last month. New home construction fell in every region last month, led by the West where starts dropped nearly 25%. The Northeast was down 13%; the Midwest, 10% and the South, 11%.For the year to date, housing starts are up about 9% from a year ago but the single-family home category is only 3% higher. Most of the growth is in apartment buildings, where starts are up 22% from last year’s January-August period.

When it comes to retirement savings, the gap between the rich and poor is growing dramatically. America’s wealthiest saw the value of their median retirement savings grow by 24% between 2004 and 2013, while low-income households couldn’t even keep up with inflation as they watched their savings shrink by nearly 20%, according to the Federal Reserve’s inflation-adjusted data. Even more alarming: a growing number of low and middle-income households have no retirement savings at all.

Persecution Watch

Christians are on the run in Nigeria. What ISIS has done in Iraq, Boko Haram is doing in Nigeria, a Nigerian cleric says. For Rev Samuel Dali, recent territorial gains made by Boko Haram in the northeast, signal the end of his home and of the church in that part of the country, Africa’s most populous. ‘‘The news is really bad. When they attacked our hometown, we decided to vacate the place. In Michika and surrounding areas, soldiers were running away. Some of them were killed or wounded and lot of people were also running for their lives,” Rev. Samuel Dali, President of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, told World Watch Monitor as he was on the run, a few meters from the Cameroon border. ‘‘We have lost almost everything,” he said. “Most of our churches have been destroyed and our pastors are scattered all over. Our members have fled and some of them killed.”

A group of at least 28 Christians (including women and children) were recently arrested in Saudi Arabia while meeting at the home of one of the congregants. None of them have been heard from since. One of our closest allies in the Middle East is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has long been an ally and friend to the Saud family who rule the important oil-producing nation. Sadly, this means that our nation has long turned a blind eye to the many human rights abuses taking place within the Muslim nation – particularly crimes against Christians. This latest incident shows the dangerous climate of hate that Christians in Saudi Arabia have to deal with.

A Pennsylvania county council has voted 8-6 against posting the national motto, “In God We Trust,” in its chambers. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald had threatened to veto the measure, which he called “a movement by the right-wing evangelical Christians across the country basically to impose Christianity” in public buildings. Fitzgerald is a Democrat, as are the eight council members who opposed the display. All five Republicans on council voted for the display, as did Democrat Bill Robinson.

Airmen who enlist or reenlist in the United States Air Force will no longer be required to say the phrase “so help me God” as part of a required oath, the agency announced on Wednesday. The Air Force faced pressure to change the policy from the American Humanist Association, which threatened to sue them on behalf of an airman who was not allowed to reenlist because he would not say the phrase.

Middle East

On Tuesday evening, a mortar shell was fired into Israel from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. It was the first such attack since the end of Operation Protective Edge, but Hamas authorities announcing shortly thereafter that they had arrested a rogue cell of another terrorist organization. Hamas added that it wants to maintain the cease-fire for now, even as PLO Secretary-General Yasser Abed Rabbo said the “danger of the split between the Gaza Strip and West Bank has increased in light of failure to end the dispute between Palestinian factions.” Meanwhile, a recent poll indicates that roughly half the Palestinian population supports a return to armed violence against Israel.

Islamic State

Islamic State fighters backed by tanks have captured 16 Kurdish villages over the past 24 hours in northern Syria near the Turkish border, prompting civilians to flee their homes amid fears of retribution by the extremists sweeping through the area. Kurdish civilians were fleeing their villages for fear that Islamic State group fighters “will commit massacres against civilians.” Earlier this week Kurdish fighters captured 14 villages from the Islamic State in other parts of Syria. Now, the Kurds have been force out of villages elsewhere.

France carried out its first airstrikes in Iraq Friday, hitting a logistics depot held by the Islamic State extremist group. The target in northeastern Iraq was “entirely destroyed” in the attack by Rafale fighter jets. It was the first public acknowledgement by a foreign country that it had added its military muscle to U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State.

The U.S. military’s top officer said Wednesday that almost half of Iraq’s army is incapable of fighting against the Islamic State militant group, while the other half needs to be rebuilt with the help of U.S. advisers and military equipment. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said that U.S. assessors who had spent the summer observing Iraq’s security forces concluded that 26 of the army’s 50 brigades would be capable of confronting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Dempsey described those brigades as well-led, capable, and endowed with a nationalist instinct, as opposed to a sectarian instinct. However, Dempsey said that the other 24 brigades were too heavily populated with Shiites to be part of a credible force against the Sunni ISIS. Sectarianism has been a major problem for the Iraqi security forces for years and is in part a reflection of resentments that built up during the decades of rule under Saddam Hussein, who repressed the majority Shiite population, and the unleashing of reprisals against Sunnis after U.S. forces toppled him in April 2003.

A man who owns an upstate New York food store funded ISIS, tried to send jihadists to Syria to fight with the terrorist group and plotted to do some killing himself — by gunning down U.S. troops who had served in Iraq — federal authorities alleged Tuesday. More than 800 Australian officers raided dozens of properties in the suburbs of Sydney on Thursday, in an operation to thwart an apparent Islamic State terror plot to carry out random attacks on the public, police said. Prime Minister Tony Abbott confirmed to reporters that a senior group leader in the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, was calling on supporters to carry out public beheadings. Fifteen people were detained in the raids, and nine were later released. Two people were charged with conspiracy to commit acts in preparation of a terrorist act.

Turkey

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu says 49 Turkish hostages held by Islamic militants have been freed. The Turks, including diplomatic staff, were seized on June 11, when the Islamic State group overran Mosul and stormed the Turkish Consulate. Davutoglu said the group was released early on Saturday and had arrived in Turkey. It’s unclear how they were freed, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan thanked Turkish intelligence officials in a statement on his website. Davutoglu described it as a late-night operation.

Iraq

A series of car bombings targeting a Shiite mosque and markets in the Iraqi capital killed at least 20 people Friday, officials said, in the second straight day of attacks in Baghdad blamed on Islamic militants who have seized large parts of the country. In the day’s deadliest attack, a parked explosives-packed car detonated near the al-Mubarak mosque in central Baghdad’s mostly Shiite district of Karradah, killing eight people and wounding 18 others. Cars later exploded in two outdoor markets, one in the Shiite suburb of Nahrawan and the other in the Shiite district of Bayaa. The attacks together killed nine people and wounded 23. Friday’s attacks came a day after a series of deadly attacks in mainly Shiite areas in and around Baghdad that left dozens killed.

Iran

Hassan Rouhani won world leaders’ warm embrace a year ago when he arrived at the United Nations General Assembly in New York as Iran’s new president, speaking of reconciliation and offering a new era in relations between his nation and the West. But when Rouhani arrives next week for this year’s U.N. session, diplomats will be pondering a different question: What went wrong? A year after that auspicious beginning, tensions with the West are as high as ever, and 10 months of negotiations over the toughest issue in the relationship – Iran’s nuclear program – are at an impasse. Now Western leaders want to know Iran’s intentions and if Rouhani is even calling the shots in Tehran on the nuclear issue and overall foreign policy… But in recent months, signs suggest the staunchly anti-Western Khamenei is directly managing the negotiations. He appears determined to sharply increase the country’s uranium enrichment capability in seven years, and not roll it back, as the West demands. Rouhani, who has lost a series of domestic political battles to conservatives, has taken a harder line on the nuclear talks recently.

Ukraine

Ukrainian authorities and pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine agreed on a complete ceasefire and buffer zone early Saturday in talks in Belarus, Russia’s state-run RIA-Novosti news agency reported. Both sides also agreed to move heavy weaponry back from the front lines of the conflict, which had been raging from April until a preliminary truce was reached two weeks ago. That ceasefire has been shaky and interspersed with fighting that is at times heavy. The new deal — hammered out at talks in Minsk by representatives of Russia, the Ukrainian government, rebel leaders and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe — sets out nine provisions for a more lasting ceasefire, RIA Novosti said.

Nigeria

Boko Haram militants are likely behind another attack in Nigeria; this time, the group attacked a college, opening fire on students. Fifteen people were reported dead from the attack and another 35 were injured. The Christian Post reports that the militants stormed the school with two of the terrorists wearing explosive vests. When the militants started shooting, one of the vests detonated, killing the wearer instantly. Kano State police commissioner Adelere Shinaba said, “They were obviously suicide bombers.”

Scotland

Scotland will remain part of the United Kingdom — along with England, Wales and Northern Ireland — following a historic referendum vote. By 55% to 45%, a majority of voters rejected the possibility of Scotland breaking away and becoming an independent nation. “We hear you,” UK Prime Minister David Cameron said to those who voted for independence, adding this was an opportunity to change the way people in the United Kingdom are governed, and “change it for the better.” A “new and fair settlement” will be created for Scotland and for the other countries of the United Kingdom, he said. Independence activists still feel they won with Scotland to receive greater autonomy within the U.K.

Mediterranean

People smugglers accused of causing the deaths of hundreds of migrants when they deliberately rammed and sank their boat in the Mediterranean must be found and punished, the U.N. human rights chief said Friday. Up to 500 people on board are thought to have died after the boat went down last week. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called on Egypt and other North African and European states to track down those responsible for this “atrocious incident” and hold them accountable. “All the countries in the Mediterranean must make a concerted effort to clamp down on the smugglers who are exploiting one of the most vulnerable groups on the planet and endangering their lives, virtually on a daily basis, purely for financial gain,” Zeid said.

Pestilence

At least eight Ebola aid workers and journalists were reportedly murdered and dumped in a latrine in a remote village in Guinea in a frightening example of the growing distrust locals have of foreigners coming to help stem the mushrooming health crisis. They were reportedly attacked by a large crowd, throwing stones, from the village of Wome. These deaths are believed to be the first resulting from resistance to international efforts to curb the Ebola outbreak in the region. Other aid teams have been forced to turn back by crowds in several locations, and a treatment center in Monrovia, Liberia was attacked and looted.

The cost of fighting the Ebola virus is beginning to have severe impacts on the economies of West African countries. Over 2,600 people have died, according to the latest WHO count. If Ebola is not contained this year, the costs of containmentt could increase by eight times its current estimate, according to a report published Wednesday by the World Bank Group. Ebola’s toll in Liberia alone could affect almost 5% of the country’s GDP this year, the World Bank said. The United Nations said this week that $1 billion in aid is needed to contain the Ebola outbreak. But a UN database tally of donations shows that many wealthy Western nations that verbally pledged support have donated paltry sums to fight the disease.

A massive toxic algae called red tide is killing sea turtles, sharks and fish in the northeast Gulf of Mexico and is threatening the waters and beaches that fuel Florida’s economy. This particular strain of red tide, called Karenia brevis, is present nearly every year off Florida, but large blooms can be particularly devastating. Right now, the algae is collecting in an area about 60 miles wide and 100 miles long, about 5 to 15 miles off St. Petersburg in the south and stretching north to Florida’s Big Bend, where the peninsula ends and the Panhandle begins. Red tide kills marine life by releasing a toxin that paralyzes their central nervous system. The algae also foul beaches and can be harmful to people who inhale the algae’s toxins when winds blow onshore or by crashing waves, particularly those with asthma and other respiratory ailments. “This red tide … will likely cause considerable damage to our local fisheries and our tourist economy over the next few months,” said Heyward Mathews, an emeritus professor of oceanography at St. Petersburg College who has studied the issue for decades.

Wildfires

Three wildfires are charring California, fed by high temperatures, wind gusts and dry foliage from the state’s worst drought in decades. The King Fire, the largest of the three, exploded in size by Friday, pushing more than 2,800 people from their homes. The latest round of evacuations comes as thousands of Californians have fled their homes in recent days, with more than 200“ structures across the state reduced to ash and hundreds of other homes and buildings still under threat from encroaching flames. As 10 wildfires raged across California, authorities accused one man Thursday of having deliberately set one of the larger fires that was burning nearly uncontrollably over 111 square miles, officials said.

The ten fires burning across the state are symptoms of an ongoing crisis in drought-plagued California. State fire officials have already responded to more than 4,800 wildfires so far this year, USA Today reports, 1,000 more than an average fire season, and peak wildfire season is only just now underway. However, the country as a whole is experiencing a relatively quiet wildfire year with 39,685 total wildfires compared to a ten-year average of 58,434, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Weather

Torrential monsoon rains worsened by a tropical storm flooded large swathes of the Philippine capital and nearby provinces Friday, leaving at least three people dead and displacing tens of thousands just days after the region was drenched by a typhoon. Authorities said more than 470,000 residents of Metro Manila and other provinces were affected in severely inundated communities. At least 37,000 people in the capital were displaced in one of the worst floods in the sprawling metropolis of 12 million in recent years. Over 2,700 people in nearby provinces were also displaced by the floods.

A slowly moving area of thunderstorms brought heavy rain and flash flooding to the Austin, Texas area, beginning early Thursday morning and continuing through the evening. The storms forced multiple water rescues and cut off power to about 7,000 customers, and have been blamed for the death of a Travis County sheriff’s deputy. Numerous roads were closed overnight Thursday in the city of Austin as rainfall totals of more than 4 inches were reported in some spots.

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