Signs of the Times (12/15/14)

Christmas Supplies to Displaced Children in Iraq

Samaritan’s Purse airlifted 60,000 Operation Child Christmas Child shoeboxes to northern Iraq Wednesday (Dec. 10). The boxes filled with clothing, hygiene items, school supplies and small toys will be delivered to child living in refugee camps since ISIS took over parts of Iraq. Operation Christmas Child Domestic Director Randy Ribble said, “Many of these children have never received a gift in their lives and that was when they were living in their normal circumstances [before the ISIS takeover]. Now, they have been removed from everything that they know: their homes and their families. They are living in the refugee camp and these gifts will provide a moment of hope. Of course, they will be delivered in the name of Jesus.” People in the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, Holland and Finland packed the boxes to be sent to children in third-world countries. Ten million shoeboxes were packed total this year to be distributed around the world.

Christian Persecution Increasing Worldwide

The year 2014 has seen more global persecution of Christians than any other year in recent history, reports Open Doors. From the kidnapped schools girls in Nigeria, to Meriam Ibrahim being sentenced to death in Sudan, to the ISIS crisis, Christians throughout the world saw a major increase in persecution. This year, hundreds of Christian girls were kidnapped in Pakistan. Countless believers were arrested and/or fined for having a Bible study in Central Asia. And thousands of Christians were displaced in the Central African Republic. “I had to leave everything I owned behind,” explains one Christian Iraqi refugee. “We have nothing to our name and will probably never be able to return to our home. But we are encouraged, because we know that Christians around the world have not forgotten about us.”

  • Keep the prayers flowing for persecuted Christians around the world

Homeschooling in Germany Illegal

As the repression of homeschooling continues to make the German landscape look more and more like pre-World War II Germany, where Adolf Hitler said, “Let me control the text books and I will control the state,” the criminalization of homeschooling is continuing to drive more parents into courtrooms, prison cells or out of the country. After Germany’s Supreme Court refused in its ruling last month to strike down a state statute that calls for criminal penalties against parents for not sending their children to school, the Homeschool Legal Defense Association decided to make a return visit this week to turn the tides and revive the nation’s homeschooling movement. “Decision after decision has gone against homeschoolers in Germany,” said HSLDA Director of Global Outreach and Staff Attorney Michael Donnelly, who will attempt to get German officials to recognize the value of homeschooling this week. Besides earning high test scores, German homeschoolers have proven to benefit society by being highly involved in their community, and this is one contention that Donnelly is striving to continue to impress upon Bavarian lawmakers.

  • Homeschooling is largely a Christian phenomenon as parents seek to avoid having their children indoctrinated with secular principles, hence the rising anti-Christ persecution of homeschooling, not only in Germany but the U.S. as well.

Deal Reached at U.N. Climate Summit in Peru

The latest round of United Nations climate talks ended in the early hours of Sunday morning — nearly 33 hours later than scheduled — with a deal that barely kept hopes for a meaningful global agreement next year. The conference, which started on Dec. 1., had two main goals: to agree to a series of measures aimed at reducing the greenhouse gases scientists say cause climate change in the near term, and to pave the way for an agreement that will include action from all countries by the end of the next edition of the talks, a year from now in Paris. The Lima agreement was adopted hours after a previous draft was rejected by developing countries who accused rich nations of shirking their responsibilities to fight global warming and pay for its impacts. Progress in Lima was mostly technical, setting out guidelines for financial contributions, actions to reduce emissions and a timetable for the period leading up to the Paris talks in 2015.

House/Senate Approve $1.1 Trillion Spending Package

In a dramatic vote late Thursday evening, the U.S. House narrowly approved a $1.1 trillion government spending package despite a rare uprising from House Democrats. The bill passed on a 219-206 vote. Congress was set to approve a two-day stopgap funding bill to give the U.S. Senate time to pass the package and get it to President Obama’s desk. Government funding had been scheduled to run out at midnight. House Democrats derailed plans Thursday afternoon for a vote on the funding bill after lawmakers rebelled over provisions tucked into the measure to roll back regulations on Wall Street and ease campaign finance laws. The uprising created a rare moment of intraparty warfare, pitting the majority of House Democrats against President Obama. The president had announced support for the package because it includes many of his spending priorities, such as funds to combat the Ebola epidemic and Islamic State militants as well as more money for Pell Grants and early education programs. But in a blistering speech on the House floor, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., characterized the package as a “moral hazard” and said she was “enormously disappointed” in the president. The Senate passed the bill Saturday and passed it on to President Obama for his signature..

Obamacare Deadlines Approaching

President Obama’s healthcare reform push faces the biggest test of its second year in existence Monday, the deadline for customers to choose an insurance plan for 2015. Midnight Pacific Time is also the deadline for current enrollees to make changes that could reduce premium increases ahead of the new year. The final deadline for enrollment for coverage in 2015 — and to avoid penalties at tax time in 2016 for not having insurance — is Feb. 15. Wait times at the federal call center started creeping up around the middle of last week, mainly due to a surge of current customers with questions about their coverage for next year. Many will face higher premiums, although they could ease the hit by shopping online for a better deal.

Obama Quotes Nonexistent Bible Verse

President Obama referred to the Bible on Tuesday as he was drumming up support for his immigration reform executive orders in Nashville, but he confused some of the lines and even threw in a proverb that appears nowhere in the religious text. “The good book says, don’t throw stones in glass houses,” he said. “Or … make sure we’re looking at the log in our eye before we are pointing out the mote in other folks’ eyes.” The expression “they that live in glass houses should not throw stones” is a proverb of unknown origin that has been used in various form for centuries, The Washington Post reported. It does not appear in the Bible.

Workers in America in Decline

The proportion of prime-age men — those 25 to 54 years old — who are not working has more than tripled since the late 1960s from 5% to 16 percent, reports the New York Times. More recently, since the turn of the century, the share of women without paying jobs has been rising, too. The United States, which had one of the highest employment rates among developed nations as recently as 2000, has fallen toward the bottom of the list. Many men, in particular, have decided that low-wage work will not improve their lives, in part because deep changes in American society have made it easier for them to live without working. These changes include the availability of federal disability benefits and the decline of marriage, which means fewer men provide for children. A smaller work force is likely to lead to a slower-growing economy, and will leave a smaller share of the population to cover the cost of government, even as a larger share seeks help, notes the Times report.

  • Rather surprising for the liberal New York Times to be highlighting the downside of our increasingly socialistic, entitlement society

Economic News

Stocks plunged again Friday with Wall Street capping off one of its worst weeks of the year as tumbling oil prices spooked markets. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 315.51 points, or 1.8%, to 17,280.83. The blue-chip index fell 678 points, or 3.8%, this week, its worst week since Sept. 2011. Oil slumped after the International Energy Agency said global oil demand in 2015 will grow less than previously forecast.

The oil price crash could take thousands of good-paying jobs with it in America and around the world. Bad news already started to flow this week: Halliburton (HAL) affirmed that it plans to cut 1,000 positions due to the depressed oil market, and BP (BP) announced an unspecified number of layoffs as part of a $1 billion restructuring plan. On Monday, ConocoPhillips (COP) became the first major U.S. oil company to reveal that it is slashing spending for 2015.

Crude oil prices settled below $58 a barrel Friday as renewed selling pressure pushed benchmark prices to new five year lows. And the carnage may not be over yet. The slide came after Saudi Arabia, the world’s No. 2 oil producer after the U.S., suggested it would not cut production to prop up prices. Separately, Bank of America warned that crude oil prices could fall to $50 a barrel in 2015 as North American output, coupled with increased production in Iraq and Libya, hits markets already awash in supply. Crude oil peaked this year at about $107 a barrel in June. It’s now down about 47%. After a weekend of price cutting, gas for less than $2 can be found in 13 states across the country on Monday.

Americans’ net worth slipped in the July-September quarter as a drop in stock prices overwhelmed a solid gain in home values. U.S. household wealth declined 0.2% in the third quarter to $81.3 trillion, the Federal Reserve said Thursday. Americans’ stock and mutual fund portfolios fell $700 billion. The value of their homes increased $245 billion.

A Pew Research Center study released Friday found that the wealth gap between white households and minorities has widened in recent years. The wealth of white households was 13 times greater than that of black households in 2013, versus eight times the wealth in 2010. And the wealth of white households was more than 10 times that of Hispanic households, up from nine times the wealth in 2010.

Russia’s economic crisis just keeps on getting worse. The central bank hiked interest rates for a fifth time this year on Thursday, taking them up to 10.5%. That compares with 5.5% at the start of 2014. It had little choice given soaring inflation and a plunging ruble, but the latest move will pile on the agony for an economy that has ground to a halt. The ruble has crashed by 40% against the U.S. dollar since the start of the year due to economic sanctions from the West over Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory. Plunging global oil prices have slammed Russia because it depends on its massive energy sector to power the economy. About half of the government’s revenue comes from oil and gas exports.

Persecution Watch

Three Christian church leaders in Iran appealed their prison sentences this week. The men were each sentenced to six years in an Iranian prison for their faith. “Their only ‘crime’ is to exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief, as guaranteed in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is signatory. We urge the Iranian government to uphold this right for religious minorities in Iran, in line with its obligations under international law and the provisions upholding the rights of religious minorities in its own constitution,” said Christian Solidarity Worldwide Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas in a news release. A house church leader in Shiraz, was also recently arrested. Hosseinzadeh, was taken into custody by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security. They also confiscated his Christian books and laptop.

An Israeli student praying last week at the Chabad synagogue in Brooklyn, New York, was stabbed by a knife-wielding assailant who some witnesses said was screaming, “Kill the Jews.” The attacker entered the synagogue and then “just went nuts” one witness said. He was later killed by responding police officers.

An Army chaplain was punished for discussing matters of faith and quoting from the Bible during a suicide prevention training session with the 5th Ranger Training Battalion. Chaplain Joseph Lawhorn was issued a Letter of Concern that accused him of advocating for Christianity and “using Christian scripture and solutions” during a Nov. 20th training session held at the University of North Georgia.

As young people were praying and fasting together on December 2nd at a church in Khartoum Bahri, Sudan, police forces stormed the gathering with bulldozers and began demolishing the building. Thirty-seven of the group were arrested, charged with “breach of peace, public nuisance and obstruction of a public servant during the course of his duty”. Pastor Yahya Abdelrahim Falo told reporters that the police arrived at around 6 a.m. in nine vehicles. In what he called “a humiliation of all Sudanese Christians”, authorities proceeded to raid the Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church and to demolish the exterior walls of the building.

Middle East

A Palestinian posing as a hitchhiker threw acid at an Israeli family in the West Bank Friday, before he was shot by a passer-by and arrested, the Israeli military said. The army said the Palestinian also tried to attack the father of the family with a screwdriver and then started to run away, but a civilian passer-by shot him in the leg. Israeli police arrested him and evacuated him to hospital for treatment. The incident occurred as tens of thousands marched in the Gaza Strip in celebration of the 27th anniversary of the founding of the Islamist Hamas group. About 600 Palestinians clashed with Israeli forces in Hebron Friday. Israel Defense Forces soldiers were using crowd-dispersal methods to break up the demonstrations. Tension has been mounting between Israelis and Palestinians, especially in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in recent months since a five-week war between Israel and Hamas ended in August.

Islamic State

The Islamic State has released a pamphlet detailing guidelines for treating non-Muslim female slaves in the militant group’s custody. The pamphlet — which was posted on a pro-Islamic State Twitter account — answers more than 20 questions and states, among other things, that it is OK to have sex with non-Muslim slaves, including adolescents, and that it is also acceptable to beat and trade them. The pamphlet’s guidelines make clear that those held captive are under complete control of the extremists. The document also says it is OK to buy, sell or trade a female captive because they are “merely property, which can be disposed of.”

A jihadist’s standoff inside a Sydney cafe entered its twelfth hour with as many as 15 people still held inside, as police and news crews surround the shop watching the frightened hostages through the front window. Television footage shot through the Lindt Chocolat Cafe’s windows showed several people with their arms in the air and hands pressed against the glass, and two people holding up a black flag associated with the Islamic State.

Afghanistan

Separate insurgent attacks killed two U.S. troops, 12 workers clearing mines and a top Afghan court official, authorities said Saturday, part of a surge of militant assaults ahead of the withdrawal of most foreign troops at the end of the month. Security in the capital, Kabul, has been stepped up as the Taliban have warned that attacks on the government, foreigners, and the media will continue. The deaths on Saturday were the first foreign troops killed this month, bringing to 65 the total number of international troops killed in the country this year, 50 of them Americans.

Russia

Moscow is going on a huge shopping spree for weapons and military equipment. Russian defense companies boosted sales by more than 20% last year, driven by demand from the country’s military, according to new data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. That compares with a 2% decline in sales globally, largely due to a weaker performance by American companies, which account for more than half of the world’s arms trade. Russia has begun investing heavily in upgrades to its military capabilities. President Vladimir Putin plans to spend more than 20 trillion rubles ($700 billion) bringing equipment up to date by 2025.

Belgium

Belgium ground to a halt in its biggest strike in years Monday as trade unions grounded flights, cut international rail links and shut sea ports to protest the new government’s austerity plans. In the climax to a month of industrial action against new Prime Minister Charles Michel’s policies, striking workers stopped all public transport while most schools, businesses and government offices shut down. Pickets also blocked traffic outside the Brussels headquarters of the European Union, the 28-nation bloc that has seen years of protests against its austerity measures aimed at cutting debts that threatened the euro currency. The Belgian strike came days after a day of protest in Italy against Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s ambitious reform plans, while there have been similar demonstrations in Spain and Greece in recent months.

Venezuela

The government of Venezuela, under the self-proclaimed revolutionary government of President Hugo Chávez and now handpicked successor Nicolás Maduro, has managed to squander one of the longest, greatest oil booms in history, not just misspending the oil windfall that at one point reached $133 per barrel, but also destroying the country’s domestic economy. As a result, Venezuela teeters on the edge of default on its debt. Venezuelan benchmark sovereign bonds are now trading at 22 cents on the dollar. At more than 60%, Venezuela has the highest inflation rate in the region, a result of government profligacy that produced a fiscal deficit reaching 12% of GDP and public debt at 26% of GDP by 2012. Part of this has gone to the government’s popular social missions that provide free access to health care and education to the poor as well as subsidized food through state stores.

Haiti

Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe announced early Sunday that he was resigning along with several ministers in the wake of violent anti-government protests and a commission’s call for him to step down. President Michel Martelly said earlier he accepted the findings of the commission that had recommended Lamothe’s be replaced. Some political analysts believe Lamothe might seek the presidency in upcoming elections. Lamothe’s resignation complicates the current political situation because nominations for a new prime minister require approval from Parliament and it is unclear whether someone would be nominated before Parliament is dissolves in January. Haiti’s capital has endured a growing number of violent demonstrations in recent weeks during which protesters have demanded the holding of elections that were expected in 2011 and the resignations of Lamothe as well as Martelly. The unrest followed a demonstration Friday in which U.N. peacekeeping troops opened fire on a crowd that marched through Port-au-Prince, set tires on fire and skirmished with troops and police.

Weather

California was trying was drying out this past weekend from its biggest storm of the season — but another weather system is bearing down on the Golden State with rain expected on Monday. Strong winds, torrential rain and snow that caused widespread blackouts in Northern California hit the southern part of the state Friday. After drenching Northern California the previous day, the storm dumped up to 5 inches of desperately needed rain in Southern California. A landslide left 10 homes uninhabitable and fire officials executed a dramatic rescue of two people from the Los Angeles River. There were street flooding, traffic tie-ups and wind gusts up to 60 mph in some areas. At its height, about 50,000 customers lost power, though most had it back quickly. A small tornado hit South Los Angeles as well. The “wind event” occurred at 10 a.m. blowing a roof off a house and causing other damage. No injuries were reported. In Camarillo Springs, in Ventura County, California, a large debris flow swept through and pummeled homes with mud and rocks. In total, the debris flow damaged more than a dozen homes and left 10 completely uninhabitable.

Glendora, California, residents living near the Colby Fire burn area were under mandatory evacuations that went into effect Thursday night. California State Patrol reported a section of Highway 1 in Marin County collapsed Thursday. Strong wind gusts downed trees and power lines across northern California Thursday. Gusts exceeding 60 mph were reported across the region. Northern California utility provider PG&E listed at least 14,100 power outages across the region Thursday night. The San Francisco Police Department closed the Embarcadero in San Francisco from AT&T Park to Pier 39 due to high waves Thursday. Flooding closed all northbound lanes of US-101.

The U.S. experienced fewer tornadoes in the past three years than any similar span since accurate records began in the 1950s. Meteorologists aren’t sure exactly why. About 150 fewer damaging tornadoes than average have hit the U.S., according to data from the Storm Prediction Center (SPC). Explanations for the decrease in twisters the past three years range from unusual cold to unusual heat, or just coincidence. Despite the calmer than average years, deaths due to twisters remain near the average of 60 each year, with 68 killed in 2012, 55 in 2013 and 42 so far this year, according to the SPC. That pales in comparison with the 553 Americans killed by tornadoes in 2011.

Officials say torrential rains touched off a mudslide that swept through a central Indonesian village and killed at least 32 people, leaving 76 others missing. The landslide buried or swept away over 100 homes in Central Java’s Banjarnegara district late Friday. About 420 residents were evacuated to temporary shelters. About 2,000 rescuers, including soldiers, police and residents, dug through the debris over the weekend with their bare hands, shovels and hoes searching for survivors.

 

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