Signs of the Times (2/16/15)

Signs of the Times

You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. (Matthew 24:6-8)

Federal Court Rules Christian Ministries Can Hire or Fire Employees According to Beliefs

Christian ministries can hire or fire people based on their religious beliefs, a federal court has ruled. The decision comes after Alyce Conlon filed suit against InterVarsity Christian Fellowship after she was fired for not reconciling her marriage. Previously, she had worked as a spiritual director for the fellowship. Conlon was placed on paid leave so she could reconcile with her husband. Then in December 2011 she was fired because the organization had “not seen enough progress.” Later, her husband filed for divorce. Conlon then filed suit against IVF in 2012, claiming discrimination under the First Amendment’s free exercise clause. Her case was initially dismissed but Conlon appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Christian News Network reports the court upheld the ruling this week.

  • This one small case could have enormous judicial implications regarding the freedom to hire/fire according to religious beliefs and principles

Liberty Counsel Defending Alabama & North Carolina Magistrates

Liberty Counsel is deeply engaged in a fight to defend the rule of law in Alabama, and have filed a lawsuit to protect the rights of conscience of magistrates in North Carolina. The same-sex “marriage” agenda threatens their religious liberty and freedom of conscience. Magistrates in North Carolina are being pressured to officiate same-sex “weddings” or face suspension, termination, fines, or prosecution. The magistrates “have been forced to choose between deprivation of constitutional rights and continued employment, or freedom,” Liberty Counsel told the court in the lawsuit. “This case is typical of the conflicts erupting across the United States as intolerant activists impose their will on the majority of Americans who refuse to endorse or participate in same-sex unions. Although pro-homosexual activists favor rhetoric about tolerance and equal rights, their agenda is anything but tolerant,” Liberty Counsel asserts. “Christians and people of faith have been silenced through “hate speech” laws.”

America’s Largest Christian Bookstore Chain Files for Bankruptcy

Family Christian Stores (FCS) has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Yet the ministry assured customers yesterday that it “does not expect” to close any of its 267 stores or lay off any of its approximately 4,000 employees. “We strive to serve God in all that we do and trust His guidance in all our decisions, especially this very important one,” stated FCS president and CEO Chuck Bengochea. “We have carefully and prayerfully considered every option. This action allows us to stay in business and continue to serve our customers, our associates, our vendors and charities around the world. We believe our only two options are to liquidate and shut down our stores or go through the Section 363 sale process and preserve Family Christian Stores. When faced with these two options, we strongly felt that there was only one viable path to take.” Through a newly formed subsidiary, Family Christian Ministries will serve as the lead bidder for the Section 363 sale process, putting forward a plan that acquires the streamlined organization’s assets and maintains operation of the chain’s 267 stores in 36 states, as well as its e-commerce site www.familychristian.com FCS bought itself back from private equity owners in 2012 and pledged to donate 100 percent of its profits to widows and orphans.

IRS Botches Obamacare Deadline

The Saturday outage of an Internal Revenue Service function for Obamacare enrollment could have prevented about 500,000 people from enrolling, but nearly all should have the chance to sign up thanks to widespread deadline extensions and now-smoothly running sites. The glitch prevented some people from getting their income verified so they could enroll on HealthCare.gov’ Uninsured Americans faced a Sunday night deadline to join the more than 10 million who have already enrolled in private health coverage this year through the Affordable Care Act. Those who don’t finish their applications by the deadline because they can’t get through on the website or are on hold with call centers can get an extension. The uninsured face tax penalties of up to $975 for 2015 and $2,085 for 2016.

Anonymous Hacks Hundreds of ISIS Accounts, Shuts Them Down

A group of hackers that call themselves “Anonymous” reportedly broke into hundreds of ISIS social media and email accounts and shut them down. According to CNN Money, Anonymous managed to shut down nearly 800 Twitter accounts, 12 Facebook pages and over 50 email addresses. They posted, “”ISIS; We will hunt you, Take down your sites, Accounts, Emails… From now on, no safe place for you online. … You will be treated like a virus, And we are the cure. … We Own The Internet. … We are Anonymous, We are Legion, We do not forgive, We do not forget, Expect us.” The Christian Post reports that Anonymous said they were “Muslims, Christians, Jews.” They also “come from all races, countries, religions, and ethnicity.”

Hackers Stole $1 Billion from 100 Banks

Hackers have stolen approximately $1 billion in what could be one of the largest bank heists ever, according to a new report from the Internet security firm Kaspersky Lab. Kaspersky said Sunday it has uncovered how hackers surreptitiously installed spying software on bank computers, eventually learned how to mimic bank employee workflows and used the knowledge to make transfers into bank accounts they had created for this theft. More than 100 banks were hit, Kaspersky said, and based on the hackers’ practice of stealing between $2.5 million and $10 million from each bank, it estimated “total financial losses could be as a high as $1 billion, making this by far the most successful criminal cyber campaign we have ever seen.” Kaspersky did not name the banks but said they are institutions located in 25 countries, including the United States. The thieves were Russian, Ukranian, Chinese and European, Kaspersky said.

Ebola Update

An official says Sierra Leone has imposed a quarantine in a fishing district in the capital city, Freetown, in response to new Ebola cases. OB Sisay, director of the Situation Room at the National Ebola Response Center, said the quarantine went into effect Friday after five Ebola cases were confirmed in laboratory tests. He said a control center had been opened in the district and that contact tracing and surveillance officers had been deployed. The World Health Organization says Sierra Leone has seen nearly 11,000 confirmed, probable and suspected Ebola cases during the worst Ebola outbreak in history, the most of any country. Despite a drop in cases, WHO said Wednesday that transmission in Sierra Leone remains widespread, with 76 new confirmed cases in the previous week.

Economic News

For the first time ever, federal tax revenues have topped $1 trillion for the first four months of a fiscal year. But the government still managed to run a deficit of $194.2 billion in the first four months of fiscal 2015. The federal department with the largest outlays during the four months was Health and Human Services, whose $355 billion in spending included $113 billion in grants to states for Medicaid. The department’s total outlays for the full fiscal year are projected to top $1 trillion. The second highest outlay was by the Social Security Administration, $312 billion, followed by the Department of Defense, $195 billion. Interest on Treasury debt securities amounted to $133 billion over the four months.

  • The acceleration toward our socialistic welfare state continues unabated

Automobile shortages are looming as the labor dispute continues to interrupt work at West Coast ports, where some key parts for Asian-brand automakers arrive. The situation underlines the fact that the car business is global, despite major efforts to localize production. And it exposes how vulnerable automakers’ cost-saving, just-in-time inventory delivery systems are to interruption. Dock workers at seaports along the West Coast are negotiating with the port owners for a new contract to replace the one that expired last June 30. Ill will between the sides has resulted in delays in cargo ships being unloaded. A total shutdown strike could cost the U.S. economy $2 billion a day.

German consumers are spending again, sparking Europe’s economic engine back into life. Fourth quarter Eurozone GDP rose by 0.3%, compared with the previous quarter, thanks to a big boost to growth in Germany, the region’s biggest economy. German growth accelerated to 0.7% in the fourth quarter as households recovered from a loss of confidence triggered by the Ukraine crisis in the middle of last year.

Japan’s recession is officially over but that’s where the good news ends for Asia’s second-largest economy, which remains stuck in neutral despite the best efforts of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to deliver a revival. The economy grew by 0.6% compared to the previous quarter, but was held back by weaker than expected private consumption. The lackluster expansion follows two consecutive quarters of negative growth for Japan — the definition of a recession — precipitated by a sales tax hike that took a huge bite out of consumer spending.

Persecution Watch

With hundreds of church buildings burned and hundreds of Christians killed following Christian President Goodluck Jonathan’s electoral win in 2011, analysts are concerned about the potential for more anti-Christian brutality as Nigerians once again choose their president. In a country where the ratio of Christians to Muslims is almost equal, the voting is predicted to follow religious divisions.

A Marquette University professor has been suspended from his teaching position after writing a blog that criticized another professor who prohibited a student from expressing views supporting traditional marriage. Christian Today reports that John McAdams, a professor of 37 years, received a letter of suspension from Dean Richard Holtz that said he will be banned from campus and suspended with pay until the establishment concludes an investigation. In his blog, McAdams wrote, “Abbate, of course, was just using a tactic typical among liberals now. Opinions with which they disagree are not merely wrong, and are not to be argued against on their merits, but are deemed ‘offensive’ and need to be shut up.”

A school district in Florida has asked a high school student to stop ending the morning announcements with “God bless America.” But he did so anyway and was reprimanded. The decision comes after a complaint from two students, who are atheists. They filed a complaint with the American Humanist Association. The AHA then contacted the school principal and superintendent through a six-page letter. The letter said the phrase during the announcement was “inappropriate and unlawful” and the “daily validation of the religious views of God-believers resigns atheists to second class citizens.” The group also threatened to sue. “Students at Yulee High are free to express their beliefs all day long, but not during the school announcement,” the principal said.

  • The more we remove God from our institutions the more that God’s providential hand is removed from blessing America

Islamic State

Islamic State militants launched a suicide attack against a base in western Iraq where U.S. forces are stationed, but were defeated by Iraqi soldiers defending the facility, the Pentagon said Friday. The attack came as the militants over the past several days have seized the nearby town of al-Baghdadi, placing them within miles of al-Asad, a sprawling military compound in western Iraq. Early Friday, militants used a small force of suicide bombers in an effort to breach the base’s perimeter. Another team of about 15 fighters was prepared to get through the opening and into the base, the U.S. military said. The base in the Euphrates River Valley west of Baghdad is a major training facility where teams of Americans are training about 800 Iraqi soldiers.

An Iraqi tribal leader said Saturday that ISIS militants are gaining ground in Anbar province, and he predicted a “collapse within hours” of that province’s cities and towns if Iraqi forces withdraw. While U.S. officials have said that ISIS, which calls itself the Islamic State, is on the defensive in Iraq and Syria, Sheikh Naim al-Gaoud, the Sunni leader of the Albu Mimr tribe says that’s definitely not the case where he is. “In Anbar, we are losing ground, not gaining,” he said.

Egypt launched airstrikes against Islamic State targets in neighboring Libya on Monday, hours after militants there released a video purporting to show the mass beheading of Egyptian Christian hostages. The warplanes targeted weapons caches and training camps before returning safely. “Let those far and near know that Egyptians have a shield that protects them,” an official statement said. It marks the first time Cairo has publicly acknowledged taking military action in Libya, where extremist groups seen as a threat to both countries have taken root in recent years. Many civilians, including three children and two women, were killed in the strikes.

Middle East

AFP reported on Wednesday that the Lebanese Shi’ite terror militia Hezbollah has taken the lead in the fight against armed factions rebelling against the Assad regime in Syria, especially along the region bordering Israel. “Regime troops and their Hezbollah-led allies are advancing in the area linking Daraa, Quneitra and Damascus provinces,” a report by an opposition group said. “The operation launched by the Syrian army is being fought in cooperation with… Hezbollah and Iran,” a Syrian army officer added in a report by the Assad regime’s official television station. The reports track with recent statements by officials in neighboring Lebanon and the UN. Meanwhile, fighting in the area might have been delayed by the recent winter weather which has dumped several centimeters of snow on all sides of the borders running through Mount Hermon and the Golan Heights in recent days. Severe winter weather is expected to continue in northern Israel through the weekend.

In almost every way, the Gaza Strip is much worse off now than before last summer’s war between Israel and Hamas. Scenes of misery are one of the few things in abundance in the battered coastal enclave. Reconstruction of the tens of thousands homes damaged and destroyed in the hostilities has barely begun, almost six months after the cease-fire. At current rates, it will take decades to rebuild what was destroyed. The economy is in deep recession; pledges of billions in aid have not been honored; and the Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the enclave, refuses to loosen its grip and is preparing again for war. Diplomats, aid workers and residents warn of a looming humanitarian crisis and escalation of violence, reports the Washington Post.

Ukraine

A cease-fire that came into effect in eastern Ukraine on Sunday appeared largely to be holding, officials said, with the exception of the area around the strategic railway hub of Debaltseve. Fierce fighting surged in east Ukraine Friday as Russian-backed separatists mounted a major and sustained new push to capture a strategic railway hub ahead of a weekend cease-fire deadline. Clashes appeared only to have increased in the day since a peace agreement was sealed in the Belarusian capital of Minsk by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France. German Chancellor Angela Merkel cautiously described the agreement negotiated Thursday as “a glimmer of hope.” The government-held railway town of Debaltseve was on the receiving end of dozens of artillery and rocket salvos in the 24-hour period following the Minsk talks, Ukrainian military officials said.

Afghanistan

U.S. Special Forces soldiers and their Afghan allies have undertaken an increasing number of night raids targeting Taliban and Al Qaeda militants, despite Washington formally declaring an end to combat operations late last year. The New York Times reports that the increased raids are partially the result of intelligence seized in October of last year, when U.S. and Afghan commandos came upon a laptop computer with files detailing terror operations in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Military officials tell the paper that the information in the files could be as significant as what was found on a computer in Usama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound after the terror leader was killed by Navy SEALs in 2011. The officials also said that another factor playing the role in the increased raids were loosened restrictions on nighttime operations put in place by the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani. Ghani has previously called for a slower withdrawal of U.S. troops from his country. Current plans call for the U.S. to go from about 10,800 troops there now to 5,500 by the end of this year.

Pakistan

The Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility for a Friday attack on a Shiite Muslim mosque in Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan — a suicide bombing and gunfire assault that a hospital representative said killed 19 people. Sixty-seven people were injured. The Islamist militant group said the attack was orchestrated by a commander who was behind December’s massacre of 145 people, including 132 children, at a Peshawar school. The Pakistan Taliban attacked the mosque as revenge for the government’s December 19 execution of a militant who was allied with the group.

Yemen

The White House’s top counterterrorism official admitted Thursday that the overthrow of Yemen’s government by Shiite rebels last month caught U.S. intelligence off guard. Nick Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Yemeni army’s response to the advancing Houthi rebels resembled the Iraqi military’s response to an onslaught by the Islamic State terror group (ISIS) that ended in the capture of Iraq’s second-largest city this past summer. “As the Houthi advances toward Sanaa [Yemen’s capital] took place,” Rasmussen said, “they weren’t opposed in many places. … The situation deteriorated far more rapidly than we expected.”

Al Qaeda militants freed six of their fighters from a southern Yemeni prison during an attack on the facility Friday, just one day after the group took over a military camp in the same province, security officials said. Also Friday, at least three more nations announced they were temporarily closing their embassies in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa because of deteriorating security conditions, including neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Denmark

Denmark continued to reel Sunday over its first double terrorist attack, trying to make sense of killings in a country that rarely sees deadly violence and where the queen and officials walk around with light security. Danish police shot and killed a man Sunday who they believe was behind shootings at a free speech event and a synagogue in Copenhagen that stirred fears that another spree of terror attacks was underway in Europe. Police have not identified the gunman, who was killed in a firefight in the Noerrebro district of the Danish capital, after two people were shot dead and five police officers injured in the attacks over the weekend. They said it was possible the attacker was imitating the Paris attacks, which saw 17 people killed during three days of terror last month.

Weather

Snow and dangerously high winds roared into New England for the fourth time in less than a month Sunday. A ferocious blizzard — as powerful as a Category 2 hurricane —hammered parts of the Northeast and New England with heavy snow, howling winds and pounding waves late Saturday into Sunday. In the past three weeks, Boston has seen snow almost every day, and more than a foot 3 times. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority suspended all service Sunday. February has already obliterated the previous snowiest month on record in Boston with 58.5 inches in just two weeks. Boston also set their 30-day record snowfall total with 74.8 inches since January 15th. The temperature drifted down to -3 degrees Fahrenheit Monday morning.

A winter storm is coating roads in the Midwest and Ohio Valley with a layer of snow that is complicating the Monday commute in several states. The southern half of Missouri to near or south of the Ohio River are among the places seeing some of the highest accumulations from the storm. Much of the area impacted in the Midwest is well under their average snowfall amounts for the season, with this storm bringing their first heavy snowfall before sweeping through the south Tuesday.

Grizzly Bears in Yellowstone are emerging from hibernation earlier than usual this year. In the past five years, the bears have awakened from their winter slumbers in the first half of March, says Wyoming Public Media. However, above-average temperatures coaxed the creatures out two to four weeks earlier than usual, as the first sighting on Monday, Feb. 9, confirmed. The bears are ravenous and aggressive when they emerge from hibernation. Winter tourists, including snowshoers and skiers, have been advised to carry bear spray, make noise along trails and stay in groups of three or more, National Parks Traveler says.

Despite a series of arctic air masses blasting the central and eastern U.S. during the first half of the month, January 2015 was warmer than average for the nation as a whole, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Temperatures skyrocketed over the western half of the country. Widespread above average temperatures prevailed from the West Coast to the Intermountain areas to the Northern Plains. Overall, January’s average temperature for the continental United States was 33 degrees, which NOAA reports is 2.9 degrees above average. January 2015 ranked as the 24th warmest January in the 1895-2015 period of record.

The western U.S. will likely experience ‘megadroughts’ the magnitude of which haven’t been experienced in a millennium, due in large part to man-made climate change, a new study conducted by NASA, Columbia University and Cornell University scientists said. They say that the chance of the West and Southwest experiencing a megadrought — a severe drought lasting decades — by the year 2100 is more than 80 percent, National Geographic reports. A rise in temperatures due to man-made climate change is creating ‘unprecedented’ drying across the region.

  • End-time weather will continue to grow more extreme with record warmth, floods and gigantic hail (Daniel 9:26b, Rev. 8:7, 11:19, 16:11)

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