Archive for June, 2015

Signs of the Times (6/30/15)

June 30, 2015

Bibles Pour into Cuba to Feed Christianity Boom

Christians in Cuba received more than 83,000 Bibles earlier this month from the International Missions Board. The Bibles come at a time of growth in the evangelical church in Cuba. The Baptist Convention in Cuba is distributing the Bibles to believers in more than 1,000 churches all over the island. Bibles have not been sold in Cuban bookstores for more than 50 years. The only place people can get one is at a church. Churches have had to rely on Bible donations, and have had a hard time keeping up with the growing number of believers in the past few years, especially since U.S. sanctions and restrictions against Cuba have recently been lifted.

Planned Parenthood Now Does 33% of All U.S. Abortions

Planned Parenthood sells itself as a non-profit organization that concerns itself with women’s health, but a shocking new report indicates Planned Parenthood is little more than an abortion business. While the number of abortions it does and the percentage of its operations that are abortions is in the rise, the number of women receiving legitimate health care at Planned Parenthood is steadily declining. “Over the last 45 years, Planned Parenthood has become the expert in making money from ending lives,” observed Americans United for Life President Charmaine Yoest. She told LifeNews.com: “Unlike the national trend observed by the Associated Press last week, the Centers for Disease Control, and everywhere else that abortions are on the decline, at Planned Parenthood abortion sales are up – meanwhile its overall patients and other services are down. This is as a result of a move to create abortion mega-centers to mass-produce abortions at an even deadlier rate.”

Greece Closes Banks for a Week, Roils Eurozone

Greece’s parliament has voted in favor of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ motion to hold a referendum on the country’s creditor proposals for reforms in exchange for loans. Tsipras and his coalition government have urged people to vote against the deal, throwing into question the country’s financial future. The vote is to be held next Sunday, July 5. It has raised the question of whether Greece can remain in Europe’s joint currency, the euro. Eurozone officials were bracing for the possibility of a Greek debt default next week after financial ministers rejected Greece’s bid for a credit extension. Greece had asked for the one-month grace period. The swift rejection represented a startling demonstration of how Tsipras had alienated the rest of the currency bloc with the eleventh-hour referendum announcement that derailed five months of talks.

As Greece’s financial crisis deepens, the country kept its banks closed Monday and plans to keep them closed for the rest of the week, following a recommendation from the Bank of Greece. The banks also place restrictions on transactions. The moves come after the European Central Bank on Sunday said it won’t increase the level of emergency credit to help Greek banks. Without such an increase, the country’s four major banks could soon run out of cash. Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis said Tuesday that his country would not make a debt payment to the International Monetary Fund by a midnight deadline, setting the stage for a tense showdown with its international creditors.

Puerto Rico Can’t Pay Debts, Bond Market Shaken

The governor of Puerto Rico has decided that the island cannot pay back more than $70 billion in debt, setting up an unprecedented financial crisis that could rock the municipal bond market and lead to higher borrowing costs for governments across the United States. For many years, those bonds were considered safe investments — but those assumptions have been shifting in recent years as a small but steady string of U.S. municipalities, including Detroit, as well as Stockton and Vallejo in California, have tumbled into bankruptcy. Puerto Rico’s debt obligation is four times that of Detroit, which became the largest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy in 2012. A U.S. commonwealth with a population of 3.6 million, Puerto Rico carries more debt per capita than any state in the country. The island has been staggering under the increasing weight of those obligations for years as its economy has tanked, triggering an exodus of island residents to the mainland not seen since the 1950s.

Loads of Debt: A Global Ailment with Few Cures

There are some problems that not even $10 trillion can solve, notes the New York Times. That’s the gargantuan sum of money that central banks around the world have spent in recent years as they’ve tried to stimulate their economies and fight financial crises. The tidal wave of cheap money has played a huge role in generating growth in many countries, cutting unemployment and preventing panic. But, stifling debt loads continue to weigh on governments around the world. Greece’s government has repeatedly called for relief from some of its debt obligations, and Puerto Rico’s governor said on Sunday that its debt was “not payable.” Both borrowers are extreme cases, but high borrowing, either by corporations or governments, is also bogging down the globally significant economies of Brazil, Turkey, Italy and China. And economists say that central banks and their whirring printing presses can do only so much to alleviate the burden.

  • Astronomical debt loads due to global money-printing stimulus is coming home to roost. Greece and Puerto Reco are just the tip of the iceberg.

Scalia Blasts Obamacare Ruling: ‘Words Have No Meaning’

The Supreme Court of the United States effectively rewrote the text of Obamacare to save the legislation. By a 6-3 majority, the Court upheld the Fourth Circuit’s decision in King v. Burwell and decided that federal subsidies were available on state Obamacare exchanges, even though the text of the so-called Affordable Care Act said that such subsidies were only available on “State” exchanges. The majority stated that the word “State” was, at best, “ambiguous.” The majority–led, again, by Chief Justice John Roberts, who infamously interpreted a “penalty” as a tax to uphold Obamacare’s constitutionality in 2012–held that the “context” of the word “State” mattered more than the “most natural reading.” The dissent, by Justice Antonin Scalia, was blistering. “Words no longer have meaning… normal rules of interpretation seem always to yield to the overriding principle of the present Court: The Affordable Care Act must be saved.” He concluded: “We should start calling this law SCOTUScare.”

Family Income Posts First “Meaningful Gain” in 15 Years

The 99% finally saw their incomes grow in 2014, according to a new analysis by UC Berkeley Professor Emmanuel Saez. Family income rose 3.3% after inflation, the first meaningful gain in 15 years. That’s because the unemployment rate fell substantially last year, Saez said. More than 2.95 million jobs were created, and the jobless rate fell to 5.6%.But though the 99% saw their incomes rise, the Top 1% did even better. They saw their income jump 10.8% last year, and they captured 58% of the income growth for the year. Because of that, income inequality continued to rise last year too. The average family income for the Bottom 99% was $47,200 last year. The Top 1%, meanwhile, had an average income of $1.3 million. It took $423,000 just to get into the Top 1%.

Supreme Court Blocks Obama’s Limits on Power Plants

The Supreme Court on Monday blocked one of the Obama administration’s most ambitious environmental initiatives, an Environmental Protection Agency regulation meant to limit emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants from coal-fired power plants. Industry groups and some 20 states had challenged the E.P.A.’s decision to regulate the emissions, saying the agency had failed to take into account the punishing costs its rule would impose. The Clean Air Act required the regulation to be “appropriate and necessary.” The challengers said the agency had run afoul of that law by deciding to regulate the emissions without first undertaking a cost-benefit analysis. The E.P.A. had argued that it was not required to take costs into account when it made the initial determination to regulate. But the agency added that it had done so later in setting emissions standards and that, in any event, the benefits far outweighed the costs. Industry groups said the government had imposed annual costs of $9.6 billion to achieve about $6 million in benefits. The agency said the costs yielded tens of billions of dollars in benefits. The decision, Michigan v. Environmental Protection Agency, No. 14-46, does not strike down the rule, but it means the E.P.A. will have to review and rewrite it, taking costs into consideration.

The World’s Power Mix is Changing

Big changes are afoot for the energy sector in the next 25 years. Coal and gas are headed out, and solar and wind are rushing to take their place, reports Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Since 2004, renewable energy investments have risen from $43 billion to $270 billion annually. In 2014, most of that money went to China, a pattern that’s expected to continue through 2040. The world will spend a combined $12.2 trillion on new power-generating capacity over the next 25 years. The majority of that — two-thirds to be exact — will go to renewables, like wind and solar, thanks to falling costs. The world’s power-generating capacity will more than double by 2040. Of the new additional power generation to come online, 60 percent will come in the form of renewables. Fossil fuels currently account for roughly two-thirds of all power generating capacity, with renewables and nuclear making up the rest. The rapid rise of renewables will essentially flip the percentages. Fossil fuels will only account for a third of the world’s power-generating capacity in 25 years. Solar and wind will account for 26 percent and 14 percent respectively, up from just 2 percent and 5 percent in the present.

Digital Divide Decreasing but Not Gone

The digital divide in the United States has decreased significantly since 2000, with rates of Internet use and the advantages it brings increasing significantly across the entire population. But those without high school diplomas, African-Americans, Hispanics and people living in lower-income households still lag when it comes to accessing the online world. As of 2015, 84% of American adults use the Internet, according to a survey released Friday by the Pew Research Center. Those living in households earning more than $75,000 and English-speaking Asian Americans have the highest rates of Internet use, at 97%.Next came Americans aged 18 to 29, at 96% and college-educated adults at 95%. About of Hispanics are 81% are online. For African-Americans, the figure is 78%. Eighty-five percent of whites are online. However, only 66% of people who hadn’t completed high school were online. That’s up from just 19% in 2000 but still lags significantly.

Persecution Watch

A Pakistani Christian woman facing death for drinking water out of the same vessel used by her Muslim co-workers is in such poor health her supporters fear she won’t make it to her date with the executioner. Aasiya Noreen, a wife and mother of five better known as Asia Bibi, was sentenced in 2010 to be hanged for apostasy. The grim verdict was handed down after her co-workers charged she had insulted Prophet Mohammed when she was told she could not share the water vessel. Now 50, Bibi is suffering from numerous health problems, including intestinal bleeding. Supporters of Bibi are calling on the U.S. to use the approximately $900 million in annual foreign aid it provides Pakistan as leverage to obtain justice for Bibi and others suffering under the Muslim nation’s Draconian blasphemy laws.

Father Jonathan Morris was walking near Broadway in New York City wearing his cleric’s collar when he stumbled up the Gay Pride Parade. “Two men walked by and spat on me,” he reported to Fox News. But instead of responding with anger Father Jonathan responded with grace. As Todd Starnes notes, “In a way it’s a modern-day parable – those who preach tolerance are the least tolerant of all.”

A pastor in Belfast is facing prosecution after calling Islam “satanic” in a sermon. Christian News Network reports James McConnell, 78, is being charged with a hate crime for his speech. McConnell said in the sermon, “The God we worship and serve this evening is not Allah. The Muslim god—Allah—is a heathen deity. Allah is a cruel deity. Allah is a demon deity.” He continued to say that Islam was “satanic” and “a doctrine spawned in Hell.” The Christian Post reports McConnell plans to plead not guilty to the hate crime charge of making a “grossly offensive” statement. If convicted, McConnell says he is “prepared to go to jail.”

  • You can condemn Christianity all you want but don’t say anything back about Islam, LGBT, etc.

Economic News

The consumer sentiment index rose 6% in June from a month ago to 96.1, said the University of Michigan. The results put the index 16.5% above June last year and marked the biggest increase since 2004. The index is now at a five-month high.

New home sales rose 2.2% in May, according to the Census Bureau, and existing home sales rose 5.1%, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Global stocks lurched lower Monday as Greece closed its banks and imposed restrictions on cash withdrawals to try to prevent a deepening financial crisis from worsening amid faltering bailout talks with its international creditors.

China’s central bank took some aggressive steps on Saturday to boost its slowing economy. The People’s Bank of China cut both its one-year lending and deposit rates by 0.25%. In an additional move to shore up the economy, the bank also lowered the amount of cash that large banks must keep on reserve by 0.50%, a move intended free up money for banks to lend. China’s benchmark Shanghai Composite index dropped by 7.4% on Friday, as hundreds of individual stocks lost 10%.

Middle East

A terrorist attack on an Israeli vehicle traveling near the West Bank settlements of Shilo and Shvut Rachel Monday evening left Malachi Moshe Rosenfeld fighting for his life in hospital and three of his companions also hospitalized with light-to-moderate wounds. “This looks like an attack that was well-planned and not a spontaneous attack,” a security source said. Flyers in Arabic and bearing an image of the Islamic State terror militia were found posted around Jerusalem over the weekend, threatening Arab Christians with death unless they leave the city by the end of Ramadan. “Those who work with the Zionists also encourage Muslims to leave their religion and become more secular and open, and they spread evil. They take these Muslims away from us…. We know where they are, but we need help to find them all – all those Christian collaborators…ISIS soldiers will work to kill these people so this country is clean of them and… will clean this country and the Muslim Quarter from these Christians during this holy Ramadan.”

The Vatican State signed its first treaty with the “State of Palestine” on Friday, saying the pact “deals with essential aspects of the life and activity of the Catholic Church in Palestine.” A statement accompanying the signing demanded “courageous decisions” to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a two-state solution. Israel’s Foreign Ministry reacted by issuing a statement saying the treaty won’t do anything to bring peace closer but rather “moves the Palestinian leadership further away from returning to direct bilateral relations.”

Islamic State

ISIS militants have reportedly kidnapped over 1,200 more children from Mosul to train as jihadists. Christian Today reports the children were taken to a “cubs of the caliphate” training camp, 1,227 in all. The children will be trained as fighters and suicide bombers, and will be brainwashed with Islamic extremist ideology. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said, “IS militants train children and send them to the frontlines to scare opposition forces. They train children from about 100 countries around the world.” Despite ISIS persecution in Iraq, Rev. Canon Andrew White, the so-called “Vicar of Baghdad,” said that Christians are holding onto their faith. They are “desperate,” he said, but they “are not (ceasing) to love Jesus. We are still serving him.”

Iran

Several top negotiators seeking a nuclear agreement with Iran are headed to Vienna to work past Tuesday’s self-imposed deadline to close the remaining gaps. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrives Tuesday and will meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who went home Sunday for consultations with his leaders, flies back to Vienna on Tuesday. Federika Mogherini, the European Union’s representative, arrived Sunday and said the Tuesday deadline had wiggle room built into it. Major differences remain, including allowing international inspections of all suspected nuclear sites, including military ones; a schedule for lifting sanctions and lasting limits on Iran’s nuclear research and development.

  • Iran thrives on creating ‘wiggle room’ to keep stalling while they build their nuclear arsenal

Afghanistan

A powerful explosion shook the Afghan capital Kabul on Tuesday in an attack near the U.S. Embassy that appeared to target foreign forces but mostly affected civilians. One person was killed and 22 people, including four children and three women, were wounded after a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of foreign troops serving with NATO on the main road running between Kabul’s airport and the U.S. Embassy. The Taliban have claimed responsibility for the attack, which took place near Kabul’s Supreme Court building, a school and a mosque. U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Heather Easton said all embassy personnel were accounted for. The U.S. and NATO formally ended their combat mission in Afghanistan in December. Some foreign troops remain in the country to train and support Afghan security forces, who have assumed full responsibility for security.

Egypt

Egypt’s top public prosecutor was killed by a car bomb attack on his convoy on Monday, the most senior state official to die at the hands of militants since the toppling of an Islamist president two years ago. Security sources said a bomb in a parked car was remotely detonated as Hisham Barakat’s motorcade left his home. Judges and other senior officials have increasingly been targeted by radical Islamists opposed to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and angered by hefty prison sentences imposed on members of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Reuters reports. Last month, the Islamic State militant group’s Egyptian affiliate urged followers to attack judges, opening a new front in an Islamist insurgency in Egypt..

Earthquakes

An earthquake struck the Hawaiian city of Volcano on Saturday evening. The magnitude-5.2 earthquake was followed by five aftershocks, the largest of them registering at magnitude 3.1, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. No injuries have been reported. No stranger to earthquakes, the island of Hawaii has experienced 94 earthquakes in the past two weeks, the largest of them being the one that occurred on Saturday.

Wildfires

Nineteen large (over 100 acres) wildfires are burning in Alaska. As of Tuesday morning, they had consumed over 230,000 acres and destroyed 77 structures. The largest of the wildfires in the Teana area has burned nearly 184,000 acres with no containment as of yet.

A grass fire fueled by hot, dry and windy conditions quickly grew out of control in central Washington Sunday night, consuming homes and businesses and forcing dozens of evacuations as it threatened to burn through additional structures. The Sleepy Hollow fires burned through Michelsen Packaging, Northern Wholseale Inc. and the Bluebird fruit warehouse. Propane and other chemical tanks at the businesses caught fire and exploded, sending a plume of flames into the night sky. As of Tuesday morning, the fire had consumed about 3,000 acres and 27 structures and was only 10% contained. Eight other large wildfires were also burning in the Pacific northwest over 42,000 acres.

Weather

June record highs have been broken in at least 31 cities in the Northwest, five of which appear to have tied or broken their all-time record highs. The extreme heat is likely to last into next week and may end up breaking records for longevity as well. An unofficial weather station located in Hell’s Canyon along the Oregon/Idaho border (Pittsburg Landing) recorded an incredible 116 degrees for a high Sunday. Highs well into the 90s and triple digits are expected in many lower-elevation locations west of the Continental Divide and inland from the Pacific Coast for the rest of this week.

Flooded roadways put a damper on weekend travel in several Midwestern states over the weekend, and in one area, it was so bad that it led to two deaths from an unusual storm late-June storm. More than 100,000 homes remained without power in Michigan Sunday morning, DTE Energy confirmed. To the south, more than 30,000 were without power in the Fort Wayne area alone, and crews said it could be days before the lights come back on for everyone. In Ohio, a nursing home had to be evacuated Sunday morning in Deshler as the floodwaters rose.

Signs of the Times (6/26/15)

June 26, 2015

Gay Marriage Upheld by Supreme Court in Close Ruling

In a long-sought victory for the gay rights movement, the Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the Constitution guarantees a nationwide right to same-sex marriage. The 5-to-4 decision, the culmination of decades of litigation and activism, came against the backdrop of fast-moving changes in public opinion, with polls indicating that most Americans now approve of same-sex marriage, reports the New York Times website Friday morning. The Obama administration, which had gradually come to embrace the cause of same-sex marriage, was unequivocal in urging the justices to rule for the plaintiffs. Lawyers for the four states said their bans were justified by tradition and the distinctive characteristics of opposite-sex unions. They added that the question should be resolved democratically, at the polls and in state legislatures, rather than by judges.

  • The moral decline in the U.S. continues unabated and will continue to do so as prophesied in 2Timothy 3:1-4: But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.

Supreme Court Upholds ObamaCare Subsidies

In the second major court win for President Obama on his signature health care law, the Supreme Court on Thursday upheld ObamaCare subsidies in states that did not set up their own health care exchanges. The decision was 6-3. The Supreme Court previously upheld the law’s individual mandate in 2012, in a 5-4 decision. A ruling against the administration would have threatened subsidies in nearly three-dozen states. For months, though, the administration said it had no back-up plans, confident the Supreme Court would rule in its favor. Chief Justice John Roberts again voted with his liberal colleagues in support of the law. Roberts also was the key vote to uphold the law in 2012. Nationally, 10.2 million people have signed up for health insurance under the Obama health overhaul. That includes the 8.7 million people who are receiving an average subsidy of $272 a month to help pay their insurance premiums.

Obama Scores Major Trade Win as Senate Approves Fast-Track Authority

President Obama won new powers from Congress on Wednesday to bring home an expansive Pacific Rim free-trade deal that analysts said could boost U.S. economic standing in Asia and ultimately burnish his foreign policy legacy. Obama’s victory on Capitol Hill, coming 12 days after House Democrats nearly scuttled his bid for “fast-track” trade authority, sets the stage for his administration to complete the multi-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, by year’s end. It represents a hard-won payoff for a president who was willing to partner with his Republican rivals and defy a majority of his party in pursuit of an accord that aides have said will ensure that the United States maintains an economic edge over a rising China. The intensive legislative fight — waged for months by a White House eager to score a rare, bipartisan legislative victory late in Obama’s tenure — appeared to be coming to a close after the Senate voted 60-38 to grant final approval to the fast-track bill. Key House Democrats signaled that they would concede defeat and support related legislation — which they had blocked two weeks ago to stall the trade agenda — that provides retraining assistance for displaced workers.

Mammoth Federal Hack Part of Broader Campaign against the U.S.

The spectacular hacking assault on the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management is just part of a broader, systematic campaign against the most valuable U.S. cyber-assets, public and private, that is ongoing and likely includes operations inside classified U.S. government networks, according to a group of top-level experts on government cybersecurity consulted by Fox News. Taken together, the hacking waves are giving U.S. adversaries the ability to be “engaged against the whole fabric of U.S. society,” one of the experts said. The extent of the current penetration is well known in in intelligence circles, he added. “The intelligence community has seen the data going out the door.” “I’m really worried, we’re being outmaneuvered,” one of the top-level experts who has worked in both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, told Fox News.

White House Hid Extent of OP Hack

The Obama administration reportedly concealed the true amount of information compromised by a cyberattack on the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) for several days after the initial disclosure of the hack, according to the Wall Street Journal. The day after the White House admitted that hackers had breached personnel files, OPM publicly denied that the security clearance forms had been compromised despite receiving information to the contrary from the FBI. The administration did not say that security clearance forms had likely been accessed by the intruders until more than a week had passed. The Journal, citing U.S. officials, reported that lengthy period between disclosures was the result of a decision taken by both White House and OPM officials to report the cyberattack as two separate breaches, one of the personnel files and one of the security clearance forms. That meant that rather than saying the hack may have compromised the information of approximately 18 million people, including some who have never worked for the government, OPM initially said that only about four million people were affected.

Evidence was Destroyed during Probe of IRS Targeting the Tea Party

The lead government watchdog over the IRS revealed Thursday that computer evidence was erased during the investigation into the agency’s targeting scandal, months after the IRS was told to preserve documents. J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, testified to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that IRS employees erased computer backup tapes shortly after officials discovered thousands of emails related to the tax agency’s Tea Party scandal had been lost. As many as 24,000 emails were lost because 422 backup tapes were “magnetically erased” around March 4, 2014. Further, the IG review found that the IRS never looked at five of the six potential places where the emails might have been stored — including the server. George set off a firestorm in May 2013 with an audit that said IRS agents improperly singled out Tea Party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status during the 2010 and 2012 elections. House Republicans reportedly are considering launching impeachment proceedings against IRS Commissioner John Koskinen or other agency officials in connection with the destruction of the emails.

WikiLeaks: U.S. Wiretapped French Presidents

The United States has wiretapped the last three presidents of France, including current leader Francois Hollande as recently as 2012, according to WikiLeaks documents disclosed Tuesday. The documents show that the United States eavesdropped on presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac as well as Hollande on issues that included the French positions on Eurozone economic policy, United Nations appointments, Middle East peace talks and the financial crisis of 2008. French President Francois Hollande on Wednesday said his government would “not tolerate” threats to its interests and said the reported wiretapping was “unacceptable.” He lso said the U.S. must work to “repair trust.” Previous disclosures of U.S. National Security Agency intelligence-gathering activities have triggered diplomatic rifts with other countries, including Germany and Brazil. Earlier this month, Germany dropped a probe into allegations that the NSA bugged the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying it couldn’t produce enough evidence to bring the case to court.

  • The NSA is out of control both in the U.S. and abroad

Obama to Loosen Restrictions on Private Ransoms for Hostages

The Obama administration is creating a new inter-agency hostage unit to work for the recovery of U.S. citizens abducted by terrorists and other criminal groups, and the government will no longer threaten prosecution of those who engage in private ransom negotiations for the return of their loved ones. While the government will not block private ransom payments, U.S. authorities will still be prohibited from facilitating such arrangements, including raising funds or facilitating payment delivery. Family members of hostages have been harshly critical of the government’s past activities, citing contradictory guidance and even hostile attempts by some aimed at discouraging private ransom payments, including the threat of criminal prosecution. Among the most vocal of the critics has been Diane Foley, mother of American journalist James Foley, whose beheading last year was videotaped by the Islamic State. Critics say Obama giving terrorists an incentive to kidnap with its hostage policy overhaul.

NATO to Triple Size of Reaction Forces

NATO announced late Wednesday it will triple the capacity of its Response Force to 40,000 troops. The Response Force currently has 13,000 troops. “We have just taken another step forward in adapting NATO to our changed and more challenging security environment,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Brussels, Belgium. In light of Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine and Moscow’s recent decision to upgrade its military, including its nuclear arsenal, NATO is “carefully assessing the implications of what Russia is doing, including its nuclear activities,” Stoltenberg said. “We do not seek confrontation, and we do not want a new arms race,” he added.

Economic News

Consumers ramped up spending in May, hitting a six-year high and outpacing income growth in a sign that growing consumer confidence is fueling a pickup in the marketplace. Consumer spending rose 0.9% for the month from 1% in April, while personal income ticked upward 0.5%, according to a report Thursday by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Spending on durable goods rose 2.3% in May, after falling 0.1% in April.

In a sign of stock market nervousness on Main Street, mutual fund investors have yanked more money out of U.S. stock funds than they put in for 16 straight weeks. The last time domestic stock funds had positive net cash inflows was in the week ending Feb. 25, according to data from the Investment Company Institute, a mutual fund trade group. In the week ended June 17, mutual funds that invest in U.S. stocks suffered net outflows of $3.45 billion, according to the ICI.

European leaders have given Greece, and themselves, a Saturday deadline to reach a deal with Athens over loan repayments. After a week of intense negotiations, the two sides have failed to come up with a mutually acceptable plan that would allow Greece to pay the International Monetary Fund debts worth $1.8 billion by June 30. Without a deal, Greece may be forced out of the Eurozone.

Just two weeks after hitting a new high and sporting a 60% year-to-date gain, mainland China’s Shanghai composite index is down nearly 19% and flirting with a bear market. The steep, dramatic drop is raising questions as to whether the bull market China — which has been the envy of the world the past 12 months with gains in excess of 150% — is a bubble in the process of bursting. The wild volatility in mainland China shares has been fueled by government stimulus.

Middle East

A rocket was fired into southern Israel by terrorists in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip overnight Tuesday, causing no injuries or damage but prompting a retaliatory air strike by the Israeli Air Force. The IDF announced on Wednesday it is rescinding 500 permits for Palestinians to enter Israel from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip following a rocket attack from the Strip the day before. The permits, allowing Moslems from the Strip to pray at the al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem during the Moslem holy month of Ramadan, were meant as a goodwill gesture. But Tuesday’s rocket, which landed near the border community of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, prompted IDF Maj.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai to tell the Palestinian Maan news agency that “Hamas is responsible for depriving worshipers of prayer in al-Aksa Mosque during Ramadan.

Israeli diplomatic efforts were underway to convince as many governments as possible of the 47-member UN Human Rights Council to reject Monday’s report on last summer’s Operation Protective Edge. The report will be submitted for a vote next week, and Israel is focusing efforts on democratic nations to form a “moral minority” to vote against it and thus lessen its moral authority, as Moslem countries and others traditionally opposed to the West are almost certain to vote for it, ensuring it passes. The US State Department issued a statement on Wednesday that the report was so flawed it did not merit being considered by the UN Security Council.

Islamic State

Islamic State militants launched two major attacks in northern Syria on Thursday, storming government-held areas in the mostly Kurdish city of Hassakeh and pushing into Kobani — the Syrian Kurdish border town they were expelled from early this year — where they set off three cars bombs, killing and wounding dozens. The attacks came after the Islamic State group suffered several setbacks in northern Syria against Kurdish forces over the past weeks. In Kobani, which famously resisted a months-long assault by the Islamic militants before driving them out in January, an activist group said 10 people died in fighting Thursday — the first time in six months the IS had managed to enter the town along the Syria-Turkey border. In the city of Hassakeh, Redur Khalil, ISIS militants attacked government-held neighborhoods on the southern edge of the city, and captured some areas. Hassakeh is divided between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and Kurdish fighters.

Terrorists struck around the world Friday, beheading a man in France, gunning down dozens on a beach and Tunisia and launching a suicide attack on a mosque in Kuwait in a series of attacks that followed an ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s call to make the month of Ramadan a time of “calamity for the infidels, Shi’ites and apostate Muslims ” (see below for details)

Kuwait

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for a deadly explosion that struck a Shiite mosque after Friday morning prayers in Kuwait City, the Kuwaiti capital. A posting on a Twitter account known to belong to the Islamic State group said the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt. The attack was claimed by an IS affiliate calling itself the Najd Province, the same group that claimed a pair of bombing attacks on Shiite mosques in Saudi Arabia in recent weeks. Friday’s explosion struck the Imam Sadiq Mosque in the neighborhood of al-Sawabir, a residential and shopping district of Kuwait City. Paramedics on the scene said at least two people were killed, but the death toll was expected to rise.

Tunisia

Gunmen armed with Kalashnikovs killed at least 27 people Friday, mostly tourists, in an attack on on the beach at resort hotels in Tunisia. The gunmen opened fire on the beach between the Soviva and Imperial Marhaba hotels before security forces responded, killing one of the attackers. The other attacker fled. Sousse, a popular vacation spot for European tourists, is located about 90 miles southeast of the capital Tunis. Tunisian security forces have been on alert since March when two Tunisian gunmen opened fire on the Bardo museum in Tunis, killing 21 tourists and a policeman. The two gunmen were killed in that attack.

France

A man has been decapitated in a suspected “Islamist attack” on a U.S. chemical factory near the southeastern French city Lyon, authorities said Friday. One person was killed and two people were hurt in the incident, which began when a car was driven into gas canisters, setting off an explosion. One of the suspects, Yassin Salhi, 35, the father of three children, has been arrested. Salhi was known to French security forces and had suspected ties to the Islamic State extremist organization that is waging a brutal war from its base in Syria and Iraq, but that he had not been previously arrested. Surveillance on Salhi was dropped in 2008. Several other possible accomplices were taken into custody.

Wildfires

A huge, week-old wildfire roared to new life in the rugged terrain in Southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains, threatening threatened thousands of homes and other structures as it stretched northeast into the desert. The blaze about 90 miles east of Los Angeles has consumed some 40 square miles – nearly a quarter of that in the last two days. The tiny Mojave communities of Burns Canyon and Rimrock were ordered to leave their homes Thursday.

A new wildfire in Southern California sprang to life Wednesday, triggering evacuations and putting a strain on resources. At its height the blaze, called the Calgrove Fire, burned frighteningly close to homes in Santa Clarita. At least 1,000 people were evacuated from some 500 homes in Newell and Santa Clarita. About three dozen horses were also taken to a shelter. Lanes of Interstate 5 were shut down. By nightfall the damage had been limited to a single garage and the 350-acre blaze was 45 percent contained.

A wildfire has grown to 26 square miles in hazardous and inaccessible terrain south of Lake Tahoe and is moving closer to structures, officials said. No buildings have been damaged, but the mountain town of Markleeville remained on standby Wednesday for possible evacuations. The fire, ignited by lightning Friday, was 10 percent contained by Wednesday evening.

These wildfires re just a few of the many of blazes that are overtaxing crews across California, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. More than 270 fires are burning in Alaska. There were 40 new fires reported Tuesday. Altogether, fires have burned over 650 square miles. Crews relied on retardant-dropping aircraft to battle the hard-to-reach fire, which began June 17 in mountain wilderness.

Weather

Lake Mead sunk to a record low Tuesday night by falling below the point that would trigger a water-supply shortage if the reservoir doesn’t recover by January. Water managers expect the lake’s elevation level to rebound enough to ward off a 2016 shortage thanks to a wetter-than-expected spring. But in the long run, as a Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman said, “we still need a lot more water.” The reservoir stores water for parts of Arizona, other Western states and Mexico, all of which have endured a 15-year drought with no end in sight. Colorado River water users are consuming more than the river provides, said Drew Beckwith, water-policy manager with the Western Resource Advocates, a non-profit environmental law and policy organization. “This is the check-engine light,” Beckwith said. “It really does (make critical) the fact that we have to start changing.”

The severe weather system responsible for more than a dozen tornadoes that created damage across the Midwest Monday moved into the Northeast Tuesday, killing one person and knocking out power across the region. Four people were injured when a building collapsed in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia. Airports were hard hit across the heavily-traveled Northeast. The storms pushed half a dozen major airports into ground stops during rush hour, including Boston’s Logan International, New York’s LaGuardia and JFK, Philadelphia International, and all three of the D.C.-area hubs. Millions of people were forced to wait out the bad weather inside the airports Tuesday night. At one point, at least 770,000 electric customers across the region were without power; early Wednesday morning, the figure remained at more than 430,000 households.

A sweltering heat wave has baked the Southeast for over a week, but will be followed by a welcome pattern change this weekend. Charlotte, North Carolina, topped their June record with their fourth June day of triple-digit heat Wednesday. Raleigh continued a record for the longest stretch of consecutive days with high temperatures at or above 95 degrees, with 12 consecutive days. The streak was snapped on Thursday when the high only Columbia, South Carolina, set a new record high of 101 degrees Tuesday and tied the daily record of 101 on Wednesday. On Friday, Orlando tied the record high for the day when the mercury reached 100 degrees. This was also the first time Orlando reached 100 degrees since July 3, 1998.reached 92 degrees.

At least 1000 people are dead in Pakistan after one of the worst heat waves in a decade combined with lackluster infrastructure, water shortages and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan to cause hundreds of cases of dehydration and heat stroke. That number is expected to increase with power outages also hitting the province’s largest city, Karachi, leaving fans and air conditioners inoperable. Temperatures reaching 113 degrees Fahrenheit struck Karachi over the weekend. Wind from the sea and pre-monsoon rains cooled southern Pakistan on Wednesday, likely marking the end of a scorching heat wave.

Signs of the Times (6/23/15)

June 23, 2015

Over 300,000 Rally in Rome against Gay Marriage

Hundreds of thousands of people travelled from all over Italy and Europe yesterday to protest against the proposed legalization of gay marriage, and the teaching of ‘gender theories’ in schools. Gathering in the San Giovanni Square in Rome, with estimates of participants running from 300,000 to a million people, attendees held aloft banners reading “The family will save the world” and “Let’s defend our children”, as Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi tries to push a civil-union bill through parliament. The rally was also provoked by an Italian school district having boys dress up like girls and vice versa to allegedly break down gender stereotypes.

Billions Spent on War against ISIS despite Strategy Concerns

Despite mounting concerns in Congress over the Obama administration’s strategy for defeating the Islamic State, the U.S. already has spent billions on the war. A Pentagon breakdown shows the military has spent more than $2.74 billion on the fight against ISIS, amounting to about $9.1 million a day, from August 2014 through early June 2015. But, even as lawmakers continue to debate the legality and funding for the war, the billions already spent may be just a drop in the bucket. Administration officials acknowledge a years-long effort ahead. Of the billions spent so far, the Air Force has gotten the bulk of the money – about 67 percent, or $1.8 billion — underscoring the importance of the airstrike mission. Critics continue to question the strategy and endgame for confronting the terror group, let alone the cost.

U.S. Sending Tanks, Weapons to Europe

The U.S. military will be sending dozens of tanks, Bradley armored fighting vehicles and self-propelled howitzers to allied countries in the Baltics and Eastern Europe in response to Russian actions in the Ukraine, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Tuesday. The equipment, enough to arm one combat brigade, will be positioned in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland. Carter said the equipment will be moved around Europe for training and exercises. The U.S. defense chief also said Washington and its NATO allies will be boosting cyber defense efforts. “We must prepare NATO and our allies for cyber challenges, particularly from Russia,” Carter said in prepared remarks.

  • Russia and Persia (Iran) are the leading perpetrators in the end-time war against Israel (Ezekiel 38)

EU Extends Sanctions against Russia

European Union foreign ministers meeting Monday in Luxembourg extended the term of sanctions imposed a year ago against Russia imposed because of the country’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The sanctions aimed to punish Russia for its annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and its military support for separatists in the eastern regions of Ukraine, which border Russia. The sanctions consist of asset freezes on some Russian companies and people as well as travel bans against certain officials. A Kremlin spokesman condemned the extension of the sanctions. “Russia, naturally, considers these sanctions to be unfounded and illegal,” spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists. Peskov said Russia would respond by extending measures against the European Union, which include restrictions on the import to Russia of foodstuffs from the EU.

Hacking Attack Gave Chinese Privileged Access to U.S. Systems

For more than five years, American intelligence agencies followed several groups of Chinese hackers who were systematically draining information from defense contractors, energy firms and electronics makers, their targets shifting to fit Beijing’s latest economic priorities, reports the New York Times. But last summer, officials lost the trail as some of the hackers changed focus again, burrowing deep into United States government computer systems that contain vast troves of personnel data. Undetected for nearly a year, the Chinese intruders executed a sophisticated attack that gave them “administrator privileges” into the computer networks at the Office of Personnel Management, mimicking the credentials of people who run the agency’s systems. The hackers’ ultimate target: the one million or so federal employees and contractors who have filled out a form known as SF-86 which details personal, financial and medical histories for anyone seeking a security clearance. “This was classic espionage, just on a scale we’ve never seen before,” one senior administration official said. The administration is urgently working to determine what other agencies are storing similarly sensitive information with weak protections.

Senate Hands a Victory to Obama on Trade Pact

The Senate on Tuesday morning narrowly voted to end debate on legislation granting President Obama enhanced negotiating powers to complete a major Pacific trade accord, virtually ensuring final passage on Wednesday of Mr. Obama’s top legislative priority in his final years in office. The procedural decision barely cleared the 60 votes needed, but final passage will need only 51 votes. It was the second time the Senate blocked a filibuster of the so-called trade promotion authority, but this time the bill was shorn of a measure to offer enhanced retraining and education assistance to workers displaced by international trade accords. That measure faces a crucial procedural vote on Wednesday as well.

Man Runs Car into Crowd Killing 3, Injuring 34 in Austria

A man apparently distraught over personal issues drove his SUV into a crowd Saturday in Graz, Austria’s second largest city, killing three people and injuring 34 others, officials said. The governor of the Styria province, Hermann Schuetzenhoefer, gave the casualty figures and described the suspected driver as a 26-year old Austrian who was “mentally disoriented” and acting alone. He said one of the injured is in a critical condition.

  • I call for an immediate ban on automobiles, the greatest of all killing devices. Oh, and then there was that depressed German pilot who flew the plane into the ground. Better ban airplanes too.

A New Mass Extinction Could be Underway

Sixty-five million years ago, the dinosaurs disappeared in what’s known as the Earth’s fifth mass extinction. Today, a sixth mass extinction could be well underway and humans are the likely culprit, according to new research published in Science Advances. The past five mass extinctions on Earth were caused by large-scale natural disasters like meteors or enormous chains of volcanic eruptions, wiping out between half and 96% of all living species. But the modern mass extinction isn’t being caused by a freak act of nature, the researchers say. It’s being caused by man-made changes to the environment including deforestation, poaching, overfishing and global-warming, and it’s proving to be just as deadly. About 477 vertebrate species have been lost since 1900, according to the report. There should’ve only been nine species going extinct during the same time period.

  • Revelation tells us that there will be massive deaths of species in the water and on the land during the end-times. We tend to read that as an instantaneous incident, but it could play out over time.

Persecution Watch

The Mennonite owners of a Iowa gift shop and bistro say they have to close their doors after they were ordered to pay a settlement when they refused to hold a same-sex wedding at the venue. Richard Odgaard and his wife, Betty, are the owners of Görtz Haus Gallery in Grimes, Iowa. About two years ago, the couple refused to rent their facility to a gay couple from Des Moines. The couple filed a discrimination complaint through the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. The Odgaards agreed to a $5,000 settlement, but decided to stop hosting wedding ceremonies for all couples. The remaining business hasn’t been enough, Betty said. They say the business will close at the end of August, The Christian Post reports. “It was just so hateful and so awful and personally it took me down. I didn’t want to be on this Earth anymore. It destroyed me,” Betty said of the public response. But, in a twist, the facility is set to likely become home to a church.

Economic News

Home rental prices are climbing across much of the United States — with the biggest gains coming not from New York or San Francisco but Jackson, Miss., and Portland, Maine. Real estate data firm Zillow said Tuesday that prices nationally climbed a seasonally adjusted 4.3% in May from a year ago. The steadily rising costs of renting houses and apartments are creating new financial pressures for many Americans. Rental prices have grown at roughly double the rate of wages, forcing more Americans to limit their spending elsewhere or cut into their savings.

The United States’ chief executive officers made 303 times as much as the average worker in 2014, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute released Monday. The report from the left-leaning think tank found that average CEO compensation for the largest firms was $16.3 million in 2014, an increase of 3.9% from last year and 54.3% since the end of the financial crisis in 2009. Since 1978, inflation-adjusted CEO pay has jumped 997%, while wage growth for the average worker grew only 10.9% over the same period, the report says.

A deal to resolve Greece’s debt crisis and avoid economic disaster could be reached within days after the country submitted proposals to its international creditors welcomed by European leaders at an emergency summit. The proposals, the specific details of which have not been released, came after months of unproductive negotiations between Athens and its trio of creditors — the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Commission (eurozone governments). Although an agreement has not yet been formally struck, Eurozone leaders said at the summit in Brussels late Monday that the fresh submissions from Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipris were a step in the right direction that could ultimately lead to a deal by Wednesday evening.

Middle East

A much-awaited United Nations report into the 2014 Gaza war released Monday found that both Israel and Palestinian militant groups may have committed war crimes during the conflict. The commission said it gathered “substantial information pointing to serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law” by both sides. In some cases, it added, these violations may amount to war crimes. “The extent of the devastation and human suffering in Gaza was unprecedented and will impact generations to come,” said Mary McGowan Davis, the chair of the commission. “There is also ongoing fear in Israel among communities who come under regular threat.” More than 2,200 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, were killed during the fighting, according to U.N. and Palestinian officials, while 73 people, including six civilians, died on the Israeli side.

Israel swiftly moved to dispute the report’s findings. In defending itself against attacks, Israel’s military acted according to the highest international standards,” the Foreign Ministry said. “Israel does not commit war crimes,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “Israel defends itself against a terrorist organization that calls for its destruction and carries out many war crimes.”

The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) late Sunday took over the investigation into last Friday’s shooting attack which left 25 year old Danny Gonen dead and his friend wounded. The attack took place near the settlement of Dolev, near Ramallah, as the two men were driving in their car towards the Parsa junction, where a Palestinian man flagged them down and spoke briefly with them before pulling out a pistol and firing several shots. The Islamist terror militia Hamas claimed responsibility. Meanwhile, an Israeli Border Police officer was stabbed by a Palestinian man near the Damascus Gate to Jerusalem’s Old City on Sunday morning.

Islamic State

A top Islamic State operative also implicated in the terror attack on U.S. embassy personnel in Benghazi, Libya in 2012 was killed by a U.S. airstrike on June 15 in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the Pentagon announced late Monday. A U.S. Air Force drone fired a missile at the vehicle in which Ali Awni al-Hazri was riding. Al-Hazri had operated with militants associated with the Islamic State, or ISIL, throughout North Africa and the Middle East, said a Pentagon spokesman. Al-Hazri had been a major player in recruiting militants from Libya, Tunisia and other parts of North Africa into the fight in Iraq and Syria, the official said. “Ali Awni al Harzi was responsible for planning hundreds of suicide attacks across the world, and was one of the first foreign fighters to join ISIL,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democratic on the House Intelligence Committee.

ISIS has already committed countless unspeakable acts on Yazidi and Christian girls and women in Iraq, but the terrorist army may have reached a new low with a twisted new contest in which female slaves captured in war are given away as “prizes” to fighters who show they have mastered the Koran. The shocking practice of giving away human beings as prizes, called “sibya,” was organized by the Da’wa and Mosques Department in Al-Baraka province in Syria in honor of the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan and was announced June 19 on ISIS Twitter accounts.

Afghanistan

The Taliban launched a suicide bombing and gunfire attack outside the Afghan parliament in Kabul on Monday. A suicide bomber detonated a car laden with explosives outside the parliament, causing “considerable” damage to other cars and nearby buildings. All seven attackers were killed by special forces and 31 civilians were injured. The incident happened around 10.30 a.m. local time as lawmakers were meeting to confirm the appointment of a new defense minister. Lawmakers were reported to have no serious injuries. Parliament security prevented the gunmen from entering the building, and fought the attackers off for more than 20 minutes before security forces arrived.

Iran

Iran’s parliament voted Sunday to oppose the inspections of government military sites as part of a pending, multi-nation agreement to curb the country’ nuclear program — potentially complicating a final deal ahead of a June 30 deadline. The bill would allow for international inspections of Iranian nuclear sites but forbid inspections of military facilities. And it demands the complete lifting of all sanctions against Iran as part of any final nuclear accord. “We won’t agree to a deal without that,” one of the U.S. negotiation officials said. “We expect that there will be many voices and opinions on the difficult issues as we work towards a final deal. … But our team is focused on what is happening in the negotiating room.”

Iraq

Iraqi officials say attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country have killed at least eight people on Monday. A bomb struck an outdoor market in Taji, about 12 miles north of Baghdad, killing three civilians and wounding eight. Another bombing at a market in Baghdad’s southern Abu Disher neighborhood, killed two civilians and wounded 11. Gunmen in two SUVs opened fire, killing two policemen and a civilian who were traveling in a civilian car in Baghdad’s eastern Baladiyat neighborhood. He says that attack also wounded two other civilians.

Wildfires

A wildfire near Big Bear Lake in California’s San Bernardino National Forest continued to grow in size over the weekend, with a hot, dry forecast elevating concerns for firefighting efforts. The wildfire grew to 17,305 acres on Monday, according to the U.S. Forest Service, and was 21 percent contained. More than 1,200 firefighters were on working the blaze from both the air and the ground. The Forest Service said 500 structures were threatened, but didn’t think any had been burned by Saturday. Smoke reached portions of the highly populated Coachella Valley, resulting in air quality at “unhealthy” levels. The fire started last Wednesday, but the cause is not yet known.

Fifteen wildfires are burning in Alaska where temperatures have been much higher than normal over the past month. As of Tuesday morning, the fires have consumed over 127,000 acres and have destroyed 47 structures. Three wildfires in Arizona and another three in New Mexico have burned almost 38,000 acres. A wildfire south of Lake Tahoe, Nevada, has burned nearly 15 square miles of timber and grass. It was about 10 percent contained Tuesday morning after forcing the evacuation of some campgrounds.

Weather

June has been a hot month in parts of the West. Earlier in the month, Yakima, Washington, tied its all-time June high of 105 degrees. This occurred 15 days earlier on the calendar than the previous June 105-degree high. The first significant heat wave of the year swept into the Desert Southwest last week, pushing temperatures above the 120 degree mark in a few spots. High and low temperatures have been up to 15 degrees above average for much of the region, with only a slight reprieve in the forecast. Phoenix tied daily record highs last Wednesday (114 degrees) and Thursday (115 degrees). Palm Springs, California, reached 116 degrees on Thursday, breaking its daily record of 115 degrees.

A dome of high pressure aloft that has been searing the Desert Southwest over the past week will surge northwestward, becoming established over the Great Basin by late this week where record highs are expected. The extreme heat is even expected to surge north into Canada. On Monday, Charlotte, North Carolina set a new daily record high of 100 degrees and Charleston, South Carolina tied their record of 98 degrees. Daytona Beach, Florida also tied their record high of 96 degrees. Florida had its warmest spring on record.

Severe weather marched into the High Plains and Midwest Monday with powerful straight-line winds and tornadoes, causing significant damage to a town in northeastern Illinois. There were 12 reports of tornadoes in the High Plains and Midwest Monday. Pieces of homes were scattered all over, and trees were heavily damaged in Coal City, Illinois. A long-lived squall line known as a derecho ripped across a swath from South Dakota to Wisconsin Monday morning, leaving widespread damage in a path that also included northern Iowa and parts of southern Minnesota. A second round of thunderstorms erupted in the afternoon and evening hours across parts of Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan, bringing several reports of tornadoes.

Signs of the Times (6/19/15)

June 19, 2015

Americans’ Confidence in Religion Hits a New Low

Americans have less confidence in organized religion today than ever measured before — a sign that the church could be “losing its footing as a pillar of moral leadership in the nation’s culture,” a new Gallup survey finds. “In the ’80s the church and organized religion were the No. 1″ in Gallup’s annual look at confidence in institutions. Overall, church/organized religion is now ranked in fourth place in the new Gallup survey — behind the military, small business and the police — while still ahead of the medical system, Congress and the media, among 15 institutions measured. In the mid-’70s, nearly 7 in 10 Americans said they had “a great deal or quite a lot” of confidence in the church or organized religion. That has decreased decade by decade to a new low of just 42 percent, according to the report.

  • Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first. (2Thessalonians 2:3)

Galilee Church Torched

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led a chorus of outrage and condemnation Thursday for the apparent arson attack on the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee discovered early in the morning Friday. Graffiti discovered at the site, in Hebrew, implied that Christianity is an idolatrous religion. “Freedom of worship in Israel is one of our core values and is guaranteed under the law,” Netanyahu said. “We will bring to justice those responsible for this crime. Hate and intolerance have no place in our society.” Israel’s Police have called the attack a “hate crime” and have vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice.

  • The anti-Christ spirit is ramping up as the run-up to the Tribulation accelerates. Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour. (1John 2:18)

Obama Calls for Stricter Gun Laws after Charleston Massacre

President Obama renewed his call for stricter gun laws Thursday following a shooting spree at a Charleston, S.C. church that killed nine people. “We don’t have all the facts, but we do know that, once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun,” Obama said. Obama’s remarks were not unlike the 13 others he’s given following a mass shooting during his presidency. “The president wants to blame an inanimate object — the gun,” said Erich Pratt, spokesman for the Gun Owners of America. “But that just deflects blame away from the real culprit: gun-control policies that leave people defenseless in the face of evil perpetrators who are never effectively prevented from acquiring weapons.”

  • In a world of good and evil, there are no perfect solutions to issues like gun control. Only when Jesus returns to eradicate evil and reign over the earth for the next millennium will perfection be attained.

Pope Issues Urgent Appeal to Fight Climate Change

Pope Francis on Thursday threw the weight of the Catholic Church behind a new appeal to combat climate change, saying the future of humanity is at stake and dismissing those who deny the planet is getting warmer. Francis unequivocally lined the Catholic Church up on the side of the environment with the release of church doctrine that condemned polluters and governments alike for failing to do enough to address the problem. In the first encyclical written entirely under his papacy, Francis said humans have a moral obligation to protect the environment and that doing so is a key part of the challenge of lifting the world’s least fortunate from poverty. He said the poor stand to suffer the most from extreme weather events that are already regularly wreaking havoc across the planet.

  • Malachy’s ‘last Pope’ certainly aligns himself with globalist agendas. Climate change is an end-time phenomena that won’t be curtailed no matter what we do (Daniel 9:26, Revelation 8:7, 11:19, 16:11)

Global Warming Deniers Unimpressed with Pope’s Climate Encyclical

Prominent climate deniers pushed back against the pope’s long-awaited environmental encyclical Thursday, claiming the debate over man-made global warming has yet to be settled. “I disagree with the pope’s philosophy on global warming,” Sen. Jim Inhofe, the leading voice of climate denial in the Senate and chairman of its Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement to USA Today. “I am concerned that his encyclical will be used by global warming alarmists to advocate for policies that will equate to the largest, most regressive tax increase in our nation’s history,” he added. Inhofe said it was the impoverished who would lose the most from any actions taken to combat warming. “It’s the poor that spend the largest portion of their expendable income to heat their homes, and they will be the ones to carry the heaviest burden of such onerous policies” that would increase their taxes. The pope’s decree came as a new report showed May was the warmest on record worldwide.

  • Global records only go back to the late 1800s, insufficient time to claim “warmest ever”. The earth has gone through extended periods of warm-up, cool-down and even ice ages which often take hundreds, even thousands, of years to fully materialize.

World Running out of Water

The world’s largest underground aquifers – a source of fresh water for hundreds of millions of people — are being depleted at alarming rates, according to new NASA satellite data that provides the most detailed picture yet of vital water reserves hidden under the Earth’s surface. Twenty-one of the world’s 37 largest aquifers — in locations from India and China to the United States and France — have passed their sustainability tipping points, meaning more water was removed than replaced during the decade-long study period, researchers announced Tuesday. Thirteen aquifers declined at rates that put them into the most troubled category. The researchers said this indicated a long-term problem that’s likely to worsen as reliance on aquifers grows. Scientists had long suspected that humans were taxing the world’s underground water supply, but the NASA data was the first detailed assessment to demonstrate that major aquifers were indeed struggling to keep pace with demands from agriculture, growing populations, and industries such as mining.

Will Whack-a-Mole Strategy Succeed vs. Terrorists?

American counterterrorism officials have had much to celebrate in recent days: the killing of ISIS commander Abu Sayyaf in Syria and the trove of “intel” that was taken from his residence by U.S. special forces; the death of the leader of al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, in a drone strike; and the possible death in Libya of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of a virulent North African jihadist group. But the leadership of these groups is generally replaceable. What to do about all this is a puzzle because much of the Middle East is in the grip of a regional, sectarian civil war fomented by Iran and the Gulf States and is evolving into a Rubik’s Cube-like problem that has no good solution, because when you move one piece of the cube it can create both solutions and a new set of problems simultaneously, notes Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst. “Consider that the United States is training Syrian opposition forces to fight the Iran-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad, while it is also training Iraqi forces of the Iran-backed Iraqi government to fight ISIS. The U.S. therefore is effectively supporting both sides of the wars in Syria and Iraq.”

Refugee Numbers Highest Ever Recorded

There are more refugees in the world today than ever previously recorded — and more than half are children, the United Nations refugee agency said Thursday. Nearly 60 million people were counted as forcibly displaced in 2014. If those people were the population of one country, it would be the 24th largest in the world. One person out of every 122 on the planet is said to be either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum. Last year on average, each day saw another 42,500 people driven from their homes. The conflict in Syria has been the biggest single driver of displacement, but far from the only one. “One clearly gets the impression that the world is at war — and indeed many areas of the world are today in a completely chaotic situation,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres.

  • And 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)

Economic News

The Federal Reserve decided not to raise interest rates in June, but comments Wednesday suggests the long awaited rate hike could come in September. “No decision has been made by the committee about the right timing of an increase, but certainly an increase this year is possible,” Fed chair Janet Yellen said. The Fed expects the U.S. economy to be in a good place soon, but it’s still in “wait and see” mode. It especially wants to see “further improvement” in wage increases, the ability of part-time workers to find full-time jobs and inflation closer to its 2% target.

Consumer prices increased in May as gasoline costs jumped ahead of the summer driving season. The consumer price index increased 0.4%, the Labor Department said Friday, the most since February. Over the past year, however, prices were unchanged. Core prices, which exclude volatile food and energy costs, were up a benign 0.1%. Gasoline prices increased 10.4% last month. Average regular unleaded gasoline prices of $2.80 a gallon are up sharply from about $2 in January but still about 86 cents below the year-ago price.

The number of people seeking unemployment benefits fell last week, indicating that layoffs remain at unusually low levels and the job market is moving closer to full health. Weekly applications for jobless aid dropped 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 267,000, the Labor Department said Thursday, near 15-year lows reached two months ago. Applications, a proxy for layoffs, have remained below 300,000, a historically low level, for 15 weeks. The number of people receiving unemployment benefits fell 50,000 to 2.22 million, down 14% over the past year.

Another sign that the economy is rebounding: more people are having babies. The number of births among women ages 15 to 44 ticked up by 1% from 2013 to 2014, to 3.98 million births. That’s the first increase since 2007, the beginning of the recession, according to a study released Wednesday by the National Center for Health Statistics. The 3.98 million total births in 2014 was most since 2010.

The mainland Chinese stock market, which had gained more than 150% in a year’s time, prompting bubble warnings, seems to be deflating, as shares dipped 13.3% this week. The popular China index, popular with newbie investors in China, many who are buying stocks with borrowed money to amp up returns, tumbled 306.99 points, or 6.4%.

Greece couldn’t get a debt deal with Europe. So it went to Russia and signed a controversial gas deal instead. There’s still time for Greece to avoid the financial abyss — European leaders meet again Monday — but it wants to show it has other options. Officials agreed Friday to build a pipeline that would bring Russian gas through Greece and into western Europe, Russian state media reported.

The European Central Bank pumped more emergency cash into Greek banks Friday, keeping them afloat while politicians try one last time to keep the country solvent. European finance officials failed Thursday to strike a deal to release the remainder of Greece’s 240 billion euro ($272 billion) bailout fund, bringing the country one step closer to a default and potential exit from the Eurozone.

Middle East

Israeli Druze are demanding help to protect Druze in Syria. Rebel factions, including jihadist elements, have surrounded the Druze border town of Hader near the Israeli border, although Israeli Druze leaders have said they do not want to evacuate the village’s residents, even those who are wounded to Israel, but would prefer that the US step in to protect them. The intensifying violence on the northern side of Israel’s border with Syria and the threat of a spillover into Lebanon has the full attention of the government, according to a report to the Knesset by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday. “We are vigilantly following all that is being done along our borders, and my instruction is to take all action necessary.” The Druze religion has its roots in Ismailism, a religio-philosophical movement which founded the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt in the tenth century. During the reign of al-Hakim (996 – 1021) the Druze creed came into being, blending Islamic monotheism with Greek philosophy and Hindu influences.

Yemen

Medical officials have raised the toll from Saudi-led airstrikes on a convoy of civilians fleeing the fighting in southern Yemen to 31, making it among the deadliest single attacks since the air campaign began nearly three months ago. The attack took place early Wednesday in the northern outskirts of the southern port city of Aden, which has seen months of intense fighting between Shiite Houthi rebels and their Sunni opponents. Officials say those killed were families carrying food and personal belongings, fleeing north in a convoy of vehicles, including a bus carrying 16 passengers. The Saudi-led coalition launched an air campaign against the Iran-backed Houthis in late March.

Chad/Nigeria

The central African country of Chad conducted airstrikes against Boko Haram sites in neighboring Nigeria on Wednesday and announced it has banned burqas, the head-to-toe garment worn by some Muslim women, after twin bombings earlier this week by veiled attackers. The Chad army and security forces hit Boko Haram bases and related sites, according to a government statement, destroying six bases and killing several militants. Prime Minister Kalzeube Payimi Deubet announced the burqa ban Wednesday after as many as 23 people were killed Monday in the capital, N’Djamena, in two attacks. The four veiled attackers were also killed, and more than 100 people were wounded.

At least 23 people were killed in Nigeria when a Boko Haram bomb that was confiscated by vigilantes exploded. The BBC reports the vigilantes had been celebrating a successful mission against the terrorist group when the bomb detonated. The incident appears to have been accidental.

Dominican Republic

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Dominican Republic — the vast majority Haitians — face deportation as a deadline to apply for legal status looms. The problem of what to do with thousands of workers who entered illegally is not just a U.S. situation. The Dominican government tackled the issue with a “regularization plan” that offered a path to legal status for the undocumented. But critics say it was designed to fail. Wednesday was the deadline for undocumented immigrants in the Dominican Republic to register under the regularization plan or face deportation. According to the government, more than 200,000 undocumented immigrants living in the Dominican Republic have registered, but at least that many others will not meet the deadline. “Those who do not have documentation will have to return to their country,” Dominican Foreign Minister Andres Navarro said.

Georgia (the country)

A tiger that escaped from the zoo in Georgia’s capital after flooding destroyed the enclosures was reported Wednesday to have killed one man and wounded another. The animal, said by eyewitnesses to be a white tiger, attacked people inside a building close to Heroes Square, near the Tbilisi Zoo, the Civil.ge news agency said. The Interior Ministry said police killed the tiger, which was hiding at an abandoned factory. Flooding during the weekend destroyed enclosures at the zoo, leaving animals including lions, tigers, bears and wolves roaming the city. The zoo said Tuesday that all eight lions and seven tigers that had been missing were killed in the flooding, along with at least two of its three jaguars. A hippopotamus that escaped from the zoo was cornered and subdued with a tranquilizer gun Sunday. At least 19 people have died in the flooding, including four at the zoo.

Hong Kong

Lawmakers on Thursday rejected a proposal to change how Hong Kong chooses its top official. The plan would have allowed Hong Kong’s five million eligible voters to vote for the territory’s chief executive from a slate of two or three candidates, starting in 2017. The measure needed the support of at least two-thirds of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to pass, and it failed to meet that mark. Opponents of the measure, many of whom took part in the protests last year, argued that the restrictions China’s legislature imposed on who could appear on the ballot would have left voters with no real choice. Nominees would have been vetted by a committee of about 1,200 people dominated by loyalists to the Communist-run government in Beijing, ensuring that only people acceptable to the Chinese government could appear on the ballot. Supporters of the election proposal, including the chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, argued that it was a huge improvement over the current system, under which Mr. Leung and his predecessors were chosen by that same 1,200-person committee, minus the public vote.

Wildfires

A wildfire near Big Bear in California’s San Bernardino National Forest has exploded in size, as hot, dry conditions fuel the flames. The forest fire started Wednesday afternoon but grew to 10,000 acres in less than 24 hours, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It was only about 5 percent contained, and the cause of the fire is still under investigation. San Bernardino firefighters described the fire as “erratic” and “extreme” by Thursday. Nearly 200 campers, most of them children, were evacuated from several wilderness sites. Twenty to 25 homes were evacuated as the fire grew. A stretch of State Route 38, the main mountain artery, and several other roads were closed. A separate Southern California fire near the community of Thermal burned at least three homes Thursday.

Seven wildfires are burning in Alaska where it’s been hotter than normal. The fires have consumed nearly 44,000 acres, with most only at 0-5% containment as of Friday morning. Five wildfires in Arizona have burned through 10,500 acres, with four of them at 0% containment while the Kearny River fire at 25% containment.

Weather

Tropical Storm Bill made landfall on Matagorda Island, Texas Tuesday at 11:45 a.m. CDT with maximum sustained winds of 60 mph. Although Tropical Storm Bill weakened to a tropical depression Wednesday, the weather system still packed heavy Gulf Coast rain that caused a new round of flooding from already swollen lakes and rivers in North Texas. Close to 20 people were rescued Wednesday afternoon when torrential rains caused flooding in parts of Wise County. The full impact won’t be felt for 24 to 36 hours, as water racing over heavily saturated ground pours into storm sewers and streams and then into bloated reservoirs. About a foot of water covered areas in southern Dallas County just west of I-35 early Wednesday morning. 2-3 feet of water swamped underpasses in Sealy, Texas, where over 7 inches of rain had fallen. Roads have also been flooded on parts of Galveston Island. Highways remain closed in 15 counties as of 5 a.m. Thursday in Oklahoma. Residents across the Ozarks and mid-Mississippi Valley are being warned Friday of possible flooding from the weakened remains of former Tropical Storm Bill.

The Southeast will be broiling this weekend as heat and humidity combine to make outdoor activities unpleasant, with temperatures 10-15 degrees above normal in many locations. Clear skies will rule the western third of the country. The Desert Southwest will continue its hot streak, with highs above 110 degrees in southern Arizona, southern California, and southern Nevada.

Signs of the Times (6/16/15)

June 16, 2015

Christian Officials may Opt Out of Gay “Weddings,” Rules NC State Senate

Christians may not be forced to preside over Homosexual “Marriage” ceremonies in North Carolina, after the State Senate voted to override the Governor’s veto. “A measure that would allow some public officials in North Carolina to opt out of performing gay marriages moved closer to becoming law on Monday, when lawmakers voted to override Republican Governor Pat McCrory’s veto of the bill.” “The Republican-led state Senate reached the three-fifths majority needed to override McCrory’s veto in a 32-16 vote. The legislation now goes back to the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives, which passed it last week by a margin wide enough to override the veto.”

If You Can be Transgender, Why Can’t You be Transracial?

Rachel Dolezal is president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP. For years, she has passed herself off as black. Now her parents have told the press that she is their birth daughter was born white. Dolezal admits that but says “I identify as black.” In the last week, a steady stream of articles has drawn comparisons, both positive and negative, between transgender Bruce Jenner and Dolezal. Dr. Michael L. Brown writes in OneNewsNow.com, “Some people are genetically and biologically male while others are genetically and biologically female, and to alter their physical appearance through cosmetic surgery no more changes their real identity than wearing leopard skins transforms a human being into a big cat. The same is true when it comes to hormonal treatments: You can pump up Bruce Jenner with all the female hormones in the world but that does not make him into a woman.” In the words of Dr. Paul McHugh, one of the nation’s most respected psychiatrists yet a man despised by many in the transgender community as out of date and out of touch, “Transgendered men do not become women, nor do transgendered women become men. All (including Bruce Jenner) become feminized men or masculinized women, counterfeits or impersonators of the sex with which they ‘identify.'”

  • This whole business of deciding your sex, despite conclusive physiological evidence, opens a big can of worms. Next transracial, then what, transnational? Transhuman?

FDA Moves to Ban Trans Fat from U.S. Food Supply

The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday finalized a plan to essentially rid the country’s food supply of artery-clogging trans fats, a move the agency estimates could reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of heart attack deaths a year. Companies will have three years to remove partially hydrogenated oils from their products. Products with trans fats, which are derived from partially hydrogenated oils, have increasingly vanished from grocery stores and restaurant menus in recent years amid widespread agreement about the risks they pose to public health. Since 2006, food companies have been required to include trans fat content information on the Nutrition Facts labels. And between 2003 and 2012, the FDA estimated, consumption of trans fat has fallen nearly 80 percent. As recently as the 1980s, many scientists and public health advocates believed that partially hydrogenated oils, which occur when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil to make a more solid substance, were actually healthier than more natural saturated fats. By the mid-1990s, more and more studies showed that trans fats were a key culprit in the rising rates of heart disease

Voting Machines Easy Targets for Hackers

The recent cyber theft of millions of personnel records from the federal government was sophisticated and potentially crippling, but hackers with just rudimentary skills could easily do even more damage by targeting voting machines, according to security experts. They found that the AVS WINVote machines Virginia has used since 2002 have such flimsy security that an amateur hacker could change votes from outside a polling location. The report was commissioned after one precinct in Virginia reported “unusual activity with some of the devices used to capture votes,” during last November’s statewide elections. Mississippi and Pennsylvania decertified the machines years ago, because they used an outdated version of Windows that had not been updated since 2004 and had default passwords that could allow for Wi-Fi access. Similar vulnerabilities have been previously discovered in machines from Diebold, Premier Elections Solutions, Sequoia, Hart, ES&S and others.

Vast ObamaCare Data Warehouse Raises Privacy Concerns

A government data warehouse stores personal information forever on millions of people who seek coverage under President Obama’s health care law, including those who open an account on HealthCare.gov but don’t sign up for coverage. At a time when major breaches have become distressingly common, the vast scope of the information — and the lack of a clear plan for destroying old records — have raised concerns about privacy and the government’s judgment on technology. Electronic record-keeping systems are standard for businesses and government agencies. But they are supposed to have limits on how long data is kept. Before HealthCare.gov went live in 2013, Obama administration officials assured lawmakers and the public that an individual’s personal information would be used mainly to determine eligibility for coverage, and that the nation’s newest social program would have a limited impact on privacy.

Password-Storage Company Hacked

No one’s safe from hackers — not even LastPass, a company that stores people’s passwords. LastPass lets people store passwords online so they can access them all with a single master password. On Monday, LastPass announced that hackers broke into its computer system and got access to user email addresses, password reminders, and encrypted versions of people’s master passwords. So keeping all your passwords in a single place on the Internet might not be such a great idea. It’s still very early in its investigation, but if LastPass is right, hackers didn’t manage to grab plain text versions of the all-powerful master passwords. But if your master password is simple and common, like Password123, these hackers can crack it in no time.

Americans’ Generosity Greater than Ever

Americans gave away a record amount of money to charity last year: nearly $360 billion. The Giving USA Foundation said in its annual report Tuesday that the 2014 tally of $358.38 billion donated is the largest in the 60 years the organization has been tracking charitable activity. The prior record was $355.17 billion in 2007, right before the country sank into the Great Recession. Religious institutions received $114.9 billion, also breaking a record.

MERS Update

The MERS virus in South Korea, which has killed 16 people and infected nearly 150 in the largest outbreak outside the Middle East, hasn’t spread outside hospitals among the wider community or become easier to transmit between humans, the World Health Organization said. After a weeklong review of the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome, experts from WHO and South Korea told reporters Saturday there was no evidence to suggest the virus, currently confined around health facilities, is spreading. It has been occurring among hospital patients, visiting family members and medical staff. About 120 people are still undergoing treatment. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has recorded five cases of MERS in the past week.

Economic News

Housing starts slowed in May, coming off an 8-year high April. Builders broke ground on 1.04 million new single family homes in May, down 11.1% from April’s 1.35 million, according to the Commerce Department. Applications for new building permits, on the other hand, heated up 11.8%, ending just under 1.3 million in May. The housing market index, pending home sales index, new home sales, and mortgage applications have all been moving up.

In becoming the largest city in the country to mandate a $15-an-hour minimum wage, Los Angeles could put the pressure on other cities in what is sure to become a potent issue in next year’s presidential election. Mayor Eric Garcetti signed the measure into law Saturday. It will require employers to gradually raise minimum wages until they reach $15 an hour. The first step comes in July, 2016, when the minimum wage becomes $10.50. Then, each following year, it will rise another another step — $12, $13.50, $14.25 and then $15. Los Angeles follows Seattle and San Francisco, among others, in raising the minimum wage. Last year, Chicago passed a phased-in minimum wage increase to $13 an hour.

The auto industry is looking south for new factories, and the farther south, the better, reports USA Today. Canada is struggling when it comes to retaining auto jobs, the U.S. is a house divided with most of the new automotive investment and jobs headed south of the Mason-Dixon line and Mexico is the auto industry darling. The three countries are a united trading block under the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, but they’re fierce rivals in the boardrooms where auto executives decide where to invest in the latest equipment and additional jobs. Of the vehicles built in North America last year, Mexico produced about one in five, or double the rate from 2004. WardsAuto, which tracks production data, expects the rate to increase to one in four by 2020.

Puerto Rico is on the brink of default — and a massive population drain. In total, the Puerto Rican government is $73 billion in debt, and there’s a solid chance it could default this summer. Its economy has been spiraling downward for years now, and Puerto Ricans of all social classes have had it. They are moving to the United States in rising numbers in search of jobs. “We’re in unprecedented territory because this is, in recent memory, the biggest out-migration that Puerto Rico has experienced,” says Mark Lopez, director of Hispanic research at Pew. There are now more Puerto Ricans in Florida than in Puerto Rico, according to Pew.

Greece is running out of time. It has three more days to accept the conditions creditors have attached to more bailout cash, or risk a financial crisis that could force it out of the Eurozone. Greece needs to find 1.54 billion euros ($1.7 billion) to pay the International Monetary Fund by June 30 to avoid default. To do that, it needs the last portion of its $262 billion bailout. But that will only be released if the newly elected anti-austerity government agrees to economic reforms, something it has resisted since February. Eurozone finance ministers will try again on Thursday but the omens are not good, and if a deal is further delayed, there may not be enough time to implement it before the end of the month.

Middle East

In a move meant to preemptively tell Israel’s side of the story about last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s Foreign Ministry released a comprehensive report on the conflict Sunday. The 277 page report includes photographs, diagrams and testimony by eyewitnesses documenting the conflict. “The report proves unequivocally that the actions carried out by the IDF and the security forces during the operation were in accordance with international law,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The report is being issued days before a report by the UN Human Rights Council which Israeli officials have said is certain to be filled with accusations and slander against the Jewish State, given the longstanding tradition of anti-Israel activity at the Council.

Israel went out of its way to minimize civilian casualties and observe international law during last summer’s crackdown in Gaza, even to the point of costing the lives of its own soldiers and citizens, according to a coming report by international military experts. Despite a daily barrage of rockets, often launched from schools, mosques and hospitals within Gaza, Israel went to great lengths to follow laws governing armed conflict after launching “Operation Protective Edge” on July 8, 2014, according to the High Level International Military Group, a consortium of some of the world’s leading military experts. The fighting, sparked by daily rocket and tunnel attacks mounted from Gaza, as well as the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens by Hamas operatives, lasted for seven weeks and left more than 2,000 dead.

Islamic State

Kurdish fighters took full control on Tuesday of the border town of Tal Abyad, dealing a major blow to the Islamic State group’s ability to wage war in Syria by cutting off a vital supply line to its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. A senior Kurdish commander, Haqi Kobane, told The Associated Press that Kurdish units known as the YPG that he leads along with their allies from the Free Syrian Army were starting to clean up the town along the border with Turkey from booby traps and mines planted by the extremists so that residents can return. The militants had been in control of the key town for more than a year.

Libya

The U.S. launched airstrikes in eastern Libya targeting a terrorist leader who was behind a 2013 attack on a gas plant in Algeria that killed at least 38 hostages, including three Americans, the Pentagon said Sunday. The Libyan government said the strikes were successful and killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar and several others in Ajdabiya. An Islamist with ties to extremists, however, claims the strikes missed Belmokhtar who was not at the site that was targeted, and instead killed four militants.

Yemen

Al-Qaeda’s second in command has been killed in a U.S. airstrike, the extremist group said Tuesday. Nasir al-Wahishi was also the leader of its Yemeni branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), considered the most dangerous al-Qaeda affiliate by U.S. officials. In a video statement released early Tuesday by AQAP’s media wing, the group confirmed his death and said his deputy, Qassim al-Rimi, has been named its new leader. Once bin Laden’s personal secretary in Afghanistan, al-Wahishi returned to Yemen and was jailed — only to escape in a massive breakout of al Qaeda prisoners in 2006. Under his leadership, al Qaeda in Yemen soon became al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and attracted Saudi recruits — some of them former detainees at Guantanamo Bay. His successor, Qasm al-Rimi, was considered the brains of the operation.

Egypt

An Egyptian court has confirmed a death sentence handed to ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi over a mass prison break during the 2011 uprising that eventually brought him to power. Judge Shaaban al-Shami confirmed the ruling Tuesday after consulting with the country’s religious authority as required by Egyptian law in cases involving the death penalty. The religious authority issues non-binding opinions on such sentences. The ruling will automatically be appealed. The judge also confirmed death sentences for five other jailed leading members of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group. The military overthrew and detained Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, in July 2013 amid massive protests demanding his resignation.

China

China will complete land reclamation projects on its disputed South China Sea territorial claims as planned within days, the Foreign Ministry said Tuesday, in an apparent bid to reassure its neighbors over moves seen as sharpening tensions in the strategically vital region. Apart from satisfying defense goals, it said the main purpose of such projects was civilian in nature and not targeted at any third parties. It said the projects fell within the scope of Chinese sovereignty and were “lawful, reasonable and justified,” while causing no harm to the marine environment. The disputed islands lie amid some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, rich fishing grounds and a potential undersea wealth of oil, gas and minerals. China claims virtually the entire South China Sea, while Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan also say they own parts or all of it.

Volcanoes

Indonesia’s hyper-active Mount Sinabung volcano exploded again Saturday, sending a plume of ash more than a mile into the air and super-heated rocks and gases up to two miles down its slopes. In total, up to 11 avalanches of rock and ash have been reported as of Saturday night. No injuries were reported in the latest eruption, but more than 3,000 people located within a 4-plus mile radius of the volcano have been displaced from their homes so far this month due to the volcano’s activity. The volcano, located on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, has been one of the most active volcanoes in the world since it awoke from a 400-year-old slumber in 2010, killing two people. The volcano hasn’t really stopped erupting since an eruption in September 2013, including at least two deadly eruptions in 2014.

Earthquakes

More than a dozen weak earthquakes have shaken western Alabama’s Greene County. Geologists are now working to find out what has caused this swarm over the last seven months, in an area of the South that’s used to large tornadoes but not earthquakes. There has been more earthquake activity there in the past few months than in the last four decades. Records from the U.S. Geological Survey show the first of 14 earthquakes occurred on Nov. 20, when a magnitude 3.8 earthquake was recorded. The tremors have continued ever since, with the most recent occurring June 6, when a magnitude 3.0 quake rattled the area. Experts have installed a seismic monitor in a field to enable them to get better information about the quakes, none of which has caused major damage.

Wildfires

Heat, gusty winds and low humidity worked against firefighters at the scene of a growing wildfire near Willow, Alaska, Monday, as the blaze grew larger, prompting hundreds of families to evacuate. The human-caused fire started only about 2 acres large Sunday, but ripped through 10 square miles by early Monday, chewing through forest brush around Willow. At least 25 homes and up to 20 other structures including sheds and outhouses were consumed. Voluntary evacuations applied to the 1,700 residential structures in the Willow area.

So far this year, wildfires are down from 24,209 large (over 100 acres) wildfires compared to a 10-year average of 32,339 through June 15. Total acres burned is 507,284 versus 1,616,598 over the last ten years.

Weather

Tropical Storm Bill is on a crash-course for the Gulf coast of Texas, and residents are preparing for yet another round of flooding that could be devastating to parts of the Lone Star State. Weeks of rising floodwaters washed away homes and roads, and local officials warned that another big rain event could be “possibly catastrophic.” Monday afternoon, the Galveston County Office of Emergency Management issued a voluntary evacuation order for residents of Bolivar Peninsula, where parts of State Highway 87 near High Island were already flooding. Summer school was canceled for Texas City ISD, and Houston ISD announced all district schools and offices will be closed Tuesday.

May rainfall was the most ever in that month for the contiguous United States. In 121 years of record keeping, never had an average of 4.36 inches of precipitation fallen on the contiguous United States. It beat the old mark by .07 inches. The number was 1.45 inches above the long-term average for the month. Three states — Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas — set record totals for rainfall in May.

Already the third tropical cyclone in the young Eastern Pacific hurricane season, Tropical Storm Carlos didn’t come crashing ashore, but its impacts were still felt along the coast of western Mexico. Carlos’ heavy surf and rainfall were a major concern for the country’s Guerrero state. The state’s biggest city, Acapulco, closed its port and schools as residents were urged to stay home Monday and out of the severe weather. More than 500 shelters were opened for people at risk.

The first significant heat wave of the year swept into the Desert Southwest this week, possibly pushing temps above the 120 degree mark by mid-week. High and low temperatures will be up to 15 degrees above average for much of the region. Desert locations below 3,500 feet will see temperatures rise well into the 100s, while the Colorado River Valley will be even hotter with highs in the 110s likely. The hot spot as usual will be Death Valley which may see temperatures over 120 degrees.

A 22-year-old man was killed by lightning Saturday afternoon while fishing on a northwestern Arkansas lake, authorities confirmed. Seven people have been killed by lightning in five states so far in 2015. During the 10-year period of 2004-2013, 33 people were killed and 234 were injured in the U.S. by lightning strikes annually.

Ten people have been killed in a flood disaster in the European country of Georgia, including three workers at a zoo where several animals escaped when their enclosures were destroyed by the floods. One of those animals was a hippo, which was cornered in one of Tbilisi’s main squares, but it was subdued with a tranquilizer gun, the zoo said. Lions and tigers were still on the loose as of Sunday. Heavy rains and wind hit Tbilisi during the night, turning a normally small stream that runs through the hilly city into a surging river. The flooding also damaged dozens of houses.

Signs of the Times (6/13/15)

June 13, 2015

Christian Pastors Vow Civil Disobedience over Gay Marriage

Over 40,000 pastors and church leaders have signed a pledge to stand for traditional marriage, even if the Supreme Court decides to legalize gay marriage this month. The civil disobedience campaign states that pastors will refuse to recognize gay marriage and accept whatever punishment may come with their stance. The pledge posted on defendmarriage.org states that signers agree to “resist all government efforts to require them to accept gay marriage, and they will accept any fine and jail time to protect their religious freedom and the freedom of others.” It continues, “On the matter of marriage, we stand in solidarity. We affirm that marriage and family have been inscribed by the Divine Architect into the order of Creation. Marriage is ontologically between one man and one woman, ordered toward the union of the spouses, open to children and formative of family.”

Court Upholds Texas Pro-Life Law Closing Abortion Clinics

A Texas pro-life law that is credited with closing multiple abortion clinics and saving an estimated 9,900 babies from abortion has been upheld in a federal appeals court. Life News reports House Bill 2 (HB2) requires abortion clinics to meet state safety standards and abortion-performing doctors to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. The legislation also bans abortions performed at 20 weeks of pregnancy or later. Critics of the law argued that the strict regulations caused too many clinics to close their doors, making it difficult for Texas women to find a clinic that could perform abortions. But the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the legislation that intends to protect pregnant women.

18,000 Babies Die Each Year in U.S. from Late Term Abortions

Pro-life group leaders and other are joining with Sen. Lindsey Graham this week to introduce the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. The act would stop late abortions when unborn babies are thought to be capable of feeling pain, according to Life News. According to Congressman Trent Franks, more than 18,000 late term abortions are performed every year on healthy unborn babies in America. “These are innocent and defenseless children who can not only feel pain, but who can survive outside of the womb in most cases, and who are torturously killed without even basic anesthesia,” he said. “Abortion is the human rights issue of our time,” said Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America.

Al-Qaeda Displaced by Islamic State

Two of Al Qaeda’s spiritual leaders have said that the terror organization is barely functioning after losing money and manpower to the rapidly rising Islamic State group. Abu Qatada and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi have described Al Qaeda as being without “organizational structure,” the Guardian reports. Qatada, who was deported to Jordan from Britain in 2013 to face terrorism charges, also acknowledges that ISIS has gotten the better of Al Qaeda in the propaganda wars as well as those fought on the battlefield. The Guardian report traces the beginning of Al Qaeda’s downfall to the ascension of Zawahiri as Al Qaeda’s leader following the death of Usama bin Laden in May 2011. While Zawahiri has been forced to move in secret in the remote mountain regions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, hundreds of thousands of militants have flocked to the new battlefields in Syria and Iraq.

Democratic Revolt Sidelines Obama Trade Agenda

House Democrats revolted Friday against President Obama, voting down legislation they historically support in a tactical move to slow down efforts to renew “fast track” trade authority, in one of the few occasions where Obama and Republicans were aligned. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Pelosi, who had remained neutral in the weeks leading up to the vote, announced on the floor she would oppose trade adjustment assistance (TAA) and the subsequent vote on trade promotion authority (TPA), commonly known as fast track. The moment marked a rare divide between Obama and Pelosi on a major policy issue. Obama is seeking the renewed authority, which creates an expedited process to move trade bills through Congress, in order to finalize negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation pact between the U.S. and Asia-Pacific nations.

Pope Establishes Tribunal to Judge Bishops in Sex-Abuse Cases

Pope Francis has created a church tribunal to judge bishops who fail to protect children from sexually abusive priests, the Vatican announced Wednesday, a move long sought by abuse victims and their advocates. The new court will be part of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Catholic Church’s chief watchdog. Since 2001, the congregation has judged priests accused of sexual abuse, but there has been no Vatican office with a similar role to judge bishops. The tribunal was proposed by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which was appointed last year by Pope Francis.

Democratic Revolt Sidelines Obama Trade Agenda

House Democrats revolted Friday against President Obama, voting down legislation they historically support in a tactical move to slow down efforts to renew “fast track” trade authority in one of the rare occasions that Obama and Republicans were aligned. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who had remained neutral in the weeks leading up to the vote, announced on the floor she would oppose trade adjustment assistance (TAA) and the subsequent vote on trade promotion authority (TPA), commonly known as fast track. The moment marked a rare divide between Obama and Pelosi on a major policy issue. Obama is seeking the renewed authority, which creates an expedited process to move trade bills through Congress, in order to finalize negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation pact between the U.S. and Asia-Pacific nations. Obama, who made a rare appearance on Capitol Hill Friday morning, apparently did little to assuage Democratic concerns, particularly in the face of significant opposition from labor unions and liberal activist groups.

California Orders Large Water Cuts for Farmers

California regulators ordered farmers and others who hold some of the state’s strongest water rights Friday to stop pumping from three major waterways in one of the country’s prime farm regions. The order enacting record cuts by senior water rights holders in the Sacramento, San Joaquin and delta watersheds followed mandatory water curtailment earlier this year to cities and towns and to farmers with less iron-clad water rights. The order applies to 114 entities that have claims dating back to 1914 or earlier. It will force thousands of water users in the state to tap groundwater, buy water at rising costs, use previously stored water or go dry. Economists and agriculture experts say growing of some crops will shift in the short-term to regions with more water, so the water cuts are expected to have little immediate impact on food prices.

15% of Seniors Account for 41% of Medicare Spending

Two-thirds of traditional Medicare beneficiaries older than 65 have multiple chronic conditions, according to a USA TODAY analysis of county-level Medicare data. More than 4 million — about 15% —account for more than 41% of the $324 billion spent on traditional Medicare. As Baby Boomers begin to move into the Medicare years, they are — by the measure of medical diagnoses — sicker than their predecessors, researchers say. Yet they also are living longer, leaving them to grapple with diseases such as diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart failure, depression and even Alzheimer’s for years — sometimes decades. The result: neither the medical system nor most seniors are prepared for the financial crisis ahead.

Underage & Binge Drinking Down in U.S.

Underage drinking and binge drinking rates among young people are on the decline across the USA, a new government study finds. A report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration released Thursday found underage drinking among all U.S. residents age 12 through 20 dropped 6.1%. Underage binge drinking decreased 5.1%. The survey examined the years 2002 to 2013. In the final year of the study, 22.7% of the nation’s young people reported that they had an alcoholic drink in the last 30 days.

Disconnected: 1 in 7 Youths Neither Working Nor in School

One in seven, or nearly 14%, of Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 are “disconnected,” meaning they are neither working nor in school, according to a study of nearly 100 cities by Measure of America, an initiative of the Social Science Research Council. When racial segregation in city neighborhoods was taken into account, the disparities were even starker. On a national level, 21.6% of black youths were considered disconnected compared with only 11.3% of whites and 7.9% of Asian Americans. Meanwhile, over 20% of Native Americans and 16% of Latino youths were neither working or in school. The report wasn’t totally bleak. It found that the disconnected youth population has fallen by about 280,000 since its peak in 2010, the height of the Great Recession. The report also highlighted the importance of reconnecting these youths through second chance programs, such as job training programs, even though such initiatives can be costly.

Bird Flu Leads to Egg Shortage, Higher Prices

The recent bird flu outbreak is wreaking havoc on the nation’s poultry industry and supply of eggs. About 31.5 million of the more than 350 million egg-laying birds in the country have had to be killed so far. Texas-based supermarket owner H-E-B recently announced it is limiting the number of cartons of eggs its customers can buy at all its stores. The supply issues are forcing some restaurants to cut back on the number of eggs they use too. Food companies are now paying a lot more for eggs — whether it’s the whole eggs, or the packaged liquid yolk and whites and the frozen egg products. Fast food chain Whataburger said earlier this month that it will only serve egg sandwiches from 5 a.m. through 11 a.m. because of the shortage. The USDA is now forecasting a range of $1.60 to $1.66 for a dozen eggs — up from estimates of $1.30 to $1.36 in May.

CDC Pushes Prevention as Melanoma Rates Double

Rates of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, have doubled in the United States in the past 30 years and will continue to climb unless people minimize exposure to ultraviolet light, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report comes as rising temperatures send sunseekers outside for the allure of bronzed skin. But sunbathers are in denial if they don’t realize the danger posed by ultraviolet light, said Robin Harris, a professor of epidemiology and co-director of the University of Arizona Cancer Skin Cancer Institute in Tucson. More than 90 percent of melanomas are due to skin-cell damage from ultraviolet radiation exposure. Most of that exposure comes from the sun or tanning salons. “There’s still a belief that ‘it’s not going to happen to me and this is something I don’t have to worry about,’ ” Harris said.

  • Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 1:2)

Ebola Update

It seemed like the number of people contracting Ebola in West Africa was on the decline. But now, officials say that trend has stalled, with dozens of new cases of the deadly virus reported so far this month. Last week, there were 31 new cases of Ebola reported in a growing geographic area in Guinea and Sierra Leone, the World Health Organization said. At the beginning of this week, 14 additional cases were reported. The latest figures mark the second straight week that the number of Ebola cases in West Africa has increased. “The outbreak is not over and the response efforts must be sustained until we get to zero cases throughout the region and are able to stay at zero for several months,” the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response said Thursday.

MERS Update

Eleven people in South Korea have died after contracting the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome; however, all deaths have been among older adults with underlying medical conditions. Amid weeks of gloomy news, there seems to be gradual signs of easing as officials are mulling the re-opening of schools and more people have been released from quarantine after testing negative. By Friday, 1,249 people had been released from quarantine after they tested negative for MERS, reducing the number of people kept in quarantine to 3,680. On Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an advisory, telling American health care providers to watch for MERS symptoms from people coming from South Korea or Middle East countries.

Economic News

Sales increased 1.2%, in May the Commerce Department said Thursday. Extreme winter weather was largely blamed for discouraging consumer purchases through the winter, but spending was weak even in April, prompting many economists to wonder if Americans were ever going to splurge with their hefty savings from lower gasoline prices. Some economists said consumers held back because they weren’t convinced until recently that cheap fuel would be around for the long term.

There were 5.4 million job openings in the U.S. in April — the most in 15 years. Job openings rose to 5.4 million on the last business day of April, the highest point since the series began in December 2000. The number of job openings increased for total private and was essentially unchanged for government. At the industry level, job openings rose over the month in health care and social assistance but fell in arts, entertainment, and recreation.

The United States has overtaken Russia as the biggest oil and natural gas producer in the world in 2014, in what one economist has described as “a changing of the guard of global energy suppliers.” Bloomberg reported Wednesday that U.S. oil production rose to a record 1.6 million barrels a day last year. Natural gas output also soared, which inched America ahead of Russia as a producer of the two combined. The report finds that the oil and gas boom has changed the U.S. economy, allowing the manufacturing sector to rebound as the country produced about 90 percent of the energy it consumed last year.

The crash in global oil prices late last year, with oil prices plunging from nearly $110 to about $45 for a barrel of West Texas crude, came as a surprise to the nation’s oil workers. While there had been booms and busts before, this was supposed to a sustainable renaissance in American energy. And though oil has bounced back a bit — to about $60 a barrel — the pressure on American oil drillers isn’t subsiding. The plunge in oil prices has knocked more than half of the country’s oil and gas rigs offline, as companies shut down wells that can’t turn a profit at prices this low. Since November, 44,000 jobs in oil and gas drilling or supporting industries have vanished.

Oil production from OPEC countries reached 31.3 million barrels per day in May, the highest levels since August 2012. Global production continues to outstrip average demand by more than two million barrels per day. The surplus is sending oil inventories soaring. OPEC’s record output is part of an aggressive effort to keep its market share in the face of fierce competition from the U.S., and others.

Israel

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin hosted visiting US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey on Wednesday, speaking for many Israelis by declaring that he was born in Jerusalem and is an Israeli despite a US Supreme Court ruling on Monday overturning a law earlier passed by Congress allowing US citizens born in Jerusalem to mark “Israel” as the country of their birth on official documents. The ruling was based on US policy, going back to 1967, that Jerusalem is not the sovereign territory of Israel.

The U.S. Air Force and the Israeli Air Force signed an historic strategic accord this week, significantly upgrading relations at all levels and cementing one of the closest alliances the Jewish State has. “It is a constitutive moment and a significant milestone in the cooperation between the forces, realized for the first time as signed agreement”, said Brigadier General Ya’akov Sharabani, IAF’s Attaché in Washington. “What makes the ASNR document special is how it codifies everything that the IAF and USAF has been doing together and identifies new areas where we can cooperate”, added Maj. Gen. Lawrence Martin, Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force International Affairs. “In that sense, the ASNR is not only a very practical framework for moving forward the issues both of our air forces care about, but it also clearly serves as evidence of the deep and committed friendship between us.”

Islamic State

Islamic State terrorists are said to be using Libya ‎as an “entry point” into Europe, with intelligence sources on the ground in Africa telling Fox News at least 30 ISIS fighters who left from the country have been “picked up” by the Italians in recent weeks. The purported terrorists all claimed refugee status but American ‎and European agents believe this is a clear indication that ISIS terrorists have come into Europe virtually untouched. “There is no way you can block it,” one of the intelligence sources said. “Libya is now an easy entry point into the E.U. and ultimately into the U.S. for ISIS. They are saying, this is the way to America.” Earlier this week, President Obama authorized up to 450 additional U.S. troops to deploy to Iraq, to help local security forces in the fight against ISIS there. But while American foreign policy continues to focus on ISIS operations in Syria and Iraq, many in the region and in American intelligence worry that Libya is actually the most unstable country in the region.

Iraq

A new report claims that 70 percent of Christian-owned houses in Baghdad have been illegally seized. The seizure occurred after approximately one million Christians fled the city; while the homes were empty, title documents were falsified and homes were placed on the market. Iraq’s judiciary is reportedly investigating the situation, but some members of the government are believed to be involved with the illegal confiscation.

Afghanistan

At least 20 Afghan police officers were killed after militants ambushed checkpoints in the country’s volatile southern Helmand province, an official said Saturday. The attack wounded 10 other police officers and the Taliban also seemed to have suffered a high number of casualties. The ambushes late Friday night hit checkpoints in the Musa Qala district, a Taliban stronghold. Since the start of its summer offensive in April, the Taliban have been targeting vulnerable police checkpoints across the country. Last month, a Taliban attack in Helmand’s New Zad district killed at least 19 officers.

Egypt

A suicide bomber blew himself up Wednesday near the ancient temple of Karnak in Luxor, one of Egypt’s most famous tourist attractions. Four people, including two policemen, were wounded. Soon after the attack, police exchanged fire with two suspected Islamic militants who had arrived at the site with the suicide bomber, killing both. Luxor, on the east bank of the River Nile and about 420 miles south of the capital Cairo, is visited by millions of tourists every year. It is on the site of Thebes, the capital of the ancient Egyptian empire at its height.

Nigeria

Boko Haram extremists have burned down six northeast Nigerian villages and killed 37 people near the insurgents’ Sambisa Forest stronghold, a survivor said Friday. Ahmed Ajimi, a fighter in the anti-Boko Haram Nigerian Vigilante Group, said many victims of Wednesday night’s attacks were farmers who had recently returned home after soldiers earlier this year forced the extremists out of the area where they had declared an Islamic caliphate. Now they are refugees again, with many survivors suffering gunshot wounds and burns.

Environment

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday said it has found that greenhouse gas emissions from commercial aircraft cause climate change and threaten public health and that it plans to take steps to regulate those emissions. When the EPA’s so-called endangerment finding is finalized in 2016, it will follow a similar determination made in 2009 that emissions from car and truck tailpipes also threaten public health because they cause climate change. The commercial aircraft the EPA is proposing to regulate — everything from smaller commuter jets to double-decker super jumbo jets — are the largest source of greenhouse gases in the transportation sector that aren’t currently regulated. They account for 11 percent of all transportation greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., says the EPA

Wildfires

Smoke from dozens of large Canadian wildfires has been blown into parts of the U.S. The smoke was particularly dense Monday and early Tuesday over parts of northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. The fires are scattered from Manitoba to Canada’s Northwest Territory. Fifty active wildfires were burning in Saskatchewan alone, Tuesday, some requiring evacuations.

Around 100 people are under mandatory evacuation orders after the lightning-caused Saddle fire burned through Trinity County, California. About 160 personnel are battling the fire, which has burned 1,000 acres and is expected to expand to the south and west.

Weather

Numerous bouts of heavy rain will impact many states from the Upper Midwest and Plains to the western Gulf Coast into early next week. Flash flooding will be a threat anywhere thunderstorms or large complexes of thunderstorms unleash torrential downpours in a short period of time across those regions. This includes portions of the Southern Plains, where record-breaking rains led to disastrous flooding in May. Although the first one-third of June has thankfully been very dry in Texas, Oklahoma and adjacent parts of Louisiana, Arkansas and Kansas, soils remain saturated.

Sweltering conditions are expected there into much of next week in the southeast. High temperatures will be 5 to 15 degrees above where you would expect them for this time of year through at least midweek. This translates into highs generally in the 90s, with a few areas topping the century mark. In addition to the hot and potentially record-breaking temperatures, dew points will be high, making it feel even hotter. Dew points will climb into the upper 60s and 70s for much of the Southeast, especially in southern Georgia, Florida and near the Gulf Coast.

A landslide triggered by heavy rainfall has buried six villages in Nepal’s mountainous northeast and at least 15 people are believed to have been killed. Another 12 people are believed to be missing but details are sketchy because of the remoteness of the area. The landslide hit the villages in Taplejung district at night when people were at home sleeping. The Himalayan nation is still recovering from earthquakes in April and May that killed more than 8,700 people and caused massive damage.

Signs of the Times (6/9/15)

June 9, 2015

Abortions Declining in Nearly All States

Abortions have declined in states where new laws make it harder to have them – but they’ve also waned in states where abortion rights are protected, an Associated Press survey finds. Nationwide, the AP survey showed a decrease in abortions of about 12 percent since 2010. Nearly everywhere, in red states and blue, abortions are down since 2010. Abortion-rights advocates attribute it to expanded access to effective contraceptives and a drop in unintended pregnancies. Some foes of abortion say there has been a shift in societal attitudes, with more women choosing to carry their pregnancies to term. Several of the states that have been most aggressive in passing anti-abortion laws – including Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, and Oklahoma – have seen their abortion numbers drop by more than 15 percent since 2010. But more liberal states such as New York, Washington and Oregon also had declines of that magnitude, even as they maintained unrestricted access to abortion.

North Carolina Passes Bill Requiring 72-Hour Abortion Wait Period

North Carolina’s state legislature approved a bill Wednesday that extends the state’s abortion waiting period to 72 hours, joining four other states that have passed similar legislation. The Senate approved the bill by a 32-16 vote after the House passed a version of the bill in April. The legislation also requires a doctor or other medical professional to inform a woman before she obtains an abortion that alternatives exist and she has the right to review materials that describe the unborn baby and abortion alternatives. The bill allows an exception for medical emergencies. The bill also increases the information provided to state regulators about certain second-trimester abortions and clarifies that abortion facilities must be inspected annually.

Supreme Court Strikes Down ‘Born in Jerusalem’ Passport Law

The Supreme Court has struck down a disputed law that would have allowed Americans born in Jerusalem to list their birthplace as Israel on their U.S. passports. It’s an important ruling that underscores the president’s authority in foreign affairs. The court ruled 6-3 Monday that Congress overstepped its bounds when it approved the law in 2002. It would have forced the State Department to alter its long-standing policy of not listing Israel as the birthplace for Jerusalem-born Americans. The policy is part of the government’s refusal to recognize any nation’s sovereignty over Jerusalem, until Israelis and Palestinians resolve its status through negotiations. The ruling ends a 12-year-old lawsuit by a Jerusalem-born American and his U.S. citizen parents.

  • S. support of Israel continues to wane in the end-time ramp-up toward isolating Israel prior to a major war in the Middle East

Social Security Overpaid Half of Recipients

Social Security overpaid nearly half the people receiving disability benefits over the past decade, according to a government watchdog, raising questions about the management of the cash-strapped program. In all, Social Security overpaid beneficiaries by nearly $17 billion, according to a 10-year study by the agency’s inspector general. Many payments went to people who earned too much money to qualify for benefits, or to those no longer disabled. Payments also went to people who had died or were in prison. Social Security was able to recoup about $8.1 billion, but it often took years to get the money back, the study said. The trust fund that supports Social Security’s disability program is projected to run out of money late next year, triggering automatic benefit cuts, unless Congress acts. The looming deadline has lawmakers feuding over a solution that may have to come in the heat of a presidential election.

Supreme Court Refuses to Overrule Gun Ownership Restrictions

The Supreme Court refused to weigh in again Monday on one of its most controversial topics: the right to bear arms. The justices declined to reconsider the rights of local governments to constrain that right — upheld by the high court in two landmark decisions over the past decade — by requiring that handguns be disabled or locked up when they are not being carried. The high court left standing a San Francisco law imposing those restrictions, but Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented. San Francisco imposed the limitation in 2007 under threat of a six-month jail term and $1,000 fine. The law was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which ruled it did not violate the Supreme Court’s prior cases allowing guns to be kept at home for self-defense.

73 TSA Workers Linked to Terrorism

On the heels of Transportation Security Administration workers flunking a security test at airport checkpoints, the results of a new audit show that — while the agency keeps a robust system for screening commercial airport workers — it still failed to flag 73 airport workers “linked to terrorism.” Apparently, TSA does not have access to all the terror watchlist information it needs to make those judgments. “The TSA did not identify these individuals through its vetting operations because it is not authorized to receive all terrorism-related categories under current interagency watch-listing policy,” the June 4 Inspector General report stated. According to TSA data, the people in question were working for major airlines, airport venders and other employers. The agency acknowledged that individuals in these categories “represented a potential transportation security threat,” according to the report.

  • Yet another example of governmental bureaucratic bungling and lack of cooperation between agencies

US Army Website Hacked, Syrian Electronic Army Takes Credit

The U.S. Army’s official website was hit Monday by hackers claiming to be with a group known as the Syrian Electronic Army, Fox News has learned. The site, which was down Monday afternoon, is a declassified public website. Various screenshots that appeared on Twitter reportedly showed pro-Assad propaganda on the site before it crashed. The SEA is a hacker group that has claimed in the past to disrupt major news websites, including the New York Times, CBS News, the Washington Post and the BBC.

  • Not a significant breach but an example of how enemies of the U.S. have upped the ante in cyberwarfare with a proliferation of fanatical groups capable of causing serious harm

Pestilence

A sixth person in South Korea has died of the MERS virus, as the government announced Monday that it was strengthening measures to stem the spread of the disease amid public fear. A total of 87 people in South Korea have been infected by MERS since last month in the largest outbreak outside the Middle East. About 1,870 schools have closed and more than 2,000 people are isolated at their homes or state-run facilities after having contact with patients infected with the virus. MERS was discovered in 2012 and has mostly been centered in Saudi Arabia and can cause fever, breathing problems, pneumonia and kidney failure.

Banana growers across the world are bracing for the impacts of a new killer fungus. A type of Fusarium wilt, a common plant fungus, has made the jump across several continents and threatens the world’s most popular banana breed, the Cavendish. A similar epidemic struck Latin America in the 1950s and wiped out their supplies of Gros Michel bananas, which prompted harvesters to switch to the now widespread Cavendish variety. Because this fungus variety so readily travels through heavy rains, runoff and other means, it spells a nightmarish scenario for producers like Del Monte. According to PanamaDisease.com, the wilt works on healthy banana crops through the soil, invading the plants’ vascular systems and killing off scores of fruits. Once the disease hits a patch of soil, it prevents future banana growth in the area. “We don’t have anything that can replace the Cavendish,” Wageningen University plant researcher Gert Kema told Bloomberg.

Economic News

Pensions and other post-employment benefits of the giant companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 are underfunded to the tune of $584.7 billion – a 44% worsening from the $405.7 billion underfunding in 2013, according to a report released by S&P Monday. That means just 75% of the total obligations are covered, down from 81% in 2013. And just 4.5% of pension and post-employment benefit plans are fully funded, down from the 8.4% that were in 2013.

Long-term interest rates, which have been at, or near, historic lows for years, are suddenly acting as if they want to break out to the upside. Friday, the 10-year Treasury note climbed as high as 2.438%, up from below 2% in May. Driving bond yields up — and prices down — are signs that the early-year economic funk, which was caused by a winter freeze, a port strike out west and a surging U.S. dollar that hurt U.S. exporters, is increasingly looking like a temporary setback, or what the Federal Reserve refers to as a “transitory” slowdown.

Japan’s economy grew at a faster pace than initially estimated in the January-March quarter, expanding at a 3.9% annual rate on stronger consumer and corporate spending. Strong private demand in residential and corporate spending helped push growth higher, with corporate investment revised to a 2.7% quarterly increase, from the 0.4% preliminary estimate. The government has pointed to the stronger growth as a sign the recovery is gaining strength.

Middle East

Another rocket was fired into Israel from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on Saturday, prompting retaliatory air strikes and a beefing up of security in the area. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the situation Sunday morning during his weekly cabinet meeting, saying “I didn’t hear any international actor condemn this rocket fire, and even in the UN no one is opening their mouth. It is interesting whether this quiet will continue when we act in full force to defend ourselves.” He added a reiteration that Israel holds Hamas responsible for all offensive actions emanating from the Strip, although a Salafist group calling itself the Omar Brigades claimed responsibility for Saturday’s rocket attack.

Islamic State

Iraqi forces with the support of the U.S. are now in control of Baiji city, military and militia sources told CNN on Sunday. “Forces have cleansed and are in control completely of government complex, city center, Fatah mosque (main mosque) and surrounding neighborhoods,” said Brig. Gen. Tahseen Ibrahim. He credited the U. S. with “a significant role supporting” Iraqi ground forces in the assault. ISIS forces, who had seized the city, fled back toward Mosul and were under air attack while retreating, according to Ibrahim.

At least 34 Iraqi police officers were killed and at least 48 more wounded Monday when an ISIS fighter drove a tank rigged with explosives into a joint Iraqi security forces base about 28 kilometers (17 miles) southwest of Samarra Security officials said guards stationed at the base’s entrance fired at the tank but couldn’t stop it. The tank shoved aside two Humvees that blocked the entrance just before the ISIS driver detonated the tank. That explosion, near a stack of ammunition, triggered another blast.

ISIS militants have reportedly kidnapped 86 Eritrean Christians from Libya. Christian Today reports the men, women and children were mostly taken from the city of Adi Keih while they attempted to flee to Europe. Witnesses of the kidnapping said that abductees were divided by their religion and six Muslims were released. Three Christians were able to escape the militants. Eritrean Catholic Priest Father Mussie Zerai said that ISIS is targeting Eritreans and Ethiopians because most of them are Christians.

Afghanistan/Pakistan

Tuesday’s militant attack on a group of aid workers in Afghanistan, resulting in nine deaths, is yet another instance of the enormous toll of the ongoing violence in the region. A new study from the Costs of War project at Brown University estimates 149,000 war-related deaths, with an additional 162,000 serious injuries, in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2001. Civilian casualties have been particularly high, according to the report, totaling around 26,270 deaths in Afghanistan and 21,500 in Pakistan. The current conflict in Afghanistan dates from 2001. The ruling power at the time, the Taliban, were toppled by a U.S.-led coalition in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Even though the extremist regime was formally overthrown, it never stopped its insurgency in an effort to regain control. The turmoil in Pakistan, which has its own Taliban and al Qaeda factions, has become more closely related to that of Afghanistan, with refugees and anti-government militants crossing borders. “It is important for policy makers and others to view the effects and implications of these wars together, because they are so interconnected,” said Neta Crawford, the author of the Brown study.

Libya

The Islamic State affiliate in Libya is on the offensive, consolidating control of Moammar Gaddafi’s former home town and staging a bomb attack on a major city, Misurata. The Islamic State’s growth could further destabilize a country already suffering from a devastating civil war. And Libya could offer the extremists a new base from which to launch attacks elsewhere in North Africa. The Libyan affiliate does not occupy large amounts of territory as the Islamic State does in Syria and Iraq. But in the past few months, the local group has seized Sirte, the coastal city that was Gaddafi’s last redoubt, as well as neighborhoods in the eastern city of Derna. Security experts estimate there are as many as 3,000 fighters loyal to the Islamic State in Libya.

Nigeria

Horrific violence has followed the inauguration of President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday May 29, as Boko Haram militants attacked the city of Maiduguri, capital of Nigeria’s north-eastern Borno state and birthplace of the Islamist insurgency group Boko Haram. Gunfire and explosions reverberate through the city and scores have been left dead. “We don’t know what happens next,” a church leader told Barnabas. “Pray for the believers in the city of Maiduguri. Pray for God’s special intervention.” On the night of Friday 29 May, militants launched more than 50 rockets into the town, killing scores of people. On the Saturday, a suicide bomber killed several people as he detonated himself in a mosque. On the Sunday, a bomb went off near the Gomboru market, killing scores more. And on Tuesday 2 June, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the Gomboru market, killing at least 20 people.

Yemen

A series of pre-dawn Saudi-led airstrikes on Sunday targeted the headquarters of Yemen’s armed forces in the rebel-held capital, killing at least 22 people. They said the dead were mostly soldiers and that the airstrikes damaged several nearby homes and shook the entire city. Residents said the armed forces’ headquarters, a short distance away from the city center, was hit by at least three airstrikes. The U.S.-backed coalition began launching airstrikes on March 26 against the Iranian-backed Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, and their allies in the military and security forces. The Houthis seized Sanaa in September and later captured much of northern Yemen before advancing on the south in March. Their advance on the south forced internationally recognized President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee the southern port city of Aden to neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Turkey

Turkey’s ruling party won the most seats in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, but it fell short of the majority needed to rule without forming a coalition with other parties. For the first time since it came to power in 2002, the socially conservative AKP will likely have to form a coalition government. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won 41% of the vote, or 259 of the 550 seats up for grabs. The parliamentary elections were expected to bring about drastic change in Turkey. Erdogan’s party had looked to win 330 seats, which would allow it to carry out a referendum for constitutional changes without needing votes from other parties. But few anticipated that the country’s early election results would signal the end of the dominance the AKP has enjoyed since it came to power.

Earthquakes

At least 16 people have died after a 5.9 earthquake struck Malaysia Saturday, trapping multiple climbers on the country’s highest peak. Rescuers continue the search for 2 missing Singaporean climbers. The earthquake shook Mount Kinabalu, located in eastern Sabah state on Borneo Island. Boulders and rocks rained down on trekking routes. Police reported that a helicopter transported nine of the bodies recovered on Saturday, and another two were carried down. Five additional bodies were found Monday. State tourism minister Masidi Manjun said the victims were seven Singaporeans, six Malaysians, and a Filipino, Chinese and Japanese national each. He said a Singaporean student and teacher were still missing.

Weather

An unseasonably early heat wave kicked into high gear over the Pacific Northwest Monday, sending at least one city to its highest temperature ever recorded in the month of June. Yakima, Washington, topped out at 105 degrees Monday. That ties the city’s all-time June heat record set June 23, 1992; importantly, it comes 15 days earlier on the calendar, making it by far the earliest 105-degree reading on record there. Other triple-digit highs in the region included 104 in Hermiston, Oregon, and Pasco, Washington; and 102 in Ephrata, Wenatchee and Walla Walla in Washington.

Tropical Storm Blanca made landfall near Puerto Cortes, Mexico around 5 a.m. PDT Monday, the earliest tropical cyclone landfall on record in Baja California. A tropical storm warning is in effect for Loreto to Punta Abreojos, including Cabo San Lucas. Blanca will weaken to a depression, then dissipate by Tuesday. Moisture from Blanca will push into parts of the U.S. southwest early this week. Moisture from Blanca will fuel rain and thunderstorms across the southwest deserts Tuesday and Wednesday.

About 80 miles east of Tucson, the Southwest’s 15-year drought has barged into living rooms, dinner tables, and farm fields as wells run dry. After decades of unregulated groundwater pumping to support a growing agricultural demand, the Willcox area’s only water source is shrinking quickly. On average, water levels observed in wells there have plummeted deeper than almost anywhere else in the state. The fallout jeopardizes an industry that grows nearly three-quarters of Arizona’s wine grapes, raises tough questions about the future of farming in the desert and pits community members against each other. The abundant rain and snow that once fed the Willcox aquifer has all but become folklore. Agriculture alone pumped an estimated 172,000 acre feet last year and the aquifer is recharged by only 15,000 to 47,000 acre feet per year. That leaves a gaping deficit and a sinking groundwater line.

A couple of dry winters has left the surrounding mountains parched for snow and the 3,000 residents of Williams, Arizona, found themselves wondering if they’d have enough water to last them the year. The city depends solely on water collected in a handful of reservoirs from melting snow and groundwater. The lasting drought, coupled with the fact that one of the city’s two wells broke, pushed the small, northern Arizona community into crisis. Leaders discovered in the spring last that just about 10 months’ worth of water stood in storage, said Brandon Buchanan, city manager. The city froze all building permits and prohibited lawn watering, car washing and spraying down of driveways. Pool operators had to haul water from elsewhere if they wanted to fill up, and the city stopped using water to sweep the streets. Williams staffers scrutinized customers’ water bills to make sure no one was using too much.

Signs of the Times (6/5/15)

June 5, 2015

Faith Groups hold Prayer Rally at Phoenix Mosque

Three days after a rally outside a Phoenix mosque pitted freedom of speech against freedom of religion, faith groups from across the area held a prayer rally at the very place where protesters clashed. Their purpose was to show that “when one of us is mistreated, our community responds with a message of love and not hate.” The “Love is Stronger than Hate” rally Monday evening at the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix gathered members of the Arizona Faith Network, the Women’s Jewish Learning Center and the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Arizona, among others. Attendees were asked to bring flowers, which were placed on the window sills of the mosque as a sign of solidarity and peace, according to program moderator Dr. Mounib Shaban.

  • But let’s not forget that this is the mosque that produced the terrorists who were foiled in an attack in Garland, Texas. We must also pray against extremist Islamic violence.

Federal Court Strikes Down Idaho Law Banning Abortions after 20 Weeks

A pro-life law in Idaho that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks has been struck down. A federal appeals court ruled that banning abortions after 20 weeks is unconstitutional. The ruling comes just weeks after the House of Representatives approved a bill that banned abortions after 20 weeks. In the ruling, Judge Harry Pregerson wrote that the Idaho law “places an arbitrary time limit on when women can obtain abortions.” Pro-life activists have said that the time limit is not arbitrary and that the law is poised to go before the Supreme Court. New studies reportedly have shown that babies can survive even earlier in pregnancy and that unborn babies feel pain at 20 weeks.

Millennials May Be the Least Religious Generation in American History

According to new research led by San Diego State University, millennials may be the least religious generation in the history of America. For the study, the team looked at how more than 11 million teens responded to questions about faith, religious organizations, spirituality, prayer and meditation, dating back to the mid-1960s. They found that the group who are now millennials are the least religious ever recorded. “Millennial adolescents are less religious than Boomers and GenX’ers were at the same age,” states the report. “More of today’s adolescents are abandoning religion before they reach adulthood, with an increasing number not raised with religion at all.”

Homeland Security to Beef up Airport Security after 95% Failure Rate

Random covert testing, intensive training and equipment checks are among several changes Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced Monday after an internal investigation found flaws in the nation’s airport security screening system. ABC News first reported Monday that undercover agents were able to smuggle prohibited items, such as mock explosives or weapons, through TSA checkpoints in 67 out of 70 attempts. Among the Transportation Security Administration changes proposed include: revising procedures to directly address the vulnerabilities cited in the report; sharing the results of testing with airport officials across the country; training for all transportation security officers at every airport; testing and retesting of equipment used at airports; requesting that inspector general and the TSA to conduct ongoing “random covert testing” of security practices; and appointing a team of TSA and DHS leaders to make sure the changes are implemented. Johnson also announced Monday that, effective immediately, TSA acting administrator Melvin Carraway is being reassigned

Bill to Resume, Overhaul NSA Surveillance Enacted

President Obama Tuesday night signed legislation that passed Congress only hours earlier, restarting — but also overhauling — controversial government surveillance programs that went dark over the weekend after lawmakers missed a key deadline. In a 67-32 vote, the Senate approved the so-called USA Freedom Act. The legislation had already won approval in the House. The vote came after key surveillance programs — most notably, the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records — were suspended Sunday after Congress missed the deadline for reauthorization. The USA Freedom Act would resume the NSA data collection program, but only for a transition period of six months. After that, the legislation would no longer allow the NSA to sweep up Americans’ records in bulk, leaving the records with phone companies and giving the government the ability to seek access with a warrant; the legislation also calls for the creation of a panel to provide the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court with guidance on privacy and civil liberties matter. And, it will increase transparency for the surveillance court’s decisions.

FBI Conducting Aerial Spy Flights over U.S. Cities

The FBI is operating a small air force with scores of low-flying planes across the country carrying video and, at times, cellphone surveillance technology — all hidden behind fictitious companies that are fronts for the government, The Associated Press reported Tuesday. The planes’ surveillance equipment is generally used without a judge’s approval, and the FBI said the flights are used for specific, ongoing investigations. In a recent 30-day period, the agency flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states across the country, an AP review found. Aerial surveillance represents a changing frontier for law enforcement, providing what the government maintains is an important tool in criminal, terrorism or intelligence probes. But the program raises questions about whether there should be updated policies protecting civil liberties as new technologies pose intrusive opportunities for government spying.

Health Insurers Seek Big Premium Hikes for ObamaCare Plans in 2016

Dozens of health insurers selling plans under ObamaCare have requested hefty premium increases for 2016, according to preliminary information published Monday by the White House. The insurers have cited higher-than-expected care costs from customers they gained under the ObamaCare’s coverage expansion and the rising cost of prescription drugs and other expenses as reasons for proposing the big increases. Among the market leaders, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina is seeking a roughly 26 percent premium increase, while plans in Illinois and Florida, among other states, are asking for hikes of 20 percent or more. In Pennsylvania, Highmark Health Insurance Co. is asking for a 30 percent increase.

  • Healthcare cost containment was one of Obamacare’s touted benefits, yet another false government promise

South Korean MERS Outbreak Likely to Spread

A MERS outbreak in South Korea — the largest outside Saudi Arabia, where the disease first emerged in 2012 — is likely to grow, the World Health Organization said Tuesday. MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, has infected at least 35 people in South Korea and killed three, according to the World Health Organization. South Korean officials have isolated 1,369 people in quarantine to limit the spread of the disease, which spreads when sick people cough. There have been at least 1,154 lab-confirmed cases of MERS worldwide since 2012, along with 431 deaths — a mortality rate of 37%.MERS belongs to the same family of viruses as SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which was identified in 2003.

Major U.S. Government Hack, China Suspected

Four million current and former federal employees, from nearly every government agency, might have had their personal information stolen by Chinese hackers, U.S. investigators said Thursday. U.S. officials believe this could be the biggest breach ever of the government’s computer networks. The breach was initially thought to have impacted the Office of Personnel Management and the Department of Interior. But government officials said nearly every federal government agency was hit by the hackers. An assessment continues, and it is possible millions more government employees may be affected. U.S. investigators believe they can trace the breach to the Chinese government. Hackers working for the Chinese military are believed to be compiling a massive database of Americans, intelligence officials say. China, of course, denies the allegations.

IRS: Cyber-Thieves Stole Up to $39M

Cyber-thieves responsible for a large IRS data breach stole as much as $39 million by filing fraudulent tax refunds after gaining access to taxpayer information, the IRS reported Tuesday. The federal inspector general who oversees the IRS predicted the agency could face additional computer attacks as preliminary investigation results show the cyber-thieves were part of an effort operated from Internet domains in Russia and other countries. The cyber-thieves made approximately 200,000 attempts to get taxpayer data via the IRS “get transcript” application — an interactive program that enables legitimate taxpayers to access copies of their own federal tax returns from previous years. Roughly half of an estimated 200,000 “get transcript” attempts cyber-thieves launched between mid-February and mid-May succeeded in gaining illegal access to taxpayer data.

The U.S. and World Economies are Slowing Down

The world economy is on track to grow less this year than last year, according to the latest forecast from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In March, the OECD was projecting 4% global economic growth for 2015. On Wednesday, it slashed that to 3.1% — which would be less than the 3.3% growth the world saw last year. Two of the largest engines of the world economy — United States and China — have already slowed down. The OECD slashed its U.S. 2015 growth projection from 3.1% to 2%. If that comes to pass, it would be a dip from last year’s 2.4% GDP. In the U.S., the strong dollar has been a drag on growth. American companies are losing money overseas and foreigners aren’t buying as many U.S. goods since they appear more expensive. China simply wasn’t able to sustain its incredible growth, and that has had ripple effects around the world. Manufacturing and exports have cooled.

Economic News

The labor market’s spring rebound strengthened in May as U.S. employers added 280,000 jobs, soundly topping economists’ estimates. America has now added over a million new jobs so far in 2015. The unemployment rate rose to 5.5% from 5.4%, the Labor Department said Friday. That’s largely because an improving market drew an additional 400,000 Americans into the labor force, which includes those working and looking for jobs. Businesses added 262,000 jobs last month, led by solid gains in professional and business services, leisure and hospitality, and health care. Federal, state and local governments added 18,000. But oil companies continued to lay off workers in response to low crude prices. The mining and logging industry lost 18,000 jobs.

The U.S. trade deficit declined sharply in April as exports posted a modest gain and imports fell. The April deficit dropped 19.2 percent to $40.9 billion after surging to $50.6 billion in March, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. The March deficit had been the highest level since late 2008. In April, exports edged up 1 percent to $189.9 billion, led by a big rise in commercial airplane sales. Imports fell 3.3 percent to $230.8 billion. For the first four months of the year, the deficit is running 1 percent higher than the same period a year ago. American manufacturers have been hurt by a rise in the value of the dollar over the past year. The stronger dollar makes American goods more expensive on overseas markets and makes imports cheaper for U.S. consumers.

U.S. factory orders fell 0.4 percent in April, marking the eighth decline in nine months, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. Manufacturers have struggled in recent months with a pair of global economic pressures. The stronger dollar has increased the cost of U.S.-made goods overseas, cutting into sales in Europe and parts of Asia. At the same time, cheaper oil prices have slashed demand from energy firms for pipelines and equipment.

Construction spending surged 2.2% in April after slumping through the harsh winter. Outlays for home building increased 0.6%, and non-residential projects jumped 3.2%.An index of manufacturing activity, meanwhile, rose to 52.8 from 51.5 in April, the Institute for Supply Management said, the first increase since October. A reading above 50 indicates that the sector is expanding.

The world has too much oil. Don’t expect that to change any time soon. OPEC decided Friday morning not to cut oil production despite the fact that prices have tumbled 40% from a year ago. Analysts believe the cartel had no other choice but to keep pumping oil because of its fading grip on the market. OPEC used to make up about 60% of the global oil market. Today that number has shrunk to 40%, largely because of surging U.S. production. The good news for American drivers is that prices at the pump are likely to stay relatively low — the national average is currently $2.75 for a gallon of regular gas, versus over $3.60 a gallon a year ago.

New-car sales are running at near-peak levels, partly because many consumers are financing their purchases for longer terms. The average new car loan has reached a record 67 months, reports Experian. The percentage of loans with terms of 73 to 84 months also reached a new high of 29.5% in the first quarter of 2015, up from 24.9% a year earlier. Long-term used-vehicle loans also broke records with loan terms of 73 to 84 months reaching 16% in the first quarter 2015, up from 12.94% — also the highest on record.

  • Along with student loans, another consumer debt bubble is forming

Eurozone

Greece remains at loggerheads with its creditors over key economic reforms after a meeting between Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the head of the European Union’s executive arm failed to yield a breakthrough on the release of vital bailout loans. And with senior members of Greece’s governing radical left Syriza party stressing that they cannot accept a package of measures proposed by the country’s creditors, markets across Europe sank Thursday. With time running out, there are real fears that Athens won’t secure a deal that will see it get remaining bailout funds to avoid going bankrupt.

In a surprise, Eurozone inflation in May came in stronger than expected, rising 0.3% from a year ago. Core inflation, which excludes volatile energy prices, rose even more, jumping 0.9% . The quicker-than-expected spike in inflation, despite still being well below the 2% European Central Bank mandate, had some investors worrying that the ECB might cut short its bond buying program before September 2016.

  • The U.S. style government bond program is essentially propping up the economy be infusing it with government debt.

Middle East

U.S President Barack Obama gave an interview with Israeli Channel 2 TV’s investigative program Uvda broadcast Monday evening in which he said, among other things, “the best way to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon is a verifiable, tough agreement. A military solution will not fix it. Even if the United States participates, it would temporarily slow down an Iranian nuclear program but it will not eliminate it.” Analysts in Israel and the US were quick to bemoan the fact that Obama is once again providing a potential adversary with reassurance that they will face no military consequences for their actions, undercutting his own diplomatic strategy and emboldening bad actors on the international stage.

The “Red Alert” siren was heard on Wednesday night at around 11:00 p.m. (local time) in some communities in southern Israel. Two rockets from Gaza exploded in the Sdot Negev region. There were no physical injuries or damages. Terrorists from Gaza fired a Grad rocket towards southern Israel last week as well, with no injuries reported. The IDF retaliated for the attack by launching airstrikes on terrorist infrastructures in Gaza.

  • It’s good that the Gaza terrorist have really bad aim or inferior rockets or there would soon be another military confrontation looming

Islamic State

ISIS has closed off a dam to the north of the Iraqi city of Ramadi — seized by its forces last month — cutting water supplies to pro-government towns downstream and making it easier for its fighters to attack forces loyal to Baghdad. ISIS officials and residents said. This was to prevent river water overflowing from ISIS’ side of the dam, and also allow some water to flow downstream toward ISIS-held Falluja. The level of water in the Euphrates was now low enough that the river could be walked across, and that this would make it easier for ISIS militants to cross the river and attack the pro-government towns of Husaybah and Khalidiyah, as well as the large security forces base at Habbaniya.

The U.S.-led coalition against ISIS has recorded more than 10,000 ISIS deaths since the campaign against the extremist group began nine months ago, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken said Tuesday. The coalition also declared Tuesday that it has a winning plan in Iraq despite recent setbacks, including the fall of Ramadi last month. The 25 nations offered few specifics after their conference and indicated no major strategy shift. The coalition met in Paris as Iraqi security forces attempted to retake Ramadi, a key Sunni city west of Baghdad that fell to Islamic State militants. The Islamic State also has made significant inroads in neighboring Syria, where militants seized the ancient city of Palmyra last month and advanced on Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. The United States recently rushed 2,000 AT-4 anti-tank missiles to Iraq and promised to ease the process for getting ammunition and weapons to Iraq’s armed forces.

Syria

In Syria, an unheralded combination of Kurdish and Assyrian Christian fighters in recent weeks have managed to recapture a string of villages along the Khabur River from the Islamic State. The victories came three months after ISIS swept into the area, taking command of 14 villages and kidnapping several hundred Assyrian Christians who lived there. They went unnoticed as ISIS made gains elsewhere, chiefly in taking Palmyra further south in Syria, and capturing Ramadi in central Iraq. But as local forces reenter the Khabur River villages, they are finding a swath of devastation in the Islamic militants’ wake. “All the Christian Assyrian villages in Khabur are re-controlled and IS is pushed out,” said Emanuel Youkhana, an Assyrian priest and head of the relief group CAPNI.

Close to 200 civilians in Syria have died from barrel bomb attacks throughout last weekend allegedly carried out by the army of President Bashar al-Assad, activists have said. While Assad has continuously denied responsibility, a U.N. envoy has condemned the bombings as “totally unacceptable.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday that at least 184 people were killed in several provinces over the weekend, though the actual death toll is believed to be higher. The activist organization said that 71 civilians, including women and children, were killed by bombs dropped by Assad’s helicopters on Saturday in the northern province of Aleppo alone.

Nigeria

Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in the main market in Nigeria’s northeastern city of Yola, killing 31 people and themselves, officials said Friday, blaming the extremist Boko Haram group. Another 38 victims, some with serious injuries, are being treated in the hospitals in this city already swollen with refugees from the conflict. The explosion was timed to go off as merchants were closing shop, others were hurrying to make last-minute purchases and commuters were catching tricycle taxis home. It is the first such attack on Yola, which has had its population doubled by some 300,000 refugees fleeing the insurgent violence in the northeast that has killed some 13,000 people and forced 1.5 million from their homes. Boko Haram has been fighting for nearly six years to impose Shariah law across Nigeria. Half the population of 170 million is Christian.

Kenya

At least 95 schools in Kenya were forced to shut their doors after 2,000 teachers quit over fears of Islamic extremist attacks. The Christian Post reports that most of the teachers were Christians and feared being targeted by terrorists after al-Shabaab militants attacked Christian students at Garissa University in April. The 95 schools in northern Kenya will be closed indefinitely; and 500 other schools are at risk of closing as they suffer from the lack of faculty members. Additional schools are trying to remain in operation with fewer students and teachers.

Ukraine

Heavy artillery fire was reported around Donetsk city in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, in what observers described as some of the worst fighting in the months since a shaky ceasefire was declared. The Ukrainian General Command media office said that separatists fired heavy artillery from Donetsk city toward Mariinka early Wednesday. Mariinka has been controlled by Ukrainian government forces and sits on a strategically vital western highway to the city’s west, where checkpoints mark the end of separatist-controlled territory.

Russia

For a second year in a row, the annual summit of major world economies will exclude Russia when the group’s leaders convene Sunday in a German castle. The Kremlin’s absence from the two-day meeting of the Group of Seven or G-7 underscores a widening East-West split prompted by the conflict in Ukraine. A year ago, Russia was to host what was then the G-8. But the other seven members — Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan and the USA — bailed to protest Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 and its alleged involvement in a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin denies providing troops, arms or funds to support the separatists, who have been fighting Ukrainian troops. This year’s host, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, told her parliament recently that Moscow’s return to the summit is “unimaginable” unless Russia were to “recognize the basic values of international law and act accordingly.”

Argentina

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets across Argentina on Wednesday to protest recent violence against women in a region where the abuse has been endemic. Men, women and children in the main square of the presidential palace held banners with the names and pictures of women who have been killed. Violence against women has been a major problem in Argentina. Nationwide, there was a femicide — the killing of women because of their gender — every 35 hours from 2007 to 2012, according to La Casa del Encuentro in Buenos Aires. In 2014, there were 277 murders of women in Argentina, the group estimated.

Environment

Carbon monoxide in the atmosphere has decreased significantly around the globe in the last 14 years. Human activity is responsible for a portion of the carbon monoxide in the atmosphere due to the burning of carbon-based fuels such as oil, natural gas, coal and wood. A decline in the pollutants released by vehicles and industries makes up a significant chunk of the carbon monoxide decrease. The decrease is likely tied to both improvements in technology and regulatory changes, experts say. Carbon monoxide is not considered a direct greenhouse gas, and therefore doesn’t affect climate change directly.

Earthquakes

A magnitude-5.9 earthquake that struck near Southeast Asia’s highest peak early Friday injured 11 climbers and left about 130 people stranded, officials said. The quake struck northwest of Ranau district in Sabah state on Borneo early Friday at a depth of 34 miles. Climbing routes are apparently blocked or made dangerous by rocks and boulders loosened by the quake and small aftershocks. Helicopters can’t land due to bad weather and the high altitude, but park rangers and mountain guides are trying to bring down the climbers.

Weather

Several tornadoes struck Colorado Thursday night. Six homes were damaged in Elbert County as a pair of twisters were reported in the town of Simla. At least three homes were damaged by a tornado near Berthoud. The National Weather Service reported that as much as 7 or 8 inches of rain fell in the area Thursday night. Flood emergencies were issued by authorities in Boulder and Larimer counties when the floodwaters covered streets and threatened to invade homes. Heavy rainfall prevented officials from surveying the damage in some areas Thursday night, so they will head back to the damaged homes to investigate further on Friday.

Alaska just can’t shake an unusual cycle of out-of-season weather. First, record warmth owned much of the state during May. Now it’s June and snow is falling in the interior. About an inch of snow was reported in Delta Junction and Salcha, southeast of Fairbanks Monday.

Dallas did not hit 90 degrees in 2015 until Wednesday, June 3 — typically, that happens around April 19. The lack of 90s extends into parts of the Southeast, where Atlanta has not yet officially hit 90 degrees.

A relentless heat wave in India has now claimed more than 2,300 lives. The days-upon-days of temperatures near 120 degrees now marks the fifth deadliest heat wave in Earth’s recorded history, according to Weather Underground. The heat became so extreme in Dehli last week that it melted some of India’s roadways. Most of the deaths occurred in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where dehydration and heat stroke have been the biggest threats.

 

Signs of the Times (6/1/15)

June 1, 2015

Christians are the Most Persecuted Religious Group

More than any religious group, Christians around the world are the most likely to suffer oppression and persecution. This is not just opinion or hearsay, but a hard fact, gleaned from up-to-date research from leading sources, reports Stacy Long of the American Family Association. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom described the past year as marking the worst level of persecution in modern times, largely because of attacks on Christians fueled by groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram. Pew Research, reported in 2015 that Christians were harassed by governments or social groups in more countries than any other religious group. Christians faced harassment in 102 out of 198 countries studied. In comparison, Jews were harassed in 77 countries, which was a seven-year high for the religion. Muslims were harassed in 99 countries.

Persecution Watch

Pawns in a political war, Christians across Ukraine are under attack. With the conflict ravaging the country, the humanitarian situation is severe. In eastern Ukraine, many impoverished Christians in Donetsk and Lugansk have lost their homes, businesses and family members in the on-going conflict. Across Ukraine, church leaders and buildings are being attacked. In western Ukraine, 19 Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) buildings were seized and many Russian Orthodox priests have been forced to leave the region. And in eastern Ukraine, churches of all denominations have been targeted by militants and new authorities; 17 church buildings have been seized and five more have been attacked or burned. At least seven church leaders have been killed, and 40 other church ministers have been abducted, beaten and questioned. Even in the face of such extreme persecution, most church ministers in eastern Ukraine choose to remain.

At least 70 Christians were killed in a series of attacks by Fulani Muslim herdsmen on Christian villages in Nigeria’s Plateau state, in the country’s middle belt, from April 25 to May 11. “We … have been under siege and invasion,” said one Christian villager. “Lives have been lost almost every day… But we are still faithful to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”

Pakistani Christians in Sanda, west Lahore, fled their homes in fear on May 25 after a mob of Muslims attacked the homes of Christians and threatened to burn a Christian man alive, accusing him of burning papers that contained passages from the Quran. A case has been registered against 27 year-old Humyun Masih under the Pakistani “blasphemy” laws, despite the fact that he has been receiving long-term treatment for severe mental illness.

In the past two months alone, Iranian Revolutionary Courts have sentenced 18 people who had converted from Islam to Christianity to a combined total of over 23 years in prison for evangelism and forming house churches.

Patriot Act Provisions Expire

As of Monday, the National Security Agency no longer has the authority to collect the phone records of millions of Americans not suspected of any crime. That expired at midnight, following an eleventh-hour Sunday session by the Senate that showcased divisions within the Republican caucus over privacy concerns and national security. The Senate on Sunday let key sections of the Patriot Act law expire at midnight, but voted to advance a bill that would eventually replace its most controversial provision. The Senate voted 77-17 to advance the USA Freedom Act which would end the National Security Agency’s controversial bulk collection of the phone data of millions of Americans not suspected of any terrorist activity. A final vote is expected later this week. “Tonight begins the end of bulk collection,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

FBI Struggling to Keep Up with Surge in Homegrown Terrorists

The New York Police Department and other law enforcement agencies around the nation are increasing their surveillance of ISIS supporters in the U.S., in part to aid the FBI which is struggling to keep up with a surge in the number of possible terror suspects, according to law enforcement officials. The change is part of the fallout from the terrorist attack in Garland, Texas earlier this month. The FBI says two ISIS supporters attempted a gun attack on a Prophet Mohammad cartoon contest but were killed by police. One of the attackers, Elton Simpson, was already under investigation by the FBI but managed to elude surveillance to attempt the foiled attack. FBI Director James Comey told a group of police officials around the country in a secure conference call this month that the FBI needs help to keep tabs on hundreds of suspects. “It’s an extraordinarily difficult challenge task to find — that’s the first challenge — and then assess those who may be on a journey from talking to doing… in an environment where increasingly… their communications are unavailable to us even with court orders.”

  • The tug of war between personal freedoms and terrorism surveillance cannot be fully resolved in this fallen world until Jesus Christ returns for his millennial reign on earth when evil is finally eradicated

A Clash of Freedoms at Phoenix Mosque Protest

It started as a protest against Islam outside a Phoenix mosque Friday. But by the time it was over, it had turned into a collision of First Amendment ideals where freedom of speech clashed with freedom of religion. In the end, it was a contentious but ultimately peaceful confrontation with several hundred people on each side, separated by a line of dozens of police officers and witnessed by dozens of journalists. The number of counter-protesters closely matched those who came in response to a Facebook event that encouraged people to bring weapons and American flags to the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix during its Friday prayer time. At the height of the demonstration, police estimate about 500 people were outside the mosque. The two sides used megaphones to yell at each other and were, at times, nose to nose. Organizers cast the protest as a response to two Phoenix residents and attenders at this mosque who drove to Garland, Texas earlier this month in an attempt to engage in violence with attendees at a Prophet Mohammad cartoon contest. The protesters were met by a crowd of people supporting religious freedom, many of whom do not belong to the mosque, holding signs reading phrases such as “Love not Hate.” One group from Redemption Church in Tempe arrived dressed in blue and lined up in front of the mosque. They said they wore the color to be a peaceful presence.

U.S. Pilots Complain about Restrictions in ‘Frustrating’ Fight against ISIS

U.S. military pilots carrying out the air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are voicing growing discontent over what they say are heavy-handed rules of engagement hindering them from striking targets. They blame a bureaucracy that does not allow for quick decision-making. One Navy F-18 pilot who has flown missions against ISIS voiced his frustration to Fox News, saying: “There were times I had groups of ISIS fighters in my sights, but couldn’t get clearance to engage.” He added, “They probably killed innocent people and spread evil because of my inability to kill them. It was frustrating.” A former U.S. Air Force general who led air campaigns over Iraq and Afghanistan also said today’s pilots are being “micromanaged,” and the process for ordering strikes is slow — squandering valuable minutes and making it possible for the enemy to escape.

  • Bureaucracy, whether civilian or military, is always the albatross of efficiency and effectiveness. We need less management and more workers, from school systems to bloated government agencies to the military.

U.S. Won’t Seek Supreme Court Review in Immigration Case

The federal government announced that it will not ask the Supreme Court to review a judge’s decision that put on hold President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration, the Justice Department said Wednesday. U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen issued a preliminary injunction on Feb. 16 that halted Obama’s executive action, which could spare from deportation as many as 5 million people who are in the U.S. illegally. More than two dozen states sought the injunction, arguing that Obama’s executive action was unconstitutional. The U.S. government on Feb. 23 asked Hanen to lift his injunction while it appealed his ruling against the executive action to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Hanen denied the request, and the U.S. government appealed. That appeal was denied on Tuesday.

Fewer Immigrants Entering the U.S. Illegally

As the Department of Homeland Security continues to pour money into border security, evidence is emerging that illegal immigration flows have fallen to their lowest level in at least two decades. The nation’s population of illegal immigrants, which more than tripled, to 12.2 million, between 1990 and 2007, has dropped by about 1 million, according to demographers at the Pew Research Center. Even as the economy bounces back from recession, illegal immigration flows, especially from Mexico, have kept declining, according to researchers and government data. Homeland security officials in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations have more than doubled the Border Patrol’s size and spent billions on drones, sensors and other technology at the border which they say is driving the recent decline.

Hundreds of Mistakes at U.S. Biolabs

A USA TODAY investigation reveals that hundreds of lab mistakes, safety violations and near-miss incidents have occurred in biological laboratories coast to coast in recent years, putting scientists, their colleagues and sometimes even the public at risk. Vials of bioterror bacteria have gone missing. Lab mice infected with deadly viruses have escaped, and wild rodents have been found making nests with research waste. Cattle infected in a university’s vaccine experiments were repeatedly sent to slaughter and their meat sold for human consumption. Gear meant to protect lab workers from lethal viruses such as Ebola and bird flu has failed, repeatedly. Oversight of biological research labs is fragmented, often secretive and largely self-policing, the investigation found. And even when research facilities commit the most egregious safety or security breaches — as more than 100 labs have — federal regulators keep their names secret.

The U.S. Army’s mistaken shipment recently of live anthrax samples to government and commercial laboratories came from a military post in a desolate stretch of the Utah desert that has been testing chemical weapons since it opened in 1942. Though military officials say they were not aware of previous problems with anthrax, the Dugway Proving Ground, 85 miles west of Salt Lake City, has previously had at least two other problems with chemical weapons.

Study Reveals Early Aging in Veterans’ Brains

Department of Veterans Affairs scientists have discovered signs of early aging in the brains of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans caught near roadside bomb explosions, even among those who felt nothing from the blast. Scientists say more research is needed to understand the impact such changes in the brain may have on behavior and disease. But it appears that years after coming home from war, veterans are showing progressive damage to the brain’s wiring, according to a study published online Monday in Brain, A Journal of Neurology.

Economic News

People in the U.S. spent less in April than they did in March, according to the latest data from the Commerce Department released Monday. Instead, they have been increasing their savings. The annual savings rate, now 5.6%, is higher than it was a year ago, and significantly higher than the pre-recession norm of around 3%, according to the Federal Reserve. Americans have been hesitant to buy much at the store or elsewhere for months.

  • Economists complain about the lack of spending and then chide Americans for their lack of savings, particularly for retirement. This is a good sign long term even if Wall Street doesn’t like it.

The U.S. economy shrank in the first quarter as the nation’s trade deficit widened and business stockpiling slowed. Gross domestic product — the value of goods and services produced in the U.S. — contracted at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 0.7% in the January-March period, the Commerce Department said Friday. That’s well below the modest 0.2% growth the government initially estimated. The downward revision largely can be traced to a trade gap that reached a seven-year high in March. A strong dollar is hobbling U.S. exports by making them more expensive for overseas customers while making imports cheap for US consumers.

The national unemployment rate for April was 5.4%, essentially unchanged from March. The lowest unemployment rate in the country was less than half that, 2.5% in Nebraska. No other state posted an unemployment rate below 3%.Eight states posted unemployment rates between 3% and 4%: North Dakota (3.1%), Utah (3.4%), South Dakota and Vermont (3.6%), Minnesota (3.7%), and Idaho, Iowa and New Hampshire (3.8%).

America’s three biggest banks — JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo — made more than $1.1 billion on overdraft fees in the first three months of the year. Despite efforts to curb these charges after the financial crisis, they are still a big money maker for banks. If the fee collection pace keeps up, the big three banks are on track bring in $4.5 billion in overdraft charges by the end of this year. That works out to about $20 for every American adult.

Middle East

Abductions. Beatings. Torture. Summary executions of political opponents. These are among the allegations made Wednesday against the Palestinian group Hamas in a damning new report by the international human rights watchdog Amnesty International. During last year’s Gaza conflict, which took place in July and August, Hamas used the chaos to settle scores and carry out “horrific abuses . . . some of which amount to war crimes” against fellow Palestinians, said the report. Hamas is a Palestinian Islamic organization that operates in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere in the Middle East. It controls Gaza, while Fatah, a secular party, controls the West Bank.

Islamic State/al-Qaeda

A highly disturbing new report from the United Nations asserts that more than half of the world’s nations are now producing jihadist fighters to join the ranks of terrorist organizations in the Middle East. More than 25,000 mujahideen have joined the al-Qaeda network and the Islamic State (ISIS) in recent years, creating an “unprecedented” and long-term threat to international security, according to the U.N. The authors of the report said their findings are based on detailed evidence from 27 intelligence and security services from around the globe.

An estimated 550 Western women who have left their homes and families to travel to Syria and Iraq and join ISIS. Researchers at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD) in London, curious at the “unprecedented surge in female recruits” to ISIS, are tracking more than 100 of the women through online platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and blogs. “It really debunks the stereotypes,” said ISD senior researcher Erin Saltman. “The ages range from 13 to 40, with a range of education and professions and families. It’s very complicated… A lot of times for women, it’s a strong emotional pull to a global problem. They see through this extremist worldview that the world is out to get this Muslim community – [that] the world is violent towards them and it’s their role and job religiously to create a safe space for all Muslims — and that’s very difficult to contradict. It’s a very empowering world view.”

Libya

Libya’s Islamic State affiliate seized a civilian air base in the central city of Sirte, a militia spokesman and an ISIS statement said Friday, in the terror group’s latest attempt to exploit Libya’s lingering chaos. The takeover of the al-Qardabiya air base occurred when a militia dispatched to battle the Islamic militants, who already control of much of Sirte, withdrew after calls for reinforcements from Tripoli went unheeded. Most of Sirte– the hometown of former leader Muammar Gaddafi– fell to ISIS last week, the BBC reported. The militant group also seized nearby Gadhafi-era Great Man Made River water project, the world’s largest irrigation project which supplies fresh water to Libyan cities.

Iran & North Korea

An exiled Iranian opposition group said on Thursday that a delegation of North Korean experts in nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles visited a military site near Tehran in April. Citing information from sources inside Iran, including within Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Paris-based NCRI said the seven person North Korean Defense Ministry team were in Iran the last week of April. It was the third time in 2015 that North Koreans had been to Iran and a nine person delegation was due to return in June, it said. ‘The delegates included nuclear experts, nuclear warhead experts and experts in various elements of ballistic missiles including guidance systems,’ NCRI said.

  • This is an extremely dangerous alliance

Iraq

An Iraqi forensic team has exhumed 499 bodies from a series of graves in the presidential complex in the city of Tikrit. The bodies are believed to be those of Iraqi military cadets, whom ISIS claimed to have killed in June 2014 in a massacre at Camp Speicher, a fortified Iraqi base near Tikrit. The team is now searching for other suspected mass graves in the city.

The death toll from bombings that targeted two prominent hotels in Baghdad a day earlier rose to 15 people, with another 42 wounded, Iraqi authorities said on Friday, as a lawmaker warned that the capital is vulnerable to more attacks. The double bombing occurred late Thursday when two separate car bombs went off in the parking lots of the Cristal, formerly Sheraton, and Babil hotels. The twin attacks targeting heavily secured buildings in the heart of Baghdad demonstrate the boldness and freedom with which militants have been able to operate inside the capital. Police said a third car bomb found near the Babil Hotel was discovered and defused early Friday.

Pakistan

Around 20 armed men hijacked two buses in Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province, killed 19 passengers. The gunmen let around 50 passengers go and took at least 25 into the mountains. Security forces surrounded and battled the gunmen, and were able to recover six passengers, one of whom was wounded. The assailants still hold some passengers. Baluchistan is the scene of a low-intensity insurgency by Baluch nationalists, separatists and other groups demanding more autonomy and a greater share of the province’s gas and mineral resources.

Yemen

At least four Americans reportedly are being held by rebels in Yemen who toppled the U.S.-backed government, and the State Department said Saturday it is “doing everything we can to get these individuals released.” “Due to privacy considerations, we do not have any further personal details or information to share,” the agency said. The Washington Post, citing unnamed sources, reported that attempts to free the Americans have failed. The four are believed to be imprisoned in the Yemen capital of Sanaa, which Saudi Arabia has repeatedly bombed in a campaign to oust the Houthi rebels from power. Three of the four prisoners held private sector jobs and the fourth holds dual American-Yemeni citizenship. None is a U.S. government employee, according to the Post.

Nigeria

A suicide bomb blast outside a mosque and rocket-propelled grenades that exploded into homes as people slept killed at least 30 people in the Nigerian city Maiduguri on Saturday. The explosion killed people who were prostrating themselves for afternoon prayers outside the mosque. The bomber was pushing a wheelbarrow and pretending to be an itinerant trader when he joined them. Earlier Saturday, rocket-propelled grenades killed at least 13 others in the city and injured more. The grenades are a new tactic that has brought terror to the city that is the birthplace of Boko Haram. One resident said he counted 40 thunderous blasts that began around 1 a.m. before he lost count. Several homes were destroyed in the suburb Dala-Lawanti, about 12 miles west of the city center.

Nepal

Schools in Kathmandu, Nepal, will reopen Sunday, just over a month after the poor Himalayan nation was hit by a devastating magnitude-7.8 earthquake. Most classrooms will be outdoors, sheltered under tarpaulins. For those who show up, UNICEF is providing school supplies expected to last three months. For the first few weeks, the students will not learn from books, but will focus on play and discussions aimed at coming to grips with the earthquake’s aftermath, according to the Nepal government.

Malaysia

Malaysian officials have discovered 139 graves of human trafficking victims in the abandoned camps of people-smuggling gangs along the Malaysia-Thailand border. Christian Today reports hundreds of human trafficking victims could be buried there, as some of the graves contained multiple bodies. Twenty-eight camps were discovered which contained barbed wired cages that could apparently hold hundreds of people. Joel Millman, of the International Organization for Migration, said that more graves are will likely be discovered in the coming days. The Malaysian government is now investigating to determine if forestry officials in the area were involved with the human-smuggling trade.

China

U.S. surveillance images reportedly show that China has positioned weaponry on at least one of the artificial islands it is developing in the South China Sea, apparently confirming suspicions that Beijing has been building up the area for military use. Although the weaponry would not pose a threat to U.S. planes or ships, it could potentially reach neighboring islands. A Chinese Embassy spokesman maintained the development of the artificial lands was primarily civilian.

Earthquakes

A magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck off the southern coast of Japan Saturday, shaking buildings in Tokyo and interrupting subway service, but causing no major damage. Twelve people suffered minor injuries. The epicenter was located 540 miles south of Tokyo in the Ogasawara Islands. The strong quake rattled buildings in the capital for about a minute, briefly shutting down subways. There was little danger of a tsunami because the quake was centered 350 miles below the surface.

Volcanoes

A volcano erupted on a small island in southern Japan on Friday, and authorities ordered all 140 residents to evacuate the island. Mount Shindake erupted about 10 a.m. Friday in spectacular fashion, spewing towering black-gray clouds into the sky. The Japan Meteorological Agency reported that pyroclastic flows from the volcano had reached the shore to the northwest. The government was surveying the island by helicopter to assess damage.

Weather

May 2015 is now the wettest single month on record in Texas and Oklahoma. Oklahoma’s 14.18 inches easily surpassed the previous record wet month, set in October 1941 at 10.75 inches. Texas picked up a statewide average of 7.54 inches so far in May, crushing the previous record wet month of June 2004 during which a statewide average of 6.66 inches of rain fell, Officials in parts of Texas have warned that river flooding could last for weeks as some areas have seen more than 20 inches of rain during May. The storms that produced the flooding were part of a system that stretched from Mexico into the central USA. The death toll from the system climbed to 28 in Texas and Oklahoma, and 14 in Mexico. Friday night President Obama signed a disaster declaration allowing the state to utilize federal funding in recovery efforts stemming from severe weather that started May 4th.

Across most of the country, the heaviest downpours are happening more frequently, delivering a deluge in place of what would have been routine heavy rain. Climate Central’s new analysis of 65 years of rainfall records at thousands of stations nationwide found that 40 of the lower 48 states have seen an overall increase in heavy downpours since 1950. The biggest increases are in the Northeast and Midwest, which in the past decade, have seen 31 and 16 percent more heavy downpours compared to the 1950s.

Conversely, droughts are sapping precious water supplies all across America’s southwest. The region has been suffering from drought for 11 of the past 14 years, according to NASA, directly affecting more than 64 million people. In Arizona and Nevada, the water level in Lake Mead — which feeds water to 40 million people across the region — has plummeted to lows not seen since the 1930s. Experts say desalination, especially from seawater, will eventually play a large role. Building more desalination plants “probably should have happened a decade ago,” says Mark Lambert, CEO of a water treatment firm. In San Diego, Lambert’s company has built the biggest seawater desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, a $1-billion facility expected to go online as soon as November, producing up to 50 million gallons of freshwater a day by a process called reverse osmosis.

Despite hopes that weekend thundershowers would help end a brutal heat wave in southern India, the rain brought only limited relief as the death toll since mid-April approached 2,200. Most of the heat-related deaths so far have occurred in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where temperatures have soared up to 117 degrees Fahrenheit. Among the most vulnerable were the elderly and the poor, many of whom live in slums or farm huts with no access to air conditioners or sometimes even shady trees.