Signs of the Times (6/1/15)

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.

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