Signs of the Times (8/18/15)

Several Christians Released from Prison by Repressive Regimes

Persecution and human rights organizations rejoiced in early August as three repressive regimes released five Christians held on trumped-up charges. Sudan released from prison two South Sudanese pastors accused of spying. Two Christian prisoners in Vietnam and one in Iran also gained their freedom after serving “unwarranted” sentences. Sudanese officials arrested and tried Pastors Yat Michael Ruot and Peter Yein Reith on multiple charges, including breach of the peace, managing a criminal or terrorist organization, and collecting and leaking information harmful to national security, World Watch Monitor reported. A Sudanese court found them guilty of two lesser charges and released them for time served.

Vietnamese authorities released Catholic blogger Paulus Le Van Son and Protestant activist Nguyen Van Oai. Both served four-year prison terms for “trying to overthrow the legitimate government.” They were arrested during a 2011 crackdown against bloggers and others with ties to human and religious rights groups, Asia News reported. Radio Free Asia (RFA) said authorities detained them without warrants and gave them limited access to lawyers. Van Oai told RFA in recent months’ security personnel pressured him to plead guilty and even sign a confession, but he would not. He proclaimed his innocence throughout. The communist nation ranks 16th on Open Door’s World Watch List of countries where Christians suffer the most persecution.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, persecution of Christians is even more severe than in Vietnam. Iranian Christians rejoiced when authorities released Church of Iran member Alireza Seyyedian on Aug. 1, Middle East Concern reported. Seyyedian served three and a half years in prison after authorities re-arrested him in March 2012 for trying to enter Turkey. His first arrest was in 2010. According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, his lawyer said Iranian courts considered Seyyedian’s baptism in Turkey an act against the state.

Aborted Baby Body Parts Have Been Sold Since 1993

Although the Center for Medical Progress’s undercover videos documenting the sale of aborted baby body parts have caused a major outcry, there is evidence that fetal tissue sales are not a new occurrence. In a One New Now report, Linda Royall, a reporter for The Stream, says that one of the first things Bill Clinton did when he became president in 1993 was to remove moratoriums that were in place to prevent fetal tissue sales. That, Royall says, is what got the industry going. In 2009, Royall interviewed a doctor who operated a late-term abortion clinic. “He made clear that what is described above is business as usual in the fetal body parts industry in America. Many a child is slaughtered in the womb and then rendered, packaged and brokered to a multitude of industries, whose products and projects comprise the aftermarket for the roughly 1.2 million U.S. abortions annually,” Royall reported.

Increased Terror Threat as Result of Iranian Nuclear Deal

Appearing last Thursday in a webcast sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz acknowledged that the Iran nuclear deal will increase global terrorism. As explained by Jonathan Tobin of Commentary magazine, “Moniz’s admission provides critics of the nuclear deal with a startling admission that backs up their claims that the massive influx of cash into the ayatollahs’ coffers will enable it to increase their support of Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists who are preparing for a war [against] the nation Iran has targeted for elimination: Israel.” Most importantly, says Tobin, “it debunks the notion that Iran is moderating and won’t take advantage of the pact to undermine the interests of the US and its allies.”

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave another firebrand speech on Monday declaring, among other things, that the nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, would not result in the Islamic Republic opening up to the West, a key hope of Western diplomats who used the idea as a rationalization for their support of the JCPOA. “We won’t allow American political, economic or cultural influence in Iran,” Khamenei flatly declared. His statement is in line with a string of hostile rhetoric from senior Iranian officials in recent days.

Record Number of Americans Giving Up Citizenship

2014 was a record year for expatriation. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, 2,999 U.S. citizens and long-term residents moved abroad and gave up (or abandoned efforts to obtain) American citizenship in 2013. A year later, Treasury Department statistics showed a 14 percent increase in expatriations, to 3,415. And that could be just the beginning. TaxNews.com noted that July 1, 2014 was the deadline for complying with the new Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act. FATCA, which requires taxpayers to declare assets and income owned abroad so that the Internal Revenue Service can tax them, was apparently a big reason that so many Americans decided to hand in their passports and leave the country last year. But it’s not the only reason. Nearly equally important, it seems, is the view that there are better educational opportunities abroad (48 percent cited that as a major motivation, versus 51 percent citing lower taxes). Even more important was the perception that health care is “more affordable” in countries outside the U.S., according to a new poll conducted by British money transfer firm Transferwise.

IRS Hack Far Larger than First Disclosed

A hack of the Internal Revenue service first reported in May was nearly three times as large as previously stated, the agency revealed Monday. Thieves gained access to as many as 334,000 taxpayer accounts, the IRS said. In May, the IRS reported that identity thieves were able to use the agency’s Get Transcript program to get personal information about as many as 114,000 taxpayers.

Feds Launch Program to Counter Epidemic in Heroin Use

The White House announced a new strategy on Monday to tackle the explosion in heroin use in a collection of eastern states, focusing on treating addicts rather than punishing them and targeting high-level suppliers for arrest. The move is a response to a sharp rise in the use of heroin and opiate-based painkillers, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has described as an epidemic. Heroin use has more than doubled among people aged 18-25 in the United States in the past decade, according to CDC figures, while overdose death rates have nearly quadrupled. An estimated 45 percent of U.S. heroin users are also addicted to prescription painkillers. Announcing the ‘Heroin Response Strategy’ on Monday, Michael Botticelli, Director of National Drug Control Policy, said the new plan will address the heroin and painkiller epidemics as both “a public health and a public safety issue.” The policy is in line with new criminal justice strategies that seek to treat more drug offenders as addicts within the public health system rather than as criminals who must serve long sentences in jail.

Traffic Deaths Jump 14% in 2015

Traffic fatalities are up 14% so far in 2015, according to new data from the nonprofit National Safety Council. That puts the year on pace to be the deadliest for drivers since 2007. There were more than 18,600 motor-vehicle deaths from January through June this year, compared to 16,400 deaths in the first six months of 2014. The NSC partly attributes the jump in fatalities to the fact that people are driving more because gas is cheaper. On average, gas prices are down 30% from 2014. There are also more commuters on the road heading to work, since the U.S. economy has been steadily adding jobs throughout 2015. NSC president Deborah Hersman also attributes the uptick in fatal crashes to the fact that drivers are more distracted behind the wheel thanks to their smartphone

Economic News _ Domestic

Oil prices fell to a new 6 ½-year low Monday, raising the prospect of dramatically cheaper gasoline after the summer driving season. For now, a blockbuster driving season and a major refinery outage are keeping pump prices surprisingly high despite the plunge in crude. A barrel of West Texas Intermediate declined 63 cents, or 1.5%, to close at $41.87 as abundant supplies and fears of a global slowdown continue to push down prices. That’s the lowest since March 2009 and it marks a tumble of 30% from late June and 55% from a year ago.

The federal government on Monday gave Royal Dutch Shell the final permit it needs to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska’s northwest coast for the first time in more than two decades. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement announced that it approved the permit to drill below the ocean floor after the oil giant brought in a required piece of equipment to stop a possible well blowout. Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said it’s possible Shell will complete a well this summer.

A new study concludes that high-paying jobs have grown the fastest in the economic recovery, casting doubt on the widespread lament that low-wage jobs have dominated payroll growth since 2010. The report, by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, says its findings are more accurate than prior analyses that cite a prevalence of low-paid jobs because it evaluated occupations rather than industries. Based on that measure, nearly 3 million, or 44%, of the jobs added from 2010 to 2014 were high-paying positions with salaries above $53,000. Only 1.9 million, or 29%, of the newly formed jobs were middle-wage ($32,000 to $53,000) and 1.8 million, or 27%, were low-wage (less than $32,000).

Economic News – International

On top of the oil slump, Russia is also facing pain from Western sanctions, imposed on Moscow over its role in the crisis in Ukraine. This double hit has pushed Russia into deep recession, its first since 2009. Russia’s economy shrank 4.6% in the second quarter, the biggest drop since the global financial crisis in 2009. The IMF expects Russian GDP to shrink by 3.4% this year and by more than 1% in 2016, as falling real wages, the higher cost of borrowing and shattered confidence hit domestic demand. Moscow’s retaliatory embargo on Western food has helped drive inflation higher. It reached 16% in July.

Japan’s economy contracted in the second quarter, a result that raises questions about the ambitious stimulus plan championed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Gross domestic product fell by an annualized 1.6% in the three months ended June, Japan’s Cabinet Office said Monday. Poor economic growth has fueled Abe’s critics, who are quick to point out that his “Abenomics” plan — a massive bond-buying campaign coupled with structural reforms and stimulus from the central government — has largely failed to lift wages, or dramatically boost growth. Two years after Abenomics was launched, Japan’s economy is still not on track.

China’s Shanghai composite index plunged another 6% Tuesday and other Asian markets also declined as investors appeared to show a delayed reaction to last week’s sell-off following a dramatic devaluation of China’s yuan currency that led to the nation’s central bank injecting cash into the financial system.

Middle East

Israel authorities say troops have shot and killed a Palestinian after he stabbed a guard at a West Bank checkpoint. Tensions have been high in Israel since the July arson attack at a Palestinian West Bank home, when an 18-month-old toddler was burned to death. His father later died from his wounds. Several stabbing attacks have taken place recently.

Islamic State

A group calling itself the Islamic State Hacking Division posted online a purported list of names and contacts for Americans it refers to as “targets,” according to officials. Though the legitimacy of the list is questionable, and much of the information it contains is outdated, the message claims to provide the phone numbers, locations, and “passwords” for 1400 American government and military personnel as well as purported credit card numbers, and excerpts of some Facebook chats.

Thousands of female soldiers have joined Kurdish forces in an effort to protect Christians and minorities from ISIS. The Christian Post reports about 8,000 women from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey have joined the Women’s Protection Unit, or YPJ, a Kurdish military that aims to defend Syrian civilians. Many of the young women are on the front lines, operating heavy weapons and killing ISIS militants in battle. The female soldiers have a slight advantage over ISIS fighters, as the militants fear being killed by women. According to their Islamic extremist beliefs, dying at the hand of a woman means they will not enter heaven.

A 23 year-old man who the FBI describes as an ISIS supporter was arrested and charged with plotting to detonate a backpack bomb on a Florida beach on Tuesday. Harlem Suarez of Key West has been charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction in the U.S. Authorities say the young man first popped up on the FBI’s radar through his extremist online posts that praised ISIS. Suarez told an FBI informant that he wanted to build a timer bomb and then bury it on a Key West beach before detonating it. He was arrested on Monday immediately after taking possession of an inert explosive device provided by the informant.

Syria

The top U.N. humanitarian official said Monday that the conflict in Syria continues to escalate and that he is “horrified” by what he’s seen. “I am absolutely horrified by the total disregard for civilian life by all parties in this conflict,” Stephen O’Brien said. “Attacks on civilians are unlawful, unacceptable and must stop. I appeal to every party engaged in violence and fighting to protect civilians and to respect international humanitarian law.” Syria has been locked in a civil war since 2011. At least 250,000 Syrians have been killed, more than a million injured, and almost half of the population have been displaced, according to O’Brien.

Airstrikes from Syrian government forces hit the rebel-held town of Douma on Sunday, killing as many as 82 people and wounding hundreds, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and aid groups. At least 250 people were wounded in the attack, conducted by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime forces. Multiple airstrikes hit a busy local vegetable market in Douma, about 10 miles northeast of Damascus, causing large-scale casualties. The Syrian Revolution Network, an online network of activists with more than a million followers, tweeted: “50 markets bombed by Assad regime since the beginning of 2015. This one in #Douma bombed twice in 4 days.”

Iraq

At least 10 people were killed and 70 people wounded Sunday when a parked car bomb detonated in Baghdad’s Sadr City district. The car bomb detonated in Al-Habibiya, an area of Sadr City. This incident comes after a massive truck bomb struck another part of the predominantly Shiite district Thursday, killing at least 36 and wounding scores in one of the worst attacks to hit the capital in months. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Mediterranean Sea

At least 40 migrants died Saturday in the hold of an overcrowded smuggling boat in the Mediterranean Sea north of Libya, apparently killed by fuel fumes, and some 320 others on the same boat were saved by the Italian navy, the rescue ship’s commander said. Migrants by the tens of thousands are braving the perilous journey across the Mediterranean this year, hoping to reach Europe and be granted asylum. They are fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Germany

Attacks against refugees are increasing in Germany. The acts include an ugly spate of arson targeting refugee centers as well as physical attacks on refugees themselves, marking the return of what critics say is an unnerving brand of xenophobia to Western Europe’s most populous nation. The attacks are undercutting Germany’s image as the country leading the effort to aid a record flow of refugees into Europe, highlighting the rising social tensions in the region amid the avalanche of asylum-seekers. At the same time, the violence has ignited a heated national debate over what pundits here say is a rise in overt racism and intolerance — in a nation highly sensitive to both because of Nazi-era atrocities. All this is happening as Germany takes in more asylum-seekers than any other nation in Europe — a number set to reach an estimated 500,000 this year alone — while quickly running out of places to house them. As a result, the national government in Berlin is turning to insular and almost wholly white enclaves to take in the newcomers, who are mostly from the Middle East and Africa.

Thailand

A bomb rocked the commercial hub of Bangkok, Thailand, during the evening rush hour on Monday. Reuters reported that at least 12 people were dead. The explosion appears to have gone off in front of the Erawan Shrine, a Hindu shrine that is popular with tourists and locals. The explosion happened at the Rajprasong intersection, the center of many political demonstrations in recent years.

China

New explosions and fires rocked the Chinese port city of Tianjin on Saturday, as one survivor was pulled out and authorities ordered evacuations to clean up chemical contamination more than two days after a fire and a series of blasts set off the disaster. The death toll in Wednesday’s inferno and blasts that devastated industrial and residential zones climbed to 112, including 21 firefighters — making the disaster the deadliest for Chinese firefighters in more than six decades. About 95 people, including 85 firefighters, remain missing, and a total of 720 people have been injured in the rapid succession of explosions that began with a fire from shipping containers containing hazardous material at a warehouse. The warehouse was storing 700 tons of sodium cyanide — 70 times more than it should have been. The government set up a no-man zone within 1.8 miles of the explosions to clean up chemical contamination from sodium cyanide, a toxic chemical that becomes combustible on contact with water or damp air.

Volcanoes

Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa said Saturday he would declare a state of emergency as the Cotopaxi volcano spewed ash into the sky, prompting evacuations of several nearby villages. Cotopaxi, a volcano not far from the Ecuadorean capital of Quito, spouted hot glass and rock after decades of inactivity and sent large gray puffs of ash 3 miles high. Officials said the evacuations were ordered as a precautionary measure as the volcano became increasingly active, but no landslides have been recorded yet. The Sakurajima volcano in Japan also showed increased activity Saturday and Japan’s meteorological agency warned residents on the country’s southwestern island of Kyushu to get ready to evacuate.

Wildfires

Wildfires continued to ravage three western states Sunday, with scores of homes and cabins lost, and many more menaced by flames. The Lawyer Complex Fire near Kamiah, in northwest Idaho, has destroyed an estimated 50 homes and 75 outbuildings. So far, it is 15% contained, with more than 770 firefighters working to bring the flames under control. It includes the Old Greer, Kamiah Gulch, Lawyer 6 and Adams Grade fires, across a combined total of around 20,759 acres.

Wind-pushed fires burned around Chelan and McNeil Canyon, in central Washington State, and remain actively burning with zero containment and the potential to grow, fire officials said Saturday. An estimated 100 structures have already been lost, including homes and cabins in the four fires around Chelan, a town of about 4,000 people. Up to 1,500 evacuation orders are in place, and fire officials are scrambling to come up with a plan of attack.

In California’s Angeles National Forest, the Cabin Fire covers 1,484 acres and is 20% contained. Five structures have burned down. The fire is south of Falling Springs off Highway 39, which is closed in the affected areas for the rest of the weekend. The National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning for parts of California, where four years of historic drought have made it easy for flames to spread.

As of Tuesday morning, 92 large (over 100 acres) wildfires were burning in the U.S., the most in many years. The vast majority were located in the drought-parched northwest. So far this year, a total of 6,699,074 acres have been consumed, the most in over ten years.

Weather

Water supply from the Colorado River will not run short next year, contrary to the dismal projections a few months ago. Water managers even expect to stave off a shortage in 2017 thanks to an unusually wet spring and a multistate agreement to take less water out of Lake Mead, the reservoir that stores water for lower-basin states and Mexico. The Bureau of Reclamation released a report Monday that projects Lake Mead to stand more than seven feet above the level that would trigger a shortage. Lake Mead hit record lows this summer, but has now recovered enough to project an improved forecast.

California’s signature giant sequoia trees are feeling the wrath of nearly five years without sufficient rainfall, and ecologists are worried about what could happen to the natural giants if conditions don’t change. According to The Huffington Post, the historically resilient trees are beginning to show major signs of distress with some losing up to 75 percent of their leaves. To keep an eye on the situation, scientists from the United States Geological Survey and several major universities have joined forces to begin researching what measures forest managers will need to take in order to protect the trees at the highest risk.

On Friday, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport recorded a high of 117 degrees, tying the Arizona capital’s all-time record high for the month of August previously set Aug. 26, 2011. Like that date, Friday’s low was 93, so it also tied for Phoenix’s warmest daily mean temperature on record for the month of August.

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