Signs of the Times (9/21/15)

House Votes to Freeze Federal Funding for Planned Parenthood

The House on Friday voted along party lines to freeze federal funding for Planned Parenthood after weeks of escalating tension surrounding its use of fetal tissue. In a 241-187 vote, nearly all Republicans and two Democrats approved legislation that would block Planned Parenthood’s federal funding for one year, giving time for Congress to fully investigate claims of selling baby body parts raised by the Center for Medical Progress in a series of videos. Lawmakers also passed a bill tightening restrictions on abortion doctors who violate infant protections in a 248-177 vote. “What we’ve learned about Planned Parenthood is appalling, barbaric and indefensible,” Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Pa.) said. The Democrats voting to defund were Reps. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who are both opposed to abortion rights.

Court Shuts Down Attempt to Permanently Stop the Release of More Planned Parenthood Videos

A federal court has shut down a pro-choice group’s attempt to prevent the Center for Medical Progress from releasing more Planned Parenthood videos. Life News reports pro-choice group the National Abortion Federation (NAF) served the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) a restraining order on July 31, preventing the CMP from posting any videos with footage from their meetings. The order was extended several times, but has now been blocked from permanence by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. While the restraining order has not been lifted, the stay indicates that the 9th Circuit court judges question the validity of the restraining order. Katie Short of Life Legal said, “David Daleiden and the Center for Medical Progress are exercising their First Amendment rights in order to expose the unconscionable practices of Planned Parenthood and other abortionists. Despite howls of derision from abortion apologists, CMP’s video evidence has proven very effective in showing the public what the abortion industry is really all about.”

Pope’s Mass in Cuba Draws Hundreds of Thousands

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans swept into an electric Revolution Plaza on Sunday to see Pope Francis say Mass on the first leg of a trip that will also take him to Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia. Thousands of singing, clapping Cubans began streaming into the square several hours before Mass began. Later, Francis smiled and waved to huge, adoring crowds as he rolled through the city streets in a partially glass-enclosed “popemobile” enroute to the Mass. He exited the vehicle from time to time to warmly shake hands with some of the throngs lining the streets leading to the square. It was an enthusiastic showing for the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in a country where, according to one recent survey, less than one-third of its residents consider themselves Catholic. The Mass was just the beginning of a busy day for the pope, who visited Cuban President Raul Castro and Castro’s brother, Fidel. A night prayer service and a meeting with young people also is scheduled. Peace and reconciliation are expected to be major themes of the pontiff’s four-day Cuba visit, which includes stops in Havana, Holguin and Santiago de Cuba.

  • The Pope’s visit is another historic benchmark of the communist country’s increasing openness to reconciliation with estranged nations of the world, and in particular with Christianity

Obama Nominates First Openly Gay Military Service Chief

President Barack Obama is nominating longtime Pentagon official Eric Fanning to be the Army’s new secretary. If confirmed, Fanning, a civilian, would be the nation’s first openly gay leader of a military service. Fanning, 47, became the Army’s acting undersecretary in July. Before that, he served as Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s chief of staff, and the undersecretary and acting secretary of the Air Force. The nomination comes at a time when the Obama administration is working to eliminate barriers to military service based on sexuality or gender. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that allowed homosexuals to serve in the military as long as they hid their sexuality was officially repealed during Obama’s first term. Gays are now allowed to openly serve. In the meantime, women have been crossing traditional barriers in the military, as well. Two women competed for and earned their Army Ranger tabs this summer for the first time in history. On Friday, the Marines announced they would open armored units to women, but would seek to keep several front-line combat jobs – infantry and artillery – closed.

U.S., Russia Launch Military Talks on Syria

Military talks between the U.S. and Russia on the Syrian crisis began Friday with a telephone call between Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoygu. The two leaders talked about areas where U.S. and Russian “perspectives overlap and areas of divergence,” according to a Pentagon statement. The two sides agreed to continue to discuss how to prevent conflict between U.S. and Russian forces fighting in Syria against Islamic State militants who have attacked Syrian and Kurdish militias supported by the United States and Syrian government forces supported by Russia. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S.-Russian talks are focused on “trying to find out what the Russians are doing and what their intentions are.” “We’ve been very clear we don’t accept Russia’s premise that somehow Assad can be a credible partner in fighting ISIL,” Toner said. “We reject that.”

  • Russia’s alignment with Persia (Iran, Syria) is a key end-time alliance (Ezekiel 38)

US will Take 85,000 Refugees Next Year; 100,000 in ’17

Scrambling to address a growing Syrian refugee crisis, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced Sunday that the United States would significantly increase the number of worldwide refugees it takes in over the next two years, though not by nearly the amount many activists and former officials have urged. The U.S. will accept 85,000 refugees from around the world next year, up from 70,000, and that total would rise to 100,000 in 2017, Kerry said. Many, though not all, of the additional refugees would be Syrian, American officials have said. Others would come from strife-torn areas of Africa. The White House had previously announced it intended to take in 10,000 additional Syrian refugees over the next year. Asked why the U.S. couldn’t take more, Kerry cited post-Sept. 11 screening requirements and a lack of money made available by Congress.

Europe’s Ongoing Migrant Crisis Worsens

Hungary, which has deployed thousands of troops to cope with a flood of migrants, escorted thousands more to the border with Austria Saturday and is calling up army reservists to cope with the onslaught. Slovenian police used pepper spray on a group of migrants trying to cross the border from Croatia, the BBC reported. Most of the migrants, who are fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa, want to go to Germany or the Scandinavian countries. Austria said Saturday 6,700 people have arrived there. Croatia claims it cannot cope with thousands of refugees and sends them to Hungary which, in turn, passes them along to Austria. The latest moves by governments in the region have left thousands of refugees stuck in southeast Europe.

Thirteen migrants died Sunday when their boat collided with a ferry off Turkey, as Hungary reopened its main border crossing with Serbia after closing it five days ago to stop migrants from entering. In another incident early Sunday, the Greek coastguard was searching for 26 missing migrants after rescuing 20 people, who said that 46 people were aboard their boat which sank off the eastern Aegean island of Lesbos. A search is also continuing east of Lesbos for between 10 and 12 people missing after their boat sank Saturday morning. The coast guard rescued 11 people. Altogether, more than 4,500 migrants were rescued in the Mediterranean Sea on Saturday in 21 operations as they tried to reach Europe from Libya, the Italian coastguard said.

The migrants and refugees coming to Europe have faced everything from daunting overland journeys to sinking boats, razor wire border fences and their shelters being set on fire. Now, as more of them head to Croatia, there’s a new obstacle: minefields. Thanks to one of the 1990s wars that followed Yugoslavia’s collapse, parts of Croatia — including near its northeast border with Serbia, where migrants are now crossing — are still scattered with active mines. There are around 50,000 of them, according to the Croatian Mine Action Center (CROMAC). Mines have killed more than 500 people in the southern European country since the end of the war in 1995, the BBC reports.

Consumption Trends Affecting the World

As the world’s population surpasses 7 billion, each of our actions—positive or negative—gets multiplied. Worldwatch Institute’s latest publication, Vital Signs: The Trends That Are Shaping Our Future, reveals five global consumption trends affecting the world:

1) Since 1800, the rate of meat production has outpaced human population growth by a factor of over three. The livestock sector uses industrial methods that consume large quantities of water, feed, grazing land, synthetic fertilizers, and antibiotics.

2) Since 1950, the amount of coal consumed worldwide has nearly quadrupled. The Asia-Pacific region accounted for 70% of global coal consumption in 2013. Coal is the dirtiest energy source we use today, polluting the air and spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

3) The world’s fleet of light-duty vehicles (such as passenger cars and light trucks) has grown so much that there is now one car for every seven people on the planet. Today’s light-duty gasoline-powered vehicles are the top contributor to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

4) Even though most plastic is recyclable, between 22 and 43 percent of plastic worldwide is disposed of in landfills. And each year, 10–20 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans. When plastic is not recycled, it is often sent to a landfill where its resources are wasted, it takes up valuable space, and it blights communities. Plastic in oceans can entangle seabirds, whales, and dolphins or get transferred up the food chain as small particles get ingested.

5) Since they were first commercialized in the early 1990s, genetically modified (GM) crops have reached a global plantation area of 447 million acres in 2014. The most commonly planted GM crops were soybeans (used for animal feed and oil), maize (used for animal feed), cotton, and canola (used for oil). Growing more crops for animal feed is driving numerous environmental problems, from pollution to deforestation.

Economic News

U.S. home resales fell more than expected in August, a cautionary sign for the U.S. housing market which has recently looked on stronger footing. The National Association of Realtors said on Monday existing home sales dropped 4.8 percent to an annual rate of 5.31 million units. The decline in August might be due to rising prices shutting out potential buyers, said Lawrence Yun, the NAR’s chief economist. Home sales fell most in America’s South and West, areas which had recently seen the fastest price gains, he said. Nationwide, the median home price fell slightly in August to $228,700. That was still up 4.7 percent from a year earlier. Prices in the West were up 7.1 percent from a year earlier.

Americans’ wealth hit a record $85.7 trillion this spring, thanks mainly to the recovering housing market. The value of owner-occupied real estate hit $21.5 trillion, up more than $400 billion from the first quarter and nearly $4.5 trillion since the low point in 2011, according to a Federal Reserve report released Friday. Still, Americans’ housing wealth remains about $5 trillion below the all-time high hit in 2006. Most middle class Americans’ net worth is tied up in their homes. However, these figures don’t take into account housing debt. Subtracting out mortgages, Americans’ equity in their homes hit $12.2 trillion, but that is roughly $3.5 trillion below its 2006 high. Factoring in mortgages, Americans’ share of equity in their homes has recovered to 56.3%, up from a low of 37% in 2009. Throughout most of the early 2000s, Americans’ share of equity was around 60%.

The nation’s wealth recovery stands in marked contrast to the fortunes of the typical American family. Median household income was $53,657 in 2014, far below the peak set in 1999, said the Census Bureau last Wednesday. The holding pattern in wages comes despite the fact that millions more Americans are working. Some 1.2 million more men and 1.6 million more women are working full-time, year-round than during the depths of the recent recession. Meanwhile, the nation’s poverty rate also held steady at 14.8% last year, the Census Bureau reported. Some 46.7 million Americans remained in poverty.

When an Indian state government recently advertised for 368 tea servers and night guards, 2.3 million people applied. Officials were overwhelmed by the number of applicants, which was roughly equivalent to one percent of the population of Uttar Pradesh, a state in north India. High demand for the lowly jobs suggests that all is far from well in India’s labor market, which gets one million new workers each month. It also underscores the premium that millions of Indians still place on working for the government. State jobs come with good benefits, relatively high pay and, thanks to strict labor laws, often last for a lifetime.

Middle East

Israeli police rounded up dozens of Palestinians suspected of throwing rocks and gasoline bombs during riots in and around Jerusalem over the weekend. Three police officers were badly wounded during the clashes, requiring hospital treatment for burns, while others received less serious wounds. A heavy police presence in the capital, including reconnaissance helicopters and hundreds of supplemental border police reservists, have largely kept the situation from deteriorating.

Islamic State

At least 75 fighters trained by U.S., British and Turkish forces have entered northern Syria, said the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The fighters crossed over from Turkey on Friday and Saturday and are now located in areas north of the city of Aleppo. Their arrival comes shortly after U.S. officials acknowledged that the Pentagon’s program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to help fight ISIS had fallen far short of its original aims. A review of the training program has been underway since an initial group of some 54 rebels put into northern Syria this summer came under attack and are no longer a functioning fighting force. That attack demonstrated that units have to be larger so the forces can protect themselves, officials said. Warplanes from the U.S.-led coalition continue to carry out a bombing campaign against ISIS positions in Syria and Iraq. But Western nations haven’t yet sent ground troops to fight against the militant group.

Syria

The United States is concerned about Russia’s recent deployment of fighter jets to Syria despite new conversations between the two countries to de-escalate the conflict in Syria. “Clearly, the presence of aircraft with air-to-air combat capacity as well as … surface-to-air missiles raises serious questions,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in London. Before this development, the United States had observed eight Russian military helicopters inside Syria, and seen Russia move tanks, mobile artillery and armored vehicles into the country.

Yemen

Six hostages, including three Americans and one British citizen, have been released by rebels in Yemen after more than five months in captivity, airport officials and rebels in the Middle Eastern country said Sunday. The Times of Oman reported that after being freed the six boarded a plane heading to Muscat, Oman. Houthi officials refused to give the reasons for the hostages’ detention, but said at least one of them is a journalist who “entered the country illegally” and “worked without notifying the authorities.”

Nigeria

At least 54 people were killed and 90 were wounded in a three-bomb attack in northeast Nigeria, local police reported Monday. The multiple bomb attack occurred in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, Sunday night. There are conflicting reports on casualties but Reuters has reported at least 54 dead. Although there’s been no official claim of responsibility, police suspect Boko Haram Islamic militants. Boko Haram has recently resorted to hit-and-run tactics after the Nigerian military recaptured territory once held by the militants. At least 20,000 people have been killed in Boko Haram’s six-year-old uprising which has displaced 2.1 million people across three countries.

Japan

Japan’s upper chamber of Parliament early Saturday approved controversial bills allowing the country’s military to engage in overseas combat in limited circumstances — a major shift after seven decades of pacifism following World War II. Supporters of the legislation, including top U.S. officials, say Japan needs to expand the role of the SDF to counter potential threats from nations such as China and North Korea. Both continue to develop their military and nuclear weapons programs. Last week, North Korea warned the United States and its allies that it is ready to use nuclear weapons “at any time” and is expected to launch a new satellite using a long-range rocket sometime in the coming weeks. Tokyo has faced growing international pressure to expand the role of its military, including deployment, to defend the interests of its key allies, including the United States. America is bound by treaty to defend Japan, an agreement that has been in place since 1960.

Wildfires

Over the weekend, fire officials determined that a large blaze north of San Francisco destroyed another 162 homes, making it the fourth-worst wildfire in state history. The Valley fire has now reduced 1,050 residences to ash, according to authorities. Factor in another large wildfire still burning in Northern California, the Butte fire, and the total number of houses destroyed nears 1,600. The Valley fire has burned 75,711 acres and threatens another 6,563 structures; it is 69-percent contained and 3 persons have been killed. The Butte Fire has consumed 70,760 acres and burned; 545 homes with 6,400 structures threatened; it is 72-percent contained and 2 people have been killed. A third wildfire, the Rough Fire has burned 41,599 acres and is 68-percent contained; no structures have been destroyed.

 

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