Signs of the Times (9/29/15)

Obama and Putin Butt Heads over Ukraine and Syria

In their first meeting since Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin argued Monday over how to resolve the Syrian civil war without agreeing on the way forward. They especially disagreed over the role of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who Obama described earlier as “a tyrant” and Putin believes is a bulwark against Islamic State militants in Syria. Their private meeting came after they very publicly clashed over Syria and Ukraine in their speeches to the U.N. General Assembly in New York. After their 95-minute meeting ended, Putin told reporters he would not rule out joining the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, but would not send ground troops into combat. He said any Russian action will be in accordance with international law. During his news conference broadcast by the Russian news site RT, Putin claimed the U.S.-led airstrikes violate the U.N. Charter because Syria didn’t ask for them, and the U.N. Security Council has not approved the action.

Obama reiterated U.S. support for the sovereignty of Ukraine and urged enacting the cease-fire signed in February in Minsk, Belarus, that has yet to be fully implemented. Fighting in Ukraine has recently abated for nearly a month. The United States accuses Russia of sending its military and heavy weapons to help pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine seize territory and battle Ukrainian government forces, which Russia denies. According to the U.N., more than 8,000 people have died in the conflict that started in April 2014 after Russia seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

World Leaders Gang-Up on Obama

The Russian president showed up at the United Nations on Monday for the first time in a decade, proposing a coup against U.S. global leadership and seeking to wrest control of a coalition battling ISIS away from America’s grip. And he wasn’t the only leader of a country challenging the United States to effectively upstage Obama at the annual global meeting, which a U.S. president traditionally uses to command the spotlight. Speeches by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the 70th anniversary of the creation of the world body also left Obama defending not only his personal foreign policy legacy, which is already under assault at home from Republican presidential candidates, but the entire concept of a world order based on seven decades of U.S. global leadership, CNN reported. The day of speech-making also included an address by Cuban leader Raul Castro and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which underscored the multipolar challenges to U.S. global leadership.

President Obama to meet with Cuban President Raúl Castro

While in New York for the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, President Obama will have his second face-to-face meeting with Raúl Castro since the U.S. and Cuba restored diplomatic relations in late 2014. Obama met the communist leader in April on the sidelines of a Summit of the Americas meeting in Panama. The two also spoke by phone this month before the visit of Pope Francis to Cuba and the USA. This is Castro’s first trip to the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly.

Pope Finally Addresses Priest Sexual Abuse

Pope Francis said Sunday morning that all those responsible for the sexual abuse of youth by clergy will be held accountable. “God weeps” for sexual abuse of children, he said, vowing “careful oversight” to ensure that youth are protected. “The people who had the responsibility to take care of these tender ones violated that trust and caused them great pain,” he said during a meeting with bishops in Philadelphia. Earlier Sunday, Francis met with some of the victims of clergy sexual abuse. “Those who have survived this abuse have become true heralds of mercy. Humbly we owe each of them our gratitude for their great value, as they have had to suffer terrible abuse, sexual abuse of minors,” he said.

  • The problem remains that very little action has been taken to identify, remove and discipline clerical abusers as well as to take measures to prevent future abuse

Over 522,000 Migrants Arrive in Europe by Sea in 2015

A record 522,124 migrants and refugees have arrived in Europe by sea this year, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said Tuesday. The number is more than double the previous high set only last year. Of the estimated number of migrants who made the hazardous journey by sea, 388,000 arrived in Greece and 130,891 in Italy. They hail from countries that include Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and Bangladesh, the IOM said. Last year, 219,000 migrants and refugees escaping war and poverty sailed to Europe. The route to Italy along the central Mediterranean is the deadliest — 2,621 migrants have drowned or gone missing there this year — but deaths have started to increase in the Aegean Sea, where many Syrians are heading from Turkey in an effort to reach Greece, the IOM said. It estimated that 246 people have died on that route in 2015. Thousands more migrants are on the move in many African countries says the IOM.

Republicans push to defund Planned Parenthood

Republicans are trying a new way to defund Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, while avoiding a government shutdown. On Tuesday, two committees will take up bills that would pave the way for Congress to pass legislation that would essentially strip federal funds from the organization. It appears that Congress will vote this week to keep the government open without addressing the issue; President Obama has vowed to veto any legislation to defund Planned Parenthood. Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, is expected to testify before Congress regarding the non-profit’s use of taxpayers’ funds, amid allegations that the organization had discussed selling tissue and organs from aborted fetuses for profit. Ahead of what promises to be a volatile hearing on taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood, a forensic analysis has determined that a series of disturbing videos showing the group’s employees discussing fetal tissue harvesting “are authentic and show no evidence of manipulation or editing,” reports Fox news.

FBI Reports Violent Crime Down in U.S.

The FBI says crime rates, including murder, were down last year. The report is in contrast to headlines this year about a surge in killings in some major cities. The annual Uniform Crime Report statistics released Monday come amid lingering tension over police shootings and the relationship between officers and minority communities. The FBI report shows a 0.2% decline nationwide in violent crimes in 2014. The report says that in 2014 the U.S. recorded the fewest murders since 2009. Most other violent crimes, such as robbery, burglary, theft and arson have declined, while aggravated assaults and rapes, which now includes a broader definition, were on the rise in 2014. The 2014 numbers do not reflect an increase this year in murders and other violent crimes reported in some cities, such as Washington, Baltimore, Milwaukee and others.

Asians to Pass Hispanics as Largest Immigrant Group in U.S.

In a major shift in immigration patterns over the next 50 years, Asians will have surged past Hispanics to become the largest group of immigrants heading to the United States, according to estimates in a new immigration study by the Pew Research Center. An increase in Asian and Hispanic immigration also will drive U.S. population growth, with foreign-born residents expected to make up 18 percent of the country’s projected 441 million people in 50 years. This will be a record, higher than the nearly 15 percent during the late 19th century and early 20th century wave of immigration from Europe. Today, immigrants make up 14 percent of the population, an increase from 5 percent in 1965. The percentage of people living in the USA who were born outside the country is projected to hit a record 14.9% in 2025, the report said. The country’s previous high of 14.8% was set in 1890, when waves of Irish, Italian, Polish and other immigrants were coming to the USA.

VW Scandal: 1.8M Vehicles with Software to Fool Emission Regulations

Volkswagen’s commercial vehicles division says 1.8 million of its vehicles are among those affected by the emissions-rigging scandal. Volkswagen AG has admitted using a piece of engine software to cheat on diesel car emissions tests in the U.S. Also affected are another 5 million VW brand cars, 2.1 million Audis and 1.2 million Skodas. German prosecutors are investigating former Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn for possible fraud related to selling cars with falsified emissions data. Winterkorn took responsibility for the scandal when he resigned last week, but said then he was not aware of any wrong doing on his part. Volkswagen’s scheme was discovered last year by a West Virginia laboratory that was commissioned by a clean energy advocacy group that had raised questions about emission levels in diesel vehicles. For more than a year, VW argued to U.S. officials that it was not doing anything wrong. Only recently did VW admit to them that it had installed “defeat devices” in the cars to get around emissions standards.

Economic News

The average American full-time employee may be bringing home more money each year, but the truth is they’re earning less money today than the average American forty years ago when adjusted for inflation. Because most everything we buy gets more expensive over time, you have to earn more money each year just to maintain your existing standard of living. When raises don’t keep up with inflation, you’re effectively suffering a pay cut. The U.S. Census Bureau measured the median male full-time worker made just over $50,383 in 2014 — and if you measured the median male full-time worker in 1973 adjusted for inflation, they’d be making more than $53,294.

The broad U.S. stock market is down more than 10% since the May peak, which in Wall Street-speak is just a “correction.” But a growing number of investment gurus are saying a bear market has already arrived on Wall Street. After a 2.6% drop Monday to 1881.77, the broad Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index was down 11.7% from its May 21 record close of 2130.82. But the current downdraft, at least from a numerical standpoint, is still a far cry from a full-fledged bear market, or a drop of 20% or more from a peak. The recent market turbulence has been sparked by a slowdown in China, uncertainty over when the Federal Reserve will hike interest rates, and slowing earnings growth in the U.S. Stocks rose slightly at the open Tuesday. Asian stocks were down with Japan’s Nikkei 225 index plunging 4.1% Tuesday. The fall of Asian shares extended a global market sell-off triggered by grim corporate news.

Royal Dutch Shell said it will end oil exploration in offshore Alaska “for the foreseeable future,” after an exploratory well in the Chukchi Sea failed to yield the oil and gas that was hoped for. The company also said it was ending its efforts in the basin because of the expense, lower oil prices and the contentious regulatory climate in the area. The announcement was a major setback for Shell, which hoped that drilling off the Alaska coast would boost the company’s revenue.

Russia’s economy will shrink by 3.4% this year, and by a further 1% next year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Ordinary Russians are feeling the pain. Prices have shot up by nearly 16% over the past year. Oil is Russia’s biggest earner. Around 70% of its exports are energy-related, and 50% of government revenue comes directly from the oil sector. Analysts estimate Russia loses $2 billion for every dollar fall in the global oil price – thus the price drop from $105 to $45 per barrel caused a $120 hit to the Russian economy.

Persecution Watch

Naghmeh Abedini, wife of imprisoned pastor Saeed Abedini says her husband’s treatment in Iran has worsened since the nuclear accord was signed. She said her husband is increasingly sent to solitary confinement and suffers attacks from both guards and inmates. His father visited him this week and learned that prison officials attacked him with a stun gun and interrogated him Tuesday. Apparently, additional charges are forthcoming that could lengthen his sentence. “My husband’s situation has gotten worse,” she told me while sitting in the office of Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., who invited her to the pope’s address. “Honestly, since the [nuclear] deal, I thought the treatment of my husband would improve.”

Three church buildings were set ablaze on Tuesday, Sept. 22, in an area of northwestern Tanzania where Muslim extremists have issued threats, pastors said. A pastor of one of the three churches whose buildings were gutted, Vedasto Athanas of Living Water International church, said area Christians are worried and frightened because such attacks have increased each of the past few years. “What is worrying us is that the burning of the three churches happened within a span of two hours,” he told Morning Star News. Also burned were the buildings of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God and the Evangelical Assemblies of God; all three churches are located in the Kashfa village area of Bukoba District.

Middle East

Israeli riot police briefly clashed with young Palestinian protesters at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site early Sunday, raising tensions ahead of a major Jewish holiday. No injuries or arrests were reported. The clashes occurred at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City that is revered by Jews and Muslims. The site is a frequent flashpoint of violence, and Israel has beefed up security around the area following several rounds of clashes in recent weeks. In Sunday’s incident, police said a small group of masked Palestinian youths threw stones and firecrackers at Israeli police gathered at the main entrance point. The unrest occurred hours before the beginning of Sukkot, a weeklong festival that celebrates the fall harvest and commemorates the wandering of the ancient Israelites through the desert following the exodus from Egypt. Many Jews are expected to visit the city throughout the holiday period, raising the risk of further unrest. The Temple Mount was home to the biblical Temples, and is known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven.

Islamic State

Nearly 30,000 foreign recruits have now poured into Syria, many to join the Islamic State, a doubling of volunteers in just the past 12 months and stark evidence that an international effort to tighten borders, share intelligence and enforce antiterrorism laws is not diminishing the ranks of new militant fighters, reports the New York Times. Among those who have entered or tried to enter the conflict in Iraq or Syria are more than 250 Americans, up from about 100 a year ago. That grim appraisal coincides with the scheduled release on Tuesday of a six-month, bipartisan congressional investigation into terrorist and foreign fighter travel, which concludes that “despite concerted efforts to stem the flow, we have largely failed to stop Americans from traveling overseas to join jihadists.”

France on Sunday said it launched its first airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Syria. French President Francois Hollande said there was proof that attacks were planned from Syria against several countries including France, and blamed ISIL for Europe’s refugee crisis, the largest the continent has faced since World War II. Announcing the airstrikes, Hollande’s office said in a statement Sunday: “Our country thus confirms its resolute commitment to fight against the terrorist threat represented by Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIL). We will strike each time that our national security is at stake.”

Iraqi will begin sharing “security and intelligence” information with Russia, Syria and Iran to help combat the advances of the Islamic State group, the Iraqi military announced Sunday. A U.S.-led coalition has been conducting aerial bombing campaigns against ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria, but U.S. officials insist they have no coordination with Iran. The agreement with Russia comes at a time when Moscow is ramping up its involvement in Syria in defense of its ally Bashar Assad, with Russian soldiers on the ground in Syria, according to activists. The Iraqi military statement said that Moscow is increasingly concerned about “the presence of thousands of terrorists from Russia who are carrying out criminal acts with Daesh.” “Russia’s military build-up in Syria has grown to include the shipment of a half-dozen highly sophisticated battle tanks — and more troops — a defense official told Fox News, in what the source called the ‘first clear sign of offensive weapons arriving in Syria,'” reports Fox News.

Saudi Arabia

Muslims embarked on the final day of religious pilgrimage known as the hajj in Saudi Arabia on Saturday as the death total from Thursday’s stampede there reached 769 and international recriminations grew bitter. Saudi Health Minister Khalid al-Falih said Saturday that another 934 were injured in the crush at the site in the city Mina. Saudi Arabia’s chief regional rival, Iran — which lost more than 130 citizens in the disaster — leveled the most damning allegations, accusing the Saudis of “crimes” and incompetence. It vowed Saturday to take legal action in international courts. Iranian leaders contend the kingdom is no longer capable of managing an event that draws 2 million people each year.

Afghanistan

The Taliban seized half of a major city in northern Afghanistan on Monday. The militants launched coordinated attacks to capture Kunduz, once one of the wealthiest cities in the country. At least 25 militants and two policemen have been killed and reinforcements have been sent, the BBC reported. The city is in lockdown as gun battles between the extremists and Afghan government forces continue, Al Jazeera said. Taliban forces have occupied a number of government buildings including a hospital and a courthouse. The BBC said that militants claim that they captured the city’s prison and freed about 500 inmates. The U.S. military says it launched an airstrike on Kunduz in early Tuesday, after it was captured by the Taliban the previous day.

Yemen

At least 131 people died after an airstrike hit a wedding party in Yemen, medical officials said Tuesday. The Saudi-led coalition against Shiite rebels known as Houthis mistakenly hit the gathering Monday. On Monday, Locals said two missiles struck tents in the Red Sea village of al-Wahga, where a man affiliated with the Houthis was holding his wedding reception. The Saudi-led coalition, which began the airstrikes in March, said it was not responsible for the incident, but witnesses said warplanes targeted the party and Yemeni officials acknowledged that there had been a mistake, according to the BBC.

Spain

Pro-secession parties pushing for Spain’s northeastern Catalonia region to break away and form a new Mediterranean nation won a landmark vote Sunday by capturing a majority of seats in the regional parliament, setting up a possible showdown over independence with the central government in Madrid. With 99% of the vote counted, the “Together for Yes” group of secessionists had 62 seats in the 135-member parliament. If they join forces with the left-wing pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy party, which won 10 seats, they will have the 68 seats needed to try to push forward their plan to make Catalonia independent from Spain by 2017.

Earthquakes

A huge sinkhole opened up along a Queensland, Australia, beach late Saturday night, forcing dozens of campers to flee. Shortly after the sinkhole began to open, several vehicles were sucked into the hole. The sinkhole was roughly 300 feet wide, 300 feet long and 10 feet deep. Authorities are still investigating the cause of the sinkhole, but there are some who suspect it may have been caused by recent seismic activity off the coast, the Brisbane Times also reported.

  • As end-time earthquake activity has heated up, sinkholes are appearing around the world in greater numbers

Weather

Heavy rain hammered parts of the Gulf Coast on Sunday. Even without tropical development, local flash flooding will continue to be a headache along the Gulf Coast Tuesday. So far, flooding was reported in southern Mississippi and southern Alabama on Sunday, with more than a half foot of rain falling in some locations. The Mobile, Alabama, regional airport saw 7.5 inches of rain on Sunday Street flooding was reported in the Pensacola, Florida, area Monday morning from a band of very heavy rainfall. The Pensacola National Air Station had seen more than six inches of rain since late Sunday night as of 8 a.m. CDT Monday. Farther east in Navarre, Florida a private weather station has reported over 12 inches of rain through late afternoon Monday. On Monday night, flooding of homes and roads was reported in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida where rainfall rates of 2 to 3 inches per hour were observed.

Two people are dead and six others are missing in Taiwan after Typhoon Dujuan slammed the island nation before moving west into mainland China. Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported 324 injuries. Six mountain climbers have been reported missing. More than 7,000 people have been evacuated to safety, according to a government report. At least 2,000 people were spread amongst 72 shelters, and 370,000 households are without running water. Nearly1.8 million households lost power at some point during the storm, with 710,000 people remaining in the dark.

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