Archive for January, 2016

Signs of the Times (1/29/16)

January 29, 2016

NY Couple Ordered to Complete “Re-education” About Marriage

The New York couple, who were sued for their refusal to host a same-sex marriage ceremony on their property, were fined $13,000 and ordered to attend “re-education training classes” to counter their religious beliefs on marriage as a sacred union between a man and woman. CNSNews reported that after an appeals court ruled the Giffords were guilty of ‘sexual orientation discrimination,’ it fined them $10,000, plus $3,000 in damages and ordered them to attend “re-education training classes designed to contradict the couple’s religious beliefs about marriage.” “All Americans should be free to live and work according to their beliefs, especially in our own backyards,” ADF legal counsel Caleb Dalton, who argued before the court on behalf of the couple. “The government went after both this couple’s freedom and their ability to make a living simply for adhering to their faith on their own property.”

  • Not only were they punished and fined for their faith as expressed on private property, they must now undergo forced indoctrination into the religion of secular humanism. A portent of our future?

Grand Jury in Texas Indicts Activists behind Planned Parenthood Videos

A Houston grand jury investigating criminal allegations against Planned Parenthood stemming from a series of undercover videos on Monday instead indicted two of the anti-abortion activists who shot the footage. In a stunning turn of events, the grand jury declined to indict officials from the abortion provider, and instead handed up a felony charges of tampering with a government record against Center for Medical Progress founder David Daleiden and center employee Sandra Merritt. The case sprang from a series of dramatic undercover videos in which Center for Medical Progress employees posed as prospective buyers of fetal tissue, and captured several employees of Planned Parenthood and its contractors appearing to discuss practices banned by law. However, when the videos were released online last year, Planned Parenthood claimed selective editing had created a misperception. Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson didn’t provide details on the charges, including what record or records were allegedly tampered with and why Daleiden faces a charge related to buying human organs.

  • Did we really expect the government to allow anyone to threaten their poster child for secular humanism?

One Killed as Feds Bust Oregon Militia Occupation

Authorities say they have arrested Ammon Bundy, the leader of a group of protesters holed up at a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon for more than three weeks. The FBI and Oregon State Police moved in to arrest members of the armed group about 4:25 p.m. PT Tuesday along Highway 395. Shots were fired and one individual “who was a subject of a federal probable cause arrest is deceased,” said a joint FBI-OSP release. Bundy Ranch, on its Facebook page, said in a post Tuesday evening that Arizona resident Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, author of the novel Only by Blood and Suffering, was shot and killed during the encounter. Another person received non-life threatening injuries and was taken to a local hospital. He was subsequently arrested and taken into custody. Six others were also arrested. Bundy, head of an anti-government group, had been holed up at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge since Jan. 2, when he and followers seized its headquarters south of Burns as part of a long-running dispute over public land use in the West. A small group of holdouts continued the tense standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Thursday, one day after eight more people abandoned the site as federal, state and local authorities tightened their grip on the armed occupation. Eleven occupiers have been arrested.

The FBI released video Friday from one of their airplanes showing Finicum driving a white truck. He was pursued and ultimately confronted and killed by Oregon State Police officers. The FBI said Finicum behaved recklessly and made a motion toward a gun in his coat pocket. Finicum went overnight from militia member to martyr and meme. Hours after federal authorities shot the 55-year-old Arizona rancher Tuesday during the arrest of several anti-government protesters who had occupied a wildlife refuge in Oregon, Finicum’s image went viral on far right-wing websites. Outrage continued to build Wednesday on social media sites amid questions about the circumstances of Finicum’s death and whether he had his hands raised in surrender when he was shot. Other voices on social media and in the press, however, praised the FBI’s actions, saying that the armed protesters brought violence on themselves.

Cheap Oil Undermines Climate Accord

Barely a month after world leaders signed a sweeping agreement to reduce carbon emissions, the global commitment to renewable energy sources faces its first big test as the price of oil collapses, reports the New York Times. Buoyed by low gas prices, Americans are largely eschewing electric cars in favor of lower-mileage trucks and sport utility vehicles. For the climate accord to work, governments must resist the lure of cheap fossil fuels in favor of policies that encourage and, in many cases, require the use of zero-carbon energy sources. But those policies can be expensive and politically unpopular, especially as traditional fuels become ever more affordable. “This will be a litmus test for the governments — whether or not they are serious about what they have done in Paris,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency.

  • The one-world government cabal will counter this problem by instituting carbon-based taxation to push their sustainability agenda as the means to institute further globalization

Flint Residents Protest Bills for Undrinkable Water

Flint, Michigan residents can’t use their tap water for drinking or bathing because of lead-contamination fears, but the city continues to bill them for the water anyway. It feels like a slap in the face,” said Claudia Perkins-Milton, 63, whose most recent bill was about $99. “The only thing the water’s good for is flushing the toilet. That’s it.” She was among about 100 residents who protested Monday in front of Flint’s city hall. Many residents say they’ve been buying their own bottled water for months and are outraged that they continue to be billed. Flint residents pay some of the highest water bills in all of Michigan. Free bottled water and filters have been offered from city fire stations as concerns of contamination persist. Walmart, Coca-Cola, Nestle and PepsiCo are to announce Tuesday the donation of about 176 truckloads of water to help people affected by the water crisis in Flint. The water crisis in Flint, has exposed the danger that lead could potentially leach into the drinking water of millions of Americans from old pipes which are very costly to replace.

Researchers Strive to Prevent the Spread of the Zika Virus into the United States

Nearly 4,000 babies with a birth defect called microcephaly have been born in Brazil to mothers infected with the Zika virus. These babies have small heads and abnormal brain development, and so far, 46 have died in there. “It really is an unprecedented event,” said Dr. Lyle Petersen, director of the division of vector-borne diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The concern is not just for babies. Zika has also been linked in Brazil to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes paralysis. So far, there have been about 20 cases in the continental United States. All of those patients had traveled abroad to Brazil or other affected areas. The disease has not yet spread beyond those travelers, according to the CDC. On Wednesday, a Danish hospital reported their first case of Zika. Airlines are starting to offer refunds to passengers who have booked flights to countries in central and south America caught up in the Zika virus outbreak. The World Health Organization on Thursday said it was convening an emergency committee next week to decide if the Zika virus outbreak should be declared an international health emergency. WHO estimates that there could be 3 million to 4 million cases of Zika virus in a 12-month period in the Americas, WHO official Dr. Sylvain Aldighieri said Thursday, calling the growth “explosive.”

The Zika virus is a mosquito-transmitted infection related to dengue, yellow fever and West Nile virus. Although it was discovered in the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947 and is common in Africa and Asia, it did not begin spreading widely in the Western Hemisphere until last May, when an outbreak occurred in Brazil. Few of in the West have immune defenses against the virus, so it is spreading rapidly. Millions of people in tropical regions of the Americas may have had it. Zika is spread by mosquitoes of the Aedes species, which can breed in a pool of water as small as a bottle cap and usually bite during the day.

Migrant Update

A 15-year-old refugee boy has been arrested and accused of stabbing a social worker to death in western Sweden. The victim, a 22-year-old woman, was attacked Monday at the center in the town of Molndal, near Gothenburg. The alleged attacker was restrained by other residents until police arrived. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said that many Swedes fear that such attacks could happen more frequently because of the influx of refugees. “We’re dealing with more incidents like these since the arrival of so many more refugees from abroad,” he said. Sweden accepted approximately 160,000 asylum applications last year, becoming a popular destination for refugees fleeing turmoil in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. However, the country recently introduced temporary border checks in an effort to control the flow of new arrivals. Sweden’s interior minister said Thursday that his country is preparing to expel 80,000 asylum seekers over the course of the next year.

Economic News – Domestic

Gross domestic product expanded at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of just 0.7% the last three months of the year, the Commerce Department said Friday. The economy grew 2.4% for all of 2015, in line with last year’s pace and a bit higher than the tepid 2.2% average during the post-recession recovery. Growth slowed substantially in the fourth quarter as businesses dialed back stockpiling and investment, the trade gap widened, and even consumers reined in their spending a bit. The main culprits in the fourth quarter were a weak global economy and low oil prices, which have hammered manufacturers’ exports and business spending throughout 2015.

At the end of its two-day meeting Wednesday, the U.S. central bank acknowledged that the U.S. economy lost momentum at the end of 2015. “Economic growth slowed late last year,” the Fed’s committee said in its statement, noting that the job market had improved nonetheless. In a widely expected decision, the Fed’s committee also decided not to raise its key interest rate. Just a month ago, in December, the Fed raised rates for the first time in nearly a decade.

Orders for long-lasting goods fell sharply in December as weakness abroad and low oil prices continued to weigh on manufacturers. Orders for manufactured durable goods such as autos, computers and electrical equipment tumbled 5.1%, far more than the 0.7% decline economists expected. And November’s flat reading was revised to a 0.5% drop. Orders for capital goods excluding aircraft and defense — a proxy for business investment – fell 4.3%. Economists expected a 0.2% slide. A weak global economy, particularly China’s slowdown, has hurt manufacturers the past year and strengthened the dollar, which makes U.S. goods more expensive overseas.

U.S. home prices increased at a faster clip in November, the gains fueled by solid hiring growth, historically low mortgage rates and a shortage of houses on the market. The Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller 20-city home price index rose 5.8% from a year ago, up from a 5.5% pace in October. Home values nationwide are now just 4.8% below their July 2006 peak prior to the so-called Great Recession. Four metro areas — Dallas, Denver, San Francisco and Portland Oregon — have already matched or eclipsed their all-time highs.

Many experts thought U.S. oil production would fall off a cliff along with the crash in crude prices. In reality, it hasn’t even come close to killing American production. The U.S. pumped 9.35 million barrels of oil a day in October, according to the latest government statistics available. That’s up from 9.13 million barrels in October 2014. The Energy Information Administration estimates U.S. production slipped to 9.24 million in December. That’s hardly an all-out collapse. The 70% plunge in oil prices since mid-2014 has been fueled by an epic supply glut. The oversupply has largely been created by skyrocketing U.S. output, which surged from just 4.6 million barrels per day in October 2005 to a high of 9.69 million last year.

Economic News – International

The Bank of Japan on Friday introduced a negative interest rate policy, a move aimed at boosting a stumbling economic recovery and warding off deflation. Markets jumped on the intervention. Tokyo’s central bank hopes that by imposing a 0.1% fee on selected current account deposits — effectively a negative interest rate — commercial banks will be encouraged to make more loans and so stimulate economic growth. Japan’s economy is forecast to grow just 1.1% in 2015 and 1.7% in 2016.

The U.S. crackdown on Swiss banks suspected of helping American clients evade taxes by hiding income offshore has imposed more than $1.3 billion in penalties on 80 banks in settlements involving more than 34,000 accounts that held as much as $48 billion. The U.S. Department of Justice announced the penalty total Wednesday as prosecutors disclosed the final non-prosecution agreement with Swiss banks. Along with paying the penalties, 80 Swiss banks agreed to cooperate with any related criminal or civil proceedings. The settlements also require the banks to provide information about accounts in which U.S clients held any interest, cooperate in U.S. treaty requests for data from the accounts and close accounts whose owners failed to disclose the holdings to the IRS.

China stocks resumed their freefall on Tuesday, taking heavy losses even after the government pumped huge amounts of cash into the economy. Global markets have suffered from extreme volatility to start 2016. Swings have been fueled by plummeting crude oil prices and increasing uncertainty over global growth amid China’s economic slowdown. In 2015, China posted its slowest annual growth in 25 years. Beijing has worked to calm growth concerns and market turmoil, injecting cash ahead of the major Lunar New Year celebration in early February.

Russians are waking up to the harsh reality that the economic crisis is nowhere near over, despite what President Vladimir Putin has been telling them. There have even been several protests against the economic crisis — a rare sight in a country where demonstrations don’t happen very often. Ordinary Russians are suffering because of the devastating impact of low oil prices and Western sanctions. Real wages fell 9.5% in 2015, with an average Russian earning just over 30,300 rubles ($385) a month last year, official data show. At the same time, prices are rising fast. Inflation hit 12.5% in 2015. The ruble has plunged since the start of the year, hitting an all-time low of 85 rubles per dollar on Thursday.

Middle East

The West Bank settlement of Beit Horon was targeted by two separate Palestinian terrorists on Monday evening, with two Israeli women stabbed and homemade pipe bombs thrown at a grocery store, although they did not explode. The two attackers were shot dead by a security guard, while Hadassah University Medical Center released a statement Tuesday morning confirming that one of the victims, 23-year old Shlomit Krigman, had died from her wounds. The other victim, whose name was not released, remains hospitalized in stable condition at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center. Police said the terrorists infiltrated the community by jumping over the perimeter fence, attacking the first people they found inside.

Islamic State

Since declaring its caliphate in June 2014, the self-proclaimed Islamic State has conducted or inspired over 60 terrorist attacks in 20 countries other than Iraq and Syria, where its carnage has taken a much deadlier toll; those attacks outside Iraq and Syria have killed at least 1,160 people and injured more than 1,700 others. The deadly tentacles of ISIS have spread quickly, from the terrorist group’s epicenter in Iraq and Syria to points around the globe.

At least 120,000 people in the Syrian city of Deir al-Zor are starving while ISIS continues to besiege the city. Fierce battles continue around the strategic city in northern Syria between regime forces and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), according to human rights groups. Hundreds of combatants and civilians have been killed over the past week, and Russian aircraft have been dropping supplies to beleaguered army units. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad is battling to retain a foothold in the area. It still controls the military airport to the south, but ISIS claims to have overrun several regime-held districts at the beginning of the week, taking advantage of a sandstorm that grounded military aircraft. But in the last few days, Russian and possibly Syrian warplanes have carried out airstrikes against ISIS areas, while the already desperate situation of civilians has worsened.

Syria

Seeking “revenge,” Russian forces stormed a Syrian town on the border with Turkey hunting for the attacker who claimed he shot and killed the pilot of a downed Russian jet, state media reported Monday. A Turkish F16 fighter jet shot down the Russian aircraft near the Turkish border north of Latakia, Syria on Nov. 24, a senior U.S. official tells Fox News. Soon afterwards, Turkish citizen Alparslan Çelik said in a video that he killed the pilot on the ground because Russia had been dropping bombs minutes before the jet was downed. Russia claims special forces rescued the other man on the jet, a navigator. State media report the gunman is in the town of Rabia, in Latakia province, which Syrian government forces recently recaptured from rebel fighters.

Saudi Arabia

A suicide bomber blew himself up and another attacker opened fire outside a Shiite mosque in the predominantly Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia on Friday, killing two people and injuring at least seven others, the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported. The bomber blew himself up as security personnel engaged him. The gunman was arrested and was wearing a vest with explosives. This would be at least the fourth deadly attack on a Shiite mosque in Saudi Arabia — a kingdom where 85% to 90% of the citizens are Sunni — since May. The previous three were claimed by ISIS, the Sunni Islamist terror group, or one of its affiliates.

Vietnam

Vietnam’s communist regime ended an unprecedented internal power struggle Thursday by deciding to stick to the status quo over a more reform-minded challenger.” I didn’t expect to be elected,” General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (pronounced Noo-yen Foo Chong) told a news conference after Vietnam’s Communist Party ended its five-yearly congress by re-electing its 71-year-old chief for a second term. “I am very surprised by that because I am quite old. I am the oldest member in the leadership of Vietnam. I myself asked to be retired but due to responsibility tasked on me by the party I had to accept,” he said. He made it clear that one-party rule with a collective leadership, which he heads, was here to stay.

Nigeria

Boko Haram militants attacked the Nigerian town of Chibok on Wednesday, killing at least 16 people. The Christian Post reports that six suicide bombers carried out the attack at a weekly vegetable market. The dead include 15 civilians and one soldier, though the death toll may rise. Chibok’s hospital is overwhelmed after the attack. A number of people are fighting for their lives and the hospital has a shortage of blood. Chibok is the town from which over 200 Christian schoolgirls were kidnapped in April 2014. Most of the girls remain slaves of Boko Haram.

Two Nigerian pastors have been abducted this month in Kogi state, as kidnapping cartels that have plagued the central state the past three years directed their aim at Christian leaders. In a departure from numerous kidnappings of high-profile business and government leaders in Kogi state since 2013, gunmen abducted pastor David Onubedo of Deeper Life Bible Church on Monday night (Jan. 25) in Okene after a Bible study, according to local reports. Pastor David Onubedo’s captors are reported to have contacted his wife and the leadership of the church to demand 50 million naira (US$249,000) for his release. The kidnappers of the Pastor Ayo Raphaeare also demanding 50 million naira (US$249,000) for his release. Organized crime syndicates have carried out numerous kidnappings in the oil-rich Bayelsa state in 2015, where widespread poverty is a stark backdrop to well-off people involved in oil-production activities. Many kidnappings are aimed at those in the industry.

Cuba

U.S. relations with Cuba continue to thaw, with the latest example being new federal trade rules that go into effect Wednesday. The most visible change in the regulations is the ability of U.S. businesses to sell directly to Cuba’s state-run companies. The rules also create an opening for U.S. citizens to organize a variety of events on the island, from research conferences to sports competitions; ease restrictions on U.S. business owners to travel on fact-finding missions; and make it easier for U.S. airlines to work with their Cuban counterparts to expand commercial flights between the countries.

Venezuela

Venezuela’s capital Caracas has now been ranked as the most murderous city on Earth, according to a new study by Mexican think-tank the Citizens Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice. The report calculates that Caracas’s 3,946 homicides in 2015 gave it a truly terrifying annual homicide rate of 120 per 100,000 residents. To put that in context, the United States — easily the most murderous of Western developed nations — has a rate of 4.7, according to the United Nations’ most recent comparative study in 2013. Meanwhile, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and most of Western Europe had rates that year of around one murder per 100,000 residents, that U.N. study shows. Venezuelans are already suffering from economic catastrophe and an authoritarian government that, instead of listening to its many critics, accuses them of “fascism.” Economic woes include inflation that the IMF predicts will hit 720% this year, and widespread shortages of everything from bread to birth control to cancer medicines.

Environment

Despite making progress addressing some of the world’s environmental issues, toxic air has worsened considerably, as revealed by the Environmental Protection Index (EPI). According to the EPI’s findings, air pollution has become a growing global problem, particularly in countries with rapidly developing economies such as China and India. More than half of the world’s population, which amounts to over 3.5 billion people, live in a nation where the average exposure to air pollutants exceeds the levels found safe by the World Health Organization (WHO). Air pollution has worsened so much over time that it is now attributed to 10 percent of all deaths, according to a release from Yale. People living in East Asia and the Pacific region make up about one-third, or 1.3 billion, of those exposed to air pollutants, reports the EPI. In India and Nepal, almost 75 percent of the population breathes toxic air.

Earthquakes

Early Monday morning, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake rattled part of the Mediterranean region, including northern Morocco and southern Spain as far inland as Seville. Hundreds of properties across the region were damaged, closing some schools and businesses for the day. Power outages have also been reported in the Spanish city of Melilla, located in northern Africa, as well as other areas. No immediate fatalities or injuries have been reported. The quake began just before 5:30 a.m. Central European Time Monday, with an epicenter in the Alboran Sea, just more than 100 miles east of the Strait of Gibraltar. A 5.3-magnitude aftershock struck the region as well.

Several rounds of shaking were reported from southern New Jersey up into Connecticut Thursday afternoon, and officials have confirmed the initial round of shaking came from a sonic boom in southern New Jersey. Some residents in the area said it felt like multiple earthquakes, while others thought they seemed more like sonic booms. According to the Earth Institute, there were at least three earthquake tremors in New Jersey, and they were gathering information from their seismometers. Minutes later, the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed the shaking at 1:24 p.m. EST was from a sonic boom near Hammonton, New Jersey, but did not provide any details on the subsequent tremors. The sonic booms were caused by military fighter jets conducting tests, officials said.

Weather

The death toll from the massive snowstorm in the U.S. northeast has climbed to 36 (mostly snow shoveling and traffic accidents) with reports of numerous roofs collapsing under the heavy snow. A pregnant teen was one of almost a dozen people who died as a result of shoveling snow. In Montgomery County, Maryland, the roof of Shiloh Christian Fellowship Church, built in 1951, completely collapsed on Monday. A Maryland woman was plucked from her snow-buried car Monday after being trapped for three days. Winter Storm Jonas left Washington D.C. with over 2 feet of snow, cementing cars in place— but that hasn’t stopped the city from enforcing their parking bans. Since Jonas’s arrival on Friday, the District has handed out over $1 million in parking tickets, according to NBC Washington. The District announced that they will continue to ticket and tow abandoned or parked vehicles lining any snow emergency route.

A lone supercell thunderstorm Saturday in northern California produced a hailstone that tied a state record – and was in the shape of a star, no less. According to the National Weather Service office in Sacramento, this star-shaped hailstone measured 3 inches in diameter from opposite ends of the star, tying the state record hailstone size, which was first set on September 2, 1960 in San Diego County. Wet hailstones moving slowly through a thunderstorm’s updraft – a current of upward-moving air in a thunderstorm – can collide with smaller hailstones, stick together and freeze, forming a lumpy, rather than smooth, large hailstone.

  • And great hail from heaven fell upon men, each hailstone about the weight of a talent (about 75 pounds) Revelation 16;21

Signs of the Times (1/25/16)

January 25, 2016

Massive Snow Cleanup Underway

A massive cleanup that will span several days is underway after an historic winter storm buried parts of the East Coast under feet of snow, but many residents say they’re trapped in their homes until plows can clear their streets. Residents of New York City’s outer boroughs were livid when they realized the plows weren’t late to clear their streets during the storm – they just weren’t coming at all. In Queens, a borough that the New York Post said was “basically forgotten,” Mayor Bill de Blasio admitted they failed to do enough to clear the 34 inches of snow off the roads, stranding hundreds of thousands. In Loudoun County, Virginia, a house burned to the ground Sunday along an unplowed road, according to the Washington Post. At least 27 people have died in the storm, a quarter of a million customers have lost power and hundreds of crashes have been reported. The massive snowstorm brought both the nation’s capital and its largest city to a stop, dumping as much as 3 feet of snow (see Weather below for more details). But even as airlines in the affected East Coast cities resumed service Monday, hundreds of flights were still being canceled.

Frequency of Blizzards Has Doubled Since 1994

Snowstorms like the historic blizzard that lashed the East Coast this weekend (see Weather below) may be more numerous than they used to be. Preliminary research finds the number of blizzards across the USA doubled in the past two decades, according to Jill Coleman, a geographer from Ball State University. The results were compared to the years 1960-1994 in the Lower 48 states. From 1960-1994, the U.S. averaged about 9 blizzards per year. But since 1995, there has been an average of 19 blizzards per year, she said.

  • End-time weather will continue to grow more extreme (Daniel 9:26b, Revelation 8:7, 11:19, 16:11)

Senate Majority Leader Pushes War Powers (Martial Law) Act

Sen­ate Majority Leader Mitch McCon­nell is attempting to fast track a “war powers” bill that will allow President Obama nearly unlimited power to deploy the military anywhere in the world for any length of time – including on U.S. soil. “The Authorization for Use of Military Force put forward by McConnell would not restrict the president’s use of ground troops, nor have any limits related to time or geography,” Defense One reported. In other words, the authorization allows the president to deploy the military anywhere at his discretion – both foreign and domestic – for as long as he wants, notes Red Flag News. Even some Senate Democrats have an issue with a new authorization without geographical restrictions placed on the president. It’s also interesting to note McConnell is trying to push through the bill on a Friday as an unprecedented blizzard slammed the northeast U.S., including Washington, D.C.

Eleven states as well as Washington D.C. declared states of emergency in the wake of the massive record-breaking snowstorm which blanketed the East. But New York City went a step further. Governor Andrew Cuomo declared martial law in New York City by ordering all people to stay inside under police enforcement. He issued an absolute travel ban for anything that is not an emergency vehicle. The New York Police Department put out a blunt announcement on Saturday: “After 2:30 p.m. and you’re on the road, we will arrest you.”

Flint Hospital Reports Finding Legionnaires’ Bacteria in Water

A hospital in Flint, Michigan, reported Friday that low levels of Legionnaires’ disease bacteria were discovered in its water system. The discovery came after the city switched its water supply and the medical staff noticed an increase in people coming in for treatment who were diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease, a respiratory bacterial infection usually spread through mist that comes from a water source. McLaren Hospital said it has since taken corrective measures with its water supply. The hospital report is the latest negative news about the Flint water supply and the second piece of news about Legionnaires’ disease.

Militia in Flint Calls for Justice in Water Crisis

Flint may have seen multiple rallies in recent weeks that called attention to the city’s water crisis — but few if any were as surprising as a rally held by the Genesee County Volunteer Militia. On Sunday afternoon, about 30 militia supporters clad in camouflage gear and bearing “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, gathered outside of City Hall to demand accountability amid a national discussion over how the city’s water supply became contaminated. “We’re here to defend this community,” said Matthew Krol, the militia’s executive officer, addressing the crowd in a full camouflage outfit with a handgun strapped to his hip. “We’re not going to allow (the government) to step on the people of Flint any longer.” He added: “If it means having to take up arms in defense … we will do that as well.” Krol said local and state leaders have knowingly lied to the people.

Oregon Officials’ Patience Wears Thin as Standoff Enters Fourth Week

The occupation of an Oregon wildlife refuge by an armed group protesting U.S. land-management policies is in its fourth week, and local and state officials are losing patience with the federal law-enforcement strategy of letting the standoff fizzle out on its own. Negotiations to end the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge went awry Friday, as protest leader Ammon Bundy questioned the FBI’s legal authority to even be in Harney County. The next step toward resolving the 3-week-old standoff isn’t clear. The hang-up appears to be Bundy’s belief that FBI agents have no standing to deal with the refuge takeover unless they’re deputized by Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward. Militiamen and self-styled patriots contend that under the U.S. Constitution, the sheriff is the highest law enforcement power in the county. The word “sheriff,” however, doesn’t appear in the Constitution. Bundy and a group of about 20 others occupied the headquarters of the bird sanctuary on Jan. 2 and so far have refused to leave, saying they want federal land turned over to county control and the release of two imprisoned local ranchers.

Serious Birth Defect on the Rise, CDC Researchers Say

An increasing number of babies are being born with a serious birth defect, gastroschisis, and it’s got scientists concerned. The condition causes the intestines, and sometimes organs such as the liver and stomach, to poke through a newborn’s abdomen near the belly button. It needs to be repaired through surgery. The latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that the number of cases of the birth defect nearly doubled from 1995 to 2005. The problem has continued to increase since 2005 for babies born to mothers of every race and age group. For non-Hispanic black women under age 21, the rate increased 263%, which was of particular concern, researchers said. “It concerns us that we don’t know why more babies are being born with this serious birth defect. Public health research is urgently needed to figure out the cause and why certain women are at higher risk of having a baby born with gastroschisis,” said the CDC.

300,000 Drones Registered in 30 Just Days

The skies may soon be full of drones: Nearly 300,000 have been registered with the government since the FAA started requiring owners to sign up 30 days ago, the agency said last Friday. The requirement covers small drones that weigh between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds, and registration lasts three years. All operators must register their drones before they can fly them outdoors. Operators must be over the age of 13 and must be a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. The registration process costs $5, but drone operators who completed their registration during the first month were refunded the $5 application fee. The FAA said it hopes to open the online registration system to commercial operators by March 21. Owners of drones greater than 55 pounds must register the old fashioned way — by paper form.

Jews Leaving France in Record Numbers

The number of French Jews moving to Israel has doubled — and doubled again — in the past five years. In 2013, less than 3,300 French Jews moved to Israel. Only two years earlier, that number stood at 1,900. Nearly 8,000 French Jews moved to Israel in the year following the Charlie Hebdo attack, according to the Jewish Agency, which handles Jewish immigration to Israel. “While high-profile attacks such as those at the Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, the Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014, and the kosher supermarket in Paris and the synagogue in Copenhagen last year have certainly been the most vivid instances of violence targeting French and European Jews, the French Jewish community has been living with a deep sense of insecurity for quite some time,” says Avi Mayer, spokesman for the Jewish Agency. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently expressed the fear that an exodus of Jews would change the country for the worse.

  • As the Muslim horde overwhelms Europe, ongoing disruption of all kinds will result, especially for Jews and Christians.

Migrant Update

Sweden is one of the most welcoming countries in the entire world. As the Syrian immigrant crisis exploded in Europe, Sweden welcomed any immigrants and gave them refuge. Of course, now that they’re “settled” they’re turning on Sweden and taking over while taking advantage at every turn. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Swedish schools where immigrants are rioting, beating teachers, and bullying other students in a situation described as “chaos.” The condition of the Sjumilaskolan school in Gothenburg, Sweden, has been revealed in a shocking government report based on visits conducted at the end of last year by the school inspectorate. “Some teachers tell us they have been both in verbal and physical conflict with students, and teachers fear the students will kill each other. Teachers describe a general concern about the school, and believe there is a high risk of rioting.”

Three Syrian teenagers were arrested, one for rape and one for assault when they surrounded and attacked an innocent teenage girl in Munich. Three young sociopaths surrounded a 17-year-old girl in the pool and one of them groped her underneath her swimming costume, in an offense deemed rape under local law. When the girl’s sister, 14, tried to make them stop, she too was groped by the trio of Syrian teenagers. News of the arrest comes after more than two hundred women reported being sexually assaulted by groups of mostly Arab or North African men in Cologne during New Year celebrations. Police say 553 criminal complaints have been filed, with about 45 per cent involving allegations of sexual offenses, and most of the suspects identified so far are foreign nationals.

  • Not surprising for a religion that treats women as property/slaves

Technology Could Kill 5 million jobs by 2020

Five million jobs in the world’s leading economies could disappear over the next five years because of advances in technology. Developments in artificial intelligence, robotics, and biotechnology, would disrupt the business world in a similar way to previous industrial revolutions, the World Economic Forum said in a report published Monday. Administrative and white collar office jobs are most at risk from a “fourth industrial revolution,” the forum said on the eve of its annual meeting in Davos. The forum surveyed senior executives from over 350 of the biggest companies in 15 of the world’s major emerging and developed economies. It found that as many as 7.1 million jobs in the world’s richest countries could be lost through redundancy and automation. Those losses would be partially offset by the creation of 2.1 million new opportunities in sectors such as tech, professional services and media.

Economic News

The peso fell to its lowest value ever against the U.S. dollar on Friday. One Mexican peso is now worth barely more than a nickel ($0.053 cents). The peso has been hit the hardest of them all currencies in 2016. Mexico is also suffering from the dramatic crash in oil prices. Crude oil plays a large role in the Mexican economy, accounting for 11% of exports. As oil fell to its lowest level since 2003 on Wednesday, traders soured even more on the Mexico’s currency.

Last year, 42 North American drillers filed for bankruptcy, according to law firm Haynes and Boone. It’s only likely to get worse this year. Experts say there are a lot of parallels between today’s crisis and the last oil crash in 1986. Back then, 27% of exploration and production companies went bust. Defaults are skyrocketing again. In December, exploration and production company defaults topped 11%, up from just 0.5% the previous year, according to Fitch Ratings. That’s a 2,000%-plus jump.

Millions of Russians have fallen into poverty as collapsing oil prices and Western sanctions pushed the country deep into recession. Half of Russia’s government revenue comes from energy exports. The economy shrank by nearly 4% last year, and the International Monetary Fund expects a further contraction of about 1% this year. The ruble has crashed, pushing up inflation. Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine has also proven costly.

Islamic State

Fierce battles continue around the strategic city of Deir Ezzor in northern Syria between regime forces and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), according to human rights groups. Hundreds of combatants and civilians

have been killed over the past week, and Russian aircraft have been dropping supplies to beleaguered army units. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad is battling to retain a foothold in the area. It still controls the military airport to the south, but ISIS claims to have overrun several regime-held districts at the beginning of the week, taking advantage of a sandstorm that grounded military aircraft. But in the last few days, Russian and possibly Syrian warplanes have carried out airstrikes against ISIS areas, while the already desperate situation of civilians has worsened.

Fighting ISIS has become more difficult as the price of oil has plummeted to the lowest levels seen in over a decade, warned Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Iraq depends on oil revenues to finance its fight against the terrorist organization, ISIS. On the flip side, ISIS also depends on oil money to continue its reign of terror across large portions of Iraq and Syria. Abadi said he’s grateful to Kuwait for contributing $200 million to help Iraq rebuild areas that have been decimated by ISIS. However, Iraq has not received any significant humanitarian or military assistance from any other nations in the region, he said.

Syria

The Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) reported Saturday that U.S. troops have taken over control of the Rmeilan airfield in northeastern Syria’s Hasakeh Province, the first U.S. military base inside Syria. The SDF reported that the Kurdish YPG, their largest faction, previously controlled the base and handed sole control over it to the U.S., as a route for the U.S. to bring them weapons and to launch warplanes against ISIS. Rmeilan Airport is not a military airfield by design, and was primarily used for crop-dusting and agriculture. It is unclear the extent to which it’ll actually be used by the U.S, as a base for warplanes. The U.S. generally launches such planes from Turkey, although Turkey has loudly objected to the U.S. aiding the Kurds.

Saudi Arabia

When President Obama secretly authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to begin arming Syria’s embattled rebels in 2013, the spy agency knew it would have a willing partner to help pay for the covert operation, reports the New York Times. It was the same partner the C.I.A. has relied on for decades for money and discretion in far-off conflicts: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Since then, the C.I.A. and its Saudi counterpart have maintained an unusual arrangement for the rebel-training mission, which the Americans have code-named Timber Sycamore. Under the deal, the Saudis contribute both weapons and large sums of money, and the C.I.A takes the lead in training the rebels on AK-47 assault rifles and tank-destroying missiles. The support for the Syrian rebels is only the latest chapter in the decadeslong relationship between the spy services of Saudi Arabia and the United States, an alliance that has endured through the Iran-contra scandal, support for the mujahedeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan and proxy fights in Africa. Sometimes, as in Syria, the two countries have worked in concert. In others, Saudi Arabia has simply written checks underwriting American covert activities.

Egypt

Monday marks the fifth anniversary of the uprising that toppled longtime Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak. Security forces have cracked down on anti-government activists in recent days and past anniversaries of the event have sparked violent clashes between protesters and police. Rights activists say the government has returned to Mubarak-era practices like torture, random arrests and, more recently, forced disappearances. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has praised the country’s police and vowed a firm response to any threat to the country’s stability.

Afghanistan

An Afghan official says three border policemen have been killed and three others were wounded in a suicide attack near an important border crossing in southern Afghanistan. The attack took place when five suicide bombers stormed the border police headquarters at Spin Boldak, on the border with Pakistan on Monday. After the attackers entered the building, a firefight followed for about half an hour before the attackers detonated their explosives vest. Spin Boldak links Kandahar to the Pakistani city of Quetta and is a major crossing between the two countries for people and goods. Kandahar is the seat of the Taliban, who have waged war on the Kabul government since 2001.

Earthquakes

Residents of south-central Alaska were jolted awake early Sunday morning as a magnitude-7.1 earthquake struck the region. There were no immediate reports of injuries. The earthquake struck about 1:30 a.m. Alaska time and was centered 53 miles west of Anchor Point and 160 miles southwest of Anchorage, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The earthquake was widely felt by residents of Anchorage, and there are reports of scattered power outages from the Matanuska Electric Association and Chugach Electric in the Anchorage area.

Weather

Millions of Americans were preparing to dig themselves out Sunday after crippling Winter Storm Jonas brought not just big snow, but ice, high winds and flooding. At least 14 people have died in the storm, a quarter of a million customers have lost power and hundreds of crashes have been reported. The massive snowstorm brought both the nation’s capital and its largest city to a stop, dumping 18 inches in Washington, D.C. and as much as 3 feet of snow in parts of Virginia. With 5 more inches added by early Sunday, Mount Mitchell State Park in North Carolina received a total of 66 inches of snow. That’s a record surpassing the 50 inches that fell in the Blizzard of 1993. The heaviest snowfall in a populated area was in a rural area of West Virginia, not far from Harpers Ferry, with 40 inches. For three cities — Baltimore (29.2), Allentown (31.9), and Harrisburg, Pa. (34), — it was their biggest snowstorm ever recorded. The snow was whipped into a frenzy by winds that reached 75 mph at Dewey Beach, Delaware, and Langley Air Force Base, Virginia

The storm nearly dropped a record-setting amount of snow in New York City’s Central Park. The 26.8 inches measured came just short of the record set in 2006 when 26.9 inches fell in the park. On Saturday, most flights were cancelled at the three airports serving New York City. The storm pounded the southern part of Connecticut on Saturday, with New Haven; Middlesex; and New London counties getting around a foot of accumulation. Parts of New Jersey and Delaware were hit with severe coastal flooding Saturday morning that left roads inundated and beaches eroded. On Saturday morning, Great Channel and Stone Harbor, New Jersey, both broke flood records that were previously set during Superstorm Sandy. Delaware Bay at Cape May also reported record flooding, rising above its Sandy total. Elsewhere, heavy snow was causing serious problems to roads and buildings. According to the New Jersey State Police, as of 1 p.m. troopers had responded to 222 crashes and 868 stranded vehicles. Utility companies in New Jersey are reporting that nearly 100,000 customers are without power, with the majority of those affected along the coast.

Thousands of motorists were stranded on two separate roadways in Pennsylvania and Kentucky. Motorists were stuck on westbound lanes of the Pennsylvania Turnpike for more than twenty-four hours since 8 p.m. EST Friday night near Bedford due to disabled tractor trailers stuck in snow, according to state police. One of the stranded vehicles was a bus carrying the Duquesne University men’s basketball team, which was stranded between Somerset and Bedford, Pennsylvania, about 80 miles from home, for more than 18 hours. The team tweeted Saturday afternoon that they expect to be stuck another night. The Temple women’s gymnastics team was also stranded for over 24 hours. A group of 96 parishioners from an Indiana church — mostly teens — we also stranded returning from the March for Life in Washington, D.C. Father Shaun Whittington said they had enough gas to keep the buses running and enough DVDs to keep the kids entertained. They also built a altar out of snow and held a mass.

Signs of the Times (1/22/16)

January 22, 2016

43rd Anniversary of Roe v. Wade Court Decision

Friday marks the horrific 43rd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that allowed virtually unlimited abortions throughout the United States. Since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion 43 years ago in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, more than 58 million unborn children have lost their lives. Each one of those abortions is a tragedy, not just because an innocent child died, but because of the lasting impact the abortion itself had on our nation, notes LiveNews.com. Though LifeNews reported the excellent news last November that abortions continue to to drop historic lows as more babies are saved from abortions, our nation continues to see approximately 1 million abortions done on tiny, defenseless babies each and every year. What more can be done? LifeNews says, “This year we have a real chance to do something about the travesty of abortion. We have a chance to elect a pro-life president who has the ability to appoint multiple Supreme Court judges – judges who may very well represent the 5th and final vote needed on the Supreme Court to gut Roe v Wade and open the doors to protecting unborn children. We [also] have an opportunity to elect a pro-life president who could sign a bill to de-fund Planned Parenthood.”

  • The upcoming Presidential election is perhaps our last chance to save the further moral degradation of America. Much prayer is required.

Mainstream Media Cover-Up of Hillary Clinton E-Mail Bombshell

The “big three” networks of ABC, CBS, and NBC and the Spanish-language networks of Telmundo and Univison all censored from their evening newscasts earlier this week any mention of a massive development in the Hillary Clinton e-mail scandal in favor of ten minutes and 31 seconds of coverage across five segments on Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race. In contrast, FNC’s Special Report led with this story as chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge highlighted how Clinton received material on her private, unsecured e-mail server that contained some of the country’s “most secretive and highly classified organization operations.” Herridge noted that as the FBI investigation expands, there was confirmation from a senior government watchdog that Mrs. Clinton’s email problems are much worse than previously reported.” Citing an unclassified letter Fox News obtained, Herridge reported: “Hillary Clinton’s e-mails on her unsecured personal server contained intelligence from the U.S. government’s most secretive and highly classified organization operations, called special access programs, or SAPs.” Hillary Clinton should be indicted for mishandling classified information on a private system, according to Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn.

  • Liberal news censorship has risen to almost criminal levels

Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Stands Against Gay Marriage

Alabama’s top justice has ordered the state’s judges to uphold the Alabama Sanctity of Marriage Amendment, despite the U.S. Supreme Court Obergefell v. Hodges decision last June redefining marriage,” reports LifeSiteNews.com. “Chief Justice Roy Moore said probate judges have a ministerial duty not to issue marriage licenses in conflict with the state marriage amendment pending a decision from the Alabama Supreme Court.” Moore said he did not intend to defy the Supreme Court but that there were ‘conflicting orders’ between the U.S. Supreme Court and the Alabama Supreme Court.

Syrian Christians Endure Terrible Suffering as Rockets Kill & Swine Flu Spreads

In a moving email sent to Barnabas Aid on Tuesday, Barnabas partner Dr. Jany Haddad, who is based in the city of Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, described how the death toll of the city’s Christians rises daily – partly as a result of the harsh winter conditions and in part due to continued rocket fire. Still, he praises God that no one was hurt when a church was hit by a rocket on Sunday. “At the same day and one day before, many rockets hit our Christian society and we had seven deaths and 53 injured people.” He adds that the weather is getting colder, with no fuel, no heating system, and more than four months no electricity to cover some heating needs in many cases. Daily, there are people admitted to hospitals, private and general, with H1N1 flu and daily we hear about one or two deaths.

United Methodist Church Bans Information on Intelligent Design at Conference

The United Methodist Church (UMC) has banned Discovery Institute, an organization that promotes Intelligent Design, from sponsoring an information table at the Church’s upcoming General Conference. The UMC’s slogan is “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors,” but the recent decision to ban Discovery Institute contradicts the principle. Discovery Institute is a non-profit, non-partisan educational and research organization. The Institute has a Center for Science & Culture which supports the work of scientists and scholars who research the evidence of the Universe being designed purposefully rather than by an unplanned accident. “Preventing United Methodist leaders from even hearing about intelligent design isn’t open-minded. It’s intolerant and exclusionary,” said Dr. John West, Vice President of Discovery Institute,

Boy and Girl Locker Rooms Going Extinct in States on U.S. Coasts

At the end of 2015, two human rights commissions over 2,800 miles apart enacted new rules that could be precedent-setting for the gender battle across the nation, including giving people the right to use whichever locker rooms and bathrooms they choose, reports ChristianHeadlines.com. The New York City Commission on Human Rights issued guidelines Dec. 21 to clarify what “constitutes gender identity and gender-expression discrimination” under the city’s 2002 Human Rights Law. The guidelines offer several definitions that categorize people according to their self-defined sexual identity, including transgender, gender non-conforming, and intersex. Instead of male or female, the identity of “cisgender” is offered as “an adjective denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex, i.e., someone who is not transgender.”

  • The secular humanists have gone mad and delusional, the result of distancing themselves from their Creator

U.S. Payment of $1.7 Billion to Iran a Ransom?

A deal that sent $1.7 billion in U.S. funds to Iran, announced alongside the freeing of five Americans from Iranian jails, has emerged as a new flashpoint amid a claim in Tehran that the transaction amounted to a ransom payment. The U.S. Treasury Department wired the money to Iran around the same time its theocratic government allowed three American prisoners to fly out of Tehran on Sunday aboard a Dassault Falcon jet owned by the Swiss air force. The prisoner swap also involved freedom for two other Americans held in Iran as well as for seven Iranians charged or convicted by the U.S. The announcements coincided with the implementation of the nuclear agreement with Iran, lifting international economic sanctions in exchange for Iran curtailing its nuclear program. The transaction is stirring a debate over whether the funds were essentially a ransom paid to Iran’s leadership. A senior Iranian military official has publicly stated that the clearing of the $1.7 billion was a key factor in Tehran’s decision to release the imprisoned Americans, most of whom were charged with espionage.

  • Rewarding a nation that is determined to destroy Israel and the U.S. is absolutely ludicrous

Migrant Update

The fate of Europe could be decided in the next two months. That’s the stark warning from European Union leaders grappling with the world’s worst refugee crisis in 70 years and the prospect of Britain deciding to break away. More than a million migrants and refugees arrived in Europe in 2015, bringing its system of open internal borders to a near breaking point. And arrivals are already running well ahead of levels seen this time last year, and are likely to explode again soon. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, said 35,000 people had made the sea crossing from Turkey into Greece in the first three weeks of 2016. “When spring comes, the numbers will quadruple. We cannot cope with the numbers any longer,” Rutte said. “We need to get a grip on this issue in the next 6 to 8 weeks.”

Greece’s coast guard says at least 21 people have died in two separate sinkings of boats smuggling migrants off two Greek islands overnight. Dozens have survived, and a search and rescue operation is underway for more potential survivors. The coast guard says a wooden boat carrying 48 people sank in the early hours of Friday off the small island of Farmakonissi in the eastern Aegean. Forty of the passengers managed to make it to shore. In a separate incident, a wooden sailboat carrying an undetermined number of people sank off the island of Kalolimnos. The coast guard rescued 26 people and recovered 14 bodies.

 

World’s Oldest Man Dies in Japan at Age 112

The world’s oldest man, a Japanese, died Tuesday at the age of 112 after suffering chronic heart problems, officials said. Koide, who was born on March 13, 1903, died two months short of his 113th birthday.

  • God said in the Bible thousands of years ago after the flood that human lifespan would not exceed 120 years (Genesis 6:3) and, sure enough, it doesn’t.

Economic News

Stocks rebounded Thursday and Friday morning as the price of crude oil climbed back over $31 per barrel. Despite the rebound, all three U.S. stock indexes remain in correction territory, defined as a drop of 10% or more from recent highs. The stock rally was jumpstarted Thursday when the European Central Bank strongly hinted that more stimulus would be forthcoming at its March meeting. That news raised hopes that central bankers around the world would do what they can to offset some of the massive volatility that has engulfed markets so far in 2016.

  • More stimulus, more debt, merely postponing a larger correction to come

Economists, business executives and American workers have waited a long time for the U.S. to shake off its post-recession hangover. Robust growth often seemed right around the corner—maybe next quarter, maybe next year. But now, most Federal Reserve policy makers and private forecasters are giving up on the long-awaited breakout for the U.S. economy, now predicting continued growth that is a little faster than 2%, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The International Monetary Fund said Tuesday that the global economic recovery would remain modest and uneven as the world grappled with slowing GDP in China, suppressed oil prices and tightening monetary policy from the U.S. Federal Reserve. Overall, the IMF projected a 3.1% global growth rate for 2015. It said GDP would hit 3.4% in 2016 and 3.6% in 2017.

The world is “drowning” in oil, and weak demand has failed to match relentless pumping by the world’s biggest oil producers, the International Energy Agency said. With Iran planning to boost its production by as much as 1.5 million barrels a day by the end of 2016, the global oil glut will get even worse. The IEA expects oversupply of around 1.5 million barrels a day in the first half of 2016.

The number of people seeking unemployment benefits rose last week to the highest level since July, though applications remained at historically low levels. Weekly applications for unemployment aid rose 10,000 to a seasonally adjusted 293,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, increased to 285,000, the highest since April. The number of Americans receiving aid has fallen nearly 9% in the past year to 2.2 million. When applications are below 300,000 there are few layoffs.

French President Francois Hollande pledged Monday to redefine France’s business model and declared what he called “a state of economic and social emergency,” unveiling a 2-billion-euro ($2.2 billion) plan to revive hiring and stimulate the French economy. The measures he proposed, however, are relatively modest. With his country under a state of emergency since extremist attacks in November, Hollande has the authority to also assume emergency powers over the economy

  • A playbook Obama would like to emulate to expand his powers and maybe defer elections

China’s economy grew at its slowest rate in 25 years last year, according to official statistics released today. The Communist-led country saw its economy expand 6.9% overall in 2015 and 6.8% the last quarter, the National Bureau of Statistics said. Economists warned that the figure — though probably inflated — hinted at a difficult road ahead. China’s economic woes first began to attract attention three years ago when GDP dropped from 9.5% to 7.7% in 2012.

Middle East

Israeli security officials announced Wednesday that they had broken up a plan by the Lebanese Shi’ite terror militia Hezbollah to set up operations in the West Bank and launch terrorist attacks against Israelis from a base they were building in the Palestinian city of Tulkarm, just a few kilometers away from Haifa and Netanya. The Hezbollah operation was directed by Juad Nasrallah, son of Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, an indication of the importance attached to it by Hezbollah. “This is another attempt by Hezbollah to carry out an attack in Israel, which has been thwarted by the Shin Bet and the IDF,” the security service said.

Islamic State

Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria have killed more than 6,400 Islamic State fighters in the past three months, and the militant group is showing the effect of the losses, according to coalition military statistics. Casualty counts have not been a reliable measure of success against the Islamic State in the past because it replaced fallen fighters with new recruits. But as offensives by Iraqi troops reclaim territory from the radical group, the Islamic State is losing its ability to conscript fighters from areas it had controlled, which had been the major source of new troops. U.S. commanders say the combination of airstrikes and Iraqi ground offensives has weakened the terror group in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS released more than half of the people it kidnapped last weekend in Syria, freeing 270 of the 400 people taken in the city of Deir Ezzor, a Syrian rights group said. Among the released were women, children under the age of 14 and men over the age of 55, said Rami Abdurrahman, director for the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Fighting in Deir Ezzor intensified recently, including suicide bombings, mass abductions and arbitrary killings, rights activists have said. Deir Ezzor is a critical junction for the group, with roads east and south toward Iraq and west to areas it controls in Homs province, including Palmyra. It is also surrounded by some of ISIS’ most valuable oil fields, which have been intensively targeted by both U.S. and Russian air power in recent months.

Iraq

More than 18,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq since January 2014 as sectarian violence continues to devastate the country, the United Nations said in a report released Tuesday. More than 36,000 others were wounded and more than 3 million people have been displaced. ISIS has also conscripted approximately 3,500 Iraqis into slavery. These numbers include only documented cases, meaning the true toll could be much higher, the report added. “The so-called ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ continues to commit systematic and widespread violence and abuses of international human rights law and humanitarian law. These acts may, in some instances, amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide.”

Pakistan

A suicide bomber killed at least 10 people Tuesday in a rush-hour attack on a market on the outskirts of the Pakistani city of Peshawar, officials said. Also, at least 20 people are dead and several wounded after Taliban gunmen climbed over the wall into a university in northwest Pakistan Wednesday and began firing indiscriminately, according to witnesses and Pakistani officials. A Taliban leader, Khalifa Umar Mansoor, claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack, AP reported. Mansoor was the mastermind behind a Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar in December 2014 killed over 150 people, mostly children.

Somalia

Somalia’s security forces ended a deadly siege of a beachfront restaurant in the capital, with more than 20 people killed in the attack, a police official said Friday. The security forces took control of the restaurant just before dawn. It was not clear whether the report of more than 20 killed included the assailants. Blasts and bursts of gunfire could be heard as Somali special forces went from room to room pursuing the al-Shabab gunmen who were holed up inside the restaurant. The security forces rescued many people who had been trapped inside the restaurant’s hall, where a party was taking place when the attack started on Thursday. Witnesses said that gunmen shouted “Allahu akbar,” the Arabic phrase for “God is great.” Islamic extremist group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack, in a broadcast on its online radio late Thursday.

North Korea

North Korea said Friday that it had arrested a American student from the University of Virginia for allegedly “perpetrating a hostile act” against the regime. North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, in a one-sentence dispatch, said only that the 21-year-old student, identified as Otto Frederick Warmbier, had traveled to the North as a tourist but with the real aim of destroying the unity of North Korea with “the tacit connivance of the U.S. government and under its control.” The U.S. State Department had no immediate response to the report. The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea and its interests are handled by the Swedish embassy.

Columbia

Colombia is finally taking action against what may be the most intense wave of horrific acid attacks on women anywhere in the world. President Juan Manuel Santos on Monday signed a new law that closes a legal loophole that often allowed attackers to get away scot-free. Official figures acknowledge 628 victims, but women’s rights activists believe the true toll may be far higher. Under the new law, anyone using any kind of “chemical agent” to physically harm another person will receive a minimum sentence of 12 years behind bars. If the victim is permanently disfigured, the sentence will be up to 50 years. Previously, Colombian law treated acid attacks as causing “personal injuries” rather than being intentional violent crimes, meaning attackers faced light sentences. In practice, just a handful of perpetrators were ever even put on trial. Acid throwing is common in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Uganda. But the place where the trend has received the most international attention is Pakistan, where at least 160 attacks were reported in 2014.

Environment

There will be more plastic than fish in terms of weight in the world’s oceans by 2050, the World Economic Forum warned Tuesday. Plastic has become one of the world’s most popular materials, combining amazing functionality and very low production costs. Its use has increased 20-fold in the past 50 years and is expected to double again in the next 20 years. Over a quarter of all plastic is used for packaging, the most popular use of the material. But only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. The reuse rate is terrible compared to other materials — 58% of paper and up to 90% of iron and steel gets recycled. Even worse, almost a third of all plastic packaging escapes collection systems and ends up in nature or clogging up infrastructure. “After a short first-use cycle, 95% of plastic packaging is lost to the economy,” the WEF said in a report. The forum said the only way to avoid a disaster is to massively improve the economics and uptake of recycling.

Weather

A potentially historic snowstorm was gathering strength in the East Friday morning, a storm that threatens to shut down the big eastern cities for days, cause widespread power outages, and lead to paralyzed air and car travel across the region. As of Friday morning, more than 85 million people – or roughly one in every four Americans – in at least 20 states were covered by blizzard, winter storm, or freezing rain warnings from Arkansas to the Carolinas to the New York City area and extreme southern New England, according to Weather.com. In Washington, the city’s entire rail and bus system will be closed both Saturday and Sunday, the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority announced Thursday. Nearly 6 inches of snow had already fallen in Little Rock, Ark., as of Friday morning, leaving 15,000 customers without electricity. Roads were coated with snow in the Nashville area. Charlotte, N.C., reported freezing rain, leading to a slew of accidents.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf declared a state of emergency Thursday in preparation for Winter Storm Jonas, which could bring as much as 18 inches of snow to the state. A blizzard warning has been issued for the Philadelphia region, effective from Friday night through Sunday morning and a coastal flood warning is also be in effect at the Jersey Shore and along the Delaware Bay. Snow is expected to begin falling late Friday evening and continue through early Sunday morning. Some or all of the largest cities in the Northeast will be significantly impacted by this storm with heavy snow, strong winds, bringing travel to a grinding halt between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning. All flights have been cancelled at Philadelphia International Airport on Saturday.

2015 was the Earth’s warmest year on record, according to NASA and NOAA. It broke the record by 0.23 degrees Fahrenheit, the second largest yearly jump since record keeping began in 1880. The average temperature of the Earth is now 1.8 degrees above what it was in the late 19th century. This is significant because the recent Paris climate agreement aims to keep the temperature increase to 3.6 degrees. This was the fourth time in 11 years that Earth broke annual marks for high temperature.

  • Keep in mind, though, that record-keeping only began in 1880 with previous ice ages and warming spells not included.

At least five soldiers are dead and six injured after another avalanche struck the French Alps Monday, just days after three were killed in nearby Les Deux Alpes. Three were seriously injured and another was in intensive care after suffering from hypothermia. Fifty French Foreign Legion soldiers were engaged in a training exercise near the French ski resort Valfréjus when the avalanche occurred, the BBC reported.

Signs of the Times (1/18/16)

January 18, 2016

One Christian Killed Every Hour for Faith

Christian persecution is widespread and, according to the magazine Crux, is increasing in many places. Crux magazine, which is the Sunday religion magazine published by the Boston Globe, has been covering Christian persecution around the world in a way that few secular magazines are doing. In an astonishing report, the article states, “Though estimates vary widely, even low-end counts suggest that one Christian is killed for motives related to the faith somewhere in the world every hour of every day.” World Watch Monitor recently released a list of the top countries in which Christians face the most persecution. North Korea again topped the list, but second was Somalia.

Planned Parenthood Sues Maker of Undercover Videos

The nation’s largest abortion business announced last week that it is filing a civil lawsuit against the pro-life advocate who released a series of eleven videos catching its top abortion practitioners and officials arranging for the sale body parts from aborted babies. Planned Parenthood is suing David Daleiden and the Center for Medical Progress, the organization that caught the abortion company selling aborted baby parts and fully intact aborted babies. “Planned Parenthood says Daleiden broke multiple laws and violated confidentiality agreements to obtain interviews with officials to discuss how some clinics were compensated for providing aborted fetuses for medical research purposes,” a Washington Examiner report on the lawsuit indicates. Daleiden says he looks forward to the lawsuit because it would allow him and his attorneys to make public significant evidence and information about how the nation’s biggest abortion conglomerate exploits the bodies of the 330,000 babies it aborts on a yearly basis.

Sanctions Against Iran Lifted, American Prisoners Released

The end of the economic sanctions against Iran came Saturday after the United Nation’s atomic agency certified that the country had met its commitments under a nuclear deal with six world powers. Iran will be free to sell more of its oil and other goods on the international market, opening the nation to international finance and trade. The sanctions lift also gives back to Iran nearly $100 billion in overseas Iranian funds that were impounded when the sanctions were put in place. Many nations reacted with pleasure to the news that the sanctions had been lifted, although others, including Israel, expressed worries that a newly empowered and financially stronger Iran would be a danger. On Friday, President Obama empowered the Secretary of State to allow the export of civilian passenger aircraft to Iran.

Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, who has been detained in Iran since July 2014, is being released as part of a prisoner swap deal, according to an Iranian news agency report on Saturday. Rezaian has spent the past 18 months behind bars on charges of espionage that have been roundly rejected by his colleagues and family members. Journalists around the world have protested his detention and called for his release. Iran also agreed to allow Rezaian’s wife, Yeganeh Salehi, who is an Iranian citizen, to leave the country with him, U.S. officials said, The Washington Post reported. She is a correspondent for The National, a newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates. In addition to Rezaian, Amir Hekmati, Pastor Saeed Abedini and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari were also freed, as well as a fifth American whose release was not formally part of the prisoner swap. President Obama pardoned four Iranian citizens and commuted the sentences of three others Sunday in exchange for the release of five Americans formerly held in Iran.

U.S. Visa System Routinely Gamed by Human Traffickers

Human traffickers are exploiting the U.S. visa system by forcing young women to pose as fiancées or family members of American gang members, who afterward force them into a life of misery once here, according to a former top federal immigration official. Sold by their parents, lured by promises of wealth and fame or kidnapped, young women are being brought to U.S. soil in plain sight, and with federally approved paperwork, said Claude Arnold, retired special agent in charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Los Angeles bureau of Homeland Security Investigations. A newly released audit by Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security confirms the U.S. government may have issued hundreds of visas to human traffickers, allowing them to legally bring their victims into the country. “Data from 2005 to 2014 indicated that work and fiancée visas were the primary means by which 17 of 32 known traffickers brought victims into the United States,” the IG audit said.

All of Flint’s Youngest Children Poisoned with Lead

Every Flint child under 6 years of age — some 8,657 children in all — has been poisoned with lead. The exposure began in April 2014 after the city switched from using Detroit’s water system, which pumps water out of Lake Huron, to its own treatment plant, which drew water from the Flint River. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical executive, reiterated in a news conference last week the fact that all children who drank the city’s water since April 2014 have been exposed to lead. There is no safe level of lead in the body, but the impacts of lead are considered most severe on the developing brains and nervous systems of children and fetuses.

Detroit Teachers Use ‘Sickouts’ to Protest Abominable School Conditions

‘Sickouts’ are being staged by teachers in Detroit who are fed up with the abominable conditions of public schools in the Michigan’s largest city. Sweltering and chilly classrooms, black mold, pieces of ceiling falling on students’ heads and pests such as rats and roaches running the halls are just a few of the problems cited by the main teacher’s union in the city of almost 700,000. Sixty-four — or roughly two-thirds — of the city’s public schools were closed Monday, leaving thousands of students out of the classroom as a result of the sickouts. “We shouldn’t have classrooms busting out at the seams. We have 45 and 50 students in classes,” DFT administrator Ann Mitchell said. “We have classes where there are no teachers there because we have a teacher shortage. These issues have to now be addressed.”

  • Michigan is falling apart at the seams. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is also the Muslim capital in the U.S. with Dearborn becoming the first U.S. city to fully implement Sharia law.

Obama Proposes Higher Unemployment Benefits

President Obama proposed an expansion of unemployment benefits Saturday, saying he’ll fight to help working families “with every last day of my presidency.” Obama used his weekly radio address Saturday to put some specifics behind an unusually expansive State of the Union address Tuesday, when he identified unemployment insurance as an area where he hoped he could work with the Republican Congress. Obama wants to require all states to provide at least 26 weeks of unemployment insurance — creating a new mechanism to trigger 52 weeks of benefits in states with sudden high unemployment. In the past, Congress has voted to authorize the longer benefits when there’s a recession, but the White House says Congress is often too slow to act when a recession hits.

Economic News

The combined riches of 62 of the world’s most well-heeled individuals in 2015 equaled the wealth of 3.5 billion people — the bottom half of humanity — a new report about extreme global wealth inequality released Sunday showed. The findings, published by the poverty-fighting organization Oxfam, highlight the growing divide between those at either end of the income spectrum. Since 2010, the wealth of the richest 62 people increased 44% to $1.76 trillion, the report found. Over the same period, the wealth of the world’s poorest half fell over a trillion dollars or 41%.

Firms on Wall Street helped bankroll America’s energy boom, financing very expensive drilling projects that ended up flooding the world with oil. Now that the oil glut has caused prices to crash below $30 a barrel, turmoil is rippling through the energy industry and souring many of those loans. Dozens of oil companies have gone bankrupt and the ones that haven’t are feeling enough financial stress to slash spending and cut tens of thousands of jobs. Three of America’s biggest banks warned last week that oil prices will continue to create headaches on Wall Street — especially if doomsday scenarios of $20 or even $10 oil play out. Wells Fargo is sitting on more than $17 billion in loans to the oil and gas sector. The bank is setting aside $1.2 billion in reserves to cover losses because of the “continued deterioration within the energy sector.”

The end of economic sanctions against Iran could further shake up oil markets. Iran has been gearing up for this moment for months and could soon return to the top ranks of global oil producers. Crude prices have been tanking for months, dropping to below $30 a barrel. A flood of new oil from Iran will likely push them even lower very soon. Iran is able quickly to pull oil out of storage and from tankers floating at sea. Iran is aiming to increase output by close to 1.5 million barrels by the end of 2016, taking daily production to 4.2 million, Iran’s oil minister Bijan Zanganeh told CNN. The more oil it exports, the more likely prices will drop.

Shares of Apple closed down another $2.47, or 2.5%, to $97.05 Friday, capping off what’s been a breathtaking 28% decline from the stock’s high last year. Apple’s fall will go down as one of the biggest wealth destroyers in recent market history, shredding $218 billion in market value from the its high on May 21, 2015 adjusted for stock buybacks. That’s more than the entire market value of 485 stocks in the Standard & Poor’s 500.

General Electric announced that it agreed to sell its appliance division to the Haier Group for $5.4 million, putting one of America’s best-known brands in the hands of one of China’s largest companies. While Haier sells more home appliances than any other manufacturer in the world, it’s still a relative unknown in the U.S. The company has manufactured refrigerators in Camden, South Carolina, since 2000, and attempted to purchase Maytag for $1.3 billion in 2005. More recently, Haier hired a roster full of appliance industry veterans and invested $2.8 million into a new technology center in Evansville, Indiana.

Walmart said it will close 269 stores in 2016, as the mega-retailer tries to revitalize its slumping finances. The company said the stores it plans to close are generally poor performers, and most are within 10 miles of another Walmart. 154 of the locations are in the United States, two-thirds of which are the smaller “Walmart Express” stores. Only 12 U.S. Walmart Supercenters will close, along with four Sam’s Club stores. Of the 16,000 associates – i.e. employees — to be affected, 10,000 will be in the United States. The company aims to place those associates in nearby Walmarts. Walmart intends to open 50 to 60 new Supercenters and 85 to 95 Neighborhood Markets over the next 13 months. In the same period, Sam’s Club plans to open at least seven new stores. The closings come 11 months after Walmart announced that it would increase salaries to a minimum of $10/hour.

Middle East

Security forces in the West Bank were on high alert Monday afternoon following a violent weekend which saw two Israeli women attacked by knife wielding terrorists. On Sunday evening, 38-year old Dafna Meir, a mother of six children, was stabbed to death in her home in the community of Otniel, near Hebron. Her killer remained at large and the subject of a massive manhunt on Monday. Monday morning saw a knife attack by a young Palestinian man at a clothing warehouse in Tekoa, resulting in light wounds to a pregnant Israeli woman. The attacker in that incident was shot and wounded by armed residents of the community. In response to the attacks, the IDF ordered the removal of Palestinian workers from the Gush Etzion settlement cluster south of Jerusalem and other security measures were reportedly being implemented.

Islamic State

Istanbul, Jakarta, Philadelphia, multiple locations in Libya, the Russian republic of Dagestan: within the past two weeks all have been the target of attacks by ISIS supporters or affiliates, killing and wounding dozens of people. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is spreading its wings as it comes under greater pressure in its Iraqi-Syrian heartland. And its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, has threatened more of the same against Saudi Arabia and the “crusader” countries and beyond. ISIS’ rhetoric celebrates indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets that are, in its view, symbols of Western power or decadence. So it described France as the “capital of prostitution and obscenity,” and chose a rock concert as one target. It attacked groups of tourists between Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, and at a citadel in Dagestan. One focus of the suicide attacks in Jakarta was a Starbucks. Beyond ISIS “branded” attacks — those launched by affiliates and members — ISIS also seeks to make political capital out of individuals who claim to be “inspired” by it, such as those in San Bernardino, California, in December and last week in Philadelphia.

Islamic State militants killed 300 people in an “appalling massacre” in eastern Syria, the government said on Sunday. The state-run SANA news agency said that most of those killed in day-long attacks on Deir el-Zour Saturday were elderly people, women and children. The killings are some of the worst carried out by the extremist group, which controls a large portion of Syria and Iraq. The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, a British-based group which monitors the violence on all sides of the Syrian conflict, confirmed the killings. The group said that most of them were either shot dead or beheaded.

Syria

Widespread starvation in Syria is not act of God — not the result of drought or flooding or crop failure. Instead, the famine is man-made. And it is drawing international condemnation. The use of starvation as a weapon in Syria is “a war crime,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday. “Let me be clear: The use of starvation as a weapon of war is a war crime,” he said. “All sides — including the Syrian government, which has the primary responsibility to protect Syrians — are committing this and other atrocious acts prohibited under international humanitarian law.” He spoke after U.N. convoys had finally arrived in Syrian towns to deliver food to malnourished residents.

Iraq

An Iraqi government intelligence official confirmed to the Associated Press that three missing Americans were kidnapped from their interpreter’s home in Baghdad. The U.S. Embassy confirmed Sunday that “several” Americans have gone missing in Iraq, after local media reported that three Americans had been kidnapped in the Iraqi capital. Fox News reports that the Americans were actually taken from a well-known local brothel. U.S. Embassy spokesman Scott Bolz said, “We are working in full cooperation with Iraqi authorities to locate the missing Americans.” Citing an unnamed official, CNN said the missing Americans were contractors and their company reported them missing recently.

Afghanistan

For one day only, officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States will meet in Kabul Monday for a second round of peace talks aimed at bringing an end to Afghanistan’s war. The talks come a week after discussions in the Pakistani capital Islamabad. The meetings seek to revive a process that derailed last July after the first and only face-to-face meeting between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives in Islamabad. The Taliban are not invited to Monday’s talks. Security in parts of the capital was tight with a heavy armed police presence.

Burkina Faso

A bloody terrorist attack that left 23 people dead in Burkina Faso’s capital ended Saturday after national and French security forces raided an upscale hotel in the capital, killing four extremists and freeing 126 hostages. Burkina Faso is a landlocked country in West Africa surrounded by six other countries. The dead included people of 18 different nationalities, the BBC reported. Among the freed hostages was the country’s labor minister. Three of the terrorists, believed to belong to a local al-Qaeda affiliate, were killed in the assault on the Hotel Splendid, a popular meeting place for foreign tourists and United Nations staff. The raid to end the siege was mounted after dozens of French forces arrived overnight from neighboring Mali. One U.S. military member was embedded with French forces at the scene, and the United States was working to help provide France with surveillance and reconnaissance help. The terrorist group known as AQIM, or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility online for the attack.

Taiwan

Taiwan voters made history Saturday, electing pro-independence party candidate Tsai Ing-wen as the first female president of the country in a landslide victory. Several hours after polling closed, official election results showed Tsai leading with more than 56% of the popular vote to 31% for her opponent, Eric Chu of the ruling Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT). Voters have grown weary of a sluggish economy, which grew only 1% last year, and wages that have long been stagnant under the leadership of the KMT and outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou. The result could also be seen as a referendum on Taiwan’s relationship with its cross-strait neighbor China, which Ma and the KMT party pursued. The economic benefits of deeper integration with China never materialized for most ordinary citizens, and many voters, especially younger ones, have grown resistant to China exerting too much control over Taiwan. China still considers the island part of its territory and has never ruled out taking it back by force.

Venezuela

Venezuela on Friday released its first economic data in more than a year, showing an economy in shambles and inflation at a historic high. The Central Bank said the economy contracted by 7.1 percent during the quarter that ended in September 2015, and inflation reached 141.5 percent. President Nicolas Maduro said he would declare an economic emergency giving him 60 days to unilaterally enact sweeping reforms. The decree will be debated in the newly seated opposition congress next week.

Environment

The Burmese python, one of the largest snakes in the world, is slithering amok in Florida. So much so that on Saturday, state officials kick off a month-long competition designed to remove as many of the colossal constrictors from the Everglades as possible. More than 600 people have signed up for the Python Challenge. A cash prize goes to the hunter who captures — dead or alive — the most Burmese pythons, with another cash prize for the hunter who captures the longest one. Why? Because the Burmese python, which can be as large as 23 feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds, doesn’t belong in the Everglades, in Florida — or even in this hemisphere for that matter. The native Southeast Asian snake is “wreaking havoc on one of America’s most beautiful, treasured and naturally bountiful ecosystems,” U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt said of the 1.5-million-acre Everglades National Park. The unwelcome guests are thriving in the habitat and climate provided by the Everglades. “Right now, the only hope to halt further python invasion into new areas is swift, decisive and deliberate human action.,” she added.

Weather

Severe thunderstorms, including one confirmed tornado, struck Florida early Sunday morning, killing at least two people, injuring several others and knocking out power to 100,000 homes statewide, authorities said. The National Weather Service in Tampa has confirmed that a tornado struck Duette, about an hour’s drive northeast of Sarasota, with a preliminary damage rating of EF2. Several other tornado reports in west-central Florida are still unconfirmed. Manatee County Sheriff said two people, a man and a woman, were killed and four children have been hospitalized after their mobile home was destroyed in Duette. Farther south, a line of severe thunderstorms swept through the Naples area with wind gusts topping 80 mph.

Damage and injuries were reported as a round of strong storms also clobbered Florida on Friday. In Lake City, two staff members were hurt by a lightning strike at Westside Elementary School Friday morning. In the Sarasota County town of Venice, strong winds ripped off the roof at the Ark Plaza Shopping Center. Pieces of the roof landed on cars nearby, but no injuries were reported. Later Friday morning, an American Airlines flight from New York to Miami encountered heavy turbulence and declared a medical emergency. Five people were injured, none serious.

Signs of the Times (1/15/16)

January 15, 2016

World is Facing the Worst Risks in a Generation

The world is facing the greatest risks in a generation, according to experts surveyed by the World Economic Forum. Political instability is the worst it has been since the Cold War, and the number of people being forced to flee their homes is the highest in history. The effects of climate change are becoming more prominent, and terrorism is on the rise. Those are the conclusions of the forum’s risk report, released ahead of its annual meeting of world leaders and top business executives next week in Davos, Switzerland. It makes grim reading, warning of a rising toll from global uncertainties. “The risks are more real, more imminent, more tangible…we are on the edge of a tipping point,” said Espen Eide, the head of geopolitical affairs at WEF.

Markets in Free Fall Friday

The market storm that has engulfed Wall Street to start 2016 is again taking aim at stock investors as the Dow plunged almost 400 points at the open Friday as increasingly jittery traders react to the latest swoon in oil prices and another big selloff in Chinese stocks overnight. A nearly 6% slide in U.S. produced crude sent prices down below the key $30 a barrel level. Adding to investor angst was another big stock market slide in mainland China, where the Shanghai composite slid 3.6%, putting it back in bear market territory, or more than 20% from its recent high.

Stealth Gitmo Transfers Condemned by Congress

The Obama administration on Thursday quietly transferred 10 Yemeni Guantanamo detainees to neighboring Oman – so quietly, in fact, that the news was first reported by state-run Middle East news agencies. And once the news got to Capitol Hill, it set off alarm bells given the host country’s proximity to Al Qaeda’s most active branch. The transfer is the largest batch of detainees shipped out of the Cuba prison camp so far this year. It is part of a wave of transfers as the administration steps up efforts to shrink the prison population, with the ultimate goal of closing the facility despite congressional resistance. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., slammed the transfer as a “thinly veiled attempt to undercut the will of Congress and would further endanger the American people.” The administration is banned by law from transferring Guantanamo detainees to Yemen, given the risk in that country. Yemen is not only racked by civil war but is the home of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. At least three previously released Guantanamo detainees have gone on to become leaders with AQAP in Yemen after leaving the camp. Given that Oman neighbors Yemen, Ayotte described the move as an attempt to “circumvent” the congressional ban on sending prisoners to Yemen.

Obama Approves Unprecedented Increase in Refugee Aid

President Obama approved an unprecedented increase of refugee aid Wednesday, authorizing $70 million from a special fund set up by Congress to resettle refugees in the United States. In both size and scope, the presidential declaration was the largest expansion of the program, known as Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance, in at least 20 years. Obama last tapped the fund in 2014 to provide $50 million to deal with a refugee crisis in South Sudan. Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday the the Obama administration was responding to “the worst refugee crisis that the world has seen since the Second World War.” The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there were 19.5 million refugees globally at the end of 2014, up 2.9 million from the previous year.

Obama’s Economic Embellishments

President Obama’s final State of the Union Address came up short of the facts on economics, according to FactCheck.org. He embellished his record on jobs, citing “more than 14 million new jobs,” without mentioning that’s only since the job losses hit bottom in February 2010, not since he took office years earlier. Obama similarly boasted of nearly 900,000 manufacturing jobs gained “in the past six years.” Over his entire time in office, manufacturing jobs have gone down by 230,000. And he said he had cut the country’s deficits by “almost three-quarters.” But that’s measured from fiscal 2009, during the recession, not since the start of his presidency. Obama also repeated his now years-long claim of crediting the Affordable Care Act for a slowdown in health care spending. In fact, the growth rate jumped in 2014, when the law’s coverage provisions were implemented.

Oregon Occupiers Call for Common Law Grand Jury

Ammon Bundy, the man leading a group of armed protesters who have taken over a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, called Wednesday for a common law grand jury to examine what he called violations of the U.S. Constitution. He said officials in Harney County, including Judge Steve Grasty, have failed to protect the citizens of the county. Bundy wants the county to allow for a common law jury, outside of the court system, to hear evidence against the judge and others. Bundy’s group has occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon for 12 days to protest federal land policies, specifically protesting the sentencing of Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, two ranchers convicted of arson on federal lands in Oregon. The group will host a community meeting at 7 p.m. PT Friday to explain its position and announce when it will leave. It comes as resentment toward the group grows among the residents of Burns, Ore.

NSA is World’s Best Hacker says Former Director

Few people truly understand what the U.S. National Security Agency actually does. Its former leader cleared that up on Tuesday. The NSA is America’s hacker. “We steal other people’s stuff in the cyber domain,” retired General Michael Hayden said at a cybersecurity conference. He then put that in context: Every country’s government is spying on other people and governments. America’s spies just do it better. “As a former director of NSA, I like to think we’re number one,” he said. “We steal stuff to keep you free and keep you safe,” Hayden said. “We do not steal stuff to make you rich. I can think of only four other countries who can say that. Every other nation-state believes it is legitimate espionage activity to steal intellectual property, and the Chinese are the poster child for it.”

Al Jazeera America to Shut Down

Al Jazeera America, which went on the air in 2013 — and is partly funded by the ruling family of Qatar — announced Wednesday it is shutting down at the end of April, citing the “economic landscape of the media environment.” The network said in a statement that “Al Jazeera America will cease operation by April 30, 2016,” explaining that “while Al Jazeera America built a loyal audience across the U.S. and increasingly was recognized as an important new voice in television news, the economic landscape of the media environment has driven its strategic decision to wind down its operations and conclude its service.” Al Jazeera’s prime-time ratings recently ranged from just 20,000 to 30,000 viewers, according to Nielsen data.

Goldman Sachs to Pay $5.1 Billion to Settle Toxic Mortgage Probe

Goldman Sachs announced on Thursday it reached a $5.1 billion deal to put to rest claims made by the government over its toxic mortgage deals that helped cause the recent recession. Goldman Sachs was accused of cobbling together home mortgage securities it knew would implode and then selling them to unsuspecting investors. Goldman said it has agreed to pay a $2.4 billion civil penalty, pay $875 million in cash and provide $1.8 billion in consumer relief. The bank said the consumer relief will include loan forgiveness for underwater homeowners and distressed borrowers as well as support for affordable housing. Goldman expects the deal to dent its fourth-quarter profits by about $1.5 billion after taxes. Other Wall Street firms have reached similar deals in recent years, including JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley.

U.S. Organ Transplants Reach 30K Milestone

Organ transplants in the United States reached a milestone in 2015, exceeding 30,000 for the first time, a non-profit group reported Wednesday. Those 30,973 transplants of kidneys, livers and other organs were nearly 5% more than 2014 and came after years of fairly slow, steady increases, said officials with the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. Stepped-up organ donations, rather than any breakthroughs in transplant surgery, likely drove increases in recent years, said David Klassen, the network’s chief medical officer. Transplant centers also have worked to improve logistics, so that fewer donated organs are discarded, he said. The unrelenting slide in oil prices is rippling to the broader economy as the industry’s downturn squeezes sectors as diverse as airlines and restaurants, steelmakers and law firms.

Rise of Imported Food a Health Threat in U.S.

An enormous amount of U.S. foods are being imported from other countries, raising all kinds of health and safety concerns. Food imports have exploded in recent years, totaling $119 billion in 2014, according to the USDA. That’s nearly triple the value of imports from 15 years earlier. The problem is that food safety regulations in other countries might not be as tight as those in the United States. And U.S. regulators are challenged to keep up with the massive number of producers and shipments. The FDA says that only 2% of all imported food products are tested in a lab. The 1,403 facility inspections the FDA completed in 2013 were just over half of what is mandated under the Food Safety Modernization Act, according to the Government Accountability Office. The Centers for Disease Control has taken a particular interest in imported food over the past few years. The CDC says there have been more foodborne illness outbreaks associated with imported food as we eat more of it.

Economic News

Retail sales dipped last month on low gasoline prices and a slowdown in auto sales. Sales fell 0.1%, the Commerce Department said Friday. Excluding volatile autos and gasoline, sales were unchanged. The weak showing will likely solidify estimates that economic growth was feeble in the fourth quarter, largely because of weak trade and industrial production, which have been hammered by a struggling global economy, a strong dollar and a severe oil sector downturn. Also, business stockpiling slowed as companies pared bloated inventories. Many analysts estimate the economy grew just 1% or less in the fourth quarter, less than half the average pace during the 6 ½-year-old recovery.

More Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, but the level remains near historic lows that point to a healthy job market. Applications for jobless aid rose 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 284,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. The less volatile 4-week average rose 3,000 to 278,750. Over the past 12 months, the number of people collecting benefits has fallen 6.3% to 2.3 million. While the stock market has suffered a tumultuous start to 2016, but U.S. employers largely appear to remain confident in the U.S. economy.

About $58.5 billion was invested by venture capitalists in 2015, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers and National Venture Capital Association report published Friday. The MoneyTree™ Report shows that 2015 was the biggest year since 2000, when nearly $105 billion was invested. But there are signs the funding party may be waning.

Global PC shipments fell for the fifth consecutive quarter, according to research firm Gartner. Overall, global shipments in the fourth quarter fell 8.3%. PC stalwarts including Lenovo, Dell and HP all ended the fourth quarter with declines in shipment growth. The lone bright spot? Apple, which posted growth of nearly 3% for the fourth quarter. The PC market ended this year below 300 million shipments, the first time that’s happened since 2008.

The unrelenting slide in oil prices is rippling to the broader economy as the industry’s downturn squeezes sectors as diverse as airlines and restaurants, steelmakers and law firms. The U.S. crude benchmark price The U.S. crude benchmark price was up about 3% Wednesday morning but has fallen about 15% so far this year after plummeting in 2015 and is close to 12 year lows. The crash has led oil producers to sharply scale back drilling and cut jobs. United Airlines said this week it expects lower passenger revenue in the fourth quarter because of reduced bookings by Texas oil executives who often travel first class. KB Homes, the giant builder, dialed back construction in the Houston area last year because of oil’s slide. Every lost oil and gas job leads to an additional 3.43 jobs cut in other sectors, Moody’s Analytics estimates. That means the 204,000 drop in oil and gas payrolls wiped out an additional 700,000 or so jobs in other sectors last year. Manufacturers, for example, announced 37,221 layoffs over the past 12 months.

Foreclosure filings on a national level dropped to a nine-year low in 2015, but some oil-producing states weren’t so lucky, according to a new report from RealtyTrac. Foreclosures increased in Texas, Oklahoma and North Dakota last year as oil prices fell. North Dakota saw a 387% increase in foreclosures in 2015. “The rise in foreclosures in these states is actually a new wave of distress coming through that is mostly unrelated to the subprime loan housing crisis,” of 2008 says Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac.

The number of solar jobs in the U.S. has more than doubled in five years. In fact, there are more people working in solar now than at oil rigs and gas fields. The solar industry added 35,000 jobs in 2015, up 20% from the previous year, according to the Solar Foundation, a nonprofit in Washington D.C. In contrast, oil and gas firms slashed nearly 17,000 extraction jobs in 2015 as energy prices continue to plummet. There are now about 209,000 solar energy employees in the U.S. They include solar panel installers, designers, engineers, sales folks and managers. Today, the solar industry workforce is nearly three times the size of the entire coal mining workforce.

Middle East

The Islamic State (IS) terror militia made bold moves and statements in several countries bordering Israel this week, while Israeli military and security officials quietly assured the political echelon that they are paying close attention to developments. IS made an explicit threat to move against the government of Jordan, to Israel’s east in a statement published in their weekly online newspaper Al-Nabah, released on Tuesday. Israeli security analysts consider the stability of Jordan to be a first-order concern for Israel, warning that disorder there would quickly spill over into the Palestinian communities of the West Bank, massively complicating Israel’s own security. IS also recently threatened to step up attacks in the Egyptian Sinai, specifically threatening to target natural gas pipelines which supply Jordan.

Islamic State

Iraqi security forces routed Islamic State fighters at a key hamlet in the first major fighting since pushing them from the strategic city of Ramadi, a senior Defense official said Tuesday. The battles took place near Barwana, a hamlet across the Euphrates River from Haditha in western Anbar province. Fighters from the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, began attacking the town with car bombs and mortars on Jan. 3. They have used the open desert region as a staging area for attacks on Haditha, site of a major hydroelectric dam. The victory could be seen as “proof of concept” for the U.S. strategy to back local ground forces with airstrikes and advisers, said Nicholas Heras, a researcher with the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

ISIS declared that it was behind a bloody attack Wednesday outside a Pakistani Consulate in eastern Afghanistan — one that killed seven Afghan security forces and demonstrated the terror group’s spiraling reach and ambition. The Afghan and Pakistani governments said that all three attackers and seven Afghan forces died, but no Pakistani officials did, contrary to ISIS claims. For years, Afghanistan has faced down many militant organizations, with the Taliban and al Qaeda foremost among them. Yet ISIS has become more formidable in that country and neighboring Pakistan over the past year, thanks to an influx of Taliban defectors.

In an extremely unusual airstrike, the U.S. dropped bombs Sunday in central Mosul, Iraq, destroying a building containing huge amounts of cash ISIS was using to pay its troops and for ongoing operations, two U.S. defense officials told CNN. Two 2,000-pound bombs destroyed the site quickly. But the longstanding impact may be even more significant. The officials said the U.S. plans to strike more financial targets like this one to take away ISIS’s ability to function as a state-like entity.

Syria

Thousands of Syrians have sought warmer shelter in recent days after a series of winter storms hit the war-torn nation, dipping temperatures to dangerous levels. With so little aid reaching Syrian citizens, they’re not getting much in terms of blankets or mattresses to help keep them warm during the frigid winter months, Reuters reported. Now, they’re doing everything they can to keep their flimsy shelters from collapsing as heavy snow rapidly accumulated over the past few days, especially for the 1 million or so Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, where the snow has been even heavier. The International Committee of the Red Cross told Al Jazeera that at least 12 million Syrians – nearly half of which are children – are in immediate need of aid. The refugee crisis caused by the Syrian civil war has affected Lebanon more severely than any of its neighbors. There are approximately 1.2 million Syrian refugees in the country — a remarkable figure considering Lebanon’s population was only four million before the war. The number of unregistered refugees is unknown.

Pakistan

A suicide attack on a polio vaccination center in southwestern Pakistan on Wednesday killed 15 people, mainly police who had gathered to escort health workers, who have been repeatedly targeted in recent years by Islamic militants, officials said. Another 23 people were wounded. Hours after the attack, Ahmad Marwat, who described himself as a spokesman for Jundullah, or Army of God, a little-known militant group, claimed responsibility without explaining why the center was targeted. He warned of more attacks on polio teams in the future. Polio workers in Pakistan, and their police escorts, have been targeted in recent years by Islamic militants who accuse them of working as spies for the United States.

Iran

Iran on Wednesday released 10 U.S. sailors detained for several hours after two small U.S. Navy boats crossed into Iranian waters. The state-affiliated Islamic Republic News Agency said the sailors and their boats were returned to international waters and freed. The Pentagon confirmed the release and said there were no indications the sailors were harmed during their detention. Earlier Wednesday, General Ali Fadavi, a naval commander for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, accused the U.S. military of acting in an “unprofessional” manner. He said the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier made provocative “maritime and aerial” moves after the U.S. sailors were seized Tuesday. Now Iran wants an apology. A navigational error appears to have caused two small Navy boats to stray into Iranian water.

Turkey

Kurdish rebels detonated a car bomb at a police station in southeastern Turkey, then attacked it with rocket launchers and firearms, killing five people, including civilians, the governor’s office said Thursday. Thirty-nine other people were injured in the attack in Cinar. The force of the blast caused a house close to the police station to collapse. The explosion caused extensive damage, affecting buildings two or three blocks away from the police station. Another police station was attacked with rocket launchers in Midyat in what appeared to be a simultaneous assault. The attack came a day after a suicide bomber set off an explosion in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district, just steps away from the landmark Blue Mosque, killing 10 German tourists. Turkish officials say the bomber, a Syrian born in 1988, was affiliated with the Islamic State group.

Kenya

Islamic extremist rebels in Somalia say they have killed dozens of Kenyan troops in an attack on an African Union base in southwestern Somalia. Al-Shabab military spokesman Abdiaziz Abu Mudan told the group’s online radio that at least 63 soldiers had been killed in the attack, which started early Friday. But the Kenyan military said in a statement that the rebels had attacked Somali government soldiers who were stationed near the African Union base run by the Kenyan contingent. The statement also said that the Kenyans had then helped the Somalis to launch a counter-attack against the rebels and fighting is ongoing. The statement also said that the casualty toll is unknown.

Indonesia

At least three bombs exploded near a Starbucks cafe in downtown Jakarta on Thursday while gunmen also attacked a police post and other locations in Indonesia’s capital. Seven people, including five attackers, were killed in the incident. Up to a dozen attackers may be involved in the attacks that police said mimicked the Paris attacks on Nov. 13 that killed 130 people. Thursday’s assaults took place in a busy shopping area close to many embassies and a United Nations office. “They are likely from the (Islamic State) group,” said national police spokesman Anton Charliyan. Police in Indonesia on Friday said that two of the attackers who struck the country’s capital Thursday were previously jailed for terrorism offences.

Poland

Relations between Poland and the European Union’s leaders hit a new low Wednesday, as the bloc’s executives met to investigate Poland’s recent limitations on democracy. The move followed protests last weekend in Warsaw, where tens of thousands of Polish supporters of democracy braved the bitter cold to decry a new law empowering the government to muzzle state radio and television. The law, rushed through the Sejm (Parliament) by the governing Law and Justice Party (known by its Polish acronym as PiS), gives the government complete control of state radio and television. Key managers have been sacked and replaced with PiS political appointees. The European Union has condemned this action. Government officials claim this takeover of public media is necessary to promote national traditions and patriotic values. Pride in Polish identity is a hallmark of the new government, which abhors western European values.

Environment

The shores of India’s southern coast were littered with more than 80 whales, officials said on Tuesday. Bands of short-finned pilot whales began beaching themselves on Monday evening. Rescuers took at least 36 of the mammals back to sea, but they appeared to be disoriented and some found their way back to the beach. Short-finned pilot whales travel in groups or pods, and the absence of a leader confuses the group. “There could be many reasons…navy sonars could have caused it…or pollution…the reason is not immediately known and we don’t want to speculate,” Amal Xavier, Assistant Director of Tuticorin fisheries department, told the Indian Express.

Nearly 8,000 Alaskan seabirds have died of suspected starvation. Emaciated Common Murres, one of North America’s most abundant seabirds, littered along the shore after apparently starving to death. Murre die-offs have occurred in previous winters but not in the numbers Alaska is seeing. Scientists say the die-offs could be a sign of ecosystem changes that have reduced the numbers of the forage fish that murres depend upon. Warmer water surface temperatures, possibly due to global warming or the El Nino weather pattern, may have affected murre prey, including herring, capelin and juvenile pollock. There are about 2.8 million Common Murres in 230 Alaska colonies, part of a worldwide population of 13 to 20.7 million birds. Awkward on land, their short, powerful wings make them extraordinary swimmers, “flying” beneath the surface as deep as 600 feet to hunt for fish.

Earthquakes

A strong earthquake struck just off the coast of Hokkaido in northern Japan. No tsunami warning was issued, and there were no reports of major damage. The magnitude-6.7 quake hit about 12:30 p.m. local time Thursday, near Urakawa town on the southern tip of Hokkaido. The lunchtime quake caught many residents by surprise. Hokkaido police said that two elderly women aged 96 and 86 fell down and suffered minor head injuries in Sapporo. Two nuclear power plants and the Rokkasho reprocessing plant in the quake-hit region were not affected, nuclear safety officials said.

Weather

The National Hurricane Center has upgraded a storm brewing in the Atlantic Ocean to hurricane status, a rarity for January. Hurricane Alex is the first January hurricane in the Atlantic since 1938. Alex will push through the Azores Friday while making the transition to a non-tropical low-pressure system. It was located about 130 miles south of Terceira Island in the central Azores as of 5 a.m. AST Friday.

Waves of arctic air have been impacting the Midwest since last weekend, and another round of frigid temperatures will grip the region this coming weekend. Although the cold temperatures have been locked in across the Midwest, the cold is not extreme enough to break records. Wednesday morning, lows in the single digits were reported as far south as northern Kentucky. Low temperatures in Chicago and Milwaukee dipped into the single digits above and below zero for the fourth consecutive morning Wednesday, with wind chills in the teens below zero.

At least three pileups closed interstates in Indiana and Pennsylvania on Tuesday due to snow and ice. One of the pileups involved as many as 40 vehicles in two collisions along snowy Interstate 74 in southeastern Indiana. A cascade of large rocks closed a Washington highway over the weekend, and officials say that road will likely remain closed for days. The slide was about 50 feet deep and 100 feet long, with boulders as big as trucks. It’s possible that the slide was triggered by saturated ground, but officials haven’t declared an official cause yet. The Waterville area reported more than double its normal precipitation for December.

Signs of the Times (1/12/16)

January 12, 2016

Persecution Watch

Christians in the Philippines are facing persecution at the same level as their brothers and sisters in the Middle East, says a missionary priest. According to Christian Today, Father Sebastiano D’Ambra said in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need that 14 people were murdered on Christmas day and a grenade was thrown at a chapel. Nine Christians were also killed on Christmas Eve. The violence was perpetrated by members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. D’Ambra has been in the Philippines nearly 50 years “In some areas of Mindanao we are experiencing exactly the same thing as is happening in Iraq,” said Father D’Ambra.

Thirty Mexican Christians have been forced from their homes due to persecution, according to Christian Today. The Christians, who are Protestants and a minority among the Catholic-dominated country, were victims of a raid that destroyed their homes on January 4. Christian Today reports that the perpetrators of the violence are thought to be the commissioner of the community, Jimenez Hernandez, and the municipal agent, Francisco Jimenez Santiz. International Christian Concern (ICC) reports that “in the rural areas where we see persecution, many villages and their councils are dominated by adherents to syncretistic Catholicism.” Syncretistic Catholicism is a religion that mixes Catholicism with native beliefs and rituals.

Norwegian child services have begun the adoption process for five children who were seized from a Romanian Pentecostal family in November after concerns were expressed about the parents’ Christian faith, the family says. As reported by The Christian Post, the five children of Ruth and Marius Bodnariu were seized by the Barnevernet (Norway’s child services agency) on Nov. 16 after the principal of the middle school their two oldest daughters attend cited concerns about the children’s religious upbringing and how the parents were teaching their kids that God punishes sin. Although the principal only asked the Barnevernet to offer the family counseling services, the agency removed all five kids from their parents’ custody on the claim that the children were being physically abused. The children, including a nursing infant son, have now been placed in three separate foster homes while their parents have been given extremely limited visitation rights.

  • This is a growing worldwide movement under socialistic, humanistic leadership to deprive Christian parents the right to keep their children out of the public schools (secular humanist indoctrination centers)

Oregon Protesters Harassing Police, Sheriff Says

Since those occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge came to town, there has been an increase in the number of “vandalism, harassment and intimidation reports,” Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said. “There are continual reports of law enforcement officers and community members being followed home; of people sitting in cars outside their homes, observing their movements and those of their families; and of people following them and their families as they move around the community,” Ward said on Monday. “While not direct physical threats, these activities are clearly designed to try to intimidate,” he said. Some of the armed protesters have been able to leave and return from the refuge center during the occupation. Ammon Bundy, the son of anti-government Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, and others have been hunkered down in the wildlife refuge since early January. The protest started out as a call against the conviction of Dwight Hammond and his son Steven — two ranchers who were found guilty in 2012 of committing arson on federal lands in Oregon — but soon morphed into a bigger movement, rallying against the role of the federal government when it comes to land rights.

Migrant Refugees Suspected of New Year’s Eve Rapes in Germany

German authorities have identified 31 people, including 18 asylum-seekers, as suspects in mob sex attacks and muggings in Cologne on New Year’s Eve — one of several such incidents in Europe. Demonstrations erupted in Cologne, Germany, on Saturday over the sexual assaults blamed largely on recent migrants. As a result, Chancellor Angela Merkel has called for stricter laws regulating asylum seekers. Merkel, who has been particularly outspoken in welcoming refugees to Germany, told a two-day meeting of the Christian Democrats in Mainz that tighter restrictions would be “in the interest of citizens, but also in the interests of the great majority of the refugees who are here.” Party leaders agreed on a proposal to strengthen the ability of police to conduct checks of identity papers, and also to exclude foreigners from being granted asylum who had been convicted of crimes and sentenced to terms even as light as probation.

Europe’s Plan to Distribute Refugees Unravels

The solution to Europe’s migrant crisis was supposed to be taking people off the migrant trail and distributing them more evenly across the continent to bring order to a process marked by chaos. But four months after European leaders agreed to the plan following long and bitter negotiations, the program has been crippled by a lack of cooperation — from countries and the refugees themselves. Out of an intended total of 160,000 asylum seekers, the E.U. has relocated a paltry 272, reports the Washington Post. But the problems with the relocation program go beyond a lack of participation by countries. The refugees haven’t shown much interest, either. Under the rules, asylum seekers don’t get to choose where they end up. Many are loath to risk being sent to a country where they’re unwelcome — such as Slovakia. Or they already have their hearts set on a destination where they have family or friends. Allowing the refugees to decide where they go has led to a deeply uneven distribution of the burden. Popular destinations, such as Sweden, have been overwhelmed and have recently introduced border controls to keep refugees out.

With refugee flows expected to begin climbing again within weeks, it adds to the odds that Europe will ultimately have to close its borders to refugees — and that walls will rise on a continent where the ideal of free movement once flourished. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, meanwhile, on Friday called for construction of “a European defense line” on Greece’s northern borders to stop refugee flows entirely — not just slow them. Other attempts to ease the refugee crisis through European solidarity have also fallen short, with countries ignoring for months a plea by the E.U.’s border agency, Frontex, to send additional guards to reinforce beleaguered authorities in Greece.

Drinking Water Delivered Door-to-Door in Michigan

State officials in Michigan will start a door-to-door sweep of Flint on Tuesday to hand out bottled water and water filters to address the city’s ongoing water crisis. Flint’s drinking water was contaminated with lead when a state-appointed emergency manager switched the city’s water supply source from Lake Huron to the more polluted and corrosive Flint River, and an unknown number of children got lead poisoning. The state said that if no one is at home during door-to-door visits, a flyer with information on how to get free water resources will be left. Three liaison officers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are in Michigan assisting state officials after Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in the crisis Tuesday.

Strokes Skyrocket Among Middle-Aged

The fight against one of the nation’s leading killers, stroke, has been touted as a public health success story since it has been decreasing among American seniors, dropping from the fourth to the fifth most common cause of death in the U.S. But this statistic masks a chilling and dramatic increase in strokes hitting the middle-agers, a group thought to be relatively low-risk for brain-damaging blood clots. Among Americans ages 15 to 44, the incidence of stroke has risen up to 53 percent. And the proportion of strokes in the under-65 population has gone up from 25 to 31 percent. Doctors say the reasons for this alarming trend are clear. Americans are becoming obese, diabetic, and suffering high blood pressure at a younger age than in decades past.

Economic News

“Sell everything.” That harrowing advice is from The Royal Bank of Scotland, which has warned of a “cataclysmic year” ahead for markets and advised clients to head for the exit. “Sell everything except high quality bonds,” warned Andrew Roberts in a note this week. He said the bank’s red flags for 2016 — falling oil, volatility in China, shrinking world trade, rising debt, weak corporate loans and deflation — had all been seen in just the first week of trading. Band of America admits that “panic is building” but recommends against panic selling, pointing to ongoing economic growth in the U.S. Instead, they say, “near-term caution is warranted.”

The Dow lost 1,079 points last week, or over 6%, as fears about China and crashing oil prices dealt Wall Street a painful one-two blow. It was the Dow’s worst five-day start to a year on record, according to Dow Jones. Investors were once again spooked by crude oil prices, which plunged to the lowest level since late 2003. Crude finished the day Friday at $33.16 a barrel. Chinese stocks started the week with heavy losses, diving more than 5% Monday as other global markets also fell.

The strengthening U.S. dollar could send oil plunging to $20 per barrel. That’s the view of analysts at Morgan Stanley. In a report published Monday, they say a 5% increase in the value of the dollar against a basket of currencies could push oil down by between 10% and 25% — which would mean prices falling by as much as $8 per barrel. Crude futures are already trading at around $32.50, near their lowest levels in 12 years. Prices slumped 1.8% on Monday, and are 13% down so far this year.

Black unemployment fell to 8.3% in December, down sharply from the 9.4% in November. It was the lowest mark since September 2007, before the recession began and lesser than half of the peak of 16.8% reached in 2010. It was the lowest mark since September 2007, before the recession began and lesser than half of the peak of 16.8% reached in 2010. Blacks still have higher unemployment than every other demographic. White unemployment is 4.5%, Hispanic unemployment is 6.3% and Asian unemployment is 4%.

Nevada’s casino industry lost $662 million last year, and has been in the red consistently for six years. Things hit bottom in 2009 when the industry posted a staggering loss of $6.8 billion. Visitors are spending plenty on restaurants, booze and glitzy shows featuring Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears and magician Criss Angel. But spending on actual gambling is way down. It’s a trend that began with the Great Recession in 2008. More people are coming to Vegas, but they’re spending differently.

Middle East

Two Israeli Arabs were indicted on Friday for planning to assassinate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Hazam Sanduka, 22, an Arab resident of Jerusalem’s Old City, and Fahdi Abu Kia’an,19, an Israeli Bedouin from the Negev, were arrested last month as part of a Hamas cell and charged with assisting an enemy at wartime, contact with a foreign agent, plotting a terrorist attack and manufacturing explosives. Azzam, a resident of Qalqilya in Samaria, rented an apartment in the Abu Dis neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Azzam and Sanduka acquired ingredients to make explosives and planned on carrying out several attacks. Sanduka, who had worked in a security firm in the past, initiated the plan to plant explosives under the stage in Jerusalem’s Payis Arena where Netanyahu was scheduled to speak. They also planned a large attack in Jerusalem for earlier this month. The plans were directed by Hamas in Gaza.

The search for Arab-Israeli terror suspect Nashat Milhem ended Friday afternoon in a hail of bullets as security forces tracked him to the northern village of Arara and attempted to arrest him, prompting him to open fire. He was killed by return fire from the security forces. The announcement of his death was met with relief by Tel Aviv residents who had lived in fear for the last several days that he might attempt to repeat his New Year’s Day shooting rampage which killed three people and wounded six others, while the Palestinian Authority and Islamist terror militias Hamas and Islamic Jihad declared Milhem a “martyr” and a “hero” whose death would be avenged.

Islamic State

An air campaign aimed at crippling the Islamic State’s lucrative oil smuggling business has reduced the terror group’s revenue from a peak of about $1.3 million a day to less than $1 million, a top State Department official said. Damage to the group’s oil infrastructure and distribution networks has caused blackouts and fuel shortages in areas controlled by the Islamic State. Revenue from oil represents the bulk of the organization’s budget, funding terror operations and providing it with the resources to govern territory it controls in Syria and Iraq.

ISIS fighters who fled to the terror group’s Iraqi stronghold of Mosul after being defeated in Ramadi were burned alive in the town square, sources told FoxNews.com, in an unmistakable message to fighters who may soon be defending the northern city from government forces. Several Iraqi-Americans and recent refugees with close relatives in Mosul told of ISIS fighters fresh off defeat in Ramadi being shunned – and executed – for not fighting to the death in Ramadi.

Syria

Trucks with food supplies reached starving residents Monday in a Syrian city and two towns caught between warring factions in the country’s civil war. Graphic images publicized of skin-and-bone children led to a breakthrough by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross in gaining access to the mountain city of Madaya, north of Damascus, and the towns of Foah and Kafraya, farther north in Syria’s embattled Idlib province. The Red Cross said there were 40,000 people in Madaya and 20,000 in the smaller towns in need of help. Doctors Without Borders said at least 250 people in Madaya are suffering from severe malnutrition.

Iraq

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for Monday’s car bombing and assault at a Baghdad mall that killed 18 people and wounded 50 others. Shortly after the attack, the militant group posted a statement online, saying a car bomb and four of its fighters had targeted the area where many Shiite Muslims gather and warned of “worse” to come. The attack comes two weeks after the Islamic State was driven out of the western city of Ramadi by Iraqi government troops. The militant group still controls parts of northern and western Iraq, as well as a parts of Syria. Monday’s assault began with a car bomb being detonated and gunmen assaulting the mall for more than an hour before Iraqi security forces surrounded the building, landed troops on the roof and re-gained control over the shopping zone. At least four police officers were killed, as well as two of the attackers.

Turkey

A suicide bomb blast ripped through a popular tourism area of Istanbul on Tuesday, killing at least 10 people and injuring about 15 others, Turkish authorities said. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş said the bomber was a 27-year-old Syrian national. “This incident has shown once again that we have to stand in full unity against terror,” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said. Most of the victims were German, Erdoğan said. At least six Germans, one Norwegian and one Peruvian are among the injured. Turkey has been the target of deadly attacks at least three other times since June. The Islamic State either claimed responsibility or was blamed for all the attacks.

Egypt

Two Austrians and a Swede who were stabbed in an attack on a hotel in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Hurghada were only lightly wounded and in stable condition on Saturday. Two suspected militants attacked the three at a hotel in Hurghada late Friday. Security forces shot both attackers, killing one and wounding the other before arresting him. It was the second hotel attack in as many days. An Islamic State affiliate claimed an attack Thursday on a hotel in Cairo near the Pyramids that did not wound anyone. Two Egyptian police officers were also shot and killed on their way to work Saturday in the Giza district. Egypt has for years been battling a Sinai-based insurgency, which has grown in strength since the 2013 military overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. A Sinai-based Islamic State affiliate has claimed a number of attacks across the country.

Yemen

At least five people were killed and 10 others were injured when a “projectile” hit a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders in northern Yemen on Sunday, the group said. Three of the injured were members of the group, and two are in critical condition. Several buildings collapsed and people may still be trapped in the rubble. Yemen has become a proxy battleground for Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yemen’s minority Houthis, who are Shiite, began rebelling last year against the Sunni-led government of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, which is backed by Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia got involved last March by launching airstrikes in support of Hadi against rebel targets in Yemen. This is the second incident to impact Doctors Without Borders. In October, a U.S. airstrike at an MSF hospital in Afghanistan killed 30 people, including staff and patients.

Wildfires

Riding on hot, windy weather, a wildfire raging in Western Australia continues to wreak destruction across the state. The fire has burned more than 140,000 acres as of Friday and engulfed the small town of Yarloop. The fire’s behavior is reminiscent of the Valley Fire in California last year, which exploded and burned an area more than twice the size of Manhattan in just 12 hours. Lightning ignited other wildfires — known in Australia as bushfires — across Western Australia. The largest flared up about 70 miles south of the state capital of Perth and was dubbed the Waroona fire after the nearest town.

Weather

An invasion of arctic air has sent temperatures plunging to dangerously cold levels in parts of the Plains and Midwest. Subzero temperatures were recorded Sunday morning as far south as Kansas and Missouri. Fosston, Minnesota, was the coldest location in the Lower 48, with a low of 35 degrees below zero. Meanwhile, parts of the northern Plains and Upper Midwest were seeing wind chills in the 20s and 30s below zero. Grand Forks, North Dakota, recorded a wind chill of 39 degrees below Sunday morning. On Monday morning, the coldest spot in the Lower 48 was Embarrass, Minnesota, where the low dipped to 34 degrees below zero. Farther south, both the Chicago and Milwaukee metro areas woke up to subzero temperatures. Wind chills in the Windy City were in the teens below zero while Milwaukee saw a wind chill as low as minus 21 degrees. Single digits lows were recorded as far south as northern Kentucky, with teens into the mid-South. In Ontario, Canada, the cold weather caused the Nipigon River Bridge to separate along the Trans-Canada Highway Sunday – a closure so significant that the local municipality declared a state of emergency.

Heavy lake-effect snow was reported Monday all across the Great Lakes, leading to road closures in western New York and school closures in the Cleveland area. Areas south of Buffalo received as much as 25 inches of snow through Monday night. Lake-effect snow was most intense in northern New York, where snow bands off Lake Ontario produced snow totals as high as 34 inches in Lorraine. Snow totals in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan remained under a foot. Elsewhere, northern Arizona set a record snowfall Saturday, with 22 inches of accumulated snow on the ground at the Flagstaff Airport. The storm system brought in a total of 30.9 inches during the week to the Flagstaff area.

As floodwaters continue to rise along the lower Mississippi River, it’s clear the slow-motion disaster will be among the costliest wintertime flood events in U.S. history. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said Thursday that damage from the floods will top $1 billion. That number is likely to climb as the unpredictable and overflowing Mississippi continues its march south. This week floodwaters will continue to rise along the Mississippi River in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana, including the cities of Greenville and Natchez, Miss., and Baton Rouge.

Signs of the Times (1/8/16)

January 8, 2016

New Study Reveals Millennials More Skeptical of Church

A new Pew Research Center study has revealed that millennials are becoming more skeptical of religious organizations. According to Charisma News, the new study revealed that only 55 percent of millennials now believe churches and other religious organizations have a positive impact on the country. That is down from 73 percent in 2010. However, older generations’’ views on religious organizations have mostly remained the same.

New Legislation Bans ‘Transphobia’ with Charges Up to $250,000

New laws were enacted in New York City and Washington State this week intended to protect the rights of transgender individuals, with fines up to $250,000 per offense. Charisma News reports that the new legislation protects transgender individuals from acts of “transphobia” in businesses. Writer Michael Brown provided the following examples: If a biological male walked into the women’s changing room at a gym and was stopped from proceeding by an employee, that is considered transphobia. Also according to the legislation, businesses must have the same uniform for men and women. If a restaurant requires women to wear skirts, the men must now also. “Sex stereotyping” in businesses is also prohibited. This means companies that permit female employees to wear makeup and jewelry must also allow men to do so.

  • A wacky world gets wackier. Come Lord Jesus, come.

New Scientific Study Confirms Biblical Account of Where Water Came From

The Bible describes how, after God created the Earth, “springs came up from the ground and watered all the land (Genesis 2:6). In the account of the Flood, the Bible also mentions how “the fountains of the great deep burst forth” (Genesis 7:11). According to Christian Today, a new nine-page scientific study confirms the Bible’s account that water came from within the Earth. “The ultimate origin of water in the Earth’s hydrosphere is in the deep Earth—the mantle,” the scientists wrote in their report. The study also discovered that there is a “major repository for water” located within the mantle, about 250 to 410 miles below the Earth’s surface. “It’s actually the confirmation that there is a very, very large amount of water that’s trapped in a really distinct layer in the deep Earth,” said Graham Pearson, the research team’s leader.

Native Tribe Blasts Oregon Building Takeover

The leaders of the Burns Paiute tribe have a message for the men and women who have taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside Burns, Oregon: this was our land long before you ranchers or the federal government. “Go home. We don’t want you here,” said a tribe spokeswoman. The message came from several tribe members whose ancestors fought and died over portions of that land long before the ranchers and farmers had it, long before the federal government even existed. The tribe is still fighting over land use but now works with the federal government’s Bureau of Land Management to save its archaeological sites. “We have good relations with the refuge. They protect our cultural rights there,” said tribal council Chairwoman Charlotte Rodrique. The Bureau of Land Management is the same agency that has riled up Nevada rancher Ammon Bundy and the armed protesters who joined him from out of state. The men took over the wildlife refuge headquarters, saying they would stay until the land was returned to who they consider its owners, the 100 or so ranchers and farmers who worked the land as far back as 1900.

New Age Militia Holds its Ground in Oregon

Blaine Cooper, from Humboldt, Ariz., stands guard at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge here, one of a small faction of armed anti-government protesters and vigilantes who say they won’t back down until the U.S. recognizes their rights as landowners. It’s a classic struggle borne right out of the Wild West, with deeply distrustful ranchers fearing their land – and their freedoms – are under siege. “What makes me nervous is government,” he says, wearing military fatigues and standing in the Oregon snow-covered sagebrush. “Government has been responsible for the greatest atrocities in the world.” Cooper and the others are new ‘Millennium Marlboro Men’, dressed in cowboy hats, army fatigues and militia gear while keeping up with the news on handheld mobile devices. They tweet their land-rights rhetoric to reporters. iPhones protrude from the breast pockets on their flannel shirts. Cooper posts occasional videos to YouTube on his support for civilian patrols along the U.S. border and his defiance of federal land bureau practices.

Democrats Ramp Up Pressure on Obama to ‘Immediately’ Sanction Iran

Some of President Obama’s closest Democratic allies are joining Republicans in calling on the administration to reverse course and sanction Iran for illicit missile tests. The White House had notified Congress of looming sanctions last week and then abruptly pulled back, without offering a specific explanation for the delay. Republicans swiftly slammed the decision as a weak-kneed response to an increasingly belligerent regime, but top Democrats including party Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz are now joining in — urging the administration to act “immediately” to penalize Tehran. “The United States and our allies must take immediate, punitive action and send a clear message to Iran that violating international laws, treaties, and agreements will have serious consequences,” Schultz, D-Fla., and six other House Democrats wrote in a letter Wednesday to Obama. The lawmakers pointed to several Iranian missile launches – including a test in October deemed a violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution, and another in November that the U.N. has not yet ruled on. They also cited reports last week that an Iranian rocket came within 1,500 feet of a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Strait of Hormuz.

Congress Passes Health Law Repeal & Defunding Planned Parenthood

Congress sent an ObamaCare repeal bill to the president’s desk for the first time in 61 tries on Wednesday, marking an election-year victory of sorts for Republicans who have tried since 2010 to scrap the law. The bill repealing most of President Obama’s signature health care law was approved in a final 240-181 House vote Wednesday afternoon, after clearing the Senate late last year. The legislation also would strip federal funding for Planned Parenthood. The president is sure to veto, and Republicans do not have the votes to override.

Congress Responds to Obama’s Gun Control Executive Order

On the same day that President Barack Obama released a new statement on his gun control measures, the The House Appropriations Committee sent a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch saying that they will not provide extra funds for the “unlawful limitations on the unambiguous Second Amendment Rights of Americans.” The GOP-led committee told Lynch that they will not fund a “new law” that directly contradicts the Second Amendment to the Constitution. “We look forward to reviewing a fiscal year 2016 spending plan and fiscal year 2017 budget request that enforces existing federal law and does not create new law.” Critics point to statistics from the FBI that show U.S. Homicide rates at their lowest level (4.5 homicides per 1,000 people) in more than fifty years, down from a peak of 10.2 in 1980, in spite of highly publicized mass shootings.

Obama Sued over Keystone Pipeline

TransCanada on Wednesday accused President Obama in a federal lawsuit of exceeding his constitutional authority when rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline and, in a separate challenge, said the White House violated a historic trade agreement, igniting an election-year battle over a project that most considered dead. The company, which proposed the project nearly a decade ago, is seeking $15 billion in damages from the U.S. for the “loss of value” of assets related to Keystone. The company argues that Mr. Obama “intruded on Congress’s power to regulate interstate and international commerce” and blatantly disregarded the will of the legislative branch. Congress last year passed a bill approving Keystone, but the president vetoed it. In a separate legal action, the Canadian company filed a challenge under the North American Free Trade Agreement saying the president’s decision was “arbitrary and unjustified” and violated a portion of the landmark trade deal.

Bisexuality on the Rise, Says New U.S. Survey

A growing number of women and men say they are bisexual, according to the latest national survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers asked more than 9,000 people in the United States age 18 to 44 about the types of sexual experiences they have had, whether they are attracted to the same or opposite sex and whether they identify as being straight, gay/lesbian or bisexual. Interviews were conducted between 2011 and 2013 as part of the CDC’s National Survey of Family Growth. Similar to previous surveys the group conducted, 1.3% of women and 1.9% of men said they were homosexual. However, a few trends stood out. More women reported having had sexual contact with other women: 17.4% in the current survey compared with 14.2% in the 2006-2010 survey. And higher numbers of both women and men identified as bisexual, 5.5% of women and 2% of men, compared with 3.9% and 1.2% respectively in the last survey from 2006-2010.

  • Deviation from God’s creation will continue to rise as the end-times plod forward toward the Tribulation

Terrorism Update

Paris, a city on edge after weathering a year of jihadist violence, faced a fresh scare Thursday as police shot and killed a cleaver-wielding man on the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. French authorities said the man with the weapon was shot as he attempted to enter a police station in the northern Paris neighborhood of Barbes. The man was shouting “Allahu Akbar,” Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet told CNN. The attacker wore a pouch of what appeared to be explosives, but it turned out to be fake. The attempted attack near the police station in Goutte D’Or, in the 18th arrondissement, took place on the one-year anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo killings, the first of deadly jihadist attacks that have roiled the French capital over the past 12 months. In those attacks, two gunmen killed 12 people at the offices of the French satirical magazine, which had angered Islamists for its irreverent approach to Islam and publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

Two men born in Iraq who came to the U.S. as refugees were set to appear in court Friday on terror-related charges in California and Texas, as investigators say one of the men wrote that he wanted to travel to Syria because he was “eager to see blood.” A criminal complaint unsealed Thursday accused 23-year-old Aws Mohammed Younis Al-Jayab, of Sacramento, Calif., of traveling to Syria to fight alongside terrorist organizations and lying to government investigators about it. In Houston, federal authorities announced the arrest of Omar Faraj Saeed Al Hardan, 24, on charges of attempting to provide material support to ISIS, procurement of citizenship or naturalization unlawfully and making false statements to investigators. He was the 80th person charged under Federal law in an ISIS-related case since April 2013, and the first in 2016.

Migrant Update

A spate of alleged sexual assaults and robberies at New Year’s Eve festivities in the German city of Cologne has fueled a political firestorm over immigration in Germany. Ninety criminal incidents, a quarter of which were sexual assaults, were reported following New Year’s Eve celebrations in the city, Cologne police told CNN. Police said victims described the perpetrators as gangs of Arab or North African men. Authorities said the crimes, including a rape, occurred around the train station, next to the western German city’s landmark cathedral. A smaller number of similar assaults also were reported in the German city of Hamburg on New Year’s Eve. The episodes raised questions about the viability of Cologne’s famous Carnival next month when hundreds of thousands are expected to join celebrations on city streets.

Economic News

The labor market ended 2015 on a roll as employers added 292,000 jobs last month, underscoring that the U.S. economy remains on solid footing despite weakness in China and this week’s brutal market selloff. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 5%, the Labor Department said Friday. Businesses added 275,000 jobs, led by professional and business services, healthcare and construction. Federal, state and local governments added 17,000. Job gains for October and November were revised up by a total 50,000. Wall Street opened sharply higher open Friday after the release of the strong U.S. jobs report and a 2% rebound in Chinese stocks

The Dow dropped 392 points on Thursday. The wave of selling knocked the Dow down 911 points, or more than 5% so far this year. That’s the worst four-day percentage loss to start a year on record. China’s stock market is in complete disarray. For the second time in four days, trading was suspended under new circuit breaker rules unveiled this week. Many observers believe the circuit breakers, which are aimed at easing volatility, are actually creating more chaos by causing investors to sell out of fear they won’t be able to get their money out before trading is stopped.

Oil prices tumbled further Thursday as investors grew increasingly jittery about the prospect of prolonged economic sluggishness in China amid market turmoil. The benchmark U.S. crude, called West Texas Intermediate, fell 3.5% to $32.81 a barrel in morning trading, a level not seen since April 2004. Much of the distress in the oil markets can be attributed to market turbulence in China, where the CSI 300 Index dropped more than 7% after halting trading early to counteract sharp declines. Stocks are selling off around the world because there are growing fears that the volatility in China’s stock market is signaling a bigger-than-expected slowdown in the world’s second-biggest economy, which has been one of the world’s biggest drivers of growth in recent years.

U.S. car sales in 2015 jumped to a record, clearing a peak last reached 15 years ago as cheap gasoline, employment gains and low interest rates spurred Americans to snap up new vehicles. In all, auto makers sold 17.5 million cars and light trucks in the U.S. last year, a 5.7% increase, reports the Wall Street Journal. With gas hovering around $2 a gallon nationwide and credit plentiful, auto makers are projecting a continuation of the robust demand for higher-margin pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles now fattening their bottom lines. Those larger vehicles account for more than half of U.S. sales, pushing the average transaction price to $34,428, according to automotive data provider Kelley Blue Book.

Mortgage application volume plunged more than 25 percent during the past two weeks in the wake of the Federal Reserve’s first rate hike in nearly a decade. Refinance applications, which are most rate-sensitive, decreased 37 percent from two weeks ago, CNBC reported. Applications to purchase a home fell 15 percent, but were 22 percent higher than the same period one year ago.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is running out of money. While the world’s attention is focused on Saudi Arabia’s latest flare up with Iran, many Saudis are concerned about the “economic bomb” at home. The government is slashing a plethora of perks for its citizens. The cash crunch is so dire that the Saudi government just hiked the price of gasoline by 50%. Saudis lined up at gas stations Monday to fill up before the higher prices kicked in. Gas used to cost a mere 16 cents a liter in Saudi Arabia, one of the cheapest prices in the world. Many Saudis drive large SUVs and “have no concept of saving gas. The gas hike is just the beginning. Water and electricity prices are also going up, and the government is scaling back spending on roads, buildings and other infrastructure. About 75% of the Saudi government’s budget comes from oil. The price of oil has crashed from over $100 a barrel in 2014 to around $33 currently. Most experts don’t expect a rebound anytime soon.

Middle East

Marching boldly at the funeral earlier this week of terrorist Mahammed Saeed Ali in the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat in Jerusalem, hundreds of masked and armed Hamas terrorists fired in the air with automatic assault rifles and waved knives and machetes, Arutz-7 reported on Thursday. The scene was shocking, the news site noted, given the fact that it occurred in the Israeli capital, not in Gaza. The location was in the northeastern part of Jerusalem, not far from the Hebrew University and merely about 100 meters away from the Jewish residential French Hill neighborhood.

Two attempts were made by Palestinians late Thursday to attack IDF soldiers in the West Bank, resulting in four attackers being shot dead and no Israelis being wounded. The first attack came by a lone Palestinian attacker against a group of IDF soldiers at the Beit Anoun junction near Hebron. The second involved three attackers rushing soldiers at the Gush Etzion junction south of Jerusalem.

Iran’s government accused Saudi Arabia of “intentionally” striking its embassy in Yemen, another incident likely to ratchet up tensions between Tehran and Riyadh and imperil efforts to forge peace in Syria and combat ISIS. According to Ansari, the Iranian Embassy in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, was damaged and several guards were injured in the late Wednesday airstrike. “This is not credible because we have not seen any evidence,” Saudi spokesman Col. Ahmed Asseri said. “But we will investigate.” Of course, it’s doubtful Iran will readily accept the results of a Saudi investigation. Not in light of the longstanding tensions between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shiite-led Iran, which have escalated in recent days, threatening an even bigger showdown that could roil not only the Middle East but the world.

Islamic State

The retaking of Ramadi by Iraqi security forces last week has been hailed as a major blow to the Islamic State and as a vindication of the Obama administration’s strategy to fight the group by backing local ground forces with intensive airstrikes. But the widespread destruction of Ramadi bears testament to the tremendous costs of dislodging a group that stitches itself into the urban fabric of communities it seizes by occupying homes, digging tunnels and laying extensive explosives, reports the New York Times. The scars of war in Ramadi were visible just about everywhere. Many streets had been erased or remained covered in rubble or blocked by trenches used in the fighting. Entire neighborhoods were full of collapsed homes, shrapnel-ridden shop fronts and swimming-pool-size craters left by airstrikes.

Libya

A massive truck bomb exploded near a police base in the western Libyan town of Zliten on Thursday, killing at least 60 policemen and wounding around 200 others, officials said. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack but a local Islamic State affiliate has been trying to gain a foothold in Zliten, spreading westward from its central stronghold of Sirte along the North African country’s coast. The police base, where about 400 recruits were training, was used by Libya’s border police, a Zliten security official said. Border police foiled numerous human smuggling attempts off the coast of Zliten last year.

Iraq

The fighting has finally stopped in Ramadi, a major city in the Sunni heartland. The Islamic State has been ousted, and the Iraqi flag is flying once again. But Iraq’s government defeated the Islamic State only with the help of Sunni tribes, which pacified local distrust of the Shiite-led central government. Now, as Iraq faces the even greater challenge of routing the Islamic State from other cities, it is confronted with a heated conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia that threatens to inflame sectarian tensions across the entire region. For Iraq, which barely survived years of sectarian civil war, the hostilities between Iran and Saudi Arabia could once again foil Sunni-Shiite cooperation — and empower the Islamic State, reports the New York Times.

Iran

Just days after the US backed off on a threat to impose new sanctions on Iran over its violation of UN Resolutions regarding its illegal ballistic missile programs, the Islamic Republic brazenly broadcast video footage of an underground facility housing some of its most advanced missiles. The bunker housing several Imad missiles, which has a range of 1,700 kilometers and is capable of delivering a nuclear payload to a target. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, described as a “moderate” by several Western governments, lashed out harshly against reports that the US planned to sanction his country over the recent violations of UN resolutions, saying such a move would be “hostile and illegal” and declared his intention to enlarge the ballistic missile program.

Afghanistan

A U.S. service member died Tuesday from injuries sustained in clashes with insurgents during a joint operation with Afghan forces in southern Afghanistan. Two Americans were injured. Fighting in the area was ongoing and the situation remained “fluid,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said. The Americans were part of an advisory team operating with Afghan special forces in Helmand province, a poppy-growing region and former Taliban stronghold. Fighting has intensified in the region in recent weeks. Early reports indicate no Afghan forces were killed. The U.S. is launching airstrikes to support American and Afghan forces around the ongoing battlefield.

North Korea

The United Nations Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting Wednesday in response to North Korea’s announcement that it conducted a successful hydrogen bomb test. If the North’s claim is confirmed, there will be calls for new, tougher sanctions against the regime of Kim Jong Un. A successful test would be a disturbing development for the United States and its allies because a hydrogen bomb is more powerful than a traditional fission bomb, and if the North’s claim is confirmed, it would indicate intelligence reports underestimated the sophistication of the secretive nation’s nuclear program. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said initial analyses show no evidence to support the claim.

As world powers work to verify North Korea’s claims that it has tested a hydrogen bomb, others are asking what the country’s only real ally — China — will do. On Wednesday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement that it “firmly opposes” this and any future nuclear tests by North Korea. Spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters that Beijing had not been given advanced warning of the test and would be summoning Pyongyang’s ambassador to lodge a protest.

Africa

Corruption in Africa is seen as the primary barrier to combatting poverty. “Corruption creates and increases poverty and exclusion. While corrupt individuals with political power enjoy a lavish life, millions of Africans are deprived of their basic needs like food, health, education, housing, access to clean water and sanitation,” said José Ugaz, chair of Transparency International. In the latest poll conducted by Afrobarometer, 58% of people said they thought bribery was increasing. The NGO estimates that around 75 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa have paid a bribe in the past year. The poor fare the worst — they are twice as likely as the richest in the region to have had to make payoffs according to the report. The police and courts — institutions which exist to safeguard citizen’s rights — are seen as the most corrupt, with over a quarter of those who had dealings with them saying that they had paid a bribe.

El Salvador

Despite improved security among its neighbors, El Salvador faced an explosion of homicides in 2015, likely making it the murder capital of the world. The surge in violence explains why thousands of Salvadorans and other Central Americans have fled to the United States. Government data show 6,657 people were murdered in the small country last year, a 70% increase from 2014. The homicide rate of 104 people per 100,000 is the highest for any country in nearly 20 years, according to data from the World Bank. All countries south of the U.S. border face the same problem: cartels and gangs fighting to control smuggling of drugs and people to the United States and infiltrating government institutions to help them

Earthquakes

A pair of moderate earthquakes shook northwest Oklahoma late Wednesday night, part of the latest swarm of Sooner State temblors since Wednesday morning. A 4.7-magnitude tremor was followed 30 seconds later by another 4.8-magnitude quake centered in a sparsely populated area, about 97 miles northwest of Oklahoma City. The quakes struck at depths of 2.1 and 3.7 miles below the surface. This was one of 20 separate earthquakes reported in just under 10 hours from Wednesday evening through Thursday morning. The 4.8-magnitude quake was the strongest in the Sooner State since the November 2011 swarm that included the state’s strongest on record, a 5.6-magnitude temblor in Prague on Nov. 6, 2011. Many believe these are due to all the fracking wells drilled in Oklahoma over the past few years.

Weather

A series of storm systems impacting the West Coast has closed and flooded highways in California and iced over parts of Oregon and Washington, where a plane skidded off a runway in Spokane. While wet conditions are normal for the area this time of year, the amount of precipitation being received is unusual. Mudslides and flooded roadways displaced hundreds again in California on Thursday. A reported tornado overturned one mobile home in southern San Clemente near the Orange County and San Diego County border Wednesday. More than two feet of snow fell in areas south of Flagstaff, while rain and snow caused problems on roadways across the state. Flagstaff schools were canceled for a third consecutive day on Friday.

Record flooding along some tributaries after torrential post-Christmas weekend rain has sent the Mississippi River to levels not seen since the Great Flood of 1993, and that excess water will continue to flow downstream triggering flooding in the Lower Mississippi Valley into mid-January. Flood crests also continue to roll down several tributaries in the Mississippi River’s drainage basin. Nearly a dozen locations have seen water levels on rivers or creeks rise to new record crest.

Signs of the Times (1/5/16)

January 5, 2016

Armed Protestors Occupy Federal Building in Oregon

A protest in support of Oregon ranchers facing jail time for arson was followed by an occupation of a building at a national wildlife refuge led by members of a family previously involved in a showdown with the federal government. Ammon Bundy — the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a standoff with the government over grazing rights — told The Oregonian on Saturday that he and two of his brothers were among a group of dozens of people occupying the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Ammon Bundy posted a video on his Facebook page asking for militia members to come help him. He said “this is not a time to stand down. It’s a time to stand up and come to Harney County,” where Burns is located. Bundy said he and others are occupying the building because “the people have been abused long enough.”

Bundy said the group planned to stay at the refuge indefinitely. The armed protesters are calling themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom. “We came very well prepared. We’re in it for the long haul,” protester John Reitzheimer said. The protesters are complaining about the amount of land controlled by the federal government as well as the sentencing of two local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond. But it’s not exactly a standoff. There have been no police at the snowy, desolate Malheur National Wildlife Refuge since the occupiers took over the main building Saturday, and that’s by design. Law enforcement should just wait the protesters out, experts say. “The FBI is working with the Harney County Sheriff’s Office, Oregon State Police and other local and state law enforcement agencies to bring a peaceful resolution to the situation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,” the agency’s Portland office said in a statement.

Men at Center of Militia Standoff Report to Prison

The two Oregon ranchers at the center of an anti-government protest that escalated into an armed takeover of a federal wildlife building reported to prison Monday. Dwight Hammond Jr., 73, and his son, Steven Hammond, 46, were convicted of arson for fires they started on federal property, and a judge has ordered them to return to prison for four years to satisfy minimum-sentencing laws. The Hammonds were convicted three years ago of setting fires in 2001 and 2006 on lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, “on which the Hammonds had grazing rights leased to them for their cattle operation,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The Hammonds have said they started a fire in 2001 to reduce the growth of invasive plants and to protect their property from wildfires. But prosecutors said the Hammonds torched about 130 acres of public land in an attempt to cover up the poaching of deer on federal property. The Hammond family has “run out of hope” that the siege by self-professed patriots some 70 miles from their home in rural Oregon will change things. “Our government is so broken,” family matriarch Suzie Hammond told FoxNews.com of their ongoing legal battle. While deeply upset over their situation, Suzie Hammond stopped short of supporting the armed takeover.

Obama Announces Executive Actions on Gun Control

President Obama proposed a series of executive actions to curb gun violence Tuesday, focusing on businesses that buy and sell guns at gun shows, flea markets and online without a license — allowing buyers to evade a background check required at brick-and-mortar gun stores. Calling the issue of gun violence “one piece of unfinished business” as he enters the last full year of his presidency, Obama said he gets too many letters “to sit around and do nothing.” But anything Obama does by executive action is likely to be undone if a Republican moves into the White House in 2017.

  • Yet again, Obama bypasses Congress to establish law by fiat instead of through the Constitutionally-mandated legislative process

Only 2% Believe Guns Are our Most Important Problem

What are Americans’ chief concerns? According to Gallup survey, the top ones are the federal government itself (16%), the economy (13%), jobs (8%), immigration (8%), healthcare (6%) and terrorism (5%) on average. Only 2 percent of Americans think that gun control is the most important issue, ranking in a tie for 17th on the list of the most important problem facing the U.S. in 2015. Even right after the recent shootings, the highest monthly rating for guns was 7% compared with monthly highs of 19% for government, 17% for the economy and 16% for terrorism.

2015 a Record Year for FBI Gun Background Checks

According to FBI data posted Monday, there were 23,141,970 background checks in 2015. That beats the prior record of 21,093,273 in 2013. This means that last year was likely a record year for gun sales. FBI background checks are conducted for all gun sales that go through a federally licensed dealer, which is how the majority of guns are sold. So background checks serve as a proxy for gun sales, though not a precise measure. The sales were driven by a series of mass shootings that typically motivate buyers who fear more restrictive gun control measures. Shootings also make people feel unsafe, so they buy guns for self-protection.

Many Uninsured Say Paying a Fine is Cheaper than Insurance

Two years after the Affordable Care Act began requiring most Americans to have health insurance, 10.5 million who are eligible to buy coverage through the law’s new insurance exchanges were still uninsured this fall, according to the Obama administration. Administration officials said last month that about 2.5 million new customers had bought insurance through HealthCare.gov, the federal exchange serving 38 states, since open enrollment began on Nov. 1. The number of new enrollees is 29 percent higher than last year at this time, suggesting that the threat of a larger penalty may be motivating more people to get covered. But plenty of healthy holdouts remain. Insurers say they sorely need more healthy customers to balance out the costs of covering the sicker, older people who have flocked to exchange plans. Healthy people who earn too much to qualify for federal subsidies that defray the cost of coverage may be most likely to opt out. A recent analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than seven million people who are eligible for exchange coverage would pay less in penalties than for the least expensive insurance available to them. More than half would not qualify for subsidies, the analysis found.

Even the Insured Face Crushing Medical Debt

The number of uninsured Americans has fallen by an estimated 15 million since 2013, thanks largely to the Affordable Care Act. But a new survey shows that insurance often fails as a safety net. Many insurance plans require hundreds or thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket payments, sums that can create a cascade of financial troubles for the many households living paycheck to paycheck. In the new poll, conducted by The New York Times and the Kaiser Family Foundation, roughly 20 percent of people under age 65 with health insurance nonetheless reported having problems paying their medical bills over the last year. By comparison, 53 percent of people without insurance said the same. These financial vulnerabilities reflect the high costs of health care in the United States, the most expensive place in the world to get sick. They also highlight a substantial shift in the nature of health insurance. Since the late 1990s, insurance plans have begun asking their customers to pay an increasingly greater share of their bills out of pocket though rising deductibles and co-payments.

Medicare Changes Coming in 2016

Whether it’s coverage for end-of-life counseling or an experimental payment scheme for common surgeries, Medicare in 2016 is undergoing some of the biggest changes in its 50 years. So far, the 2016 change getting the most attention is that Medicare will pay clinicians to counsel patients about options for care at the end of life. The voluntary counseling would have been authorized earlier by President Barack Obama’s health care law but for the outcry fanned by former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who charged it would lead to “death panels.” Hastily dropped from the law, the personalized counseling has been revived through new Medicare rules. Medicare will also be attempting to remake the way medical care is delivered to patients, by fostering teamwork among clinicians, emphasizing timely preventive services and paying close attention to patients’ transitions between hospital and home. Primary care doctors, the gatekeepers of health care, are the focus of much of Medicare’s effort.

Immigration Raids Spark Outcry

The Obama administration’s new raids on Central American immigrants who have deportation orders are coming under fire from all sides of the debate over how to handle those who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014, many of them requesting political asylum. The raids began over the weekend in states such as Texas, Georgia and North Carolina, and mark the beginning of what is expected to be a national crackdown on Central Americans who came by the tens of thousands, often in family units. On Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson defended the raids, which led to the arrests of 121 people, saying they are necessary to deter even more migrants from illegally crossing the border. Groups that advocate for more lenient immigrant policies criticized the raids as insensitive and overzealous. They rekindled their labeling of President Barack Obama as “Deporter-in-Chief,” a title they gave him after more than 2 million immigrants – a record for any president – were deported since he took office in 2008.

2015 Record Year for Mediterranean Migrant Deaths

More than 3,700 migrants died crossing the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Europe in 2015, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said Tuesday, making it the deadliest year on record for such deaths, a rate of more than 10 deaths each day. By comparison, 3,279 migrant deaths were recorded in the Mediterranean in 2014. More than three-quarters (77%) of the deaths occurred along the central Mediterranean route, which was typically used by people smugglers operating from Libya’s coast, the IOM said. The number of migrants entering, or attempting to enter, Europe exploded last year, as the world witnessed an unprecedented surge of people fleeing wars, persecution and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

Migrant Women Suffering Sexual Abuse

Interviews with dozens of migrants, social workers and psychologists caring for traumatized new arrivals across Germany suggest that the current mass migration has been accompanied by a surge of violence against women. From forced marriages and sex trafficking to domestic abuse, women report violence from fellow refugees, smugglers, male family members and even European police officers, reports the New York Times. Among the more than one million migrants who have entered Europe over the past year, fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond, men outnumber women by more than three to one, United Nations statistics show. Susanne Höhne, the lead psychotherapist at a center in west Berlin specializing in treating traumatized female migrants, says that almost all of the 44 women in her care — some barely adults, some over 60 — have experienced sexual violence.

Economic News

Trading was halted on the Chinese stock exchange for the first day of 2016 after China’s Shanghai composite index nosedived 6.9% Monday. Weak manufacturing data was behind the sell-off in China along with Middle East tensions, which pushed up oil prices. The dramatic drop triggered a new “circuit breaker mechanism,” according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency, which suspends trading for 15 minutes if the index drops or rises more than 5%. It was the first time China used the new protocol.

America’s manufacturing sector shrank for the second straight month in December. The industry’s key index — ISM — hit 48.2% in December, the lowest mark since June 2009. Anything below 50% is a contraction and a month ago it hit 48.6%. The index has fallen for six straight months.

Apartment dwellers had to shell out sharply higher rents in 2015 and are likely to get socked again this year as a labor shortage prevents construction of new complexes from keeping pace with demand, a report out Monday said. Rents for new residents of apartment complexes in the 100 largest metro areas rose 4.8% last year, the sixth straight year of hikes that exceeded a typical 2.7%, according to MPF Research. Over the six-year period, monthly rents have climbed 22.5% to an average $1,244, the largest jump in that timeframe in the 25 years that MPF has tracked the data.

In 2015, job gains in the energy sector came to a screeching halt as rock-bottom oil prices triggered layoffs of more than 258,000 workers globally, according to a comprehensive analysis by industry consultant Graves & Co. And the energy business is poised to endure a fresh round of job cuts and bankruptcies in early 2016, analysts say. The number of active oil and gas rigs in the U.S. fell 61% to 698 as of Dec. 31, compared to a year earlier, according to Baker Hughes Rig Counts.

An estimated 1 million drones were sold in the U.S. in 2015, after the Federal Aviation Administration set forth new rules requiring registration by consumers. Still, “everyone is fascinated with flight,” says Richard Doherty, an analyst with the Envisioneering Group. At least 100 new drones are expected to be introduced at the 48th annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week.

Middle East

Israel on Sunday indicted four Jewish extremists suspected in a July arson attack on a Palestinian home that killed a toddler and his parents — a case that has been unsolved for months and helped fuel the current wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence. The long-awaited indictment follows months of investigations into a web of Jewish extremists operating in the West Bank. The firebombing, carried out under cover of darkness while the family slept, sparked soul-searching among Israelis rattled by the horrific attack. Palestinians cite the Duma incident as a factor in the three-month wave of attacks and clashes roiling the region, saying they are frustrated by years of unchecked settler violence.

In an apparent revenge attack, the Hezbollah terror organization detonated an explosive charge against IDF forces operating on the northern border. No Israelis were injured. The IDF responded with artillery fire. The Shiite Iran-backed terror group claimed responsibility for the attack. This incident is part of Hezbollah’s revenge for the death of notorious terrorist Samir Kuntar who was killed in Syria two weeks ago, reportedly in an Israeli airstrike. Residents along the border say shelling from Israeli tanks and artillery landed in agricultural areas inside Lebanon, with some 40 shells hitting the disputed areas of Ghajar village and Shebaa Farms. Lebanon’s Al-Maidan news reported that a number of Lebanese citizens were wounded and several buildings were hit by Israeli shelling.

Islamic State

Islamic State group militants continue to launch a series of counterattacks against Iraqi government forces on the edges of the western city of Ramadi days after the militant group was driven out of the city center, according to the U.S.-led coalition. So far Iraqi government forces have successfully repelled every attack, said a coalition spokesman. The militants stuck security forces with seven suicide car bombs in two areas outside Ramadi. There were some casualties among the government troops, but the coalition did not provide a specific figure. Iraqi officials say gains in Ramadi lay the groundwork for an eventual assault on Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city that fell to ISIS in June of 2014.

The Islamic State released a new video purporting to show the killing of five hostages who the militant group said were spying for Britain in Syria. In the footage released online Sunday, a masked man with a British accent calls British Prime Minister David Cameron a “slave of the White House,” and “mule of the Jews.” “Only an imbecile would dare to wage war against a land where the law of Allah reigns supreme,” he says. “The Islamic State, our country, is here to stay. And we will continue to wage jihad, break borders, and one day invade your land, where we will rule by the Shariah.” The video bears similarities to previous ISIL execution videos featuring Mohammed Emwazi, a London-raised militant also known as “Jihadi John,” who beheaded Western hostages. Emwazi was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Syria in November.

Iran

Protesters in Iran, angered at Saudi officials’ executions of a prominent Shiite cleric who rallied for political reform and 47 prisoners convicted of terrorism, broke into the Saudi embassy early Sunday, setting fires and throwing papers from the roof, Iranian media reported. A huge crowd of people rushed toward the entrance gate of the building passing through resisting police forces and managed to break the gate. Protesters scaled a chain-link fence protecting the embassy, took down the Saudi flag and set fires inside. No one appeared to be injured. Also in Iran, demonstrators attacked a Saudi consulate in the city of Mashhad with parts of the building set on fire. Tensions remain high in the Middle East between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Iran’s supreme leader warned Saudi Arabia of “divine revenge” Sunday. Saudi Arabia is a predominantly Sunni nation while Iran is Shiite. Saudi Arabia announced Sunday that it was severing ties with Iran. Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates also said they are severing diplomatic ties with Iran on Monday.

Afghanistan

The Taliban claimed responsibility for one of two suicide bombings carried out near Kabul’s international airport on Monday. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said on Twitter that the attacker was targeting foreigners. No one was killed, but at least 28 people were injured in the incident. On Monday morning, another suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden vehicle near the airport’s main entrance. The attacker was the only casualty in that incident. The airport — part of which is used for military purposes — was also targeted in a suicide bombing last week. The Taliban claimed responsibility for that attack as well, saying they were targeting a military convoy of the U.S.-led coalition.

China

China landed a civilian plane on one of its controversial man-made islands in the South China Sea over the weekend. According to the Wall Street Journal, the flight already has drawn a protest from Vietnam, which accused China of violating its sovereignty. China landed a Cessna at Fiery Cross Reef on Saturday to test one of its new runways built on top of the artificial reef — part of the disputed Spratly Islands. On Monday, State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. was “concerned” by China’s action. “To begin flight operations at this new airfield in a disputed area raises tensions and threatens regional stability,” he said. “We again call for all claimants to halt land reclamation, further development of new facilities, and the militarization on their outposts, and instead focus on reaching agreement on acceptable behavior in disputed areas.”

Puerto Rico

For years, Puerto Rico’s population has been going down amid an ongoing economic crisis, heavy taxation, inefficient government and soaring debt. The island, whose residents are U.S. citizens, has been struggling with a massive debt load for the past year. Now Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla says the island will not be able to pay the $37.3 million owed to bondholders Monday and will begin withholding cash from a trust fund devoted to future payments. The move heightens tensions between the U.S. territory and its creditors. Puerto Rico first defaulted on $57.3 million in debt about five months ago.

Environment

The escape of tons of natural gas from storage under a Los Angeles neighborhood is not likely to be fixed for at least another two months because of the specific dynamics of the leak, according to officials. The leak at Porter Ranch, already several months old, has forced the relocation of several thousand residents who said the stench made them sick. The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that the leak persists because workers were unable to plug it and instead have to drill two relief wells. The natural repository is huge — nearly one cubic mile at a depth of a mile and a half, according to the newspaper — and holds natural gas brought from as far away as Canada. The gas company holds it underground, then distributes it to nearly 22 million customers in the region.

Earthquakes

A magnitude-6.7 earthquake struck eastern India in the hours before sunrise Monday killing at least eight people, injuring 100 and causing major structural damage to several buildings. Three of the deaths were due to falling debris in and around Imphal, the capital of Manipur state. Five others deaths in other parts of the state were also due to falling debris. In Imphal, the powerful tremor left large cracks in walls and a portion of a popular market building collapsed. A newly constructed six-story building also collapsed in Imphal. Authorities are offering financial help to rebuild damaged homes of nearly 2,000 people after the strong earthquake left them homeless.

Weather

At least 40 people have been killed in the Plains and Midwest from a combination of tornadoes and flooding over a multi-day stretch of dangerous weather as of Tuesday morning. Floodwaters have started to recede in Missouri and Illinois, but the extensive damage left behind will require weeks or months to clean up. At least 29 people have lost their lives in the floods, and most of those deaths were caused by vehicles being swept away by swift-moving floodwaters. Downstream, the Mississippi River has yet to crest along the Louisiana-Mississippi border, and residents have been warned that flooding could worsen in the coming days. Officials may be faced with the difficult decision of opening spillways to lessen the impacts of the flooding, but that would threaten hundreds of homes in the water’s path. Record flooding along some tributaries after torrential post-Christmas weekend rain has sent the Mississippi River to levels not seen since the Great Flood of 1993, and that excess water will continue to flow downstream triggering flooding in the Lower Mississippi Valley into mid-January.

A series of storm systems will continue to impact California and other parts of the West through late this week. Periods of rain, heavy at times, could contribute to mud and debris flows while snow piles up in the mountains. The Southwest will also see some much needed rain and mountain snow from this wet weather pattern. The National Weather Service has posted flash flood watches for parts of California. Winter storm warnings, advisories and watches have also been posted from California’s Sierra Nevada and the mountains of Southern California to parts of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. A powerful Pacific jet stream is directing the series of Pacific frontal systems into the West Coast, and will continue to do so into this weekend. As much as 15 inches of rain could fall in the next 16 days in Northern California, with about 2 feet of snow expected in the highest points of the Sierra Nevada.

Signs of the Times (1/2/16)

January 2, 2016

Founder of Pro-Abortion Feminist Group Becomes Pro-Life

In October, a violent mob of Femen abortion activists attempted to desecrate an Argentine cathedral and threw stones and bottles at Catholics praying the rosary in front of the church. Feminists from Femen also showed their hostility by hurling objects at Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela as he attempted to enter a local Catholic Church before Mass in Spain. But now, the founder of the Brazilian chapter of Femen has become pro-life and is apologizing for her actions, reports lifenews.com. Sara Fernanda Giromin Winter is reportedly upset with how the feminist movement “uses women as objects” and “covers up pedophilia in its ranks.” While Sara’s own religious beliefs are not clear, she did apologize to Christians and referred to feminism as “a religious sect.” Winter is now pro-life. Sara aborted her first child, but gave birth to her second, a son. It was he who helped her change her attitude on abortion. In October she repented and asked for forgiveness. She also implored “women who are desperate to abort” to “think carefully about it.” Sara was “very sorry I did it” and said “I don’t want the same for you.”

Obama to Announce New Executive Action on Guns

President Barack Obama is expected to announce in the coming days a new executive action with the goal of expanding background checks on gun sales, people familiar with White House planning said. Described as “imminent,” the set of executive actions would fulfill a promise by the President to take further unilateral steps the White House says could help curb gun deaths. Plans for the action are not yet complete, and those familiar with the process warn that unforeseen circumstances could delay an announcement. But gun control advocates are expecting the new actions to be revealed next week, ahead of Obama’s annual State of the Union address, set for January 12. The National Rifle Association said that Obama’s “gun control agenda was rejected by Congress. Now, he is doing what he always does when he doesn’t get his way, defying the will of the people and using executive action.”

New California Law Allows Seizure of Guns Without Notification

Gun-safety legislation going into effect in California on January 1st will allow authorities to seize a person’s weapons for 21 days if a judge determines there’s potential for violence. The new law provides family members with a means of having an emergency “gun violence restraining order” imposed against a loved one if they can convince a judge that allowing that person to possess a firearm “poses an immediate and present danger of causing personal injury to himself, herself or another by having in his or her custody or control,” reports the Washington Times “The law gives us a vehicle to cause the person to surrender their weapons, to have a time out, if you will,” Los Angeles Police Department Assistant Chief Michael Moore told a local NPR affiliate. “It allows further examination of the person’s mental state.” “It’s a short duration and it allows for due process,” he continued, adding: “It’s an opportunity for mental health professionals to provide an analysis of a person’s mental state.”

190 Muslim Workers Fired over Prayer Dispute in Colorado

About 190 workers, most of them immigrants from Somalia, have been fired from a Colorado meat packing plant after walking off the job during a dispute over workplace prayer. The workers walked off their jobs at Cargill Meat Solutions in Fort Morgan. Jaylani Hussein with the Council on American-Islamic Relations says that depending on the season, the Muslim workers prayed at different times of the day. The workers say that earlier in the month, the plant’s policy towards allowing them to pray on the job was changed, which made some of them unable to pray at all. Cargill said their attendance and religious accommodation policy had not changed. “While reasonable efforts are made to accommodate employees, accommodation is not guaranteed every day and is dependent on a number of factors that can, and do, change from day to day,” the company said. “Prayer is the first priority to every Muslim. We can sustain without a job, but we cannot sustain without prayer,” according to Khader Ducal, who is assisting the Somali workers file for unemployment.

Jihadists Collaborating in North Africa

Many of the extremist groups in North Africa are affiliates of Al Qaeda, which has had roots in North Africa since the 1990s. With the recent introduction of Islamic State franchises, the jihadist push has been marked by increasing, sometimes heated, competition. However, analysts and military officials say, there is also deepening collaboration among groups using modern communications and a sophisticated system of roving trainers to share military tactics, media strategies and ways of transferring money, reports the New York Times. Their threat has grown as Libya which has become a hub of operations for both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State to reach deeper into Africa. As Africa’s jihadists come under the wing of distant and more powerful patrons, officials fear that the reach of the Islamic State will further expand.

Terrorism Update

An ex-convict seeking to prove he was worthy of joining the Islamic State terror group planned to carry out a New Year’s Eve attack at an upstate New York bar using a machete and knives provided by an FBI informant, federal authorities announced Thursday. Emanuel Lutchman, 25, of Rochester, was charged with attempting to provide material support to terrorists, prosecutors said. Officials said he was caught in an FBI sting involving three paid informants. Lutchman is a self-professed convert to Islam who claimed to receive direction from an overseas ISIS member. Lutchman was arrested Wednesday.

Police in Turkey detained two suspected Islamic State extremists thought to have been planning suicide bombings during New Year celebrations in the country’s capital of Ankara Wednesday. The state-run Anadolu Agency said the two Turkish nationals were detained during a raid on a house in Ankara. The news agency said police seized suicide vests and that the suspects planned to detonate the vests at two locations. Police in Germany said Friday a New Year’s Eve terror alert that closed two busy Munich train stations was prompted by the threat of suicide attacks linked to ISIS. The stations were evacuated on Thursday evening and service stopped for around eight hours.

A 10th person arrested in connection with the terror attacks in Paris last month was charged on Thursday with terrorist murder and participation in activities of a terrorist group. The Belgian national identified only as Ayoub B., who was born in 1993, was detained Wednesday after police searched an address in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, where several of the attackers in the Nov. 13 assaults lived. The Belgian Federal Prosecutor’s Office said that no weapons or explosives were found in Wednesday’s raid, but around 10 cellphones were seized. Officials in Brussels on Wednesday canceled their annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display due to fears of a terrorist attack.

Migrant Update

After taking in more asylum seekers per capita than any other nation in Europe, Sweden’s welcome mat now lies in tatters. Overwhelmed by the human tide of 2015, the center-left government is deploying extraordinary new border controls and slashing benefits in an unmistakable signal to refugees contemplating the long trek to Sweden in the new year: Stay out. “We’re willing to do more than anyone else,” said Swedish Migration Minister Morgan Johansson. “But even we have our limits. Those limits can be readily seen in a tent camp where dozens of migrants are bedding down in the frigid Nordic winter and at the train station where many new arrivals are turned back within minutes of setting foot on Swedish soil, reports the Washington Post. In 2015 Sweden received 155,985 applications for asylum, up from around 10,000 in 2014. The country’s dramatic shift threatens to wreak havoc all the way down Europe’s migrant trail in 2016

Microbead ban signed by President Obama

President Obama has signed a bipartisan bill that prohibits selling and distributing products containing microbeads. The bill is intended to protect the nation’s waterways. A microbead is any solid plastic particle that is less than 5 millimeters and is used for the purpose of exfoliating or cleansing. These tiny plastic beads have become ubiquitous in hundreds of products ranging from body scrubs to toothpastes. They provide an exfoliating sensation for users and are designed to wash down drains. But because they are made of plastic, microbeads do not dissolve and may pose a threat to the environment. Microbeads have contributed to a greater increase in microplastic polluting the planet’s oceans and lakes, researchers say.

Economic News

U.S. markets finished 2015 mostly in the red: The Dow was down 2.2%. The S&P 500 ended the year down 0.7%. It was the worst year for those two indexes since markets collapsed in 2008. The Nasdaq finished 2015 up 5.7%. However, it had double digit gains in the three years prior. Volatility thrashed investors left and right in 2015. The three big concerns this year were falling oil prices, China’s economic slowdown and the seemingly never ending speculation about when the Federal Reserve would raise interest rates. Greece’s debt crisis, the European Central Bank’s stimulus plan and fears of a broader slowdown in emerging markets kept investors on their toes too.

More Americans requested unemployment benefits last week, but the level remains near historic lows. The Labor Department said applications for jobless aid jumped 20,000 to a seasonally adjusted 287,000. The less volatile 4-week average climbed 4,500 to 277,000. Despite the increase, jobless claims have stayed below the key level of 300,000 for nearly 10 months. Any figure lower than that threshold typically corresponds with monthly job gains in excess of 200,000.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration said U.S. crude inventories rose by 2.6 million barrels last week. That was a lot worse reading than expected. Analysts had predicted crude stockpiles would decline. “At 487.4 million barrels, U.S. crude oil inventories remain near levels not seen for this time of year in at least the last 80 years,” the agency said in a statement. The global oil glut is rising, as OPEC countries keep pumping record levels of oil in order to defend their market share. Slowing demand from China and other countries and abnormally warm temperatures in the eastern U.S. are making the situation even worse. U.S. oil producers are suffering. Their production costs are higher than those of producers in the Middle East, and they are getting squeezed by the collapsing prices.

The low oil prices are good news for consumers taking advantage of cheap gasoline. Consumers reaped a windfall from cheap gasoline in 2015. And that’s likely to continue in 2016, due to a global crude oil glut that’s expected to ease only marginally. Unleaded regular gas averaged $2.40 a gallon this year, about 94 cents less than in 2014 and the lowest since 2009, AAA said Thursday. Each driver saved an average $550 in fuel costs compared to 2014, a bonanza that helped power increased consumer spending. On Thursday, the national average was $2 a gallon, the lowest on New Year’s Eve since 2008, according to AAA.

Single-family house prices in nearly 40% of 401 metro areas were at or above their pre-recession peak in the third quarter, according to an analysis of CoreLogic Case-Shiller home-price data by Moody’s Analytics. Moody’s projects nearly half of the regions will be at or above that milestone at the end of 2016. Nationally, home prices are still about 12% below peak – up from a nearly 30% deficit in early 2012. Areas that are already 15% to nearly 50% above their pre-recession pinnacles include Dallas, Denver, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Bismarck, N.D.

Middle East

Two people died Friday and at least seven were injured when a masked gunman dressed in black opened fire in a bar in Tel Aviv, Israel, police said. The motive behind the shooting wasn’t immediately clear. The shooter remains at large. The police are investigating if the shooting was criminal or terrorist. The shooting follows more than three months of lone-wolf attacks by Palestinians against Israelis.

Islamic State

Along the vast, zigzagging perimeter of the Islamic State’s self-styled state, the militants are steadily being pushed back as the forces­ ranged against them gain in strength, reports the Washington Post. A war seen by the United States as primarily aimed at preventing future terrorist attacks in America is being prosecuted for very different reasons by the diverse assortment of Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni fighters battling in both Iraq and Syria, often in pursuit of competing agendas. In northern Iraq and Syria, Kurds are busily carving out the borders to new Kurdish enclaves. Shiite militias, now the most powerful force in Iraq, are extending their reach deep into traditionally Sunni areas of northern Iraq. The Syrian government is focusing its energies on reclaiming land seized by its opponents during the five-year-old rebellion against it, while deeply divided Syrian rebels in turn are fighting a two-front war to hold their ground against both the government and the Islamic State.

  • What a mess.

Iraq

After retaking most of the key city of Ramadi from ISIS militants, Iraqi leaders say they are setting their sights on an even bigger prize: Mosul Iraqi forces have driven ISIS jihadists out of the heart of Ramadi, which the Sunni extremist group seized in May. Significant pockets of ISIS resistance remain in Ramadi, still controlling as much as 25% of it as of Tuesday, local tribal leaders said. The Iraqis say roughly 1,000 families remain trapped in Ramadi’s eastern districts, some of which is still controlled by ISIS. The government believes they are being used as human shields. But that didn’t stop Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi from visiting the shattered city and raising the national flag. Next year “will be the year we drive ISIS out of Iraq,” he declared.

Iran

The United States on Wednesday accused Iran of carrying out rocket tests near American warships and commercial traffic in the Strait of Hormuz last week. The accusation raises new tensions between the two nations following a landmark nuclear deal to limit Iran’s enrichment of uranium in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval vessels fired “several unguided rockets” about 1,500 yards from the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier, the USS Bulkeley destroyer and the FS Provence, a French frigate, on Saturday. Commercial sea traffic was nearby at the time, but the missiles weren’t fired in the direction of any ships. Much of the oil from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait passes through the narrow strait, which runs between Iran and Oman, connecting the Persian Gulf to the rest of the world.

Pakistan

At least 26 people were killed in a blast Tuesday in the northern Pakistani city of Mardan, police said. Several other people were injured in the attack. The explosion took place at the city’s National Database and Registration Authority offices — where Pakistanis get ID cards and passports. Police believe a suicide bomber drove his motorcycle into the office building. Shortly afterward, a faction of the Pakistani Taliban — the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan Jamaat ul Ahrar — claimed responsibility.

Saudi Arabia

— Saudi Arabia announced on Saturday it had executed 47 prisoners convicted of terrorism charges, including al-Qaida detainees and a prominent Shiite cleric who rallied protests against the government. The execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr is expected to deepen discontent among Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority and heighten sectarian tensions across the region. Meanwhile, the execution of al-Qaida militants convicted over deadly bombings and shootings in Saudi Arabia raised concerns over revenge attacks. Islamic scholars around the world hold vastly different views on the application of the death penalty in Islamic Shariah law. Saudi judges adhere to one of the strictest interpretations, a Sunni Muslim ideology referred to as Wahhabism.

Environment

Smog-choked residents of New Delhi welcomed the new year on Friday by largely complying with dramatic new driving restrictions designed to pull millions of cars off the roads and improve air quality. The temporary measures allow private vehicles to operate only on alternate days. Additional traffic cops were deployed to ensure only cars with odd-numbered license plates were on the roads Friday. Violators face a 2000 rupee ($30) fine if caught. Vehicles with even-numbered plates will be allowed to operate on Saturday. The World Health Organization released data on air quality levels in 1,600 cities around the world, and Delhi was found to have the highest concentration of particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers, also called PM2.5.

India’s capital city, which is home to more than 20 million people, averaged PM2.5 readings of 153, compared to 14 in New York and 20 in Los Angeles. Beijing, which receives the bulk of bad-smog headlines, clocked in at 53. PM2.5 particles are exceedingly small, but go deep into the lungs and cause chronic health problems. Scientists say coal-fired power plants, vehicles, construction dust, crop burning and cooking fuel use all contribute to high pollution levels in Delhi.

Earthquakes

A 4.2 magnitude earthquake centered north of Oklahoma City hit Friday morning, the latest in a series of quakes that’s prompted state regulators to call for more restrictions on oil and gas operators. The quake occurred at 5:39 a.m. in an area 3 miles northeast of Edmond and 16 miles north-northeast of Oklahoma City. There were no immediate reports of injury or damage. Oklahoma has become one of the most earthquake-prone areas in the world, with the number of quakes magnitude 3.0 or greater skyrocketing from a few dozen in 2012 to more than 800 in 2015. Many of the earthquakes are occurring in swarms in areas where injection wells pump salty wastewater — a byproduct of oil and gas production — into the earth.

Weather

The next series of storms to impact the West Coast will be a bit different than what the region has experienced in recent months. This go around, even Southern California can expect a decent helping of much-needed rain. For parts of the Cascades, Siskiyous and Sierra, as well as parts of the Four Corners and Desert Southwest, expect hefty amounts of snow to pile up into the coming week. Dairy producers in Texas and New Mexico have estimated that the number of animals that died during the recent Winter Storm Goliath will climb to more than 30,000. Winds created drifts as high as 14 feet and pushed animals into fenced corners where they suffocated, according to The Associated Press.

December’s record-shattering mild spell, which peaked during Christmas Week, is finally coming to an end as more seasonable air occupies the eastern half of the U.S. to start 2016. More than 2,000 record daily highs and more than 2,000 record-warm daily lows were tied or broken during the final nine days of 2015, beginning Dec. 23. As a result, most areas east of the Rockies did not have a white Christmas. Savannah, Georgia, tied its daily record high of 80 on Dec. 31st. Key West also set a record high temperature for New Year’s Eve by reaching 84 degrees. Tampa had an eighth consecutive day of record heat with a record-tying high of 83.

Record flooding along some tributaries after torrential post-Christmas weekend rain has sent the Mississippi River to levels not seen since the Great Flood of 1993, and that excess water will continue to flow downstream triggering flooding in the Lower Mississippi Valley into mid-late January. At Cape Girardeau, Missouri, about 115 miles south-southeast of St. Louis, the Mississippi River has risen above the previous record flood crest there from the Great Flood of 1993, with a broad crest this weekend potentially rising to over a foot above that August 8, 1993 crest. Floodwaters all over Missouri, southern Illinois, eastern Oklahoma and Arkansas, have already pushed thousands of residents from their homes, leaving at least 20 dead, affecting about 17 million residents. “This is probably one of the earliest we’ve seen flooding on the Mississippi River,” said Marty Pope, senior service hydrologist with the National Weather Service office in Jackson, Mississippi.

From the top of the world to near the bottom, freakish and unprecedented weather has sent temperatures soaring across the Arctic, whipped the United Kingdom with hurricane-force winds and spawned massive flooding in South America, reports the New York Times. The same storm that slammed the southern United States with deadly tornadoes and swamped the Midwest, causing even greater loss of life, continued on to the Arctic. Sub-tropical air pulled there is now sitting over Iceland, and at what should be a deeply sub-zero North Pole, temperatures on Wednesday appeared to reach the melting point — more than 50 degrees above normal in some locations. Residents of Iceland braced for conditions to grow much worse as one of the most powerful storms ever recorded blasts through the North Atlantic. This rare “bomb cyclone” arrived with sudden winds of 70 miles per hour and waves that lashed the coast. Thousands of miles south, in the center of Latin America, downpours fueled by the Pacific Ocean’s giant El Niño pattern have drenched regions of Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. In what’s described as the worst flooding in a half-century, more than 160,000 people have fled their homes. 2015 is set to go down as the warmest year in recorded history (from the late 1800s).