Signs of the Times (1/18/16)

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.

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