Signs of the Times (3/4/16)

Muslims Turning to Christ in Record Numbers

Hundreds of thousands of Christians are secretly worshipping in Iran as part of a house church movement in the country. The Iranian government considers Christianity a threat to Islam. However, Open Doors USA estimates that as many as 450,000 Christians are in Iran. Others estimate there are more than 1 million practicing Christians in the country. About four or five Christians are part of each house church. They change the place of meeting each time. “If they want to sing, they have to sing very quietly or not sing at all,” the source said. “It is not anti-Iranian,” the source said. “It’s an Iranian movement. It’s a great, great number of Muslims turning to Christ.” According to the Christian Post, a London-based theological center is training Christian leaders in Iran. Some 200 Iranian Christians are being trained by the London-based Pars Theological Centre to become Christian leaders of the house church movement.

Supreme Court Hears Biggest Abortion Case in Decades

The Supreme Court will hear its most important abortion case this week since 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey Wednesday, and it will have to do so without conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month. Texas clinics are fighting a 2013 law that forces doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and requires clinics to meet standards for outpatient surgery centers. Texas legislators say the rules protect women’s health, while the nation’s leading abortion rights groups say the rules present a roadblock for women seeking abortions.

Apple Files Appeal Against iPhone Order

Apple has filed an appeal against an order demanding that it help investigators gain access to data on the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino killers. The tech firm filed the appeal against the order issued last month by U.S. District Court Magistrate Sheri Pym under the federal All Writs Act late Tuesday. Apple says it will refuse the order to write code to unlock an encrypted iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the terrorists in the Dec. 2 shootings in San Bernardino, Calif. that killed 14 people. The Department of Justice maintains that Apple should help law enforcement on what it considers an isolated request. On Monday, a federal judge in Brooklyn denied a Department of Justice request for a court order that would force Apple to bypass the security passcode on the iPhone of a criminal defendant in a drug case.

Technology is Outpacing the Law

The FBI-Apple encryption battle is just the beginning of an important debate this country needs to have about what to do when U.S. innovation outpaces American law. As with the coming of the telephone, the car, the radio and TV, the spread of the mobile Internet has gotten ahead of case law. With hand-held smartphones now ubiquitous, a consumer technology has outstripped the ability of the government to complete an important terrorist investigation. Given the pace of development in the tech industry — especially in machine learning and artificial intelligence — hardware and software likely will soon outstrip the law in other areas, too. A recent accident between Google’s self-driving car and a bus appears to be the car’s fault, but determining legal responsibility remains difficult to determine because current law focuses on the drivers. If someone was hurt on the bus or in some other accident caused by the automated car, is the manufacturer liable? What if it’s the software’s fault that was developed by yet another company? Or what about a hypothetical Uber driver of the future who overrides the control of an autonomous vehicle to avoid an old lady walking her dog — but instead hits and kills an Amazon grocery deliveryman — who is liable? There currently aren’t laws or precedents to handle these situations.

Five Months Later, High Lead Levels Remain in Flint’s Water

It’s been five months since the state of Michigan relented and switched Flint’s drinking water source back to the Great Lakes, after a disastrous trial using the Flint River. But residents still can’t drink what comes out of their taps. Despite testing that shows that water lead levels have dropped in many Flint homes, there are still more than 600 homes where the water tested well above the EPA’s action level for lead. When the state switched the city’s water supply to the Flint River, it did not properly treat the water, and the water corroded the pipes. Even though the water switched back, the pipes are damaged, and lead-tainted water, which can stunt childhood development and affect nearly every part of the body, is still coming out of taps in some areas. Flint’s Mayor Karen Weaver has asked for $55 million to begin replacing about 8,000 water lines. The state of Michigan has pledged $58 million to Flint. But none of that is for the replacement of lead service lines.

14 More Charged in 2014 Armed Standoff with Feds

Federal authorities have charged another 14 individuals for their alleged role in a 2014 armed standoff between rancher Cliven Bundy and federal authorities who were trying to remove his cows from public land. The latest arrested are just a fraction of the hundreds who authorities say used armed force against law enforcement officers to “thwart the seizure” of the cows after Bundy refused to obtain permits or pay fees for 20 years that would allow them to graze on public land. A federal grand jury in Nevada charged the defendants Thursday with at least eight counts, including assault on a law enforcement officer, conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, use of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence and interstate travel in aid of extortion. Some of those counts have a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

Migrant Update

NATO’s top general warned that the mass influx of migrants to Europe is allowing ISIS to spread “like a cancer.” Following testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove told reporters that mass migration spurred by the ongoing conflict in Syria and the threat of ISIS in the Middle East was allowing terrorists free entry into the continent. Breedlove, who is head of Supreme Allied Command in Europe, said the migration “masks the movement of criminals, terrorists and foreign fighters (into Europe).” European Council President Donald Tusk told would-be illegal migrants Thursday not to come to Europe, while Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called for sanctions to be imposed on EU states that refuse to take in their share of people.

The European Union announced plans for 700 million euros in emergency aid to Greece to house and care for migrants. The aid proposal — intended to meet basic needs such as food, water and shelter over the next three years — came a day after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned of a burgeoning humanitarian disaster in Europe. More than 131,000 migrants had entered Europe in just the first two months of 2016 — a number that was close to the total for the entire first half of 2015, according to UNHCR figures. A record 1.2 million people registered for asylum in the European Union in 2015, more than double the number of the previous year. The cost to Europe to handle the migrants could be as high as 18 billion euros ($20 billion) per year, the European Commission said Friday.

A judge gave the green light last week for the French government to tear down part of the Calais “Jungle,” as the refugee camp is commonly called, but riots broke out this week amid the resulting chaos. Police and bulldozers began pushing migrants out of tents and temporary shelters Monday, tearing apart the ad hoc camp that houses an estimated 6,000 people. Camp residents fought back Tuesday, starting fires and attacking police with rocks. The situation Wednesday was calmer, if not less tense. Confusion, uncertainty and sorrow still hang over the camp and the people who have no place to go.

Economic News

Employers added 242,000 jobs in February as the labor market bounced back from a short-lived slowdown and provided further evidence that it’s shrugging off global economic troubles and market turbulence. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 4.9%, the Labor Department said Friday. A sharp rise in employment was offset a similar-sized increase in the labor force, which includes those working and looking for jobs. Also encouraging is that job gains for December and January were revised up by a total 30,000. But average hourly wages fell 3 cents to 25.35 after rising sharply in January, and are up 2.2% the past year.

The U.S. manufacturing sector shrank for the fifth straight month in February. It’s the longest recession for the sector since 2009. The good news is that consumers and services make up 70% of U.S. economic activity. Manufacturing only makes up about 10%. U.S. manufacturers are reeling from two key factors. Economic growth has slowed down in many developing countries because prices for commodities like oil have plunged over the past year and a half. At the same time, the dollar has gained a lot of value, making American products more expensive — and less attractive — to foreign buyers.

More Americans are finding jobs, wages are starting to grow faster and people are spending selectively. But American confidence has declined. It’s got to do with a combustion of factors from a negative start to the stock markets this year, fears of China slowing down more and ongoing volatility in oil prices. American confidence levels remain higher than during the recession. However, it’s been trending downward lately — Gallup’s economic confidence index has been on a downward trajectory over the past 12 months.

Corporate profits may have shrunk in 2015. But an elite group of U.S. companies found a way to grab a bigger piece of the smaller pie. Just 28 companies, including gadget maker Apple, bank JPMorgan Chase and Warren Buffett’s diversified Berkshire Hathaway, collectively hauled in more than half the total net income reported by U.S-based companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 last year, according to a USA Today analysis of 462 U.S.-based companies that have reported their net income for calendar year 2015. Seeing such a small group of big companies generate such a high percentage of the nation’s total corporate net income shows how profits have gotten even more concentrated, much as the gap between the wealthy and middle class has widened.

The U.S. pumped an average of 9.43 million barrels per day last year, according to new government figures. That’s the highest level since 1972 and represents an impressive growth of 89% since 2008. The crash in oil prices has caused production to slow a little in recent months. But shale oil producers have held up far better than many feared. The shale oil revolution has made America one of the planet’s biggest oil producers behind only Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Middle East

A bloc of six Gulf nations led by Saudi Arabia says it has formally declared Lebanon’s Hezbollah a terrorist organization. A statement from the Gulf Cooperation Council said Wednesday that it was taking the step because of hostile acts by the militant group within its member states. The group accused Hezbollah seeking to recruit members within the GCC and the smuggling of weapons and explosives. The GCC includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.

The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the Israel Police announced on Thursday that they recently cooperated to arrest two Israeli-Arab men on suspicion that they were preparing to carry out a terrorist attack on behalf of the Islamic State ((IS) terror militia. They were formally charged Wednesday at the Nazareth District Court with providing aid during war to an enemy of Israel, with additional related charges.

Islamic State

U.S. Special Operations forces have captured their first suspected ISIS operative in Northern Iraq as part of a highly secretive targeting team led by the Army’s elite Delta Force, CNN reported. The detainee is being interrogated by the U.S. and is expected to be turned over to Iraqi officials in the coming days, two U.S. officials confirmed. The mission was carried out by the Pentagon’s expeditionary targeting force. Defense Secretary Ash Carter acknowledged the expeditionary targeting force has been sent to Iraq to conduct raids against ISIS and to capture or kill suspects. The plan is to use the new intelligence gleaned from raids and interrogations to develop further targeting information for follow-up missions.

ISIS militants planned to strike civilian and military targets inside Jordan but were foiled by authorities, a government agency said. A series of raids carried out Tuesday into Wednesday in Irbid, Jordan, led to the arrests of 13 people alleged to have been part of the plot, the state-run Petra news agency reported. But, seven other alleged terrorists, wearing suicide belts and carrying automatic weapons, then attacked Jordanian security forces in the northern Jordanian city, which is 55 miles north of Amman and about 13 miles from the Syrian border. That onslaught ended with all seven attackers killed, as well as one member of Jordan’s specialized security force. Two civilians and two security force members were wounded.

Syria

The Syrian government reported a nationwide power outage on Thursday — just the latest electricity problem in a country that has seen frequent outages during a five-year war between the regime, rebels and terror groups. The government didn’t immediately know the reason for the outage, and was taking steps to address the electricity loss, which it said affected all provinces. many cities outside of the government’s control already weren’t being served by the government-run power grid. The ISIS terror group and other militant groups control large parts of the country, and many cities in these areas use fuel-powered generators for electricity.

Turkey

Police in Istanbul on Thursday shot and killed two women who had hidden inside a building after attacking police with gunfire and a hand grenade, an official said. Two police officers were slightly injured. Security camera footage showed the women firing at a police bus outside a riot police station in Istanbul’s Bayrampasa neighborhood and also hurling a hand grenade, before apparently taking aim at the police station. The hand grenade did not explode. They escaped the scene in a vehicle and hid inside a building a short distance from the police station. Police quickly surrounded the building and launched an operation after the pair ignored calls for them to surrender. The attack comes amid a surge in violence in Turkey since last summer.

Iraq

Extreme neglect has left Iraq’s Mosul Dam on the brink of failure, which could kill at least 1 million people, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad warned this week. Controlled by Islamic State militants for a short time in 2014, the dam is the only thing holding back the Tigris River from hundreds of thousands of residents living in the path of a potential breach downstream. The dam has been structurally flawed since it was constructed in 1984 because its base was made from gypsum, a mineral that can be eaten away by water, according to BBC.com. Engineers must work six days a week drilling holes in the dam and then filling those holes with a cement grout mixture just to keep the wall from falling apart.

North Korea

The U.N. Security Council Wednesday unanimously approved the toughest sanctions in decades against North Korea in response to its recent nuclear and missile tests. The broad sanctions were made possible due to cooperation by China, which previously blocked tough measures against the rogue regime that has been heavily dependent on Chinese economic and diplomatic support. The vote on the resolution was drafted by the United States and North Korea’s number one ally, China, during the council’s first meeting of the year. The sanctions would be the first to require North Korean cargo ships and aircraft to be inspected before entering and after leaving the reclusive country. They would also prohibit small arms and other conventional weapons sales to North Korea. Pyongyang appears to have wasted no time in demonstrating its defiance to the international sanctions. Just hours after the Security Council resolution passed, North Korea fired several short-range projectiles into the sea, according to the South Korean defense ministry. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Friday ordered his military on standby for nuclear strikes at any time, state media reported Friday, an escalation in rhetoric targeting rivals Seoul and Washington.

China

In a “show of force,” the U.S. Navy dispatched an aircraft carrier and five escort ships to the South China Sea amid rising tensions between the U.S., China and other Southeast Asian nations claiming territory in the disputed region, multiple defense officials confirmed to Fox News Friday. The dispatch sends a signal to China that the U.S. Navy will continue to conduct freedom of navigation patrols even as China continues to “militarize” islands, those officials say. Tensions have increased over the last month after it was learned that China had placed surface-to-air-missiles on one of the Paracel Islands

Ukraine

Ukraine’s prolonged crisis and political stalemate are causing a growing sense of despair and isolation among millions living in the conflict zone, the United Nations warned in a report released Thursday. The fragile ceasefire is pierced daily by violations, while the number of conflict-related civilian casualties keeps climbing. More than 3 million are struggling to eke out a living in the conflict zone,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. “They are in urgent need of greater protection and support.” Estimated casualty figures since the beginning of the conflict have risen to more than 30,000. That includes at least 9,160 killed and 21,000 injured. The figures include civilians, Ukrainian military personnel and members of armed groups.

Brazil

Brazil is plunging into its worst recession in over two decades. The Brazilian economy shrank 3.8% in 2015, according to government data published Thursday. That’s the biggest annual drop since 1990 and the country is in its longest recession since the 1930s. In 2011, the South American country was the world’s sixth largest economy, surpassing the United Kingdom. Large oil reserves attracted development and foreign investors, and China became its top trade partner. Brazil emerged from the 2009 global financial crisis largely unscathed. Now the good times are over. Unemployment is rising, consumer confidence has plummeted and the country’s currency, the real, has lost 24% of its value against the dollar in the past year. The engine behind Brazil’s economy is commodities like oil, sugar and coffee. Prices for all of them have plummeted over the last two years, hurting Brazil badly. An unprecedented corruption scandal at the giant government-run oil company Petrobras was another big driver of the recession as Brazilians’ confidence in the government and business plummeted.

Earthquakes

A 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Sumatra Wednesday evening local time, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The quake occurred at a depth of 6.2 miles and its epicenter was 411 miles southwest of Muara Siberut, Indonesia. The 7.8 magnitude quake did not trigger a tsunami, and there were no deaths and no major damage. According to local reports, residents of the Mentawai Islands, west of Sumatra, were being evacuated to higher ground due to tsunami fears, but there was no tsunami. The 7.9 magnitude would make it the strongest earthquake on the planet since an 8.3 magnitude earthquake hit near the coast of Chile on Sept. 16, 2015. Since 2000, there have been 29 earthquakes worldwide that were magnitude-7.9 or higher. All 22 of the early-warning tsunami buoys that Indonesia deployed after the 2004 tsunami disaster were inoperable when the massive undersea earthquake struck off the coast.

Weather

Several cities in New England reported their warmest meteorological winter on record, while many others were very close to historic warmth. That includes Boston, which was on pace for its second-warmest winter since record-keeping began. Unsurprisingly, plants and animals don’t know how to react when temperatures soar at a time they should have plummeted. Flowers that normally bloom first are sprouting a month earlier than expected. Wildlife experts have also documented wood frogs and spring peepers making appearances in late-February, weeks before they should be observed in New England. But winter weather is still possible through March in New England. If there’s another cold snap, or a big snowstorm covers everything in frozen precipitation, all that has bloomed could die.

An 18-year drought has continued to worsen in the Eastern Mediterranean region, and a new NASA study concluded it’s likely the worst one in nearly a millennium. Studying tree rings to better understand the region’s climate, scientists were able to get a complete history of drought in the Eastern Mediterranean dating back as far as 900 years. From their analysis, they realized that this is likely the driest stretch for countries like Cypress, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Turkey since at least the 12th century. The study finds that the recent drought that began in 1998 is at least 50 percent drier than the driest period over the last 500 years, and as much as 20 percent drier than any dry period since 1100.

February saw record low sea ice extent, with ice running a significant 448,000 square miles below average. In essence, a chunk of ice four times the size of Arizona went missing in action from the Arctic. Once again, the Arctic was super warm for this time of year. The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), which released the new data on Wednesday, said that temperatures ranged from 11°-14°F above average in the central Arctic.

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

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