Signs of the Times (3/8/16)

Open Doors Names 2015 the Worst Year for Christian Persecution in Modern History

Christian persecution is at an all-time high, according to Open Doors. The advocacy group released its most recent World Watch List, naming the 50 worst countries for Christians. According to the report, 2015 was the “worst year in modern history for Christian persecution.” Front Page Mag reports Muslims are most often responsible for persecution of Christians. Islamic extremism was the main source of persecution in 41 of the 50 countries from the Open Doors report. Nine of the top 10 countries on the World Watch List were Muslim majority. However, the worst country for Christian persecution in 2015 was North Korea. Other countries that were listed in the top 10 for severe Christian persecution included Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iran, Pakistan, Eritrea, and Nigeria. In total, the survey found that more than 7,100 Christians were killed in 2015 for “faith-related reasons,” up 3,000 from the previous year.

China to Become World’s Largest Christian Nation?

Within 15 years, China should become the country with the most Christians in the world, according to a new study. Fenggang Yang, of Purdue University, predicts that China will reach 224 million Christians by the year 2030, as quoted in the UK Financial Times. “By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon,” said Yang, an expert in sociology and author of “Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule. It is going to be less than a generation. Not many people are prepared for this dramatic change.” In 2010, the U.S. had around 159 million Protestants, and many observers say congregations are in decline. As part of a possible passing of the baton, China is now sending missionaries—especially to North Korea. Currently, there are about 100 million Christians in the world’s most populous nation, which eclipses the 86.7 million-strong membership of the ruling Communist party, according to the Financial Times. “The number of Christians is extremely underestimated (in China) intentionally because the increase of religion would reflect negatively on government officials.” said Yang.

Fundamentalist LDS Takes Severe Blow from Feds

These are dark days for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the reclusive polygamous sect led by imprisoned prophet Warren Jeffs. The U.S. Justice Department dealt a double blow to FLDS leadership on Monday: In Phoenix, a federal jury found that church leaders controlled the municipal governments of two cities that discriminated against nonbelievers. And in Salt Lake City, a federal magistrate ordered Jeffs’ brother, Lyle, the so-called bishop of the two towns, to remain behind bars as he awaits trial in an alleged food stamp swindle and money laundering scheme. It remained unclear what would happen to Hildale and Colorado City. The municipal governments could be decertified or fall under receivership, and the shared police force could be disbanded. In that case, outside police agencies could take over control from the Colorado City Marshal’s Office.

  • While true Christians applaud the dismantling of FLDS, it is a harbinger of what is in store for Christianity in general as the federal government ramps up its prosecution of discrimination and hate crimes

Migrant Update

European leaders were meeting in Brussels on Monday to try and find ways to stem the flow of migrants continuing to arrive on the continent. European Council President Donald Tusk visited countries on the Western Balkans route, the main route taken by migrants to northern Europe, last week to try and build a consensus ahead of the talks. The EU intends to close the route, which Tusk said 880,000 migrants entered in 2015 and 128,000 in the first two months of this year. He said despite some progress, the number of people illegally entering Greece from Turkey remained too high. Most migrants fleeing conflict in countries including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan arrive in Greece by boat from Turkey. Tusk said he and Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu believed that economic migrants should be returned to Turkey. The leaders of the 28-nation bloc will also discuss increasing humanitarian aid to refugees. The EU’s executive proposed last week to provide $760 million over the next three years for basic necessities like food, shelter, clean water and emergency health care. The EU has also pledged more than $3 billion in aid for refugees in Turkey. More than 2 million Syrian refugees are living there.

Zika Update

A new study provides the strongest evidence yet that the Zika virus is the cause of devastating birth defects seen in Brazil, home to the largest outbreak of the disease. Ultrasounds found major abnormalities in 29% of the fetuses from women who tested positive for Zika, but none of the women without Zika infections, according to the study, published online Friday in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Economic News

It’s tempting to get excited about the market’s recent rally. But as impressive as the bounce has been, it is far from repairing some of the worst damage. There are still 196 companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500, or 40%, mired in bear markets, according to a USA TODAY analysis of data from S&P Global Market Intelligence. A bear market is a decline of 20% or more from the recent high. The fact so many stocks are still badly beaten, despite the market’s impressive 9% rally from the lows this year. Roughly $1.6 trillion in market value has been restored to the portfolios of investors in the S&P 500, which is a good start, but stocks are still down nearly $2.2 trillion from the highs last year.

Economists at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), a group of 60 global central banks, are warning of potential risks from the negative interest rates in place in Europe and Japan. Central banks in the eurozone, Denmark, Japan, Sweden and Switzerland have all taken rates below zero and into uncharted territory. But nobody’s quite sure what the long-term results will be from the new and unconventional policies, which involve the central banks charging commercial lenders to deposit funds with them. The aim is typically to encourage people and businesses to spend money rather than save it.

BP lost $5.2 billion in 2015 and announced plans to cut 7,000 jobs by the end of 2017. But CEO Bob Dudley’s paycheck has gotten much bigger. Dudley took home total of $19.6 million in pay and benefits in 2015, a 20% jump from 2014. His annual cash bonus went up 40% to $1.4 million in 2015 from $1 million in 2014. Last month, BP posted an annual loss of $5.2 billion, compared with a profit of $8.1 billion in 2014.

Islamic State

ISIS isn’t about to file for bankruptcy — but its balance sheet is hurting. In 2015, ISIS lost about 40% of the area it held in Iraq, as well as parts of northeastern Syria that have both good farmland and oil. Airstrikes on the oil infrastructure it controlled have further diminished the balance sheet. Some of its senior financial officials have been killed. Trading through Turkey has become much more difficult. Its cash depots have been bombed. A terror group that claims to be a state, or a “caliphate,” needs a lot of money, especially when 4 to 5 million people live under its control. ISIS has to provide basic social services, health care, water and electricity, and maintain roads and sewage systems. It has to pay wages, especially to its soldiers.

ISIS did have a lot of money. Even before it went on its land-grab in 2014 it probably had assets worth $875 million, according to a study by the Rand Corporation. Much of that came through extortion. It also enjoyed windfall profits in the expansionary days of 2014. These included, according to U.S. estimates, between $500 million and $1 billion seized from Iraqi bank vaults. The branch of the Central Bank in Mosul alone was said to contain more than $400 million. Speaking in October 2014, senior U.S. Treasury official David S. Cohen said ISIS “has amassed wealth at an unprecedented pace.” A conservative estimate would be that ISIS’ cash pile and revenues amounted to at least $1.5 billion a year ago. But ISIS was also spending money — fast.

Syria

Less than a week into a tenuous cease-fire in Syria, anti-government protests spread Friday across much of the territory held by rebel forces that have been fighting to overthrow the regime of President Bashar Assad. Images posted to social media show large crowds with banners and speakers using megaphones, reportedly in Azaz, in Maarat al-Numan, where several well-known rebel leaders from Idlib were photographed, and in the Damacus suburb of Ghouta, among many other locations. According to Norwegian-Emirati Syria watcher Iyad El-Baghdadi, there were 104 protests across rebel-held Syria on Friday. Opposition leaders called for the removal of the Assad regime from power, an end to all sieges, provision of adequate humanitarian aid, the release of detainees and the expulsion of Iranian and Shiite sectarian militia, according to a translation by Lister.

Iraq

A suicide bomber on Sunday rammed his explosives-laden fuel truck into a security checkpoint south of Baghdad, killing at least 47 people and wounding dozens, officials said, the latest episode in an uptick in violence in the war-ravaged country. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State group. IS and other Sunni militants frequently use car bombs and suicide attacks to target public areas and government buildings in their bid to undermine confidence in the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Among the dead were 39 civilians, while the rest were members of the security forces.

Iran

Iran conducted multiple ballistic missile tests Tuesday in what it said was a display of ‘deterrent power,’ defying US sanctions imposed earlier this year aimed at disrupting its missile program. State media announced that short-, medium- and long-range precision guided missiles were fired from several sites to show the country’s ‘all-out readiness to confront threats’ against its territorial integrity. Pictures of the launches were broadcast and reports said the armaments used had ranges of 300 kilometers (190 miles), 500 km, 800 km and 2,000 km. The United States hit Iran with fresh sanctions on its missile program in January, 24 hours after separate sanctions related to Tehran’s nuclear activities had been lifted under a landmark deal with world powers.

Pakistan

A Pakistani police official says a suicide bomber attacked the entrance to a court in a northwestern Pakistan, killing seven people Monday. Ali Jan Khan says the blast in the town of Shabqadar also wounded another 15 people. He says two police officers are included among the dead. No one has claimed responsibility, but suspicion is likely to fall on the local Taliban branch, which has been waging a war against the state for over a decade.

Turkey

The day after Turkish police in riot gear seized the country’s leading newspaper, its content changed from critical to complimentary of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Today’s Zaman, circulation 650,000, was taken over Friday at the request of the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, which accused its owners of acting for a political rival that the government accuses of terrorism and attempting a coup. The seizure prompted protests outside the newspaper building Saturday, until police fired water canons and tear gas to disperse the crowd. “This is the latest in a series of troubling judicial and law enforcement actions taken by the Turkish government targeting media outlets and others critical of it,” the White House said Friday in a statement. Turkey is a member of NATO and a key ally in the U.S.-led coalition to fight the Islamic State, which holds large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. Turkey is also a jumping off point for Syrian refugees flooding into Europe.

Tunisia

At least 45 people — including 28 terrorists — were killed Monday near Tunisia’s border with Libya in one of the deadliest clashes seen so far between Tunisian forces and extremist attackers, the government said. The fighting in the border town of Ben Guerdane in eastern Tunisia comes amid increasing concern that violent extremism in Libya could destabilize the region. The government closed its two border crossings with Libya because of the attack that left 28 terrorists, seven civilians and 10 members of Tunisia’s security forces dead. Libya’s chaos, five years after the uprising that led to the ouster and killing of longtime autocrat Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, has allowed the Islamic State to take control of several cities.

Somalia

American aircraft on Saturday struck a training camp in Somalia belonging to the Islamist militant group the Shabab, the Pentagon said, killing about 150 fighters who were assembled for what American officials believe was a graduation ceremony and prelude to an imminent attack against American troops and their allies in East Africa. Defense officials said the strike was carried out by drones and American aircraft, which dropped a number of precision-guided bombs and missiles on the field where the fighters were gathered. Pentagon officials said they did not believe there were any civilian casualties, but there was no independent way to verify the claim, reported the New York Times. It was the deadliest attack on the Shabab in the more than decade-long American campaign against the group, an affiliate of Al Qaeda, and a sharp deviation from previous American strikes, which have concentrated on the group’s leaders, not on its foot soldiers.

Yemen

An al Qaeda umbrella group is denying links to an attack that killed 16 people including four nuns at an elderly home founded by Mother Teresa in Yemen. Gunmen raided the building Friday, handcuffing victims and shooting them in the head. We Ansar Al-Sharia deny any connection or relation to the operation that targeted the elders house,” the group said in a statement Sunday. In light of the denial, it was not immediately clear who carried out the attack. ISIS sympathizers are now suspected.

North Korea

The U.S. military is holding exercises in South Korea amid increased tensions with North Korea, whose leader Kim Jong Un has ordered his country’s nuclear weapons to be at the ready. About 2,100 Marines and sailors recently arrived in South Korea for the training exercises which began last Wednesday and will last until March 20, Marine Corps officials said. Held every two years, the exercise involves U.S. and South Korean troops conducting amphibious operations for possible disaster relief or wartime missions. North Korea on Monday again threatened to launch nuclear strikes on the United States and South Korea. In response, South Korea on Tuesday announced unilateral sanctions against North Korea, blacklisting dozens of individuals and organizations it said were involved in the North’s missile and nuclear programs.

The Philippines will impound a suspected North Korean cargo vessel docked at a port northwest of Manila and eventually deport its North Korean crewmen under terms of a tough new United Nations sanctions introduced in response to Pyongyang’s recent nuclear and ballistic missile tests, a presidential spokesman said Saturday. Presidential Communications Undersecretary Manolo Quezon III said the U.N. sanctions would be applied to the 4,355-ton MV Jin Teng, which arrived Thursday at Subic Bay, a commercial port that formerly served as a U.S. naval base. It is the first known compliance with the U.N. Security Council sanctions, passed unanimously on Wednesday, that aims to cripple parts of the North Korean economy that fuel its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Nepal

More than 10 months after devastating earthquakes rocked Nepal and claimed the lives of nearly 9,000, the government has yet to rebuild. Though volunteers and NGOs responded rapidly to the April quake and its May aftershock, the official reconstruction process has languished — to the extent that Nepal’s government has not utilized any of the $4.1 billion pledged by other countries, the United Nations, the World Bank and other international agencies to help provide long-term relief. For now, this money remains with the donors, who are still awaiting the Nepali government’s reconstruction plans. Reconstruction is sorely needed. By the government’s count, the 2015 earthquakes damaged nearly 900,000 houses, over 900 health facilities, and more than 8,300 schools.

Wildfires

A human-caused wildfire that started Sunday afternoon in eastern Arizona has charred about 500 acres of the same forest area burned more than a decade ago by the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, forest officials said. Local and Forest Service firefighters are battling the blaze in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests near Aripine. The fire, dubbed the Phoenix Fire for its proximity to the Phoenix Park Wash, is 0% contained as of Tuesday morning. The Phoenix Fire that started Sunday was a different kind of blaze, forest officials said. Instead of tall, densely growing pines, the fire was fueled by low grass and brush that had regrown over the last 14 years.

Weather

A parade of Pacific storms began soaking California and other parts of the West Coast last Friday. This much wetter weather pattern was accompanied by a so-called atmospheric river, or “Pineapple Express”, at times, unleashing bouts of heavy rain, feet of Sierra snow, and strong winds, high surf and coastal flooding. The storms brought over 8 inches of rain to Northern California and covered the Sierra Nevada with snow. A 48-year-old woman hs died after the car she was a passenger in drove into deep flood waters on Highway 65 Saturday. Four others had to be rescued from the flooded Los Angeles river. An 88 mph wind gust was recorded Saturday evening at Mount Diablo nearly 25 miles east of San Francisco. Sustained 65 mph gusts were also felt in the area.

At least ten drivers were hospitalized after sudden snow squalls caused a 40-car pileup on Interstate 93 in southern New Hampshire between Windham and Londonderry Friday morning. “It was literally a whiteout,” a tow truck driver told CBS Boston. “You couldn’t see 40, 50 feet in front of you.” people driving in into the near whiteout conditions couldn’t see the stopped traffic, and when they did it was too late to stop. The snow moved in ahead of schedule, several hours before any winter weather advisories were issued by the National Weather Service.

A days-long round of severe weather and heavy rainfall began Monday night in parts of the South. The storms continued Tuesday morning in North Texas, bringing severe storms and torrential rainfall to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. In the town of Denton, a school bus was trapped in floodwaters Tuesday morning, and crews had to pull six children and the driver to safety. The National Weather Service reported several structures and vehicles were damaged by a possible tornado in Parker County near Highway 180 Monday night. Among the cities that should be alert for potentially major flash flooding the next few days are Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Shreveport, Louisiana and Little Rock, Arkansas, and New Orleans.

Findings of a new analysis of storm data and model projections warn that flooding is going to be a worsening problem around the world, with a warmer atmosphere already leading to heavier downpours in both arid and wet climates. The study identified “robust increases” in “extreme daily precipitation” — the types of drenching storms that can wipe out homes and flood fields. “The extremes are increasing in both the wet and dry areas,” said Markus Donat, a University of New South Wales climate researcher who led the new study, published Monday in Nature Climate Change.

  • Floods, heat and hail are end-times events (Daniel 9:26b, Revelation 8:7, 11:19, 16:11)

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