Signs of the Times (3/12/16)

Syrian Muslims Embracing Jesus by the Thousands

An unprecedented number of Muslims living in the war-torn country of Syria are embracing Christianity after experiencing the love of missionaries and witnessing miraculous healings in the name of Christ. A ministry leader in Syria told the Christian Aid Mission that despite the dangers of remaining in the country, he and 21 others continue to faithfully serve predominantly Muslim communities, providing medical care, shelter, food, and spiritual guidance for those in need. Many Muslims are drawn to Christian communities after hearing stories of miraculous healings. Many Muslims find that a relationship with Christ brings incomparable joy: one mother, Aveen, along with her husband, Mohamad, and their seven children, are part of a church in an undisclosed town in Syria. Recent converts Aveen and Mohamad both come from very fanatical Muslim families who wish to stone them to death, and yet they still fearlessly display their strong love for the Lord.

Despite Government Crackdown, House Churches in Iran are Growing

Christianity is spreading swiftly inside Iran despite a government crackdown against house churches, reports CBN News. Some Christians argue the persecution by the Islamic nation has actually created an opposite effect. A London-based organization that trains Iranian Christians reports hundreds of thousands of new Christians—former Muslims—are worshipping secretly in a rapidly accelerating house church movement inside the Islamic Republic. According to Open Doors USA, as many as 450,000 Iranians are now practicing Christianity inside the country. Other groups have placed the figure as high as 1 million.

Major Marriage Victory in Alabama

In a major ruling, the Alabama Supreme Court has rejected the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage opinion by issuing its own judgment in favor of Liberty Counsel’s Petition for Mandamus. In the petition, Liberty Counsel demanded on behalf of its Alabama clients – Alabama Policy Institute (“API”) and Alabama Citizens Action Program (“ALCAP”) – that the state’s probate judges obey Alabama’s Constitution and laws. The Alabama Justices labeled the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling as “illegitimate” and without legal or precedential authority. The Court then ordered the probate judges to immediately cease issuing same-sex marriage licenses. The judgment makes permanent the Alabama Supreme Court’s order prohibiting probate judges from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore and Justice Tom Parker issued concurring opinions openly criticizing the U.S. Supreme Court marriage opinion.

Court Rules Church Has Right to Hire, Fire Employees Based on Religious Beliefs

A Missouri court has ruled in favor of a Catholic diocese’s decision to fire employees that violate the diocese’s religious beliefs. According to ChristianToday.com, the Missouri court ruled that the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph had the right to fire Colleen Simon from her role as director for social ministries at St. Francis Xavier Parish in May 2014. The diocese found out that Simon was married to another woman. “Churches should have the right to hire and fire people based on how consistently they live out their religious beliefs. If an employee is undermining or publicly opposing the church’s teaching, the church is within its constitutional rights to terminate employment,” said Jeremiah Galus, legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom.

U.S. Sends Aid to Violence-Stricken Central America

The number of Central American unaccompanied minors rushing to the U.S. is back on the rise. Consequently, the U.S. is sending $750 million to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to try and improve the security and economic situation in those countries. Last year, 57% of U.S. assistance to the region was dedicated to economic and civilian aid programs, with the rest going toward security, military and rule of law programs, according to an analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America, a research group. When Congress passed a new aid package for 2016, it dedicated 66% of U.S. aid to economic and civilian institution programs. And in 2017, the White House is asking for that figure to increase to 69%.

Migrant Update

Political parties campaigning to stem the rising tide of immigrants pouring into Europe are resorting to posters that have racial undertones and denigrate Muslims, critics say. The latest example: a poster of a white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag promoted by Switzerland’s largest party in a failed bid to win last month’s referendum that would have expelled immigrants convicted of crimes. The Swiss People’s Party’s anti-immigration message — “Make the country safe, say yes to deportation of foreign criminals” — did not persuade a majority of Swiss to support its view. The Feb. 28 referendum was defeated by 59% of voters. While the black sheep may appear to be a racial metaphor, “it’s not about race,” said Georg Lutz, director of the Swiss Electoral Studies at the University of Lausanne. “It symbolizes a foreigner, an outsider.”

Persecution Watch

Middle Eastern Christian leaders and human rights advocates from the Knights of Columbus along with In Defense of Christians (IDC), released a powerful and comprehensive report Thursday which makes the case that the terror campaign against Christians and other minorities in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East can only be called one thing: genocide. The report, along with the personal accounts conveyed at the National Press Club in Washington on Thursday, put even more pressure on the Obama administration to officially label the atrocities as genocide. The State Department and White House so far have not done so, but are facing a congressionally mandated March 17 deadline to make a decision. The report lists 1,131 Iraqi Christians killed between 2003 and June 9, 2014, including where they were killed and when. It also incorporates 24 pages of witness statements collected between February and March of this year, and nearly 200 documented attacks — including destruction of property, sexual assaults, enslavement, torture, imprisonment and killing — in Iraq, Syria and North Africa. Also included is a documenting of attacks on 125 Iraqi churches from 2003 to 2014.

Economic News – Domestic

There’s a lot of confusion about why more than 80% of voters say they’re worried about the economy when America is growing and unemployment is so low. But one look at how much money American families have been taking home in recent years solves the mystery. American households today earn about the same as they did 20 years ago (once you adjust for inflation). That makes it hard to get ahead, especially for indebted families. In addition, workers without a high school degree are getting left behind in the United States.

The jobless rate for workers who haven’t graduated high school is almost three times what it is for those with a college degree — and their wages are far lower, according to the Labor Department. These workers used to make up the bulk of the manufacturing laborers in America. Some of those jobs have gone overseas or been replaced by machines. While other jobs have been created in the U.S., workers without a high school degree are having trouble transitioning.

And it’s true the rich have gotten richer and corporations are earning record profits. Inequality in America today is now as bad as it was in the 1920s. The top 10% of income earners in America took half the income made in the United States in 2014. In 1990, it was 40% and in 1980 that figure was only 35%, according to data collected by Emmanuel Saez, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert on income inequality.

Since September, the labor force participation rate — a measure how many people are working or looking for work — has increased. Even some people who gave up looking for jobs are restarting their searches. There are valid reasons for job seekers to feel more optimistic: the unemployment rate is down to 4.9% and America added 2.6 million jobs last year. However, participation is still very low. The participation rate hit its lowest point in September in nearly 40 years. Participation has been dropping since 2000. Part of the decline is natural: many from the Baby Boomer generation are retiring. But since the Great Recession, many younger people have also dropped out of the job market, discouraged that they can’t find work.

Oil prices have spiked an unbelievable 42% in just over three weeks. Prices stopped collapsing on February 11 after briefly sinking to $26 a barrel. Oil has zoomed back to $37 a barrel Tuesday, a remarkable rally that has inspired a big comeback in the U.S. stock market. But given the epic oil supply glut, Goldman Sachs doesn’t think the price increase is justified. There’s been a “premature surge” in commodity prices that is “not sustainable,” Goldman argues in a new report published Tuesday. However, oil prices might have ‘bottomed out’ as output begins to fall and Iran’s return to world markets fails to live up to expectations, the International Energy Agency said Friday.

The number of active oil and natural gas rigs in the U.S. has plunged to the lowest level on record going back to 1949, according to a Baker Hughes report released on Friday. Baker Hughes said there were just 480 rigs drilling for oil and natural gas last week, down by a stunning 57% from the year before. The previous low was set in 1999. It’s a reflection of the dramatic downturn in the U.S. energy industry caused by excess supply.

Economic News – International

The European Central Bank on Thursday cut all three of its main interest rates to new record lows — taking the deposit rate even deeper into negative territory — and said it would print more money as it tries to head off deflation in the eurozone. Starting in April, it will buy 80 billion euros ($87 billion) worth of bonds each month — up from 60 billion euros at present. It said it will start buying debt issued by companies as well as governments. Markets cheered the news. European stocks jumped by more than 2%, U.S. stock futures moved higher.

Even as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wraps up his state visit to the United States, his country’s unemployment rate rose to a three-year high of 7.3% in February. It marked the third consecutive month that Canada’s jobless rate increased. Canada, one of the world’s biggest oil exporters, lost nearly 9,000 jobs last month in the natural resources industry, which includes the oil sector. The job cuts in the industry began late in 2014 shortly after oil prices topped out above $100 a barrel. Canada’s economy relies on oil exports. It slipped into recession last year amid the oil downturn for the first time since the Great Recession.

Middle East

A pair of Palestinian terrorists carried out two separate shooting attacks in Jerusalem Wednesday morning, a day after three separate attacks in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Petah Tikva resulted in one American tourist killed and several other people wounded. Four of the terrorists involved in these attacks were shot dead by police while others were wounded and/or arrested. A former U.S. Army officer who was part of a Vanderbilt University tour group was stabbed to death in a terror attack that left 10 others wounded in an old section of Tel Aviv, officials said Tuesday. The school said in a separate statement that Force was among 29 students and four staff members who had gone to Israel to study global entrepreneurship. They were in Jaffa by the Mediterranean Sea when they were attacked. The stabbing attack occurred along a popular oceanfront boardwalk in southern Tel Aviv not far from where U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was visiting. The attacker, a Palestinian from the West Bank, was fatally shot by police.

The Israeli Air Force carried out strikes against four Hamas targets in the northern part of Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces said Saturday. One 10 year-old Palestinian boy was killed and his 8-year-old sister was injured, according to Palestinian medical sources. The IDF said the airstrikes were in response to the launch of four rockets at Israel from Gaza. No one was injured in those attacks because the rockets landed in open areas. There have been seven rockets fired at Israel from Gaza since the beginning of the year, according to the IDF.

Islamic State

A top general said more U.S. troops will be needed to retake key areas from ISIS and has sent recommendations outlining that request up the chain of command. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday, Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, pointed to the need for “additional capability” to retake the ISIS stronghold of Mosul in Iraq, as well as Raqqa, Syria, the de facto capital of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate. While Austin declined to share his specific recommendations in the hearing, he said additional U.S. military personnel could help develop better intelligence on the ground, provide more advise-and-assist teams and help with some logistics.

A disillusioned former Islamic State militant leaked tens of thousands of documents containing the names, addresses and phone numbers of 22,000 of the group’s extremists to Sky News, the British broadcaster said Thursday. Sky said the informant, who calls himself Abu Hamed, stole a memory stick containing the information from the head of the extremist group’s internal security police and passed it to its reporter at a secret location in Turkey. Sky reported that jihadis from at least 51 countries including Britain, the United States and Canada joined the group after filling out a form with 23 questions. It said some of those on the list were known to authorities, but others were not and the details, which have been passed on to officials, could be used to prevent further attacks.

Chemical attacks by the Islamic State are becoming more frequent in Iraq, causing panic and disarray among soldiers and civilians alike, according to the Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga. Chemical weapons are banned under an international treaty signed in the wake of their lethal use during World War I. Makhmour has been hit by four chemical attacks — chlorine and mustard gas — since the strike in August. Mortars made of metal pipes and more sophisticated 122mm Grad rockets carry the potentially deadly chemicals. The Islamic State group has launched two chemical attacks near the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, killing a three-year-old girl, wounding some 600 people and causing hundreds more to flee, Iraqi officials said Saturday. Wednesday, the U.S. military revealed that it destroyed an Islamic State chemical weapons facility as a result of intelligence from a captured fighter who was a top chemical weapons official under Saddam Hussein.

Iran

Iran reportedly test-fired two ballistic missiles Wednesday with the phrase “Israel must be wiped out” written in Hebrew on them, a show of force by the Islamic Republic as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Israel. The semiofficial Fars news agency offered pictures Wednesday it said were of the Qadr H missiles being fired. It said they were fired in Iran’s eastern Alborz mountain range to hit a target some 870 miles away off Iran’s coast into the Sea of Oman. Fars quoted Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace division, saying the test was aimed at showing Israel that Iran could hit it whenever it wants to. “The 1,240-mile range of our missiles is to confront the Zionist regime,” Hajizadeh said. “Israel is surrounded by Islamic countries and it will not last long in a war. It will collapse even before being hit by these missiles.” Iran’s foreign ministry insisted on Thursday that the missile tests carried out by the country’s Revolutionary Guard this week do not violate Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers or a U.N. Security Council resolution, claiming they were for “legitimate defense.”

North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un claimed Tuesday that his county’s scientists have developed miniature nuclear warheads to fit on ballistic missiles, according to the official state news agency” The nuclear warheads have been standardized to be fit for ballistic missiles by miniaturizing them,” state media agency KCNA quoted Kim as saying as he inspected a nuclear facility. “This can be called true nuclear deterrent,” he added. The latest developments from the reclusive country come amid heightened tensions following claims it tested a hydrogen bomb in January. Tensions remain high after North Korea’s recent nuclear test and rocket launch, which prompted the United Nations to adopt tough new sanctions.

North Korea warned Monday of pre-emptive nuclear strikes after the United States and South Korea began holding their biggest ever war games. North Korea’s provocative nuclear rhetoric has gotten so bad even the Kremlin has come out against the hermit kingdom, warning continued nuclear threats could justify an invasion. Russia also had harsh words for the U.S. and South Korea, condemning the “unprecedented” exercises. North Korea responded Thursday to new sanctions from South Korea by firing short-range ballistic missiles into the sea in a show of defiance and vowing to “liquidate” all remaining South Korean assets at former cooperative projects in the North.

Weather

The upper-air weather pattern over North America this week has been an extreme one that has yielded record-breaking results. An area of low pressure in the upper atmosphere that pushed into California on Monday dove southward into Mexico, where it became mostly detached from the main jet stream to the north. This allowed it to stall over northern Mexico, resulting in rare March snow for parts of that country and extreme flooding in the southern United States. At the same time, the jet stream built north over southeast Canada, where an expansive area of high pressure both aloft and at the surface of the earth has resulted in extreme warmth early in the season. Unseasonably warm, March weather will continue across much of the central and eastern states through this weekend.

Several Northeast cities saw their warmest temperatures on record for so early in a calendar year on Wednesday. Albany, New York, Allentown, Pennsylvania, Hartford (Bradley Int’l), Connecticut, Newark, New Jersey, Poughkeepsie, New York all saw their earliest first 80s on record Wednesday afternoon. The record-shattering high temperature of 81 degrees at Albany, New York, was also 40 degrees above the average high of 41 for the date. In addition, Boston and New York City both hit 77 degrees, making it the warmest day on record so early in the season.

five-plus-day heavy rain event, which featured up to two feet of record March rain in the South, is almost finally over. However, major river flooding will continue for the next several days, rising to historic levels in some areas. Record flooding is already occurring along a stretch of the Sabine River, and will move downstream the next several days along the Texas/Louisiana border. Record flooding has also occurred in four other locations, so far, including the Bogue Falaya River in Covington, Louisiana, and Bayou Dorcheat at Lake Bistineau, Louisiana, and is either nearing or expected to occur at several other locations in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. A record rainfall of aver 23 inches of rain has fallen near Monroe, Louisiana, through Friday morning, prompting numerous rescues. Overall, five people have been killed and thousands of homes have been evacuated as widespread flooding continues to bear down on parts of the South.

Two people are dead and four others had to be rescued from a flooded river in Southern California as a slew of Pacific storms caused major problems for parts of the West Coast. Crews rushed to the scene of a train derailment Monday night in Northern California’s Alameda County after the lead car plunged into a creek, injuring 9 people. Officials said the passenger train’s derailment occurred because a mudslide pushed a tree onto the tracks. The rushing waters of the swollen creek made the rescue very difficult. Flood warnings were in effect for the Napa River near St. Helena and the Russian River near Guerneville Friday. A California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) worker was on the scene to clear a mudslide when a second slide nearly toppled his truck off the highway on Friday.

Winds ripped through western Washington state on Thursday, downing trees and knocking out power to more than a hundred-thousand customers. According to the National Weather Service’s Seattle office, wind gusts reached up to 127 mph in Mission Ridge and 101 mph in Crystal Mount.

 

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