Signs of the Times (3/18/16)

State Department Admits that Islamic State is Committing Genocide

The Islamic State is committing genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shiite Muslims in Syria and Iraq, Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday. The U.S. House approved a similar finding in a unanimous vote Monday. Religious groups in the U.S. have been pressuring Washington for such a declaration — and a commitment to stop the carnage. Kerry listed numerous cases of slaughter by the group, also known as Da’esh, since 2014. He credited an intensive multinational effort with taking back 40% of land once held by the militants in Iraq and 20% in Syria. “The fact is Da’esh kills Christians because they are Christians, Yazidis because they are Yazidis, Shias because they are Shias,” Kerry said, adding that “we will do all we can to see that the perpetrators are held accountable.” A spending bill passed by Congress in December gave the State Department 90 days to make a determination on whether genocide was being conducted. Thursday marked the deadline.

Franklin Graham: ‘This is Islam: They Persecute the Church, They Persecute Christians’

Franklin Graham said in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network that Muslims are continuing to persecute Christians and that the U.S. should prioritize welcoming Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities into the country as refugees. Graham was very clear about his beliefs on Islam. “This is Islam,” said Graham, “They persecute the Church, they persecute Christians.” He continued, “We see in Syria and Iraq where they cut the heads off Christians, they rape the women, take them as sex slaves. They take the Yazidis, the minorities, and they do the same thing. They kill the men but take the women to have sex with them.” Graham has continued to be a voice against bringing in Muslim refugees. “I would love to see those immigrants be the minorities – the Christians, the Yazidis, and other minorities, the Assyrians, and so forth, that still live in Syria and that are minorities, and allow these Christians and minorities to come to this country.”

Attacks on Religion in America Doubled in 3 Years

Each year, First Liberty Institute compiles a list of incidents of hostility based on religious beliefs. This year showed 1,285 such incidents – more than double the number documented by the initial survey, published in 2013. First Liberty attorney Justin Butterfield tells OneNewsNow that some of the attacks have been in areas that used to be unthinkable. “We’ve seen numerous religious ministries forced by the government to provide insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs that would violate their religious beliefs,” he begins. “We’ve seen a football coach suspended for praying after a football game on his own. We’ve seen the Department of Veterans Affairs stop Native Americans from practicing their faith.” In addition, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue was sued by the government for meeting in a private home – and a Marine was court-martialed for refusing to remove a Bible verse. Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty, says even though attacks are on the rise and are “coming from all directions,” there is still good news: “The Constitution hasn’t changed. Religious liberty is still our first, foundational freedom – and when Americans stand up for their rights, they can win.”

Obama Nominates Merrick Garland to Supreme Court

President Barack Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland, who is respected across political lines, to the Supreme Court Wednesday. The nomination challenges the resolve of Republicans who have vowed to block any replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia until a new president takes office. GOP leaders, caught in the undertow of an election in which the conservative grass-roots are already in revolt, immediately renewed their refusal to consider Garland, 63, saying their reservations were not personal but motivated by a desire for the American people to weigh in on Scalia’s replacement. The showdown is even more fraught than most Supreme Court fights, since Obama’s choice could tilt the ideological balance of the court away from conservatives for years to come. Obama and Democrats argue that with 10 months left in his term, there is plenty of time for the Senate to take up and confirm a new justice. “Our view is this: Give the people a voice in the filling of this vacancy,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Lead Taints Drinking Water in Hundreds of Schools, Day-Cares across USA

In hundreds of schools across the nation children are exposed to water containing excessive amounts of an element doctors agree is unsafe at any level, a USA Today investigation found. An analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data showed that nearly 20% of the water systems nationally are testing above the agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion. One water sample at a Maine elementary school was 41 times higher while another at a Pennsylvania preschool was 14 times higher. And a sink in a music-room bathroom at Caroline Elementary tested this year at 5,000 ppb of lead, results released by the school system show. That’s the cutoff where the EPA labels a substance “hazardous waste.” But at this point it’s impossible to know how big the problem is because the federal government requires only about 10% of the nation’s schools and a tiny fraction of day cares to test for lead at all. The EPA estimates that about 90,000 public schools and half a million child-care facilities are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act because they depend on water sources such as municipal utilities which are expected to test their own water.

CDC Urges Doctors to Reduce Prescribing Painkillers

Prescription painkillers should not be a first choice for treating common ailments like back pain and arthritis, according to new federal guidelines designed to reshape how doctors prescribe drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin. Amid an epidemic of addiction and abuse tied to these powerful opioids drugs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging primary care doctors to try physical therapy, exercise and over-the-counter pain medications before turning to painkillers for chronic pain. The new recommendations — which doctors do not have to follow — represent an effort to reverse nearly two decades of rising painkiller use, which public health officials blame for a more than four-fold increase in overdose deaths tied to the drugs. In 2014, U.S. doctors wrote nearly 200 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers, while deaths linked to the drugs climbed to roughly 19,000 — the highest number on record. More than 40 Americans die every day from painkiller overdoses, a staggering rate that Dr. Tom Frieden, the CDC’s director, said is “doctor driven.” Use of opioid painkillers is also fueling the rise of heroin addiction, also in the opioid family.

Persecution Watch

Having driven the last Christian out of Mosul, ISIS has now released a chilling video showing a bonfire consuming a huge pile of Bibles and other Christian literature. The video, entitled “Diwan of education destroys Christian instruction books in Mosul,” was made by ISIS’ “morality police,” the infamous Diwan Al-Hisbah, according to Christian Today. It comes as the U.S. is deliberating over whether to label the terrorist group’s actions in Iraq as genocide, a term that has important ramifications under international law. While ISIS has killed, enslaved and displaced hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians, the destruction of religious materials could also be part of a genocide determination. The House voted unanimously Monday to approve a resolution branding ISIS’ actions as genocide, which the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide defines in part as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Migrant Update

European Union and Turkish officials reached an agreement Friday on how to deal with a flood of Syrian refugees. Under the deal, virtually all migrants attempting to cross the Aegean Sea by raft or boat — including Syrians fleeing the country’s five-year-old civil war — would be sent back to Turkey, which would, in effect, become the region’s migrant holding center. The Europeans pledged to accept a relatively small number of Syrians, but no other nationalities, after legal processing in Turkey. The talks were held to address the largest influx of refugees into Europe since World War II, though the more than 1 million people who have fled to Europe pale compared to the more than 2.7 million registered in Turkey alone. The discussions could be significant for Turkey not only in receiving financial aid to deal with this problem, but also expedite its push to join the 28-member European Union. “I hope we will be achieving our goal to help all the refugees, as well as to deepen Turkish-EU relations,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters Friday in Brussels.

Cheap Oil Hits Middle East Budgets

Oil’s dramatic price fall has sent shock waves through many Middle Eastern economies. The years when oil cost $100 a barrel and generated $1 trillion in export revenues are gone, and the oil-rich Gulf nations and their people are being forced to accept a new reality. All six countries in the region are now cutting subsidies, raising prices at the pump and the cost of water and power. Generous fuel and food subsidies have been slashed, new taxes introduced, and social benefits axed. The collapse in crude prices is forcing Kuwait to think the unthinkable: tax company profits. Saudi Arabia’s has reduced public spending by 14%. Qatar is expected to run its first budget deficit in 15 years in 2016. Bahrain raised petrol prices for the first time in more than 30 years in January, and cut subsidies on energy. Oman has also hiked the price of fuel, and announced an increase in corporate income tax to 15% from 12%.

Economic News

Stocks rose at the open Friday as Wall Street continued its recent rally with the Dow Jones industrial average rising for a sixth straight day as it pushed further into positive territory for the year. The rally boosted the Standard & Poor’s 500 index back into the black for 2016. Rising oil prices continued to boost financial markets as benchmark U.S. crude jumped 1.5% to $40.81 a barrel after closing Thursday above $40 for the first time since early December.

Global fears are creeping up on the Federal Reserve. The Fed on Wednesday said it is not going to raise its key interest rate as expected. The Fed also cut its forecast for U.S. economic growth and inflation, and significantly lowered its estimate for the number of rate hikes in 2016. The Fed’s committee, led by Chair Janet Yellen, had estimated in December that the economy would grow 2.4% this year and it would raise rates four times. Then stock markets became volatile, oil prices fell and fears of a U.S. recession magnified in January and early February. Now the Fed is dialing back. Yellen and other Fed leaders are only calling for about two rate hikes this year, reflecting the Fed’s concerns about how much the global slowdown is impacting American growth.

Foreign governments are dumping U.S. debt like never before. In a bid to raise cash, foreign central banks and government institutions sold $57.2 billion of U.S. Treasury debt and other notes in January, according to figures released on Tuesday. That is up from $48 billion in December and the highest monthly tally on record going back to 1978. It’s part of a broader trend that gathered steam last year when central banks sold a record $225 billion of U.S. debt. They’re mostly using the funds to stimulate their own economies as the global growth slowdown and crash in oil prices continue to take their toll. Countries exposed to the oil price crash are using the cash to fill giant holes in their budget. Despite all these foreign government sales, demand for U.S. Treasuries remains high. In fact, the U.S. can borrow money at a lower rate now than at the beginning of the year.

The consumer price index slipped 0.2%, the Labor Department said Wednesday. The index was up 1% over the past year. Excluding volatile food and gasoline, so-called core inflation rose 0.3%. Core Inflation was up 2.3% over the past 12 months, the largest annual increase since May 2012. Gasoline prices fell a whopping 13% in February, though they have risen in recent weeks along with oil prices. Regular unleaded averaged $1.95 a gallon Tuesday, up from $1.70 a month ago but still below the year-ago price of $2.43, according to AAA.

Natural gas is on pace to overtake coal as the most popular fuel for electricity generation in the U.S., another sign of coal’s struggles. The U.S. Energy Information Administration believes natural gas will provide 33% of generation in 2016, while coal’s share will likely fall to 32%. That would be the first time that natural gas beats coal on an annual basis. Coal accounted for half of all U.S. electricity generation between 2000 and 2008. But coal use has declined sharply over the last decade, as the U.S. fracking boom flooded the market with cheap natural gas. As a result, coal companies have come under intense pressure. Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal producer, warned early Wednesday it may go out of business, the latest sign of the brutal conditions in the battered industry. Peabody reported a loss of $2 billion last year. Revenue tumbled 17% to $5.6 billion as the average price and amount of coal that it sold fell. It warned of further declines this year due to reduced use of coal by U.S. utilities along with lower demand from overseas markets.

Islamic State

A Virginia man who joined ISIS and surrendered to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters earlier this week has expressed regret for entering the terror group’s self-proclaimed caliphate, saying he “made a bad decision” and “was not thinking straight.” In an interview broadcast on the Kurdistan 24 news station, Mohamad Jamal Khweis, 26, said he had made his way to the ISIS-held city of Mosul, Iraq with an unidentified woman whom he had met in Turkey while traveling. The pair traveled from Istanbul to Mosul by bus and private vehicle, arriving on Jan. 16. It was not immediately possible to establish the woman’s identity, whether she was a member of ISIS, her ultimate fate or whether she even existed. U.S. officials told The Daily Beast this week that the terror group has established a network of women responsible for recruiting new fighters. Khweis said he was only able to stay in Mosul for a month before he had enough. “It is not like Western countries. It is very strict and no smoking there,” he said, adding that most of the foreign fighters he saw were from countries in central and southern Asia. Khweis’ parents had moved to the U.S. from the Palestinian territories before he was born.

Syria

Syrian Kurds declared a federal region in northern Syria after being excluded from peace talks aimed at ending the 5-year-old conflict, according to media reports Wednesday. The plan is to combine three Kurdish-led autonomous areas into a federal system in an alarming challenge to neighboring Turkey. On Saturday, Syria’s government ruled out the idea of a federal system, but its ally Russia said it could be possible, Reuters reported. The peace talks resumed in Geneva on Monday.

Pakistan

Pakistani police say a bomb blast has ripped through a bus carrying government employees in northwestern city of Peshawar, killing 15. Nearly 40 other people were wounded. An improvised explosive device was planted under a seat in the bus. Suspicion likely is to fall on the Pakistani Taliban and their allied militants, who have been waging a war on the state for more than a decade, killing tens of thousands of people.

Nigeria

Two female suicide bombers killed at least 22 worshipers in an attack during dawn prayers Wednesday on a mosque on the outskirts of the northeast Nigerian city of Maiduguri. At least 17 other people were wounded and evacuated to the hospital. One bomber blew herself up inside the mosque and the second waited outside to detonate as survivors tried to escape. The mosque is on the outskirts of the city that is the command center of the Nigerian military’s war against Boko Haram Islamic insurgents.

North Korea

North Korea has launched two ballistic missiles off the west coast of the Korean peninsula in response to new sanctions, the South Korean military and U.S. defense officials said Friday. The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said that one ballistic missile flew a distance of about 500 miles overland toward the sea off the country’s east coast, while a second projectile, assumed to be a missile, was detected by radar but disappeared at an altitude of about 10 miles. The military said it was closely tracking and monitoring the situation and maintaining a readiness posture for any North Korean provocation. The launches come one week after North Korea fired two missiles from North Hwanghae province, south of Pyongyang, toward the sea east of the Korean Peninsula. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemned North Korea’s actions and said Japan would take “precautionary measures,” including surveillance.

Environment

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed to remove the Yellowstone grizzly bear from the Federal Lists of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife after finding their numbers have “rebounded from as few as 136 bears in 1975 to an estimated 700 or more today.” But many environmentalists and grizzly bear experts strongly disagreed with the USFWS’s proposition. Doug Peacock, author of Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness and veteran grizzly bear conservationist, told weather.com that he opposed the grizzly bear’s removal from the federal protection list, saying that the federal government was taking wild guesses and that the feds had erred before on delisting the gray wolf.

Weather

The relentless rain that soaked much of the South last week has created a spooky scene in Louisiana. Caskets unearthed from low-lying cemeteries by more than a week of rain were spotted Tuesday floating in flooded Calcasieu Parish, on the Texas border. But as workers from the parish coroner’s office went out by boat to wrangle the coffins, they did so under partly cloudy skies — a welcome change after more than a week of rain and violent thunderstorms across the region that killed six people and forced thousands more to flee their homes. Across the border in Texas, the town of Deweyville remained cut off by record rainfall that swelled the Sabine River to historic levels, Floodwaters reached the roofs of houses in Deweyville on Thursday.

The Weather Channel reported Wednesday. Lake Travis, a 65-mile-long reservoir on the Colorado River near Austin, Texas, rose to 99 percent of capacity on Monday, just one foot below what’s considered full for the waterway. Over the past decade, the lake had steadily declined as the Lone Star State had been stuck in the throes of a severe drought. With the massive rains last week and previous spells of rain, reservoirs are filling up once again.

Many people in the Fort Worth, Texas, area were awakened early Thursday morning by severe thunderstorms packing large hail. Just after 4 a.m. CDT the first severe thunderstorm moved through, resulting in numerous reports of golf ball and ping pong ball size hail. Dime size hail was also abundant across the area. A second severe storm packing even larger hail moved through the Fort Worth area after 7:00 a.m. CDT. That storm produced hail up to the size of tennis balls near Texas Christian University. Some cars were damaged by the hail and had their windshields smashed in the Fort Worth area. A total of 23 ambulances were taken out of service at MedStar in Fort Worth due to hail damage.

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