Archive for April, 2016

Signs of the Times (4/29/16)

April 29, 2016

After Killer Nepal Quake, God’s Kingdom Is Rapidly Expanding

On April 25, 2015, a 7.8 killer earthquake claimed thousands of lives and left millions homeless in Nepal. Although relief teams arrived almost immediately, recovery has been slow and it will take years to rebuild the country. CBN Ministries’ Disaster Relief teams were among the first on the ground. Twenty-four hours after the quake, they were providing food, blankets, clean water, and temporary shelter for survivors. In the following days, the ministry brought medical help and medicine for remote areas. “After the earthquake many Christians went out and started helping people,” CBN reports, “and now (those people) are testifying, ‘Your religion is the best because you love us, you care for us, and you come from far away to help us.'” Beni Karki of Compassionate Hands for Nepal, reports that one Hindu man said, “”Before I don’t have an idea about Jesus and the Christian people, but when I got attached to them, I felt that they are friendly and kind. They want to be around me and I feel I should follow their God, Jesus. I want to know more about Jesus,” he said.

Teen Birthrate Hits All-Time Low

The birthrate among American teenagers, at crisis levels in the 1990s, has fallen to an all-time low, according to an analysis released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The decline over the past decade has occurred in all regions in the country and among all races. But the most radical changes have been among Hispanic and black teens, whose birthrates have dropped nearly 50 percent since 2006. Today’s teens enjoy better access to contraception and more convenient contraception than their predecessors. But the second cause is something that goes against the conventional wisdom. It’s that teens — despite their portrayal in popular TV and movies as uninhibited and acting only on hormones — are having less sex. “There has been a change in social norms that has happened in the past 20 years, and the idea of not having sex or delaying sex is now something that can be okay,” said Bill Albert, chief program officer for the National Campaign To Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Louisiana House Passes Bill to Defund Planned Parenthood

The Louisiana state House has approved legislation that would further defund the Planned Parenthood abortion company in the state.  Last year, pro-life former Governor Bobby Jindal cut off a taxpayer-funded contract with Planned Parenthood after the abortion business was caught selling aborted babies and their body parts. The House voted 85-7 for the measure. The bill, which moves next to the Senate for debate, would ban public funding in Louisiana for entities that perform abortions. Planned Parenthood has indicated it wants to offer abortions at its new clinic under construction in New Orleans. In Texas, Planned Parenthood was forced to repay the state $4.3 million after it was found to have participated in a massive Medicaid fraud scheme. Louisiana says the Texas settlement proves Planned Parenthood violated Medicaid rules as a whole — thus disqualifying it for funding in the Bayou State.

More than One-Million Boycott Target over Transgender Bathroom Policy

More than one million people have decided they will no longer shop at Target because of its recently announced transgender policies. The American Family Association launched a boycott of the nation’s second largest retailer a week ago over Target’s corporate policy allowing transgender men who identify as women to use the bathrooms and fitting rooms of their choosing. American Family Association, one of the most prominent and respected family advocacy groups in the nation, warned that Target’s policy puts women and children in danger. “Predators and voyeurs would take advantage of the policy to prey on those who are vulnerable,” said AFA President Tim Wildmon. But Target says it is standing by its policy. Freedom Outpost has documents over two dozen incidents that show how dangerous these policies are (click here for the report).

Federal Judge Upholds Controversial North Carolina Voter ID Law

Lawsuits challenging changes to North Carolina’s election law failed to show it hampered the ability of minority voters to exercise political power, a federal judge ruled Monday in dismissing the cases. The law’s most public feature is that it requires voters who appear in person to cast ballots to show an accepted form of photo identification like a driver’s license, a passport or a military ID. The law also eliminated same-day voter registration and ended out-of-precinct voting. “Common practices like boarding an airplane and purchasing Sudafed require photo ID and thankfully a federal court has ensured our citizens will have the same protection for their basic right to vote,” Governor Pat McCrory said.

ICE Criticized for Releasing Thousands of Illegal Immigrants with Criminal Records

The Obama administration took fire at a House hearing Thursday for releasing back into society thousands of illegal immigrants who had committed crimes on U.S. soil – including those behind more than 200 murders. “These are people that were here illegally, got caught committing a crime, were convicted of that crime and instead of deporting them, they were just released back out in the United States of America,” House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said. According to a new report from the Center for Immigration Studies, Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2015 “freed 19,723 criminal aliens, who had a total of 64,197 convictions among them.” This included “8,234 violent convictions and 208 homicide convictions.”

Woman Who Ran Obamacare Defects, Reveals Upcoming Sticker Shock

The woman who ran Obamacare during her tenure as the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services claimed this past week that healthcare customers could be in for a huge sticker shock come 2017. “I’ve been asked, what are the premiums going to look like?” Marilyn Tavenner, who now works as a spokeswoman for insurers, said during an interview with the Morning Consult. She said, “I think the overall trend is going to be higher than we saw previous years.”

35 Bankers Were Sent to Prison for Financial Crisis Crimes

The idea that no bankers went to prison for crimes related to the financial crisis is a myth, according to the watchdog overseeing the federal government’s bailout fund. There have been 35 bankers sentenced to prison, said Christy Goldsmith Romero, the special inspector general for the Troubled Assets Relief Program (SIGTARP), in a report to Congress released Thursday. An additional 19 bankers have been charged with crimes, with many awaiting trials. More than $400 billion in TARP funds were distributed to banks that were in danger of failing during the financial crisis. The TARP inspector general has been prosecuting cases of fraud in the use of those funds. Many of the crimes involved relatively small amounts of money at smaller banks, rather than massive fraud at Wall Street banks. But there are some top executives who are sitting in jail for substantial sentences. Edward Woodard, former CEO of the Bank of the Commonwealth in Norfolk, Virginia, was sentenced to 23 years after he was convicted of hiding $800 million in past due loans and making loans to straw borrowers to hide financial problems at his bank.

Part-Time Work Hurting U.S. Economy

America has a huge part-time workforce problem, reports CNN. And it’s a major concern for Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. She has talked about part-timers at each of her last three press conferences, at nearly every speech in the last six months and at both of her past two testimonies to Congress. Excluding the Great Recession, the 6 million Americans who work part-time but want full-time jobs today are at the highest level in about 30 years or so. Experts call these jobs “hidden unemployment” because these people are capable of working more hours than they can get. About 25% of part-time workers live in poverty while only 5% of full-timers live in poverty. Many part-timers are paid less per hour than full-time workers with the same responsibility and job. They’re more likely to lose their jobs than full-time workers and they often have no health benefits or paid time off.

Americans’ Confidence in Economy Down

Americans’ confidence in the economy is sinking. It’s at its lowest level so far in 2016, according to the weekly survey known as the Gallup U.S. Economic Confidence Index. People’s perceptions of the economy haven’t been this poor since late August when stock markets around the world were crashing and there were fears China might be slipping into a deep downturn. The U.S. stock market has rebounded and is within striking distance of new records. Hiring remains strong and home prices are rising. Yet Americans don’t see brighter days ahead: 60% say the economy is “getting worse,” according to Gallup. Some blame the U.S. presidential candidates for their negative rhetoric and making people feel worse about the economy — and their futures — than the reality. Voters of both parties overwhelmingly cite the economy as their No. 1 concern in exit polls.

Economic News

Consumer spending rose modestly in March despite healthy job growth and solid income gains. Purchases increased by just 0.1%, the Commerce Department said Friday. Spending growth in February was revised upward slightly to 0.2%. Personal income increased 0.4%. Both retail sales and consumer spending have been disappointing so far this year. In addition, average wage growth has not picked up significantly. On Friday, the Labor Department said its employment cost index, which measures total compensation, increased 0.6% in the first quarter and was up 1.9% over the past year, down slightly from the tepid 2% annual pace that has prevailed through most of the recovery.

The Federal Reserve unsurprisingly decided not to raise its key interest rate Wednesday. “Economic activity appears to have slowed,” despite job market gains, the Fed said in its statement. It also noted that household spending had “moderated.” That greatly lowered investors’ expectations for a June rate hike. The Fed’s committee raised rates in December for the first time in nearly a decade. In December, the Fed estimated it would raise rates four times in 2016. Then at the start of this year, oil prices fell, stocks tanked and China fears amplified.

The nation’s gross domestic product grew at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of just 0.5% in the first quarter, the Commerce Department said Thursday, the weakest performance in two years. On the heels of a tepid 1.4% expansion late last year, the economy has now turned in weak showings for two straight quarters. For more than a year, the listless global economy and strong dollar have hobbled exports and business investment, while the slump in oil prices pummeled the energy industry. Exports, meanwhile, fell 2.6% after sliding 2% in the previous quarter while imports rose, widening the trade deficit. Business investment declined 5.9% amid the sluggish exports and oil downturn. On the positive side of the ledger, residential investment jumped 14.8% as the housing recovery picked up steam.

Orders for long-lasting goods such as cars, airplanes and computers rose less than expected in March as weak exports and low oil prices continued to hamper business demand and manufacturing output. Durable goods orders to factories edged up 0.8%, half the 1.9% rise economists expected. And February’s 2.8% fall was revised to a 3.1% drop. Manufactures have been struggling since summer 2014 amid a listless global economy and strong dollar that have pummeled exports. And low oil prices that have led crude producers to throttle back drilling and investment in pipes and other equipment.

The crash in crude oil prices caused a stunning $67 billion in combined losses by 40 publicly-traded U.S. oil producers last year, according Energy Information Administration research. And the bleeding is expected to continue at least early this year for many. The analysis also revealed that the companies most vulnerable to losses were oil producers with too much debt taken on during the boom years. The 18 U.S. oil companies that reported the biggest losses were saddled with $57 billion in long-term debt. These big losers also had an alarming average long-term debt-to-equity ratio of 99%, the EIA said. By comparison, the remaining 22 companies that posted milder losses had total debt of $40 billion, or 58% of equity.

Oil prices edged higher Wednesday, touching highs not seen in about six months, as the commodity maintained momentum amid signs that a global surplus is easing. The commodity has gotten a boost in recent weeks from market confidence that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and Russia will freeze production at current levels, while U.S. production levels off.

The eurozone economy grew 0.6% in the first three months of the year compared to the previous quarter, easily outpacing both the U.S. and the U.K. Growth was double the pace of the previous six months, and way better than expected. Spain and France delivered much more robust growth than expected. And unemployment in the eurozone fell to 10.2% in March, the lowest since 2011. Europe is getting a lift from ultra-cheap money, low energy prices, a rebound in consumer spending, and government support for refugees. The arrival of more than 1 million migrants is straining Europe’s system of open borders. But it’s also giving the economy a boost. “It is lifting public spending, which is helping growth,” said Howard Archer, chief European economist at IHS Economics.

Persecution Watch

A pastor and his pregnant wife were assaulted by two Hindu extremists on Sunday April 17 in yet another attack on Christians in India. The incident happened at the church which Pastor Dinbanhu Sameli, aged 30, and his wife, Meena, aged 26, lead in a remote village located in Bastar district, Chhattisgarh state, central India. The church building was subsequently burnt down.

Since 2013, Bangladesh has been experiencing a series of targeted assassinations of bloggers, journalists and academics who have been hacked to death with knives and machetes as a result of being perceived to have criticized Islam. In the latest attacks this week, a professor of English and the editor of a magazine, together with his friend, were brutally murdered by knife-wielding gangs.

Pakistan is again the scene of more violent attacks against Christians. In Pir Mahel, an administrative sub-division of Toba Tek Singh District in the Punjab province, Christian teenager Qaisar Masih was murdered by a gang of Muslims following an argument, while elsewhere in the same province yet another young Christian woman has been abducted by Muslims for forced conversion and marriage, reports Barnabas Aid.

Migrant Update

Warning of “growing xenophobia,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon on Thursday criticized increasing restrictions on safe haven for refugees in Europe, saying they tarnish commitments to international law. Expressing concern “that European countries are now adopting increasingly restrictive immigration and refugee policies,” Ban said these “negatively affect” their human rights commitments under international and European laws. “We have a moral and legal … obligation to help those fleeing war, human rights abuses and persecution,” Ban told Austrian legislators. Austria welcomed migrants with few restrictions last year but has moved to tight limits after accepting about 90,000 asylum requests last year. Early this year, it orchestrated the closure of the West Balkan route used by those moving northward from Greece in hopes of settling in Austria and other prosperous EU nations. It also has re-imposed border controls and capped the number of asylum seekers it will accept at 37,500 annually.

Syria

An airstrike on a hospital in the rebel-held Syrian city of Aleppo Thursday killed about 50 people, the latest in what Amnesty International calls a recurring tactic in the Syrian civil war. Days of airstrikes and shelling in Aleppo, which is split between President Bashar Assad’s government forces and rebels, have killed about 200 people in Syria in the past week, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Doctors Without Borders, which supports the hospital, expects the death toll to rise. The international aid organization said the facility in Aleppo was hit by a direct airstrike and among the dead are at least three doctors, including one of the last pediatricians in the city. It wasn’t immediately clear who was responsible for the strike.

Syrian rebels shelled a mosque in a government-held area of war-torn Aleppo Friday, killing at least 15 people and wounding 30, state media reported, as government forces reportedly launched new airstrikes after a morning lull. State TV said several rockets hit the Malla Khan mosque in the Bab al-Faraj neighborhood — and its surroundings — as worshippers were leaving after Friday prayers. The U.N. special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told reporters in Geneva on Thursday that Syria’s nationwide “cessation of hostilities” is under serious threat of collapse, and that a humanitarian disaster is unfolding as violence increases in Aleppo and three other locations.

Turkey

The Turkish government moved in last week and took control of all 6 Christian churches in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir. The churches seized were from a variety of Christian backgrounds that included Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox denominations, and one of the churches is over 1700 years old. The government claims that the seizures were made because the state intends to rebuild and restore the city center, which has been the center of urban conflict between the Kurdish rebels and the Turkish government over the last year. The seizures have outraged worshippers at the churches, who fear a government coup against their religion are now threatening to take legal action against the decision, reports EagleRising.com. Ahmet Guvener, pastor of Diyarbakir Protestant Church, said: “The government didn’t take over these pieces of property in order to protect them. They did so to acquire them.”

Egypt

For a moment in 2011, it appeared that the “Arab Spring’ revolution had worked. Thousands upon thousands of demonstrators who had massed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square succeeded in toppling a dictator who had ruled for nearly 30 years. But the euphoria faded as Egypt was whiplashed from one political extreme to another, from the oppressive government of the Muslim Brotherhood to the military regime that now rules, reports CNN. Five years after Egypt’s Arab Spring, the country is on shaky ground financially, unemployment is rampant and the people are angry. And an ISIS-linked insurgency is growing, the terror attacks becoming more brazen and frequent.

Afghanistan

The Pentagon has disciplined about 16 military personnel, including a general officer, for their role in last year’s mistaken airstrike on a hospital in Afghanistan that killed 42 people, a senior defense official said Thursday. The action does not include courts-martial, which are for more serious criminal charges, the official said. A letter of reprimand or forced reassignment can effectively end a military career by making it difficult to get a promotion. A military investigation into the Oct. 3 incident prompted a range of disciplinary actions. One officer was suspended from command, six were sent to counseling, seven were issued letters of reprimand, and two were ordered to retraining courses, according to the Los Angeles Times.

North Korea

North Korea fired an apparent intermediate-range ballistic missile that crashed shortly after launching Thursday, South Korean media reported. It said it could be the same Musudan missile the North tried to launch on April 15, which exploded a few seconds after liftoff. A Musudan, or BM-25, is believed to be capable of traveling 2,500 miles, posing a threat to South Korea, Japan and the U.S. territory of Guam. The reports came three days after the North claimed it successfully fired a ballistic missile from a submarine for the first time. A series of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests by the North have led to a tightening of international sanctions in recent months.

Venezuela

It’s sweaty and uncomfortable in Venezuela, thanks to government-imposed electricity blackouts meant to deal with chronic power shortages across the country. Power outages are nothing new for Venezuelans, but with the government’s recent announcement of a formal rolling blackout program set to last at least 40 days, things have only gotten worse. And the country’s woes don’t look like they will be solved any time soon. Vice President Aristobulo Isturiz announced Tuesday that there will be three days per week of mandatory leave for all nonessential public workers until further notice — a two-day work week for thousands of civil servants. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and other government officials blame the El Niño weather pattern and epic drought for the problem. The water level at the Guri hydroelectric dam, which provides 75% of Venezuela’s electricity, is at a record low. Opposition figures blame mismanagement and corruption for the problems.

Kenya

On Saturday, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta will light a match to 105 tons of elephant ivory, 1.35 tons of rhino horn, exotic animal skins and other products such as sandalwood and medicinal bark that were seized from poachers. This destruction of illicit wildlife goods dwarfs anything similar that has been done before, CNN reports. The tusks alone — from about 8,000 elephants — would be worth more than $105 million on the black market. The rhino horn, from 343 animals, would be worth more than $67 million. Together, it’s more than $172 million worth of illicit wildlife goods going up in smoke. But the Kenyans say that the stockpile is not valuable — it’s worthless. “From a Kenyan perspective, we’re not watching any money go up in smoke,” Kenya Wildlife Service Director General Kitili Mbathi said. “The only value of the ivory is tusks on a live elephant.” Some 1,338 rhinos were poached in Africa last year, a record number and the sixth year in a row that the number of poaching incidents has increased. Elephants are in serious threat. Every 15 minutes, an elephant is killed for its tusks.

Weather

A severe weather outbreak began Tuesday morning with a hailstorm in the Kansas City metro that dumped hail as big as golf balls on the city’s airport. Many schools closed in Oklahoma City. A total of five tornado reports were relayed from Texas, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas as the weather pattern moved across the Plains and into the Ohio Valley Tuesday, but the region largely avoided any large twisters, and as of Wednesday morning, four injuries had been reported. A woman was killed in the Houston metro area when strong winds brought a tree down onto her home. A second round of severe weather moved across the Midwest Wednesday, spinning up more than a dozen confirmed tornadoes. Over the course of two days, the storm system was responsible for more than 270 reports of wind damage and at least 240 hail reports.

Over the past 12 months, parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alabama and the Florida panhandle have picked up over six feet of precipitation, and there’s more heavy rain on the way for some of these waterlogged locations. Through April 26, 2016, thirteen locations in the South had picked up over 72 inches of precipitation since late April 2015. League City, Texas (NWS-Houston office) led the way with 82.86 inches while Mobile, Alabama had 82.10 inches followed by Baton Rouge, Louisiana with 80.41 inches.

Residents were told to stay home along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Thursday morning as torrential downpours triggered flash flooding that forced military vehicles to be deployed for water rescues. Biloxi and Gulfport were hit hard by flooding that swamped roadways and even entered some homes. Parts of the area received nearly 10 inches of rain in just a few hours Thursday morning.

Signs of the Times (4/25/16)

April 25, 2016

Hundreds of Formerly Antagonistic Hindus Turning to Christ

Hundreds of Hindus who were fiercely antagonistic toward Christianity have been turning to Christ. According to Breaking Christian News, the 2008 murder of Hindu leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati sparked intense violence in the predominantly Hindu Kandhamal District in eastern India. Radical Hindus spread the rumor that Christians were responsible for Saraswati’s murder, though non-Christian Maoists claimed to have killed him. The Hindu radicals went on a rampage, destroying 300 churches and 6,000 homes, and displacing at least 50,000 people. Because of the severe persecution, many fled to the jungles, where more died from poisonous snakes or disease. Recently, however, there are reports that those very jungles where many Christians died are becoming places where many Hindus are encountering Jesus Christ. “By God’s grace we are holding evangelistic jungle camps everywhere the violence took place,” said an indigenous religious leader. “It is God’s doing. Thousands are gathering in the jungle camps in Kandhamal District to hear the living Word of God. People were happy and encouraged to live for Jesus and His kingdom.” “I was searching for this kind of life, and Jesus gave it to me. He is the only true and loving God,” one woman testified.

Muslim Man Intent on Killing Christian Family is Miraculously Converted

A Muslim man who was intent on killing Christians has miraculously encountered Christ and become a Christian. Charisma News reports that Al-Rashid was the commander of a radical Islamic group that sought to bring all people and nations under Islamic rule. Al-Rashid was especially angered by a report of a former Muslim who had converted to Christianity, become a pastor, and began spreading the gospel. Al-Rashid and his band of followers attempted many times to capture and kill Pastor Paul and his family. “We attacked them several times,” Al-Rashid recounted, “and miraculously they escaped.” The last time they tried to capture the family was when the daughter was sick and being placed in an ambulance. Then, something miraculous happened. “I saw a ball of light came down from the sky and stand (sic) over the room where his daughter was lying unconscious,” he says. The pastor’s daughter regained consciousness and stood up, healed. Al-Rashid saw a hand reach down with a hole in it and blood flowing from the hole. After this vision, Al-Rashid felt no peace. A shadow of a human face appeared with the same hand he had seen earlier and asked why Al-Rashid was “nailing Him.” Soon after, he surrendered his life to Christ. “Jesus is the Prince of Peace. And He will give you peace. Accept Him as your Savior,” he now tells others.

Thousands Gather to Protest Norway’s Removal of Children from Christian Family

Thousands of Norwegian Christians are protesting the government’s removal of five children from a Christian family. Christian Today reports that the parents had their five children taken from them after Norway’s child welfare service, the Barnevernet, deemed them unfit to raise the children. The government’s intervention began when officials asked the children at school if their parents spanked them. Corporal punishment is against the law in Norway. The children responded affirmatively and were consequently taken from their parents, who have been accused of parental child abuse and religious indoctrination. Tens of thousands of protesters joined together to petition the government to restore the children to their family. Cristian Ionescu, a spokesman for the family, said that their case has been a “catalyst that united” conservative Christians “in a common cause that inspired us to witness for the values that represent us.”

175 Nations Sign Historic Paris Climate Deal

World leaders from 175 countries signed the historic Paris climate accord Friday, using Earth Day as a backdrop for the ceremonial inking of a non-binding agreement that aims to slow the rise of harmful greenhouse gases. “We are in a race against time.” U.N. secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the gathering at the United Nations headquarters in New York. “The era of consumption without consequences is over.” “The poor and most vulnerable must not suffer further from a problem they did not create,” Ban added. The non-binding treaty, approved in Paris in December after years of U.N. climate negotiations, aims to slow the rise of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, blamed for putting Earth on a dangerous warming path. The deal sets a target of limiting global warming by 2100 to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F), as compared to pre-industrial levels. To accomplish that, each nation sets its own target for reducing emissions and updates that mark each year.

  • The non-binding deal is all show and little substance. However, it is another step in providing the underpinnings for a one-world socialistic, secular-humanist government.

World invested Twice More in Clean Energy Than in Coal and Gas

In 2015, the world invested twice as much money in clean energy than in dirty coal and natural gas. The world spent $286 billion on clean energy, more than ever before, according to a U.N. Environment Program report, and only $130 billion on new oil and coal projects. Solar power prices halved in just a few years — falling from $6.3 per watt of solar installed in the 2007 to 2009 period to $3.1 in 2014, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Energy. “The sun could be the world’s largest source of electricity by 2050,” the International Energy Agency says. Electric cars are also catching on in a big way. And as the electricity system becomes cleaner, too, that means that huge chunks of global emissions will be eliminated. Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts electric vehicles will make up 35% of global new car sales by 2040.

However, SunEdison, once the fastest-growing U.S. renewable energy company, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Thursday as years of debt-fueled acquisitions proved unsustainable. In its bankruptcy filing, the company said it had assets of $20.7 billion and liabilities of $16.1 billion as of Sept. 30. The company said it secured up to $300 million in new financing from its first-lien and second-lien lenders, which is subject to court approval. The money will be used to support SunEdison’s operations during its bankruptcy, such as paying wages and vendors, and proceeding with ongoing projects.

Suicide Rate on the Rise in U.S.

The suicide rate in the United States increased by 24% from 1999 through 2014, according to a new report by the National Center for Health Statistics. The report is unique in that it breaks down suicide by different age groups and gender. The increase in suicide rate has been steady since 1999, before which there was a consistent decline since 1986. The report also says that the increase in suicide rate was higher among females (45% increase) than males (16% increase), narrowing the suicide rate gap between the two genders. But as of 2014, the suicide rate in males is still three times higher than in females. A vast number of people who die from suicide are those with psychiatric conditions, including depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Experts say that the economic recession of the late 2000s and the increase of substance abuse are some of the factors leading to more frequent incidents of suicide. Middle-aged white people (ages 45-64) now account for a third of all suicides in the U.S., the report shows.

Manufacturers Bringing Jobs Back to America

The loss of American manufacturing jobs to foreign labor has been a central theme of several presidential candidates’ campaigns. However, the trend of offshoring may be slowing. According to non-profit advocacy group the Reshoring Initiative, offshoring resulted in a net loss of approximately 220,000 manufacturing jobs from 2000 to 2003. However, according to the group, the country added roughly as many jobs due to foreign investment and reshoring as it lost to offshoring last year. Some of the largest U.S.-based companies, likely for both public relations and practical reasons, have begun building factories domestically for operations that would likely have gone overseas a few years ago. Harry Moser, founder and president of the Reshoring Initiative, explained that recent developments have made the prospect of manufacturing domestically much more feasible. Moser cited economic troubles and rising wages in China as one of the primary drivers of this recent trend. While the reshoring phenomenon is primarily a byproduct of expensive labor abroad and high shipping costs, bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States is often beneficial to a company’s image.

Economic News

The number of people either working or looking for a job — the participation rate — has been rising since September. That’s a sign that more Americans who were on the sidelines, not applying for jobs, are getting back in the game. The hope is that if unemployment claims decline further, employers will have fewer candidates to choose from and will have to raise wages to recruit or retain employees. Wage growth has been next to nothing during the recovery from the recession.

The estimated cost of Volkswagen Group’s emissions scandal has escalated to more than $18 billion, more than double the amount the company had previously set aside, the company said Friday. The company had previously set aside about $7 billion to cover the cost of repairs — but the mushrooming tab appears to reflect the likelihood of a massive settlement with U.S. authorities over the illegal software installed on about half a million diesel cars that fudged emissions data.

Uber has agreed to pay drivers in California and Massachusetts as much as $100 million to settle lawsuits in both states over whether its drivers are independent contractors or employees The cases revolve around Uber drivers in the two states who contend they are employees and therefore should be reimbursed for expenditures or losses incurred during the discharge of their duties. The class action settlement allows Uber to consider its drivers as independent contractors moving forward, a big win for a company whose business model depends on keeping costs low by merely serving as a conduit between drivers and riders, rather than Uber being an employer.

Trying to cut its way to profitability, troubled Sears Holdings announced Thursday that it will close 68 more Kmart and 10 Sears stores this summer in its latest move to cut losses after a previous announcement that it will close 50 other stores. All of the Sears stores and nearly all of the Kmart stores will close in late July, the retailer said. Workers being laid off at the closed stores will be able to apply at stores that remain open, the company’s statement said.

The cloud may be the future, but the specter of the PC lingers. Microsoft is the latest tech giant whose earnings say that loud and clear. Microsoft on Thursday posted substantial drops in revenue and earnings as it continues to navigate from its legacy PC business into emerging technologies — a day after chipmaker Intel announced a 11% workforce reduction. The Redmond, Wash.-based company reported a 6% decline in fiscal third-quarter revenue to $20.5 billion. Profits shrank by 25%.

Persecution Update

In the past month, Hindu extremists in the state of Bihar, East India, have attacked Christians in two separate incidents. The first attack occurred on April 5, when a Christian man was intercepted on his way to a local village to tell people about Jesus. He was taken to a Hindu center and beaten brutally for five hours. Five days later, on April 10, a prayer meeting was raided by 35 men, leading to the beating of many believers.

A major report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has concluded that the textbooks all state-schools in Pakistan are required to use portray non-Muslim Pakistanis as inferior, untrustworthy, and sympathetic towards the country’s enemies. Christians are portrayed as being the equivalent of colonial oppressors, while Hindus are treated as being loyal to India, against whom Pakistan has fought three wars.

Migrant Update

A top official says Turkey has deported 3,300 foreigners suspected of links to jihadi groups, particularly the Islamic State militants, and another 41,000 foreigners have been barred from entering Turkey as part of the country’s fight against the militant group. Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, also says Monday that Turkish profiling teams have interviewed 9,500 people upon their arrival in Turkey. Some 2,000 of them were denied entry. He says some 2,770 suspects, including 232 foreigners, have been caught in police sweeps and 954 of them are being prosecuted. Turkey, long accused of turning a blind eye to the extremists crossing into Syria, has now taken a larger role in the fight against ISIS. Four deadly bomb attacks in Turkey since July have been blamed on ISIS.

Islamic State

The Pentagon Friday acknowledged dozens of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria have occurred since the U.S.-led bombing campaign has grown more aggressive since fall. On Wednesday, USA TODAY reported that authority for bombing missions with the probability of harming civilians had been quietly delegated from higher headquarters to lower-ranking commanders in the field last fall. In effect, the decision has resulted in more airstrikes with risk of civilian casualties because the decision to bomb can be made faster. Commanders requested that authority to hit fleeting targets. All told, more than 40,000 bombs have been dropped in Iraq and Syria since August 2014. ISIS claims it shot down a Syrian air force jet east of Damascus on Friday and captured the pilot.

The United States has opened a new line of combat against the Islamic State, directing the military’s six-year-old Cyber Command for the first time to mount computer-network attacks that are now being used alongside more traditional weapons. The effort reflects President Obama’s desire to bring many of the secret American cyber-weapons that have been aimed elsewhere, notably at Iran, into the fight against the Islamic State. The goal of the new campaign is to disrupt the ability of the Islamic State to spread its message, attract new adherents, circulate orders from commanders and carry out day-to-day functions, like paying its fighters.

Syria

At least 18 people were killed Friday when airstrikes hit several rebel-held neighborhoods in Syria’s contested northern city of Aleppo, anti-government activists said, an escalation that placed added strain on a fragile cease-fire. Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and former commercial center, has seen sporadic clashes since the cease-fire took effect in late February, as government troops have advanced, boxing in opposition-held areas from all sides except for a corridor from the northwestern edge of the city. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rightsdescribed the series of airstrikes as the most intense on the city since the cease-fire began. The February cease-fire has been teetering amid rising violence, and U.N.-brokered talks in Geneva to resolve the conflict have been bogged down, with the Saudi-backed opposition delegation recently suspending its participation.

President Obama on Monday confirmed that he was authorizing the deployment of up to 250 additional military personnel for the 5-year-old conflict in Syria as the U.S.-led international coalition tries to “keep up momentum against the Islamic State.” The additional U.S. troops will provide training and assist local forces in the fight against ISIS, but not play an active combat role. The move raises the number of U.S. special forces in Syria to 300. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said in a press briefing ahead of the president’s speech that U.S. special forces in Syria were already making a difference and that the additional personnel would act as a critical “force multiplier.”

Iraq

A suicide bomber blew up his explosives-laden car Monday in a commercial area in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, killing at least 12 civilians. The attack in the capital’s eastern Shiite-dominated New Baghdad neighborhood also wounded at least 38 other people. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but it bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State group, which controls key areas in the country’s west and north. Commercials and public places in Shiite-dominated areas are among the most frequent targets for the militants seeking to undermine government efforts to maintain security inside the capital.

Afghanistan

The crisis in Afghanistan has escalated to a new level of urgency, the outgoing head of the International Red Cross said Sunday, citing a record number of civilian casualties and evacuations of war wounded. In an interview with The Telegraph, Jean-Nicolas Marti said the drawdown of NATO forces has led to a rise in fighting. The Red Cross says the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan hit a record high for the seventh consecutive year in 2015, with more than 11,000 innocent men, women and children killed or wounded, Reuters reports. The number of wounded grew by 30 percent from the year before. The Red Cross has urged peace talks in Afghanistan, but the Taliban have said that they will come to the negotiating table only after western forces completely leave the country.

North Korea

North Korea fired what appeared to be a ballistic missile from a submarine on Friday toward the East Sea on Saturday, the South’s Yonhap News Agency reported, quoting the South Korean military. The development comes amid reports in South Korean media that Pyongyang could be preparing for a nuclear test or the launch of another ballistic missile to mark the 6th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army on April 25. The U.S. and Japan have expressed concerns over the prospects of the fifth such test since October 2006. The most recent nuclear test took place in January.

Vietnam

The worst drought in 90 years, combined with rising sea levels and rampant development, are causing a crisis in the Mekong Delta, known as Vietnam’s rice bowl. The delta is home to 20 million people and accounts for more than half of Vietnam’s rice and fruit production, 90% of its rice exports and 60% of fishery exports. But this year, paddy rice fields resemble a parched desert as farmers wait for a rainy season that is late to arrive. Small farmers who grow watermelons and orange trees about 40 miles from the South China Sea, have seen crop-ruining salinity intrude farther inland than ever before. A United Nations report released in March about the drought estimated that about 393,000 acres of rice in Vietnam was already lost, with an additional 1.2 million acres likely to be damaged. Almost 1 million people lack water for daily consumption.

Venezuela

The lights are going out in Venezuela. Government officials announced Thursday that they would begin rolling blackouts for 40 days in cities across Venezuela, starting next week. The move will help save power at a time when water levels at the country’s main electric dam are at record lows. The government says the El Nino weather pattern and drought are to blame. Outside experts say mismanagement and a corrupt government have been the root cause. It’s quite an irony for Venezuelans to be facing blackouts. Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. However, it uses its oil to export to other countries, not to keep the lights on at home.

Mexico

A “pandemic” of femicide in Mexico was revealed Sunday by group of women in Mexico who organized a state-wide “day of action” against sexual violence. Several women’s rights groups signed on to the campaign, many via images shared on social media with the hashtag #24A or #NosQueremosVivas. The graphics depict street harassment and mourn murdered women who are being killed at the rate of six per day. They videos reveal the atrocious state of women’s lives in the state, which includes the sprawling Mexico City.

Weather

Winter isn’t ready to give up just yet. A cold April storm swept into California and Nevada on Friday. The current storm is first of a series of weather systems that will ride into the West Coast and sweep through the Intermountain West through much of the week ahead. The result will be snow in the higher elevations of the West. Monday, the next storm system sweeps into the Sierra Nevada, Great Basin and northern Rockies. Damaging storms brought large hail and a few reports of tornadoes to the Plains states Sunday. The chance for a few severe thunderstorms will move into the southern Great Lakes region on Monday.

Houston’s flood problems continued Friday as a tanker truck fell into a massive hole that opened in the roof of an underground parking garage. The incident came at the end of a tragic week of flooding in Houston that claimed at least eight lives across the city and led to over 1,000 water rescues.

Melting ice off the coast of far-west Alaska is forcing polar bears onto the land, dangerously close to villages where children walk to school unaccompanied across the snow-swept tundra. In these isolated communities, fears of a fatal encounter between stressed predators and the towns’ most vulnerable members have forced residents into action: they now train for polar-bear patrols. The problem is a lack of ice. Each winter, the narrow strait between Russia and the United States melts faster. The ice that does form is weaker, more susceptible to breaking up. While that’s opened up new areas for oil exploration and opportunities for shipping through the Northwest Passage, it’s also destroying the habitat of the polar bears who hunt seal from that ice.

Signs of the Times (4/21/16)

April 21, 2016

Hundreds in Heart of Egypt Make Decisions to Accept Jesus Christ

Despite the threat of government protests, thousands of people went to hear Dr. Michael Youssef preach at Kasr el Dobara Church in Cairo, Egypt, this past weekend, with hundreds of people giving their lives to Christ during this three-day evangelistic event, reports Breaking Christian News. Dr. Youssef, founder of global outreach ministry Leading The Way, was born in Egypt, and he returned to Kasr el Dobara Church, the largest evangelical church in Egypt. During the first evening of the event, a heavy military presence was outside the church bracing themselves for government protests in Tahrir Square following a recent government decision. However, throughout the weekend, approximately 5,000 people still came to hear Dr. Youssef preach a Gospel message on salvation in Christ and victory over sin and addiction, with millions more watching live via satellite television. At least 500 people responded to Dr. Youssef’s clear invitation to salvation.

Pro-Life Christian Billboard– Don’t Abort, We’ll Adopt Your Baby!

A Phoenix church is turning some heads with a new billboard they posted on Interstate 10 near the Phoenix Premium outlets. It reads: “Don’t abort. We’ll adopt.” It’s from Saint Steven’s Parish in Sun Lakes, near Chandler. ABC15 spoke with the church who says the billboard is intended to let people know there are options with an unplanned pregnancy. The church says members within the church are willing to adopt, but, they also partner with “Catholic charities.”

Planned Parenthood Lied About Not Profiting from Baby Parts Sales

The Select Panel on Infant Lives has released a series of exhibits that prove beyond a doubt that Planned Parenthood has lied to the American people about not earning illegal profits from trafficking aborted baby tissue and organs. “It is clear from the documentation released by the Select Panel that money paid to Planned Parenthood in exchange for aborted baby remains qualified as illegal ‘valuable consideration.’ This completely validates every allegation that was put forth by investigators from the Center for Medical Progress,” said Troy Newman, President of Operation Rescue. The Center for Medical Progress recorded the underground videos of Planned Parenthood leaders talking about such sales. Newman continued, “Planned Parenthood has engaged in an aggressive public relations campaign to convince the public that videos released by the Center for Medical Progress were ‘hoaxed’ and that Planned Parenthood never profited from the sale of fetal remains. Now we all can see for ourselves that this was a bold-faced lie. Planned Parenthood should be prosecuted for their crimes. They must not be held above the law.”

Federal Appeals Court Sides with Transgender Teen

A federal appeals court in Richmond has sided with a transgender high school student, saying that he can proceed with his lawsuit arguing that his school board’s decision to ban him from the boy’s bathroom is discriminatory. In backing high school junior Gavin Grimm, the 4th Circuit deferred to the U.S. Education Department’s interpretation of policies that give transgender students access to the bathrooms that match their gender identities rather than their biological sex. The department has said that denying transgender students access to the school bathrooms of their choice is a violation of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination at schools that receive federal funding. In a 2-1 decision, the 4th Circuit reversed a lower court ruling, saying that court had used the wrong legal standard in denying the student a preliminary injunction that would have allowed him to use the bathroom at his high school in Gloucester County, Va.

  • Sexual identity is biological, not a choice, despite whatever feelings a person might have.

State Dept. “Doesn’t Know” if Iran Used Iran Deal Cash to Fund Terror

The State Department admitted Tuesday that it is “entirely possible” that Iran has used some of the estimated $3 billion in unfrozen assets it can now access thanks to the Iran Deal to fund terrorist activity, adding that U.S. officials “have no way to know” how Iran is spending the money. “We don’t know. We have no way to know,” State Dept. spokesperson John Kirby during a press briefing Tuesday. He went on to say that it is in fact “entirely possible that they can use some of this funding to support terrorist networks.”

  • A bad deal gets worse

Three Charged over Flint Water Crisis

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said charges Wednesday against two state officials and a Flint city administrator were “only the beginning” in the aftermath of Flint’s ongoing water crisis. From the start of Flint’s water woes, residents have insisted that culpability extended to the state capitol — namely Gov. Rick Snyder’s office — when the city opted to switch to the Flint River as a temporary water source, releasing toxic amounts of lead into the water supply. Charged were Mike Glasgow, utilities administrator, city of Flint, for tampering with evidence, a felony, and willful neglect of duty, a misdemeanor; Stephen Busch, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality district water supervisor, for one count of tampering with evidence, one count of conspiracy to tamper with evidence — all felonies — and two misdemeanor violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, one involving treatment, the other involving monitoring; and Mike Prysby, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality district water engineer, for the same charges as Busch.

Immunotherapy Curing Some Cancers

New immunotherapy drugs are showing significant and extended effectiveness against a broadening range of cancers, including rare and intractable tumors often caused by viruses. Researchers say these advances suggest the treatment approach is poised to become a critical part of the nation’s anti-cancer strategy. Scientists reported Tuesday that the medications, which marshal the body’s own immune defenses, are now proving effective against difficult-to-treat head and neck cancer and an extremely lethal skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma. Both can be caused by viruses as well as DNA mutations, and the drugs help the immune system to recognize the virus-associated cancer and attack it. Since pathogens are responsible for more than 20 percent of all cancers, these results have implications that go far beyond a rare cancer, reports the Washington Post. Data released as an abstract Tuesday showed the immunotherapy drug Opdivo led to improved overall survival for patients with advanced cancer who had not responded to chemotherapy. Former President Jimmy Carter, who last year was diagnosed with advanced melanoma that had spread to his brain, was treated with one of the new drugs, Keytruda, as well as radiation. The combination caused his tumors to disappear, and he was able to stop treatment in March.

UnitedHealth, Nation’s Largest Health Insurer, Withdraws from Obamacare

The nation’s largest health insurer, fearing massive financial losses, announced Tuesday that it plans to pull back from ObamaCare in a big way and cut its participation in the program’s insurance exchanges to just a handful of states next year – in the latest sign of instability in the marketplace under the law. UnitedHealth CEO Stephen Hemsley said the company expects losses from its exchange business to total more than $1 billion for this year and last. Hemsley said the company cannot continue to broadly serve the market created by the Affordable Care Act’s coverage expansion due partly to the higher risk that comes with its customers. The state-based exchanges are a key element behind the Affordable Care Act’s push to expand insurance coverage. But insurers have struggled with higher-than-expected claims from that business.

Economic News

Existing home sales increased 5.1% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.33 million, the National Association of Realtors said Wednesday. Single-family home sales increased 5.5%, while condominium and co-op sales edged up 1.8%. The median sales price was $222,700, up 5.7% from a year ago. Tight inventories have limited sales and pushed up prices. In March, there was a 4.5-month supply of unsold inventory, up from 4.4 months in February. A six-month supply is considered balanced. Homes turned over rapidly. They were on the market an average 47 days in March, down from 59 days in February and matching the briskest pace since last August.

More business travelers are hopping rides with ride-hailing services such as Uber or Lyft — taking more business away from car rental agencies and the taxi industry. The number of trips taken with the ride share services by corporate trekkers nearly doubled in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2015, according to expense management company Certify, which reviewed more than 9 million receipts and expenses. At the same time, there were 10% fewer trips taken in car rentals than in the first three months of 2015. But taxis were the hardest hit, with their share of rides falling from 37% at the start of 2014, to 25% last year and now has hit just 14%.

Americans who earned six figures or more paid 79.5 percent of the nation’s share in individual income taxes in 2014, according to preliminary IRS information, reports The Washington Free Beacon. Those top earners represented 16 percent of the total number of individual income tax returns filed with the IRS in 2014. The top fifth of earners paid a 14-percent tax rate, while the middle fifth paid at a 2-percent rate, according to Congressional Budget Office figures, belying claims that the wealthy “don’t pay their fair share.” The U.S. progressive tax rate is the highest among wealthy nations, according to the Beacon.

Intel will lay off 11% of its global workforce, up to 12,000 employees, a painful downsizing aimed at accelerating its shift away from the waning PC market to one more focused on cloud computing and connected devices. Intel CFO Stacy Smith said that half the workforce reduction, 6,000 people, will be accomplished by the end of this year. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel currently has about 112,400 employees worldwide. The layoffs will have an outsized effect on Oregon and especially the Portland area. Intel is Oregon’s largest private employer, with 18,500 working at six campuses west of Portland.

Migrant Update

As many as 500 migrants seeking a better future in Europe may have drowned last week in the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy, U.N. refugee officials said Wednesday. On Tuesday, a team from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spoke with some of the 41 survivors of the alleged accident who had arrived at Kalamata, a Greek town on the Peloponnese Peninsula, the U.N. agency said in a statement. So far this year, around 25,000 migrants and refugees have reached the shores of Italy from North Africa, slightly more than the 24,000 who arrived during the same period last year. A controversial agreement between the European Union and Turkey has dramatically reduced the numbers of refugees reaching the Greek islands. Balkan nations are closing their borders as well, preventing travel from Greece to Germany and beyond. That has triggered fears that more refugees and migrants could attempt to enter Europe from Egypt or Libya.

Israel

Vice President Joe Biden said Monday night that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was leading the country “in the wrong direction” hours after a bus bombing in Jerusalem wounded at least 21 people. In a speech to the Israel advocacy group J Street, Biden criticized Palestinian leaders, but saved his harshest words for Israeli officials. “I firmly believe that the actions that Israel’s government has taken over the past several years — the steady and systematic expansion of settlements, the legalization of outposts, land seizures — they’re moving us, and, more importantly, they’re moving Israel in the wrong direction,” Biden said. Biden did single out Palestinian leaders, including Mahmoud Abbas, for declining to condemn specific acts of terrorism carried out against Israelis. Israeli officials have called the bombing of an empty bus parked near other vehicles a terror attack, with Netanyahu linking it to the ongoing wave of attacks in which Palestinians have targeted Israelis in Jerusalem. “We will settle accounts with these terrorists,” Netanyahu said in a speech following the bombing. “We are in a protracted struggle against terror — knife terror, shooting terror, bomb terror and also tunnel terror (referring to the underground tunnels from Gaza into Israel).”

Islamic State

ISIS has executed 250 women in Mosul for refusing to become sex slaves under the group’s ‘sexual jihad’. The victims had all been ordered to accept ‘temporary marriages’ to fighters in the terror group’s northern Iraq stronghold. But when they refused the so-called sexual jihad, they were butchered – sometimes along with their families, according to an official from the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Another official, from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, claimed women were barred from going out alone in Mosul and must be fully covered while in public. They are also not allowed to choose their spouses, Ghayas Surchi told the news agency. Mosul has been under the extremists’ control since 2014.

Syria

Despite President Obama’s call Monday urging Russian President Vladimir Putin to maintain a fragile cease-fire in Syria, Russia has shifted the bulk of its fire power to areas outside Aleppo where a new offensive to recapture Syria’s largest city is poised to take place soon, a U.S. defense official told Fox News. Russia continues to ignore repeated requests from the administration to stop backing the Syrian regime after five years of a civil war that has killed a quarter of a million people. Russian-backed Syrian forces recently recaptured the historic city of Palmyra from the Islamic State terror group in central Syria. Russian and Syrian jets also have been striking rebel-held towns around Damascus and Homs despite the cease-fire agreement reached in late November.

Saudi Arabia

By virtue of its vast oil riches, Saudi Arabia is widely believed to be one of the biggest owners of U.S. debt. But there’s a lot of mystery over exactly how much. The Saudi central bank is sitting on an incredible $584 billion of foreign currency reserves, but doesn’t disclose how much of that is parked in U.S. Treasuries. Since the 1970s, Saudi Arabia’s holdings of Treasuries are lumped together with that of other oil exporting nations like Venezuela and Iraq. Collectively, these nations hold $281 billion of Treasuries. Since the end of 2014, the Saudis have burned through $139 billion of reserves — almost definitely a portion of it came from selling U.S. debt — as the country grapples with the budget shortfalls brought on by the oil crash. Saudi Arabia recently threatened to sell off American assets if Congress passes a bill that would allow 9/11 victims to sue foreign governments. Saudi Arabia is pulling out all the stops to raise cash and fill the hole in its budget created by cheap oil.

President Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to attend a security summit amid rising tensions with the wealthy sheikdom. He will spend about 24 hours in the Saudi capital Riyadh before traveling to Britain and then Germany. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Saudi Arabia is an important partner in U.S. efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict and counter Islamic State militants, al-Qaeda in Yemen and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Indirect peace talks in Geneva between the Russian-backed Syrian government and the U.S.- and Saudi-backed Syrian opposition teetered on the brink of collapse Tuesday, along with a partial cease-fire on the ground. Talks on ending the Yemen civil war set to take place Monday failed to happen. The Iran-backed Houthi rebels refused to attend, citing heavy fighting and Saudi-led airstrikes.

Afghanistan

At least 64 people were killed and more than 300 wounded Tuesday in a coordinated attack by the Taliban that included a suicide bombing in the Afghan capital of Kabul. The suicide bomber detonated a vehicle laden with explosives before gunmen entered the compound of a government secret service unit whose role was to protect VIPs. A two-hour gun battle between security forces and insurgents ensued. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assault. The Taliban has stepped up attacks since announcing the beginning of its spring offensive last week.

Nigeria

Terrorists descended on four villages in northern Nigeria on April 12, destroying homes and killing villagers. Early reports from eyewitnesses say Fulani tribal fighters burned alive Christian residents, torched animals and houses, and destroyed farms. They estimate the attackers killed 44 villagers, but numbers are difficult to confirm because victims scattered to take refuge elsewhere. Fulani terrorism is on the rise in northern Nigeria but has generated less attention than attacks by Boko Haram, the militant group that last year formally pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Fulani and their tactics predate Boko Haram and other factions. Like Boko Haram, the group has targeted Christians in the north with little resistance from local law enforcement or national security forces. The Fulani “are jihadist in nature,” and increasingly targeting Christians, said Mark Lipdo, director of Stefanos Foundation, a human rights monitor based in Jos

Brazil

Brazil’s economy is spiraling out of control as a political crisis is pushing the country’s president towards impeachment. Between December and February, Brazil’s unemployment rate shot up to 10.2%, according to government data published Wednesday. That’s the same level the U.S. jobless rate had hit during the Great Recession in 2009. A year ago, Brazil’s unemployment rate was at 7.4%. Wages have fallen nearly 4% and inflation remains high. Currently, 10 million Brazilians are unemployed. That’s 3 million more than a year ago, official figures show. The country’s economy continues to dive deeper into recession. Brazil’s economy shrank 3.8% last year and its central bank forecasts it will decline another 3.5% this year. The economic downturn — along with the massive corruption scandal — are sparking mass protests in cities across Brazil, with just about a 100 days left before the Summer Olympics arrive in Rio.

Mexico

The death toll from a huge explosion at a Mexican petrochemical plant that forced the evacuation of surrounding neighborhoods has risen to 13, authorities said. Another 136 were injured, of whom 88 remained hospitalized. Wednesday’s explosion at the Petroquimica Mexicana de Vinilo facility in the southern state of Veracruz sent large plumes of dark smoke and toxic fumes across the region. The blast was felt about six miles away. Emergency protocols were put in place, with surrounding municipalities evacuated and schools closed. Pemex said on its Twitter account that the fire had been brought under control by early Wednesday evening and that the plume of toxic smoke was dissipating.

Environment

An ongoing nuclear waste leak in Washington State has rapidly intensified over the past weekend, leaving workers scrambling to pump the waste out of the storage facility. Crews at the United States Department of Energy’s storage site in Hanford were alerted by leak detection alarms Sunday morning, and after lowering a camera into the affected area, the staff found 8.4 inches of radioactive and chemically toxic waste had poured between the inner and outer walls of the tank. “This is catastrophic,” said former site employee Mike Geffre. “This is probably the biggest event to ever happen in tank farm history. The double shell tanks were supposed to be the saviors of all saviors.” An estimated 20,000 gallons of waste remain in the 800,000-gallon AY-102 tank, Q13 FOX reports.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is suffering its worst coral bleaching in recorded history with 93 percent of the World Heritage site affected, scientists say as they reveal the phenomenon is also hitting the other side of the country. Aerial and underwater surveys of the Great Barrier Reef have revealed 93 per cent of it has been bleached to some extent. The damage varied dramatically along its 2,300 kilometers (about 1,400 miles), from 90 per cent north of Port Douglas to less than 10 per cent south of Mackay. Scientists say it is a result of warming ocean temperatures.

Volcanoes

A dramatic volcanic eruption in Mexico has left an entire town covered with ash. Officials in the town of Puebla are urging to people to wear masks to avoid inhaling the fine grit that spewed from the Popocatepetl volcano Sunday evening. About 25 million people live within 62 miles of the crater of the 17,797-foot stratovolcano. It’s been periodically erupting since 1994. The current ash cloud has been blowing over Puebla, directly to the east of the volcano, covering the city in a layer of fine powder that looks like snow and forcing closure of the city’s airport. While the government does not see the eruption as a threat high enough to warrant evacuations, Puebla Online reports that authorities have advised a restriction of outdoor activities. Officials also warn against cleaning the ashes with water, recommending residents sweep the ash into plastic bags instead.

Earthquakes

The most powerful aftershock yet struck Ecuador Wednesday, just four days after a 7.8-magnitude quake killed at least 570 people. The U.S. Geological Survey reports that the 6.1-magnitude aftershock struck just after 3:30 am local time. The quake’s epicenter was located offshore, some 15 miles west of Muisne, Ecuador, at a depth of just over 9 miles. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries. Local seismologists had recorded more than 550 aftershocks, some felt 105 miles away in the capital of Quito. Ecuadoreans had just begun to bury their loved ones killed during Saturday’s massive earthquake when the aftershock hit. The funeral for two children had to be held outdoors under a makeshift awning due to structural damage to the town’s Roman Catholic church. A lengthy recovery process from a devastating earthquake in Ecuador will be funded by raising taxes, the country’s president announced Wednesday.

A swarm of dozens of small earthquakes shaking a sparsely populated part of northwestern Arizona is entering its fourth week. The Arizona Geologic Survey says the swarm in a remote area south of Littlefield near the Arizona-Nevada line extended Sunday and Monday with 10 small quakes, ranging from magnitude 0.9 to magnitude 3.7. The Mohave County Sheriff’s Office says it has no reports of injury or damage. The swarm began March 28 and is occurring along the boundary between the Colorado Plateau and another region with active faults, the Basin and Range Province.

Wildfires

The Rocky Mount Fire in Shenandoah National Park wildfire grew to more than 5,600 acres Wednesday, closing scenic Skyline Drive and multiple trails, including the Appalachian Trail. The fire, which was reported Saturday, was burning in mountain laurel, pine and oak forests with heavy leaf litter. Authorities tried to protect structures and keep the fire within the boundaries of the park, west of Skyline Drive, east of 2 Mile Run community and west of Beldor Hollow fire road to reduce damage to private lands. But Tuesday afternoon the fire jumped Skyline Drive.

Weather

Historic rain, which brought flash floods to much of eastern and southern Texas on Sunday and Monday, continued to flood the Houston area Tuesday and Wednesday, killing eight and leading to hundreds of water rescues. Monday was one of the rainiest single days ever recorded in Houston, with nearly 10 inches of rain reported. Hundreds of homes and many major roads were flooded out in the Houston area, forcing schools, governments and businesses to close and causing power outages for thousands of residents. Many areas reported over a foot of rain. One spot near Houston unofficially recorded as much as 20 inches. Schools in Houston reopened Wednesday despite the ongoing severe flooding that continues to cripple parts of the city. In downtown Houston, some operations returned to normal. More rain and thunderstorms will continue to rumble across the south-central states Thursday, but a drier weather pattern is expected take hold for the weekend.

Signs of the Times (4/18/16)

April 18, 2016

Major Earthquakes Shake the Globe

A 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck about 9 miles, or 14 kilometers, north-northwest of Pedernales, Ecuador killing at least 350 people. Thousands were injured across the cities of Manta, Guayaquil and Portoviejo. The massive quake struck at about 6:58 p.m. local time Saturday. The quake’s epicenter was just under 100 miles from Quito, the capital of Ecuador. Residents in Quito felt the quake for nearly 40 seconds as people fled to the streets to take cover. The earthquake knocked out electricity and eliminated cellphone coverage in several neighborhoods throughout the city. Some 10,000 armed forces and thousands of emergency workers, national police and firefighters have been sent to the region after the quake flattened buildings and buckled highways. Several major highways have been closed.

Continuing aftershocks and the threat of heavy rain and wind added urgency to rescue efforts Saturday as authorities raced to help victims of two powerful earthquakes that struck southwestern Japan a little more than 24 hours apart. The death toll continues to rise after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit southern Japan’s Kyushu Island early Saturday morning local time. At least 41 people have been confirmed dead and as many as 1,500 have been injured. At least 23 people are buried inside collapsed buildings. The quake hit virtually the same location as Thursday’s deadly, damaging 6.2 magnitude foreshock. The latest tremor occurred Saturday morning at 1:25 a.m. local time at a depth of 6.2 miles, the U.S. Geological Survey reported. The quake’s epicenter was in Kumamoto Prefecture just miles from the location of Thursday’s temblor that killed nine people and left more than 800 injured. An aftershock measuring 5.4 hit southern Kyushu island on Saturday morning.

From last Wednesday to Saturday, there were seven major earthquakes globally, and one prominent seismologist has declared that “catastrophic mega earthquakes” could be on the way.  In the 48-hour period, earthquakes occurred in Japan, Vanuatu, the southern Philippines, Mindanao, and Myanmar, all at or above 5.4 on the Richter Scale. Seismologist Roger Bilham of the University of Colorado has warned that “current conditions might trigger at least four earthquakes greater than 8.0 in magnitude”.  If his projections are accurate, our planet could be on the precipice of a wave of natural disasters. Since the beginning of 2016, south Asia has been hit by an unusually high number of large earthquakes, and this has scientists groping for an explanation.

  • For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. (Matthew 24:7)

Latest Nuclear Arms Race Threatens to Revive the Cold War

The United States, Russia and China are now aggressively pursuing a new generation of smaller, less destructive nuclear weapons. The buildups threaten to revive a Cold War-era arms race and unsettle the balance of destructive force among nations that has kept the nuclear peace for more than a half-century, reports the New York Times. American officials largely blame the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, saying his intransigence has stymied efforts to build on a 2010 arms control treaty and further shrink the arsenals of the two largest nuclear powers. Some blame the Chinese, who are looking for a technological edge to keep the United States at bay. And some blame the United States for speeding ahead with a nuclear “modernization” program. At the end of the Nuclear Security Summit meeting in Washington early this month, President Obama acknowledged the potential for “ramping up new and more deadly and more effective systems that end up leading to a whole new escalation of the arms race.” For a president who came to office more than seven years ago talking about ridding the world of nuclear weapons, it was an admission that an American policy intended to reduce atomic arms might actually be contributing to a second nuclear age.

Insurers Warn that Losses from ObamaCare are Unsustainable

Health insurance companies are amplifying their warnings about the financial sustainability of the ObamaCare marketplaces as they seek approval for premium increases next year, reports The Hill. Insurers say they are losing money on their ObamaCare plans at a rapid rate, and some have begun to talk about dropping out of the marketplaces altogether. “Something has to give,” said Larry Levitt, an expert on the health law at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Either insurers will drop out or insurers will raise premiums.” The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association released a widely publicized report last month that said new enrollees under ObamaCare had 22 percent higher medical costs than people who received coverage from employers. A report from McKinsey & Company found that in the individual market, which includes the ObamaCare marketplaces, insurers lost money in 41 states in 2014, and were only profitable in 9 states.

US Aiding Business Start-Ups — for Illegal Aliens

The Small Business Administration does not provide the funds to “start or grow” a small business, reports Fox News. Instead, the SBA provides offers loan guarantees to the banks and lenders that do provide seed money. But there is one group to whom the federal government is providing direct assistance for business start-ups: illegal aliens. In fact, these recipients of taxpayer funds fall into an even more restricted category: illegal aliens who have been deported back to their native land. The Waste Report compiled by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has called attention to these outlays, which are made by an obscure federal agency called the Inter-American Foundation (IAF). Housed in a non-descript building a few blocks from the White House, IAF is spending up to $50,000 annually to help Salvadorans sent back to El Salvador to “reintegrate” into their communities, under the idea that doing so will make them less likely to seek to return to the United States. IAF works through a local NGO called INSAMI, which stands for Instituto Salvadoreño del Migrante and which estimates that 500 Salvadorans are deported from the U.S. to El Salvador each week. The group says the IAF funds assist sixty Salvadorans a year, “including deportees,” by helping to “facilitate their reintegration into their communities and support their enterprises.” IAF did not respond to Fox News’ requests for comment.

Budget Cuts Clip the Wings of Marine Aircraft Fleet

The vast majority of Marine Corps aircraft can’t fly. The reasons behind the grounding of these aircraft include the toll of long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fight against ISIS and budget cuts precluding the purchase of the parts needed to fix an aging fleet, according to dozens of Marines interviewed by Fox News at two air stations in the Carolinas this week. Out of 276 F/A-18 Hornet strike fighters in the Marine Corps inventory, only about 30% are ready to fly, according to statistics provided by the Corps. Similarly, only 42 of 147 heavy-lift CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters are airworthy. U.S. military spending has dropped from $691 billion in 2010 to $560 billion in 2015. The cuts came just as the planes were returning from 15 years of war, suffering from overuse and extreme wear and tear. Many highly trained mechanics in the aviation depots left for jobs in the private sector. Lack of funds has forced the Marines to go outside the normal supply chain to procure desperately needed parts. Cannibalization, or taking parts from one multi-million-dollar aircraft to get other multi-million dollar aicraft airborne, has become the norm.

Over 40% of All Super-PAC Money Comes from Just 50 Donors

A small core of super-rich individuals is responsible for the record sums cascading into the coffers of super PACs for the 2016 elections. Forty-one percent of super-Pac funds raised by the groups by the end of February came from just 50 mega-donors and their relatives, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal campaign finance reports. In all, donors this cycle have given more than $607 million to 2,300 super PACs, which can accept unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations. That means super PAC money is on track to surpass the $828 million that the Center for Responsive Politics found was raised by such groups for the 2012 elections. The staggering amounts reflect how super PACs are fundraising powerhouses just six years after they came into existence. The biggest surge of cash is likely to come this fall, when millionaires and billionaires aligned with both parties fully engage in the fights over control of the White House and Congress.

  • So-called campaign-finance reform has failed miserably, with the wealthy still able to wield disproportionate influence in the election process.

UN Sex-Abuse Scandal Widening

Anger and outrage in Washington over sexual abuse by United Nations and other international peacekeepers has reached a new boiling point, with more revelations of assault surfacing even as members of both Houses of Congress pondered ways — including the withholding of U.S. money — to do something about it. An independent watchdog organization disclosed 41 previously unreported cases of alleged sexual abuse by U.N. and non-U.N. international military forces that were uncovered during recent U.N. investigations in the Central African Republic.” The new allegations came atop nearly 100 cases, stretching back as far as three years, that the same group revealed less than two weeks earlier. The AIDS-Free World group accused authorities of “exercises in evasion” as the UN kept damaging information from being released.

Cyber-Extortion Losses Skyrocket

New estimates from the FBI show that the costs from so-called ransomware are rapidly increasing.  Cyber-criminals collected $209 million in the first three months of 2016 by extorting businesses and institutions to unlock computer their servers which were frozen by malware. At that rate, ransomware is on pace to be a $1 billion a year crime this year. The agency also said that the losses could even be bigger once other related costs from these extortion schemes are factored in. Plus: Some victims may choose to pay and not report the crime. Many of the cyber-criminal groups operate out of Russia and the former Soviet republicans in Eastern Europe.

Economic News

It’s certainly easier to find work these days than in the depths of the Great Recession. But, a good job is still hard to find. Among the 10 jobs projected to grow the fastest in coming years, half pay less than $25,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And three-quarters pay less than the typical annual wage of $35,540. Many of these hot jobs are in health care. As the country ages, more of us will need medical and personal assistance. So personal care aides, home health aides and nursing assistants, which all pay $12 an hour or less for a 40-hour workweek. The only health care job that pays well and that’s adding lots of positions is registered nurse, which comes with a median wage of $66,640. The average hourly pay of jobs added over the past six months remains below the average wage of all jobs, reports CNN. The prevalence of low-paying positions and lack of wage growth are big reasons why so many Americans feel so down about the economic recovery.

Crude oil prices fell sharply Monday after energy ministers from the world’s largest oil suppliers failed to reach an agreement on freezing production to support prices. The failure to reach a deal opens up the possibility that the global glut of oil production will continue as Saudi Arabia and Iran jockey for market share. Over the weekend, the 18 members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, gathered in the Qatari capital Doha for talks aimed at reaching an accord on tightening supply to boost prices. The meeting ended without a deal after Iran said it would increase its output following the lifting of economic sanctions. Oil prices dipped under $30 a barrel in January — a 12-year low — but had risen in recent days on expectations OPEC would act to slow production.

Oil and gas producer Goodrich Petroleum Corp., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Friday, making it the latest energy company to succumb to an ongoing energy price slump. On Thursday, another Houston company Energy XXI Ltd., with operations in and along the Gulf of Mexico, also filed for bankruptcy. Low oil prices have caused repercussions throughout the energy industry. In North America, at least 59 oil and gas producers have filed for bankruptcy since the beginning of 2015, according to an April report by law firm Haynes and Boone.

After the World Court ruled in favor of the U.S., China agreed Thursday to eliminate subsidies that the United States claimed gave its industries an unfair advantage. The United States had protested the Chinese program, called the “Common Service Platform,” at the World Trade Organization last year. The program provided state subsidies to Chinese industries including apparel, steel, chemicals, medical products, building materials and agriculture. The U.S. trade deficit with China — the difference between what the U.S. imports and what it exports to China — was $28.1 billion in February, according to the Census Bureau, up from $20.6 billion the month President Obama took office.

Three years ago, Spain was second only to Greece as a symbol of the euro zone’s massive debt crisis and economic stagnation. Unemployment was a staggering 27% and its economy was still shrinking even as other eurozone nations were mounting a gradual recovery from the 2008 global recession and financial crisis. Today, the country is a rising star in the region’s persistently listless recovery despite operating without a formal government for months after a split election left a political impasse. Spain’s top economic official says the turnaround offers a blueprint to other euro zone nations for how to use sweeping banking and labor market reforms to jump-start growth. Spain’s economy grew 3.2% in 2015 and is expected to expand by 2.7% this year, compared to estimates in the euro area broadly of 1.5% and 1.6%, respectively. The country has recovered about a third of the 3.5 million jobs lost in the recession, lowering unemployment to a still lofty 20%.

Terrorism Update

Police in England said that five people from the central city of Birmingham were arrested on suspicion of being “concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.” Three men and a woman were arrested in Birmingham on Thursday night and a man was arrested at Gatwick Airport, near London, early Friday. The arrests were part of an “extensive investigation” by the British security officials and international partners including Belgian and French authorities, “to address any associated threat to the U.K. following the attacks in Europe.”

Islamic State

Kurdish Peshmerga forces – arguably the most effective ground troops battling the Islamic State terror group in Iraq – have been fighting for the past three months without a paycheck, according to experts and a top official from the region. “Unless we get direct [financial] support, we will not be able to continue the way we are currently doing so,” Qubad Talabani, Deputy Prime Minister for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), said at a forum held by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington on Wednesday. A lack of direct financial support isn’t the only problem, according to Talabani. The Kurdish-controlled area of Northern Iraq also has been forced to absorb a loss of more than $100 million a month in declining oil revenues and diminished support from the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. Some fighters have reportedly gone home to visit their families without returning to the combat zone. Many have begun to look for work elsewhere.

The ISIS terror group has seen its revenue fall by 30 percent from last year while the number of people living in territory under its control has dropped by a third, a new report says. The consulting firm IHS reports that as of March 2016, ISIS’ monthly revenue was $56 million, down from a high of $80 million in March 2015. IHS estimates that around 21,000 barrels of oil are produced each day in the self-proclaimed caliphate, down from around 33,000 barrels per day. ISIS has also lost about 22 percent of its territory in the past 15 months The report gives airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition and Russia partial credit for impacting ISIS’ oil production, but also notes that the militants were able to repair damaged infrastructure quickly.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has told the Obama administration and members of Congress that it will sell off hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of American assets held by the kingdom if Congress passes a bill that would allow the Saudi government to be held responsible in American courts for any role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, reports the New York Times. The Obama administration has lobbied Congress to block the bill’s passage, according to administration officials and congressional aides from both parties, and the Saudi threats have been the subject of intense discussions in recent weeks between lawmakers and officials from the State Department and the Pentagon. Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, delivered the kingdom’s message personally last month during a trip to Washington, telling lawmakers that Saudi Arabia would be forced to sell up to $750 billion in treasury securities and other assets in the United States before they could be in danger of being frozen by American courts. Several outside economists are skeptical that the Saudis will follow through, saying that such a sell-off would be difficult to execute and would end up crippling the kingdom’s economy. But the threat is another sign of the escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Ethiopia

An Ethiopian official says that armed groups have killed more than 140 civilians near Ethiopia’s border with South Sudan. The attackers came from South Sudan and killed civilians, including women and children. The Ethiopian defense forces are currently chasing after the perpetrators and have killed more than 60 of them. The attack took place on Friday in Jakawa, in Ethiopia’s Gambella region and the attackers were members of South Sudan’s Murle tribe. A number of children were abducted and taken into South Sudan. The latest attack is much larger than past skirmishes. The Ethiopian region hosts thousands of South Sudanese refugees who fled after war broke in their country in December 2013.

Brazil

Brazil’s lower house of Congress voted to open impeachment proceedings against embattled President Dilma Rousseff, a move that sets the stage for a final vote in the Senate and throws the massive South American country into further turmoil before it hosts the Rio 2016 Olympic Games this summer. The result came after three days of marathon debate. The late Sunday vote was a tense, wild ride, with lawmakers fighting, throwing confetti and even spitting as the vote proceeded. In the final tally, 367 of the 513 members of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies voted in favor of Rousseff’s impeachment — 342 votes were required to pass. The Senate vote is expected in May. The outcome confused, worried and elated Brazilians in equal measure. Rousseff is very unpopular and stands accused of violating budget laws. And the nation remains mired in recession, beset with severe infrastructure problems.

Puerto Rico

Due to the ongoing financial crisis, Puerto Rico is losing a doctor a day with tragic consequences. In 2014, 364 doctors left the island never to return, the Puerto Rican Surgeons and Physicians Association says. Last year, 500 doctors packed up. Most moved for more lucrative positions in the mainland U.S. The island has been in an economic crisis for a decade. That’s why doctors — and other professionals — are fleeing. Puerto Rico has lost over 10% of its population in the past decade. Jobs just aren’t there and home values are plummeting. Private hospitals are closing their doors. Governor Alejandro García Padilla has gone as far as to declare a “humanitarian crisis” on the island. As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico “receives less than half the federal healthcare funding of any of the 50 states.” The Zika virus outbreak has only stressed the island’s medical system further.

Wildfires

Wildfires across the USA burned an area about the size of Delaware, charring a whopping 1.3 million acres in the first 3 1/2 months of the year, according to data released Friday by the National Interagency Fire Center. That’s more than twice the average for this point of the year, and nearly double the total burned as of just two weeks ago. One inferno, the Anderson Creek Fire, which singed the Plains starting in March, marked the largest wildfire in the U.S. this year and the biggest in Kansas history. It burned an area twice the size of the five boroughs of New York City. In Arizona, 294 fires burned in the first quarter of the year, double the same period last year. Last year, a record 10,125,149 acres burned across the USA, topping the 10-million-acre mark for the first time. The previous record, set in 2006, was 9,873,745 acres. The 2015 figure was about 4 million more acres than average. Nine of the 10 worst years for acres burned have occurred since 2000.

Weather

A heavy spring snowstorm canceled more than 800 flights Saturday as the Denver metro area braced for more than a foot of snow. The storm will continue to dump more snow on the Rockies and High Plains Sunday into Monday. The storm has already buried the high terrain of Colorado with feet of snow, including a storm total of 47 inches near Pinecliffe. Portions of Interstate 80 were closed in southeast Wyoming Sunday morning due to poor travel conditions from the snow. Interstate 70 had to be closed at times to the west of Denver Friday into early Sunday due to heavy snowfall.

More than a foot of rain in some places flooded low-lying areas across the Houston region on Monday, forcing officials to suspend bus and rail service, close government offices and urge residents to stay home amid what officials said were extremely dangerous conditions. Heavy rainfall fell across Texas overnight, with areas west and northwest of the Houston metro area receiving as much as 20 inches of rain. A flash flood emergency was in effect Monday morning for the Houston area, and the weather service warned residents to stay off the roads. In Houston, the storm system led to two tornado warnings early Monday morning.

Widespread flooding triggered by heavy rainfall in several parts of Yemen has killed at least 16 people. The deluge also collapsed small dams, including two in Hajja and Omran provinces north of the capital city of Sana’a. Damage to property was particularly heavy, with rushing muddy water cutting off roads and sweeping away cars and cattle.

Signs of the Times (4/14/16)

April 14, 2016

Court Dismisses Lawsuit Attempting to Force Catholic Hospital to Do Abortions

In December, the American Civil Liberties Union sued a Catholic health system in an attempt to force its staff to perform abortions, despite their religious and personal pro-life convictions. On March 23, the court examined the evidence to determine whether to dismiss the ACLU’s lawsuit against the Trinity Health Corporation. Monday, the federal court threw out the ACLU lawsuit that sought to force the hospital and its staff to commit abortions regardless of their religious and pro-life objections. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys told LifeNews, “No American should be forced to commit an abortion—least of all faith-based medical workers who went into the profession to follow their faith and save lives, not take them.”

50 New Scripture Translations Completed Last Year

Last year, the Bible Societies translated the Bible into 50 different languages. According to BreakingChristianNews.com, those languages account for nearly 160 million people. Along with the translations, 11 communities received their very first full Bible and six received the New Testament. At the end of 2015, in total, the full Bible was available in 563 languages spoken by nearly 5.1 billion people. It is estimated that there are 281 million people with only some parts of the Bible and another nearly 500 million with no Bible translation whatsoever. For example, there are more than 400 unique sign languages in the world, but only the New Testament is available in American Sign Language. There has also been work done on providing the Bible in Braille. In the digital age, the United Bible Societies has also worked to make the Bible available digitally. At the end of 2015, the Digital Bible Library contained about 1,200 Bibles, testaments and portions in about 950 languages.

Citizenship Test Cites Freedom of Religion

Since 2008, government-issued citizenship tests required applicants to circle “freedom of worship” to correctly answer a question about what rights Americans have under the First Amendment. Last year, a senator disputed the wording of that answer, noting Americans actually have “freedom of religion”—a discrepancy the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agreed this week should be fixed. “At first glance, it appears like a small matter, but it is actually an important distinction for the Constitution and the First Amendment,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. “The ‘freedom of religion’ language reflects our right to live a life of faith at all times, while the ‘freedom of worship’ reflects a right simply confined to a particular space and location.” The First Amendment protects the rights of freedom of expression, speech, assembly, and religion, as well as the right to petition the government. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an office under the DHS, changed “religion” to “worship” eight years ago to be more “inclusive” on its naturalization test study materials. “We are in the process of revising our study materials and web content to reflect the change,” said USCIS director Leon Rodriguez.

Cohabitation Rates Rising, Even among Christian Couples

More Christian couples are choosing to cohabit before marriage, according to a Gallup poll. According to WorldMag.com, nearly seven in 10 teens, and almost half of teens with a religious background, support living with their significant other before marriage. Christian couples that live together say they can live together without sex and often choose to live together because of finances and convenience. But others testify that this just doesn’t work out. Mike Mobley, a Dallas church staffer who tried cohabitation, says, “I’ll be the first to tell you from personal experience, [our] excuses do not justify the actions.” He encourages people to find a church because church attendance means couples are four times less likely to cohabit.

ISIS Already in 26 U.S. States

According to a recent in-depth report from George Washington University, ISIS In America, ISIS suspects and recruits are in at least 26 states in America. As of Fall, 2015, there were roughly 250 Americans who were documented to have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria/Iraq to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). There are currently 900 active investigations against ISIS sympathizers in all 50 states. Since March, 2014: 71 people have been charged for ISIS-related activities; 56 were arrested in 2015 alone; 27 percent were involved in plots to carry out attacks on U.S. soil, 51 percent traveled or attempted to travel abroad to hook up with ISIS.

Many Arab Countries Beginning to See Israel as Their Ally

Since the Arab Spring and over the course of the past half-decade, Arab countries’ stance towards relations with Israel has shifted dramatically, with a growing number of Arab policy makers publicly supporting open and full relations with the Jewish State, reports Breaking Christian News. In January, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director-General Dore Gold revealed that Israel maintains covert ties with almost all Arab countries. Gold said there is “the willingness in the Arab world for ties with Israel under the table,” terming at as a “dramatic change.” In February, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added that Israel is experiencing a dramatic and positive shift in its ties with many countries, primarily with the Arab world in the Middle East. “Major Arab countries are changing their view of Israel… they don’t see Israel anymore as their enemy, but they see Israel as their ally, especially in the battle against militant Islam,” Netanyahu said. In a true sign of change in the Arab world, Kuwaiti media personality Yousuf ‘Abd Al-Karim Al-Zinkawi called on all Arab and Muslim states to recognize Israel, openly and without delay.

FCC Kept ‘ObamaPhone’ Fraud Under Wraps Until After Vote to Expand Program

Federal regulators were instructed to keep a massive fraud investigation – concerning the “Obamaphone” program, meant to help get low-income families cellphone access – under wraps until a day after a controversial vote to expand the program, one of those regulators claims. The Federal Communications Commission on Friday announced that it would seek $51 million in damages from a cellphone company that allegedly defrauded the federal Lifeline program of nearly $10 million. The commission’s five members unanimously backed the Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL), but Republican commissioner Ajit Pai parted from his colleagues in a partial dissent. According to Pai, he and other commissioners were told not to reveal the details of its investigation until April 1, a day after the FCC voted to expand the Lifeline program.

  • Politics as usual

Authorities Raid Panama Papers Law Firm

Authorities on Tuesday raided the law firm connected to the Panama Papers global corruption scandal. The Associated Press reported that organized crime prosecutors raided the Panama City headquarters of the Mossack Fonseca law firm that is at the center of the scandal. Police officers guarded the perimeter of the offices while prosecutors worked inside. The attorney general’s office told The Associated Press in a statement that investigators aimed to “to obtain documentation linked to the information published in news articles that establish the use of the firm in illicit activities.” Documents leaked from the firm’s offices appear to show a series of tax havens created for the wealthy.

Top 50 U.S. Companies Hold $1.4 Trillion in Cash Offshore

America’s biggest companies are holding about $1.4 trillion in cash offshore to avoid paying billions in U.S. taxes, according to a new report by Oxfam America. Companies are supposed to pay federal taxes on their global profits, but the tax on money made overseas is only due when it’s brought back to the U.S. This policy has encouraged some firms — including Apple (AAPL, Tech30), Microsoft (MSFT, Tech30) and Google (GOOGL, Tech30) — to hold huge amounts of cash overseas. Even though large companies have faced public outrage for stashing cash outside their home country, the practice is legitimate and the companies say it would be detrimental to repatriate the money. The U.S. government levies a 35% tax rate on repatriated cash. That’s a much higher rate than many companies currently pay, according to Oxfam. It said Apple’s effective corporate tax rate was 25.9% between 2008 and 2014. Apple holds the most money offshore of any major U.S. company, at $181 billion.

Toxic Oil Loans Creating Problems for Big Banks

The Wall Street firms that bankrolled America’s oil boom continue to suffer losses linked to loans that look increasingly shaky given the crash in crude prices. And big banks are bracing for more oil loans to implode. Bank of America on Thursday announced it set aside $997 million to protect from loan losses, mainly in the bank’s $22 billion energy portfolio. Wells Fargo warned of “significant stress” and “deterioration” in their oil and gas loan portfolio. The problems forced Wells Fargo to add $200 million in loan-loss reserves, its first increase to this rainy-day fund since 2009. And JPMorgan Chase increased its provisions for credit losses by 88%, mostly due to the oil, natural gas and pipeline business. It was enough to cause JPMorgan’s first drop in profits since late 2014.

Economic News – Domestic

U.S. retail sales fell last month as Americans cut back on their car purchases, the latest sign that consumers are reluctant to spend freely. The Commerce Department says sales at retail stores and restaurants fell by a seasonally adjusted 0.3% in March, following a flat reading in February and a drop in January. Americans have been more cautious about spending this year than most economists expected, despite steady job gains and lower gas prices. March’s decline was largely driven by a sharp drop in auto sales, which plunged 2.1%. That was the steepest fall in more than a year. Sales at restaurants and clothing stores also retreated.

The Labor Department says U.S. consumer prices rose a modest 0.1% in March as a drop in grocery prices offset higher energy costs. Excluding volatile food and energy prices, core consumer inflation also increased 0.1%, the smallest gain since August. Over the past year, overall consumer prices are up 0.9% and core inflation 2.2%. Grocery prices fell 0.5% in March for a typical shopping basket while energy prices climbed 0.9%, the most since May. Gasoline prices surged 2.2%.

The nation’s biggest coal company, Peabody Energy (BTU), filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Wednesday as the coal industry grapples with the fallout of low natural gas prices, costly regulations and legacy costs. Peabody said that “sustained depressed” coal prices had placed it on the edge of insolvency. Low natural gas prices, the sluggish Chinese economy and U.S. environmental regulatory pressure have compounded the financial pressures facing coal companies, which include costs such as pensions and retiree health care obligations. Peabody has posted four consecutive yearly losses, including a $2 billion loss in 2015 as revenue fell 17% to $5.6 billion.

Federal regulators said Wednesday that five of the country’s largest banks, including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America, still don’t have credible plans for winding down their operations without taxpayer help if they start to fail. These so-called “living wills” are a critical requirement of the 2010 financial reform package, Dodd-Frank, aimed at preventing a repeat of the taxpayer bailouts that took place during the 2007-2008 financial crisis. The rejection comes as the banking sector is expected to report weaker financial results for the first quarter of the year. The banking industry sought to soften the findings, arguing that Wall Street today is stronger than it was before the last financial crisis.

The Justice Department announced a $5 billion settlement with Goldman Sachs over the sale of mortgage-backed securities leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. The deal announced Monday resolves state and federal probes into the sale of shoddy mortgages before the housing bubble and economic meltdown. It requires the bank to pay a $2.4 billion civil penalty and an additional $1.8 billion in relief to underwater homeowners and distressed borrowers, along with $875 million in other claims. The agreement is the latest multi-billion-dollar civil settlement reached with a major bank. Other banks that settled in the last two years include Bank of America, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Nearly 20% of large U.S. corporations that reported a profit on their financial statements in 2012 ended up paying exactly nothing in U.S. corporate income taxes. That’s according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office. How can profitable companies end up with a $0 corporate income tax bill? There are a few reasons, according to the GAO. Among them, they may get a lot of tax deductions for losses they had in previous years but carried forward. Or it may be due to write-offs for depreciating assets.

Economic News – International

Oil prices reached a new 2016 high after rumors that Saudi Arabia and Russia have reached a deal to freeze oil output. U.S. crude oil prices jumped 4.5% to $42.17 a barrel, after Russian news agency Interfax reported the deal. The report came ahead of a crucial meeting between OPEC and non-OPEC countries in Doha on Sunday. Investors are hoping the world’s top oil producers will reach a broader deal to control the global oil supply. Prices have tumbled over the last two years because of a major oil glut, where the world has far more oil than it can consume.

Painting a dim picture of the world economy, the International Monetary Fund on Tuesday trimmed its global growth forecast and called for “immediate” action to reduce the increasing risk of recession. The fund largely attributed the weaker outlook to China’s slowdown, the effect of falling oil and other commodity prices on emerging markets, and weak productivity growth and aging labor forces in advanced economies such as the U.S. “Growth has been too slow for too long,” IMF Economic Counsellor Maurice Obstfeld said.

Direct investment by China in the U.S. is on track to hit a record $30 billion in 2016, according to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, which works to promote closer ties between the countries. That’s double last year’s record $15 billion investment. The report estimates that more than 1,900 Chinese-affiliated firms are now established in the U.S., employing roughly 90,000 full-time workers. Tens of thousands more workers are indirectly employed through Chinese firms.

China’s rapid economic rise has turned peasants into billionaires. Many wealthy Chinese are increasingly eager to stow their families, and their riches, in the West, where rule of law, clean air and good schools offer peace of mind, especially for those looking to escape scrutiny from the Communist Party and an anti-corruption campaign that has sent hundreds of the rich and powerful to jail. With its weak currency and welcoming immigration policies, Canada has become a top destination for China’s 1 percenters. According to government figures, from 2005 to 2012, at least 37,000 Chinese millionaires took advantage of a now-defunct immigrant investor program to become permanent residents of British Columbia, the province that includes Vancouver.

Zika Update

The CDC announced Monday that the Zika virus may be ‘scarier than we initially thought,’ saying the mosquito-borne virus could be linked to more birth defects than previously believed.  The Zika virus has now been linked to a second type of autoimmune disorder, according to a small study released Monday. Doctors have known that Zika is associated with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a condition in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, causing paralysis. Now, scientists have linked Zika to a condition similar to multiple sclerosis, called acute disseminated encephalomyeltis, or ADEM, a swelling of the brain and spinal cord that affects the myelin, the coating around nerve fibers. The study followed people who were hospitalized in Recife, Brazil because of symptoms that could be caused by Zika, dengue or chikungunya — which are all spread by the same species of mosquito. All of the people had fever followed by a rash. Some also had severe itching, muscle and joint pain and red eyes. Six of those people develop neurological problems that were consistent with autoimmune diseases. Four developed Guillain-Barre syndrome. The other two developed ADEM, according to the paper presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Vancouver.

Islamic State

American airstrikes have killed 25,000 Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria and incinerated millions of dollars plundered by the militants, according to Pentagon officials. Iraqi and Kurdish forces have taken back 40 percent of the militant group’s land in Iraq, the officials say, and forces backed by the West have seized a sizable amount of territory in Syria that had been controlled by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. But the battlefield successes enjoyed by Western-backed forces in the Islamic State’s heartland have done little to stop the expansion of the militants to Europe, North Africa and Afghanistan. The attacks this year in Brussels, Istanbul and other cities only reinforced the sense of a terrorist group on the march, and among American officials and military experts, there is renewed caution in predicting progress in a fight that they say is likely to go on for years.

ISIS claimed victory Wednesday over the Obama administration’s summer shift in allowing hostage negotiations with terrorists, posting an article in the radical Islamist group’s online magazine declaring, “it’s clear that violence is the only message they will respond to.” The article, in the new issue of the Islamic State’s “Dabiq” magazine released Wednesday. It’s illustrated with a picture of an ISIS executioner slitting a hostage’s throat and President Obama smiling in a golf cart. Before killing Foley, ISIS demanded a ransom from his family. U.S. government officials, however, threatened Foley’s family with prosecution if they raised the money to pay the terror group, Foley’s parents, John and Diane, told Fox News in September 2014. But in June, after Foley’s beheading, the Obama administration signaled a minor modification in policy. While the U.S. government wouldn’t pay any outright ransom to terrorists, officials would be allowed to negotiate with terrorists. The government would also cease threatening families with prosecution for trying to pay a ransom.

Syria

The prospects for Syrian peace talks set to resume Wednesday in Geneva are complicated by a recent spike in fighting between government troops and rebel factions around the strategic city of Aleppo. Syrian government troops, backed by Russian aircraft, have been attacking U.S.-backed rebel groups around Aleppo, as well as al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, the Nusra Front, also in the area. U.S. negotiators plan to use the peace talks to push the parties to adhere to the cease-fire agreement, which allows attacks on the Nusra Front and the Islamic State, but not on “legitimate” opposition groups. United Nations special envoy Staffan de Mistura, who will conduct the talks, said the talks will focus on political transition, governance and constitutional principles.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s top defense official has warned that al Qaeda — the reason the United States first invaded Afghanistan — is “very active” and a “big threat” in the country. A senior U.S. official said they were concerned about al Qaeda leaders in remote areas of the country and there may be many more core operatives in Afghanistan than previously thought. The warnings of al Qaeda’s resurgence come as Afghanistan faces perhaps the most significant summer fighting season in decades, with government security forces facing huge internal challenges, the Taliban gaining ground and ISIS increasing its footprint in the country.

Cameroon

The terrorist group Boko Haram is turning young, kidnapped girls into suicide bombers. One escaped girl explained to CNN that, “They would ask, ‘Who wants to be a suicide bomber?’ The girls would shout, ‘me, me, me.’ They were fighting to do the suicide bombings.” The young girls fought to strap on a bomb, not because they were brainwashed by their captors’ violent indoctrination methods but because the relentless hunger and sexual abuse — coupled with the constant shelling — became too much to bear. They wanted a way out, she says. They wanted an escape from their horrific existence. “There were so many kidnapped girls there, I couldn’t count,” she says. Advocates say that there has been a massive increase in the estimated number of children used as suicide bombers in the four countries where Boko Haram operates, from 4 in 2014 to 44 last year.

Somalia

The U.S. government has conducted two “self-defense” airstrikes in southern Somalia because of an “imminent threat” against American troops in the East African country, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters Tuesday. The airstrikes happened late Monday evening and early Tuesday morning against an Al-Shabaab camp north of the town of Kismayo in southern Somalia. The U.S. military has been helping Somali government and African Union forces battle Al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda-affiliated militant group that has been waging an insurgency in Somalia for about 10 years with the aim of turning the country into a fundamentalist Islamic state. The Islamist extremist group hasn’t confined its terror or ambitions to Somalia, as evidenced by other horrific attacks like last year’s massacre at Kenya’s Garissa University College and a 2013 siege of Nairobi’s upscale Westgate Mall.

Environment

More than 100,000 people living and working near the former Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon, California, have been exposed to harmful levels of lead and arsenic that leaked into the soil of over 500 homes, state authorities say. Between Feb. 29 and March 9, 12 county teams tested about 50 homes daily. All but eight of the 500 homes had levels of lead requiring cleanup, while 45 of the homes had soil lead levels that qualified as hazardous waste. Another 170 homes had lead levels exceeding the federal residential action level, the Los Angeles Times reports. Public health officials analyzed data from nearly 12,000 young children and found that the blood lead levels of kids under the age of six living near the now-closed facility are higher than those living farther from it. These findings add to previous samples collected which showed more than 200 homes near the Exide plant with lead-tainted soil in need of removal, according to Reuters. The agency estimates that deposits of lead dust from the plant extend into neighborhoods within 1.7 miles of the facility.

Earthquakes

A 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck southern Japan’s Kumamoto prefecture on Kyushu Island at 9:26 p.m. local time Thursday night, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Local media said the violent shaking sparked fires and destroyed some homes, possibly trapping people inside. The tremor occurred at a depth of 6.2 miles, the USGS also reported. The quake’s epicenter was 4.3 miles southwest of Ueki, and 385 miles south-southeast of Seoul, South Korea. In the hour following the main quake, there were three aftershocks – two measuring 4.8 magnitude and the other a 5.4. Japan’s Meteorological Agency told the Associated Press there was no threat of a tsunami. Japanese Red Cross Kumamoto Hospital said it has admitted or treated 45 people, including five with serious injuries.

A 6.9 magnitude earthquake struck the Asian nation of Myanmar Wednesday night, but officials were cautiously optimistic that the powerful shaking didn’t result in any deaths. The tremor was a deep 83.7 miles below the surface, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, with an epicenter located 46 miles southeast of Mawlaik and 246 miles north of the capital, Naypyidaw. Because the quake occurred in the sparsely populated jungle, casualties and damage were minimized. Nobody in the area was seriously injured, but nine pagodas were damaged.

Wildfires

Arizona could face the most dangerous fire season in years, according to Gov. Doug Ducey and the state’s chief forester. And it’s already started. “Last year we burned less than 500 acres’ by this time last year, said Jeff Whitney. “So far this year we’ve burned over 2,100 acres.’ Above-average rainfall earlier in the year has resulted in widespread growth of vegetation which is now drying out. Conditions now are very similar to 2002 and 2011. In 2002 the Rodeo-Chedeski Fire burned about 468,000 acres. And the 2011 Wallow Fire consumed more than 538,000 acres.

Weather

For the second time in as many days, Texans were running for cover as large hail fell on the Lone Star State Tuesday night. This time, it was the San Antonio area in line for the damaging storm. Storm reports from the National Weather Service revealed hail as large as 3.5 inches in diameter – bigger than the size of baseballs – fell on the north side of San Antonio Tuesday night. Some residents also said the large hailstones knocked out their windows. The storms also brought heavy rain and strong winds to South Texas Tuesday night with winds gusting as high as 62 mph.

Signs of the Times (4/11/16)

April 11, 2016

Victory! The Arch from The Temple of Baal in NYC Has Been Canceled

RedFlagNews.com reports that, “The Temple of Baal is NOT coming to Times Square in New York City next month.  This is great news, and it represents an incredible victory for Christians in the United States.” The only arch that will be going up will be in Trafalgar Square, and it won’t be the one from the Temple of Baal.  Instead, the Institute for Digital Archaeology has changed plans and will be putting up a reproduction of the Arch of Triumph which the Romans originally built in Palmyra and that has nothing to do with Baal.  According to the UK’s Telegraph, the only arch that will be going up will be in Trafalgar Square, and it won’t be the one from the Temple of Baal.  Instead, the Institute for Digital Archaeology has changed plans and will be putting up a reproduction of the Arch of Triumph which the Romans originally built in Palmyra and that has nothing to do with Baal.

Celebration, Confusion, Dismay Over Pope’s Latest Missive

Pope Francis’ “The Joy of Love,” a massive document released Friday about marriage, divorce, and LGBT life is getting a mixed reaction from U.S. Catholics and others. The document calls for the church to be more tolerant in practice while not changing any official doctrines. It brought joy to conservative Christians who feared Francis would tamper with dogma, but less love from liberals who had hoped for a change in practices, not simply in tone. Archbishop of Louisville Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, extolled it as “a love letter to married couples and families” and to the church “to realize more and more her mission to live and love as a family.” The Human Rights Campaign was “disappointed” that the document, issued in the pope’s Year of Mercy, did not translate into fuller inclusion for LGBT Catholics.

Religious Freedom Bills Splits the South

A spate of bills across the nation, but especially across the South, has pitted religious freedom against LGBT rights. In North Carolina, it’s about which bathrooms transgender people can use. The same concerns have been raised in South Carolina’s legislature. Tennessee says it wants to protect the religious freedom of therapists who wish not to treat the LGBT community. And in Mississippi, the bill covers everything from wedding DJs to adoption services. The result has been a variety of strong opinions, ranging from outright approval to tepid acceptance to concern to denunciation. Boycotts have been announced as the LGBT community rises up in angry protest. “The media sees this issue as there’s only one side to it,” which is a liberal viewpoint, observes Kyle Drennen of the Media Research Center. The other side that supports and defends the legislation, he says, is described as bigoted and discriminatory.

  • Religious freedom has been a constitutional foundation since America’s inception, but is now being trampled under the guise of ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusiveness.’ The result is that freedom is only granted to those who agree with secular humanists and the LGBT community. Private companies have always had the right to refuse service to whomever they please. And assigning public bathroom privileges based on anatomy is both logical and natural, regardless of religious persuasion.

ISIS Just 8 Miles Across the U.S. Border

Judicial Watch recently uncovered the reality that ISIS is in Mexico, just eight miles south of El Paso, Texas and Columbus, New Mexico– and they have help from the Mexican drug cartels. The area is referred to as “Anapra,” west of Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico. Anapra is controlled by the drug cartel, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Cartel (“Juárez Cartel”) and its “enforcement arm,” La Línea, and the Barrio Azteca gang. And Ciudad Juárez is not the only location. West of it is another ISIS camp located in Puerto Palomas. The first group is training to target El Paso; the second, to target Columbus and Deming, New Mexico. Judicial Watch reports. During the course of a joint operation last week, Mexican Army and federal law enforcement officials discovered documents in Arabic and Urdu, as well as “plans” of Fort Bliss – the sprawling military installation that houses the US Army’s 1st Armored Division. Muslim prayer rugs were recovered with the documents during the operation. According to these same sources, ‘coyotes’ engaged in human smuggling – and working for Juárez Cartel – help move ISIS terrorists through the desert and across the border between Santa Teresa and Sunland Park, New Mexico. To the east of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, cartel-backed ‘coyotes’ are also smuggling ISIS terrorists through the porous border between Acala and Fort Hancock, Texas. These specific areas were targeted for exploitation by ISIS because of their understaffed municipal and county police forces, and the relative safe-havens the areas provide for the unchecked large-scale drug smuggling that was already ongoing.

United Nations Prepares to Seize Control of the High Seas

The United Nations has launched a far-reaching initiative that could give U.N.-sponsored authorities sway over the biological resources of the high seas—all the waters that lie outside national territories and economic zones. The potential shift in power involves multi-trillion-dollar issues, such as whether large areas of the world’s international waters should be designated as no-go areas to protect biological diversity; whether and how to require elaborate “environmental impact assessments” for future ocean development projects; and how to divide up the economic benefits from the future development of “marine genetic resources.” The rationale behind the discussions: easing the rising pressure on the world’s undersea biodiversity wrought by over-fishing, pollution, the drainage of nutrients and other substances from surrounding lands, disturbance of underwater sea beds, and fears of even greater threats from underwater industrial technology, including underwater exploration for hydrocarbons. This initiative is expected to result in draft language for a planned oceans treaty by the end of 2017.

Obama Administration Moving 10,000 Syrians to U.S.

The Washington Examiner reports that the Obama administration has established a “surge operation” in Jordan to process 10,000 Syrian refugees and get them to the United States by President Obama’s deadline of September 30 through a temporary processing center in Amman. The report said that some 600 interviews are being conducted every day, suggesting that perhaps 36,000 total refugees are being targeted for entry into the United States. The Center for Immigration Studies reported that the first family to be cleared entered the United States on Friday, landing in Kansas City.

Keystone Oil Leak 90x Larger than First Reported

TransCanada plans to reopen the Keystone pipeline on Saturday, a week after a spill was discovered in an underground section of the pipeline in South Dakota. TransCanada said regulators have given the company conditional approval to resume delivering oil on the pipeline on Saturday following completion of repairs. However, the conditional restart calls for the pipeline to operate a “reduced pressure” to make sure it’s functioning correctly. The leak was discovered a week ago and forced a key section of the controversial pipeline to be shut down. TransCanada (TRP) initially told regulators the spill totaled about 187 gallons of oil, but later raised that estimate to 16,800 gallons. One of the biggest concerns in an oil leak is that it could contaminate not just land but local ground water. That is an elevated concern for pipelines that run underground as Keystone does in South Dakota.

Rural White Women’s Death Rates Increasing

White women have been dying prematurely at higher rates since the turn of this century, passing away in their 30s, 40s and 50s in a slow-motion crisis driven by decaying health in small-town America, according to an analysis of national health and mortality statistics by The Washington Post. Among African Americans, Hispanics and even the oldest white Americans, death rates have continued to fall. But for white women in what should be the prime of their lives, death rates have spiked upward. In one of the hardest-hit groups — rural white women in their late 40s — the death rate has risen by 30 percent since 1990, mostly due to cancer. Public health experts say the rising white death rate reflects a broader health crisis, one that has made the United States the least healthy affluent nation in the world over the past 20 years. Laudy Aron, a researcher with the Urban Institute, said rising white death rates show that the United States’ slide in overall health is not being driven simply by poor health in historically impoverished communities. For every 100,000 white women in their late 40s, 228 died at the turn of this century. Today, 296 are dying. And in rural areas, the uptick in mortality was even greater, increasing by nearly 50%

Chicago Falling Apart

The Chicago Tribune reports that roughly 3,000 millionaires have left the city over the past year alone, which amounts to about 2 percent of their wealthy population. This is the largest exodus of wealthy people in the United States. According to research, many of these elites are relocating to other cities in the United States such as Seattle and San Francisco, which saw a net inflow of millionaires over the past year. When asked about why they were leaving Chicago, most of these millionaires cited racial tensions and rising crime rates. In the first three months of 2016, there have been around 770 shootings compared to about 410 over the same time period in 2015.

Economic News

Coal jobs in Kentucky and West Virginia have been on the decline for decades. According to data from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the two states together have lost 38,000 coal jobs since 1983. But job losses in recent years have been especially staggering, the result of tighter regulatory policies and cheaper power plant fuels, like natural gas. Unemployment in some Kentucky counties is staggering, with 21.6% unemployed in Magoffin County, Kentucky.

The price of mailing a letter will fall for the first time in nearly a century this Sunday, but the U.S. Postal Service, which was ordered to cut the price by its regulator, is not happy about that. USPS said the decline in the cost of a postage stamp, from 49 cents to 47 cents, will cost it $2 billion this year, and make it more difficult for it to compete and provide the service its customers demand. “Given our precarious financial condition and ongoing business needs, the price reduction…exacerbates our losses,” said Postmaster General Megan Brennan in a statement Thursday as it filed a petition seeking a new rate setting process. The Postal Regulatory Commission, the independent government agency which oversees the USPS and its pricing, acknowledges the Postal Service will lose $2 billion due to the decrease. The service posted an operating profit in each of the last two fiscal years, according to PRC’s annual report. But after accounting for future expenses, such as pension costs, the service posted a $5.1 billion net loss for the most recent year. The last time that there was a decrease in the price of postage was in July 1919, when stamp prices dropped from 3 cents to 2 cents.

  • As usual, the government proves to be inept. The USPS should be privatized and run according to good business practices.

Migrant Update

The Jordanian government hopes that the 1.3 million Syrian migrants return home soon to ease the demands of providing shelter, education and jobs for all the Syrians who have fled to Jordan to escape their country’s five-year civil war. Without more international financial assistance, the refugees threaten Jordan’s stability and security, warned Adnan Sawaeer, a member of Jordan’s parliament. The government also fears that some of the refugees may be Islamic State militants who plan to “create a messy situation in Jordan,” Sawaeer said. But the prospects of the refugees going back to Syria anytime soon appear dim

It’s been a month since neighboring Macedonia closed its border to more than 10,000 Syrian, Afghan and other migrants, blocking their journey to western Europe in search of a better life. ​These people — along with another 40,000 migrants in the rest of Greece — arrived before the recent deal between the European Union and Turkey to deport refugees arriving after March 20 back to Turkey. So they escaped immediate deportation. Some have set up camp in an abandoned railroad station and refuse to move. As a result, these migrants in Greece are in limbo — and the EU is not sure what to do with them. Some countries want them resettled elsewhere in Europe, some want them to stay. It’s an impasse over a policy “that is not working,” said European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans.

Islamic State

As fighting rocks northern Iraq’s oil-rich Kirkuk area, and air strikes attempt to take out Islamic State positions, the dust will likely either settle in favor of the Iraqi Kurds, who have played a key role in protecting this area from the ISIS advance and who could use Kirkuk to cement their independence ambitions, or in favor of Baghdad, which knows that the loss of Kirkuk means the loss of northern Iraq. The real game here is between the Iraqis and the Kurds. There is a vacuum right now in the north because the Iraqi army was forced largely to retreat when ISIS moved in the summer of 2014, leaving the Peshmerga Kurds in charge. Control of the oil-rich region will have a huge economic impact on whoever winds up victorious.

The U.S. Air Force has deployed B-52 long-range bombers to the Middle East for the first time since the Gulf war ended over 25 years ago to begin striking the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, officials said Saturday. “The B-52 will provide the Coalition continued precision and deliver desired airpower effects,” said Lt. Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., who also said that the B-52 bombers could be ready to bomb elsewhere in the Middle East should the need arise. The announcement comes a day after Secretary of State John Kerry vowed to “turn up the pressure further” against ISIS during an unannounced visit to Baghdad Friday.

Afghanistan

About three miles outside the southern city of Lashkar Gah, Afghan soldiers can see a white flag. It’s not one of surrender — quite the opposite. The flag belongs to the Taliban, and shows exactly how close the militant group is to the capital of Helmand Province. Despite Afghan government assurances that the army can hold and retake ground, the strategic province that hundreds of NATO troops died fighting for is closer than ever to falling to the Taliban. The army has not made any recent advances, and at least five full districts in the province are already under full Taliban control. The highly valuable opium crop, now being harvested in Helmand, is a key reason for the Taliban’s focus on the southern province. As Afghanistan moves into summer, and the warmer months known as the fighting season, existing challenges will be bolstered by extreme losses government forces endured nationwide in 2015. U.S. officials estimate that 5,500 Afghan security force members died last year, far more than the 3,500 NATO lost in its entire decade-long campaign. Even worse, Afghan soldiers are now deserting the army to join the Taliban.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was the intended target of rocket strikes in Afghanistan’s capital Saturday, the Taliban said in a statement claiming responsibility for the attacks. The attacks in Kabul on Saturday night came within an hour after Kerry had departed Afghanistan, following a visit aimed at defusing a political crisis in the unity government he helped build. No casualties resulted from the attacks, according to Afghan government sources. But they underscored the volatile security situation in the country as warming weather brings increased fighting. Kerry’s visit, aimed at urging Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah to set aside their rivalries, comes at a pivotal moment for Afghanistan. After a bitterly fought presidential election in 2014, Ghani and Abdullah share power in a national unity government that Kerry helped negotiate. But 18 months into their five-year term, the two rivals have been unable to reconcile their differences and remain deadlocked over key ministries. Several ministers have resigned, others have yet to be confirmed by parliament, and still others face losing their jobs over corruption and mismanagement.

Iran

Iranian officials over the weekend broadcast their flat rejection of calls by regional neighbors and Western powers to curb their ballistic missile program, while a growing chorus of US lawmakers demanded that the Obama Administration take serious action to counter what they say is an obvious violation of the JCPOA nuclear deal negotiated last year. Meanwhile, the first components of the Russian-built S-300 air defense system began to arrive at Iranian military bases on Sunday. Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan announced that the entire system would be in place by the end of the year and become operational shortly thereafter.

Turkey

The U.S. warned citizens of “credible threats” of terrorism in tourist areas of Turkey on Saturday, urging people to exercise “extreme caution” if they are near such areas. The emergency message issued through the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul says public squares and docks in Istanbul and Antalya, a resort destination in southwestern Turkey, are of particular concern. The warning comes less than two weeks after the Pentagon ordered families of hundreds of U.S. military members to evacuate southern Turkey amid growing violence in the country.

Yemen

At least 28 Yemeni soldiers were killed, and others injured, after gunmen blocked a main road and opened fire on their vehicles in southern Yemen on Saturday, hours before a U.N.-brokered ceasefire was scheduled to take effect, local security officials told CNN. Many of the soldiers — loyal to Saudi-backed President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi — were found with their heads cut off, while others had been shot in the head, according to the officials. The al Qaeda-affiliated group Ansar al Sharia, which controls 70% of Abyan province, issued a statement denying involvement. The U.N.-brokered ceasefire went into effect at midnight local time ahead of a planned resumption of peace talks in Kuwait between the Saudi-backed government of Hadi and the Shiite rebel Houthi militia.

Ukraine

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk resigned Sunday under pressure to expedite reforms in the former Soviet-bloc nation. Ukraine has suffered severe economic issues, and Yatsenyuk’s cabinet issued a no-confidence vote in February. President Petro Poroshenko said Yatsenyuk had lost support and should resign amid claims of corruption. Public opinion polls at the time showed support for Yatsenyuk as low as 1%Yatsenyuk, who will formally resign Tuesday, said the political crisis was “artificial.” He said too much emphasis had been put on getting him out of office instead of making necessary changes. Yatsenyuk was an opposition leader in 2014 when massive protests helped drive pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych from power. His resignation sparked an outcry from Moscow, and within weeks Russia annexed Crimea. A violent pro-Moscow insurgency ensued, compounding Ukraine’s economic struggles.

India

More than 100 people were killed in a religious fireworks display gone terribly wrong Sunday in a southern Indian temple, state media reports say. At least 109 people were pronounced dead and more than 500 were injured after a live firecracker set off a batch of fireworks stored in the Puttingal temple in Kollam. India. At the time, the temple was packed with worshippers observing the last day of the seven-day festival honoring the goddess Bhadrakali, a southern Indian carnation of the Hindu goddess Kali. The fireworks that exploded were being stored in the temple for a display Thursday in honor of the Hindu new year festival. At least 10 people associated with the temple are on the run, authorities said. The temple did not have permission for the fireworks celebration, police officials say.

North Korea

A senior intelligence officer with the North Korean military has defected to South Korea, officials in Seoul said Monday. The defector was a senior colonel with the North Korean Reconnaissance General Bureau, which is in charge of espionage operations against South Korea. South Korea’s semiofficial Yonhap News Agency reported that the senior colonel was the highest-level North Korean military official known to have defected. North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau is a powerful body, responsible for clandestine operations, including espionage against foreign countries and cyberwarfare operations. It is expected the latest defector could prove a rich trove of knowledge about the workings of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s secretive regime.

Earthquakes

A large earthquake rocked Afghanistan Sunday morning, sending a shock felt in three different countries. The tremor forced residents of Kabul, Islamabad, Lahore and Delhi to vacate their homes, though immediate reports show no sign of casualties or major damage. Pakistani officials estimated the quake that originated near Afghanistan’s border with Tajikistan to be a magnitude-7.1. The U.S. Geological Survey has rated the tremor at a magnitude-6.6. In Islamabad, terrified residents fled their homes and offices as buildings swayed. Television footage showed people praying in public. Tremors were felt as far away as the Indian capital, New Delhi. A post-quake landslides remained a potential threat.

Environment

CNN reports that a football field of land, on average, falls into the Gulf of Mexico every hour due to rising sea levels. That is particularly evident in the Louisiana bayou. Wenceslaus Billiot, an 89-year-old resident in the southern Louisiana marshland, looks out upon a sea of water with only a few tufts of marsh grass sticking up from an expansive area that once used to be solid land. A water tower in the distance now rises out of the water, the access road that once led there completely covered.

Wildfires

An early fire season in the Plains and South has burned through 817,480 acres, over four times as much as last year at this point of the year and more than any year since 2006. Most of the fires are in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky. Over 60,000 acres were consumed last week in Oklahoma with four large (over 100 acres) still not contained.

Weather

The calendar may say April, but locally heavy snow is blanketed parts of the Great Lakes, Appalachians, and Mid-Atlantic States this past weekend. About 6-8 inches of snow, mainly on grass and vehicle tops, was reported Saturday across northern Ohio and northern Pennsylvania, including Cleveland and Toledo. Snowfall rates in Cleveland were briefly up to 2 inches per hour. The combination of wet, heavy snow and some winds have led to some downed trees and power outages, as well. To the west, an impressive Lake Michigan snowband by early April standards brought snow to South Bend, Indiana, Saturday morning, and lake-effect snow off Lake Superior hammered parts of Upper Michigan with over a foot of snow. Multiple crashes were reported and snow emergencies were declared in Ohio as April snow coated the ground Saturday morning.

Ice melting has caused a drift in polar motion – the periodic wobble and drift of the poles. For decades, the north pole had been slowly drifting toward Canada, but there was a shift in the drift about 15 years ago. Now it’s headed almost directly down the Greenwich Meridian. The Arctic ice sheet has seen its ice loss speeding up and has lost an average of 278 gigatons of ice a year since 2000 as temperatures warm. The Antarctic has lost 92 gigatons a year over that time while other stashes of ice from Alaska to Patagonia are also melting and sending water to the oceans, redistributing the weight of the planet.

Signs of the Times (4/8/16)

April 8, 2016

Mississippi Passes Religious Freedom Law

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a controversial religious freedom bill Tuesday, a piece of legislation that gay rights groups and the state’s businesses have decried as discriminatory. Protesters had urged the governor not to sign it, saying it enables discrimination of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. But Bryant said he signed the bill into law “to protect sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions of individuals, organizations and private associations from discriminatory action by state government. “The legislation is designed in the most targeted manner possible to prevent government interference in the lives of the people from which all power to the state is derived,” he said. The law says it protects from discrimination claims anyone who believes that marriage is between one man and one woman, that sexual relations are reserved solely for marriage, and that the terms male and female pertain only to a person’s genetics and anatomy at birth.

Hackers Have Infected U.S. Energy Grid

Hackers have stolen sensitive information from American energy companies — and have planted malware in the energy grid with the intent to turn off the lights in the future. They even managed to infect at least three energy companies with Cryptolocker ransomware, a particularly nasty computer virus that locks digital files and demands a ransom payment. Newly released documents from the Department of Homeland Security are finally shedding some light on what exactly hackers are doing when they sneak into the American electrical grid. Some of the attacks described in the reports are potentially serious. Aggressive foreign government hackers broke into American companies 17 times between October 1, 2013 and September 30, 2014, according to DHS. They hack “primarily to conduct cyber espionage … to conduct a damaging or disruptive attack in the event of hostilities with the United States,” DHS stated in a recent internal “intelligence assessment.”

2030 Agenda Calls For Redistribution Of Wealth And Income

In the context of Participants discussed tackling inequality as a moral imperative and goal of the 2030 Agenda, and policy priorities to address inequality at national, regional and global levels. the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) organized a Special Meeting on Inequality to consider key drivers of inequality, and propose policy solutions. ECOSOC President Oh Joon noted that inequality is more than an issue of income and wealth disparities; these challenges are compounded by unequal access to basic human needs such as food, healthcare, education, drinking water and sanitation. Jan Eliasson, UN Deputy Secretary-General, noted that inequality features prominently in the Sustainable Development Goals.

  • Couched in lofty goals, Sustainable Development and Agenda 2030 are the primary strategies for the secular-humanists to attain their one-world-government objectives, which Revelation 13 reveals is orchestrated behind the curtain by that wizard of old, Satan.

Dramatic Rise in Number of Global Executions

Beheading, hanging, lethal injection, shooting — the number of people executed by countries in 2015 hit a 25-year high, according to new figures published Wednesday by Amnesty International, the British human rights group. At least 1,634 civilians were executed by governments last year using various methods, an increase of 50% compared to the year before. However, 90% of those killings took place in just three countries: Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The numbers exclude China, where these data remain a state secret, although Amnesty said thousands were almost certainly killed there in 2015 by the government. Iran killed 977 people, mostly for drug-related offenses. Executions in Saudi Arabia jumped 76% to at least 158 people. Most of them were beheaded but firing squads were also used. Amnesty said the U.S. carried out 28 executions, the lowest number since 1991. The numbers don’t include the Islamic State since it is not a recognized national government.

Panama Papers Trigger Resignations/Charges

Iceland’s prime minister became the first high-profile casualty over the leaked Panama Papers, stepping aside Tuesday following the disclosure of offshore assets that he and his wife held. That posed a conflict of interest for him, because Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, 41, had negotiated a deal for Iceland’s bankrupt banks at a time when he was a claimant in those banks. Gunnlaugsson had been expected to face a no-confidence vote in Parliament on Thursday, Icelandic news site Vísir reported. Gunnlaugsson on Monday denied any wrongdoing, but thousands protested outside the parliament building in Reykjavik over the disclosure that he owned an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands.

The Panama Papers claimed its first banking chief executive victim on Thursday with the resignation of Michael Grahammer, the CEO of Austrian lender Hypo Landesbank Vorarlberg. Vorarlberg was one of the institutions named in the 11.5 million leaked documents published this week. Grahammer said in a brief statement he was “100% convinced that the bank broke no laws or violated sanctions” agreements, but that he was stepping down because of the media’s inaccurate portrayal of the case. The U.K. Financial Conduct Authority said Thursday it has asked 20 banks and other financial firms to disclose their dealings with Mossack Fonseca, after reports that some of them allegedly helped clients hide money from tax authorities.

Argentine President Mauricio Macri, who has been linked to two offshore companies identified in the Panama Papers leak, will appear before a judge Friday to address his role in the businesses. Macri, a wealthy conservative who promised to crack down on corruption, has also said he intends to set up a blind trust to manage his accounts without his input for the rest of his time in office. Even as Macri tries to stave off the potential political fallout, a federal prosecutor has asked a judge for permission to investigate whether the president failed to disclose his role in the companies in his tax filings.

Panama Papers Also Reveal Corporate Shell Companies

A USA TODAY analysis of more than 1,000 American-based companies registered by Mossack Fonseca, the law firm at the heart of the Panama Papers leak, casts the United States openly into an uncomfortable role secretive tax havens. The analysis found that both Nevada and Wyoming have become secretive havens much like Bermuda and Switzerland have long been. And at least 150 companies set up by Mossack Fonseca in those states have ties to major corruption scandals in Brazil and Argentina. The corporate records of 1,000-plus Nevada business entities linked to the Panamanian law firm reveal layers of secretive ownership, with few having human names behind them, and most tracing back to a tiny number of overseas addresses. The financial records show more than 600 of the companies’ corporate officers are listed at one of just two addresses in the world, one in Panama and the other Seychelles, a small Indian Ocean archipelago. The addresses, in both countries, are the same as Mossack Fonseca’s headquarters.

Gun Background Checks on Record Pace

FBI background checks for gun purchases have surged by more than a third this year, compared to the first quarter of 2015. This puts 2016 is on track to surpass last year’s record of 23 million background checks. Background checks, also known as NICS, for National Instant Criminal Background Check System, totaled 7,682,141 in the first quarter this year. Gun sales are still being propelled by last year’s mass terrorist shootings in France and California, according to Rommel Dionisio, a gun industry analyst with Wunderlich Securities. Political rhetoric from the presidential campaign is also spurring gun sales as Hillary Clinton pushes for stronger gun control.

VA Bosses in 7 States Falsified Vets’ Wait Times

Supervisors instructed employees to falsify patient wait times at Veterans Affairs’ medical facilities in at least seven states, according to a USA TODAY analysis of more than 70 investigation reports released in recent weeks. Overall, those reports — released after multiple inquiries and a Freedom of Information Act request — reveal for the first time specifics of widespread scheduling manipulation. Employees at 40 VA medical facilities in 19 states and Puerto Rico regularly “zeroed out” veteran wait times, the analysis shows. In some cases, investigators found manipulation had been going on for as long as a decade. The manipulation masked growing demand as new waves of veterans returned from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and as Vietnam veterans aged and needed more health care. The newly released findings show that supervisors instructed schedulers to manipulate wait times in Arkansas, California, Delaware, Illinois, New York, Texas and Vermont, giving the false impression facilities there were meeting VA performance measures for shorter wait times.

Economic News

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have said repeatedly that America’s unemployment rate is higher than 5%. Now a Wall Street bank agrees with them. The real rate is “more like 6%+,” Bank of America Merrill Lynch said in a research report Tuesday. Bank of America believes that over 10 million people want a job and can’t get one. But by the Obama administration’s count, only 8 million people are among those seeking employment. It means the job market hasn’t fully healed, argues Bank of America.

The American oil boom is proving far harder to kill than OPEC expected. Even though OPEC has been drowning the world in oil, the U.S. pumped a near-record 9.18 million barrels per day in January, according to recent stats released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That’s down a miniscule 0.6% from the end of 2015. Many, including OPEC, expected U.S. production would crumble as oil prices declined sharply. America’s incredibly resilient oil boom has not tapped on the brakes hard enough yet to fix that epic global supply glut that has caused crude to crash as much as 75% over the past two years.

More than 40% of Americans who borrowed from the government’s main student-loan program aren’t making payments or are behind on more than $200 billion owed, raising worries that millions of them may never repay, reports the Wall Street Journal. The new figures represent the fallout of a decade-long borrowing boom as record numbers of students enrolled in trade schools, universities and graduate programs.

China has stopped bleeding cash — at least, for now. The country’s foreign exchange reserves rose by roughly $10 billion in March to $3.21 trillion, the first monthly increase since October, according to central bank data. The modest upward tick indicates that money is no longer flooding out of China at the torrid pace seen in late 2015 and early 2016. Investors had been sending huge sums out of China amid worries over a slowing economy, stock market turmoil and a weakening yuan. Now, it appears that investor concerns have eased.

Migrant Update

The European Union’s border agency admitted Tuesday it cannot fully track the flood of refugees pouring in, and said a “staggering number” of Europeans have joined terror groups only to return to the continent amid the migrant wave. Europe reported a record 1.82 million illegal border crossings last year, according to Frontex, but the group conceded that the true number of illegal crossings is probably much higher because so many refugees have entered Europe undetected. “The Paris attacks in November 2015 clearly demonstrated that irregular migratory flows could be used by terrorists to enter the EU,” the report said. “There is no EU system capable of tracing people’s movements following an illegal border-crossing.”

The EU Commission announced Wednesday it wants to change the standard that forces the first nation where a migrant arrives to process his or her asylum request. “The current system is not sustainable,” EU Vice-President Frans Timmermans said. The Commission on Wednesday proposed activating a “distribution key” to spread asylum applicants around the EU. That means each EU nation would have to take a set number of asylum-seekers, according to a quota devised by the bloc. However, a mandatory distribution of some asylum-seekers already in Europe has caused serious frictions among many EU nations.

Greece deported a second group of migrants Friday to Turkey as part of a European Union deal aimed at reducing the number of displaced people traveling to the continent. The 45 people sent back on a ferry from Lesbos to the Turkish port Dikili followed a four-day pause. The resumption of expulsions came amid protests in Greece by activists who say thousands of migrants are being held there in poor and overcrowded conditions. Delays have also been hampered by overburdened Greek authorities processing asylum claims. The deal between the EU and Turkey went into effect Monday, when 202 migrants were sent back. Under the terms of the deal, for each Syrian migrant that Greece returns to Turkey the EU will take in a Syrian refugee who meets asylum criteria.

Persecution Watch

After 10 months of urban conflict in Turkey’s war-torn southeast, the government has expropriated huge sections of property, apparently to rebuild and restore the historical center of the region’s largest city, Diyarbakir. But to the dismay of the city’s handful of Christian congregations, this includes all its Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches. Unlike the state-funded mosques, Turkey’s ancient church buildings – some of which pre-date Islam – have been managed, historically, by church foundations, reports ChristianHeadlines.com. The new decision has effectively made the Diyarbakir churches – one 1,700 years old, another built only in 2003 – state property of Turkey, an Islamic country of 75 million.

The Nepali government has removed Christmas as a national holiday, which has prompted protests from the country’s Christian population. Christian Today reports that Nepal first recognized Christmas as a national holiday eight years ago when the country became a secular state. Now, however, Nepal has removed Christmas Day as a national holiday because the Nepali calendar is already too filled with the holidays of other religions. The government told Christians that those who work for the government will still be given Christmas Day off as a holiday. Nepali Christians say that this doesn’t take into account all the Christians who work in the private sector, however.

Videos allegedly showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of fetal body parts have been taken by government agents from the home of undercover journalist David Daleiden. FoxNews.com reports that agents from the California Department of Justice raided Daleiden’s home and confiscated the undercover videos Daleiden had taken of Planned Parenthood employees which show the employees casually discussing the sale of fetal body parts. Daleiden said that the agents had, however, not taken documents which he says implicate Planned Parenthood in illegal behavior. Matt Heffron, a legal advisor to Daleiden and former federal prosecutor, said that the government agents’ raid of Daleiden’s home was “outrageously out of proportion for the type of crime alleged. It’s a discredit to law enforcement [and] an oppressive abuse of government power.”

Islamic State

The Islamic State’s presence in Libya has doubled over the past year, but the political chaos in the country has prevented the United States and its allies from building a local ground force needed to confront the militants, U.S. officials said. The number of Islamic State fighters in Libya has grown to 6,000 fighters, Army Gen. David Rodriguez, commander of U.S. Africa Command, said Thursday. The Pentagon stands ready to support a Libyan national military if current efforts to build a central government succeed and if the new government asks for help. Last week’s arrival of a prime minister to head a new U.N.-backed unity government is providing hope that Libyans will form a legitimate central government in a country that spiraled into chaos after the collapse of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in 2011.

Danish police seized weapons and ammunition in connection with the arrests of four people suspected of being radicalized by ISIS, Copenhagen police said Thursday. The arrests and seizures mark the latest efforts by European authorities to crack down on terror in the wake of attacks Brussels and Paris. ISIS claimed responsibility for both those attacks as it spreads terror from its epicenter in Iraq and Syria.

India

India’s demographics are mind-boggling: By 2020, it will have 900 million people of working age, and the average age of its citizens will fall to 29. Two years later, it should pass China to become the world’s most populous country. But unless India makes big improvements in how it educates and trains students, this demographic boom will saddle the country with another generation of unskilled workers destined to languish in low-paying jobs. The need to train workers quickly is paramount. Currently only 2% of India’s workers have received formal skills training, according to Ernst & Young. That compares with 68% in the U.K., 75% in Germany and 96% in South Korea.

Environment

A massive methane leak in Southern California was expected to have lasting impacts, but a new announcement by energy officials suggests prolonged blackouts – as long as 14 days – could also be coming as temperatures soar this summer. At the same time, state regulators continue to investigate what caused the blowout that led to the largest-known release of methane, a greenhouse gas, in U.S. history. For four months, the well leaked uncontrollably, sickening nearby residents and forcing more than 6,000 from their homes. Officials concluded that they “will reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of gas shortages this summer that are large enough to cause electricity interruptions for the region’s residents and businesses.”

Earthquakes

A series of small earthquakes swarmed the state’s northwest corner after an initial magnitude 2.3 earthquake on the Arizona strip March 29, officials said Tuesday. The earthquake that struck near Littlefield, Ariz., a community about 20 miles southwest of St. George, Utah, was the first of 18 small-magnitude tremors that lasted through Sunday, according to the Arizona Geological Survey. The largest event was a 2.6 magnitude quake at about 8:36 a.m. Sunday. The area is “tectonically active,” but this was the first time a swarm has been recorded in the northwest corner of the state, bordering Utah and Nevada. The tremors were large enough to register with the seismometers installed in the area but small enough to go unnoticed.

Wildfires

Large grass fires have yet again ignited in Oklahoma and Kansas, forcing at least 300 people from their homes while destroying an unknown number of structures. The flames have been fanned by strong winds r, leaving local crews scrambling to put out the flames. Residents were asked to evacuate in the town of Freedom, some 170 miles northwest of Oklahoma City. “Strong winds across the Plains are creating dangerous conditions for the rapid spread of wildfires particularly from portions of New Mexico and west Texas, western Oklahoma, and Kansas,” reported weather.com. The 350 Complex fire has burned nearly 56,000 acres of land in Oklahoma as of Thursday morning and has forced hundreds to evacuate. It was caused by arcing power lines.

A wildfire driven by gusty winds erupted in western Arizona on Wednesday and jumped the Colorado River into California, devouring more than 2 square miles of brush and prompting the evacuation of a resort and RV parks before the flames began to ease, authorities said. The fire that began before dawn in the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, which spans both states, threw huge waves of smoke into the air along the border before the 15- to 20-mph winds began easing in late afternoon. The fire, which burned more than 1,400 acres of salt cedars, mesquite and river-bottom vegetation, was only 5 percent contained by nightfall Wednesday.

Weather

Multiple rounds of April snow blanketed parts of the Midwest and Northeast this week. With a southward dip in the jet stream dominating eastern North America, waves of cold air from Canada will continue to surge into the eastern states. The air has been cold enough to deposit snow in the Midwest and Northeast. As much as 12.3 inches was reported near Negaunee, Michigan as of Thursday morning. Just under 9 inches of snow had piled up in Marquette, Michigan on Wednesday. Disturbances rotating through the southward dip in the jet stream across the East will have just enough moisture to produce additional bouts of snow into this weekend. Gusty winds will accompany these fast-moving systems, as well. The prolonged siege of Arctic air has shattered daily records in the Northeast and Great Lakes, with more record cold expected this weekend.

Tropical Cyclone Zena is passing south of Fiji just days after torrential rain triggered major flooding, and just six weeks after parts of the archipelago were slammed by Tropical Cyclone Winston, their strongest tropical cyclone on record. Zena peaked in intensity as a Category 2 cyclone Wednesday afternoon with maximum sustained winds estimated by the U.S. Joint Typhoon Warning Center of 105 mph. Fiji’s National Disaster Management Office urged residents living in flood-prone areas to move to higher ground in advance of Zena.

Signs of the Times (4/5/16)

April 5, 2016

Temple of Baal in New York Going Up Same Day the Blood Sacrifice to the Beast Begins

Charisma News reports that the exact day when reproductions of the arch that stood in front of the Temple of Baal are going to be erected in Times Square in New York City and in Trafalgar Square in London is also the exact day when a very important occult festival related to the worship of Baal begins. April 19 is the first day of a 13-day period of time known as “the Blood Sacrifice to the Beast” that culminates on the high occult holy day of Beltane on May 1. In some parts of the world, Beltane is much better known as “May Day,” and it has been described as the “Illuminati’s second most sacred holiday.” April 19 is also known as “the Feast of Moloch.” Molech is an ancient Canaanite god that is repeatedly denounced in the Old Testament. Child sacrifice was a key feature of the worship of Moloch, and a giant statue of this pagan deity is set up at the Bohemian Grove in northern California every year.

Christian Persecution Watch

A Christian Illinois couple has lost a lawsuit to a gay couple whose civil union ceremony they refused to hold at their bed and breakfast. Jim and Beth Walder, owners of the Timber Creek Bed & Breakfast in Paxton, Illinois, were fined $80,000 last Friday by the Human Rights Commission for refusing to host the civil union of Todd and Mark Wathen in 2011, according to Christian Today. When the Wathens contacted the Walders about having their ceremony at the bed and breakfast the Walders explained, “We will never host same-sex civil unions. We will never host same-sex weddings even if they become legal in Illinois. We believe homosexuality is wrong and unnatural based on what the Bible says about it.” Despite the fines, the Walders remain committed to their beliefs. “In our opinion, neither the state of Illinois nor the U.S. Supreme Court has the authority to tamper with the definition of marriage. God alone created marriage and declared thousands of years ago that it was to be between a man and a woman. Not two men. Not two women,” the couple stated.

Oxford theology students in their second and third years will no longer be required to study Christianity. Christian Today reports that the college has decided to restructure their theology curriculum based on the changing events of the world and the more diversified student body. While the study of Christianity is still mandatory in the first year of theology study, second and third year students will now be able to choose to study other subjects such as “feminist approaches to religion and theology” or “Buddhism in space and time.” Professor Johannes Zachhuber, the theology faculty’s board chairman, stated that the decision to change the curriculum is due to “the dramatic change in the way religion is seen and practiced in the UK.”

 ISIS May Use Drones to Deliver Nuclear Bombs

Britain Prime Minister David Cameron warned Western leaders Friday the Islamic State plans to use drones to spray nuclear material over Western cities. The UK Daily Telegraph reported that there is growing concerns among world leaders that extremists are looking to buy commercial drones to launch a dirty bomb attack over major metropolitan cities, which could kill thousands. Cameron warned that the dangers of ISIS getting hold of nuclear material were “only too real.” He met with leaders from the U.S., France and China to plan out a reaction response to such an attack, the newspaper reported.

Obama: Drone Strikes Have Become More Precise

President Obama on Friday defended his administration’s regular use of drones or other airstrikes to target terror leaders or training camps in Somalia, Libya and Yemen. Obama acknowledged that in the past the strikes had sometimes inadvertently killed civilians, but procedures for approving such strikes has improved, he claims. “There has been in the past legitimate criticism that the architecture, the legal architecture around the use of drone strikes or other kinetic strikes wasn’t as precise as it should have been, and there’s no doubt that civilians were killed that shouldn’t have been,” Obama said at a press conference at the end of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. Obama’s remarks came after the U.S. military said Friday it conducted an airstrike a day earlier targeting a senior terrorist leader in Somalia. Last month the Pentagon launched a strike that killed up to 150 militants at a terrorist training camp in Somalia,

Japan to Reduce Stockpiles of Enriched Uranium

Japan has agreed to reduce its stockpile of highly enriched uranium – nuclear fuel that could be used for bombs – and to share more information with the U.S. about its nuclear activities, affirming its commitment to a peaceful nuclear program. The agreement, which will reduce the possibility of nuclear fuel being stolen by terrorists, was announced Friday by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Obama at the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. Japan is the only country to have been attacked with nuclear weapons, used by the U.S. to end World War II. Japan has sworn not to produce, develop or import them and is taking these steps to assure the world that it remains committed to that goal, spokesman Yasuhisa Kawamura told USA TODAY.

U.S. Military Suicides Remain High for 7th Year

The Pentagon reported Friday that 265 active-duty service members killed themselves last year, continuing a trend of unusually high suicide rates that have plagued the U.S. military for at least seven years. The numbers of suicides among troops was 145 in 2001 and began a steady increase until more than doubling to 321 in 2012, the worst year in recent history for service members killing themselves. The suicide rate for the Army that year was nearly 30 suicides per 100,000 soldiers, well above the national rate of 12.5 per 100,000. The increase in suicide in the military was driven largely by the Army, where suicides rose sharply from 45 in 2001 to 165 in 2012. The Army reported 120 suicides last year, the same as in 2013 and down from 124 in 2014.

Politically Correct Obama White House Censors French President about Islam

The Obama administration were apparently offended after the President of France said some unkind things about Islam last Friday. When French President Hollande was discussing the dangers of terrorism he happened to mention that the root problem was Islam. Someone at the White House did not like this. In fact, they were so offended, they edited the comments right out of the official video. Fortunately, the Media Research was able to capture proof of what Hollande really said. After MRCTV reported that the White House posted video muting out audio of French Pres. Francoise Hollande and his translator saying the words, “Islamist terrorism,” the White House posted an explanation claiming “a technical issue with the audio during the recording” caused the lost audio. But, then, somehow, there were able to post a link to the video without the “technical error.”

North Carolina ‘Bathroom’ Law May Risk Federal Aid

The Obama administration is considering whether North Carolina’s new law on gay and transgender rights makes the state ineligible for billions of dollars in federal aid for schools, highways and housing, officials said Friday. Cutting off any federal money — or even simply threatening to do so — would put major new pressure on North Carolina to repeal the law, which eliminated local protections for gay and transgender people and restricted which bathrooms transgender people can use. A loss of federal money could send the state into a budget crisis and jeopardize services that are central to daily life. The law prohibits transgender people from using public bathrooms that do not match the sexes on their birth certificates. North Carolina has also faced criticism from businesses including Bank of America, which has its headquarters in Charlotte, N.C.; Apple; and Facebook. The National Basketball Association said that it might move the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte.

‘Ransomware’ Crime Wave Increasing

Security experts call the crime “ransomware,” when hackers lock digital files, like text documents and pictures, and demand a ransom before the system is unlocked. The FBI says it received 2,453 complaints about ransomware hold-ups last year, costing the victims more than $24 million dollars. Victims often pay because, so far, authorities have been unable to stop it. That was the conclusion made by the Horry County School District in South Carolina. “You get to the point of making the business decision: Do I make my end-users — in our case teachers and students — wait for weeks and weeks and weeks while we restore servers from backup? Or do we pay the ransom and get the data back online more quickly?” Hackers often demand to be paid in Bitcoin (XBT), a digital currency that’s difficult to trace back to actual people. Horry County deposited the equivalent of $10,000 into the hackers’ Bitcoin account after which the school computer system was back up and running. Earlier this year, officials at Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital in Los Angeles said they paid the Bitcoin equivalent of $17,000 to cybercriminals after patient and doctor records were locked for almost two weeks.

‘Panama Papers’ Leak Reveals How Rich Hide their Riches

Sunday’s jaw-dropping “Panama Papers” leak, which shows a global network of offshore companies helping the wealthy hide their assets, is already being called “the Wikileaks of the mega-rich.” The hashtag #panamapapers topped Twitter on Sunday afternoon. Among those reacting through tweets: Edward Snowden, the 2013 CIA leaker, who said the “Biggest leak in the history of data journalism just went live, and it’s about corruption.” The Washington, D.C.-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ) said the trove of 11.5 million records details the offshore holdings of a dozen current and former world leaders, as well as businessmen, criminals, celebrities and sports stars. The data span nearly 40 years, from 1977 through the end of 2015, ICIJ said, allowing “a never-before-seen view inside the offshore world — providing a day-to-day, decade-by-decade look at how dark money flows through the global financial system, breeding crime and stripping national treasuries of tax revenues.” Iceland’s prime minister is under pressure to quit after the leak of the ‘Panama Papers’ tax documents showed he and his wife used an offshore firm to allegedly hide million-dollar investments.

Economic News

Economic warning signs from RedFlag News: U.S. factory orders have now declined on a year over year basis for 16 months in a row. In the post-World War II era this has never happened outside of a recession. Corporate earnings are projected to be down 8.5 percent for the first quarter of 2016 compared to one year ago.  This will be the fourth quarter in a row that we have seen year over year declines, and the last time that happened was during the last recession. Total business sales have fallen 5 percent since the peak in mid-2014. Corporate debt defaults have soared to the highest level that we have seen since 2009. The average rating on U.S. corporate debt has fallen to “BB”, which is lower than it has been at any point since the last financial crisis. Fifty-one oil and gas drillers in North America have filed for bankruptcy since the beginning of last year. Consumers in the United States accumulated more new credit card debt during the 4th quarter of 2015 than they did during the entire years of 2009, 2010 and 2011 combined. Subprime auto loan delinquencies have hit their highest level since the last recession. Major retailers all over the country are shutting down hundreds of stores as the “retail apocalypse” accelerates. Since peaking during the 3rd quarter of 2014, U.S. exports of goods and services have been steadily declining.  This is something that we never see outside of a recession.

Government debt continues to spiral out of control.  At this point it is sitting at a staggering total of $19.2 trillion, but when Barack Obama first entered the White House it was only 10.6 trillion dollars.  That means that our government has been stealing an average of more than 100 million dollars an hour from future generations of Americans every single hour of every single day since Barack Obama was inaugurated

Digital disruption is turning finance on its head — and destroying lots of traditional banking jobs along the way. A wave of innovation has made it possible for people to get their banking done without walking into a branch if they don’t want to. The downsizing of the bank workforce is about to accelerate as more technology takes over jobs humans used to do, according to a new Citigroup report. As many as 30% of bank jobs could be lost between 2015 and 2025, mainly due to retail banking automation, Citi warned.

Migrant Update

Greece began deporting migrants from the island of Lesbos back to Turkey on Monday, as Turkish and European Union authorities began implementing a plan aimed at managing the continent’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. According to the Turkish newspaper, Hurriyet, most of the migrants were non-Syrians, such as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. At the same time, 16 Syrian refugees from Turkey arrived by plane in Hanover, Germany, according to the German press agency, DPA. That is in keeping with the EU-Turkey agreement, which stipulates that the EU will take in one legitimate asylum seeker from war-torn Syria currently in Turkey for each Syrian returned to Turkey. The political bloc does not consider asylum applications from people who want to settle in Europe for purely economic reasons to be legitimate. The agreement, which will see the EU pay an additional $3 billion to Turkey for hosting refugees. An estimated 2.7 million Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war are currently in neighboring Turkey, which has said it lacks resources to manage them many without EU aid.

A day-long protest by immigrants Monday on the Italian resort island of Sardinia paralyzed city traffic in the capital city of Cagliari, as Eritrean and Somali protesters sat or lay down in the streets preventing any flow of traffic. A group of some 100 young migrants began marching through the city protesting around noon Monday, and then occupied the city’s main square for nearly seven hours. The protesters were part of the 661 migrants who were taken to the port of Cagliari after being rescued off the Libyan coast last month. On Monday evening, after a lengthy mediation, police officials finally managed to convince the migrants to desist. The migrants were then transported on buses back to the Pirri hotel on the outskirts of Cagliari, which has been turned into a makeshift immigrant shelter and where the migrants have been residing for several weeks. The migrants are demanding to leave the island, which is roughly the size of New Hampshire, and to be taken elsewhere, since the majority would like to be able to continue traveling north into Europe. Many have refused to participate in identification procedures for fear of not being able to leave Sardinia.

Terror Update:

At least 22 radical Islamists from Europe linked to the terror network behind the Brussels and Paris attacks are suspected to be still at large, putting security services on high alert as they rush to prevent the Islamic State from striking again in the region. Many of the fugitives have been involved in previous Islamic State plots, officials say, and almost all of them have spent months or years fighting in Syria. Interviews and confidential court documents seen by The Wall Street Journal portray the fugitives as part of an extensive web of young men who developed a deep hatred of the West after embracing radical Islam at underground mosques and clandestine meetings in Molenbeek, a heavily Muslim district in the heart of Brussels.

Islamic State

The cease-fire in Syria is collapsing Reports out of Syria Tuesday indicate that the Islamic State (ISIS) terror militia has launched a fierce attack against Assad regime forces at a key city on the route between territory IS controls in Syria and Iraq. Unconfirmed reports say ISIS used mustard gas in its attack. Heavy fighting between the regime and the Al-Nusra Front was also reported in several areas and Iranian forces are reportedly pouring into Syria to assist the regime in repelling the attacks.

Syrian troops seized the key Islamic State bastion of Al-Qaryatain, dealing the jihadists a new blow in the heart of the country’s a week after expelling them from Palmyra, state television says. Anti-ISIS coalition airstrikes on Sunday killed a top militant who was responsible for the death of a U.S. Marine in northern Iraq last month, a military spokesman said Sunday. “Jasim Khadijah was an ISIS member and former Iraqi officer believed directly connected to the recent rocket attack that killed Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin and wounded eight other U.S. Marines,” spokesman Col. Steve Warren said.

Syria

There is more evidence that Russian forces are not pulling out of Syria, but instead, more troops are arriving there, a new video from Russian television Saturday apparently shows. The video shows a convoy of Russian troops headed to Palmyra to begin mine clearance operations after ISIS was routed from there earlier this week. Russian jets and helicopter gunships helped Syrian forces push ISIS from Palmyra, once a popular tourist destination filled with ancient Roman-era artifacts, earlier this week. Russian President Vladimir Putin said in March that his main forces would begin withdrawing from Syria.  Pentagon officials now say otherwise.

Iraq

ISIS-affiliated militants unleashed a wave of suicide attacks across Iraq Monday, killing at least 29 people and wounding dozens. The deadliest attack took place in the southern province of Dhi Qar when a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a restaurant that is frequented by Shiite paramilitary militia fighters, killing at least 14 people. Another 27 people were wounded in the attack that targeted a famous restaurant on the main highway that links Baghdad with the southern provinces. At around the same time, a suicide car bomber set off his explosives-laden car in a commercial area in the oil-rich city of Basra, killing at least five people and wounding 10 others. Earlier in the day, a suicide bomber rammed his car into a security checkpoint in Baghdad’s northeastern suburb of Sadr al-Qanat, killing six troops and wounding 13 others. Another suicide car bomber hit a headquarters of paramilitary troops in the town of Mishahda, 20 miles north of Baghdad, killing four troops and wounding 10 others. According to the United Nations figures, at least 1,119 Iraqis were killed and 1,561 were wounded in March.

Iran

The crew of a U.S. Navy ship stopped a massive Iranian arms shipment dead in its tracks, seizing thousands of weapons, AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers that likely were headed to Yemen, the Pentagon announced Monday. The seizure, which unfolded in the Arabian Sea on March 28, was the third of its kind in recent weeks, military officials say. Iran has been supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen in their proxy war against a Saudi-led coalition backed by the United States. Like Iran, the Houthis are a Shia-led group. The arms shipment appears to mark the latest provocative action from the Islamic republic. Last month, Iran announced that it tested missiles marked with the phrase “Israel must be wiped out,” in violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution tied to the recent nuclear deal. The resolution forbids Iran from working on its ballistic missile program for eight years and bans sales of its conventional weapons.

A senior Iranian general issued a bellicose warning to the US Monday that it must not cross the Islamic Republic’s “red line” in regards to its ballistic missile program. He added an accusation that the US lied about lifting sanctions on Iran and said that recent test launches of missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons were Iran’s right and no other country had any business objecting or even commenting.

  • Is anyone (besides Obama) surprised that the Iranians are not honoring the accord?

Somalia

Hundreds of Al-Shabaab fighters descended mid-March on the shores of Puntland, a semi-autonomous state in Somalia. The mid-March attack was highly unusual, coming from the sea and outside Al-Shabaab’s typical areas of operation. But most unusual of all was the size of these recruits. These were children. Many of the fighters did not look as though they’d seen their 13th birthdays. While an estimated 200-300 were killed in firefights in Puntland and its neighboring region of Galmudug, Puntland’s President Abdiweli Gaas told CNN that up to 100 of them surrendered and dropped their weapons when they realized they were overpowered. Many of the children had battle wounds from previous fights that have yet to heal, interrogators said.

Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry announced a unilateral cease-fire Sunday against the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a claim that rebel forces there promptly rejected. Fighting in what was a dormant conflict for two decades flared up over the weekend with at least 30 troops killed on both sides. Each side blamed the other for Saturday’s escalation, the worst since the end of a full-scale war in 1994. Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in Azerbaijan, has been under the control of local ethnic Armenian forces and the Armenian military since a war ended in 1994 with no resolution of the region’s status. The conflict is fueled by long-simmering tensions between Christian Armenians and mostly Muslim Azeris.

Earthquakes

A magnitude-6.9 earthquake struck the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu on Sunday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS said the quake hit at 7:23 p.m. local time off the island of Espiritu Santo, more than 250 miles northwest of the capital, Port Vila. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center initially warned of a potential tsunami but subsequently said the threat had “now largely passed.” Vanuatu is situated in one of the most seismically active areas in the world, and similar temblors struck it in October and December.

Weather

Severe weather moving from the Plains to the South spawned at least 20 tornadoes and battered areas with heavy rain, flooding and hail, with more severe weather possible into Saturday night. A train in Alabama was derailed Friday after flooding washed away part of a railroad bridge during a multi-day round of severe weather that clobbered the South, spawning more than a dozen tornadoes. The storms wrecked several homes in central Georgia. Local news reports showed destroyed homes and damage to trees and power lines in the area.

Winter refused to let go in the Great Lakes and Northeast, as heavy snow pasted parts of the regions Sunday and Monday. Whiteout conditions in New York state caused several accidents overnight Sunday and early Monday. Winter weather advisories remain in place Monday for parts of southern New York, southern Vermont, Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire, northern Connecticut and Rhode Island, the National Weather Service said. With a southward dip in the jet stream dominating eastern North America, waves of cold air from Canada will continue to surge into the eastern states

A strong low-pressure system impacting the Midwest and Northeast this weekend brought strong winds and blowing snow to a widespread area. A tree downed by strong winds collapsed on top a vehicle in Massachusetts Sunday morning, fatally injuring the two people inside. Winds over 60 mph lashed across some of the impacted areas, causing trees and power lines to come crashing down. Since Saturday, hundreds of thousands lost power. Two people in College Park, Maryland were injured when strong winds sent a large tree crashing onto their car Saturday night. A man was injured in Indianapolis Saturday afternoon after strong winds toppled over a storefront Chipotle sign. A building collapse in Toledo is being blamed on high winds. In Cincinnati, Interstate 75 was closed for a period of time after falling limbs and power lines littered the highway. Nearby homes and vehicles were also damaged. Over 20,000 customers were left without power statewide. Over 65,000 were left in the dark in New Jersey due to the strong winds Sunday morning. High winds in Massachusetts took down trees and power lines in Bristol, Norfolk, Middlesex, Plymouth and Providence counties Sunday. More than 85,000 customers in Pennsylvania were left without power across the state during the widespread high winds early Sunday. Damaging winds were also responsible for the partial collapse of two New York buildings, one in Bronx County and the other in Kings County.

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

Signs of the Times (4/1/16)

April 1, 2016

Abortion Update

Florida became the 12th state to defund Planned Parenthood when Governor Rick Scott signed a bill that would revoke taxpayer funding from all clinics that also do abortions. The bill would defund the Planned Parenthood Florida affiliate of taxpayer dollars, and require abortion doctors to have hospital admitting privileges or patient transfer agreements. In addition, it would increase abortion clinic inspection requirements and licensing fees. In Florida, Planned Parenthood receives about $200,000 in taxpayer Medicaid funds every year, according to the Tampa Bay Times. The bill will redirect those funds to comprehensive health centers instead.

Utah has become the first state to enact a unique new law requiring that abortion clinics give anesthesia to unborn babies at 20 weeks or later before they are aborted. Pro-life Gov. Gary Herbert signed the law on Monday, CBS News reports. The law will “eliminate or alleviate organic pain to the unborn child” in abortions starting at 20 weeks. The law includes exceptions if the mother’s life is at risk or if the unborn baby will not survive outside the womb. Twenty weeks is the point when most scientific evidence shows unborn babies can feel intense pain, though some research indicates they may feel pain even earlier.

Governor Doug Ducey and a bipartisan majority of Arizona legislators have made Arizona one of the first states in the nation to prohibit the sale, experimentation, and research of aborted babies and their body parts. No longer will Planned Parenthood or any other abortion provider be able to peddle aborted remains and exploit a loophole in federal law to make an extra buck. Gov. Ducey also signed into law SB 1485 to ensure that the state will not facilitate any donations to the abortion industry through the State Employee Charitable Campaign. Gov. Ducey issued a statement indicating that the legislature may need to take additional steps to respond to this week’s unexpected action by the FDA (see below).

The Food and Drug Administration has relaxed the guidelines for taking a pill that induces abortion, reviving one of the most contentious issues of the abortion debate. The change allows women to use the drug further into pregnancy and with fewer visits to the doctor. The announcement on Wednesday came unexpectedly in the final stretch of the Obama administration and amid the Presidential election campaign. Some abortion opponents charged that the new regimen was politically motivated. The F.D.A. said its actions were based strictly on medical science.

Majority Now Say Islam Promotes Violence & Support Ban on Muslims

Following the terrorist attack in Brussels, a slight majority of Americans now support a ban on Muslims entering the United States and think “the religion of peace” is a fundamentally violent religion, according to a poll conducted from March 24-25 by YouGov.com. The poll found 30 percent of Americans “strongly agree” with a shutdown of Muslims entering the United States while 21 percent “agree somewhat” with the proposal. Support for the proposal is partisan, with only 32 percent of Democrats supporting it compared to 52 percent of Independents and 82 percent of Republicans. A majority of Republicans (83 percent) and a majority of Independents (63 percent) responded that Islam is more likely to encourage violence among its believer than other religions, while a majority of Democrats (61 percent) responded Islam does not encourage more violence among its adherents.

European Security Network Failed to Recognize Signs of Imminent Terror

Two years before the Paris and Brussels attacks, a unit inside the Islamic State dedicated to carrying out terror attacks in Europe was already in motion. These operatives began plotting small attacks meant to test and stretch Europe’s security apparatus, according to court proceedings, interrogation transcripts and records of European wiretaps obtained by The New York Times. Yet local authorities discounted the plots, describing them as isolated or random acts, the connection to the Islamic State either overlooked or played down. For much of 2012 and 2013, the jihadist group that eventually became the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, was putting down roots in Syria. Even as the group began aggressively recruiting foreigners, especially Europeans, policy makers in the United States and Europe continued to see it as a lower-profile branch of Al Qaeda that was mostly interested in gaining and governing territory.

  • With all the money spent worldwide on security and intelligence, it can only be deemed a catastrophic failure, undercut by politics and hubris.

Prosecutor: Arrest Foiled another Paris Attack

French authorities charged terror suspect Reda Kriket with membership in a jihadist group and accused him of plotting an “imminent” attack in Paris, Prosecutor Francois Molins said Wednesday. Molins said an arsenal of guns and bomb components was found in Kriket’s apartment when he was arrested last week, France24 reported. Authorities had no information on specific targets, but based on the weaponry, the attack would have been “extremely serious,” Molins said. Kriket, 34, is suspected of helping plan and execute the attacks across Paris on Nov. 13 that killed 130 people and left hundreds wounded. Investigations showed Kriket played a key role in financing the network with money from robberies and stolen goods.

Terrorism Up by 800%

The deadly toll of terrorism around the globe has jumped nearly 800 percent in the past five years, according to an exhaustive new report that blames the alarming expansion of Islamist groups across the Middle East and Africa. The nonprofit Investigative Project on Terrorism found that nearly 30,000 people per year were killed by terrorists in 2014-2015, compared to terrorism’s death toll of 3,284 per year in the 2001-2006 timeframe. The authors of the study say that the exponential increase shows two troubling trends: More attacks are happening, and they tend to be deadlier than ever.

ISIS has Infiltrated Brussels Airport says Union

As many as 50 ISIS supporters have infiltrated the same Brussels airport where terror attacks occurred last month, working as cleaners, caterers and baggage handlers and positioning themselves for new attacks, the Belgian police union warned in an open letter to the government. “They have a security badge and have access to the cockpit of a plane,” says the letter from union secretary Alain Peeters to the Belgian Interior Ministry. Brussels Airport handles more than 23 million passengers per year in the European Union capital. It is still shut down following the March 22 bombings, in which three Islamists fanatics set off suitcase bombs

U.S. Helps Belgians Analyze Terrorist Computers

Belgian officials have seized two laptops and multiple phones, including iPhones, from suspects and their relatives in raids since the March 22 terror attacks, and have asked the U.S. for technical assistance. The sharing of the laptops and phones with U.S. authorities hadn’t been previously disclosed—and signals the extent to which Belgium is seeking the help of American officials to make progress in a case that continues to frustrate investigators. Officials are hoping the hard drives and phones will give investigators new clues to track down a network that has become increasingly adept at hiding its communications from authorities.

Russia Skips U.S.-Hosted Nuclear Summit

President Obama will host leaders from more than 50 countries Thursday for an international nuclear summit despite the absence of two power players — Russia and Pakistan. Pakistan’s prime minister canceled his trip after a deadly terror attack in Lahore this week, but Russia said they simply weren’t interested in coming. The summit will begin with a working dinner Thursday to discuss nuclear terrorism and promote disarmament. Obama will also take time to meet with Japan, South Korea and China later this week about threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Obama will hold private meetings earlier in the day with the top officials from Japan, South Korea, and China, sessions devoted mainly to North Korea’s nukes. Preventing nuclear terrorism tops the agenda Friday in the bi-annual Nuclear Security Summit.

ICE Operation Nets more than 1,100 Arrests in Five Weeks

Federal agents announced Monday they swept up nearly 1,000 suspected drug traffickers, human smugglers, sex traffickers and murderers during a widespread five-week operation aimed at landing a punishing blow against transnational criminal gangs. The resulting 1,133 arrests included: 1,001 criminal arrests; 915 gang members and associates; 239 foreign nationals from 13 countries in Central America, Asia, Europe and the Caribbean; and 132 immigration violations. Agents also seized 150 firearms, more than 20 kilos of narcotics and more than $70,000. “This operation is the latest example of ICE’s ongoing efforts, begun more than a decade ago under Operation Community Shield, to target violent gang members and their associates, to eradicate the violence they inflict upon our communities and to stop the cash flow to transnational organized crime groups operating overseas,” ICE Director Sarah R. Saldana said in a statement.

FBI Accessed San Bernardino Shooter’s Phone without Apple’s Help

The Justice Department is abandoning its bid to force Apple to help it unlock the iPhone used by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino terrorist attack because investigators have found a way in without the tech giant’s assistance, prosecutors wrote in a court filing Monday. The stunning move averts a courtroom showdown pitting Apple against the government — and privacy interests against security concerns — that many in the tech community had warned might set dangerous precedents. It is unclear how, precisely, investigators got into the phone, or what FBI agents learned about the plot from the materials they were able to review. It is rumored that they received help from Israeli technicians. The government’s surprise decision to withdraw its case against Apple adds uncertainty to criminal cases where state and local authorities have been confronted with more than 1,000 locked smartphones and other devices, blocking access to potential evidence, according to a survey of more than a dozen jurisdictions.

Obamacare Patients Sicker and Costlier than Expected

Patients under Obamacare are sicker and need significantly more medical care than those in employer-sponsored plans, according to a new Blue Cross Blue Shield Association report. This raises fresh concerns about the possibility of steep rate hikes for 2017 and of insurers leaving the Obamacare exchanges. The study, the first of its kind to look at millions of enrollees across the country, found that Obamacare members have higher rates of costly illnesses such as diabetes, depression, hypertension, heart disease, HIV and Hepatitis C. They also use more medical services — including emergency rooms, in-patient hospital care, doctors and prescriptions than patients in employer-sponsored plans. Their cost of care was 22% higher than those in work-based health plans in 2015. The fact that these patients are sicker than expected is putting some insurers in a financial bind. Several have reported big losses and have questioned whether they can afford to remain in the Obamacare market. This group includes UnitedHealth (UNH), the nation’s largest insurer, which expects to lose nearly $1 billion on Obamacare in 2015 and 2016 and may not participate in 2017.

Migrant Update

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday called on countries to resettle almost 500,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years. Speaking at a one-day U.N. refugee agency conference on the Syrian crisis in Geneva, he said: “We are here to address the biggest refugee and displacement crisis of our time … This demands an exponential increase in global solidarity.” The U.N. says 4.8 million Syrians have fled Syria, most of them to neighboring countries, and a further 6.6 million are internally displaced. Ki-moon wants to re-settle 480,000 refugees by the end of 2018. Italy and Sweden pledged to resettle 1,500 and 3,000 more refugees respectively Wednesday, but said not all of them would be Syrians, Reuters reported. “Sweden has continued to provide a safe haven for people fleeing the war and persecution in Syria, as well as other parts of the world. Last year over 163,000 people, 51,000 of those from Syria, applied for asylum in our country — the highest number per capita in all of Europe,” said Sweden’s Justice and Migration Minister Morgan Johansson.

In the five years since an unlicensed illegal immigrant ran down his son, Don Rosenberg has turned his anger and grief into a mission to answer a seemingly simple question: How many people are killed each year by drivers who don’t belong in the U.S., much less behind a wheel? As many as 7,500 Americans — 20 per day — are killed annually by unlicensed drivers, and Rosenberg calculates that more than half are the victims of illegal immigrants. Now, by testifying before lawmakers, speaking to parents who have been through the same ordeal and posting his research on his nonprofit’s website, unlicensedtodrive.org, Rosenberg is shedding light on a frightening number not readily available from government sources. “I was stunned at what I found,” said Rosenberg, noting that many times these illegal immigrant drivers “were barely being punished and many times faced no charges at all.”

Zika Update

A woman from Maricopa County has contracted the Zika virus, the Arizona Department of Health Services said Monday. The first case in the United States was reported in Texas two months ago, and officials have tracked the virus as cases have appeared across the country. Arizona is the 37th state to report the illness, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of late last week, there had been 273 cases reported in the U.S. All of them have been found in people who had traveled to an area affected by the virus. The CDC said there are no known cases of Zika originating via mosquitoes in the U.S., though there have been several cases that were sexually transmitted by people recently returning from infected countries.

Colombia is now reporting 32 cases of a birth defect called microcephaly that is strongly linked to the Zika virus, according to the World Health Organization. Babies with microcephaly are born with abnormally small heads and, in most cases, incomplete brain development. Brazil — whose Zika outbreak started in May — is investigating more than 4,000 microcephaly cases and has confirmed 944 in the past few months. Brazilian officials estimate their country has had up to 1.3 million Zika cases. Zika has spread to 33 countries in the Western Hemisphere, according to the WHO.

Fracking Fallout: 7.9 Million at Risk of Man-Made Earthquakes

People in parts of Texas and Oklahoma now face the same earthquake risk as those in California. Government scientists believe numerous quakes there are mostly triggered by human activity, primarily the disposal of waste water as part of hydraulic fracturing in oil and natural gas drilling. About 7.9 million people are now at risk from these man-made earthquakes, including certain regions in Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Arkansas, the U.S. Geological Survey said this week. These man-made earthquakes create a hazard to buildings, bridges, pipelines and other key structures, according to the government agency that studies the U.S. landscape. This is the first time the government has created maps that show the risk of so-called “induced” earthquakes.

States Moving to Restore Work Requirements for Food Stamp Recipients

States are moving to once again require able-bodied adults to put in work hours in exchange for food stamps, after the requirements largely were suspended by the Obama administration. The slow-moving reversal follows the administration pulling back on Clinton-era changes that required recipients to work for government welfare benefits. Signing the reform bill in 1996 alongside then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, then-President Bill Clinton said the goal was to make welfare “a second chance, not a way of life.” But during the last recession, President Obama allowed states to suspend a requirement that able-bodied adults without children work at least 20 hours per week or participate in a training program to receive benefits for more than three months. He allowed recipients to stay on food stamps indefinitely, arguing the three-month maximum was unfair with unemployment at 10 percent. Unemployment today is now half of what it was in 2009, yet last year more than 40 states did not require welfare recipients to work.

Kansas was one of the first states to reverse that in 2013. Since Kansas reinstated work rules, food stamp rolls dropped by 20,000 and the incomes of those who left increased by 127 percent. Maine followed the Kansas lead in 2014. In the first three months, the number of able-bodied adults without children on food stamps fell by almost 80 percent. It also cracked down on recipients using their welfare benefits out of state after finding hundreds of Maine residents used their EBT cash cards at or near Disney World.

California to Raise Minimum Wage to $15/Hour by 2011

A deal to raise California’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022 was reached Monday by Gov. Jerry Brown and state legislators, making the nation’s largest state the first to lift base earnings to that level. It’s now expected to be approved by the state assembly. The increase will boost the wages of about 6.5 million California residents, or 43% of the state’s workforce, who earn less than $15. About a dozen cities have approved bumps in their minimum wages to $15, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and several other municipalities in California. A plan is already in place to hike wages for fast-food and state government workers in both New York City and the state. Proponents say raising the minimum wage to $15 will provide a decent living wage for millions of low-income residents and boost the economy. But opponents say it will force employers to replace workers with technology and sow in many rural and distressed areas whose businesses can’t afford such a lofty base wage.

A Tale of Two Economies

Depending on income level, the U.S. economy is seen as good by some, bad by other. The ‘good’ economy: the S&P 500 stock market index is up more than 200% over the past seven years; home prices rose 11% last year, and a quarter of housing markets are showing record high home prices; millions of jobs have been added and the unemployment rate is 4.9%, approaching a level many economists consider full employment. The ‘bad’ economy: closed factories, stagnant wages, student loan debt; declining opportunity for anyone without a college degree; and household income is down $3,700 since 2007. At $53,657, median household income now stands at 1995 levels. It’s the middle class that is dissatisfied and it is their angst that is showing up strong in this year’s primary results.

Since 2000, the U.S. economy has shed 5 million manufacturing jobs. Still, manufacturing remains a key part of the U.S. economy. Over 12.3 million Americans are employed in the industry. But it’s not the powerhouse it was. In 1960, about one in four American workers had a job in manufacturing. Today fewer than one in 10 are employed in that sector, according to government data. Workers are moving from factories to service counters and health care centers. The fastest growing jobs in America now are nurses, personal care aides, cooks, waiters, retail salespersons and operations managers. Many blame China for undercutting American factory workers with cheap labor, but there’s another big factor: technology. Robots and machines are also replacing workers.

Economic News

Employers added 215,000 jobs in March, the Labor Department said Friday, underscoring that the U.S. labor market continues to shrug off economic weakness both domestically and abroad. The unemployment rate, which is calculated from a different survey, rose to 5% from 4.9%, as a surge of Americans back into the labor force more than offset the healthy rise in employment. Businesses added 195,000 jobs, led by retail, construction and healthcare. Federal, state and local governments added 20,000. Average hourly wages rose 7 cents to $25.43 and are up 2.3% the past year, more than reversing an unexpected dip in February.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said Tuesday the central bank will move cautiously as it weighs interest rate hikes in light of a weak global economy and stubbornly low inflation, raising questions about whether policymakers will raise rates this spring. “Given the risks to the outlook, I consider it appropriate for the (Fed’s policymaking committee) to proceed cautiously in adjusting policy,” Yellen said, giving the stock market an immediate boost.

Oil prices have surged on hopes of a freeze in global production. But a more hidden factor is also fueling the price spike: terror attacks on oil facilities. Sabotage to key oil pipelines have driven global supply outages to “elevated” levels estimated at more than 3 million barrels per day, according to the Royal Bank of Canada. Last month a critical pipeline in Nigeria was bombed, taking around 250,000 barrels of crude offline until May.

Bad loans are rising quickly at China’s top banks. The slowdown in the world’s second largest economy is taking its toll on large commercial banks as more and more businesses and people struggle to repay their debts. Three of China’s giant state-controlled banks reported their 2015 earnings late Wednesday. After years of strong growth, those profits hardly rose at all in 2015. And all three posted big jumps in non-performing loans, the financial term for loans that have gone sour, with increases from 30% to 47%.

Islamic State

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a bomb attack that reportedly took the lives of 10 people in Russia’s Dagestan region. Christian Today reports that two vehicles were blown up by the bomb blasts. It is not yet clear how many were killed or injured in the attack, although Russian officials say one officer was killed and two injured, while an ISIS-affiliated news source said the death toll was as high as 10. The rest of Russia does not have particularly good relations with the Dagestan region, which is next to Chechnya and the border of Georgia. Dagestan is a mainly Muslim region of Russia, and it is reported that a number of militants in the area have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. The attack appears to be a response to Russia’s recent airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.

Turkey

Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s visit Wednesday to Washington came at an awkward time for U.S.-Turkey relations. Although he met with Vice President Biden, he didn’t have a formal visit with President Obama. The White House said it was because Obama’s time was limited, but analysts felt it was a deliberate snub reflecting U.S. discomfort with Erdogan’s crackdown on freedom of expression in Turkey. As unrest grows in Turkey, the Pentagon ordered U.S. military members to evacuate Tuesday. Erdogan came primarily to open an Islamic cultural center in Lantham, Md., and to attend the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit.

A car bomb targeting police special forces in southeastern Turkey killed four officers and wounded at least 20 other people, government officials told Reuters Thursday. Police were inside an armored bus when the bomb exploded in the city of Diyarbakır, less than 100 miles north of the Syrian border. Nearby civilians were among the wounded. The explosion came two days after the Pentagon and State Department ordered families of U.S. service members and diplomats home from the region, citing security fears and attack plots from the Islamic State terror network. The Turkish government has blamed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, also known as the PKK, for a string of recent attacks. The group fights for Kurdish autonomy; Turkey and its allies consider it a terrorist organization.

Nigeria

Two Nigerian pastors remain captive after gunmen stormed a Christian campsite on March 21. Christian Today reports the gunmen kidnapped three pastors, but released Rev. Iliya Anto due to health concerns. Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Dziggau and Rev. Yakubu Dzarma remain in captivity. The kidnappers have demanded a ransom of 100 million naira ($500,000) for their return. The pastors were at the campsite to set up for an Easter church retreat. All three pastors belong to the United Church of Christ in Nigeria.

Myanmar

Myanmar on Wednesday swore in its first democratically-elected leader after more than 50 years of military rule. Htin Kyaw, 70, took the oath of office in the country’s parliament, and said he would be “faithful to the people of the republic of the union of Myanmar,” previously known as Burma. Htin Kyaw, who takes over from outgoing President Thein Sein, is an ally of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and longtime political prisoner who led her National League for Democracy party to victory in the Nov. 8 elections. Suu Kyi, who is blocked from becoming president because of a constitutional clause that excludes anyone with a foreign spouse or children from the position. Suu Kyi’s two sons are British, as was her late husband. She has said that she will run the government from behind the scenes.

Weather

Researchers at the National Snow and Ice Data Center report that the spread of Arctic sea ice set a new record low for the second straight year, stopping last week at 5.607 million square miles. That’s 5,000 square miles less than last year’s record low, as observed by satellites, and 431,000 square miles less than the average for winters between 1981 and 2010, the center said. Less ice means more heat given off by the ocean and higher Arctic temperatures. That can affect weather around the world by, among other things, disrupting the jet stream — the high-speed, high-altitude wind current that carries weather patterns from west to east.

A multi-day round of severe weather began its blitz on the South Wednesday night, spinning up a tornado in Oklahoma that injured at least seven people. Seven people were transported to Tulsa hospitals as a result of the tornado, one of whom was in critical condition. Flooding shut down roads and even closed the University of Arkansas Wednesday night, as the system shifts east into areas that recently saw historic flooding. Several tornadoes were reported in Mississippi and Alabama Thursday evening as a multi-day round of severe weather clobbered the South, and the threat persisted Friday morning into Georgia. At least a dozen homes near New Hope, Mississippi were damaged by the storm, but there were no injuries. Severe storms entered the Peach State Friday morning with reports of downed trees and structural damage.

An early-spring snowstorm known swept across the Rockies Tuesday and Wednesday, bringing more than a foot of snow and travel problems in several states. Heavy snow forced the closure of Interstate 80 across much of Wyoming on Wednesday, according to the state’s Department of Transportation. Earlier in the week, the storm also hindered travel in Reno, Nevada.