Signs of the Times (4/29/16)

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.

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