Signs of the Times (5/3/16)

Theme of 2016 National Day of Prayer is ‘Wake Up America’

This Thursday, May 5, thousands of people will take time out of their busy schedules for the National Day of Prayer and gather in their communities to pray for America’s leaders, local communities, and the nation as a whole.” There will also be a National Observance of the event in Washington, D.C. where Pastor Dr. Tony Evans will give the keynote address. The theme of this year’s event is “Wake Up America,” emphasizing the need for all Americans to wake up to the challenges facing the nation and to bring them before God in prayer. The National Day of Prayer was first officially instituted in 1952 by then President Harry Truman, but even as far back as 1775, America’s political leaders designated a day for prayer. In 1988, under President Ronald Reagan, Congress further amended the resolution for a National Day of Prayer to state, “The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups and as individuals.”

Health and Social Services Linked in New Study

States that spend more money on social services and public health programs relative to medical care have much healthier residents than states that don’t, a study out today by a prominent public health researcher found. The study comes as the Obama administration prepares to fund its own research to support the idea that higher social service spending can improve health and lower health care costs. Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed a long-awaited rule that will pave the way for more doctors and hospitals to work closely with social services providers to keep people healthier, such as with home visits or help with housing. “There’s always more need than resources,” says Audrey Morris. director of the non-profit Starting Points of Morgan County, West Virginia. The new study is the first to compare state spending on social services — which are generally less expensive than medical costs — to spending on Medicare and Medicaid. Many state officials, including those here, say Medicaid claims are busting their budgets and federal officials struggle to rein in Medicare spending on drugs and medical treatments, especially for chronic disease.

  • Until Jesus returns to rule and reign, He says, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” (Matthew 26:11, NIV)

Overdose Deaths at Record Levels in U.S.

The United States is in the grip of an overdose epidemic. More people died from drug overdoses in 2014 — the most recent year for which national statistics are available — than in any other year on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Saturday brought more evidence of the growing problem — eight people in a Massachusetts city overdosed on heroin during an eight-hour period beginning late Friday. Police in Fitchburg said two people died. A spokesman for the Worcester County District Attorney’s office said the county of more than 818,000 people has seen more than 100 overdoses per year for the past three years. More than three out of five drug overdose deaths involve an opioid — 28,000 in 2014 alone, the CDC says. Overdose deaths from opioids, including prescription painkillers and heroin, have nearly quadrupled since 1999. Prescription opioids include morphine, oxycodone and hydrocodone. Addicts often become hooked on prescribed painkillers, then turn to cheaper heroin — which has similar effects on the brain — when the pills are no longer available.

Teens Addicted to Mobile Devices

Fifty percent of teens feel they are addicted to their mobile devices, according to a poll conducted for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit focused on helping children, parents, teachers and policymakers negotiate media and technology. A larger number of parents, 59%, said their teens were addicted. Nearly 80% of teens in the new survey said they checked their phones hourly, and 72% said they felt the need to immediately respond to texts and social networking messages. “Technological addiction can happen to anyone,” said digital detox expert Holland Haiis, who describes technology as “the new 21st century addiction.” “If your teens would prefer gaming indoors, alone, as opposed to going out to the movies, meeting friends for burgers or any of the other ways that teens build camaraderie, you may have a problem.”

Supreme Court Allows Law Enforcement to Remotely Hack Any Computer

The Supreme Court approved new rules on Thursday that would potentially give the FBI the authority to hack any computer in the United States, and potentially computers located overseas as well. Those hidden by Tor technology will also be vulnerable. Congress has until December 1st to either approve the rule, reject or make changes to it. If passed, any magistrate judge in the country could grant the FBI warrants authorizing hacks into computers whose whereabouts are unknown. In its letter to Congress, the Supreme Court approved the following change to Rule 41 of the Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure: A magistrate judge with authority in any district where activities related to a crime may have occurred has authority to issue a warrant to use remote access to search electronic storage media and to seize or copy electronically stored information located within or outside that district if the district where the media or information is located has been concealed through technological means. Under the phrase “concealed through technological means,” the court is referring to computers whose location is hidden via the use of anonymity software such as the Tor web browser. Currently, magistrate judges cannot issue warrants for “remote searches” to the FBI if law enforcement doesn’t know where a computer in question is physically located, since its location could potentially be outside of the court’s jurisdiction.

May Day Protests in Seattle

May Day protests in Seattle turned violent on Sunday, as protesters lit fireworks and threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at police. After a peaceful march was held earlier in the day, nine people were arrested and five officers were injured in the clashes. May Day’s origins can be traced back to ancient times, when it was a Pagan festival celebrating spring. But its history as a protest day is more recent — May 1 was declared “International Workers’ Day” by the International Socialist Conference following the violent protests in Chicago’s Haymarket Square in 1886. Workers’ Day on the first of May is a public holiday for most of the world, though the U.S. celebrates its Labor Day in September. Protesters still gather on May 1 to demand better working conditions.

Zika Update

Aedes aegypti, the exotically named mosquito that transmits the Zika virus, defies almost everything Americans think they know about mosquitoes, which means that even experts know very little about how to control them. The female Aedes aegypti — the ones that bite — hang out in your house, preferably under your bed. If door and window screens block her entrance into your house, she will settle down under your patio furniture. The Zika virus is expected to spread to the continental U.S. this summer, and experts say the country must urgently rethink its procedures for controlling mosquitoes. The problem? “There is no good method for killing these mosquitoes that’s being used on a widespread basis,” said Michael Doyle, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. Many communities are using mosquito-killing methods that don’t work on the Aedes aegypti, Doyle said. Recent efforts to kill the so-called Aedes aegypti mosquito “don’t give us much reason for optimism,” said Scott Weaver, with the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. “In the near term, it’s a lost cause.” “We cannot spray our way out of this,” said Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County, Texas, Public Health and Environmental Services, at a national summit on Zika preparedness in April.

Persecution Watch

A Catholic bishop in India was kidnapped, blindfolded, and beaten before eventually being released. ChristianToday.com reports that Bishop Gallela Prasad, who leads the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cuddapah in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, was kidnapped by men who claimed to be working with the police. Prasad said he was taken to an undisclosed location by the kidnappers. “They hit me and punched me resulting in injuries all over my body. I did not resist,” he told ucanews.com. Prasad added that his kidnappers repeatedly questioned him about the finances of his diocese. In a statement, Archbishop Thumma Bala condemned the kidnapping: “It is unbelievable that such a violent atrocity is perpetrated on a high ranking religious leader of a minority community, who is totally dedicated to the service of the needy and marginalized.”

Churches in Algeria are facing intimidation and harassment, despite constitutional provisions guaranteeing freedom of worship in the country. On Sunday 24 April, 2016, a church in Mâatkas, in the north-eastern province of Kabylie, was ordered to cease all religious activities on the grounds that it was in breach of a 2006 law which regulates non-Muslim worship. The authorities have threatened to commence legal proceedings against the church if Christian worship continues in the building currently being used by the church. The church in Mâatkas is affiliated with the Protestant Church of Algeria (known as EPA, its French acronym), which is legally registered. In response to the notice, the president of the EPA, Rev. Mahmoud Haddad, said it was a violation of the freedom of worship enshrined in the Constitution. “The new Constitution, passed in February 2016, has duly established freedom of religious worship. Its Article 36 clearly states that freedom of religious worship is guaranteed in compliance with the law,” he said.

Chinese president Xi Jinping is asking leaders in the country to work to reassert the Communist Party of China as the controlling religion in the country. Also in his speech, Jinping asked religious groups to “dig deep into doctrines and canons that are in line with social harmony and progress … and interpret religious doctrines in a way that is conducive to modern China’s progress and in line with our excellent traditional culture.” In the current atmosphere of social tightening, new laws could be used to further restrict the activities of Chinese believers, Brent Fulton wrote in a column for Christianity Today. Fulton pointed to the recent case of Ding Cuimei and her pastor husband, who were buried as they tried to stop their Chinese church from being bulldozed. Ding’s husband managed to survive. Ding suffocated to death. Fulton argues that there is little legal protection for Christians in China.

Economic News

U.S. stocks fell Tuesday morning after a private gauge of Chinese manufacturing edged lower, reviving growth fears around the globe. The Caixin purchasing managers index for April showed China’s manufacturing gauge falling to 49.4, down from 49.7 in March. Any reading under 50 signals contraction. Economic growth, or the lack of it, continues to hamper financial markets. U.S. gross domestic product, for example, clocked in at a weak 0.5%, in the initial read for the first-quarter ending in March. And talk of a U.S. economy in so-called stall speed, coupled with contracting corporate earnings and continued uncertainty over central bank policy moves around the world, has held U.S. stocks back recently.

The number of people out of work in the 19 countries that use the euro has fallen by 2.9 million since April 2013, when unemployment peaked above 12%. However, 16.4 million people are still looking for work. Countries hardest hit by Europe’s debt crisis are now driving the turnaround, with unemployment falling fast in Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus. All these countries were forced to adopt tough economic reforms in return for international bailouts of their banks or government budgets. Greece — which was granted a third bailout last summer — is the notable outlier. Unemployment is forecast at 24.7% this year, and 23.6% in 2017.

Gold hit a new milestone on Monday, climbing above $1,300 an ounce for the first time since January 2015. Gold is now up 22% this year, crushing stocks, bonds and most other major asset classes. A weak dollar is good for gold because it makes the metal less expensive for foreign buyers and reinforces gold’s role as a good store of long-term value. The U.S. dollar has plunged 2% against a basket of currencies over the past week. After years of strength, the greenback has lately been dented by the Federal Reserve scaling back its once-ambitious plans to raise rates and near-zero economic growth in the U.S.

The confrontation between debt-swamped Puerto Rico and its creditors is intensifying as the U.S. territory defaulted on a $422 million debt payment due Monday, deepening the island’s financial crisis and placing additional pressure on Congress to intervene. The debt crisis threatens to resuscitate moribund ideological debates over the propriety of federal bailouts and the impact of fiscal mismanagement on the lives of real people faced with insufficient services. As a result of deteriorating conditions, Puerto Ricans are leaving the island for the mainland United States at an historic rate.

Chinese firms are on a record-breaking shopping spree, snapping up foreign firms like never before. They have already announced a whopping $108.5 billion in foreign deals so far this year, topping the $106 billion total for the whole of last year. Many of the announced deals still need to be approved by regulators — a requirement that has already sunk several proposed acquisitions due to concerns over national security. The spending record would have been shattered even earlier if Chinese insurer Anbang’s $14 billion bid for Starwood Hotels had been successful.

Migrant Update

When the leader of Germany’s Jews spoke out against the flow of Muslim migrants to Europe, a rabbinical student denounced his views as racist — and ignited a debate over whether Jews are right to fear unprecedented levels of immigration from Muslim lands traditionally hostile to Israel. Many in Germany’s 250,000-strong Jewish community expressed support for Joseph Schuster’s stance that anti-Semitism was growing once again in Germany, driven by newcomers with attitudes hostile to Jews and Israel. Schuster had already warned earlier that Jews shouldn’t wear their traditional skullcap, or kippa, in areas with large Muslim populations for fear of unprovoked attack. Jewish fears of Muslim immigration reflect a spike in anti-Semitic attacks and anti-Israel protests by Muslim youths in Germany during Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza and the more recent mass killings where Jewish institutions also have suffered deadly attacks.

Islamic State

A U.S. serviceman was killed Tuesday in northern Iraq after Islamic State militants penetrated Kurdish defensive lines and launched an attack with small arms and car bombs. It was the third American combat death in Iraq since the United States military deployed advisers and other personnel there to support the war against the Islamic State. The serviceman was a member of the U.S. military’s advise-and-assist team and was more than a mile behind Kurdish lines when militants penetrated the defenses. The serviceman was killed by direct fire and had been visiting a Kurdish position, when it was attacked, the official said. The attack occurred about 20 miles north of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Mosul is under Islamic State control and Iraqi forces have begun preliminary operations to retake the city.

Syria

Rebel forces shelled the Malla Khan mosque after Friday prayers in the government-controlled neighborhood of Bab al-Faraj district. The attack on the mosque in a government-held part of Aleppo resulted in 15 deaths, as the Syrian government and its allies announced both a planned cease-fire in the country’s west and expansion of operations around the city. Several people were injured in airstrikes on a clinic in the rebel-held neighborhood of Al-Marja in Aleppo, according to Al Jazeera.

Iraq

A car bombing Saturday killed at least 21 people and wounded dozens more in Baghdad. At least 42 people were injured after a man driving a car detonated a bomb in the southeastern section of the city. The suicide bombing occurred as thousands of Shiite worshippers from across the country are expected to walk to Baghdad’s holy shrine of 8th-century Imam Moussa al-Kadhim. The pilgrimage honors the anniversary of his death. This attack occurred just days after a suicide bomber blew up his car in the capital’s eastern Shiite-dominated New Baghdad neighborhood, killing at least 12 civilians. On Sunday, Iraqi officials say separate car bombings in southern Iraq killed at least 18 people and wounded dozens. Up to 40 people were wounded in both explosions, but the death toll is expected to rise. Another explosives-laden car detonated on Monday in the Iraqi capital, killing at least 18 Shiite pilgrims who were commemorating the anniversary of the death of a revered imam. Shortly after the explosion, the Sunni extrremist Islamic State group, which sees Shiite Muslims as apostates, claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Hundreds of protesters stormed Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone on Saturday and entered the Parliament building, waving Iraqi flags, snapping photographs, breaking furniture and demanding an end to corruption. As the chaos unfolded in the afternoon, Baghdad Operations Command announced a state of emergency, deploying additional forces around the capital city. Checkpoints at city entrances were closed, even as the protests remained largely nonviolent. There have been months of protests by Iraqis who have demanded that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi carry out measures to end sectarian quotas in politics and fight corruption. Anti-government protesters who had stormed Baghdad’s Green Zone and parliament announced Sunday they would temporarily end their sit-in and left the heavily fortified area in an orderly manner. The big question for White House officials is what happens if Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi — a critical linchpin in the fight against the Islamic State — does not survive the turmoil that has swept over the Iraqi capital.

Turkey

A car bomb struck the entrance of a Turkish police station Sunday in the southern city of Gaziantep, killing a policeman and injuring 13 other people. Those injured in the blast include at least nine policemen. The city is near the border with Syria. In a separate incident Sunday, four people were wounded after two rockets hit a car park and house garden in Kilis, another town near the Syrian border. Turkey, which is facing both growing blowback from the conflict in Syria and renewed conflict with Kurdish militants, has seen a rise of such attacks recently. In the past year, more than 200 people across the country have been killed in six major bombings. This week a female suicide bomber blew herself up in the city of Bursa, northwest Turkey, in an attack that ended her life and wounded 13 people.

Ukraine

One Ukrainian soldier was killed and seven others were wounded in combat with Russian-backed militants in eastern Ukraine, officials said Sunday, as escalating violence threatens a cease-fire that took hold in September. Tensions were also high in the Black Sea port city of Odessa, where numerous armored vehicles belonging to the Ukrainian National Guard took up positions outside the Trade Union Building, site of clashes two years ago Monday that resulted in the deaths of dozens of pro-Russian demonstrators. Fighting has been on the rise, but Orthodox Easter, celebrated Sunday, was supposed to mark the beginning of a return to the cease-fire. Violations of the cease-fire have been increasing weekly, both in number and intensity.

Germany

Five hundred people were arrested in Germany after violent clashes broke out. More than 1,000 people were protesting Saturday in Stuttgart, where Alternative for Germany, a far-right political party, is holding a two-day conference over the weekend. Demonstrators tried to block party members from entering the building where their conference was taking place. Protesters then clashed with police, throwing flares and setting tires on fire.

Italy

In Italy it’s now acceptable to steal small amounts of food – but only if you have an empty stomach. The nation’s top appeals court on Monday overturned a conviction against a homeless Ukrainian man who stole $4.50 worth of cheese and hot dogs from an Italian supermarket because he was starving, the BBC reports. “The condition of the defendant and the circumstances in which the seizure of merchandise took place prove that he took possession of that small amount of food in the face of an immediate and essential need for nourishment, acting therefore in a state of necessity,” the court said in a statement.

China

China recently denied a request from a U.S. aircraft carrier for a port visit in Hong Kong, the State Department said Friday, in an apparent sign of mounting tension in the disputed South China Sea. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and his Philippine counterpart visited the carrier, USS John C. Stennis, in those waters two weeks ago, a move that irked Beijing. The U.S. has a long record of port visits to Hong Kong. The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post quoted China’s Foreign Ministry as saying that port calls by U.S. warships were being examined on a “case by case basis.”

Weather

The latest in a series of late-season winter storms that have been riding into the western U.S. from the Pacific dumped up to 20 inches of snow in the mountains of Colorado. The weight of this heavy, wet snow downed power lines and tree branches in Holyoke and Julesburg, Colorado, and also downed branches in Alliance, Nebraska. At least two people were injured Friday night after tornadoes touched down in parts of Texas and Oklahoma. The twisters were part of a potent storm system punching into a large portion of the South.

On Monday, hail as big as baseballs crashed onto homes and cars Monday evening, residents across the Washington D.C. metro area echoed the same sentiment on social media: “I’ve never seen hail this big before.” Baseball-sized hail was also reported in the Maryland towns of Rockville and St. Charles.

Six people were killed overnight Friday as severe weather caused flooding in Palestine, Texas. After being swept away by fast-moving flood waters, the bodies of a 64-year-old woman and her four grandchildren, ages 6 to 9, were discovered by an officer with the Palestine Police Department. After receiving 7.8 inches of rain, flooding reached the roofs of some homes. Severe weather continues to track across the Gulf coast region. As the storm system moved east on Sunday, parts of Louisiana began to flood as well, closing down parts of a major interstate. Nearly 200 people, including 14 in Texas last month alone, have lost their lives since January 2015, significantly higher than normal

At least two people were injured Friday night after tornadoes touched down in parts of Texas and Oklahoma. The twisters are part of a potent storm system punching into a large portion of the South.

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