Signs of the Times (6/10/16)

United Methodist Church Votes to Become Pro-Life

According to ChristianToday.com, the United Methodist Church General Assembly voted 445-310 last month to reverse the 46-year-old trend of supporting Roe v. Wade and to become officially pro-life. The UMC had been heavily involved in the pro-choice movement and had donated to Planned Parenthood, so the church’s recent decision came as a surprise to many. Russell Moore, leader of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, stated regarding the UMC’s decision: “Christians of all denominations should praise God for the United Methodist Church’s historic repudiation of abortion. This is good news for orthodoxy, for the unity of the Body of Christ, and for the vulnerable unborn and their mothers.”

Federal Judge Rules in Favor of Christian College Group

A federal court ordered North Carolina State University to immediately halt its policy that requires Christian students to obtain a permit before gathering. Last week, Alliance Defending Freedom represented the Grace Christian Life student group in a hearing before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Two days later, Chief Judge James C. Dever III issued his order, which applies to any kind of non-commercial student speech or communication anywhere on campus. “Because the only permit required for free speech on a public university campus is the First Amendment, we welcome the court’s decision to put a stop to NC State’s policy,” ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer said.

Terror Attacks at ‘All-Time High’ a New Study Finds

Terrorist attacks are at an all-time high and there are more refugees now than at any time since the Second World War, according to a new study which suggests the world is becoming more violent. The worsening conflict in the Middle East, the lack of a solution to the migrant crisis and an increase in major terrorist incidents have all contributed to making the planet less peaceful, the 2016 Global Peace Index found. The index showed that most attacks it classed as terrorist were concentrated in five countries – Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Threat of Nuclear Attack on Europe High

The threat of a terrorist attack using nuclear material is the highest since the end of the Cold War, with ISIS actively trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction, according to a leading international think-tank on proliferation. ‘Isis has already carried out numerous chemical weapons attacks in Syria; we know it wants to go further by carrying out a nuclear attack in the heart of Europe. This, combined with poor levels of security at a host of nuclear research centres in the former Soviet Union mean the threat of a possible ‘dirty-bomb’ attack on a Western capital is high,’ said Moshe Kantor, the president of the International Luxembourg Forum.

U.N. Declares Ireland’s Abortion Ban Discriminatory to Women

U.N. human rights experts ruled Thursday that Ireland’s abortion ban subjects women to discriminatory, cruel and degrading treatment and should be ended for cases involving fatal fetal abnormalities. The U.N. Human Rights Committee found that Ireland’s law violates the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The 29-page report from the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Committee accepted a complaint filed by Amanda Mellet, a Dublin woman who was denied a 2011 abortion in Ireland after her doctor informed her that her fetus had a fatal heart defect and could not survive outside the womb. Ireland permits abortions only in cases where the woman’s own life is endangered by continued pregnancy. Its ban on abortion in all other circumstances requires women to carry a medically doomed fetus to full term in Ireland or travel abroad for abortions, usually to England, where an estimated 5,000 Irish citizens have abortions annually.

  • Regardless of your position on Ireland’s law, this is another example of the rise of global governance as prophesied in Revelation 13:7-8

About 12 released Guantanamo Detainees Implicated in Attacks on Americans

About 12 detainees released from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have launched attacks against U.S. or allied forces in Afghanistan, killing about a half-dozen Americans, according to current and former U.S. officials. In March, a senior Pentagon official made a startling admission to lawmakers when he acknowledged that former Guantanamo inmates were responsible for the deaths of Americans overseas. The official, Paul Lewis, who oversees Guantanamo issues at the Defense Department, provided no details, and the Obama administration has since declined to elaborate publicly on his statement because the intelligence behind it is classified. But The Washington Post has learned additional details about the suspected attacks, including the approximate number of detainees and victims involved and the fact that, while most of the incidents were directed at military personnel, the dead also included one American civilian.

Zika Update

People living in areas where the Zika virus is circulating should consider delaying pregnancy to avoid having babies with birth defects, the World Health Organization recommended Thursday. The advice affects millions of couples in 46 countries across Latin America and the Caribbean where Zika transmission is prevalent. According to a recent study, more than five million babies are born each year in parts of the Western Hemisphere where the mosquitoes known to spread the virus are found, reports the New York Times. At the moment, Puerto Rico, the United States Virgin Islands and American Samoa are the only parts of the United States with local transmission of the virus. But clusters of cases are expected to appear in Florida and along the Gulf Coast this summer. The W.H.O.’s new guidelines essentially acknowledge that, with no vaccine available and mosquito eradication efforts failing to stem the spread of the infection, delaying pregnancy may be the best way that women in affected areas can avoid having children with severe brain damage.

Economic News

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen on Monday sketched a generally positive picture of the economy and labor market, saying Friday’s dismal jobs report was “concerning” but policymakers still plan to gradually raise rates. She did not specify whether a rate hike at the Fed’s June 14-15 meeting was still feasible, but financial markets are giving less than 5% odds of such a move and Yellen said nothing to alter that view.

America has a record number of job openings. In April, there were 5.78 million job openings, according to Labor Department data published Wednesday. That matches the all-time high set in July 2015. Such a high overall number open positions is both good and bad news. On one hand, it means employers are hiring more. At the worst part of the recession in 2009 there were only 2.3 million job openings. But on the other hand, it is also a symptom of a growing problem in the U.S. economy, where employers can’t find skilled workers for the jobs that they need.

Fewer Americans sought unemployment benefits last week, a sign that employers are hanging on to workers despite a sluggish economy. The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications for unemployment aid fell by 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 264,000. The less volatile four-week average dropped by 7,500 to 269,500. Weekly jobless claims have come in below the historically low level of 300,000 for 66 straight weeks, the longest such streak since 1973. The total number of people collecting unemployment benefits slipped below 2.1 million last week to the lowest level since 2000; it’s down 7.5% from a year ago.

Nearly half of Washington, D.C. employers said they have either laid off employees or reduced the hours of employees to adapt to the District of Columbia’s minimum wage hikes. The minimum wage in the District of Columbia has increased from a $8.25 hourly rate in 2014 to the current rate of $11.50 per hour. According to the Employment Policies Institute report, just over half of the businesses surveyed said they planned to raise prices in order to offset the cost of a minimum wage hike. Thirty-five percent said they would likely reduce staffing levels and 37 percent said they would reduce employees’ hours or reduce the number of hours they were open for business.

Capital spending fell 6.2% at an annual rate in the first quarter following a 2.1% drop late last year, its worst such stretch since 2009 and a big reason the economy nearly stalled in that period, Commerce Department data shows. The investment slump has widened in recent months across a diverse array of U.S. companies and sectors, the USA Today reported Friday. Business spending typically makes up 12.5% of economic activity but has an outsized impact on the economy and stock market. Purchases of equipment and software, and the construction and renovation of buildings, create thousands of jobs for manufacturers.

The Top 1% saw their incomes nearly triple in recent decades, while middle class and lower-income Americans saw theirs creep up by only 18%, according to a new report from the Congressional Budget Office. The average federal tax rate of the Top 1% was 34% in 2013. Those in the middle class, or the middle 60% of Americans by income, had an average federal tax rate of 13.8%. The wealthy pay a larger share of the nation’s taxes. Those in the top 20% of the income scale earned a little more than half of total before-tax income, but paid more than two-thirds of all federal taxes, the CBO found. Taxpayers in the middle quintile took home about 14% of the income and paid about 9% percent of the taxes. And the poorest 20% received about 5% of the income and paid less than 1% of the taxes.

Migrant Update

Almost 300 Iraqi refugees voluntarily left Greek refugee camps to return home this year. The reverse flight illustrates how numerous refugees have become disillusioned as European countries erected walls to prevent their passage north and then steered them to camps in remote villages or cordoned them off in tent cities like in Calais, France. “The borders are closed, and a lot of people realize that Europe may not be the promised land that everyone imagined,” said Christine Nikolaidou, spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration, which bought plane tickets for refugees returning home. “A lot of people are trapped.”

Persecution Watch

Assailants hacked a Hindu holy man to death Friday in northern Bangladesh and fled without anyone witnessing the attack, which police suspect was carried out by Islamist militants who have waged a violent campaign targeting the country’s secular writers, gay rights activists and religious minorities. Pandey was the second Hindu to be killed in Bangladesh this week, after motorbike-riding assailants shot and hacked a Hindu priest to death Tuesday in southwestern Bangladesh. Two days before that, assailants killed a Christian man inside his grocery shop in the northwest, and the Islamic State group claimed responsibility.

Hindu extremists in India reportedly beat and tortured 29 Christians when they refused to convert to Hinduism. The Christian Post reports that the Hindu extremists attempted to convert the Christians to Hinduism, but when they refused, the extremists beat them and drove them out of their homes. According to Christian watchdog group Open Doors, “The villagers accused them saying – because of you our god and goddess are fleeing from our village. When they refused to forsake Christ they began to beat them.”

Israel

Israel’s military has cancelled most travel permits for Palestinians during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and deployed more troops to the West Bank after gunmen identified by police as Palestinian cousins from Hebron killed four Israelis at a popular food market in central Tel Aviv. The attack Wednesday on the Sarona Market, located across the street from the Israeli military’s headquarters, was among the deadliest and most brazen attacks in a nine-month wave of violence. One Israeli witness, who was sitting at an upscale restaurant, tells The Jerusalem Post the attackers looked like “wealthy Italian businessmen in fancy suits and skinny ties.”  She tells The Jerusalem Post the pair had a “cold, calm look on their faces as they fired everywhere.” In response, Israel froze 83,000 permits for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to visit family in Israel, attend Ramadan prayers in Jerusalem or travel abroad via Israel’s Tel Aviv airport. The military also suspended Israeli work permits for 204 of the attackers’ relatives.

Islamic State

U.S.-backed Arab and Kurdish forces in northern Syria were closing in on the Islamic State-controlled town of Manbij from three sides, a militia spokesman said Wednesday, as thousands of civilians fled the area in anticipation of the battle to retake the strategic locale. The forces, supported with airstrikes carried out by a U.S.-led international military coalition, have seized more than 50 villages from Islamic State fighters since launching an offensive last week to recapture Manbij and the surrounding countryside from the radical group. The number of casualties on both sides wasn’t known. The operation to seize Manbij is part of a bid to take control of a 60-mile stretch of territory along the Syria-Turkey border through which Islamic State funnels foreign fighters.

Iraqi security forces have recaptured their first neighborhood in ISIS-held Falluja, the military announced Wednesday, in the wake of U.N. warnings that fleeing civilians faced a threat from government-allied militias. Iraq military spokesman Col. Mohammed Ibrahim told CNN that the neighborhood of al-Shuhada al-Thaniya in southern Falluja had been liberated, and Iraq’s flag was now flying over a government building in the area. He said the operation to free the neighborhood had taken more than 48 hours as soldiers removed mines and explosives that ISIS left in its wake.

Syria

Airstrikes on two neighborhoods in Aleppo Wednesday killed at least 10 people, including children, according to the U.K.-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Bombs from airstrikes also hit three hospitals on Wednesday in the rebel-held side of Aleppo, Syria, including a pediatrics center supported by the United Nations, in what aid providers and opposition activists called a new atrocity in the fighting that has ravaged the city. The Middle East regional office of Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, said in a statement that the attacks happened within a space of three hours on al-Bayan and al-Hakeem hospitals and the Abdulhadi Fares clinic. Unicef provided no details on casualties, damage or who was responsible, but it said the attack was the second on al-Hakeem hospital, which it helps operate.

For the first time since 2012, food aid reached starving residents in the Syrian town of Darayya, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent said. Trucks carrying medicine, flour and a month’s worth of food arrived Darayya on Thursday. Darayya is a rebel-held suburb of Syria’s capital Damascus that has been cut off by President Bashar Assad’s government. Darayya, which had a population of 80,000 before the start of Syria’s five-year-old conflict, now has about 8,000 people, according to U.N. estimates, many of them starving to death.

Iraq

At least 27 people were killed Thursday in two separate car bombings in the Baghdad area. At least 15 civilians were killed and around 35 injured when a car bomb exploded in a commercial area of New Baghdad, a Shiite area in the east of the Iraqi capital. The Islamic State claimed responsibility. In another incident, seven civilians and five soldiers were killed in a suicide car bombing at an army checkpoint in Taji, about 12 miles north of of Baghdad. At least 70 people were also injured in both incidents.

Afghanistan

Unidentified militants seized 47 passengers traveling on a highway in Afghanistan’s Kunduz province on Wednesday, officials said, the latest in a series of kidnappings fueling concerns that the government is losing control of major routes. Armed men seized people from a bus and car after stopping the vehicles on the outskirts of Kunduz city, which was briefly held by the Taliban late last year. The highway connects Kunduz to the neighboring province of Takhar. The abductees were taken to the provincial town of Uqtash, a Taliban stronghold, local officials said. Most of Kunduz province is under Taliban control, with the government restricted mainly to the city. There was no immediate claim or motive in the assault, but the Taliban are suspected.

After months of debate, the White House has approved plans to expand the military’s authority to conduct airstrikes against the Taliban when necessary, as the violence in Afghanistan escalates, senior U.S. and defense officials said Thursday. Several officials said the decision was made in recent days to expand the authority of U.S. commanders to strike the Taliban and better support and assist the Afghan forces when needed in critical operations, using the U.S. troops already in the country. The 9,800 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan, however, would still not be involved in direct combat.

Turkey

A car bomb targeting a police vehicle in Istanbul killed 11 people and wounded 36, creating new security anxieties in a country on edge over resurgent Kurdish militant violence and Islamic State attacks. The blast occurred near an Istanbul University building in the city’s busy Vezneciler district during the morning rush hour. Terrorism has been on the rise in Turkey recently. Militants killed more 60 people in bombings in Istanbul and Ankara in February and March. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, rebels and the Islamic State have been behind the series of deadly bombings in Turkey.

China

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and Secretary of State John Kerry are in Beijing for a two-day annual meeting on trade and security between China and the U.S. that started Monday. China on Tuesday agreed to cut its excess steel output and work with the U.S. to enforce anti-nuclear sanctions against North Korea. The two nations announced no progress on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Lew said China also agreed to avoid competitive devaluations of the yuan. Washington promised to boost its savings rate and investment, particularly in infrastructure. For the first time, China agreed to allow U.S. banks to clear transactions denominated in the Chinese currency.

Earthquakes

A 5.2 magnitude earthquake early Friday occurred along one of Southern California’s most active faults and triggered hundreds of aftershocks but caused no major damage, the Los Angeles Times reported. The quake occurred near Borrego Springs in San Diego County in a sparsely populated area far from major cities. Still, the 1:04 a.m. quake was felt from San Diego to parts of L.A. and beyond, as far as Las Vegas. Friday’s temblor occurred on the San Jacinto fault, the most active in region. More than 450 aftershocks have been reported since the initial quake.

Wildfires

An Arizona wildfire has forced hundreds to evacuate from the town of Yarnell – where a blaze in 2013 killed 19 members of an elite firefighting crew. About 250 to 300 people had to leave their homes in the town, about 60 miles northeast of Phoenix. The fire, dubbed the Tenderfoot Fire by the BLM, grew quickly to over 600 acres Wednesday and by Friday it exploded to 5000 acres. Three outbuildings have burned but no homes have been lost so far. There have been no reports of any injuries. There are now 12 wildfires burning in Arizona, having consumed over 60,000 acres.

Weather

Tropical Storm Colin made landfall in Florida Monday night, knocking out power and flooding roads, prompting Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency for more than half the counties in the Sunshine State. Colin dumped locally more than 10 inches of rain near the Tallahassee area Monday. Flood warnings were issued in many parts of the Tampa Bay area Tuesday and commuting became difficult as roads were underwater and closed off completely in some areas.

El Niño and rising sea levels spurred a record number of days of “nuisance flooding” last year in seven coastal U.S. cities, according to a new federal report. Wilmington, N.C., recorded an all-time high of 90 days, or one-quarter of the year, partly underwater from the “clear-sky” flooding, which isn’t caused by heavy rain from a storm, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said in the report released Wednesday. Charleston, S.C., also topped its record with 38 days and Key West, Fla., with 14 days. Nuisance flooding leads to road closures, overwhelmed storm drains and damaged property. Since 1880, the ocean has risen nearly 8 inches worldwide, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, but it doesn’t do so evenly. In the past 100 years, it’s climbed about a foot or more in some U.S. cities.

The coverage of ice in the Arctic has dwindled to the lowest level ever seen for the month of May, according to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center. During the month, daily sea ice extents tracked about 600,000 square kilometers (232,000 square miles) below any previous year in the 38-year satellite record. For perspective, 232,000 square miles is almost the size of Texas (about 86 percent). Since scientists began using satellite-based data in 1978, the Arctic ice cover has been declining at a rate of about 13 percent per decade, according to NASA.

  • With measurements only going back to 1978, it is impossible to tell if this is just a normal cycle or not

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