Signs of the Times (7/22/16)

Atheists Try to Stop Schools from Visiting Ken Ham’s Ark

The atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has sent letters to more than 1,000 school districts, warning them of the unconstitutionality of allowing students to visit Ken Ham’s newly-opened Ark Encounter. According to EAGnews.com, the FFRF sent the letters to school districts in Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, West Virginia, and Ohio. The group claims that a public school field trip to the Ark Encounter, which is a life-size, interactive replica of Noah’s Ark, would “violate the Constitution and the First Amendment.” Schools are in danger of facing lawsuits because of the FFRF’s warning. Many schools fear incurring large legal costs, even if they were to defy the FFRF and win a lawsuit.

Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis, and the head of Ark Encounter, offered to admit schoolchildren into the Ark for $1 and teachers for free. Admission is normally $40. Ham also issued a statement in response to the letters sent by the FFRF: “On the basis of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, public schools are absolutely free to take students on field trips (with appropriate parental permissions) to facilities like the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum, provided they are for historical, recreational, or educational purposes. FFRF has no right (and no legal basis whatsoever) to intimidate government-run schools.”

Bangladesh: Thousands of Muslims Converting to Christianity Despite Persecution

Despite persecution, more and more Muslims are converting to Christianity in Bangladesh, a Muslim-dominated country. According to The Christian Post, Muslims make up nearly 90 percent of Bangladesh’s population. However, the number of Christian converts is rising. Human rights organization Christian Freedom International estimates that as many as 91,000 Muslims have converted to Christianity in the country over the last six years. There are now estimated to be 1.6 million Christians in the country, which has a total population of 165 million. Christian converts know that persecution will likely follow their conversions. Sometimes, it is obvious persecution such as physical violence, torture, or rape, but sometimes the persecution is less obvious. Conversion is not forbidden by law, but pressure to recant the Christian faith will be exerted by family, friends, and neighbors. There have been several reports of Christians having to give up their shops or businesses due to the pressure by the Muslim majority.

  • It’s not despite persecution, it’s because of persecution which is how the gospel has spread from the very beginning.

40-Nation Summit Plans Next Moves against Islamic State

An unprecedented 40-nation summit on combating the Islamic State focused Thursday on bolstering the military campaign against the extremist group and countering propaganda it spreads to recruit fighters from around the world. “We are engaged in a historic effort,” Secretary of State John Kerry said of the anti-Islamic State coalition. “Nothing like this coalition has ever before been assembled. We’re not following a manual on anti-terror activities. We’re writing it.” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the meeting is the first held together with both foreign and defense ministers. “We now have momentum on the ground with clear results,” Carter said, “And this week we’re making further plans, clear commitments to help us destroy” the Islamic State. Countering the Islamic State in the future will require greater sharing of intelligence and information, so police and border guards of coalition countries, Kerry said.

Islamic State Threatens Israeli/American Athletes at Olympics

As the world’s attention begins to focus on Rio, site of the 2016 Summer Olympics, Islamist terrorist groups have issued a call for “lone wolf” attacks at the Games against athletes and tourists from Western countries, including Israel. “One small knife attack against Americans/Israelis in these places will have bigger media effect than any other attacks anywhere else in sha Allah,” said one social media post on a jihadist site. “Your chance to take part in the global Jihad is here! Your chance to be a martyr is here!”

Terrorist Truck Driver in Nice, France had Accomplices

Terrorist truck driver Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel had been planning the Nice attack for months and had at least five accomplices, reports the USA Today. The suspected accomplices were four men and one woman and are now in custody in Nice and were indicted Thursday on various terrorism charges. While none of the accomplices was known to intelligence agents for ties to Islamic radicalism, one of them — identified as Franco-Tunisian Ramzi A. — had been charged six times for other crimes, ranging from theft to violence, NBCNews reports. Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said Bouhlel “benefited from support and complicity” and regularly communicated with the five suspects arrested Thursday, sending a text to one on April 4 that read: “Load the truck with 2000 tons of iron, cut the brake and I’ll watch you.”

Russia Bombs U.S. Base in Syria

Russian warplanes reportedly bombed a secret military base in Syria used by elite American and British forces last month. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the Russian strike on the CIA-linked site was part of a campaign by Russia to pressure the White House to agree to closer cooperation in the Syrian skies, U.S. military and intelligence officials said. Despite the attack, the U.S. and Russia agreed to a pact last week to target airstrikes against the Al Qaeda affiliate in the region – Nusra Front – despite objections from the Pentagon and CIA. Russia agreed to stop airstrikes on U.S.-backed rebels and restrain the Syrian air campaign. The two sides are still talking about designations where Russia would need U.S. approval to conduct an airstrike. Officials in the Pentagon and CIA contend that Washington bowed to Moscow in the deal and believe that the U.S. needs to confront Russia., the WSJ reports.

Texas Voter-ID Law Struck Down by Federal Court

A federal court ruled Wednesday that Texas’ voter identification law violates the U.S. Voting Rights Act prohibition on racial discrimination in elections. In its 9-6 ruling, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the 2011 voter ID law makes it harder for blacks and Hispanics to vote, and asked a district court to make changes to the law before the general election in November. “The district court must ensure that any remedy enacted ameliorates [the law’s] discriminatory effect, while respecting the legislature’s stated objective to safeguard the integrity of elections by requiring more secure forms of voter identification,” the court said. The law, Senate Bill 14, requires voters to present proof of identification, including a state driver’s license or ID card, a U.S. passport, an election ID certificate, a military ID card, a concealed handgun license or a U.S citizenship certificate with a photo.

  • We need a license to drive but we can vote without proof of citizenship?

Migrant Update

An estimated 2,977 migrants and refugees have died trying reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea this year, the International Organization for Migration, a watchdog, said Friday. The figure represents an increase of about 50% over last year at a similar time. It will soon be the third straight year in a row that fatalities have exceeded 3,000 and much earlier than the two prior years when it took to September and October, respectively, to reach that dreadful mark. Overall, an estimated 242,179 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea in 2016, mostly via Italy and Greece. The vast majority of all the fatalities occurred on the treacherous route between Libya and Italy, said IOM spokesman Joel Millman. He said that the flows of migrants on the safer, shorter route between Turkey and Greece “have almost disappeared.”

Persecution Watch

A recent poll found that the majority of Americans want the major presidential candidates–Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump–to address the issue Christian persecution. ChristianToday.com reports that the Harris poll was commissioned by Open Doors USA, an organization that monitors Christian persecution around the world. The poll found that 76 percent of respondents said they agreed to the following statement: “It is important to me that the next US President be committed to addressing the persecution that some Christians face around the world (e.g., imprisonment, beheadings, rape, loss of home and assets).” Back in March, the U.S. officially declared ISIS atrocities against Christians and other minorities in the Middle East to be genocide. Hillary Clinton also acknowledged that “we now have enough evidence” to label the persecution of minorities in the Middle East “genocide.” David Curry, the president and CEO of Open Doors, stated: “Persecution of Christians, as well as adherents of other faiths, has grown exponentially in recent years. Governments are clamping down on religious freedom of expression, causing millions to face displacement, harassment, imprisonment, beatings and even death.”

Economic News

The U.S. national debt is sitting at a grand total of $19,402,361,890,929.46 as of July 20th, according to the Economic Collapse website.  When Barack Obama first entered the White House, the federal government was only 10.6 trillion dollars in debt.  That means that we have added an average of 1.1 trillion dollars a year to the national debt under Obama, who is on track to be the first president in all of U.S. history to not have a single year when the U.S. economy grew by 3 percent or better. At this point, our national debt is more than 30 times larger than it was just 40 years ago. The U.S. government is responsible for about a third of all the government debt in the entire world.

Corporate debt is exploding, on track to hit $75 trillion in the next four years from $51 trillion now, reports Money and Markets. The surge stems from $38 trillion in refinance volume and $24 trillion in fresh debt. Corporate Debt is now $5 trillion more than Standard & Poor’s most recent projection. It’s coming even as the percentage of companies considered “highly leveraged” soars, and as previous borrowers are defaulting on their bonds at a rate not seen since the Great Recession. More than 100 companies reneged on their debts in 2016 so far, up 50% from a year ago and the most since 2009.

Even with the peak travel season in full swing, gasoline prices are stuck in reverse. Gas prices have plunged to their lowest July level in 12 years, according to AAA, even as Americans are racking up more miles. In fact, gas prices have dropped in 39 out of the last 40 days, lopping 20 cents a gallon off in total during that span, according to AAA. World “petro-politics” is the cause. Leaders in Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s top oil producers, have held down prices to dampen production in other nations, including the resurgent oil industry in the U.S. Amid a global glut of oil inventories that has kept oil prices below $50 per barrel for most of 2016, the national average price of gas dropped to $2.19 on Thursday, marking its lowest average for this time of year since 2004.

It’s been one month since the U.K. voted to leave the European Union and British businesses are already taking a major hit. An early reading of factory and services activity in July revealed the sharpest decline in output since the height of the global financial crisis in 2007-09. Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit, called the plunge “a dramatic deterioration in the economy.” The group’s flash purchasing managers index, which tracks the whole economy, slumped sharply to its lowest level in more than seven years. Output and new orders both fell for the first time since the end of 2012.

U.S. antitrust officials announced Thursday the intent to block Anthem’s planned $48 billion purchase of Cigna, as well as Aetna’s planned $34 billion purchase of Humana. The Department of Justice filed the lawsuits on Thursday, alleging the mergers would badly hurt competition in the industry. In a mid-morning press conference, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said if the deals were to proceed, American consumers would suffer. “They would leave much of the multi-trillion-dollar health insurance industry in the hands of three mammoth insurance companies, and restricting companies, and restricting competition in key markets,” she said. In a statement to FOXBusiness.com, Anthem said, “Today’s action by the Department of Justice is an unfortunate and misguided step backwards for access to affordable healthcare for America.”

U.K./E.U.

Britain will not start exit talks with the European Union until “our objectives are clear” — and that won’t be this year, Prime Minister Theresa May said Wednesday, at her first meeting with an EU leader as the U.K. begins the long, uncertain process of leaving the bloc. May met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, on her first foreign trip as Britain’s leader. At a joint news conference, the two women conveyed a desire to work together but exhibited little sense of urgency, or even a concrete idea of how the complex divorce process will play out. May said Britain won’t invoke Article 50 of the EU constitution, triggering formal exit talks, this year. “All of us will need time to prepare for these negotiations,” she said.

Islamic State

Iraq’s military and U.S.-backed opposition forces in Syria are advancing on the Islamic State’s key strongholds. “It’s fair to say we have the initiative,” Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the top coalition commander, said Iraqi forces in recent weeks have made rapid advances toward the city of Mosul, while U.S.-backed opposition forces in northern Syria are advancing on Raqqa, the militants’ de facto capital. MacFarland and other top leaders acknowledge that tough fighting lies ahead. Both cities are home to thousands of civilians, and the U.S.-backed forces will face a complex urban battlefield, making it difficult to use airstrikes against the militants. Commanders declined to predict a timeline, but any final assault is at least still months away.

Turkey

Turkey on Wednesday intensified a sweeping crackdown on the media, the military, the courts and the education system following an attempted coup, targeting tens of thousands of teachers and other state employees for dismissal in a purge that raised concerns about basic freedoms and the effectiveness of key institutions. The Turkish government focused in particular on teachers suspected of backing Friday’s failed uprising, taking steps to revoke the licenses of 21,000 teachers at private schools and sacking or detaining half a dozen university presidents. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose followers run a worldwide network of schools, of fomenting the insurrection, which was quashed by security forces and protesters loyal to the government. Turkey’s government declared a three-month state of emergency Wednesday.Tthe aftermath last week’s failed coup may have damaged the U.S. ally’s ability to help fight the Islamic State, analysts said Thursday.

  • Some observers allege that President Erdogan staged the attempted coup himself in order to lay the groundwork for a more authoritarian government

Afghanistan

At least 61 people were killed and more than 200 injured Saturday when suicide bombers attacked a large demonstration in the Afghan capital of Kabul, according to officials and media reports. The demonstration was organized by ethnic Hazaras demanding that a major regional power line be rerouted through their impoverished home province. Most Hazaras are Shiite Muslims but most Afghans are Sunni. The privately owned Afghan TOLOnews reported that the extremist group Islamic State claimed responsibility online for the attack, saying two of its fighters detonated explosive belts during the march. The news network also quoted an unidentified high-ranking Afghan security official as saying the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, was behind the attack, and that security forces killed a third bomber before he could detonate another explosive.

Germany

Germany authorities said Saturday that the 18-year-old German-Iranian who killed nine people and himself in a shooting spree acted alone and had no connection to international terrorism, but did display a fascination with mass killings. Police chief Hubertus Andrae told reporters Saturday there were indications the gunman suffered from depression. He added that the shooter, who was born in Munich and held dual German-Iranian citizenship. Andrae said the shooter’s parents came to Germany in the late 1990s as asylum seekers. Authorities said there was no apparent motive for Friday’s attack by the teenage gunman whose name was not released.  The dead included three “youngsters,” police said. Three people among the 27 injured in the attack remained in critical condition. The shooting began Friday evening outside a McDonald’s restaurant in the northern section of Munich and later erupted at the Olympia shopping mall. The gunman sent out online invitations about a bogus free giveaway to attract more people to the site of the attack, investigators said.

Nigeria

A humanitarian catastrophe is underway in northeastern Nigeria’s war-torn Borno State, where at least 500,000 people are in urgent need of food, medical care, water, and shelter, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warned Thursday. As the Nigerian army regains control of towns and villages in the conflict with Boko Haram, the extent of the emergency is becoming more apparent. Many people have been cut off from the outside world for as long as two years. Displaced people now living in towns controlled by the military are entirely dependent on outside aid and many are suffering from malnutrition due to insufficient food supplies. “Aid agencies must deploy a massive relief operation to respond to this humanitarian emergency,” said Dr. Isabelle Defourny, MSF director of operations.

China

There have been a number of anti-U.S. protests in China over the outcome of a United Nations tribunal that ruled against Beijing in its spat with the Philippines over territorial claims in the South China Sea. Chinese nationalists have protested at KFC outlets and called for boycotts of the fast-food chain while photos and video circulating online and on social media show people wearing scarves and banners with patriotic slogans smashing Apple iPhones in protest. The case against China was brought by U.S. ally the Philippines but the protesters’ public anger has been fueled in part by Chinese government accusations that Washington encouraged Manila to oppose Beijing’s claims to the vast tracts of ocean.

Environment

Several Southern California beaches remained closed Thursday after more than two million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the streets of Los Angeles earlier this week. A buried pipe collapsed near the downtown area on Monday, causing a blockage and spill of 2.4 million gallons of foul-smelling sewage that poured into streets and storm drains that feed into the Los Angeles River which empties into Long Beach Harbor 20 miles downstream. About 4 miles of coastline in Long Beach and a mile in neighboring Seal Beach have been closed. Health officials must record two consecutive days of test results showing the beaches are safe before they can be reopened.

Wildfires

Flames lit up the evening sky as a wildfire marched across hillsides north of Los Angeles, blackening thousands of acres, fire officials said Friday. The fire also created a huge cloud of smoke that wafted across the metropolis. As of 9:45 p.m. PT Friday, the fire had burned 3,327 acres, the Los Angeles County Fire Department reported. The Sand Fire broke out in the Santa Clarita Valley north of Los Angeles as afternoon temperatures neared 100 degrees. The wildfire was burning through heavy brush on hillsides tinder dry from a subpar year for rain in Southern California. It broke out along the Antelope Valley Freeway. The orange flames were visible from Los Angeles’ upscale west side.

A wildfire raging just south of Anchorage, Alaska, is inching toward homes after closing the only highway leading south out of the city to all but one lane for a 5-mile stretch. An increase in winds late Monday night and early Tuesday caused the 600-acre McHugh fire to flare up, sending rocks and burning debris onto the Seward Highway. A pilot car had been leading traffic on the highway between Mileposts 108 and 113. The fire was just over a mile away from Potter Valley and homes in Rainbow Valley late Tuesday afternoon.

Weather

A massive dome of high pressure in the upper atmosphere is gripping the nation’s midsection this week with dangerously hot temperatures and high humidity. The National Weather Service issued heat alerts for more than a dozen states in the central U.S., from Minnesota, the Dakotas and Wisconsin to Louisiana on Wednesday. For the first time in at least a decade, portions of the nation’s three largest metro areas — New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — were all under heat wave alerts Friday morning. Other big cities such as Philadelphia, St. Louis, Kansas City, Mo., Phoenix and Minneapolis were also under heat watches, warnings or advisories. Washington, D.C., could join that list Saturday. In all, 122 million Americans in 26 states were under heat alerts, according to the National Weather Service. Temperatures will approach or surpass 100 degrees over a large area Friday. Combined with an extremely humid air mass this will result in dangerous heat indices well above 100 degrees and even as high as 115 degrees for some areas.

Strong storms clobbered Iowa Tuesday with heavy rain, leaving thousands without power and flooding roadways in Des Moines. The slow-moving cluster of thunderstorms dumped extremely heavy rainfall over parts of Iowa, prompting the National Weather Service to issue flash flood warnings, as roadways became flooded and impassable, and rivers and streams overflowed their banks. At least two reported tornadoes were spotted, but no damage was reported.

At least 154 people have died and 124 are left missing in northern China due to some of the region’s worst flooding in years, officials said Saturday. The deluge was triggered by torrential rain that led to landslides and destroyed homes across the country. A majority of the fatalities were reported in the northern province of Hebei. The provincial Department of Civil Affairs announced 114 people had been killed and 111 others were missing. In the city of Xingtai, 25 people were killed and another 13 were missing. The Xingtai village of Daxian was swamped by a flash flood early Wednesday as residents were asleep. Eight people, including three children, were killed and another was missing in the flood. Authorities blamed extraordinary rainfall and a failure of a river levee near the village for the sudden water surge.

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