Signs of the Times (8/12/16)

Churches Enact New Security Measures in Face of Terror Threats

“Many churches are now hiring self-defense instructors for classes or security guards that include off-duty police,” said Ryan Mauro, a professor of Homeland Security at Liberty University and national security analyst for the Clarion Project. “If you are an Islamist terrorist seeking self-glory, executing a priest will bring you more attention than executing an average civilian. While no lethal terror attacks have occurred inside a U.S. church to date, experts like Jeff King, president of International Christian Concern, notes the threat tally is growing. In February, Khial Abu-Rayyan, 21, of Dearborn Heights, Mich., was arrested after he told an undercover FBI agent he was preparing to “shoot up” a major church near his home on behalf of ISIS. A month earlier, the Rev. Roger Spradlin of Valley Baptist Church – one of the biggest congregations in Bakersfield, Calif. – told attendees that they had received a threat written in Arabic. Last September, an Islamic man clad in combat gear was charged with making a terrorist threat after entering Corinth Missionary Baptist Church, in Bullard, Tex., and claiming that God had instructed him to kill Christians and “other infidels.” A year earlier, police were called to Saint Bartholomew’s Catholic Church in Columbus, Ind., after the house of worship was vandalized with the word “Infidels!” along with a Koranic verse sanctioning death for nonbelievers. Similar graffiti was found that same night at nearby Lakeview Church of Christ and East Columbus Christian Church. And in France, a priest had his throat slit by a terrorist just last week.

Thirteen States Ask Court to Stall Obama Transgender Bathroom Order

Some 13 states led by Texas asked a federal judge Friday to halt the Obama administration’s order to allow transgender students in U.S. public schools to use the restrooms of their choice. The hearing in Fort Worth was the latest episode in the battle between the federal government and various states opposed to the policy change. U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor heard arguments over the states’ request for a preliminary injunction to halt the Obama directive just weeks before school re-opens for the fall. It is not known when the judge might issue a ruling. The White House in May told the nation’s public school districts that they must allow transgender students to use bathrooms matching their chosen gender identity or risk losing federal funding. States responded with a joint lawsuit challenging the order. The other states involved are Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

California’s Christian Colleges Get Relief

A California state senator says he will amend a bill that would have forced Christian colleges to give up their beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity or lose state aid for low-income students wanting to attend their schools, reports the Los Angeles Times. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens), is dropping a provision that would have removed a religious exemption to anti-discrimination laws for faith-based schools. Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, told CBN News last month that the bill would have used the leverage of state financial aid to try and prevent faith-based schools from using religious beliefs as criteria in admissions and hiring decisions. Now it appears that the threat is eliminated, for now.

Suicides in Homosexual ‘Marriages’ Much Higher than for Heterosexuals

A new study from Sweden reveals that homosexuals who “marry” each other are 270% more likely to commit suicide than those in heterosexual marriages. This is according to a study published in the May issue of the peer-reviewed European Journal of Epidemiology. The risk, the authors acknowledge, could be as high as 480%. Homosexuality has been a celebrated lifestyle in Sweden for decades. If there is any place on earth where homosexuals can indulge in their passions with no fear of reprisal or disdain, it’s Sweden. But despite all the tolerance and affirmation they receive, “married” homosexuals are still committing suicide at 2.7 times the rate of heterosexual married couples. The Netherlands is probably the most gay-friendly nation in the world. Yet studies there, according to Life Site News, indicate that homosexuals experience exaggerated rates of “mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance abuse disorders, suicide attempts, eating disorders, and panic attacks.”

Majority of Americans Favor Abortion Restrictions

A recent survey has found that the majority of Americans favor more restrictions on abortion, even if they are pro-choice. The Christian Institute reports that the study, commissioned by the Knights of Columbus and carried out by The Marist Institute for Public Opinion, surveyed 1,009 people for a week in July. The survey found that nearly eight in 10 Americans favor more restrictions on abortion. Additionally, 62 percent of those who identified as pro-abortion, also agreed that there should be more restrictions. Additional findings of the survey were that 56 percent of people questioned said that health care providers should not be forced to perform abortions if it went against their religious beliefs. Forty-one percent of those who identify as pro-abortion also agreed with this. “The American people have spoken clearly on their desire for abortion restrictions, less taxpayer funding of it, and common sense regulations on this industry to protect women’s health. Our courts, politicians, candidates and parties should heed this consensus,” said Carl Anderson, CEO of the Knights of Columbus.

‘Purpose-Driven Life’ Turned Michael Phelps’ Life Around

Michael Phelps has won several more gold medals at this year’s Olympics and is, by far, the all-time leader in Olympic gold medals. However, if it wasn’t for a Christian friend, former football star Ray Lewis, Phelps might have committed suicide in 2012 following his gold medal haul in London. Following his retirement, Phelps told ESPN that he struggled to figure out who he was outside the pool. In his words, “I was a train wreck. I was like a time bomb, waiting to go off. I had no self-esteem, no self-worth. There were times where I didn’t want to be here. It was not good. I felt lost.” After self-medicating with marijuana and alcohol, he cut himself off from family and other loved ones and “thought the world would just be better off without me . . . I figured that was the best thing to do — just end my life.” Lewis convinced Phelps to enter rehab and gave him a book to read while he was there: “The Purpose-Driven Life” by Rick Warren. The book changed Phelps’ life. Within a few days, Phelps called Lewis and told him, “You saved my life.” As Phelps told ESPN, Rick Warren’s book “turned me into believing there is a power greater than myself and there is a purpose for me on this planet.”

Marijuana to Remain Illegal under Federal Law

Marijuana advocates who hoped the cascade of states moving to legalize medical marijuana would soften the federal stance on the drug were disappointed Thursday when the Drug Enforcement Administration announced it will keep marijuana illegal for any purpose. Marijuana will remain a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act. Substances in Schedule 1 are determined by the Food and Drug Administration to have no medical use. States that allow marijuana for medical use or legalize recreational use remain in defiance of federal law. The announcement published Friday in the Federal Register relaxes the rules for marijuana research to make it easier for institutions to grow marijuana for scientific study. The DEA currently authorizes just one grow facility in Mississippi. In reaching its conclusion, the DEA said a Health and Human Services evaluation shows marijuana has no ‘‘currently accepted medical use’’ because “the drug’s chemistry is not known and reproducible; there are no adequate safety studies; there are no adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy; the drug is not accepted by qualified experts; and the scientific evidence is not widely available.”

Network of 330,000 Cash Registers Hacked

One of the largest point-of-sale payment systems in the hospitality industry, used in restaurants and hotels globally, has been breached by a Russian organized crime group. The breach occurred in systems run by MICROS Systems, which was purchased by Oracle in 2014. Oracle security engineers found malware in some systems run by MICROS and identified the affected systems and blocked malicious processes and unauthorized network connections, the company said in an undated letter and FAQ sent to customers Monday. Whether actual customer financial data was accessed by the hackers in unknown. The Redwood Shores, Calif.-based company said it would contact customers whose data was affected by the malware. According to Oracle, MICROS point of sale programs were used by hotels, food and beverage facilities and retailers at more than 330,000 sites in 180 countries in 2014.

US Fertility Rate Falls to Record Low

The US fertility rate fell to the lowest point since record keeping started more than a century ago, according to statistics released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The fertility rate is the number of births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 to 44. In the first three months of 2016, the fertility rate in the US fell to 59.8 births per 1,000 women. The US fertility rate has been in a steady decline since the post-World War II baby boom. Back at its height in 1957, the fertility rate was 122.9 births per 1,000 women. The latest quarterly CDC data also indicate the larger pattern of women having babies later in life. As birth rates increased among women in their 30s and 40s, the rate among teenagers and women in their 20s dropped. The average age when women had their first child increased from 24.9 in 2000 to 26.3 in 2014.

Terrorism Update

Germany unveiled a raft of proposals Thursday to ramp up security after a spate of attacks in the country, two of them claimed by the Islamic State. Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said the plans include creating thousands of security jobs, and making it easier to detain individuals deemed to be threats to public safety and to deport foreign terror suspects, German news agency DPA reported. Authorities are also considering screening the social media profiles of migrants. The plans would be in place by the end of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s third term in late 2017, he said, according to DPA. Germany saw four attacks in the space of just one week last month, three of them carried out by asylum-seekers.

Canadian police shot and killed an Islamic State sympathizer, thwarting what authorities believed was a suicide bomb plot. The suspect, Aaron Driver, 24, was previously banned from associating with extremists from ISIS. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said it “received credible information of a potential terrorist threat” in a statement Wednesday. “A suspect was identified and the proper course of action has been taken to ensure that there is no danger to the public’s safety,” it added, without elaborating.

Economic News

Consumers pulled back in July after a spring shopping spree as retail sales were flat for the month of July. Economists expected a 0.4% increase. A core measure of retail sales –that excludes the volatile categories of autos, gasoline, food services and building materials – was unchanged. Auto sales rose 1.1% while gasoline station sales fell 2.7%. Sales fell 0.5% at department stores, 2.2% at sporting goods stores, 0.5% at apparel shops and 0.2% at restaurants and bars. After Americans spent cautiously in the early part of the year, they opened their wallets in April May and June. But the surge in consumer spending in the second quarter was more than offset by weak business investment and stockpiling, resulting in economic growth of just 1.2% at an annual rate.

Retailers continue to face a challenging environment in 2016, with Macy’s becoming only the latest top name to announce a wave of store closings this year. Macy’s (M) said it will close 100 of its 675 full-line locations amid falling profitability. Other top retailers closing stores in 2016 so far include: Sports Authority with 460 stores shutting down; Walmart is closing 269 stores, including 154 U.S. locations; Aeropostale with 154 stores closing; Kmart/Sears with 78 stores closing. Retail stores are suffering as online sales continue to rise.

In the second quarter, total household debt increased by $35 billion to $12.3 trillion, according to the New York Fed’s latest quarterly report on household debt. That increase was driven by two categories: auto loans and credit cards. While auto loans have been rising at a steady clip for the past six years, rising credit-card balances are a new development. After the recession, households cut back on credit-card use until 2014. Since then, card balances have risen by about $70 billion. From 2008 to 2013, total household debts dropped by more than $1.5 trillion. But first student-loan and auto-loan balances began to rise, and then mortgages and finally credit cards. Total household debt balances are still $400 billion below their 2008 peak. Credit-card debt had declined as households cut back on their use and as financial institutions cut off credit. These effects were particularly pronounced among people with low credit scores. Now, credit cards are returning among individuals with low credit or subprime credit scores.

OPEC smashed an all-time oil production record in July, pumping relentlessly despite the low prices. The oil cartel produced just over 33.1 million barrels of oil per day in July, up 46,400 barrels compared to June, it said in a new report released Wednesday. That’s over a million barrels a day more than it produced on average in 2015 and 2 million more than in 2014. The cartel has been pumping relentlessly for the last two years, aiming to defend its market share despite the collapsing oil prices. OPEC produces just under 35% of crude oil globally. That compares with the low of 32.6% it produced in April 2014. Total production in the United States, including crude and other forms, is expected to drop to an average of 13.6 million barrels a day this year, a drop of almost 3% compared to 2015.

Israel

A Palestinian man used a screwdriver to stab an Israeli man in the neck and back in Jerusalem on Thursday, the first such attack after a five-week lull in assaults by Palestinians that began last fall. The assailant, who was not identified, fled the scene and was being sought by security forces. Israel has clamped down on such attacks by retaliating against the assailants’ families rather than cracking down on all. “Unlike in the previous intifada (uprising), Israel has seen much higher rates of success in isolating the terrorists from their communities,” rather than applying collective punishment and further inflaming the tensions that spur revenge attacks, said Shlomo Brom, an Israeli strategy analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Islamic State

U.S.-led coalition aircraft destroyed an estimated $11 million worth of oil and trucks over the weekend in the largest single airstrike this year against the Islamic State’s black market oil trade in Syria. Waves of aircraft destroyed 83 oil tankers sitting in the open in Sunday’s attack. The attacks were ordered after a pilot spotted some vehicles gathering in Deir ez-Zor province, a key oil-producing region in Syria controlled by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The coalition command sent a surveillance aircraft over the area. The command then quickly directed A-10 attack planes, F-16s and two coalition aircraft, which together launched more than 80 weapons, including bombing and strafing runs, at the vehicles. After the coalition bombing campaign began two years ago, militants have since learned to avoid concentrating their forces or supplies in the open to avoid airstrikes. “This is a very good indication that they’re having trouble commanding and controlling their forces,” Air Force Lt. Gen, Jeffrey Harrigian said.

Syrian activists said airstrikes targeting the Islamic State group’s de factor capital of Raqqa on Thursday killed at least 20 civilians in a new round of bombardment that came as Turkey called on Russia to carry out joint operations against the Islamic State. Turkey also announced that they will resume its airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria, months after they were suspended amid a major row with Moscow. Turkey had temporarily suspended its limited participation in the airstrikes campaign by the U.S.-led coalition, following soured relations with Moscow after Turkish air force jets downed a Russian warplane on the Syrian border in November.

Ukraine

Ukraine’s president ordered the army to be on combat alert Thursday on the country’s de-facto border with Crimea and on the front line in eastern Ukraine following Moscow’s accusations that Ukraine sent in “saboteurs” to carry out attacks in Crimea. Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014 following a hastily called referendum. The move sparked Russia-backed separatists to begin fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine, where deadly battles are still ongoing. The Russian intelligence agency FSB on Wednesday said one of its officers and an army soldier were killed over the weekend in two separate incidents while fending off what Moscow described as a series of attacks by Ukrainian “saboteurs.” Ukraine rejected the claims as “fantasy” and “a provocation.” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on his official Twitter account Thursday that the army will be put on combat alert not only on the de-factor border with Crimea but also the line of contact in eastern Ukraine, where both sides were supposed to have pulled back heavy weapons.

Russia

Russia has just marked 18 months of a deep and painful recession. The country’s economy was 0.6% smaller in the second quarter of 2016 than the same period last year, according to official data published on Thursday. But there is a glimmer of hope for Russians who have seen their living standards suffer over the last year and a half — the pace of the slowdown is starting ease. The economy shrank by 1.2% in the first quarter, following a 3.7% plunge in 2015. Russia has been hit by a double whammy of low oil prices and economic sanctions, and has not grown for six consecutive quarters. The sanctions imposed on Moscow over its role in the crisis in Ukraine have severely curtailed investment into the country, and cut Russian firms off from European and American finance.

Thailand

At least four people were killed and dozens wounded when a series of bombs went off in areas popular with tourists across Thailand over the last 24 hours. At least four of the blasts occurred in the beach resort of Hua Hin, about 120 miles southwest of the capital Bangkok, on Thursday and Friday. A street vendor was killed and about 20 people wounded, some of them tourists from Britain, Germany, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands in the Thursday attacks. Two more bombs went off in Hua Hin on Friday morning, killing one person and wounding four. Other bombs also went off in Patong Beach in the southern resort of Phuket and in the southern provinces of Trang. Separatist insurgents are likely to be suspected of carrying out the attacks, the BBC reported.

Venezuela

Venezuela is extremely short of most staple food categories: meat, fish, fruits, sugar and bread. The government just doesn’t have enough money to pay for them. It’s created a staggering humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, CNN Money reports. Looting and riots have rocked the country. The declines in exports of certain food categories are staggering. Venezuelans “can’t buy bread and meat and all you can really get is cereals,” says Chris Rogers, a research analyst at Panjiva. Venezuela’s economy has plunged into a deep recession and the country is fast running out of cash. The key problem behind Venezuela’s inability to pay its bills is that the value of its currency, the bolivar, has plummeted dramatically in the last couple of years. Venezuela is the world’s worst-performing economy this year, according to the International Monetary Fund which warns that inflation could skyrocket over 700%.

Wildfires

A Southern California wildfire has surged in size and put thousands of homes in potential peril. Smoke plumes roiling from flaming ridges of the San Bernardino Mountains blew all the way across the Mojave Desert to Las Vegas as the blaze forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes Monday. Firefighters aided by 16 aircraft battled flames that spread across nearly 10 square miles on the northern side of the rugged mountain range east of Los Angeles. People in some 375 homes were ordered to evacuate. Residents of about 5,000 more were advised that they may want to evacuate.

At least four people are dead, multiple homes destroyed and thousands evacuated after high winds whipped raging infernos in Portugal and on a Portuguese island in the Atlantic Wednesday. Three elderly people were killed and hundreds injured in Funchal, the capital of Portugal’s Madeira Islands, after fires swept into the city overnight. The Madeira fire forced the evacuation of more than 1,000 residents and tourists in the islands. Residents described chaotic nighttime scenes on Tuesday, with people fleeing the flames by car at high speed on the wrong side of the road. At least186 wildfires were counted Wednesday on Portugal’s mainland in the midst of the prime tourist season, with hot, dry and windy weather fueling the flames. Ninety-five miles north of Lisbon on the mainland, a fourth fatality was reported after a forest watchmen died when another blaze engulfed the caravan he was sleeping in.

Weather

The National Weather Service declared a flash flood emergency Friday morning as rising water entered St. Helena Parish Hospital and a local nursing home and isolated the towns of Greenburg, Louisiana, and Osyka, Mississippi. Up to 10 inches of rain had fallen in some locations across the region by Friday morning. The heavy rain will continue over Louisiana and Mississippi through at least Saturday morning Tangipahoa Parish officials told the Baton Rouge Advocate that about 75 people have been saved from flooded homes so far. Water rescues have also been reported in Centreville, Mississippi. Numerous schools have been closed across Louisiana after hours of heavy rain were too much for waterways in the region. Flash flood emergencies were issued for Pike County and parts of Amite and Wilkinson counties in Mississippi.

Flooding in Florida has led to at least one rescue as rain continues to fall across the Gulf Coast region Tuesday. Mandatory evacuations were ordered for the Fort Pickens campground on Santa Rosa Island near Pensacola in response to the anticipation of intense rain and flooding still on the way. In Largo, raw sewage flowed from several manholes across the city Sunday afternoon and Monday morning, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Record-shattering temperatures this summer have scorched countries from Morocco to Saudi Arabia and beyond. Parts of the United Arab Emirates and Iran experienced a heat index — a measurement that factors in humidity as well as temperature — that soared to 140 degrees in July, and Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, recorded an all-time high temperature of nearly 126 degrees. Temperatures in Kuwait and Iraq startled observers. On July 22, the mercury climbed to 129 degrees in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. A day earlier, it reached 129.2 in Mitribah, Kuwait.

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

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