Signs of the Times

U.S. Foreign Policy has Devastated Christian Populations in Middle East

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Christians made up around 15% of the population of the Middle East. A century later the figure was 4%, reports Barnabas Aid. At least 80% of Iraq’s Christian population, estimated to have been 1.5 million in 1990, have now fled the country. During the 1970s, western politicians tended to view Islam as a gentle, peaceful, primarily eastern religion, a naïve view that ignored the periodic massacres of Christians that had been happening in the Middle East over the previous 150 years, Barnabas Aid asserts. During the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. supplied vast amounts of arms to radical Islamist groups fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, notably the Taliban. When the so-called Arab Spring occurred, the West repeated its mistakes, maintaining that the rebel groups want only “freedom and democracy”. In Africa, U.S. policy has also had devastating consequences for Christians in northern Nigeria where, right up until November 2013, the US State Department continued to insist that the Islamist-inspired violence was due to “socio-economic” differences between Christians and Muslims, implying that Christians were equally to blame.

The U.S. and its allies are in fact reported to be supporting Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, which was part of an Islamist coalition, including the al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front that attacked the historic Christian town of Maloula where, as we reported, Christians were told to either convert to Islam or face beheading. It was the Pakistan Taliban who later carried out attacks on Christians with those same weapons.  “This view still informs the policies of the Obama administration who even now flatly deny that there is any link between Islamic ideology and violence against non-Muslims. Consequently, when it talks about being committed to seeing a “whole, unified, pluralistic, nonsectarian Syria”, it unwittingly embraces jihadist groups who routinely target Christians. “If current trends continue, the Christian community in Iraq and Syria, which has existed since the dawn of Christianity, could be wiped out within the next decade,” Barnabas Aid concludes.

Global Terrorism Deaths Fall, But Rise 650 Percent in OECD Countries

Deaths from terrorism in OECD countries (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) increased by 650 percent last year despite a marked fall globally as Islamic State (ISIS) and Boko Haram militants suffered military defeats at home but committed more attacks abroad, a report said on Wednesday. The Global Terrorism Index said worldwide there had been 29,376 deaths caused by terrorism in 2015, a drop of 10 percent and the first fall in four years, as action against Islamist militants in Iraq and Boko Haram in Nigeria cut the numbers killed there by a third. However, the report said the groups had spread their actions to neighboring states and regions, causing a huge increase in fatalities among OECD members, most of which are wealthy countries such as the United States and European nations.

Up to 50,000 Iraqi Christians to Pray for Peace

As many as 50,000 Christians are expected to gather in Erbil, Iraq on Friday to pray for the church in Iraq and for peace to prevail. Iraqi forces have been in the process of liberating many Iraqi towns from control by Islamic State. While most of ISIS’ strongholds have fallen, Iraqis have a long road ahead of them to restore their homeland. The prayer event is being organized by Agape Love, a ministry that partners with local churches. Between 25,000 to 50,000 Christians who have been persecuted by Islamic State or displaced from their homes are expected to participate in the six-hour long event which will also be broadcast across the Middle East by Christian satellite network SAT-7. In addition to prayer, the event will include stories and testimony from those who come from the recently-liberated towns near Mosul, Iraq.

Trump Says Same-Sex Marriage Already Settled by Supreme Court

President-Elect Donald Trump said that the issue of same-sex marriage has already been decided by the Supreme Court and he is “fine” with that. “It’s law,” Trump said in an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday. “It was settled in the Supreme Court. I mean it’s done.” Although during the primaries Trump said, if elected, he would consider appointing Supreme Court justices who would overrule the Obergefell decision which legalized gay marriage and even stated that the gay marriage decision should have been left up to the states, he has since tempered his stance, notes ChristianHeadlines.com. On the issue of abortion, however, Trump said he remains committed to appointing pro-life Supreme Court justices who may overturn Roe v. Wade. In the interview with 60 Minutes host Lesley Stahl, Trump was asked about his $400,000 presidential salary. The President-elect stated that he wouldn’t be taking it. He said he’ll only take a dollar a year. In addition to not taking the usual $400,000 salary, President-elect Trump has also pledged not to take long vacations. “There’s just so much to be done,” Trump told Stahl. “So I don’t think we’ll be very big on vacations, no.”

Japan’s Prime Minister Says He Trusts Trump

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday he had a “very candid discussion” with President-elect Donald Trump, during a brief press availability following their in-person meeting. Abe declined to explain in detail what he discussed with Trump because the visit was “unofficial” as Trump has not yet assumed the presidency, but he stressed that he emerged feeling that the US and Japan will be able to maintain “a relationship of trust” with Trump as president. The meeting was Trump’s first in-person meeting with a foreign head of state since he clinched the presidency last week and comes after Trump has repeatedly suggested Japan should shoulder a bigger financial burden of the US’s military forces in the region. Abe declined to say if the two men hashed out the defense issue or discussed their disagreement over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, but stressed that he emerged “convinced that Mr. Trump is a leader in whom I can have confidence.”

Trump’s Team Taking Shape

President-elect Donald Trump has selected Sen. Jeff Sessions to be his nominee for the next attorney general, an official close to the transition process told CNN Friday. Sessions, 69, is currently serving his fourth Senate term and was the first sitting senator to endorse Trump. During Trump’s campaign, he served as a key validator from within the Republican establishment at critical times and urged Republicans to coalesce around Trump. United by their hardline stance against illegal immigration, Sessions helped Trump craft his campaign’s national security policy. The former US attorney for the Southern District of Alabama and Alabama attorney had been mentioned as a potential running mate for Trump and advised him on his selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who is now helming Trump’s transition effort.

President-elect Donald Trump has offered retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn the role of national security advisor, a transition official told CNN Thursday. Flynn’s appointment won’t require Senate confirmation, which is potentially helpful for Trump, as Flynn has a long history of controversial remarks and was fired as President Barack Obama’s director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014. Flynn wrote in his 2016 book, “The Field of Fight,” that he was booted from Obama’s administration by “censors” who were unhappy he’d told a congressional committee “that we were not as safe as we had been a few years back. Trump has also asked Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas to be his CIA director, sources told CNN Friday. Pompeo was an early supporter of Trump in the House and was one of a handful of conservatives who argued House Benghazi committee chairman Trey Gowdy did not go far enough in his report on Clinton earlier this year. The selection of Pompeo rounds out Trump’s trio of national security picks.

Poll Finds Tempered Optimism but Doubts about Trump Mandate

Americans emerged from President-elect Donald Trump’s surprise victory in last week’s election with passionate and polarized reactions, overall expressing tempered optimism about his presidency but unconvinced that he has a mandate to enact a sweeping new policy agenda, according to a Washington Post-Schar School national poll. The poll finds Americans still reeling from Trump’s long battle against Hillary Clinton, with more than 7 in 10 saying the campaign made them angry and more than half feeling stressed out by campaign news. Trump’s supporters are largely ebullient when asked how they feel about the result, while Clinton backers range from disappointed to fearful to apoplectic. Nationally, just 3 in 10 Americans — 29 percent — say he has a mandate to carry out the agenda he presented during the campaign. That 29 percent figure is sharply lower than the 50 percent who said the same for President Obama after his first election in 2008 and the 41 percent for former president George W. Bush after the 2000 election and the contentious recount that followed. Over 6 in 10 Americans expect to see major changes in Washington during his presidency. Almost as many say they are somewhat or very confident that the economy will improve on his watch, while 52 percent say they think living standards will increase.

Sanctuary City Mayors Prepare for Clash with Trump Administration

Democratic mayors in so-called “sanctuary cities” are poised for a major clash with President-elect Donald Trump as city officials from Los Angeles to Washington vow not to cooperate with his administration on deportation orders for illegal immigrants. Trump’s election has spurred mayors and police chiefs in nearly a dozen major cities to re-affirm their “sanctuary” status, putting them in direct conflict with Trump’s immigration enforcement push — and effectively daring him to slash sanctuary-city funding as he promised during the campaign. In sanctuary cities, local law enforcement officials aren’t required to contact U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about the immigration status of people they come in contact with. That can mean, for example, that they don’t notify the feds when an undocumented immigrant is about to be released from custody.

College Students Desecrate U.S. Flags on Veterans Day in Anti-Trump Protests

Students at Brown University and American University, as well as protesters around the country, burned, ripped, and stomped on American flags on Veterans Day. According to MSN.com, students at Brown University set up flags as part of a Veterans Day display. Soon after, they found that many of the flags had been taken down. Other students had tore them in half, stomped on them, and threw them in the trash. Additionally, at American University, some students set American flags on fire. Many students said they participated in desecrated the flags to protest Donald Trump’s election and the inequality in the country. Debate over the current state of the country also raged over social media. Some students condemned the protests and vandalism, while others maintained that minorities had reason to be fearful.

FBI: Hate Crimes Spike, Mostly Against Muslims

The latest FBI annual hate crime report shows a sharp spike in the number of hate crimes nationwide, with attacks against Muslims increasing the most sharply. In one year, anti-Muslim hate crimes in the United States rose 67%, from 154 incidents in 2014 to 257 in 2015, according to the latest numbers released in the bureau’s Hate Crime Statistics report on Monday. In sheer numbers, anti-Jewish incidents (664) were higher in 2015, but the percentage increase was much higher for incidents involving Muslim victims. The FBI defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” The bureau’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program data showed 5,850 hate crime incidents reported to police in 2015, a 6.8% increase from the 5,479 incidents reported in 2014. Of those, 59.2% were motivated by a racial, ethnic and/or ancestry bias; 19.7% by a religious bias; 17.7% by a sexual orientation bias; and 3.3% by a gender identity, disability or gender bias. Anti-Jewish hate crimes rose 9%, anti-black hate crimes went up by almost 8%, and anti-LGBT hate crimes increased by nearly 5%, while anti-Latino hate crimes remained steady.

Dementia Now England’s Leading Cause of Death for Women

Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, has overtaken heart disease as the leading cause of death in England and Wales, a news report says. Statistics show that dementia outpaced heart disease to take the top place in killer ailments for women, BBC News says. Dementia accounted for 15.2 percent of all female deaths, up from 13.4 percent in 2014. The Office of National Statistics cited an aging population and a decline in other deaths – especially heart disease – as the reasons. Also, doctors have gotten better at diagnosing dementia and so the condition is now given more weight on death certificates, the article adds. Heart disease continues to be the biggest killer of men in those countries, the article says. Statistics also show dementia killed twice the number of women compared to men – 41,283, to 20,403. There are around 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK, the statistics report says.

Dakota Pipeline Project Delayed

The companies behind the Dakota Access Pipeline project are asking a federal court to allow them to complete the pipeline, following the announcement from the Army Corps of Engineers that construction was delayed for further talks with the Native American tribe opposed to the project. Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics Partners filed two actions in federal court in Washington late Monday, seeking “a judgment declaring that Dakota Access Pipeline has the legal right-of-way to build.” Tuesday, the Corps announced it had delayed construction work on the controversial pipeline to hold further “discussion and analysis” with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Protests have simmered for months, spawning bitter clashes over the 1,172-mile oil pipeline currently under construction that would span North Dakota to Illinois. Tuesday, thousands of people took the streets in many parts of the country, calling on officials to ditch the plan altogether.

Economic News

Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index soared 13 points last week to turn positive for the first time since March 2015 in the wake of Donald Trump’s White House victory. The index moved from a slightly negative evaluation (-10) to a slightly positive one (+3). The index had been consistently negative throughout the year leading up to the election. The index is the average of two components: how Americans rate current economic conditions and whether they feel the economy is improving or getting worse. The index has a theoretical maximum of +100 if all Americans were to say the economy is doing well and improving, and a theoretical minimum of -100 if all Americans were to say the economy is doing poorly and getting worse.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said in prepared remarks Thursday that the Fed could raise interest rates “relatively soon.” The Fed last raised its key interest rate in December 2015 for the first time in a nearly decade. “The case for an increase in the target range has continued to strengthen,” Yellen said. President-elect Trump has lambasted Yellen, saying she should be “ashamed of herself.” He claims Yellen is creating a “false economy” by keeping interest rates very low.

Some ominous economic data: Nearly 7 out of every 10 Americans have less than $1,000 in savings. Credit card delinquencies have hit the highest level since 2012. Approximately 35 percent of all Americans have a debt that is at least 180 days past due. The rate of homeownership has fallen for eight years in a row and is now hovering near a 50-year low. At 63.5 percent, it is down from its high of 69.2 percent at the height of the last housing boom, according to the U.S. Census. The total number of government employees now outnumbers the total number of manufacturing employees in this country by almost 10 million, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics released in September.

The largest source of shale oil the U.S. Geological Survey has ever assessed has been discovered in West Texas in a geologic formation known as the Wolfcamp Shale. The vast field could yield 20 billion barrels of oil, agency officials said, along with an estimated 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 1.6 billion barrels of natural gas liquids, the agency said in a release. The discovery is nearly three times larger than the shale oil found in 2013 in the Bakken and Three Forks formations in the Dakotas and Montana. The advent of horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing and other advancements allows for the removal of shale oil at a volume that will make the Permian Basin viable.

Islamic State

Iraqi paramilitary forces have recaptured a strategic airbase outside the northern city of Tal Afar, a spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces said. Ahmed al Assadi acknowledged that militia forces have yet to extinguish some pockets of ISIS resistance inside the airbase, with mopping up operations expected to last for a day or two. The base will serve as a staging area for Iraqi Security Forces in their battle with ISIS west of Mosul, authorities said.

Iraqi security forces have discovered two mass graves near the city of Mosul containing around 250 bodies, police said Thursday. The graves were found near the town of Hammam al-Alil and were created by ISIS militants, Iraqi Federal Police Commander Brig. Gen. Faris Radhi Abbas told CNN. Their discovery follows the uncovering of 100 decapitated bodies in another mass grave near the same town on November 7. Hammam al-Alil is on the Tigris River around 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of Mosul. It was liberated by Iraqi Federal Police about 10 days ago. Iraqi forces entered Mosul on November 3 in an operation to free the city from more than two years of ISIS rule. “Islamic State militants probably killed more than 300 Iraqi former police three weeks ago and buried them in a mass grave near the town of Hammam al-Alil south of Mosul,” Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.

Police in Kosovo say they have arrested 19 people and thwarted simultaneous Islamic State attacks in Kosovo and neighboring Albania, including a planned assault on the Israeli national soccer team during a match. The suspects, who were planning “synchronized terror attacks,” were rounded up over the past 10 days in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, police said in a statement Wednesday. The suspects were receiving orders from Islamic State member Lavdrim Muhaxheri, the self-declared “commander of Albanians in Syria and Iraq,” police said. The statement said officers searching the suspects’ homes and premises found explosive devices, weapons and electronic equipment, including “religious material and literature from well-known authors recognized for their extremist ideology.”

Syria

At least 21 people were killed and dozens injured as airstrikes and barrel bombs pounded eastern Aleppo for the third consecutive day, the Syrian Civil Defense volunteer group said Thursday. Warplanes carried out heavy airstrikes on neighborhoods in rebel-held east Aleppo for the first time in weeks Tuesday, as Syrian government forces launched a renewed assault to take the city. The blitz had been threatened in mass text messages sent to residents by the government Sunday, instructing them to leave within 24 hours. According to Syrian state television, the army is making a ground push in several areas to tighten their siege of rebel-held neighborhoods, and has cut off supply lines from the rebel-held province of Idlib in the north. Russian aircraft carrier the Admiral Kuznetsov began combat operations against “terrorist” targets in the provinces of Idlib and Homs Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced. The resumption of the heavy bombardment of Aleppo Tuesday came after a nearly three-week lull in airstrikes on the area by Syrian and Russian aircraft, following a moratorium announced by the Russian Defense Ministry. Fierce clashes have continued on the front lines of the battle for Aleppo, however, with artillery shelling causing casualties in both the rebel-held and government-held parts of the divided city.

Iran

The United States and Iran on Thursday clashed openly at the U.N. atomic watchdog for the first time since they signed a landmark nuclear deal last year, differing over Tehran’s repeated testing of one of the deal’s less strictly defined limits. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is policing the deal, said Iran’s overstepping of the limit on its stock of a sensitive material for the second time this year risked undermining countries’ support for the agreement. “Iran must strictly adhere to all commitments and technical measures for their duration,” U.S. ambassador to the IAEA Laura Holgate said in a statement to the agency’s quarterly Board of Governors meeting. “We note with concern Iran’s accumulation of heavy water in excess of the limit set forth in the JCPOA of 130 metric tons,” Holgate said, using the abbreviation for the deal’s full name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Iran said the issue was not that clear-cut. “Where is (the) limit?” Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, Reza Najafi, asked reporters. “The JCPOA is very clear,” he added. “It says that the needs of Iran are estimated (to be) 130 tons. Who is the native English speaker to tell me what estimated means?”

The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday for legislation to extend American sanctions on Iran for 10 years, a move that proponents called critical economic leverage to ensure Iranian compliance with an international nuclear agreement. The legislation, known as the Iran Sanctions Extension Act, needs Senate approval and President Obama’s signature before the end of the year, when American sanctions are set to expire. Under the nuclear agreement, which took effect in January, between Iran and six world powers including the United States, many economic sanctions were suspended or relaxed in exchange for Iran’s verifiable pledges of peaceful nuclear work. But the deal also contained a “snapback” provision that would allow for the re-imposition of sanctions if Iran were found to have violated the terms. The legislation approved by the House on Tuesday would also extend longstanding American sanctions against Iran that predate the dispute over that country’s nuclear activities.

Environment

Coconuts around the world are under threat from disease, rising sea levels and lack of rain, with supplies getting tight. Coconuts have become a hot commodity in today’s health conscious world. Demand has grown upwards of 500 percent in the last decade, WorldAtlas reports, partly due to skyrocketing popularity of products such as soaps, virgin coconut oil, health products and coconut water. But even as demand rises, coconut producers around the globe are battling fresh outbreaks of insect-borne diseases such as lethal yellowing and Bogia coconut syndrome. In the Caribbean, lethal yellowing disease has wiped out entire farms. Overall, Caribbean plantations have shrunk by about 17 percent since 1994, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization

Earthquakes

As aftershocks continue to rattle New Zealand, flooding and up to 100,000 landslides are hampering rescue efforts following the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck near Christchurch on Monday. According to GeoNet, New Zealand’s official source of geological hazard information, there have been somewhere between 80,000 to 100,000 landslides since the quake, with many roads closed indefinitely. The coastal town of Kaikoura has been completely cut off from the rest of the country by landslides, prompting a mass evacuation that began Tuesday. At least six fault lines were ruptured in the New Zealand earthquake, which uplifted parts of the coast by almost 10 feet.

Wildfires

Dozens of wildfires continue to burn in the Southeast, prompting evacuations and sending hundreds in Tennessee to the hospital for respiratory issues, killing one person. Air quality alerts have been issued across the region, with residents as far south as Atlanta facing a red alert Wednesday, meaning air quality is unhealthy for all individuals. Fueled by prolonged drought conditions in the Southeast, the fires have burned more than 128,000 acres in five states and have prompted officials to declare states of emergency in Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky. More than a thousand North Carolina residents were evacuated. More than 5,000 firefighters and support staff from around the nation have poured into the Southeast to help fight the fires. Many of the fires are the result of arson, officials say, and three people have been arrested thus far.

Weather

The snow cover in the lower 48 states has shattered mid-November record lows, according to a government analysis. Less than one-half of one percent of the land area of the contiguous U.S. had snow on the ground on the morning of Nov. 14, according to NOAA’s National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center’s National Snow Analysis, mainly in the highest peaks of the Rockies and Cascades. There was none in northern New England, Michigan, Minnesota, and North Dakota. Even the few places in the mountain West reporting snow on the ground had only minor amounts. This dearth of early-season snow can be attributed to recent record warmth.

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