Signs of the Times (2/2/17)

Christian Persecution Increased in 2016

In the past year, the persecution of Christians has not only increased, but it has also spread to more corners of the globe – with incidents occurring on every continent, according to a new report. The advocacy group Open Doors USA recently released the latest edition of its annual World Watch List, which ranks countries based on the treatment of their Christian populations. The group said the increase in incidents considered persecution was alarming and only getting worse. Open Doors said about 215 million Christians around the globe are facing some degree of persecution. The report comes on the heels of another study by the Center for Studies on New Religions that showed nearly 90,000 Christians were killed for their faith in 2016 and that as many as 600 million were prevented from practicing their faith through intimidation, forced conversions, bodily harm or even death. There has been an increase in persecution in various countries throughout Asia, driven by governments and Islamic extremism. Christians in that part of the world have been targeted by nationalist religious movements — Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist — in such countries as Pakistan, India and Myanmar.

Trump Vows to ‘Destroy’ Law Banning Political Activity by Churches

President Trump vowed Thursday to overturn a law restricting political speech by churches, reports the New York Times. Mr. Trump said his administration would “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches from engaging in political activity at the risk of losing their tax-exempt status. Repealing the law would require approval by Congress. Certain tax-exempt organizations — in this case, churches — are not allowed to openly endorse or campaign for political candidates. If they do, under existing law, they risk losing the benefits of their tax-exempt status. Speaking to a gathering of religious leaders, Mr. Trump said, “I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”

President Trump Speaks at National Prayer Breakfast: ‘The World Is in Trouble’

Every year the National Prayer Breakfast seeks to unite politicians and members of the religious and business communities for one cause: to come together for fellowship and prayer. It’s a tradition that first began in 1953, dating back to over half a century ago, during Dwight Eisenhower’s Presidency. Organized by the Fellowship Foundation and hosted by a committee of Congress members, over 3,000 people attend the event each year, hearing a variety of speakers in addition to the current president. “Freedom is a gift from God,” Trump said. And at another point stated, “It is God who gave us life and liberty.” He also said, “The world is in trouble, but we’re going to straighten it out.”

Women’s March Given 3 Times More Coverage Than March for Life

Network news didn’t spend enough time covering the March for Life, Katie Yoder, of Newsbusters, wrote in her column Monday. Yoder says the news spent a total of about 22 minutes on the annual march compared to the more than 1 hour of coverage on the Women’s March on Washington. Still, it was more time than the networks spent in 2016 on the march when networks gave it only 35 seconds of total coverage. This year’s 44th March for Life featured Vice President Mike Pence and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway as speakers.

Homeless Find Rest in Faith-Based Shelters More Than Others

Religious organizations are providing more than half of the emergency shelter beds for homeless people in major cities across the country, a new Baylor University study shows. In a preliminary study of 11 U.S. cities, 58 percent of emergency beds for the homeless were at faith-based organizations. That percentage ranged widely across the cities, with 90 percent of emergency beds in Omaha, Neb., provided by faith groups to 33 percent in Portland, Ore. The report found that cities with higher participation by religious groups had lower percentages of unsheltered homeless people. Researchers also estimated that there was a three-year total of $119 million in taxpayer savings connected to faith-based organizations that provided transitional housing programs in those cities, which provide longer lengths of stay and include mentoring and rehabilitation.

Conservatives Hail Trump’s Supreme Court Pick

Republican lawmakers and conservative groups hailed President Trump’s nomination of federal appeals judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court Tuesday night, even as Democrats questioned whether the nominee has sufficient “respect for constitutional values of liberty, equality and justice for all.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who kept the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat open through the presidential election, said Trump had made “an outstanding decision.” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Trump had “fulfilled his [campaign] pledge to nominate a judge who has a demonstrated loyalty to the Constitution and a strong commitment to life.” Even Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., a frequent critic of Trump, tweeted his approval of the nomination, calling Gorsuch “a tremendous pick.” President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, along with a few of their family members, as well as Maureen Scalia, and Fr. Paul Scalia, the wife and son of the deceased conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, prayed with Judge Neil Gorsuch before his nomination to the nation’s highest court.

Trump’s Supreme Court Nominee Faces Big Battle

President Trump nominated federal Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court on Tuesday, choosing a jurist widely seen by conservatives as a fitting successor to the late Scalia – and touching off what is sure to be a fierce confirmation battle with Senate Democrats already vowing resistance. “The Democrats are not going to succeed in filibustering the Supreme Court nominee,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told Politico. “All procedural options are on the table. The bottom line is we will confirm a strong conservative to replace Justice Scalia.” The advantages of trying a filibuster are clear – make Republicans work to find the 60 votes needed to end it, including at least eight Democrats, and as a result, delay or block the nomination. Republicans hold a 52-48 majority. Republicans have threatened to change the rules and eliminate the filibuster altogether, in which case Democrats will have lost their most powerful weapon. Republicans did not try to filibuster either of former President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees.

Judge Orders Halt to Trump’s Ban for Immigrant Visa Holders

A federal judge in Los Angeles has ordered the U.S. government to allow people holding immigrant visas from seven majority-Muslim nations into the United States despite President Trump’s executive order banning them. In a temporary restraining order issued late Tuesday, Judge Andre Birotte Jr. ordered the government not to cancel any validly obtained immigrant visas or bar anyone from the seven nations holding them from entering the U.S. But it was unclear whether the order will have any effect. The State Department ordered all visas from the seven countries revoked on Friday, and the government has maintained that orders similar to Birotte’s do not apply because the visas are no longer valid. More than 100,000 visas have been revoked due to President Trump’s travel ban, a Justice Department attorney says.

Trump: Whatever You Call It, Order Keeps ‘Bad People’ Out of U.S.

President Donald Trump Wednesday morning dismissed arguments about whether his executive order blocking refugees and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations from entering the U.S. is a “ban.” “Call it what you want, it is about keeping bad people (with bad intentions) out of country!” Trump wrote on Twitter. “It’s not a Muslim ban. It’s not a travel ban,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters. “It’s a vetting system to keep America safe.” The text of Trump’s executive order calling for a temporary ban on immigration from seven countries does not include the word “religion.” Or “faith.” Or “Muslim.” Or “Islam.” In fact, the list of seven countries named in Trump’s order came from a bipartisan bill Obama himself signed into law, restricting visa waivers for people from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen. The Trump administration has said it decided to focus its 90-day ban on travelers from seven “countries of special interest” because these nations make it nearly impossible to access reliable data upon which to vet their citizens seeking to enter the U.S. on visas.

22,000 ‘High-Risk Travelers’ Banned from Flights to U.S. Last Year

According to a recently released Government Accounting Office study, the number of U.S.-bound travelers pulled aside at foreign airports and banned from boarding their flights totaled 22,000 “high risk” travelers that were interdicted by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents in Fiscal 2015. Among that group, 10,648 were declared inadmissible while the balance, 11, 589, were told they could not board with the paperwork presented. While CBP’s pre-departure programs have helped identify and interdict high-risk travelers, CBP has not fully evaluated the overall effectiveness of these programs using performance measures and baselines, the GAO report states. Sunni Muslim extremists are infiltrating the U.S., coming up from South America and Mexico with the help of known Latin American smuggling cartels, according to an intelligence report by the U.S. Southern Command. the U.S. Southern Command, reports that 10% of the 330,000 people who tried to cross the Southern border were from countries of special interest, which include many of the same nations on Trump’s list.

Majority Favor Trump Immigration Reform in New Poll

Despite continuing protests and legal challenges, just over half of voters favor President Trump’s temporary refugee ban. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone and online survey finds that 52% of Likely U.S. Voters favor a ban that keeps refugees from all countries from entering the United States for the next four months until there is a better system in place to keep out individuals who are terrorist threats. Forty-three percent (43%) are opposed. The survey of 1,000 likely voters was conducted on January 31-February 1, 2017 by Rasmussen Reports, a media company specializing in the collection, publication and distribution of public opinion information.

Trump Calls for Rescinding Funding to U.C. Berkeley after Riots

President Trump suggested eliminating the University of California, Berkeley’s federal funding after violent protests seized the campus and shut down Breitbart Tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos’ scheduled speech. Before Yiannopoulos’ talk Berkeley’s chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, issued a statement claiming the school is bound by the First Amendment and could not cancel the speech, even though the university administration believes Yiannopoulos’ opinions contradict the values of the university. At the end of his statement, Dirks said he the school “encourage[s] those of you who wish to exercise your right to protest this event to review our standing suggestions regarding how to protest safely.” Instead of protesting “safely,” protesters tore down barricades, destroyed buildings, and set the campus on fire. As a result of the violence, Berkeley eventually pulled the plug on Yiannopoulos’ talk.

DHS Secretary Plans to Complete Trump’s Wall in 2 Years

In his first television interview as Homeland Security secretary, retired four-star Marine Gen. John F. Kelly told Fox News he wants the U.S.-Mexico border wall finished in two years – setting an ambitious schedule for the project ordered last week by President Trump. “The wall will be built where it’s needed first, and then it will be filled in.” The Rio Grande Valley, known as the “RGV sector,” is among the busiest. On any given day, Border Patrol agents pick up at least 600 people who have crossed the Mexican border, entering the U.S. illegally. Kelly also said he supported a “surge” of resources to the border so that processing those who cross illegally can happen in a matter of weeks, not “600 plus days.”

Army Corps Ordered to Finish the Dakota Access Pipeline

The 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline is nearly complete, except for a hotly contested section under North Dakota’s Lake Oahe that’s been the topic of massive protests. But now, the Army is allowing that final section to be built, two lawmakers said. Acting Secretary of the Army Robert Speer “has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with the easement needed to complete the Dakota Access Pipeline,” Sen. John Hoeven said in a statement Tuesday. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which opposes the project, responded that Hoeven’s announcement is premature and maintains that further environmental review is needed for the pipeline. Rep. Kevin Cramer, also a North Dakota Republican, said he received word that the US Army Corps will grant final approval and praised President Donald Trump as a “man of action” after Trump signed executive actions last week to advance approval of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines.

California Lawmakers Want ‘Third Gender Option’ for Drivers’ Licenses

Legislation introduced in California would create a third gender option on drivers’ licenses and expedite the process for individuals to change their sex on their birth certificate without undergoing a sex change. The “Gender Recognition Act,” sponsored by state senators Toni Atkins of San Diego and Scott Weiner of San Francisco, would add “nonbinary” to the list of male and female genders on state identification documents. California law currently requires individuals seeking to change their birth certificate to provide proof from a doctor that they have undergone “clinically appropriate treatment for the purpose of gender transition.” The new legislation would remove this requirement and allow individuals to change their gender without a hearing, if no one files an objection.

California Democratic Lawmakers Move to Become a ‘Sanctuary State’

California Senate Democrats moved Tuesday to become the first “sanctuary state,” advancing bills that would create a statewide sanctuary for illegal immigrants, provide money to pay lawyers for immigrants facing deportation and hamper any attempts by the Trump administration to create a Muslim registry. The move comes days after President Trump launched his crackdown on immigration and sanctuary cities across the nation. San Francisco filed a lawsuit against Trump earlier Tuesday, claiming his executive order that would cut funding from sanctuary cities is unconstitutional and a “severe invasion of San Francisco’s sovereignty.” San Francisco receives about $1.2 billion a year in federal funding for services that include housing, health and social services, and homelessness. Republicans and law enforcement groups said the bill would make it harder for authorities to work together to fight crime.

Economic News

America added 227,000 jobs in January, well ahead of December’s gain of 157,000 jobs. The unemployment rate ticked up a bit to 4.8%. More Americans started looking for work again — a good sign — which explains the small increase in unemployment. While the top line numbers are pretty strong, Trump is also inheriting problems in the U.S. job market. The underemployment rate — people that are unemployed plus those who work part-time — actually rose in January to 9.4% from 9.2% in December. There are 5.8 million Americans working part-time jobs but who want a full-time position. The quality of jobs is another issue. America added 76,000 retail and restaurant jobs in January, which tend to be lower-paying, low-skill positions. While manufacturing barely added any jobs in January, some see the outlook for factory jobs improving under President Trump. However, Americans saw a boost in wages. Paychecks grew 2.5% in January compared to a year ago, a sign of continued momentum from last year.

President Trump plans to sign an executive order on Friday to ease regulations put in place after the 2008 financial crisis to rein in Wall Street, according to a White House spokeswoman. The move would address another one of Trump’s campaign promises: Dismantling 2010’s financial reform legislation, known as Dodd Frank. The legislation forced banks to take various steps to prevent another financial crisis, including holding more capital and taking yearly “stress tests” to prove they could withstand economic turbulence. The financial industry, particularly the small community banks, complained the rules went too far. “We expect to be cutting a lot out of Dodd-Frank,” Trump said during a meeting with business leaders Friday morning.

India’s annual budget, rolled out Wednesday by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, slashes the tax rate from 10% to 5% on income between 250,000 rupees ($3,700) and 500,000 rupees ($7,400). The change means that the roughly 20 million Indians with incomes within that bracket will see their tax liability halved next year. Indians earning less than 250,000 rupees do not pay income tax. Indians with larger incomes will also enjoy the tax break, saving 12,500 rupees ($185) each. But they will still face higher rates on income earned above 500,000 rupees. The Indian government hopes the concession will convince more people to pay taxes and widen the country’s shockingly small tax base. Less than 2% of the country’s 1.3 billion citizens pay any income tax at all. The predominance of cash in India’s economy makes it possible for people to evade taxes.

Israel

President Donald Trump’s administration warned Thursday that new Israeli settlement activity could potentially hamper the peace process, a surprisingly new stance for a White House that’s previously remained adamant in its support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel. Despite the shift, the White House said it hadn’t taken an official position on Israeli settlements, saying it would wait until Trump meets with Netanyahu later this month to formally develop a position. “While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement.

Israeli police stormed a synagogue Thursday where about 200 Israeli protesters, some of them as young as 12-years-old, had barricaded themselves in Amona, an unauthorized Jewish settlement in the West Bank. The court-ordered evacuation began Wednesday with mostly peaceful resistance from settlers. On Thursday, police officers wearing goggles and wielding plastic shields broke through the doors and sprayed water to push back defiant protesters. The police later began dragging young protesters out of the building. The protesters retaliated by throwing rocks. They used bookcases and large sheets of metal to try to block authorities from entering the complex. Police said protesters injured at least 24 officers and that 13 young protesters have been arrested. Amona is the largest of about 100 unauthorized outposts erected in the West Bank by Jewish settlers without formal permission but with tacit Israeli government support. It was built on private Palestinian land and Israel’s Supreme Court ordered it demolished.

Iran

The Treasury Department placed new sanctions on Iran Friday, the first move by the Trump administration in response to a ballistic missile test that led the White House to announce it was putting Iran “on notice.” The sanctions were imposed on several Iranian officials and entities involved in procurement of material for the missile testing, which the administration said is not part of the 2015 nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. “Iran’s continued support for terrorism and development of its ballistic missile program poses a threat to the region, to our partners worldwide, and to the United States,” said John Smith, acting director of Treasury’s office of foreign assets. “Today’s action is part of Treasury’s ongoing efforts to counter Iranian malign activity abroad that is outside the scope of the JCPOA. We will continue to actively apply all available tools, including financial sanctions, to address this behavior.”

The Iranian-backed suicide attack targeting a Saudi frigate off the coast of Yemen on Monday may have been meant for an American warship, two defense officials told Fox News. The incident in question occurred in the southern Red Sea and was carried out by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Two Saudi sailors were killed and three were wounded. At first the ship was thought to have been struck by a missile. But based on new analysis of a video showing the attack, American intelligence officials now believe this was a suicide bomber whose small boat rammed the side of the Saudi vessel. In the audio heard on the video, a voice narrating the attack shouts in Arabic, “Allahu akbar [God is great], death to America, death to Israel, a curse on the Jews and victory for Islam.”

Ukraine

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations offered a strong condemnation of Russia in her first appearance at the UN Security Council on Thursday, calling on Moscow to de-escalate violence in eastern Ukraine and saying that US sanctions against Moscow would remain in place until it withdraws from Crimea. “The United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea,” said Nikki Haley, President Donald Trump’s envoy to the world body. “Crimea is a part of Ukraine. Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.”

Fighting in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian armed forces is escalating, officials have warned. A higher number of ceasefire violations were reported between Sunday and Tuesda evenings, compared with the previous 48 hours, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine said Monday. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said 12 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the Donbass region in two days. At least 26 troops were wounded. “Russian occupation forces carried out massive attacks across the contact line using all available weapons, including (artillery, mortars and tanks) — all prohibited by the Minsk agreements — and small arms,” the ministry said. Civilians are being evacuated from the eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiivka, as the upsurge in fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces leaves around 20,000 residents living in deteriorating conditions.

Australia

For more than 70 years, Australia and the United States have been inseparable allies. However, President Trump supposedly had a heated phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over the weekend which could push the two countries apart. In the phone call on Saturday, Trump and Turnbull butted heads about a deal struck with the Obama administration for the United States to take 1,250 refugees from Australia’s offshore detention centers. However, both Trump and Turnbull have downplayed their differences. “Thank you to Prime Minister of Australia for telling the truth about our very civil conversation that FAKE NEWS media lied about. Very nice!” Trump tweeted Friday morning. On Thursday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer offered assurances the U.S. would uphold the deal to take in 1,250 refugees from Australia.

Volcanoes

Ethiopia’s most active volcano, Erta Ale, better known as the “smoking mountain” and the “gateway to hell,” is spewing massive amounts of lava. The activity began increasing on Jan. 20, with the lake sputtering lava to heights of up to 100 feet. New fissures opened up on Jan. 21. Erta Ale is located where three tectonic plates are separating on the African continent, in a place where temperatures can rise to more than 125 degrees Fahrenheit. At 150 feet below sea level, the Denakil Depression is a vast desert basin, characterized by two active volcanoes and the Erta Ale living lava lake, which is only one of four in the world. There are also impressive geysers, acid ponds, along with expanses of yellow mounds of sulfur, salt and mineral deposits.

Weather

After a few days’ break, the storm parade marched back into the West, with soaking rain, heavy mountain snow, and yet another freezing rain event into part of the Pacific Northwest’s Interstate 5 corridor, including Portland, Oregon. A well-defined Pacific low-pressure system approached the West Coast late Wednesday into Thursday, bringing more rain to California and additional heavy snowfall to the Sierra Nevada. Authorities said foggy conditions were to blame for a pileup that involved at least 50 vehicles near Armona, California, Tuesday morning, as well as several other crashes in the middle of the state. At least five people were killed in separate crashes Wednesday on slick Colorado roads that were made dangerous by winter weather. Icy conditions from freezing rain caused a treacherous commute Friday in winter-weary Portland, with multiple wrecks reported.

European consumers have been plunged into crisis by a vegetable shortage caused by severe weather. Shops across Europe – and particularly in the UK – have seen the shelves stripped of green produce like lettuce, broccoli and spinach. Courgettes (zucchinis, if you’re American), aubergines (eggplant) and peppers have also been badly affected. The problems stem from a blast of cold weather which has overtaken large parts of southern Europe. These areas are usually able to grow vegetables even through the cold season, but snow and floods have stopped supplies in their tracks.

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