Signs of the Times (4/14/17)

Downward Trend in Religious Restrictions Reversed in 2015

The number of countries with “high levels” of restrictions on religion due to government policies or actions of people increased in 2015, reversing a downward trend, according to a new study. A total of 40 percent of surveyed countries registered “high” or “very high” levels of overall restrictions, according to Pew Research Center’s annual study on global restrictions on religion released April 11. That’s up from 34 percent in 2014, according to the data. The percentage had declined during the previous two years, tumbling from 43 percent in 2012 to 39 percent in 2013. Of the 198 countries Pew surveyed, 25 percent reported “high” or “very high” levels of government restriction, up just slightly from 24 percent in 2014. And 27 percent reported “high” or “very high” numbers of acts of religious hostility by individuals, organizations or groups, a jump from 23 percent in 2014. That happened in a year when European countries welcomed an increasing number of refugees, religion-related terror attacks rocked France and people with albinism were targeted for rituals by witch doctors in sub-Saharan Africa, the report said. It’s too soon to tell if the increase is a blip or a trend, Pew says.

14% of U.S. Christians Left Their Churches after Trump was Elected

Research from The Washington Post found that about 14 percent of Christians left their churches after Donald Trump was elected president. The survey followed up with 957 people before and after the presidential election. According to the results, by mid-November, 14 percent of those surveyed had left their particular church. While Trump secured 81 percent of the white evangelical vote, the research shows that Trump seems to have “relatively low support” among evangelicals right now. The change results from American politics becoming divisive within the church (about 15 percent said that’s what’s dividing the church). The report said that people who are leaving the church did so because division in the church had spurred acrimonious debate. The people who are leaving their churches self-identified and responded as 10 percent evangelicals, 18 percent mainline Protestants and 11 percent Catholics.

Trump Signs Law Allowing States to Defund Planned Parenthood

President Trump signed a law this week overturning a last-minute Obama-era regulation forcing states to fund Planned Parenthood, America’s largest abortion business. The regulation forced states to give Title X money to organizations that commit abortions. Now, states – if they wish – will be able to withhold Title X money from abortion-committing organizations, instead prioritizing non-abortion businesses. Federal Title X dollars fund “family planning services,” but technically not abortion. However, government money Planned Parenthood receives, helps the abortion-centered organization overall. “This week the pro-life movement had two huge victories: first, the swearing-in of Justice Gorsuch and now, President Trump will undo former President Obama’s parting gift to the abortion industry,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List.

U.S. Drops ‘Mother of All Bombs’ on Islamic State in Afghanistan

The U.S. military dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb — a massive 21,000-pound munition nicknamed the “Mother of All Bombs” — on an Islamic State tunnel complex in Afghanistan on Thursday. Afghanistan officials said 36 Islamic State militants were killed. It marked the first time it has been used in combat and reflected the growing flexibility of the Pentagon to wage war. The target was in a remote area where the risk of civilian casualties would be low. Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said the decision to drop the bomb was made because it was the best fit for the target. Trump was told about the bomb’s use but his approval was not required, a point Trump noted, as well. “We have given them total authorization,” Trump said. “This was another very, very successful mission.” Trump had criticized Obama’s management of the war against the Islamic State, pledging to ramp up pressure on the terror group and give the military more flexibility to combat them. The Pentagon spokesman said the bomb had been brought to Afghanistan some time ago for potential use. The bomb explodes in the air, creating air pressure that can make tunnels and other structures collapse.

Russia Vetoes UN Measures Condemning Syrian Chemical Warfare

The UN Security Council (UNSC) failed yet again on Wednesday to pass a resolution condemning last week’s chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of people in Syria. Permanent member Russia vetoed the resolution which sought to condemn the killings and call on the Assad regime to cooperate with an international investigation into the attack. Wednesday’s veto was the eighth time Russia has used its veto — often along with China — to torpedo a UN draft resolution on Syria since its civil war began in 2011. The latest resolution to fail at the hands of Russia’s veto power came in the wake of the gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province. The draft resolution condemned the attacks and called for an international investigation into the perpetrators. This time China abstained.

‘Catch & Release’ Replaced with Focus on Repeat Offenders

Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared “a new era” in immigration enforcement on Tuesday, saying his prosecutors will try to bring stiffer criminal charges against repeat illegal immigrants and smugglers as part of President Trump’s crackdown. Sessions said his enforcement priorities will end the “catch and release” practices of the Obama administration and give the Justice Department a more active role in stemming illegal immigration. Prosecutors should prioritize cases against smugglers and should bring felony charges against illegal immigrants who have been removed before and have sneaked back into the U.S. or have other criminal convictions on their records, according to the guidance issued by the attorney general. As part of a broader plan to reduce backlogs in immigration courts and to speed up the deportation process, the Justice Department will hire 125 more immigration judges over the next two years, the attorney general said.

Famine Threatens Most People Since World War II

The world produces enough food to feed all its inhabitants. When one region is suffering severe hunger, global humanitarian institutions, though often cash-strapped, are theoretically capable of transporting food and averting catastrophe. But this year, South Sudan slipped into famine, and Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen are each on the verge of their own. Famine now threatens 20 million people — more than at any time since World War II, reports the Washington Post. As defined by the United Nations, famine occurs when a region’s daily hunger-related death rate exceeds 2 per 10,000 people. Each of these four countries is in a protracted conflict. While humanitarian assistance can save lives in the immediate term, none of the food crises can be solved in the long term without a semblance of peace. The threat of violence can limit or prohibit aid workers’ access to affected regions, and in some cases, starvation may be a deliberate war tactic. Children are always the most affected, as even those who survive may be mentally and physically stunted for life. Ongoing conflicts in Congo, the Central African Republic, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have also left millions hungry in those places, too.

Terrorism Suspected in Bombing of German Soccer Team Bus

German authorities suspect “terrorist involvement” in a bomb attack on the bus of the Borussia Dortmund soccer team and are investigating a possible radical Islamist link, a spokeswoman for the federal prosecutor’s office said Wednesday. The investigation is focused on two suspects from the “Islamist spectrum,” spokeswoman Frauke Koehler said. Their homes have been searched and one has been temporarily detained, she said. Three explosive devices shattered windows and injured a player on the Borussia Dortmund team bus Tuesday evening local time as the German squad was en route to its home Champions League match against AS Monaco. The devices, which were hidden behind a bush, contained metal fragments and had a reach of 100 meters (109 yards), the prosecutor’s office said.

Swedes Questioning Open-Door Policy

Sweden has taken in the most migrants per capita of any European country: In 2015, more than 160,000 applied for asylum in this country of 10 million, according to government figures. Most came from war-torn countries in the Middle East. Swedes are known for their tolerant society, but last week’s deadly truck rampage by a frustrated asylum-seeker left many questioning whether the country’s open-door policy for refugees swung open too far. On Friday, a man from Uzbekistan who had been denied asylum plowed through a crowded street of shoppers in a stolen beer truck before crashing into a department store in central Stockholm, killing four and injuring 15. Now, supporters of the liberal government are considering switching sides to the far right, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party in next year’s parliamentary elections, reports the USA Today.

Government Jobs Unfilled Despite Trump’s Lift of Hiring Freeze

Many federal government jobs will remain unfilled despite President Trump’s lifting the hiring freeze Wednesday, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said. Trump signed a memorandum in January freezing large portions of federal government hiring, barring the military and positions deemed necessary for national security and public safety. As part of the memorandum, Trump gave the Office of Management and Budget 90 days to come up with a long-term plan to reduce the federal government’s size. While the guidance issued Wednesday does not contain agency-specific hiring goals or limits, Mulvaney said that agencies targeted with significant budget cuts in Trump’s first budget proposal, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, would be expected to make significant cuts to their workforces. Agencies that Trump wants to spend more on, like the Department of Veterans Affairs, would be expected to see their payrolls rise. Under the guidance, agencies will have until June to submit drafts for overhauling their workforces.

Economic News – Domestic

Retail sales in the U.S. fell for a second straight month in March on weaker gasoline and auto sales but a core measure that excludes those and other volatile items rose solidly. Sales overall fell 0.2%, the Commerce Department said Friday. Excluding volatile categories — autos, gasoline, food services and building materials — sales jumped 0.5%. February’s sluggish 0.1% increase was revised to a 0.3% drop. Analysts said snowstorms in the Midwest and Northeast could have kept shoppers at home. U.S. households generally are benefiting from solid job and income growth, cheap gasoline, lofty stock and home prices and reduced debt. Consumer spending makes up about 70% of economic activity is expected to drive economic growth this year.

Consumer prices fell in March by the largest amount in more than two years, pushed lower by another sharp decline in the price of gasoline and other energy products. Consumer prices dropped 0.3% in March following a tiny 0.1% rise in February, the Labor Department reported Friday. It was the first monthly decline in 13 months and the biggest drop since prices fell 0.6% in January 2015. In addition to a big 6.2% fall in gasoline prices, the cost of cell phone plans, new and used cars and clothing were all lower last month. Core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy, dropped 0.1% last month. Over the past 12 months, inflation is up a moderate 2.4% while core prices have risen 2%.

The luxury electric-car company Tesla has yet to turn a profit, losing hundreds of millions of dollars last year alone. But on Monday, the darling of Silicon Valley became the most valuable American car company, surpassing General Motors. Shares of Tesla, run by high-profile chief executive Elon Musk, put the company’s value at $51.5 billion, above GM’s $50.2 billion. Tesla blew by Ford ($44.6 billion) last week. Musk’s company produced just 84,000 cars last year, with starting prices of $68,000. Tesla’s reputation goes beyond being just a car company. It recently absorbed Musk’s Solar City company for $5 billion which has captured the imagination of California’s technology pack and, apparently, investors. The company has also been developing batteries that could store power from rooftop solar panels, expanding its mission into a renewable-energy enterprise.

General Motors is significantly increasing the number of people working on its self-driving car projects. Its new research and development facility in California is hiring 1,100 people. The new employees will be working at the Cruise Automation unit, a tech start-up GM paid $581 million for in March 2016. The self-driving car unit had already grown to about 150 engineers, according to GM, up from the 40 at the time of its purchase.

Economic News – International

Youth unemployment in the Eurozone has been stuck between 19% to 25% for the past eight years. In Spain and Greece, it’s more than 40%. Youth unemployment in the U.S. is just below 10%. The bleak numbers underscore the uphill battle many young Europeans face in finding jobs that match their aspirations and education. Many are still living at home, while others have left their families and moved to new countries in search of work. The trend is thought to be factor in rising populism in Europe, which now threatens to upend the political establishment. One major test will come later this month when France votes in the first round of a pivotal national election.

Russia’s state-owned oil company Rosneft might end up owning Citgo, a US energy company based in Houston, Texas. This isn’t a direct takeover. Instead, it hinges on the ability of Venezuela’s state-run oil company to pay back its Russian loan. The Venezuelan company owns Citgo, which was used as collateral for the loan. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are highly alarmed. In hotly worded letters to the Trump Administration in recent days, members of Congress and senators warned that it could be a big problem for US national security if Russia gets a hold of Citgo.

Beijing-based LeEco has pulled the plug on a plan to buy U.S. electronics maker Vizio for $2 billion. In a statement, the companies blamed “regulatory headwinds” for the deal’s collapse. It’s a sharp turnaround from July, when LeEco touted the acquisition of the U.S. smart TV maker as “an important step” in its efforts to grow in North America. The Chinese government has begun restricting overseas investments and acquisitions in recent months in order to rein in the huge sums of money flowing out of its economy. That appears to have sunk other high-profile deals, including one by China’s richest man to buy the producer of the Golden Globes.

Israel

Reports surfaced this week that a strike by a UAV (drone) in the city of Rafah, in the Egyptian Sinai, killed one person just a few hours after a Grad rocket strike destroyed an agricultural structure in Israel’s Eshkol region, near the Egyptian border. The rocket strike was claimed by the Islamic State (IS) terror militia, which also claimed a bomb attack on two Coptic churches in Alexandria and Tanta during Palm Sunday services on Sunday which killed dozens of Christian worshipers.

A British woman has been stabbed to death by a Palestinian man in Jerusalem, Israeli police said. The student, in her early 20s, was traveling on the Jerusalem Light Rail near Old City when she was attacked. Israel’s Shin Bet security agency identified the assailant as a 57-year-old Palestinian and said he suffered with mental health problems who had previously tried to take his own life. In a statement, Shin Bet said: “This is one of many instances where a Palestinian suffering personal strife… chooses to carry out an attack in order to find release for his problem.”

Syria

Syrian President Bashar Assad said an alleged chemical weapons attack that killed at least 86 people last week was a “fabrication” to justify a U.S. military strike. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Moscow Wednesday that the U.S. is confident of its conclusion that Syrian government forces were behind the attack. U.S. military and intelligence intercepts before the attack captured military and chemical experts talking about preparations for the sarin gas attack in Idlib last week, CNN reported Thursday, citing an unnamed U.S. official. The conversations were discovered after the U.S. military ordered a review of intercepted information to figure out what happened following the incident. The Syrian government was supposed to have had its chemical weapons destroyed in 2014. Brig. Gen. Zaher al-Sakat, a general who said he defected from Assad’s army, told CNN in 2013 that Assad would not give up the chemical weapon stockpile.

An airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition in Syria mistakenly killed 18 soldiers from a U.S.-backed rebel force battling the Islamic State, the military said Thursday. “The strike was requested by the partnered forces, who had identified the target location as an ISIS fighting position,” U.S. Central Command said in a statement, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “The target location was actually a forward Syrian Democratic Forces fighting position.” The coalition airstrike occurred Tuesday near Tabqah, where U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are engaged in a key battle against the Islamic State over a strategically important dam. Those troops are the main U.S.-backed force battling the Islamic State in Syria.

Russia

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a stern ultimatum to Russia Tuesday: side with America and its allies on Syria, or stand alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iran and the militant group Hezbollah. Tillerson said it was unclear whether Russia had failed to take seriously its obligation to rid Syria of chemical weapons, or had merely been incompetent. But he said the distinction “doesn’t much matter to the dead.” A meeting of “likeminded” countries was arranged on the sidelines of the summit of the Group of 7 industrialized economies days after the U.S. launched airstrikes against Assad’s forces, and hours before Tillerson flew to Moscow to pressure Russia’s leaders to end their support for Assad. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov began his meeting with Tillerson, his U.S. counterpart, with a warning — do not strike the Syrian regime again. They announced several initiatives to build trust and improve U.S.-Russian relations, which both top diplomats said is in bad shape. Tillerson said he and Putin agreed that in Syria, “we want to deny a safe haven for terrorists who want to attack both our countries,” but they disagree on tactics.

North Korea

President Trump on Tuesday said North Korea “is looking for trouble” and vowed to get the murderous regime of dictator Kim Jong-Un under control with or without China’s help. Trump sent the warning in a pair of tweets just days after he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. China traditionally has acted as a counterweight on North Korea, helping to moderate some actions of the isolated country. Trump indicated a favorable trade deal could await China if they stepped up pressure on North Korea. However, Trump also appeared ready to reign in the provocative nation on his own. “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them!” he tweeted. North Korean state media on Tuesday warned of a nuclear attack on the United States if provoked by a U.S. Navy strike group led by a nuclear-powered aircraft that was steaming towards the western Pacific.

Chinese President Xi Jinping told President Trump in a phone call Wednesday that Beijing is willing to work with Washington on ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, but wants to do so through peaceful means. Despite Beijing’s public efforts to rein in North Korea’s provocative behavior, Chinese companies continue to act as enablers, providing the isolated communist regime with technology and hardware that allow its missiles to take flight, according to current and former U.S. and U.N. officials and independent weapons experts.

South Sudan

On April 4, government militias loyal to the president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, entered the town of Pajok and began killing and raping men, women and children. Opposition forces led by the vice president, James Wani Igga, estimate that more than 200 innocent civilians were killed in Pajok. “At the onset of the massacre, the tribal army burned down several buildings in the town and indiscriminately shot at the innocent civilians including kids and women who were trying to run for their lives,” a security officer in South Sudan told Fox News. “Primary school pupils were forced to lay on the ground in a straight line and were run over by tanks, and crushing them flat.” South Sudan military’s ongoing rape and killing of citizens who are not part of the dominant Dinka tribe is largely being ignored in the world’s poorest country. Non-Dinkas have been left with no help and no future.

Somalia

The U.S. is sending “dozens” of additional troops to Somalia to train and equip the Somali National Army and the forces participating in the African Union Mission in Somalia there. A US military official told CNN that the new contingent would consist of about 40 soldiers. The U.S. troops will join the small number of US special operations forces already there providing counterterrorism support to local forces battling the local al Qaeda affiliate, al Shabaab. That advisory mission has been underway for several years. President Donald Trump last month granted additional authority to US Africa Command to conduct counterterrorism airstrikes against the terror group.

Turkey

Turkey has experienced upheaval and chaos caused by the government’s vast purge of Turkish institutions since the failed coup in July — the backdrop for a referendum on Sunday to expand the president’s powers. For example, roughly 40,000 teachers were purged from Turkey’s education system after last year’s attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Most of them have not been replaced, forcing schools to combine classes. Mr. Erdogan’s government has sought to root out any remaining dissent by targeting nearly every segment of society. The government has fired or suspended about 130,000 people suspected of being dissidents from the public and private sectors. Most are accused of affiliations with the Gulen movement, the Islamic followers of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric accused of orchestrating the attempted coup. More than 8,000 army officers, 8,000 police officers, 5,000 academics and 4,000 judges and prosecutors have been forced out, reports the New York Times. Watchdogs say that around 1,200 schools, 50 hospitals and 15 universities have been closed.

Wildfires

More than 100 wildfires continue to burn in Florida, causing Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency. A fire known has the Cowbell Fire was burning in the Big Cypress National Reserve and has scorched nearly 26 square miles. The blaze that began March 30 is 11 percent contained as of Thursday morning. Another fire in the preserve, called the Parliament Fire, is the largest active blaze and has burned more than 41 square miles. It is 95 percent contained. That fire started March 18. Since February, over 70,000 acres have been scorched across the state. Nineteen homes have been lost. Most of the fires have started between Lake Okeechobee to the south and the Ocala National Forest to the north. Polk, Collier, Marion, Nassau, Broward, Hernando and Glades counties have been hard hit.

Weather

Pest populations are expected to boom this spring and summer in several regions of the country, and warmer-than-average winter months are at least partially to blame. Ticks, mosquitoes and other insects could emerge in unusually large numbers as temperatures rise, experts say. A boom in ticks is expected in the Northeast, and that could lead to an increase in Lyme disease cases.  Experts also say that, as the world gets warmer, blooming seasons might become longer as well, bringing about more pollen that causes seasonal allergies.

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