Signs of the Times (5/20/17)

Miracle Harvest of Souls Among ISIS Refugees

Reports from several Christian organizations on the ground in ISIS-torn regions say that the flood of Muslims coming to Christ shows no end in sight. The challenge we face is that the need already is greater than our resources can provide. “This is an unprecedented, miracle harvest of souls resulting from the despicable terror acts of ISIS marauders and the murderous civil war in Syria. Refugees are running for their lives from ISIS evil and are running directly to our partnering camps where Christian workers are ministering to these refugees’ physical needs and sharing the Good News. The miracle harvest is so great that one of our partner’s churches that is operating a camp for Syrian refugees is reporting that more than TWO-THIRDS of their workers are former refugees who have come to faith in Christ and are now ministering God’s love to other refugees.,” reports Liberty Relief. They are in desperate need of at least 10,000 Bibles. You can contribute to this harvest at:

Christianity Growing in North Korea Despite Persecution

North Korea is the number one country for most severe persecution of Christians, according to Open Doors 2017 World Watch List, but despite the extreme persecution Christians there face, the church is growing, reports a North Korean defector. The Christian Post reports that Kim Chung-seong was able to escape North Korea right before he was to be killed. He now lives in South Korea and is involved in missions work. “The one thing that the North Korean regime fears the most, and is afraid of, is the spreading of the Gospel,” he said Friday while attending the first annual World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians in Washington, D.C. He said that Christians in North Korea are forced to hide their faith from the government and sometimes even from their own families in order to avoid persecution. But despite these obstacles, there are an estimated 300,000 Christians in North Korea.

Planned Parenthood Closing Multiple Abortion Clinics in Iowa

The abortion chain Planned Parenthood announced plans Thursday to close four Iowa clinics as a result of a new state law that defunds it. Reports lifennews.com. At the end of June, Planned Parenthood facilities in Burlington, Keokuk and Sioux City, Iowa will close; and a fourth in Quad City will close when the building is sold, Iowa Public Radio reports. Three of the facilities did abortions. The tax money that used to go to Planned Parenthoods in Iowa now will be given to community health clinics that offer comprehensive health care but not abortions. In contrast to the 12 (soon to be eight) Planned Parenthood facilities in Iowa, there are 221 community health clinics in Iowa, according to local news reports. These facilities will be able to expand services to low-income, minority and other patients with the funding increase.

Court Grants Christian T-shirt Printer the Right to Decline Pro-LGBT Orders

In a surprise decision, the owner of a Christian t-shirt printing business recently won an appeals case after he objected to printing a pro-LGBT message on an order of t-shirts, representing one of very few cases resolved in favor of religious freedom. Owner Blaine Adamson says he and his staff never refuse to do business with someone based on their personal beliefs, but he did feel compelled in 2012 to decline to print a message for a gay pride event because it went against his convictions. The Gay and Lesbian Services Organization promoting the event then filed a discrimination lawsuit against Adamson and his company. Hands On Originals’ case was taken up by Alliance Defending Freedom. ADF attorneys appealed the case to the Fayette Circuit Court, which overruled the original ruling against Adamson which was handed down by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission in 2014. “’It is also a victory for all Americans because it reassures us all that, no matter what you believe, the law can’t force you to express a message in conflict with your deepest convictions,” ADF’s lead attorney said.

Trump Travels to Middle East as Bombshells Multiply in Washington

President Trump began an ambitious five-city, nine-day foreign trip in Saudi Arabia on Saturday with the goal of uniting the Muslim world against terror — even as his presidency is embroiled in a quickly escalating controversy over his ties to the Russian government. In Riyadh, there’s a clear sense of national pride that Trump chose Saudi Arabia as his first foreign destination as president. Bright electronic billboards line King Salman Road the airport to downtown, showing side-by-side photos of President Trump and the Saudi king under the banner “Together we Prevail.” President Trump on Saturday signed a nearly $110 billion arms deal to help the Persian Gulf ally with its military-defense system. From Saudi Arabia, Trump will travel Monday to Jerusalem for talks on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, an issue that has confounded every modern president even under the best of circumstances. Trump comes to Israel amid revelations he divulged top secret Israeli intelligence to Russia, and after a diplomatic flare-up over the U.S. refusal to recognize Jerusalem as wholly within Israeli territory.

Defense Secretary Mattis says Trump’s Orders Will Annihilate ISIS

New approaches approved by President Trump to defeat Islamic State militants have begun to bear fruit, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters Friday. Commanders in the field have been given greater authority to press the fight without approval from Washington, and a tactical shift to “annihilation” from a war of attrition has thrown fighters from the Islamic State, or ISIS, on “their back foot,” Mattis said. Trump’s order, Mattis said, has shifted the focus from surrounding ISIS fighters in their strongholds and waiting them out to attacking them and choking off their lines of retreat. Mattis declined to put a timeline on defeat for the terror organization, calling it a “transnational, long-term threat.”

Furor Over Trump Leaks to Russians

During an Oval Office meeting with top Russian officials, a current and a former U.S. official said, President Trump described highly classified material about a new ISIS plot. The details had not even been shared with American allies, and the disclosure could jeopardize a crucial intelligence-sharing relationship, notes the New York Times. However, President Trump on Tuesday defended conversations he had with Russian officials, saying he shared “facts” about terrorism and had “the absolute right to do” so. Under U.S. law, the President has the right to declassify sensitive material. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all strongly pushed back Monday evening following The Washington Post report that Trump disclosed to Russian officials the foreign city where an ISIS plot was hatched – a development that could potentially lead the Russians to discover U.S. intelligence sources and methods. In addition, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov denied Saturday that the dismissal of FBI director James Comey was discussed during his meeting last week with President Trump in the Oval Office.

Israeli Intelligence Angry Over Leak

Reports that Israel was the source of highly classified information that President Trump shared with Russian officials last week left a chill among current and former intelligence officials here. Israeli intelligence officers are taking the matter seriously, a military intelligence officer said Tuesday. The officer, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said Israel was warned months ago to be careful about sharing information with Trump’s staff, and now that warning has been realized, reports the USA Today. Last week’s incident will likely lead to some adjustments in the quality of intelligence shared in the future by Israel and other countries, said Michael Herzog, a retired brigadier general and former intelligence officer with the Israel Defense Forces.

Putin Offers to Hand Over Records of Trump-Lavrov Meeting

Vladimir Putin offered Wednesday to help settle the controversy over claims President Trump shared classified intel with his diplomats. Railing against “dangerous” U.S. politicians whipping up “anti-Russian sentiment,” the Russian president dismissed the claim that Trump disclosed such information to Kremlin officials and offered to hand over records of the Oval Office meeting to Congress. Speaking during a joint news conference with the Italian prime minister, Putin said those attacking Trump for allegedly being too cozy with Russian politicians were guilty of “political schizophrenia.” If Trump did disclose classified intel, Putin said he would have to reprimand Lavrov since the alleged intelligence was never passed along to him. “He hasn’t shared those secrets with us,” Putin concluded. Turning to Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election, Putin said he initially found the claim “funny” but said Moscow is now “concerned because it’s hard to imagine what the people who produce such nonsense can come up with next.”

White House Disputes Report that Trump Asked Comey to End Flynn Probe

The White House grappled late Tuesday with the political ghost of James Comey, as an explosive new report said a memo written by the ousted FBI chief claimed President Trump once asked him to end the probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. The White House sharply disputed the report, as Democrats seized on it as potential proof of “obstruction” of justice. According to The New York Times the memo quoted Trump as saying he hoped Comey could “let this go” with regard to Flynn. The Times said Comey wrote the memo shortly after an Oval Office meeting on Feb. 14, the day after Flynn resigned from the Trump administration. The paper acknowledged it had not seen a copy of the memo. “The President has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn,” an official said.

  • President Trump has insisted that his press coverage has been historically negative, and a newly released Harvard journalism study backs him up. A major study released Thursday by the Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that the coverage of Mr. Trump during his first 100 days was “unsparing,” with negative reports outnumbering positive ones by 80 to 20 percent. “Trump’s coverage during his first 100 days set a new standard for negativity,” the report states.

Special Council to Investigate Alleged Russian Campaign Collusion

On Wednesday, former FBI director Robert Mueller was appointed to be a special counsel to oversee the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election and the possibility of collusion between Russia and President Trump’s campaign. Robert S. Mueller III, is a former FBI who has spent most of his life in public service. Mueller, 72, was named to head the FBI one week before the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks – and spent the next 12 years at the helm of the agency, a tenure second in length only to J. Edgar Hoover. Now, he has a new challenge: Overseeing the FBI’s ongoing counterintelligence investigation into possible collusion between the Trump election campaign associates and Russia. President Trump denied the collusion charges and called the probe the “greatest witch hunt” in U.S. history.

Ransomware Hack Linked to North Korea

Clues point to a link between a hacking group connected to North Korea and the ransomware attacks that have crippled computer systems worldwide, according to two cyber-security firms. Experts at the global cyber-security firm Symantec found that earlier versions of the ransomware known as WannaCry were found on computers that also bore evidence of the cyber tools used against Sony Pictures Entertainment, as well as banks in Poland and Bangladesh’s central bank— attacks that all were linked to North Korea. Also, a researcher at Google singled out an identical code used both in the ransomware and used by the Lazarus Group, a team of hackers tied to North Korea. Microsoft, whose older Windows operating system was the target of the ransomware that a quarter-million computers in 150 countries, has blamed the National Security Agency for stockpiling cyberweapons that were then stolen and used to form the attack, a scenario echoed by cybersecurity firms. In the WannaCry attack, which started Friday, the attackers have demanded $300 per computer in payments to unlock infected computers, a scheme that paralyzed computers at U.K. hospitals, a Spanish telephone company, and European car factories. But payouts so far have yet to top $100,000, according to firms tracking the attackers’ bitcoin accounts.

Factory Wages Too Low to Generate Rust Belt Renaissance

President Trump made boosting manufacturing the centerpiece of his economic agenda, vowing to revitalize blue-collar America, but factories just aren’t what they used to be, and the notion of “good-paying” manufacturing jobs that connect high school graduates to the middle class is quickly becoming a myth, reports the Washington Times. Instead, rank-and-file production workers now lag behind much of the rest of the economy in terms of paychecks, forcing economists to wonder whether the push for more factories is desirable in the first place, notes the conservative newspaper. Even the service industry, long dismissed as second-tier employment, averages higher wages than factory laborers, according to a study by the Congressional Research Service. In 2000, the average factory worker earned 5.1 percent more on an hourly basis than workers in the services sector. By last year, factory workers earned 4.3 percent less.

Robots to Slash Retail Jobs

Robots have already cost millions of factory jobs across the nation. Next up could be jobs at your local stores. Between 6 million to 7.5 million existing jobs are at risk of being replaced over the course of the next 10 years by some form of automation, according to a new study this week from by financial services firm Cornerstone Capital Group. That represents at least 38% of the current retail work force, which consists of 16 million workers. Retail could actually lose a greater proportion of jobs to automation than manufacturing has, according to the study. “Cashiers are considered one of the most easily automatable jobs in the economy,” said the report. And these job losses will hit women particularly hard, since about 73% of cashiers are women.

Economic News

U.S. household debt has topped the record level reached in 2008, a milestone for the recovery that shows consumers are borrowing again. But while the debt doesn’t pose the risks that toppled the financial system nine years ago, there are still some signs of potential trouble, notably high student loan debt and delinquency rates. Debt balances for American households increased $149 billion, or 1.2%, in the first quarter to $12.73 trillion, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York said Wednesday. That’s modestly above the $12.68 trillion peak in 2008 and 14.1% higher than the bottom in 2013. But the makeup of that debt is starkly different from what it was at the brink of the 2008 financial crisis. While mortgages still comprise the majority of the obligations, they represent a far lower share and the rebound has been led by student and auto debt. Household debt represented nearly 100% of household income in 2008, compared with 80% today, presenting a far lower risk to individual solvency and the broader economy

President Trump’s election and his promise to implement an “America First” agenda propelled the U.S. dollar to 13-year highs. But the Trump bump has proved fleeting for the greenback, which has lost virtually all of its post-election gains. Currency analysts are concerned about weak U.S. economic growth to kick off this year and concern that Trump’s political troubles will doom his economic agenda. However, the tech-heavy NASDAQ composite stock index posted a new record-high Tuesday. But on Wednesday, the stock market took a steep nosedive after allegations surfaced that President Trump revealed classified information about ISIS to Russian diplomats.

Ford Motor Co. plans to cut 10 percent of its salaried jobs in North America and Asia Pacific this year in an effort to boost profits. The company says it will offer voluntary early retirement and separation packages to its workers. It expects 1,400 positions to be affected by the end of September. Ford says its European and South American operations have already cut workers and won’t be affected. Ford’s stock price has fallen nearly 40 percent over the last three years as investors worry that U.S. sales are peaking. Ford is also spending heavily on future technology, like self-driving and fully electric cars.

Venezuela

Venezuela’s experiment with socialism has undermined what was once the most prosperous country in South America. The result? Daily riots and protests that have resulted in at least 40 deaths in recent weeks at the hands of government security forces. Inflation estimated at 720 percent. Shortages of basic foods and medicines. Newborn babies deposited in dresser drawers because hospitals have no beds. Zoo animals hunted down and butchered for food by the ravenous population. Finally, this week, and only at the urging of the United States, the United Nations is considering how to address this desperate situation. President Nicholas Maduro, who assumed power after the death of the charismatic but egomaniacal Hugo Chavez, was forced earlier this year to ask the U.N. for emergency aid, an admission of his inability to keep his people fed and secure.

Russia

Russia is buying up more of America’s debt. In March, the country bought $13.5 billion of U.S. government bonds — better known as “Treasury securities.” Russia’s total holdings of U.S. debt have now increased to nearly $100 billion, according to recently released Treasury Department data. It’s the third straight month of buying from Russia. A key reason is that Russia is restocking its foreign reserves, which declined dramatically when oil prices crashed last year to their lowers level since 2003. Foreign reserves are the cushion a country builds up to weather a rainy day. The Russian ruble hit an all-time low in early 2016 when oil prices fell to around $26 a barrel. The ruble’s crash could have been worse had the Russian government not spent lots of its US dollar holdings to keep the currency afloat.

Islamic State

Iraqi forces have dislodged Islamic State from all but 12 square km of Mosul, a military spokesman said on Tuesday, after planes dropped leaflets into the city telling civilians the battle was nearly won. Seven months into the U.S.-backed campaign, the militants now control only a few districts in the western half of Mosul including the Old City, where Islamic State is expected to make its last stand.

Under siege in other parts of Syria, Islamic State forces staged a surprise attack Thursday on two government-held villages in central Syria’s Hama province that killed more than 50 people, according to media reports and sources in the region. Fierce clashes between IS fighters and pro-Syrian government forces in the villages of Aqareb and Al-Mabujeh left at least 15 civilians and 27 pro-regime troops dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has monitors in the area. IS suffered 15 casualties, the observatory said.

Syria

The U.S. military launched fresh air strikes against pro-Assad troops in Syria after the troops ignored repeated warnings from both coalition and Russian forces, officials told Fox News Thursday. The Syrian forces, in several vehicles including at least one tank, were near the Jordanian border and deemed a threat to coalition partners on the ground, a Pentagon official said. The coalition commander assessed the threat and after shows of force didn’t stop the regime forces and those forces refused to move out of the deconfliction zone, the commander on the ground called for the air strike as a matter of force protection. Another military source told The Associated Press it appeared the Syrian forces were poised to attack an area that included U.S. advisers. “They were building a fighting position” about 55 kilometers from a U.S.-coalition base close to At Tanf, where advisers train members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Syrian Arab Coalition.

Afghanistan

The top U.S. military officer says NATO should be prepared to move fast to deploy additional forces if President Trump and other heads of states agree to bolster the alliance’s mission in Afghanistan, where government forces are locked in a stalemate with the Taliban. “What I asked my counterparts to do today is be prepared to act quickly,” Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday after a meeting with NATO’s military leaders. “If the political decision is to do more, let’s do more as fast as we can.” The decision is urgent because Afghanistan is entering the so-called fighting season, when snow is melting and mountains are becoming passable once again, allowing the Taliban to increase their attacks. Wednesday’s meeting will help set the stage for next week’s gathering of NATO leaders, including President Trump, in Brussels. The White House has said the president will make a decision on whether to increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan after that meeting.

Iran

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose more moderate policies included greater internal freedoms and a landmark 2015 nuclear deal with the U.S. that brought about some sanctions relief, won a resounding victory for a second four-year term, Iranian State TV said Saturday. Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli told a news conference that the 68-year-old cleric won 57% of the vote against three other contenders to avoid a runoff. Voting hours were extended several times because of the high turnout — 41.2 million voters, or 73% of the electorate. In 2013, Rouhani won his first term with nearly 51% of the vote. Iran’s president is the second-most powerful figure in the country’s political system. He is subordinate to the supreme leader, who is chosen by a clerical panel and has the ultimate say over all matters of state.

South Sudan

Violence in South Sudan over the past three weeks has prompted a massive flight of refugees into neighboring countries, according to the United Nations. More than 60,000 people, most of whom are women and children, have fled the country since fighting began at the end of June, the U.N.’s refugee agency UNHCR reported on Tuesday. Armed groups “are looting villages, murdering civilians, and forcibly recruiting young men and boys into their ranks,” UNHCR Spokesman Melissa Fleming said. Despite a peace deal brokered on July 11, clashes between forces loyal to the country’s President Salva Kiir and those allied with former Vice President Riek Machar are ongoing.

Volcanoes

An eruption at Bogoslof volcano – one of two to erupt in the Aleutian Islands Tuesday – is its first after more than two months of inactivity, causing ash to fall in a nearby community before drifting south over the Pacific Ocean. The Alaska Volcano Observatory said Tuesday night’s eruption at the volcano about 60 miles west of Unalaska, which began just after 10:30 p.m. and lasted for 73 minutes, sent a plume to an altitude of 34,000 feet. Overall, 39 volcanoes around the world are either erupting right now or have recently erupted according to Volcano Discovery. Most of those active volcanoes are along the Ring of Fire. Fortunately, the U.S. portion of the Ring of Fire has been less active than other areas in recent years.  But experts say this will eventually change because seismic tension continues to build.  One example of this is what is happening at Mount St. Helens right now. Since mid-April, small earthquakes have been cropping up deep beneath Mount St Helens at ‘relatively high rates,’ bringing roughly one tremor every few hours. In the last 30 days, scientists have located 55 seismic events in the vicinity, and say there may be well over 100 earthquakes linked to the swarm so far.

Environment

Cicadas are emerging from the ground four years ahead of schedule in the Mid-Atlantic states. Cicadas last emerged by the billions in 2004, were expected to remain underground for the typical 17 years and emerge again in 2021. Scientists believe the premature emergence could be due to climate change and protracted warming in the area. The connection is far from proven, but some experts suggest longer growing seasons could shorten life cycles of the 17-year broods and allow them to grow big enough in just 13 years to rise from the soil early, the Baltimore Sun reported.

Warmer temperatures and deviations in rainfall patterns appears to be the reasons why tree populations in the eastern U.S. are shifting north and, more surprisingly, west, according to new research. Overall, the changing climate has pushed trees an average of 20 miles north and 25 miles west over the past 30 years. While individual trees don’t move, of course, where they sprout can change. Saplings can expand into a new region while older growth dies in another. While the northern shift was expected due to warming temperatures, researchers think the more surprising westward movement could be the result of a change in rainfall patterns. The eastern U.S. has gotten warmer over the past few decades, and the Southeast has been trending drier. Deciduous trees like oak and maple are primarily moving west, and evergreens are moving north.

Weather

For a sixth straight day, severe thunderstorms, not to mention flash flooding, pelted parts of the Plains and Midwest on Friday, including many of the same areas of the Plains states that were hit by tornadoes and severe storms Tuesday and Thursday. A serious flash flood event is now ongoing in Middle Tennessee. The heaviest rain has now shifted north into Kentucky and southern West Virginia, where additional local flash flooding is possible. Winds gusted to 68 mph at St. Louis Lambert International Airport just after 5 a.m.

Winter Storm Valerie was an unusually strong late-spring snowstorm that dumped more than three feet of snow on the Rockies, caused tree damage and power outages, and also forced road closures over the past few days. Winter storm warnings and winter weather advisories remain in effect throughout Wyoming and the mountains of Colorado Friday. The top snowfall amount so far is 38.2 inches near Ward, Colorado, 8.4 inches of which fell in just under three hours Thursday afternoon. The snow has forced a stretch of Interstate 80 to be closed in Wyoming between Laramie and Cheyenne. The Front Range of Colorado will see its most significant snow through Friday morning. The greatest impacts, including power outages and tree damage, are expected west of Interstate 25.

A dramatic weather pattern change is occurring along the Eastern Seaboard this week allowing temperatures to soar toward near-record levels after a relatively cool start to May. The first half of May featured a southward dip in the jet stream across the Great Lakes and East, resulting in cooler-than-average temperatures overall. Higher-terrain locations in New England even saw snow from a nor’easter over last weekend. This week, the jet stream is reconfiguring itself with a northward bulge – or upper-level ridge – along the East Coast, resulting in temperatures 10 to 25 degrees above average. This will be a true taste of summer with daily record highs threatened in some locations, while others may see their first 90s of the season.

  • End-time weather will continue to grow more extreme (Daniel 9:26b, Ezekiel 38:22, Revelation 8:7, 11:19, 16:8,11)

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