Signs of the Times (3/12/18)

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3-10)

Christianity Sweeping China as Millions Convert

China’s on track to contain the world’s largest Christian population thanks to a surge in underground house churches and state-sanction places of worship, according to the Council of Foreign Relations. In a background document titled “Christianity in China,” the CFR estimates of the number of Protestants at anywhere from 58 million to 115 million and higher — though fewer than 30 million attend officially registered churches. According to the background report, the number of Chinese Protestants has grown by an average of 10 percent annually since 1979, putting China on track to have the world’s largest population of Christians by 2030. Estimates of the Catholic faithful in China, meanwhile, range between 10 to 12 million — despite the fact that the Holy See and Beijing haven’t had formal diplomatic ties since 1951. According to the CFR, the two sides now are reportedly close to finalizing a deal on the appointment of Catholic bishops. Still, Christians have faced growing repression in recent years — and China has ranked 10th as a country where it’s most difficult and dangerous to practice Christianity, according to Open Doors, a U.S.-based Christian non-profit that tracks the persecution of Christians worldwide.

Wheaton College Wins Religious Freedom Case

Wheaton College has won a religious freedom battle it has been fighting for five years and will not be forced to provide abortion-inducing drugs in their employee healthcare plans. The Christian Post reports that a district court judge has ruled that forcing the Illinois-based Christian college to fund the morning after pill or abortion-inducing drugs would violate their religious freedom. Wheaton, as well as other Christian institutions and organizations, have been fighting against the contraceptive mandate included in Obamacare which would force them to include abortion-inducing drugs and birth control in their healthcare plans. “The government is not above the law — that’s why we have civil rights laws. Wheaton should never have had to go to court to protect its rights in the first place. This order ensures we won’t have to come back,” said Diana Verm, legal counsel at Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the college.

Mississippi First State to Pass 15-Week Abortion Ban

The State of Mississippi became the first state legislature in the nation to ban abortions after 15 weeks. The Gestational Age Act originated in the Mississippi House of Representatives where it passed 79-31 before advancing to the Senate where it passed 35-14. The bill is on its way to Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R), and he has indicated he will sign the bill into law. Mississippi State Senator Angela Burks Hill (R) said, “The state has a compelling interest to also protect the health of the mother. As you get into the second-term abortions, the chances of complication totally increase by 100 percent when you start doing those second-trimester abortions.”

U.S. Taxpayers Gave Abortion Groups $1.6 Billion over Three Years

Abortion organizations received approximately $1.6 billion of U.S. taxpayer money from 2013 to 2015, according to a new government report. This report comes from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which examined federal funding for providers of “preventive, reproductive, and diagnostic health care services in the United States or abroad.” Most of the $1.6 billion went to PPFA. This is consistent with the more than $500 million in federal funding the abortion giant reports annually. The London-based Marie Stopes received $110 million over the three-year period. Planned Parenthood’s international arm received $14 million.

Trump to Meet With North Korea’s Kim Jong Un

The White House has confirmed news that stunned the world late Thursday, marking a potentially dramatic breakthrough in the North Korea nuclear standoff. President Trump is planning to meet North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un before the end of May, in a location yet to be determined. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday that the meeting was made possible by a “dramatic” change in posture from the North Korean leader, the AP reports. He said Trump decided to accept the invitation after Kim displayed a surprisingly “forward-leaning” attitude in talks with a South Korean delegation. Tillerson said it will take “some weeks” to arrange a date for the meeting. Kim has committed to “denuclearization” and to suspending nuclear or missile tests, South Korea’s National Security Office head Chung Eui-yong told reporters at the White House after briefing Trump on South Korean officials’ meeting with Kim on Monday. President Trump’s condition for meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is that there be no further nuclear or missile testing in the interim, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on Sunday.

International Women’s Day Celebrated Worldwide

On March 8, most of the world marked International Women’s Day. Some women went on strike demanding better working conditions, others protested violence and oppression, still others debated various issues related to feminism. Trains stopped in Spain as female workers went on the country’s first “feminist” strike, newspapers dropped their prices for women in France, and the IWD flag flew over the UK parliament. In India, women marched in several cities including Delhi, Karachi and Kolkata, and women also took to the streets in Bangladesh, Belarus, Nepal, Pristina and Ankara among many others. It was a day of celebration and a day in which the message was spelt out that much work still needed to be done to achieve global gender equality. Women in Saudi Arabia are celebrating a new found right this International Women’s Day – jogging in the streets. The green economy has thrown its weight behind today’s International Women’s Day, with several leading business figures arguing the world must step up its efforts on gender equality if the fight against climate change is to succeed. A number of key green voices such as former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres and the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo have contributed to a new book – ‘Why Woman Will Save the Planet’ – in a bid to highlight why tackling climate change and gender equality must go hand in hand.

The Worst Countries to Be a Woman

Syria and Afghanistan tied for being the worst places to be a woman, according to the 2018 Women, Peace and Security Index, put together by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo. The index measured women’s “wellbeing and empowerment” in 153 countries and ranked the nations on peace, security and women’s inclusion. The measures including years of schooling, number of female lawmakers, employment, legal and other discrimination, war, intimate partner violence and cellphone use. Iceland was ranked as the best country in which to be a woman. The United States came in at No. 22. The top ten worst places include Pakistan, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Mali, Sudan and Niger. The other top places are Norway, Switzerland, Slovenia, Spain, Finland, Canada, Netherlands, Sweden and Belgium.

Women’s March Leader Supports Farrakhan

Calls for Women’s March president Tamika D. Mallory to resign erupted after she attended a Feb. 25 speech in Chicago at which Mr. Farrakhan railed against “the Satanic Jew,” saying “powerful Jews are my enemy” while singling her out for recognition. “Tamika Mallory, one of the March organizers, was in the audience, and got a special shout-out from Farrakhan,” said the Anti-Defamation League in a Feb. 26 report. “Mallory posted two Instagram photos from the event, which Carmen Perez, another Women’s March organizer, commented on with ‘raise the roof’ emojis.” Mallory said that had been attending the annual Nation of Islam Saviours’ Day event for more than 30 years, starting when she was a child, leaving little doubt that she was familiar with Mr. Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic rants. Farrakhan was quoted as saying, “Jews are my enemy” and “The FBI has been the worst enemy of Black advancement. The Jews have control of these agencies.” The controversy sparked calls by many Republicans for Democrats to vigorously denounce Farrakhan’s remarks. Others who quickly condemned Farrakhan’s remarks also questioned why the media was either slow to report the story, or have chosen to ignore it entirely.

Judge Rules Trump’s DACA Phaseout Legal

A federal judge ruled Monday that President Trump’s phaseout of the Obama-era DACA program is legal, adding heft to the administration’s defense but doing little to solve the ongoing court quagmire. The ruling does not overturn two other federal courts, who had previously blocked the phaseout, which was supposed to take effect Monday. But it does offer a needed boost as the Justice Department appeals those other two rulings. Judge Roger W. Titus, a Bush appointee to the bench in Maryland, said the judges in California and New York who blocked the phaseout attempted to substitute their own judgments for that of the Homeland Security Department, crossing constitutional lines in order to strike at Trump’s policies. Judge Titus went even further, praising the Trump administration for the way it handled the situation with a six-month phaseout. “This decision took control of a pell-mell situation and provided Congress — the branch of government charged with determining immigration policy — an opportunity to remedy it. Given the reasonable belief that DACA was unlawful, the decision to wind down DACA in an orderly manner was rational,” the judge wrote.

Justice Department Suing California over Sanctuary Laws

Attorney General Jeff Sessions opened a new front in the legal war over California’s sanctuary city policies Tuesday, asking a federal court to halt three state laws that prohibit police and businesses from cooperating with federal agents. The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Sacramento, says those laws not only trample on the federal government’s powers to set national immigration policy, but endanger communities by freeing criminals back onto the streets. “The Department of Justice and Trump administration are going to fight these unjust, unfair and unconstitutional policies that have been imposed on you,” Mr. Sessions will say in a speech Wednesday to the California Peace Officers Association. The move comes just days after California Attorney General Xavier Becerra accused the Trump administration of “terrorizing” immigrant communities with an enforcement sweep that netted more than 200 deportable migrants in the state’s bay area. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf sparked controversy after she tipped immigrants off to the sweep. Federal officials said she may have helped as many as 800 criminal migrants escape deportation officers. The White House confirmed last week that Ms. Schaaf is under investigation for her actions.

Florida Passes Gun Control Bill, NRA Sues

Florida passed a new gun control bill on Wednesday in response to the horrific mass shooting in Parkland. The law bans the sales of firearms to adults between the ages of 18-21, among other actions such as banning bump stocks and requiring a waiting period when purchasing guns. FL. Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law earlier Friday. The National Rifle Association then filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Florida for infringing upon the Second Amendment rights of thousands of its citizens. Chris Cox, Legislative director of the NRA-ILA went on to say that “Swift action is needed to prevent young adults in Florida from being treated as second-class citizens when it comes to the right to keep and bear arms.” Meanwhile, gun sales have risen sharply.

Hollywood Condemns NRA While Increasing Gun Violence in TV/Movies

Hollywood declared war on American gun culture in 2013 with a public service announcement calling for stricter gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Now the industry is back on the attack in the wake of the Feb. 14 high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Celebrities routinely dub the National Rifle Association a terrorist organization. Yet a study by the Parents Television Council shows that portrayals of gun violence on television have increased dramatically in recent years, even in shows deemed appropriate for children. The entertainment industry’s love of gunplay and hatred for firearms muddles, if not negates, Hollywood’s role in a constructive conversation on the Second Amendment.

Puerto Ricans Leaving Country in Droves

Even before Hurricane Maria slammed the country, a record number of Puerto Ricans were already abandoning the island nation due to severe economic distress. Nearly 500,000 people left Puerto Rico for the mainland during the past decade, according to the Pew Research Center, pushing the stateside Puerto Rican population past the number living on the island last year — an estimated 3.3 million. The government of Puerto Rico’s guess is that by the end of 2018, 200,000 more residents will have left the U.S. territory for good, moving to places such as Florida, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New England. It would mean another drop of more than 5 percent in the island’s population. Just this week, a power outage put nearly 900,000 residents in and around the capital city of San Juan in the dark and without water — again. Tens of thousands in Puerto Rico have had no electricity since the hurricane struck five months ago.

Opioid Makers Incent Doctors to Prescribe Them

As tens of thousands of Americans die from prescription opioid overdoses each year, an exclusive analysis by CNN and researchers at Harvard University found that opioid manufacturers are paying physicians huge sums of money — and the more opioids doctors prescribes, the more money they make. Of course, the manufacturers also make more money as sales increase. In 2014 and 2015, opioid manufacturers paid hundreds of doctors across the country six-figure sums for speaking, consulting and other services. Thousands of other doctors were paid over $25,000 during that time. Physicians who prescribed particularly large amounts of the drugs made the most money. “It smells like doctors being bribed to sell narcotics, and that’s very disturbing,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, who is the executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing.

  • Big Pharma doesn’t care about making people better, only making more money – even if it hurts people

Economic News

The U.S. economy added 313,000 jobs in February, smashing expectations, according to Friday’s employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate held steady for the fifth straight month at 4.1 percent, an 18-year low. Average hourly pay, meanwhile, grew by 2.6 percent from this time last year, a slight drop from January’s year-over-year improvement of 2.9 percent. Construction, retail, manufacturing and health care drove most of the growth in February. Retail trade expanded by a whopping 50,000 jobs. Manufacturing maintained a course of steady growth in February, increasing by 31,000 jobs. But the share of Americans who are either working or looking for jobs in February remained lower than economists would like to see. The workforce grew by 806,000 people, bringing the labor force participation rate up to 63 percent — a slight improvement from January’s 62.7 percent, but well below pre-recession rates.

President Donald Trump on Thursday slapped deeply contentious trade tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum, swatting aside warnings of a global trade war and protests from allies in Europe and at home. The tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum will go into effect in 15 days, the White House said. They will not apply to Canada and Mexico initially, an official said, adding that security and trade partners could negotiate to seek exemption. The measures are likely to spark retaliatory sanctions from the European Union, China and other economic powers.

Middle East

Iran is building and testing short- to medium-range missiles armed with chemical warheads in Syria, former Syrian general Zuhair al-Saqit told the Jerusalem Post. Al-Saqit, who heads the Center for the Detection and Monitoring of the Use of Chemical Weapons in Belgium, also said that Iran’s Lebanon-based proxy Hezbollah is in possession of chemical weapons, mostly handed to it by the Assad regime in order to hide their existence from international monitors. In an interview in Paris, al-Saqit said that a large part of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, which were hidden from international inspection bodies, were transferred to Hezbollah.

Thousands of US troops along with some of the Pentagon’s newest and most sophisticated equipment are in Israel this week for the launching of the 9th semi-annual Juniper Cobra air defense exercise in cooperation with the IDF. The scenarios being gamed out include defending Israel against incoming barrages of rockets and missiles from three fronts, while still maintaining readiness to repel traditional threats such as ground invasions, air raids and terrorist attacks.

North/South Korea

The rival Koreas continued their period of detente as the Winter Paralympics Games officially kicked off in Pyeongchang on Friday, but without a key symbol of that thaw: They marched under their own flags during the opening ceremony. North and South Korea chose not to march together following a complaint by Japan during the Olympic Games. The united Korean flag portrays disputed islands — known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan — that both countries claim. The islands are located in the Sea of Japan. North and South Korea couldn’t agree on a version of the flag to use, as the North insisted on keeping the islands. But International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said the decision to march under separate flags doesn’t diminish the symbolism of the two Koreas coming together once again for an international sporting event. And during welcoming remarks at a reception before Friday’s opening ceremony, South Korean President Moon Jae-in stressed the importance that the Olympics and Paralympics have played in opening the door for the peace process on the Korean peninsula. “A small step to peace that started out a joint inter-Korean women’s ice hockey team has been growing rapidly like a snowball,” he said.

Syria

The Syrian army broke apart the rebel enclave in eastern Ghouta on Sunday, cutting off two major towns from the rest of the area, state media said, after a fierce battle waged under cover of an unrelenting bombardment. More than 1,100 civilians have been killed in the onslaught on the biggest rebel stronghold near Damascus since it began three weeks ago with a withering aerial offensive, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The advance on Mudeira, after the capture of the neighboring town of Mesraba on Saturday, has driven a wedge deep inside the insurgent territory, leaving the major towns of Douma and Harasta cut off.

Afghanistan

The U.S. is bolstering its military presence in Afghanistan, more than 16 years after the war started, but the media and Congress are paying little attention to the buildup, reports Newsmax. At a Senate hearing this past week on top U.S. security threats, no senator asked about Afghanistan, suggesting little interest in a war where nearly 15,000 U.S. troops are supporting combat against the Taliban. Just last month the bulk of an Army training brigade of about 800 soldiers arrived to improve the advising of Afghan forces. Since January, attack planes and other aircraft have been added to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. One of Washington’s closest watchers of the Afghanistan conflict, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote last month that the administration has made major improvements in military tactics and plans for developing Afghan forces but has “done nothing to deal with civil and political stability.”

China

China’s largely ceremonial parliament on Sunday overwhelmingly endorsed a controversial change to the country’s constitution, paving the way for President Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely. Out of 2,964 ballots, just two delegates voted against the move and three abstained, suggesting minimal opposition to Xi’s push to rule for life. The ruling Communist Party announced the proposals on February 25 and, amid a backlash in some quarters, has justified the change as a necessity to align the presidency with Xi’s two other, more powerful, posts — heads of the party and the military — that have no term limits. The 64-year-old Xi, already hailed as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, last week gave a ringing endorsement to the proposed constitutional changes, calling them a reflection of the “common will of the party and the people.”

Volcanoes

A southern Japan volcano made famous in a James Bond film erupted Tuesday, sending smoke and ash thousands of feet into the air and grounding dozens of flights during its biggest eruption in years Tuesday. The Shinmoedake volcano erupted several times and lava was seen rising inside a crater on Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu. Ash and smoke shot up 7,500 feet into the sky in the volcano’s biggest explosion since 2011. In Kirishima city at the foot of the volcano, pedestrians wore surgical masks or covered their noses with hand towels, while others used umbrellas to protect from falling ash. Cars had layers of ash on their roofs. There were no reports of injuries or damage from the eruptions. The Meteorological Agency said the volcanic activity is expected to continue and cautioned residents against the possibility of flying rocks and pyroclastic flows – superheated gas and volcanic debris that race down the slopes at high speeds, incinerating or vaporizing everything in their path.

Earthquakes

A 6.7 magnitude earthquake struck Papua New Guinea just after midnight local time Wednesday morning, jarring an area that’s still recovering from a 7.5 tremor in late February. The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake struck at 12:13 a.m. local time Wednesday morning about 70 miles southwest of Porgera. The temblor struck at a depth of about 6 miles and was located about 20 miles southwest of the Feb. 26 quake, which killed at least 55 people. It wasn’t immediately known if the latest earthquake caused additional damage or injuries.

Wildfires

Several grass fires, including a large fire fueled by dry conditions and gusty winds, damaged homes and forced the closure Tuesday of a busy highway south of Oklahoma City. A 2-mile section of Interstate 35 near Goldsby was closed for about an hour Tuesday afternoon as flames jumped the highway. A mobile home was consumed and destroyed by a fire south of Yukon, just west of Oklahoma City. A second trailer was damaged in the fire.

Weather

A nor’easter roaring through the Appalachians on Monday was poised to blast parts of already twice-battered New England with a “weather bomb” of blizzard conditions and up to two feet of snow. Residents in Kentucky and West Virginia woke up Monday to as much as a foot of snow on the ground from Winter Storm Skylar, and thousands of customers found themselves in the dark because of the system’s strong winds. More than 50,000 homes and businesses had no electricity in the two states Monday morning because of the storm. Forecasters in Kentucky warned residents that travel Monday morning would be difficult. In the Northeast, residents prepared for another wintry blast just days after Winter Storm Quinn knocked out power to more than 1 million customers. For some, this meant getting ready for the next storm with the power still out, especially in New Jersey, where more than 6,000 homes and businesses still lacking electricity.

At least three persons died and nearly 1 million homes and businesses were without power when Winter Storm Quinn walloped the Northeast last week. On Thursday, much of the region was still feeling the effects of the nor’easter which shut down schools, slowed travel and dumped as much as three feet of snow in some areas. The storm’s heavy, wet snow and wind gusts over 50 mph left more than 1 million customers in the dark by Thursday morning. More than 100,000 were already without power in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania after Winter Storm Riley battered the East Coast days before. Newark Liberty International Airport was closed because of the snowstorm. Nearly 400,000 homes and businesses remain without power Friday.

Freezing temperatures from a European winter storm last week dubbed the “Beast from the East” has resulted in a massive die-off of marine wildlife along the British coast. Photos posted to social media show mounds of dead crustaceans including lobster, clams, mussels and starfish washed up on eastern beaches along the North Sea in England. Scientists say the sea creatures died when water temperatures dropped significantly during the cold snap. There was a 3-degree-Celsius drop (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in sea temperature last week. Conservationists and fisherman in the area are now teaming up to help save stranded lobsters that remain alive.

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