News and Views

March / April 2016

Religious

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The City Harvest Church (CHC), which had a congregation of 33,000 followers, got embroiled in one of the biggest corruption cases in Singapore’s 50 year history, when its founding pastor Kong Hee and five of his senior staff were charged with misuse of church funds. Singapore’s District Courts found all six guilty of acting dishonestly in conspiring to misuse church’s funds running into millions of dollars. Kong Hee was found guilty of secretly funneling $18 million (U.S.) dollars of the church’s funds into sham investments to bankroll the pop music career of his wife. His senior staff members were all convicted of devising plans to use a further $19 million dollars to cover the tracks by setting up sham companies. — Eurasia Review, 11/1/2015

The number of foreign fighters who have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join militant groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has more than doubled and could stand at 31,000, according to a new study. The figures show the extent to which a jihadist movement that grew out of Iraq’s insurgency and Syria’s civil war has become a hub for international terror. — The Telegraph, 12/8/2015

Dawah, beginning as a revivalist movement for a beleaguered Muslim minority in British-ruled India, has over the past century transformed into a global phenomenon that may have as many as 50 million followers. Strictly apolitical, the group spreads the word to fellow Muslims — from village to village, mosque to mosque — armed only with backpacks, sleeping bags, and a simple message. In the past four years, no region has seen faster growth than the Arab world, where tens of thousands of jaded youth have been drawn by Dawah’s call. For this generation of Islamist-minded youth, the failure of movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood to rule in Egypt and growing disillusionment with the chaos and nihilism caused by Islamist and jihadist militias in Syria and Iraq have left a gaping void. — Christian Science Monitor, 12/6/2015

The Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters in Brooklyn is being sold along with other properties for an expected price tag of $1 billion or more. The group will move its headquarters about one hour north of New York City. The Witnesses bought their 733,000 square foot headquarters from Squibb Pharmaceuticals for $3 million in 1969. — AP, 12/21/2015

Social

The number of people killed by terrorism reached a record high in 2014, with almost four in five of these deaths occurring in just five countries, new research shows. Terrorism killed more than 32,600 people last year, an 80 per cent increase from 2013 and the sharpest yearly rise on record, according to the Global Terrorism Index 2015. — Sydney Morning Herald, 11/19/2015

Australia’s “No Jab, No Play” policy is set to take effect, which will prevent unvaccinated preschoolers from attending child care or kindergarten. It’s part of the country’s $19 million effort to boost immunization rates, which has included making it mandatory for parents to vaccinate their children in order to get childcare tax benefits and rebates. The new policy, however, does not apply to primary or high schools. A bout of chickenpox has swept Brunswick North West Primary School in Melbourne, infecting at least 80 of the school’s 320 students —The Slate,
12/10/2015

Falling water tables and crushing debt contribute to a growing sense of desperation in India, where farmers in the western state of Maharashtra have been committing suicide in large numbers. Some families turned to chopping down trees on their land to sell the wood. Many young people have given up farming and moved to cities to look for work.  Decades of unchecked and unregulated pumping of water from underground aquifers is to blame. Water levels have dropped over 30 feet in just the past decade. — USA Today, 12/13/2015

Asthma rates in U.S. children have quieted down after a decades-long increase. A possible plateau in childhood obesity rates and declines in air pollution are among factors that might have helped lower cases in kids, the 2001-13 study suggests. — AP, 1/4/2015

Political

In his annual New Year’s speech, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he is ready for war if provoked by invasive outsiders. Such remarks aren’t unprecedented. In an October 2015 speech marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Communist Worker’s Party, Kim said he was prepared to wage war against the U.S. if necessary. — USA Today, 1/2/2016

Iran is estimated to have the fourth-largest oil reserves on the planet, and is ready to export 500,000 barrels a day once it is given access to the world market. That figure could grow as Iran rehabilitates its aging oil industry infrastructure. — AP, 1/4/2016

Unaccompanied minors are crossing the U.S. Southwest border in growing numbers again, sparking concerns that the new influx of children could eventually approach the levels that prompted the Obama administration to declare a humanitarian crisis. In October and November, more than 10,500 children crossed the U.S.-Mexico border by themselves, the vast majority from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, according to U.S. government data analyzed by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. That’s a 106 percent increase over the same period the prior year, reflecting a steady increase that began in March. — Washington Post, 12/16/2015

Nearly 200 nations adopted the first global pact to fight climate change, calling on the world to collectively cut and then eliminate greenhouse gas pollution but imposing no sanctions on countries that don’t. The “Paris agreement” aims to keep global temperatures from rising another degree Celsius (1.8 Fahrenheit) between now and 2100. In practical terms, achieving that goal means the world would have to stop emitting greenhouse gases altogether in the next half-century, scientists said. That’s because the less we pollute, the less pollution nature absorbs. — Washington Times, 12/12/2015

Saudi Arabia has announced the formation of a 34-state Islamic military coalition to combat terrorism, according to a joint statement published on state news agency SPA. “The countries here mentioned have decided on the formation of a military alliance led by Saudi Arabia to fight terrorism, with a joint operations center based in Riyadh to coordinate and support military operations,” said the statement. A long list of Arab countries such as Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, together with Islamic countries Turkey, Malaysia, Pakistan and Gulf Arab and African states, were mentioned. The announcement cited “a duty to protect the Islamic nation from the evils of all terrorist groups and organizations whatever their sect and name which wreak death and corruption on earth and aim to terrorize the innocent.” — Reuters, 12/15/2015

Financial

In the past decade, the total amount of money in U.S. student loan balances rose to $1.2 trillion, surpassing debt totals for auto loans, home equity loans and credit cards.  During that time, the number of borrowers who defaulted on student loans rose steadily. Private lenders, who account for $91 billion of that debt, are now filing lawsuits to collect the loans. Private loans generally have higher interest rates and less flexible repayment options than federal loans. — AP, 11/19/2015
The Federal Reserve voted to raise interest rates and begin pulling back its unprecedented support for the American economy. The unanimous decision will nudge the central bank’s benchmark interest rate up from near zero by a quarter of one percent to a range of 0.25 to 0.5 percent. The move is small, but it amounts to a vote of confidence that the American economy — dogged by volatile oil prices, a slowdown in China and weak global growth — will  stand resilient. But the Fed also pledged to wean the nation off its stimulus slowly, an acknowledgement that further progress is not guaranteed and that the central bank is operating in uncharted territory. — Washington Post, 12/16/2015

A recent report estimates that the world’s biggest oil and gas companies have over US$2 trillion at risk by overestimating future fossil fuel demand. Globally, organized protesters are pressuring investors to sell holdings in ‘dirty’ fuels. By September 2015, over 400 institutions representing over US$2.6 trillion in assets under management had made some form of divestment commitment due to such protests. — Global Trends Briefing, December 2015

Israel

The IDF’s Most Unique Intelligence Team: The soldiers that serve in a special program within the Intelligence Corps’ 9900 Unit, are some of IDF’s most valued soldiers. Each and every one of them is also on the autism spectrum. Instead of being limited, these soldiers use their incredible ability to analyze, interpret and understand satellite images and maps. Although these soldiers were exempt from army service, they insisted on being treated just like their peers. “I face challenges and I manage to hold my own. Take on the challenges,” one of the soldiers explained. “It’s a great opportunity to serve, like others, and to connect to the society we live in.” — Israel Defense Force release,
12/8/2015

In early September, Russia sent about two thousand crack troops and state-of-the-art military stuff into the Middle East.  Coming in through Syria’s open door, that stuff included fighter jets, offshore naval support (including its largest nuclear submarine), and space-age technology. While Russian MiGs began bombing sorties next door to Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu flew to Moscow.  He wanted to ensure that his country could continue secret Air Force forays into Syria in order to kill Iranian military consultants and parts of Hezbollah. Both have sworn to destroy the Jewish state. Especially in the last two years, they have periodically “stuck their toes” into Israel’s metaphorical waters in order to test the temperature, the viability, of when to attack Israel from its northern borders. By the middle of October, multiple countries were flying the skies of Syria: Russian MiGs, Israeli Eagles, US Falcons, and probably a few fighter Phantoms from China and Iran, maybe Turkey too. — Bridges for Peace, 11/4/2015

For the first time, the royal seal of King Hezekiah in the Bible has been found in an archaeological excavation.  The stamped clay seal, also known as a bulla, was discovered in the Ophel excavations led by Dr. Eilat Mazar at the foot of the southern wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The discovery was announced in a recent press release by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Archaeology, under whose auspices the excavations were conducted. — Bible History Daily, 12/3/2015

Known as the Magdala Stone, the block was unearthed in 2009 near the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, where a resort and center for Christian pilgrims was going to be built. Government archaeologists are routinely called in to check for anything old and important that might be destroyed by a project, and in this case they discovered the well-preserved ruins of a first-century synagogue and began excavating. What makes the stone such a rare find in biblical archaeology, according to scholars, is that when it was carved, the Second Temple still stood in Jerusalem for the carver to see. The stone is a kind of ancient snapshot. And it is upending some long-held scholarly assumptions about ancient synagogues and their relationship with the Temple, a center of Jewish pilgrimage and considered the holiest place of worship for Jews, during a crucial period, when Judaism was on the cusp of the Christian era. — New York Times, 12/8/2015

Israeli archaeologists have found Hebrew inscriptions on a 1500-year-old slab of marble on the shores of Lake Kinneret, near the ancient village of Kursi where Jesus Christ is believed to have performed the “Miracle of the Swine.” “This is the first indication that there was a Jewish presence, and it reinforces the belief that the town of Kursi was where Jesus performed the ‘Miracle of the Swine,’ ” the team of researchers working at the site said. — Christian Post, 12/18/2015
An Israeli company has developed The Right Cup, a liquid receptacle that gives out a fruity taste and smell, creating an illusion that tricks the brain into thinking that the beverage is flavored. The company emphasizes that nothing is added to the water in the cup — no preservatives, sugar, or calories of any kind. The Right Cup’s developers say that it was designed to place the drinker’s nose at its center, so that they would experience the full fruity scent, and taste a hint of fruity flavor. The developers say that the combination of the two senses — smell and taste — create an illusion of drinking flavored water in the brain, while what’s actually being swallowed is plain water. — Ynet News, 12/1/2015

The world is facing one of its worst water crisis in decades. With California, Brazil, North Korea, Puerto Rico, South Africa and India suffering in the grips of the most devastating drought in recent history, water shortages could soon result in teetering governmental systems, displaced populations and ultimately, political unrest and war. Yet in the midst of a wasteland of bad tidings, an oasis of hope remains: the astounding innovations in water technology that the tiny nation of Israel has developed to make the desert blossom.  One of the chief ways in which the Jewish state is bringing about the water revolution is drip irrigation.  Households and individuals account for one-fifth of the world’s water usage. A further 10% is used by industry. The remaining 68% of global water sage is ascribed to agriculture. Revolutionizing the world’s water usage thus means revolutionizing the way in which agriculture employs water as a resource.  Understanding and embracing this principle, Israel has managed to cut its agricultural water use tremendously — while continuing to yield an astounding crop output. Conservative estimates show that drip irrigation accounts for some 40% of water saved per acre. — Bridges for Peace, 11/2/2015

Islamic State said its members had carried out an attack on Israeli tourists in Cairo in response to a call by the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to target Jews “everywhere.” Egypt’s Interior Ministry has said the attack was directed at security forces and was carried out by a member of a group of people who had gathered near the hotel and fired bird shot. Security sources said the tourists were Israeli Arabs. Islamic State’s Egypt affiliate is waging aninsurgency based in the Sinai which has mostly targeted soldiers and policemen. The tourism industry — a vital source of hard currency in Egypt — is highly sensitive to attacks by militants which have slowed a recovery from years of political turmoil. Hundreds of members of the security forces have been attacked in suicide bombings and shootings, which persist despite the toughest crackdown on militants in Egypt’s history. — Reuters, 1/8/2016

Israel said goodbye to 2015 and ushered in 2016 with 8,462,000 citizens, data from the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) released on Thursday show.

Between the Jewish new year in mid-September and the Gregorian new year, some 68,000 new Israelis joined the fold. According to the CBS, 75 percent of Israelis (6,335,000) are Jewish, 21 percent (1,757,000) are Arab, and an additional four percent are considered “others” (Christians who are not Arab or people who don’t have a religious classification).  According to CBS estimates, by 2025, Israel would have 9.8 million citizens, and by 2035 the numbers should reach 11.4 million. — Ynet News, 1/1/2016

 

 

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