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Iranian billionaire sentenced to death

Iranian flag on the Apostolic Palace Iranian President Hassan Rouhani private audience with Pope Francis, Vatican, Rome, Italy - 26 Jan 2016 (Rex Features via AP Images)Iranian billionaire Babak Zanjani became the latest in a string of wealthy individuals convicted of "corruption on earth," a capital offense, for corruption and embezzlement. Zanjani was arrested in December 2013 after the government accused him of withholding billions of dollars in oil revenue. That he generated much of that wealth by helping Iran evade oil sanctions under the previous regime apparently didn't matter.

The government targeted Zanjani, and others like him, after Hassan Rouhani was elected president in 2013. Rouhani, a moderate, based much of his campaign on rooting out high-level corruption and arrested the former black market dealer a day after ordering his government to fight "financial corruption," especially among those that had profited by taking "advantage of economic sanctions." Since the sanctions were lifted in January, such middle-men are now largely expendable as the government can deal directly with potential buyers. Oil minister Bijan Zanganeh has since asked foreign investors to do just that and avoid the "corrupt parasites" like Zanjani.  

As the BBC points out, Zanjani's punishment "could have wider implications for Iran's economy, where many were involved in finding ways to avoid the sanctions." To this point, the government's motivations seem somewhat unclear. It could be that the trials are intended to truly punish those who acted wrongly, even if they often did so with the implicit blessing of the previous regime. However, Iran could also desire Zanjani and the others that have been similarly charged to function as a warning to those intending to continue his previous line of work. Perhaps those two outcomes are not mutually exclusive.

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Astronauts' return brings us closer to Mars

In this photo provided by NASA, International Space Station (ISS) crew member Scott Kelly of the U.S. gestures after landing near the town of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, on Wednesday, March 2, 2016. The Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft landed with Expedition 46 Commander Kelly of NASA and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov of Roscosmos. Kelly and Kornienko are completing an International Space Station record year-long mission to collect valuable data on the effect of long duration weightlessness on the human body that will be used to formulate a human mission to Mars. Volkov is returning after six months on the station (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian astronauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov returned to Earth late Tuesday night after spending the last several months aboard the International Space Station. Kelly and Kornienko each logged just under a year circling the planet, while Volkov orbited for six months. This journey marked Kelly's fourth time in space, and he now holds the American record for the longest unbroken stay outside of Earth's orbit.

While the crew had several responsibilities aboard the Space Station, Kelly and Kornienko's primary purpose was less to carry out experiments and more to be one. As Time's Jeffrey Kluger describes, studying the impact of 340 consecutive days in space "will be critical to discovering whether human beings, who have the brass to talk about making a two- or three-year trip to Mars one day, actually have the bodies to back up that boast." If Kelly and Kornienko can demonstrate over the coming months only temporary and minimal negative effects from their extended stay outside of Earth, NASA and other space agencies can move forward and push the limits even more.

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How Tunisia became an ISIS breeding ground

In this Friday, Feb. 19, 2016 photo, people gather after an air strike on a house and training camp belonging to the Islamic State group, west of Sabratha, Libya. American F-15E fighter-bombers struck an Islamic State militant training camp in rural Libya near the Tunisian border Friday, killing dozens, probably including an IS operative considered responsible for deadly attacks in Tunisia last year, U.S. and local officials said. (AP Photo/Mohamed Ben Khalifa)Among the reasons for ISIS's success in the Middle East, the steady stream of foreign fighters ranks among the most important. While conventional wisdom says that most of these fighters should come from impoverished and war-torn countries like Syria, Libya, and their destabilized neighbors, the relatively small nation of Tunisia has been the leading source of such terrorists for the last several years. As The Wall Street Journal's Yaroslav Trofimov describes, Tunisia's place atop that list is surprising in large part because it is one of the more stable and successful democracies in the Arab world.

In 2011, Tunisia was one of the nations that saw the Arab Spring revolutions upend its system of government and open the door for democracy. However, while that revolution either turned into civil war in countries like Syria, Libya, and Yemen or was put down as in Egypt, Tunisia held a successful democratic election that saw a more moderate Islamist party come to power and loosen many of the restrictions on public demonstrations of faith. And while the government has since limited some of those freedoms after radical Muslims used the lessened security to begin recruiting Tunisians into terrorist cells, it remains one of the least restrictive governments in the region.

So why do so many continue to give up their freedoms at home to join groups like ISIS and fight in Syria and Libya? As Trofimov describes, "In a country that remains deeply divided, the answer, predictably, depends on whom you ask." He goes on to write of how Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia's first elected president, believes that the primary reason so many educated and employed Tunisians become terrorists is that "the young people need a dream, and the only dream available to them now is the [ISIS] caliphate."

Others argue that as many of the officials from the pre-revolutionary regime returned to power following the 2014 elections, "the new Tunisia isn't that different from the Tunisia of old." While they may have more nominal freedoms, the government repression and a lack of accountability among those in power remind them of old times.

Still others believe that the government has not been strict enough, especially when it comes to their treatment of religious extremists. As Mohammed Iqbel Ben Rejeb, the president of the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad, described, radical groups "have political cover here. Nobody interferes with them." His characterization is perhaps a bit too general given the way government officials routinely imprison and, at times, torture suspected and returning terrorists. However, the sentiment speaks volumes about the perceived environment in Tunisia today where many continue to watch loved ones converted by extremists at their local mosques.

Ultimately, the decision to join a terrorist organization like ISIS is largely a personal one motivated by several factors. Attempting to limit the justification to one reason or another will never fully explain the situation because those reasons often stem from a deeper cause. Whether it's a desire to be part of something greater than yourself, to experience the freedoms to which you feel entitled, or to fulfill a perceived spiritual responsibility to Allah, the common thread that connects each of the reasons given above is a sense of dissatisfaction with the individual's current existence.

That dissatisfaction is not going to be solved by becoming part of a group like ISIS, as evidenced by the multitude of converts that try to leave their ranks after joining. However, it's also not going to be solved, at least not on a permanent basis, by a new dream, greater social freedoms, or stricter laws. The only lasting cure for the dissatisfaction with this life that has plagued humanity since the fall is a personal relationship with the one true God. That is the testimony of Scripture and the reality of every individual who has sought fulfillment in sources other than the Lord. We can deceive ourselves for a time and temporarily placate the desire for something more, but that hunger for meaning and thirst for fulfillment will always come back unless it finds its cure in the one who came so that we would never hunger or thirst again (John 6:35). That is true for prospective jihadists in the Middle East and for each of us as well.

As Augustine wrote in his Confessions, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." The only source of lasting satisfaction and fulfillment that we can find in this life is Jesus Christ. Apart from him, anything we do to try and find rest for our souls will fall short because our loving heavenly Father doesn't want us to settle for less than the ultimate peace and fulfillment that can only be found in him. Is your soul at rest today?

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Global Crises and the Key to a Happy Soul

A young woman jumping in the air with joy in a field of green against a bright blue sky (Credit: Marcy Kellar via Flickr)Solipsism is the theory that you can prove the existence only of what you can experience. You know the Internet exists because you're using it to read this column. You know your hands exist because you can see them on your electronic device.

You're thinking this is an absurd way to look at the world, and you're right. But it's actually how most of us experience most of life. Consider four examples in the news.

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Time to "put up or shut up" in Syria

Syria conflict. File photo dated 18/11/15 of Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who has said that a plan to begin a temporary ceasefire in Syria within a week is an When representatives from more than a dozen countries met in Munich last Friday to discuss a possible ceasefire in Syria, few seemed to expect it to amount to much. Skepticism continued to abound even after those leaders announced that a plan was in place to begin a "cessation of hostilities" within a week's time between Syria's government forces and the rebels they have fought for the past four years.

Yet despite the doubts, it allowed many to begin fostering a rather unfamiliar feeling with regards to the civil war: hope. If the agreement was upheld, it would allow all involved to focus their attention on fighting ISIS and other terrorist organizations in the region. Moreover, humanitarian aid could be brought to the groups that Western powers believe are being starved into submission by embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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