The economic reasons why Australia needs a stronger space industry



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In the 1950s, Australia was actively involved in the space industry via collaboration with other space players, including the UK.
Shami Chatterjee/Flckr, CC BY-SA

Bin Li, University of Newcastle

A stronger space industry would benefit Australia’s economy, generating more exports and creating more job opportunities. Australia is well placed to expand its industry, particularly with the announcement of a new national space agency.

The government should actually aim to establish a national space policy as part of this announcement. That way it can secure the future of this industry.

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In the 1950s, Australia was actively involved in the space industry via collaboration with other space players, including the UK. However, this started to decline since the late 1960s because of the depression and huge cost of space programs.


Read more: Yes, Australia will have a space agency. What does this mean? Experts respond


According to the current IMF statistics, Australia now ranks the thirteenth in the world in terms of its GDP output, but still spends very little on developing its space industry. So it’s not surprising that the industry is now underdeveloped. Though the international space industry generates about US$400 billion a year, Australia contributes only 1% to this figure.

What a stronger space industry means to Australia’s economy

Australia could create more exports in the space industry by developing its own capability to launch satellites and taking more control of data and information acquired through satellites.

The data Australians use every day is now provided by international satellites and overseas corporations. Every year in order to collect information about earth from space, Australia pays about A$5.3 billion to the overseas satellite corporations.

Australia’s space industry currently employs up to 11,500 people. The plan to establish a national space agency could boost these numbers.

Beyond job opportunities for engineers and technicians in space launch services and satellite manufacturing, the industry also needs a great variety of specialists in other areas. For example, as a part of space industry supply chain, chemists are in demand to develop greener rocket fuel.

The space industry even requires lawyers. The international community has established an international treaty regime regulating space activities and as a part of this Australia has accepted various obligations. So the government and companies will need to access professional legal advice to ensure they aren’t violating Australia’s obligations under international space law.

There are more job opportunities than just astronauts, engineers and technicians in the space industry.
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center/Flckr, CC BY-SA

In the context of manned space programs, Australia could also develop medical professionals who could be recruited to research the space environment’s impact on human bodies, as NASA has done in the US.

Australia’s advantages for a stronger space economy

Australia has a geographical advantage when it comes to being a leader in space industry. From the perspective of physics, the closer the launch site is to the Equator, the heavier satellite the rocket can carry.. That’s why the US has its Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

In terms of Australia, the Northern Territory’s close proximity to the Equator makes it an ideal rocket launch site for space missions. Perhaps this is why the NT government has shown interest in developing a space industry in the state.

In fact, a few state governments have been part of the push to develop a stronger space industry. South Australia and ACT were lobbying for a national space agency earlier in 2017 and the NT recently joined this push. This could have inspired the federal government to do more to be a national leader in developing space industry.


Read more: Just one small step for Australia’s space industry when a giant leap is needed


Given the technology-intensive nature of space industry, talent is very important for sustainable success. A number of Australian universities have conducted either their own space research projects or with overseas partners. This sort of research has fostered a large team of space specialists.

In addition, state governments, have also discussed space technology collaboration with foreign governments. For example, the South Australia government held talks with the French government on developing more talent in preparation for a growing space industry.

The ConversationGiven Australia’s big size and its reliance on space technology and service, it’s important for the nation to establish its own stronger space industry to meet its needs. Australia has a few advantages in developing this and a national space agency will definitely be a boost to this aim.

Bin Li, lecturer, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Yes, Australia will have a space agency. What does this mean? Experts respond



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A space agency will allow Australia to sit at the table with NASA, ESA and other global agencies.
from www.shutterstock.com

Andrew Dempster, UNSW; Duncan Blake, University of Adelaide, and Graziella Caprarelli, University of South Australia

In front of an expectant audience of more than 4,000 international delegates attending the International Aeronautical Congress in Adelaide, today Senator Simon Birmingham – representing Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Arthur Sinodinos – announced Australia’s federal government is committed to a space agency.

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Although details on timelines, funding and practicalities are yet to be described, here three experts address the question of how an Australian space agency will support the sector.


Andrew Dempster (Director, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research UNSW)

This announcement has the potential to be monumental, and great reward for people (including me) who have fought for an agency for many years.

Interestingly, the announcement preempts the report of the government’s Review of Australia’s Space Industry Capability, which is due in March. The roundtable events in support of this review have resoundingly supported establishment of an agency, with most of the effort dedicated to its role and structure.

We are still awaiting detail of how such an agency would look. What is critical is that the agency is not simply a replica of the earlier Space Policy Unit, and Space Coordination Office. These were small offices primarily focused on policy and the workings of government.

The real opportunity an agency offers is the growth of the local industry to the point where it is sustainable and can deliver big projects – Australian solutions to Australian problems: i.e. it is about Australian sovereignty.

To be successful in that regard, commitment to a space agency cannot be halfhearted. It must be resourced with the right quality and quantity of people to deliver a vibrant Australian industry.

Once that is achieved, and the benefits become obvious, we’ll all be asking why we didn’t do it decades ago.


Graziella Caprarelli (Associate Professor in space science, UniSA)

Details about the structure and brief of the announced future National Space Agency are not known at present. Ideally, an Australian space agency should oversee the coordination and development of the entire space supply chain.

Right now, the quality and impact of Australian space research is demonstrably well above the size of its scientific and aerospace engineering community. This fertile scientific and technological environment has encouraged many young startups revolving around space technology and space data.

Access to space is therefore crucial to ensure the sustainable growth of this nascent industry. This can only happen under the purview of a dedicated Australian agency, tasked with the coordination of all civilian space related activities in the country, with the delegation to allocate and distribute resources, and to represent and facilitate Australian interests internationally.

The present focus is on the many possibilities of economic growth and industrial development. But the long-term sustainability of a space industry in Australia will critically depend on the availability of local talent, steady supply of expertise, and the manufacturing and technical skills required to bring Australia to space.

This requires strong and continued support for STEM education, investment in space science and technology, research and training. An Australian space agency would therefore be responsible for all space-related activities.

There may be concerns that such portfolio may require the institution of a new giant bureaucracy. This need not be so, if the future agency is structured in a way that captures the expertise of the many groups and individuals already working in space-related fields all over Australia.


Duncan Blake, PhD candidate (Law and military uses of outer space, University of Adelaide)

This announcement is exciting not just for Australian space industry, but also for future generations in Australia and for the global space industry. Michael Davis, Brett Biddington and others – who are responsible for bringing the International Aeronautical Congress to Australia – have shown that industry can and will lead.

Australia rates very highly in space startups per capita: these are not big, multinational companies, but small enterprises making an disproportionate contribution in niche areas.

The Australian space agency will have a regulatory role, obviously, but it needs to do what the industry can’t do for itself. It needs to represent the Australian people at home and abroad, it needs to pursue Australia’s interests in global space governance bodies, it needs to not only help seize opportunities for Australia but actually create opportunities and it needs to be a focal point internally and externally.

Perhaps most importantly, it needs to facilitate collaboration by the many government agencies, plus the academic, research and other civil institutions and the growing number of commercial enterprises involved in space in Australia.

The ConversationIt also needs a strategy that identifies some enduring, national “beacon” projects to muster the immense energy in the Australian space industry right now and which will herald our place in space. This, and more, is what we hope to hear about in the next few days, or at most, months.

Andrew Dempster, Director, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research; Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, UNSW; Duncan Blake, PhD candidate, law and military uses of outer space, University of Adelaide, and Graziella Caprarelli, Associate Professor in Space Science, University of South Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Lost in space: Australia dwindled from space leader to also-ran in 50 years



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Australia worked closely with the UK, Europe and USA in developing space capability in the 1950s and 1960s.
from www.shutterstock.com

Kerrie Dougherty, UNSW

The eyes of the world’s space expertise will be on Australia this month, as Adelaide hosts the world’s largest space conference.

The meeting occurs in the 50th anniversary year of the launch of Australia’s first satellite, WRESAT. This project occurred as the culmination of a decade in which Australia was seen as a significant player in the space arena.

But now, Australia is perceived to be underperforming in the space sector. It remains one of only two OECD countries not to have a space agency (the other nation is Iceland).

So what happened in the past half century to slow us down? My doctoral thesis is attempting to find the answer.

The International Geophysical Year

Australian involvement in space activities commenced with participation in the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a global scientific research program focused on understanding the Earth’s relationship to its surrounding space environment. Longer than a calendar year, the IGY ran from July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958, and was a significant catalyst for space-related activities in many nations.

In mid-1955, the USA and the USSR had both announced their intention to launch a satellite during the IGY.

1955 American announcement of plans for the building and launching of the world’s first man-made satellite, under President Eisenhower. The then Presidential press secretary James Hagerty is shown with five scientists.
NASA

In that same year, Britain and Australia’s Weapons Research Establishment (WRE) announced their IGY plans to launch sounding rockets for upper atmosphere research from the WRE-managed Woomera Rocket Range. Located in outback South Australia, the range had been established in 1947 under the Anglo-Australian Joint Project as a guided weapons development and test facility.

A mockup of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik.
NASA

The decision to launch “sounding” (sub-orbital measurement-taking) rockets there for the IGY, coupled with US plans to launch the world’s first satellite, would lead to Woomera becoming the hub of early space activities in Australia.

The “space age” truly dawned in October 1957, with the surprise launch of the USSR’s Sputnik 1 satellite beating the US into orbit. A space race between the two Cold War superpowers commenced, with Australia poised to participate in the openly scientific and covertly military adventure of space exploration.

Rockets, satellites, citizen scientists

Britain’s Skylark sounding rocket program (1957-1979) would become the longest-operating space project at Woomera, launching British, Australian, European and American scientific instrument packages. Australian and British researchers made substantial contributions to X-ray, infra-red and ultra-violet astronomy using Skylark rockets.

8.2m in length, Long Tom was the first Australian sounding rocket.
Defence Science and Technology Group, Author provided

Although the WRE’s first sounding rocket program was unsuccessful, the development of the Long Tom rocket in 1958 paved the way for a succession of Australian sounding rockets operating until 1975. This program, conducted in conjunction with the University of Adelaide, carried out upper atmosphere research that made important contributions to understanding the factors governing Australia’s meteorology.

Australia was also ideally located, geographically and politically, to host facilities for the two networks planned to track America’s proposed satellite, Vanguard. These were: Minitrack (a radio-interferometry system), and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Baker-Nunn optical tracking telescope cameras.

Project Moonwatch volunteers, mostly amateur astronomers, supported the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s work by spotting faint satellites and establishing their orbital co-ordinates so that the observatory’s high precision camera could be then be focused on the satellite. Australia boasted five initial Moonwatch groups (Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Woomera and Perth) – the first citizen scientists of the Space Age.

NASA takes over

When NASA was formed in July 1958, it assumed control of these original tracking stations. By 1970, Australia was home to the largest number of NASA stations outside the USA, hosting facilities for its orbital satellite, “manned” space flight and deep space tracking networks.

These facilities, managed and staffed by Australians, made significant contributions to the early exploration and utilisation of space, particularly the Apollo lunar program. Television coverage of Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon came to the world through the NASA Honeysuckle Creek tracking station in the ACT (with the rest of the television during the Apollo 11 mission relayed via the CSIRO’s Parkes Radio Telescope).


Read more: The final countdown to Cassini’s fatal plunge into Saturn


Although advances in technology eventually rendered most of the Australian tracking stations obsolete, the NASA Deep Space Communications Complex at Tidbinbilla, near Canberra, continues to play a major role in the exploration of the Solar System. It was the station responsible for monitoring the final hours of the Cassini mission to Saturn, which concluded with the spacecraft’s death-dive into the planet’s atmosphere on September 15.

The Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Defence focus, and WRESAT

Defence-related space research commenced at Woomera in 1958 with the Black Knight and Jabiru programs.

Investigating nuclear missile warhead design, materials and re-entry phenomena, defence research programs continued until just before the termination of the Joint Project in 1980.

Particularly important to the Australian space story was the US-led SPARTA Project (1966-67): the generous donation of a spare launch vehicle from this program enabled the launch of WRESAT (Weapons Research Establishment Satellite), Australia’s first satellite.

The WRESAT satellite under construction in a WRE laboratory.
Defence Science and Technology Group, Author provided

With a launch vehicle available, WRESAT was designed, constructed and launched in only eleven months: a significant achievement in itself. A collaboration between the WRE and the University of Adelaide, WRESAT’s scientific instrument package was derived from the Australian upper atmosphere sounding rocket programs and helped to corroborate their findings.

Launched on November 27, 1967, WRESAT gave Australia entry into the exclusive “space club” of countries that had orbited a national satellite.

WRESAT was launched from Woomera in 1967.
Defence Science and Technology Group, Author provided

At the end of its first decade of space activity, Australia had launched its own satellite, while a Melbourne University student-built amateur radio satellite awaited launch in the USA.

The WRE had an active scientific sounding rocket program, participated in defence space projects and was supporting the European Launcher Development Organisation’s (ELDO) satellite launcher test program at Woomera.

The country was a crucial participant in NASA space programs, through the tracking stations in the country, and an Australian (Dr David Forbes Martyn) chaired the UN Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space’s Scientific and Technical Subcommittee.

Space program proposed, and rejected

To build on these achievements, in 1968 the WRE proposed a modest national civil and defence space program, which could have harnessed WRE and civil space capabilities towards the development of an Australian space industry. The proposal was rejected by the Gorton government on the basis of cost.

An ELDO Europa rocket launched from Woomera.
Defence Science and Technology Group, Author provided

This marked the beginning of a cyclical process that has, at least in the civil sector, hindered Australia’s ability to maintain its original level of space capability, or redevelop it over recent decades.

Political parties of both persuasions have shown shortlived, underfunded, bursts of support for developing an Australian space industry, only to withdraw that support just as these programs were achieving results.

Potentially beneficial membership of the European Space Agency (the European Launcher Development Organisation’s successor), to which Australia has been repeatedly invited, has been constantly rejected, also (ostensibly) on the basis of cost.

Timeline of key events in Australia’s space activities: click on arrows at right and left to go back and forth.

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No clear answer

The reluctance of successive Australian governments to support national space activities and a national space industry has been something of a puzzle, especially given the country’s reliance on space-based services.

My PhD research has sought to find the answer to this question within the first two “boom and bust” decades of Australian space activity. So far, no clear answer has emerged, apart from claims that “it’s too expensive”.


Read more: Ten reasons why Australia urgently needs a space agency


While an economic case could perhaps be made for rejecting a 1959 Australian National Committee on Space Research proposal for a national science program – given that Australia was then in recession – the 1968 WRE and 1970 Australian Space Research Agency space program proposals were both put forward during periods of economic prosperity. Their proposed costs represented very small fractions of GDP, and could have been affordable.

These early space program proposals had modest proposed costs, and reflected modest goals of developing a national capability in an important emerging technology.

However, there seems to have been a perception in government that committing to a space program, and/or a space agency, meant committing to high-cost ventures such as human spaceflight (which were admittedly beyond Australia’s economic means at the time).

This unnecessary assumption, which was overtly expressed in the activities that were specifically ruled out of the 2013 Australia’s Satellite Utilisation Policy, has continued to bedevil proposals for the development of national space capability.

Pragmatism, or something else?

I find it hard to accept that, as one previous article in The Conversation has suggested, the “intense pragmatism” of Australian governments has left them content to allow other nations to control Australia’s access to space.

As early as 1960, the government clearly recognised the value of space applications to the management and economic development of the vast continent of Australia, and to its national security.

Australia became an early adopter of satellite technologies and is well recognised today as a sophisticated and extensive user of space-based services and space-derived data.


Read more: Australia relies on data from Earth observation satellites, but our access is high risk


Until the economic rationalism of the 1990s, the development and management of national infrastructure was seen as the responsibility of government.

Why, then, was the “orbital infrastructure” of satellite networks on which the country came to rely, not also considered a responsibility of government in earlier decades?

Is it pragmatic to allow other nations, even if they are allies, the ability to control Australia’s access to vital space-based services?

Engagement in overseas military actions since 1990 has already taught the Australian Defence Force the importance of having control of its own satellite communication assets.

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In late 2015, the government commenced a review of the Space Activities Act, which has been seen as hindering the growth of the New Space sector in Australia.

Growing calls from the space national space community for a space program and space agency have also this year prompted the 2017 review of Australia’s space industry capability.

Will the outcome of these two reviews be the revival of Australian space activities, at a level to equal or surpass our space engagement of half a century ago. Or will the nation continue to remain “lost in space”?

The ConversationPerhaps an announcement during the 2017 International Astronautical Congress will tell.

Kerrie Dougherty, PhD candidate, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia relies on data from Earth observation satellites, but our access is high risk



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The NASA satellite Landsat-8 collects frequent global multispectral imagery of the Earth’s surface.
NASA

Stuart Phinn, The University of Queensland

This article is part of a series Australia’s place in space, where we’ll explore the strengths and weaknesses, along with the past, present and the future of Australia’s space presence and activities.


Rockets, astronomy and humans on Mars: there’s a lot of excited talk about space and what new discoveries might come if Australia’s federal government commits to expanding Australia’s space industry.

But one space industry is often left out of the conversation: Earth observation (EO).


Read more: Why it’s time for Australia to launch its own space agency


EO refers to the collection of information about Earth, and delivery of useful data for human activities. For Australia, the minimum economic impact of EO from space-borne sensors alone is approximately A$5.3 billion each year.

And yet the default position of our government seems to be that the provision of EO resources will come from other countries’ investments, or commercial partners.

This means the extensive Commonwealth-state-local government and industry reliance on access to EO services remains a high-risk.

What is EO (Earth observation)?

You’ve almost certainly relied on EO at some point already today.

The wide range of government, industry and societal uses of Earth observation in Australia.
Australian Earth Observation Community Coordination Plan 2026

EO describes the activities used to gather data about the Earth from satellites, aircraft, remotely piloted systems and other platforms. It delivers information for our daily weather and oceanographic forecasts, disaster management systems, water and power supply, infrastructure monitoring, mining, agricultural production, environmental monitoring and more.

Global positioning and navigation, communications and information derived from satellites looking at, and away from Earth are referred to as “downstream” space activities.

“Upstream” activities are the industries building infrastructure (satellites, sensors), launch vehicles and ground facilities for operating space-based equipment. In this arena, countries such as Russia focus on building, launching and operating satellites and space craft. Others (such as Canada, Italy, UK) target developing industries and government activities that use these services. The US and China maintain a balance.

Components of Australia’s Earth-observation space capabilities (click to zoom for a clearer view)
Australian Earth Observation Community Coordination Plan 2026, Author provided

Australia spends very little on space

Although we rely so heavily on downstream space activities in our economic and other operations, Australia invests very little in space: only 0.003% of GDP, according to 2014 figures.

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Other countries have taken very proactive roles in enabling these industries to develop. Most government space agencies around the world invest 11% to 51% of their funds for developing EO capacity. These investments allow industries and government to build downstream applications and services from secure 24/7 satellite data streams.

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Historically, Australia has invested heavily in research and research infrastructure to produce world leading capabilities in the science of astronomy, space-debris tracking and space exploration communications.

In EO there are no comparable national programs or infrastructure, nor have we contributed to international capability at the same levels as these areas. This seems strange given:

  • our world leading status in applied research and extensive government use of these data as fully operational essential and critical information streams
  • all of the reports requesting increases in government support and enabling for “space” industry cite our reliance on EO as essential, but then don’t present paths forward for it
  • there are now a number of well established and growing small companies focused on delivering essential environmental, agricultural, grazing, energy supply and infrastructure monitoring services using EO, and
  • we have a well organised EO community across research, industry and government, with a clearly articulated national strategic plan to 2026.
Example of an information delivery service built from Earth observation data streams to deliver property level information to graziers and others land-holders (click to zoom for a clearer view).
P Tickle, FarmMap4D, Author provided

Building Australia’s EO capacity

EO plays a vital role in many aspects of Australian life. Australia’s state and Commonwealth agencies, along with research institutions and industry have already built essential tools to routinely deliver satellite images in a form that can be developed further by private industry and delivered as services.

But our lack of a coordinating space agency adds a layer of fragility to vital EO operations as they currently stand.


Read more: The 50 year old space treaty needs adaptation


This places a very large amount of Commonwealth, state and local government activity, economic activity and essential infrastructure at risk, as multiple recent national reviews have noted.

Our federal government started to address the problem with its 2013 Satellites Utilisation Policy, and will hopefully build on this following the current rounds of extensive consultation for the Space Industry Capability Review.

Although our private EO upstream and downstream industry capabilities are currently small, they are world leading, and if they were enabled with government-industry support in a way that the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency/European Commission and UK Space Agency do, we could build this sector.

If Australia is to realistically participate in the “Space 2.0” economy, we need to act now and set clear goals for the next five, ten and 20 years. EO can be a pillar for this activity, enabling significant expansion of our upstream and downstream industries. This generates jobs and growth and addresses national security concerns.

That should be a win for all sectors in Australia – and we can finally give back and participate globally in space.


The ConversationData sources for figure “Proportion of space budget spent on different capacities”: NASA; ESA – here and here; JAXA; PDF report on China.

Stuart Phinn, Professor of Geography, Director – Remote Sensing Research Centre, Chair – Australian Earth Observation Community Coordination Group, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ratings agency S&P keeps Australia’s AAA rating but doubtful about government’s surplus timetable



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Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen told the National Press Club that a Labor government would “show the ratings agencies the quality of our plans.”
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Standard and Poor’s Global reaffirmed a negative outlook and is questioning the government’s projection about when the budget will return to surplus, but has still maintained Australia’s AAA credit rating. The Conversation

The agency’s maintenance of the AAA credit rating following last week’s budget will be a relief to the government, but its detailed outlook is less than confident.

The initial negative outlook from the agency was made in 2016. In continuing it, it points to “risks to the government’s fiscal consolidation plan and risks to the economic, fiscal, and financial stability outlook should the rapid growth of credit and house prices continue”.

The budget projects a return to surplus in 2020-21. But S&P Global says it continued to think surpluses “could remain elusive beyond fiscal 2021”.

“The balance of risks to government revenues remains negative. On the policy front, enacting further savings or revenue policies could remain a challenge, given the Senate’s unwillingness in recent years to legislate many of the government’s fiscal policy measures or doing so after considerable delay.”

“This dynamic, which could continue, presents further downside risk to the outlook for fiscal balances.”

Craig Michaels, director of sovereign & public finance ratings at S&P Global was blunt: “We have seen governments forecast surpluses for many years now and they haven’t materialised. They’ve continued to be pushed back. So we don’t think further pushback on the surplus target is consistent with the AAA rating here on in.”

“We will continue to assess the likelihood or otherwise of whether the government will reach a balanced or surplus budget by 2021 and that will have a large bearing on whether we leave the AAA rating where it is or whether we downgrade it,” he told the ABC.

The S&P Global report cites the potential for low wage growth and low inflation as a “downside risk” for the projections on getting to budget balance. In the wake of the budget many commentators threw doubt on the budget’s wage growth projection – to get to more than 3% – as likely to be too high.

Noting that the outlook has been negative since July last year, S&P Global warns:
“We could lower our ratings within the next two years if we were to lose confidence that the general government fiscal deficit will revert into surplus by the early 2020s.”

S&P Global says “a strong fiscal position is required to offset Australia’s weak external position. It is also needed to allow for a strong buffer to absorb the fiscal consequences if the ongoing boom in the credit and housing market were to abruptly end.”

The report expresses concerns about the financial stability risks in the housing market in Sydney and Melbourne.

S&P Global highlights the debt problem. “Australia’s high level of external indebtedness creates a high vulnerability to major shifts in foreign investors’ willingness to provide capital”, it says. “We consider that strong fiscal performance and low government debt are important to help ameliorate this risk.”

Scott Morrison tweeted:

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Responding to the S&P Global report, Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen said that if he became treasurer he would talk to the ratings agencies early in the term, taking them through an ALP government’s plans, which would also be clear before the election. “We’ll do what is necessary to work with the ratings agencies and show the ratings agencies the quality of our plans.”

Bowen said the budget showed new record debt for the next three years, a deficit for 2017-18 which was 10 times larger than was predicted in the Coalition’s first budget, and gross debt equivalent to A$20,000 for every man, woman and child in the country.

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Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Religious Conversion Worst Form of ‘Intolerance,’ Bhutan PM Says


Propagation of religion is allowable – but not seeking conversions, top politician says.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 13 (CDN) — In the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Christianity is still awaiting legal recognition, Christians have the right to proclaim their faith but must not use coercion or claim religious superiority to seek conversions, the country’s prime minister told Compass in an exclusive interview.

“I view conversions very negatively, because conversion is the worst form of intolerance,” Jigmi Yoser Thinley said in his office in the capital of the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Christian leaders in Bhutan have told Compass that they enjoy certain freedoms to practice their faith in private homes, but, because of a prohibition against church buildings and other restrictions, they were not sure if proclamation of their faith – included in international human rights codes – was allowed in Bhutan.

Prime Minister Thinley, who as head of the ruling party is the most influential political chief in the country, said propagation of one’s faith is allowed, but he made it clear that he views attempts to convert others with extreme suspicion.

“The first premise [of seeking conversion] is that you believe that your religion is the right religion, and the religion of the convertee is wrong – what he believes in is wrong, what he practices is wrong, that your religion is superior and that you have this responsibility to promote your way of life, your way of thinking, your way of worship,” Thinley said. “It’s the worst form of intolerance. And it divides families and societies.”

Bhutan’s constitution does not restrict the right to convert or proselytize, but some Non-Governmental Organizations have said the government effectively limits this right by restricting construction of non-Buddhist worship buildings and celebration of some non-Buddhist festivals, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

It adds that Bhutan’s National Security Act (NSA) further limits proclamation of one’s faith by prohibiting “words either spoken or written, or by other means whatsoever, that promote or attempt to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste, or community, or on any other ground whatsoever, feelings of enmity or hatred between different religious, racial, or language groups or castes and communities.” Violation of the NSA is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, though whether
any cases have been prosecuted is unknown, according to the State Department report.

Bhutan’s first democratic prime minister after about a century of absolute monarchy, Thinley completed three years in office last Thursday (April 7). While he affirmed that it is allowable for Christians to proclaim their faith – a practice commanded by Christ, with followers agreeing that it is the Holy Spirit, not man, that “converts” people – Thinley made his suspicions about Christians’ motives manifest.

“Any kind of proselytization that involves economic and material incentives [is wrong],” he said. “Many people are being converted on hospital beds in their weakest and most vulnerable moments. And these people are whispering in their ears that ‘there is no hope for you. The only way that you can survive is if you accept this particular religion.’ That is wrong.”

Thinley’s suspicions include the belief that Christians offer material incentives to convert.

“Going to the poor and saying, ‘Look, your religion doesn’t provide for this life, our religion provides for this life as well as the future,’ is wrong. And that is the basis for proselytization.”

Christian pastors in Thimphu told Compass that the perception that Bhutan’s Christians use money to convert the poor was flawed.

The pastors, requesting anonymity, said they prayed for healing of the sick because they felt they were not allowed to preach tenets of Christianity directly. Many of those who experience healing – almost all who are prayed for, they claimed – do read the Bible and then believe in Jesus’ teachings.

Asked if a person can convert if she or he believed in Christianity, the prime minister replied, “[There is] freedom of choice, yes.”

In his interview with Compass, Thinley felt compelled to defend Buddhism against assertions that citizens worship idols.

“To say that, ‘Your religion is wrong, worshiping idols is wrong,’ who worships idols?” he said. “We don’t worship idols. Those are just representations and manifestations that help you to focus.”

Leader of the royalist Druk Phuensum Tshogpa party, Thinley is regarded as a sincere politician who is trusted by Bhutan’s small Christian minority. He became the prime minister in April 2008 following the first democratic election after Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated power in 2006 to pave the way toward democracy.

Until Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the practice of Christianity was believed to be banned in the country. The constitution now grants the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion to all citizens. It also states that the king is the protector of all religions.

Thus far, the Religious Organisations Act of 2007 has recognized only Buddhist and Hindu organizations. As a result, no church building or Christian bookstore has been allowed in the country, nor can Christians engage in social work. Christianity in Bhutan remains confined to the homes of local believers, where they meet for collective worship on Sundays.

Asked if a Christian federation should be registered by the government to allow Christians to function with legal recognition, Thinley said, “Yes, definitely.”

The country’s agency regulating religious organizations under the 2007 act, locally known as the Chhoedey Lhentshog, is expected to make a decision on whether it could register a Christian federation representing all Christians. The authority is looking into provisions in the law to see if there is a scope for a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu organization to be registered. (See http://www.compassdirect.com, “Official Recognition Eludes Christian Groups in Bhutan,” Feb. 1.)

On whether the Religious Organisations Act could be amended if it is determined that it does not allow legal recognition of a Christian federation, the prime minister said, “If the majority view and support prevails in the country, the law will change.”

Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.

“I am part Christian, too,” he said. “I read the Bible, occasionally of course. I come from a traditional [Christian] school and attended church every day except for Saturdays for nine years.”

A tiny nation in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan has a population of 708,484 people, of which roughly 75 percent are Buddhist, according to Operation World. Christians are estimated to be between 6,000 to nearly 15,000 (the latter figure would put Christians at more than 2 percent of the population), mostly from the south. Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepalese, constitute around 22 percent of the population and have a majority in the south.

 

Religious ‘Competition’

Bhutan’s opposition leader, Lyonpo Tshering Togbay, was equally disapproving of religious conversion.

“I am for propagation of spiritual values or anything that allows people to be good human beings,” he told Compass. “[But] we cannot have competition among religions in Bhutan.”

He said, however, that Christians must be given rights equal to those of Hindus and Buddhists.

“Our constitution guarantees the right to freedom of practice – full stop, no conditions,” he said. “But now, as a small nation state, there are some realities. Christianity is a lot more evangelistic than Hinduism or Buddhism.”

Togbay said there are Christians who are tolerant and compassionate of other peoples, cultures and religions, but “there are Christians also who go through life on war footing to save every soul. That’s their calling, and it’s good for them, except that in Bhutan we do not have the numbers to accommodate such zeal.”

Being a small nation between India and China, Bhutan’s perceived geopolitical vulnerability leads authorities to seek to pre-empt any religious, social or political unrest. With no economic or military might, Bhutan seeks to assert and celebrate its sovereignty through its distinctive culture, which is based on Buddhism, authorities say.

Togbay voiced his concern on perceived threats to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture.

“I studied in a Christian school, and I have lived in the West, and I have been approached by the Jehovah’s Witness – in a subway, in an elevator, in a restaurant in the U.S. and Switzerland. I am not saying they are bad. But I would be a fool if I was not concerned about that in Bhutan,” he said. “There are other things I am personally concerned about. Religions in Bhutan must live in harmony. Too often I have come across people who seek a convert, pointing to statues of our deities and saying
that idol worship is evil worship. That is not good for the security of our country, the harmony of our country and the pursuit of happiness.”

The premise of the Chhoedey Lhentshog, the agency regulating religious organizations, he said, “is that all the different schools of Buddhism and all the different religions see eye to eye with mutual respect and mutual understanding. If that objective is not met, it does not make sense to be part of that.”

It remains unclear what the legal rights of Christians are, as there is no interaction between the Christians and the government. Christian sources in Bhutan said they were open to dialogue with the government in order to remove “misunderstandings” and “distrust.”

“Thankfully, our political leadership is sincere and trustworthy,” said one Christian leader.

Asserting that Christians enjoy the right to worship in Bhutan, Prime Minister Thinley said authorities have not interfered with any worship services.

“There are more Christian activities taking place on a daily basis than Hindu and Buddhist activities,” he added.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Nepal Church Bomber Faked Repentance


Imprisoned chief of Hindu militant group used Christianity to cover up extortion, terror.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, April 4 (CDN) — The chief of a militant Hindu extremist group sought to disguise his extortion and terror activities from behind bars by claiming he had repented of bombing a church in Nepal and showing interest in Christianity, according to investigators.

The revelation emerged when Nepal’s premier investigation agency foiled a plot to explode a series of bombs devised by Ram Prasad Mainali, former chief of the Hindu militant outfit Nepal Defence Army (NDA), in the capital city of Kathmandu. Police on March 4 arrested six cohorts of Mainali carrying powerful “socket bombs” – home-made, hand grenade-type weapons made from plumbing joints – and high-explosive powder, to be used as part of a plan to extort money from industrialists, The Himalayan Times reported.

In an interview last year, Mainali had told Compass that his interaction with Christians inside jail in Kathmandu’s Nakkhu area had led him to repent of his deeds and read the Bible (see “Bomber in Nepal Repents, Admits India Link,” Jan. 4, 2010). Mainali was arrested on Sept. 5, 2009 for exploding a bomb in a Catholic parish in Kathmandu, Our Lady of the Assumption, which killed a teenager and a newly married woman and injured more than a dozen others on May 23 of that year.

Prior to the Compass interview, Mainali had sent a handwritten letter from the prison to a monthly Christian newsmagazine in Nepal, Hamro Ashish (Our Blessing), saying he regretted having attacked Christians.

A local Christian worker who had known Mainali said the church bomber used Christianity to evade police surveillance.

“I was disheartened when I recently learned that Mainali had threatened some pastors with violent attacks, demanding protection money from them,” he told Compass on condition of anonymity.

The source said Mainali threatened him and pastors he knew by phone. He suspected that a fellow prisoner, Jeevan Rai Majhi, previously considered a convert to Christianity, had given the pastors’ phone numbers to Mainali. Majhi, formerly a notorious criminal, had allegedly accepted Christ inside the prison, and jail authorities made him the prison leader. He also led a Bible study group in the prison.

“Some prisoners who attend the Bible study in the Nakkhu Jail told me that Mainali shared the extortion money with Majhi, which aroused jealousy among other prisoners, who reported it to the jail authorities,” the source said.

Around 150 prisoners attend the Nakkhu Gospel Church inside the prison premises, though Majhi is no longer leading it. Both Mainali and Majhi were recently transferred, Mainali to the Dilli-Bazaar Jail and Majhi to the Mid-Nepal Central Jail.

Deputy Inspector General of Police and Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) Director Rajendra Singh Bhandari told The Kathmandu Post that the arrest of Mainali’s men was a “tremendous achievement” that averted “mass casualties” in the capital.

“It seems that Mainali had filled the arrestees’ minds with dreams of earning quick bucks through terror,” the daily quoted another investigation official as saying.

The Christian source said he still hoped for genuine repentance in Mainali and Majhi.

“Mainali and Majhi must have at least some knowledge of the Bible,” he said. “So I am still hopeful that they would reflect on who God is and truly repent of their ways as they spend their time in prison cells incommunicado [prohibited from speaking with any outsider].”

According to The Kathmandu Post, the CIB had been observing Mainali following complaints that he had demanded large sums of money from businessmen and others.

“He had been making phone calls and sending demand letters to them,” the daily reported on March 4.

Compass requested an interview with Mainali at the Dilli-Bazaar Jail, which officials refused.

“We have orders not to allow Mainali to meet anyone,” said one official.

Mainali had earlier told Compass that he formed the NDA with the support of Hindu nationalists in India in 2007 to re-establish the Hindu monarchy, which fell after a decade-long armed struggle by former Maoist guerrillas peaked in 2006, when all political parties joined protests against King Gyanendra.

The NDA is also believed to be responsible for bombing mosques and killing Muslims and Christians, including the Rev. John Prakash Moyalan, a Catholic priest who was principal of the Don Bosco educational institution in eastern Nepal, in June 2008. While Christians in Nepal faced persecution at the hands of the Hindu monarchy until 2006, non-state actors have been attacking them since the country began transitioning to a secular democracy.

“Several incidents of religiously incited violence directed at minority religions and their property have been recorded since the signing of the peace accord [between the interim government and the Maoists in 2006],” a local Non-Governmental Organization, Informal Sector Service Sector (INSEC), noted last year.

“Although moves have been made to promote religious tolerance and a climate of peace and cooperation, this area must continuously be monitored,” stated an INSEC report, “Commitment versus Reality,” which mentioned attacks on Christians by Mainali’s outfit.

Of the roughly 30 million people in Nepal, only .5 percent are Christian, and more than 80 percent are Hindu, according to the 2001 census. The actual number of Christians, however, is believed to be much higher.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

India’s Anti-Christian Violence in 2008 Linked to Terrorists


Christians call for agency to probe anti-Muslim terrorism ties to Orissa-Karnataka attacks.

NEW DELHI, March 25 (CDN) — Right-wing terrorists played a key role in attacking and killing Christians in Orissa and Karnataka states in 2008, one of the Hindu extremist suspects in anti-Muslim bomb blasts has told investigators, leading to renewed demands for a probe by India’s anti-terror agency.

Pragya Singh Thakur, arrested for planning 2008 bombings targeting Muslims in west India, told the National Investigation Agency (NIA) that Lt. Col. Prasad Srikant Purohit had “masterminded” the 2008 anti-Christian violence in Orissa and Karnataka, The Indian Express daily reported on Wednesday (March 23). Purohit is accused along with Thakur for the 2008 bombings of Muslims.

Thakur had met with Purohit after the August 2008 Kandhamal attacks against Christians began and told her “he was into big things like blasts, etc., and had masterminded the Orissa and Karnataka ‘disturbances,’” the national daily reported.

The NIA, a recently formed agency to prevent, probe and prosecute terrorism-related incidents on a national scale, is investigating several cases involving right-wing terrorism aimed at the Muslim minority in retaliation for Islamist attacks. Both Thakur, formerly a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing, and Purohit, who was serving in the Indian Army when he was arrested for his role in blasts in Malegaon city in western Maharashtra state, were part of the Hindu extremist Abhinav Bharat.

Thakur’s statement to the NIA came soon after a Directorate of Military Intelligence report said Purohit had confessed to having killed at least two Christians in Kandhamal and playing a role in violence in Karnataka and other states.

The revelation by Thakur was not surprising, said John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council.

“We have held that the military precision of the Kandhamal riots, which spread fast and raged for months, could not be a work of mere common people, and that higher brains were at work to ‘teach the Christians a lesson’ while sending out signals of their power lust to the entire nation,” Dayal told Compass.

The violence in Kandhamal began following the assassination of a Hindu extremist leader Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008. Though Maoists claimed responsibility for the murder, Hindu extremists blamed Christians for it. The violence began after the arrival of Indresh Kumar, an executive committee member of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and a suspect in blast cases, said Kandhamal activist Ajay Singh. Local media reports said Kumar was part of Saraswati’s funeral procession, which was designed to trigger the attacks, Singh added.

The RSS denies having played any role in terrorism. On March 12, Ram Madhav, an RSS national executive committee member, called the allegation against Kumar “a concerted political campaign.” Those who were dragging the RSS leader into blast cases “will stand thoroughly exposed,” The Times of India daily quoted him as saying.

Dayal and another Christian leader, Joseph Dias, said they had separately written to India’s prime minister and home minister seeking inclusion of the anti-Christian attacks in an ongoing NIA investigation. Sajan K. George of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) said he had petitioned the president for the same.

Dias, general secretary of the Catholic-Christian Social Forum, a Maharashtra-based rights group, recalled that violence in Kandhamal spread across 13 other districts of Orissa.

“In Kandhamal alone, more than 6,600 homes were destroyed, 56,000 people rendered homeless, thousands injured, and about 100 men and women [were] burned alive or hacked to death,” Dias said. “Among the women raped was a Catholic nun.”

In September 2008, as the violence continued in Kandhamal, a series of attacks on Christians and their property rocked Mangalore city in Karnataka state.

“In Karnataka, it was hundreds of churches that were desecrated, Christians brutally beaten up, over 350 false cases foisted on them, property held by the community taken over, and no relief to date [has been] received,” Dias said.

While the government of Orissa downplayed the violence as “ethnic tensions,” Karnataka officials blamed it on Christian conversions.

The RSS and outfits linked to it such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, which claims to work for tribal welfare, facilitated the Kandhamal attacks together with alleged Hindu nationalist terrorists, Dayal said.

“We want the truth about Hindu groups’ anti-national terror activities against minority Christians to come out,” said George, whose GCIC is based in Karnataka.

Dias warned that that the latest statement by Thakur must not to be seen in isolation, as the Military Intelligence report revealed that the Abhinav Bharat had targeted Christians in several states, including Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

The “game plan” is to “cripple Christian religious places, property and institutions, besides eliminating its nascent community leadership at the grassroots,” Dias added.

The Abhinav Bharat was formed in 2007 by a few right-wing Hindus allegedly disillusioned with the leaders of the Hindu nationalist movement, whom they thought were too timid to make India a Hindu nation, rather than one based on religious pluralism.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Nepal Christians Fight for Burial Rights


Nearly 200 graves face demolition.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, January 25 (CDN) — Three years after the death of a Christian who was a captain in the Nepal Army, his widow, Gamala Guide, faces fresh grief.

The grave of her husband, Narayan Guide, is threatened with destruction as authorities of Nepal’s most powerful Hindu temple are reclaiming the forested land where it is located.

“What kind of strange country is this that doesn’t allow its own citizens to rest in peace?” the 55-year-old recently asked leaders of the Christian community in Kathmandu. “Please do something to stop the desecration, or my husband will die a second death.”

At least 200 graves, many of them unmarked due to Christians’ fear of discovery and destruction, could share the same fate. The Pashupatinath Area Development Trust, the organization administering the Pashupatinath temple that dates back to the fourth century AD, has begun renovating the shrine as Nepal celebrates 2011 as its “tourism year” with the goal of attracting 1 million visitors. The temple has been declared a world heritage site by UNESCO.

“In the late 1980s, the government gave us 292 hectares of land to develop the Pashupatinath temple,” said Ram Saran Chimoria, director of the trust. “We have accordingly drawn up a five-year plan that will renovate the main shrine and beautify its surroundings. The forested land adjoining the temple will be used to grow plants considered sacred by Hindus.”

Chimoria said part of the forest is also meant to be used for Hindu burials.

“A Hindu sect called the Dashnami, which has 10 sub-groups under it, buries its dead here, as Muslims and Christians do,” he said. “Since Pashupatinath is a Hindu temple, the 10 sub-groups are allowed to bury their dead here. But other communities also began burying their dead here, first pretending to be the Dashnami and then clandestinely. This is against Hindu traditions, and the temple is seeking to reclaim what belongs to it. It is the responsibility of the government to allot burial grounds to non-Hindus, not the trust’s.”

The burial ground lies opposite Arya Ghat, a cremation ground at Pashupatinath, where bodies are burned on pyres according to Hindu tradition. Known as the Sleshmantak Forest, it is a steep and nearly inaccessible wooded tract where monkeys and foxes roam. Locals advise visitors not to wander into the forest alone, even during day time, for fear of robbers.

“I attended several burial rites there,” said Chirendra Satyal, spokesman of the Catholic Assumption Church of Kathmandu Valley. “They were all low-key. Many of the graves are unmarked to avoid detection. The burial ground is used as a garbage dumping site, and at times foxes dig up the buried bodies. There are also cases of bodies being dumped on top of one another.”

An increasingly angry Christian community, tired of petitioning the government for an official burial ground, is now seeking stronger measures.

“Nepal became secular in 2006, and two years later, we petitioned the prime minister, the culture minister and the top human rights agency in Nepal, saying that in a secular democracy Christians should have the same rights as others and should be given their own burial ground,” said C.B. Gahatraj, general secretary of a Christian committee formed to provide recommendations to parliament, which is drafting a new constitution. “We understand the temple’s position. But the state should understand ours too.”

The committee had identified forested land on the outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley, in an area called Duwakot, and proposed that it be given to them.

“We would make it one of the most idyllic sites in Nepal,” said Gahatraj. “It would have gardens and would be an attractive destination for tourists as well. But so far, there has been no response from the state.”

Believing the time has come for stronger action, Christians plan to discuss the issue with 22 major parliamentary parties on Sunday (Jan. 30).

“At the meeting, we will present our case again,” Gahatraj said. “We also want the trust to suspend the demolition drive till we are given our own land. If there’s no result, we will internationalize our case by taking our problem to international rights organizations and the United Nations.”

As the first such public protest, on Feb. 15 at Maitighar Mandala, one of the most prominent areas of the capital, the Christian community will begin a “relay hunger strike.” Christians are also beginning the first-ever Christian census this year to ascertain their true position in society.

“We estimate there are about 2 million Christians now [out of a population of nearly 29 million],” Gahatraj said.  

Catholics, however, form a tiny fraction of the Christian community. Satyal assessed there were about 7,500 Catholics. In 2009, three women were killed at the Assumption Church when a militant underground organization planted a bomb there. All three had to be cremated.

“Land is a premium commodity in Kathmandu Valley,” said Anthony Sharma, Nepal’s first Catholic bishop. “When the living don’t have land, it is futile to seek land for the dead. We have accepted cremation for Catholics in Nepal in keeping with acceptance worldwide.”

But even the cremation is dogged by discrimination.

“The Arya Ghat cremation ground at Pashupatinath distinguishes between upper castes and lower castes,” the bishop said. “If Christians are taken there, they would be treated as lower castes. So we have organized our own cremation site in Teku [in a different part of the town].”

Madhav Kumar Nepal, who resigned as prime minister on June 30 but leads a caretaker government, was regarded as having a soft spot for Christians. After the attack on the Assumption church, he was among the first state officials to visit the injured in the hospital and kept his promise to bring the culprits to justice, with police managing to arrest the blast mastermind.

Nepal resigned last year under pressure by the largest opposition party, and since then the turbulent republic has remained under a powerless caretaker government, unable to make any major decision.

With the squabbling political parties unable to form a new government and a political deadlock spilling into its seventh month, there are now new fears about the prospective constitution, which is expected to consolidate the secular nature of the nation. The constitution was to have been completed last year, but as the bickering parties failed to accomplish the task, the deadline was extended to May 28.

The delay has enabled a spurt in activities of Hindus calling for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion. If Nepal’s May deadline fails as well, Christians fear it could be impossible to obtain their own official burial site.

Report from Compass Direct News

Legal Status Foreseen for Christianity in Buddhist Bhutan


Country’s religious regulatory authority expected to consider recognition before year’s end.

NEW DELHI, November 4 (CDN) — For the first time in Bhutan’s history, the Buddhist nation’s government seems ready to grant much-awaited official recognition and accompanying rights to a miniscule Christian population that has remained largely underground.

The authority that regulates religious organizations will discuss in its next meeting – to be held by the end of December – how a Christian organization can be registered to represent its community, agency secretary Dorji Tshering told Compass by phone.

Thus far only Buddhist and Hindu organizations have been registered by the authority, locally known as Chhoedey Lhentshog. As a result, only these two communities have the right to openly practice their religion and build places of worship.

Asked if Christians were likely to get the same rights soon, Tshering replied, “Absolutely” – an apparent paradigm shift in policy given that Bhutan’s National Assembly had banned open practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions by passing resolutions in 1969 and in 1979.

“The constitution of Bhutan says that Buddhism is the country’s spiritual heritage, but it also says that his majesty [the king] is the protector of all religions,” he added, explaining the basis on which the nascent democracy is willing to accept Christianity as one of the faiths of its citizens.

The former king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, envisioned democracy in the country in 2006 – after the rule of an absolute monarchy for over a century. The first elections were held in 2008, and since then the government has gradually given rights that accompany democracy to its people.

The government’s move to legalize Christianity seems to have the consent of the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is respected by almost all people and communities in the country. In his early thirties, the king studied in universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley is also believed to have agreed in principle to recognition of other faiths.

According to source who requested anonymity, the government is likely to register only one Christian organization and would expect it to represent all Christians in Bhutan – which would call for Christian unity in the country.

All Hindus, who constitute around 22 percent of Bhutan’s less than 700,000 people, are also represented by one legal entity, the Hindu Dharma Samudaya (Hindu Religion Community) of Bhutan, which was registered with the Chhoedey Lhentshog authority along with Buddhist organizations a year ago.

Tshering said the planned discussion at the December meeting is meant to look at technicalities in the Religious Organizations Act of 2007, which provides for registration and regulation of religious groups with intent to protect and promote the country’s spiritual heritage. The government began to enforce the Act only in November 2009, a year after the advent of democracy.

Asked what some of the government’s concerns are over allowing Christianity in the country, Tshering said “conversion must not be forced, because it causes social tensions which Bhutan cannot afford to have. However, the constitution says that no one should be forced to believe in a religion, and that aspect will be taken care of. We will ensure that no one is forced to convert.”

The government’s willingness to recognize Christians is partly aimed at bringing the community under religious regulation, said the anonymous source. This is why it is evoking mixed response among the country’s Christians, who number around 6,000 according to rough estimates.

Last month, a court in south Bhutan sentenced a Christian man to three years of prison for screening films on Christianity – which was criticized by Christian organizations around the world. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ,” Oct. 18.)

The government is in the process of introducing a clause banning conversions by force or allurement in the country’s penal code.

Though never colonized, landlocked Bhutan has historically seen its sovereignty as fragile due to its small size and location between two Asian giants, India and China. It has sought to protect its sovereignty by preserving its distinct cultural identity based on Buddhism and by not allowing social tensions or unrest.

In the 1980s, when the king sought to strengthen the nation’s cultural unity, ethnic Nepalese citizens, who are mainly Hindu and from south Bhutan, rebelled against it. But a military crackdown forced over 100,000 of them – some of them secret Christians – to either flee to or voluntarily leave the country for neighboring Nepal.

Tshering said that while some individual Christians had approached the authority with queries, no organization had formally filed papers for registration.

After the December meeting, if members of the regulatory authority feel that Chhoedey Lhentshog’s mandate does not include registering a Christian organization, Christians will then be registered by another authority, the source said.

After official recognition, Christians would require permission from local authorities to hold public meetings. Receiving foreign aid or inviting foreign speakers would be subject to special permission from the home ministry, added the source.

Bhutan’s first contact with Christians came in the 17th century when Guru Rimpoche, a Buddhist leader and the unifier of Bhutan as a nation state, hosted the first two foreigners, who were Jesuits. Much later, Catholics were invited to provide education in Bhutan; the Jesuits came to Bhutan in 1963 and the Salesians in 1982 to run schools. The Salesians, however, were expelled in 1982 on accusations of proselytizing, and the Jesuits left the country in 1988.

“As Bhutanese capacities (scholarly, administrative and otherwise) increased, the need for active Jesuit involvement in the educational system declined, ending in 1988, when the umbrella agreement between the Jesuit order and the kingdom expired and the administration of all remaining Jesuit institutions was turned over to the government,” writes David M. Malone, Canada’s high commissioner to India and ambassador to Bhutan, in the March 2008 edition of Literary Review of Canada.

After a Christian organization is registered, Christian institutions may also be allowed once again in the country, given the government’s stress on educating young Bhutanese.

A local Christian requesting anonymity said the community respects Bhutan’s political and religious leaders, especially the king and the prime minister, will help preserve the country’s unique culture and seeks to contribute to the building of the nation.

Report from Compass Direct News