Parler: what you need to know about the ‘free speech’ Twitter alternative



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Audrey Courty, Griffith University

Amid claims of social media platforms stifling free speech, a new challenger called Parler is drawing attention for its anti-censorship stance.

Last week, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter signed by 150 academics, writers and activists concerning perceived threats to the future of free speech.

The letter, signed by Noam Chomsky, Francis Fukuyama, Gloria Steinem and J.K. Rowling, among others, reads:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.

Debates surroundings free speech and censorship have taken centre stage in recent months. In May, Twitter started adding fact-check labels to tweets from Donald Trump.

More recently, Reddit permanently removed its largest community of Trump supporters.

In this climate, Parler presents itself as a “non-biased, free speech driven” alternative to Twitter. Here’s what you should know about the US-based startup.




Read more:
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What is Parler?

Parler reports more than 1.5 million users and is growing in popularity, especially as Twitter and other social media giants crackdown on misinformation and violent content.

Parler appears similar to Twitter in its appearance and functions.
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Parler is very similar to Twitter in appearance and function, albeit clunkier. Like Twitter, Parler users can follow others and engage with public figures, news sources and other users.

Public posts are called “parleys” rather than “tweets” and can contain up to 1,000 characters.

Users can comment, ‘echo’ or ‘vote’ on parleys.
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Users can search for hashtags, make comments, “echo” posts (similar to a retweet) and “vote” (similar to a like) on posts. There’s also a direct private messaging feature, just like Twitter.

Given this likeness, what actually is unique about Parler?

Fringe views welcome?

Parler’s main selling point is its claim it embraces freedom of speech and has minimal moderation. “If you can say it on the street of New York, you can say it on Parler”, founder John Matze explains.

This branding effort capitalises on allegations competitors such as Twitter and Facebook unfairly censor content and discriminate against right-wing political speech.

While other platforms often employ fact checkers, or third-party editorial boards, Parler claims to moderate content based on American Federal Communications Commission guidelines and Supreme Court rulings.

So if someone shared demonstrably false information on Parler, Matze said it would be up to other users to fact-check them “organically”.

And although Parler is still dwarfed by Twitter (330 million users) and Facebook (2.6 billion users) the platform’s anti-censorship stance continues to attract users turned off by the regulations of larger social media platforms.

When Twitter recently hid tweets from Trump for “glorifying violence”, this partly prompted the Trump campaign to consider moving to a platform such as Parler.

Far-right American political activist and conspiracy theorist Lara Loomer is among Parler’s most popular users.
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Matze also claims Parler protects users’ privacy by not tracking or sharing their data.

Is Parler really a free speech haven?

Companies such as Twitter and Facebook have denied they are silencing conservative voices, pointing to blanket policies against hate speech and content inciting violence.

Parler’s “free speech” has resulted in various American Republicans, including Senator Ted Cruz, promoting the platform.

Many conservative influencers such as Katie Hopkins, Lara Loomer and Alex Jones have sought refuge on Parler after being banned from other platforms.

Although it brands itself as a bipartisan safe space, Parler is mostly used by right-wing media, politicians and commentators.

Moreover, a closer look at its user agreement suggests it moderates content the same way as any platform, maybe even more.

The company states:

Parler may remove any content and terminate your access to the Services at any time and for any reason or no reason.

Parler’s community guidelines prohibit a range of content including spam, terrorism, unsolicited ads, defamation, blackmail, bribery and criminal behaviour.

Although there are no explicit rules against hate speech, there are policies against “fighting words” and “threats of harm”. This includes “a threat of or advocating for violation against an individual or group”.

Parler CEO John Matze clarified the platform’s rules after banning users, presumably for breaking one or more of the listed rules.

There are rules against content that is obscene, sexual or “lacks serious literary, artistic, political and scientific value”. For example, visuals of genitalia, female nipples, or faecal matter are barred from Parler.

Meanwhile, Twitter allows “consensually produced adult content” if its marked as “sensitive”. It also has no policy against the visual display of excrement.

As a private company, Parler can remove whatever content it wants. Some users have already been banned for breaking rules.

What’s more, in spite of claims it does not share user data, Parler’s privacy policy states data collected can be used for advertising and marketing.




Read more:
Friday essay: Twitter and the way of the hashtag


No marks of establishment

Given its limited user base, Parler has yet to become the “open town square” it aspires to be.

The platform is in its infancy and its user base is much less representative than larger social media platforms.

Despite Matze saying “left-leaning” users tied to the Black Lives Matter movement were joining Parler to challenge conservatives, Parler lacks the diverse audience needed for any real debate.

Upon joining the platform, Parler suggests following several politically conservative users.
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Matze also said he doesn’t want Parler to be an “echo chamber” for conservative voices. In fact, he is offering a US$20,000 “progressive bounty” for an openly liberal pundit with 50,000 followers on Twitter or Facebook to join.

Clearly, the platform has a long way to go before it bursts its conservative bubble.




Read more:
Don’t (just) blame echo chambers. Conspiracy theorists actively seek out their online communities


The Conversation


Audrey Courty, PhD candidate, School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Keep your nose out of it: why saliva tests could offer a better alternative to nasal COVID-19 swabs



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Pingping Han, The University of Queensland

Saliva is one of our biggest foes in the COVID-19 pandemic, because of its role in spreading the virus. But it could be our friend too, because it potentially offers a way to diagnose the disease without using invasive nasal swabs.

Our research review, published in the journal Diagnostics, suggests saliva could offer a readily accessible diagnostic tool for detecting the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and might even be able to reveal whether someone’s immune system has already encountered it.

COVID-19 testing is a crucial part of the pandemic response, especially now countries are gradually lifting social distancing restrictions. This requires widespread, early, accurate and sensitive diagnosis of infected people, both with and without symptoms.

Our review looked at the results of three different studies, in Hong Kong, the nearby Chinese mainland city of Shenzhen, and Italy. All three studies found SARS-CoV-2 is indeed present in the saliva of COVID-19 patients (at rates of 87%, 91.6%, and 100% of patients, respectively). This suggests saliva is a potentially very useful source of specimens for detecting the virus.




Read more:
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Saliva spreads the SARS-CoV-2 virus via breathing, coughing, sneezing, and conversation, which is why guidelines suggest we maintain a distance of at least 1.5 metres from one another. We also know SARS-CoV-2 can survive in tiny droplets of saliva in an experimental setting.


Author provided

Saliva is an attractive option for detecting SARS-CoV-2, compared with the current tests which involve taking swabs of mucus from the upper respiratory tract. Saliva is easy to access, which potentially makes the tests cheaper and less invasive. Saliva can hold up a mirror to our health, not just of our mouth but our whole body.

For this reason, saliva has already been widely investigated as a diagnostic tool for chronic systemic diseases, as well as for oral ailments such as periodontal disease and oral cancers. But less attention has been given to its potential usefulness in acute infectious diseases such as COVID-19, perhaps because researchers and clinicians don’t yet appreciate its full potential.

What a mouthful

When we get sick, much of the evidence is present in our saliva – from the germs themselves, to the antibodies and immune system proteins we use to fight them off. Saliva also contains genetic material and other cellular components of pathogens after we have broken them down (for the full biochemical breakdown of the weird and wonderful things in our saliva, see pages 51-61 of our review).


Author provided

Saliva is also hardy. It can be stored at –80℃ for several years with little degradation.

This means it would be relatively straightforward to track the progression of COVID-19 in individual patients, by collecting saliva at various times during the disease and recovery. Saliva tests from recovered patients could also tell us if they have encountered the disease for a second time, and how strong their immune response is.

However, there is no research yet available on using saliva to monitor immune responses. This will be well worth investigating, given the pressing need for a reliable and cost-effective way to monitor the population for immunity to COVID-19 as the outbreak continues.

Could saliva testing replace nasal swabs?

An ideal saliva test would be a disposable, off-the-shelf device that could be used at home by individuals, without exposing them or others to the risk of visiting a clinic.

One drawback with the research so far is that it has involved small numbers of patients (each of the three studies we reviewed involved no more than 25 people), and there is little published detail on exactly how these studies collected the saliva – whether from the mouth or throat, whether by spitting, drooling or swabbing, and whether collected by the patient or by a clinician.

Nevertheless, based on the modest amount of research done so far, saliva looks like a promising candidate for COVID-19 testing. More research is now needed, in larger groups of people, to learn more about how to confidently test for SARS-CoV-2 in the saliva of both symptomatic and non-symptomatic people.




Read more:
Curious Kids: why do we make saliva?


Earlier this month the US Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of saliva-based COVID-19 test kits that will allow people to collect their own samples and send them to a lab for analysis.

A reliable test would offer a cheaper, less invasive and potentially even more accurate way to detect the virus, which would also reduce the risk posed by routine COVID-19 checks to both patients and front-line medical professionals.The Conversation

Pingping Han, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The COVIDSafe app was just one contact tracing option. These alternatives guarantee more privacy



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Kelsie Nabben, RMIT University and Chris Berg, RMIT University

Since its release on Sunday, experts and members of the public alike have raised privacy concerns with the federal government’s COVIDSafe mobile app.

The contact tracing app aims to stop COVID-19’s spread by “tracing” interactions between users via Bluetooth, and alerting those who may have been in proximity with a confirmed case.




Read more:
Explainer: what is contact tracing and how does it help limit the coronavirus spread?


According to a recent poll commissioned by The Guardian, out of 1054 respondents, 57% said they were “concerned about the security of personal information collected” through COVIDSafe.

In its coronavirus response, the government has a golden opportunity to build public trust. There are other ways to build a digital contact tracing system, some of which would arguably raise fewer doubts about data security than the app.

All eyes on encryption

Incorporating advanced cryptography into COVIDSafe could have given Australian citizens a mathematical guarantee of their privacy, rather than a legal one.

A team at Canada’s McGill University is working on a solution that uses “mix networks” to send cryptographically “hashed” contact tracing location data through multiple, decentralised servers. This process hides the location and time stamps of users, sharing only necessary data.

This would let the government alert those who have been near a diagnosed person, without revealing other identifiers that could be used to trace back to them.

It’s currently unclear what encryption standards COVIDSafe is using, as the app’s source code has not been publicly released, and the government has been widely criticised for this. Once the code is available, researchers will be able to review and assess how safe users’ data are.

COVIDSafe is based on Singapore’s TraceTogether mobile app. Cybersecurity experts Chris Culnane, Eleanor McMurtry, Robert Merkel and Vanessa Teague have raised concerns over the app’s encryption standards.

If COVIDSafe has similar encryption standards – which we can’t know without the source code – it would be wrong to say the app’s data are encrypted. According to the experts, COVIDSafe shares a phone’s exact model number in plaintext with other users, whose phones store this detail alongside the original user’s corresponding unique ID.

The TraceTogether contact tracing app is part of Singapore’s effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. But according to the ABC, less than 20% of the population has downloaded it.
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Tough tech techniques for privacy

US-based advocacy group The Open Technology Institute has argued in favour of a “differential privacy” method for encrypting contact tracing data. This involves injecting statistical “noise” into datasets, giving individuals plausible deniability if their data are leaked for purposes other than contact tracing.

Zero-knowledge proof is another option. In this computation technique, one party (the prover) proves to another party (the verifier) they know the value of a specific piece of information, without conveying any other information. Thus, it would “prove” necessary information such as who a user has been in proximity with, without revealing details such as their name, phone number, postcode, age, or other apps running on their phone.

Not on the cloud, but still an effective device

Some approaches to contact tracing involve specialised hardware. Simmel is a wearable pen-like contact tracing device. It’s being designed by a Singapore-based team, supported by the European Commission’s Next Generation Internet program. All data are stored in the device itself, so the user has full control of their trace history until they share it.

This provides citizens a tracing beacon they can give to health officials if diagnosed, but is otherwise not linked to them through phone data or personal identifiers.

Missed opportunity

The response to COVIDSafe has been varied. While the number of downloads has been promising since its release, iPhone users have faced a range of functionality issues. Federal police are also investigating a series of text message scams allegedly aiming to dupe users.

The federal government has not chosen a decentralised, open-source, privacy-first approach. A better response to contact tracing would have been to establish clearer user information requirements and interoperability specifications (standards allowing different technologies and data to interact).

Also, inviting the private sector to help develop solutions (backed by peer review) could have encouraged innovation and provided economic opportunities.




Read more:
COVIDSafe tracking app reviewed: the government delivers on data security, but other issues remain


How do we define privacy?

Personal information collected via COVIDSafe is governed under the Privacy Act 1988 and the Biosecurity Determination 2020.

These legal regimes reveal a gap between the public’s and the government’s conceptions of “privacy”.

You may think privacy means the government won’t share your private information. But judging by its general approach, the government thinks privacy means it will only share your information if it has authorised itself to do so.




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Fundamentally, once you’ve told the government something, it has broad latitude to share that information using legislative exemptions and permissions built up over decades. This is why, when it comes to data security, mathematical guarantees trump legal “guarantees”.

For example, data collected by COVIDSafe may be accessible to various government departments through the recent anti-encryption legislation, the Assistance and Access Act. And you could be prosecuted for not properly self-isolating, based on your COVIDSafe data.

A right to feel secure

Moving forward, we may see more iterations of contact tracing technology in Australia and around the world.

The World Health Organisation is advocating for interoperability between contact tracing apps as part of the global virus response. And reports from Apple and Google indicate contact tracing will soon be built into your phone’s operating system.

As our government considers what to do next, it must balance privacy considerations with public health. We shouldn’t be forced to choose one over another.The Conversation

Kelsie Nabben, Researcher / PhD Candidate, RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub, RMIT University and Chris Berg, Senior Research Fellow and Co-Director, RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

5G will be a convenient but expensive alternative to the NBN


Rod Tucker, University of Melbourne

Will Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) face damaging competition from the upcoming 5G network? NBN Co CEO Bill Morrow thinks so.

This week, he even floated the idea of a levy on mobile broadband services, although Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull quickly rejected the idea.

NBN Co is clearly going to have to compete with mobile broadband on an equal footing.


Read More: Like it or not, you’re getting the NBN, so what are your rights when buying internet services?


This latest episode in the NBN saga raises the question of exactly what 5G will offer broadband customers, and how it will sit alongside the fixed NBN network.

To understand how 5G could compare with the NBN, let’s examine the key differences and similarities between mobile networks and fixed-line broadband.

What is 5G?

5G stands for “5th generation mobile”. It builds upon today’s 4G mobile network technology, but promises to offer higher peak connection speeds and lower latency, or time delays.

5G’s higher connection speeds will be possible thanks to improved radio technologies, increased allocations of radio spectrum, and by using many more antenna sites or base stations than today’s networks. Each antenna will serve a smaller area, or cell.

The technical details of 5G are currently under negotiation in international standards bodies. 5G networks should be available in Australia by 2020, although regulatory changes are still needed.

Connections on 5G

In a mobile network, the user’s device (typically a smart phone) communicates with a nearby wireless base station via a radio link. All users connected to that base station share its available data capacity.

Australia’s mobile network typically provides download speeds of around 20 Mb/s. But the actual speed of connection for an individual decreases as the number of users increases. This effect is known as contention.

Anyone who has tried to upload a photo to Facebook from the Melbourne Cricket Ground will have experienced this.

Mobile base stations.
kongsky/Shutterstock

The maximum download speed of 5G networks could be more than 1 Gb/s. But in practice, it will likely provide download speeds around 100 Mb/s or higher.

Because of contention and the high cost of the infrastructure, mobile network operators also impose significant data download limits for 4G. It is not yet clear what level of data caps will apply in 5G networks.

Connections on the NBN

In a fixed-line network like the NBN, the user typically connects to the local telephone exchange via optical fibre. Directly, in the case of fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP), or by copper wiring and then fibre, in fibre-to-the-node (FTTN).

An important difference between the NBN and a mobile network is that on the NBN, there is virtually no contention on the data path between the user and the telephone exchange. In other words, the user’s experience is almost independent of how many other users are online.

But, as highlighted in the recent public debate around the NBN, some users have complained that NBN speeds decrease at peak usage times.

Importantly, this is not a fundamental issue of the NBN technology. Rather, it is caused by artificial throttling thanks to the NBN Co’s Connectivity Virtual Circuit (CVC) charges, and/or by contention in the retail service provider’s network.

Retail service providers like TPG pay CVC charges to NBN Co to gain bandwidth into the NBN. These charges are currently quite high, and this has allegedly encouraged some service providers to skimp on bandwidth, leading to contention.

A restructuring of the wholesale model as well as providing adequate bandwidth in NBN Co’s transit network could easily eliminate artificial throttling.

The amount of data allowed by retailers per month is also generally much higher on the NBN than in mobile networks. It is often unlimited.

This will always be a key difference between the NBN and 5G.

Don’t forget, 5G needs backhaul

In wireless networks, the connection between the base stations and internet is known as backhaul.

Today’s 4G networks often use microwave links for backhaul, but in 5G networks where the quantity of data to be transferred will be higher, the backhaul will necessarily be optical fibre.

In the US and elsewhere, a number of broadband service providers are planning to build 5G backhaul networks using passive optical network (PON) technology. This is the type used in the NBN’s FTTP sections.

In fact, this could be a new revenue opportunity for NBN Co. It could encourage the company to move back to FTTP in certain high-population density areas where large numbers of small-cell 5G base stations are required.

So, will 5G Compete with the NBN?

There is a great deal of excitement about the opportunities 5G will provide. But its full capacity will only be achieved through very large investments in infrastructure.

Like today’s 4G network, large data downloads for video streaming and other bandwidth-hungry applications will likely be more expensive using 5G than using the NBN.


Read More: The NBN needs subsidies if we all want to benefit from it


In addition, future upgrades to the FTTP sections of the NBN will accommodate download speeds as high as 10 Gb/s, which will not be achievable with 5G.

Unfortunately, those customers served by FTTN will not enjoy these higher speeds because of the limitations of the copper connections between the node and the premises.

The Conversation5G will provide convenient broadband access for some internet users. But as the demand for ultra-high-definition video streaming and new applications such as virtual reality grow, the NBN will remain the network of choice for most customers, especially those with FTTP services.

Rod Tucker, Laureate Emeritus Professor, University of Melbourne

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

Islamists Raid House Churches in West Java


Demonstrators drive out 100 Christians in one service, stop worship in others.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, December 18 (CDN) — About 200 demonstrators from hard-line Islamic organizations in West Java on Sunday (Dec. 12) disrupted the worship of a church in Rancaekek district, Bandung, driving more than 100 worshippers from the building.

Members of the Islamic Defenders Front, the Indonesian Ulama Forum and the Islamic Reformist Movement arrived with the Civil Service Police Unit of Rancaekek district and sealed the house, thus leaving other churches that use it without a worship venue. The protestors also disrupted the worship of six other churches meeting in homes the same day.

The demonstrators arrived at 9 a.m., when the Huria Kristen Batak Protestant (of HKBP) Bethania church building had begun worship in the building where a pastor and his family live. The protestors urged the local government to seal the building immediately because it was a private house rather than registered as a place of worship.

About 10 minutes into the church’s worship, the demonstrators removed by force more than 100 members of the HKBP church on Teratai Street, the pastor said.

“Because they were fearful, children and women were crying when they came out of their place of worship,” the Rev. Badia Hutagalung told Compass by phone.

Hutagalong, 26, lives in the second story of the building. Church officials declined to say who owned the home.

Hutagalung said the congregation resisted the temptation to clash with the Islamic protestors, who were using ambulance sirens to disrupt the service.

The Civil Service Police Unit of Rancaekek district then affixed a document on the front of the building declaring, “This house has been sealed because it has violated Bandung Regency Regulation No. 16, of the year 2009, about building administration.”

HKBP elder Jawadi Hutapea said the document was signed by the head of Rancaekek district, Meman Nurjaman, and the chief of the Civil Service police.

Nurjaman reportedly said use of a private house as a place of worship violated the cited regulation.

“It should be only a place to stay but in fact functioned as a place of worship,” Nurjaman told Tempo News. “Now we’ve sealed the house. From now on, the house may only be used as a house to live in.”

Hutagalung said the church was using the house because it had not been able to obtain permission to establish a church building under conditions imposed by Indonesian law. The Joint Ministerial Decree promulgated in 1969 and revised in 2006 requires places of worship to obtain the approval of at least 60 persons from the local community, mandates there be at least 90 church members, and the church must be approved by the the village head.

“These terms are very difficult for us to fullfil,” Hutagalung told Compass.

The HKBP congregation was established in Rancaekek district in 1999, he added, because of the absence of a church for ethnic Bataknese in the area.

District head Nurjaman reportedly suggested that the church use a room at the College of Public Administration in Jatinangor, Sumedang Regency. Hutagalung said his congregation could do that, but he said not all the churches that use the building could merge together there.

“If we are forced to worship with other churches in the college complex, it is the same as closing the HKBP church in Rancaekek,” Hutagalung said.

He said he had received the suggestion from the district head for the churches to merge worship in the college complex a few weeks ago. Hutagalung said he has sought permission for the churches to worship separately in the college complex, but so far he has not received a response from the college building administrator.

If the HKBP church has not found an alternative venue this Sunday, the congregation plans to worship in front of the house that has been sealed, he said.

 

Other Churches Targeted

Other churches based in homes in the district met with the same opposition from Islamic protestors.

The Indonesian Evangelical Tabernacle Church (GKII), which began 20 years ago, met at 9:15 a.m. but the Islamic demonstrators appeared and insisted that they disband immediately, said a GKII pastor identified only as the Rev. Margaretha.

She said worship ended within 20 minutes because the protestors broke through an iron fence to force their way in.

“The mob lifted and slammed the fence until it was damaged,” Pastor Margaretha.

About half of the 60-member congregation, which consists mainly of women, was crying, she said. The protestors forced her to sign a letter promising not to use the house as a place of worship.

“They also damaged the door and the Christmas tree,” Pastor Margaretha said. “In the stressful situation, finally I signed the letter.”

Margaretha added that the demonstrators also took four chairs used for worship.

The Pentecostal Tabernacle Church also began its worship on Sunday (Dec. 12) before the Islamist demonstrators interfered.

The Rev. Filemon Sirait told Compass by phone that when the congregations began to worship at 9:30 a.m., the Islamic protestors suddenly massed in front of the house and forced them to stop.

Seeing that the demonstrators were willing to use force, the congregation finished their worship after only 15 minutes, he said.

“We worshiped only in prayer after that time,” Sirait said.

The demonstrators then barged into the house with a document for the pastor and congregation to sign stipulating that they would not use the place for worship, he said.

“Because we were depressed and fearful, finally we signed the letter stating that we agreed not to use the residential house as a place of worship,” Sirait said.

The church was established in Rancaekek district 12 years ago.

The Muslim protestors also disrupted the worship of the Church of Pentecost-Rancaekek, led by the Rev. Bungaran Silitonga. Established 10 years ago, the church has 40 members.

Silitonga told Compass that the Muslim demonstrators stormed into their house at around 2 p.m. and took 37 chairs used for worship activities.

“They took 37 chairs on the order of the district of Rancaekek,” he said.

Silitonga called the head of Rancaekek district to complain about the stolen chairs, and by evening the official had found and returned them, he said.

Islamist protestors reportedly succeeded in sealing five of seven houses used for Christian worship on Sunday. Other churches whose house worship was disrupted were the Indonesian Christian Church, a Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Christian Church.

Report from Compass Direct News

Church under Attack in Indonesia Agrees to Change Venue


Congregation accepts offer under condition that government build them permanent building.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, September 29 (CDN) — A West Java church has agreed to move temporarily to a government-selected site following Islamist harassment that included a Sept. 12 attack on two of its leaders.

The Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) in Ciketing village, Bekasi, decided in a congregational meeting on Sunday (Sept. 26) to accept a government offer to move worship services to the former Organization and Political Party (OPP) building on the condition that local officials will keep a promise to build a new house of worship for them within two years in the Mustika Sari district.

The Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak, who received hospital treatment after she was struck with a wooden plank by suspected Islamic extremists in the Sept. 12 attack, said that the church was ready to stop struggling.

“We are tired of being intimidated and terrorized,” Pastor Simanjuntak said. “We will be able to worship quietly and peacefully.”

Church lawyer Saor Siagian said that the church had accepted the temporary move with the understanding that the Bekasi municipal government must fulfill its pledge. The government will build a new church building to replace the structure the church is leaving on a 2,500-square meter lot belonging to PT Timah, the Government Tin Mining Co. in the Mustika Sari area of Bekasi. The lot is zoned for general and social facilities.

The government had suggested two alternative locations: the PT Timah lot and a 1,900-square meter parcel in the Strada Housing area. The congregation and leaders of HKBP Ciketing chose the PT Timah property.

The first HKBP Ciketing worship service in the former OPP Building took place without incident on Sunday, with the Bekasi government providing buses to transport the congregation to the new site. Pastor Simanjuntak said the congregation is thankful for the new temporary site, but it does not accommodate the entire congregation. The 10-meter by 14-meter building accommodates 250 people, but normally 300 attend services, and some had to stand outside, she said.

Dozens of police guarded the location.

Zaki Oetomo, a Bekasi city official, told Compass that the building could be used rent-free for two years, with an extension possible if the church desired. The government has offered to provide the buses to transport the congregation to and from the site every week.

 

20-Year Wait

The Ciketing church originally met in the Pondok Timur Indah housing development with 10 families in 1990, and therefore has generally been called the HKBP Pondok Timur Indah.

“By 1995 it had grown to 30 families,” Manorangi Siahaan, a church member, told Compass.

In those days the worship services were held in different members’ homes. Manorangi acknowledged that the house church worship did spark some small protests.

Between 1990 and 2010, the church leaders requested building permits three separate times, in 1995, 2000 and 2010. Not once did the local government respond, church leaders said.  

By 2005 the congregation had grown to 150, and church leaders bought a 2,170-square meter lot in Ciketing village, near Bekasi City, to construct a church building. They built a semi-permanent structure, which was later torn down because they lacked a building permit under pressure from an Islamic group claiming to speak for the local citizens. As a result, the congregation went back to worshipping in homes on a rotating basis.

In 2007 the congregation had grown to 300 people. They bought a house in Pondok Timur Indah, in the Mustika Jaya area of Bekasi City, to use for worship. The Bekasi government sealed the house on March 1 under pressure from Islamic groups. On July 2, the government sealed the house a second time because the congregation was continuing to worship there. Then on July 11, the church was forced to move their worship service to a vacant property in Ciketing, which had been readied for a church building. This site was about 3 kilometers from their property in Pondok Timur Indah.

Protests by Islamic groups mounted each Sunday at the Ciketing site, culminating in the attack on Pastor Simanjuntak and elder Hasian Sihombing, who was stabbed in the stomach and heart.

Report from Compass Direct News

Police Keep Indonesian Church from Worship Site after Attack


Bekasi officials unable to persuade HKBP congregation to relocate to alternative venue.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, September 23 (CDN) — Following attacks on their church leaders on Sept. 12, a West Java congregation on Sunday (Sept. 19) faced a wall of security officers blocking them from worshipping on their property as authorities tried to coax them to meet at another venue.

Hundreds of security force officers sealed off the street leading to their open-air worship site in Ciketing, near Bekasi, a week after suspected Islamists stabbed Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) elder Hasian Sihombing and struck Pastor Luspida Simanjuntak with a wooden block. At the Pondok Timur location where the church had gathered to walk three kilometers (less than two miles) to Ciketing on Sunday, an official in a police vehicle announced through a loudspeaker that the Bekasi government requested they worship at the former office of a community organization.

When Compass arrived at the Pondok Timur area, there were 1,500 regular police and public order security police officers standing by, some forming ranks in front of the Nurul Hulda Mosque 500 meters away.

The official on the loudspeaker read a decree by Bekasi Mayor H. Mochtar Muhammad stating that security problems in the Mustika Jaya area were caused by the HKBP worship in Ciketing – where Islamists have staged protests in spite of a mayoral decree granting the congregation the right to worship there – and that in order to guard against further incidents, the church was no longer to hold services there.

“From now on, HKBP will hold its worship services in the [former] Organization & Political Party Building [the auditorium in back of several buildings occupied by different political parties] on Charil Anwar Street in Bekasi City,” he said.

The new mayoral decree dictating where the church was to worship was the product of a Sept. 15 meeting of the West Java governor, the Jakarta area military commander, Jakarta area police, the general secretary and the director general of the Ministry of the Interior, and the Department of Religion, he said.

“We invite the HKBP members to climb aboard the seven buses that we have prepared to take them to the [former] Organization & Political Party [OPP] building,” the official said to the congregation, which had gathered outside the Pondok Timur area building they had used for worship before authorities sealed it in June.

The HKBP congregation ignored the invitation. Muhammad Jufri, head of the Bekasi municipal legal department, then invited the congregation to board the buses. No one responded.

A few minutes later the Rev. Pietersen Purba, district head of the HKBP Pondok Timur District, along with two other pastors and two lawyers, requested that the congregation be allowed to worship at the open-air site on their property in Ciketing. Authorities denied the request.

An argument ensued between Bekasi officials and HKBP leaders.

“For our common good, both government and congregation, and in accordance with the decision of the coordinating meeting, we have prepared a temporary worship place at the former OPP building,” said Jufri, of the Bekasi legal department. “Because of this you may worship there, and while you are worshipping the municipal government guarantees your safety.”

Pastor Purba responded by requesting security for their current location.

“I am surprised that we are forbidden to worship on our own property,” he told authorities. “Our services there were sanctioned by a letter from the mayor that allows us to worship in Ciketing. We are the victims – my pastor was beaten. Are we not citizens with the right to worship in this country? Because of this we ask that the police help us with security so that we may worship in Ciketing. The congregation and I desire to worship there.”

HKBP lawyer Saor Siagian asked a policeman to open the way toward their property in Ciketing; the officer refused.

Jufri then began to read the mayor’s new decree aloud, but he had spoken only a few sentences before one of the HKBP lawyers, Sahala Pangaribuan, interrupted him.

“Sir, if you want to read, do so, but don’t prevent us from walking,” Pangaribuan said.

Jufri continued reading the entire decree.

“We heard what you read,” Pastor Purba replied, “but we don’t easily believe our beloved government, because we remember the case of HKBP Jatimulyo, Bekasi, which was sealed by the government, and then promised facilities for a place of worship. Now it has been five years, and the promise is still unfulfilled.”

The argument lasted another 30 minutes, and the congregation gave up on its request to meet in Ciketing. They were granted 10 minutes to pray in their former Pondok Timur building and additional time for congregational discussion, which was led by the national secretary general of the HKBP, the Rev. Ramlan Hutahayan.

At press conference later that day, Hutahayan said that freedom of worship was fundamental.

“We hope that every citizen will have the right to construct houses of worship to praise and glorify God together,” he said.

Bekasi officials have offered the former OPP building as a temporary venue for worship and two alternative locations on land zoned for general and/or social purposes: one owned by P.T. Timah and one belonging to the Strada Foundation. Thus far the congregation has not approved of these alternatives because they are far from their homes.

At a press conference with other Christian leaders, the head of the Jakarta Christian Communication General Forum, Theophilus Bela, said a statement by the Jakarta provincial police chief that the Sept. 12 attack on the church leaders was a “purely criminal act” was hasty.

“After arrests and investigation, it has been shown that this is not a pure criminal act, but an organized scenario with the Islamic Defenders Front as the field command,” Bela said.

He and other Christian leaders criticized government officials for closing churches and revoking church building permits that had already been approved.

“They have been passive in the face of anarchy and terrorist acts that have been done in the name of religion by groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front, the Betawi-Rempug Forum, the Islamic Congregation Forum, the Congress of the Indonesian Muslim Community, and so on,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News

Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law


Already suppressed Christians say bill is designed to control growth.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, July 21 (CDN) — Christians in this Himalayan nation who are still longing to openly practice their faith were disheartened this month when the government proposed the kind of “anti-conversion” law that other nations have used as a pretext for falsely accusing Christians of “coercion.”

The amendment bill would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement” – vaguely enough worded, Christians fear, that vigilantes could use it to jail them for following the commands of Christ to feed, clothe and otherwise care for the poor.

“Now, under section 463 [of the Penal Code of Bhutan], a defendant shall be guilty of the offense of proselytization if the defendant uses coercion or other forms of inducement to cause the conversion of a person from one religion or faith to another,” reported the government-run Kuensel newspaper on July 9.

“There was always a virtual anti-conversion law in place, but now it is on paper too,” said a senior pastor from Thimphu on condition of anonymity. “Seemingly it is aimed at controlling the growth of Christianity.”

Kuenlay Tshering, a member of Bhutan’s Parliament and the chairperson of its Legislative Council, told Compass that the new section is consonant with Article 7(4) of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, which states, “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

He said that the National Council had proposed that offenses under the proposal be classified as misdemeanors, punishable by one to less than three years in prison.

Tshering said that the amendment bill “may be passed during the next session of Parliament, after the National Assembly deliberates on it in the winter session.”

Asked if he was aware that similar “anti-conversion” laws in neighboring India had been misused to harass Christians through vague terms of “inducement,” he said he was not.

Authorities usually act on complaints by local residents against Christian workers, so frivolous complaints can lead to their arrest, said another pastor who requested anonymity.

Of the 683,407 people in Bhutan, over 75 percent are Buddhist, mainly from the west and the east. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.

There are around 6,000 Christians, mostly ethnic Nepalese, but there is neither a church building nor a registered Christian institution. The Bible, however, has been translated into the national language, Dzongkha, as well as into Nepali.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the government has not officially recognized the presence of Christians, whose practice of faith remains confined to their homes.

The Drukpa Kagyue school of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion, with Hinduism dominant in the south, according to Bhutan’s official website, which adds, “Some residues of Bon, animism and shamanism still exist in some pockets of the country,” but makes no mention of Christianity.

Still, since Bhutan became a democracy in 2008 after its first-ever elections – following more than 100 years of absolute monarchy – people have increasingly exercised their freedom, including religious choice.

 

‘Why More Religions?’

Home and Culture Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji told Compass that Bhutan’s government had “no problems” with Christianity or any other faith.

“But Bhutan is a small country, with a little more than 600,000 people, and a majority of them are Buddhist,” Dorji said. “We have Hindus, also mainly in southern parts. So why do we need more religions?”

Buddhism is closely linked with political and social life in Bhutan. Dorji’s office sits in a gigantic monastery in Thimphu known as Tashichho Dzong. Buddhism unites and brings people together, Dorji said, explaining that the social life of a village revolves around its dzong (monastery).

Dorji said India’s multi-religious society had led to tensions and bloodshed.

“India can survive riots and unrest,” he said, “but Bhutan may not, because it is a small country between two giants [India and China].”

With leaders who have been proud that they have not allowed it to be colonized, Bhutan historically has been keenly concerned about its survival. Bhutan’s people see their distinct culture, rather than the military, as having protected the country’s sovereignty. And it is no coincidence that Dorji’s portfolio includes both internal security and preservation of culture.

The constitution, adopted in July 2008, also requires the state to protect Bhutan’s cultural heritage and declares that Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan.

A government official who requested anonymity said that, as Tibet went to China and Sikkim became a state in India, “now which of the two countries will get Bhutan?”

This concern is prevalent among the Bhutanese, he added.

Sikkim, now a state in India’s northeast, was a Buddhist kingdom with indigenous Bhotia and Lepcha people groups as its subjects. But Hindus from Nepal migrated to Sikkim for work and gradually outnumbered the local Buddhists. In 1975, a referendum was held to decide if Sikkim, then India’s protectorate, should become an official state of the country. Since over 75 percent of the people in Sikkim were Nepalese – who knew that democracy would mean majority-rule – they voted for its incorporation
into India.

Bhutan and India’s other smaller neighbors saw it as brazen annexation. And it is believed that Sikkim’s “annexation” made Bhutan wary of the influence of India.

In the 1980s, Bhutan’s king began a one-nation-one-people campaign to protect its sovereignty and cultural integrity, which was discriminatory to the ethnic Nepalese, who protested. Their non-compliance, however, resulted in a harsh crackdown by authorities, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.

“Bhutan did not want to become another Sikkim,” said a local resident, explaining why the government did not tolerate the protests.

Bhutan is also rigorous in implementing its laws related to the use of the national language, the national dress code and the uniform architectural standards throughout the country to strengthen its cultural integrity. Bhutanese men are required to wear the gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt, when they go to work or attend a public function. Women have to wear the kira, an ankle-length dress clipped at one shoulder and tied at the waist. Non-compliance can lead to fine
and imprisonment.

 

Brighter Future

One hopeful pastor said he expects the government to officially acknowledge the existence of Christianity in Bhutan in the near future.

“Religious freedom will be good for both Christians and the government,” he said. “If Christians are not officially acknowledged, who will the government go to if it wants to implement an executive decision related to religious communities?”

Explaining the reason for his hope, he recalled an incident in the Punakha area in January, when a house under construction was demolished after rumors that it was used as a church.

“The house owner, a Christian, went to his majesty [King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck] and told him he was not constructing a church but would have worship with other believers on Sundays,” the pastor said. “The king allowed him to build the house.”

He also said that a delegation of Christians met with Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley in May 2009, who reassured them that there would be more freedom soon.

Christianity is gradually growing, but through word-of-mouth – testimonies of those who have received healing from sickness – and not public preaching, he said, adding that Christians needed to understand and be patient with the government, “which cannot and should not make changes or give freedom overnight.”

 

SIDEBAR

Christians’ Skulls, Bones Used for Buddhist Ritual

The ambiguity in Bhutan over the status of Christians has brought with it a new difficulty: A national daily recently reported that at least eight graves of Christians had been exhumed and the skulls and thigh bones extracted for a Buddhist ritual.

Although the report marked the first time the practice had made the news, Christian leaders said more than 100 graves have been dug up as the trade in human bones has been going on for more than five years.

A local resident of the Lamperi area, near Thimphu, identified as Namgay, told the Bhutan Observer that he found eight graves in a “secret forest graveyard” that had been exhumed by hunters of craniums and thigh bone.

“We saw skulls without craniums and a hand sticking out of a grave,” he was quoted as saying in the daily on May 27.

A human skull garners between 5,000 ngultrum (US$105) and 10,000 ngultrum (US$211) in Bhutan, with men’s skulls considered more valuable. The skull of a man affected by leprosy is not considered ideal for purification. Rather, such skulls are considered best for rituals to subdue evil spirits.

In a visit to the graveyard, the Bhutan Observer found at least eight graves freshly dug up. “Hand gloves, khaddar [a coarse homespun cotton cloth], a currency note, a wooden cross, and a wooden hammer lay scattered all over,” it reported.

The daily said the graveyard apparently belonged to the Christian community in Thimphu and nearby areas.

“Christians in the country say that there should be an official recognition that there are Christians in the country, and other things like burial rights will naturally follow,” the report noted.

A local pastor told Compass that since Christians did not have a burial ground, they buried their dead in forests.

“More than 100 bodies have been dug up, even though we have changed several locations for burial,” he said. “I wonder how the traders in human bones discover these locations. Where do we go now?”

Some local residents reportedly believe that a Christian grave brings bad luck.

Damcho Wangchu, a resident of Thinleygang area, told the daily that the area surrounding the graveyard was holy. He attributed all misfortune in the area – including storms, the death of three students and of four others – to the Christian cemetery.

“We never experienced such misfortunes in our gewog [cluster of villages] before,” he said.

The daily explained that the tradition of use of human skulls and thigh bones in Buddhist rituals was as old as Tantric Buddhism itself. “Thoepai Dagpa is a generic name for the text that illustrates the use and study of quality of skulls,” it reported.

Tantric Buddhism, widespread in Bhutan, involves rituals as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations.

An editorial in the same newspaper noted, “Our hunt for the criminal will probably lead us from the unplanned graveyard to the sacred altar.”

Report from Compass Direct News

INDONESIA: NEW BUILDING SITE FOUND FOR BIBLE COLLEGE


Officials promise to buy previous campus site and issue permit for new site.

JAKARTA, May 11 (Compass Direct News) – Officials of the Arastamar School of Theology (SETIA) in Jakarta are considering the purchase of a new campus site after violent protests last July led to the eviction of 1,400 students and staff members.

Indonesian officials on May 1 inspected land for the new campus site and promised to issue a building permit. But SETIA would be required to obtain permission from potential neighbors in Bambu Apus district, East Jakarta, before the school could be built.

Since protests by neighbors of the original campus in Kampung Pulo, some 1,200 remaining staff members and students have moved to three separate emergency locations across Jakarta, in some cases living in leaking tents and holding classes under trees.

In mid-March, SETIA director Matheus Mangentang met with Fajar Panjaitan, assistant to the deputy governor of Jakarta, to discuss the governor’s promise to provide an alternative campus.

At the meeting, the governor’s office promised to purchase the original campus site but stipulated that the city would pay only for the land, not the buildings. The Jakarta official also promised to improve temporary accommodation for the students and issue a building permit for a new campus in a different location.

Deputy Gov. Prijanto, who has only a single name, initially suggested that SETIA move to an empty factory some 60 kilometers (37 miles) away in Cikarang, West Java, but Mangentang refused on the grounds that SETIA would be charged approximately 50 million rupiah (US$4,800) per month in service and security fees.

On Feb. 9 students had gathered in front of the presidential palace to protest the lack of adequate college facilities.

“We are asking the government to take responsibility for finding us a new campus,” a representative of the student council identified only as Herdi told Compass.

About 450 students are living and studying at a Boy Scouts campground in Cibubur, another 250 are in a migrant’s center in Kalimalang and the remaining 500 are in an abandoned West Jakarta mayoral office that lacks basic facilities such as adequate running water and toilets.

Machetes and Acid

Urged on by announcements from a mosque loudspeaker to “drive out the unwanted neighbor,” hundreds of protestors shouting “Allahu-Akbar [“God is greater]” and brandishing machetes, sharpened bamboo and acid had forced the evacuation of staff and students from the SETIA campus in Kampung Pulo village on July 26- 27, following a misunderstanding between students and local residents. Attackers injured at least 20 students, some seriously.

Key among motives for the attack was that area Muslims felt “disturbed” by the presence of the Christian college. They wanted it to be moved to another area.

Following the evacuation, some students were temporarily billeted in church offices, while others slept in the lobby of Indonesia’s parliament building. Officials then moved 600 female students to the BUPERTA Boy Scouts campground, where they were later joined by 100 male students. A further 400 male students were accommodated at a migrants’ center in Bekasi, while 32 post-graduate students were accommodated in a housing complex in Kota Wisata, not far from the BUPERTA campground.

In October, camp managers asked students to vacate the campground for a Boy Scouts’ event. Over 1,000 students from the campground and other locations then moved temporarily to an abandoned mayor’s office in Jakarta, although 450 of those later returned to the campground.

When no attempts were made to begin renovations on the mayor’s office, Mangentang himself hired bricklayers and carpenters to install more toilets, repair damaged ceilings on two floors of the building and erect partitions to create 13 classrooms. But the building still lacks many basic amenities, according to staff members. Students carry well water into the building in large plastic drums for showers, toilets, laundry and cooking.

Fauzi Bowo, governor of Jakarta, had originally promised the students that they could return to their original campus at the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. He then promised to find a site for a new campus and provide an official building permit. When these promises proved slow to materialize, Mangentang insisted that the governor’s office shoulder costs for temporary accommodation.

Report from Compass Direct News

EARTH HOUR: A COLOSSAL WASTE OF TIME???


Earth Hour is to be held this Saturday (March 28) between 8.30 pm and 9.30 pm. All you need to do to take part in Earth Hour is simply turn your lights off for the hour between 8.30 pm and 9.30 pm on March 28.

Earth Hour began as an annual event in Sydney in 2007, when an estimated 2.2 million buildings switched off their lights for an hour. This year Earth Hour is going global for the second year and is giving people the opportunity to ‘vote’ for either the Earth or global warning. By switching off the lights for an hour a person can ‘vote’ for fighting global warning.

Organisers of Earth Hour are hoping some 1 billion people will ‘vote’ for the Earth and hope to be able to give world leaders 1 billion ‘votes’ for the Earth at the Global Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen 2009. The conference is the forum in which world leaders will determine policy to supersede the Kyoto Protocol on Greenhouse Gas reduction.

For more on Earth Hour visit the official website at:

http://www.earthhour.org  

However, is Earth Hour a colossal waste of time? What is really being gained by turning the lights off for an hour once a year? All other electrical devices are still on and a lot of people go for alternative lighting devices that also pollute the environment. Other than awareness of global warming (which I would suggest everyone knows about now and either believes or does not believe – turning off some lights won’t change anyone’s mind on global warming), what does Earth Hour really achieve?

The following Blog post makes for interesting reading:

http://blogs.news.com.au/heraldsun/andrewbolt/index.php/heraldsun/comments/earth_hour_crashes_to_earth/

Am I against reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions? Am I against reducing Global Warming and other associated disasters? Am I anti-environment? The answer to those questions is no! I’m just simply saying Earth Hour is little more than tokenism by most people who are against the Rudd government Greenhouse Gas Emissions reduction policies and other policies that actually aim to make a difference.