Has Australia really had 60,000 undiagnosed COVID-19 cases?


Andrew Hayen, University of Technology Sydney and Gregory Dore, UNSW

A preliminary study, posted online this week by researchers at the Australian National University and elsewhere, estimates 71,000 Australians had COVID-19 by mid-July — 60,000 more than official number of cases diagnosed by that stage.

The study involved testing 2,991 elective surgery patients in ten hospitals across four states, to see whether they had antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The study initially found 41 positive patients (1.4%), but then adjusted for the false positives that would arise due to the imperfect specificity of the antibody test, which the researchers estimate would produce 11 false positives for every 1,000 tests. This yielded an estimated prevalence of 0.28% — or eight “true” positives from the 2,991 people sampled.

The researchers then extrapolated this estimate, including its uncertainty parameters, to the Australian population as a whole. They ultimately concluded the number of Australians with SARS-CoV-2 antibodies — and who have therefore presumably been infected with COVID-19 — is somewhere between zero and 181,050, and most likely about 71,000.

This begs two main questions: should this alter our view on how best to contain the spread of COVID-19, and are there any limitations to the study that we should be aware of?

Let’s begin with the latter question. Here are four key things to consider when interpreting the results.

1. False positives

In countries with very low COVID-19 rates, such as Australia, the key requirement of an antibody test is to be highly specific — that is, to avoid false positives. This is even more important than being highly sensitive (avoiding false negatives).

The antibody test used in the new study reportedly has a specificity of 98.9%, and a sensitivity of 100%. This means, for every 1,000 tests, we can expect 11 false positives and no false negatives.

Imagine a place with high prevalence of the virus, such as New York City, where roughly 20% of people are estimated to have had COVID-19. A sample of 1,000 would, on average, contain 200 COVID-19 positive people, of whom the test would correctly identify all 200, with no false negatives. It would also find 11 people positive who were actually negative, giving an estimated prevalence of 211 out of 1,000, or 21.1% — which is close to the true figure.

Now imagine a sample of 1,000 Australians, with a COVID-19 prevalence of, say, 0.2%.

Just two people in this sample would correctly test positive, but again we would expect the test to deliver 11 false positives. This gives an estimated prevalence of 13 out of 1,000, or 1.3%, which is several times higher than the true figure.




Read more:
Australia’s coronavirus testing rates are some of the best in the world – compare our stats using this interactive


Even if you revise your estimate to account for the expected false positives, as the authors did, we can see how hard it is to estimate low prevalences accurately. The small number of real cases is liable to be lost in the noise.

2. Sample size

A larger sample size could provide improved precision. The small sample size is why the study’s estimated range is so wide. In fact, it stretches all the way down to zero, even though we know there can’t possibly have been zero COVID-19 cases in Australia. But no matter the size of the study group, the false positive problem never really goes away as long as the prevalence is low.

3. Testing method

One solution would have been to retest the samples with currently available commercial antibody tests with specificities of 99.9%. This would have offered a way to overcome the problem with false positives.

The suspicion that the sample included a substantial proportion of false positives is supported by the fact only one COVID-19 positive patient had contact with a known COVID-19 case, and none of those who tested positive had reported any COVID-19-like illness.




Read more:
Why can’t we use antibody tests for diagnosing COVID-19 yet?


4. Extrapolation

There are also questions over how reliably the results can be generalised to the entire Australian public. The study involved people undergoing elective surgery, who may have had different risks of exposure to the virus.

It is hard to say from the available data whether any adjustment was made for variables such as age, sex and state of residence when extrapolating to the wider Australian population.

So what can we say for sure?

What can we determine from this study about the number of people exposed to COVID-19 in Australia? Unfortunately, without a much larger sample, wider sampling of the population, and a more reliable test, we know little more about the prevalence of exposure to COVID-19 than we already did.

This means it would be unwise to use these new findings to claim COVID-19 is any less dangerous or deadly than we thought.

Rather than take these estimates at face value, what we really need is more comprehensive testing of the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, including studies that track this prevalence over time.

In any case, Australia can consider itself fortunate to have low enough case numbers that the issues of false positives becomes a major caveat in interpreting studies such as this. Sadly, in many other places, false positives are buried in a landslide of genuine COVID-19 cases.


Editor’s note: Ian Cockburn, one of the study’s lead authors, told The Conversation false positives are indeed more likely to be a significant factor when trying to estimate low prevalence rates, but described the study as a “best estimate” based on two separate statistical analyses, which both arrived at the same result. He added the research team plans to use further statistical methods to check the study’s results before it is accepted for full publication.

He said the study sample “is not a perfect cross-section” of the population, and the ideal study size would be 6,000-10,000 people, but obtaining blood samples from the general population poses significant logistical and cost obstacles.

He added it can be difficult to verify commercial companies’ claims to have antibody tests with higher specificities, and that patients who register a false positive may also test false positive with another test if it works in the same way.The Conversation

Andrew Hayen, Professor of Biostatistics, University of Technology Sydney and Gregory Dore, Scientia Professor and Head, Viral Hepatitis Clinical Research Program, Kirby Institute, UNSW

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

COVID-19 cases are highest in young adults. We need to partner with them for the health of the whole community



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Philippa Collin, Western Sydney University; Melissa Kang, University of Technology Sydney, and Rachel Skinner, University of Sydney

The World Health Organisation recently warned that people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, who may be unaware they’re infected, are driving the spread of COVID-19.

Australian data confirms coronavirus is more common in younger adults. People aged 20-29 have continually had the highest rates of COVID-19 cases.

To reduce these rates and support young people to play their part in stemming community transmission, we need to understand their experiences during the pandemic.

Less severe, but more prevalent

There’s limited evidence on the physical effects of the disease in young people. But epidemiological data suggests it’s less severe in young adults than older adults, and recovery among people in their 20s and 30s is usually rapid and complete.

The virus may be present for several days before there are any symptoms, and many young people will have few or no symptoms at all.

Of course, there are exceptions. Some young people, particularly those who have underlying health conditions or who smoke, may experience severe illness, with potentially long-term effects on their health.

Even young people with mild cases may have prolonged symptoms that prevent their return to work and normal activities.




Read more:
Young people are anxious about coronavirus. Political leaders need to talk with them, not at them


Because one of the key indications for testing is the presence of symptoms, testing is understandably lower in this age group.

At the same time, everyday activities common to young people — such as working in casualised and frontline jobs, or visiting multiple venues on a night out — may mean an infected person without symptoms inadvertently transmits the virus across different networks.

Recent public health messaging targeting young people portrays them as naïve or lax. But if we’re going to advise and support them effectively, we need a greater appreciation of the indirect effects COVID-19 has on young people — and how they’re responding.

The indirect effects

COVID-19 has radically affected young adults’ work, study, social lives and caring responsibilities.

Importantly, the various restrictions have exacerbated the social and economic inequalities many young people experience.

Among those aged 15-24, 30% were unemployed or underemployed already before COVID-19.

Nearly 50% of young people have experienced housing stress in the past five years — a continuing trend during the pandemic — while youth homelessness has substantially increased in recent years.

Young man lies in bed, looking at thermometer.
Younger people who catch COVID-19 often have mild or no symptoms.
Shutterstock

The OECD has urged governments to take an intergenerational approach to policy making to reduce the long-term social and economic adversities young people could face from deep recession, extreme unemployment and worsening mental illness.

The most disadvantaged are likely to be worst affected, including those young people who already experience barriers to accessing social, psychological and health services.




Read more:
Young people were already struggling before the pandemic. Here are 7 ways to help them navigate a changed world


How are young people responding?

In the community, young people have reported they’re aware of and are trying to adhere to public health directives to avoid catching or spreading the virus.

Their top concern has been the health and welfare of their family and friends, followed by the pandemic’s effects on their study and immediate and long-term employment. Young people are also reporting declines in their mental health, especially feelings of depression and hopelessness.

Young Australians from multicultural backgrounds have raised concerns about unequal access to technology as universities, health services and many workplaces shift to remote and online modes. They also worry about the effect of COVID-19 on their education, increases in domestic violence and discrimination.

A young woman wearing a mask looks at her phone. She is in the supermarket.
Public health messaging is likely to be most effective for young people if it’s designed with them.
Shutterstock

However, young people right across the community are also demonstrating they want to play an active role in the COVID-19 response and recovery, and help others.

They’re leading initiatives to address growing inequalities and inform social and health research and policy; they’re working with advocacy organisations to create relevant COVID-19 resources; and more.

Engaging with young people

Unsurprisingly, many young people are turning off from news media, because they’re feeling fatigued, want to look after their mental health, or because they’re trying to avoid misinformation.

Meanwhile, public health communications to date have been generic, allocated blame or been confusing.

As Australians learn to live with changing or fewer restrictions, governments can start by listening to and communicating respectfully with young people — including those most vulnerable, unaware, or distrustful of government messaging.

While we commend Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews for using videos and memes to share information on his Facebook page, peer-based communication is most likely to engage young people.

Moreover, research on how to achieve adherence with public health directives — such as vaccination — shows messaging must be evidence-based, tailored to the needs of different groups, and directly address their concerns.

Importantly, communications need to be two-way, regular, transparent and respectful.




Read more:
Young people’s mental health deteriorated the most during the pandemic, study finds


Government policy and communications will be more likely to positively influence community behaviours if they’re developed with the people they’re targeting — something the NSW government has started to do.

Governments everywhere should partner with young people to understand their changing contexts and views, and channel these insights, along with latest epidemiology, into youth-centred public health responses. This will be fundamental to addressing the social determinants of health, arresting community spread and protecting the whole community.The Conversation

Philippa Collin, Associate Professor, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University; Melissa Kang, Associate professor, University of Technology Sydney, and Rachel Skinner, Professor in child and adolescent health, University of Sydney

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

First locally-transmitted COVID-19 cases in Australia, as Attorney-General warns drastic legal powers could be used



Twitter

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The coronavirus has moved to a new stage in Australia, with the first two cases of local transmission of the disease.

The NSW government announced a 53-year-old Sydney health worker – who had not recently travelled abroad – had been diagnosed. The other case is the 41-year-old sister of an Iranian man who had arrived in Australia on Saturday. The woman had not travelled to Iran.

Other cases in Australia – now more than 30 – have been people who have come from abroad. These include the third new case announced in NSW on Monday, a man in his 30s, who had recently travelled from Iran.

There has been one death in Australia, a 78-year-old man who had been evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

Health authorities have anticipated the spread of the virus locally, with plans being ramped up to deal with that.

Efforts were being made on Monday to track down passengers who sat near travellers from Iran who have been diagnosed with the virus. There is now a ban on the entry of foreigners coming from Iran.

News of the local transmission comes amid the expectation the Reserve Bank will cut interest rates on Tuesday as the virus scare hits the economy, and panic buying of items such as toilet paper.

Hand sanitisers have been a runaway sales item. The share price of Zoono, a company that makes them, has jumped 70% in under a week.

On Friday the futures market rated the probably of a Tuesday rate cut at just 18%. On Monday it was rating the probability at 100%, with some economists even speculating about the possibility of the cut being double the usual 0.25%.

The Australian share market fell by 0.77%, after a 10% fall in what was the worst week since the global financial financial crisis.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said it was time for people to “give each other a pat on the back” rather than shaking hands. He also suggested a degree of caution when kissing.

In parliament, the government took a series of questions on the virus and its fallout. Attorney-General Christian Porter said it was important for Australians to understand the use of certain powers may become necessary in the months ahead.

Notably among these were changes made in 2015 to the Biosecurity Act, which replaced the Quarantine Act.

COVID-19 had been listed as a human disease for the purposes of this act in January.

“That has a number of very important consequences for Australia and Australians in what will no doubt be challenging months going ahead,” Porter said.

“There are two broad ranges of powers that people may well experience for the first time.

“There is the ability of the government to impose – always based on medical advice, but nevertheless impose – a human biosecurity control order on person or persons who have been exposed to the disease.

“It could require any Australian to give information about people that they’ve contacted or had contact with so that we can trace transmission pathways. It will also mean that Australians could be directed to remain at a particular place or indeed undergo decontamination.”

“Secondly, a very important power that may be experienced for the first time—and that we will be monitoring very carefully—is the declaration of a human health response zone, ” he said.

This was done with the Diamond Princess.

“But it’s very important to understand, going forward, that that is a power that can be used for either localised disease outbreaks in Australia or indeed to restrict individuals from attending places where a large number of people may otherwise choose to gather, such as shopping centres, schools or work.

“These are challenging times going forward, and these will be some of the first times that these important powers may be used,” Porter said.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Article: Persecution Today


The link below is to an article that is fairly timely I think. I post a lot about those suffering persecution around the world. I cannot always be sure how genuine the cases are, whether those being reported about are actually Christians or not, etc. The article linked to below provides a very much needed word of caution.

For more visit:
http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/september/counting-cost-accurately.html

Pakistan: Persecution News Update


The link below is to an article reporting on persecution news from Pakistan, where a number of Christian ‘blaspheming’ cases are being investigated.

For more visit:
http://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/2013/2625175/

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

Christians in Turkey Acquitted of ‘Insulting Turkishness’


But court heavily fines them for dubious conviction of collecting personal data.

ISTANBUL, October 19 (CDN) — After four years of legal battle in a Turkish court, a judge acquitted two Christians of insulting Turkey and its people by spreading Christianity, but not without slapping them with a hefty fine for a spurious charge.

Four years ago this month, Turan Topal, 50, and Hakan Tastan, 41, started a legal battle after gendarmerie officers produced false witnesses to accuse them of spreading their faith and allegedly “insulting Turkishness, the military and Islam.”

At the Silivri court an hour west of Istanbul, Judge Hayrettin Sevim on Thursday (Oct. 14) acquitted the defendants of two charges that they had insulted the Turkish state (Article 301) and that they had insulted its people (Article 216) by spreading Christianity. Sevim cited lack of evidence.

He found them guilty, however, of collecting information on citizens without permission (Article 135) and sentenced them to seven months of imprisonment each. The court ruled that the two men could each pay a 4,500 lira (US$3,170) fine instead of serving time, said their lawyer Haydar Polat.

Tastan expressed mixed feelings about the verdicts.

“For both Turan and I, being found innocent from the accusation that we insulted the Turkish people was the most important thing for us, because we’ve always said we’re proud to be Turks,” Tastan said by telephone. “But it is unjust that they are sentencing us for collecting people’s information.”

At the time of their arrests, Topal and Tastan were volunteers with The Bible Research Center, which has since acquired official association status and is now called The Association for Propagating Knowledge of the Bible. The two men had used contact information that individuals interested in Christianity had volunteered to provide on the association’s website.

Administrators of the association stated openly to local authorities that their goal was to disseminate information about Christianity.

The two men and their lawyer said they will be ready to appeal the unjust decision of the court when they have seen the official statement, which the court should issue within a month. Polat said the appeal process will take over a year.

“Why should we have to continue the legal battle and appeal this?” asked Tastan. “We are not responsible for the information that was collected. So why are they fining us for this? So, we continue our legal adventure.”

Still, he expressed qualified happiness.

“We are free from the charges that we have insulted the Turkish state and the people of Turkey and we’re glad for that, but we are sorry about the court’s sentence,” Tastan said. “We’re happy on one hand, and sorry on the other.”

The court hearing lasted just a few minutes, said Polat.

“The judges came to the court hearing ready with their decision,” Polat said. “Their file was complete, and there was neither other evidence nor witnesses.”

Polat was hesitant to comment on whether the decision to convict the men of collecting private data without permission was because they are Christians. He did underline, however, that the court’s decision to fine the men was unjust, and that they plan to appeal it after the court issues an official written verdict.

“This was the court’s decision,” said Polat, “but we believe this is not fair. This decision is inconsistent with the law.”

 

Christianity on Trial

The initial charges in 2006 against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme” claiming that some Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and making insults against Turkishness, the military and Islam.

In March 2009 the Turkish Ministry of Justice issued a statement claiming that approval to try the two men’s case under the controversial Article 301came in response to the “original” statement by three young men that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam was a primitive and fictitious religion that results in terrorism, and to portray Turks as a “cursed people.”

Two of the three witnesses, however, stated in court that they didn’t even know Topal and Tastan. The third witness never appeared in court. Prosecutors were unable to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms. At the same time, they questioned their right to speak openly about Christianity with others.

Polat and his legal partners had based their defense on the premise that Turkey’s constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.

“This is the point that really needs to be understood,” Polat told Compass last year. “In Turkey, constitutionally speaking, it is not a crime to be a Christian or to disseminate the Christian faith. However, in reality there have been problems.”

The lawyer and the defendants said that prosecuting lawyers gave political dimensions to the case by rendering baseless accusations in a nationalistic light, claiming that missionary activities were carried out by imperialistic countries intending to harm Turkey.

Tastan and Topal became Christians more than 15 years ago and changed their religious identity from Muslim to Christian on their official ID cards.

Initially accompanied by heavy media hype, the case had been led by ultranationalist attorney Kemal Kerincsiz and a team of six other lawyers. Kerincsiz had filed or inspired dozens of Article 301 court cases against writers and intellectuals he accused of insulting the Turkish nation and Islam.

Because of Kerincsiz’s high-level national profile, the first few hearings drew several hundred young nationalist protestors surrounding the Silivri courthouse, under the eye of dozens of armed police. But the case has attracted almost no press attention since Kerincsiz was jailed in January 2008 as a suspect in the overarching conspiracy trials over Ergenekon, a “deep state” operation to destabilize the government led by a cabal of retired generals, politicians and other key figures. The lawyer is accused of an active role in the alleged Ergenekon plot to discredit and overthrow Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party government.

Ergenekon has been implicated in the cases of murdered priest Andreas Santoro, Armenian editor Hrant Dink, and the three Christians in Malatya: Necati Aydin, Ugur Yuksel and Tilmann Geske.

In a separate case, in March of 2009 Tastan and Topal were charged with “illegal collection of funds.” Each paid a fine of 600 Turkish lira (US$360) to a civil court in Istanbul. The verdict could not be appealed in the Turkish legal courts. This ruling referred to the men receiving church offerings without official permission from local authorities.

Report from Compass Direct News

Algerian Christians Acquitted of Eating during Ramadan


Judge throws out case against men arrested during Islamic fasting period.

ISTANBUL, October 5 (CDN) — An Algerian court today acquitted two Christian men of eating during Ramadan in spite of a prosecutor’s demand that they be punished for “insulting Islam.”

Authorities on Aug. 12 arrested Salem Fellak and Hocine Hocini for eating lunch on a private construction site where they were working. Ramadan, Islam’s month of fasting during daylight hours, started this year on Aug. 11.

The incident took place in Ain El-Hammam, a town in the province of Tizi Ouzou about 150 kilometers (93 miles) east of the Algerian capital. Tizi Ouzou is part of Kabylie, an area of Algeria where the country’s Protestant church has grown with relative freedom in recent years.

Officers at a nearby police station saw the two men eating and confronted them for not fasting. When police realized the two men were Christians, they accused them of insulting Islam, according to local French-language press reports.

“I do not apologize for anything, and I regret nothing,” Fellak said before the verdict, according to Dernieres Nouvelles d’Algerie. “I have the right to not fast. I am a Christian, and until found guilty, the Algerian constitution guarantees respect for individual freedoms.”

The Algerian Constitution gives the right to all citizens to practice their faith, although it declares Islam the state religion and prohibits institutions from behavior incompatible with Islamic morality. Proposing other faiths to Muslims is also forbidden.

After police arrested Hocini and Fellak, authorities interrogated them for two hours and “admonished” them, according to a French-language news site. Authorities took them to court, where a state prosecutor questioned them. When the men explained to her that they were Christians, she said that Algeria was a Muslim country with no room for Christians and that they should leave the country, according to a local news site.

Today the judge at the court in Ain El Hamman, however, dismissed the case since “no article [of law] provided for a legal pursuit” against the two Christians, according to the BBC.

A small group of Christians standing on the steps of the courthouse reportedly shouted “Hallelujah!” when they heard the outcome of the case. After the verdict, Fellak said he was happy and that he had done nothing wrong, according to Reuters.

Local media also reported cases of Muslim Algerians arrested for eating during Ramadan.

 

Worshipping without Permit

The charges against the two Christians and a case of four Christians on trial for worshipping without a permit in Tizi Ouzou Province have some wondering what has caused authorities to turn their attention to this small community.

This Sunday (Oct. 10), the four men will appear in court for holding Christian meetings at a residence without permission. One of the men, Mahmoud Yahou, has told a local newspaper, “This story concerns all Christians in our country. We are a community intimidated around the country.”

Yahou cited other recent cases of persecution, including that of Habiba Kouider, who in 2008 was tried for practicing Christianity “without a license.” Her case is still pending. Another Christian, Rachid Muhammad Essaghir, has three court cases against him, all in appeals process since 2008.

In most cases, Christians have been charged under a presidential decree from February 2006 that restricts religious worship to government approved buildings. The decree, known as Ordinance 06-03, also outlaws any attempt to convert Muslims to another faith.

“This law of 2006 is contradictory to the constitution,” said a regional researcher who requested anonymity. “It creates a gray zone in which the government and police have room to act against the church. This law gives permission to the government to condemn believers for their faith or illegal worship even if the constitution guarantees religious freedom.”

Also in Tizi Ouzou city, church leaders who were expanding their building to fit their growing congregation received a letter in August from the governor of the province ordering them to stop all construction and demolish the extension.

Algerian Christians and observers say that the two court cases, along with the order to the Tizi Ouzou church to cease expansion of their building, are unusual because they happened in such a short span of time and because the region is regarded as more tolerant of Christianity.

“Perhaps a new wave of persecution is coming,” said the regional researcher. “It’s difficult to know, but in a few weeks we encountered a few problems.”

An Algerian church leader told Compass the government is finding more subtle ways to pressure Christians.

“I think they don’t want to do anything openly,” said the leader, who requested anonymity. “So they are using opportunities they can find, like not giving authorization to build the church in Tizi Ouzou, [and the men] not fasting during Ramadan.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Court in India Convicts Legislator in Second Murder Case


Manoj Pradhan arrested; three more cases pending against Hindu nationalist.

NEW DELHI, September 10 (CDN) — A Hindu nationalist legislator was arrested yesterday after a court pronounced him guilty of playing a major role in the murder of a Christian during anti-Christian carnage in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district in August 2008.

The Fast Track Court II in Kandhamal convicted Manoj Pradhan of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the murder of a 30-year-old Christian, Bikram Nayak, who succumbed to head injuries two days after an attack by a mob in the Raikia area of Budedi village on Aug. 25, 2008.

Judge Chitta Ranjan Das sentenced Pradhan to six years of rigorous imprisonment for “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code and imposed a fine of 15,500 rupees (US$335) for setting houses ablaze.

Pradhan, who contested and won the April 2009 state assembly election from jail representing Kandhamal’s G. Udayagiri constituency, was not initially accused in the police complaint in Nayak’s murder, but his role emerged during the investigation, according to The Hindu.

One of the primary suspects in violence that followed the assassination of Hindu nationalist leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008, Pradhan was initially arrested in Berhampur city in neighboring Ganjam district in December 2008. The violence began a day after Saraswati’s killing when Hindu nationalist groups blamed Christians for his murder, although Maoists (extreme Marxists) claimed responsibility for it.

In spite of this week’s conviction, the Orissa state unit of the BJP said the case against Pradhan was weak.

“The case is not strong,” Orissa BJP President Jual Oram told Compass by telephone. “Pradhan was merely present at the scene of crime.”

Pradhan was named in at least 12 police complaints concerning murder and arson. But after he won the election, he was released on bail.

This is the 36-year-old Pradhan’s second conviction. On June 29, Kandhamal’s Fast Track Court I sentenced him to seven years in jail in a case concerning the murder of another Christian, Parikhita Nayak, also from Budedi village, who was killed on Aug. 27, 2008. Though not convicted of murder, Pradhan was found guilty of rioting and causing grievous hurt in the Parikhita Nayak case.

The June 29 judgment led to his arrest, but the Orissa High Court granted him bail eight days later.

The BJP will challenge the convictions in a higher court, Oram said.

Last month Kanaka Rekha Nayak, widow of Parikhita Nayak, complained that despite the conviction of Pradhan and an accomplice, they were immediately given bail and continued to roam the area, often intimidating her.

Rekha Nayak was among 43 survivors who on Aug. 22-24 testified in Delhi before the National People’s Tribunal (NPT), a private hearing of victims of the Kandhamal violence organized by the National Solidarity Forum, a confederation of 60 non-profit groups and people’s movements.

Nayak said local politicians, including Pradhan, hit her husband with an axe. Her husband’s body was later chopped into pieces, she recalled as she sobbed during testimony at the tribunal, headed by Justice A.P. Shah, former chief justice of Delhi High Court.

The fast track courts set up especially to hear cases related to the anti-Christian violence have acquitted Pradhan in seven cases for lack of evidence. Three more cases are pending against him.

The state BJP’s Oram said Christians had created “hype” about the cases against Pradhan to “trouble us.” He added, “The state government is not doing anything to arrest and try the killers of the Swami.”

 

Testimony

The NPT tribunal asserted that between August and December 2008, about 2,000 people were “forced to repudiate their Christian faith.”

The tribunal cited government figures asserting that during the violence from August to December 2008, more than 600 villages were ransacked, 5,600 houses were looted and burned, 54,000 people were left homeless, and 38 people were murdered in Kandhamal alone. It also noted that human rights groups estimated that over 100 people were killed, including women, disabled and aged persons and children, and “an un-estimated number suffered severe physical injuries and mental trauma.”

While there were reports of four women being gang-raped, many more victims of sexual assault were believed to have been intimidated into silence, the tribunal concluded.

As many as 295 church buildings and other places of worship, big and small, were destroyed, and 13 schools, colleges, and offices of five non-profit organizations damaged, it said, adding that about 30,000 people were uprooted and living in relief camps, with many of them still displaced.

“More than 10,000 children had their education severely disrupted due to displacement and fear,” it reported. “Today, after two years, the situation has not improved, although the administration time and again claims it is peaceful and has returned to normalcy.”

The Christian community was deliberately targeted by Hindu nationalist groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), the Bajrang Dal and the active members of Bharatiya Janata Party,” the tribunal concluded.

The jury also observed that cries against religious conversions were used as for political mobilization and “to incite horrific forms of violence and discrimination against the Christians” of Dalit (formerly “untouchables” according the caste hierarchy in Hinduism) origin.

“The object is to dominate them and ensure that they never rise above their low caste status and remain subservient to the upper castes,” it added.

The jury accused police of complicity, which “was not an aberration of a few individual police men, but evidence of an institutional bias against the targeted Christian community.”

“The jury is constrained to observe that public officials have colluded in the destruction of evidence, and there is testimony directly implicating the District Collector [the administrative head of a district] in this misdemeanor.”

The jury expressed concern over the lack of mechanisms to protect victims “who have dared to lodge complaints and witnesses who have courageously given evidence in court,” as they “are unable to return to their homes.”

“There is no guarantee of safe passage to and from the courts. They are living in other cities and villages, many of them in hiding, as they apprehend danger to their lives.”

It also noted mental trauma in children.

“There has been no trauma counselling for the affected children and adolescents in Kandhamal. Even today they have nightmares of running in the jungle, with the killers in pursuit, are scared of any loud sound and are afraid of people walking in groups or talking loudly.”

Bollywood lyricist Javed Akhtar, who was part of the tribunal, said that incidents such as the Kandhamal carnage against religious minorities continued to happen with “alarming frequency” in India.

“As citizens of this democracy, we should hang our heads in shame,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News