Not sure about the Pfizer vaccine, now it’s been approved in Australia? You can scratch these 4 concerns straight off your list


Archa Fox, University of Western Australia

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has today provisionally approved Australia’s first COVID vaccine, the Pfizer vaccine, paving the way for its rollout to begin in mid-to-late February among high-risk groups.

Two doses will be required, at least three weeks apart. The vaccine can be given to people 16 years and older.

The Pfizer vaccine is based on mRNA technology, a way of giving the body the genetic instructions it needs to make the coronavirus spike protein. The idea is to prime your immune system to mount a protective immune response if you encounter the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

As this is the first mRNA vaccine to be approved for humans, some people have taken to social media to voice their concern. But you can strike these four myths about mRNA vaccines straight off your list.

Myth 1: they enter your DNA and change your genome

Our genome is the complete set of instructions for making all the molecules our cells need to function. Our genome is made of DNA, a different type of molecule to the RNA in the mRNA vaccines. It’s generally not possible for RNA to become part of our genome.

The myth of mRNA vaccines modifying genomes may have surfaced as some types of RNA retroviruses, such as HIV, contain genes that make a protein called “reverse transcriptase”.

A retrovirus is a type of virus that inserts a copy of its RNA genome into the DNA of a host cell it invades, therefore altering the genome of that cell. Taking the example of HIV, reverse transcriptase can convert the HIV RNA into DNA, so the HIV genes can enter our genome.

But SARS-CoV-2 is not a retrovirus and the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines don’t make reverse transcriptase. They only contain one gene: the gene for the SARS-CoV-2 viral spike protein.




Read more:
Explainer: what is RNA?


So, the only way the COVID-19 vaccine mRNA might enter your DNA is if you were unlucky enough to be infected at precisely the same time with HIV, or another kind of retrovirus, and this virus was active for the few short hours the vaccine mRNA was present in your cells. The chances of this happening are vanishingly small.

Unlike DNA, mRNA doesn’t last long in our cells. The mRNA lasts just long enough to instruct the cell to make viral spike protein, but will then break down, like all the other thousands of mRNA molecules our cells make all the time.

Myth 2: they connect you to the internet

The Pfizer mRNA vaccine contains a piece of mRNA which is coated in a lipid (fatty) droplet. The lipid helps the vaccine enter our cells, as the membrane holding our cells together is also made mostly of lipid. The vaccine and the membrane can fuse easily, depositing the mRNA inside the cell.

Some other companies, developing different mRNA vaccines, are exploring mixing their vaccines with materials called “hydrogels”. The hydrogels might help disperse the vaccine slowly into our cells.

Bioengineers have used similar hydrogels for many years in different ways. For instance, they’ve used them to help stem cells survive after being put inside our bodies.

The use of hydrogels for these stem cell (and other) implants has created a myth they’re needed for electronic implants, which can be linked to the internet. Conspiracy theorists have jumped from implants to hydrogels to mRNA vaccines based on no evidence.

Since Pfizer’s COVID mRNA vaccines don’t include hydrogels as a component (nor do Moderna’s), this is not a concern. Though this wouldn’t be a valid concern even if these vaccines did use hydrogels.




Read more:
How mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna work, why they’re a breakthrough and why they need to be kept so cold


Myth 3: they cause autoimmune disease

Autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis and multiple sclerosis, are chronic (long-term) illnesses where our immune systems attack our own cells.

It’s not entirely clear where this belief has come from, but we don’t have any evidence to suggest mRNA vaccines can cause autoimmune diseases.

The fact mRNA is very short-lived inside our cells indicates this is highly unlikely, because you would usually need a long-lived foreign agent to trigger a chronic autoimmune response.

Interestingly, mRNA vaccines are now being designed and delivered to treat autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis. However, these are still at the early stage of development.

Myth 4: they make you infertile

Recent discussions on Twitter suggested antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein might “cross-react” and also target a protein in the placenta. If the immune system attacks the placenta, as the argument goes, that could make women infertile.

The basis for this idea is that coronavirus spike proteins, including that of SARS-CoV-2, have a very short region of similarity to a protein called syncitin-1 found in human placenta.

That amounts to a short stretch of five or six amino acids, where three or four amino acids are identical between coronavirus spike proteins and syncitin-1. Proteins as long as the spike protein will always share tiny regions of similarity with other human proteins. Our immune system is trained to ignore this.

The chances of making antibodies that cross-react with syncitin-1 are very small.

There’s no evidence antibodies against any coronavirus cause infertility. If coronavirus spike proteins did lead the immune system to attack the placenta, we’d see widespread infertility after common cold seasons, which are caused by a range of viruses, including coronaviruses.

It’s true pregnant women were not included in the clinical trials for the Pfizer vaccine. Excluding this group from clinical trials is standard practice, but many have argued more COVID vaccine trials should include pregnant women.




Read more:
Australia’s vaccine rollout will now start next month. Here’s what we’ll need


All technologies were new once

Of all the vaccine technologies being explored against COVID-19, mRNA vaccines have proved the most efficient in reducing the incidence of severe COVID disease.

However, we still don’t fully understand their long-term safety, as with all new medicines.

The TGA’s approval is valid for two years and it will continue to monitor
the vaccine’s safety both in Australia and overseas.The Conversation

Archa Fox, Associate Professor and ARC Future Fellow, University of Western Australia

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

Not just complacency: why people are reluctant to use COVID-19 contact-tracing apps



Mark Coote/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Farkhondeh Hassandoust, Auckland University of Technology

This week’s announcement of two new COVID-19 vaccine pre-purchase deals is encouraging, but doesn’t mean New Zealanders should become complacent about using the NZ COVID Tracer app during the summer holidays.

The immunisation rollout won’t start until the second quarter of 2021, and the government is encouraging New Zealanders to continue using the app, including the recently upgraded bluetooth function, as part of its plan to manage the pandemic during the holiday period.




Read more:
How to keep COVID-19 at bay during the summer holidays — and help make travel bubbles a reality in 2021


During the past weeks, the number of daily scans has dropped significantly, down from just over 900,000 scans per day at the end of November to fewer than 400,000 in mid-December.

With no active cases of COVID-19 in the commmunity, complacency might be part of the issue in New Zealand, but as our research in the US shows, worries about privacy and trust continue to make people reluctant to use contact-tracing apps.

Concerns about privacy and surveillance

We surveyed 853 people from every state in the US to identify the factors promoting or inhibiting their use of contact-tracing applications. Our survey reveals two seemingly contradictory findings.

Individuals are highly motivated to use contact-tracing apps, for the sake of their own health and that of society as a whole. But the study also found people are concerned about privacy, social disapproval and surveillance.

The findings suggest people’s trust in the data collectors is dependent on the technology features of these apps (for example, information sensitivity and anonymity) and the privacy protection initiatives instigated by the authorities.

With the holiday season just around the corner — and even though New Zealand is currently free of community transmission — our findings are pertinent. New Zealanders will travel more during the summer period, and it is more important than ever to use contact-tracing apps to improve our chances of getting on top of any potential outbreaks as quickly as possible.

How, then, to overcome concerns about privacy and trust and make sure New Zealanders use the upgraded app during summer?

The benefits of adopting contact-tracing apps are mainly in shared public health, and it is important these societal health benefits are emphasised. In order to quell concerns, data collectors (government and businesses) must also offer assurance that people’s real identity will be concealed.

It is the responsibility of the government and the office of the Privacy Commissioner to ensure all personal information is managed appropriately.




Read more:
An Australia–NZ travel bubble needs a unified COVID contact-tracing app. We’re not there


Transparency and data security

Our study also found that factors such as peer and social influence, regulatory pressures and previous experiences with privacy loss underlie people’s readiness to adopt contact-tracing apps.

The findings reveal that people expect regulatory protection if they are to use contact-tracing apps. This confirms the need for laws and regulations with strict penalties for those who collect, use, disclose or decrypt collected data for any purpose other than contact tracing.

The New Zealand government is working with third-party developers to complete the integration of other apps by the end of December to enable the exchange of digital contact-tracing information from different apps and technologies.

The Privacy Commissioner has already endorsed the bluetooth upgrade of the official NZ COVID Tracer app because of its focus on users’ privacy. And the Ministry of Health aims to release the source code for the app so New Zealanders can see how their personal data has been managed.

Throughout the summer, the government and ministry should emphasise the importance of using the contact-tracing app and assure New Zealanders about the security and privacy of their personal data.

Adoption of contact-tracing apps is no silver bullet in the battle against COVID-19, but it is a crucial element in New Zealand’s collective public health response to the global pandemic.The Conversation

Farkhondeh Hassandoust, Lecturer, Auckland University of Technology

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

Australia expresses ‘serious concerns’ about invasive searches of women at Doha airport



Shutterstock

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Australian government has registered “serious concerns” with Qatar about an incident in which female passengers, including Australians, were taken off a flight bound for Australia and subjected to an invasive search.

The incident happened at Hamad international airport in Doha earlier this month after a fetus was discovered in an airport bathroom.

The story was broken by the Seven Network, which reported that “women at the airport, including thirteen Australians, were removed from flights, detained and forced to undergo an inspection in an ambulance on the tarmac.”

According to the report, Qatari authorities forced the women to remove their underwear.

A foreign affairs spokesperson said on Sunday: “The Australian government is aware of concerning reports regarding the treatment of female passengers, including Australian citizens, at Doha (Hamad) airport in Qatar.

“We have formally registered our serious concerns regarding the incident with Qatari authorities and have been assured that detailed and transparent information on the event will be provided soon.”

The matter is being handled by Foreign Minister Marise Payne.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.

Morrison government toughens foreign investment scrutiny to protect ‘national security’


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Morrison government will significantly strengthen its scrutiny of foreign investment to protect sensitive national security technology and information and further ring fence the nation’s critical infrastructure.

It will insert a new “national security test” on bids, in a sweeping overhaul of the foreign investment regime.

The action follows mounting public concern about Chinese investment, although the government – already under harsh criticism from China – will seek to play down suggestions it relates to any one country, and point out it has been a long time in the pipeline.

Planned new legislation will also strengthen compliance provisions to ensure foreign investors follow conditions attached to approvals.

During the pandemic, all foreign investment bids are being scrutinised to ensure unfair advantage is not taken of distressed companies.

But in normal circumstances those under certain thresholds escape examination by the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB), the body that makes recommendations to the treasurer.

While all bids from foreign governments are screened, most private investments under $275 million – or $1.2 billion if the country has a free trade agreement with Australia, as China and a number of other major trading partners do – are not scrutinised.

The government is concerned investments in some very sensitive sectors are escaping screening even when there are national security concerns. Of particular worry is the vulnerability of small and medium sized companies that have specialised expertise, but fall below the threshold in value.

Under the new test, foreign investors will have to notify FIRB if they propose to start or acquire an interest – generally 10% or a position of control – in a “sensitive national security business”.

This will mean all foreign investments in sensitive national security businesses will be examined.

Businesses which raise sensitive national security concerns are those involved in critical infrastructure, including telecommunications, energy, ports and water, as well as those which service defence and national security organisations.

The national security test will also involve new powers.

The treasurer will be able to “call in” an investment before, during or after an acquisition for review if it raises risks which were not picked up earlier.

The treasurer will also have a new “last resort” power enabling them to apply or vary conditions or order disposal of an investment where national security concerns emerge after approval. This last resort power would not be retrospective – it would only apply to future approvals under the revised regime.

The government will release draft legislation next month for consultations. It wants it passed this year, to apply from January 1 next year.

It is estimated the new security arrangements will affect only a very small proportion of total foreign investment.

The tougher compliance measures follow complaints that some foreign investors ignore the conditions that are attached to approved bids. Recently fingers were pointed at Alinta for not implementing conditions about information storage. The company was told to comply.

Increasingly, conditions have been applied to allow bids to pass. In 2018-19, 4149 applications were approved with conditions attached. This was 47.6% of total approvals. By value, more than 80% of investment was approved subject to conditions.

The government says the monitoring and enforcement powers of Treasury and the Australian Taxation Office need expansion because of the extensive use of conditions and “emerging risks caused by global developments and rapid advances in technology”.

It notes that apart from residential property investments, the treasurer’s enforcement powers are limited to taking civil action or seeking a criminal prosecution. This inhibits the government’s ability to respond proportionately, for example to a minor breach.

Under the changes, the government will have a wider range of tools for enforcement, including access to premises to collect information and powers to give directions to investors in order to prevent or address suspected breaches.

While most of the announced changes are about toughening the scrutiny regime, the government will at the same time streamline the approval process for investments that do not raise national interest concerns.

Aware of the need to attract passive investment as part of the post COVID recovery, it will narrow the definition of a foreign government investor to exclude certain passive investments in funds where the investors have no influence over the investment or operational decisions of the entity.,

The government is committing $54 million over four years to step up compliance and monitoring capability. Funding will go to Treasury, the ATO and “relevant agencies such as the Department of Home Affairs”.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the changes were the most significant made to the foreign investment regime since it was introduced in 1975.

“The reforms will ensure that our foreign investment regime is able to respond to emerging risks and global developments,” he said.

“Through the introduction of a new national security test, stronger enforcement powers and enhanced compliance obligations, we will ensure that Australia can continue to benefit from foreign investment while safeguarding our national interest.”

The reforms were developed with the support of FIRB whose chairman David Irvine has a national security background, including as head of ASIO.

Irvine said the package “appropriately addresses increasing risks to the national interest whilst ensuring Australia remains welcoming and open to foreign investment”.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.

The COVIDSafe bill doesn’t go far enough to protect our privacy. Here’s what needs to change


Katharine Kemp, UNSW and Graham Greenleaf, UNSW

The Australian government will need to correct earlier misstatements and improve privacy protections to gain the trust of the millions of Australians being called on to download the COVIDSafe contact tracing app.

The draft Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information) Bill 2020, or the “COVIDSafe bill”, released yesterday, is the first step towards parliamentary legislation providing privacy protections for users of the app.

The COVIDSafe bill includes some significant improvements on the protections offered by federal health minister Greg Hunt’s current determination under the Biosecurity Act, which put rules in place to encourage uptake of the app. However, the bill falls short on other substantial concerns.

Improvements incorporated in the bill

The COVIDSafe bill includes several amendments to the privacy protections originally set out in the determination, which the legislation is intended to replace.

The bill, like the determination, would make it illegal to gather or use data collected by the app for purposes other than those specified. Such an offence would be punishable by up to five years in prison.

Importantly, the bill also permits individuals to take some enforcement action on their own behalf if the privacy protections are breached, rather than relying on the government to bring criminal proceedings. It does this by making a breach of those protections an “interference with privacy” under the Privacy Act. This means users can make a complaint to the federal privacy commissioner.

The bill also improves the kind of consent needed to upload a user’s list of contacts to the central data store, if the user tests positive for COVID-19. Instead of allowing anyone with control of a mobile phone to consent, the bill requires consent from the actual registered COVIDSafe user.

The legislation will also apply to state and territory health officials to cover data accessed for contact tracing purposes, in case they misuse it.




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


Not 1.5 metres, not 15 minutes

A crucial problem with the bill is it allows the government to collect much more personal data than is necessary for contact tracing.

Just before the app’s release, federal services minister Stuart Roberts said the app would only collect data of other app users within 1.5 metres, for at least 15 minutes. He also said when a user tests positive the app would allow the user to consent to the upload of only those contacts.

Neither of these statements is true.

According to the Privacy Impact Assessment of COVIDSafe, the app collects and – with consent of a user who tests positive – uploads to the central data store, data about all other users who came within Bluetooth signal range even for a minute within the preceding 21 days.

While the Department of Health more recently said it would prevent state and territory health authorities from accessing contacts other than those that meet the “risk parameters”, the bill includes no data collection or use restrictions based on the distance or duration of contact.

The government should correct its misstatements and minimise the data collected and decrypted to that which is necessary, to the extent that is technically possible.

An overly narrow definition of protected data

The privacy protections in the bill only apply to certain data. And the definition of that data does not capture critical personal data created and used in the process of COVIDSafe contact tracing.

The bill defines “COVID app data” as data collected or generated through the operation of the app which has been stored on a mobile phone or device. This would include the encrypted contacts stored on a user’s phone.

But if the user tests positive and uploads those encrypted contacts to the national data store, the decrypted records of their contacts over the last 21 days do not clearly fall within that definition. Data transformed or derived from that data by state and territory health officers would also fall outside the definition.

“COVID app data” should be re-defined to expressly include these types of data.

No source code

Ministers have said COVIDSafe’s source code, or at least the parts of it which do not pose “security issues”, would be made available within a fortnight after the app’s release. Yet, there is no sign of this.

The full source code should be made public at least a week prior to the COVIDSafe Act being enacted so experts can identify weaknesses in privacy protections.

The bill also fails to provide any guarantee of independent scientific advice on whether the app is continuing to be of practical benefit, or should be terminated.

Loopholes in the rules against coercion

The bill contains some good protections against coercing people to download or use the COVIDSafe app, but these need to be strengthened, by preventing requirements to disclose installation of the app, and discriminatory conditions. This is especially necessary given various groups, including chambers of commerce, have already proposed (illegal) plans to make participation or entry conditional on app usage.

Some behavioural economists have proposed making government payments, tax break or other financial rewards dependent on individuals using the app. The bill should make clear that no discount, payment or other financial incentive may be conditional on a person downloading or using the app.

The government must abide by its promise that use of the COVIDSafe app is voluntary. Coercion or “pseudo-voluntary” agreement should not be used to circumvent this.

‘Google knows everything about you’ doesn’t cut it

Many have argued Australians who do not yet trust the COVIDSafe app should download it anyway since Google, Facebook, Uber or Amazon already “know far more about you”. But the fact that some entities are being investigated for data practices which disadvantage consumers is not a reason to diminish the need for privacy protections.

The harms from government invasions of privacy have even more dramatic and immediate impacts on our liberty.

Parliament will debate the COVIDSafe Bill in the sitting expected to start May 12, and a Senate Committee will continue to investigate it. Many are likely to wait for improved protections in the final legislation before making the choice to opt in.




Read more:
Coronavirus contact-tracing apps: most of us won’t cooperate unless everyone does


The Conversation


Katharine Kemp, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, UNSW, and Academic Lead, UNSW Grand Challenge on Trust, UNSW and Graham Greenleaf, Professor of Law and Information Systems, UNSW

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

US approach to security is deeply troubling – and it’s not just about Trump



File 20180208 74512 1ctlotn.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Is Donald Trump really the one setting the direction of US security policy?
Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Joseph Camilleri, La Trobe University

Media coverage of Donald Trump’s presidency has fixated on his outlandish, off-the-cuff tweets, his ill-conceived and inflammatory positions on immigration, race relations and climate change, his “America First” mantra, and his unrelenting attacks on the various inquiries into collusion with Russia.

The image created has been of a man who, though ignorant, vulgar and deeply polarising, struts the political stage. But is Trump really setting the direction of US security policy?

Mounting evidence suggests the theatre around Trump is so mesmerising that we have lost sight of how the US security establishment wields power – and to what end.

The picture is becoming clear

The security establishment is no monolith, nor does it function as a conspiratorial cabal. Personalities and institutional interests compete for attention and resources.

Yet it has a reasonably coherent mindset, which has its origins in the early days of the Cold War. It is a sense of belonging to a club that connects first and foremost the Department of Defence, various arms of the intelligence community and law enforcement agencies, but also significant voices in other key government departments, areas of the judiciary and Congress, and some of America’s most influential think-tanks and corporations – in particular the leading arms manufacturers.

How this security establishment is handling the Trump phenomenon is an intriguing story, highly complex, and still unfolding. However, several pieces of the jigsaw are beginning to fall into place. Three merit special attention:

  • the competition for influence within the Trump administration

  • the Russia investigation

  • the unmistakable shift in US strategic planning.

Taken together these form a picture of a political and military elite intent on maintaining control of US security policy. They feel the need to immunise it from Trump’s erratic behaviour and his supposedly pro-Russian inclinations, and revive a Cold War mindset that views Russia and China as major adversaries.

The battle for influence

Though Trump and the security establishment may be suspicious of one another, there is also common ground. They disagree not about placing “America first”, but about how this should be done.

The security establishment prefers a carefully devised, longer-term strategy and a less confrontational approach toward friends and allies. It sees value in continuing to extol the virtues of free trade and democracy, though it does not necessarily practise what it preaches.

And it is generally suspicious of personal deal-making – especially where this involves Russia – to which Trump is drawn by instinct, and commercial interest and experience.

The security establishment has therefore made it a priority to gain influence within the administration. It took no more than six months for reliable establishment figures to be firmly in the saddle: Jim Mattis as defence secretary, John Kelly as White House chief-of-staff and H.R. McMaster as national security adviser.

Key Trump campaign advisers thought to have cultivated links with Russia or be otherwise unreliable – including Michael Flynn (whom Trump initially appointed as national security adviser), George Papadopoulos, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Stephen Bannon and even Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner – have been gently or not-so-gently eased out of their previously influential roles.

Trump himself is seen at best as an unknown quantity, and at worst prone to dangerous illusions about the prospects of cultivating a fruitful personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Behind the lurid accusations of Russian meddling in the US presidential election and alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, and more recently behind the claims and counterclaims of obstruction of justice by the Trump administration, we can now discern a far more significant jostling for control of US policy.

The ‘new’ Russian threat

The Russia investigations being conducted by congressional committees and by special counsel Robert Mueller are clearly designed to put Trump on the defensive. Congressional Democrats are doing all they can to prolong these inquiries – in some cases with the support of senior Republican senators close to the intelligence community.

Hundreds of witnesses have already given evidence to these inquiries. Many more are expected to appear. And in public comments and her recently published memoir, Hillary Clinton, well known for her antipathy to Putin and his reassertion of Russian influence, has been at pains to identify Russia’s meddling in the election as a key factor in her defeat.

Yet the hard evidence so far produced to support the charges of Russian interference has been scant to say the least.

Putin and his underlings are no angels. But as journalist Aaron Mate has argued:

In Russiagate, unverified claims are reported with little to no scepticism … developments are cherry-picked and overhyped, while countervailing ones are minimised or ignored. Front-page headlines advertise explosive and incriminating developments, only to often be undermined by the article’s content, or retracted entirely.

Whatever the outcome of these various inquiries, one thing is clear. The security establishment has concluded that a resurgent Russia needs to be contained and that any advocacy of dialogue with it must be nipped in the bud.

Allegations of Russian interference in the politics of the US and other Western countries are part of a larger strategy that aims to magnify the threat Russia poses and to thwart any intention on Trump’s part to reset the relationship.

Donald Trump has been keen to offer a hand of friendship to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Reuters/Carlos Barria

Back to the Cold War

The national defence strategy Mattis recently unveiled delivers a stark message. Countering China’s rise and Russia’s resurgence are now at the heart of US policy. The Cold War outlook is back with a vengeance.

To this end, the US military will confront its adversaries across the spectrum of conflicts – mainly in Europe and the Indo-Pacific region, but without neglecting the Middle East.

American armed forces will modernise and build its readiness for future conflicts and consolidate military ties with allies and partners around the world. But conspicuously absent is any notion of neo-isolationism or renewed dialogue with Russia – both of which featured prominently during Trump’s presidential campaign.

The national defence strategy should, in any case, be read in conjunction with the national security strategy released in December 2017 and the more recent nuclear posture review released last week.

The shift in US strategic priorities, which is well under way, will affect all aspects of defence budgeting, weapons development and force management. Training is already focused on high-intensity conflict with major adversaries. Heavily armed deployments are stationed continuously in Europe and across East and Central Asia.

The plan is to modernise all three arms of the US nuclear arsenal – land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers and submarine-launched ballistic missiles – and design low-yield nuclear weapons that make them more readily usable. In other words, the US is boosting its capacity to escalate non-nuclear conflicts into nuclear war, thereby lowering the nuclear threshold.

Trump’s rhetoric of “fire and fury” is at first sight in accord with these developments. Whether he fully understands them is another matter.

The ConversationWe may not much like what Trump says or wants to do. But even more troubling is the US security establishment’s vision of the future. For US allies, not least Australia, it spells danger and much heartache.

Joseph Camilleri, Emeritus Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

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

Latest Persecution News – 05 May 2012


Burma Reforms Offer No Respite for Ethnic Christians

The following article reports on the latest news of persecution in Myanmar/Burma, where concerns remain for internally displaced people.

http://www.compassdirect.org/english/country/burma/article_1527548.html

 

The articles linked to above are by Compass Direct News and  relate to persecution of Christians around the world. Please keep in mind that the definition of ‘Christian’ used by Compass Direct News is inclusive of some that would not be included in a definition of Christian that I would use or would be used by other Reformed Christians. The articles do however present an indication of persecution being faced by Christians around the world.

Iran: Media Plays Role in Persecution of Christians


The following article is from the Christian Telegraph and concerns the role the Iranian media plays in the persecution of Christians.

Read the article at:
http://www.christiantelegraph.com/issue13000.html

 

Pornography in the Church: Concerns Raised


The article below raises concerns about the level of pornography in the church and the consequences of it. I believe there are real reasons for concern and it is something we all need to address as Christians.

For more see:
http://www.christiantelegraph.com/issue12979.html

 

Legal Status Foreseen for Christianity in Buddhist Bhutan


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News