Morrison brings his own man in to head the Prime Minister’s department


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Scott Morrison has appointed his one-time chief of staff Phil Gaetjens to head the prime minister’s department. He replaces Martin Parkinson, who finds himself out of a top public service job for the second time under the Coalition government.

Gaetjens has most recently been secretary of the Treasury, a position to which he was appointed when Morrison was treasurer.

Morrison told a news conference: “Following the election, the secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet and I have agreed that it is an opportune time for new leadership of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet”.

Parkinson, a highly respected career public servant, was sacked as Treasury secretary by the Abbott government, and brought back to the public service as head of the prime minister’s department by Malcolm Turnbull. His current contract ran until early 2021.

He said in a statement to departmental staff on Thursday: “This timing works for me personally and allows the PM to make a transition to a secretary who will be able to support him through the full parliamentary term”.

He was quoted in Thursday’s The Australian as saying, “Absolutely I would not want anyone to think there was anything about my relationship with the Prime Minister that was leading me to leave”.

Although prime ministerial sources dispute that Parkinson was pushed, it had been rumoured since the election that Morrison wanted a change at the top of his department.

Gaetjens’ public service career appeared doomed only months ago when a Labor government seemed likely. Then-shadow treasurer Chris Bowen had criticised his appointment as political and made it clear he would be removed under a Shorten government.

The new head of Treasury will be Steven Kennedy, who is now secretary of the infrastructure department.

Earlier Kennedy was a deputy secretary in the prime minister’s department. In that position, he was in charge of innovation and transformation, as well as leading work on cities, regulatory reform, public data and digital innovation. He also served in the office of Julia Gillard when she was prime minister, seconded as the director of cabinet and government business and senior economic adviser.

Morrison pointed out both Gaetjens – who was also Peter Costello’s chief of staff – and Kennedy had had experience in the political realm, noting that while Gaetjens had worked on the Coalition side Kennedy had worked on the Labor side.

The PM was ready for a question suggesting the choice of Gaetjens would be seen as politicisation of the public service, reeling off appointments Labor had made of people who had worked in the political arena.

Morrison left the way open for further shake ups at the top of the service. “I will always reserve that right to make further changes where I believe they are necessary. I think these are the ones that are necessary right now”. There will be an acting secretary in the Infrastructure department for the time being.

Morrison is Minister for the Public Service and has strong ideas on how it should operate. At his news conference he once again stressed the emphasis he is placing on its responsibility for efficient implementation.

He summed up his attitude: “When it comes to the public service, my view is to respect and expect”.

Asked about the service’s role in giving advice, he said, “It is the job of the public service to advise you of the challenges that may present to a government in implementing its agenda. That is the advisory role of the public service. […] But the government sets policy. The government is the one that goes to the people and sets out an agenda, as we have”.

Parkinson in his statement to his departmental staff told them: “I want to continue to encourage you to have a view, be curious, understand what is happening at the forefront of policy and policy-related research, engage widely with stakeholders from all parts of the community, and be resolutely committed to advocating for truly evidence-based policy”.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.

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The trouble with Big W: don’t blame online for killing discount department stores


Gary Mortimer, Queensland University of Technology

After weeks of speculation, Woolworths has confirmed it will close 30 of its Big W stores in Australia, as well as two distribution centres. This represents about 16% of its 183-strong network.

The obvious culprit, and the one identified by many analysts, is online shopping.

As one industry analyst explained: “The physical department store footprint is likely to continue to shrink as online sales penetration increases further.”

Online shopping is certainly a factor, but it is not the primary reason for Big W’s troubles.

Though online shopping in the department and variety stores category is growing fast (by 29.6% in 2018 according to the NAB Online Retail Sales Index, the total amount of money spent online by Australian shoppers – A$28.8 billion – is still only about about 9% of what is spent in traditional bricks-and-mortar stores.


Online retail sales growth by industry in the 12 months to December 2018,
NAB Online Retail Sales Index

More important to Big W’s woes is the growth of the so-called category killers, which are disrupting the entire discount department store business model. It a threat to which Big W has failed to respond with the same agility of rival Kmart.

Departed departments

If you’re old enough you may remember getting your wall paint mixed in the Big W hardware department, or buying car accessories from its automotive department. There was also a large “sight and sound” department filled with televisions, sound systems, videos and CDs. Discount department stores truly lived up to the idea of a variety store.

‘You know the price is low, everyday’: A television advertisement for Big W in 1994.

But the profitability of all these market segments for department stores has been eroded by the growth of “category killers” – retailers specialising in the same product categories.

Examples include Office Works for office supplies, Rebel for sports equipment, JB Hi-Fi for audiovisual, Super Cheap Auto for car parts, and Bunnings for hardware. All have taken market share from the discounters. These stores compete on price and have superior range, and shoppers trust the expertise of staff working in a specialist shop.

Speed of change

The popularity of category killers explains in large part the stagnant sales and talk of store closures throughout the department store segment.

Harris Scarfe and Best and Less are reportedly struggling. The Reject Shop’s net profit for the first half fell from an expected A$17 million to less than A$11 million.
David Jones’ half-year profit fell 39% to A$36 million. Myer reported a 2.8% drop in total sales for the same time frame.




Read more:
What does the future hold for our traditional department stores?


Wesfarmers expects earnings from its department store brands Kmart and Target to fall about 8% this financial year. Eight Target stores closed during the first half of the financial year, with another six closures expected by the end of June.

Cutting losses

Kmart is considered Australia’s discount department store “darling”. A decade ago it was on life support. Under the direction of chief executive Guy Russo it doubled it profits by 2015.

A key to the turnaround was recognition it needed to quickly reduce or exit categories it could not compete in, such as hardware, automotive, fishing, consumer electronics and sporting goods. It has turned to homeware, soft furnishings, manchester and kitchenware.

There appears no such swiftness in Big W’s moves.

Big W’s chief executive from January to November 2016, Sally MacDonald, reportedly wanted to closes stores and make other major changes but was thwarted by the board of Woolworths Group, owner of Big W.

Such differences in strategic vision explain why MacDonald left the role within the year.

This process of “right-sizing” therefore seems long overdue. To what extent it makes Woolworths a sustainable business, however, will depend on future response to changing circumstances.

What is certain is that discount department stores aren’t what they used to be; and if they want to be around in future, they probably can’t be what they are now.The Conversation

Gary Mortimer, Associate Professor in Marketing and Consumer Behaviour, Queensland University of Technology

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

New Home Affairs department should prompt review of Australia’s human rights performance



File 20170718 21784 ivgrgy

AAP/Lukas Coch

Amy Maguire, University of Newcastle

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has just announced the creation of a new “super-ministry”, modelled on the UK Home Office. By the end of 2018, Australia will have a new Department of Home Affairs.

This change consolidates responsibility for all security agencies within a single portfolio. Peter Dutton, currently immigration minister, will head the proposed department.

Dutton gains responsibility for the Australian Federal Police from Justice Minister Michael Keenan. He also adds responsibility for ASIO, previously under the portfolio of Attorney-General George Brandis. As home affairs minister, Dutton will retain responsibility for immigration and border protection.

Announcing the change, Turnbull and Brandis went to considerable effort to note the attorney-general’s continued significance, despite his loss of responsibility for intelligence. Both emphasised that the attorney-general would gain responsibility for some oversight bodies previously within the prime minister’s portfolio.

According to Turnbull, the new arrangements will ensure stronger oversight of security matters to balance protection for civil liberties and freedoms.

What does this reform mean for people subject to Australia’s immigration system?

The comments of the four ministers at today’s press conference were revealing in many ways.

One group of people – refugees and asylum seekers – were completely absent from the ministers’ remarks. This raises questions regarding the meaning of the changes for these particularly vulnerable people, who remain subject to the powers of the home affairs minister.

Brandis said the reforms are significant because, for the first time, a senior cabinet minister will have as his exclusive focus the national security of Australia. That is, the home affairs minister’s sole focus will be national security and border security.

Dutton, preparing to assume wide-ranging new powers, reflected on his ministry’s success in stopping and turning back boats. According to Dutton, without integrity in the immigration and border protection system, “we can’t keep our country safe”.

And Keenan celebrated the government’s novel use of the immigration system to further its national security priorities.

The sum of these propositions is a continued linking of people seeking asylum with the notion of a threat to Australia’s integrity and security. Today’s announcement failed to show care or responsibility for the dehumanising impact of this strategy.

Instead, Dutton takes on a considerably expanded portfolio, despite extensive critique regarding his efforts to expand already very broad powers.

Australia’s bid for the UN Human Rights Council

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was absent from today’s announcement. She is currently visiting India and Sri Lanka.

Her opposition to the creation of the new super-ministry has been widely reported.

Until today’s press conference, Brandis was also on record as opposing the creation of a super-ministry. This may explain the emphasis Turnbull placed on the oversight role of the attorney-general for “ensuring governments act lawfully and justly”.

Others will consider whether this change is called for in the sense of enhancing Australia’s security capacity or performance. But today’s announcement must also be assessed in the context of Australia’s human rights standing.

Bishop and Brandis have taken primary responsibility for promoting Australia’s current bid for election to the UN Human Rights Council. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia is the ideal candidate for a two-year term on the council, as it has been – and continues to be – an “international human rights leader”.

The government has taken steps to demonstrate Australia’s commitment to human rights, in support of its campaign.

For example, in February, Brandis announced that Australia would adopt the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT). OPCAT aims to improve oversight of international standards at the domestic level. Its adoption in Australia will enable access for independent inspection agencies to Australian prisons and detention centres.

And, fortunately for Australia, France recently withdrew as a candidate. Although an election will still be held in October this year, Bishop is now confident that Australia and Spain will be elected unopposed to the two available seats for their regional grouping.

Regardless of the likelihood of its election, however, does today’s shift in the national security context support the legitimacy of Australia’s bid for election to the Human Rights Council?

In launching Australia’s bid, Bishop described human rights as “national values deeply embedded in Australian society”. Brandis described Australia’s candidacy as:

… the most natural thing in the world for a country which – at its core – is a nation built on a belief in, and a commitment to, the human rights of all – the human rights of all Australians and the human rights of all the peoples of the world.

Such characterisations are widely disputed by domestic and international commentary, which tests Australia’s performance against its international legal obligations.

Notably, the people ignored in today’s announcement – those seeking asylum from persecution in their home countries – have suffered human rights abuses in Australia’s immigration system.

It is difficult to see how the consolidation of far-reaching security powers in a single ministry will promote human rights. Outgoing Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs has already identified expanding executive power as a threat to democracy and human rights.

While the protection of the Australian community from terror threats is an undeniable and legitimate priority for any government, lawyers must oversee the coming reforms to determine whether they further threaten the delicate balance between safety and security on one hand, and freedom and rights on the other.

Australia’s model for these reforms, the UK Home Office, hardly has a stellar human rights record. It has been recently criticised for “making border guards of doctors”. Its officials have been given incentives for reaching asylum seeker rejection targets.

And in June this year, UK Prime Minister Theresa May demanded expanded anti-terror powers for government. She said:

… if human rights laws stop us from doing it, we will change those laws so we can do it.

The ConversationThe human rights implications of today’s announcement must be carefully monitored, particularly considering the lack of comprehensive human rights protection in Australian law.

Amy Maguire, Senior Lecturer in International Law and Human Rights, University of Newcastle

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

Malaysian Christians Seek to End Restrictions on Malay Bibles


Federation calls for removal of ‘every impediment’ to importing and printing Scripture.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, April 6 (CDN) — Christian importers of Bibles that Malaysian officials detained are balking at conditions the government has imposed for their release, such as defacement of the sacred books with official stamps.

The Home Ministry stamped the words, “This Good News [Malay] Bible is for use by Christians only” on 5,100 Bibles without consulting the importer, the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM), which initially refused to collect them as it had neither accepted nor agreed to the conditions. The Home Ministry applied the stamp a day after the government on March 15 issued a release order for the Bibles, which had been detained in Port Klang, 38 kilometers (24 miles) southwest of Kuala Lumpur, since March 20, 2009.

Another 30,000 Bibles detained since Jan. 12 on the island of Borneo remain in port after the Sarawak state Home Ministry told the local chapter of Gideons International that it could collect them if the organization would put the stamp on them. Gideons has thus far declined to do so, and a spokesman said yesterday (April 5) that officials had already defaced the books with the stamp.

The government issued letters of release to both organizations on March 15 under the condition that the books bear the stamp, “Reminder: This Good News [Malay] Bible is for use by Christians only. By order of the Home Minister,” and that the covers must carry a serial number, the official seal of the department and a date.

The Home Ministry’s stamping of the BSM Bibles without the organization’s permission came under fire from the Christian community. In a statement issued on March 17, Bishop Ng Moon Hing, chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), described the Home Ministry’s action as desecration.

“[The] new conditions imposed on the release of the impounded Bibles … is wholly unacceptable to us,” he added.

Ng described the conditions imposed by the Home Ministry as tantamount to treating the Malay Bible as a “restricted item” and subjecting the word of God to the control of man. In response, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has said the act of stamping and serialization was standard protocol.

 

Government Overtures

In the weeks following the March 15 release order, the government made several attempts to try to appease the Christian community through Idris Jala, a Christian from Sarawak state and a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.

Idris issued the government’s first statement on March 22, explaining that officials had reduced earlier conditions imposed by the Home Ministry to require only the words, “For Christianity” to be stamped on the covers of the Bible in font type Arial, size 16, in bold.

Idris informed BSM that the Bibles could be collected in their present state or arrangements could be made to have stickers with the words “For Christianity” pasted over the imprint of the stamps made by the Home Ministry officials. In the event that this was not acceptable, the minister pointed out that BSM had the option of having the whole consignment replaced, since the government had received an offer from Christian donors who were prepared to bear the full cost of purchasing new Bibles.

In response, the CFM issued a statement on March 30 saying, “The offer made does address the substantive issues,” and called on the government “to remove every impediment, whether legal or administrative, to the importation, publication, distribution and use of the [Malay Bible] and indeed to protect and defend our right to use the [Malay Bible].”

Bishop Ng, however, left it to the two importers to decide whether to collect the Bibles based on their specific circumstances.

On March 31, BSM collected the mishandled Bibles “to prevent the possibility of further acts of desecration or disrespect.” In a press statement, BSM officials explained that the copies cannot be sold but “will be respectfully preserved as museum pieces and as a heritage for the Christian Church in Malaysia.” The organization also made it clear that it will only accept compensation from the Home Ministry and not from “Christian donors,” a term it viewed suspiciously.

On Saturday (April 2), Idris issued a 10-point statement to try to resolve the impasse. Significantly, this latest overture by the government included the lifting of present restrictions to allow for the local printing and importation of Malay and other indigenous-language Bibles into the country.

In Sarawak and Sabah, there would be no conditions attached to Bibles printed locally or imported. There also would be no prohibitions and restrictions on residents of these two states carrying such Bibles to other states. A significant 64 percent of Malaysian Christians are indigenous people from Sabah and Sarawak states who use the Malay language in their daily life, and having the Bible in the Malay language is considered critical to the practice of their Christian faith.

In the case of West Malaysia, however, in view of its larger Muslim population, the government imposed the condition that the Bibles must have the words “Christian publication” and the sign of the cross printed on the front covers.

 

Christian Response

Most Christians responded to this latest overture with caution. Many remained skeptical, seeing it as a politically motivated move in view of Sarawak state elections on April 16. Nearly half of Sarawak’s population is Christian.

Bolly Lapok, an Anglican priest, told the online news agency Malaysian Insider, “It’s an assurance, but we have been given such assurances before.” BSM General-Secretary the Rev. Simon Wong reportedly expressed the same sentiments, saying the Home Ministry already has a record of breaking its word.

The Rev. Thomas Phillips of the Mar Thoma Church, who is also president of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism, questioned the timing of the proposal: “Why, after all these years?”

The youth wing of the Council of Churches rejected the proposal outright, expressing fears that the government was trying to “buy them over” for the Sarawak election, and that it would go back on its word after that.

Bishop Paul Tan, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, called the proposal an “insidious tactic of ‘divide and rule,’” referring to its different requirements imposed on Malaysians separated by the South China Sea. Dr. Ng Kam Weng, research director at Kairos Research Centre, stressed that the proposal “does not address the root problem of the present crisis, i.e. the Allah issue.”

 

Muslim Reactions

The 10-point proposal has also drawn the ire of Muslim groups, who view it as the government caving in to Christian pressure.

Perak Mufti Harussani Zakaria expressed his disappointment, reportedly saying, “If the government does this, just cancel the law,” in reference to various state Islamic enactments that prohibit the use of the word “Allah” and other so-called Islamic terms that led to the banning of the Malay Bible. Malay Bibles have not been allowed to be printed locally for fear that they will utilize “prohibited” words.

The Muslim Organizations in Defense of Islam (Pembela) threatened to challenge the 10-point proposal in court if it was not reviewed in consultation with Muslim representatives.

On the same day Pembela issued its statement, the government seemed to have retracted its earlier commitment. The Home Minister reportedly said talks on the Malay Bibles were still ongoing despite Idris’ 10-point proposal, which purportedly represents the Cabinet’s decision.

As a result, James Redas Noel of the Gideons said yesterday (April 5) that he was confused by the mixed messages coming from the government and will not make a decision on whether to collect the Bibles until he had consulted church leaders on the matter, according to the Malaysian Insider.

The issue with the Malay Bibles is closely tied to the dispute over use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims.

In a controversial court ruling on Dec. 31, 2009, judge Lau Bee Lan had allowed The Herald, a Catholic newspaper, to use “Allah” for God in the Malay section of its multilingual newspaper.

The Home Ministry filed an appeal against this decision on Jan. 4, 2010. To date, there is no indication as to when the case will be heard.

Christians make up more than 9 percent of Malaysia’s nearly 28 million people, according to Operation World.

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

Two Indian Christians Languish in Saudi Prison


‘Religious police’ raid apartment; no official charges.

LOS ANGELES, March 28 (CDN) — Friends and family of two Indian Christians arrested after a prayer meeting in Saudi Arabia in January have tried in vain to secure their release.

The two Christians were incarcerated for attending the prayer meeting with other Indian nationals and accused of converting Muslims to Christianity, though the government has not produced formal charges, sources said.

Yohan Nese, 31 and Vasantha Sekhar Vara, 28, were arrested on Jan. 21 when mutaween (religious police) raided an apartment where the two had lingered after attending the prayer meeting. Religious police interrogated and beat them to the point that they suffered injuries, according to sources. During this time, religious police who were cursing at them allegedly tore up and trampled on Bibles and Christian material they had confiscated, said a source who spoke to the men.

Authorities asked them how many Christian groups and pastors there are in Saudi Arabia and Riyadh and asked their nationalities. The religious police also put pressure on the two to convert to Islam, according to sources.

The next morning, Jan. 22, authorities took the two Christians to the Religious Court in Riyadh. The court sentenced them to 45 days in prison. At 2 p.m., police filed a case at the local civil police station, according to a source who requested anonymity.

To date the Christian Indians have been in prison for 67 days. Their family and friends say they still have not been able to obtain a document with official charges but know from the prisoners that the charges are religious in nature, according to the source. At the time of their detention, the Christians were not engaging in religious activities.

On Jan. 22, 15 mutaween in civilian clothes came back to the apartment they had raided the previous day, destroyed valuable items and wrote Islamic slogans on the walls with spray paint, the source said.

Nese and Vara’s situation in prison is “horrible,” said the source. The two men are cramped in a prison cell with only enough room to stand.

“There is no place to even sit,” said the source. “Only two hours a day they are sleeping in shifts. When brother Yohan is sleeping, brother Sekhar needs to stand, and when brother Sekhar wants to sleep, brother Yohan needs to stand. They have been doing this for more than a month. I don’t know how many more days they have to continue this.”

Since the arrest, other Christians have been too frightened to meet for prayer.

One week after his arrest, Vara was able to use a phone to call his family and pastor in India. His wife, Sandhya Vara, who is expecting their first child in three months, said she has not heard from him since.

“There were no Muslims in their prayer meeting, but they are accusing them of converting Muslims into Christians,” she told Compass by phone. “We got married eight months ago, but he’s very far from me now and he’s in very much trouble, and I’m six months pregnant.”

She and his pastor in India have communicated numerous times with the Indian embassy but have received no response.

“I have been complaining to the Indian embassy,” she said. “They cannot call me or give me any information. There is no help. So many times I informed them and they cannot give any reply and cannot take any action.”

Vara had worked in Saudi Arabia for more than seven years. Last summer he came to India and got married, returning on Jan. 9 to his post in Riyadh, where he worked as a supervisor for a catering company.

“Vasantha is from my church,” said his pastor in India, Ajay Kumar Jeldi. “He is very God-fearing, good, prayerful, supporting the pastor and working for the youth.”

The morning of his arrest, Vara called Pastor Jeldi and told him he planned to go to the evening prayer meeting in Riyadh. After the meeting, Vara, Nese and four other unidentified Christians lingered at the flat where the gathering had taken place. At around 7:30 p.m. two mutaween in plainclothes and one policeman in uniform raided the apartment.

On the phone with his pastor back in India, Vara said he was in prison for religious reasons and that he had been pressured to convert to Islam, but that he had refused.

“If I have to die for my God, I will die for him here,” he told Pastor Jeldi. “God will help me.”

The pastor said that in his sole conversation with him a week after his detention, Vara requested prayers for his release.

Typically in Saudi Arabia, a foreign worker’s documents remain with the employers who sponsor them in order for them to work in the country. Saudi employers are typically the only ones who can secure their employees’ release on bail.

“Only their sponsors can bring them out,” Pastor Jeldi said. “He has the right to bring him out, and no one else has the right to go and pay the bail or anything. Only the sponsor can have that responsibility.”

Since his arrest, Vara’s employer has handed his passport to local authorities and told them he is no longer responsible for him, according to the anonymous source.

“He doesn’t want him to work in his company anymore,” said the source.

The Saudi “religious police” or Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice (CPVPV) is a government entity that includes 5,000 field officers and 10,000 employees, along with hundreds of “unofficial” volunteers who take it upon themselves to carry out the CPVPV’s mandate, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“Despite the fact that the CPVPV is not allowed to engage in surveillance, detain individuals for more than 24 hours, arrest individuals without police accompaniment, or carry out any kind of punishment, its members have been accused in recent years of killing, beating, whipping, detaining, and otherwise harassing individuals,” the commission stated.

In the raid, authorities confiscated anything of value in the apartment, including two musical keyboards, a guitar, two sound boxes, a sound mixer, four microphones, music stands, power extension boxes, a laptop, mobile phone chargers and a whiteboard. They also confiscated 25 Bibles and other Christian materials, the source said.

The other Indian Christians at the apartment escaped.

The anonymous source said he has informed the Embassy of India in Riyadh of their arrest numerous times.

“I have lost hope in them,” he said, “because the only thing they are always saying is that this is a religious case, so we can’t do anything.”

Pastor Jeldi said he thought someone must have complained about the group of Christian Indians who were meeting regularly, causing authorities to act.

Nearly 7 million foreigners live and work in Saudi Arabia, of which an estimated 1.5 million are Indian nationals.

Human Rights Watch has reported that Saudi Arabia systematically discriminates against migrant workers and has called for the government to “abolish the sponsorship system for migrant workers, in particular the requirement for employer consent to transfer employment and to obtain an exit visa.”

According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom, with rare exception, expatriate workers fear government interference with their private worship. The reasons for this interference can range from the worship service being too loud, having too many people in attendance or that it occurs too often in the same place, according to the report.

Riyadh was the stage for another raid and mass arrest of Christians in early October 2010. Arab News and other press reported the arrest of 12 Filipino Christians and a French Catholic priest celebrating mass in a private apartment. There were 150 Filipinos in attendance. The employers of the 12 Christian foreign workers secured their release, and the Philippine embassy negotiated their repatriation. The Catholic priest was also released within days.

“Saudi officials do not accept that for members of some religious groups, the practice of religion requires more than an individual or a small group worshipping in private, but includes the need for religious leaders to conduct services in community with others,” stated the State Department’s religious freedom report. “Foreign religious leaders continue to be prohibited from seeking and obtaining visas to enter Saudi Arabia and minister to local religious communities.”

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

Christian Family in Bangladesh Attacked, Charged with Crime


Muslim neighbors fabricate attempted murder charge after beating them for their faith.

LOS ANGELES, October 27 (CDN) — Muslim neighbors of a Christian family in Bangladesh scheduled to be baptized last month beat them and filed a false charge of attempted murder against them and other Christians, the head of the family said.

Foyez Uddin, 62, told Compass that his neighbor Nazrul Islam and Islam’s relatives told him, his wife and his two adult children that as Christians they were “polluting” society and beat them on Sept. 17 in Joysen village in Rangpur district, some 300 kilometers (186 miles) north of Dhaka. Islam is a policeman.

Islam’s uncle, Abdul Mannan Miah, then filed false charges against Uddin, his family and three others, accusing them of trying to kill Miah’s niece, Uddin said by telephone after his release on bail on Oct. 8. The village is under Pirgacha police jurisdiction.

Uddin said his family was fishing at his pond on Sept. 17 when eight to 10 Muslim neighbors led by Islam appeared and began speaking abusively about their Christian faith.

“Nazrul told us, ‘You are polluting society by deviating from Islam. Come back to Islam, otherwise we will not allow any Christian to live here in this village,’” Uddin said.

He told them that his family would not return to Islam, Uddin said.

“I replied, ‘Invite Islamic scholars, and if they can satisfy us in light of the Quran, then we will go back to Islam. Otherwise nothing can affect our unshakeable faith in Christ,’” Uddin said. “They beat me, my wife and two sons for objecting to their proposal to come back to Islam.”

The angry neighbors then broke into his home and burned two Bibles, tore two others and ripped four hymnals, he said, and they also damaged some furniture and chairs. Their home serves as a worship venue, and Uddin said the villagers also hacked with a machete the sign board of their house church, Faith Bible Church of God.

The pastor of the church, Lavlu Sadik Lebio, told Compass that he went to a nearby police station to complain about the attack, but officers did not respond to him. He said he only went to inform police, not file a case, but even so officers were unresponsive.

“Intentionally burning Bibles was the most sacrilegious attack on our faith – how can a member of the police department do that?” Pastor Lebio said. “Those people should have kept in mind how an announcement of burning a copy of the Quran in the U.S. stirred up the anger, discontent and hatred of Muslims all over the world.”

Taken into police custody on Sept. 18, Uddin said he and his family were unable to be baptized as planned.

“We were planning to be baptized in the last week of September,” he said. “Somehow our neighbors came to know about the baptismal ceremony, and they became very rude to us. We have been living in faith in Christ, the mainspring of our life, but we were not baptized.”

 

Murder Charge

As part of the attack on Sept. 17, Miah, the uncle of police officer Islam, filed the charge of attempted murder against Uddin, his family and three others that day, the Christian said.

When handing Uddin over to court, police filed a report stating that he had collaborated with people within the Christian community and that he had made defamatory remarks about Islam, Uddin said.

“In the police report while handing me over to court, I was mentioned as a troublesome Christian, but in the case copy filed by my neighbor, nothing was mentioned about me as a Christian,” Uddin said. “I was hurt by the police role.”

The police report to the court said that area residents did not approve of his Christian activities, and that there was the possibility of a communal clash. On this basis police requested he remain in custody while the investigation was underway.

According to the case file obtained by Compass, Uddin and his companions allegedly attempted to kill Islam’s sister (Miah’s niece), Jahanara Begum, sexually harassed her, severely beat her and stole her gold jewelry worth 41,000 taka (US$570).

Uddin said that Begum – sister of police officer Islam and niece of Miah – had a boil on her head that her father lanced the day of the attack. When blood continued rushing out from the procedure, her father, Azizul Muhury, took her to a nearby clinic called Pirgacha Medical and admitted her there. Later her brother Islam filed the false case, saying one of the eight accused had hit her on the head in an attempt to kill her, Uddin said.

According to the case file, Uddin was fishing on Begum’s inundated land, though he says he was at his own pond. Furthermore, the case file states Uddin was on Begum’s land at 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 17, when according to Uddin he was worshipping at his house church. The service did not end until 10 a.m.

According to the police file, Begum objected to him catching fish on her flooded land, and after paying no attention to her he eventually became furious and allegedly beat her “in a pre-planned manner.”

Uddin’s companions were said to be hiding nearby with bamboo, knives and machetes to attack her, and at some point in a quarrel, they supposedly emerged and surrounded Begum. Nural Islam, 52 – known in the area as a recent convert to Christianity – allegedly struck her in the head with a machete on Foyez’s order, according to the case file. Uddin said Islam is a rickshaw driver who was working all day and was not present.

Uddin was then alleged to have hit her on the hand with bamboo, and when she supposedly fell down, according to the case file, his brother Iman Ali, 45, hit her with an iron rod on her back. Uddin said Ali could not have been present either, as he was suffering from tuberculosis and could not walk properly due to the debilitating illness.

Uddin’s son, Shahjahan Miah, 25, then allegedly snatched the 27,000-taka (US$375) gold chain from her neck, according to the case file, and 25-year-old Mohammad Sirajul Islam took her 14,000-taka (US$195) gold earring. Uddin said Mohammad Sirajul Islam – also known in the area as a recent convert to Christianity – had lost work due to his new faith and had been forced to relocate to Chittagong district, some 500 kilometers (310 miles) away from Rangpur district, and he was in Chittagong on that day.

His father, Mohammad Farid, 42, had also converted to Christianity, and the case file accuses him of trying to strangle Begum. Uddin said Farid also lives in Chittagong district and was there at the time. In the case file, Uddin’s wife, 47-year-old Mosammat Shahar Banu, is then accused of removing Begum’s clothes. Uddin’s other son, 28-year-old Shahdul Islam, then allegedly seriously wounded her by striking her with bamboo, according to the case file.

Thus the case file charges all members of Uddin’s family, as well as three people who were not present – two other recent converts to Christianity and Uddin’s brother, he said. Uddin said he has sent letters stating the falseness of the charges to the Rangpur district administrative chief, district police chief, sub-district administrative chief, home minister of Bangladesh, home secretary of Bangladesh, inspector general of police (Bangladesh police chief), president of the Rangpur district press club, member of parliament of that area, Rangpur divisional commissioner and commander of Bangladesh’s elite force (RAB-5), as well as to the Faith Bible Church of God chairman.

The case file mistakenly identifies Uddin as Foyez Ali, and also errs in listing his age as 50 rather than 62.

Since Uddin became a Christian in 2007, some of his neighbors have threatened to kill him or expel him from the village, he said.

“In threatening us, they have also said that the government will reward them if we Christians are beaten,” Uddin said.

The main weapon of Muslim villagers opposed to Christians is to withhold work from them, he said.

“Once I used to cultivate other people’s land for my livelihood,” he said. “When the local people came to know that we lead our life in Christ, then they stopped giving us their land for cultivation. Nobody talks with us, and we are outcasts here.”

Last Christmas, around 100 to 150 people went to Uddin’s house to protest their celebration of the birth of Christ.

“Police are deployed in all churches at Christmas,” he said. “Two police were deployed at our house to avoid any kind of unwanted situation. Those two police stopped the angry villagers.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Christian in India Suffers Miscarriage in Hindu Extremist Attack


Four pastors also injured in Karnataka, hub of anti-Christian persecution.

NEW DELHI, October 13 (CDN) — Police in a south Indian state known for turning hostile to minority Christians in recent years have arrested two suspected Hindu nationalists for beating four pastors and striking the wife of one of them in the stomach, killing her unborn child.

The attack took place at a Christian gathering in a private Christian school to celebrate the birth of Mahatma Gandhi on Oct. 2 in Chintamani, in Karnataka state’s Kolar district, reported the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC).

About 40 people barged into New Public School during the concluding prayer that morning and began selectively beating the pastors and Kejiya Fernandes, wife of one identified only as Pastor Fernandes. Chintamani police arrived but the attack went on, and when it ended at noon officers took the Christians to the station instead of arresting the attackers.

Denied medical attention, the injured Christians were released at 7:30 p.m. only after Kejiya Fernandes began to bleed profusely, GCIC reported. She and her husband later received hospital treatment, where she lost the baby she had been carrying for four months, according to GCIC.

Pastor Fernandes received an injury to his ear. The three other victims, identified only as pastors Robert, Muthu and Kenny, all ministered in a local independent church.

Of the 12 suspects named in the police complaint, two were arrested the same day, and the rest are absconding, said attorney Jeeva Prakash, who is associated with the Evangelical Fellowship of India’s (EFI) advocacy department.

The police complaint against the 12 includes “causing death of quick unborn child by act amounting to culpable homicide” (Section 316 of the Indian Penal Code), and “intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace” (Section 504). No charges related to defiling a religious place or gathering or creating communal conflict were included.

All the accused are residents of Chintamani city and suspected to be associated with Hindu nationalist groups.

The attack was reportedly carried out to avenge an alleged insult to Hindu gods during the Christian gathering, with the accused also having filed a police complaint, added Prakash, who visited the area and the Christian victims this week.

The complaint against the Christians was for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” (Section 295-a), and, strangely, Section 324 for “voluntarily causing hurt by dangerous weapons or means,” among other charges.

The Christians were not arrested, as a court granted them anticipatory bail.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, whose birthday the Christians were celebrating, was friends with Christian missionaries during British rule and taught religious tolerance. The acclaimed Hindu, India’s greatest political and spiritual leader, was killed in 1948 by Nathuram Godse, who was allegedly influenced by the ideology of the Hindu extremist conglomerate Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

For the last three years, Karnataka has been seen as the hub of Christian persecution in India. Of the more than 152 attacks on Christians in 2009, 86 were reported in Karnataka, according to the EFI.

This year, too, Karnataka is likely to top anti-Christian attacks. According to the GCIC, at least 47 attacks on Christians in the state had been reported as of Sept. 26. Persecution of Christians in Karnataka increased particularly after the August 2008 anti-Christian mayhem in eastern Orissa state, where Maoists killed a Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader but Hindu extremists wrongly blamed it on local Christians.

The attacks in Orissa’s Kandhamal district killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

While Hindu nationalists had targeted and were working in Karnataka for close to two decades, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to sole power in the state for the first time in the history of independent India in May 2008. Prior to that, the BJP ruled in coalition with a local party, the Janata Dal-Secular, for 20 months.

It is believed that the victory of the BJP – and later the violence in Orissa, which was also ruled by a coalition that included the BJP – emboldened Hindu extremists, who now enjoy greater impunity due to the party’s incumbency.

Despite the high incidence of persecution of minorities in Karnataka, BJP leaders deny it, alleging complaint are the result of a political conspiracy of opposition parties.

There are a little more than 1 million Christians in Karnataka, where the total population is more than 52 million, mostly Hindus.

 

SIDEBAR

India Briefs: Recent Incidents of Persecution

Karnataka, India, October 13 (Compass Direct News) – Hindu extremists belonging to the Bajrang Dal on Oct. 3 stormed into a Christian worship service, beat those attending and confiscated Bibles in Emarakuntte village, Kolar district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that nearly 25 extremists barged into the house of a Christian identified only as Manjunath, where Pastor Daniel Shankar was leading Sunday worship. Verbally abusing those present and falsely accusing them of forcible conversion, the extremists dragged them out and photographed them. Pastor Shankar managed to escape. Police arrived – after the extremists called them – and confiscated the Bibles and a vehicle belonging to the pastor. A GCIC coordinator told Compass that Shankar, accompanied by area pastors, went to the police station the next day, and officers made him give a written statement that he would stop Christian activities in the village. Only then were the Bibles and vehicle returned. No worship was held on Sunday (Oct. 10).

Karnataka – Police on Sept. 5 detained a pastor after Hindu nationalist extremists registered a false complaint of forcible conversion in Doni village, Gadag district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that at 8:30 p.m. nearly 100 extremists belonging to the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh stormed the worship of an Indian Pentecostal Church at the home of a Christian identified only as Nagaraj. A GCIC coordinator told Compass that the extremists repeatedly slapped Pastor Mallikarjuna Sangalad, dragged him outside and tore his shirt. They also tore up a few Bibles of those in the congregation. The extremists called Mundargi police, who arrived at the spot and took Pastor Sangalad to the police station as the slogan-shouting extremists followed. Police questioned the pastor for over two hours and warned him against leading services. With GCIC intervention Sangalad was released at around 11 p.m. without being charged, but he was forced to sign a statement that he would not conduct services at Nagaraj’s home.

Karnataka – Police on Sept. 3 stopped worship and falsely accused a pastor of forcible conversion, threatening to jail Christians if they continued religious activities in Ganeshgudi village. A Global Council of Indian Christians coordinator told Compass that Ramnagar police Sub-Inspector Babu Madhar, acting on an anonymous accusation of forcible conversion, disrupted worship and threatened Calvary Fellowship Prayer Centre Pastor P.R. Jose as nearly 40 congregants of the house church looked on. The sub-inspector warned the Christians against worshipping there and told Pastor Jose to shut down the church or be arrested. On Sept. 4, however, Madhar returned to the house and informed Pastor Jose that they could continue worship services.

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

Vietnam stepping up religious rights abuses, experts say


Government-perpetrated violence against a Catholic village in Vietnam has highlighted a series of human rights abuses in the communist nation, and three U.S. congressmen are calling on the United Nations to intervene, reports Baptist Press.

"A few months ago during a religious funeral procession, Vietnamese authorities and riot police disrupted that sad and solemn occasion, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, beating mourners with batons and electric rods," Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., said at a hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in August.

"More than 100 were injured, dozens were arrested and several remain in custody and have reportedly been severely beaten and tortured. At least two innocent people have been murdered by the Vietnamese police," Smith said.

The Con Dau tragedy, Smith said, "is unfortunately not an isolated incident." Property disputes between the government and the Catholic church continue to lead to harassment, property destruction and violence, Smith said, referring to a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"In recent years, the Vietnamese government has stepped up its persecution of Catholic believers, bulldozing churches, dismantling crucifixes and wreaking havoc on peaceful prayer vigils," Smith said.

Persecution is not limited to Catholics, though, as Smith had a list of nearly 300 Montagnard political and religious prisoners. In January, the Vietnamese government sentenced two Montagnard Christians to 9 and 12 years imprisonment for organizing a house church, and others have been arrested in connection with house churches, Smith said.

"The arrests were accompanied by beatings and torture by electroshock devices," the congressman said. "We must not forget the sufferings of Khmer Krom Buddhists, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and others. The said reality is that the Vietnamese government persecutes any religious group that does not submit to government control."

The violence in the 80-year-old Catholic village of Con Dau in central Vietnam reportedly stemmed from a government directive for residents to abandon the village to make way for the construction of a resort.

International Christian Concern, a Washington-based watchdog group, reported that when Con Dau residents refused to leave, water irrigation was shut off to their rice fields, stopping the main source of income and food.

In May, police attacked the funeral procession, beating more than 60 people, including a pregnant woman who was struck in the stomach until she had a miscarriage, ICC said.

One of the funeral procession leaders later was confronted by police in his home, where they beat him for about four hours and then released him. He died the next day, ICC said. Eight people remain in police custody and are awaiting trial.

"The people of Con Dau are living in desperate fear and confusion," Thang Nguyen, executive director of an organization representing Con Dau victims, told ICC. "Hundreds of residents have been fined, and many have escaped to Thailand."

Smith, along with Rep. Joseph Cao, R.-La., and Frank Wolf, R.-Va., introduced a House resolution in July calling for the United Nations to appoint a special investigator to probe "ongoing and serious human rights violations in Vietnam." In August, the Lantos Commission met in emergency session to address the "brutal murders and systematic treatment of Catholics in Con Dau."

"The Vietnamese government justifies this violence, torture and murder because the villagers of Con Dau had previously been ordered, some through coercion, to leave their village, property, church, century-old cemetery, their religious heritage, and to forgo equitable compensation in order to make way for a new ‘green’ resort," Smith said at the hearing. "Nothing, however, not even governmental orders, grant license for government-sanctioned murder and other human rights abuses."

The U.S. Department of State declined to testify before the Lantos Commission, and the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam characterized the Con Dau incident as a land dispute and refused to get involved.

Logan Maurer, a spokesman for International Christian Concern, told Baptist Press he has publicized about 10 different incidents of persecution in Vietnam during the past few months.

"In some cases, especially in Southeast Asia, religious persecution becomes a gray area. We also work extensively in Burma, where often there are mixed motives for why a particular village is attacked," Maurer said. "Is it because they’re Christian? Well, partially. Is it because they’re an ethnic minority? Partially.

"So I think the same thing happens in Vietnam where you have a whole village that’s Catholic. One hundred percent of it was Catholic," he said of Con Dau.

Maurer explained that local government officials in Vietnam generally align Christianity with the western world and democracy, which is still seen as an enemy in Vietnam on a local level.

"As far as the official government Vietnamese position, that’s different, but local government officials do not take kindly to Christians and never have. We have documented many cases of government officials saying Christianity is the enemy. So here it’s mixed motives as best we can figure out," Maurer said.

"They wanted to build a resort there, and they could have picked a different village but they chose the one on purpose that was Catholic because it represents multiple minorities — minority religion, minority also in terms of people that can’t fight back. If they go seek government help, the government is not going to help them."

A Christian volunteer who has visited Vietnam five times in the past decade told Baptist Press the Con Dau incident illustrates the way the Vietnamese government responds to any kind of dissent.

"In our country, and in modern democracies, there are methods for resolving disputes with the government, taking them to court, trying to work through the mediation process," the volunteer, who did not want to be identified, said. "In Vietnam there is no such thing. It is the government’s will or there will be violence."

Vietnam’s constitution includes a provision for religious liberty, but the volunteer said that only goes as far as the communal will of the people, which is monopolized by the Communist Party.

"So when the Communist Party says you can’t build a church there or you can’t worship this way, those who say, ‘Well, I have religious freedom,’ are essentially trumped by the constitution that says it’s the will of the people, not individual liberty that’s important," the volunteer said.

The government in Vietnam has made efforts during the past 15 years to open up the country to economic development, and with that has come an influx of some western values and a lot of Christians doing work there, the volunteer said.

"I would first caution Christians to still be careful when they’re there working," he said, adding that government officials closely watch Christians who visit from other countries, and books about Jesus cause trouble.

Secondly, the volunteer warned that all news emerging from Vietnam must be tested for accuracy on both sides because both those who are persecuting and those who are sounding the alarm on persecution have their own political goals.

"That being said, I don’t doubt that this happened," the volunteer said regarding Con Dau.

International Christian Concern urges Americans to contact the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington at 202-861-0737, and the Christian volunteer said people can contact the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to encourage changes in Vietnam.

"They can also directly e-mail the ambassador and the consular general in Ho Chi Minh City and encourage them to push for more reform," he said. "And they can contact companies that are having products made in Vietnam and encourage the business leaders to speak out for change in those countries. You go to JC Penney today in the men’s department and pick up almost anything, it’s made in Vietnam. That’s the kind of pressure they could put on them."

Report from the Christian Telegraph