Taxing empty homes: a step towards affordable housing, but much more can be done



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Vacant and unlit ‘ghost’ apartments are a source of public outrage in major cities around the world.
leniners/flickr, CC BY-NC

Hal Pawson, UNSW

Vacant housing rates are rising in our major cities. Across Australia on census night, 11.2% of housing was recorded as unoccupied – a total of 1,089,165 dwellings. With housing affordability stress also intensifying, the moment for a push on empty property taxes looks to have arrived.

The 2016 Census showed empty property numbers up by 19% in Melbourne and 15% in Sydney over the past five years alone. Considering that thousands of people sleep rough – almost 7,000 on census night in 2011, more than 400 per night in Sydney in 2017 – and that hundreds of thousands face overcrowded homes or unaffordable rents, these seem like cruel and immoral revelations.

Public awareness of unused homes has been growing in Australia and globally. In London, Vancouver and elsewhere – just as in Sydney and Melbourne – the night-time spectacle of dark spaces in newly built “luxury towers” has triggered outrage.

This has struck a chord with the public not only because of its connotations of obscene wealth inequality and waste, but also because of the contended link to foreign ownership.

Early movers on vacancy tax

Against this backdrop, the Victorian state government has felt sufficiently emboldened to legislate an empty homes tax. Federally, the shadow treasurer, Chris Bowen, recently backed a standard vacant dwelling tax across all the nation’s major cities.

Similar measures have come into force in Vancouver and Paris. And Ontario’s provincial government recently granted Toronto new powers to tax empty properties
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Both Vancouver (above) and Melbourne now have a 1% capital value charge on homes left vacant.
Tim Welbourn/flickr, CC BY-NC

Emulating Vancouver, Victoria’s tax is a 1% capital value charge on homes vacant for at least six months in a year. Curiously, though, it applies only in Melbourne’s inner and middle suburbs. And there are exceptions – if the property is a grossly under-used second home you pay only if you’re a foreigner.

Also, as in Vancouver, tax liability relies on self-reporting, which is seemingly a loophole. This might be less problematic if all owners were required to confirm their properties were occupied for at least six months of the past year. But that would be administratively cumbersome.

This highlights a broader “practicability challenge” for empty property taxes. For example, how do you define acceptable reasons for a property being empty?

In principle, such a tax should probably be limited to habitable dwellings. So, if you own a speculative vacancy, what do you do? Remove the kitchen sink to declare it unliveable?

How can we be sure a home is empty?

Lack of reliable data on empty homes is a major problem in Australia. Census figures are useful mainly because they indicate trends over time, but they substantially overstate the true number of long-term vacant habitable properties because they include temporarily empty dwellings (including second homes).

Using Victorian water records, Prosper Australia estimates about half of Melbourne’s census-recorded vacant properties are long-term “speculative vacancies”. That’s 82,000 homes.

Applying a similar “conversion factor” to Sydney’s census numbers would indicate around 68,000 speculative vacancies. Australia-wide, the Prosper Australia findings imply around 300,000 speculative vacancies – 3% of all housing. That’s equivalent to two years’ house building at current rates.

According to University of Queensland real estate economics expert Cameron Murray, a national tax that entirely eliminated this glut might moderate the price of housing by 1-2%. Therefore, although worthwhile, dealing with this element of our inefficient use of land and property would provide only a small easing of Australia’s broader affordability problem.

Making better use of a scarce resource

Taxing long-term empty properties is consistent with making more efficient use of our housing stock – a scarce resource. A big-picture implication is that tackling Australia’s housing stress shouldn’t be seen as purely about boosting new housing supply – as commonly portrayed by governments.

It should also be about making more efficient and equitable use of existing housing and housing-designated land.

Penalising empty dwellings is fine if it can be practicably achieved. That’s especially if the revenue is used to enhance the trivial amount of public funding going into building affordable rental housing in most of our states and territories.

But empty homes represent just a small element of our increasingly inefficient and wasteful use of housing and the increasingly unequal distribution of our national wealth.

One aspect of this is the under-utilisation of occupied housing. Australian Bureau of Statistics survey data show that, across Australia, more than a million homes (mainly owner-occupied) have three or more spare bedrooms. A comparison of the latest statistics (for 2013-14) with those for 2007-08 suggests this body of “grossly under-utilised” properties grew by more than 250,000 in the last six years.

Our tax system does nothing to discourage this increasingly wasteful use of housing. It’s arguably encouraged by the “tax on mobility” constituted by stamp duty and the exemption of the family home from the pension assets test.

A parallel issue is the speculative land banks owned by developers. The volume of development approvals far exceeds the amount of actual building. In the past year in Sydney, for example, 56,000 development approvals were granted – but only 38,000 homes were built.

In many cases, getting an approval is just part of land speculation. The owner then hoards the site until “market conditions are right” for on-selling as approved for development at a fat profit.

Properly addressing these issues calls for something much more ambitious than an empty property tax. The federal government should be encouraging all states and territories to follow the ACT’s lead by phasing in a broad-based land tax to replace stamp duty.

Such a tax will provide a stronger financial incentive to make effective use of land and property. The Grattan Institute estimates this switch would also “add up to A$9 billion annually to gross domestic product”. How much longer can we afford to ignore this obvious policy innovation?


The ConversationAcknowledgements: Thanks to Laurence Troy for statistics and Julie Street for background research.

Hal Pawson, Associate Director – City Futures – Urban Policy and Strategy, City Futures Research Centre, Housing Policy and Practice, UNSW

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

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Two Partially Constructed Church Buildings Burned in Indonesia


Outside agitators torch structures; Christians have waited years for building permits.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, January 29 (CDN) — Suspected Islamic extremists burned two church buildings under construction in a village in North Sumatra on Jan. 22.

The attackers came from outside the area to burn the partially constructed buildings of the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan Church (HKBP) and the Pentecostal Church (GPdI) in Sibuhuan village, Padang Lawas Residency, during daylight hours, said the Rev. S. Lubis of the HKBP church.

“It was a quiet day when suddenly hundreds of people arrived on motorcycles and burned the empty church,” he said. “After that, the mob moved 200 meters down the road and burned the empty Pentecostal church.”

No people were hurt in the fires. Lubis said that those who burned the church buildings were not from the area.

“We didn’t know any of the mob who burned the church,” he said. “When we asked our neighbors, they didn’t know them either, and they did not help burn the church.”

Lubis said that his church had been worshipping at the site since 1970, and that in 1981 they had erected a simple structure. In 2009 – after local officials had held up an application for a permit to erect a permanent building for five years – the church began construction. Area Muslims stopped the construction before it was finished.

“All this time we never had problems with the local citizens,” Lubis told Compass by telephone. “Outside agitators provoked the local people to reject the church.”

The Rev. Marolop Sinaga, HKBP district pastor for south Tapanuli, told Compass that church officials held a meeting in December with the local Indonesian Muslim Leaders Council and the Padang Lawas government. The Muslim leaders demanded that construction stop because no building permit had been issued.

The church complied and stopped construction, even though the building permit had been in process for five years, Sinaga said. Later local Muslims demanded that church dismantle the parts that had been built, to which the church agreed.

The dismantling of the partial construction began on Jan. 13 but apparently did not proceed fast enough for the mob that gutted the two church buildings, Sinaga said.

The HKBP church in Sibuhuan has 272 members. Members of the congregation have been traumatized and many have fled fearing for their safety, church leaders said.

The Rev. Charles Hutabarat of the Pentecostal Church said his congregation began worshipping in homes in 1990. Having waited three years for their permit to be approved, they were in the middle of their building program, he said.

“Because the local citizens had approved the presence of the church, we were surprised that our church was burned like this,” Hutabarat told Compass.

The head of Padang Lawas Residency, Basyrah Lubis, told Compass that the government will facilitate the granting of building permits for houses of worship.

“We have met with other residency leaders such as the police chief, the military commander, the department of religion officials, and other Padang Lawas leaders, and we have decided to process the building permit applications quickly,” he said. “Also, the two churches will be moved; we are searching for a location which will be free of problems in the future.”

Lubis also said he would guarantee the safety of the congregations.

“In addition, we are going to form an Interfaith Harmony Forum for the residency, because we have never had one previously,” he said. “By Feb. 15, this forum will be established. In the meantime, the two congregations will hold services in member homes.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christmas commercialism combated by "Advent Conspiracy"


A growing number of Christian churches are joining forces with a grass-roots movement known as the Advent Conspiracy, which is seeking to "do away with the frenzied activity and extravagant gift-giving of a commercial Christmas," reports Thaddeus M. Baklinski, LifeSiteNews.com.

The group was founded by Portland pastor Rick McKinley, who with a group of fellow pastors realized that their own, and their congregations’, focus during the time of Advent revolved more around secular consumerism than preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ.

"What was once a time to celebrate the birth of a savior has somehow turned into a season of stress, traffic jams, and shopping lists," McKinley observed.

"And when it’s all over, many of us are left with presents to return, looming debt that will take months to pay off, and this empty feeling of missed purpose. Is this what we really want out of Christmas?"

"None of us like Christmas," McKinley said in a Time.com report, adding, "That’s sort of bad if you’re a pastor. It’s the shopping, the going into debt, the worrying that if I don’t spend enough money, someone will think I don’t love them."

McKinley, whose church donates money to dig wells in developing countries through Living Water International and other organizations, saw that a fraction of the money Americans spend at retailers in the month of December could supply the entire world with clean water.

As a result he and his friends embarked on a plan to urge their congregations to spend less on presents for friends and family, and to consider donating the money they saved to support practical and tangible charitable works.

"If more Christians changed how they thought about giving at Christmas," he argued, "the holiday could be transformative in a religious and practical sense."

McKinley observed that at first church members were uncertain. "Some people were terrified," McKinley recalled. "They said, ‘My gosh, you’re ruining Christmas. What do we tell our kids?’"

Soon though, the idea caught on and McKinley found that not only were people "relieved to be given permission to slow down and buy less" but were "expressing their love through something more meaningful than a gift card. Once church members adjusted to this new conception of Christmas, they found that they loved it."

According to the Time.com report the Advent Conspiracy movement has exploded, counting hundreds of churches on four continents and in at least 17 countries as participants.

The Advent Conspiracy video has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube and the movement boasts nearly 45,000 fans on Facebook.

To find out more about the Advent Conspiracy, click here.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Massive Muslim Mob Damages Church Building in Indonesia


Crowd of 1,000 celebrating eve of Islamic New Year ransack, set fire to construction site.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, December 23 (CDN) — Hundreds of Muslims celebrated the eve of the Islamic New Year last Thursday (Dec. 17) by attacking a Catholic church building under construction in Bekasi, West Java.

A crowd of approximately 1,000 men, women and children from the Bebalan and Taruma Jaha areas of Bekasi walking in a New Year’s Eve procession stopped at the 60 percent-completed Santo Albertus Catholic Church building, where many ransacked and set fires to it, church leaders said. Damage was said to be extensive, but no one was injured.

The crowd initially gathered at the Tiga Mojang Statue about a mile from the church between 10 and 10:45 p.m., said Kristina Maria Rentetana, head of the church building committee. She said there were no hints that the group would become a mob and attack the church building.

Rentetana said she joined the crowd as they walked along. Upon nearing the church, she said, they began throwing stones.

“They shouted, ‘Destroy it, destroy it,’” Rentetana told Compass. “Even women carrying babies joined in stone-throwing. Then a large group dressed in white robes entered the church, which was under construction, and started fires.”

The mob burned the security post and leveled a nearby contractor’s office. “They broke roof tiles, marble slabs, floor tiles, and lamps which had been placed in the building,” Rentetana said.

Some among the mob apparently had come prepared to burn the church building; an empty jerry can was found at the site. The mob also left a computer belonging to the contractor trampled in the gutter.

Rentetana immediately called police, and the mob finally dispersed around 12 midnight after at least 100 officers arrived.

Sector Police Chief Imam Sugianto said the attack on the church was spontaneous.

“There were agitators among the crowd as they walked,” Sugianto said. “These persons incited the crowd to burn the church.”

At press time police had arrested 12 people thought to be leaders of the mob.

“It is not clear whether these are all from the same organization or not,” Sugianto told Compass. Among those arrested was Amat Rosidi, accused of stealing a drill from the construction site.

A Santo Albertus Church priest identified only as Father Yos said the mayor of Bekasi had issued a valid building permit on Feb. 6, 2008. Bekasi is near Jakarta.

The priest said the church building was 60 percent complete on a plot of land of 2,261 square meters. He said he did not know the amount of losses.

Sugianto said he encouraged the church to proceed with plans for a Christmas Eve service and promised to provide adequate security.

“Please hold the Christmas Mass,” he said. “The police will guard the church.”

Rentetana confirmed that police had guaranteed security for the scheduled Christmas Mass.

Sugianto added that the attack on the church will be duly prosecuted, saying, “We will attempt to arrest all of the leaders of this action.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Unprecedented Christmas Gathering Held in Vietnam


With permission little and late, organizers work by faith to accommodate crowds.

HO CHI MINH CITY, December 14 (CDN) — On Friday evening (Dec. 11), history was made in communist Vietnam.

Christian sources reported that some 40,000 people gathered in a hastily constructed venue in Ho Chi Minh City to worship God, celebrate Christmas, and hear a gospel message – an event of unprecedented magnitude in Vietnam.

A popular Vietnamese Christian website and other reports indicated up to 8,000 people responded to the gospel message indicating a desire to follow Christ.

For the last two years, authorities surprisingly granted permission to unregistered house churches in Ho Chi Minh City to hold public Christmas rallies, and last year more than 10,000 people participated in one in Tao Dan Stadium.

This year visionary house church leaders approached the government in October and asked for a sports stadium seating 30,000; they were refused. Authorities offered a sports venue holding only 3,000, located 13 kilometers (eight miles) out of the city. This was unacceptable to the organizers. They pressed for another stadium in the city holding about 15,000, and officials gave them a verbal promise that they could have it.

The verbal promise did not translate into the written permission that is critical in the country – church leaders say such promises are empty until “we have the permission paper in our hand.” Christian leaders believed event planning had to proceed without permission and sent out invitations far and wide – only to have authorities deny the stadium they had promised.

Led by Pastor Ho Tan Khoa, chairman of a large fellowship of house church organizations, organizers were forced to look for alternatives. They found a large open field in the Go Vap district of the city. When permission was still not granted five days before the planned event, several church leaders literally camped for three days outside city hall, pressing for an answer.

Authorities, who often work to sabotage united action among Christians, tried urgently to find ways to talk the leaders out of going ahead, promising future concessions if they would cancel the event. Organizers stood firm. Ultimately they told the deputy mayor that refusal to grant permission at that point would have far-ranging, negative ramifications in Vietnam as well as internationally.

Finally, at the close of business on Dec. 9, just 48 hours before the scheduled event, officials granted permission that required clearance all the way to Hanoi. But the permission was only for 3,000 people, and many more had been invited.

Organizers had less than two days to turn a vacant field into something that would accommodate a stadium-size crowd. They had to bring in ample electricity, construct a giant stage, rent 20,000 chairs, and set up the sound and lighting. The extremely short time frame caused contractors to double the prices they would have charged with ample time.

Organizers also rented hundreds of busses to bring Christians and their non-Christian friends from provinces near the city. Thousands of students sacrificed classes to help with last-minute preparations and to join the celebration.

Just after noon on Friday (Dec. 11), word came that police had stopped busses carrying 300 Steing minority people from the west to the event scheduled for that day. Organizers, fearing all busses would be stopped, put out an emergency worldwide prayer request.

Christian sources said that authorities either did not or could not stop busses from other directions, and that by evening the venue became the biggest “bus station” in all of Vietnam. By 6 p.m. the venue was full to capacity, and at least 2,000 had to be turned away.

Christians described the event, entitled, “With Our Whole Hearts,” in superlative terms. For house churches, large gatherings are both very rare and very special, and for many this was their first glimpse of the strength of Vietnam’s growing Christian movement. Thousands of Christians joined a choir of more 1,000 singers in loud and joyful praise.

Sources said that the main speaker, the Rev. Duong Thanh Lam, head of the Assemblies of God house churches “preached with anointing” and people responding to his gospel invitation poured to the front of the stage “like a waterfall.” With space in front of the stage insufficient, the sources said, many others in their seats also indicated their desire to receive Christ.

Organizers along with many participants were overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude as the event closed. People spontaneously hugged each other and cried, “Lord, bring revival to all of Vietnam!” Other comments included, “Beyond our fondest imagination,” and, “Nothing could stop the hand of the Lord.”

The event raised more than 60 million dong (US$3,280) for a charity helping needy children. People were quite surprised to read a positive article on the event in the state-controlled press, which often vilifies Christians.

House churches in the north were hopeful that they could hold a similar event. Organizers in Hanoi have heard encouraging reports that they will get permission to use the national My Dinh sports stadium for a Christmas celebration, though they do not have it in hand. Sources said they have sent out invitations across a broad area to an event scheduled for Dec. 20.

Friday’s event also made history in that it was streamed live on the Vietnamese website www.hoithanh.com and viewed by thousands more in Vietnam and by Vietnamese people around the world.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Islamic Extremists Execute Young Convert in Somalia


Christian accused of trying to convert Muslim teenager found shot on Mogadishu street.

NAIROBI, Kenya, November 23 (CDN) — Islamic extremists controlling part of the Somali capital of Mogadishu this month executed a young Christian they accused of trying to convert a 15-year-old Muslim to Christianity.

Members of the Islamic extremist group al Shabaab had taken 23-year-old Mumin Abdikarim Yusuf into custody on Oct. 28 after the 15-year-old boy reported him to the militants, an area source told Compass. Yusuf’s body was found on Nov. 14 on an empty residential street in Mogadishu, with sources saying the convert from Islam was shot to death, probably some hours before dawn.

“Our brother Yusuf has been murdered,” the source told Compass. “His body was dumped in Yaqshid district of Mogadishu, and his body is said to be on an empty residential street.”

Al Shabaab, said to have links with al Qaeda terrorists, controls parts of Mogadishu and much of southern parts of Somalia, as well as other areas of the nation.

Their accusations against Yusuf had led the extremist group to raid Yusuf’s home in Holwadag district, Mogadishu, sources said. After searching his home, militia didn’t find anything relating to Christianity but still took him into custody.

Before Yusuf was executed by two shots to the head, reports filtered in to the Compass source that he had been badly beaten and his fingers broken as the Islamists tried to extract incriminating evidence against him and information about other Christians. The source later learned that Yusuf’s body showed signs of torture; all of his front teeth were gone, and some of his fingers were broken, he said.

“We don’t know the time he was murdered, but his freshly killed body was dumped in Yaqshid district at around 4:30 in the morning of Nov. 14, and due to the will of the family we have buried the body at around 3 p.m. on Nov. 14,” the source said.

The clandestine Christians could not safely identify themselves to Yusuf’s Muslim family, but they were able to indirectly assist the parents in burying him with dignity, the source said.

It is not known whether under torture Yusuf revealed information about area members of the hidden church, but underground church leaders have been relocating local Christians who knew him, the source said.

“We still don’t know if the Shabaab did find any new evidence from Yusuf,” he said.

Yusuf’s Muslim parents did not know that their son was a Christian, and they had insisted to the al Shabaab militants that he was still a Muslim, the source said. The extremists accused the family of not reporting that their son had converted to Christianity, and they ordered his mother and father to appear before an al Shabaab court.

Although the Compass source could not confirm whether the parents heeded the command, he said they most likely did as it is not uncommon for the militants to behead those who defy their orders.

“I cannot confirm if they appeared before the Islamist court, but that is highly possible,” he said. “Who can dare defy them?”

The extremists have demonstrated they have no qualms about killing those they perceive to be sympathetic to any “foreign” religion, the source said. He added that the Islamic extremists did not execute Yusuf quickly only because they had no evidence against him except the testimony of the teenage boy.

“In Islam, to execute someone you need to have evidence of three witnesses, and they didn’t have it,” he said. “Al Shabaab is known to do whatever they like, and they don’t even follow the rules of their religion they claim adherence to.”

The discovery of Yusuf’s body brought an end to a strenuous attempt by his family to secure his release, but they are now living in fear since al Shabaab has accused them of concealing their son’s new faith.

The source said Yusuf’s death was typical of the Islamic extremist group, which often pumps bullets into their victims before dumping their bodies in public places to serve as a warning to those who dare to resist its orders.

Since the ouster of dictator Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia has been without a strong central government and has been at the mercy of vicious clan-based militants. Some, such as al Shabaab, are seeking to establish a strict version of sharia (Islamic law) as they fight to oust the Transitional Federal Government of President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed that is backed by the Africa Union and Western nations.

Report from Compass Direct News 

INDONESIA: NEW BUILDING SITE FOUND FOR BIBLE COLLEGE


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Machetes and Acid

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News

INDIAN BISHOP WARNS OF ‘SECRET AGENDA’ TO REMOVE CHRISTIANS


As India conducts its month-long national elections, a leading Indian bishop has accused Hindu nationalists of threatening Orissa state voters with violence and pursuing a “secret agenda” to flush Christians out of the region, reports Catholic News Agency.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, speaking in an interview with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), claimed that leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have made death threats against people unwilling to vote for them. He said the BJP was determined to eliminate Christianity from Orissa state’s Kandhamal district, where the vast majority of the state’s churchgoers live. Catholic priests in Orissa report that the BJP has warned Christians in Kandhamal district that if they voted for other candidates, the party would bully them into leaving the area, ACN says.

Nearly 30,000 people fled the district in 2007 and 2008 during anti-Christian attacks on nearly 300 villages in Kandhamal. Eighty people, including a Catholic priest, were killed. About 270 churches and chapels were desecrated while 6,000 homes were destroyed.

Archbishop Cheenath told ACN that people in relief camps in Kandhamal were generally able to vote. However, he said “several thousands” who fled the district during the violence were denied the vote because they were prevented from registering.

“The BJP party officials have threatened to attack the Christians and chase them away. The threats were very serious and there has been a great fear among the people,” the archbishop said, speaking from Bangalore.

“The problem for the people was made worse because the authorities in Orissa took no tangible steps to prevent such things from happening.”

“The secret agenda of the [BJP politicians] is to remove the Christians from Kandhamal,” Archbishop Cheenath said. “It was clear that this was what they wanted to do before the elections and if they win again there is no doubt that they will continue in that way.”

A Catholic priest in Kandhamal on election day reported that trees had been felled to block access to villages in order to prevent people from voting. The same tactic was used during the anti-Christian violence.

The priest said there was hardly any movement of the people.

“My colleagues and I were scared… I reached the polling booth of my village but after only two hours [of voting] the booth was literally empty. We were the first ones to cast our votes.”

The priest told ACN it was important to remember that thousands of people are still living outside the district and had not exercised their vote.

“Are these not citizens?” he asked.

The priest also alleged that four Hindus gang-raped a girl after learning that her uncle had refused to abandon his Christian faith.

In the run-up to the elections, BJP Kandhamal candidate Ashok Sahu was arrested for making an anti-Christian speech in the village of Raikia. He has since been released.

According to ACN, Sahu was closely linked to Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, the militant anti-Christian Hindu leader whose murder last August, allegedly by Maoists, sparked widespread violence against churchgoers.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

KENYA: CHURCH STRUGGLING AFTER ISLAMISTS DESTROY BUILDING


Six months after attack, Muslim assailants still at large; weary congregation faces heat, rain.

GARISSA, Kenya, March 5 (Compass Direct News) – Six months after a gang of Muslim youths ruined a church building in this town in northern Kenya, Christians still worshipping in the sweltering heat of the open air say they feel disillusioned that officials have done nothing to punish the culprits or restore their structure.

On a sunny afternoon last Sept. 14, when angry Muslim youths threw more than 400 members of the Redeemed Gospel Church out of their church building, the Christians hoped they would be able to return to the ruins of their former structure. That hope is quickly giving way to anger, hopelessness and despair.

“After six months in the open, the church feels tired and cheated,” said pastor David Matolo. “We are fed up with the empty promises from the government administration.”

He said the church, which began worshipping in Garissa in early 2001 with only a dozen members, is fast shrinking.

“Our church membership has decreased, which is of great concern to me,” he told Compass. “The church thinks that the government has decided to buy time – almost every month I do book appointments with the relevant authorities, who on several occasions have given us a deaf ear.”

Since the attack, church members have been meeting at the town show grounds. Just a few miles from the Somali border, the site has few trees to protect the congregation from the scorching sun, with temperatures ranging from 92 to 104 degrees F (30 to 40 degrees C).

Asked why he thought government officials were reluctant to grant the church a permanent place of worship as promised, an irritated Matolo did not hesitate to reply.

“The administration has decided, ‘kutesa [inflict pain on us],’ always making promises that never come to pass,” he said. “At times the provincial commissioner deliberately decides not to take my phone calls. I have had a painful experience.”

Matolo said he has asked the administration either to allow the church to build a new structure on land lying idle near a police training college or to let them return to their original site. “We are ready for any eventuality,” he said. “We feel that the administration is not concerned about our spiritual welfare.”

Asked about the pastor’s complaints, provincial police officer Stephen Chelimo told Compass, “The issue at the moment is not within my docket, but wholly rests upon the provincial commissioner.”

But Provincial Commissioner Stephen Maingi said the onus rested on the district commissioner. “Let the district commissioner sort this issue with the pastor,” Maingi said.

District Commissioner Onyango Ogango, in turn, indicated the church itself was the source of problems.

“If the church is allowed to return to their original site, we will expect a fight to erupt with the Muslims,” Ogango said. “Earlier on, the church began very well during its initial stage of inception with controlled worship, but later it turned out to hold noisy prayers and loud songs.”

Further questioned about these allegations, however, Ogango said he would call the pastor to discuss a resolution. Even so, Matolo said previous contact with the district commissioner did not leave him with high expectations.

“Our district commissioner seemed to have no feelings for our predicament,” he said. “The faces of the congregation members speak a lot.”

A glance at the worshippers confirmed his appraisal. They looked weary and anxious, with impending April rains expected to add to the indignity of their situation. Matolo said his congregation feels that soon it will be difficult to worship at all.

Even a temporary home did not appear to be forthcoming. The pastor said their request for a site near the provincial commissioner’s residence was dismissed on the grounds that it would create a security concern.

 

Radical Islamic Influence

Tensions between Christians and the Muslim-majority population in the semi-desert town of 20,000 people began in June 2007, when Muslims built a mosque too close to the church building – only three meters separated the two structures.

Matolo said pleas to District Commissioner Ogango did nothing to reverse the encroachment of Muslim worshippers.

Land issues alone have not been responsible for tensions in the area. The Rev. Ibrahim Kamwaro, chairman of the Pastors’ Fellowship in Garissa, said Matolo had offended Muslims when he preached to a lame Muslim man. Muslims were said to be upset that the pastor persuaded the disabled man to stop going to the mosque and instead join his church.

Matolo’s alleged promise to the disabled man of a better life offended area Muslims, Rev. Kamwaro said.

Christians feel increasingly hunted and haunted as the spread of Islamic extremism is fast gaining ground in this town, located about 400 kilometers (249 miles) from Nairobi, the capital. In neighboring Somalia, newly elected President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed on Feb. 28 offered the introduction of sharia (Islamic law) in exchange for a truce with a rebel extremist group said to have ties to al Qaeda, al Shabaab; the rebels said they would keep fighting. Many fear that Muslim youths in this lawless part of Kenya will be tempted to adopt the radical, uncompromising posture of the fighters.

To date, the gang of more than 50 Muslim youths who attacked worshippers and brought their church to ruins have not been apprehended. Members of the congregation feel justice is increasingly elusive.

In Garissa, Muslims restrict churches in other ways. Christians are not allowed to pray, sing or use musical instruments in rented homes owned by Muslims. No teaching of Christian Religious Education in schools is allowed; only Islamic Religious Knowledge is taught.

Garissa has more than 15 Christian denominations, including the East Africa Pentecostal Church, the Redeemed Gospel Church, the Anglican Church, Deliverance Church, Full Gospel Churches of Kenya and the African Inland Church.

Report from Compass Direct News