To help drought-affected farmers, we need to support them in good times as well as bad



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Farmers need help to plan for droughts, not just to respond to them when things get desperate.
Stephenallen75/Shutterstock.com

Jacki Schirmer, University of Canberra; Dominic Peel, University of Canberra; Ivan Charles Hanigan, University of Sydney, and Kimberly Brown, University of Canberra

With the New South Wales government announcing that drought is now affecting the entire state, the federal government’s crisis assistance payments have been described by some as too little, too late. The National Farmers Federation has renewed its calls for a national drought policy and drought experts have expressed concern about reliance on emergency handouts.

With droughts predicted to grow in frequency and severity in the future, we need to support farmers and their communities to adapt to these changes.

To best support the well-being of farmers and farming communities, we need to support them not just when they are in the middle of a drought, but also when the rain comes and the dust has settled. An emergency response is important, but on its own is not enough – our farming communities deserve more. It needs to be accompanied by long-term coordinated support, delivered through the whole drought cycle, that helps farmers prepare for drought, cope with drought when it is happening, and recover rapidly afterwards.

Prolonged droughts harm the health and well-being of people in farming communities, although research also shows that not everyone is affected to the same extent, and some not at all. This means we need to learn from past experience in choosing what actions represent the best and most effective investments.




Read more:
Farmers experiencing drought-related stress need targeted support


Providing farmers with emergency assistance when drought is at its worst helps to alleviate the most acute hardship. But multiple inquiries and research studies (see here, here and here) have concluded that this approach is not enough.

To truly support the well-being of farming communities facing the threat of drought, we need to invest more in actions that support their preparedness and resilience before drought hits, rather than waiting until conditions are at their worst before offering help.

The hydro-illogical cycle

Doing this requires breaking the “hydro-illogical cycle”, in which a severe drought triggers short-term concern and assistance, followed by a return to apathy and complacency once the rains return. When drought drops off the public and media radar, communities are often left with little or no support to invest in preparing for the next inevitable drought.

The hydro-illogical cycle.
US National Drought Mitigation Center, Author provided

Farmers need proactive, long-term access to drought preparedness schemes well in advance, before the effects of drought begin to bite. Farmers who use programs such as the farm management deposits scheme, which allows them to put aside surplus income in good years and draw on it in difficult ones, have higher well-being during droughts than those who access emergency assistance provided during drought.

Our research has also identified some other ways to protect farmers’ well-being during challenging times. These include investing in forward planning for drought, supporting farmers to invest in “drought-proofing” measures suitable to their farm, and creating networks through which farmers can share their knowledge about what works to cope best with the financial, psychological and social challenges they face.

These things are not a “fix” for drought; a drought will always have significant impacts. But they can help reduce the severity of impacts, and the time taken to recover. However, to really be effective, these actions need to be invested in between droughts, in addition to investing in emergency support during drought.

We can learn a lot from the actions that farmers are already taking. Thousands of farmers have spent years investing in drought resilience, for example by changing pasture types and water management practices, and by changing how they plan for and manage periods of low rainfall.

This investment often goes unsupported and unrecognised, and has to be done among the ever-present pressures of challenging market conditions, low profit margins, rising costs, the need to repay debts incurred in the last drought or flood, and the myriad daily pressures of farming. We need to better reward farmers who make these investments, and to offer incentives for continued investment in this type of action between droughts.

Regenerative farming

One investment being made by many farmers across Australia is the adoption of regenerative farming, in which the entire farming system is re-oriented with a goal of better using natural ecosystem processes to support production, and of better matching production to land capacity through different climatic conditions.

Early research findings suggest that engaging in regenerative farming can improve drought resilience. But shifting to use of this approach to farming takes a lot of time and investment; before asking farmers to make fundamental changes to the way they farm, we need more research that critically examines when, where and how different farming systems can help safeguard against drought.




Read more:
The lessons we need to learn to deal with the ‘creeping disaster’ of drought


As well as helping farmers invest in actions to increase resilience to drought, we also need to consider the best ways to support those who are suffering severe psychological and financial stress. For many farmers, supporting them to cope with drought and stay in farming is the best decision. But for others, the best decision can be to leave farming altogether.

The decision to leave farming is understandably one of the most challenging times in a farmer’s life, and often happens when their well-being is low and they are experiencing psychological distress. This means that the quality of help they receive during this time can make a big difference in how well they cope. Services such as the Rural Financial Counselling Service have a vital role to play at all times (before, during and after drought) in giving advice to farmers weighing up the agonising decision to stay or leave.

If you want to help farmers, keep supporting relief funds – they provide essential help during the worst of drought. But also tell your local politician that you support investment in long-term programs that help farmers improve their resilience to the next drought, and the one after that, and that recognise and reward the investments farmers are already making in doing this.

The ConversationIf we truly have our farmers’ well-being at heart, we should be taking drought action in wet years as well as dry, and in good times as well as bad.

Jacki Schirmer, Associate Professor, University of Canberra; Dominic Peel, PhD Candidate in Public Health, University of Canberra; Ivan Charles Hanigan, Data Scientist (Epidemiology), University of Sydney, and Kimberly Brown, PhD Researcher, University of Canberra

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

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Gonski 2.0: there is evidence inclusive schooling will help those left behind



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The benefits of mixed-ability classes are shared by all.
Shutterstock

Linda J. Graham, Queensland University of Technology; Ilektra Spandagou, University of Sydney, and Kate de Bruin, Monash University

The recently released Gonski 2.0 Review aimed to examine how school funding should be used to improve school performance and student outcomes. A particular area of focus was to improve outcomes across all student cohorts including disadvantaged and vulnerable students, and academically advanced (“gifted”) students.

The report sets out a radically different vision of Australian school education but does not fully explain how this vision can be achieved.




Read more:
Gonski review reveals another grand plan to overhaul education: but do we really need it?


This omission has been rightly criticised. But there has been little acknowledgement of the positives in the report or the problems it seeks to address. These problems are real and are important to confront as they affect us all and will increase in the future.

By far the biggest problem is more than one quarter of Australian school students are “missing out” from their school education. This affects their ability to participate in an increasingly high skills economy, setting them up for a lifetime of precarious work or welfare dependency.

The presumption has always been that these students just aren’t “smart enough” to “keep up” and seldom is the need to do so questioned. Gonski 2.0 changes that by recognising and challenging deep fault lines in our education system that have extremely negative equity effects.

What’s the problem?

The report notes our current age/grade system leaves too many students behind. It acknowledges the huge range in the learning readiness of students the same age, stating the:

most advanced students in a year group can be five to six years ahead of the least advanced.

The presence of this gap does not mean students at the lower end are destined to remain there. These students can and do succeed, but it takes the right supports from expert teachers and the time to provide them.

Yet, our system is currently structured in such a way that those who fall behind get left behind. This is because the Australian curriculum is content heavy and the pressure to cover this content over the course of a year leaves teachers with little time to provide the individualised support needed by almost one in five Australian students.

“Summative assessment”, or benchmarking, is used as a blunt tool to determine what students have or have not learned. They are then graded A-E against the achievement standards. In some schools they’re also ranked against their peers.

By the end of their schooling, some 26% have still not achieved a Year 12 Certificate or its equivalent.


https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/mHvRV/1/


What is Gonski’s solution?

The report proposes a “radical” new approach based on:

  • all students being educated in mixed-ability classrooms

  • greater use of formative assessment to determine where students are in their learning

  • differentiated teaching to meet students at their respective point of need

  • a redirection in focus from comparative achievement against an age/grade standard to individual growth in achievement against a defined learning progression.



The Conversation/Federal government, CC BY-ND

Some commentators have criticised the lack of supporting evidence and it’s true the report relies heavily on a select range of sources and does not make the grade in terms of academic rigour. This does not mean the ideas proposed or practices described are fanciful or have no evidence to support them.

Take, for example, the concept of teaching students in mixed-ability classrooms, the use of formative assessment, and differentiated teaching. While these might sound radical when combined into a new vision for school education, each has evidence to support them. They’re all elements of inclusive practice.

The evidence for inclusive education

The benefits of mixed-ability classes are shared by all. There are a range of important academic and social benefits for students with disabilities (including improved memory and stronger language and literacy and mathematics skills), as well as students without disability (such as social and emotional development).

Ability “streaming”, which involves assigning students of the same grade into ranked classes based on prior achievement or perceived ability levels, has a neglible effect on achievement and profoundly negative consequences for lower ranked students. Despite strong evidence against streaming, many schools still stream classes by ability and some education systems stream entire schools.




Read more:
The way schools cope with learning difficulties is doing more harm than good


Formative assessment is feedback given to students during the course of their learning, and can help students understand what progress they have made and what the next steps are. It has been highlighted as one of the most effective practices a school can adopt to individualise learning for all students with long-standing and consistent evidence to support its use. Teachers can also use the information to differentiate their teaching to ensure that they are truly teaching each student based on their needs.

Teachers differentiate when they provide appropriately challenging work for all students, using a variety of means to help them engage with the content and demonstrate their learning. There is evidence whole-school models of differentiation can improve academic outcomes and close achievement gaps including in high stakes tests. Teachers who have the opportunity to practice differentiated instruction and receive ongoing professional development develop competency and stronger belief in their own capability.

Inclusion is better for everyone

In offering a bold vision for the future, the Gonski 2.0 report has encouraged Australia to help more of our young people successfully navigate a precarious future.

The ConversationMore flesh is needed to make this vision a reality but the individual components that make up the vision are not radical and, if done well, can enhance students’ learning experiences and outcomes. And that is better for everyone.

Linda J. Graham, Professor in the School of Early Childhood & Inclusive Education, Queensland University of Technology; Ilektra Spandagou, Senior lecturer, University of Sydney, and Kate de Bruin, Researcher in Inclusive Education, Monash University

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

How we can help refugee kids to thrive in Australia


Karen Zwi, UNSW

When we think about refugee children’s health, we tend to assume bad news. But refugee children are highly resilient. This means they can thrive, mature and develop despite poor circumstances, and can adapt despite severe and long-term hardship.

Our newly published research is the first of its kind to track the long-term health of newly arrived refugee children in Australia.

We showed which children tend to do well in the community, and the factors that predict this. We also give evidence for what Australia can do to help all refugee children thrive in the longer term.

Who are these refugee children and their families?

Between May 2009 and April 2013, a total of 228 refugee children under 15 years, who were granted refugee status under Australia’s humanitarian program, arrived in our study area. We followed 61 of these children for three years. None of them had been detained for any length of time, as they had been granted refugee status overseas and flown to Australia.

The children were on average six years old, with equal numbers of boys and girls. They came from south-east Asia (46%), Africa (33%) and the eastern Mediterranean (21%) regions (as defined by the World Health Organisation).

When they arrived, 30% of children were living in a family with one parent absent (almost always the father).

Many parents had high levels of education (20% had university or trade qualifications) and had been employed before coming to Australia; only 6% had no education and 20% reported unemployment in their home countries.

What physical and mental health issues did we see?

We checked the children’s physical health when they arrived and their development and social-emotional well-being over the next two and three years after settling in Australia.

Refugee children have well known physical, mental and developmental health issues, and our research supported this.

Iron and vitamin D deficiency were the most common conditions we saw. Only a few children had infectious conditions needing treatment.

After two and three years in Australia, most parents said their child had good access to primary health care and visited their GP every one to four months. About half the children had visited a dentist.

About a quarter of young children had developmental delay (mostly delayed speech and language) at the start, but all had caught up by their third year in Australia.

However, children’s social and emotional wellbeing was most strikingly affected by their refugee experiences. After two years of being in Australia, over 20% of children were experiencing emotional symptoms (such as sadness or fear) and/or peer problems (like difficulties making friends).

But by year three, these problems had decreased to below 10%, no different to the general Australian population, illustrating their resilience.

Which children do well and not so well?

Many studies have highlighted factors that make it more likely for refugee children to have poor health and well-being. These include economic and social conditions related to where people come from and where they settle.

We cannot change certain factors before children arrive, like pre-migration violence. But we can change factors once they’re here. In fact, research suggests post-arrival factors have a bigger impact than pre-arrival factors on refugee well-being.

Post-arrival factors that lead to poor outcomes include: time in immigration detention, exposure to violence post-migration, family separation, poor mental health of carers, negative school and peer experiences, perceived discrimination, parental unemployment, fall in socio-economic status and financial stress.

The most common stressful life events children and families experienced in our study were changes in the child’s school and home, parental unemployment, marital separation and financial stress.

For instance, single parent families became more common (38%) three years after settlement, largely due to marital breakdown; almost all families were receiving government financial benefits and living in rented accommodation two and three years after settling; half of the families had a weekly income under A$800, about 30% below the average weekly income in Australia; and unemployment was high (by year three, only 12% of parents were employed, mainly in semi-skilled and unskilled jobs).

Refugee children with stable accommodation tend to do better than those forced to move home multiple times.
from shutterstock,com

Researchers have also identified factors linked with better outcomes and resilience, and that increase the chance of good health and well-being.

These include living close to the family’s own ethnic community and having external support from the general community.

In our study, most families (more than 80%) knew someone in Australia before immigrating and felt supported by either their own ethnic (more than 73%) or the general community (more than 63%). Most parents said Australians displayed tolerance towards people of other religions, cultures and nationalities (more than 78%), although several volunteered anecdotes of their perception of discrimination related to property rental.

What can we do to make a lasting difference?

By addressing the factors that predict poor health and enhancing those that predict a good outcome, we can make a significant difference to refugee children’s lives.

Our research and others’ shows what policymakers and governments can do to help refugee children thrive in Australia. We need to:

  • integrate children and families into host communities
  • support families to stay intact
  • provide stable settlement with minimal relocations
  • support children’s education
  • support parents’ employment
  • ensure access to health, social and economic resources
  • reduce post-migration exposure to violence and threat, including detention, racism and bullying.

The ConversationIf these recommendations are implemented, it is very likely refugee children can realise the resilience they bring with them to Australia.

Karen Zwi, Paediatrician and Associate Professor, UNSW

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

Syria: Open Doors at Work


The link below is to an article reporting on the work of Open Doors in Syria and how you can help Christians under threat in that country.

For more visit:
http://blog.opendoorsusa.org/donations-work-syria/

The Bystander Effect: New York’s Train Death


The link below is to an article that considers the bystander effect following the death of a man who was hit by a train in New York. Rather than try and help the man, a photographer chose to take a photo instead.

For more visit:
http://bigthink.com/think-tank/would-you-save-this-mans-life-the-trolley-problem-revisited

Hindu Extremists in India Beat Pastor Unconscious


Evangelist was traveling with sons from one village to another.

NEW DELHI, April 22 (CDN) — Hindu extremists beat a pastor and evangelist unconscious in front of his sons earlier this month in Madhya Pradesh state.

Ramesh Devda, 30, from Dhadhniya, Meghnagar district, said he was attacked on April 4 at about 11 a.m. after leading a prayer meeting in Chikklia village. He said he was on his way to Bhajidongra, at the border of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat states, by motorcycle with his two sons, 10-year-old Elias, and 8-year-old Shimon, to lead another prayer meeting.

When he reached Raseda village, he said, suddenly three people on two motorcycles blocked his way and forced him to stop.

“Suddenly out of nowhere these three men appeared in two motorcycles – they blocked me and tilted my motorcycle,” Pastor Devda told Compass. “We fell down. They were carrying big bamboo sticks and clubs. They started beating me, and then they called and three more men came and started to attack me.”

He said he was thankful that his sons were spared from beating, though his older son sustained a leg injury in the course of the attack.

“They were angry at me and were threatening to kill me and were warning me not to come to their area again,” he said. “My sons were screaming at the top of their voices, and they were afraid. One of the men hit me on my forehead with a big bamboo stick, cracking my skull. The others were also beating me on my body, especially my back with bamboo sticks.”

A blow to the forehead temporarily blinded him, he said.

“My eyes were darkened, and I fell down, and they proceeded to beat me even more,” he said. “The men were also abusive in the foulest language that I had heard, and they were drunk.”

People passing by heard the two boys crying out and came to help, and the attackers fled, he said, leaving the unconscious pastor and his sons.

“I do not know who helped me, as I was unconscious,” Pastor Devda said. “But I came to know later that local Christians also came in and called the emergency helpline. As a result, an ambulance came, which then took me to the hospital.”

He was taken to Anita Surgical Hospital on Station Road in Dahod, Gujarat. There a physician identified only as Dr. Bharpoda told him that he had fractured his skull.

“I am being treated for my wounds now, but there is still a lot of pain,” Pastor Devda said.

A Christian for 15 years, Pastor Devda has been in Christian leadership for 11 years and now serves with the Christian Reformed Fellowship of India. He has two other children, Ashish and 4-year-old Sakina, and his wife Lalita, 28, is active with him in Christian service.

Pastor Devda leads congregations in Chikklia, Bhajidongra and Dhadhniya villages.

“I have heard that I was attacked because the people of Chikklia did not like me conducting the Sunday service there,” he said. “The people who beat me up do belong to a Hindu fundamentalist outfit, and some believers in Chikklia know them. I can recognize them if I see them again.”

He said, however, that he does not want to file a First Information Report (FIR) with police.

“There is no one supporting me or standing with me in my village or my mission, and I am myself fearful, as I have to continue to minister to these very people,” Pastor Devda said. “I know my attack was pre-planned, but I do not want to report it to the police.”

A Christian co-worker from Rajasthan was also attacked about a month ago in equally brutal fashion, he said, but also refrained from filing an FIR because of fear of repercussions.

Vijayesh Lal, secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India’s Religious Liberty Commission, said the tribal belt that extends to the border areas of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan, has been a hot spot for anti-Christian activity since the late 1990s.

“Only recently a 65-year-old evangelist was beaten and stripped by Hindu extremists,” he said. “It is a worrisome trend, and one that should be dealt with not only by the government but by the secular media and civil society in general.”

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

Pakistani Christian Falsely Accused of ‘Blasphemy’ Illegally Detained


Policeman says Arif Masih, held at an undisclosed location, is innocent.

LAHORE, Pakistan, April 15 (CDN) — Police in Punjab Province, Pakistan have illegally detained a Christian on a “blasphemy” accusation, even though one officer said he was certain an area Muslim falsely accused 40-year-old Arif Masih because of a property dispute.

On April 5 Shahid Yousuf Bajwa, Masih’s next-door neighbor, initially filed a First Information Report (FIR) against “an unidentified person” for desecrating the Quran after finding threatening letters and pages with quranic verses on the street outside his home in Village 129 RB-Tibbi, Chak Jhumra, Faisalabad district. Desecrating the Quran under Section 295-B of Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes is punishable by up to 25 years in prison.

“Some identified person has desecrated the Holy Quran and has tried to incite sentiments of the Muslims,” Bajwa wrote in the FIR. Clearly stating that he did not know who had done it, he wrote, “It is my humble submission to the higher authorities that those found guilty must be given exemplary punishment.”

Bajwa charges in the FIR that when he went outside his home at 9 p.m. and found the pages, he looked at them by the light of his cell phone and thought they were pages of the Quran. Masih’s uncle, Amjad Chaudhry, told Compass the pages look like those of a school textbook containing quranic verses.

Chaudhry said Bajwa and his two brothers are policemen. After Bajwa found the pages and the threatening letters, Chaudhry said, he arranged for an announcement to be made from the loudspeaker of the area mosque.

“The message urged all the Muslims of the village to gather there due to the urgency and sensitivity of the matter,” Chaudhry said.

He said initially local Muslims were very angry and suggested that Christian homes be set ablaze, but that others said the Christians should be first given a chance to explain whether they were responsible.

“Then some Muslims began saying that because Arif Masih lived on this street, he would be the person who could have done this crime,” he said. “However, most of the people who gathered there said that they knew Arif Masih well and they could not imagine he could do such a vile thing. But others insisted that because Masih was the only Christian who lived on the street, only he could be suspected of the crime.”

At about 10 p.m. on April 5, Chaudhry said, Bajwa’s brother Abdullah Bajwa called Masih to the Siyanwala police station, where he was arrested; Masih’s family members were unaware that he had been arrested.

According to Section 61 of Pakistan’s Criminal Procedure Code, an arrested person must be produced within 24 hours before a court; Masih has been detained at an undisclosed location without a court appearance since April 5, with police failing to register his arrest in any legal document, making his detention illegal. Investigating Officer Qaisar Younus denied that Masih was in police custody, but Superintendent of the Police Abdul Qadir told Compass that Masih had been detained for his own safety.

Younus told Compass that he was sure Masih was innocent, but that he had been falsely accused because of a land dispute.

 

Property Conflict

According to Chaudhry, about two years ago Masih bought a plot next to his house that another villager, Liaquat Ali Bajwa (no relation to Shahid Yousuf Bajwa) wanted to buy – and who despised Masih for it, telling the previous owner, “How come a Christian can buy the plot that I wanted to buy?”

The parcel owner had given Masih preference as he knew him well, and he understood that the homeowner adjacent to the property had the first rights to it anyway.

At the same time, Ali Bajwa was able to seize about five square feet of the house of a Christian named Ghulam Masih after the wall of his home was destroyed in last year’s flooding. Feeling he was not in position to challenge Ali Bajwa, Ghulam Masih sold the land to Arif Masih so that he could take charge, Chaudhry said.

Arif Masih subsequently filed a civil suit against Ali Bajwa to evict him from his property. Chaudhry said Arif Masih was about to win that case, and that Ali Bajwa thought he could retain that property and obtain the one Arif Masih had purchased by accusing him of blasphemy with the help of police officer Shahid Yousuf Bajwa.

Ali Bajwa had been threatening Masih, saying, “You will not only give me this plot, but I will even take your house,” Chaudhry said.

Chaudhry said he had learned that Shahid Yousuf Bajwa felt badly after villagers criticized him for falsely accusing an innocent man of blasphemy, but that Bajwa feared that if he withdrew the case he himself would be open to blasphemy charges.

 

Neighbors

Arif Masih’s family has remained steadfast throughout the case, refusing to flee the area in spite of the possibility of Muslim villagers being incited to attack them, Chaudhry said.

“It all became possible because of Muslim villagers who sided with us,” he said.

Chaudhry said that when police arrived at the scene of the Muslims who had gathered with the pages and the threatening letters, the villagers told officers that they had not seen who threw them on the street. He said that the letters included the threat, “You Muslims have failed in doing any harm to us, and now I order you all to convert to Christianity or else I will shoot you all.”

The letters did not bear the name of the person who wrote them, he added.

On Monday (April 11), Chaudhry managed to meet with Masih, though Masih’s wife has yet to see him. Chaudhry told Compass that the first thing Masih asked him was whether everyone was safe, as there are only three Christian families in the area of about 150 Muslim homes.

“If the mob had decided to harm our houses, then it would have been very devastating,” Chaudhry said.

After Masih was arrested, at midnight police came to his house and began beating on the main gate, Chaudhry said. When Masih’s wife, Razia Bibi opened the door, the officers rushed into the house and searched it.

“They were looking for some proof, but thank God they could not find anything that could even be remotely linked with the incident,” he said.

Chaudhry added that police have not mistreated Masih, but he said the matter has lingered so long that he feared police may involve him in the case, or that “things may go wrong like in most blasphemy cases.”

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

Religious Conversion Worst Form of ‘Intolerance,’ Bhutan PM Says


Propagation of religion is allowable – but not seeking conversions, top politician says.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 13 (CDN) — In the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Christianity is still awaiting legal recognition, Christians have the right to proclaim their faith but must not use coercion or claim religious superiority to seek conversions, the country’s prime minister told Compass in an exclusive interview.

“I view conversions very negatively, because conversion is the worst form of intolerance,” Jigmi Yoser Thinley said in his office in the capital of the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Christian leaders in Bhutan have told Compass that they enjoy certain freedoms to practice their faith in private homes, but, because of a prohibition against church buildings and other restrictions, they were not sure if proclamation of their faith – included in international human rights codes – was allowed in Bhutan.

Prime Minister Thinley, who as head of the ruling party is the most influential political chief in the country, said propagation of one’s faith is allowed, but he made it clear that he views attempts to convert others with extreme suspicion.

“The first premise [of seeking conversion] is that you believe that your religion is the right religion, and the religion of the convertee is wrong – what he believes in is wrong, what he practices is wrong, that your religion is superior and that you have this responsibility to promote your way of life, your way of thinking, your way of worship,” Thinley said. “It’s the worst form of intolerance. And it divides families and societies.”

Bhutan’s constitution does not restrict the right to convert or proselytize, but some Non-Governmental Organizations have said the government effectively limits this right by restricting construction of non-Buddhist worship buildings and celebration of some non-Buddhist festivals, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

It adds that Bhutan’s National Security Act (NSA) further limits proclamation of one’s faith by prohibiting “words either spoken or written, or by other means whatsoever, that promote or attempt to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste, or community, or on any other ground whatsoever, feelings of enmity or hatred between different religious, racial, or language groups or castes and communities.” Violation of the NSA is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, though whether
any cases have been prosecuted is unknown, according to the State Department report.

Bhutan’s first democratic prime minister after about a century of absolute monarchy, Thinley completed three years in office last Thursday (April 7). While he affirmed that it is allowable for Christians to proclaim their faith – a practice commanded by Christ, with followers agreeing that it is the Holy Spirit, not man, that “converts” people – Thinley made his suspicions about Christians’ motives manifest.

“Any kind of proselytization that involves economic and material incentives [is wrong],” he said. “Many people are being converted on hospital beds in their weakest and most vulnerable moments. And these people are whispering in their ears that ‘there is no hope for you. The only way that you can survive is if you accept this particular religion.’ That is wrong.”

Thinley’s suspicions include the belief that Christians offer material incentives to convert.

“Going to the poor and saying, ‘Look, your religion doesn’t provide for this life, our religion provides for this life as well as the future,’ is wrong. And that is the basis for proselytization.”

Christian pastors in Thimphu told Compass that the perception that Bhutan’s Christians use money to convert the poor was flawed.

The pastors, requesting anonymity, said they prayed for healing of the sick because they felt they were not allowed to preach tenets of Christianity directly. Many of those who experience healing – almost all who are prayed for, they claimed – do read the Bible and then believe in Jesus’ teachings.

Asked if a person can convert if she or he believed in Christianity, the prime minister replied, “[There is] freedom of choice, yes.”

In his interview with Compass, Thinley felt compelled to defend Buddhism against assertions that citizens worship idols.

“To say that, ‘Your religion is wrong, worshiping idols is wrong,’ who worships idols?” he said. “We don’t worship idols. Those are just representations and manifestations that help you to focus.”

Leader of the royalist Druk Phuensum Tshogpa party, Thinley is regarded as a sincere politician who is trusted by Bhutan’s small Christian minority. He became the prime minister in April 2008 following the first democratic election after Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated power in 2006 to pave the way toward democracy.

Until Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the practice of Christianity was believed to be banned in the country. The constitution now grants the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion to all citizens. It also states that the king is the protector of all religions.

Thus far, the Religious Organisations Act of 2007 has recognized only Buddhist and Hindu organizations. As a result, no church building or Christian bookstore has been allowed in the country, nor can Christians engage in social work. Christianity in Bhutan remains confined to the homes of local believers, where they meet for collective worship on Sundays.

Asked if a Christian federation should be registered by the government to allow Christians to function with legal recognition, Thinley said, “Yes, definitely.”

The country’s agency regulating religious organizations under the 2007 act, locally known as the Chhoedey Lhentshog, is expected to make a decision on whether it could register a Christian federation representing all Christians. The authority is looking into provisions in the law to see if there is a scope for a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu organization to be registered. (See http://www.compassdirect.com, “Official Recognition Eludes Christian Groups in Bhutan,” Feb. 1.)

On whether the Religious Organisations Act could be amended if it is determined that it does not allow legal recognition of a Christian federation, the prime minister said, “If the majority view and support prevails in the country, the law will change.”

Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.

“I am part Christian, too,” he said. “I read the Bible, occasionally of course. I come from a traditional [Christian] school and attended church every day except for Saturdays for nine years.”

A tiny nation in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan has a population of 708,484 people, of which roughly 75 percent are Buddhist, according to Operation World. Christians are estimated to be between 6,000 to nearly 15,000 (the latter figure would put Christians at more than 2 percent of the population), mostly from the south. Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepalese, constitute around 22 percent of the population and have a majority in the south.

 

Religious ‘Competition’

Bhutan’s opposition leader, Lyonpo Tshering Togbay, was equally disapproving of religious conversion.

“I am for propagation of spiritual values or anything that allows people to be good human beings,” he told Compass. “[But] we cannot have competition among religions in Bhutan.”

He said, however, that Christians must be given rights equal to those of Hindus and Buddhists.

“Our constitution guarantees the right to freedom of practice – full stop, no conditions,” he said. “But now, as a small nation state, there are some realities. Christianity is a lot more evangelistic than Hinduism or Buddhism.”

Togbay said there are Christians who are tolerant and compassionate of other peoples, cultures and religions, but “there are Christians also who go through life on war footing to save every soul. That’s their calling, and it’s good for them, except that in Bhutan we do not have the numbers to accommodate such zeal.”

Being a small nation between India and China, Bhutan’s perceived geopolitical vulnerability leads authorities to seek to pre-empt any religious, social or political unrest. With no economic or military might, Bhutan seeks to assert and celebrate its sovereignty through its distinctive culture, which is based on Buddhism, authorities say.

Togbay voiced his concern on perceived threats to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture.

“I studied in a Christian school, and I have lived in the West, and I have been approached by the Jehovah’s Witness – in a subway, in an elevator, in a restaurant in the U.S. and Switzerland. I am not saying they are bad. But I would be a fool if I was not concerned about that in Bhutan,” he said. “There are other things I am personally concerned about. Religions in Bhutan must live in harmony. Too often I have come across people who seek a convert, pointing to statues of our deities and saying
that idol worship is evil worship. That is not good for the security of our country, the harmony of our country and the pursuit of happiness.”

The premise of the Chhoedey Lhentshog, the agency regulating religious organizations, he said, “is that all the different schools of Buddhism and all the different religions see eye to eye with mutual respect and mutual understanding. If that objective is not met, it does not make sense to be part of that.”

It remains unclear what the legal rights of Christians are, as there is no interaction between the Christians and the government. Christian sources in Bhutan said they were open to dialogue with the government in order to remove “misunderstandings” and “distrust.”

“Thankfully, our political leadership is sincere and trustworthy,” said one Christian leader.

Asserting that Christians enjoy the right to worship in Bhutan, Prime Minister Thinley said authorities have not interfered with any worship services.

“There are more Christian activities taking place on a daily basis than Hindu and Buddhist activities,” he added.

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

Pakistani Christian Sentenced for ‘Blasphemy’ Dies in Prison


Murder suspected in case of Christian imprisoned for life.

LAHORE, Pakistan, March 15 (CDN) — A Christian serving a life sentence in Karachi Central Jail on accusations that he had sent text messages blaspheming the prophet of Islam died today amid suspicions that he was murdered.

Qamar David’s life had been threatened since he and a Muslim, Munawar Ahmad, were accused of sending derogatory text messages about Muhammad in June 2006, said David’s former lawyer, Pervaiz Chaudhry (See “Pakistan’s ‘Blasphemy’ Laws Claim Three More Christians,” March 10, 2010).

David was convicted under Section 295-C under Pakistan’s widely condemned blasphemy laws for derogatory remarks against Muhammad in a case registered at Karachi’s Azizabad Police Station, with another case registered at Saddar Police Station pending. Maximum punishment for Section 295-C is death, though life imprisonment is also possible. On Feb. 25, 2010 he received a sentence of life in prison, which in Pakistan is 25 years, and was fined 100,000 rupees (US$1,170).

Chaudhry, who said he was David’s counsel until Islamic threats against his life forced him to stop in July 2010, told Compass that the Christian had expressed fears for his life several times during the trial.

“David did not die of a heart attack as the jail officials are claiming,” Chaudhry said. “He was being threatened ever since the trial began, and he had also submitted a written application with the jail authorities for provision of security, but no step was taken in this regard.”

Conflicting versions of his death by jail officials also raised doubts.

A jail warden said David was reported crying for help from his cell today in the early hours of the morning. He said that David, who was breathing at the time, was transported to the Civil Hospital Karachi (CHK), but that doctors there pronounced him dead on arrival.

He also said, however, that he had heard from colleagues that David was found dead inside his cell and that his body had been sent to the hospital for post-mortem, not for treatment. Investigations are underway, he added.

Karachi Central Prison Deputy Superintendent Raja Mumtaz said David was shifted to CHK for treatment after jail staff members found him crying for help with “one hand on the left side of his chest.” He said the prisoner was first taken to a local healthcare center, but that doctors there suggested that he should be taken to a hospital for proper treatment.

Mumtaz said that David was shifted to the hospital at around 10:45 a.m. today and was alive when he reached the hospital.

Sindh Inspector General of Prisons Ghulam Qadir Thebo insisted to BBC that David died of natural causes, saying he was housed in a Christian-only wing in which no Muslim prisoners had access to him.

“Our investigations have not yielded any evidence of foul play,” Thebo told BBC. “There is no evidence to suggest he was murdered.”

David’s family reached Karachi today to take custody of the body. An impartial probe and autopsy report is awaited, as no jail officials were ready to say on record whether they had seen any visible injury on David’s body.

David’s son, Aqeel David, told Compass that the family had been informed only that his father had suffered a heart attack and died while he was being taken to the hospital.

“We don’t know anything besides this little piece of information that was given to us on the telephone,” he said. “We are unsure about the circumstances surrounding my father’s death because of the serious nature of the cases against him.”

David’s former attorney said that the trial in which David was convicted and sentenced was a sham.

“The judge acquitted Ahmad in this case, even though all 11 witnesses clearly pointed out his direct involvement in the incident,” Chaudhry said.

In regard to the other blasphemy case registered at the Saddar Police Station, Chaudhry said he had cross-examined witnesses who had again accused Ahmad of mischief and absolved David of any wrongdoing.

“Ahmad’s lawyer had filed an application for re-examining the witnesses when I withdrew from the case,” Chaudhry added. “I stopped pursuing his cases last year because of serious threats to my life by Islamist groups who used to gather outside the courtroom.”

Chaudhry said threats were made “both inside and outside the courtroom.”

During the cross-examining of witnesses, he said, Senior Superintendent of Police Muhammad Afzal had also admitted that Ahmad was the real culprit and that David was arrested on the information of “some sources.” Chaudhry said there was no relation whatsoever between Ahmad and his client before the trial started.

“They were complete strangers,” Chaudhry said. “David was definitely framed in these cases.”

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