Clearing homeless camps compounds the violation of human rights and entrenches the problem


Cristy Clark, Southern Cross University

On Wednesday evening, the New South Wales state government passed legislation empowering police to dismantle the Martin Place homeless camp in the heart of Sydney’s CBD. This follows similar actions in Victoria, where police cleared a homeless camp outside Flinders Street Station. Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle proposed a bylaw to ban rough sleeping in the city.

In March, the UN special rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha, censured the City of Melbourne’s actions, stating that:

… the criminalisation of homelessness is deeply concerning and violates international human rights law.

As the special rapporteur highlighted, homelessness is already “a gross violation of the right to adequate housing”. To further discriminate against people rendered homeless by systemic injustice is prohibited under international human rights law.


Further reading: Ban on sleeping rough does nothing to fix the problems of homelessness


Real problem is lack of affordable housing

In contrast to her Melbourne counterpart, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore had been adopting a more human-rights-based approach to resolving the challenges presented by the Martin Place camp.

After negotiating with camp organisers, Moore made it clear her council would not disperse the camp until permanent housing was found for all of the residents. As she pointed out:

You can’t solve homelessness without housing — what we urgently need is more affordable housing and we urgently need the New South Wales government to step up and do their bit.

It’s no secret that housing affordability in both Sydney and Melbourne has reached crisis point. And homelessness is an inevitable consequence of this. But we have seen little real action from government to resolve these issues.

The NSW government has been offering people temporary crisis accommodation or accommodation on the outskirts of the city. This leaves them isolated from community and without access to services.

In contrast, these inner-city camps don’t just provide shelter, food, safety and community; they also send a powerful political message to government that it must act to resolve the housing affordability crisis.

Having established well-defined rules of conduct, a pool of shared resources and access to free shelter and food, the Martin Place camp can be seen as part of the commons movement.

This movement seeks to create alternative models of social organisation to challenge the prevailing market-centric approaches imposed by neoliberalism and to reclaim the Right to the City.


Further reading: Suburbanising the centre: the government’s anti-urban agenda for Sydney


We should be uncomfortable

It is not surprising that right-wing pundits have described these camps as “eyesores” or that they make NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian “completely uncomfortable”. The breach of human rights these camps represent, and the challenge they pose to the current system, should make people uncomfortable.

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Unlike most comparable nations, Australia has very limited legal protections for human rights. In this context, actions like the Martin Place and Flinders Street camps are one of the few options available to victims of systemic injustice to exercise their democratic right to hold government to account.

In seeking to sweep this issue under the carpet, both the City of Melbourne and the NSW government are not only further breaching the right to adequate housing, they are also trying to silence political protest.

It is clear from Moore’s demands, and the NSW government’s own actions, that the Martin Place camp is working to create pressure for action. What will motivate the government to resolve this crisis once the camps have been dispersed?

As Nelson Mandela argued in 1991 at the ANC’s Bill of Rights Conference:

A simple vote, without food, shelter and health care, is to use first-generation rights as a smokescreen to obscure the deep underlying forces which dehumanise people. It is to create an appearance of equality and justice, while by implication socioeconomic inequality is entrenched.

We do not want freedom without bread, nor do we want bread without freedom. We must provide for all the fundamental rights and freedoms associated with a democratic society.

Mandela’s words were hugely relevant to apartheid South Africa, where a ruling elite had established a deeply racist and unjust system that linked political disenfranchisement and material deprivation. But they also resonate today in Australia where inequality is on the rise – driven in large part by disparities in property ownership.

The ConversationHomelessness is a deeply dehumanising force that strips people of access to fundamental rights. The policies that are creating this crisis must be seen as unacceptable breaches of human rights. We need to start asking whether our current economic system is compatible with a truly democratic society.

Cristy Clark, Lecturer in Law, Southern Cross University

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

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What’s in the name ‘homeless’? How people see themselves and the labels we apply matter



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The person using this shelter in New South Wales certainly meets the official definition of homeless, but how they see themselves is important.
Bidgee/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Zoe Walter, The University of Queensland; Cameron Parsell, The University of Queensland; Genevieve Dingle, The University of Queensland, and Jolanda Jetten, The University of Queensland

Homelessness continues to be a contentious issue in Australia. Earlier this year, Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton asserted:

There’s no reason people should be sleeping on the street, there are no reasons people should be homeless … There’s more than enough beds and accommodation for people to access.

Aside from the question of whether these claims are correct, homelessness is not as easily resolved as just giving people a bed and roof over their head. For a start, it is not just people sleeping on the street who are considered homeless. People using various forms of marginal and insecure accommodation legitimately lay claim to that label.

Using the Australian Bureau of Statistics definition, people who do not have suitable accommodation alternatives are considered homeless when:

  • they live in dwellings that are inadequate;

  • they do not have stable tenure; or

  • they do not have control over, or full access to, space for social relations.

Looking at this definition, it becomes clear that determining whether someone is homeless or not is not straightforward. By this definition, giving someone a bed in a shelter is not sufficient to resolve their homelessness. What’s more, we have long known that people sleep rough because they feel safer on the street than in some homeless accommodation.

How do people see themselves?

Even though these points are increasingly being recognised, what these debates neglect is that the “homeless” person’s perceptions of their situation might be just as important as how others classify them.

Do they feel they are homeless when they sleep on the street? Do they consider that they are no longer homeless when they have a bed in a shelter? And, importantly, do they even describe their situation as homelessness?

We examined this question in a large-scale research project with the Salvation Army. We started by exploring how many people who were staying in crisis homeless accommodation would see themselves as a “homeless person”.

We found that 55% of people staying in homeless accommodation provided by The Salvation Army identified as “homeless”, and 31% rejected that label.

14% were ambivalent about categorising themselves as “homeless” – they neither fully accepted nor rejected the label. For example, they said they were “not 100% homeless” or that even though they might “technically” be classed as homeless, they did not see that as an accurate way to describe their situation.

The reasons people gave for their responses reflected the complex and varied nature of what is meant by “home”. Some saw themselves as homeless because they did not have the stability, security or privacy bound up in our Western notion of home. As one woman put it:

… at the end of the day there’s a time limit on my stay and that’s not what I would class as stable, safe accommodation.

For others, their shelter accommodation did represent stability and security. As one male participant explained:

To me, homeless is on the street. This is a hostel, it’s a refuge, it’s a roof over your head, a shower, food, so I wouldn’t say I was homeless. I’ve got somewhere to go every day to sleep, so I wouldn’t say I’m homeless.

Others simply said the shelter felt like a home. It thus appears that not everyone who meets official definitions of being homeless defines themselves as such.

Labels affect people’s wellbeing

So, what’s in a name? When it comes to homelessness, the answer may be of considerable importance.

In our research, we found that the wellbeing of people who refused to define themselves as “homeless” was significantly higher than the wellbeing of those who had adopted the label to describe themselves.

Somewhat surprisingly, people who had experienced chronic homelessness in the past were no more or less likely to self-categorise as homeless than people who had few or no previous homeless experiences.

How people saw themselves also had no impact on their use of the services. Participants who rejected or were ambivalent about the homeless label reported rates of use similar to those who accepted the label.

It thus appears that when it comes to mental health, when we adopt a label to describe ourselves, we start to think and act in ways that align with the stereotypes of that label.

In this case, despite the diversity of experiences of homelessness, those who accept the homeless label internalise the rejection and even dehumanisation that homeless people experience from mainstream society. This is associated with significant social and emotional costs.

What are the lessons for service providers?

The Salvation Army has changed both its practices and the language it uses in providing shelter to people in need.
Gnangarra/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Given the importance of self-definitions for mental health and wellbeing, understanding how people see themselves has important policy implications.

Our research shows that not everyone who needs crisis accommodation defines themselves as a homeless person. However, individuals must typically self-identify as such to gain entry to homeless services.

This means these people are required to adopt a view of themselves that is in and of itself associated with negative wellbeing outcomes. There is a need for housing and supported accommodation that does not put pressure on people to identify as homeless and thus to carry the baggage associated with that label.

Fundamental needs, such as a need for housing, should not be tied with categories and identities that assume who someone is and what they are perceived to lack.

The Salvation Army has taken these insights further and translated them into practice principles. These take as a starting point that, in delivering services, it is important to avoid seeing people through the lens of their current and past housing challenges.

Concretely, this has, for instance, led to changes in the use of spaces. In several shelters, the Salvation Army have removed physical barriers between staff and residents and created more independent living space. The idea is that by undermining categories of “service staff” versus “service users” the homeless label will become a less prominent way for the latter group to categorise themselves. This should in itself be empowering for residents.

Other changes to service delivery are not as tangible, but are equally important. The language the Salvation Army uses has changed significantly, with the aim of treating people as active agents of their life and members of society, rather than passive recipients of services.

These changes in practice are subtle and not easily described, but they represent a significant change in the ethos of the service. For example, services no longer use terms such as “homeless people” as the main way of referring to people using the services.

These ideals reflect a broader change in how homeless services are provided to people. Homelessness accommodation providers, social service providers and governments must ensure the language they use and, importantly, the language and labels applied to people using services do not assume that needing assistance is a defining trait of the individual.


The ConversationThis article was co-authored by Chris Deighton, The Salvation Army Operations Manager Queensland, Accommodation and Housing Services, Australia Eastern Territory.

Zoe Walter, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The University of Queensland; Cameron Parsell, Research Fellow, The University of Queensland; Genevieve Dingle, Lecturer in Clinical Psychology and Director of the UQ Psychology Clinic, The University of Queensland, and Jolanda Jetten, Professor of Social Psychology, The University of Queensland

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

China Keeps Church Leaders from Public Worship Attempt


Police put pastors under house arrest over weekend, before detaining at least 160 on Sunday.

DUBLIN, April 11 (CDN) — Police in China held “about two dozen” pastors and elders of Beijing’s Shouwang Church under house arrest or at police stations over the weekend to keep them from attending a Sunday worship service in a public location, according to Bob Fu of the China Aid Association.

Three top leaders of the church remain in jail and several others are under strict surveillance after  hundreds of Chinese police yesterday cordoned off the walkway to a third-floor outdoor meeting area adjacent to a property purchased by the church in Haidian district, Beijing, and arrested at least 160 members of the 1,000-strong church as they tried to assemble.

The church members were bundled into waiting vans and buses to prevent them from meeting as planned in the public space, Reuters and The Associated Press (AP) reported, and most had been released by today.

Church leaders claimed officials had pressured their landlords, forcing them out of both rented and purchased locations and leaving them no choice but to worship in the open.

“The government cornered them into making this decision,” Fu said, adding that the church had initially tried to register with the government. “They waited for two years, and when the government still denied them registration, they tried to keep a low profile before finally deciding to buy the Daheng New Epoch Technology building.”

Shouwang is a very unique church, he said.

“Most members are well-educated, and they include China’s top religious scholars and even former government officials, which may be a factor in the government’s response to them,” he said.

As one of the largest house churches in Beijing, Shouwang is unique in insisting on meeting together rather than splitting the congregation into smaller groups meeting in several locations, Fu said. Zion church, for example, may have more members than Shouwang, but members meet in smaller groups across the city.

“This is based on the founding fathers’ vision for Shouwang Church to be a ‘city on a hill,’” as stated in the Bible in Matthew chapter five, Fu explained. “So they’ve made a conscious decision not to go back to the small-group model. Either the government gives them the keys to their building or gives them written permission to worship in another location, or they will continue meeting in the open.”

Police arrested anyone who showed up to take part in the service, AP reported.

 

‘Most Basic Necessity’

Church leaders last week issued a statement to the congregation explaining their decision to meet outdoors.

“It may not be the best decision, but at this time it is an inevitable one,” the statement said, before reminding church members that the landlord of their premises at the time, the Old Story Club restaurant, had come under government pressure and repeatedly asked them to leave, while the previous owners of the Daheng New Epoch Technology building, purchased a year ago by the church for 27.5 million RMB (US$4.2 million), had refused to hand over the keys. (See, “Church in China to Risk Worshipping in Park,” April 7.)

The church had already met outdoors twice in November 2009 before officials gave tacit consent to move to the Old Story Club restaurant. Officials, however, again prevented Shouwang Church from meeting in May and August of last year.

Fu said it was common for government officials across China to pressure landlords into revoking leases for house church groups.

“For example, right now I know of at least two churches that were made ‘homeless’ in Guangzhou this week, including one church with at least 200 members,” he said.

Shouwang’s statement pointed to Article 36 of China’s Constitution, which grants every citizen freedom to worship, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified by China, which states that every citizen has the right to observe his religion or belief “either alone or in community with others and in public or private.”

For this reason the church planned to meet outdoors until officials granted legal, written permission to worship in an approved location – preferably at the building purchased by the church.

The document also advised church members not to resist if they were held under house arrest or arrested at the Sunday venue.

“Objectively speaking, our outdoor worship must deliver this message to the various departments of our government: attending Sunday worship is the most basic necessity for Christians in their life of faith,” the statement concluded.

The number of Protestant house church Christians in China is estimated at between 45 and 60 million, according to Yu Jianrong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Rural Development Institute, with a further 18 to 30 million people attending government-approved churches.

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

India’s Anti-Christian Violence in 2008 Linked to Terrorists


Christians call for agency to probe anti-Muslim terrorism ties to Orissa-Karnataka attacks.

NEW DELHI, March 25 (CDN) — Right-wing terrorists played a key role in attacking and killing Christians in Orissa and Karnataka states in 2008, one of the Hindu extremist suspects in anti-Muslim bomb blasts has told investigators, leading to renewed demands for a probe by India’s anti-terror agency.

Pragya Singh Thakur, arrested for planning 2008 bombings targeting Muslims in west India, told the National Investigation Agency (NIA) that Lt. Col. Prasad Srikant Purohit had “masterminded” the 2008 anti-Christian violence in Orissa and Karnataka, The Indian Express daily reported on Wednesday (March 23). Purohit is accused along with Thakur for the 2008 bombings of Muslims.

Thakur had met with Purohit after the August 2008 Kandhamal attacks against Christians began and told her “he was into big things like blasts, etc., and had masterminded the Orissa and Karnataka ‘disturbances,’” the national daily reported.

The NIA, a recently formed agency to prevent, probe and prosecute terrorism-related incidents on a national scale, is investigating several cases involving right-wing terrorism aimed at the Muslim minority in retaliation for Islamist attacks. Both Thakur, formerly a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing, and Purohit, who was serving in the Indian Army when he was arrested for his role in blasts in Malegaon city in western Maharashtra state, were part of the Hindu extremist Abhinav Bharat.

Thakur’s statement to the NIA came soon after a Directorate of Military Intelligence report said Purohit had confessed to having killed at least two Christians in Kandhamal and playing a role in violence in Karnataka and other states.

The revelation by Thakur was not surprising, said John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council.

“We have held that the military precision of the Kandhamal riots, which spread fast and raged for months, could not be a work of mere common people, and that higher brains were at work to ‘teach the Christians a lesson’ while sending out signals of their power lust to the entire nation,” Dayal told Compass.

The violence in Kandhamal began following the assassination of a Hindu extremist leader Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008. Though Maoists claimed responsibility for the murder, Hindu extremists blamed Christians for it. The violence began after the arrival of Indresh Kumar, an executive committee member of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and a suspect in blast cases, said Kandhamal activist Ajay Singh. Local media reports said Kumar was part of Saraswati’s funeral procession, which was designed to trigger the attacks, Singh added.

The RSS denies having played any role in terrorism. On March 12, Ram Madhav, an RSS national executive committee member, called the allegation against Kumar “a concerted political campaign.” Those who were dragging the RSS leader into blast cases “will stand thoroughly exposed,” The Times of India daily quoted him as saying.

Dayal and another Christian leader, Joseph Dias, said they had separately written to India’s prime minister and home minister seeking inclusion of the anti-Christian attacks in an ongoing NIA investigation. Sajan K. George of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) said he had petitioned the president for the same.

Dias, general secretary of the Catholic-Christian Social Forum, a Maharashtra-based rights group, recalled that violence in Kandhamal spread across 13 other districts of Orissa.

“In Kandhamal alone, more than 6,600 homes were destroyed, 56,000 people rendered homeless, thousands injured, and about 100 men and women [were] burned alive or hacked to death,” Dias said. “Among the women raped was a Catholic nun.”

In September 2008, as the violence continued in Kandhamal, a series of attacks on Christians and their property rocked Mangalore city in Karnataka state.

“In Karnataka, it was hundreds of churches that were desecrated, Christians brutally beaten up, over 350 false cases foisted on them, property held by the community taken over, and no relief to date [has been] received,” Dias said.

While the government of Orissa downplayed the violence as “ethnic tensions,” Karnataka officials blamed it on Christian conversions.

The RSS and outfits linked to it such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, which claims to work for tribal welfare, facilitated the Kandhamal attacks together with alleged Hindu nationalist terrorists, Dayal said.

“We want the truth about Hindu groups’ anti-national terror activities against minority Christians to come out,” said George, whose GCIC is based in Karnataka.

Dias warned that that the latest statement by Thakur must not to be seen in isolation, as the Military Intelligence report revealed that the Abhinav Bharat had targeted Christians in several states, including Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

The “game plan” is to “cripple Christian religious places, property and institutions, besides eliminating its nascent community leadership at the grassroots,” Dias added.

The Abhinav Bharat was formed in 2007 by a few right-wing Hindus allegedly disillusioned with the leaders of the Hindu nationalist movement, whom they thought were too timid to make India a Hindu nation, rather than one based on religious pluralism.

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

Court in India Convicts Legislator in Second Murder Case


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Testimony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It also noted mental trauma in children.

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News

Death Toll Mounts in Chinese Earthquake


The death toll in the 6.9 magnitude earthquake that hit the Chinese province of Qinghai is fast approaching 1500 killed. The Qinghai province is located in China’s Tibetan region. Hundreds are still missing and more than 11 000 have been injured.

Damage in the region is tremendous, with many, many people homeless and facing disease, hunger and other difficulties as a consequence of this massive disaster. Thousands of homes and structures have been destroyed.

Islamic Gunmen Kill Christian Aid Workers in Pakistan


World Vision worker says militants dragged his colleagues into room and executed them.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 10 (CDN) — Suspected Islamic militants armed with guns and grenades stormed the offices of a Christian relief and development organization in northwest Pakistan today, killing six aid workers and wounding seven others.

The gunmen besieged the offices of international humanitarian organization World Vision near Oghi, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Islamabad in Mansehra district of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Police and World Vision’s regional spokesman said the Pakistani staff members, including two women, were killed after up to 15 gunmen arrived in pick-up trucks and began firing.

“They gathered all of us in one room,” World Vision administration officer Mohammad Sajid, who was in the office at the time, told Compass. “The gunmen, some of whom had their faces covered, also snatched our mobile phones. They dragged people one by one and shifted them to an adjacent room and shot and killed them.”

Rienk van Velzen, World Vision’s regional communications director, said from the Netherlands that all staff members in the office were Pakistanis. He said one is missing.

The organization has been operating in the area since October 2005, when aid workers flooded into the northwest after a 7.6-magnitude earthquake killed more than 73,000 people and left about 3.5 million homeless.

But many charities have since left the area as Islamist violence soared. In February 2008, four aid workers with the British-based group Plan International were killed in a similar gun and grenade attack in Mansehra town.

Police said the militants escaped into the hills.

“Police rushed to the area after receiving information about the attack, but the attackers managed to flee,” senior police officer Waqar Ahmed said. “We chased them, there was an exchange of fire, but the gunmen escaped into the mountains.”

Ahmed blamed the attack on “the same people who are destroying our schools” – a reference to Taliban militants opposed to co-education who have blown up hundreds of schools across the northwest in the past three years.

“Now they want to disturb relief work in quake-hit areas,” Ahmed said.

World Vision’s website says the aid group is “inspired by our Christian values” but stresses that it does not proselytize or predicate aid on a person’s faith.

Foreign targets are rarely attacked directly in Pakistan, despite the chronic insecurity in the nuclear-armed, Muslim state, which is a key ally in the U.S.-led war on Al Qaeda and the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

A wave of suicide and bomb attacks across Pakistan has killed more than 3,000 people since 2007. Blame has fallen on Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked militants bitterly opposed to the alliance with the United States.

The United Nations decided last year to relocate a limited number of its international staff from Pakistan because of security concerns.

The UN’s World Food Program office in Islamabad was attacked in October last year, with five aid workers killed in a suicide bombing.

Then on Feb. 3, a bomb attack in the NWFP district of Lower Dir killed three U.S. soldiers and five other people at the opening of a school just rebuilt with Western funding after an Islamist attack.

Elsewhere in the northwest today, police found the bodies of two men the Taliban had accused of spying for the United States. The local tribesmen had been snatched last month from Mir Ali in North Waziristan tribal region, and their “bullet-riddled bodies were found dumped under a bridge,” police officer Dildar Khan said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Anti-Christian Sentiment Marks Journey for Bhutan’s Exiles


Forced from Buddhist homeland, dangers arise in Hindu-majority Nepal.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, February 23 (CDN) — Thrust from their homes in Bhutan after Buddhist rulers embarked on an ethnic and religious purge, Christian refugees in Nepal face hostilities from Hindus and others.

In Sunsari district in southeastern Nepal, a country that is more than 80 percent Hindu, residents from the uneducated segments of society are especially apt to attack Christians, said Purna Kumal, district coordinator for Awana Clubs International, which runs 41 clubs in refugee camps to educate girls about the Bible.

“In Itahari, Christians face serious trouble during burials,” Kumal told Compass. “Last month, a burial party was attacked by locals who dug up the grave and desecrated it.”

Earlier this month, he added, a family in the area expelled one of its members from their home because he became a Christian.

Bhutan began expelling almost one-eighth of its citizens for being of Nepali origin or practicing faiths other than Buddhism in the 1980s. The purge lasted into the 1990s.

“Christians, like Hindus and others, were told to leave either their faith or the country,” said Gopi Chandra Silwal, who pastors a tiny church for Bhutanese refugees in a refugee camp in Sanischare, a small village in eastern Nepal’s Morang district. “Many chose to leave their homeland.”

Persecution in Bhutan led to the spread of Christianity in refugee camps in Nepal. Though exact figures are not available, refugee Simon Gazmer estimates there are about 7,000-8,000 Christians in the camps – out of a total refugee population of about 85,000 – with many others having left for other countries. There are 18 churches of various faiths in the camps, he said.

“Faith-healing was an important factor in the spread of Christianity in the camps,” said Gazmer, who belongs to Believers’ Church and is awaiting his turn to follow five members of his family to Queensland, Australia. “A second reason is the high density in the camps.”

Each refugee family lives in a single-room hut, with one outdoor toilet for every two families. The Nepalese government forbids them to work for fear it will create unemployment for local residents.

Life was even harder for them before 2006, when Nepal was a Hindu kingdom where conversions were a punishable offence.

“When I began preaching in 2000, I had to do it secretly,” said Pastor Silwal of Morang district. “We could meet only surreptitiously in small groups. I used my hut as a make-shift church while many other groups were forced to rent out rooms outside the camp.”

A fact-finding mission in 2004 by Brussels-based Human Rights Without Frontiers found that police pulled down a church structure built by Pentecostal Christians in the Beldangi camp by orders of Nepal’s home ministry. The rights group also reported that Hindu refugees ostracized the Christians, who had proceeded to rent a room outside the camp to meet three times a week for worship services and Bible study.

When the Jesus Loves Gospel Ministries (JLGM) organization sent officials from India to the Pathri camp in Morang in 2006, they found that local residents resentful of the refugees had taken note of a baptism service at a pond in a nearby jungle.

“In August, we were planning another baptism program,” JLGM director Robert Singh reported. “But the villagers put deadly poisonous chemicals in the water … Some of the young people went to take a bath ahead of our next baptism program. They found some fish floating on the water and, being very hungry – the refugees only get a very small ration, barely enough to survive on – they took some of the fish and ate them. Three of them died instantly.”

Singh also stated that poisoned sweets were left on the premises of the refugee school in the camp. They were discovered in time to avert another tragedy.

Life for Christian refugees improved after Nepal saw a pro-democracy movement in 2006 that caused the army-backed government of Hindu king Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah to collapse. The king was forced to reinstate parliament, and lawmakers sought to curb his powers by declaring Nepal a secular state.

Though Christian refugees are now allowed to run churches openly in the camps, ill will toward them has yet to end. When Pastor Silwal asked camp authorities to allow him to open a church in 2006, Hindu neighbors protested, saying it would cause disturbances. Camp authorities allowed him to open a tiny church in a separate room on the condition that its activities would not disturb neighbors.

Earlier in his life in Bhutan, said the 40-year-old Pastor Silwal, he had been a stern Hindu who rebuked his two sisters mercilessly for becoming Christians. He forbade them to visit their church, which gathered in secret due to the ban on non-Buddhist religions in place at the time. They were also forbidden to bring the Bible inside their house in Geylegphug, a district in southern Bhutan close to the Indian border.

“I became a believer in 1988 after a near-death experience,” Pastor Silwal told Compass. “I contracted malaria and was on the verge of death since no one could diagnose it. All the priests and shamans consulted by my Hindu family failed to cure me. One day, when I thought I was going to die I had a vision.”

The pastor said he saw a white-robed figure holding a Bible in one hand and beckoning to him with the other. “Have faith in me,” the figure told him. “I will cure you.”

When he woke from his trance, Silwal asked his sisters to fetch him a copy of the Bible. They were alarmed at first, thinking he was going to beat them. But at his insistence, they nervously fetched the book from the thatched roof of the cow shed where they had kept it hidden. Pastor Silwal said he tried to read the Bible but was blinded by his fever and lost consciousness.

When he awoke, to his amazement and joy, the fever that had racked him for nearly five months was gone.

Pastor Silwal lost his home in 1990 to the ethnic and religious purge that forced him to flee along with thousands of others. It wasn’t until 1998, he said, that he and his family formally converted to Christianity after seven years of grueling hardship in the refugee camp, where he saw “people dying like flies due to illness, lack of food and the cold.”

“My little son too fell ill and I thought he would die,” Silwal said. “But he was cured; we decided to embrace Christianity formally.”

Homeless

In 2001, Bhutan4Christ reported the number of Bhutanese Christians to be around 19,000, with the bulk of them – more than 10,500 – living in Nepal.

When persecution by the Bhutanese government began, frightened families raced towards towns in India across the border. Alarmed by the influx of Bhutanese refugees, Indian security forces packed them into trucks and dumped them in southern Nepal.

Later, when the homesick refugees tried to return home, Indian security forces blocked the way. There were several rounds of scuffles, resulting in police killing at least three refugees.

Simon Gazmer was seven when his family landed at the bank of the Mai river in Jhapa district in southeastern Nepal. Now 24, he still remembers the desolation that reigned in the barren land, where mists and chilly winds rose from the river, affecting the morale and health of the refugees. They lived in bamboo shacks with thin plastic sheets serving as roofs; they had little food or medicine.

“My uncle Padam Bahadur had tuberculosis, and we thought he would die,” said Gazmer, who lives in Beldangi II, the largest of seven refugee camps. “His recovery made us realize the grace of God, and our family became Christians.”

The plight of the refugees improved after the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stepped in, receiving permission from the government of Nepal to run the refugee camps. According to the UNHCR, there were 111,631 registered refugees in seven camps run in the two districts of Jhapa and Morang.

Though Nepal held 15 rounds of bilateral talks with Bhutan for the repatriation of the refugees, the Buddhist government dragged its feet, eventually breaking off talks. Meantime, international donors assisting the refugee camps began to grow weary, resulting in the slashing of aid and food. Finally, seven western governments – Canada, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, the United States and the Netherlands – persuaded Nepal to allow the refugees to resettle in third countries.

The exodus of the refugees started in 2007. Today, according to the UNHCR, more than 26,000 have left for other countries, mostly the United States. A substantial number of the nearly 85,000 people left in the camps are ready to follow suit.

Although they now have a new life to look forward to, many of Bhutan’s Christian refugees are saddened by the knowledge that their homeland still remains barred to them. So some are looking at the next best thing: a return to Nepal, now that it is secular, where they will feel more at home than in the West.

“I don’t have grand dreams,” said Pastor Silwal. “In Australia I want to enroll in a Bible college and become a qualified preacher. Then I want to return to Nepal to spread the word of God.”  

Report from Compass Direct News 

Haiti: Earthquake Tragedy


The terrible tragedy in Haiti continues to dominate world news, with fears that the death toll from the earthquake will top 200 000 deaths. 250 000 people were also injured in the earthquake and there is now a major effort to provide essential aid including food and medical provisions for the suffering Haitian population. This is a major tragedy and the world needs to respond to it – thankfully, this is happening.

The crisis will continue long after the headlines have ended, with some 2 million people having been rendered homeless as a consequence of the disaster. Millions of Haitians are at risk of illness and death as a consequence of the quake, with sanitary conditions, lack of drinking water, limited shelter, etc. These are just some of the problems that will continue to plague the poverty-stricken people of Haiti. The rebuilding process will be enormous and well out of reach of Haiti. The nation of Haiti will continue to need the assistance of the world for many years to come.

Organisations like World Vision, the Red Cross and many others, will need the continued support of governments and individuals around the world in order to continue to support and assist the victims of this earthquake. Please continue to assist by sending donations to the various aid organisations that are assisting in the work in Haiti. Over the coming days and weeks, ‘Random Thoughts’ will pass on information as to how people can continue to assist the Haitian people.