Is this the budget that forgot renters?



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The budget brought no increase in rent assistance to help low-income renters in the private rental market.
AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Emma Power, Western Sydney University

The measures in the 2017-18 federal budget targeting the supply of lower-cost rental housing are limited. There are no significant funding increases to social housing and homelessness services. There is no increase in rent assistance to help low-income renters in the private rental market. The Conversation

Capital gains tax and negative gearing settings remain largely untouched, and the proposed bond aggregator will support expansion of housing aimed at very specific groups.

For the majority of Australia’s renters, housing will remain unaffordable, insecure and out of reach.

Community housing

If private investors get on board, the bond aggregator may help boost the supply of affordable and community housing by providing cheaper financing to community housing providers.

These two forms of housing are extremely important. However, they do little to help most renters.

Eligibility requirements for community housing mean many who require low-cost housing, where rent is calculated at between 25% and 30% of household income, are not able to gain access.

Single older women are among the fastest-growing group of homeless people in Australia. However, most are unable to access community housing because the only eligibility benchmark they meet is their low-income status.

Women not leaving situations of domestic violence or who do not have a recognised disability will find it difficult to qualify for housing before they reach homelessness.

The private rental market these women face is obscene. There is extremely low housing security with the risk of eviction when the standard lease agreement (of six and 12 months) runs out. High rents place sufficient, nutritious food out of reach of their budget, and they face difficulties paying power bills.

Time spent bringing up children, the gendered pay gap and – for some – relationship breakdown are among the factors that lead to this housing experience.

Long waiting lists for social housing and eligibility restrictions mean this year’s budget proposals are likely to fail this group.

Affordable housing

The second target of the bond aggregator is affordable housing. This is housing that is rented at between 75% and 80% of market rent. It is often described as “key worker” housing, where teachers, ambulance drivers and police officers can live.

Affordable housing has an important place in the housing system. However, below-market rents in central, work-rich regions are still extremely high and out of reach for many.

Of more concern, it is unlikely that many of these lower-income workers would be able to maintain their high rents at retirement. This generates two risks:

  • that the renter is evicted and forced to find housing on the private market, which puts them at high risk of homelessness

  • that the housing provider continues their commitment to house the tenant securely once their income drops, so the risk here is to the housing provider’s bottom line. They will face a loss of income, as they drop rents from 80% of market value to around 30% of the retired person’s pension.

First home buyers

The budget tips its hat to first home buyers; prospective buyers will now be allowed to save up to A$30,000 at a reduced tax rate. But this is barely one-quarter of a standard 20% deposit for most apartments in Sydney.

Renters who aspire to home ownership and have sufficient income to service a mortgage may benefit from this measure. However, it will do little for the large number of low- and moderate-income households. For this group, spiralling housing costs put home ownership well out of reach.

It is also possible that this measure will add to inflationary pressure on housing prices by boosting demand for entry-level homes. Existing owners who are selling their homes would be the primary beneficiaries.

What’s missing?

There remains a need for courageous government action to tackle the structural inequities in the housing market.

Removing tax incentives that keep investor heat in the market will be essential – and so will increases to social housing budgets.

Investment in a large stock of secure low-cost social housing should be prioritised. Failing this, there will be a need to increase rent assistance payments, particularly in high-cost regions.

But this is far from ideal. More rent assistance will help renters in the short term, but amounts to a subsidy for private landlords in the long term.

Does the government care?

Underpinning much budget analysis is a sense that government should be concerned with the needs of the disadvantaged. Sociologist Keith Jacobs argues we should disavow ourselves of that view, describing housing policy in Australia as a “form of reverse welfarism that exacerbates social inequality”.

Jacobs argues:

… the state should be understood as an agency that sustains the conditions necessary for the finance industry, developers and real estate agents, along with well-off householders and landlords, to reap profits.

The failure of the 2017 budget to tackle tax measures that support individual private investment, and its emphasis on funding social and affordable housing through market investment mechanisms while providing little direct support at the bottom end of the market, does little to challenge this argument.

Emma Power, Senior Research Fellow, Geography and Urban Studies, Western Sydney University

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

Budget 2017 charts new social and affordable housing agenda


Chris Martin, UNSW and Hal Pawson, UNSW

Under pressure to tackle deepening housing affordability problems, Treasurer Scott Morrison has included various housing policy measures in his budget, some relating to Australia’s small sector of social and affordable housing. The Conversation

One headline-grabber is the creation of a new entity, the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation (NHFIC). This will source private funds for on-lending to affordable housing providers to finance rental housing development. However, the bigger issue for the sector remains federal and state funding.

This public funding is the money that, along with tenants’ rents, co-funds state and territory housing and homelessness services. Here too Morrison is proposing reform, particularly to the primary federal-state funding arrangement for social and affordable housing, the National Affordable Housing Agreement (NAHA).

A couple of months ago we suggested the NAHA needed a reboot. Recognising the seriously run-down state of the system, we argued for an increase in funding from its present starvation level. Morrison now proposes a new federal-state funding agreement, the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (NHHA).

The level of federal funding will be the same as under the old NAHA. But the Commonwealth will press states and territories for action in defined “priority areas”. In effect, this looks like a return to a Canberra-led reform agenda for social and affordable housing unseen since the early Rudd government.

Setting aggregate supply targets

In what appears a significant passage, the budget papers reveal the government’s “priority areas” for the NHHA. We’ll consider these in turn, and then the recurring issue of inadequate funding.

Lack of transparency on the costs incurred by state and territory housing authorities in operating their social housing portfolios has been a particular problem under the NAHA. This is an area where federal engagement is welcome.

All levels of government should be pressed to quantify the level and type of need for housing in the community. And they should be made to set clear “new supply” targets for meeting that need.

That said, the federal government should stop pretending to be shocked at the lack of new social housing delivered by those authorities under the NAHA. The shortfall in NAHA funding has been obvious for years. It simply is too low to bridge the gap between the rents low-income public housing tenants can afford to pay and the costs of properly maintaining the system, let alone growing it to keep pace with rising need.

Residential land development

The stress laid on this issue within the budget policy statement reflects the federal government’s stated concern about “the supply side” of the housing affordability problem. It has framed state government planning controls as an impediment to new housing development.

However, merely loosening requirements and offering existing land owners the prospect of greater development does not ensure it will actually happen.

To ensure land owners don’t just sit on development opportunities speculatively, the federal government should use its NHHA leverage. This could include pushing the states and territories to make greater use of land tax, which would spur development and bring under-utilised land and housing to market.

Inclusionary zoning

Inclusionary zoning is a specific type of planning mechanism. It requires housing developments (above a certain size) to include some proportion of dedicated affordable housing. Ideally, this should be rental housing preserved as “affordable” in perpetuity.

Inclusionary zoning is long established in other countries and has long been demanded by housing advocates in Australia. It is now the subject of increasing interest from planning authorities – for example, the Greater Sydney Commission.

The co-financing arrangements for the NHFIC could incorporate active use of land-use planning powers for inclusionary zoning. Development sites – or developer levy proceeds – could be part of state and territory contributions to funding affordable housing development.

A commitment to build into the NHHA incentives for stepped-up use of inclusionary zoning by state governments is, therefore, very welcome.

However, the budget papers indicate that state compliance with this NHHA expectation might involve not only housing dedicated to affordable rental housing, but also “dedicated first home buyer stock”. This seems to raise the prospect of developers meeting inclusionary zoning requirements simply by reserving some newly built units for first home buyers rather than investors.

The best way to enhance first home buyer prospects vis a vis investor landlords would be to level the playing field by winding back investor negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions, not through this kind of tinkering. And to cast such “FHB reservation” initiatives as in any way equivalent to inclusionary zoning for affordable rental housing would be a highly retrograde step.

Renewing affordable housing stock

An interesting inclusion in the proposed terms of the NHHA is a clause about renewing affordable housing stock.

First, it appears positive in acknowledging the need for a public housing overhaul and indicating a new level of federal government interest in making this happen.

At a minimum, states and territories should be required to undertake a comprehensive audit of their existing portfolios. The level of outstanding disrepair has to be costed. They also should identify where renewal can best take place, balancing need for expanded and upgraded housing with sensitive treatment of existing communities.

Second, it indicates federal backing for further transfers of public housing as a growth path for the affordable housing industry. However, as our recent research for AHURI shows, this is feasible only if the operating cost gap is funded.

Past community housing growth through transfers, particularly following the 2009 housing ministers’ commitment to expand community housing to 35% of all social housing, involved an understanding that Commonwealth Rent Assistance, paid through Centrelink to transferred tenants, would help cover that gap.

Without additional funding in the NHHA, a new phase of growth through transfers requires a recommitment by governments to use rent assistance as an effective operational subsidy to community housing providers. A new target and timeframe to replace the 35% benchmark also need to be considered.

Homelessness services

Previously the subject of a separate funding agreement (the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness), homelessness services have struggled for years in the face of that agreement’s pending expiry and short-term extensions.

The NHHA will fund homelessness services on an ongoing basis, which the sector has welcomed.

Funding shortfall remains

As we’ve indicated throughout, the objectives of the NHHA – and of the social and affordable housing system generally – will continue to run up against the reality that decent housing of this kind costs more than low-income households can afford to pay.

This applies especially to people living on the miserable level of benefits such as Newstart. A subsidy is required, both to build up the stock and to keep it in good order.

Clearer targets, more transparent cost accounting, and innovations like NHFIC finance won’t bridge the gap. On the contrary, to successfully use those initiatives to build more stock, both state and territory housing authorities and non-government affordable housing providers need a larger subsidy than present funding provides.

The budget has indexed NHHA funding to wages. It would be nice to think that land and housing prices will increase only in line with wages.

In reality, properly funding the growth and maintenance of our social and affordable housing stock will require more than what the federal government is offering.

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

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

Budget needs a sharper policy scalpel to help first home buyers


Rachel Ong, Curtin University

In its 2017 budget, the federal government repeatedly stated its preference for a “scalpel” rather than a “chainsaw” or “sledgehammer” approach to demand management in the housing market. The Conversation

The number of housing measures in the budget are more wide-ranging than in previous budgets of recent times. Policy levers on both the supply and demand side have been incorporated within a raft of housing measures. The government claims this is a “comprehensive package that can make a difference”.

However, do the demand measures go far enough to make much-needed inroads into the housing affordability crisis now facing an entire generation of would-be first home buyers? Or is the so-called scalpel too blunt to make a meaningful difference for them?

First Home Super Savers Scheme

The budget’s key housing measure for helping young people gain a foothold on the home-ownership ladder is to allow first home buyers to use up to A$30,000 of voluntary superannuation contributions for a deposit on their first home.

Clearly, the scheme will attract the tax advantages of superannuation. Therefore, in principle, it will help first home savers accelerate their savings to buy a home, thus bridging the deposit gap, while protecting superannuation savings accumulated through compulsory employer contributions.

However, at least two key questions are pertinent.

The first relates to how many first home buyers will likely be well positioned to make voluntary contributions to their super saving account. There appears to be a general reluctance among Australians to make voluntary contributions.

Existing research has found household budget constraints are a major barrier that make it unaffordable for many to make voluntary superannuation contributions. Poor financial literacy and lack of knowledge of the superannuation system are other factors.

The second key question relates to the scheme’s impact on property prices. The scheme does not aim to ease demand pressures in the housing market. It is likely that high house prices will not be curbed, so the prospects of home ownership will continue to fade for many first home buyers.

Existing demand-side levers, including the First Home Owners Grant and stamp duty concessions for first home buyers, have not succeeded in improving the affordability of houses for most young people. Hence, it is difficult to see how an additional demand lever such as the First Home Super Savers scheme is going to have a substantial impact on affordability.

This is not to say that the budget has completely ignored the need to temper demand tensions in the property market.

Demand pressures can be eased via measures that target two other types of property owners – older home owners and property investors. The budget does contain measures that target both groups. Yet again, the question remains as to whether the levers are long enough to produce meaningful impacts.

Targeting older owners and property investors

Older downsizers aged over 65 years will be allowed to channel up to $300,000 from the sale proceeds of the family home into their super fund.

Many older home owners are living in larger dwellings than they need after their children leave home. Helping elderly home owners – sometimes coined “last home buyers” – to downsize into smaller dwellings can free up larger homes for first home buyers in earlier stages of life who are forming families.

However, the impediments to downsizing are many. These include financial barriers but also non-financial barriers. Importantly, most elderly home owners have strong emotional attachments to their family home and local community.

However, a lack of appropriate and affordable dwellings in neighbourhoods where older owners would like to stay also poses barriers to downsizing. For downsizing reforms to be effective, financial incentives will need to be accompanied by supply-side solutions that broaden the diversity of the housing stock so older home owners’ housing preferences and needs can be met.

The government has not made any significant changes to tighten negative gearing or capital gains tax concessions to reduce competition from property investors. Concern has focused on the potential contraction of private rental housing supply should investors withdraw en masse from the private rental market. However, a longer-term perspective would take into account second-round effects.

As investors sell off their rental properties, more properties will become available in the market to meet demand from first home buyers. This will not only have the impact of easing tensions in the rental market as more renters become home buyers, but it will also encourage subsequent second property investment as young career-builders seek to accumulate more wealth in their property portfolios after securing their first home.

Such second- and third-round effects need to be incorporated more into policy thinking so that policy design rests on not just short-term, but medium-to-long-term, considerations.

Is the scalpel sharp enough?

The budget contains myriad demand and supply levers that directly or indirectly aim to assist young people with their first home purchase. It represents an overdue but welcome acknowledgement on the government’s part that much needs to be done to improve home-ownership prospects for first home buyers.

A package of measures that seeks to influence both supply and demand simultaneously in the housing market is, in principle, a sensible approach to an entrenched policy concern such as housing affordability. However, in practice, policy design matters.

In the case of the 2017 budget, it would appear that the scalpel will need a whole lot more sharpening if it is to make an effective incision into the housing affordability crisis that’s plaguing an entire generation of aspiring home owners.

Rachel Ong, Deputy Director, Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, Curtin University

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

Budget 2017: government still tinkering with housing affordability


Richard Holden, UNSW

It’s unsurprising that in the lead-up to this year’s federal budget there was a lot of discussion about housing affordability as its centrepiece. Over the past 20 years price-to-income and price-to-rent ratios have doubled. Sydney’s price-to-income ratio is over 12, making it the second-least-affordable city in the world. Melbourne is in fourth place. The Conversation

And in a budget tableau as bland as this one, it wouldn’t have taken much to really play up the housing affordability policies.

Yet the measures in this budget involve not much more than tinkering.

On the minus side, the biggest announcement was a “first home super saver scheme”, which would allow voluntary contributions of A$15,000 per annum and A$30,000 in total (per person if in a couple) to superannuation for prospective first home buyers from July 2017. These could be withdrawn and taxed at 30 percentage points below the normal marginal rate and used for a deposit.

This will cost the government A$250 million over four years and do absolutely nothing to help first home owners. We have seen this movie before, with 50 years of first home owner grants in one form or another. All that happens is that this subsidy goes into the price of existing housing. Sellers benefit, buyers get no joy.

It’s bad economics, somewhat costly, and a cruel hoax on prospective home buyers who are struggling with an out-of-control housing market.

But the biggest minus of all was the absence of any measure whatsoever to address negative gearing and CGT exemptions for rental properties. Sorry, there is one: you now won’t able to deduct an airfare to the Gold Coast to “inspect” your rental property. The government has boxed itself in on this, with Labor having taken a plan to the last election to tackle both of these issues (full disclosure, the Labor plan bears a good deal of resemblance to my McKell Institute plan).

Nonetheless, it is reflective of the state of our politics that the one thing that could really help the most (and which the PM has agreed with very publicly in the past) is off the table.

But the measures aren’t all bad. On the plus side, there were incentives for people over 65 to downsize by allowing A$300,000 of the proceeds of a sale of their main residence to go into their superannuation, above the controversial A$1.6 million cap announced in last year’s budget.

Will the budget encourage older Australians to downsize? Maybe. One measure of how powerful an incentive it will be is that it costs only A$30 million over the four-year forward estimates period. This is not a big government spend.

It’s also unclear whether it will be a large enough financial incentive to overcome the emotional and psychological barriers to moving from the family home after many years in it. There was also a conspicuous absence of reforms to stamp duty, which is a major impediment to downsizing.

There was also good news on affordable housing with the establishment of the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation (NHFIC). It will provide A$63.1 million over four years to operate a so-called “bond aggregator” that aims to provide cheaper financing for community housing providers. This is a good idea that should have a positive effect, and help address the high cost of funds that often plagues financing of housing for low-income earners.

Consistent with the recent populist policy announcements by this government, foreign purchasers of Australian properties were targeted in this budget. There will no longer be a capital gains tax (CGT) exemption for primary residences of foreign and temporary tax residents, and the grandfathering will only last until June 30 2019. There will also be a lower threshold for CGT withholding (A$750,000, down from A$2 million) on foreign tax residents, and the rate will be increased from 10% to 12.5%.

There were some wishy-washy words about the crucial issue of housing supply. The government has definitely identified the key role that supply plays. They are proposing a variety of “city deals” to provide incentives for zoning reform — especially in western Sydney. That’s all good, but whether it is anything more than the budget-summary feel-good headline – “Working with the states to deliver planning and zoning reform” – remains to be seen.

There was also the announcement of a tax on foreign owners who leave their properties vacant. This is supposed to raise A$16.3 million over four years — which is a rounding error in the scheme of things.

We had a housing affordability crisis before this budget, and we will have one after it. If the first step to recovery is acknowledging that one has a problem, then the government is still on step one.

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics and PLuS Alliance Fellow, UNSW

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

New to Australia? Good luck! Migrants can no longer afford ‘gateway’ suburbs



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Migrants can no longer afford to live in the ‘gateway’ suburbs that once helped them to leave the ranks of the ‘disadvantaged’ and feel at home in their new country.
Jack Wright/flickr, CC BY-NC

Hazel Easthope, UNSW and Wendy Stone, Swinburne University of Technology

The concentration of disadvantaged people in certain parts of cities is almost always seen as undesirable by urban researchers and policymakers. But is this always the case? The Conversation

Our research demonstrates that it isn’t. Concentrations of people who are often classified as “disadvantaged” – namely newly arrived humanitarian refugees and their families – can have significant positive outcomes. This is because such “gateway suburbs”, while housing large numbers of disadvantaged people, are not disadvantaged places.

Auburn is 19km west of the Sydney CBD.

As part of a broader research project, we chose two suburbs that were identified as disadvantaged and characterised by high numbers of immigrants. We spoke with residents and local service providers about their experiences, place changes over time and current settlement opportunities for newly arriving migrants. The suburbs we chose were Auburn in Sydney and Springvale in Melbourne.

Springvale is 23km south-east of the Melbourne CBD.

Auburn and Springvale may have high concentrations of disadvantaged people, as defined by Australian Bureau of Statistics data (in terms of income, employment and language proficiency in particular). But they are not disadvantaged places.

These suburbs are well serviced by public transport and are within reasonable commuting distance of their cities’ CBDs. They have a plethora of social and community services, along with a good selection of shops and services catering to the local community.

Historically, these suburbs have been major hubs for providing resources and support to new and established migrant communities.

A bottom-up community structure

In both suburbs, the presence of “first-wave” migrant groups during years of intensive manufacturing after the second world war, and the immigration encouraged to support this, promoted the development of migrant support services. Government subsidised some of these. Many grew more organically through community relationships and support needs.

With the decline of manufacturing from the late 1970s and changing immigration policies, government support has retracted in these areas. This has been accompanied by a winding back of government support for housing and a rapidly changing housing market.

The legacy of these areas has meant that both Auburn and Springvale continue to have high degrees of amenity and social and economic infrastructure. This includes a high concentration of grassroots community groups. These provide support to recent immigrants in general and refugees in particular.

‘There is a fantastic array of support services out there.’ – Auburn interviewee.
Author provided

These are good places to live. But there are signs this is changing.

Broader changes in urban housing markets and migration policies, and economic and labour market restructuring, are beginning to undermine the benefits for immigrants settling in these areas. Increasingly unaffordable housing, reduced employment opportunities in low-skilled jobs and the erosion of government support for newly arrived immigrants mean migrants are at risk of greater disadvantage than in the past.

In particular, housing costs are increasing rapidly in Auburn and Springvale. While private market housing has successfully housed new migrants in the past, this is no longer the case. Many migrants can no longer afford to live in these areas, except in overcrowded or otherwise unsatisfactory living conditions.

Rental stock is in bad disrepair. Refugees and recent arrivals go into these houses and real estate agents are slow to act on people living in substandard conditions and are reluctant to do anything about it. – Springvale interviewee

Today, the choice new migrants face is whether to live in unsatisfactory conditions in these areas, or to move to more affordable areas with fewer facilities and support services.

If similar processes are at play in other migrant gateway suburbs, and we suspect they are, this has important implications for Australia’s ability to continue its role as an immigrant destination country.

In the context of recent shifts in Australian immigration policy away from humanitarian and family migrants and towards skilled and student migrants, this is perhaps not a government priority. But it should be.

Left to fend for yourself

Far from being something to celebrate, that new “disadvantaged” migrants are finding it increasingly difficult to live together in places like Auburn and Springvale is something we should be worried about.

As they are pushed out into more dispersed areas with more insecure housing, recent arrivals are also pushed away from areas with the services and amenities that might help them leave the ranks of the “disadvantaged” and become the “new Australians” who have, until recently at least, been much celebrated.

We have been replacing housing, employment and migrant settlement policy supports with a fend-for-yourself “good luck!” approach in an unaffordable housing market.

In a market dominated by more than 95% private ownership or rental, this poses new risks for those choosing Australia as their home. It introduces further complexity for organisations trying to support successful integration as they work across dispersed locations.

Ultimately, these developments create the risk that Australian society will miss out on the enduring cultural, social and economic contributions made by migrants who choose to call Australia home.

Hazel Easthope, Senior Research Fellow, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW and Wendy Stone, Associate Professor; Director, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, Swinburne University of Technology

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

Suspected Islamists Burn Down Two Homes in Ethiopia


Two thatched-grass structures belonged to evangelist who received threats.

NAIROBI, Kenya, April 21 (CDN) — A Christian near Ethiopia’s southern town of Moyale said suspected Islamic extremists on March 29 burned down his two thatched-grass homes.

Evangelist Wako Hanake of the Mekane Yesus Church told Compass he had been receiving anonymous messages warning him to stop converting Muslims to Christ. The Muslims who became Christians included several children.

“Inside the house were iron sheets and timber stored in preparation for putting up a permanent house,” said Hanake, who is in his late 30s. “I have lost everything.”

The incident in Tuka, five kilometers (nearly three miles) from Moyale in southern Ethiopia’s Oromia Region, happened while Hanake was away on an evangelistic trip. A neighbor said he and others rescued Hanake’s wife and children ages 8, 6 and 2.

“We had to rescue the wife with her three children who were inside one of the houses that the fire was already beginning to burn,” said the neighbor, who requested anonymity.

Church leaders said neighbors are still housing Hanake and his family.

“The family has lost everything, and they feel fearful for their lives,” said a local church leader. “We are doing all we can to provide clothing and food to them. We are appealing to all well wishers to support Hanake’s family.”

Hanake said he has reported the case to Moyale police.

“I hope the culprits will be found,” he said.

An area church leader who requested anonymity told Compass that Christians in Moyale are concerned that those in Tuka are especially vulnerable to a harsh environment in which religious rights are routinely violated.

“The Ethiopian constitution allows for religious tolerance,” said another area church leader, also under condition of anonymity, “but we are concerned that such ugly incidents like this might go unpunished. To date no action has been taken.”

Tuka village, on Ethiopia’s border with Kenya, is populated mainly by ethnic Oromo who are predominantly Muslim. The area Muslims restrict the preaching of non-Muslim faiths, in spite of provisions for religious freedom in Ethiopia’s constitution.

Hostility toward those spreading faiths different from Islam is a common occurrence in predominantly Muslim areas of Ethiopia and neighboring countries, area Christians said, adding that they are often subject to harassment and intimidation.

Ethiopia’s constitution, laws and policies generally respect freedom of religion, but occasionally some local authorities infringe on this right, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

According to Operation World, nearly 40 percent of Ethiopia’s population affiliates with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, 19 percent are evangelical and Pentecostal and 34 percent are Sunni Muslim. The remainder are Catholic (3 percent) and ethno-religious (3.7 percent).

 

Jimma Violence

In Jimma Zone in the country’s southwest, where thousands of Christians in and around Asendabo have been displaced as a result of attacks that began on March 2 after Muslims accused a Christian of desecrating the Quran, the number of churches burned has reached 71, and two people have reportedly been killed. Their identities, however, were still unconfirmed.

When the anti-Christian violence of thousands of Muslims subsided by the end of March, 30 homes had reportedly been destroyed and as many as 10,000 Christians may have been displaced from Asendabo, Chiltie, Gilgel Gibe, Gibe, Nada, Dimtu, Uragay, Busa and Koticha.

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

Indonesian Churches Wary of Islamist Offer of ‘Protection’


Following attacks, Islamic Defenders Front’s Christmas gesture rings hollow.

DUBLIN, December 21 (CDN) — In the wake of several attacks on worship services by Indonesia’s notorious Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), several Jakarta area church leaders rejected the FPI’s offer to help protect them over Christmas.

FPI leader Rizieq Shihab made the offer last week, saying he was working in cooperation with the Indonesian Communion of Churches and the Indonesian Bishops Conference. But several churches publicly rejected the offer, with online forums comparing FPI church protection to “foxes protecting a chicken coop.”

Jakarta’s police chief on Friday (Dec. 18) promised protection for every “registered” church in the area, The Jakarta Globe reported. Many Indonesian churches are unregistered, however, since they fail to meet the strict conditions of a Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB) governing places of worship.

The Indonesian public has harshly criticized FPI members for their role in multiple church attacks over the past year and faulted police and politicians for failing to intervene.

The most recent attack occurred last Sunday (Dec. 19), when more than 100 Islamists gathered outside the sealed home of the Rev. Badia Hutagalung of Huria Kristan Batak Protestan (HKBP) church in Rancaekek to disrupt worship services, sources said.

Another attack on Sept. 12 led to the arrest and detention of 13 FPI members, including Murhali Barda, leader of the FPI’s Bekasi branch. During the attack, assailants stabbed and critically wounded church elder Hasian Sihombing and beat the Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak over the head with a wooden beam. (See, “Indonesian Church Leaders Wounded in Attack,” Sept. 15.)

 

‘Christians Should Not Provoke Us’

After making the offer of FPI assistance at the Jakarta police headquarters on Dec. 14, Shihab told The Jakarta Post that “Islam is not allowed to disrupt other religions worship,” but he added the warning that “Christians should not provoke us.”

His offer came just two days after some 300 Islamists from FPI, the Indonesian Ulama Forum and the Islamic Reformist Movement, together with civil service police officers, raided and forcibly closed seven churches in Rancaekek. (See "Islamists Raid House Churches in West Java," Dec. 17.)

Sub-district head Meman Nurjaman on Nov. 16 had sent out a decree ordering 11 churches in Rancaekek to close, citing protests from the local community. Nurjaman later admitted that he had acted under pressure from Muslim hardliners living outside the housing estate, according to a Compass source, who added that Nurjaman had no legal authority to issue the decree.  

During the Dec. 12 raid, Islamists forcibly removed at least 100 worshipers from a residential building used by the HKBP Bethania church and several other churches, and they urged the local government to seal the building immediately because it was not a registered place of worship.

Hutagalung said the congregation only worshipped there because they could not meet the terms of the SKB, which requires proof of at least 90 church members, signatures of approval from at least 60 local residents, and approval from village officials and a local interfaith forum.

The mob also attacked six other house churches in Rancaekek on Dec. 12, forcing five of the seven to close.

A day after the raids, Adj. Sr. Comr. Hendro Pandowo, the Bandung police chief, said Christians in Bandung should refrain from putting themselves in harm’s way.

“If they pray in churches, I will protect them if anybody disturbs them,” he told the The Jakarta Globe. “If they pray in places they are not allowed to, they are breaking rules, so why would I protect them?”

Readers posting comments to the Globe article online said it was almost impossible for congregations to obtain a building permit under existing regulations, leaving them no option but to worship in private homes or empty building sites.

One reader, identified only by the log-in name of Aki-Amani, wrote, “Thank you Chief Hendro for your promise of protection – if we follow your dictates. However, don’t be surprised if we are found anywhere, everywhere … praying as we go about our daily activities at home and in the market place, whether you approve and will protect us or not.”

 

Christmas Security

Jakarta police on Friday (Dec. 18) met with leaders representing 1,600 churches in greater Jakarta to discuss security measures for the Christmas season.

Jakarta Police Chief Insp. Gen. Sutarman, identified only by a single name, said at least 9,000 security personnel would be deployed in and around churches in greater Jakarta as part of a total 87,000 security personnel stationed at houses of worship throughout Indonesia over the Christmas and New Year season, the Globe reported.

Police began providing Christmas security for churches after a series of 38 coordinated church bombings on Dec. 24, 2000, left at least 18 people dead and dozens injured across the nation. The bombings were organized by Jemaah Islamiyah, a local Islamic terrorist group.

“The Jakarta police guarantee that celebrations will be conducted peacefully across all churches registered with us in the city,” Sutarman reportedly said.

What that implies for unregistered churches remains to be seen.

Spokesmen from two unregistered churches told the Globe they would meet this Christmas despite explicit threats from the FPI to ransack “controversial” Christmas celebrations.

The congregation of HKBP Filadelfia in Bekasi will meet in a tent on the street next to their sealed church, despite the risk of further aggression or physical harm from the FPI, sources said.

Members of Gereja Kristen Indonesia Yasmin in Bogor, however, reportedly said they will break open the seals on their partially-constructed church, closed in September due to pressure from the FPI and other hard-line groups despite having a legal permit.

“We want to celebrate religious freedom in our church,” spokesman Bona Sigalingging told reporters, adding that police would not be asked to provide security.

Report from Compass Direct News

Orissa, India Christians Still Face Boycott, Forced Conversion


Hindu nationalists continue to oppress Christians in Kandhamal district, report says.

NEW DELHI, November 11 (CDN) — More than two years after losing relatives and property in anti-Christian violence, there is no sense of relief among survivors in India’s Orissa state, as many are still ostracized and pressured to “return” to Hinduism, according to a private investigation.

“Despite the state administration’s claim of normalcy,” the preliminary report of a fact-finding team states, “a state of lawlessness and utter fear and sense of insecurity” prevails among Christians of Kandhamal district, which saw a major anti-Christian bloodbath in 2008.

The team, consisting of local attorney Nicholas Barla and another identified only as Brother Marcus, along with rights activists Jugal Kishore Ranjit and Ajay Kumar Singh, visited four villages in three blocks of Kandhamal on Nov. 5.

In Bodimunda village in Tikabali, the team met a pastor who said he has been closely watched since Hindu extremists forced him to become a Hindu. The pastor, whose name the report withheld for security reasons, said he had to convert to Hinduism in 2008 “to save his old mother, who could not have escaped the violence as she was not in a position to walk.”

He is still closely watched in an effort to prevent him from returning to Christianity. While the attorneys and activists were still at the pastor’s house, a man who identified himself as from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, India’s most influential Hindu nationalist conglomerate) came to inquire about his visitors. The pastor felt compelled to tell them that they were “bank officials.”

In the same village, Hindu nationalists have also imposed a de facto ban on any private or public vehicle to ferry Christians or their belongings, said the report.

The team met the family of a paralyzed Christian, Bamadev Pradhan, whom auto-rickshaw drivers refused to take to a hospital when he recently ran a high fever. Eventually a Christian driver took him to the only hospital in Tikabali, around eight kilometers (nearly five miles) from his village of Bodimunda, but as the Christian was driving back, some local men confiscated his vehicle.

With the help of the auto-rickshaw union, the driver (unnamed in the report) got the vehicle released after paying a fine of 1,051 (US$24) rupees and promising that he would not transport any Christians in the future.

Another Christian said area Hindus extremists prohibited Christians from procuring basic necessities.

“We are not allowed to bring housing materials or food provisions or medicines, and nor are we allowed to buy anything from local shops,” he said. “We do not have any shop of our own. Here, we are struggling to live as human beings.”

The team also met a Hindu who had to pay 5,000 rupees (US$112) to get his tractor returned to him, as he had transported housing material for the construction of the house of a Christian.

In the house of a Christian in Keredi village in Phulbani Block, the team found a picture of a Hindu god. The resident, who was not identified in the report, explained that he had to display it in order to protect his family from harm.

The team found pictures of Hindu gods also in the house of a Christian in Gandapadar village in the Minia area, Phiringia Block. A woman in the house told the team that local Hindu nationalists had given her pictures of Hindu gods for worship.

“We have kept them, as they often come to check whether we have reconverted to Christianity,” she said.

Almost all Christians the team met complained that the local administration had done little to protect them and suspected that officials colluded with area Hindu nationalists.

Released on Nov. 8, the report asserts that Christians have been barred from taking water from a government well in Dakanaju village, under G. Udayagiri police jurisdiction in Tikabali Block. The village head, Sachindra Pradhan, has promised to take action “at the earliest,” it added.

Violence in Kandhamal and some other districts of Orissa state followed the assassination of Hindu nationalist leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008. The rampage killed over 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, according to estimates by human rights groups.

The spate of attacks began a day after Saraswati’s killing when Hindu nationalist groups blamed Christians for his murder, although Maoists (extreme Marxists) active in the district claimed responsibility for it.

John Dayal, a Christian activist in Delhi, told Compass that “the apparatus of 2008 remains undisturbed.” The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was part of the ruling state alliance with the regional Biju Janata Dal (BJD) party at the time of the violence. Although the BJD broke up with the BJP in 2009, blaming it for the violence, the former cannot be excused, said Dayal.

“While the BJP is mainly to be blamed, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is not entirely innocent,” Dayal said. “Not  just that he allowed the BJP and RSS cadres to run amok when they were part of his government, turning a blind eye to their  very visible anti-Christian activities, but he was his own home [interior] minister and cannot really shirk command responsibility for the carnage together with his BJP ministerial colleagues and senior officers.”

Kandhamal district Magistrate Krishan Kumar, who was on a tour at press time, could not be contacted for comment despite repeated attempts.

Of the 648,201 people in Kandhamal district, 117,950 are Christian, mostly Dalit (formerly “untouchables” in the caste hierarchy in Hindu societies), according to the 2001 Census. Hindus, mainly tribal people and numbering 527,757, form the majority.

Report from Compass Direct News

Thousands of trafficked girls found in Mali slave camps


Nigerian girls are being forced to work as prostitutes in Mali "slave camps," Nigerian officials say, reports CISA.

The girls, many of them underage, are often promised jobs in Europe but end up in brothels, said the government’s anti-trafficking agency. According to BBC correspondent, the brothels are run by older Nigerian women who prevent them from leaving and take all their earnings.

Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons (Naptip) said officials visited Mali in September to follow up "horrendous reports" from victims, aid workers and clergy in Mali.The agency said it was working with Malian police to free the girls and help them return to Nigeria.

They said there were hundreds of brothels, each housing up to 200 girls, run by Nigerian "madams" who force them to work against their will and take their earnings.

"We are talking of thousands and thousands of girls," Simon Egede, Executive Secretary of Naptip, told a news conference in Abuja, adding that they were between 20,000 to 40,000.

He, however, did not give details as to how the figure had been reached.

In a statement, Egede said girls were "held in bondage for the purposes of forced sexual exploitation and servitude or slavery-like practices."

"The madams control their freedom of movement, where they work, when they work and what they receive," he said.

The trade is centred on the capital Bamako and large cities, but the most notorious brothels are in the mining towns of Kayes and Mopti, where the sex workers live in "near slavery conditions," said Naptip.

Many of the brothels there also had abortion clinics where foetuses were removed by traditional healers for use in rituals, said Egede.

Most of the girls were reported to have come from Delta and Edo States in Nigeria.

Many were lured with the promise of work in Europe, given fake travel documents and made to swear an oath that they would not tell anyone where they were going.

On arrival in Mali, they were told they would have to work as prostitutes to pay off their debts. Prostitution is legal in Mali but not if it involves minors.

Naptip said it had also uncovered two major trafficking routes used to transport the women from Nigeria through Benin, Niger and Bukina Faso to Mali.

Egede said Naptip was working with the police in Mali to return the girls to Nigeria safely, shut down the trade and prosecute the traffickers.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Church under Attack in Indonesia Agrees to Change Venue


Congregation accepts offer under condition that government build them permanent building.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, September 29 (CDN) — A West Java church has agreed to move temporarily to a government-selected site following Islamist harassment that included a Sept. 12 attack on two of its leaders.

The Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) in Ciketing village, Bekasi, decided in a congregational meeting on Sunday (Sept. 26) to accept a government offer to move worship services to the former Organization and Political Party (OPP) building on the condition that local officials will keep a promise to build a new house of worship for them within two years in the Mustika Sari district.

The Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak, who received hospital treatment after she was struck with a wooden plank by suspected Islamic extremists in the Sept. 12 attack, said that the church was ready to stop struggling.

“We are tired of being intimidated and terrorized,” Pastor Simanjuntak said. “We will be able to worship quietly and peacefully.”

Church lawyer Saor Siagian said that the church had accepted the temporary move with the understanding that the Bekasi municipal government must fulfill its pledge. The government will build a new church building to replace the structure the church is leaving on a 2,500-square meter lot belonging to PT Timah, the Government Tin Mining Co. in the Mustika Sari area of Bekasi. The lot is zoned for general and social facilities.

The government had suggested two alternative locations: the PT Timah lot and a 1,900-square meter parcel in the Strada Housing area. The congregation and leaders of HKBP Ciketing chose the PT Timah property.

The first HKBP Ciketing worship service in the former OPP Building took place without incident on Sunday, with the Bekasi government providing buses to transport the congregation to the new site. Pastor Simanjuntak said the congregation is thankful for the new temporary site, but it does not accommodate the entire congregation. The 10-meter by 14-meter building accommodates 250 people, but normally 300 attend services, and some had to stand outside, she said.

Dozens of police guarded the location.

Zaki Oetomo, a Bekasi city official, told Compass that the building could be used rent-free for two years, with an extension possible if the church desired. The government has offered to provide the buses to transport the congregation to and from the site every week.

 

20-Year Wait

The Ciketing church originally met in the Pondok Timur Indah housing development with 10 families in 1990, and therefore has generally been called the HKBP Pondok Timur Indah.

“By 1995 it had grown to 30 families,” Manorangi Siahaan, a church member, told Compass.

In those days the worship services were held in different members’ homes. Manorangi acknowledged that the house church worship did spark some small protests.

Between 1990 and 2010, the church leaders requested building permits three separate times, in 1995, 2000 and 2010. Not once did the local government respond, church leaders said.  

By 2005 the congregation had grown to 150, and church leaders bought a 2,170-square meter lot in Ciketing village, near Bekasi City, to construct a church building. They built a semi-permanent structure, which was later torn down because they lacked a building permit under pressure from an Islamic group claiming to speak for the local citizens. As a result, the congregation went back to worshipping in homes on a rotating basis.

In 2007 the congregation had grown to 300 people. They bought a house in Pondok Timur Indah, in the Mustika Jaya area of Bekasi City, to use for worship. The Bekasi government sealed the house on March 1 under pressure from Islamic groups. On July 2, the government sealed the house a second time because the congregation was continuing to worship there. Then on July 11, the church was forced to move their worship service to a vacant property in Ciketing, which had been readied for a church building. This site was about 3 kilometers from their property in Pondok Timur Indah.

Protests by Islamic groups mounted each Sunday at the Ciketing site, culminating in the attack on Pastor Simanjuntak and elder Hasian Sihombing, who was stabbed in the stomach and heart.

Report from Compass Direct News