Discontents: identity, politics and institutions in a time of populism


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Donald Trump constantly invoked the idea of political correctness gone mad in his presidential campaign.
Reuters/Scott Morgan

Dennis Altman, La Trobe University

This piece is republished with permission from Perils of Populism, the 57th edition of Griffith Review. Articles are a little longer than most published on The Conversation, presenting an in-depth analysis of the rise of populism across the world.


Fifteen years ago, economist Joseph Stiglitz published a book, Globalisation and its Discontents. For Stiglitz, globalisation meant:

… the closer integration of the countries and peoples of the world which has been brought about by the enormous reduction of costs of transportation and communication, and the breaking down of artificial barriers to the flows of goods, services, capital, knowledge and (to a lesser extent) people across borders.

While the global economy has continued to expand, Stiglitz could not foresee the extent to which the movement of people would become a toxic political issue, as refugee flows and draconian measures to prevent them have increased.

Stiglitz was primarily concerned with the impact of globalisation on the world’s poorest countries. But he also acknowledged its impact on democratic institutions.

Contrary to the neoliberal belief that economic globalisation would ensure the triumph of Western-style democracies, it appears that democratic institutions everywhere have been weakened by their inability to satisfy an increasing number of voters. This was remarkably prescient, given Stiglitz was writing before the catalyst of the global financial crisis.

It is not difficult to find evidence for this claim. Despite some small gains in the past decade in a few African countries, liberal democracy has been on the retreat in several countries: Russia, Turkey, Thailand, Hungary.

In established democracies, major political parties have either been taken over by populist forces, as is the case for the US Republicans, or lost ground to them, as in France.

The apparent failure of globalisation seems to have energised the right to a greater degree than it has the left. In several countries, social democratic parties have lost much of their traditional support, with some of it even having swung to nationalistic and socially conservative movements.

The term “populism” is now so widely used that it seems equivalent with any political position not shared by the speaker. One of Australia’s more distinguished political commentators, Paul Kelly, consistently attacks Bill Shorten for “populism” when he is really pointing to a mixture of opportunism and cautious appeals for greater equity by an opposition leader who is strongly committed to the processes of liberal democracy.

In contemporary usage, “populism” is generally understood to mean political movements and individuals who channel widespread alienation and frustration by claiming to speak for “the people” against forces that are said to be destroying cherished ways of life. “The people” in Western societies are, for the most part, implicitly understood to be white and Christian, blurring the line between race and religion.

In particular, attacks on Muslims are a hallmark of contemporary populism. There are versions of left-wing populism – as in Venezuela or Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines, where racism is not an ingredient – but they are less relevant to the Australian experience.

The essential difference between populism and democracy is that democracy entails more than majority rule. Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning of the “tyranny of the majority” remains relevant today. The protection of political freedoms and minority rights is an essential test of democracy.

Majority support for slavery, racial discrimination or denial of equal rights to women does not make any of these things democratic. Populism feeds on a heady dose of philosophical nihilism, which sometimes seems to echo critiques of globalisation made by the left.

In an article on the rise of an alt-right movement straddling the Atlantic, Jane Goodall quotes one of its central figures, Reza Jorjani. She said:

Tensions and disagreements were to be anticipated.

But they were clear in what they stood united against:

The alternative right unequivocally rejects liberal democracy.

Populism and identity politics

Populist leaders not only attack the institutions of global capital, they also disregard the checks and balances of institutional democracy.

Vladimir Putin’s imprisonment of opponents, Donald Trump’s attacks on the media, Viktor Orbán’s attacks on immigrants and NGOs, Nicolás Maduro’s recourse to military courts and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s assaults on journalists and secular opponents are all justified in the name of protecting “the people”, and are legitimised by popular election.

This creates a dichotomy between “the people” and the (largely unspecified) “ruling elites”, despite the reality that populist leaders themselves are clearly part of the latter.

No matter. Their ability to channel anger and frustration at the status quo, and to promise easy solutions, seemingly grants them immunity from being attacked for their own exploitation of the system. Trump, Putin and Erdoğan are all notable for the extent to which they have profited personally from their control of state institutions.

As national economies are increasingly subject to the flows of international capital, the ability of governments to control them declines. This has resulted in increased economic inequality in wealthy countries and led to greater voter dissatisfaction – and a search for political scapegoats. An emphasis on nationalism is one manifestation of this search.

Nationalism is often assumed to emerge spontaneously from “the people” rather than, as is often the case, to have been carefully cultivated by political leaders. Commentators have stressed hostility to immigrants in fuelling the vote for Brexit in England (though not all of Britain) last year. But had several leading Tories, above all Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, not campaigned for withdrawal, it is unlikely that the referendum would have ended as it did.

While Trump won over a considerable number of white working-class Americans, his victory was equally due to the support of traditional Republican elites. And his administration is staffed by wealthy conservatives rather than the working men and women to whom his rhetoric appealed.

Such populists both denigrate the state and turn to it to repress those they see as “enemies of the people” – the phrase used by Trump against the media. They distrust the intermediaries of liberal democracy – parties, pressure groups, media – preferring to resort to rallies and direct contact between leaders and mass audiences. They scorn the idea that politics is an elaborate system of building consensus through persuasion and mutual respect.

Hungary, whose leader proclaims he seeks an “illiberal democracy”, has perhaps the best current example of this form of populism in power: an elected government is attacking independent media and NGOs, while whipping up support through systematic scapegoating of refugees and, to a lesser extent, Jews and homosexuals.

Responding to a question about gay rights, Orbán summed up the language of contemporary populism more eloquently than either Trump or Pauline Hanson ever could:

Tolerance, however, does not mean that we would apply the same rules for people whose lifestyle is different from our own. We differentiate between them and us.

Populist attacks on “political correctness” have become shorthand for resentment against a whole set of social changes that unsettle people who feel what was once taken for granted is now under attack.

Trump constantly invoked the idea of political correctness gone mad in his campaign. And his victory was based on the collapse of old-style blue-collar jobs, and on Hillary Clinton’s failure to win over the educated white Republican women whom she assumed could not abide Trump, but who disliked her more.

In both the Trump and the Brexit vote, there was a deep undercurrent of racial resentment that was expressed through attacks on “political correctness”. But this was deeply entangled with basic economic concerns.

In the aftermath of Trump’s win, some commentators claimed the Democrats had become a party of special interests, unable to speak to the majority. One of Clinton’s supporters, historian Mark Lilla, wrote:

Some years ago I was invited to a union convention in Florida to speak on a panel about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms speech of 1941. The hall was full of representatives from local chapters – men, women, blacks, whites, Latinos.

As I looked out into the crowd, and saw the array of different faces, I was struck by how focused they were on what they shared. And listening to Roosevelt’s stirring voice as he invoked the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear – freedoms that Roosevelt demanded for ‘everyone in the world’ – I was reminded of what the real foundations of modern American liberalism are.

Lilla is only half-right. When Roosevelt made his demands they effectively excluded more than half the population: African, Latino and Native Americans, homosexuals – even women were in part excluded from the freedoms of the New Deal.

Too often, attacks on political correctness and identity politics assume a world in which rights and freedoms are equally available to all. In reality it is those who experience discrimination and disadvantage who most need to assert their identity.

Lamenting what he sees as a decline in Christian-based values, Kelly wrote recently that:

Politics is intruding into private and family life. Value judgements are being made in a way inconceivable two decades ago.

But to argue this is to overlook the ways in which value judgements and state power have always shaped “private and family life” – abortion, adoption, adultery – and to overlook the position of privilege from which so much of the denunciation of identity politics stems. The women’s and gay movements emerged precisely because of the need to struggle against state-supported discrimination.

Identity politics can be both individual and collective. We assert ourselves – as women, as Indigenous, as queer – to emphasise both our particularities and our sense of belonging.

In so doing, identity politics implicitly breaks with the Enlightenment tradition of claiming us all as equal citizens committed to liberté, égalité, fraternité (though, in practice, the universal citizen of Enlightenment thought was a white male with property).

Asserting difference through the creation of social movements based on specific identities of race, language, gender and sexuality was a necessary step toward expanding citizenship to become genuinely universal and not, as social conservatives argue, a retreat from these values.

Yes, there are versions of identity politics that assert difference to justify prejudice and persecution. But that does not deny the need to build a sense of community and self-acceptance among people who are not fully included in dominant power structures.

In the contemporary world, the most obvious examples of the identity politics of hate come from extreme white nationalist groups, who claim an identity that is defined by superiority to all others.

It is ironic that many of the attacks on “identity politics” come from people who wish to privilege another form of identity – namely, the national. To assert “Australian values” is, after all, to declare a particular form of identity that carries with it specific entitlements.

Nationalism has been the model for certain forms of identity politics, and contains the same tensions between liberatory and repressive possibilities. Arguments for “national identity” too quickly become arguments for exclusion, with unpopular views denounced as unpatriotic. Tony Abbott wrote of attending an Anzac Day dawn service at which:

… the padre denounced political correctness as shutting the mouth, twisting the mind and warping the soul.

But is the demand to adhere to “Australian”, as distinct from universal, values not just another form of political correctness?

It’s worth recalling American critical theorist Nancy Fraser’s assertion that both redistribution and recognition are essential for a just polity. Equality of access and opportunity depends upon both redistributive policies and a genuine acceptance of diversity.

Perhaps a third category needs to be added to Fraser’s terms: sustainability. The dismal failure to control carbon emissions over the past decade illustrates just how problematic this dimension has become.

Fraser argues that “struggles for recognition [can] be integrated with struggles for redistribution”, rather than portrayed as single-issue demands which have no bearing on economic structures.

As “identity politics” becomes increasingly understood as the politics of victimhood rather than empowerment, it is essential to remember that no one movement has a single identity, nor can it achieve liberation without larger social and political change.

The enthusiastic support of many corporations for same-sex marriage is a case study of embracing equality through recognition while failing to discuss the inequities of distribution or to think globally.

Qantas might well parade its support for marriage equality in Australia. But this does not prevent its close alliance with Emirates, the official airline of a state that criminalises homosexuality, nor does it guarantee decent conditions for all its employees.

The current language of “equality” centres almost entirely on civic and political rights, not on social and economic equality. In human rights language, these are first- and second-generation rights. To people struggling to survive in a rapidly changing economy, this emphasis on “rights” can sound dismissive and elitist – one of the standard complaints about identity politics.

We need a politics of shared values rather than one based on separate identities. To speak personally: I am deeply committed to a struggle for queer rights. But that does not mean I feel a political bond with the many right-wing homosexuals who support groups such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National or Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom.

The danger, as Fraser points out, is that:

… struggles for recognition simultaneously displace struggles for economic justice and promote repressive forms of communitarianism.

Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is known for his attacks on immigrants and NGOs.
Reuters/Bernadett Szabo

What populism means for political parties

It has become commonplace to claim that the collapse of “rusted-on” support for the major political parties is due to a new form of cultural politics, pitting inner-city cosmopolitan “elites” against rural and outer suburbanites.

Liberal assistant minister Angus Taylor reportedly claims that cultural identity and political correctness are can explain Trump, Brexit and Hanson’s resurgence:

Political correctness, above all, is the thing I hear from people.

This is a neat rhetorical device to avoid the role of growing inequality and resentment at rapid social change that the economic policies of his government do little to moderate.

In a similar vein, the columnists of the Murdoch press are obsessed with questions such as Safe Schools, same-sex marriage and hate speech, while insisting that most voters have little interest in these issues.

Reflecting on the 2016 federal election, former Liberal Party leader John Hewson wrote:

The whole political process over the past several decades has been an unsavoury race to the bottom, delivering little real/effective government … The last election … clearly revealed voters’ dissatisfaction.

In his judicious Quarterly Essay on Hanson, David Marr quotes political scientist Ian McAllister as saying that respect for the political class has fallen to its lowest level in recent history.

It is not surprising, nor necessarily troubling, that party loyalties are declining. The development of a multi-party system is not itself evidence of populism. The largest minor party in Australia remains the Greens, which, despite the fulminations of the Murdoch press, is committed to parliamentary processes and does not meet most definitions of populism.

When she governed with their support, Julia Gillard faced far more problems from within her own ranks – Kevin Rudd, Craig Thomson – than she did from the Greens.

Our political institutions are products of the 19th century. Our major parties were shaped in the 20th. But Australia today is a very different country, largely because of globalisation.

The opening up of the economy to global pressures, and a subsequent change in its nature, has meant greater affluence but also greater inequality. In the past three decades, the manufacturing industry has declined and whole communities have been destroyed as factories and assembly plants have given way to apartment blocks and shopping malls.

The mining boom created a sudden surge of wealth in some areas, but much of that growth has slowed. And while some new jobs have been created in the meantime, they are more dependent on educational qualifications.

With these shifts has come a decline in blue-collar trade unions, and a rise in self-employment. In the past two decades union membership has fallen from about 40% of the workforce to well under 20%.

Meanwhile, the rapid development of the virtual economy and our dependence on electronic media continue to erode traditional jobs and change the very ways in which we organise our lives. Traditional divides between “work” and “leisure” are disappearing with the ability to remain hooked into the internet wherever we are.

Australia today has 10 million more people than it did in 1980 – a staggering growth that has made house prices and urban congestion major political issues in the capital cities.

Our population has become much more diverse, with a very high proportion having been born overseas. The subsequent emphasis upon diversity – not only of race and ethnicity, but also of sexuality and gender – is often the basis for bitter political divisions.

The collective impact of these changes has been to undermine the assumptions of mainstream politics, which are based upon structures and institutions that have little changed during the past century. Relatively few people retain deep loyalties to the major parties, which explains the rapid turnover in governments and the attraction of minor parties.

There are currently nine members of the Senate who are from parties named after individuals: Hanson, Nick Xenophon, Jacqui Lambie, Derryn Hinch. When I asked Hinch in a pre-election radio interview about the potential hubris of an eponymous party name he agreed, but said that were he to campaign for the Justice Party he’d poll far fewer votes.

This being said, it is easy to overstate the decline of votes for the major parties. One assumes most voters have some understanding of preferential voting, and are using their first preference to send a signal while still making an effective choice between a Coalition and a Labor government. Minor parties poll better for the Senate than the lower house because voters understand it is the latter that determines which party will form government.

More troubling is the hollowing out of the major parties, as fewer people join and participate, leaving them open to manipulation and branch-stacking. Approximately 100,000 people “belong” to political parties in Australia. In most cases this means no more than paper membership, often to support a particular faction or candidate.

Labor Party membership has increased since the decision in 2013 to give members a role in the choice of the parliamentary leader. Currently, it’s at more than 50,000 paid-up members. The Liberals have roughly 40,000, while the Greens membership is about 10,000.

Exact figures are very hard to find, but none of Australia’s political parties have a membership as large as that of the most popular AFL teams.

Increasingly, politicians are those who have worked their way up through the party machinery, often with little experience or knowledge outside their immediate political base. This in turn creates greater cynicism among voters, who are exposed to stories of corruption, self-interest and endless point-scoring.

The tendency of politicians on both sides to constantly denigrate and belittle their opponents is a major contributor to the corrosion of liberal democracy.

Growing cynicism about politics is also, in part, the product of neoliberal attacks on the state, which depict governments as disconnected from real lives and bent on taking away our money and our freedoms.

The past few decades have seen a systematic delegitimisation of the idea that the state exists to provide collectively what we cannot provide as individuals. This leads to declining commitment from more and more people to maintaining public services, and increases inequality.

For instance, as more parents want private schooling for their kids, the political and financial support available to the state system decreases, which widens the gap between school outcomes and, in turn, employment opportunities.

And the more universities position themselves as corporate enterprises, the more state support for higher education dwindles, despite political rhetoric about the need for greater knowledge and innovation.

The neoliberal economy has broken down many of the thick networks of voluntary associations that were fundamental to a liberal political culture. Not only have unions declined, so too have middle-class business and social associations that often provided the base for the conservative parties.

As church attendance has decreased, the influence of fundamentalist minorities across all faiths has increased, which is closely associated with the rightward shifts within the Liberal Party.

Yes, new forms of social and political networking have flourished this century, but they are often realised by little more than a Facebook like or signing an electronic petition. It’s unwise to over-romanticise the associative life of an earlier period, but there is a real difference between face-to-face interaction and “electronic activism”.

As the disciplines of meeting procedures and building acceptable compromises are sacrificed to instant tweets and ticks, politics becomes indistinguishable from other aspects of consumerism.

In a similar effect, where online media demand instantaneous coverage, commentary has come to replace genuine reporting – and with this comes a decline of civility in public debates.

2GB broadcaster Alan Jones’ appalling comments on Gillard (that her father “died of shame”) followed a tendency in the media to address her as “Ju-liar”, rather than prime minister.

However, the left can be equally guilty of shutting out debate – about gay marriage, transgenderism, Islam – by branding anyone who expresses unease as bigots.

Instead of rational discussion, the media feed on crude polarisation. This is the basic presumption of the ABC’s Q&A program, which seeks out guests with dramatically opposing views, regardless of how absurd they will appear.

Too often, there is a lack of generosity from those seeking change who misread unease with the pace of change as bigotry and hostility. Where the left sees sexism, racism and homophobia, the right yells that its freedom of speech has been infringed upon. As writer Christos Tsiolkas noted:

There is a symbiosis that links the outraged liberal to the furious conservative, the radical activist to the enraged reactionary. It is the subtext that seems to define the contemporary moment: my rage is grievous and justifiable, and yours is ignorant and selfish.

Nine members of the Senate are from parties named after individuals, including Pauline Hanson.
AAP/Lukas Coch

What for Australia?

Liberal democracy in Australia, with its particular federalist inflections – a powerful upper house, a complex set of electoral systems, compulsory voting and tight party discipline – has manifold imperfections, but it also has certain strengths worth defending.

That governments are held accountable through free and fair elections and that freedom of speech and association are protected are important assumptions, even when there are clear failures to meet them.

Equally important are the institutional arrangements that ensure the workings of the system. It’s unprovable, but if the US had an independent electoral commission to set electoral boundaries and/or compulsory and preferential voting, the results of both the 2000 and the 2016 presidential elections might have been very different.

Despite its imperfections, Australia’s electoral systems mean a closer fit between voters’ intent and electoral outcomes than is true in other English-speaking democracies – with the exception of New Zealand, where a system of proportional representation has enabled good government since its adoption in 1996.

Interestingly, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranks Australia in the highest sector for democracy, above both the US and the UK.

It’s important both to defend the institutions of liberal democracy and to question how they might be improved. For some theorists, the possibilities of the electronic age and the decline in traditional party membership open up a path towards forms of more direct democracy.

The political philosopher Simon Tormey has written of the increasing tendency to bypass representative institutions in favour of direct action of various sorts:

The perception, increasingly, is that citizens don’t need representatives and politicians to make themselves heard or to act. They can do it for themselves in the expectation that others will want to join in or support their efforts …

There are interesting moments of “deliberative democracy” being used to help resolve contentious issues by bringing together groups of interested citizens, such as South Australia’s appointment of “citizens’ juries” to consider the question of nuclear waste.

But, at some point, direct action needs to be translated into legislative and bureaucratic responses. And while new forms of consultation and participation might supplement representative government, they are unlikely to replace it.

When the federal government sought to resolve same-sex marriage through a referendum there was strong opposition from many of those most affected, who insisted on the primacy of parliament.

In the aftermath of the student and anti-war movements of the 1960s (more accurately the early 1970s), several radicals turned their attention to the “long slow march through institutions”. Tom Hayden, one of the authors of the Port Huron Statement, became a state legislator. Danny Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the May 1968 Paris movement, became a European parliamentarian.

What Donald Horne termed “the time of hope” in Australia (1966–72) was a period marked both by the emergence of the new left and new social movements and by Gough Whitlam’s reshaping of the Labor Party to offer a real alternative to the legacy of the Menzies decades.

The anti-Vietnam movement included several leading figures within the Labor Party, which came to power with a commitment to ideals that had been inspired by the anti-war, Indigenous, feminist and environmental movements.

In the following decade, Bob Brown went from leading protests against environmental destruction to become the leader of the Greens, and many of his parliamentary colleagues have followed similar trajectories.

We need strong social movements to keep pressure on governments, but we also need good people in government to develop and enact progressive policies. Many of my friends on the left have lost faith in the Labor Party, viewing it as corrupt and unable to either take on big business interests or defend human rights unambiguously.

Yet when I attended Labor’s national conference in 2015, I was struck by the size and energy of two groups: the environmental activists and the refugee advocates. Their presence in the party reminds us that a Labor government is pressured from the left, a Coalition government from the right.

The rise of populism has created new rifts in the body politic – sometimes, as in France, displacing the major parties; sometimes, as in the case of Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, unseating dominant party elites.

Neither has happened in Australia. My hunch is that the dominance of the existing major parties will persist in the medium term, while the Greens seem unlikely to break through and become much more than a minor party with limited reach. The best prospect for countering a toxic mix of bigotry and rising inequality is a Labor government constantly pressured from “the left” by the Greens and significant social movements.

But nothing is inevitable in politics. Faced with the potential growth of populist right-wing parties – whether led by Hanson, Cory Bernardi, or someone yet to emerge – mainstream politicians need to recognise the cynicism of the electorate, and rebuild trust in the political system.

In a recent Lowy Institute poll, nearly one-quarter of Australians said that “in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable”. It’s not clear what respondents understand by either “non-democratic” or “some circumstances”. But I suspect the response suggests ignorance rather than antipathy.

Despite well-meaning attempts to introduce civics into school curricula, there is a disconnect between the minority who follow politics in detail and the bulk of people who dutifully turn up to vote (the latter being an important protection against the triumph of demagoguery).

Populists thrive on a mix of passion and ignorance, and they need to be countered on both levels. The deep distrust between those who seek to effect change through mainstream institutions and those who work outside of them (through movements such as GetUp!) needs to be resolved, as both are important.

If politics is the art of the possible then what is possible is itself determined by political choices, and requires debate and coalition building. The greatest challenge for our political leaders is to demonstrate that politics matters, that while in some respects the state might take away from individuals, when managed properly it can ensure a richer life for us all.

There’s a New Yorker cartoon, published just after Trump’s inauguration, of two corporate dudes in an office, one of whom says:

Part of me is going to miss liberal democracy.

Australia is not yet at that point. Our challenge is to simultaneously strengthen the institutions of democracy and re-imagine the role of government in a rapidly changing global environment.


Thanks to Robert Manne and Sean Scalmer for their comments in writing this essay.

The ConversationYou can read other essays from Griffith Review’s latest edition here.

Dennis Altman, Professorial Fellow in Human Security, La Trobe University

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

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Prospects Dim for Religious Freedom in Nepal


Right to share faith could harm Nepal’s Hindu identity, lawmakers believe.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, March 29 (CDN) — A new constitution that Nepal’s parliament is scheduled to put into effect before May 28 may not include the right to propagate one’s faith.

The draft constitution, aimed at completing the country’s transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular democracy, contains provisions in its “religious freedom” section that prohibit anyone from converting others from one religion to another.

Most political leaders in the Himalayan country seemed unaware of how this prohibition would curb religious freedom.

“Nepal will be a secular state – there is no other way,” said Sushil Koirala, president of the Nepali Congress, Nepal’s “Grand Old Party,” but he added that he was not aware of the proposal to restrict the right to evangelism.

“Forcible conversions cannot be allowed, but the members of the Constituent Assembly [acting parliament] should be made aware of [the evangelism ban’s] implications,” Koirala, a veteran and one of the most influential politicians of the country, told Compass.

Gagan Thapa, another leader of the Nepali Congress, admitted that banning all evangelistic activities could lead to undue restrictions.

“Perhaps, the words, ‘force, inducement and coercion’ should be inserted to prevent only unlawful conversions,” he told Compass.

Man Bahadur Bishwakarma, also from the Nepali Congress, said that of all the faith communities in Nepal, Christians were most active in converting others, sometimes unethically.

“There are problems in Hinduism, such as the caste hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean you should convert out of it,” he said. “I believe in reforming one’s religion.”

Asked if the restriction on converting others violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Akal Bahadur of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) said, “It may, but there was a general consensus on it [the prohibition]. Besides, it is still a draft, not the final constitution.”

Nepal signed the ICCPR on May 14, 1991. Article 18 of the ICCPR includes the right to manifest one’s religion, which U.N. officials have interpreted as the right to evangelistic and missionary activities.

Akal Bahadur and Thapa are members of the Committee on Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles, which was tasked to propose the scope of religious freedom and other rights in the draft constitution. This committee, one of 11 thematic panels, last year submitted a preliminary draft to the Assembly suggesting that a person should be allowed to decide whether to convert from one religion to another, but that no one should convert anyone else.

Binda Pandey, chairperson of the fundamental rights committee and member of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), told Compass that it was now up to the Assembly to decide whether this provision violates religious freedom.

The Constitution Committee is condensing the preliminary drafts by all the committees as one draft constitution. At least 288 contentious issues arose out of the 11 committees, and the Constitution Committee has resolved 175 of them, Raju Shakya of the Kathmandu-based Centre for Constitutional Dialogue (CCD) told Compass.

The “religious freedom” provision with its ban on evangelism did not raise an eyebrow, however, as it is among the issues listed under the “Area of Agreement” on the CCD Web site.

Once compiled, the draft constitution will be subject to a public consultation, after which another draft will be prepared for discussion of clauses in the Constitutional Assembly; provisions will be implemented on a two-thirds majority, Shakya said.

 

Hindu Identity

Thapa of the fundamental rights committee indicated that religious conversion could become a contentious issue if the proposed restriction is removed. Even the notion of a secular state is not wholly accepted in the country.

“If you hold a referendum on whether Nepal should become a secular state, the majority will vote against it,” Thapa said.

Most Hindus see their religion as an essential part of the country’s identity that they want to preserve, he added.

Dr. K.B. Rokaya, the only Christian member of Nepal’s National Commission for Human Rights, said Nepal’s former kings created and imposed a Hindu identity for around 240 years because it suited them; under the Hindu ethos, a king should be revered as a god. Most of the numerous Hindu temples of Nepal were built under the patronage of the kings.

Rokaya added that Christians needed to be more politically active. The Assembly does not have even one Christian member.

According to the 2001 census, over 80 percent of Nepal’s 30 million people are Hindu. Christians are officially .5 percent, but their actual number is believed to be much higher.

Nepal was the world’s only Hindu kingdom until 2006, when a people’s movement led by former Maoist guerrillas and supported by political parties, including the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist Leninist, ousted King Gyanendra.

An interim constitution was enacted in 2007, and the Constituent Assembly was elected through Nepal’s first fully democratic election a year later. The Assembly was supposed to promulgate a new constitution by May 28, 2010, but its term was extended by one year.

It is still uncertain, however, whether the approaching deadline will be met due to persistent disagreements among parties. The Maoist party has 220 members, the Nepali Congress 110, and the Unified Marxist Leninist 103 in the 575-member Assembly.

Rokaya, a member of the newly formed United Christians Alliance of Nepal, comprising a majority of Christian denominations, said Christians would continue to ask for full religious freedom. The use of inducement or force for conversions is deplorable, but the right to preach the tenets of one’s religion is a fundamental freedom, he added.

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

Legal Status Foreseen for Christianity in Buddhist Bhutan


Country’s religious regulatory authority expected to consider recognition before year’s end.

NEW DELHI, November 4 (CDN) — For the first time in Bhutan’s history, the Buddhist nation’s government seems ready to grant much-awaited official recognition and accompanying rights to a miniscule Christian population that has remained largely underground.

The authority that regulates religious organizations will discuss in its next meeting – to be held by the end of December – how a Christian organization can be registered to represent its community, agency secretary Dorji Tshering told Compass by phone.

Thus far only Buddhist and Hindu organizations have been registered by the authority, locally known as Chhoedey Lhentshog. As a result, only these two communities have the right to openly practice their religion and build places of worship.

Asked if Christians were likely to get the same rights soon, Tshering replied, “Absolutely” – an apparent paradigm shift in policy given that Bhutan’s National Assembly had banned open practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions by passing resolutions in 1969 and in 1979.

“The constitution of Bhutan says that Buddhism is the country’s spiritual heritage, but it also says that his majesty [the king] is the protector of all religions,” he added, explaining the basis on which the nascent democracy is willing to accept Christianity as one of the faiths of its citizens.

The former king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, envisioned democracy in the country in 2006 – after the rule of an absolute monarchy for over a century. The first elections were held in 2008, and since then the government has gradually given rights that accompany democracy to its people.

The government’s move to legalize Christianity seems to have the consent of the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is respected by almost all people and communities in the country. In his early thirties, the king studied in universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley is also believed to have agreed in principle to recognition of other faiths.

According to source who requested anonymity, the government is likely to register only one Christian organization and would expect it to represent all Christians in Bhutan – which would call for Christian unity in the country.

All Hindus, who constitute around 22 percent of Bhutan’s less than 700,000 people, are also represented by one legal entity, the Hindu Dharma Samudaya (Hindu Religion Community) of Bhutan, which was registered with the Chhoedey Lhentshog authority along with Buddhist organizations a year ago.

Tshering said the planned discussion at the December meeting is meant to look at technicalities in the Religious Organizations Act of 2007, which provides for registration and regulation of religious groups with intent to protect and promote the country’s spiritual heritage. The government began to enforce the Act only in November 2009, a year after the advent of democracy.

Asked what some of the government’s concerns are over allowing Christianity in the country, Tshering said “conversion must not be forced, because it causes social tensions which Bhutan cannot afford to have. However, the constitution says that no one should be forced to believe in a religion, and that aspect will be taken care of. We will ensure that no one is forced to convert.”

The government’s willingness to recognize Christians is partly aimed at bringing the community under religious regulation, said the anonymous source. This is why it is evoking mixed response among the country’s Christians, who number around 6,000 according to rough estimates.

Last month, a court in south Bhutan sentenced a Christian man to three years of prison for screening films on Christianity – which was criticized by Christian organizations around the world. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ,” Oct. 18.)

The government is in the process of introducing a clause banning conversions by force or allurement in the country’s penal code.

Though never colonized, landlocked Bhutan has historically seen its sovereignty as fragile due to its small size and location between two Asian giants, India and China. It has sought to protect its sovereignty by preserving its distinct cultural identity based on Buddhism and by not allowing social tensions or unrest.

In the 1980s, when the king sought to strengthen the nation’s cultural unity, ethnic Nepalese citizens, who are mainly Hindu and from south Bhutan, rebelled against it. But a military crackdown forced over 100,000 of them – some of them secret Christians – to either flee to or voluntarily leave the country for neighboring Nepal.

Tshering said that while some individual Christians had approached the authority with queries, no organization had formally filed papers for registration.

After the December meeting, if members of the regulatory authority feel that Chhoedey Lhentshog’s mandate does not include registering a Christian organization, Christians will then be registered by another authority, the source said.

After official recognition, Christians would require permission from local authorities to hold public meetings. Receiving foreign aid or inviting foreign speakers would be subject to special permission from the home ministry, added the source.

Bhutan’s first contact with Christians came in the 17th century when Guru Rimpoche, a Buddhist leader and the unifier of Bhutan as a nation state, hosted the first two foreigners, who were Jesuits. Much later, Catholics were invited to provide education in Bhutan; the Jesuits came to Bhutan in 1963 and the Salesians in 1982 to run schools. The Salesians, however, were expelled in 1982 on accusations of proselytizing, and the Jesuits left the country in 1988.

“As Bhutanese capacities (scholarly, administrative and otherwise) increased, the need for active Jesuit involvement in the educational system declined, ending in 1988, when the umbrella agreement between the Jesuit order and the kingdom expired and the administration of all remaining Jesuit institutions was turned over to the government,” writes David M. Malone, Canada’s high commissioner to India and ambassador to Bhutan, in the March 2008 edition of Literary Review of Canada.

After a Christian organization is registered, Christian institutions may also be allowed once again in the country, given the government’s stress on educating young Bhutanese.

A local Christian requesting anonymity said the community respects Bhutan’s political and religious leaders, especially the king and the prime minister, will help preserve the country’s unique culture and seeks to contribute to the building of the nation.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christians in Turkey Acquitted of ‘Insulting Turkishness’


But court heavily fines them for dubious conviction of collecting personal data.

ISTANBUL, October 19 (CDN) — After four years of legal battle in a Turkish court, a judge acquitted two Christians of insulting Turkey and its people by spreading Christianity, but not without slapping them with a hefty fine for a spurious charge.

Four years ago this month, Turan Topal, 50, and Hakan Tastan, 41, started a legal battle after gendarmerie officers produced false witnesses to accuse them of spreading their faith and allegedly “insulting Turkishness, the military and Islam.”

At the Silivri court an hour west of Istanbul, Judge Hayrettin Sevim on Thursday (Oct. 14) acquitted the defendants of two charges that they had insulted the Turkish state (Article 301) and that they had insulted its people (Article 216) by spreading Christianity. Sevim cited lack of evidence.

He found them guilty, however, of collecting information on citizens without permission (Article 135) and sentenced them to seven months of imprisonment each. The court ruled that the two men could each pay a 4,500 lira (US$3,170) fine instead of serving time, said their lawyer Haydar Polat.

Tastan expressed mixed feelings about the verdicts.

“For both Turan and I, being found innocent from the accusation that we insulted the Turkish people was the most important thing for us, because we’ve always said we’re proud to be Turks,” Tastan said by telephone. “But it is unjust that they are sentencing us for collecting people’s information.”

At the time of their arrests, Topal and Tastan were volunteers with The Bible Research Center, which has since acquired official association status and is now called The Association for Propagating Knowledge of the Bible. The two men had used contact information that individuals interested in Christianity had volunteered to provide on the association’s website.

Administrators of the association stated openly to local authorities that their goal was to disseminate information about Christianity.

The two men and their lawyer said they will be ready to appeal the unjust decision of the court when they have seen the official statement, which the court should issue within a month. Polat said the appeal process will take over a year.

“Why should we have to continue the legal battle and appeal this?” asked Tastan. “We are not responsible for the information that was collected. So why are they fining us for this? So, we continue our legal adventure.”

Still, he expressed qualified happiness.

“We are free from the charges that we have insulted the Turkish state and the people of Turkey and we’re glad for that, but we are sorry about the court’s sentence,” Tastan said. “We’re happy on one hand, and sorry on the other.”

The court hearing lasted just a few minutes, said Polat.

“The judges came to the court hearing ready with their decision,” Polat said. “Their file was complete, and there was neither other evidence nor witnesses.”

Polat was hesitant to comment on whether the decision to convict the men of collecting private data without permission was because they are Christians. He did underline, however, that the court’s decision to fine the men was unjust, and that they plan to appeal it after the court issues an official written verdict.

“This was the court’s decision,” said Polat, “but we believe this is not fair. This decision is inconsistent with the law.”

 

Christianity on Trial

The initial charges in 2006 against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme” claiming that some Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and making insults against Turkishness, the military and Islam.

In March 2009 the Turkish Ministry of Justice issued a statement claiming that approval to try the two men’s case under the controversial Article 301came in response to the “original” statement by three young men that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam was a primitive and fictitious religion that results in terrorism, and to portray Turks as a “cursed people.”

Two of the three witnesses, however, stated in court that they didn’t even know Topal and Tastan. The third witness never appeared in court. Prosecutors were unable to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms. At the same time, they questioned their right to speak openly about Christianity with others.

Polat and his legal partners had based their defense on the premise that Turkey’s constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.

“This is the point that really needs to be understood,” Polat told Compass last year. “In Turkey, constitutionally speaking, it is not a crime to be a Christian or to disseminate the Christian faith. However, in reality there have been problems.”

The lawyer and the defendants said that prosecuting lawyers gave political dimensions to the case by rendering baseless accusations in a nationalistic light, claiming that missionary activities were carried out by imperialistic countries intending to harm Turkey.

Tastan and Topal became Christians more than 15 years ago and changed their religious identity from Muslim to Christian on their official ID cards.

Initially accompanied by heavy media hype, the case had been led by ultranationalist attorney Kemal Kerincsiz and a team of six other lawyers. Kerincsiz had filed or inspired dozens of Article 301 court cases against writers and intellectuals he accused of insulting the Turkish nation and Islam.

Because of Kerincsiz’s high-level national profile, the first few hearings drew several hundred young nationalist protestors surrounding the Silivri courthouse, under the eye of dozens of armed police. But the case has attracted almost no press attention since Kerincsiz was jailed in January 2008 as a suspect in the overarching conspiracy trials over Ergenekon, a “deep state” operation to destabilize the government led by a cabal of retired generals, politicians and other key figures. The lawyer is accused of an active role in the alleged Ergenekon plot to discredit and overthrow Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party government.

Ergenekon has been implicated in the cases of murdered priest Andreas Santoro, Armenian editor Hrant Dink, and the three Christians in Malatya: Necati Aydin, Ugur Yuksel and Tilmann Geske.

In a separate case, in March of 2009 Tastan and Topal were charged with “illegal collection of funds.” Each paid a fine of 600 Turkish lira (US$360) to a civil court in Istanbul. The verdict could not be appealed in the Turkish legal courts. This ruling referred to the men receiving church offerings without official permission from local authorities.

Report from Compass Direct News

Muslims Force Expat Christian Teacher to Flee Maldives


Mistaking compass she drew for a cross, parents of students threatened to expel her.

NEW DELHI, October 5 (CDN) — Authorities in the Maldives last week had to transport a Christian teacher from India off one of the Islamic nation’s islands after Muslim parents of her students threatened to expel her for “preaching Christianity.”

On Wednesday night (Sept. 29) a group of angry Muslim parents stormed the government school on the island of Foakaindhoo, in Shaviyani Atoll, accusing Geethamma George of drawing a cross in her class, a source at Foakaindhoo School told Compass.

“There were only 10 teachers to defend Geethamma George when a huge crowd gathered outside the school,” the source said by telephone. “Numerous local residents of the island also joined the parents’ protest.”

The school administration promptly sought the help of officials from the education ministry.

“Fearing that the teacher would be physically attacked, the officials took her out of the island right away,” the source said. “She will never be able to come back to the island, and nor is she willing to do so. She will be given a job in another island.”

A few days earlier, George, a social studies teacher, had drawn a compass to teach directions to Class VI students. But the students, who knew little English, mistook the drawing to be a cross and thought she was trying to preach Christianity, the source said. The students complained to their parents, who in turn issued a warning to the school.

Administrators at the school set up a committee to investigate the allegation and called for a meeting with parents on Thursday (Sept. 30) to present their findings. The committee found that George had drawn a compass as part of a geography lesson.

“However, the parents arrived the previous night to settle the matter outside the school,” said the source.

According to local newspaper Haveeru, authorities transferred George to the nearby island of Funadhoo “after the parents threatened to tie and drag her off of the island.”

The teacher, who worked at the school for three years, is originally from the south Indian coastal state of Kerala. Many Christians from Kerala and neighboring Tamil Nadu state in India are working as teachers and doctors in the Maldives.

Preaching or practicing a non-Muslim faith is forbidden under Maldivian law, which does not recognize any faith other than Islam. The more than 300,000 citizens of the Maldives are all Sunni Muslims.

A string of 1,190 islands in the Indian Ocean off Sri Lanka in South Asia, the Maldives is the only country after Saudi Arabia that claims to have a 100 percent Muslim population. As per its constitution, only a Muslim can be a citizen of the country. Importing any literature that contradicts Islam is against the law.

Many of the more than 70,000 expatriate workers in the Maldives are Christian, but they are allowed to practice their faith only inside their respective homes. They cannot even get together for prayer or worship in each other’s houses – doing so has resulted in the arrest and deportation of expatriates in the past.

The Maldives was ruled by an authoritarian, conservative Muslim president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, for 30 years. The nation became a multi-party democracy in 2008 with Mohamed Nasheed – from the largely liberal Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) – as the new president.

Gayoom’s right-wing party, the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), however, managed to win a simple majority in the People’s Majlis – as the parliament is known in the Maldives – in the 2009 parliamentary election. The Maldives follows the presidential system.

The DRP-led opposition often criticizes Nasheed’s government, accusing it of being liberal in cultural and religious matters, which DRP leaders claim will have a bearing on the country’s sovereignty and identity.

A key ally of the MDP, the Adhaalath Party, also holds conservative views on religion and culture.

Many in Maldivian society, along with religious and political leaders, believe religious freedom is not healthy for the nation’s survival, although the Maldives does not perceive any threat from nearby countries.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christian Convert in Bangladesh Falsely Accused of Theft


Muslims said to use mistaken identity to stop activities of Christian who refused to recant.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, August 27 (CDN) — A Christian convert from Islam was falsely arrested for cattle theft last weekend in a bid by influential Muslims to stop his Christian activities, area villagers said.

Day laborer Abul Hossen, 41, was arrested on Saturday (Aug. 21) for alleged cattle theft in Dubachari village in Nilphamari district, some 300 kilometers (180 miles) northwest of the capital, Dhaka.

Christian villagers told Compass that Hossen was the victim of “dirty tricks” by influential Muslims.

“There is another Abul Hossen in the village who might be the thief, but his father-in-law is very powerful,” said Gonesh Roy. “To save his son-in-law, he imputed all the blame to a different Abul Hossen who is a completely good man.”

Hossen, who converted to Christianity from Islam in 2007, has been very active in the community, and Muslims are harassing him with the charge so his ministry will be discredited and villagers will denounce his faith, Roy said.

“If he can be accused in the cattle theft case, he will be put in jail,” Roy said. “He will be a convicted man, and local people and the believers will treat him as a cattle thief. So people will not listen to a thief whatsoever.”

Some 150 villagers, about 20 percent of them Christian, went to the police station to plea for his freedom, he and other villagers said.

Sanjoy Roy, a lay pastor with Christian Life Bangladesh, told Compass that Hossen was a fervent Christian and that some Muslims have been trying to harass him since his conversion.

“They are hoping that if he is embarrassed by this kind of humiliation, he might not witness to Christ anymore, and it will be easy to take other converted Christians back to Islam,” Sanjoy Roy said. “He is a victim of dirty tricks by some local people.”  

Hossen was baptized on June, 12, 2007 along with 40 other people who were raised as Muslims. Of the 41 people baptized, only seven remained Christian, with villagers and Muslim missionaries called Tabligh Jamat forcing the remaining 34 people to return to Islam within six months, sources said.

Local police chief Mohammad Nurul Islam told Compass that officers had arrested a cattle thief who confessed to police that his accomplice was named Abul Hossen.

“Based on the thief’s confessional statement, we arrested Abul Hossen,” said Islam. “There are several people named Abul Hossen in the village, but the thief told exactly of this Abul Hossen whom we arrested.”

Hossen denied the allegation that he was involved in cattle theft, Islam said.

“Hossen is vehemently denying the allegation, but the thief was firm and adamantly said that Hossen was with him during the theft,” he said. “Then we took Hossen on remand for three days for further inquiry.”

A former union council chairman who is Muslim, Aminur Rahman, also told Compass that Hossen was a scapegoat.

“He is 100 percent good man,” said Rahman, who also went to the police station to plea for Hossen’s freedom the day after his arrest. “There are two or three people named Abul Hossen in the village. Anyone of them might have stolen the cattle, but I can vouch for the arrested Abul Hossen that he did not do this crime.”

Whether Hossen is a Christian, Muslim or Hindu should not matter in the eyes of the law, Rahman said.

“He is an innocent man,” he said. “So he should not be punished or harassed. That is why I went to police station to request police to free him.”

Local government Union Council Chairman Shamcharan Roy, a Hindu from Lakmichap Union, told Compass that Hossen was not engaged in any kind of criminal activities.

“In my eight years of tenure as a union council chairman, I did not find him engaged in any kind of criminal activities,” said Shamcharan Roy. “Even before my tenure as a chairman, I did not see him troublesome in the social matrix.”

Immediately after Hossen’s arrest, Shamcharan Roy went to the police station and requested that he be freed, he added.

“I was under pressure from local people to free him from custody – more than 100 villagers went to the police camp, getting drenched to the skin in the heavy downpour, and requested police to free him,” Shamcharan Roy said. “Police are listening to a thief but are deaf to our factual accounts about Abul Hossen.”

In July 2007, local Muslims and Tabligh Jamat missionaries gathered in a schoolyard near the homes of some of the Christians who had been baptized on June 12, a source said. Using a microphone, the Muslims threatened violence if the converts did not come out.

Fearing for their lives, the Christians emerged and gathered. The source said the Muslims asked them why they had become Christians and, furious, told them that Bangladesh was a Muslim country “where you cannot change your faith by your own will.”

At that time, Hossen told Compass that Muslims in the mosque threatened to hang him in a tree upside down and lacerate his body with a blade. Hossen said the Muslims “do not allow us to net fish in the river” and offered him 5,000 taka (US$75) and a mobile phone handset if he returned to Islam.

“But I did not give up my faith, because I found Christ in my heart,” Hossen told Compass in 2007. “They threatened me with severe consequences if I do not go back to Islam. I said I am ready to offer up my life to Christ, but I won’t renounce my faith in Him.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Motive for Aid Worker Killings in Afghanistan Still Uncertain


Taliban takes responsibility, but medical organization unsure of killers’ identity.

ISTANBUL, August 12 (CDN) — The killing of a team of eye medics, including eight Christian aid workers, in a remote area of Afghanistan last week was likely the work of opportunistic gunmen whose motives are not yet clear, the head of the medical organization said today.

On Friday (Aug. 6), 10 medical workers were found shot dead next to their bullet-ridden Land Rovers. The team of two Afghan helpers and eight Christian foreigners worked for the International Assistance Mission (IAM). They were on their way back to Kabul after having provided medical care to Afghans in one of the country’s remotest areas.

Afghan authorities have not been conclusive about who is responsible for the deaths nor the motivation behind the killings. In initial statements last week the commissioner of Badakhshan, where the killings took place, said it was an act of robbers. In the following days, the Taliban took responsibility for the deaths.

The Associated Press reported that a Taliban spokesman said they had killed them because they were spies and “preaching Christianity.” Another Taliban statement claimed that they were carrying Dari-language Bibles, according to the news agency. Initially the attack was reported as a robbery, which IAM Executive Director Dirk Frans said was not true.

“There are all these conflicting reports, and basically our conclusion is that none of them are true,” Frans told Compass. “This was an opportunistic attack where fighters had been displaced from a neighboring district, and they just happened to know about the team. I think this was an opportunistic chance for them to get some attention.”

A new wave of tribal insurgents seeking territory, mineral wealth and smuggling routes has arisen that, taken together, far outnumber Taliban rebels, according to recent U.S. intelligence reports.

Frans added that he is expecting more clarity as authorities continue their investigations.

He has denied the allegation that the members of their medical team were proselytizing.

“IAM is a Christian organization – we have never hidden this,” Frans told journalists in Kabul on Monday (Aug. 9). “Indeed, we are registered as such with the Afghan government. Our faith motivates and inspires us – but we do not proselytize. We abide by the laws of Afghanistan.”

IAM has been registered as a non-profit Christian organization in Afghanistan since 1966.

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a former political candidate, dismissed the Taliban’s claims that team members were proselytizing or spying, according to the BBC.

“These were dedicated people,” Abdullah said according to the BBC report. “Tom Little used to work in Afghanistan with his heart – he dedicated half of his life to service the people of Afghanistan.”

Abdullah had trained as an eye surgeon under Tom Little, 62, an optometrist who led the team that was killed last week. Little and his family had lived in Afghanistan for more than 30 years with IAM providing eye care.

IAM has provided eye care and medical help in Afghanistan since 1966. In the last 44 years, Frans estimates they have provided eye care to more than 5 million Afghans.

Frans said he doesn’t think that Christian aid workers are particularly targeted, since every day there are many Afghan casualties, and the insurgents themselves realize they need the relief efforts.

“We feel that large parts of the population are very much in favor of what we do,” he said. “The people I met were shocked [by the murders]; they knew the members of the eye care team, and they were shocked that selfless individuals who are going out of their way to actually help the Afghan people … they are devastated.”

The team had set up a temporary medical and eye-treatment camp in the area of Nuristan for two and a half weeks, despite heavy rains and flooding affecting the area that borders with Pakistan.

Nuristan communities had invited the IAM medical team. Afghans of the area travelled from the surrounding areas to receive treatment in the pouring rain, said Little’s wife in a CNN interview earlier this week, as she recalled a conversation with her husband days before he was shot.

Little called his wife twice a day and told her that even though it was pouring “sheets of rain,” hundreds of drenched people were gathering from the surrounding areas desperate to get medical treatment.

 

The Long Path Home

The team left Nuristan following a difficult path north into Badakhshan that was considered safer than others for reaching Kabul. Frans said the trek took two days in harsh weather, and the team had to cross a mountain range that was 5,000 meters high.

“South of Nuristan there is a road that leads into the valley where we had been asked to come and treat the eye patients, and a very easy route would have been through the city of Jalalabad and then up north to Parun, where we had planned the eye camp,” Frans told Compass. “However, that area of Nuristan is very unsafe.”

When the team ended their trek and boarded their vehicles, the armed group attacked them and killed all but one Afghan member of the team. Authorities and IAM believe the team members were killed between Aug. 4 and 5. Frans said he last spoke with Little on Aug. 4.

IAM plans eye camps in remote areas every two years due to the difficulty of preparing for the work and putting a team together that is qualified and can endure the harsh travel conditions, he said.

“We have actually lost our capacity to do camps like this in remote areas because we lost two of our veteran people as well as others we were training to take over these kinds of trips,” Frans said.

The team of experts who lost their lives was composed of two Afghan Muslims, Mahram Ali and another identified only as Jawed; British citizen Karen Woo, German Daniela Beyer, and U.S. citizens Little, Cheryl Beckett, Brian Carderelli, Tom Grams, Glenn Lapp and Dan Terry.

“I know that the foreign workers of IAM were all committed Christians, and they felt this was the place where they needed to live out their life in practice by working with and for people who have very little access to anything we would call normal facilities,” said Frans. “The others were motivated by humanitarian motives. All of them in fact were one way or another committed to the Afghan people.”

The two Afghans were buried earlier this week. Little and Terry, who both had lived in the war-torn country for decades, will be buried in Afghanistan.

Despite the brutal murders, Frans said that as long as the Afghans and their government continue to welcome them, IAM will stay.

“We are here for the people, and as long as they want us to be here and the government in power gives us the opportunity to work here, we are their guests and we’ll stay, God willing,” he said.

 

Memorial

On Sunday (Aug. 8), at his home church in Loudonville, New York, Dr. Tom Hale, a medical relief worker himself, praised the courage and sacrifice of the eight Christians who dedicated their lives to helping Afghans.

“Though this loss has been enormous, I want to state my conviction that this loss is not senseless; it is not a waste,” said Hale. “Remember this: those eight martyrs in Afghanistan did not lose their lives, they gave up their lives.”

Days before the team was found dead, Little’s wife wrote about their family’s motivation to stay in Afghanistan through “miserable” times. Libby Little described how in the 1970s during a citizens’ uprising they chose not to take shelter with other foreigners but to remain in their neighborhood.

“As the fighting worsened and streets were abandoned, our neighbors fed us fresh bread and sweet milk,” she wrote. “Some took turns guarding our gate, motioning angry mobs to ‘pass by’ our home. When the fighting ended, they referred to us as ‘the people who stayed.’

“May the fruitful door of opportunity to embrace suffering in service, or at least embrace those who are suffering, remain open for the sake of God’s kingdom,” she concluded.

 

Concern for Afghan Christians

Afghanistan’s population is estimated at 28 million. Among them are very few Christians. Afghan converts are not accepted by the predominantly Muslim society. In recent months experts have expressed concern over political threats against local Christians.

At the end of May, private Afghan TV station Noorin showed images of Afghan Christians being baptized and praying. Within days the subject of Afghans leaving Islam for Christianity became national news and ignited a heated debate in the Parliament and Senate. The government conducted formal investigations into activities of Christian aid agencies. In June IAM successfully passed an inspection by the Afghan Ministry of Economy.

In early June the deputy secretary of the Afghan Parliament, Abdul Sattar Khawasi, called for the execution of converts, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).

“Those Afghans that appeared on this video film should be executed in public,” he said, according to the AFP. “The house should order the attorney general and the NDS (intelligence agency) to arrest these Afghans and execute them.”

Small protests against Christians ensued in Kabul and other towns, and two foreign aid groups were accused of proselytizing and their activities were suspended, news sources reported.

A source working with the Afghan church who requested anonymity said she was concerned that the murders of IAM workers last week might negatively affect Afghan Christians and Christian aid workers.

“The deaths have the potential to shake the local and foreign Christians and deeply intimidate them even further,” said the source. “Let’s pray that it will be an impact that strengthens the church there but that might take awhile.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Prospects of Religious Freedom Appear Grim in Islamic Maldives


Two years after political reforms, freedom of faith nowhere in sight.

MALÉ, Maldives, August 10 (CDN) — Visitors to this Islamic island nation get a sense of religious restrictions even before they arrive. The arrival-departure cards given to arriving airline passengers carry a list of items prohibited under Maldivian laws – including “materials contrary to Islam.”

After Saudi Arabia, the Maldives is the only nation that claims a 100-percent Muslim population. The more than 300,000 people in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago featuring 1,192 islets 435 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, are all Sunnis.

This South Asian nation, however, has more than 70,000 expatriate workers representing several non-Islamic religions, including Christianity.

Also, around 60,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, visit each year to enjoy the blue ocean and white beaches and normally head straight to one of the holiday resorts built on around 45 islands exclusively meant for tourism. Tourists are rarely taken to the other 200 inhabited islands where locals live.

Nearly one-third of the population lives in the capital city of Malé, the only island where tourists and Maldivians meet.

While the Maldivians do not have a choice to convert out of Islam or to become openly atheist, foreigners in the country can practice their religion only privately.

In previous years several Christian expats have either been arrested for attending worship in private homes or denied visas for several months or years on suspicion of being connected with mission agencies.

According to “liberal estimates,” the number of Maldivian Christians or seekers “cannot be more than 15,” said one source.

“Even if you engage any Maldivian in a discussion on Christianity and the person reports it to authorities, you can be in trouble,” the source said. “A Maldivian youth studying in Sri Lanka became a Christian recently, but when his parents came to know about it, they took him away. We have not heard from him since then.”

The source added that such instances are not uncommon in the Maldives.

“I wish I could attend church, but I am too scared to look for one,” said a European expat worker. “I have not even brought my Bible here; I read it online. I don’t want to take any chances.”

The British reportedly translated the Bible into the local language, Dhivehi, and made it available in the 19th century, as the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965. Today no one knows how the Dhivehi Bible “disappeared.”

“A new translation has been underway for years, and it is in no way near completion,” said the source who requested anonymity.

 

Religion Excluded from Rights

The 2008 constitution, adopted five years after a popular movement for human rights began, states that a “non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”

Abdulla Yameen, brother of the former dictator of the Maldives and leader of the People’s Alliance party, an ally of the opposition Dhivehi Raiyyathunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party or DRP), told Compass that the issue of religious freedom was “insignificant” for the Maldives.

“There’s no demand for it from the public,” Yameen said. “If you take a public poll, 99 percent of the citizens will say ‘no’ to religious freedom.”

Maldivians are passionate about their religion, Yameen added, referring to a recent incident in which a 37-year-old Maldivian citizen, Mohamed Nazim, was attacked after he told a gathering that he was not a Muslim. On May 28, before a crowd of around 11,000 Maldivians, Nazim told a visiting Indian Muslim televangelist, Zakir Naik, that although he was born to a practicing Muslim family, he was “struggling to believe in religions.”

He also asked Naik about his “verdict on Islam.” The question enraged an angry crowd, with many calling for Nazim’s death while others beat him. He received several minor injuries before police took him away.

“See how the public went after his [Nazim’s] throat,” said Yameen, who studied at Claremont Graduate University in California. When asked if such passion was good for a society, he replied, “Yes. We are an Islamic nation, and our religion is an important part of our collective identity.”

Asked if individuals had no rights, his terse answer was “No.” Told it was shocking to hear his views, he said, “We are also shocked when a nation legalizes gay sex.”

Mohamed Zahid, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, told Compass that the country has its own definition of human rights.

“It is to protect people’s rights under the sharia [Islamic law] and other international conventions with the exception of religious freedom,” he said. “We are a sovereign nation, and we follow our own constitution.”

Zahid and several other local sources told Compass that the issue of religious rights was “irrelevant” for Maldivians. “Not more than 100 people in the country want religious freedom,” Zahid said.

 

Politics of Religion

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a virtual dictator for 30 years until 2008, is generally held responsible for creating an atmosphere of religious restrictions in the Maldives, as he sought to homogenize religion in the country by introducing the state version of Sunni Islam. He also led a major crackdown on Christians.

The Protection of Religious Unity Act, enacted in 1994, was an endeavor to tighten the government’s control over mosques and all other Islamic institutions. The Gayoom administration even wrote Friday sermons to be delivered in mosques.

In 1998, Gayoom began a crackdown on alleged missionary activities.

“A radio station based out of India used to air Christian programs via the Seychelles, but the government came to know about it and ensured that they were discontinued with the help of the government in the Seychelles,” said a local Muslim source.

That year, Gayoom reportedly arrested around 50 Maldivians who were suspected to have converted to Christianity and deported 19 foreign workers accused of doing missionary work. A source said Gayoom apparently wanted to regain popularity at a time when his leadership was being questioned.

When the archipelago became a multi-party democracy in October 2008, new President Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and activist, was expected to pursue a liberal policy as part of the country’s reforms agenda.

Although Nasheed is the president, his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has only 28 members and the support of four independents in the 77-member People’s Majlis (Maldives’ unicameral Parliament). Gayoom, now in his 70s and the leader of the largest opposition party, the DRP, has a simple majority – which presents difficulties in governance. Nasheed pleads helplessness in implementing reforms, citing an intransigent opposition.

Today Gayoom’s party accuses President Nasheed of not being able to protect the country’s distinct identity and culture, which the opposition says are rooted in Islam. The Gayoom-led parliament recently sought to impeach the education minister for proposing to make Islam and Dhivehi lessons optional – rather than mandatory – in high school.

To pre-empt the impeachment move, the whole cabinet of Nasheed resigned on June 29, which caused a major political crisis that led to violent street protests. The Nasheed administration allegedly arrested some opposition members, including Gayoom’s brother, Yameen. Political tensions and uncertainties continued at press time.

Now that President Nasheed’s popularity is declining – due to perceptions that he has become as authoritarian as his predecessor – it is feared that, amid immense pressure by the opposition to follow conservative policies, he might begin to follow in Gayoom’s footsteps.

 

Growing Extremism

Both the ruling and opposition parties admit that Islamic extremism has grown in the country. In October 2007, a group of young Maldivians engaged government security forces in a fierce shootout on Himandhoo Island.

Nasheed’s party alleges that Gayoom’s policy of promoting the state version of Sunni Islam created an interest to discern “true Islam,” with extremists from Pakistan stepping in to introduce “jihadism” in the Maldives. The DRP, on the other hand, says that behind the growth of extremism is the current government’s liberal policy of allowing Muslims of different sects to visit the Maldives to preach and give lectures, including the conservative Sunni sect of “Wahhabis.”

Until the early 1990s, Maldivian women would hardly wear the black burqa (covering the entire body, except the eyes and hands), and no men would sport a long beard – outward marks of Wahhabi Muslims, said the Muslim source, adding that “today the practice has become common.”

Still, Islam as practiced in the Maldives is pragmatic and unlike that of Saudi Arabia, he said. “People here are liberal and open-minded.”

As extremism grows, though, it is feared that radical Islamists may go to any extent to extra-judicially punish anyone suspected of being a missionary or having converted away from Islam, and that they can pressure the government to remain indifferent to religious freedom.

How long will it take for the Maldives to allow religious freedom?

“Maybe after the Maldivian government legalizes gay sex,” the Muslim source joked.

Report from Compass Direct News

Trial over ‘Insulting Turkishness’ Again Yields No Evidence


Justice Minister says Article 301 defendants ‘presumed innocent’ until verdict.

ISTANBUL, May 28 (CDN) — The 11th hearing of a case of alleged slander against two Turkish Christians closed just minutes after it opened this week, due to lack of any progress.

Prosecutors produced no new evidence against Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal since the last court session four months ago. Despite lack of any tangible reason to continue the stalled case, their lawyer said, the Silivri Criminal Court set still another hearing to be held on Oct. 14.

“They are uselessly dragging this out,” defense lawyer Haydar Polat said moments after Judge Hayrettin Sevim closed the Tuesday (May 25) hearing.

Court-ordered attempts to locate and produce testimonies from two witnesses summoned three times now by the prosecution had again proved fruitless, the judge noted in Tuesday’s court record.

Murat Inan, the only lawyer who appeared this time on behalf of the prosecution team, arrived late at the courtroom, after the hearing had already begun.

The two Protestant Christians were accused in October 2006 of slandering the Turkish nation and Islam under Article 301 of the Turkish criminal code.

The prosecution has yet to provide any concrete evidence of the charges, which allegedly took place while the two men were involved in evangelistic activities in the town of Silivri, an hour’s drive west of Istanbul.

Both Tastan, 41, and Topal, 50, became Christians more than 15 years ago and changed their religious identity from Muslim to Christian on their official ID cards.

Initially accompanied by heavy media hype, the case had been led by ultranationalist attorney Kemal Kerincsiz and a team of six other lawyers. Kerincsiz had filed or inspired dozens of Article 301 court cases against writers and intellectuals he accused of insulting the Turkish nation and Islam.

Because of Kerincsiz’s high-level national profile, the first few hearings drew several hundred young nationalist protestors surrounding the Silivri courthouse, under the eye of dozens of armed police. But the case has attracted almost no press attention for the past two years, ever since Kerincsiz was jailed in January 2008 as a suspect in the overarching conspiracy trials over Ergenekon, a “deep state” operation to destabilize the government led by a cabal of retired generals,
politicians and other key figures. The lawyer is accused of an active role in the alleged Ergenekon plot to discredit and overthrow Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party government.

Two weeks ago, Turkish Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin commented before the United Nations Human Rights Council on the controversial May 2008 amendments to Article 301, under which Tastan and Topal are being tried.

Ergin insisted that the revised Article 301 had provided “a two-fold assurance” for freedom of expression in Turkey. The most significant revision required all Article 301 cases to obtain formal permission from the justice minister before being prosecuted.

This week Ergin released Justice Ministry statistics, noting that out of 1,252 cases filed under Article 301 during the past three years, only 83 were approved for prosecution.

Stressing the principle of “presumption of innocence,” Ergin went on to criticize the Turkish media for presenting Article 301 defendants as guilty when they were charged, before courts had heard their cases or issued verdicts.  

But for Tastan and Topal, who by the next hearing will have been in trial for four years, Ergin’s comments were little comfort.

“At this point, we are tired of this,” Tastan admitted. “If they can’t find these so-called witnesses, then the court needs to issue a verdict. After four years, it has become a joke!”

Topal added that without any hard evidence, “the prosecution must produce a witness, someone who knows us. I cannot understand why the court keeps asking these witnesses to come and testify, when they don’t even know us, they have never met us or talked with us!”

Both men would like to see the trial concluded by the end of the year.

“From the beginning, the charges against us have been filled with contradictions,” Topal said. “But we are entirely innocent of all these charges, so of course we expect a complete acquittal.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Officials Threaten to Burn Shelters of Expelled Christians


Village heads tell church members they must recant faith or move elsewhere.

DUBLIN, March 16 (CDN) — Officials in southern Laos in the next 48 hours plan to burn temporary shelters built by expelled Christians unless they recant their faith, according to advocacy group Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF).

Authorities including a religious affairs official, the district head, district police and the chief of Katin village in Ta-Oyl district, Saravan province, expelled the 48 Christians at gunpoint on Jan. 18.

Prior to the expulsion, officials raided a worship service, destroyed homes and belongings and demanded that the Christians renounce their faith. (See www.compassdirect.org, “Lao Officials Force Christians from Worship at Gunpoint,” Feb. 8.)

Left to survive in the open, the Christians began to build temporary shelters, and then more permanent homes, on the edge of the jungle, according to HRWLRF. They continued to do so even after deputy district head Khammun, identified only by his surname, arrived at the site on Feb. 9 and ordered them to cease construction.

More officials arrived on Feb. 18 and ordered the Christians to cease building and either renounce their faith or relocate to another area. When the group insisted on retaining their Christian identity, the officials left in frustration.

On Monday (March 15), district head Bounma, identified only by his surname, summoned seven of the believers to his office, HRWLRF reported.

Bounma declared that although the republic’s law and constitution allowed for freedom of religious belief, he would not allow Christian beliefs and practices in areas under his control. If the Katin believers would not give up their faith, he said, they must relocate to a district where Christianity was tolerated.

When the seven Christians asked Bounma to supply them with a written eviction order, he refused.

The Christians later heard through local sources that the chiefs of Katin and neighboring Ta Loong village planned to burn down their temporary shelters and 11 partially-constructed homes erected on land owned by Ta Loong, according to HRWLRF.

These threats have left the Christians in a dilemma, as permission is required to move into another district.

Both adults and children in the group are also suffering from a lack of adequate food and shelter, according to HRWLRF.

“They are without light, food and clean water, except for a small stream nearby,” a spokesman said. Officials also forced them to leave the village with minimal clothing and other items necessary for basic survival.

Village officials have said they will only allow spirit worship in the area. A communist country, Laos is 1.5 percent Christian and 67 percent Buddhist, with the remainder unspecified. Article 6 and Article 30 of the Lao Constitution guarantee the right of Christians and other religious minorities to practice the religion of their choice without discrimination or penalty.

Decree 92, promulgated in July 2002 by the prime minister to “manage and protect” religious activities in Laos, also declares the central government’s intent to “ensure the exercise of the right of Lao people to believe or not to believe.”

Report from Compass Direct News