Chilly house? Mouldy rooms? Here’s how to improve low-income renters’ access to decent housing



Too many Australians struggle to get their housing maintained and problems fixed.
Trevor Charles Graham/Shutterstock

Edgar Liu, UNSW; Chris Martin, UNSW, and Hazel Easthope, UNSW

People’s quality of life, their health and their comfort can suffer when living in poor-quality housing. It can also impose high ongoing costs of maintenance, repairs, heating and cooling. And these problems are more likely to affect low-income households, as our report for Shelter NSW shows. In it, we review the evidence on housing quality problems and consider ways to resolve these, especially for low-income households.

There is extensive evidence of the impacts of poor-quality housing on physical health, mental wellbeing and comfort. For example, poor design and maintenance can lead to the build-up of mould.




Read more:
Is this a housing system that cares? That’s the question for Australians and their new government


These negative impacts vary by income groups and tenure. From the recently completed Australian Housing Conditions Dataset we know, for example, that renters on very low incomes (the bottom fifth of households for gross income, about $20,000 a year) are most likely to have unmet repair needs. They also have a harder time staying comfortable during winter and summer, as the table below shows.


Source: Australian Housing Conditions Dataset, Author provided

What are the reasons for poor-quality housing?

There are several underlying reasons for substandard housing.

Properties may enter the rental market after years in owner-occupation with no formal checks on their state of repair.

Another problem is some private renters do not assert – or feel unable to assert – their legal right to habitable premises in a reasonable state of repair and upkeep. This is often because of the insecurity of their leases and lack of affordable alternative housing.




Read more:
Life as an older renter, and what it tells us about the urgent need for tenancy reform


Another issue is “split incentives” – landlords decline to upgrade properties because they would not receive any benefit themselves.

There are also problems in public housing. Disinvestment by governments has both reduced the supply of housing and caused a backlog of maintenance for much of the remaining stock of dwellings.




Read more:
Tenants’ calls for safe public housing fall on deaf ears


Housing quality is covered by myriad regulatory regimes. Lately, governments have been focused on questions of how best to regulate construction of new buildings. Less attention is given to the ongoing use of existing buildings.

Recent state and national reviews have highlighted problems in the certification of building design and construction, and in the public agencies that oversee the certifiers. Some state governments have begun to respond. The New South Wales government, for instance, is moving to consolidate the regulation of construction practitioners under a new building commissioner.

We spoke to a range of housing sector stakeholders and the theme from the recent reviews that most struck a chord was inadequate policy governance. There was no comprehensive overview or oversight of the issues of housing quality. As a result, some important issues escape policymakers’ attention.

Many stakeholders indicated that the current focus on problems in new buildings is an example of this. Although that’s plainly an issue in need of attention, other problems in existing buildings and more fundamental solutions are being overlooked – such as increasing social and affordable housing supply.




Read more:
Australia needs to triple its social housing by 2036. This is the best way to do it


So what are the solutions?

Empowering tenants and regulators

One way in which the quality of existing housing is regulated is through tenancy laws. This will become more important as rental housing becomes an increasingly common option, particularly for the long term.

Recently, some state governments have amended tenancy laws to specify “minimum standards” for rental housing. Our research participants supported these moves, but said security of tenure also had to be improved to protect renters when they assert their rights. The onus of legal enforcement could also be shifted from tenants to regulators.

Mandating improvements to overcome the split incentive problem

The split incentive problem for housing quality means some landlords are reluctant to pay for upgrades – such as insulation or other energy-efficient features – where tenants are the beneficiaries. As a result, renters, especially those on low incomes, are likely to be living in housing of lower standards or quality.

A potential solution is for governments to take the minimum standards approach and legislate energy efficiency and other improvements as mandatory. This is already commonplace overseas.

One of our workshop participants observed that “energy poverty” was another way of framing the policy issue that had proved compelling in overseas jurisdictions. While this framing had not had the same impact in Australia, this may be changing.

Improving transparency of housing standards

Social housing providers have a role in leading by example. Increased investment in social housing could contribute to improved quality across the housing system.

To this end, social housing landlords – particularly state and territory public housing authorities – need to be more accountable to tenants and the general public. Transparent reporting on property conditions, maintenance and tenant satisfaction, led by the social housing sector, can and should be rolled out as standard practice across the sector.

To do this, however, enough funding must be provided to reverse decades-long underfunding in the sector.

Collectively, these options can deliver more equitable housing outcomes, not only to low-income households but to all. The challenge lies in having the political and industry will to act on them.




Read more:
Australia needs to reboot affordable housing funding, not scrap it


The Conversation


Edgar Liu, Senior Research Fellow at City Futures Research Centre, UNSW; Chris Martin, Research Fellow, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW, and Hazel Easthope, Associate Professor, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Want to improve your mood? It’s time to ditch the junk food



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Eating a healthy diet fuels our brain cells, fights inflammation and helps produce the chemicals that make us happy.
Antor Paul

Megan Lee, Southern Cross University

Worldwide, more than 300 million people live with depression. Without effective treatment, the condition can make it difficult to work and maintain relationships with family and friends.

Depression can cause sleep problems, difficulty concentrating, and a lack of interest in activities that are usually pleasurable. At its most extreme, it can lead to suicide.




Read more:
What causes depression? What we know, don’t know and suspect


Depression has long been treated with medication and talking therapies – and they’re not going anywhere just yet. But we’re beginning to understand that increasing how much exercise we get and switching to a healthy diet can also play an important role in treating – and even preventing – depression.

So what should you eat more of, and avoid, for the sake of your mood?

Ditch junk food

Research suggests that while healthy diets can reduce the risk or severity of depression, unhealthy diets may increase the risk.

Of course, we all indulge from time to time but unhealthy diets are those that contain lots of foods that are high in energy (kilojoules) and low on nutrition. This means too much of the foods we should limit:

  • processed and takeaway foods
  • processed meats
  • fried food
  • butter
  • salt
  • potatoes
  • refined grains, such as those in white bread, pasta, cakes and pastries
  • sugary drinks and snacks.

The average Australian consumes 19 serves of junk food a week, and far fewer serves of fibre-rich fresh food and wholegrains than recommended. This leaves us overfed, undernourished and mentally worse off.

Here’s what to eat instead

Mix it up.
Anna Pelzer

Having a healthy diet means consuming a wide variety of nutritious foods every day, including:

  • fruit (two serves per day)
  • vegetables (five serves)
  • wholegrains
  • nuts
  • legumes
  • oily fish
  • dairy products
  • small quantities of meat
  • small quantities of olive oil
  • water.



Read more:
Back to work? Take lunch from home to save time and money – and boost your mood


This way of eating is common in Mediterranean countries, where people have been identified as having lower rates of cognitive decline, depression and dementia.

In Japan, a diet low in processed foods and high in fresh fruit, vegetables, green tea and soy products is recognised for its protective role in mental health.

How does healthy food help?

A healthy diet is naturally high in five food types that boost our mental health in different ways:

Complex carbohydrates found in fruits, vegetables and wholegrains help fuel our brain cells. Complex carbohydrates release glucose slowly into our system, unlike simple carbohydrates (found in sugary snacks and drinks), which create energy highs and lows throughout the day. These peaks and troughs decrease feelings of happiness and negatively affect our psychological well-being.

Antioxidants in brightly coloured fruit and vegetables scavenge free radicals, eliminate oxidative stress and decrease inflammation in the brain. This in turn increases the feelgood chemicals in the brain that elevate our mood.




Read more:
Five types of food to increase your psychological well-being


Omega 3 found in oily fish and B vitamins found in some vegetables increase the production of the brain’s happiness chemicals and have been known to protect against both dementia and depression.

Salmon is an excellent source of omega 3.
Caroline Attwood

Pro and prebiotics found in yoghurt, cheese and fermented products boost the millions of bacteria living in our gut. These bacteria produce chemical messengers from the gut to the brain that influence our emotions and reactions to stressful situations.

Research suggests pro- and prebiotics could work on the same neurological pathways that antidepressants do, thereby decreasing depressed and anxious states and elevating happy emotions.

What happens when you switch to a healthy diet?

An Australian research team recently undertook the first randomised control trial studying 56 individuals with depression.

Over a 12-week period, 31 participants were given nutritional consulting sessions and asked to change from their unhealthy diets to a healthy diet. The other 25 attended social support sessions and continued their usual eating patterns.

The participants continued their existing antidepressant and talking therapies during the trial.

At the end of the trial, the depressive symptoms of the group that maintained a healthier diet significantly improved. Some 32% of participants had scores so low they no longer met the criteria for depression, compared with 8% of the control group.




Read more:
You’ve been diagnosed with depression, now what?


The trial was replicated by another research team, which found similar results, and supported by a recent review of all studies on dietary patterns and depression. The review found that across 41 studies, people who stuck to a healthy diet had a 24-35% lower risk of depressive symptoms than those who ate more unhealthy foods.

These findings suggest improving your diet could be a cost-effective complementary treatment for depression and could reduce your risk of developing a mental illness.The Conversation

Megan Lee, Academic Tutor and Lecturer, Southern Cross University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We must look past short-term drought solutions and improve the land itself


David Lindenmayer, Australian National University and Michelle Young, Australian National University

With drought ravaging Australia’s eastern states, much attention has been given to the need to provide short-term solutions through drought relief. But long-term resilience is a vital issue, particularly as climate change adds further pressure to farmers and farmland.

Our research has found that helping farmers improve the rivers, dams, native vegetation and trees on their land increases productivity, the resilience of the land to drought, and through this the health and well-being of farmers.




Read more:
Helping farmers in distress doesn’t help them be the best: the drought relief dilemma


Now is the time to invest more heavily than ever in vital networks in regional Australia, such as Landcare and natural resource management groups like Local Land Services and Catchment Management Authorities.

Research shows that trees, dams and native vegetation are essential to increase agricultural productivity.
Shutterstock/Olga Kashubin

Growing pressures on agricultural land

Some researchers suggest that up to 370 million hectares of land in Australia and the Pacific is degraded. This diminished productivity across such a large area has significant implications for the long-term sustainability of agricultural production.

Australia also has one of the worst records for wildlife diversity loss, including extensive loss of biodiversity across much of our agricultural land. The problems of degradation and biodiversity loss are often magnified under the pressure of drought.




Read more:
Is Australia’s current drought caused by climate change? It’s complicated


The good news is that there are ways to strengthen the resilience of the farmland. One key approach is to invest in improving the condition of key natural assets on farms, like shelter belts, patches of remnant vegetation, farm dams, and watercourses.

When done well, active land management can help slow down or even reverse land degradation, improve biodiversity, and increase profitability.

Better lands make more money

Many studies have shown improving the natural assets on an farm can boost production, as well as avoid the costs of erosion and flood control. For example, restored riverbank vegetation can improve dry matter production in nearby paddocks, leading to greater milk production in diary herds and up to a 5% boost in farm income.

Lines of trees, called windbreaks or shelterbelts, can protect and improve the fields next to them.
Peter Fenda/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Similarly, shelter belts (tree lanes planted alongside paddocks) can lower wind speeds and wind chill, and boost pasture production for livestock by up to 8%, at the same time as providing habitat for biodiversity.




Read more:
Recent Australian droughts may be the worst in 800 years


Our own long-term work with farmers who invested in their natural assets prior to, or during, the Millennium Drought in New South Wales suggests these farmers are currently faring better in the current drought.

Investing in resilience for the long-haul

Groups like Landcare bring their expertise to land management.
Shutterstock/Darryl Smith

Well-supported and resourced organisations like Landcare groups are pivotal to supporting effective land management, which improves degraded land and helps farmland (and farmer) through tough times.

However, Landcare and other natural resource management agencies have been subject to major budget cuts over the past decade.

They are also a key part of the social fabric of rural communities, bringing together landowners to exchange ideas and support each other. Indeed, the Australian Landcare model is so well regarded globally it has been adopted in 22 other countries.




Read more:
Australia moves to El Niño alert and the drought is likely to continue


This drought is a critical decision point. The need to invest in maintaining and improving our vegetation, water and soil has never been more apparent than it is now. We have a chance to determine the long-term future of much of Australia’s agricultural land.The Conversation

David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and Michelle Young, Director, Sustainable Farms, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s Human Rights Council election comes with a challenge to improve its domestic record



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Australia’s campaign for a seat on the Human Rights Council opened it to further scrutiny of its record on such issues.
Reuters/Denis Balibouse

Amy Maguire, University of Newcastle and Georgia Monaghan, University of Newcastle

Australia has been elected to a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. It will serve on the council from 2018 to 2020.

The announcement overnight formalised an assumed result: Australia and Spain were the only two countries seeking election to the two available seats for the Western Europe and Others group. Most of the other newly- elected council members similarly ran uncontested.

However, all campaigning countries required the support of a majority of voting countries to ensure their election. Australia received 176 votes and Spain 180 – both survived grilling by an expert committee.

How did Australia present itself as a candidate?

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop led Australia’s campaign, which had a particular focus on freedoms, free speech, and equality. The “five pillars” of Australia’s bid were:

  • gender equality

  • good governance

  • freedom of expression

  • the rights of Indigenous peoples

  • strong national human rights institutions and capacity building.

Australia presented itself as a “pragmatic and principled” candidate for the council position. Bishop cited Australia’s “strong track record for human rights” as well as its active and practical involvement in international affairs.

Such active and practical involvement can be seen in Australia’s advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty, as in the case of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan. Furthering global advocacy for death penalty abolition is one of Australia’s primary pledges as a new council member.

Australia’s involvement in multiple UN treaties and its anticipated adoption of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture were also cited as evidence of its worthiness for election.

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Australia’s bid and opportunities for human rights advocacy

However, Australia’s campaign opened it to further scrutiny of its human rights record. Human rights organisations in Australia and overseas have been lobbying to ensure that Australia’s practices are well publicised and subject to oversight and critique.

In December 2016, Bishop sought to pre-empt such criticism, claiming “no country is perfect”. Bishop pledged to be “honest and open” about Australia’s human rights record during the campaign.

Yet the campaign’s pledges failed to acknowledge Australia’s human rights abuses. As such, Australia remains open to accusations of hypocrisy on human rights.

Australia’s human rights track record is more chequered than it would claim. The UN has condemned Australia for its asylum-seeker policies and treatment of Indigenous peoples.

Bishop frequently praised Australia for its success in building a multicultural society and valuing the diverse background of migrant settlers. Yet asylum seekers arriving by boat continue to be dehumanised.


Further reading: ‘Fake refugees’: Dutton adopts an alternative fact to justify our latest human rights violation


Another key area of human rights controversy is the current postal plebiscite to survey public opinion on marriage equality. Australia’s council bid promised the protection of LGBTQI rights. But as was forewarned, the plebiscite campaign has exposed LGBTQI people to harmful fear campaigning and social exclusion.

It is incongruous for a claimed champion of human rights to put the rights of a minority group to a popular vote, potentially in an effort to prevent that group from gaining marriage equality.

Australia strikes a similarly dissonant note in relation to its treatment of Indigenous people. A key pledge of the council bid was the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. However, a constitutional convention rejected the form of “recognition” the government-sponsored Recognise campaign had promoted.

The Recognise campaign has since been abandoned, and the future of the proposed referendum is unclear. The Australian government is yet to embrace the Referendum Council’s proposals for treaty, truth-telling and a First Nations Voice.


Further reading: Listening to the heart: what now for Indigenous recognition after the Uluru summit?


France’s withdrawal was a loss to the election campaign

Given Australia’s record, France’s withdrawal as a third candidate for the two available seats was unfortunate. The lack of competition reduced pressure on Australia to extend its human rights commitments.

The weight of international disapproval of Australia’s practice in relation to refugees, in particular, could well have weakened the bid had France stayed in the race.

No doubt this was also true for Spain. The recent Catalan independence referendum exposed Spain’s problematic record in relation to self-determination and political rights for minority groups.


Further reading: As Spain represses Catalonia’s show of independence, the rest of Europe watches on nervously


In interesting company

The UN’s orientation is to promote inclusion rather than marginalisation of member countries on international bodies. The UN is committed to universal values and obligations, and seeks to enforce these through universal involvement in its processes.

It is undoubtedly difficult to countenance egregious human rights violators participating in human rights processes. But it is at least arguable that their involvement promotes the progressive realisation of human rights more effectively than their marginalisation would.

However, in some cases, it may be that a country’s membership should be postponed until it can show improvement in a deplorable record. Leading up to the election, Human Rights Watch campaigned against promoting the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the council due to its grave human rights violations.

Meanwhile, the US warned it may withdraw if the council continued to elect countries responsible for gross abuses.

Australia is not in this category. It aspires to be an exemplary member of the council. And its election should act as impetus for progressive gains in its human rights performance.

The value of Australia’s election for human rights

Human rights advocates will take the opportunity to draw attention to any gaps between Australia’s international legal obligations and its domestic practices.

Bishop was right to highlight the value of Australia becoming the first Pacific country to join the council. Strong diplomatic and trade relationships will hopefully enable Australia to influence human rights development in its region. It is the only place without a regional human rights treaty or institution.

An important focus in this context will be Australia’s advocacy for the abolition of capital punishment. Allied to that concern for the right to life, perhaps Australia might also consider lobbying other countries – notably the US – for gun laws that prioritise human life and wellbeing.

Australia could substantially increase the legitimacy of such efforts, though, by working to build adequate domestic human rights architecture. Without federal human rights legislation, Australia cannot demonstrate the social and legal value of building human rights protections into law.

Australia’s election also calls for a renewal of political commitment to the value of international human rights review processes. Recent years have seen expressions of frustration, dismissal and poor faith that undermine Australia’s strong record of commitment to international human rights treaties.

Nowhere was this troubling attitude toward human rights protection more clear than in efforts to tarnish the reputation and work of former Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs.

Such mixed messages sit poorly with Australia’s continued efforts to review the practices of other countries – particularly now that it has an official role on the Human Rights Council.


Further reading: Why does international condemnation on human rights mean so little to Australia?


Australia has claimed leadership in the areas of gender equality, good governance, freedom of expression, the rights of Indigenous people, and strong national human rights institutions.

Imperfect performance in these areas indicates key targets for immediate focus – for example through human-rights-informed approaches to gendered violence, and concern for limitations on the freedom to express views about politically sensitive matters.

Considerable progress will be required on the rights of Indigenous people for Australia to claim success on that key pillar of its council campaign. The federal government could look to progress on a treaty in Victoria as evidence that such a conversation can be inclusive and productive.

The ConversationImportantly, Australia must also be held accountable in the key area its bid sought to avoid: the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Its election provides an ideal opportunity for Australia to show leadership and commitment to durable regional and global responses to refugee flows.

Amy Maguire, Senior Lecturer in International Law and Human Rights, University of Newcastle and Georgia Monaghan, Research Assistant, University of Newcastle

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

Violence Escalates in Mosul, Iraq ahead of Elections


Christians targeted as political tension builds in weeks leading to parliamentary polls.

ISTANBUL, March 5 (CDN) — Political tensions ahead of parliamentary elections in Iraq on Sunday (March 7) have left at least eight Chaldean Christians dead in the last three weeks and hundreds of families fleeing Mosul.

“The concern of Christians in Mosul is growing in the face of what is happening in the city,” said Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk Louis Sako. “The tension and struggle between political forces is creating an atmosphere of chaos and congestion. Christians are victims of political tension between political groups, but maybe also by fundamentalist sectarian cleansing.”

On Feb. 23 the killing of Eshoee Marokee, a Christian, and his two sons in their home in front of other family members sent shock waves across the Christian community. The murder took place amid a string of murders that triggered the mass exodus of families to the surrounding towns and provinces.

“It is not the first time Christians are attacked or killed,” said the archbishop of the Syrian Catholic Church in Mosul, Georges Casmoussa. “The new [element] in this question is to be killed in their own homes.”

The capital of Nineveh Province some 400 kilometers (250 miles) northwest of Baghdad, Mosul has been known as the most dangerous city for Christians. At least 275 Assyrian Christians have been murdered by Islamic insurgents since 2003, according to a report prepared by the International Committee for The Rights of Indigenous Mesopotamians.

While in 2009 the organization listed 16 deaths, since January there have been at least 13 murders, eight of which took place the second half of February.

The movement of internally displaced persons to surrounding areas started in mid-February and tripled between Feb. 24 and Feb. 27 to about 683 families, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Although the rate of displacement into areas around Mosul has slowed, the report estimates that 720 families had fled the city as of March 1. This represents about 4,320 people.

Christian Students Affected

The murders have not only driven families away from the cities but have also kept students away from university. Three of the Christians killed in February were university students. As a result, around 2,000 Christian students are staying away from their classes until the tension in Mosul eases.

“We believe that the attack against these students was somehow related to the political situation in Mosul,” said General Secretary of the Chaldo-Assyrian Student and Youth Union Kaldo Oghanna. “This has affected our people in Mosul badly, and they have left the university.”

Oghanna said that the union has proposed that the Ministry of Education open a new university in a safer area of the Nineveh plains for the nearly 3,000 Christian undergraduate students and 250 graduate students studying in Mosul. He also said that they have appealed to the university’s administration to make necessary exceptions for the Christian students who have not attended classes in the last few weeks.

Although some local Christian leaders say they expect the tension to ease after Sunday, security may not improve as the Christian community is caught in political tensions between Arabs and Kurds vying for control of the province. Archbishop Casmoussa said regardless of who is behind the murders, the Christian community demands justice.

“We urge the Central and Regional Government to pursue the murders and their masters and judge them according to Iraqi laws, even if they are supported by religious or political parties,” Casmoussa said. “Enough is enough. Are we to pay the price of political struggles or ambitions?”

Sako said that in other cities security has improved, and that Christians are eager to cast their votes.

The election on March 7 will decide the 325 members of the Council of Representatives of Iraq, who will then elect the prime minister and president of Iraq. Of these seats, five are reserved for the nation’s Christian minority, estimated at around 600,000. Most of them live in the Nineveh plain.

At the beginning of the Iraq war, there were about 1.2 million Christians living in Iraq. Iraq’s population is roughly 30 million.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Karen Christians pressed between Thailand and Myanmar


The Thai government and local military leaders want to force Karen Christians back into Myanmar, and they’re willing to use military force to clear refugee camps within the next two weeks, reports MNN.

The camps are full because the Burmese army is wiping out the Karen. Wes Flint with Vision Beyond Borders says, "I’m shocked that the free world is just allowing this to continue."

The ruling junta has been battling Christian-majority Karen rebels for decades. Similar army crackdowns forced thousands of villagers to flee their homes, and they found their way across the border to Thailand’s refugee camps.

Many of the more-recently displaced were forced to hide in the Burma jungle.

Human rights groups protested the Thai plan to repatriate the refugees in Burma over concern that once back in Myanmar, the refugees will be subject to "severe human rights violations, including forced labour and rape by soldiers of the Burma Army," according to a leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

No one expects the situation to improve, but VBB teams are trying to intervene. "We try to create a safe environment for them, to bring them in, to provide food for them, and medical care."

VBB’s Patrick Klein wrote this from Myanmar: "Due to rice fields and crops being destroyed and attacks on villagers by the Burmese army, we have a group of 100 children who are in urgent need of food. They are on the brink of starvation. Currently they are in hiding with their parents inside Burma. Our caretaker in our Shekinah children’s home in one of the official refugee camps asked if we can help those children with food and get them out of Burma."

It’s dangerous work, but there are friends of the ministry who are trying to get those 100 children to the VBB camp in the mountains.

Klein says, "If we are able to get them out, we will build housing for them. The parents are ready to die and give whatever food they find to their children for now. Please pray with us that God will make a way for these children and help our attempts to get them safely into one of the camps where we have a Children’s Home."

The VBB team delivered 45 bags of rice and medicines to partners who will take all the supplies to the Internally Displaced People inside Burma–those hiding from the Burmese Army.

It’s hard to imagine what is going unnoticed in front of so many international eyes. Flint explains, "There’s what they would call an ‘ethnic cleansing’ going on, but it seems that most of their targets are Christians."

Does their identity as a Christian mark them as Karen–or possibly something more? Flint says, "This persecution has really refined them. They have been great ambassadors to reach out to the Buddhist community–even to those that are persecuting them."

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Ministry reports thousands of Karen deaths in Myanmar


Atrocities are mounting in Burma–the country now known as Myanmar. Thousands of people have been killed by the military-led government. And many human rights workers say there’s no end in sight, reports MNN.

President of Vision Beyond Borders Patrick Klein just returned from the border of Myanmar and Thailand and says the situation is desperate. "The government seems like it’s intent on genocide. 500,000 people have died already. They say it surpasses Darfur because they document more than 3,300 villages that have been completely burned to the ground."

According to Klein, this is a strategic political move. "The government is trying to get rid of everybody who is in opposition to this current military regime. So, it’s not just the Karen, but the Karen seem to be receiving the brunt of it."

The issue has been addressed by the Harvard Law School’s report, "Crimes in Burma," but the rest of the world is ignoring it. Klein says, "It’s baffling to us because we can’t figure it out. Nobody seems to know what’s going on. Nobody seems to be interested. When we talk, people in the States say, ‘Really? That’s happening in Burma? Well, we need to know that.’"

I asked Klein if he thinks it’s genocide. "I heard one of the Burmese generals say, ‘By the year 2010’ (which isn’t that far away) ‘there will be no more Karen people left. We’re going to wipe them off the face of the earth. The only ones you’ll see will be in the photographs in the museums.’"

Klein says the international media seems to be ignoring the situation.

He says the Myanmar military isn’t the only offender. Burmese orphans, refugees in bordering Thailand, are being threatened by Thai officials. "The Thai border police want to send them back into Burma. There are land mines everywhere. They’re killing these people. And they want to send these kids back because they’re kind of working with the government, underhandedly, to get money kickbacks from the government to send these kids back in, to slaughter them."

Klein says the stories of evil abound. "We heard a story about an eight-year-old boy who was told by the Burmese military, in front of his family, to climb a tree and climb as high as he could. They held him at gun point. He climbed as high as he could, and they told him to jump down, or they would shoot [his family]. So, he jumped to his death in front of his family."

Vision Beyond Borders was able to take in rice, medical supplies, toys for Christmas, and Bibles. Klein says, "Even in the midst of all these atrocities, many people are getting saved. So we want to keep providing Bibles."

Klein says nobody expects the situation to improve. "The elections are coming up in Burma in March. They believe 50,000 to 100,000 more refugees will come into Thailand before the election, and probably 150,000 more after the election."

Christian actor Kirk Cameron has agreed to be the narrator for a documentary on the situation in Burma. "We want to get that out around the nation," says Klein, "to call the churches to pray and ask God to intervene in the country to bring down this wicked government."

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Turkish Police Official Axed amid Allegations in Murders


Head of intelligence allegedly hid evidence, failed to prevent slaying of Christians.

MALATYA, Turkey, October 22 (CDN) — The head of Turkey’s police intelligence department was removed on Friday (Oct. 16) amid allegations that he failed to prevent the murder of the Christian editor of an Armenian weekly and the slayings of three Christians in this city in southeastern Turkey.

Ramazan Akyurek is also accused of withholding evidence in those cases and improperly investigating the murder of a Catholic priest in 2006.

After a Malatya trial hearing on Friday, prosecution lawyers in the case commended the removal of Akyurek for negligence but said it came too late. Akyurek has been placed in a different position within police headquarters in Ankara.

Prior to the January 2007 murder of Hrant Dink, editor of the Armenian weekly Agos, Akyurek allegedly received a report about the orchestrated plan to kill him. That clearly implied that Akyurek was one of the masterminds behind the murder, according to Erdal Dogan, one of the prosecuting attorneys in the Malatya case.

While heading the investigation of the Dink murder, Aykurek reportedly not only witheld intelligence but also tried to affect the outcome of the trial, claiming in his investigation report that a group of “friends” planned to kill Dink because he offended Turkey.

“This is a disaster,” Dogan said. “The same happened with the Malatya massacre. “We know he had information on all the developments of the massacre, but he didn’t act on it. He tried to cover it up. We know that they were following the movements of the killers.”

Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske were bound hand and foot, tortured and then slain with knives at the Zirve Publishing Co. in April 2007. Dogan said that had Zirve staff members not suspected that something was wrong and called police, the five young men who were caught at the scene of the crime most likely would not have been apprehended.

“It’s difficult to know to what extent this character affected the investigations during that time,” Dogan said. “This is why the fact that they took him from his position was important, but they removed him late; they removed him very late.”

Akyurek was head of police in the city of Trabzon in 2006 when Catholic priest Andrea Santoro was killed. It was under his auspices that a young man was arrested and imprisoned for the murders without investigation into who was behind the murder, according to Dogan.

In the same year, Akyurek was promoted to head Turkey’s police intelligence unit.

“Even though Aykurek was incompetent as a police head and covered up crimes, he became the head of intelligence with access to all of Turkey’s intelligence,” Dogan said.

More Evidence Sees Light

Akyurek was fired about a week after Turkish press received leaked documents showing payments the Malatya gendarmerie made in exchange for intelligence on missionary activities between March 2007 and November 2008. The amounts totaled nearly 10,000 Turkish lira (US$6,840).

At Friday’s hearing the Malatya court heard the testimony of Murat Gokturk, a former petty officer in the Malatya intelligence department at the time of the murders. Gokturk had made contact with Huseyin Yelki, a Christian volunteer at Zirve who is one of the suspects in the murders because of his heavy involvement with gendarmerie in the months leading up to and directly after the slayings.

Gokturk testified that he contacted Yelki and requested a New Testament in Arabic so he could learn the language better, as he has an Arabic heritage. He claimed that when he contacted Yelki from his gendarmerie office, he and the intelligence department were not following missionary activities.

“Missionary activities are legal,” said Gokturk. “This is a religious and conscience right. It’s not a crime.”

Prosecuting lawyers asked that the judges record Gokturk’s statement that missionary activities are legal. They later explained that since all other evidence shows that officials did spy on missionaries in Malatya, such a statement showed they were aware that they were doing so in violation of their legal jurisdiction.

“We questioned the witness [Gokturk], but he tried to hide the truth either by saying, ‘I don’t remember,’ or by lying,” said Dogan. “But evidence shows that he and Huseyin Yelki had a very close relationship and information exchange, and it’s obvious that this was not a simple information exchange. They met many, many times.”

The European Union Commission report on Turkey’s progress in 2009 was also published last week. Under the section on democracy and the rule of law, the report noted that high-profile cases such as the Malatya and Dink trials, which are connected to the alleged criminal network Ergenekon, raised concerns about the quality of investigations. The report noted a need “to improve the working relationship between the police and the gendarmerie on the one hand and the judiciary on the other.”

Concerning freedom of religion, the report noted that missionaries are widely perceived as a threat to the integrity of Turkey and Islam. It also pointed out that the Ministry of Justice allowed judicial proceedings under Article 301 of the Criminal Code – which criminalizes “insulting Turkishness” – in the case of Turkish Christians Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal for sharing their faith with others.

This last case has also been linked to the Ergenekon cabal believed to have masterminded the Santoro, Dink and Malatya murders. It has continued for three years with no resolution.

“It’s finally clear that there is a connection between Santoro, Dink and Malatya and everyone is talking that way,” said Dogan, noting how the prosecuting lawyers in the cases as well as the media perceive the link. “It is now obvious that these three crimes came from the same center.”

The Malatya court is still waiting for an answer from the Ergenekon judges about whether the murder of the three Christians will be joined into the the latter case, under which more than 100 former military, political figures, journalists and others have been arrested.

Dogan, however, said that whether the Malatya case is connected with the Ergenekon case is now secondary, and that it is probably better for the Malatya trial to stay separate to determine what really happened.

“It’s enough for me that this picture is clear,” said Dogan of the link between the cases and Ergenekon. “There is no doubt for me. If they connect them or not it doesn’t matter. Because when the court case goes there, Ergenekon is so complicated that the Malatya case could get lost in it.”

The next hearing of the Malatya trial is set for Nov. 13.

Report from Compass Direct News 

VIETNAM: AUTHORITIES RAID, THREATEN HOUSE CHURCHES


Christians note increase in government harassment – some of it violent.

HANOI, Aug. 6 (Compass Direct News) – Local authorities in Vietnam have balked at registering house churches, contributing to a recent uptick in sometimes violent harassment of congregations.

Four police officers and two government officials broke up the Sunday morning worship service of a house church in Tran Phu Commune in Hanoi on July 26, announcing that it was illegal to worship and teach religion. The police chief of Tran Phu Commune in greater Hanoi, Dang Dinh Toi, had ordered the raid.

When Christians under the leadership of Pastor Dang Thi Dinh refused to sign a document admitting they were meeting illegally, an angry police officer shouted, “If I find you meeting here next Sunday, I will kill you all like I’d kill a dog!”

Officials had previously refused to grant the church’s application for registration. Pastor Dinh and the national leader of the Ecclesia Revival denomination, Pastor Vo Xuan Loan, appealed to commune authorities the following day – again trying to register the church according to the Prime Minister’s 2005 Special Directive Concerning Protestants.

The commune head angrily proclaimed, “There are absolutely no Christians in this commune!” and then shooed them away, church leaders reported.

In nearby Hung Yen province, an Agape Baptist house church led by Pastor Duong Van Tuan was raided several times in June (see “Police Attack House Churches, Jail Leaders,” June18). Since then Compass learned from Pastor Tuan that his wife Nguyen Thi Vuong was badly abused on June 21. A group of policemen roughed her up, and then two of them seized her by her arms and repeatedly banged her head into a wall, he said.

When she fainted, Pastor Tuan said, they dragged her out and dumped her in a nearby field. Fellow Christians took her to medical care. The church situation remains unresolved.

Also in the north, in Viet Thuan Commune of Thai Binh Province, commune police broke up a house church meeting of the Vietnam Good News Mission Church on July 25, seizing seven hymnals and summoning Pastor Bui Xuan Tuyen to the police station for interrogation. In a letter to his superiors, Pastor Tuyen complained of police cursing and scolding him.

They confiscated his motorbike and sent it to a distant district office. In spite of such pressure, he refused to write a confession for what they termed his “crimes.” He was held until 10 p.m. before being released to collect his motorbike.

Southern Troubles

The situation is not better in the south. On Friday (July 31) Vietnam Good News Mission Church Pastor Mai Hong Sanh was subjected to a public denunciation and trial reminiscent of 1950s-style communism in the town of Ea Hleo, in Dak Lak Province.

He was sentenced to three months of “local re-education” for expanding his house without permission and giving religious training without permission – both practically impossible for Christians to obtain – and “causing social division.” This was the government’s answer to his church’s aspirations and attempts to provide training for ethnic minority church workers at Pastor Sanh’s home.

As a result, he can go nowhere without prior permission and must submit to political indoctrination courses at the whim of local officials. About 120 people, mostly town officials and police, attended his “trial” – Pastor Sanh was not allowed to defend himself, and authorities marshaled people they said were members of another church to accuse him, Christian sources said.

On Sunday (Aug. 2), some 15 policemen barged into a house church worship service in Xuan Thoi Thuong Commune, Hoc Mon district, Ho Chi Minh City. Brandishing batons and electric prods, police demanded that people leave immediately, according to local sources. Two new believers fled, they said, but most of the small congregation remained.

In a show of force, police officers also lined up outside the house and announced to curious neighbors who had gathered, “If anyone of you come to Chinh’s house and believe in his God, you will be in deep trouble,” according to the sources. Nguyen Van Chinh, leader of this independent house church, had been receiving such visits and threats by security forces since January.

Following the advice of local authorities, he had tried to register his house church as provided by Vietnamese law, but to no avail. At midnight on July 24, five police officers beat on his door demanding to be let in “to check IDs.”

Though he had submitted a registration application months before, they told him that “future zoning would not allow religious activities” and that he must permanently cease church meetings, sources said. When his congregation continued meeting, he was issued an “administrative fine,” which he appealed. His house church continued worshiping, leading to Sunday’s raid.

Church leaders said such incidents are representative of many others not reported for security reasons. Asked about the reasons for this uptick in harassment, church leaders strongly agreed that it is a firm though unwritten government policy to try to stop any expansion of Christianity. They said the harassment was so widespread that it must have approval from the top level of the central government.

All of the churches in this report tried to register according to supposedly clear government guidelines but have been denied without a legitimate reason.

Christian leaders also observed that Vietnam, having achieved its goal of getting off the U.S. religious liberty black list and won accession to the World Trade Organization, no longer worries much about international opinion. Others added that authorities, who retain a special suspicion of Christianity, are trying to suppress any expressions of the widely growing discontent with Vietnam’s government and the Communist Party.

At the same time, Catholics have been involved in larger clashes with authorities and with gangs of thugs widely believed to be hired and stirred up by the government. The government-backed gangs have beaten Catholic families. A fierce clash between Catholics and the government flared up in Dong Hoi City, in central Quang Binh province, on July 22. Police and hoodlums interfered with some 200 faithful trying to rebuild part of the bombed out Tam Toa Cathedral.

Reminding Catholics of the heavy-handed ending to church property claims in Hanoi last year, this incident quickly got the support of Catholics around the country. Some estimated that up to 500,000 Catholics nationwide participated in prayer vigils the following Sunday.

According to a long-time Compass source on Vietnam, the legally registered Protestant bodies are no more optimistic than their Catholic counterparts. Their leaders complain of unending bureaucratic blockages, harassment and interference.

“Overall, there is more pessimism today than four or five years ago, when people had hopes that new religion regulations might lead to steady improvement,” the source said.

“But it was not to be. Hence trust in government promises to improve religious liberty is at a very low ebb.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

HUMANITARIAN GROUPS WARN OF REFUGEE CRISIS LOOMING IN PAKISTAN


As Pakistan continues its press on the Taliban, thousands are fleeing the Swat Valley. A brief lull in the violence over the weekend saw many people loading their families and possessions into anything that moved in order to leave the area, reports MNN.

A “peace” pact with the Taliban broke down 11 days ago when security forces began an assault to push the militants back into their territory. The rebels, well-established in their stronghold, had begun to encroach upon Islamabad in a blatant grab for land and power.

The result when the two forces met was volatile. The government is now preparing for up to 500,000 internal refugees, the largest displacement crisis in Pakistan’s history.

Even when the refugees arrive at refugee camps, it’s not a guarantee of safety or comfort. Jacob Kramer is with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee. He says,”These camps are now full. New places will have to be made in order to help them and have an opportunity to distribute the most essential things to maintain life.”

It’s hot, overcrowded, and there are inadequate sanitation facilities as well as a lack of electricity. Add to that: diseases and a lack of medical help, and the situation deteriorates quickly. Kramer says their teams are mobilizing. “We’ve been in contact with our partners, and they are trying to get a more detailed picture so that we can start with food and non-food responses to help the people.”

CRWRC reaches out in God’s name to people who are struggling with poverty, hunger, disaster, and injustice to help them find lasting ways to improve their lives.

The teams are the hands and feet of Christ in this horrific situation. Kramer urges people to “pray for the people, that God’s grace may abide with them and peace may return as soon as possible. This is a population which has been tormented from so many sides, so often, that they are highly-affected by trauma.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph