The government has picked up another Senate crossbencher to add to its numbers, with Tasmanian independent Steve Martin announcing he has joined the Nationals.
It is the first time the party has had representation in that state since the early 1920s, when William McWilliams was briefly leader of the Country Party.
Although it is to the Coalition’s advantage to have an additional senator locked in, and one less independent with whom to negotiate, in practice the change does not affect things significantly.
Martin’s move takes the Coalition to 31 in the Senate, out of a 76-member chamber. It means the government has to get eight of ten crossbenchers to pass legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens. Previously it was nine of 11. Martin has mostly voted with the Coalition and was already committed to supporting the government’s company tax cuts for big business.
He was elevated to Parliament on a countback, following the resignation of Jacqui Lambie in the citizenship crisis, but he never sat as a representative of the Jacqui Lambie Network, becoming an independent.
Earlier, Senator Lucy Gichuhi moved from the crossbench to the Liberals. She has come under threat for a winnable place on the South Australian Liberal ticket.
Martin said on Monday that what drew him to the Nationals was “their focus on key issues such as natural resources, teamwork and, of course, people”. He said the Nationals had a record of looking after rural and regional communities and Tasmania was rural and regional.
Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said Martin’s joining was “reinvigorating the National Party in Tasmania”.
Recalling the long period since the party had had representation there – before the Tasmanian tiger was last seen in the 1930s – McCormack said: “I liken Steve a bit to the Tasmanian tiger, inasmuch as he will be a tiger for regional development, an absolute tiger in there fighting for the interests of Tasmanians.”
Martin said he had no “deal” with the Nationals although “I hope I get the number one on their election paper”.
It is not clear how Martin, who is up for election at the next poll, would fit with the Liberals’ ticket. Although only Liberal Richard Colbeck is up for re-election next time, sources say Martin’s joining the Nationals does not mean there would necessarily be a joint Coalition ticket. There could be separate tickets.
Lambie, meanwhile, responded to the news with her own tweet on Monday: “I will be running to return the Senate seat to the people of Tasmania who want a truly independent voice in Canberra. Trust me, I am biting at the bit, looking forward to taking the Nats out!”
Malcolm Farnsworth on his blog, AustralianPolitics.com has corrected Michael McCormack, and The Conversation. McCormack (and we) said that before new recruit Steve Martin, the last federal representative of his party from Tasmania was William McWilliams. Farnsworth says it was Llewellyn Atkinson, who was the Country Party member for Wilmot from 1921 until 1928.
Put yourself in the shoes of Tim Storer. The accidental senator from South Australia has one hell of a decision to make shortly after the May budget, when the government plans to bring back its legislation to give tax cuts to big business.
A week ago the Coalition’s fairly confident hopes rested on Storer voting in favour of its A$35.6 billion package. A deal with Victorian crossbencher Derryn Hinch, whose vote also had to be secured, was seen as doable. Then Storer baulked, and the legislation’s future has again become anybody’s guess.
Think of the situation from Storer’s perspective. He has literally just arrived in the Senate, elected to replace a Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) victim of the citizenship crisis but sitting as an independent because of a stoush with his former party.
It’s amazing he’s there at all, and he’s not likely to be there long – one can’t see him re-elected next year. Now he has life-or-death sway over a key measure the government took to the 2016 poll. He has to ask himself whether he should use the extraordinary power that bizarre circumstances have given him to frustrate legislation on which the Coalition can argue it has a mandate.
On the other hand, as he said in his Wednesday Senate statement outlining his doubts about the bill, he is concerned about whether the budget can afford the cuts. And then, he noted, there’s the question of whether the money could be better spent on other things – infrastructure and the like.
When he was sworn in last week, Storer was escorted by the government and opposition Senate leaders, Mathias Cormann and Penny Wong. He chose his escorts. It was to signal his independence, and perhaps to flag that he saw himself as an active player.
He brings to the huge decision before him training in economics, and experience of business, especially in Asia. That presumably helps with evaluating the argument the government makes about the competitive importance of these cuts.
He also comes from a state with a history of federal politicians who focus locally when there are Commonwealth dollars to be had. Nick Xenophon once held up the Rudd government’s $42 billion economic stimulus package while he extracted water concessions that would benefit South Australia.
While Storer has been willing to engage with the government, and will continue to do so, if he eventually voted no, he’d be in line with his former party. The two NXT senators are opposed, despite the government trying to lure them.
Labor, fighting the tax cuts, also observes Storer’s past ALP membership as a sign of his general political orientation and thus perhaps a clue to his final decision.
But the government hopes more talking, more incentives, and perhaps the content of the budget might be enough to persuade him.
Parliament is off until the May 8 budget, when attention will turn from company tax to the government’s income tax plans – which are crucial as it tries to improve the community mood for the election due before mid-next year.
Politically, the budget will be preceded by a media feeding frenzy around the next Newspoll that – barring a miracle for Malcolm Turnbull – will be the 30th in which the Coalition trails Labor.
This will be a diversion, as attention harks back to Turnbull’s invoking 30 Newspolls against Tony Abbott. But with no challenger in sight, it won’t be a decisive moment – just another bout of bad publicity to be endured.
Abbott no doubt will make the most of it. But the more time that passes, the less relevance the former prime minister seems to have, despite a speculative story this week that he might he positioning for a tilt at the opposition leadership if Turnbull loses the election.
Abbott’s decision to launch Pauline Hanson’s book of speeches this week was eccentric and ill-judged.
Can anyone forget his toxic view of her two decades ago, when he established a fund to facilitate legal actions against One Nation and she ultimately ended up in jail? Now he is saying that “if over the last two decades we had been more ready to heed the message of people like Pauline Hanson and less quick to shoot the messenger, I think we would be a better country today”. The bitter enemies have turned into kissing cousins.
Hanson might have mellowed slightly second time around, and she is certainly helping the government in the Senate. But her politics should still be condemned by Liberals, certainly not given the sort of qualified endorsement Abbott extended.
Abbott said the only way the Coalition could win the election was if it could harvest One Nation’s preferences, and “if I can make that more likely, that is a very positive contribution that I can make to the prospects of the Turnbull government”.
His remarks at the book launch suggested a mix of conviction and expediency – regardless, they further fuel cynicism about our politicians.
Speaking of cynicism, one couldn’t miss how quickly some observers segued from the cricket scandal to political behaviour. But as they (rightly) criticise the errant Australian players, politicians would prefer to overlook awkward parallels with conduct in politics – for instance the endemic tampering with the ball of truth.
On Tuesday a fired-up Turnbull told a news conference: “I think there has to be the strongest action taken against this practice of sledging. It has got right out of control, it should have no place … on a cricket field.”
Absolutely. And also it has got out of control on the political field. But when a journalist interjected with “doesn’t it happen in parliament?”, Turnbull chose to let that pass without response.
After going to the polls on November 25, Queenslanders finally have a state election result as Liberal National Party leader Tim Nicholls conceded defeat on Friday.
Following a four-week campaign, votes were counted for almost a fortnight until Annastacia Palaszczuk’s Labor Party was confirmed the victor. Palaszczuk is the first female premier to win back-to-back elections. In 2015, she’d become the first woman at state or federal level to lead her party to government from opposition.
But it’s not the clear-cut result Palaszczuk desired. Labor appears to have won 48 seats in the 93-member parliament to the LNP’s 39. This leaves Palaszczuk’s returned government with a slim majority and a diverse crossbench.
A complex contest
With a record field of candidates in an expanded number of electorates – many with redrawn boundaries – this shaped as a complicated election. Adding to its unpredictability was the reintroduction after 25 years of compulsory preferential voting.
While two-party-preferred swings were generally not as large as at the last two state elections, overall figures showed a fragmented statewide vote. More than 30% gave their first preferences to minor parties and independents. This exceeded the One Nation-driven protest vote in 1998.
This continues the trend of a declining primary vote for the major parties. Combined with compulsory preferencing, several electorate contests duly developed into three- or even four-horse races, extending the time needed to correctly distribute preferences and declare results. Some seats were decided only after the arrival of postal votes, up to ten days after the polling date.
Like the previous Queensland and federal elections, a close and protracted count left the government in extended caretaker mode. Voters in Queensland and the rest of Australia may need to accustom themselves to a new norm of tight, drawn-out contests, where party leaders’ election night speeches might be obsolete.
Winners and losers
Labor went into the election with a notional seat count of 48 following the redistribution. Despite a 2% decline in its statewide vote, it emerges with little change in its electoral stocks.
Gains in the state’s southeast corner at the LNP’s expense offset a few seat losses in central and north Queensland, where persistent unemployment has been a worry.
To the government’s relief, every cabinet member held their seat. Deputy Premier Jackie Trad survived one of the stronger challenges, a 10% two-party-preferred swing to the Greens in South Brisbane. Brisbane’s inner suburbs, as in other state capitals, are now highly vulnerable to a rising green tide.
The LNP suffered a negative swing of almost 8% – and even higher in parts of the southeast. High-profile casualties included shadow frontbenchers Scott Emerson, Ian Walker, Tracey Davis and Andrew Cripps in the north falling victim to erratic preference flows.
Emerson has the distinction of losing the newly created seat of Maiwar in inner Brisbane to Queensland’s first elected Greens MP, Michael Berkman.
In other firsts, Labor’s new member for Cook in far-north Queensland, Cynthia Liu, is the first Torres Strait Islander elected to any Australian parliament. Innovation Minister Leanne Enoch becomes the state’s first Indigenous MP to be returned at an election.
One Nation’s Stephen Andrew, who defeated veteran Labor MP Jim Pearce in Mirani in central Queensland, becomes the first descendent of South Sea Islander labourers to enter state parliament.
Besides bread-and-butter issues of job creation, power prices and transport infrastructure, neither Palaszczuk nor Nicholls could escape the dominant themes of this election. The proposed Adani coal mine project animated voters in different parts of the state for different reasons, as did the spoiler role that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation was presumed to play.
Together, these factors reinforced an impression of “two Queenslands” in contention during the campaign.
Protests against the Adani mine’s environmental impact – and questions over its long-term economic benefit to regional communities – featured regularly once the election was called. Palaszczuk succeeded in defusing the issue to some extent early in the campaign with an abrupt declaration that she would veto federal infrastructure funding for the mine’s construction.
A feared backlash in places of regional discontent and high youth unemployment, like Townsville, didn’t entirely materialise, with Labor incumbents holding seats against expectations. But these concerns, in tandem with uncertainty over the Adani project, saw Labor lose Bundaberg and nearly lose the traditionally Labor-voting Rockhampton to independent candidate and former mayor Margaret Strelow.
The LNP’s position on supporting the Adani mine with public funds, and Nicholls’ prevarication over dealing with One Nation, appear to have hurt the party in Brisbane especially. But so too did Labor reminding voters of Nicholls’ role as treasurer in the Newman government.
As the election neared, Nicholls was swamped by constant questioning about cosying up to One Nation.
While always difficult to quantify, the federal Coalition government’s woes amid the same-sex marriage debate and citizenship fiasco likely did the LNP few favours.
Role of the minor parties
The Greens and One Nation capitalised on the dip in major party support, gaining significant vote shares of 10% and almost 14% respectively. However, each party won only a single seat.
Critically, both parties stripped valuable primary votes from Labor and the LNP, especially the latter’s vote in the regions. This will furrow the brows of federal Coalition MPs through this term of government. For good measure, One Nation preferences likely helped unseat some LNP MPs in the southeast.
The party’s state leader, Steve Dickson, lost out to the LNP in Buderim, while Senate outcast Malcolm Roberts didn’t present a serious threat to Labor in Ipswich.
Despite its failings, One Nation attracted more than 20% in the seats it contested and finished runner-up in two dozen of them, perhaps largely down to Hanson’s constant presence throughout the campaign.
Katter’s Australian Party (KAP), though standing candidates in only ten seats and not making much impact on the campaign, might have done best of all the minor parties. Its primary vote improved to more than 2%, gaining it another seat in Hinchinbrook on Labor and One Nation preferences.
KAP’s targeted approach might prove unwelcome news for the federal Coalition, which can expect similar levels of focused disaffection from conservative regional voters elsewhere. But a fragmenting primary vote spells trouble for all the major parties.
What next for Queensland?
Queensland now enters its first fixed-term period of government. The next election is due on October 31, 2020, with four-year terms following that.
Labor holds only 13 of 51 seats outside the Greater Brisbane area. With all seats decided, factional negotiations will now unfold to determine the make-up of Palaszczuk’s new cabinet. It’s fair to assume it will be Brisbane-centric.
With such a concentration of government MPs in the capital, Palaszczuk’s team will presumably clock up many kilometres – and spend some political capital – reassuring the regions they’re not forgotten.
In the wake of an underwhelming result for the LNP, Nicholls announced he is stepping down as party leader and won’t contest a leadership ballot early next week. The likes of David Crisafulli or Tim Mander, or potentially Deb Frecklington, loom as Nicholls’ likely successors.
Party insiders have complained that the election result proves the marriage between the formerly separate Liberal and National parties in Queensland has failed and should be broken up.
After five days of counting since the Queensland election on November 25, it is likely that Labor will win 47 of the 93 seats, a bare majority. The ABC is currently calling 47 of 93 seats for Labor, 38 for the LNP, two for Katter’s Australian Party (KAP, one One Nation and one independent).
Two of the four uncalled seats are straightforward two-party contests. The LNP is very likely to win Burdekin, and Townsville is still lineball. Unless Labor loses a seat already called for it, they will have 47 of the 93 seats, a bare majority. The most likely such seat to be lost is Macallister.
A major break for Labor occurred in Rockhampton. On primary votes, Labor had 32%, independent Margaret Strelow 24%, One Nation 21% and the LNP 18%. Strelow had been expected to win on LNP and One Nation preferences, but LNP preferences flowed strongly to One Nation, putting it ahead of Strelow at the point where one was excluded. Labor has won on Strelow’s preferences by about 3,000 votes, according to the ABC’s Emilia Terzon.
In Macallister, Labor had 37% of the primary vote, the LNP 26.7%, and an independent, Hetty Johnston, 23.2%. Labor trounces the LNP after preferences, but Johnston could move ahead of the LNP on Greens and minor candidates’ preferences, especially as the Greens put her above Labor on their how-to-vote card.
However, according to the Courier-Mail as quoted by the Poll Bludger, Labor is “very confident” this scenario will not happen.
The Electoral Commission of Queensland frustratingly removed all its two-candidate results on Tuesday. The ABC’s two-candidate results are projections, not real votes. The Electoral Commission of Queensland conducted two-candidate counts on Monday in contested seats where the wrong candidates were selected on election night.
In Noosa, independent Sandy Bolton thrashed the LNP. In Cook, Labor convincingly defeated One Nation, but in Mirani One Nation defeated Labor. In Maiwar, Labor defeats the LNP on Greens preferences if it stays ahead of the Greens. In Burdekin, the LNP is slightly ahead of Labor after preferences.
The Greens are currently just 12 votes ahead of Labor in Maiwar on primary votes. Scrutineering information reported by Kevin Bonham suggests the Greens will gain on the preferences of a minor candidate. If they win the battle for second against Labor, they will easily defeat Shadow Treasurer Scott Emerson.
KAP is likely to gain Hinchinbrook from the LNP from third place, on first Labor then One Nation preferences.
Assigning the four uncalled seats to the likely winners, the final seat outcome is likely to be 47 Labor, 39 LNP, three KAP, one One Nation, one Green and one independent, with Townsville still in significant doubt.
Same-sex marriage plebiscite aftermath polling
The same-sex marriage legislation passed the Senate on November 29, 43 votes to 12. Additional protections for religious freedom were not included in the final bill. This legislation will go to the lower house next week.
While many commentators have focused on western Sydney’s large “no” vote in the plebiscite, I think the strong support for “yes” in rural and regional Australia is important.
Only two rural electorates – Maranoa and Kennedy in Queensland – voted “no”. In electorates based on the regional cities of Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Newcastle and Townsville, “yes” won at least 62%. In Oxley, where Pauline Hanson was first elected in 1996, “yes” won 60%.
In last week’s Essential poll, 42% thought current laws already provided enough protection for religious freedoms, while 37% thought any same-sex marriage legislation passed should include more protection for religious freedoms.
By 63-27, voters supported allowing ministers of religion and celebrants to refuse to officiate at same-sex weddings. However, by 48-43, voters opposed allowing service providers to refuse service for same-sex weddings, and by 44-42, they opposed allowing parents to withdraw their children from classes which do not reflect the parents’ views on marriage.
In this week’s Essential poll, 47% thought religious protections should be addressed separately from the same-sex marriage legislation, while 32% thought the legislation should include these protections.
In YouGov, by 46-36, voters thought the same-sex marriage legislation should incorporate new religious protection laws.
Essential 54-46 to federal Labor
This week’s Essential poll gave Labor the same two-party lead as last fortnight. Primary votes were 38% Labor, 36% Coalition, 9% Greens, 8% One Nation and 2% Nick Xenophon Team. Essential uses a two-week sample of about 1,800 for its voting intentions, with additional questions based on one week’s sample.
88% were concerned about energy prices, 83% about food prices, and 80% about housing affordability. At the bottom, only 57% were concerned about cuts in penalty rates.
49% thought the government should provide subsidies to speed up the transition to renewable energy, 16% thought it should let the market decide, and 12% slow the transition down.
By 64-12, voters supported a royal commission into the banking industry. 33% thought the economy was good, and 24% poor (30-29 good in May). However, by 39-31, voters thought the economy was heading in the wrong direction (41-29 in May).
In last week’s Essential poll, voters thought the government should run full term by 47-32, rather than call an early election. 36% expected Labor to win the next election, 20% the Coalition and 18% thought there would be a hung parliament.
44% (steady since January 2017) thought the economic and political system is fundamentally sound but needs to be refined. 32% (down eight) thought the system needs fundamental change, and 10% (up four) thought it is working well as it is. By 35-32, voters were satisfied with the way democracy is working in Australia.
This week’s YouGov, conducted November 23-27 from a sample of 1,034, had primary votes of 32% Coalition (up one since last fortnight), 32% Labor (down two), 11% One Nation (steady) and 10% Greens (down one). Despite the primary vote shift to the Coalition, Labor’s two-party lead increased a point to 53-47 on more favourable respondent preferences.
This is the first time in YouGov’s polling that Labor’s respondent-allocated two-party vote has matched what Labor would have got using the previous election method. In previous YouGov polls, the respondent allocation has always skewed to the Coalition, sometimes by as much as four points.
41% thought Malcolm Turnbull a weak leader and just 21% thought he is a strong leader. By 43-30, voters disapproved of the cancellation of this lower house sitting week. By 55-36, voters thought the government has a responsibility for the safety of the Manus Island asylum seekers.
By 46-40, voters favoured changing the Constitution to allow dual citizens to run for office (45-37 opposed in October). However, voters were opposed by 47-31 to allowing those who work for the state to run for office.
The two major Bennelong byelection candidates were both favourably perceived nationally. The Liberals’ John Alexander had a 40-29 favourable rating, and Labor’s Kristina Keneally a 39-29 favourable rating.
New England byelection: December 2
While the Bennelong byelection on December 16 is receiving much attention, the New England byelection will be held tomorrow, with polls closing at 6pm Melbourne time.
As far as I know, there has been no polling for New England publicly released since the byelection campaign began. Any result other than a clear win for Barnaby Joyce would be a major surprise.
NEW DELHI, January 21 (CDN) — Relatives of a pastor who was found dead in a secluded area in eastern Orissa state’s Kandhamal district last week have accused local police of a cover-up.
The body of Saul Pradhan, a 45-year-old independent pastor whose house was burned by Hindu extremists two years ago, was found near a pond in Pakala village in Kandhamal’s Raikia Block on Jan. 11 and bore marks of assault, Catholic activist Ajay Singh told Compass.
“I spoke to the widow of the pastor, and she told me that the hands and legs of the deceased looked twisted, and there was blood in his mouth. His pants were also torn,” Singh said by phone from Orissa’s capital, Bhubaneswar. “Why should it not arouse suspicion when Pastor Pradhan was last seen with two Hindu men, Marda Pradhan and Baiju Mallick, who were among the rioters who burned houses of Christians in 2008?”
A local activist with the Evangelical Fellowship of India said he visited the site after the body had been removed and saw blood stains on a stone.
Kandhamal witnessed two of India’s deadliest waves of anti-Christian violence in December 2007 and August-September 2008; the latter killed over 100 people, destroyed thousands of homes and displaced more than 60,000 others after a Hindu nationalist leader was killed by Maoists; Hindu nationalist groups blamed it on local Christians.
Christian residents of Kandhamal say the antagonism toward them by those who engaged in the attacks under the influence of extremist Hindu nationalists remains strong.
Singh said that the two Hindu men who burned houses of Christians in 2008, Marda Pradhan and Mallick, came to Pastor Pradhan’s house the evening of Jan. 10 and asked him to come out.
“The pastor’s wife was about to serve dinner and so asked him to wait,” he said. “But he said he wouldn’t take long.”
When the pastor did not return the next day, his wife went to the house of Marda Pradhan with a few villagers. Marda Pradhan’s wife told them her husband had been in the jungle for three days because of a leg injury, Singh said.
That afternoon, the pastor’s wife and the villagers again went to the house of Marda Pradhan, whose wife claimed he was not there. They could see him inside the house, however, and asked him to take them to the spot in the jungle where he had taken Pastor Pradhan the previous night. After walking for around half an hour, Marda Pradhan ran away, Singh said.
“The villagers got suspicious and began to look around,” he said. “That’s when they found the body lying near a pond.”
Some area residents told the villagers that they had heard loud quarreling the previous night.
Police, however, say they have found little reason to suspect foul play.
“There were no injury marks on the body of the man,” Inspector Ravi Narayan Barik told Compass, refuting the claims of the dead man’s family. “The doctor who performed the autopsy said it was just an unnatural death.”
According to police, Pastor Pradhan and two other men got drunk on the night of Jan. 10. The two others were able to return to their homes, Barik said, while the pastor could not and died in the cold.
“Drinking country-made liquor is normal behavior here,” said Barik, of the Raikia police station. “We called one of the two men who was with the deceased for interrogation but did not find anything suspicious.”
An official autopsy report was still awaited at press time.
Asked what sections of the Indian Penal Code or the Criminal Procedure Code were mentioned in the First Information Report or the formal police complaint, the official said, “None.”
“The family is spreading rumors about murder in hope of receiving compensation from the government, as many victims of the 2008 violence got compensated,” the inspector said.
Activist Singh said when the family went to police to report the suspected murder, officers were unwilling to listen.
“The police scolded them,” Singh said. “They said he must have died from the cold. When the family asked for an autopsy, the police asked them to collect the body, take it to the village and bring it to the police station the following day.”
But after the family insisted, the police asked them to bring the body the same day, he said.
“So the family and friends carried the body on a bicycle and brought it to the police station,” Singh said. Asked why police did not go to collect the body, Singh said, “This is how it happens here.”
Singh also said he heard that some local politicians from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) visited the Raikia police station after the death was reported, though he added that he “could not confirm if that actually happened.”
Until March 2009, the BJP was a ruling party in Orissa in coalition with a regional party, the Biju Janata Dal, for 11 years.
Dr. Sajan George of the Global Council of Indian Christians called for an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency reported on Monday (Jan. 17).
“The killing of Saul [Pradhan] seemed to be an organized crime by a section of people who had threatened him a few months ago, his family members alleged, adding that his house was also torched during the Kandhamal riots in 2008,” George told PTI.
Islamic extremist assault, security force operation leave at least 58 dead.
ISTANBUL, November 2 (CDN) — Amid questions about lax security, mourners gathered in Iraq today to bury the victims of Sunday’s (Oct. 31) Islamic extremist assault on a Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad, one of the bloodiest attacks on the country’s dwindling Christian community.
Seven or eight Islamic militants stormed into Our Lady of Salvation church during evening mass after detonating bombs in the neighborhood, gunning down two policemen at the stock exchange across the street, and blowing up their own car, according to The Associated Press (AP). More than 100 people were reportedly attending mass.
A militant organization called the Islamic State of Iraq, which has links to al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, claimed responsibility for the attack. The militants sprayed the sanctuary with bullets and ordered a priest to call the Vatican to demand the release of Muslim women whom they claimed were held hostage by the Coptic Church in Egypt, according to the AP. The militants also reportedly demanded the release of al Qaeda prisoners.
“It appears to be a well-planned and strategic attack aiming at the church,” said a local source for ministry organization Open Doors.
About four hours after the siege, Iraqi security forces launched an assault on the church building, and the Islamic assailants blew themselves up. It was unclear how many of the 58 people dead had been killed by Iraqi security personnel, but the militants reportedly began killing hostages when the security force assault began. All who did not die from gunshots and blasts were wounded.
The dead included 12 policemen, three priests and five bystanders from the car bombing and other blasts outside the church. The Open Doors source reported that the priests killed were the Rev. Saad Abdal Tha’ir, the Rev. Waseem Tabeeh and the Rev. Raphael Qatin, with the latter not succumbing until he had been taken to a hospital.
Bishop Georges Casmoussa told Compass that today Iraqi Christians not only mourned lost brothers and sisters but were tempted to lose hope.
“It’s a personal loss and a Christian loss,” said Casmoussa. “It’s not just people they kill. They also kill hope. We want to look at the future. They want to kill the Christian presence here, where we have so much history.”
Casmoussa, who knew the priests who died, said that this attack will surely drive more Christians away from the country or to Kurdish administrated northern Iraq.
“Those who are wounded know that it is by the grace of God they are alive, but some of them don’t know exactly what happened,” said Casmoussa. “There is one hurt man who doesn’t know if his son is still alive. This is the drama. There are families that lost two and three members. Do I have the right to tell them to not leave?”
The attack was the deadliest one against the country’s Christians since Islamic extremists began targeting them in 2003.
“It was the hardest hit against the Christians in Iraq,” said Casmoussa, noting that no single act of violence had led to more casualties among Christians. “We never had such an attack against a church or Christian community.”
Memorials were held today in Baghdad, Mosul and surrounding towns, said Casmoussa, who attended the funeral of 13 deceased Christians including the dead priests.
“At the funeral there was the Shiite leader, the official spokesperson of the government ministers,” Casmoussa said. “All the discussion was flippant – ‘We are with you, we are all suffering,’ etcetera, but we have demanded a serious investigation. We can’t count on good words anymore. It’s all air. We’ve heard enough.”
The Rev. Emanuel Youkhana of the Church of the East told Compass that Iraqi Christians have been systematically driven out over the last five years. He said this attack came as no surprise to him.
“I’m not surprised, in that this is not the first time,” said Youkhana. “In the last five years, there has been a systematic terrorist campaign to kick out the Christians from the country. [They are saying] you are not accepted in this country. Christians should leave this country.”
Youkhana said that in the same way that the Jewish community has disappeared from Iraq, the Iraqi Christians, or Medians as they are called, “are in their last stage of existence” in Iraq.
The Iraqi government is to blame due to its lax security measures, Youkhana said.
“I’m ashamed of the minister of defense, who came on TV and said it was a successful and professional operation – 50 percent of the [congregation] was massacred,” said Youkhana of the assault on the Islamic terrorists by Iraqi security forces.
He said that in order for Christians to have any hope of staying in Iraq, the government must come up with a political solution and set up an independent administrative area, like that of the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq.
“Just now I was watching on TV the coverage of the funeral,” Youkhana said. “All the politicians are there to condemn the act. So what? Is the condemnation enough to give confidence to the people? No!”
It is estimated that more than 50 percent of Iraq’s Christian community has fled the country since 2003. There are nearly 600,000 Christians left in Iraq.
“More people will leave, and this is the intention of the terrorists: to claim Iraq as a pure Islamic state,” said Youkhana. “Our people are so peaceful and weak; they cannot confront the terrorists. So they are fleeing out of the country and to the north. This is why we say there should be political recognition.”
Five suspects were arrested in connection with the attack – some of them were not Iraqi, and today an Iraqi police commander was detained for questioning in connection to the attack, according to the AP.
“We can’t make political demands,” said Casmoussa. “We are making a civic and humanitarian demand: That we can live in peace.”
Following the funerals today, a series of at least 13 bombings and mortar strikes in predominantly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad reportedly killed 76 people and wounded nearly 200.
Military hostilities against insurgents may result in Christian casualties and persecution.
CHIANG MAI, Thailand, October 22 (CDN) — With Burma’s first election in over 20 years just two weeks away, Christians in ethnic minority states fear that afterward the military regime will try to “cleanse” the areas of Christianity, sources said.
The Burmese junta is showing restraint to woo voters in favor of its proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), but it is expected to launch a military offensive on insurgents in ethnic minority states after the Nov. 7 election, Burma watchers warned.
When Burma Army personnel attack, they do not discriminate between insurgents and unarmed residents, said a representative of the pro-democracy Free Burma Rangers relief aid group in Chiang Mai, close to the Thai-Burma border. There is a large Christian population in Burma’s Kachin, Karen and Karenni states along the border that falls under the military’s target zone. Most of the slightly more than 2 million Christians in Burma (also called Myanmar) reside along the country’s border with Thailand, China and India.
The military seems to be preparing its air force for an offensive, said Aung Zaw, editor of the Chiang Mai-based magazine Irrawaddy, which covers Burma. The Burmese Air Force (BAF) bought 50 Mi-24 helicopters and 12 Mi-2 armored transport helicopters from Russia in September, added Zaw, a Buddhist.
Irrawaddy reported that the BAF had procured combat-equipped helicopters for the first time in its history. Air strikes will be conducted “most likely in Burma’s ethnic areas, where dozens of armed groups still exert control,” the magazine reported, quoting BAF sources.
“Armed conflicts between ethnic armies and the military can flare up any time,” said Zaw. “However, to boost the morale of its personnel, the military is expected to attack smaller ethnic groups first, and then the more powerful ones.”
Seven states of Burma have armed and unarmed groups demanding independence or autonomy from the regime: Shan, Karenni (also known as Kayah), Karen, Mon, Chin, Kachin, and Arakan (also Rakhine).
The junta has designated many areas in this region as “Black Zones” – entirely controlled by armed ethnic groups – and “Brown Zones,” where the military has partial control, said the source from FBR, which provides relief to internally displaced people in states across the Thai-Burma border.
“There are many unarmed Christian residents in these zones where Burmese military personnel attack and kill anyone on sight,” the source said.
A Karen state native in Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph, who fled Burma as a child, referred to the junta’s clandestine campaign to wipe out Christians from the country. At least four years ago a secret memo circulated in Karen state, “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma,” that carried “point by point instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state,” reported the British daily Telegraph on Jan. 21, 2007.
“The text, which opens with the line, ‘There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced,’ calls for anyone caught evangelizing to be imprisoned,” the Telegraph reported. “It advises: ‘The Christian religion is very gentle – identify and utilize its weakness.’”
Persecution of Christians in Burma “is part of a wider campaign by the regime, also targeted at ethnic minority tribes, to create a uniform society in which the race and language is Burmese and the only accepted religion is Buddhism,” the daily noted.
The junta perceives all Christians in ethnic minority states as insurgents, according to the FBR. Three months ago, Burma Army’s Light Infantry Battalions 370 and 361 attacked a Christian village in Karen state, according to the FBR. In Tha Dah Der village on July 23, army personnel burned all houses, one of the state’s biggest churches – which was also a school – and all livestock and cattle, reported the FBR.
More than 900 people fled to save their lives.
Vague Religious Freedom
The Burmese regime projects that close to 70 percent of the country’s population is ethnic Burman. Ethnic minorities dispute the claim, saying the figure is inflated to make a case for Burman Buddhist nationalism.
The new constitution, which will come into force with the first session of parliament after the election, was passed through a referendum in May 2008 that was allegedly rigged. It provides for religious freedom but also empowers the military to curb it under various pretexts.
Article 34 states, “Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” Article 360 (a), however, says this freedom “shall not include any economic, financial, political or other secular activities that may be associated with religious practice,” apparently to bar religious groups from any lobbying or advocacy.
Further, Article 360 (b) goes on to say that the freedom “shall not debar the Union from enacting law for the purpose of public welfare and reform.”
Adds Article 364: “The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden. Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution. A law may be promulgated to punish such activity.”
Furthermore, Article 382 empowers “the Defense Forces personnel or members of the armed forces responsible to carry out peace and security” to “restrict or revoke” fundamental rights.
The Burmese junta is expected to remain at the helm of affairs after the election. The 2008 constitution reserves one-fourth of all seats in national as well as regional assemblies for military personnel.
A majority of people in Burma are not happy with the military’s USDP party, and military generals are expected to twist the results in its favor, said Htet Aung, chief election reporter at Irrawaddy.
Khonumtung News Group, an independent Burmese agency, reported on Oct. 2 that most educated young Burmese from Chin state were “disgusted” with the planned election, “which they believe to be a sham and not likely to be free and fair.”
They “are crossing the border to Mizoram in the northeast state of India from Chin state and Sagaing division to avoid participating,” Khonumtung reported. “On a regular basis at least five to 10 youths are crossing the border daily to avoid voting. If they stay in Burma, they will be coerced to cast votes.”
There is “utter confusion” among people, and they do not know if they should vote or not, said Aung of Irrawaddy. While the second largest party, the National Unity Party, is pro-military, there are few pro-democracy and ethnic minority parties.
“Many of the pro-democracy and ethnic minority candidates have little or no experience in politics,” Aung said. “All those who had some experience have been in jail as political prisoners for years.”
In some ethnic minority states, the USDP might face an embarrassing defeat. And this can deepen the military’s hostility towards minorities, including Christians, after the election, added Aung.
For now, an uneasy calm prevails in the Thai-Burma border region where most ethnic Christians live.
Protestant pastor Ilmurad Nurliev is due to begin trial in Turkmenistan on the morning of Thursday 21 October, nearly two months after his arrest, Forum 18 News Service has learned.
“The criminal trial in Mary [a south-eastern town in Turkmenistan) is on charges of large-scale swindling, with a penalty of up to five years’ jail. His wife and church members vigorously deny the charges, and insist that the five people named as making accusations are not as the indictment claims church members,” said Felix Corley of Forum 18 News Service.
“Three of them only attended the church a few times, and the remaining two are unknown. Other accusations vigorously denied are that Pastor Nurliev is a drug addict in need of treatment; he is a diabetic and – as she has not been allowed to see him – his wife is very concerned about his health. They also refute an allegation that he is unemployed and lives off the earnings of others, as he worked – until his arrest – as a barber.”
Maya Nurlieva, wife of the accused, told Forum 18, “Up to 20 church members will try to attend – all are ready to speak up to defend my husband.”
She has asked the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Centre in Ashgabad to send independent monitors to the trial. The Church has stopped meeting for worship after the arrest.