COVID impacts demand a change of plan: funding a shift from commuting to living locally



Conventional transport infrastructure planning has been based on wholesale commuting to and from the city centre.
Taras Vyshnya/Shutterstock

Benjamin Kaufman, Griffith University

Long-term planning has delivered mass transit systems to cater for high-patronage, hub-and-spoke transport systems. Unfortunately, this has left many city residents without basic access to public transport services. And we could never have planned for the impacts of COVID-19.

Our previous plans were based on the best available data at the time. Today, these plans must be critically reviewed using new data that properly represent the world and our transport needs as they are now.




Read more:
If more of us work from home after coronavirus we’ll need to rethink city planning


Important facts to keep in mind

1: Fewer people commute to work.

The work-from-home transition is well under way. Our current transport networks (except for roads, which have rebounded to traffic equal to or above pre-pandemic levels in some cities) are operating far below previous levels, even allowing for social distancing. This may not be the best time to break ground on major infrastructure projects planned under previous assumptions of population and demand growth.




Read more:
With management resistance overcome, working from home may be here to stay


2: Disadvantaged populations lack access to opportunities.

Public transport is key to enabling everyone in a population to be a productive member of society. Many disadvantaged groups cannot drive or afford car ownership. However, they also lack access to public transport, particularly in the outer suburbs.

Unfortunately, coronavirus impacts will hit the disadvantaged the hardest. If we want everyone to be able to participate in the economic recovery, we need to promote basic levels of access regardless of an individual’s circumstance.




Read more:
Why coronavirus will deepen the inequality of our suburbs


3: Population growth will not meet projections.

Migration bans will greatly reduce short-term growth. Current projections show a population up to 4% smaller in 2040 than it would have been in a non-COVID world. This will further decrease demand for urban transit services as well as demand across many sectors of our society. These trends are important because much of our planning is based around these population growth metrics.




Read more:
1.4 million less than projected: how coronavirus could hit Australia’s population in the next 20 years


However, our suburbs still lack basic public transport services. If we want to increase patronage, we need to bring services to more people by improving coverage of our sprawling, low-density cities.

Over 80% of the population of our biggest cities live in the outer and middle suburbs, yet this massive majority have limited to no basic public transport service. Across our five largest cities, Infrastructure Australia reports, “public transport disadvantage in outer suburbs is significant”.

Populations living in inner, middle and outer suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide
Estimated resident population by suburban classification, as count and proportion of city population.
Infrastructure Australia: Outer Urban Public Transport: Improving accessibility in lower-density areas

Households’ access to jobs and services gets much worse with increasing distance from the city centre. Development of suburban and regional mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) offerings could promote better access in these “harder to serve” areas.




Read more:
For Mobility as a Service (MaaS) to solve our transport woes, some things need to change


Moving the country forward

Job creation will be an important aspect of economic recovery. Yet too often we look to large construction projects as the answer. There is plenty of other job-creating work to be done in our communities.

We could, for example, increase the miserly funding for our piecemeal walking and cycling networks.

We could also expand on-demand services to suburban and rural residents who lack basic public transport access. On-demand transit does not follow fixed routes or timetables. Riders book a trip for a cost similar to a bus fare.

Passenger waiting to board a Bridj on-demand bus service.
Bridj is one of the operators that is expanding on-demand services in Sydney and other cities.
Bridj Transit Systems/Facebook



Read more:
1 million rides and counting: on-demand services bring public transport to the suburbs


These options will encourage local spending to support small businesses. These are an important piece of our social fabric and improve livability in our communities.

We need to look locally

A focus on localised investment in the many neglected communities across the country will deliver major benefits. Money already committed to large projects that are under way represents sunk costs that may be too deep to renegotiate. However, future plans using public funds must be re-examined.

Investments should target disadvantaged groups and broaden access to transport networks, encouraging new potential users. For many, assistance in gaining access to the necessities of life will be invaluable during the coming economic recovery. Guaranteed access to groceries, medical services, work opportunities and recreational activities must not be reserved for the elite.

We need better localised public transport and we need it for the majority of citizens, not just those who live in the inner suburbs of our capital cities. Most regional populations lack even rudimentary public transport coverage at reasonable frequency.

Increasing services in these areas will create valuable jobs that will stick around, unlike large one-off construction projects. The money will stay local, going into the pockets of operators who live and work in their own community.

While our long-term planning is not to blame for our current situation, we need to develop for the future, not the past. The financial costs of building and maintaining our current infrastructure are not going away. However, we can no longer refuse to invest in many of our underserved communities.

It is time to ensure everyone, regardless of their income or where they grow up, has the basic services they need to be a productive member of society.The Conversation

Benjamin Kaufman, PhD Candidate, Cities Research Institute, Griffith University

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

We should listen to coronavirus experts, but local wisdom counts too



Makeshift hospital beds at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne during the influenza pandemic of 1919.
Museum Victoria

Matthew Kearnes, UNSW; Brian Robert Cook, University of Melbourne; Declan Kuch, UNSW; Joan Leach, Australian National University; Niamh Stephenson, UNSW; Rachel A. Ankeny, University of Adelaide, and Sujatha Raman, Australian National University

Public health messages about COVID-19 have been inconsistent and changed rapidly. Many have called for a unified source of expertise to guide responses to the crisis.

However, with the federal, state and local governments, as well as international bodies, offering different advice, it is no simple task to “listen to the experts”.

In uncertain situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic, biomedical and public health experts contribute facts and their own judgements about risk to our collective thinking and decision making.

The public also have important contributions to make. In response to the spread of coronavirus, community groups are setting out to care for elderly neighbours. People are remembering the importance of nurturing community connections and developing an understanding of the structural burdens placed on women in times of crisis.

Alongside traditional kinds of expertise, this kind of “real time” expertise and leadership at the local scale will be invaluable in coming weeks and months.




Read more:
Uncertain? Many questions but no clear answers? Welcome to the mind of a scientist


Expertise is political

Expert judgements don’t exist in a vacuum. They arise from specific social and political contexts. To understand them, we need to acknowledge the tacit assumptions embedded within expert knowledge claims, especially assumptions concerning how publics respond to expert advice.

In recent weeks there has been much debate about the federal governments’s decision to keep schools open, which has only been made more uncertain by disagreements between experts over the role of schools in the transmission of COVID-19.

Similarly, in the Ruby Princess “debacle”, different governments and agencies have attempted to blame each other and drawn on expert knowledge claims to justify their actions.

These examples demonstrate how expertise is entangled with questions of political judgement and anticipated societal responses.

For publics, it can be hard to distinguish between health experts working for the government and those criticising the government. Experts tend to look alike, sound alike, and “advise” alike, leaving publics to navigate the cacophony.

In this situation, deciding which experts to listen to can become a nearly impossible task. Little wonder many people have been slow to change their behaviour.

Understanding public responses

As recently as two months ago, during Australia’s catastrophic bushfire season, publics were seen as resourceful and resilient. That image has quickly been replaced by a characterisation as vulnerable, easily spooked, and panicking in the face of uncertainty.

However, we can understand buying food, cleaning products, face masks, toiletries, and medication for asthma and fevers as reasonable responses to questions that experts themselves are trying to address in real time. For example, medical anthropologist Christos Lynteris has argued that face mask buying sprees are a reminder we should think of epidemics “not simply as biological events but also as social processes”.




Read more:
Stocking up to prepare for a crisis isn’t ‘panic buying’. It’s actually a pretty rational choice


Science studies scholar Brian Wynne has said the idea of public trust in expertise is too simple. The relationship between publics and experts is complex and ambivalent, he argues, and qualified by “the experience of dependency, possible alienation, and lack of agency”.

Public responses to COVID-19 are not as simple as a mass panic, but they signal something more worrying. The public lacks confidence in public health infrastructure and its ability to contain the virus. “Toilet paper panic” is the response of a population for whom expert advice is one factor among many that affect their feelings of security and wellbeing.

For experts seeking to contribute to public decision making, researchers have empirically demonstrated the productive value of collaborative approaches. For example, sociologist Steven Epstein has documented how collaborations between researchers and broader “lay experts” during the AIDS/HIV epidemic in the 1990s played a key role in the public health response to the disease.

Engaging public expertise, even in times of crisis

But how do we achieve meaningful engagement between publics and experts? Broadening our understanding of expertise would be a start.

Expertise might include the outpouring of creative expression prompted by
COVID-19, or the surge in creation of mutual support groups.

Likewise, efforts to translate health warnings are essential for engaging vulnerable communities. These networks of varied expertise are likely to prove invaluable when existing governance is over-stretched or breaks down.

Diverse, diffuse, and local initiatives are likely to continue during periods of chaos, with the added advantage of feeding further expertise from the ground back into the knowledge system.

The need for a diversity of expertise is already being recognised in responses to COVID-19. The WHO recommends risk communication strategies should “promote a two-way dialogue with communities, the public and other stakeholders”.

The ABC’s Coronacast podcast is one such two-way channel that responds to public concerns and questions. Scientists are also seeking volunteer researchers in the effort to address COVID-19, and many viral social media threads sharing notes on patients’ experience of triage and care have been important sources of information for healthcare workers.

Attending to the dynamism and diversity of expertise does not diminish its invaluable roles in society.

Understanding that the crisis of COVID-19 is also a social one should raise questions of how our traditional reliance on expert advice relegates local expertise to the sidelines.

It is critical that we recognise how local expertise is filling the gaps in government policies and expert advice, and is likely to continue to do so in crises such as the recent bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have an opportunity to appreciate that community responses are characterised by their own expertise. We ought also to listen to those experts.The Conversation

Matthew Kearnes, Professor, Environment & Society, School of Humanities and Languages, UNSW; Brian Robert Cook, Senior Lecturer, University of Melbourne; Declan Kuch, Research Fellow, Environment & Society, School of Humanities and Languages, UNSW; Joan Leach, Professor, Australian National University; Niamh Stephenson, Associate Professor in Social Science, UNSW; Rachel A. Ankeny, Professor of History and Philosophy, and Deputy Dean Research (Faculty of Arts), University of Adelaide, and Sujatha Raman, Associate Professor, Australian National University

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

Instead of rebuilding stadiums, the NSW government should focus on local sport and events


Chris Gibson, University of Wollongong

The New South Wales government’s argument for spending A$2 billion rebuilding stadiums is that Sydney is losing flagship events to other state capitals, leading to fewer tourists and less media exposure. But large investments in transportation and venues are a significant drain on the public purse, often for economic returns that rarely break even.

Our research suggests that the NSW government should invest in smaller community events and sporting organisations that make use of existing facilities. We tracked 480 community events across Australia and found that they generated A$550 million in revenue.

These events also contribute more than A$10 billion a year to their local communities, support 100,000 jobs, and help build local business networks and skills.

Parkes Elvis Festival.
John Connell and Chris Gibson (2017) Outback Elvis: The story of a festival, its fans & a town called Parkes. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing

The benefits of grassroots events

In contrast to major, one-off events that require large infrastructure and marketing budgets, there are thousands of small community events across Australia every month. Each might only attract a few hundred people, but the revenue adds up.

Places that have consciously fostered grassroots community events, such as Ballarat and Hobart, enjoy healthy visitor numbers year-round, without overwhelming the local infrastructure.

Smaller community events make good use of existing facilities such as RSL clubs, showgrounds and parks. They tend to hire labour, PA systems, portaloos and catering from the local community, keeping dollars in circulation locally.

In contrast to mega-events that subcontract management to large firms, community events integrate more participation from their local communities. This not only improves local business networks, but also enhances local skills and leadership.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/IWy0y/4/

The economics of large events doesn’t stack up

The evidence also overwhelmingly shows that public investment in major events isn’t worth it. Promised benefits are often exaggerated, and in the words of a recent review of the international research:

…any increased economic activity resulting from the event is routinely dwarfed by additional public budgetary commitments.


Read more: Suspended reality: the ins and outs of Rio’s Olympic bubble


Sydneysiders may have enjoyed the experience of hosting the 2000 Olympic Games, but increases in tourism and business investment failed to materialise. Rio de Janeiro is struggling with recession in the wake of its 2016 Summer Olympics. The money spent on the Olympics would probably have been better spent upgrading hospitals and other infrastructure.

This is partly why cities are backing away from hosting major sporting events. When the International Olympic Committee opened the bidding for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games, all but two cities – Paris and Los Angeles – withdrew their bids.

The fact that no other city was prepared to bid shows that the justifications for lucrative mega-events are wearing thin, both financially and politically.

Misleading numbers

The NSW government recently defended its plan to rebuild stadiums by arguing that the revenue generated by major sporting events will easily pay for itself within a few short years. Economists beg to differ.

Such estimates are typically based on conducting visitor surveys at events and asking punters to estimate their total spending. This is not good research methodology.

For one, people are consistently inaccurate at estimating their spending on the spot, only discovering the actual amount when they open their credit card statements.

It can also be hard for visitors to differentiate between money spent while at a specific event, and their spending elsewhere on their holiday.

Visitors complete surveys at the Daylesford ChillOut Festival.
Chris Gibson

We also need to subtract all of the money that would have been spent whether or not a major event takes place. This includes spending by people who live in the area, those who rescheduled travel plans to coincide with the event, and those who would have done some other activity (also known as “time-switching”) instead of going to the event.


Read more: Sydney’s stadiums debate shows sport might not be the political winner it once was


In other words, take all the Sydneysiders, casual visitors and time-switchers out of calculations of, say, weekly NRL game revenue at the Olympic or Sydney football stadia. The actual amount of “new” revenue for Sydney is much less impressive.

This is why a sober analysis of the true costs and benefits, and actual revenue numbers, are needed before governments rush to invest in major sports and event infrastructure.

The ConversationIf NSW truly wants to foster the events economy, the evidence suggests that money would be better spent on local community events and sporting organisations.

Chris Gibson, Director, UOW Global Challenges Program & Professor of Human Geography, University of Wollongong

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

Votes for corporations and extra votes for property owners: why local council elections are undemocratic



File 20170912 11499 1pd83w2
Undemocratic voting systems in local council elections are not limited to the City of Sydney.
AAP/Daniel McCullough

Ryan Goss, Australian National University

Imagine, for a minute, an undemocratic political system. Imagine a voting system in which someone has more votes than you because they own property. Or a voting system in which corporations have a vote – and maybe even more votes than regular people. A voting system in which, as a result, the power of your vote could be diluted by votes cast on behalf of corporations.

This voting system isn’t something from Britain during the Industrial Revolution, or America’s Deep South in the 1950s. Instead, as my recent paper outlines, this way of voting is a reality at local council elections in five of Australia’s six states.

It’s time for this to change.

Not just a Sydney problem

In recent years journalists have often discussed voting rights in the City of Sydney, which gets attention because of the high profile of its council and because of its unusual voting laws. Not only do property-owning corporations get two votes in the City of Sydney, but voting is compulsory for them.

But this type of undemocratic voting isn’t confined to the City of Sydney. It’s not even confined to New South Wales. In every state except Queensland voting rights at local council elections include voting rights based on owning or leasing property, votes for corporations, and various forms of plural voting (ways in which one person can have more than one vote).

In other contexts, Australia’s most senior judges have described plural voting or property-based voting rights as “conspicuously undemocratic” and “anachronistic”, and said that such systems would be unconstitutional if done at federal elections. Such a system enshrines inequality by giving some people more of a say than others.

These days our local councils perform a wide range of government functions. If we don’t accept undemocratic voting rights at state or federal elections, we shouldn’t accept them for local council elections.

Time to catch up with Queensland

Queensland reformed its law on all of this in the 1920s. Alfred Jones, a Labor member of Queensland’s upper house, put it this way when advocating the change in December 1920:

We must recognise that local government is a form of government which affects every citizen within the particular local authority area; and I believe that all governing bodies should be elected on the broad franchise of one adult one vote. Probably Australia has led the world in connection with the adoption of that principle.

Surely what Queensland recognised in 1920 can be recognised in the other states in 2017.

And so, as my paper explains, in Queensland today you get to vote at local council elections if you can vote at state and federal elections. It’s that simple.

Essentially, this means you only get to vote for the local council that runs the area you live in, you only get to vote once, and there are no special voting rights for corporations or property owners. It’s the same at council elections in the Northern Territory.

Queensland hasn’t always been the torchbearer for Australian democracy. But at least voting rights at Queensland local government elections are designed to reflect basic democratic principles.

A kaleidoscope of different laws

The other five Australian states have different ways of deciding who gets voting rights at local council elections. British and Australian history has shaped these voting systems, and the relevant laws have often evolved slowly over time.

In some states, for example, non-citizens can vote if they are resident in the area; in other states residents must be citizens to vote. In some states, voting is compulsory at local council elections; in others it is voluntary or compulsory only for some voters. The detail of the laws is complex.

Nevertheless, there are some rules common to many of the problematic laws in these five states. Being enrolled on the state or federal electoral roll in a local government area will generally entitle you to vote at council elections in that area.

Owning or occupying property in a council area will generally entitle the owner or occupier to vote in that area, especially if the owner or occupier is not also a resident. This also means that, where the owner or occupier is a corporation, the legislation will provide a process by which someone can vote on behalf of the corporation. Where someone owns or occupies multiple properties in a particular council area, or where they live in an area and also own or occupy another property in the area, the law will provide some sort of limit on the number of votes available to that person.

The complex provisions underpinning these voting rights stand in stark contrast to the simple terms of the Queensland law. But while they are complex, their result is clear. In different ways, as the paper shows, these laws allow for voting rights based on property ownership or occupation, voting rights for corporations, and allow individual people to cast multiple votes.

All of this dilutes the voting power of individuals, and runs the risk that local governments may become distracted from what is in the interests of their local community.

Local councils can’t fix this themselves

These laws are quirks of history that have no place in Australia’s 21st-century democracy. So what should be done?

Fixing the laws that govern local council elections is the responsibility of the states. From time to time, state governments and state parliaments consider the possibility of making local council voting rights more democratic.

The ConversationThe good news is that there’s an easy way to make the change: NSW, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania can simply follow Queensland’s lead. It’s time for state parliaments to act.

Ryan Goss, Senior Lecturer, Australian National University

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

Bible Apps in the Pew


The link below is to an article that reports on the increasing use of tablets, smartphones and other gadgets in the pew during church services as modern technology impacts at the local level.

Do you use a digital version of the Bible during church services? If so, what do you use? Please share in the comments.

For more visit:
http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/27/the-bible-gets-an-upgrade/

Suspected Islamists Burn Down Two Homes in Ethiopia


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hanake said he has reported the case to Moyale police.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jimma Violence

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

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

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

Pakistani Christian Falsely Accused of ‘Blasphemy’ Illegally Detained


Policeman says Arif Masih, held at an undisclosed location, is innocent.

LAHORE, Pakistan, April 15 (CDN) — Police in Punjab Province, Pakistan have illegally detained a Christian on a “blasphemy” accusation, even though one officer said he was certain an area Muslim falsely accused 40-year-old Arif Masih because of a property dispute.

On April 5 Shahid Yousuf Bajwa, Masih’s next-door neighbor, initially filed a First Information Report (FIR) against “an unidentified person” for desecrating the Quran after finding threatening letters and pages with quranic verses on the street outside his home in Village 129 RB-Tibbi, Chak Jhumra, Faisalabad district. Desecrating the Quran under Section 295-B of Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes is punishable by up to 25 years in prison.

“Some identified person has desecrated the Holy Quran and has tried to incite sentiments of the Muslims,” Bajwa wrote in the FIR. Clearly stating that he did not know who had done it, he wrote, “It is my humble submission to the higher authorities that those found guilty must be given exemplary punishment.”

Bajwa charges in the FIR that when he went outside his home at 9 p.m. and found the pages, he looked at them by the light of his cell phone and thought they were pages of the Quran. Masih’s uncle, Amjad Chaudhry, told Compass the pages look like those of a school textbook containing quranic verses.

Chaudhry said Bajwa and his two brothers are policemen. After Bajwa found the pages and the threatening letters, Chaudhry said, he arranged for an announcement to be made from the loudspeaker of the area mosque.

“The message urged all the Muslims of the village to gather there due to the urgency and sensitivity of the matter,” Chaudhry said.

He said initially local Muslims were very angry and suggested that Christian homes be set ablaze, but that others said the Christians should be first given a chance to explain whether they were responsible.

“Then some Muslims began saying that because Arif Masih lived on this street, he would be the person who could have done this crime,” he said. “However, most of the people who gathered there said that they knew Arif Masih well and they could not imagine he could do such a vile thing. But others insisted that because Masih was the only Christian who lived on the street, only he could be suspected of the crime.”

At about 10 p.m. on April 5, Chaudhry said, Bajwa’s brother Abdullah Bajwa called Masih to the Siyanwala police station, where he was arrested; Masih’s family members were unaware that he had been arrested.

According to Section 61 of Pakistan’s Criminal Procedure Code, an arrested person must be produced within 24 hours before a court; Masih has been detained at an undisclosed location without a court appearance since April 5, with police failing to register his arrest in any legal document, making his detention illegal. Investigating Officer Qaisar Younus denied that Masih was in police custody, but Superintendent of the Police Abdul Qadir told Compass that Masih had been detained for his own safety.

Younus told Compass that he was sure Masih was innocent, but that he had been falsely accused because of a land dispute.

 

Property Conflict

According to Chaudhry, about two years ago Masih bought a plot next to his house that another villager, Liaquat Ali Bajwa (no relation to Shahid Yousuf Bajwa) wanted to buy – and who despised Masih for it, telling the previous owner, “How come a Christian can buy the plot that I wanted to buy?”

The parcel owner had given Masih preference as he knew him well, and he understood that the homeowner adjacent to the property had the first rights to it anyway.

At the same time, Ali Bajwa was able to seize about five square feet of the house of a Christian named Ghulam Masih after the wall of his home was destroyed in last year’s flooding. Feeling he was not in position to challenge Ali Bajwa, Ghulam Masih sold the land to Arif Masih so that he could take charge, Chaudhry said.

Arif Masih subsequently filed a civil suit against Ali Bajwa to evict him from his property. Chaudhry said Arif Masih was about to win that case, and that Ali Bajwa thought he could retain that property and obtain the one Arif Masih had purchased by accusing him of blasphemy with the help of police officer Shahid Yousuf Bajwa.

Ali Bajwa had been threatening Masih, saying, “You will not only give me this plot, but I will even take your house,” Chaudhry said.

Chaudhry said he had learned that Shahid Yousuf Bajwa felt badly after villagers criticized him for falsely accusing an innocent man of blasphemy, but that Bajwa feared that if he withdrew the case he himself would be open to blasphemy charges.

 

Neighbors

Arif Masih’s family has remained steadfast throughout the case, refusing to flee the area in spite of the possibility of Muslim villagers being incited to attack them, Chaudhry said.

“It all became possible because of Muslim villagers who sided with us,” he said.

Chaudhry said that when police arrived at the scene of the Muslims who had gathered with the pages and the threatening letters, the villagers told officers that they had not seen who threw them on the street. He said that the letters included the threat, “You Muslims have failed in doing any harm to us, and now I order you all to convert to Christianity or else I will shoot you all.”

The letters did not bear the name of the person who wrote them, he added.

On Monday (April 11), Chaudhry managed to meet with Masih, though Masih’s wife has yet to see him. Chaudhry told Compass that the first thing Masih asked him was whether everyone was safe, as there are only three Christian families in the area of about 150 Muslim homes.

“If the mob had decided to harm our houses, then it would have been very devastating,” Chaudhry said.

After Masih was arrested, at midnight police came to his house and began beating on the main gate, Chaudhry said. When Masih’s wife, Razia Bibi opened the door, the officers rushed into the house and searched it.

“They were looking for some proof, but thank God they could not find anything that could even be remotely linked with the incident,” he said.

Chaudhry added that police have not mistreated Masih, but he said the matter has lingered so long that he feared police may involve him in the case, or that “things may go wrong like in most blasphemy cases.”

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

Religious Conversion Worst Form of ‘Intolerance,’ Bhutan PM Says


Propagation of religion is allowable – but not seeking conversions, top politician says.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 13 (CDN) — In the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Christianity is still awaiting legal recognition, Christians have the right to proclaim their faith but must not use coercion or claim religious superiority to seek conversions, the country’s prime minister told Compass in an exclusive interview.

“I view conversions very negatively, because conversion is the worst form of intolerance,” Jigmi Yoser Thinley said in his office in the capital of the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Christian leaders in Bhutan have told Compass that they enjoy certain freedoms to practice their faith in private homes, but, because of a prohibition against church buildings and other restrictions, they were not sure if proclamation of their faith – included in international human rights codes – was allowed in Bhutan.

Prime Minister Thinley, who as head of the ruling party is the most influential political chief in the country, said propagation of one’s faith is allowed, but he made it clear that he views attempts to convert others with extreme suspicion.

“The first premise [of seeking conversion] is that you believe that your religion is the right religion, and the religion of the convertee is wrong – what he believes in is wrong, what he practices is wrong, that your religion is superior and that you have this responsibility to promote your way of life, your way of thinking, your way of worship,” Thinley said. “It’s the worst form of intolerance. And it divides families and societies.”

Bhutan’s constitution does not restrict the right to convert or proselytize, but some Non-Governmental Organizations have said the government effectively limits this right by restricting construction of non-Buddhist worship buildings and celebration of some non-Buddhist festivals, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

It adds that Bhutan’s National Security Act (NSA) further limits proclamation of one’s faith by prohibiting “words either spoken or written, or by other means whatsoever, that promote or attempt to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste, or community, or on any other ground whatsoever, feelings of enmity or hatred between different religious, racial, or language groups or castes and communities.” Violation of the NSA is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, though whether
any cases have been prosecuted is unknown, according to the State Department report.

Bhutan’s first democratic prime minister after about a century of absolute monarchy, Thinley completed three years in office last Thursday (April 7). While he affirmed that it is allowable for Christians to proclaim their faith – a practice commanded by Christ, with followers agreeing that it is the Holy Spirit, not man, that “converts” people – Thinley made his suspicions about Christians’ motives manifest.

“Any kind of proselytization that involves economic and material incentives [is wrong],” he said. “Many people are being converted on hospital beds in their weakest and most vulnerable moments. And these people are whispering in their ears that ‘there is no hope for you. The only way that you can survive is if you accept this particular religion.’ That is wrong.”

Thinley’s suspicions include the belief that Christians offer material incentives to convert.

“Going to the poor and saying, ‘Look, your religion doesn’t provide for this life, our religion provides for this life as well as the future,’ is wrong. And that is the basis for proselytization.”

Christian pastors in Thimphu told Compass that the perception that Bhutan’s Christians use money to convert the poor was flawed.

The pastors, requesting anonymity, said they prayed for healing of the sick because they felt they were not allowed to preach tenets of Christianity directly. Many of those who experience healing – almost all who are prayed for, they claimed – do read the Bible and then believe in Jesus’ teachings.

Asked if a person can convert if she or he believed in Christianity, the prime minister replied, “[There is] freedom of choice, yes.”

In his interview with Compass, Thinley felt compelled to defend Buddhism against assertions that citizens worship idols.

“To say that, ‘Your religion is wrong, worshiping idols is wrong,’ who worships idols?” he said. “We don’t worship idols. Those are just representations and manifestations that help you to focus.”

Leader of the royalist Druk Phuensum Tshogpa party, Thinley is regarded as a sincere politician who is trusted by Bhutan’s small Christian minority. He became the prime minister in April 2008 following the first democratic election after Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated power in 2006 to pave the way toward democracy.

Until Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the practice of Christianity was believed to be banned in the country. The constitution now grants the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion to all citizens. It also states that the king is the protector of all religions.

Thus far, the Religious Organisations Act of 2007 has recognized only Buddhist and Hindu organizations. As a result, no church building or Christian bookstore has been allowed in the country, nor can Christians engage in social work. Christianity in Bhutan remains confined to the homes of local believers, where they meet for collective worship on Sundays.

Asked if a Christian federation should be registered by the government to allow Christians to function with legal recognition, Thinley said, “Yes, definitely.”

The country’s agency regulating religious organizations under the 2007 act, locally known as the Chhoedey Lhentshog, is expected to make a decision on whether it could register a Christian federation representing all Christians. The authority is looking into provisions in the law to see if there is a scope for a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu organization to be registered. (See http://www.compassdirect.com, “Official Recognition Eludes Christian Groups in Bhutan,” Feb. 1.)

On whether the Religious Organisations Act could be amended if it is determined that it does not allow legal recognition of a Christian federation, the prime minister said, “If the majority view and support prevails in the country, the law will change.”

Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.

“I am part Christian, too,” he said. “I read the Bible, occasionally of course. I come from a traditional [Christian] school and attended church every day except for Saturdays for nine years.”

A tiny nation in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan has a population of 708,484 people, of which roughly 75 percent are Buddhist, according to Operation World. Christians are estimated to be between 6,000 to nearly 15,000 (the latter figure would put Christians at more than 2 percent of the population), mostly from the south. Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepalese, constitute around 22 percent of the population and have a majority in the south.

 

Religious ‘Competition’

Bhutan’s opposition leader, Lyonpo Tshering Togbay, was equally disapproving of religious conversion.

“I am for propagation of spiritual values or anything that allows people to be good human beings,” he told Compass. “[But] we cannot have competition among religions in Bhutan.”

He said, however, that Christians must be given rights equal to those of Hindus and Buddhists.

“Our constitution guarantees the right to freedom of practice – full stop, no conditions,” he said. “But now, as a small nation state, there are some realities. Christianity is a lot more evangelistic than Hinduism or Buddhism.”

Togbay said there are Christians who are tolerant and compassionate of other peoples, cultures and religions, but “there are Christians also who go through life on war footing to save every soul. That’s their calling, and it’s good for them, except that in Bhutan we do not have the numbers to accommodate such zeal.”

Being a small nation between India and China, Bhutan’s perceived geopolitical vulnerability leads authorities to seek to pre-empt any religious, social or political unrest. With no economic or military might, Bhutan seeks to assert and celebrate its sovereignty through its distinctive culture, which is based on Buddhism, authorities say.

Togbay voiced his concern on perceived threats to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture.

“I studied in a Christian school, and I have lived in the West, and I have been approached by the Jehovah’s Witness – in a subway, in an elevator, in a restaurant in the U.S. and Switzerland. I am not saying they are bad. But I would be a fool if I was not concerned about that in Bhutan,” he said. “There are other things I am personally concerned about. Religions in Bhutan must live in harmony. Too often I have come across people who seek a convert, pointing to statues of our deities and saying
that idol worship is evil worship. That is not good for the security of our country, the harmony of our country and the pursuit of happiness.”

The premise of the Chhoedey Lhentshog, the agency regulating religious organizations, he said, “is that all the different schools of Buddhism and all the different religions see eye to eye with mutual respect and mutual understanding. If that objective is not met, it does not make sense to be part of that.”

It remains unclear what the legal rights of Christians are, as there is no interaction between the Christians and the government. Christian sources in Bhutan said they were open to dialogue with the government in order to remove “misunderstandings” and “distrust.”

“Thankfully, our political leadership is sincere and trustworthy,” said one Christian leader.

Asserting that Christians enjoy the right to worship in Bhutan, Prime Minister Thinley said authorities have not interfered with any worship services.

“There are more Christian activities taking place on a daily basis than Hindu and Buddhist activities,” he added.

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