Viewpoints: should the government intervene to fix low wages?


James Morley, University of Sydney and Beth Webster, Swinburne University of Technology

There have been a few suggestions lately on what policies the government should take up in order to fight slow wage growth.

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating suggested the superannuation guarantee – the amount employers must contribute to workers’ super – be increased to 12% to compensate workers for a lack of wages growth.

While the Australian Council of Trade Unions is calling on the government to lift the minimum wage and “recalibrate” the industrial system to ensure fair incomes for workers.

In this Viewpoints, James Morley argues government intervention could cause unforeseen problems, while Beth Webster notes the need for the government to re-balance the economy.


James Morley: Slow wage growth reflects two key aspects of the “secular stagnation” phenomenon sweeping the industrialised world: low productivity growth and low inflation expectations. Addressing slow wage growth should go to these causes, not to the symptom.

If the government was to intervene directly in the setting of wages to increase their growth, it would be reminiscent of the wage/price controls put in place in many countries in the 1970s. These were an attempt to stem high inflation by mandating exactly how wages and prices could be set. They were a mistake then and would be a mistake now, even if only for wages and not prices.




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The benefits of job automation are not likely to be shared equally


One problem is that such policies distort what is already the most complex of all economic markets – the labour market. “Insiders” (those with steady jobs) might win something on a one-off basis with higher wages. But “outsiders” (those without jobs or changing jobs) will surely lose, as firms ration labour given too many controls.

The labour market is notable for its complicated contracts designed to encourage high performance and effort. Because of these contracts, and issues such as confusion about adjusting wages for inflation (a surprisingly high proportion of wage changes are exactly zero, even though it makes no economic sense), wages already do not adjust enough as it is.

These distortions occur even though the labour market has high turnover rates, with flows between jobs vastly outnumbering flows between employment status. Introducing more controls would put sand in the wheels of the labour market by distorting relative wages across industries and decreasing employment.


Beth Webster: A well-functioning economy is all about balance. In Australia, we have a situation of profits being a high share of GDP, low wage growth, low investment spending and low interest rates. The problem is not inflation, but a lack of willingness by people with incomes to buy goods and services.

It’s not a problem of lack of funds for investment. Nor is it a problem of high labour costs.

Economists know that a reliable way to increase spending in the economy is to raise the incomes of the least wealthy. In our case, this could involve enforcing the payment of the minimum wage (for example, in the hospitably industry); raising benefits and pensions, such as unemployment and family benefits; and tax cuts at the low end.




Read more:
Is faster profit growth essential for a pick-up in wages growth?


There is ample evidence that a market economy will not invest enough to fully employ all people who want a job, if left to its own devices. The result is low productivity growth and a boom-bust economy. So government action is warranted, and that depends on the position of the economy.

Given the current economic settings, a rise in wages at the low end of the market could lead to higher investment and therefore employment (with the bonus of higher productivity growth). And it may well move towards income equality.


James Morley: I agree that government policy can be important to stimulate a weak economy. But its effectiveness depends on exactly how much slack there is in the economy. Currently, increased government spending or tax cuts are unlikely to be as stimulative, as they would be in a weaker economy.

To address low productivity growth, it’s better to go to the underlying determinants of labour productivity. The Productivity Commission investigates what these are and makes recommendations based on their findings. Notably, it explicitly recommends against a re-balancing between regulation and flexibility in the Australian labour market.

The commission is now examining access to higher education. It will be interesting to see the findings on this.

It’s worth noting that the shares of GDP to labour and capital have been quite stable in Australia at around 55% and 45%, respectively, over the past 40 years. This stability is exactly as predicted by the Solow-Swan model of economic growth. This model also suggests that lower productivity growth, rather than changes in income shares, has been more important for the recent slow wage growth.

Another cause of slow wage growth is low inflation expectations. Responsibility for addressing this lies with the Reserve Bank of Australia, which has been factoring low wage growth into its recent decisions to keep interest rates low.


Beth Webster: There is has been a trend of falling wages as a share of GDP in Australia. According to the ABS, in 2016-17, wages as a share of GDP was only 52.8%, which continues the long term decline from 57.1% in 1984-85. A difference of 5 percentage points is huge.

With 730,400 unemployed people and about an equal number who would like to work more hours, there is a strong case for saying we have a weak economy.

The ConversationThe market is not delivering the balance of demand and supply forces that we need to achieve full employment and raise GDP. Government intervention is needed.

James Morley, Professor of Macroeconomics, University of Sydney and Beth Webster, Director, Centre for Transformative Innovation, Swinburne University of Technology

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

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Australia’s fuel stockpile is perilously low, and it may be too late for a refill



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Australia currently keeps only a fraction of the fuel it needs in reserve.

Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

Australia is an island nation that depends heavily on imported fuel – and our stockpile is critically low. According to recent reports, we have just 22 days’ worth of crude oil, 59 days of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), 20 days of petrol, 19 days of aviation fuel, and 21 days of diesel in reserve.

This is clearly in contravention of Australia’s obligation as a member of the International Energy Agency (IEA) to hold at least 90 days of supply.




Read more:
Running on empty: Australia’s risky approach to oil supplies


Australia is the only import-dependent country in the IEA that has not imposed any stockholding obligation and which has no current bilateral obligation to stockpile in another country. This makes us highly vulnerable to international disruptions. These might include political instability and air strikes in OPEC countries, or transit difficulties in established routes such as the Straits of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca – the latter a known target for offshore terrorism.

In response, the federal energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, has ordered a liquid fuel security review, to be completed by the end of 2018. It will examine how fuel is supplied and used in Australia, and assess our capacity to withstand international disruption.

The expectation is that once the review is completed, we will be in a position to comply with our IEA obligations by 2026. But that is eight years away. If there is disruption before that, our low stockpiles may rapidly diminish and the review will be too little, too late.

What are our obligations?

Australia is one of 29 IEA countries. Twenty of them (including Australia) have minimum stockholding obligations, as IEA members, which require at least 90 days of supply. Members that are also within the European Union are subject to an even more stringent stockholding directive, introduced in 2009. This requires them to cover either 90 days of net imports or 61 days of consumption, whichever is greater.

This effectively means that net exporting countries such as Denmark, which are excluded from the IEA stockpiling obligations, are nevertheless required to hold 61 days of consumption in reserve.

There are three types of fuel stockpile that countries can use to ensure they meet the minimum requirements: industry stock, government stock, and specialist agency stock.

Industry stock is (as the name suggests) held by industry, whether for commercial purposes or to comply with legislative requirements. Ordinarily, the obligation imposed is set in proportion to the company’s oil import share, or its share of sales in the domestic market. Twenty of the 29 IEA countries meet their obligations through legislative obligations on industry stock.

Government stock is held exclusively for emergency purposes. Legislative mandates for emergency government stock exist in New Zealand and the United States. But Australia has no legislation that requires the government to
maintain an emergency fuel stockpile.

Agency stocks are held by a separate agency that has the responsibility to stockpile in accordance with legislative requirements. Such agencies may be administered either by industry or by government. Such agencies exist in Spain and Ireland – but, again, Australia has no equivalent agency.

Depending on differences in oil market structure, geography and national policy, IEA-compliant countries may impose mandates upon one or more category of stockholders. Australia imposes no legislative mandate upon any category. This effectively means it has no rules at all about maintaining a proper fuel stockpile.

Why is Australia non-compliant?

Australia has reached this critical point for several reasons.

The first is simply a product of inertia. Unlike the fuel shocks suffered by the United States in the 1970s, for instance, Australia has never experienced strong fuel disruption. Having been used to having huge surpluses of coal, gas and uranium, energy security has never been a strong concern.

This also reflects our tendency as a nation to be reactive rather than proactive when it comes to energy security. Added to this is the lingering free market complacency that underpins our refusal to impose extra regulations on private industry in response to global security issues.

The second reason is economic. The IEA stockholding obligation does not determine whether the reserve must be in the form of crude or refined oil. This is a significant issue because storing refined products is more expensive than storing crude oil. Australia, with limited domestic refining capacity following the closure of ageing oil refineries, will need to bear a greater storage burden than other countries because we need to stockpile refined products.




Read more:
Security in doubt as Australia’s aging oil refineries shut down


The future

The liquid fuel security review is long overdue. We have been aware of our fuel
vulnerabilities for many years.

Singapore provides us with most our refined petroleum and, in turn, relies on the Middle East for more than 80% of its crude oil supply. There is no doubt that political instability in the Strait of Hormuz could seriously hurt our energy security.

Petrol, diesel and jet fuel together account for 98% of our transport needs. If conflict did break out, or crucial transport routes were blocked or subject to significant terrorism threats, Australia would face the real possibility of running out of fuel.

The ConversationThis is an unacceptable risk. We urgently need legislation that will give us a much bigger buffer against global energy uncertainty.

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

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

US shouldn’t give up benefits of ‘green card lottery’ over low risk of terrorism



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The Statue of Liberty casts a wary eye at the bike path that runs along the western edge of Manhattan, where the Oct. 31 attack occurred.
Songquan Deng/Shutterstock.com

Ethan Lewis, Dartmouth College

After a man barreled down a New York City bike path on Oct. 31, killing eight, President Donald Trump reacted by calling for an end to the “green card lottery” program that allowed the attacker to enter the country.

The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, as it is officially known, has been in the sights of the president for a while. In August, Trump publicly backed a GOP bill that would end the program and replace it with a merit-based system.

Trump and his fellow Republicans have long decried illegal immigration, but they have traditionally favored the legal kind, partly because their business donors demand it.

As someone who researches the impact of immigration on workers, I believe their plans to change who can enter the country legally is a big mistake. We would be giving up a program that benefits American workers with very little chance of a gain in safety.

While the driver reportedly entered the country through a green card, very few Americans have been killed by recipients of such visas.
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Curbing immigration

While Trump’s tweets about the lottery program are based on security concerns, the usual argument supporting curbs on immigration is that new arrivals hurt native-born American workers and the economy at large.

I’ll leave analyzing the security concerns to other experts; suffice it to say that the risk, according to experts, is very small. Green card holders have killed just 16 people – including yesterday – in terror attacks on U.S. soil since 1975.

As for the economic impact on U.S.-born workers, the key thing to bear in mind is that the more homogeneous and similar immigrants are to natives, the greater the odds they’ll in fact have a negative effect.

In contrast, immigrants who come from diverse backgrounds with a range of skills – such as the lottery winners and the so-called “Dreamers” – tend to produce greater economic benefits. That may be one reason at least some Republicans and most Americans are in favor of keeping the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program that protects the Dreamers from deportation, which Trump recently ended.

A new approach

Currently, the U.S. receives a lot of immigrants without a college degree or with imperfect English. About half of immigrants fit either description.


https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/y6110/3/


Legislation proposed earlier this summer – the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act – would exclude most such workers and reduce the total number of green cards awarding permanent legal U.S. residence to just over 500,000 from more than one million today.

It would also end the green card lottery, which awards 50,000 green cards a year to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S.

Importantly, it would also change who gets a leg up when applying for a green card. Currently, family of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, including siblings and adult children, are able to apply. The new system would limit that to minor children and spouses.

Instead, the bill would create a point-based system like those used in countries such as the U.K. and Australia that use factors such as English ability, education and job offers to rank applicants. However, it would be stricter than point systems used in those countries, which admit immigrants through other programs as well.

In essence, the plan would make the pool of immigrants more homogeneous and dramatically smaller in number, mirroring the misguided origin-based restrictions from the 1920s.

The DACA program’s inherent diversity is what makes it a boon for the U.S. economy.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

What economists say

Those who wish to restrict immigration often cite what they naïvely call “supply-and-demand economics” to essentially argue that the economy is a fixed pie that gets divided among a country’s residents. Fewer immigrants means “more pie” for the U.S.-born, as the story goes.

I am an economist, and this is not what my colleagues and I say. The commonplace argument that more immigrants, by themselves, lower wages and take jobs from Americans – an argument which Attorney General Jeff Sessions used to defend ending the “Dreamers” program – has neither empirical nor theoretical support in economics. It is just a myth.
Instead, both theory and empirical research show that immigration, including people with few skills and little English, grows the pie and strengthens the American workforce.

The main registry building on Ellis Island is shown in this 1905 photo. It was once the nation’s gateway for millions of immigrants.
AP Photo

Value in diversity

While all the recently proposed changes to our immigration system will make U.S. workers worse off, the English requirement is likely to be particularly harmful to U.S. workers, especially low-skilled ones.

Indeed, I have found the relative fluency of U.S.-born workers is what keeps them from being harmed from labor market competition from immigrants.

The reason for this is the following. Essentially, immigrants with imperfect English skills tend to specialize in jobs that are less “communication-intensive,” such as manual labor. Americans fluent in the language, on the other hand, tend to take on higher-paying, communication-intensive jobs that are out of reach of those without a strong grasp of English. In other words, these groups aren’t likely to compete for the same jobs, making them more complementary than adversarial.

In contrast, when new immigrants are more fluent in English, something the Trump-backed proposal would encourage, the types of occupations they are qualified for are almost identical to those of American workers. Thus, insisting on strong English skills as a condition of coming to America is likely to increase labor market competition and suppress wages.

When Congress in 1964 ended the Bracero program, which allowed large numbers of Mexicans to work on U.S. farms, neither wages nor employment rates of American workers rose.
AP Photo

Immigration that helps

Immigration that emphasizes diversity, rather than merely merit, tends to attract more people who specialize in occupations uncommon among U.S.-born workers. And, in fact, this is the key source of the well-known economic benefits of immigration.

Studies by economists Giovanni Peri and Chad Sparber, for example, show this tendency toward job specialization is a key reason the large volume of low-skill immigration does not drive down incomes of Americans. Other research by Peri and Gianmarco Ottaviano shows that simply encouraging immigration from diverse origins lifts wages.

Put differently, there is direct evidence that the sort of diversity that the green card lottery encourages makes all Americans better off. It would be a shame to give all of that up because of a tiny risk of terrorism.

The ConversationThis is an updated version of an article originally published on Sept. 15, 2017.

Ethan Lewis, Associate Professor of Economics, Dartmouth College

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

China Keeps Church Leaders from Public Worship Attempt


Police put pastors under house arrest over weekend, before detaining at least 160 on Sunday.

DUBLIN, April 11 (CDN) — Police in China held “about two dozen” pastors and elders of Beijing’s Shouwang Church under house arrest or at police stations over the weekend to keep them from attending a Sunday worship service in a public location, according to Bob Fu of the China Aid Association.

Three top leaders of the church remain in jail and several others are under strict surveillance after  hundreds of Chinese police yesterday cordoned off the walkway to a third-floor outdoor meeting area adjacent to a property purchased by the church in Haidian district, Beijing, and arrested at least 160 members of the 1,000-strong church as they tried to assemble.

The church members were bundled into waiting vans and buses to prevent them from meeting as planned in the public space, Reuters and The Associated Press (AP) reported, and most had been released by today.

Church leaders claimed officials had pressured their landlords, forcing them out of both rented and purchased locations and leaving them no choice but to worship in the open.

“The government cornered them into making this decision,” Fu said, adding that the church had initially tried to register with the government. “They waited for two years, and when the government still denied them registration, they tried to keep a low profile before finally deciding to buy the Daheng New Epoch Technology building.”

Shouwang is a very unique church, he said.

“Most members are well-educated, and they include China’s top religious scholars and even former government officials, which may be a factor in the government’s response to them,” he said.

As one of the largest house churches in Beijing, Shouwang is unique in insisting on meeting together rather than splitting the congregation into smaller groups meeting in several locations, Fu said. Zion church, for example, may have more members than Shouwang, but members meet in smaller groups across the city.

“This is based on the founding fathers’ vision for Shouwang Church to be a ‘city on a hill,’” as stated in the Bible in Matthew chapter five, Fu explained. “So they’ve made a conscious decision not to go back to the small-group model. Either the government gives them the keys to their building or gives them written permission to worship in another location, or they will continue meeting in the open.”

Police arrested anyone who showed up to take part in the service, AP reported.

 

‘Most Basic Necessity’

Church leaders last week issued a statement to the congregation explaining their decision to meet outdoors.

“It may not be the best decision, but at this time it is an inevitable one,” the statement said, before reminding church members that the landlord of their premises at the time, the Old Story Club restaurant, had come under government pressure and repeatedly asked them to leave, while the previous owners of the Daheng New Epoch Technology building, purchased a year ago by the church for 27.5 million RMB (US$4.2 million), had refused to hand over the keys. (See, “Church in China to Risk Worshipping in Park,” April 7.)

The church had already met outdoors twice in November 2009 before officials gave tacit consent to move to the Old Story Club restaurant. Officials, however, again prevented Shouwang Church from meeting in May and August of last year.

Fu said it was common for government officials across China to pressure landlords into revoking leases for house church groups.

“For example, right now I know of at least two churches that were made ‘homeless’ in Guangzhou this week, including one church with at least 200 members,” he said.

Shouwang’s statement pointed to Article 36 of China’s Constitution, which grants every citizen freedom to worship, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified by China, which states that every citizen has the right to observe his religion or belief “either alone or in community with others and in public or private.”

For this reason the church planned to meet outdoors until officials granted legal, written permission to worship in an approved location – preferably at the building purchased by the church.

The document also advised church members not to resist if they were held under house arrest or arrested at the Sunday venue.

“Objectively speaking, our outdoor worship must deliver this message to the various departments of our government: attending Sunday worship is the most basic necessity for Christians in their life of faith,” the statement concluded.

The number of Protestant house church Christians in China is estimated at between 45 and 60 million, according to Yu Jianrong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Rural Development Institute, with a further 18 to 30 million people attending government-approved churches.

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

Muslim Extremists Murder Christian Family in Pakistan


Lawyer, wife, five children shot to death after he tried to defend Christian.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, September 30 (CDN) — Islamic extremists killed a Christian lawyer, his wife and their five children in northwestern Pakistan this week for mounting a legal challenge against a Muslim who was charging a Christian exorbitant interest, local sources said.

Police found the bodies of attorney and evangelist Edwin Paul and his family on Tuesday morning (Sept. 28) at their home in Haripur, a small town near Abbotabad in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (previously known as the North-West Frontier Province, or NWFP), according to Haripur Station House Officer (SHO) Maqbool Khan.

The victim and his wife Ruby Paul, along with their five children ages 6 to 17, had been shot to death.

“On Sept. 28 at around 8 a.m., we received a call from Sher Khan colony that people heard gunshots, and there was a group of people who ran from a house and drove away,” Khan said. “We went and found seven bodies in a house.”

Paul’s Muslim neighbor, Mushtaq Khan, told Compass that the previous day a group of armed men had threatened the lawyer.

“On Monday a group of armed men stopped Paul and took him by the collar and said, ‘Leave the town in 24 hours – we know how to throw out Christians, we will not allow even a single Christian to live here. We will hang them all in the streets, so that no Christian would ever dare to enter the Hazara land.”

The Hazara are settlers from northern Pakistan who are an ethnic mixture of Punjabi Jats and Pashtuns (also called Pathans). Drawing attention for demanding a separate province for themselves when the NWFP became Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Hazara community financially supports area Islamic extremist groups and is known for charging up to 400 percent interest to Christians. Paul had moved with his family to the area in February.

He had taken up the case of Robin Mehboob, a Christian taxi driver in Haripur who had received a loan of 150,000 rupees (US$1,725) from Noor Khan, an influential Muslim whose lending network extends to some parts of Punjab Province, to buy a taxi. Originally Noor Khan agreed that Mehboob would pay back 224,000 rupees (US$2,580) after one year, Mehboob said.

“I gave my property papers as a guarantee,” Mehboob told Compass, “but then the amount of the interest was raised to 500 percent because I am a Christian – he was demanding back 1.12 million rupees [US$12,893]. They have forcefully taken over my property and have confiscated my taxi as well. I am a poor man, the taxi is the only source of income.”

Paul took Mehboob and the documents of the original loan agreement to the Haripur police station, Mehboob said.

“We talked to the SHO, who said, ‘You can file a complaint, but I can assure you that no one will testify against Noor Khan, as he is supported by extremist groups,’” Mehboob said. “We filed the complaint, and one of the police officers informed [Noor] Khan that we went to the police station.”

On their way back from the police station, three cars filled with Noor Khan’s associates stopped near his house, Mehboob said.

“They came out and said, ‘How dare you Christians go to the police, don’t you know we own the law here?’ They assaulted us, beating us with fists and clubs, and warned that if we try to seek any assistance, they will kill us.”

Mehboob left Haripur that night and went to his brother in Sialkot.

Paul wrote to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, Christian organizations and churches for help, explaining how Noor Khan and the extremist groups were driving Christians out of the area by taking over their property or threatening to kill them unless they sold their homes.

The Muslim extremist groups most active in the area are the banned Jamat ul Dawa, the Sunni Tahreek, and some groups linked with the Pakistani Taliban. The extremist groups were making fake documents to occupy properties owned by Christians, and Hazara investors were supporting the campaign, area Christians said.

The Muslim extremists have also threatened many Christians with death if they do not convert, they said.

Pastor Rehmat Naeem of St. Paul Church in Haripur told Compass that he had also received threats.

“Some extremists sent us threats through phone calls and letters, asking us to leave Haripur,” Pastor Naeem said. “Many Christians were forced to sell their property at very low rates and leave the area. Edwin Paul tried to help the Christians – he even talked to the higher authorities, but no one was ready to testify against the extremists.”

Pastor Naeem added that two months ago area extremists kidnapped eight missionaries; six have been released, and the two others are presumed dead.

A First Information Report has been filed in the murder of Paul and his family, and the District Coordination Officer and District Police Officer (DPO) have strongly condemned the crime and instructed the SHO to find those responsible, authorities said.

Chief Secretary of Hazara Division Ali Ahmed has released a statement ordering a police operation “under the Terrorist Act against the extremists and the Hazaras for forcefully driving away the Christians and killing seven innocent people. We will not allow anyone to threaten the religious minorities. It is the duty of the state to protect the life and property of its people. The DPO has been instructed to arrest the culprits in 72 hours and submit a report or he will be suspended.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Court in India Convicts Legislator in Second Murder Case


Manoj Pradhan arrested; three more cases pending against Hindu nationalist.

NEW DELHI, September 10 (CDN) — A Hindu nationalist legislator was arrested yesterday after a court pronounced him guilty of playing a major role in the murder of a Christian during anti-Christian carnage in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district in August 2008.

The Fast Track Court II in Kandhamal convicted Manoj Pradhan of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the murder of a 30-year-old Christian, Bikram Nayak, who succumbed to head injuries two days after an attack by a mob in the Raikia area of Budedi village on Aug. 25, 2008.

Judge Chitta Ranjan Das sentenced Pradhan to six years of rigorous imprisonment for “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code and imposed a fine of 15,500 rupees (US$335) for setting houses ablaze.

Pradhan, who contested and won the April 2009 state assembly election from jail representing Kandhamal’s G. Udayagiri constituency, was not initially accused in the police complaint in Nayak’s murder, but his role emerged during the investigation, according to The Hindu.

One of the primary suspects in violence that followed the assassination of Hindu nationalist leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008, Pradhan was initially arrested in Berhampur city in neighboring Ganjam district in December 2008. The violence began a day after Saraswati’s killing when Hindu nationalist groups blamed Christians for his murder, although Maoists (extreme Marxists) claimed responsibility for it.

In spite of this week’s conviction, the Orissa state unit of the BJP said the case against Pradhan was weak.

“The case is not strong,” Orissa BJP President Jual Oram told Compass by telephone. “Pradhan was merely present at the scene of crime.”

Pradhan was named in at least 12 police complaints concerning murder and arson. But after he won the election, he was released on bail.

This is the 36-year-old Pradhan’s second conviction. On June 29, Kandhamal’s Fast Track Court I sentenced him to seven years in jail in a case concerning the murder of another Christian, Parikhita Nayak, also from Budedi village, who was killed on Aug. 27, 2008. Though not convicted of murder, Pradhan was found guilty of rioting and causing grievous hurt in the Parikhita Nayak case.

The June 29 judgment led to his arrest, but the Orissa High Court granted him bail eight days later.

The BJP will challenge the convictions in a higher court, Oram said.

Last month Kanaka Rekha Nayak, widow of Parikhita Nayak, complained that despite the conviction of Pradhan and an accomplice, they were immediately given bail and continued to roam the area, often intimidating her.

Rekha Nayak was among 43 survivors who on Aug. 22-24 testified in Delhi before the National People’s Tribunal (NPT), a private hearing of victims of the Kandhamal violence organized by the National Solidarity Forum, a confederation of 60 non-profit groups and people’s movements.

Nayak said local politicians, including Pradhan, hit her husband with an axe. Her husband’s body was later chopped into pieces, she recalled as she sobbed during testimony at the tribunal, headed by Justice A.P. Shah, former chief justice of Delhi High Court.

The fast track courts set up especially to hear cases related to the anti-Christian violence have acquitted Pradhan in seven cases for lack of evidence. Three more cases are pending against him.

The state BJP’s Oram said Christians had created “hype” about the cases against Pradhan to “trouble us.” He added, “The state government is not doing anything to arrest and try the killers of the Swami.”

 

Testimony

The NPT tribunal asserted that between August and December 2008, about 2,000 people were “forced to repudiate their Christian faith.”

The tribunal cited government figures asserting that during the violence from August to December 2008, more than 600 villages were ransacked, 5,600 houses were looted and burned, 54,000 people were left homeless, and 38 people were murdered in Kandhamal alone. It also noted that human rights groups estimated that over 100 people were killed, including women, disabled and aged persons and children, and “an un-estimated number suffered severe physical injuries and mental trauma.”

While there were reports of four women being gang-raped, many more victims of sexual assault were believed to have been intimidated into silence, the tribunal concluded.

As many as 295 church buildings and other places of worship, big and small, were destroyed, and 13 schools, colleges, and offices of five non-profit organizations damaged, it said, adding that about 30,000 people were uprooted and living in relief camps, with many of them still displaced.

“More than 10,000 children had their education severely disrupted due to displacement and fear,” it reported. “Today, after two years, the situation has not improved, although the administration time and again claims it is peaceful and has returned to normalcy.”

The Christian community was deliberately targeted by Hindu nationalist groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), the Bajrang Dal and the active members of Bharatiya Janata Party,” the tribunal concluded.

The jury also observed that cries against religious conversions were used as for political mobilization and “to incite horrific forms of violence and discrimination against the Christians” of Dalit (formerly “untouchables” according the caste hierarchy in Hinduism) origin.

“The object is to dominate them and ensure that they never rise above their low caste status and remain subservient to the upper castes,” it added.

The jury accused police of complicity, which “was not an aberration of a few individual police men, but evidence of an institutional bias against the targeted Christian community.”

“The jury is constrained to observe that public officials have colluded in the destruction of evidence, and there is testimony directly implicating the District Collector [the administrative head of a district] in this misdemeanor.”

The jury expressed concern over the lack of mechanisms to protect victims “who have dared to lodge complaints and witnesses who have courageously given evidence in court,” as they “are unable to return to their homes.”

“There is no guarantee of safe passage to and from the courts. They are living in other cities and villages, many of them in hiding, as they apprehend danger to their lives.”

It also noted mental trauma in children.

“There has been no trauma counselling for the affected children and adolescents in Kandhamal. Even today they have nightmares of running in the jungle, with the killers in pursuit, are scared of any loud sound and are afraid of people walking in groups or talking loudly.”

Bollywood lyricist Javed Akhtar, who was part of the tribunal, said that incidents such as the Kandhamal carnage against religious minorities continued to happen with “alarming frequency” in India.

“As citizens of this democracy, we should hang our heads in shame,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News

Despite Democracy, Christians in Bhutan Remain Underground


Open practice of faith could lead to more persecution, they fear.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, January 25 (CDN) — In this distant and isolated nation in the eastern Himalayas, known as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” almost everything looks uniformly Buddhist.

Most men and women in the landlocked country between India and China wear their national dress, and all the buildings – with their sloping walls, trefoil-shaped windows and pitched roofs – look alike, as if they were Buddhist monasteries.

There are no visible signs of Christians’ tiny presence, but they do exist. Christians, whose only official identity falls in the “others” category in the census, are estimated to range in number between 3,000 and 6,000. And they live out their Christian lives underground – no church buildings, Christian cemeteries or Christian bookstores are yet allowed.

Of Bhutan’s more than 670,000 people, 75 percent of them practice Buddhism, according to the 2005 census. Around 22 percent are Hindu, mostly of Nepali origin.

An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic, constitutional monarchy in March 2008, as per the wish of the former King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006. It has been nearly two years since democracy arrived in Druk Yul, as the country is known in its national language, Dzongkha. But little has changed for Christians.

If there is anything open about Christianity, it is the acknowledgement of Christians’ presence in the national press, which was born after the advent of democracy.

“A journalist telephoned and asked me if I was converting local people,” said a middle-aged pastor clad in Gho, the men’s national uniform, a knee-length gown woven with colorful wool. “I wondered how she got my phone number. Maybe a Christian friend of mine passed it on.”

The pastor requested anonymity – the same request that high government officials made, no matter how trivial the matters they divulged.

The pastor said he told the journalist he did not pay people to convert. “People choose to become Christians out of their own free will,” he said. “I am working within the constitution of the country.”

Still a Monarchy

Asked why the church remained underground in spite of a provision for religious freedom in the new constitution, the pastor replied, “Virtually, Bhutan is still a monarchy. The time is yet to come when we have the assurance of protection.”

His wife, wearing the ankle-length woollen skirt or Kira that is the national dress for women, smiled at what was perhaps a naïve question – the power of the monarchy is beyond question. By law all Bhutanese citizens wear the national dress in schools and certain public, government and religious places. Non-compliance can result in fines or imprisonment.

Asked what would happen if authorities found out about their underground church, the pastor said that before 2008 they would have been arrested because Christianity was banned.

“Even now, there will be serious repercussions,” he said. “What exactly will happen, I do not know. But no Christian worker will take the risk to find it out the hard way.”

To construct any building, Bhutanese citizens require a licence from the government.

“As far as the governance is concerned, the Royal Government of Bhutan is very caring,” he said. “We get free education and free medicine and hospitalization, and there is a sense of security because the crime rate is very low. But asking for a licence for a church is beyond our imagination as of now.”

The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (selected in 2006 but not crowned until 2008) rules absolutely, said local Buddhists, though not with any regret.

“It’s democracy, but still not a democracy,” said a civil government employee requesting anonymity. “It’s the king who makes all important decisions.”

Asked about the Christian presence, he said Christianity grew even at a time when it was banned. “There are many secret Christians. They meet in secret locations for prayer.”

The clean-shaven, medium-built 31-year-old king, an avid soccer fan who studied at Phillips Academy and Wheaton College in Massachusetts in the United States and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, is seen as a progressive person but conservative in matters of religion and culture.

According to the new constitution, the king is the head of state, though the parliament has the power to impeach him by a two-thirds majority vote – a provision not likely to be used anytime in the future, according to popular sentiment.

Banned

Suggesting that Christian fears are warranted, a pastor from Pheuntsholing town near the India border explained that memories of a period of severe crackdown on underground churches were still fresh in the minds of local Christians.

“I was picked up from a house where I was conducting Sunday worship in Tsirang district in September 1995 and put in a prison,” said the pastor. “I was asked to leave the district with immediate effect, and I had to move to another location.”

His voice trembling as he spoke by telephone, he said, “Once the government discovers that you are a Christian, nothing will be free for you.”

The pastor said that although there are no violent attacks on Christians, they do face discrimination by the government and society.

According to the government-run weekly Kuensel of Nov. 4, 1992, the National Assembly banned Christianity in 1969 and in 1979. The edicts against Christians were said to have passed due to reports of conversions to Christianity in south Bhutan, inhabited mostly by people of Nepali origin.

In the early 1990s the government of Bhutan began a massive crackdown on Christians, mainly in southern parts, and intensified it towards the end of the decade.

The authorities identified Christians in government or business and took their signatures on a form pledging compliance with rules and regulations governing practice of religion. There were several reports, though unconfirmed, of violence against Christians by police and village heads during the period.

In April 2001, international media reported on persecution of Christians in Bhutan when police stormed churches on Palm Sunday to register Christians, many of who were detained and threatened.

Almost a decade later, the legal standing of the Christian minority under the new constitution remains unclear.

Ambiguous Laws

In May 2009, the national daily Bhutan Times quoted Interior Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji as saying, “It was absolutely okay if people were born Christian … The constitution supports them. But it is unlawful to convert. If we get proof of proselytization in the country, we shall definitely take action.”

The newspaper noted that there are no official churches in Bhutan. “And most of the Sunday masses and gatherings are held in the homes of pastors and converts,” noted the daily, which occasionally criticizes government policies, though mildly and without taking aim at any particular official.

The new Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, drafted in 2005 and officially adopted in 2008, gives religious freedom to all the citizens of the country but also contains a virtual “anti-conversion law” as found in neighboring India.

The exotic, official website of the constitution – which displays the national emblem of two dragons and a lotus surmounted by a jewel symbolizing harmony between secular and religious powers and sovereignty of the nation – states that all Bhutanese citizens “shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” in Article 7.

But Article 7 adds: “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

What the terms “coercion” and “inducement” mean is not clear. Whether “proselytization,” which the home minister recently suggested was illegal, means propagation of Christianity or conversion by “coercion or inducement,” is also left unclear.

The Supreme Court of Bhutan, whose judge appointments have yet to be completed and are not yet functional, is likely to have the prerogative to interpret the constitution.

What is unambiguous, however, is that the government of Bhutan will continue to preserve the uniform culture of the country, which, it maintains, is based on Buddhist values. Article 3 of the constitution says that “Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan, which promotes among others the principles and values of peace, non-violence, compassion and tolerance,” and “it is the responsibility of religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country while also ensuring that religion remains separate from politics in Bhutan.”

Article 4 mandates the government to “endeavour to preserve, protect and promote the cultural heritage of the country,” adding that “parliament may enact such legislation as may be necessary to advance the cause of the cultural enrichment of Bhutanese society.”

According to Article 8, it is a fundamental duty of all citizens to “preserve, protect and respect the culture and heritage of the nation.”

“Apart from religious restrictions, we are happy to be in Bhutan,” said a pastor from Thimphu. “Look at the unrest India, China and Nepal have from time to time. We are happy and thankful to God for this nation.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Two Christians Critically Wounded at Wedding in Pakistan


Still in intensive care, they were shot for refusing order to convert to Islam.

TOBA TEK SINGH, Pakistan, January 14 (CDN) — Two Pakistani Christians who were shot at a wedding on Dec. 26 for refusing to convert to Islam are still receiving treatment at a hospital intensive care unit, but doctors are hopeful that they will recover.

In low, barely audible voices, Imran Masih, 21, and Khushi Masih, 24, told Compass that two Muslims armed with AK-47s in Punjab Province’s Chak (village) 297-JB, in Toba Tek Singh district, shot them in their chests after they refused orders to recite the Islamic creed signifying conversion.

Soon after they arrived at the wedding, a group of Muslim youths armed with AK-47 assault rifles surrounded them and began shooting into the air, as is customary at village weddings. They were not alarmed, they said, assuming the young Muslim men were simply celebrating joyfully.

“One of the green-turban-wearing Muslims peremptorily told us to recite the Islamic holy Kalima [profession of faith] or face direct bullets and the lethal consequences,” said Khushi Masih.

Both Christians said that they joyfully refused, and instead they began reciting Psalm 91.

“Our decision infuriated them,” Imran Masih said, “and instead of shooting into the air, they shot us, leaving us only after being convinced that we were dead. Praise the name of Lord Jesus Christ, who raised us from the dead!”

The fathers of the two Christians found their sons collapsed in a puddle of blood and rushed them to Tehsil Headquarters Hospital. Imran Masih sustained two broken ribs from the shots, with one bullet passing two millimeters from his heart. Khushi Masih was wounded in the chest and right leg. Bullets from an AK-47 do less harm if they pass through the body than if they become lodged in the flesh and begin to fragment.

“They are recovering fast and their wounds are healing, but they were still under strict observation in the intensive care unit,” said the father of Imran Masih. He added that doctors are concerned for their lives but believe they will recover.

Police have registered a case against the suspects, whose names were not released, but have yet to arrest them, the station house officer of Saddr police station told Compass.

“Very soon we will arrest them to prosecute and put them behind the bars,” he said. The investigation is continuing, he added.

The suspects are basing their defense on the assertion that they shot the Christians by accident, said family members of the wounded Christians, strongly denying the claim.

The fathers of the two Christians said Islamic extremist Hafiz Aziz Gujjar, a member of a local hard-line proselytizing group, has long pressured the two victims to convert to Islam. They said Gujjar has enticed or pressured other Christians and followers of other faiths to recant their beliefs.

With a mixture of sorrow and pride, the fathers said that their sons remained firm in Christ, shedding blood but refusing to surrender their Christian vows.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Church Buildings Attacked in Malaysia Following Court Decision


Muslim groups angered by ruling to allow Catholic newspaper to use word ‘Allah.’

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, January 11 (CDN) — In unprecedented acts that stunned Christians in Malaysia, suspected Islamists have attacked eight church buildings since the country’s High Court ruled that a Catholic weekly could use the word “Allah.”

Firebombs were thrown into the compounds of four churches in Kuala Lumpur and neighboring Petaling Jaya on Friday (Jan. 8); three more attacks occurred on Sunday (Jan. 10) in Taiping, Melaka and Miri; and another church building was hit today in Seremban. There were no reports of injuries.

Judge Lau Bee Lan delivered the controversial court ruling on Dec. 31, arguing that the Herald had a constitutional right to use the word “Allah” for God in the Malay section of its multi-lingual newspaper. The ruling caused an uproar among many Muslim groups widely reported to have called for nationwide protests after Friday prayers, asserting that “Allah” can be used only in the context of Islam. Among groups calling for protests were the Muslim Youth Movement and the National Association of Muslim Students.

Inflammatory rhetoric has emerged in the escalating conflict; at a protest in Shah Alam since protests began on Friday, a speaker at one rally urged listeners to “burn churches,” according to the online news site Malaysian Insider. The crowd reportedly stood in stunned silence.

Malaysia’s Home Ministry filed an appeal against the High Court decision on Jan. 4. Two days later, the court allowed a freeze on the decision to permit the Herald to use the word “Allah” pending hearing in the Court of Appeal.

The attacked churches were Metro Tabernacle (Assembly of God) in Kuala Lumpur, and three churches in Petaling Jaya: Life Chapel (Brethren), Assumption Church (Catholic) and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church (Lutheran); also damaged were All Saints’ Church (Anglican) in Taiping, Melaka Baptist Church in Melaka (vandalized but not firebombed), Good Shepherd Church (Catholic) in Miri (pelted with stones) and Sidang Injil Borneo (Evangelical Church of Borneo) in Seremban.

Though there were no casualties, a number of the church buildings were damaged in the attacks. Metro Tabernacle suffered the worst damage, with the ground floor of its three-story building, which housed its administrative office, completely gutted. The main door of the church in Seremban was charred.

The Rev. Ong Sek Leang, senior pastor of Metro Tabernacle, reportedly said that the church harbors no ill feelings toward the culprits and would forgive those responsible, but that it does not condone the acts.

Most of the other church buildings suffered minor damage, though the Assumption Church was spared when the Molotov cocktail thrown into its compound failed to go off. The Melaka Baptist Church building was splashed with black paint, while stones were thrown into the Good Shepherd Church building in Miri.

The Malaysian Insider reported on Friday (Jan. 8) that two other churches received telephone threats from unknown sources.

Christian leaders, government and opposition leaders, and Non-Governmental Organizations have condemned the attacks. Police have promised to increase security around church buildings, but Inspector-General of Police Musa Hassan told the Malaysian Insider that churches must beef up their own security since there is a shortage of police personnel.

Malaysia’s population is about 60 percent Muslim, 19 percent Buddhist and 9 percent Christian. About 6 percent are Hindu, with 2.6 percent of the population adhering to Confucianism, Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions.

Shocked

The spate of church attacks shocked the Christian community and nation, as acts of violence on places of worship are unprecedented in Malaysia.

Ramon Navaratnam, Chairman of the Centre of Public Policy Studies, said in a press statement on Friday (Jan. 8) that the attacks marked a “troubling trend” and “a low point in our nation’s history.”

The same day, Malaysian Bar Council Chairman Ragunath Kesavan said in a press statement that the attacks were “shocking and offensive” and that “all right-minded Malaysians must condemn it as indecent and unacceptable.”

Christian leaders strongly denounced the attacks and have asked the government to safeguard the community and its places of worship. They have also called on the government to take firm steps against the perpetrators while paving the way for greater understanding between the different religious communities.

The Rev. Dr. Hermen Shastri, general secretary of the Council of Churches Malaysia, called on the government to “show zero tolerance for the use, threat or incitement, of violence as a means to pressure the decision of the court.” The Rev. Eu Hong Seng, chairman of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, called on the government “to take the necessary steps to educate those who lack understanding and are ‘easily confused’ to be mature-minded in a progressive democratic society.”

Leaders on both sides of the political divide have also denounced the attacks, while a number of opposition leaders – including Anwar Ibrahim, adviser to the People’s Justice Party – put the blame on the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), the leading partner in the ruling coalition government. Anwar reportedly accused UMNO-owned newspaper Utusan Malaysia of having incited Muslims over the court decision.

A number of local commentators have also criticized Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein for not defusing rising tensions in the initial days of the court ruling. They have also come under fire for saying they would allow public demonstrations by Muslim groups to proceed, and that they would take action “only if things got out of hand.”

Despite the attacks, a check with parishioners of several churches in the Klang Valley showed Christians were undeterred by the acts of violence and continued to gather for worship yesterday.

Urging Christians to pray, Sam Ang, secretary-general of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, told Compass, “We see this as an opportunity to trust in the Lord and to revitalize our faith, especially for second-generation Christians.”

Report from Compass Direct News