Australia needs boldness and bravery from Karen Andrews, the new minister for industry, science and technology


Emma Johnston, UNSW

It’s almost a year since Australia had a named science minister in Cabinet.

Now the role has been revived, following a weekend ministerial reshuffle after Scott Morrison became the new Australian prime minister.

Today Karen Andrews was sworn in as minister for industry, science and technology, and she joins the cabinet for the first time.




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I believe the incoming minister is likely to be a strong advocate and effective representative for the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sector. She should have solid support from some key members of cabinet who have a track record of supporting STEM, such as Josh Frydenberg (treasurer), Michaelia Cash (now minister for small and family business, skills and vocational education), and Greg Hunt (minister for health).

But this is a complex portfolio and as a new member she will need to work hard to build cabinet-wide support for solutions to key challenges in the sector.

Andrews is the member for McPherson, an electorate in southern Queensland. She has held the seat since her election in 2010, joining politics as a graduate of mechanical engineering and following a career in human resources and industrial relations.




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Active in STEM

During her eight years in parliament, Andrews has shown an avid interest in science and technology.

Previously assistant minister for vocational education and skills, and before that assistant minister for science, Andrews is the co-founder and co-convenor of the Parliamentary Friends of Science group alongside shadow minister for defence Richard Marles.

She has attended Science meets Parliament for many years and participates in Science and Technology Australia’s STEM Ambassador program.

Andrews has promoted the value of STEM education, voiced her support for the potential for nuclear power for Australia, and publicly encouraged vaccination.




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In a recent interview she said,

I am very keen that my parliamentary colleagues understand science, technology, engineering and maths and the importance of evidence-based decision making. We all need to make sure we are making decisions based on evidence, not opinions.

We need a better plan

Despite some recent positive actions, Australia still lacks a strong, comprehensive and long-term whole-of-government plan for the STEM sector.

The government showed support for STEM with the release of their National Research Infrastructure Investment Plan, additional funding for supercomputing facilities, and through the establishment of the Medical Research Future Fund.

Given the excellent returns on investment in research and development, it is crucial that similarly bold, and long-term, approaches to investment in both basic and applied non-medical scientific research are soon to follow.

It has been noted that while around A$2 billion has been saved over four years by the government’s changes to the research and development (R&D) tax incentive arrangements, none of that saving has been put towards the recommended premium on industry R&D partnerships with public research institutions.

The sector still faces many challenges in increasing equity, diversity and inclusion. The government has shown support for women in STEM, through the women in STEM and entrepreneurship grants scheme and refunding of the Superstars of STEM program.

However, we can do more to reduce harassment and bullying – and to support Indigenous scientists, LGBTQIA+ scientists and those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.




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I hope to see expansion from the government’s vision outlined in the National Science Statement, that outlines a role for the sector more broadly, along with clear and measurable priorities and goals. This will allow Australian science and technology to move forward with more confidence and purpose.

Similarly, it’s important for Australia to address a shortage in STEM skills, an issue that was highlighted by Andrews in 2015.

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are predicted to be the fastest growing industries globally (it’s estimated up to 75% of the fastest growing occupations will require STEM skills), and Australia has to prepare accordingly. We must reverse our declining participation and performance in STEM subjects.

Policy informed by evidence

Finally, it’s important that as the spokesperson for science and technology in cabinet, Andrews is a bold and brave advocate for policy informed by evidence.

In a 2009 speech by the then Productivity Commission Chairman, Professor Gary Banks, emphasised the importance of evidence-based policy, especially in regard to long-term and complex environmental, social and economic challenges.

Instances such as the Higher-Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) and the shift to inflation targeting monetary policy are just two examples of long-term policy being developed from a strong evidence base. It is clear that further investment in evidence-based policy formation is required.




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With a new minister, and a new voice in cabinet to promote science and evidence, I am more optimistic about the future of Australian science and technology.

Having a representative that is qualified, demonstrably passionate, and who is engaged with the STEM sector at all levels, gives us hope that we will see visionary leadership and strength from the member for McPherson.

I look forward to continuing to work with the government to make STEM a top priority for Australia, and ensure that our scientists and technologists play a key role in the nation’s future environment, health, wealth and well-being.The Conversation

Emma Johnston, Professor and Dean of Science, UNSW

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

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Grattan on Friday: Peter Dutton’s bid for more crime-fighting power has bought him a fight


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

No one should be surprised that the Home Affairs department, with its ambitious minister Peter Dutton and his activist secretary, Mike Pezzullo, is feeling its oats. When Malcolm Turnbull granted Dutton his wish for a mega department, it was obvious how things would go.

Now we are seeing a power play which has set Dutton and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at odds, and raised questions about striking the right balances in a cyber age that brings new threats but also new invasive technology to counter them.

The issue immediately at hand is whether Home Affairs can drag the Australian Signals Directorate – a defence-aligned organisation which spies electronically on foreign targets – into the fight against a broad range of crime in Australia.

As the head of ASD, Mike Burgess, succinctly put it in a draft note for Defence Minister Marise Payne, Home Affairs wants legislative change “to enable ASD to better support a range of Home Affairs priorities”.

The latest move, as documented in bureaucratic correspondence leaked last weekend – everyone assumes in order to blow up the proposal – came from Pezzullo. But Pezzullo was formalising a plan foreshadowed by Dutton as soon as he was sworn into the Home Affairs portfolio.

In December Fairfax reported Dutton saying that ASD would be used more in Australian investigations into terrorism, drug-smuggling, child exploitation and other cross-border crimes.

Put in the simplest terms, under the plan the Australian Federal Police, ASIO and similar agencies would collect the data, as they do now, while an empowered ASD could supply the technical capability to disrupt or prevent the crime online.

After publication of the leaked correspondence in the Sunday Telegraph, headlined “Secret plan to spy on Aussies”, Pezzullo, Defence Department secretary Greg Moriarty, and Burgess issued an opaque statement that, when you cut through the bureaucratise, indicated the option for a wider use of ASD was on the table.

Meanwhile Bishop told reporters “there is no plan for the government to extend the powers of the Australian Signals Directorate so that it could collect intelligence against Australians or covertly access private data”.

That would appear to be true, but it is also true Dutton had already flagged publicly a proposal to expand ASD’s remit, and the Burgess draft note clearly stated that the Home Affairs department had advised it was briefing its minister to write to the Defence Minister.

The fine distinction between expanding ASD powers but it not collecting intelligence on Australians is where the confusion lies, and that will need to be carefully laid out.

Bishop and Dutton have a record as sparring partners. The two ministers contrast in style but both are tough operators who don’t take a backward step. This is the second matter on which they’ve recently clashed – the other was Dutton’s desire to bring in white South African farmers on the basis they were subject to “persecution”.

Dutton, announcing this week AFP deputy commissioner Karl Kent as the first Transnational Serious and Organised Crime Coordinator within Home Affairs, told a news conference that the capacities of various agencies had to be looked at “including obviously … the capacity of ASD”.

Dutton stressed any change would have safeguards. “As for some claim that there’s going to be some spying taking place on Australian citizens, it’s complete nonsense,” he said.

“If there was to be any look at ways in which we could try and address the cyber threat more effectively, it would be accompanied by the usual protections, including warrant powers”, ticked off by the attorney-general or the justice system.

Defending his position on Thursday, Dutton talked about child exploitation, a guaranteed hot button, pointing out that people were conveying “images of sexual acts against children in live-streaming on the internet.

“We’ve got to deal with that threat. We have the ability, potentially, to disrupt some of those servers. At the moment the ASD … could disrupt that server if it was in operation offshore, but not if it was operating out of Sydney or Melbourne,” he said.

It is believed that Defence is unimpressed with the move on ASD, from July 1 a statutory agency but traditionally in its bailiwick. But it is Bishop who is most obviously taking the issue on, even though her portfolio is not directly involved.

For Bishop, the exercise has flouted the manner in which such a major bid for change should be handled, leaving most ministers blindsided.

Home Affairs’ case receives some support from a recent submission to the parliamentary joint committee on law enforcement by David Irvine, former head of ASIO and now chairman of the Cyber Security Research Centre, a body set up to promote industry investment in cyber security research.

Irvine writes: “Both national security threats and criminal activity exploit the internet in similar ways. Both need to be countered or managed using similar investigative tools and techniques.”

“Australia’s national capacity to counter threats and criminal activity using cyber investigative tools is relatively under-developed, uncoordinated and fragmented”, making it “difficult for agencies to cope with the pace of technical change,” he says.

Irvine argues for a new body to provide “expert technical cyber investigative services in support of law enforcement and national security investigations”, done by Commonwealth and state agencies.

He says such a body might fall within Home Affairs “but it would depend extensively upon the offensive and defensive cyber operational skills of the Australian Signals Directorate, and its offshoot the Australian Cyber Security Centre”.

The tug of war over ASD may have some way to run but with cyber risks becoming an increasing preoccupation, at this stage Dutton and Pezzullo appear to have a head start. It is now a question of where Malcolm Turnbull will come down. It is hard to see him saying no to Dutton.

But the implications of any extension of ASD’s remit should be fully debated sooner rather than later. As the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Margaret Stone wrote earlier this year, a change to ASD’s “focus for its covert or intrusive intelligence related activities to people and organisations inside Australia would be a profound one”.

The ConversationThe pros and cons of the Dutton bid need a lot of public airing before the government reaches a conclusion, rather than that conclusion being presented as a fait accompli.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

The case of Michaelia Cash and her leaking adviser illustrates a failure of ministerial responsibility



File 20171026 28036 pjf32w.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Michaelia Cash has refused to resign over misleading parliament, claiming she was unaware of one of her staffer’s actions.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Yee-Fui Ng, RMIT University

The federal opposition is continuing to call for Employment Minister Michaelia Cash’s resignation, claiming she misled parliament this week after repeatedly telling a Senate estimates committee that neither she nor her office had any involvement in tipping off the media about a police raid.

Cash’s senior media adviser, David De Garis, later confessed he had leaked information about the raid on the Australian Workers Union’s offices to the press. Cash retracted her statements and De Garis resigned.

Labor frontbencher Tony Burke argued that “the wrong person has resigned”. But Cash has refused to resign, claiming she was unaware of her staffer’s actions. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has defended Cash, saying she acted properly.

Who are these advisers?

Ministerial advisers are partisan staff who are personally appointed by ministers and work out of the ministers’ private offices.

The number of Commonwealth ministerial staff has increased over the years from 155 in 1972 to 423 in 2015.

Ministerial advisers undertake a wide range of functions. Tony Nutt, a long-time former adviser, has said:

… a ministerial adviser deals with the press. A ministerial adviser handles the politics. A ministerial adviser talks to the union. All of that happens every day of the week, everywhere in Australia all the time. Including frankly, the odd bit of, you know, ancient Spanish practices and a bit of bastardry on the way through. That’s all the nature of politics.

The question is what happens if advisers overstep their roles?

Ministerial responsibility and political advisers

According to the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, ministers are responsible to parliament for the acts of their departments.

British academic Sir Ivor Jennings wrote that the “act of every civil servant is by convention regarded as the act of the minister”. And British MP Lord Morrison proclaimed that the “minister is responsible for every stamp stuck on an envelope”.

But it is doubtful that this principle has ever reflected reality. It is rare for ministers to resign or even accept responsibility for the actions of their department, where they were not personally involved.

Ministers should also technically take responsibility for the actions of advisers in their own offices, who are at an even higher level of direct ministerial control than departments.

Even more than public servants, advisers are seen to be acting as alter egos of their ministers. This means ministers should be accountable to parliament for the actions of their advisers – even those they did not authorise.

But what happens in reality is that ministers tend to use their advisers as scapegoats and blame them for controversial events. This is consistent with “public choice” theory, which predicts that politicians have the incentive to deflect all the blame that comes in their direction while accepting the credit for anything that goes right.

How are advisers regulated?

Australia has inadequate legal and political regulation of ministerial advisers. They are subject to a Statement of Standards, which sets out the standards they are supposed to meet in preforming their duties.

Sanctions under the standards are handled internally within the executive through the Prime Minister’s Office. This means any breaches of the standards by ministerial advisers would be handled behind closed doors, without the scrutiny of parliament or any external bodies.

Ministerial advisers have also refused to appear before parliamentary committees on their minister’s instruction. This has impeded the investigations of significant parliamentary committees, including the Children Overboard affair.

Australia thus has minimal legal and political regulation of ministerial advisers. This has led to an accountability deficit, where ministers have been able to utilise their advisers to escape responsibility for public controversies and scandals.

How can we fix the system?

Other Westminster jurisdictions have more stringent regulation of political advisers.

There are a few forms of regulation of advisers. The first is restrictions on the employment of advisers, either through a cap on the numbers of advisers, as in the UK, or a cap on the total budget for advisers, as in Canada.

Second, regulations can restrict the actions of advisers themselves. For example, in the UK, there is a prohibition on advisers leaking confidential or sensitive information, which would have been applicable in this scandal.

Canada has post-employment restrictions banning advisers from becoming lobbyists for five years after ceasing their employment.

Third, transparency measures also exist, such as requirements that departments disclose all meetings that advisers have with the media (as in the UK) and what hospitality these advisers receive (in the UK and Canada).

Ideally, the Australian regulatory framework should be reformed so it is policed externally from the core executive. In Canada, the conflict of interest and lobbying provisions are policed by the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, who has been independent and ready to criticise the government.

And, in the UK, the rules provide for political advisers to appear before parliamentary committees. Similar guidelines could be drafted to facilitate the appearance of advisers before Australian parliamentary committees.

The ConversationIn the last 40 years, ministerial advisers have become an integral part of Australia’s system of government. But the law and rules have lagged behind, and our system should be reformed to ensure greater accountability.

Yee-Fui Ng, Lecturer, Graduate School of Business and Law, RMIT University

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

Grattan on Friday: The rift between Brandis and Dutton deepens as the behemoth of Home Affairs rises


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Immigration minister Peter Dutton got a towelling from the Senate this week when he couldn’t reach a deal with the crossbench on his legislation to toughen requirements for people seeking Australian citizenship.

The bill was to impose a harder – many would say a ridiculously difficult – English test on those wanting to become Australians, and to require a longer waiting period.

The Senate gave Dutton a Wednesday night deadline to muster support or lose the bill from the notice paper. He offered some concessions but without success, and the bill dropped off – to return only if and when the numbers change. The minister says he’ll fight on.

Dutton had been sent a fresh message about the limits on his power. He doesn’t like such reminders. We know this from his attacks on court and tribunal rulings against his ministerial decisions, and his vitriol about lawyers who represent refugees and asylum seekers.

After he agreed with broadcaster Alan Jones about the “un-Australian” behaviour of lawyers who frustrate government efforts to return people to Manus and Nauru following medical treatment, the ongoing deep rift between Dutton and Attorney-General George Brandis flared publicly earlier this month.

In a speech to the International Bar Association Brandis said pointedly that “those who exercise executive power must always accept that they are subject to, and must always be respectful of, the supremacy of the law. And in that process, as the custodians of the rule of law, the role of lawyers is essential”.

Brandis didn’t name Dutton, but his target was clear.

Colleagues observe the palpable hostility between the two ministers, both from Queensland, as Brandis has recently been increasingly willing to assert small-l liberal positions (slapping down Pauline Hanson and Tony Abbott as well as Dutton), and has in turn been the object of apparently antagonistic briefings to the tabloids.

As the new Home Affairs department that Dutton will head is being sewn together – including immigration and bringing under its umbrella ASIO, the Australian Federal Police, Border Force, the Criminal Intelligence Commission and AUSTRAC – it’s an open secret that Brandis (who loses ASIO but retains the power to sign its warrants), his department and some officials within the agencies are deeply apprehensive about it.

Some of their concerns may be reinforced by the picture painted a week ago by the new department’s secretary-designate, and current immigration secretary, Mike Pezzullo who, like Dutton, is seen as an empire builder who takes no prisoners.

Pezzullo, speaking to the Trans-Tasman Business Circle, spelled out Home Affairs’
“philosophical context”, and sent the message that it would be activist, intrusive (often secretly) and have long tentacles.

Pezzullo’s starting point was the “duality of good and evil” at the heart of globalisation.

On the “evil” side – the “dark universe” – “terror has become de-territorialised”, and global networks of crime and exploitation are becoming more apparent.

“There are global dark markets for hacking, money laundering, cryptocurrency movement, assumed identities for criminals, terrorists, child exploitation perpetrators and others,” he said.

In this context the security power, designed to protect the home front, “is being organised into a single enterprise to deal with the interconnected and globalised threats that we face at home”, in an era when “home” and “outside” blur.

“To protect and secure home, we have to be prepared to act globally and to develop networks with like-minded actors, including industry.”

The task requires wide and deep reach, with the department’s “facilitation” functions (migration, passenger services and the like) and security being the flip sides of the one coin.

“The state has to increasingly embed itself – not majestically, sitting at the apex of society dispensing justice – but the state has to embed itself invisibly into global networks and supply chains, and the virtual realm, in a seamless and largely invisible fashion, intervening on the basis of intelligence and risk settings. Increasingly, at super scale and at very high volumes”, Pezzullo said.

“Sometimes we’ll embed in a way that will be invisible to you [in business], because we’ll take data and we’ll put it with other data sources and then see, we’ll wash it and then we’ll come back with an intervention decision which might be ‘no one on that plane needs to be questioned’ or maybe ‘everyone does’, and you’ll go ‘yep, OK, whichever we have to do, we do’”.

The facilitation model requires “a public-private partnership model between Home Affairs and its component agencies and virtually every sector … whether it’s the banking system and talking to them about the active defence of their networks, whether it’s the infrastructure sector … utilities, power, water, etc, the air traffic control system,” he said.

“Home Affairs is going to be sort of the centre of excellence of figuring out how does Australia work. And we have to be careful about how we write this down, because when you then write the manual, how you take Australia down, there’ll be like one copy of that, and I’m not going to tell you where I’m going to keep that, because that’s going to be a very dangerous book!”

When the Home Affairs department was announced Malcolm Turnbull emphasised the checks on its power, which will be located especially in the Attorney-General’s department.

But in government and administration, culture and attitudes can often be an important as formal restraints and oversight, and Pezzullo’s critics point to what happened to the culture after the integration of customs and immigration.

The old immigration department used to focus on the nation building aspects of the people flow to Australia. Now, the dominant culture of the Immigration and Border Protection department is one focused on security, with a very disciplined, somewhat military overlay. (Pezzullo has an intense interest in things military and was disappointed to miss out on the job of secretary of defence, for which he was well qualified, when it was recently up for grabs.)

As the Home Affairs behemoth looms, sharpening questions about what should be the limits on state intrusions, this week saw a paradoxical juxtaposition in relation to Australia’s role in and performance on human rights.

Australia was elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, a body to protect and promote human rights globally. At the same time, it was robustly criticised by the UN Human Rights Committee, a group of experts monitoring implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

As the year’s end approaches, the speculation continues to be strong that Brandis will depart parliament in Turnbull’s summer reshuffle. There is no doubt that Turnbull – who is thick as thieves with Dutton – wants him out, not least to promote Mathias Cormann to Senate leader and (probably) Christian Porter to attorney-general.

The ConversationThe exit of Brandis would be one less frustration for Dutton. It’s ironic, but true, that the man who was lambasted for asserting the right for people to be bigots is at present the strongest voice in the cabinet for the protections of the rule of law.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/k27zv-7889f2?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Iran: Latest Persecution News


The link below is to an article reporting on the latest persecution news out of Iran, where churches continue to minister despite opposition.

For more visit:
http://www.christiantelegraph.com/issue17487.html

Article: 11-Year-Old Ordained Minister


The link below is to an article I found while surfing the net – an 11-year-old ordained minister at a church in the USA. You have got to be kidding! How utterly ridiculous.

For more visit:
http://www.odditycentral.com/news/11-year-old-boy-leads-church-as-an-ordained-minister.html.

Hindu Extremists in India Beat Pastor Unconscious


Evangelist was traveling with sons from one village to another.

NEW DELHI, April 22 (CDN) — Hindu extremists beat a pastor and evangelist unconscious in front of his sons earlier this month in Madhya Pradesh state.

Ramesh Devda, 30, from Dhadhniya, Meghnagar district, said he was attacked on April 4 at about 11 a.m. after leading a prayer meeting in Chikklia village. He said he was on his way to Bhajidongra, at the border of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat states, by motorcycle with his two sons, 10-year-old Elias, and 8-year-old Shimon, to lead another prayer meeting.

When he reached Raseda village, he said, suddenly three people on two motorcycles blocked his way and forced him to stop.

“Suddenly out of nowhere these three men appeared in two motorcycles – they blocked me and tilted my motorcycle,” Pastor Devda told Compass. “We fell down. They were carrying big bamboo sticks and clubs. They started beating me, and then they called and three more men came and started to attack me.”

He said he was thankful that his sons were spared from beating, though his older son sustained a leg injury in the course of the attack.

“They were angry at me and were threatening to kill me and were warning me not to come to their area again,” he said. “My sons were screaming at the top of their voices, and they were afraid. One of the men hit me on my forehead with a big bamboo stick, cracking my skull. The others were also beating me on my body, especially my back with bamboo sticks.”

A blow to the forehead temporarily blinded him, he said.

“My eyes were darkened, and I fell down, and they proceeded to beat me even more,” he said. “The men were also abusive in the foulest language that I had heard, and they were drunk.”

People passing by heard the two boys crying out and came to help, and the attackers fled, he said, leaving the unconscious pastor and his sons.

“I do not know who helped me, as I was unconscious,” Pastor Devda said. “But I came to know later that local Christians also came in and called the emergency helpline. As a result, an ambulance came, which then took me to the hospital.”

He was taken to Anita Surgical Hospital on Station Road in Dahod, Gujarat. There a physician identified only as Dr. Bharpoda told him that he had fractured his skull.

“I am being treated for my wounds now, but there is still a lot of pain,” Pastor Devda said.

A Christian for 15 years, Pastor Devda has been in Christian leadership for 11 years and now serves with the Christian Reformed Fellowship of India. He has two other children, Ashish and 4-year-old Sakina, and his wife Lalita, 28, is active with him in Christian service.

Pastor Devda leads congregations in Chikklia, Bhajidongra and Dhadhniya villages.

“I have heard that I was attacked because the people of Chikklia did not like me conducting the Sunday service there,” he said. “The people who beat me up do belong to a Hindu fundamentalist outfit, and some believers in Chikklia know them. I can recognize them if I see them again.”

He said, however, that he does not want to file a First Information Report (FIR) with police.

“There is no one supporting me or standing with me in my village or my mission, and I am myself fearful, as I have to continue to minister to these very people,” Pastor Devda said. “I know my attack was pre-planned, but I do not want to report it to the police.”

A Christian co-worker from Rajasthan was also attacked about a month ago in equally brutal fashion, he said, but also refrained from filing an FIR because of fear of repercussions.

Vijayesh Lal, secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India’s Religious Liberty Commission, said the tribal belt that extends to the border areas of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan, has been a hot spot for anti-Christian activity since the late 1990s.

“Only recently a 65-year-old evangelist was beaten and stripped by Hindu extremists,” he said. “It is a worrisome trend, and one that should be dealt with not only by the government but by the secular media and civil society in general.”

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

Nepal Christians Begin Legal Battle for Burial Ground


Hindu group declares country a Hindu state; upper castes seek halt to conversions.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, April 19 (CDN) — With the government refusing to listen to their three-year plea for an official cemetery and ignoring a protracted hunger strike, Nepal’s Christians are now seeking redress from the Supreme Court.

“Every day there are two to three deaths in the community, and with each death we face a hard time with the burial,” said Chari Bahadur Gahatraj, a pastor who filed a petition in the high court on March 13 asking it to intervene as authorities of Nepal’s oldest Hindu temple had begun demolishing the graves of Christians there.

Gahatraj and Man Bahadur Khatri are both members of the newly formed Christian Burial Ground Prayer and National Struggle Committee that since last month began leading a relay hunger strike in a public area of the capital, asking for a graveyard. They said they were forced to go to court after the Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT), which runs Nepal’s oldest Hindu shrine, the Pashupatinath temple, said it would no longer allow non-Hindus to use the temple’s forested land.

“We don’t want to hurt the sentiments of any community,” Gahatraj told Compass. “Nor are we trying to grab the land owned by a temple. We are ready to accept any plot given to us. All we are asking for is that the burials be allowed till we get an alternate site.”

Judge Awadhesh Kumar Yadav has since ordered the government and PADT not to prevent Christians from using the forest for burials until the dispute is resolved. The legal battle, however, now involves a counter-suit. Hindu activist Bharat Jangam filed a second writ on March 20, saying that since the forest was the property of a Hindu temple, non-Hindus should not be allowed to bury their dead there just as churches do not allow Hindu burials.

Subsequently, the court decided to hear the two petitions together, and yesterday (April 18), the hearings began. While two lawyers argued on behalf of Gahatraj and Khatri, a cohort of 15 lawyers spoke against their petition. The next hearing is scheduled for May 3.

Along with the legal battle, Christians have kept up their relay hunger strike. To step up pressure on the government, the protestors also announced they would lead a funeral march to the offices of the prime minister and the culture minister and hand over coffins to them as a symbolic protest. If that too failed, they warned they would have no option but to go on hunger strike in front of the prime minister’s office and parliament, this time carrying dead bodies with them.

Alarmed at the rate the issue was snowballing, the government finally responded. Yesterday Culture Minister Gangalal Tuladhar opened talks with the protestors, agreeing to continue the negotiations after three days. The government also formed a four-member committee to look into the demand. Currently, Christians are asking for cemetery land in all 75 districts of Nepal.

Protestors were wary of the government’s intent in the overture.

“This could be a ploy to buy time and bury the issue,” said a member of the Christian committee formed to advise parliament on drafting the new constitution, who requested anonymity.

Though the committee formed to look into the Christians’ demand for burial land has been asked to present a report within two weeks, Christians suspect the panel is dragging its feet.

“The new constitution has to be promulgated by May 28, but it does not seem likely that the main political parties will be able to accomplish the task,” the Christian committee member said. “And if the constitution doesn’t materialize in time, there will be a crisis and our problem will be shelved.”

 

Hindu Nation

Adding to their unease, Christians are now facing a redoubled campaign by Hindu groups for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion, five years after parliament declared Nepal, the world’s only Hindu kingdom, secular.

If the new constitution had been promulgated last year, it would have consolidated secularism in Nepal. But with the country missing the deadline due to protracted power-sharing rows among the major political parties, Christians still feel under threat.

On Thursday (April 14), when the country celebrated the start of the indigenous new year 2068 with a public holiday, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, which seeks the reinstatement of Hinduism as the state religion, kicked off a campaign at the Bhadrakali temple in Kathmandu. As curious onlookers and soldiers patrolling the nearby army headquarters looked on, party members fervently blew into conch shells and rang bells to draw people’s attention to their demand.

The party, which is also seeking the restoration of monarchy, took some oblique shots at the Christian community as well.

“There is a deliberate and systematic attempt by organizations to convert Hindus,” said Kamal Thapa, party chief and a former minister. “These organizations are guided by foreign powers and foreign funds. If the widespread conversion of Hindus is not stopped immediately, we will have to take stern measures.”

Three days later, an umbrella of Hindu groups – the Rastriya Dharma Jagaran Mahasabha (the National Religion Resurrection Conference) held a massive gathering in the capital, declaring Nepal a “Hindu state” and meeting with no official objection. The proclamation came as the climax to a three-day public program calling for the restoration of “the traditional Hindu state.” Several Hindu preachers and scholars from neighboring India attended the program, held on the grounds of the Pashupatinath temple, which is also a UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site.

The “Hindu state” proclamation was the brainchild of Shankar Prasad Pandey, a former member of parliament from Nepali Congress, the second largest party in Nepal, now in opposition. Though Pandey was a sitting Member of Parliament in 2006, when the body unanimously declared Nepal secular, he began opposing the move soon afterwards, leading four campaigns against it nationwide.

“I consider the nation and the Hindu religion to be more important than the party,” said Pandey, known as the MP who began to go barefoot 32 years ago to show solidarity with Nepalese, who are among the poorest in the world. “Over 90 percent of the Nepalese want Nepal to be a Hindu state. However, the government is led by people whose only concern is power and money.”

Pandey’s campaign is supported by Hindu groups from India and the West: Narendranath Saraswati, who is the Shankaracharya or religious head of a prominent Hindu shrine in India’s Varanasi city; Dr. Tilak Chaitanya, chief of a group in the United Kingdom that propagates the Gita, the holy book of the Hindus; and Tahal Kishore, head of a Hindu organization, Radha Krishna Sevashram, in the United States.

Two weeks before the May 28 deadline for the new constitution, Pandey and his followers plan to step up the campaign for a “Hindu state” in the capital. Though Pandey denies it could stir up animosity between the majority-Hindus and Christians – whose minority population is said to have crossed 2 million but is actually only 850,801, according to Operation World – there are fears of religious tension if not outright violence.

The Hindu rallies continue to grow as a pressure tactic. Yesterday (April 18), members of Nepal Brahman Samaj, an organization of “upper castes” from whose echelons temple priests are appointed, fought with security forces in front of parliament house, demanding their rights be respected and an end to conversions.

More Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) campaigning is scheduled on April 29, when the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal’s Thapa has called for a mass gathering in the capital.  

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

Malaysian Christians Seek to End Restrictions on Malay Bibles


Federation calls for removal of ‘every impediment’ to importing and printing Scripture.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, April 6 (CDN) — Christian importers of Bibles that Malaysian officials detained are balking at conditions the government has imposed for their release, such as defacement of the sacred books with official stamps.

The Home Ministry stamped the words, “This Good News [Malay] Bible is for use by Christians only” on 5,100 Bibles without consulting the importer, the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM), which initially refused to collect them as it had neither accepted nor agreed to the conditions. The Home Ministry applied the stamp a day after the government on March 15 issued a release order for the Bibles, which had been detained in Port Klang, 38 kilometers (24 miles) southwest of Kuala Lumpur, since March 20, 2009.

Another 30,000 Bibles detained since Jan. 12 on the island of Borneo remain in port after the Sarawak state Home Ministry told the local chapter of Gideons International that it could collect them if the organization would put the stamp on them. Gideons has thus far declined to do so, and a spokesman said yesterday (April 5) that officials had already defaced the books with the stamp.

The government issued letters of release to both organizations on March 15 under the condition that the books bear the stamp, “Reminder: This Good News [Malay] Bible is for use by Christians only. By order of the Home Minister,” and that the covers must carry a serial number, the official seal of the department and a date.

The Home Ministry’s stamping of the BSM Bibles without the organization’s permission came under fire from the Christian community. In a statement issued on March 17, Bishop Ng Moon Hing, chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), described the Home Ministry’s action as desecration.

“[The] new conditions imposed on the release of the impounded Bibles … is wholly unacceptable to us,” he added.

Ng described the conditions imposed by the Home Ministry as tantamount to treating the Malay Bible as a “restricted item” and subjecting the word of God to the control of man. In response, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has said the act of stamping and serialization was standard protocol.

 

Government Overtures

In the weeks following the March 15 release order, the government made several attempts to try to appease the Christian community through Idris Jala, a Christian from Sarawak state and a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.

Idris issued the government’s first statement on March 22, explaining that officials had reduced earlier conditions imposed by the Home Ministry to require only the words, “For Christianity” to be stamped on the covers of the Bible in font type Arial, size 16, in bold.

Idris informed BSM that the Bibles could be collected in their present state or arrangements could be made to have stickers with the words “For Christianity” pasted over the imprint of the stamps made by the Home Ministry officials. In the event that this was not acceptable, the minister pointed out that BSM had the option of having the whole consignment replaced, since the government had received an offer from Christian donors who were prepared to bear the full cost of purchasing new Bibles.

In response, the CFM issued a statement on March 30 saying, “The offer made does address the substantive issues,” and called on the government “to remove every impediment, whether legal or administrative, to the importation, publication, distribution and use of the [Malay Bible] and indeed to protect and defend our right to use the [Malay Bible].”

Bishop Ng, however, left it to the two importers to decide whether to collect the Bibles based on their specific circumstances.

On March 31, BSM collected the mishandled Bibles “to prevent the possibility of further acts of desecration or disrespect.” In a press statement, BSM officials explained that the copies cannot be sold but “will be respectfully preserved as museum pieces and as a heritage for the Christian Church in Malaysia.” The organization also made it clear that it will only accept compensation from the Home Ministry and not from “Christian donors,” a term it viewed suspiciously.

On Saturday (April 2), Idris issued a 10-point statement to try to resolve the impasse. Significantly, this latest overture by the government included the lifting of present restrictions to allow for the local printing and importation of Malay and other indigenous-language Bibles into the country.

In Sarawak and Sabah, there would be no conditions attached to Bibles printed locally or imported. There also would be no prohibitions and restrictions on residents of these two states carrying such Bibles to other states. A significant 64 percent of Malaysian Christians are indigenous people from Sabah and Sarawak states who use the Malay language in their daily life, and having the Bible in the Malay language is considered critical to the practice of their Christian faith.

In the case of West Malaysia, however, in view of its larger Muslim population, the government imposed the condition that the Bibles must have the words “Christian publication” and the sign of the cross printed on the front covers.

 

Christian Response

Most Christians responded to this latest overture with caution. Many remained skeptical, seeing it as a politically motivated move in view of Sarawak state elections on April 16. Nearly half of Sarawak’s population is Christian.

Bolly Lapok, an Anglican priest, told the online news agency Malaysian Insider, “It’s an assurance, but we have been given such assurances before.” BSM General-Secretary the Rev. Simon Wong reportedly expressed the same sentiments, saying the Home Ministry already has a record of breaking its word.

The Rev. Thomas Phillips of the Mar Thoma Church, who is also president of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism, questioned the timing of the proposal: “Why, after all these years?”

The youth wing of the Council of Churches rejected the proposal outright, expressing fears that the government was trying to “buy them over” for the Sarawak election, and that it would go back on its word after that.

Bishop Paul Tan, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, called the proposal an “insidious tactic of ‘divide and rule,’” referring to its different requirements imposed on Malaysians separated by the South China Sea. Dr. Ng Kam Weng, research director at Kairos Research Centre, stressed that the proposal “does not address the root problem of the present crisis, i.e. the Allah issue.”

 

Muslim Reactions

The 10-point proposal has also drawn the ire of Muslim groups, who view it as the government caving in to Christian pressure.

Perak Mufti Harussani Zakaria expressed his disappointment, reportedly saying, “If the government does this, just cancel the law,” in reference to various state Islamic enactments that prohibit the use of the word “Allah” and other so-called Islamic terms that led to the banning of the Malay Bible. Malay Bibles have not been allowed to be printed locally for fear that they will utilize “prohibited” words.

The Muslim Organizations in Defense of Islam (Pembela) threatened to challenge the 10-point proposal in court if it was not reviewed in consultation with Muslim representatives.

On the same day Pembela issued its statement, the government seemed to have retracted its earlier commitment. The Home Minister reportedly said talks on the Malay Bibles were still ongoing despite Idris’ 10-point proposal, which purportedly represents the Cabinet’s decision.

As a result, James Redas Noel of the Gideons said yesterday (April 5) that he was confused by the mixed messages coming from the government and will not make a decision on whether to collect the Bibles until he had consulted church leaders on the matter, according to the Malaysian Insider.

The issue with the Malay Bibles is closely tied to the dispute over use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims.

In a controversial court ruling on Dec. 31, 2009, judge Lau Bee Lan had allowed The Herald, a Catholic newspaper, to use “Allah” for God in the Malay section of its multilingual newspaper.

The Home Ministry filed an appeal against this decision on Jan. 4, 2010. To date, there is no indication as to when the case will be heard.

Christians make up more than 9 percent of Malaysia’s nearly 28 million people, according to Operation World.

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