The Barnaby Joyce affair highlights Australia’s weak regulation of ministerial staffers

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Barnaby Joyce has denied he breached ministerial standards with the employment of his partner, Vikki Campion.
AAP/Mick Tsikas

Yee-Fui Ng, RMIT University

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce continues to face questions about the employment of his former media adviser – now current partner – Vicki Campion. Campion left Joyce’s office last year to take another ministerial adviser position with Resources Minister Matthew Canavan, and then with Nationals whip Damian Drum.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has claimed Joyce did not breach the Statement of Ministerial Standards regarding employment of spouses and family members as Campion was not his partner at the time of her appointment. Joyce has also denied he breached the ministerial rules.

Read more:
Labor moves in on the Barnaby Joyce affair

What is the role of ministerial staffers?

Ministerial advisers are politically partisan staff who are personally appointed by ministers to work out of their private offices.

These advisers have become an integral part of the political landscape in the last 40 years. The number of Commonwealth ministerial staff increased from 155 in 1972 to 423 in 2015.

The advisers undertake a wide range of functions. Tony Nutt, a former senior ministerial staffer, 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.

How do they fit in our system of government?

The modern Westminster ministerial advisory system is built on the 1853 Northcote-Trevelyan report in Britain.

In the 18th and early 19th century, it was difficult to be appointed to a UK government office unless you were an aristocrat with the right connections to a very small elite. The Northcote-Trevelyan report rejected appointment based on patronage. It argued this led to difficulties in getting a good supply of employees in the public service compared to other professions.

This report forms the basis of the Westminster public service today. Public servants are expected to be neutral and apolitical, and recruited and promoted on the basis of merit. The intention was very much to purge the system of patronage.

Ministerial advisers pose a challenge to the Westminster system as they are largely recruited on a partisan basis and are expected to be politically committed to the government of the day. This undermines the intentions of having ministerial advisers who are recruited on the basis of merit, rather than patronage.

How are ministerial staff appointed?

Australian ministerial advisers are employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act as ministers’ personal staff.

The employing minister determines the employment terms and conditions of ministerial advisers; the prime minister can vary these. The law is sparse and does not stipulate any precise requirements in terms of staff appointments.

In practice, the appointment of ministerial advisers is based on a party-political network of patronage. The primary consideration is loyalty to the political party – not merit.

There have been notorious instances of the appointment of unsuitable staff. These include then deputy prime minister Jim Cairns’ appointment of his mistress, Junie Morosi, as his principal private secretary (although she was considered spectacularly unqualified for her position).

Read more:
Grattan on Friday: Is Barnaby’s baby a matter of ‘public interest’ or just of interest to the public?

Some prime ministers have instituted a centralised process to reduce the appointment of unsuitable candidates. However, my research has shown that some senior ministers are able to circumvent such a process due to their position within the party.

Also, these processes primarily seek to filter candidates based on political danger – rather than on merit considerations.

Is there a breach of the rules in Joyce’s case?

Turnbull’s Statement of Ministerial Standards provides that ministers’ close relatives and partners are banned from being appointed to positions in their ministerial or electorate offices. They also must not be employed in the offices of other members of the executive government without the prime minister’s express approval.

Joyce and Campion claim their relationship started after her appointment – so the government has argued this clause does not apply.

However, the ministerial standards also specify that ministers must declare any private interests held by them or members of their immediate family. And under the Statement of Standards for Ministerial Staff, ministerial advisers have to disclose – and take reasonable steps to avoid – any real or apparent conflicts of interest connected with their employment. Staff are required to provide their employing minister and the special minister of state with a statement of private interests.

Therefore, the relationship between Joyce and Campion should have been disclosed when it arose, as there might have been an apparent conflict of interest connected with Joyce’s ministerial position. It is then up to the prime minister to decide what is to happen following this.

But both the standards for ministers and for their advisers are not legislated. They are not enforceable in the courts or in parliament. Enforcement is handled completely within the executive, which has an incentive to bury embarrassing material wherever possible.

This means any breaches of the standards by ministers and their advisers would be handled behind closed doors, without any formal scrutiny by parliament or any external bodies.

The enforcement of ministerial and adviser standards has been patchy. Whether a minister resigns depends on the prime minister of the day and if there is media furore and public outrage over an issue.

Are the rules too lax?

The legislation governing the employment of advisers is sparse and limited to affirming ministers’ powers to employ their advisers. Beyond this, there is no legislative requirement for ministerial advisers to adhere to certain behavioural rules.

The weak appointment rules have allowed Campion to be shuffled around different offices without a formal appointment process.

Other Westminster countries have stricter restrictions on the employment of advisers, either through a cap on the number of advisers (as in the UK) or a cap on the total budget for advisers (as in Canada).

The UK has a cap of two advisers per minister. Australia has no such limits.

Australia has the weakest regulation of ministerial staff when compared to other similar Westminster democracies. Other countries have stricter regulations that both restrict the actions of advisers and increase transparency.

The ConversationAustralian ministerial staff are now very important players in our democracy, but ministers and advisers are weakly regulated within our system. The law has lagged behind, but now is the time for reform.

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

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


George Brandis suggests Joyce and Nash didn’t really make their ministerial decisions

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Labor says decisions made by Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash are open to legal challenge but Attorney-General George Brandis suggests the two former ministers were not the ones who actually made them.

Joyce and Nash were disqualified from parliament by the High Court on Friday for having been dual citizens when elected.

The opposition says at least 20 executive decisions and 47 ministerial announcements made by Joyce could be open to challenge.

These include the controversial decision to relocate the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to Armidale in his New England electorate, various grants and appointments, and any decisions under the Water Act, where he had power to determine claims for payment to water access entitlement holders.

The list comes from a paper Labor sought from the Parliamentary Library on the ministerial decision-making powers exercised by Joyce and Nash, and specific important decisions they made.

Joyce had ministerial responsibility for agriculture and water resources. Nash was minister for regional development and regional communications.

The opposition says at least eight executive decisions and 43 ministerial announcements made by Nash could be subject to challenge. These included elements of each of the regional NBN rollout, the mobile blackspots program and the rural decentralisation program, as well as grants under the Building Better Regions Fund.

Labor has as well released updated advice from senior silks Matt Albert QC and Matt Collins QC about the legal status of decisions made by the former ministers.

The Constitution allows a minister to hold office for three months while not being a member of parliament.

The legal advice says that any decision made by Joyce or Nash after three months had lapsed from their appointment as ministers was open to challenge.

“Any decisions made by Joyce and Nash, purportedly in their capacity as a minister, on and after October 20, 2016, are open to challenge.

“The likelihood of proceedings being brought to challenge such decisions is high, having regard to the significance and seniority of their relevant portfolios,” the advice says.

Brandis said the government was looking very carefully at the question of the validity of the former ministers’ decisions. But “I doubt that there are many if any decisions that would be relevant in any event”, he said on Sky.

“Most decisions that ministers make are in fact made by the cabinet on the recommendation of ministers. Appointments are made by the governor-general or the federal executive council on the recommendation of ministers. So I think you will find that there is no legal consequences here at all.”

Tony Burke, manager of opposition business, told the ABC there would be “vested interests” with an interest in challenging decisions of Joyce.

“When you’re in charge of Australia’s quarantine service, there’s importers and exporters who make or lose money depending on decisions you make.

“There’ll be a series of decisions there with vested interests now combing through, and there being a whole lot of legal doubt over those decisions on the simple basis that Barnaby Joyce didn’t do what Matt Canavan did,” Burke said.

“Matt Canavan turned out to have been legally in parliament. But at least he took the precaution to step aside so that there was no risk to there being illegitimacy to his decisions.

“Barnaby Joyce and Malcolm Turnbull decided, oh no, nothing to see here, let’s just ignore the last 25 years of how the High Court ruled on this and pretend that it’s all going to be different this time.”

The ConversationBurke said there was a reason why the government had not revealed the solicitor-general’s advice. “I don’t believe for a minute it was as strong as they were claiming,” he said.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

If High Court decides against ministers with dual citizenship, could their decisions in office be challenged?

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It’d be better for ministers like Barnaby Joyce to have any potentially contentious decisions made by an acting minister until their citizenship issues are resolved.
AAP/Mick Tsikas

Anne Twomey, University of Sydney

What would happen if the High Court found that ministers Barnaby Joyce, Fiona Nash and Matthew Canavan had not been validly elected at the last federal election in July 2016?

In the case of the senators (Nash and Canavan), the High Court, sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns, would most likely order a special recount of the votes, as it did in relation to senators Bob Day and Rod Culleton, with the seat then most likely going to the next person on the Coalition ticket.

This may disrupt the balance between the National Party and the Liberal Party in the Senate, as those most likely to replace the two National Party senators would be from the Liberal Party.

Joyce’s seat, being in the lower house, would most likely go to a byelection, as previously occurred in the cases of Jackie Kelly and Phil Cleary. Like Kelly and Cleary, Joyce could stand for his seat at the byelection, as he has now renounced his New Zealand citizenship.

A bigger question arises, however, as to the validity of decisions that they made as ministers since the last election. If they were not validly elected in July 2016, then Section 64 of the Constitution becomes relevant. It says:

… no minister of state shall hold office for a longer period than three months unless he is or becomes a senator or a member of the House of Representatives.

That three months ran out a long time ago. So, for a considerable time they would have been exercising powers conferred upon ministers by statute, without actually being ministers. Were those decisions valid? Could they be challenged?

This brings into play the “de-facto officer” doctrine. This is a common law doctrine that protects people who rely on acts done in the apparent execution of their office by an officer who appears to be “clothed with official authority”, even though they may not validly hold that office.

It is not aimed at protecting those who invalidly exercise power, but rather those who rely in good faith on the apparent authority of those who publicly exercise power. The doctrine is also relied on to give certainty concerning the validity of acts of persons whose appointment or election may later be challenged.

The public policy behind the doctrine is to avoid the chaos that would ensue if decisions of public officials were automatically rendered invalid because of a later discovered defect in their election or appointment. For example, the decisions of a Western Australian magistrate were upheld, even though they were taken after she had reached the compulsory age for retirement.

The application of the doctrine, however, is uncertain. It does not necessarily apply to all decisions of an invalidly appointed officer, and therefore is likely to lead to litigation if decisions are contentious.

Its application has also been doubted in relation to matters that concern a breach of the Constitution. For example, High Court Justice Michael Kirby observed in a 2006 case about the constitutional validity of acting judges that:

It is difficult to reconcile the [de facto officer] doctrine with the fundamental role of the federal Constitution as the ultimate source of other laws. Constitutional rulings can occasionally be unsettling, at least for a period. However, this is inherent in the arrangements of a nation that lives by the rule of law and accords a special status to the federal Constitution as its fundamental law.

Moreover, the doctrine ceases to protect the actions of the purported official at the point when they lose the cloak of authority, such as when the validity of their appointment is contested, or their lack of qualification to hold office is “notorious”.

It is quite possible that point arises when, in the case of a Commonwealth minister, they admit to being a dual national and refer to the High Court the question of their qualification to sit in the parliament, especially if the invalidity to hold parliamentary office exceeds three months.

For this reason, it would be prudent for those ministers who are currently under a cloud concerning their lawful occupation of office to cease to make decisions which are contentious or might give rise to legal challenges with significant consequences.

The ConversationInstead, such actions, if they need to be taken before the question of the status of these ministers is resolved by the High Court, could be taken by acting ministers to ensure their validity and avoid the financial and social costs of further litigation and uncertainty.

Anne Twomey, Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Sydney

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

Scotland: Accepts Ministers in Same-Sex Civil Partnerships

The link below is to an article that reports on another denomination of the church moving further away from biblical norms.

For more visit:

One Dead as Islamist Mobs in Ethiopia Destroy Church Buildings

Total structures razed at 59; at least 4,000 Christians displaced.

NAIROBI, Kenya, March 7 (CDN) — At least one Christian was killed and others injured when thousands of Islamic extremists set fire to 59 churches and at least 28 homes in western Ethiopia in the past five days, Christian leaders said.

More than 4,000 Christians in and around Asendabo, Jimma Zone have been displaced as a result of attacks that began on Wednesday (March 2) after Muslims accused a Christian of desecrating the Quran by tearing up a copy, sources said.

“The atrocity is still going on, and more people are suffering,” said a source in Addis Ababa who is in close contact with area church leaders.

The Christian killed, believed to have been a member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, has not yet been identified.

“One Orthodox believer, whose daughter is a member of Mekane Yesus Church, has been killed,” an Ethiopian church leader told Compass. “Ministers were injured, and many more believers have been displaced.”

A pastor based in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa noted that evangelical church leaders have reported the attacks to authorities and asked officials for help, but no action had been taken at press time.

“The church requested more police protection,” he said. “The authorities sent security forces, but they were overwhelmed by the attackers.”

After the destruction began at Asendabo, it spread to Chiltie, Gilgel Gibe, Gibe, Nada, Dimtu, Uragay, Busa and Koticha, as Muslim mobs in the thousands rampaged throughout the area, sources said.

“Police at the site are not taking any action – they just watch what is happening,” said another source. “It is difficult to estimate the attack in terms of deaths, since we have no access to any location.”

Those displaced are in shelters in Ako, Jimma, Dimtu and Derbo, he said.

“We are very concerned that the attack that began on March 2 in Asendabo, which is the rural part of Jimma, is now heading to Jimma town,” he said.

The extremists also destroyed an Ethiopian Kale Hiwot Church (EKHC) Bible school building and two church office buildings, the source said. Of the churches burned, he said, 38 belonged to the EKHC; 12 were Mekane Yesus buildings; six were Seventh-day Adventist structures; two were Muluwongel church buildings, and another belonged to a “Jesus Only” congregation.

“Women and children are the most affected in this sudden attack,” he said. “It is needless to mention the believers’ houses and properties burned down. The overall estimated cost, may be worth over 60 million birr [US$3.55 million].”

Anti-Christian attacks in western Ethiopia in 2006 killed at least 24 people.

“Attacks on the church have been a common occurrence in predominantly Muslim areas of Ethiopia like Jimma and Jijiga,” the source said, adding that Christians are often subject to harassment and intimidation.

Asendabo, in Oromia Region, is about 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Addis Ababa.

The attacks erupted as heavy fighting was taking place at the borders of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. Ethiopian troops were trying to repel Islamic extremist al-Shabaab troops from Bulahawo, Somalia, near Mandera, Kenya, with several casualties and hundreds displaced.

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

According to the 2007 census, 44 percent of Ethiopia’s population affiliate with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, 19 percent are evangelical and Pentecostal and 34 percent are Sunni Muslim.

Report from Compass Direct News

Tensions High after Christians Killed in Bombings

Islamic extremist Boko Haram sect attacks churches in Borno, Plateau states.

LAGOS, Nigeria, December 28 (CDN) — Tensions continued to mount in the Christian community in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state in northern Nigeria, following the killing of a Baptist pastor and five other Christians on Christmas Eve.

The Rev. Bulus Marwa and the other Christians were killed in the Dec. 24 attacks on Victory Baptist Church in Alemderi and a Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN) congregation in Sinimari by the outlawed Islamic Boko Haram sect opposed to Western education.

Those killed at the Baptist church, which was set ablaze, included choir members Philip Luka, 22, and Paul Mathew, 21, as well as 50-year-old Christopher Balami and Yohana Adamu. Philip Sopso, a 60-year-old a security guard, was killed at the COCIN church while 25 other persons were said to have been injured during the serial attacks by the Islamic group.

“It is sad that when Christians were supposed to be celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, some people, out of wickedness, would come to perpetrate such evil,” said Borno State Chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria the Rev. Yuguda Ndirmva.

The Boko Haram members reportedly first stormed the COCIN church in two vehicles and detonated bombs that shattered the gate of the worship center and killed the security guard.

Many Christians have taken refuge to avoid further attacks as soldiers and police keep watch at churches and other strategic locations in the state.

Danjuma Akawu, who survived the attack on the Baptist church, said “they hacked the two choir members using knives and petrol bomb before heading to the pastor’s residence, where he was killed.”

Borno Gov. Ali Modu Sheriff said he had alerted police to the possibility of an attack on churches during Christmas.

“It is very unfortunate and sad for the Christian community to be attacked and people killed without any genuine cause,” Sheriff said.

Speaking during a visit to the Baptist church on Saturday (Dec. 25), the governor noted that the attack on the Christian community was an attempt by Boko Haram to create conflict between Christians and Muslims in the state. Several Boko Haram bomb blasts in Christian areas of Jos on Dec. 24 that killed scores of people were said to be an attempt to create the same inter-religious conflict.

Borno state, in northeastern Nigeria, is largely populated by Muslims who have disowned some activities of Boko Haram as contrary to Islam.

Police Commissioner Mohammed Abubakar admitted a security lapse on the part of his divisional police officers, whom he said had been told to watch out for Boko Haram members.

The activities of the Islamic extremist Boko Haram, whose names means “Western education is sin,” were crushed by police in 2009 with the arrest of many of its members and the killing of its leader.

In retaliation, the group had killed policemen and was recently responsible for a prison break to set free its members in the Borno state capital.

Worried about the safety of Christians in Borno state, the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, asked the federal government to curb the growing trend of terrorism in parts of the country.

“We can no longer allow this group of disgruntled elements to get away with these acts of terrorism in Nigeria,” he said.

The general superintendent of Deeper Life Bible Church, Pastor William Kumuyi, demanded the arrest and prosecution of the Boko Haram members and others to serve as a deterrent.

“A situation in which feuds easily lead to the burning of churches and the endless killings of church ministers and innocent citizens is an abhorrent trend which must not be allowed to continue,” Pastor Kumuyi said. “The initiative rests on the doorsteps of the security agencies to bring this unfortunate trend to an end.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Iraqis Mourn Victims of Massive Attack on Church

Islamic extremist assault, security force operation leave at least 58 dead.

ISTANBUL, November 2 (CDN) — Amid questions about lax security, mourners gathered in Iraq today to bury the victims of Sunday’s (Oct. 31) Islamic extremist assault on a Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad, one of the bloodiest attacks on the country’s dwindling Christian community.

Seven or eight Islamic militants stormed into Our Lady of Salvation church during evening mass after detonating bombs in the neighborhood, gunning down two policemen at the stock exchange across the street, and blowing up their own car, according to The Associated Press (AP). More than 100 people were reportedly attending mass.

A militant organization called the Islamic State of Iraq, which has links to al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, claimed responsibility for the attack. The militants sprayed the sanctuary with bullets and ordered a priest to call the Vatican to demand the release of Muslim women whom they claimed were held hostage by the Coptic Church in Egypt, according to the AP. The militants also reportedly demanded the release of al Qaeda prisoners.

“It appears to be a well-planned and strategic attack aiming at the church,” said a local source for ministry organization Open Doors.

About four hours after the siege, Iraqi security forces launched an assault on the church building, and the Islamic assailants blew themselves up. It was unclear how many of the 58 people dead had been killed by Iraqi security personnel, but the militants reportedly began killing hostages when the security force assault began. All who did not die from gunshots and blasts were wounded.

The dead included 12 policemen, three priests and five bystanders from the car bombing and other blasts outside the church. The Open Doors source reported that the priests killed were the Rev. Saad Abdal Tha’ir, the Rev. Waseem Tabeeh and the Rev. Raphael Qatin, with the latter not succumbing until he had been taken to a hospital.

Bishop Georges Casmoussa told Compass that today Iraqi Christians not only mourned lost brothers and sisters but were tempted to lose hope.

“It’s a personal loss and a Christian loss,” said Casmoussa. “It’s not just people they kill. They also kill hope. We want to look at the future. They want to kill the Christian presence here, where we have so much history.”

Casmoussa, who knew the priests who died, said that this attack will surely drive more Christians away from the country or to Kurdish administrated northern Iraq.

“Those who are wounded know that it is by the grace of God they are alive, but some of them don’t know exactly what happened,” said Casmoussa. “There is one hurt man who doesn’t know if his son is still alive. This is the drama. There are families that lost two and three members. Do I have the right to tell them to not leave?”

The attack was the deadliest one against the country’s Christians since Islamic extremists began targeting them in 2003.

“It was the hardest hit against the Christians in Iraq,” said Casmoussa, noting that no single act of violence had led to more casualties among Christians. “We never had such an attack against a church or Christian community.”

Memorials were held today in Baghdad, Mosul and surrounding towns, said Casmoussa, who attended the funeral of 13 deceased Christians including the dead priests.

“At the funeral there was the Shiite leader, the official spokesperson of the government ministers,” Casmoussa said. “All the discussion was flippant – ‘We are with you, we are all suffering,’ etcetera, but we have demanded a serious investigation. We can’t count on good words anymore. It’s all air. We’ve heard enough.”

The Rev. Emanuel Youkhana of the Church of the East told Compass that Iraqi Christians have been systematically driven out over the last five years. He said this attack came as no surprise to him.

“I’m not surprised, in that this is not the first time,” said Youkhana. “In the last five years, there has been a systematic terrorist campaign to kick out the Christians from the country. [They are saying] you are not accepted in this country. Christians should leave this country.”

Youkhana said that in the same way that the Jewish community has disappeared from Iraq, the Iraqi Christians, or Medians as they are called, “are in their last stage of existence” in Iraq.

The Iraqi government is to blame due to its lax security measures, Youkhana said.

“I’m ashamed of the minister of defense, who came on TV and said it was a successful and professional operation – 50 percent of the [congregation] was massacred,” said Youkhana of the assault on the Islamic terrorists by Iraqi security forces.

He said that in order for Christians to have any hope of staying in Iraq, the government must come up with a political solution and set up an independent administrative area, like that of the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq.

“Just now I was watching on TV the coverage of the funeral,” Youkhana said. “All the politicians are there to condemn the act. So what? Is the condemnation enough to give confidence to the people? No!”

It is estimated that more than 50 percent of Iraq’s Christian community has fled the country since 2003. There are nearly 600,000 Christians left in Iraq.

“More people will leave, and this is the intention of the terrorists: to claim Iraq as a pure Islamic state,” said Youkhana. “Our people are so peaceful and weak; they cannot confront the terrorists. So they are fleeing out of the country and to the north. This is why we say there should be political recognition.”

Five suspects were arrested in connection with the attack – some of them were not Iraqi, and today an Iraqi police commander was detained for questioning in connection to the attack, according to the AP.

“We can’t make political demands,” said Casmoussa. “We are making a civic and humanitarian demand: That we can live in peace.”

Following the funerals today, a series of at least 13 bombings and mortar strikes in predominantly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad reportedly killed 76 people and wounded nearly 200.

Report from Compass Direct News

New Threats, Old Enmity Pummel Nepal’s Christians

Armed group that forced over 1,500 government officials to quit now threatens pastors.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, September 16 (CDN) — A year after police busted an underground militant Hindu organization that had bombed a church and two mosques, Nepal’s Christians are facing new threats.

An underground group that speaks with bombs and has coerced hundreds of government officials into quitting their jobs is threatening Christian clergy with violence if they do not give in to extortion demands, Christian leader said.

The Nepal Christian Society (NCS), an umbrella group of denominations, churches and organizations, met in the Kathmandu Valley yesterday (Sept. 15) to discuss dangers amid reports of pastors receiving phone calls and letters from the Unified National Liberation Front (Samyukta Jatiya Mukti Morcha), an armed group demanding money and making threats. The group has threatened Christian leaders in eastern and western Nepal, as well as in the Kathmandu Valley.

“The pastors who received the extortion calls do not want to go public for fear of retaliation,” said Lok Mani Dhakal, general secretary of the NCS. “We decided to wait and watch a little longer before approaching police.”

The Front is among nearly three dozen armed groups that mushroomed after the fall of the military-backed government of the former king of Nepal, Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah, in 2006. It became a household name in July after 34 senior government officials – designated secretaries of village development committees – resigned en masse, pleading lack of security following threats by the Front.

Ironically, the resignations occurred in Rolpa, a district in western Nepal regarded as the cradle of the communist uprising in 1996 that led to Nepal becoming a secular federal republic after 10 years of civil war.

Nearly 1,500 government officials from 27 districts have resigned after receiving threats from the Front. Despite its apparent clout, it remains a shadowy body with little public knowledge about its leaders and objectives. Though initially active in southern Nepal, the group struck in the capital city of Kathmandu on Saturday (Sept. 11), bombing a carpet factory.

The emergence of the new underground threat comes a year after police arrested Ram Prasad Mainali, whose Nepal Defense Army had planted a bomb in a church in Kathmandu, killing three women during a Roman Catholic mass.

Christians’ relief at Mainali’s arrest was short-lived. Besides facing threats from a new group, the community has endured longstanding animosity from the years when Nepal was a Hindu state; the anti-Christian sentiment refuses to die four years after Parliament declared the nation secular.

When conversions were a punishable offense in Nepal 13 years ago, Ishwor Pudasaini had to leave his home in Giling village, Nuwakot district, because he became a Christian. Pudasaini, now a pastor in a Protestant church, said he still cannot return to his village because of persecution that has increased with time.

“We are mentally tortured,” the 32-year-old pastor told Compass. “My mother is old and refuses to leave the village, so I have to visit her from time to time to see if she is all right. Also, we have some arable land, and during monsoon season it is imperative that I farm it. But I go in dread.”

Pudasaini, who pastors Assembly of God Church, said that when he runs into his neighbors, they revile him and make threatening gestures. His family is not allowed to enter any public place, and he is afraid to spend nights in his old home for fear of being attacked. A new attack occurred in a recent monsoon, when villagers disconnected the family’s water pipes.

“Things reached such a head this time that I was forced to go to the media and make my plight public,” he says.

Pudasaini, his wife Laxmi and their two children have been living in the district headquarters, Bidur town. His brother Ram Prasad, 29, was thrown out of a local village’s reforms committee for becoming a Christian. Another relative in the same village, Bharat Pudasaini, lost his job and was forced to migrate to a different district.

“Bharat Pudasaini was a worker at Mulpani Primary School,” says Pudasaini. “The school sacked him for embracing Christianity, and the villagers forced his family to leave the village. Even four years after Nepal became officially secular, he is not allowed to return to his village and sell his house and land, which he wants to, desperately. He has four children to look after, and the displacement is virtually driving the family to starvation.”

Since Bidur, where the administrative machinery is concentrated, is safe from attacks, Pudasani said it is becoming a center for displaced Christians.

“There are dozens of persecuted Christians seeking shelter here,” he said.

One such displaced person was Kamla Kunwar, a woman in her 30s whose faith prompted her husband to severely beat her and throw her out of their home in Dhading district in central Nepal. She would eventually move in with relatives in Nuwakot.

Pudasaini said he chose not to complain of his mistreatment, either to the district administration or to police, because he does not want to encourage enmity in the village.

“My religion teaches me to turn the other cheek and love my enemies,” he said. “I would like to make the village come to Christ. For that I have to be patient.”

Dozens of villages scattered throughout Nepal remain inimical to Christians. In May, five Christians, including two women, were brutally attacked in Chanauta, a remote village in Kapilavastu district where the majority are ethnic Tharus.

Once an affluent people, the Tharus were displaced by migrating hordes from the hills of Nepal, as well as from India across the border, and forced into slavery. Today, they are considered to be “untouchables” despite an official ban on that customary practice of abuse and discrimination. In the villages, Tharus are not allowed to enter temples or draw water from the sources used by other villagers.

Tharus, like other disadvantaged communities, have been turning to Christianity. Recently five Tharu Christians, including a pastor and two evangelists, were asked to help construct a Hindu temple. Though they did, the five refused to eat the meat of a goat that villagers sacrificed before idols at the new temple.

Because of their refusal, the temple crowd beat them. Two women – Prema Chaudhary, 34, and Mahima Chaudhary, 22 – were as badly thrashed as Pastor Simon Chaudhari, 30, and two evangelists, Samuel Chaudhari, 19, and Prem Chaudhari, 22.

In June, a mob attacked Sher Bahadur Pun, a 68-year-old Nepali who had served with the Indian Army, and his son, Akka Bahadur, at their church service in Myagdi district in western Nepal. Pun suffered two fractured ribs.

The attack occurred after the Hindu-majority village decided to build a temple. All villagers were ordered to donate 7,000 rupees (US$93), a princely sum in Nepal’s villages, and the Christians were not spared. While the Puns paid up, they refused to worship in the temple. Retaliation was swift.

The vulnerability of Christians has escalated following an administrative vacuum that has seen violence and crime soar. Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, who had been instrumental in the church bombers’ arrest, resigned in June due to pressure by the opposition Maoist party. Since then, though there have been seven rounds of elections in Parliament to choose a new premier, none of the two contenders has been able to win the minimum votes required thanks to bitter infighting between the major parties.

An eighth round of elections is scheduled for Sept. 26, and if that too fails, Nepal will have lost four of the 12 months given to the 601-member Parliament to write a new constitution.

“It is shameful,” said Believers Church Bishop Narayan Sharma. “It shows that Nepal is on the way to becoming a failed state. There is acute pessimism that the warring parties will not be able to draft a new constitution [that would consolidate secularism] by May 2011.”

Sharma said there is also concern about a reshuffle in the largest ruling party, the Nepali Congress (NC), set to elect new officers at its general convention starting Friday (Sept. 17). Some former NC ministers and members of Parliament have been lobbying for the restoration of a Hindu state in Nepal; their election would be a setback for secularism.

“We have been holding prayers for the country,” Sharma said. “It is a grim scene today. There is an economic crisis, and Nepal’s youths are fleeing abroad. Women job-seekers abroad are increasingly being molested and tortured. Even the Maoists, who fought for secularism, are now considering creating a cultural king. We are praying that the political deadlock will be resolved, and that peace and stability return to Nepal.”

Report from Compass Direct News