On Anzac Day, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull commemorated the centenary of the battle at Villers-Brettoneux, where Australian soldiers defended against the German spring offensive of 1918. The opening of the Sir John Monash Centre honoured the celebrated commander of the Australian Corps in France at the tail end of the first world war.
So you would be forgiven if it appeared the Australian Defence Force was still orientated towards all things European. Indeed, in recent times, Australian forces have fought alongside many of those with whom we will commemorate the events at the Monash centre. France, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, among others, have been close partners in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq for the past two decades.
But the geostrategic context Australia faces in 2018 has changed markedly since 1918, let alone 2001, when Australian forces were committed into action in Afghanistan in the so-called global war on terror.
Australia increasingly is having to engage closely not just with close and trusted partners but with its own neighbours.
A new defence chief, major challenges
The current Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell was announced last week as the next Chief of Defence Force. Campbell has vast experience in military operations, including as a commander with the United Nations in East Timor and commander of Australian forces on operations in the Middle East.
His time as the senior officer running Operation Sovereign Borders earned him some controversy for efficiently and effectively implementing the government’s “stop the boats” policy.
But the experience helped reinforce to him the significance of Australia’s relations with its immediate neighbours, most notably Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Campbell understands that operations far away tend to be ones of choice, while those closer to shore potentially present greater challenges for the nation.
The challenges ahead
Later this year, the ADF will assist with the APEC Forum in Port Moresby. Elements of the army, navy and air force will be assigned to provide critical security and other support for the smooth running of the forum, and to counter any potential crisis.
Beyond that, the Bougainville referendum is expected to be held in 2019. This was a date set 20 years ago, picked as a means to defuse tensions and postpone the inevitable question of autonomy or independence for the people of Bougainville. It is a particularly sensitive issue for Papua New Guinea, and managing bilateral relations over this could prove problematic.
In the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia, concerns about regional terrorist initiatives and a possible repeat of the circumstances that led to the battle of Marawi have prompted the ADF to look to engage more closely with counterparts in the armed forces of Australia’s neighbours.
Defence Cooperation Program activities are on the increase. These include partner exercises, training programs, ship visits, exchanges and various educational and training forums.
Across the Pacific, the prospect of human-generated or other environmental crises or disasters will continue to demand close attention from the ADF and Australian aid agencies.
Beyond such environmental challenges, the prospect of increased power contestation is focusing the minds of security policymakers on the importance of bolstering ties in places like Vanuatu, Tonga and Fiji. Partly in response, the Pacific patrol boat program is being revamped. Australia is supplying a fleet of new patrol boats with associated training, logistics and other related support included.
The “Pacific Quad” also is emerging as a significant and growing force. This grouping includes French forces in New Caledonia, working on occasion alongside US, New Zealand and Australian forces, in anticipation of growing environmental and other security challenges where cooperation will be vital.
Another “Quad”, involving Australia, the United States, Japan and India, will likely attract attention as well. It may emerge as a significant body in shaping how to respond to the dramatic, rapid and unprecedented build-up of Chinese military force projection capabilities. This build-up includes modernised and expanded navies, air forces and human-constructed islands.
The spectrum of non-traditional and conventional security concerns in and around the Indo-Pacific suggests Campbell’s focus will be on managing relations with counterparts in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. At the same time, Australia’s legacy of involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan means that an enduring but carefully calibrated military footprint can be expected in both those countries.
Meanwhile, key challenges will revolve around managing security concerns in Papua New Guinea, terrorism-related concerns in Southeast Asia, a potential unravelling on the Korean Peninsula and contestation in the East and South China Seas. There will also be the seasonal, expected, but still devastating natural disasters in the Pacific.
With so much of concern nearby, a substantial military commitment alongside allies in Syria is unlikely. A peacekeeping force contribution is possible, though, if a political solution is ever reached.
Ties with the United States can be expected to remain wide, deep, intimate, strong and enduring. Indeed, while not willing to say so publicly, most of Australia’s neighbours remain uneasy about China’s military assertiveness and look to Australia to remain closely engaged with the United States.
Despite the tweets emanating from the White House, insiders in Canberra see a significant and enduring overlap of interests and concerns with Washington. That is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, and Angus Campbell knows this well.
Christmas could be cancelled by a bill being put forward by the Labour government, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales have said, reports Hilary White, LifeSiteNews.com.
In a letter to MPs, Monsignor Andrew Summersgill, general secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said that Harriet Harmon’s Equality Bill will have a "chilling effect" on local councils, town halls and other organizations clamping down on Christmas festivities for fear of offending people of other religions.
The Equality Bill combines all previous equality legislation in the U.K., and includes a range of new provisions.
"Under existing legislation," Summersgill wrote, "we have seen the development of a risk-averse culture with outcomes as ridiculous as reports of a local authority instructing tenants to take down Christmas lights in case they might offend Muslim neighbours, or of authorities removing the word Christmas out of cultural sensitivity to everyone except Christians.
"If this bill is serious about equality, everything possible must be done to avoid it having a chilling effect on religious expression and practice."
The Christian Institute, Britain’s leading Christian political lobby group, has listed incidents where public displays of Christianity at Christmas have already come under attack. Councils around Britain are removing all references to the name "Christmas" from their 2009 events. Birmingham City Council has changed the name of this year’s light-switching-on event to the generic "Winterval." Last November an attempt by Oxford City Council to drop Christmas from the title of the city’s celebrations was condemned by both residents and religious leaders.
The Christian Institute complained about the bill, saying that councils "are already over-zealous in applying equality laws." The bill, they said, "will make this worse."
In fact, some of the Labour government’s closest advisors have already urged it to abolish public displays of a Christian origin at Christmas. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), which has shaped many Labour party policies, said in 2007 that Christmas "should be downgraded to help race relations."
The equality legislation leads only to the law favoring aggrieved minority lobby groups over the existing Christian culture, the Christian Institute says. The group pointed to the closure and forced secularization of several of Britain’s Catholic adoption agencies under similar legislation, the Sexual Orientation Regulations (SORs) of the 2007 Equality Act.
Under the SORs, they said, "the rights of children have been trumped by the rights of homosexual adults. Any agency which refuses to do homosexual adoptions becomes a target for closure."
Report from the Christian Telegraph
First, the silver lining: people of faith in the United States are better citizens and better neighbours, and America is “amazingly” religious compared to other countries, says Harvard University professor Robert Putnam, reports Ecumenical News International. Now, the cloud: young Americans are “vastly more secular” than their older counterparts, according to Putnam.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
A Blog site called ‘Fush ‘n’ Chups – a guide for Australians to living and working in New Zealand,’ has been copping a fair bit of criticism of late. The controversy over the site has also appeared in newspapers, including this morning’s ‘Daily Telegraph’ in Sydney, Australia.
The site’s resident Blogger likes to have a bit of a dig at our Kiwi (New Zealand) neighbours, which appears to be typical of Australian tongue in cheek humour. However, the New Zealanders have been getting a little hot under the collar and have been posting a number of aggressive responses in their comments on the Blog and its various posts. The owner of the site believes that New Zealanders need to develop a sense of humour.
Perhaps he is right. Visit the site at:
Couple’s grown sons expel them after neighbors threaten to ostracize grandchildren.
DHAKA, Bangladesh, January 14 (Compass Direct News) – Muslims in a village in western Bangladesh have forced two brothers to expel their parents from their home for converting to Christianity.
Ishmael Sheikh, 70, and his wife Rahima Khatun, 55, were baptized on Nov. 9. By the end of the month, Sheikh told Compass, Muslim neighbors in Kathuly village, near Gangni town in Meherpur district, had compelled their two sons to expel them from their house. Meherpur district is 270 kilometers (168 miles) west of Dhaka.
The ailing Sheikh told Compass that his two sons had come under tremendous pressure from neighbors in the village, which was entirely Muslim before the coupled received Christ. The neighbors threatened that the children of Sheikh’s sons would not be allowed to marry anyone from the village if the brothers allowed their parents to remain in the home.
“My sons are afraid that if we go back to home, their sons and daughters will not be married off in the Muslim society,” Sheikh said. “We are the first converted Christians in this village. Neighbors told my sons, ‘Why should your parents live in this village? They do not have right to live here because they are no longer Muslims.’”
The couple went to a shelter used by itinerant minstrels who sing traditional Bengali songs a half kilometer away from their home.
“I got salvation in Jesus,” Sheikh said. “In this shelter without food, I am ready to flirt with death by debilitating illness or by attack by Muslim neighbors, but never will I go back to Islam.”
The couple’s pastor, Jhontu Biswas, has met with their sons several times, most recently on Thursday (Jan. 8), to request that they take their parents back into their home. The sons would like to take them back but cannot because of the pressure from the Muslims, he said.
“Villagers put pressure on Sheikh’s sons that if they take back their newly converted Christian parents in home, their daughters will not be married off in the society,” said Biswas. “His younger son is trying to marry off his daughter who is not mature enough to get married. They are looking for a groom. He cannot take back his parents in the house until his daughter gets married.”
None of Biswas’ own relatives are Christians, and he said none of them are allowed to form any relationship with anyone in the Muslim society. Biswas said that Sheikh is ill and can do nothing but beg for his survival.
“He took shelter in the shelter, and believers in this area give him food,” said Biswas. “How long they will stay here is quite uncertain. Local believers are also very poor, and most of them are day laborers who live on the bread line. So how long will they provide food to him? Both of them are becoming ill day by day for lack of food.”
Framed as Terrorist
In Shoilbari village, five kilometers (three miles) away, a Christian convert from Islam told Compass that an elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) force comprising army, police, navy and air force detained him on Nov. 24 after finding bombs and other weapons behind his house that Muslim neighbors had placed there.
“In the evening around 15 to 16 believers along with our Pastor Biswas gathered in our house for Bible study,” said Ahsan Ali, 37. “My wife and three children were also present there. My Muslim neighbors told the elite force that local terrorists had gathered in my house to plan some terrorist activities in the locality.”
The RAB personnel came to Ali’s house and took him to their camp, where they interrogated him with torture, he said. The following morning, RAB intelligence officers came to the village to investigate charges against Ali.
“Elite force personnel asked many people in the village the following day, and they found no criminal activities against me and later released me,” said Ali.
The Assembly of God church began in the area about one and half years ago, with some 230 people coming to Christ since then.
Report from Compass Direct News
Previously beaten in a mosque, evangelist has faced opposition for more than a year.
DHAKA, Bangladesh, January 6 (Compass Direct News) – The torture and harassment that a Christian pastor in Meherpur district has faced for more than a year loomed anew last month when a 4,000-strong crowd of Muslims celebrating Islam’s largest festival accused him of “misleading” Muslims.
Jhontu Biswas, 31, said residents of Fulbaria town, 270 kilometers (168 miles) west of Dhaka, accused him of misleading Muslims by distributing Christian booklets. They confronted him en masse on Dec. 9 as they gathered for the Islamic Eid al-Adha festival of sacrifice.
“They also accused me of converting poor people by offering money,” said Biswas. “They called several local journalists in that massive assembly to publish news against me and my activities. They took my photograph and interviewed me but did not publish anything in their respective newspapers.”
Biswas denied the accusations against him, and the Muslims threatened to harm him and others who converted from Islam to Christianity, especially in the event of a hard-line Islamic government coming to power following Dec. 29 elections, he said.
“They said, ‘You will be in great trouble at that time,’” Biswas said.
Fortunately for Biswas, the left-leaning Awami League-led Grand Alliance won a landslide victory in the election, and it does not include Islamic fundamentalist parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami. Prior to Bangladesh’s national election on Dec. 29, the country was ruled for two years by an army-backed, caretaker government that imposed a countrywide state of emergency.
Had the previous Bangladesh Nationalist Party coalition government including Jamaat-e-Islami come to power, area Christians said they would be in even greater danger.
“We hope that we can work our religious activities properly during the tenure of this government, and also hope that this government will ensure all of our constitutional rights regarding religious activities,” Biswas said.
Beaten in Mosque
The pastor has been under continuous pressure to give up his faith and not spread Christianity since he was baptized on Feb. 14, 2007, he said. He was in a meeting with members of his church on Dec. 31, 2007, he said, when police suddenly surrounded the building and dragged him out.
A drug peddler, a 36-year-old woman named Fulwara Begum, had left a bag full of illegal drugs behind his church in accordance with a plan hatched by area Muslims, he said. They informed police, and officers arrested him for drug possession and sale – but instead of taking him to the police station, they took him to a nearby mosque.
“It was a trick to arrest me and slander my reputation so that I cannot do evangelical activities here,” said Biswas. “They told me, ‘If you accept Islam after confessing to Christianity and ask forgiveness of Allah, we will not do anything against you and release you.’ They beat me with sticks in the mosque after my vehement denial to their proposal.”
Police called on a Muslim cleric to encourage Biswas to seek forgiveness for embracing Christianity.
The following day, Jan. 1, 2008, police sent him to Meherpur central jail on drug charges, but the jailer would not admit him because of his battered condition. Police took him to a nearby hospital, where he was treated for five to six hours. He was subsequently put into jail.
“Whenever I did not agree with them, police beat me inhumanely in the police station,” he said. “They tried to brainwash me into accepting Islam throughout almost the whole night. But I did not agree with them. Then they tortured me.”
After 20 days in jail, Biswas was released on bail.
Elderly Shop Owner Struck
On Aug. 16, Muslim extremists had vandalized a grocery store near Biswas’ church. The 78-year-old owner of the shop, Abdus Sobhan, told Compass that he was beaten and his shop was looted. They also hurled stones and bricks at the nearby church.
“My angry Muslim neighbors did it,” Sobhan said. “Around seven to eight people came on that night and vandalized the shop. I am a poor man. That shop was my only source of living. They demolished it and looted stuffs of around 30,000 taka [US$443].”
Area Muslims put a sign near the shop that designated it as that of a Christian and stating, “Do not buy anything from here.”
Sobhan went to police to file a case. Instead, officers asked him barrage of questions about why he became a Christian. Resigned, he left the police station.
The father of nine daughters and two sons, Sobhan said he became a Christian on Feb. 24, 2007 along with his wife.
The president of the Assembly of God church in southern Khulna division, Jonathan Litu Munshi, told Compass that Biswas was the first Christian in the area. Through him 200 to 230 people have received Christ as their redeemer in the predominantly Muslim area within the past year and a half.
“Local people filed a false case against him to torture him so that he does not continue his religious activities,” said Munshi. “Unfortunately a septuagenarian convert was also beaten in that area for his faith in Christ.”
The Islamic political party Jamaat-e-Islami is influencing the area residents, Christians said, adding that party workers have persuaded Muslims not to hire Christian converts, who are largely day-laborers eking out a living.
Report from Compass Direct News
Muslim neighbors, local council threaten to burn home if they file assault case.
MALUMGHAT, Bangladesh, December 8 (Compass Direct News) – The harassment that Bangladeshi converts from Islam face from Muslim neighbors in this southeastern area near Cox’s Bazar can take serious turns – as it did last month, when an attack by about a dozen Muslims left a Christian family with machete wounds.
Confident that no police would side with Christian converts from Islam, the Muslims in Chakaria town, near Cox’s Bazar 380 kilometers (236 miles) southeast of the capital city of Dhaka, later filed false charges of assault against the wounded and limping Christians, family members said.
The smallest of claims can serve to provoke such attacks. Laila Begum, a 45-year-old Christian convert from Islam, said she was helping to make disbursements for a local non-governmental micro-credit agency called Darpan in Chakaria town on Nov. 1 when 10 to 15 Muslim neighbors blocked her way and demanded 200 taka (US$3).
Begum told Compass she had borrowed 2,000 taka (US$30) last year from a neighbor, a Muslim woman who goes by the single name of Kohinoor, and this year paid her back with interest. Telling the group she would give them no more money as she had already repaid the loan, Begum said, she asked why they were demanding more.
They began beating her, snatching a pair of gold ornaments from her ear.
“Suddenly they got equipped with sticks, iron rods, knives and machetes,” she said. “Several places of my head were lacerated by machetes and iron rods. They also cut two of my fingers when I tried to fend off their attacks. They beat me in several places of my body by iron rods and sticks.”
Begum said her husband Abdur Rahman, a 48-year-old gatekeeper at Memorial Baptist Hospital, and her 27-year-old son Selim Rahman, heard her screams and were also beaten when they rushed to help her.
“They thrust at my son with machetes and a sharp knife and stabbed him in his thigh,” she said. “They beat my son with sticks and iron rods, knocking him down. They also beat the kneecap of my husband and other parts of his body.”
When her 18-year-old daughter Rosy Rahman came to their aid, the attackers punched her in the neck and chin, she said.
“They beat her in various parts of the body with sticks,” Begum said. “Shamelessly they removed her wrap over the breasts in front of dozens of onlookers.”
One of the attacking neighbors, she said, told her, “Nobody will come to save you if we beat you, because you are converted to Christianity from Islam.”
Begum, her husband and elder son were admitted to a nearby hospital. Her husband is still hobbled, walking with the aid of a stick.
“Muslim neighbors filed a case against us where they mentioned that we had beaten them – it is a false case,” Begum said. “They beat us and they filed a false case against us.”
Police Sub-inspector Manjurul Alam confirmed that the Muslim neighbors had filed a case against Rahman’s family, and that Rahman had also filed an assault case against the attackers.
“We are investigating it,” he said.
Begum said local Muslims threatened to beat the Christians again if they filed a case against them.
“They threatened that if we file a case, they will carry out an arson attack, and our house will be burnt to the ground,” she said. “They will evict us from the locality. They will beat us again and our life will be in great trouble.”
The family informed local governing council members about the attack, but they demanded 20,000 taka (US$300) to settle the matter and also threatened them, she said.
“The local council officials also told us that if we file any case in the police station, our houses will be burnt to ashes and we will be evicted from the locality,” she said. “The Muslim neighbors are spreading rumors that we beat them, that we borrowed 22,000 taka from them and that we did not pay them back the money. But we do not have anyone to stand beside us and listen to us.”
Because the family members are converts from Islam, they said, neighbors and distant relatives often pick quarrels with them over any small issue, with villagers later joining in to threaten or attack them.
“If we go to the market or any public places, Muslim people push us roughly from behind and use filthy words against us about Christianity,” said the oldest son, Salim Rahman.
The entire family is living in isolation due to their conversion, which the female members said is especially difficult for them.
“Whenever I go outside, local people look at me with evil leers,” said the oldest daughter, Rosy Rahman. “Everyone bad-mouths me and casts aspersions on our faith.”
She said such harassment forced her to stop going to school in 2004.
“If I had not stopped going to school, my life would have been in trouble,” she said. “I feel insecure and mixed-up, because local people always want to deflower me. If anything bad happens to me, no one in the society will stand beside me. What did we do against the society? We did nothing against them, we simply changed our faith.”
She said the ostracism and societal misconduct sometimes lead her to contemplate suicide.
History of Resentment
When the family and others converted to Christianity in 1991, area resentment festered and finally broke into violence in late 1992, when local Muslims vandalized and burned the local church and several Christian-owned homes.
The government deployed more than 2,000 police and other law enforcement personnel to bring the situation under control, and some local Muslims were arrested for arson.
“The arrests made the local Muslims very angry,” said pastor Benu Barua of Memorial Christian Baptist Church of Malumghat.
Rage dating back to the events of the 1990s may be at the root of the beating of Begum’s family, he said.
“The Muslim neighbors beat them for such a small amount of money – any small issue to the Muslim neighbors is like a red rag to a bull,” Barua said. “This kind of oppression, what happened to Begum’s family, is less common on other traditional Christians or those who converted from the Hindu religion. But Muslim-converted Christians are more oppressed here.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Muslim rule on isles east of Africa effectively criminalizes faith in Christ.
ZANZIBAR, Tanzania, Dec. 5 (Compass Direct News) – Christians on the predominantly Muslim islands of Pemba and the Comoros archipelago are beaten, detained and banished for their faith, according to church leaders who travel regularly to the Indian Ocean isles off the east coast of Africa.
These violations of religious freedom, the church leaders said, threaten the survival of Christianity on Pemba and the Comoros, with fewer than 300 Christians in a combined population of 1.1 million people. Pemba, with about 300,000 people, is part of Tanzania, while the Union of the Comoros is a nation unto itself of about 800,000.
Leaving Islam for Christianity accounts for most of the harm done to Christians, and this year saw an increase in such abuse as already-strained relations between the two communities deteriorated after the conversion in August of Sheikh Hijah Mohammed, leader of a key mosque in Chake-Chake, capital of Pemba.
News of Mohammed’s conversion spread, and zealous Muslims began hunting for him as leaving Islam warrants death under sharia (Islamic law). An Assemblies of God Church in Pemba swiftly moved him to a hideout in the village of Chuini, 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the airport.
Word of the hideout eventually leaked to Muslims, however, forcing the church to move Mohammed to an undisclosed destination. This time, church elders never revealed where they had taken him. Compass was not given access to him.
A Christian from the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar who recently visited the Comoros said those suspected to have converted from Islam to Christianity face travel restrictions and confiscation of travel documents. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he noted that security officers who had been monitoring the ministries of a 25-year-old Christian confiscated his passport at the airport in July.
The Christian deprived of his passport was still looking for a way to leave the country to pursue theological studies in Tanzania.
In the early part of this year, authorities expelled a missionary from the Comoros when they discovered he was conducting Friday prayer meetings.
“The police broke into the prayer meeting, ransacked the house and found the Bibles which we had hidden before arresting us,” said a source who requested anonymity. “We were detained for three months.”
Law student Musa Kim, who left Islam to receive Christ nine months ago, has suffered at the hands of his kin on the Comoros. Family members beat him with sticks and blows and even burned his clothes, he said.
Kind neighbors rescued him, and Christian friends rented him a house at a secret location while his wounds healed. On Oct. 15, however, Muslim islanders discovered his hideout and razed the house he was renting.
Asked if he reported the case to the police, Kim was emphatic.
“No – reporting these people will get you into more trouble.”
Muslim traders from the Persian Gulf first settled in this region early in the 10th century, after monsoon winds propelled them through the Gulf of Aden and Somalia.
Pemba and the Comoros are part of the Zanzibar archipelago, which united with Tanganyika to form the present day Tanzania in 1964. This uneasy merger, with island Muslims seeing Christianity as the means by which mainland Tanzania would dominate them, has stoked tensions ever since.
A large Arab community in the Comoros, the world’s largest producer of cloves, originally came from Oman. The population consists of Arabs and native Waswahili inhabitants.
The Comorian constitution provides for freedom of religion, though it is routinely violated. Islam is the legal religion for the Comoros people, and anyone found to be practicing a different religion faces persecution.
The Zanzibar Christian who spoke on condition of anonymity termed the Comoros a “horrifying environment for one to practice Christianity,” adding that it was not long after his arrival to the main island that he realized he was being monitored. He cut short his trip early last month.
“I planned to take three different taxis to the airport” to evade authorities, he said. “But thank God on that day I met a Catholic priest who gave me a lift together with some Tanzanian soldiers to the airport.”
The Christian left the island quickly even though he had been issued a professional visa for 45 days. In late October, a contact had warned him that Comoros authorities were looking for him as one of the island’s “most wanted” persons.
In May 2006 four men in the Comoros were sentenced to prison for three months for involvement with Christianity. There has long been widespread societal discrimination against Christians, but this level of persecution had not been reported in the Comoros since the late 1990s.
Report from Compass Direct News