The negative mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are clear, but there is particular concern children will be most affected in the long run.
By the end of March school closures were impacting 91% of the world’s student population and are still affecting more than 60%. These closures limit children’s opportunities for important social interactions, which can harm their mental health.
In particular, home confinement, fears of infection, family stress and financial loss may have negative effects on the mental health of young people. And research carried out earlier in the pandemic suggested these effects may be most pronounced for children with pre-existing mental health problems.
Research shows family relationships are more influential during situations that cause stress over an extended period of time than during acute periods of stress. This means family factors are likely to be even more important to childrens’ mental health during COVID-19 than during more fleeting traumatic experiences such as exposure to a natural disaster.
In our recent study, we found 81% of children aged 5-17 had experienced at least one trauma symptom during the early phase of COVID-19. For instance, some children had trouble sleeping alone, or acted unusually young or old for their age.
Our unpublished research relied on reports from parents from Australia and the United Kingdom. We also found increases in emotional problems were common. For instance, according to their parents 29% of children were more unhappy than they were before COVID-19.
Importantly, our study found several parent and family factors that were important in predicting changes in children’s mental health problems.
Increased personal distress reported by parents was related to increases in their child’s mental health problems during COVID-19. This distress refers to both general stress in addition to COVID-specific worry and distress. It also includes anxiety related to problems that existed before COVID-19.
For this reason it’s important parents look after their own mental health and stress levels. Seeking psychological help is a good option for parents who are struggling to cope.
Through a GP referral, Australians can receive ten sessions of psychological care per year through Medicare. Victorians who are currently subjected to further restrictions can now receive up to 20 sessions.
2. Good family relationships help
Higher levels of parental warmth and family cohesion were associated with fewer trauma symptoms in children. “Parental warmth” refers to being interested in what your child does, or encouraging them to talk to you about what they think; “family cohesion” relates to family members helping and supporting each other.
In other research these factors have consistently been found to relate to children’s adjustment to stress and trauma.
While COVID-19 is having many negative impacts, some parents in our study also identified unexpected positive impacts, such as being able to spend more time with family. Children of these parents were less likely to experience an increase in some problems – particularly problems with peers such as being bullied.
Children observe parents’ behaviours and emotions for cues on how to manage their own emotions during difficult times. Trying to stay positive, or focus on the bright side as much as possible is likely to benefit children.
4. Some effects are greatest for vulnerable families
We found parents’ behaviour was particularly influential in lower socioeconomic backgrounds and single-parent families. In poorer families, parental warmth was particularly important in buffering children’s trauma symptoms. And in single-parent families, parental stress was more likely to predict behavioural problems in children.
This may be because poorer and single-parent families already face more stress, which can negatively impact children. Parental warmth can counteract the effects of these stresses, whereas high parental stress levels can increase them.
Research has already shown the pandemic will have greater negative impacts on those who have less resources available to them. This points to a need for extra psychological and financial support for these families. Governments and other organisations will need to take this into account when targeting their support packages.
It’s important to keep in mind child-parent relationships are a two-way street. Our research examined relationships at only one point in time, so we don’t know the extent to which our findings reflect a) parents causing changes in their children’s mental health, or b) changes in children’s mental health impacting parents, or the way a family functions. Research needs to follow children and their families over time to tease apart these possibilities.
Given prevention is always better than cure, parents and families should seek help early to build the right foundations to safeguard the mental health of their children.
COVID-19 has had a significant impact on all Australians, but there are very good reasons why the impact might be more keenly felt by people with disability and their carers.
Our new research on behalf of Children and Young People with Disability Australia (CYDA) provides insight into these issues, capturing the impacts at the height of the pandemic.
These findings throw the daily inequities people with disability face into sharp relief. Without urgent action, future emergencies will have similar impacts.
How have families found life in the pandemic?
As coronavirus reached crisis point in Australia, CYDA was concerned that we lacked a coherent national response to assist younger Australians with disabilities. So it launched a survey about families’ pandemic experiences.
Families with ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder] children don’t meet criteria for special shopping times and so we have run out of essential items. In my spare time I’m running around all day looking for toilet paper and food that my child will eat. I’m exhausted.
The shortages also meant some children and young people went without food or continence supplies. Other families found themselves spending up to three times the usual budget on essential items, sometimes at the expense of paying their rent.
Less support, declining mental health
One in three respondents had to deal with the cancellation of support workers.
This was either because the family had to cancel because of concerns about people coming into the home, or the services themselves cancelled. This meant family members had increased support requirements, with some reporting they had to give up their own paid work to care for their kids.
Half of survey respondents reported a decline in mental health, either for themselves or for the child or young person with disability. This increased over the period of the survey.
As another parent reported:
I’m scared as a parent, I’m scared of failing my child, and I’m scared about
the mental health impacts on me as a parent with absolutely no support.
Often the impacts were interconnected. For example, service cancellation led to parents’ reduced ability to work, which put stress on obtaining essential supplies.
Some people were unable to access pre-existing support networks, and unsure of what would happen in the days and weeks ahead. Many respondents expressed heartbreaking distress and worry.
I am struggling significantly to meet my children’s needs … I am completely isolated from any therapies, support workers and family support.
Families are struggling: what needs to change
Many of those who care for children and young people with disability are constantly beset by difficult decisions – balancing work, play, care and education to provide the best possible lives for their kids.
Many people can only manage these things when the world is operating as it normally does. But this pandemic (which was preceded by a summer of horrific bushfires) has thrown these carefully balanced routines off to such a degree that families are struggling to cope.
There are lessons that we can learn from this pandemic that can inform future emergency responses.
Our survey findings point to the importance of information that is tailored to children and young people with disability.
But improving messaging and ensuring a more coherent response will not solve many of the issues.
It is well established that people with disability face significant inequities in many facets of their lives (from health to work, education and social interaction). The only way we will prevent an impact like this again is to address the various inequities faced on a daily basis by children and young people with disability and their caregivers.
There is a richness in diversity and human experience and this needs to be valued and planned for.
During this period of the COVID-19 pandemic there was not enough recognition that some groups might require more support and intervention so that they can be viewed as equally valued members of society.
Taking risks and succeeding can motivate children to seek further achievements. Failing can lead to testing new ideas, and finding personal capabilities and limits. In this way, children can overcome fears and build new skills.
We mentored a group of educators in a research project trialling how to best introduce kids to risk.
Parents can use some of the lessons these educators learnt to help their own children take more risks and challenge themselves.
What was the research?
Adamstown Community Early Learning and Preschool (NSW) wanted to conduct research around risky play. “Risky play” is a term which has evolved from a trend to get more children out into nature to experience challenging environments.
Adamstown wanted to find out whether adult intervention to promote safe risk-taking would play a significant role in developing children’s risk competence.
Educators engaged children in conversations about risk, asked prompting questions and helped them assess potential consequences.
The Adamstown research built on 2007 Norwegian research that identified six categories of risky play:
play at great heights, where children climb trees or high structures such as climbing frames in a playground
play at high speed, such as riding a bike or skateboarding down a steep hill or swinging fast
play with harmful tools, like knives or highly supervised power tools to create woodwork
play with dangerous elements, such as fire or bodies of water
rough and tumble play, where children wrestle or play with impact, such as slamming bodies into large crash mats
play where you can “disappear”, where children can feel they’re not being watched by doing things like enclosing themselves in cubbies built of sheets or hiding in bushes (while actually being surreptitiously supervised by an adult).
The educators examined their practices in these areas to see how and whether they were engaging children in risky play, and how children were responding.
Here are five lessons educators learnt that parents can apply at home.
1. Have real conversations with children (don’t just give them instructions)
Adamstown educators found children were more likely to attempt risky play when adults talked to them about planning for, and taking, risks.
Parents can use similar strategies with their children, helping them question what they are doing and why.
Phrases like “be careful” don’t tell children what to do. Instead, say things like
That knife is very sharp. It could cut you and you might bleed. Only hold it by the handle and cut down towards the chopping board.
Equally, praise with meaning, using phrases like
You cut the cake, thinking about how you held the knife and didn’t slip or cut yourself. Well done!
It is important for children to provide insight into their own problem solving. You could ask their thoughts on what might happen if they used the knife incorrectly or what safety measures they could put in place. This will help develop their risk competence.
2. Introduce risk gradually
Allow your children to try new things by slowly increasing the levels of difficulty.
At Adamstown, a process of introducing children to fire spanned nine months. First – on the advice of an early childhood education consultant – they introduced tea-light candles at meal times. This then moved to a small fire bowl in the sandpit, before children were introduced to a large open fire pit.
The fire pit is now used for many reasons. In winter, children sit around it in a circle and tell stories. Educators show them cooking skills, referencing the ways Australia’s First Nations People cook. The fire pit is also used to create charcoal for art.
Children have been made aware of the safe distance they need to keep and about the potential hazard of smoke inhalation.
During the research process, as children were introduced to more risk, there were no more injuries than before and all were minor. There were also no serious incidents such as broken bones, or events requiring immediate medical attention.
3. Assume all your children are competent – regardless of gender
Adamstown educators were surprised to discover that, although they weren’t excluding girls from risky play, the data indicated they challenged and invited participation more often with boys.
Parents may hold intrinsic biases they are not necessarily aware of. So, check yourself to see if you are:
allowing boys to be more independent
assuming boys are more competent or girls don’t really want to take as many risks
dressing girls in clothes that limit their freedom to climb
saying different things to boys and girls.
4. Be close-by but allow children to have a sense of autonomy
Children don’t always want to be supervised. Search for opportunities to allow them to feel as if they are alone, or out of sight. Be close-by, but allow them to think they are playing independently.
5. Discuss risk at times that don’t directly involve it
When walking together to the shops, talk about the risks involved in crossing roads, such as fast cars. You can note safe and unsafe situations as well as encouraging your child to notice these as you go about your daily life. This can also be done in relaxed situations like in the bath.
This way, when the time comes for your child to learn a new skill like crossing the road alone, they have already had some opportunity to consider measures to keep themselves safe in a non-stressful situation.
If your child has a fall or other mishap, when everything is settled again, ask your child about why it happened and how they might suggest it could be prevented next time.
Countries around the world, including Australia, are using different ways to get parents to vaccinate their children.
Our new research, published this week in the journal Milbank Quarterly, looks at diverse mandatory vaccination policies across the world. We explore whether different countries mandate many vaccines, or just a few; if there are sanctions for not vaccinating, such as fines; and how easy it is for parents to get out of vaccinating.
This is part of ongoing research to see what Australia could learn from other countries’ attempts to increase childhood vaccination rates.
Early evidence from Italy, France, California and Australia indicates this has led to higher vaccination rates. But different countries have pursued very different policies.
Australia’s federal “No Jab, No Pay” policy removes entitlements and childcare subsidies from unvaccinated families. Four Australian states also have “No Jab, No Play” policies to limit vaccine refusers’ access to childcare.
Some governments can use more than one method at once, like Australia’s mix of state and federal policies. Italy’s new policy uses a combination of excluding unvaccinated children from daycare and fines for parents.
Making it hard to refuse
Australia, Italy, France and California make it difficult for parents to refuse vaccines by only permitting medical exemptions to their mandatory policies.
However, other jurisdictions ultimately allow parents to refuse vaccines, albeit using different methods. For example, Germany and the state of Washington require parents to be counselled by medical professionals before they obtain an exemption to vaccinating their child. In Michigan, public health staff provide a mandatory education course for parents seeking non-medical exemptions.
Which policy leads parents to vaccinate?
We can assess a policy to get parents to vaccinate using a notion called “salience”. Put simply, will a vaccination policy actually make parents vaccinate?
For example, Australia’s federal vaccine mandate has become more salient since parents can no longer obtain conscientious objections and risk losing benefits for not vaccinating.
But there are other factors to consider, such as whether a policy promotes timely vaccination.
Australia’s “No Jab, No Pay” policy applies to children from birth, so it motivates parents to vaccinate on time. But the United States has state-level policies that prompt parents to have their children up-to-date with their vaccinations when they start daycare or primary school.
Who doesn’t have to vaccinate?
Another important question is who gets to duck away from the hand of government. Australia’s “No Jab, No Pay” policy leaves wealthy vaccine refusers untouched as they are ineligible for the means-tested benefits docked from unvaccinated families.
And Australian states’ policies to exclude vaccine refusers’ children from daycare doesn’t affect families who don’t use daycare.
Since France and California exclude unvaccinated children from school, these countries have the capacity to reach parents more equitably (almost everyone wants to send their kids to school so more people are incentivised to vaccinate). In both places, you can homeschool if you really don’t want to vaccinate.
Addressing the many reasons for not vaccinating
Mandatory vaccination policies also need to recognise the two types of parent whose child might be unvaccinated. Much airtime focuses on vaccine refusers. However, at least half the children who are not up-to-date with their vaccines face barriers to accessing vaccination, such as social disadvantage or logistical problems getting to a clinic. They are the children of underprivileged parents, not vaccine refusers.
When it comes to the vaccination status of disadvantaged children entering daycare, Australian states have chosen a “light touch” as part of the “No Jab, No Play” policy. Existing state policies provide grace periods or exemptions for these families.
But the federal “No Jab, No Pay” hits all parents where it hurts, and offers no exemptions or grace periods to disadvantaged families. Likewise, California’s school entry mandate makes no such exceptions. Italy and France have daycare exclusions similar to “No Jab, No Play” in their policies, but we have not found any evidence they make exceptions for disadvantaged families.
Finally, mandatory vaccination policies vary on how much they cost for governments to deliver. Oversight of parents, such as inspections or implementing fines, can drain government resources. And educational programs for parents seeking exemptions are expensive to run.
Governments can outsource some of these costs to parents (for instance, parents may have to pay a fee to see a doctor for an exemption).
Governments can also hand over the tasks to medical professionals, but then they have less control over what these professionals do. For instance, California is now seeking tighter regulation of doctors who say children are eligible for medical exemptions. This monitoring will cost the state, but will allow greater oversight. Victoria also had problems with doctors who accommodated vaccine refusers.
So where does this leave us?
Our work investigating international strategies to get parents to vaccinate their children is ongoing. Australians seem strongly attached to our vaccine mandates. But both state and federal policies have undergone tweaks since their inception.
Any future adjustments should ensure all parents are targeted, that disadvantaged families are not further disadvantaged, and that we make it very easy for everybody to access vaccines in their communities and on time.
Globally, as more jurisdictions move away from voluntary child vaccination to mandatory policies, we need to get a clearer picture of how these policies work for families, government and the policy enforcers, including school staff and health professionals.
A high school student from Ohio made national headlines recently by getting inoculated despite his family’s anti-vaccination beliefs.
Ethan Lindenberger, 18, who never had been vaccinated, had begun to question his parents’ decision not to immunize him. He went online to research and ask questions, posting to Reddit, a social discussion website, about how to be vaccinated. His online quest went viral.
In March 2019, he was invited to testify before a U.S. Senate Committee hearing on vaccines and preventable disease outbreaks. In his testimony, he said that his mother’s refusal to vaccinate him was informed partly by her online research and the misinformation about vaccines she found on the web.
Lindenberger’s mother is hardly alone. Public health experts have blamed online anti-vaccination discussions in part for New York’s worst measles outbreak in 30 years. Anti-vaccine activists also have been cited for the growth of anti-vaccination sentiments in the U.S. and abroad.
We are associate professors who study health communication. We are also parents who read online vaccination-related posts, and we decided to conduct research to better understand people’s communication behaviors related to childhood vaccinations. Our research examined the voices most central to this discussion online, mothers, and our findings show that those who oppose vaccinations communicate most about this issue.
What prompts mothers to speak out
A strong majority of parents in the U.S. support vaccinations, yet at the same time, anti-vaccination rates in the U.S. and globally are rising. The World Health Organization identified the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines as one of 10 top threats to global health in 2019.
Mothers are critical decision-makers in determining whether their children should be vaccinated. In our study, we surveyed 455 mothers online to determine who communicates most about vaccinations and why.
In general, previous research has shown that people evaluate opinion climates – what the majority opinion seems to say – before expressing their own ideas about issues. This is true particularly on controversial subjects such as affirmative action, abortion or immigration. If an individual perceives their opinion to be unpopular, they may be less likely to say what they think, especially if an issue receives a lot of media attention, a phenomenon known as the spiral of silence.
If individuals, however, have strong beliefs about an issue, they may express their opinions whether they are commonly held or minority perspectives. These views can dominate conversations as others online find support for their views and join in.
Our recent study found that mothers who contributed information online shared several perspectives. Mothers who didn’t strongly support childhood vaccinations were more likely to seek, pay attention to, forward information and speak out about the issue – compared to those who do support childhood vaccinations.
Those who believed that vaccinations were an important issue (whether they were for or against them) were more likely to express an opinion. And those who opposed vaccinations were more likely to post their beliefs online.
How social media skews facts
Online news content can be influenced by social media information that millions of people read, and it can amplify minority opinions and health myths. For example, Twitter and Reddit posts related to the vaccine-autism myth can drive news coverage.
Those who expressed online opinions about vaccinations also drove news coverage. Other research we co-authored shows that posts related to the vaccine-autism myth were followed by online news stories related to tweets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.
Recent reports about social media sites, such as Facebook, trying to interrupt false health information from spreading can help correct public misinformation. However, it is unclear what types of communication will counter misinformation and myths that are repeated and reinforced online.
Our work suggests that those who agree with the scientific facts about vaccination may not feel the need to pay attention to this issue or voice their opinions online. They likely already have made up their minds and vaccinated their children.
But from a health communication perspective, it is important that parents who support vaccination voice their opinions and experiences, particularly in online environments.
Studies show that how much parents trust or distrust doctors, scientists or the government influences where they land in the vaccination debate. Perspectives of other parents also provide a convincing narrative to understand the risks and benefits of vaccination.
Scientific facts and messaging about vaccines, such as information from organizations like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are important in the immunization debate.
But research demonstrates that social consensus, informed in part by peers and other parents, is also an effective element in conversations that shape decisions.
If mothers or parents who oppose or question vaccinations continue to communicate, while those who support vaccinations remain silent, a false consensus may grow. This could result in more parents believing that a reluctance to vaccinate children is the norm – not the exception.
The Government opposes it. Labor has opposed such proposals in the past. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said he would like to increase payments, but they would be ones of his choosing – he would lift the pension before lifting Newstart.
But the pension is already much higher than Newstart, and other benefits have fallen behind by more.
In a report on Australia it suggested that not only it might be insufficient to live on, it also might be insufficient to enable those on it to look for work.
The relatively low net replacement rate in the first year of the unemployment spell raises issues about its effectiveness in providing sufficient support for those experiencing a job loss, or enabling someone to look for a suitable job.
The main reason why it is inadequate is that it hasn’t increased by much more than inflation since 1994. General living standards have soared during those two and a half decades, as has the pension which is linked to them by being set as proportion of male wages, and which was increased substantially in 2009.
Newstart is now only A$275.20 per week. The pension is A$417.20 per week (A$458.15 with the pension supplement and energy supplement).
Unless it is better indexed, Newstart will slide even further relative to other payments and living standards.
The relative decline in Newstart was the result of neglect. It was left indexed to the consumer price index when, over the long term, it should have been indexed to a measure that moves with community living standards.
But in other cases, governments under five prime ministers over the past twelve years have made explicit decisions to cut assistance, most severely for low income single parents.
In 2006 the Howard government made substantial changes to the Parenting Payment Single (PPS) and the Parenting Payment – Partnered (PPP) as part of what it called a welfare to work program.
Single parents claiming the PPS after July 1, 2006 would lose it when their youngest child turned eight. They would go onto the much lower Newstart unemployment benefit, and be expected to look for work.
Partnered parents claiming the PPP would lose it when their youngest child turned six, but for them it made little difference because their parenting payment and Newstart were about the same.
These changes have shrunk Family Tax Benefit payments per child from 16.6% – 21.6% of the married pension rate to 14.5% – 18.9%, a difference now of $13 per week for each younger child and $17 per week for each older child – with more shrinkage to come.
After a tough time in the Senate, several of his measures finally passed, under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2016 and 2017.
Family Tax Benefit B has been closed to couple families with children aged 13 years or older and the Family Tax Benefit B income test tightened, the size of the payments to large families has been wound back, the Family Tax benefit A end of year supplement has been withdrawn from families earning over A$80,000 per annum and rates have pay have been temporarily frozen, so that they don’t even increase with inflation.
What’s been the total of cuts since 2006?
The cumulative effects of the policy choices since 2006 on the disposable incomes of single parent families are substantial.
We have compared how much low-income parents currently receive, compared to what they would be receiving if these changes had not been made.
Our calculations are conservative.
We have ignored a number of changes including payments that have come and gone such as the Schoolkid’s Bonus and the Energy Supplement or changes that affect high income families. Nor have we taken into account the loss of payments to families with with four or more children due to the phasing out of the Large Family Supplement from July 2016.
Single parents still on Parenting Payment Single with two younger children have lost nearly $85 per fortnight; about 6% of their disposable incomes. For families with older children, the loss is about $271 per fortnight; a cut in disposable income of nearly 19%.
In total there are around 360,000 families with children, Australia’s poorest, who are getting considerably less financial support.
It has happened as a result of actions by both sides of politics under prime ministers Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and Turnbull.
As with the decision to link Newstart to the consumer price index rather than wages, the effects of their decisions will widen over time. The poorest families, and their children, will increasingly fall behind the rest of the population.
And the proportion of single parents employed went backwards during the global financial crisis, sliding to 53% and only recovering to 55% in 2017, despite the move of families from Parenting Payment Single to Newstart.
It’s time for a proper review
The “root and branch review” promised by Bill Shorten and the ongoing commission proposed by crossbenchers are not mutually exclusive.
An immediate review could be used to increase payments in the shorter term, while an ongoing commission could examine longer-term priorities.
A comprehensive review of Australia’s social security system, undertaken in an integrated fashion and including tax as well as payments (including those for childcare and to support people who study and work) is overdue.
We need such a review to consider the design of our safety net in the light of economic, demographic, technological and social changes, and those to come.
It ought to be a key priority of Australia’s next government.
It ought to set up our support systems for the future.
The following article reports on the disappearance of the daughter of a Roman Catholic couple in Nigeria. They received a phone call from someone claiming to have killed their daughter in September 2011 and nothing has been seen of their daughter since then.
The articles linked to above are by Compass Direct News and relate to persecution of Christians around the world. Please keep in mind that the definition of ‘Christian’ used by Compass Direct News is inclusive of some that would not be included in a definition of Christian that I would use or would be used by other Reformed Christians. The articles do however present an
indication of persecution being faced by Christians around the world.
Suspects in Ergenekon network long sought in homicide case to be questioned.
ISTANBUL, March 18 (CDN) — In simultaneous operations in nine different provinces of Turkey, authorities yesterday arrested 20 people suspected of playing a role in the murder of three Christians in Malatya in 2007, according to local news reports.
Zekeriya Oz, chief prosecutor overseeing the investigation into a clandestine network known as Ergenekon allegedly aimed at destabilizing the government, ordered the arrests based on information that linked the suspects to both the network and to the Malatya murders, Turkish press reported after Istanbul Chief of Police Chief Huseyin Capkin announced the sweep at a press conference yesterday.
“This was an operation related to the Malatya Zirve publishing house murders,” Capkin said, according to online news agency Malatya Guncel. “They were just arrested. This is connected to the Zirve publishing house. That’s the framework.”
Those apprehended include Ruhi Abat, a Muslim theology professor from Malatya Inonu University, Mehmet Ulger, a retired commander of the Malatya Gendarmerie in service at the time of the murders, and other members of the military. Oz will question the suspects in Istanbul, according to reports.
Police also raided the guesthouse of the Izmir Gendarmerie, seizing computers and documents. News sources listed Malatya, Siirt, Mugla, Mersin and Izmir as some of the cities in which authorities conducted raids and arrests.
A plaintiff attorney in the Malatya murder case, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, told Compass that the names on the list of those arrested were suspects he and his colleagues have been trying to convince the Malatya prosecutor to pursue since the court received a tip in May 2008.
“They are all the usual suspects,” Cengiz said. “All their names were mentioned in the first informant letter. Unfortunately, despite all our efforts, we couldn’t find anyone to investigate these allegations.”
The letter was the first of many informant letters the Malatya court has received since it started hearing the case on Nov. 22, 2007. Penned by someone who identified himself by the pseudonym “Ali Arslan” but unsigned, the letter claimed that Ulger incited Emre Gunaydin, one of the suspects, to carry out the murders and that he communicated with Gunaydin through Abat and two gendarmerie officers, reported Turkish English daily Today’s Zaman.
Cengiz said that, though it was the duty of the Malatya prosecutor to pursue leads in the informant letter, the prosecutor deferred the investigation to the military court, which in turn refused to investigate, claiming that the name on the letter was fake and the letter was not signed.
“It was like a joke,” Cengiz said.
On April 18, 2007, two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Christian Tilmann Geske, were bound, tortured and then murdered at the office of Zirve Publishing Co., a Christian publishing house in Malatya. The suspects, Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim, were arrested while trying to escape the scene of the crime, as was alleged ringleader Gunaydin.
From the beginning of the court hearings, plaintiff lawyers have brought evidence to the court showing the five young suspects were connected to a wider plot to kill the three Christians as well as other key Christian leaders across Turkey. Known as the Cage Plan, the plot is believed to be part of the alleged Ergenekon “deep state” operation to destabilize the government.
The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found in 2009 in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 naval officers, termed as “operations” the Malatya killings, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.
Cengiz told Compass that new evidence in the Ergenekon case might have convinced Oz to pursue those detained yesterday, and he called the move “a very big step” in shedding light on the Malatya case. He and colleague Erdal Dogan said their efforts – especially a request they sent to Oz on Jan. 18, 2010 asking him to investigate the allegations that Ergenekon members were behind the Malatya murders – surely helped to move the process along.
“I believe our efforts had a very big influence on this,” Cengiz said. “We submitted a petition and requested this from Oz last year. He is acting with the Malatya prosecutor on this.”
At the request of the Istanbul Chief Prosecutor’s Office, the Istanbul Police Department prepared a report last year revealing links between the Malatya murders and Ergenekon, according to Today’s Zaman. According to the report, Sevgi Erenerol, spokesperson for a bogus ultranationalist association known as the Turkish Orthodox Church, described foreign missionary activity as “spying” and “provoking.”
“A piece of evidence in the report was a conference on missionary activity given by Sevgi Erenerol … at the General Staff’s Strategic Research and Study Center,” reported Today’s Zaman.
Erenerol was arrested in connection with Ergenekon in 2008. Her suspected links with those thought to have masterminded the Zirve murders may have influenced yesterday’s arrests, Today’s Zaman reported.
She is also believed to be one of the key people behind false accusations against two members of Turkey’s Protestant Church, Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal, who were arrested in October 2006 for insulting Turkishness and Islam because they openly shared their faith.
After four years of legal battle, a judge finally acquitted the two Christians of insulting Turkey and its people by spreading Christianity, but not without slapping them with a hefty fine for a spurious charge. The two men are in the process of appealing the fine.
The Turkish Constitution grants all citizens the right to speak about their faith.
Plaintiff attorneys in the Malatya murders case said they believe yesterday’s arrests bring them closer to their requests that the Malatya murders case file be joined to that of the Ergenekon trial.
“From now on, we can predict it is very possible that our case will be sent to Istanbul soon and that these two cases will be merged,” said Cengiz.
The next Malatya hearing is scheduled for April 29.
Departure of presiding judge in Malatya case could further delay justice, attorneys fear.
ISTANBUL, March 15 (CDN) — Though the horrific scale of the 2007 Malatya murders has not been repeated in Turkey’s Protestant church, a recent report shows harassment continues to be a daily problem for the country’s Christians and churches.
Discrimination, slander and attacks against churches were among the examples of ongoing harassment that the Turkish Association of Protestant Churches (TEK) recorded in 2010.
In an eight-page report published earlier this year, TEK’s Committee for Religious Freedom and Legal Affairs outlined problems Protestants face. Turkish laws and “negative attitudes of civil servants” continue to make it nearly impossible for non-Muslims to establish places of worship, the committee reported. Three churches faced legal problems last year regarding their buildings, according to the report.
Missionary activities are still considered a national threat despite the existence of Turkish laws guaranteeing citizens the freedom to propagate and teach their faith, and children are victims of discrimination at school, according to the report. Though the Religious Education General Directorate for Higher Education and Training Committee allows non-Muslim students to stay out of religious classes, parents have reported cases in which they were not able to take their children out of such
“After four years [since the Malatya murders], Turkey’s religious freedoms have not improved as desired,” said attorney Erdal Dogan. “Christians, Alevis [a Shiite sub-community] and people of other beliefs are still not protected by law. And people of other faiths apart from Muslims have no legal status. Since racism is still prevalent in the context of freedom, discrimination in its turn has become a fact of life.”
About a third of Turks are estimated to be Alevis.
Turkey rose to 30th place in Open Doors’ 2011 World Watch List of nations in which persecution against Christians takes place, up from 35th place the previous year. The Christian support organization cited deteriorating conditions as the secular country applied some laws in discriminatory ways against Christians.
TEK estimates that there are up to 3,500 Protestant Christians in Turkey.
Malatya Trial Stalled
In the trial of the five primary suspects in the murder of three Christians in Malatya, plaintiff attorneys fear the departure of one of the three judges to a Supreme Court of Appeals post in Ankara could further stall the nearly four-year-old case.
The loss of Judge Eray Gurtekin, who had presided over the case since it began on Nov. 22, 2007, could threaten to set back the progress of the court that has been examining links between the killers and alleged masterminds, according to Dogan, a plaintiff attorney in the case. Gurtekin was appointed as a judge in the Supreme Court of Appeals in Turkey’s capital Ankara last month.
“In a three-member panel [of judges], the change of one is not really helpful,” said Dogan, “because just as the previous presiding judge had started to understand and pay close attention to the case file, a new judge came in his place. I hope he will catch on quickly.”
The new judge joined the Malatya hearings panel this month, and Dogan said there could be more changes in the panel.
The 12th Istanbul High Criminal Court is expected to hear the testimony of another witness on March 29, and the court is trying to locate two more witnesses in order to shed light on the Malatya murders.
On April 18, 2007, two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Christian Tilmann Geske, were bound, tortured and then murdered at the office of Zirve Publishing Co., a Christian publishing house in Malatya. The suspects, Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim, were arrested while trying to escape the scene of the crime, as was alleged ringleader Emre Gunaydin.
From the beginning of the court hearings, prosecuting lawyers have brought evidence to the court showing the five young suspects were connected to a wider plot to kill the three Christians as well as other key Christian leaders across Turkey. Known as the Cage Plan, the plot is believed to be part of the alleged Ergenekon “deep state” operation to destabilize the government.
The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found in 2009 in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 naval officers, termed as “operations” the Malatya killings, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.
Questioned by the judges, Varol Bulent Aral – suspected of being one of the people who planned the murders and linked the killers to the masterminds – said he wanted the court to find out who was supporting the Zirve Publishing Co. He added a cryptic remark to Tilmann Geske’s widow, Suzanne Geske, who continues to live in Malatya with her three children and regularly attends the murder hearings.
“I want to ask Suzanne, what business does a German have here?”
The judges finally threw Aral out of the courtroom for contempt of court when he told the judges: “You are in the clouds!”
Prosecuting lawyers still hope judges will join the Malatya case files to the Cage Plan case, which is being tried at an Istanbul court.
The threat of violence against Christians continues. Last week Turkish news sources reported that Istanbul police arrested two suspects, ages 17 and 18, accused of plotting to assassinate a priest on the European side of the city. The Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office is examining their case.