Banning workplace romances won’t solve the problem of sexual misconduct in the office

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Malcolm Turnbull gave several justifications for his ban on ministers having sexual relationships with their staff.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Paula McDonald, Queensland University of Technology

The recent revelation of a sexual relationship between Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and a young woman working in his office has created considerable embarrassment for the government and those involved. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull responded by announcing that sexual relations between ministers and their staff will be prohibited under a change to the ministerial code of conduct.

Read more:
Turnbull announces sex ban – and signals Joyce should consider his position

Turnbull gave several justifications for the ban. These included that although ministers were entitled to privacy in personal matters, they must lead by example because they occupy positions of responsibility and trust.

Recently in the US, sexual relationships between Capitol Hill lawmakers and their staffers were prohibited in response to multiple scandals and in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Inappropriate and unlawful sexual behaviour at work

To judge whether workplace relationship bans are an effective or appropriate response to alleged or actual sexual misconduct, we must first understand the difference between “inappropriate” sexual relationships and unlawful sexual behaviour.

Unlawful sexual conduct includes sexual abuse, sexual assault and sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour that makes someone feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. It is not interaction, flirtation or friendship that is mutual or consensual.

In contrast, inappropriate relationships – while not explicitly unlawful – are usually associated with unequal power relationships.

Read more:
What’s the difference between sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment and rape?

Organisational codes of conduct often set out guidelines around the behaviour of supervisors and managers over their subordinates. A power imbalance between two employees may arise due to age, seniority or other factors, such as the capacity to influence outcomes.

The development of a sexual relationship in particular – even if it is apparently consensual – creates the potential for abuse of position, for damage to the less-empowered and potentially vulnerable individual, and for conflicts of interests to arise.

A common requirement in codes of employee conduct is for the person with the greater power to notify their supervisor of the relationship and immediately cease any decision-making role in respect of the subordinate. Such guidelines raise awareness of the potential for workplace relationships that may lead to later problems for those involved, and raise risks for organisational reputation and functioning.

By providing a clear course of action, such codes of conduct also acknowledge that workplace relationships do occur.

In contrast, outright bans on consensual sexual relationships at work are likely to be seen by many employees as over-reaching into their private lives. They may also perceive that it undermines their autonomy and dignity.

Retail fashion chain American Apparel recently introduced a policy barring managers from engaging in romantic relationships with employees over whom they had a perceived or actual influence. The policy also mandated the disclosure of such relationships – not to the person’s supervisor, but the human resources department.

Romantic relationships were defined broadly, and included both casual dating as well as committed relationships.

Public/private boundaries

In recent years, a considerable blurring of public/private boundaries in organisational life has occurred. Examples include the installation and monitoring of CCTV in workplaces, the enforcement of wearable surveillance devices that measure employees’ productivity in real time, and the “profiling” of job applicants through searches for private online information.

These employer actions have reshaped the boundaries between the relatively public sphere of work and the private lives of employees.

Workplace relationship bans may also be impractical and have unintended consequences. Many people meet their future partners at work or engage in short- or long-term consensual relationships that run their course.

The prospects of an employer effectively standing between two adults who are attracted to each other, or who fall in love, and preventing a relationship developing between them, seems slim.

Worse, bans may drive relationships underground. Employees who fear punitive consequences from ignoring a codified directive will likely conduct the relationship in secret. This may obfuscate loyalties and threaten the development of trust among co-workers. Engaging in a secretive relationship when those involved would prefer it was open may also prove stressful.

At its most extreme, regulating workplace relationships may damage women’s careers rather than contribute to them through a raising of professional standards.

Some male executives and senior politicians such as US Vice-President Mike Pence have been said to avoid working with women altogether to avoid being accused of inappropriate behaviour. This constrains opportunities for sensitive and strategic workplace discussions, and holds women back from key advancement opportunities.

Balancing competing interests

Joyce’s case raises several important issues insofar as preventing fall-out when colleagues engage in romantic and/or sexual relationships.

Banning relationships is likely to be ineffective and may result in disengagement, secrecy and resentment by employees of the encroachment of employment policies into genuinely private matters.

Outright bans also imply a connection between sexual misconduct and romantic relationships that is dubious at best. For example, although some sexual harassment cases arise following the breakdown of a former consensual relationship, most do not.

Preventing and redressing sexual harassment and achieving gender equality requires far more nuanced and multi-faceted approaches.

However, relationships of unequal power clearly need to be carefully managed to avoid the harmful consequences that may result for those involved. This can be achieved through carefully crafted and implemented policies and practices that raise awareness among employees of expectations about professional behaviour and where the greatest risks lie.

However, power comes in many forms. And it can only be judged on the basis of the particular circumstances and people involved.

Policies must also be sensitive to balancing the competing interests of employees and employers. This includes employees’ interests in privacy and autonomy, and employer interests in promoting workplace harmony and avoiding reputational damage.

The ConversationResponses need to also acknowledge the reality that relationships between consenting adults are an inevitable and almost certainly enduring feature of many contemporary workplaces. Attempting to ban them is unlikely to be a panacea.

Paula McDonald, Professor of Work and Organisation, Queensland University of Technology

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


‘Successful failures’ – the problem with food banks

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Pasta and bolognese sauce were on the menu provided at this Sydney venue by not-for-profit organisation Foodbank.

Nick Rose, William Angliss Institute and Susan Booth, Flinders University

From their inception in the early 1990s, Australian food banks were supposed to be a temporary solution to food poverty.

They have since morphed from “emergency to industry” – lauded for reducing food insecurity and helping to solve the food waste problem by diverting tonnes of produce from landfill.

It’s the ultimate win-win that big food corporations and retailers love: feed the needy and save the planet at the same time. This logic has been enshrined in Canada’s National Food Waste Reduction Strategy and in European laws that require supermarkets to donate surplus produce to charities.

Can foodbanks end food insecurity?

As Martin Caraher has suggested on The Conversation, we argue that food banks “depoliticise hunger” and address symptoms rather than causes.

Laudable and regrettably necessary as their work is, food banks are a band-aid solution for a patient – contemporary society – suffering from what John McMurtry evocatively terms “the cancer stage of capitalism”. We are seeing ubiquitous and intensifying inequality, brought about by decades of dogmatic adherence to market fundamentalism.

If we are serious about tackling the causes of food insecurity, we must turn away from neoliberalism to an inclusive and values-based political economy. And if we are serious about ending food waste, we need a “paradigm shift” away from productivism towards a food system “designed for well-being, resilience and sustainability”.

From emergency to industry

According to Foodbank Australia’s 2017 Hunger Report, 625,000 Australians are seeking emergency food relief every month. That’s a 10% increase on the previous 12 months.

Despite their rapid expansion, food banks are unable to meet the demand produced by stagnating wages, rising costs of living and a shrinking welfare state. They have been called “highly visible successful failures”. As well as stepping into the state’s shoes to provide a minimal social security safety net, they offer very useful services to food manufacturers and retailers.

First, they divert millions of tonnes of waste from landfill. Food donors save considerable sums in disposal charges.

Second, donors receive tax deductions for all produce donated to food banks, which are registered charities. And, perhaps most significantly, donors can enhance their social licence to operate as good corporate citizens and receive cheap publicity into the bargain.

Band-aids, not solutions

In a recent paper for the UK Food Research Collaboration, Martin Caraher and Sinead Furey undertook a cost-benefit analysis of the current consensus that food insecurity is best addressed by increasing donations of surplus food to food banks. Their conclusion was unequivocal:

While there are benefits to diverting surplus food away from landfill, the reasons for pessimism outweigh the reasons for optimism. This is because the benefits of using food waste to feed people accrue primarily to the food industry, whilst absolving responsibility of the government to address food insecurity.

This is of particular concern in a liberal democracy such as Australia that professes to be committed to the principle of universal human rights, including the right to adequate food. Research in the Netherlands and Scotland has confirmed the humiliation, shame and loss of dignity experienced by food bank users.

Dignified access to good food is a fundamental component of the human right to adequate food. Feeding people food waste directly undermines this right.

Reframing the debate

The dominant win-win approach that says we can solve food insecurity by diverting food waste into food banks is patently failing. Both phenomena are increasing. In any case, a state of food security is not achieved via emergency food relief.

A breakthrough was achieved on March 25, 2015, when leading community food organisations and food security researchers in Canada issued the Cecil Street Statement. The statement clarified that food insecurity was due to inadequate income and the solution lay in people having enough money to buy good food in a dignified way. Further, it stated that the conflation of food insecurity with food waste was unhelpful and counterproductive.

In Australia, the Right to Food Coalition last year issued a position statement, The Human Right to Food. This included a detailed set of recommendations, drawing on the work of the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food.

These recommendations specified the actions required from all levels of government, as well as industry, philanthropical and community organisations. The statement called on the federal government to:

  • adequately finance income support payments so that all Australians can access a weekly basket of healthy foods

  • ensure that initiatives to rebuild local food systems are adequately supported.

What is the solution?

Broadly, what’s needed is a paradigm shift towards sustainable, healthy, resilient and rational food systems. The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES) has clearly articulated the pathways towards such systems.

The principal barriers to such systems, according to the experts, reside in excessive concentration of political and economic power in the hands of mega-food corporations. This is documented in the new IPES report, Too Big to Feed.

The ConversationIn the words of visionary UK economist Kate Raworth, the necessary paradigm shift begins with a reframing of our societal priorities, away from the mantra of “an economy that grows regardless of whether we thrive” and towards “an economy that enables us to thrive regardless of whether it grows”.

Nick Rose, Lecturer, William Angliss Institute and Susan Booth, Casual Academic, College of Medicine and Public Health, Flinders University

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

Are private patients in public hospitals a problem?

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A new report has claimed public patients are worse off with increased numbers of private patients in public hospitals.

Peter Sivey, RMIT University and Terence Cheng, University of Adelaide

Recently, hospital and aged care provider Catholic Health Australia (CHA) released a report sounding an alarm bell at recent increases in the number of patients in public hospitals being urged to “go private”.

Public hospitals may encourage their patients to “go private” because it allows them to bill the patient’s health insurance and Medicare for costs incurred, rather than having to dip into their own limited budgets. Patients may be persuaded to use their private health insurance after being assured by the public hospital of no out-of-pocket costs, or being promised added extras such as a private room.

The report argued this trend may harm the private hospital sector by affecting profitability and investment decisions. It may also harm the interests of public patients if public hospitals discriminate in favour of treating private patients.

While aspects of these concerns may be valid, there may also be some benefits to public hospitals treating more private patients.

A look at the figures

The report is correct that the numbers of private patients in public hospitals are increasing, at an average of 10.5% per year since 2011-12. Public patients in public hospitals and private patients in private hospitals have also been increasing, but at slower rates of only 2.7% and 4.5% per year respectively since 2011-12.

But percentage rates of change can be misleading. In raw numbers, the increase in public patients in public hospitals (527,467) and private patients in private hospitals (576,135) has actually outstripped the raw increase in private patients in public hospitals (287,473). This is because public patient numbers are increasing from a much larger base (over five million) than private patients in public hospitals (less than one million).

Concerns with this trend

The CHA report notes several concerns with the trend of increasing private patients in public hospitals. They note anecdotal evidence of public patients being pressured to “go private” with incentives including drinks vouchers, better food options and free parking. While these reports may seem concerning, it’s hard to base any change of policy on anecdotal reports.

More worrying is the suggestion that publicly-admitted patients in public hospitals are being discriminated against, for example by being made to wait longer for treatment. The CHA report cites data from an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report, which shows waiting times on public hospital waiting lists for public patients (at 42 days) was more than twice that of private patients in public hospitals (20 days).

But this difference is hard to interpret. There may be many differences in diagnosis and disease severity between public and private patients, which may explain the waiting time gap. So we can’t conclude this is evidence of any form of “discrimination” against patients without private health insurance in the public hospital system from these figures.

More robust evidence from public hospitals in NSW in 2004-05 does show private patients were prioritised over public patients. In this study, waiting times for elective surgery were found to be considerably shorter for private patients, despite having similar clinical needs as public patients.

Differences in waiting times between public and private patients were found to be largest for patients assigned to the lowest two urgency levels. In these cases, waiting times for public patients were more than twice as long as for private patients.

There is further evidence, also from NSW public hospitals, that public and private patients may be treated differently when they are assigned to an urgency category for waiting lists for elective surgery. The study suggested private patients were more likely to be assigned into more urgent admission categories, which corresponds with a shorter maximum wait for admission into hospital.

This study also found private patients were likely to receive more medical procedures while in hospital, but found no difference for length of hospital stay or, importantly, for mortality rates.

Potential benefits

One claim of the CHA report is that there has been relatively “stagnant” growth of activity of private patients in private hospitals, potentially affecting their profitability and investment decisions.

First, the figures don’t seem to back this up. The increase in numbers of private patients in private hospitals is actually higher than the increase in numbers of private patients in public hospitals.

Second, even if private hospitals were losing business to public hospitals, it could be a welcome demonstration of competition in the health care market. The trend may be explained through public hospitals providing better amenities, higher quality, or lower costs than private hospitals.

There are some arguments to support continuing the practice of public hospitals admitting private patients. There can be efficiency gains to the health system given that the fees and charges for private patients in public hospitals are usually lower than those in private hospitals. So this form of competition could lower the costs in the health system as a whole.

Additional revenue raised by public hospitals could also support the continual provision of services and programs for public patients, which may have been curtailed due to budget cuts to the public hospital system.

The public hospital system is often seen as unfairly treated by the private sector in how it bears costs for training junior doctors (which takes place overwhelmingly in the public system), and treating the most severely ill patients. From this perspective, it seems only fair to allow public hospitals to take their “share” of the more profitable private patients.

Why we need better data

It’s important to figure out whether private patients are receiving preferential treatment at the expense of public patients. One study found abolishing preferential access for private patients and admitting patients according to when they were listed for an elective procedure would only lead to a small improvement in waiting times for public patients.

This is because long waiting times for public patients are primarily due to budget constraints in public hospitals, and not because private patients are skipping the queue.

The available robust evidence on the treatment of private patients in public hospitals is from more than a decade ago, and it’s unclear if the disparities between how public and private patients are treated have improved or worsened.

The ConversationOne reason for the lack of high quality research on this topic is the restriction on access to detailed hospital data in Australia, which we need for robust studies. If we had access to more detailed data, we could better understand what’s happening now, and ensure timely access to high quality hospital care for both public and private patients.

Peter Sivey, Associate Professor, School of Economics, Finance and Marketing, RMIT University and Terence Cheng, Senior Lecturer, School of Economics, University of Adelaide

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

$89b shipbuilding plan is a major step forward – but sovereignty remains a problem

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The naval shipbuilding plan is undoubtedly a major step forward for industrial capability in Australia.
AAP/David Mariuz

Graeme Dunk, Australian National University

Australia’s long-awaited naval shipbuilding plan, released earlier this week, claims it is a national endeavour: The Conversation

… larger and more complex than the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme and the National Broadband Network.

Irrespective of this particular claim’s validity, the investment of A$89 billion for nine new frigates, 12 submarines and 12 offshore patrol vessels is a substantial commitment to Australia’s security. The plan is a comprehensive approach to establishing a continuous program for building these platforms in Australia.

Apart from the future introduction of these and other vessels into service, one of the plan’s key outcomes is a “sovereign Australian capability to deliver affordable and achievable naval shipbuilding and sustainment”. The development of a sovereign capability is stated as “the government’s clear priority”.

But what is sovereignty in this context? And is it attainable from the naval shipbuilding plan?

Two clear weaknesses

The plan has two interconnected weaknesses when it comes to sovereignty.

First, the Australian defence industry environment is dominated by companies whose parentage and ultimate control rest offshore. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But given the shipbuilding plan’s focus on Australian jobs and resources, it is a reality that needs confronting.

To that end one might have expected to see, both in this document and in earlier ones, a definition of Australia’s defence industry – what it is and, importantly, what it is not.

The UK’s 2005 description of its defence industry embraces the combination of local and offshore companies contributing to defence outcomes in terms of:

… where the technology is created, where the skills and intellectual property reside, where the jobs are created and sustained, and where the investment is made.

A similar definition for Australia would provide a foundation for sovereignty in the shipbuilding environment to be properly assessed. The plan suggests the Australian subsidiaries of offshore companies will be considered as sovereign without discussing how local control might be maintained, and how Australian sensitivities might be tackled.

The proposed definition for defence industry also highlights the second weakness of the shipbuilding plan: it is focused on building and sustaining the structural component (the “float” and “move” aspects), rather than the total capability the ship or submarine represents.

The lists of skills cited as necessary are those primarily associated with building and sustaining the structure. The shipbuilding plan gives scant coverage to the important combat system and weapons elements upon which the war-fighting capability rests.

The plan does not address the industrial capabilities necessary for the local maintenance and improvement of these ships. Access to the detailed design information for the combat and sensor systems in particular is required so that such systems can be upgraded locally if required. An offshore equipment supplier may not give the same priority to our needs.

The plan for naval shipbuilding in Australia says it will source many systems of the future frigate and other naval platforms from the US. However, the closest it gets to recognition of this reality in the context of sovereignty is that:

Australia’s alliance with the US, and the access to advanced technology and information it provides, will remain critical.

The plan therefore implies that sovereignty is sought for the “float” and “move” aspects of the naval capabilities, but not necessarily for the important “fight” aspects. This means the systems elements of ships and submarines will be tackled in some other context – outside the naval shipbuilding plan.

More than just ‘doing stuff’

The naval shipbuilding plan is undoubtedly a major step forward for industrial capability in Australia.

A successful implementation will provide significant benefits for the Navy in terms of force structure, for industry in terms of a long-term enterprise upon which to grow overall capability and capacity, for innovation, for workers in terms of continuity of effort, and for the development of shipbuilding-related STEM skills. These are all worthy outcomes.

But sovereignty is more than just “doing stuff” in the country.

If the plan really wanted to tackle sovereignty, it should have provided a foundation on which aspects of industrial and operational sovereignty could be properly assessed, prioritised and managed. It would also have addressed the systems aspects of ships, rather than just the structure.

Graeme Dunk, PhD Candidate, Australian National University

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

Man-Made Earthquakes Becoming Common

I guess it was only a matter if time before our meddling with the earth via fracking became a major problem, or perhaps better put, a bigger problem. Man-made earthquakes are now a reality, but this article suggests they have been around a lot longer than fracking.

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Pastor, Church Official Shot Dead in Nigeria

Muslim militants of Boko Haram blamed for killings in Borno state.

JOS, Nigeria, June 10 (CDN) — Muslim extremists from the Boko Haram sect on Tuesday (June 7) shot and killed a Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN) pastor and his church secretary in Maiduguri, in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state.

The Rev. David Usman, 45, and church secretary Hamman Andrew were the latest casualties in an upsurge of Islamic militancy that has engulfed northern Nigeria this year, resulting in the destruction of church buildings and the killing and maiming of Christians.

The Rev. Titus Dama Pona, pastor with the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) in Maiduguri, told Compass that Pastor Usman was shot and killed by the members of the Boko Haram near an area of Maiduguri called the Railway Quarters, where the slain pastor’s church is located.

Pona said Christians in Maiduguri have become full of dread over the violence of Boko Haram, which seeks to impose sharia (Islamic law) on northern Nigeria.

“Christians have become the targets of these Muslim militants – we no longer feel free moving around the city, and most churches no longer carry out worship service for fear of becoming targets of these unprovoked attacks,” Pona said.

Officials at COCIN’s national headquarters in Jos, Plateau state, confirmed the killing of Pastor Usman. The Rev. Logan Gongchi of a COCIN congregation in Kerang, Jos, told Compass that area Christians were shocked at the news.

Gongchi said he attended Gindiri Theological College with Pastor Usman beginning in August 2003, and that both of them were ordained into pastoral ministry on Nov. 27, 2009.

“We knew him to be very gentle, an introvert, who was always silent in the class and only spoke while answering questions from our teachers,” Gongchi said. “He had a simple lifestyle and was easygoing with other students. He was very accommodating and ready at all times to withstand life’s pressures – this is in addition to being very jovial.”

Gongchi described Usman as “a pastor to the core because of his humility. I remember he once told me that he was not used to working with peasant farmers’ working tools, like the hoe. But with time he adapted to the reality of working with these tools on the farm in the school.”

Pastor Usman was excellent at counseling Christians and others while they were at the COCIN theological college, Gongchi said, adding that the pastor greatly encouraged him when he was suffering a long illness from 2005 to 2007.

“His encouraging words kept my faith alive, and the Lord saw me overcoming my ill health,” he said. “So when I heard the news about his murder, I cried.”



The late pastor had once complained about the activities of Boko Haram, saying that unless the Nigerian government faced up to the challenge of its attacks, the extremist group would consume the lives of innocent persons, according to Gongchi.

“Pastor Usman once commented on the activities of the Boko Haram, which he said has undermined the church not only in Maiduguri, but in Borno state,” Gongchi said. “At the time, he urged us to pray for them, as they did not know how the problem will end.”

Gongchi advised the Nigerian government to find a lasting solution to Boko Haram’s violence, which has also claimed the lives of moderate Muslim leaders and police.

The Railway Quarters area in Maiduguri housed the seat of Boko Haram until 2009, when Nigerian security agencies and the military demolished its headquarters and captured and killed the sect’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, and some of his followers.

The killing of Pastor Usman marked the second attack on his church premises by the Muslim militants. The first attack came on July 29, 2009, when Boko Haram militants burned the church building and killed some members of his congregation.

On Monday (June 6), the militants had bombed the St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, along with other areas in Maiduguri, killing three people. In all, 14 people were killed in three explosions at the church and police stations, and authorities have arrested 14 people.

The Boko Haram name is interpreted figuratively as “against Western education,” but some say it can also refer to the forbidding of the Judeo-Christian faith. They say the word “Boko” is a corruption in Hausa language for the English word “Book,” referring to the Islamic scripture’s description of Jews and Christians as “people of the Book,” while “Haram” is a Hausa word derived from Arabic meaning, “forbidding.”

Boko Haram leaders have openly declared that they want to establish an Islamic theocratic state in Nigeria, and they reject democratic institutions, which they associate with Christianity. Their bombings and suspected involvement in April’s post-election violence in Nigeria were aimed at stifling democracy, which they see as a system of government built on the foundation of Christian scripture.

Christians as well as Muslims suffered many casualties after supporters of Muslim presidential candidate Muhammudu Buhari lost the April 16 federal election to Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian. Primarily Muslim rioters claimed vote fraud, although international observers praised the polls as the fairest since 1999.

Nigeria’s population of more than 158.2 million is almost evenly divided between Christians, who make up 51.3 percent of the population and live mainly in the south, and Muslims, who account for 45 percent of the population and live mainly in the north. The percentages may be less, however, as those practicing indigenous religions may be as high as 10 percent of the total population, according to Operation World.

Report From Compass Direct News


Nepal Christians Begin Legal Battle for Burial Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hindu Nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News

Malaysian Christians Seek to End Restrictions on Malay Bibles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Government Overtures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Christian Response

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

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

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

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

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


Muslim Reactions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News