Explainer: what are the media companies’ challenges to the AFP raids about?


Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, The University of Queensland

In the first week of June, the AFP raided the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC’s Sydney headquarters.

The raids concerned stories published over a year earlier, based on documents leaked from the Department of Defence. This week, the ABC and News Corp launched separate legal challenges to those raids. As David Anderson explained, the ABC is challenging the warrant “on several technical grounds that underline the fundamental importance of investigative journalism and protection of confidential sources”.




Read more:
Why the raids on Australian media present a clear threat to democracy


The ABC commenced proceedings in the federal court, whereas News Corp took its challenge directly to the High Court. Nonetheless, both cases will raise similar legal issues, with press freedom at the heart of each challenge.

Both the ABC and News Corp are arguing that the AFP warrants infringe the “implied freedom of political communication” protected by the Australian Constitution. This challenge sets national security and press freedom against one another and could lead to groundbreaking developments in constitutional law.

But a closer look reveals the thinness of the implied freedom as a true protection for press freedom and the need for clearer protections.

The Australian First Amendment? The implied freedom of political communication

The Australian Constitution contains very few rights. None resemble the US Constitution’s First Amendment which protects, among other things, free speech and a free press.

In 1992, the High Court read between the lines of our Constitution to hold that it protects the free flow of political communication. This implication was justified as necessary to protect our system of representative and responsible government and, specifically, to enable voters to make an informed choice at elections.

The implied freedom is not a right to free speech. First, it only protects political communication, not speech generally. Secondly, it is not a personal right that may be wielded against the government. Instead, the implied freedom is a limit on legislative power, and not an absolute one at that. This means the Constitution only prohibits Commonwealth, state and territory governments from passing legislation that unjustifiably limits political communication.

In recent High Court decisions, safe access zones around abortion clinics were upheld as justified restrictions on political communication, and in NSW, caps on third party political donations were struck down as unjustified restrictions.

The courts will consider three questions when they determine whether the law that supported the AFP raids violates the implied freedom. It is far from clear whether the media organisations’ challenges will pass this three-stage test.

Step 1: A burden on political communication?

The first question is whether the law burdens (restricts) political communication. In this case, the burden is unclear. The warrants were issued to further investigations into government leaks and the handling of classified information, but the leaks had happened and the stories published over a year earlier. In this sense, the political communication had run its course unhindered. If no burden on political communication is established then the challenge will fail.

On the other hand, the execution of the warrants is almost certain to stifle public interest reporting. The raids may deter journalists from investigating and publishing stories based on classified materials, even where they reveal corruption or misconduct.

Even more seriously, the raids will deter potential whistleblowers from speaking out. This impact may be too vague for the High Court to engage with – after all, how could a lawyer present evidence of a general chilling effect? Nonetheless, it is a serious and severe consequence of police crackdowns on media, with a direct impact on each voters’ capacity to make a true and informed choice at the ballot box.

Step 2: A legitimate purpose?

If there is a burden on political communication, the second stage of the test will ask whether the burden is for legitimate purpose – that is, a purpose compatible with our system of government.

While some may criticise the AFP raids as reflecting an illegitimate purpose of targeting journalism critical of the government, the warrants also undoubtedly had a legitimate aim: the maintenance of national security by ensuring the integrity of government secrets.

Step 3: A proportionate measure?

This third stage of the test is the trickiest. It asks whether the restriction on political communication is justified and proportionate in light of its legitimate purpose. Is it tailored to that purpose? Were there alternative, less-restrictive measures that could have been adopted? In this kind of balancing exercise, reasonable minds can, and will, differ.

National security is a serious concern that goes to the very existence of the nation. It is universally accepted that some rights and freedoms must bend to the security of the nation.

Press freedom, on the other hand, including source confidentiality and the capacity to report on government misconduct, is critical to the rule of law and our democratic system. The courts will be faced with the question of when national security justifies the erosion of press freedom, and when it does not. This is no easy or predictable task.

In the context of the AFP raids, the present threat to national security posed by the published articles appears to be weak. On one view, the burden on political communication was severe and arguably unjustified, provided the court accepts the chilling effect that the raids will have on journalists and whistleblowers.

Alternatively, the limit on communication may be nonexistent, as the raids didn’t prevent the stories from being published. There are likely to be further interests and facts that weigh into this balance.

On available information, it is only clear the ABC and News Corp will face a number of complex and unpredictable hurdles in convincing a court that the warrant powers violate the Constitution.

The protection of press freedom

The implied freedom of political communication serves an important purpose in protecting political speech from unjustified infringement. Its capacity to protect press freedom remains untested before the High Court, and this challenge presents a golden opportunity for the court to recognise the place of the fourth estate within our constitutional framework.

But the implied freedom is not a right to free speech or a free press. It hinges on the concept of “justification”, and when national security is placed on the scales it is difficult to find a counterweight to meet it. Hence national security is regularly invoked to justify infringements of our basic rights and freedoms, and it is difficult to know how and when these infringements are unnecessary.




Read more:
Media raids raise questions about AFP’s power and weak protection for journalists and whistleblowers


Robust protection of press freedom in Australia is unlikely to be achieved through the interpretation of a Constitution that makes no reference to the fourth estate, freedom of speech, the rule of law, or other basic rights or freedoms. Clearer protections are needed. This could take the form of legislative recognition of press freedom.

Charters of Rights such as those in Victoria, the ACT and Queensland also operate to ensure basic freedoms are taken into account, not just in court but in parliament and across all public sector decision-making. This approach has clear advantages over the technical and unpredictable application of implied constitutional freedoms months after the event.

In the absence of these kinds of reforms at a national level, we wait to see if the High Court will once again read between the lines of our Constitution and recognise a central place for the free press in Australia.The Conversation

Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, Senior Lecturer, TC Beirne School of Law, The University of Queensland

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

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Why the raids on Australian media present a clear threat to democracy



On Wednesday, the AFP raided the ABCs Sydney headquarters in relation to the 2017 “Afghan files” report.
AAP/David Gray

Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, The University of Queensland

The Australian Federal Police has this week conducted two high-profile raids on journalists who have exposed government secrets and their sources.

On Tuesday, seven AFP officers spent several hours searching News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s Canberra home, her mobile phone and computer. The AFP linked the raid to “the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret”.

This stemmed from Smethurst’s 2018 article, which contained images of a “top secret” memo and reported that senior government officials were considering moves to empower the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to covertly monitor Australian citizens for the first time.

Soon after, 2GB Radio Presenter Ben Fordham revealed he had been notified by the Department of Home Affairs that he was the subject of a similar investigation, aimed at identifying the source of classified information he had reported regarding intercepted boat arrivals.

And then on Wednesday, the AFP raided the ABC’s Sydney headquarters. This dramatic development was in connection with the 2017 “Afghan files” report based on “hundreds of pages of secret defence force documents leaked to the ABC”. These documents revealed disturbing allegations of misconduct by Australian special forces.

The reaction to the raids was immediate and widespread.

The New York Times quoted News Corp’s description of the Smethurst raid as “a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths”. The Prime Minister was quick to distance his government from the AFP’s actions, while opposition leader Anthony Albanese condemned the raids.

But to those familiar with the ever-expanding field of Australian national security law, these developments were unlikely to surprise. In particular, enhanced data surveillance powers and a new suite of secrecy offences introduced in late 2018 had sparked widespread concern over the future of public interest journalism in Australia.

The crackdown of the past few days reveals that at least two of the core fears expressed by lawyers and the media industry were well-founded: first, the demise of source confidentiality and, secondly, a chilling effect on public interest journalism.

Source confidentiality

Upon finding out he was the subject of an investigation aimed at uncovering his sources of government information, Ben Fordham declared

The chances of me revealing my sources is zero. Not today, not tomorrow, next week or next month. There is not a hope in hell of that happening.

Source confidentiality is one of journalists’ most central ethical principles. It is recognised by the United Nations and is vital to a functioning democracy and free, independent, robust and effective media.

One of the greatest threats to source confidentiality is Australia’s uniquely broad data surveillance framework. The 2015 metadata retention scheme requires that all metadata (that is, data about a device or communication but not, say, the communication itself) be retained for two years. It may then be covertly accessed by a wide array of government agencies without a warrant. Some reports suggest that by late 2018, some 350,000 requests for access to metadata were being received by telecommunications service providers each year.




Read more:
Data retention plan amended for journalists, but is it enough?


The government was not blind to the potential impact of this scheme on source confidentiality. For example, obtaining metadata relating to a journalist’s mobile phone could reveal where they go and who they contact and easily point to their sources.

This led to the introduction of the “Journalist Information Warrant” (JIW). This warrant is required if an agency wishes to access retained metadata for the direct purpose of identifying a professional journalist’s source.

So, access to a professional journalist’s metadata in order to identify a confidential source is permitted, provided the access has a particular criminal investigation or enforcement purpose and the agency can show it is in the public interest and therefore obtain a JIW.

This week’s raids suggest that either JIWs could not be obtained in relation to Smethurst, Fordham or the ABC Journalists, or the journalists’ metadata did not reveal their sources, or the AFP did not attempt to access their metadata.

Alternatively, if metadata had identified the journalists’ sources, it is less clear why these dramatic developments took place.

After 2015, journalists were advised to avoid using their mobile devices in source communications. They were also encouraged, wherever possible, to encrypt communications.

But in 2018, the government went some way to closing down this option when it introduced the complex and highly controversial Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018.

As well as expanding computer access and network access warrants, the Act provided a means for government agencies to co-opt those in the telecommunications industry to assist agencies with their investigations. This could include covertly installing weaknesses and vulnerabilities in specific devices, circumventing passwords or allowing encrypted communications to be decrypted. A warrant would then be required to access the device and communication data.

It is impossible to know whether Australian journalists have been targeted under the Act or had weaknesses or spyware installed on their personal devices. This week’s raids suggest the AFP would be prepared to target journalists under this framework in order to identify journalists’ confidential sources.

However, this could only be done for some purposes, including in the investigation of a secrecy offence.

Secrecy offences

In June 2018, the government introduced a suite of new espionage, foreign interference and secrecy offences. This included an offence of current or former Commonwealth officers communicating information, obtained by virtue of their position, likely to cause harm to Australia’s interests. This offence is punishable by imprisonment for seven years. If the information is security classified or the person held a security classification, then they may have committed an “aggravated offence” and be subject to ten years’ imprisonment.

This week’s raids reveal just how common it is for public interest journalism to rely on secret material and government sources.




Read more:
Government needs to slow down on changes to spying and foreign interference laws


But the journalists themselves may also be facing criminal prosecution. The 2018 changes include a “general secrecy offence”, whereby it is an offence (punishable by imprisonment for five years) to communicate classified information obtained from a Commonwealth public servant. Fordham’s radio broadcast about intercepted boat arrivals was, for example, a clear communication of classified information.

Again, journalists are offered some protection. If prosecuted, a journalist can seek to rely on the “journalism defence” by proving that they dealt with the information as a journalist, and that they reasonably believed the communication to be in the public interest. The meaning of “public interest” is unclear and, in this context, untested. However, it will take into account the public interest in national security and government integrity secrecy concerns as well as openness and accountability.

Protecting media freedom

Australia has more national security laws than any other nation. It is also the only liberal democracy lacking a Charter of Human Rights that would protect media freedom through, for example, rights to free speech and privacy.

In this context, journalists are in a precarious position – particularly journalists engaged in public interest journalism. This journalism is vital to government accountability and a vibrant democracy, but has a tense relationship with Australia’s national interests as conceived by government.

National security law has severely undercut source confidentiality by increasing and easing data surveillance. National security laws have also criminalised a wide array of conduct related to the handling of sensitive government information, both by government officers and the general public.

And these laws are just a few parts of a much larger national security framework that includes: control orders, preventative detention orders, ASIO questioning and detention warrants, secret evidence, and offences of espionage, foreign interference, advocating or supporting terrorism, and more.

JIWs, and the inclusion of a journalism defence to the secrecy offence, recognise the importance of a free press. However, each of these protections relies on a public interest test. When government claims of national security and the integrity of classifications is weighed into this balance, it is difficult to see how other interests might provide an effective counterbalance.

One of the most disturbing outcomes is not prosecutions or even the raids themselves, but the chilling of public interest journalism. Sources are less likely to come forward, facing risk to themselves and a high likelihood of identification by government agencies. And journalists are less likely to run stories, knowing the risks posed to their sources and perhaps even to themselves.

Against this background, the calls for a Media Freedom Act, such as by the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, have gained significant traction. It may take this kind of bold statement to cut across the complexities of individual laws and both recognise and protect the basic freedom of the press and the future of public interest journalism in Australia.The Conversation

Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, Senior Lecturer, TC Beirne School of Law, The University of Queensland

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

Christian Woman Freed from Muslim Kidnappers in Pakistan


Captors tried to force mother of seven to convert to Islam.

LAHORE, Pakistan, March 11 (CDN) — A Christian mother of seven here who last August was kidnapped, raped, sold into marriage and threatened with death if she did not convert to Islam was freed this week.

After she refused to convert and accept the marriage, human traffickers had threatened to kill Shaheen Bibi, 40, and throw her body into the Sindh River if her father, Manna Masih, did not pay a ransom of 100,000 rupees (US$1,170) by Saturday (March 5), the released woman told Compass.   

Drugged into unconsciousness, Shaheen Bibi said that when she awoke in Sadiqabad, her captors told her she had been sold and given in marriage.

“I asked them who they were,” she said. “They said that they were Muslims, to which I told them that I was a married Christian woman with seven children, so it was impossible for me to marry someone, especially a Muslim.”

Giving her a prayer rug (musalla), her captors – Ahmed Baksh, Muhammad Amin and Jaam Ijaz – tried to force her to convert to Islam and told her to recite a Muslim prayer, she said.

“I took the musalla but prayed to Jesus Christ for help,” she said. “They realized that I should be returned to my family.”

A member of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Lahore, Shaheen Bibi said she was kidnapped in August 2010 after she met a woman named Parveen on a bus on her way to work. She said Parveen learned where she worked and later showed up there in a car with two men identified as Muhammad Zulfiqar and Shah. They offered her a job at double her salary and took her to nearby Thokar Niaz Baig.

There she was given tea with some drug in it, and she began to fall unconscious as the two men raped her, she said. Shaheen Bibi was unconscious when they put her in a vehicle, and they gave her sedation injections whenever she regained her senses, she said.

When she awoke in Sadiqabad, Baksh, Amin and Ijaz informed her that she had been sold into marriage with Baksh. They showed her legal documents in which she was given a Muslim name, Sughran Bibi daughter of Siddiq Ali. After Baksh had twice raped her, she said, his mother interjected that she was a “persistent Christian” and that therefore he should stay away from her.

Shaheen Bibi, separated from an abusive husband who had left her for another woman, said that after Baksh’s mother intervened, her captors stopped hurting her but kept her in chains.

 

Release

Her father, Masih, asked police to take action, but they did nothing as her captors had taken her to a remote area between the cities of Rahim Yar Khan and Sadiqabad, considered a “no-go” area ruled by dangerous criminals.

Masih then sought legal assistance from the Community Development Initiative (CDI), a human rights affiliate of the European Center for Law & Justice. With the kidnappers giving Saturday (March 5) as a deadline for payment of the ransom, CDI attorneys brought the issue to the notice of high police officials in Lahore and on March 4 obtained urgent legal orders from Model Town Superintendent of Police Haidar Ashraf to recover Shaheen, according to a CDI source.

The order ultimately went to Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI) Asghar Jutt of the Nashtar police station. Police accompanied by a CDI field officer raided the home of a contact person for the captors in Lahore, Naheed Bibi, the CDI source said, and officers arrested her in Awami Colony, Lahore.

With Naheed Bibi along, CDI Field Officer Haroon Tazeem and Masih accompanied five policemen, including ASI Jutt, on March 5 to Khan Baila, near Rahim Yar Khan – a journey of 370 miles, arriving that evening. Area police were not willing to cooperate and accompany them, telling them that Khan Baila was a “no-go area” they did not enter even during daytime, much less at night.

Jutt told area police that he had orders from high officials to recover Shaheen Bib, and that he and Tazeem would lead the raid, the CDI source said. With Nashtar police also daring them to help, five local policemen decided to go with them for the operation, he said.

At midnight on Sunday (March 6), after some encounters and raids in a jungle area where houses are miles apart, the rescue team managed to get hold of Shaheen Bibi, the CDI source said. The captors handed over Shaheen Bibi on the condition that they would not be the targets of further legal action, the CDI source said.

Sensing that their foray into the danger zone had gone on long enough, Tazeem and Jutt decided to leave but told them that those who had sold Shaheen Bib in Lahore would be brought to justice.

Fatigued and fragile when she arrived in Lahore on Monday (March 7), Shaheen Bibi told CDN through her attorneys that she would pursue legal action against those who sold her fraudulently into slavery and humiliation.

She said that she had been chained to a tree outside a house, where she prayed continually that God would help her out of the seemingly impossible situation. After the kidnappers gave her father the March 5 deadline last week, Shaheen Bibi said, at one point she lifted her eyes in prayer, saw a cross in the sky and was comforted that God’s mighty hand would release her even though her father had no money to pay ransom.

On four previous occasions, she said, her captors had decided to kill her and had changed their mind.

Shaheen Bibi said there were about 10 other women in captivity with her, some whose hands or legs were broken because they had refused to be forcibly given in marriage. Among the women was one from Bangladesh who had abandoned hope of ever returning home as she had reached her 60s in captivity.

Masih told CDN that he had prayed that God would send help, as he had no money to pay the ransom. The day before the deadline for paying the ransom, he said, he had 100 rupees (less than US$2) in his pocket.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christian Girls Kidnapped in Yemen Are Rescued


Parents, other abducted Christians remain missing.

ISTANBUL, May 18 (CDN) — Saudi Arabian and Yemeni security forces rescued two German girls yesterday, 11 months after the two young sisters, their parents, brother and four other Christians were taken hostage in Yemen.

Reported to be between 3 and 6 years old, the two girls, Lydia Hentschel and her younger sister Anna Hentschel, were part of a group of nine Christian foreigners who were kidnapped on June 12 last year. Three of the adult hostages, a Korean and two German women, were murdered shortly afterwards.

The foreigners worked in a hospital near the city of Saada. No group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. Although the German family, a British man, and the three murdered women were Christians, it was not clear if they were kidnapped because of their faith.

There was no indication as to the whereabouts of the girls’ parents, Johannes and Sabine Hentschel, the girls’ 2-year-old brother Simon, and the Briton, identified only as Anthony.

The two girls were found in a disputed border region between Yemen and Saudi Arabia during Saudi cross-border raids in the northern region of Saada, according to Reuters. Saudi and Yemeni security forces collaborated in the operation to free the sisters.

Over the last year violent clashes have flared between Yemeni government forces and the Houthi armed group in Saada. The fighting has reportedly hindered efforts to locate the missing foreigners.

Reuters quoted the German foreign minister as saying the two young sisters were in “relatively good health” and would be transported from Saudi Arabia to Germany on Wednesday (May 19). Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he remained concerned about the safety of the rest of the German family.

Westerwelle told Reuters that learning the whereabouts of the remaining hostages remains a high priority, with efforts “continuing undiminished” and hopes still alive.

Today CNN reported that a spokesman for the German family said it was likely that the youngest sibling, Simon, was dead, since he was not found along with the two sisters.

In the last 15 years nearly 200 foreign nationals have been kidnapped in Yemen, and most have been released unharmed, Reuters reported.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Kyrgyzstan: Religious freedom survey, December 2009


In its survey analysis of freedom of religion or belief in Kyrgyzstan, Forum 18 News Service finds that the state continues to violate its commitments to implement freedom of religion or belief for all. Limitations on this fundamental freedom and other human rights have increased – in both law and practice – under President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

A harsh new Religion Law was adopted in 2009, despite international protests, and a similarly harsh new Law on Religious Education and Educational Institutions is being drafted. There are also plans for a new Law on Traditional Religions.

State actions, including banning unregistered religious activity and raids on meetings for worship, show little sign of either a willingness to implement human rights commitments, or an understanding that genuine security depends on genuine respect for human rights.

As a Baha’i put it to Forum 18: "Our country has so many urgent problems – poverty, the lack of medicine, AIDS, crime, corruption. Why don’t officials work on these instead of making life harder for religious believers?" Kyrgyzstan faces the UN Universal Periodic Review process in May 2010.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Uzbekistan: Prison sentences for registered worship service


Some twenty Anti-Terror Police officers raided the regular Sunday afternoon worship service of the registered Donam Protestant church in the capital Tashkent on 23 August, claiming it was “unauthorised”.

Seven church members were arrested and Christian literature was confiscated, Protestants told Forum 18 News Service. Three men were soon freed but four – including the church’s pastor, Vladimir Tyo – were sentenced to 15-day prison terms for “violation of the procedure for organising and conducting meetings”, even though the regular service was included in the required quarterly report to the city Justice Department.

The court verdict also records that the judge ordered the confiscated literature destroyed without giving any reason. Raids on both registered and unregistered religious communities, fines, imprisonment and confiscation of religious literature are frequent in Uzbekistan.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

ERITREA: THIRD CHRISTIAN THIS YEAR DIES IN MILITARY PRISON


LOS ANGELES, July 27 (Compass Direct News) – Another Christian imprisoned for his faith in Eritrea has died from authorities denying him medical treatment, according to a Christian support organization.

Sources told Netherlands-based Open Doors that Yemane Kahasay Andom, 43, died Thursday (July 23) at Mitire Military Confinement Center.

A member of the Kale-Hiwot church in Mendefera, Andom was said to be secretly buried in the camp.

Weakened by continuous torture, Andom was suffering from a severe case of malaria, Open Doors reported in a statement today.

“He was allegedly further weakened by continuous physical torture and solitary confinement in an underground cell the two weeks prior to his death for his refusal to sign a recantation form,” the organization said. “It is not clear what the contents of the recantation form were, but most Christians interpret the signing of such a form as the denouncement of their faith in Christ.”

Andom is the third known Christian to die this year at the Mitire camp, located in northeastern Eritrea. Mogos Hagos Kiflom, 37, was said to have died from torture at the same center in early January. On Jan. 16, Mehari Gebreneguse Asgedom, 42, died in solitary confinement at the Mitire camp from torture and complications from diabetes, according to Open Doors.

It was not immediately known whether Andom was married or how many family members survive him. He had spent the past 18 months at the Mitire camp.

Last October Open Doors learned of the death of another Christian, Teklesenbet Gebreab Kiflom, 36, who died while imprisoned for his faith at the Wi’a Military Confinement Center. He was reported to have died after prison commanders refused to give him medical attention for malaria.

In June 2008, 37-year-old Azib Simon died from untreated malaria as well. Weakened by torture, sources told Compass, Simon contracted malaria only a week before she died.

With the death of Andom last week, the number of Christians who have died while imprisoned for their faith in Eritrea now total nine. Along with the two Christians who died in January and Kiflom and Azib last year, Nigisti Haile, 33, tied from torture on Sept. 5, 2007; Magos Solomon Semere, 30, died from torture and pneumonia at Adi-Nefase Confinement Center, outside Assab, in February 2007; Immanuel Andegergesh, 23, died in Adi-Quala Confinement Center in October 2006 from torture and dehydration; and also at the Adi-Qaula center, Kibrom Firemichel, 30, died from torture and dehydration also in October 2006.

More than 2,800 Christians remain imprisoned for their faith in Eritrea, according to Open Doors.

The Eritrean government in May 2002 outlawed all religious groups except Islam and the Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran churches. The government of President Isaias Afwerki has stepped up its campaign against churches it has outlawed, once again earning it a spot on the U.S. Department of State’s latest list of worst violators of religious freedom.

Incarcerated Christians from throughout Eritrea have been transferred to the Mitire prison. In April Open Doors learned that 27 Christian prisoners held at police stations in the Eritrean capital of Asmara had been transferred to the Mitire military camp for further punishment.

They included a pastor identified only as Oqbamichel of the Kale-Hiwot Church, pastor Habtom Twelde of the Full Gospel Church, a pastor identified only as Jorjo of the Full Gospel Church, two members of the Church of the Living God identified only as Tesfagaber and Hanibal, Berhane Araia of the Full Gospel Church and Michel Aymote of the Philadelphia Church.

On April 17, according to the organization, 70 Christians were released from the Mitire military facility, including 11 women imprisoned for six months for allegedly failing to complete their required 18 months of military service. The Christians said that authorities simply told them to go home and that they had no idea why they had been released. They had been originally arrested in Asmara, Dekemhare, Keren, Massawa and Mendefera and transported to Mitire for punishment.

Eritrean officials have routinely denied that religious oppression exists in the country, saying the government is only enforcing laws against unregistered churches.

The government has denied all efforts by independent Protestant churches to register, and people caught worshipping outside the four recognized religious institutions, even in private homes, suffer arrest, torture and severe pressure to deny their faith. The Eritrean Orthodox Church and its flourishing renewal movement have also been subject to government raids.

Reliable statistics are not available, but the U.S. Department of State estimates that 50 percent of Eritrea’s population is Sunni Muslim, 30 percent is Orthodox Christian, and 13 percent is Roman Catholic. Protestants and Seventh-day Adventists, along with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Hindus, and Baha’is make up less than 5 percent of the population.

Report from Compass Direct News 

CHINA: OFFICE BECOMES NEW FORCE FOR RELIGIOUS REPRESSION


Government seminar on house churches, once considered encouraging, results in crackdown.

DUBLIN, July 2 (Compass Direct News) – Amid vigorous debate among scholars in China on the status of house churches, one prominent scholar has suggested the government offer more openness and legal standing to house church Christians, but authorities have reacted with raids, arrests, forced church closures and a ban on the Chinese Federation of Christian House Churches.

Scholar Yu Jianrong and others have concluded that house churches are a positive influence on society, but the government is wary of such influence, particularly since Yu’s research estimated the total number of Protestant house church Christians at between 45 and 60 million, with another 18 to 30 million attending government-approved churches – potentially putting the number of Christians higher than that of Communist Party members, which number around 74 million.

The one-year, government-commissioned study by Yu and associates suggested that officials should seek to integrate house churches and no longer regard them as enemies of the state.

Yu, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Rural Development Institute, used a combination of interviews, field surveys and policy reviews to gather information on house churches in several provinces from October 2007 to November 2008.

After comparing various research statistics, Yu determined that Protestant house church members numbered between 45 and 60 million, with another 18 to 30 million attending government-approved churches. He acknowledged in one interview, however, that the total number of Protestant Christians might be as high as 100 million.

Highlighting discrepancies between government figures and those from other sources, Yu claimed that some official churches under-reported attendance to deflect government scrutiny, while some Christian organizations working in China inflated house church figures to attract support from foreign donors.

Yu then examined the rapid growth of house churches and concluded that love and concern for fellow believers and the evangelistic nature of Christianity were key factors driving the growth of the church.

Yu’s team found that most house or “family” churches fit into one of three broad categories: traditional house churches, open house churches or urban emerging churches. Traditional house churches were generally smaller, family-based churches, meeting in relative secrecy. Though not a Christian himself, Yu attended some of these meetings and was impressed by the religious devotion of church members; he also noted that the focus was not on democracy or human rights but rather on spiritual life and community.

The “open” house churches were less secretive and had more members, sometimes advertising their services and holding public gatherings, he found. Urban emerging churches functioned quite openly but independently of government-approved Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) churches. In some provinces such as Wenzhou, these churches had constructed their own buildings and operated without interference from local officials.

While some house churches actively seek registration with authorities to avoid arrests and harassment, they would like the option of registering outside the government-approved TSPM structure, as they disagree with TSPM beliefs and controls. Many unregistered evangelical Protestant groups refuse to register with TSPM due to theological differences, fear of adverse consequences if they reveal names and addresses of church leaders or members or fear that it will control sermon content.

In a speech at Beijing’s Peking University last December, Yu noted clear differences in the training of TSPM and house church clergy and suggested that legal acceptance of house churches would lead to more balanced, transparent training of house church leaders. Secrecy and suspicion on both sides had made the issue unnecessarily sensitive, Yu added, calling on the government to initiate dialogue so that tensions could be resolved.

“I think we have reason to use Christianity to advance the democratization of China,” Yu said in closing.

Government Seminar on House Churches

A summary of Yu’s findings was presented at a government seminar on “Christianity and Social Harmony – Special Session on the Chinese House Church,” organized by the China State Council Development Research Center on Nov. 21-22, 2008.

The seminar was the first of its kind organized by the government, and some house church leaders were encouraged by the move. But shortly afterwards, the Ministry of Civil Affairs banned the Chinese Federation of Christian House Churches on grounds that it lacked proper registration.

Studies had shown that there were 10 times as many unregistered Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) as registered ones, and that NGOs run by house churches had played a significant role in relief work after the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province.

In a commentary on “Religious Demography and House Churches” that appeared online in February, scholar Yantao Bi said the Ministry of Civil Affairs, in banning the Federation, had become “the third major force along with public security bureaus and the department of religion in repressing house churches,” and that a large sector of civil society had now been defined as illegal.

The November seminar resulted in a new crackdown on house churches in December, Yantao said, but it at least stimulated discussion on the issue.

A second meeting on Dec. 1, 2008, organized by Beijing academic Dr. Fan Yafeng, brought together only a group of NGO representatives to discuss issues relating to house church identity in China, according to a Voice of America report in January. The meeting was later mistakenly portrayed in international media as being authorized by the Chinese government.

Participants had intended to “indirectly pass our opinions to the government and appeal for a legal identity for the house church,” Wang Shuangyan, a Beijing house church leader, told Voice of America in January. “It’s true, the government has not responded. But this is our attitude – we will not give up on negotiation and legal identity.”

Said another participant who requested anonymity, “We hope that, through discussions on the relationship between the house churches and the government, we will impact future policy on religion.”

Confused Approach

More raids over the past month illustrate what scholar Yu described as a confused approach to religion, with authorities leaving some house churches to operate openly while other churches were specifically targeted for arrests and closure.

On June 24, police released house church leaders Liu Caili and Huang Shumin of the Taochuan Village church in Shaanxi province after 10 days of detention for engaging in “illegal religious activities,” while a third leader, Xu Fenying, was released on June 19 after five days of detention, the China Aid Association (CAA) reported.

Police had arrested the leaders at their homes or places of business on June 14; all three were shown in handcuffs on a local television broadcast. Earlier, on June 5, authorities declared the church closed after Christians advocated for justice on behalf of peasants in the village.

Authorities in Langzhong city, Sichuan province on June 20 released 18 house church leaders arrested on June 9. Police had initially arrested a total of 30 house church leaders who had gathered at the church of Pastor Li Ming, but 12 were released later that same day.

On June 14, officials from the Zhengzhou Municipal Bureau of Religion and Bureau of State Security forcibly interrupted services of the Rock house church in Zhengzhou City, Henan, CAA reported. Officials occupied all the rooms and took video footage and photos of those present, before detaining six Christians, including pastor Dou Shaowen and his wife Feng Lu.

Officials also read out a public notice from the local Ethnic Religious Affairs office stating that, “it has been found through investigation that Dou Shaowen, Feng Lu and other individuals who call themselves missionaries have established a site for religious activities without approval … where they engage in illegal religious activities … Dou Shawen, Feng Lu and others are hereby ordered to immediately stop all the illegal religious activities at this site.”

Church members insisted on finishing their worship service even after officials cut off the electricity supply. Officials then sealed off the building and declared the Rock church abolished.

Finally, on June 4, authorities began disrupting services of the Autumn Rain church in Chengdu, Sichuan province, preventing members from entering their rented facilities for Sunday worship, according to CAA. On June 21, as church members gathered for a conference in a nearby hotel, at least 10 police officers entered the building and called the meeting to a halt. Officer Huang Wei then read out a statement declaring Autumn Rain Church to be an “unregistered social organization,” making it subject to administrative penalties such as the confiscation of church property and the cessation of all church activities.

Church members had initially planned to continue the conference on the banks of a nearby river, but this proved impossible as approximately 100 riot police and plainclothes officers were deployed both inside and outside the hotel.

Autumn Rain church has decided to continue holding services, appeal the imposed penalties and publicly apply to register the church at the Chengdu Municipal Bureau of Civil Affairs, in the hope that this may resolve ongoing difficulties with local authorities.

Report from Compass Direct News