Ideas of home and ownership in Australia might explain the neglect of renters’ rights



File 20181024 169804 rsn6h3.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
People should be able to feel at home regardless of whether they own the place they live in.
Halfpoint/Shutterstock

Bronwyn Bate, Western Sydney University

In Australia, when we think of home, we think of ownership. This normalisation of home ownership is reflected in the “Great Australian Dream”, the belief that it’s the best way to achieve financial security. This “dream” is based on the premise that if you work hard you will one day be able to buy a home. Home ownership is an important goal for many Australians. Home ownership implies success.

Linked to the importance of home ownership are our conceptions of home – what home means and the ways home can and should be made. Popular understandings of home suggest that feelings of home are most easily created between a house and the person who owns it.




Read more:
‘Just like home’. New survey finds most renters enjoy renting, although for many it’s expensive


What is home?

So ingrained is this relationship between home and ownership that in my recently published paper I argue that research rarely considers the ways non-owners make and think about home. This is problematic, given recent housing trends.

Recent changes in housing, particularly the increased cost of home ownership and curbing of public housing, have created a greater demand for rental housing. As a result, there is an undersupply of privately rented housing in Australia.

Australian tenancy laws add to the insecurity of the private rental sector. Tenancy laws and policy reflect cultural norms in Australia, where private renting is seen as a form of short-term, transitional housing.

Recently, significant media and public attention has been directed at the impact of state-based tenancy legislation. It is argued that tenancy laws need to be changed to reflect current housing trends and the needs of many tenants to have long-term, secure housing.




Read more:
When falling home ownership and ageing baby boomers collide


Rental insecurity is a persistent source of stress for many tenants. It’s a key reason that many tenants struggle to feel at home in their rental property. A person’s ability to identify feelings of home with their dwelling has been shown to impact psychological health and overall well-being.

My research findings suggest that while tenancy law affects the ways we understand and make home, likewise, our meanings of home affect how we shape and understand tenure and policy. Australian tenancy law reflects broader cultural values that associate the meaning and making of home with home ownership.

While researchers and policymakers focus on how tenancy law can negatively affect or restrict renters within their homes, the actual practices of home-making by renters are often overlooked. Current understandings of home typically reference what home means to home owners. My research points to the importance of understanding the ways private renters make home – and make home meaningful – so that any changes to tenancy law reflect the needs of tenants.




Read more:
Life as an older renter, and what it tells us about the urgent need for tenancy reform


Is having a home a right or a privilege?

While there is no doubt that small changes are being made, perhaps the lack of consideration for tenants in tenancy laws and policy is indicative of our larger beliefs about what it is to “feel” at home and make a home. The “Great Australian Dream” is based on the belief that hard work will eventually lead to home ownership. Yet owning a home is becoming impossible for many people, irrespective of how hard they work.

If we understand home to be a basic right, then we will have policies that reflect this. If we understand home to be a privilege, reserved only for those who manage to achieve home ownership, then we will forever live in a country where tenure security and a feeling of being “home” are reserved for those who are able to buy a house. Consequently, our policies will continue to support the idea that, ultimately, a rental property cannot be “home” to a tenant.

The question then remains: do we consider home a right or a privilege? This issue is at the very heart of Australia’s housing crisis. Until we change our meaning of home by separating it from ownership, we will never be able to “fix” Australia’s housing crisis.




Read more:
What do single, older women want? Their ‘own little space’ (and garden) to call home, for a start


The Conversation


Bronwyn Bate, PhD Candidate, Urban Research Program, Western Sydney University

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

Advertisements

Renters Beware: how the pension and super could leave you behind



File 20181102 83632 ws4yw1.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Super and the pension treat most retirees well, but not renters.
Shutterstock

Rafal Chomik, UNSW

How we fund retirement in an ageing century ought to worry all of us.

But one group of us should be much more worried than the rest.

In a new set of research briefs published by the Centre of Excellence of Population Ageing Research, we report that most people do well out of our retirement income system and that the living standard of retirees has improved over the past decade.

In international comparisons, our system ranks highly, for good reason.

Most retirees do well

About 60% of older Australians can afford a lifestyle better than that deemed to be “modest” by widely used standards.

Households headed by baby boomers reaching retirement age between 2006 and 2016 did so with incomes 45% higher than those who retired a decade earlier.

Typical boomer households aged in their late 60s earn almost as much as they did when they were still working – only 20% less, that is, with about 80% of their working income maintained.

And their needs are lower. Lower spending in retirement is common because older households need to pay less for transport, less for working clothes, and have more time to cook.

Many continue to save while in retirement.




Read more:
Please, not another super scheme, Mr Keating. It’s what the pension is for


And they tend to spend less over time, rather than more over time as benchmarks publicised by the superannuation industry assume.

When we included the value of living rent-free for the 80% or more of retirees who own their own home (about A$10,000 per year on average), we found older Australians live in no more poverty than working age Australians.

But not renters

The living standards of those who rent in retirement are very different. Only about 15% of older renters can afford a lifestyle better than “modest”.

Single renters are particularly badly off.

Among all older people only about 10% fall below the poverty line set at half the median income.

Among older Australians who rent, 40% fall below.

Among older Australians who rent alone, it’s more than 60%.


https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/Oyddt/1/


If that relative poverty measure seems too abstract, an absolute dollar figure might help.

Alarming research aired on the ABC in September found that, on average, aged care homes were spending $6.08 per day on food per resident.



Our research finds that among pensioners who rent alone, one quarter spend even less than that per day.

And it’s getting worse

The pension has always favoured home owners.

On the one hand it is insufficient for renters and on the other it doesn’t cut pension payments to the owners of very valuable homes, because the value of any home – no matter how big – is excluded from the pension means test.




Read more:
Let’s talk about the family home … and its exemption from the pension means test


Rental assistance, introduced to complement the pension in the 1980s, was meant to alleviate this, and to some extent it does.

But it climbs only in line with the consumer price index every six months, which usually fails to keep pace with rents.




Read more:
Life as an older renter, and what it tells us about the urgent need for tenancy reform


Sydney rents have doubled over the past two decades. The consumer price index has climbed 68%.

As a result, rental assistance is less effective in reducing financial stress than it was when it was introduced, and is set to become even less effective if rents continue to climb more quickly than the price index.

And more of us look set to rent

Households headed by Australians aged 35 to 44 are now 10 percentage points less likely to own their own home than were households headed by people of the same age a generation earlier.

They might be merely postponing buying homes until they are older as more of what would have been their income is sequestered into super and they enter the workforce and retire later.




Read more:
Explainer: what’s really keeping young and first home buyers out of the housing market


If so, they might end up owning and paying off homes by retirement at the same rate as boomer households did before them.

If not, more and more of them could end up in poverty in retirement.The Conversation

Rafal Chomik, Senior Research Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research (CEPAR), UNSW

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

‘Just like home’. New survey finds most renters enjoy renting, although for many it’s expensive



File 20181008 72100 3n8lr7.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Fewer than than 5% of renters are unhappy with their landlord, but rent can be expensive.
Shutterstock

Steven Rowley, Curtin University and Amity James, Curtin University

One in every four Australian households rents, and it’s not just those on low incomes.

A new nationally representative survey of 3,182 renters, funded by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, finds that while 60% of renting households have a household incomes below A$78,000, 30% are on incomes of more than A$100,000.

Although many households on low incomes and those headed by single parents are undoubtedly struggling to meet rental costs, those on moderate or higher incomes are generally positive about the experience.

Many of us rent

Despite its reputation as a nation of homeowners, Australia has the 10th largest private rental sector in the 37 nations that make up the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.


Comparison of international private rental sectors.
OECD Housing tenure distribution 2014 or later. ABS Census data 2016

Six in ten renters do it because they can’t afford to do anything else. The rest rent by choice.

Most are happy with what they rent

Perceptions of dwelling quality are positive with only 6% reporting that their dwelling is in a poor or terrible condition. 81% report a good or excellent relationship with their landlord.

Add a property manager into the mix and this falls to a still respectable 69%. Fewer than than 5% of respondents reported a poor or terrible relationship.

Around half of respondents claim to have a good to full understanding of their rights as tenants.


Relationship with property manager or landlord.
Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre 2018 Private Rental Sector Survey., Author provided

Overall, when asked whether their rental property felt like home, just over 60% reported it did, with less than 20% being negative about their experience.

The longer a tenant lives in a rental dwelling, the more it feels like home, highlighting the importance of security of tenure.

Generally, levels of satisfaction with the sector are high given the proportion of tenants who would rather be owners.


Satisfaction with the private rental sector by age group.
Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre Private Rental Sector Survey

Security of tenure matters

Security of tenure is a major concern of private renters.

Two thirds of renters have been in their current property for less than three years. Almost 40% have rented four or more properties during their time as renters.

While two thirds of moves are by choice, around one third are forced with the primary reason being the owner selling the property.




Read more:
Home ownership foundations are being shaken, and the impacts will be felt far and wide


Moves are stressful, expensive and disruptive, particularly for households with children. Around half of all renters say they would gladly choose to sign a lease longer than 12 months if given the option because it would offer greater security and a stronger sense of home.

As does discrimination

One in five renters report some form of discrimination when applying for rental properties.

Those households most likely to suffer from discrimination are single parents with children.

In September Victoria passed landmark leglislation intended to improve the rights of renters.




Read more:
Life as an older renter, and what it tells us about the urgent need for tenancy reform


Some important issues addressed in the legislation are highlighted in the BankWest Curtin Economics Centre report which found the vast majority of respondents are on short-term leases (12 months or less).

NSW is following suit, although, disappointingly, it does not plan to outlaw no-grounds evictions.

And rent can be expensive

The typical proportion of gross income spent on rent is 28%, with almost half of all renters paying more than 30%, a figure that rises to 63% for renters over 55.

One in seven renters are paying more than 60% of their income in rent.

When asked the reasons for such high rental payments, almost six in ten report being forced to pay that much through a lack of available alternatives.

Commonwealth rent assistance was regarded as important or very important by nine out of ten of those receiving it.

What we could do to help

One of the best ways to make rent more affordable would be to reintroduce a subsidised rental scheme that offered a financial incentive for developers to invest in housing that would be leased to low-income households at below-market rents along the lines of the National Rental Affordability Scheme by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008.

It was wound up by his successor tony Abbott in 2014.

Workable build to rent schemes could also help boost supply and security of tenure, and the negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions tax available to mum and dad investors could be tied to the delivery of long–term, below market rental dwellings.

Our survey finds the private rental market is performing quite well for those on moderate to high incomes. But not for those on low incomes who will never access home ownership and need secure long term tenure.The Conversation

Steven Rowley, Director, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, Curtin Research Centre, Curtin University and Amity James, Lecturer, School of Economic, Finance and Property, Curtin University

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

What Australia can learn from overseas about the future of rental housing



File 20180121 110100 1w96ivd.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Over the past year, there has been a surge of enthusiasm in Australia for developing a sector of large-scale institutional landlords.
AAP/David Crosling

Chris Martin, UNSW

When we talk about rental housing in Australia, we often make comparisons with renting overseas. Faced with insecure tenancies and unaffordable home ownership, we sometimes try to envisage European-style tenancies being imported here.

And, over the past year, there has been a surge of enthusiasm for developing a sector of large-scale institutional landlords, modelled on the UK’s build-to-rent sector or “multi-family” housing in the US.

Our review of the private rental sectors of ten countries in Australasia, Europe and North America identified innovations in rental housing policies and markets Australia might try to emulate – and avoid. International comparisons also give a different perspective on aspects of Australia’s own rental housing institutions that might otherwise be taken for granted.


Further reading: ‘Build to rent’ could be the missing piece of the affordable housing puzzle


Not everyone in Europe rents

In nine of the ten countries we reviewed, private rental is the second-largest tenure after owner-occupation. Only in Germany do more households rent privately than own their housing. Most of the European countries we reviewed have higher rates of home ownership than Australia.

In most of the European and North American countries in our study, single people and lower-income households and apartments are heavily represented in the private rental sector. Higher-income households, families with kids, and detached houses are represented much more in owner-occupation. It’s less uneven in Australia: more houses, kids and higher-income households are in private rental.

Two key potential implications follow from this.

First, it suggests a high degree of integration between the Australian private rental and owner-occupier sectors, and that policy settings and market conditions applying to one will be transmitted readily to the other.

So, policies that give preferential treatment to owner-occupied housing will also induce purchase of housing for rental, and rental housing investor activity will directly affect prices and accessibility in the owner-occupied sector.

It also heightens the prospect of investment in both sectors falling simultaneously, with little established institutional capacity for countercyclical investment that makes necessary increases in ongoing supply.

A second implication relates to equality. Australian households of similar composition and similar incomes differ in their housing tenure – and, considering the traditional value placed on owner-occupation, this may not be by choice.

This suggests housing tenure may figure strongly in the subjective experience of inequality. It raises the question of whether housing is a primary driver of inequality, and not the outcome of difference or inequality in other aspects of life.

The rise of large corporate landlords

In almost all of the countries we reviewed, the ownership of private rental housing is dominated by individuals with relatively small holdings. Only in Sweden are housing companies the dominant type of landlord.

However, most countries also have a sector of large corporate landlords. In some countries, these landlords are very large. For example, America’s five largest corporate landlords own about 420,000 properties in total. Germany’s largest landlord, Vonovia, has more than 330,000 properties alone.

These landlords’ origins vary. Germany’s arose from massive sell-offs of municipal housing and industry-related housing in the early 2000s.

In the US, multi-family (apartment) landlords have been around for decades. And in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, they have been joined by a new sector of single-family (detached house) landlords that have rapidly acquired large portfolios from bulk purchases of foreclosed, formerly owner-occupied homes.

In these countries and elsewhere, the rise of largest corporate landlords has been controversial. Germany’s have a poor record of relations with tenants – to the extent of being the subject of popular protests in the 2000s – and their practice of characterising repairs as improvements to justify rent increases.

American housing advocates have voiced concern about “the rise of the corporate landlord” – especially in the single-family sector, where there’s some evidence that they more readily terminate tenancies.

These landlords also don’t build much housing. They are most active in renovating (for higher rents), merging with one another, and – especially in the US – developing innovative financial instruments such as “rental-backed securities”.

“Institutional landlords” are now a standing item on the Australian housing policy agenda. Considering the activities of large corporate landlords internationally, we should get specific about the sort of institutional landlords we really want, how we will get them, and how we will ensure they deliver desired housing outcomes.

Policymakers and housing advocates have, for years, looked to the community housing sector as the prime candidate for this role. They envisage its transformation into an affordable housing industry that works across the sector toward a wide range of policy outcomes in housing supply, affordability, security, social housing renewal and community development.

With interest in the prospect of build-to-rent and multifamily housing rising in the property development and finance sectors, there is a risk that affordable housing policy may be colonised by for-profit interests.

The development of a for-profit large corporate landlord sector may be desirable for greater professionalisation and efficiencies in the management of tenancies and properties. However, this should not come at the expense of a mission-oriented affordable housing industry that makes a distinctive contribution to housing outcomes.

Bringing it home

Looking at the policy settings in the ten countries, we found some surprising results and strange bedfellows.

For example, Germany – which has had a remarkably long period of stable house prices – has negative gearing provisions and tax exemptions for capital gains, much like Australia. But, in Australia, these policies are blamed for driving speculation and booming prices.


Further reading: Three myths on negative gearing the housing industry wants you to believe


And while the UK taxes landlords more heavily than most other countries, it has the fastest-growing private rental sector of the countries we reviewed.

However, these challenging findings should not be taken to diminish the explanatory power or effectiveness of these settings in each country’s housing policy. Rather, they show the necessity of considering taxation and other policy settings in interaction with each other and in wider systemic contexts.

So, for example, Germany’s conservative housing finance practices, and regulation of rents, may mean the speculative potential of negative gearing and tax-free capital gains isn’t activated there.

The ConversationStrategy in Australia for its private rental sector should join consideration of finance, taxation, supply and demand-side subsidies and regulation with the objective of making private rental housing outcomes competitive with other sectors.

Chris Martin, Research Fellow, City Housing, UNSW

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

Is this the budget that forgot renters?



File 20170510 7902 1792886
The budget brought no increase in rent assistance to help low-income renters in the private rental market.
AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Emma Power, Western Sydney University

The measures in the 2017-18 federal budget targeting the supply of lower-cost rental housing are limited. There are no significant funding increases to social housing and homelessness services. There is no increase in rent assistance to help low-income renters in the private rental market. The Conversation

Capital gains tax and negative gearing settings remain largely untouched, and the proposed bond aggregator will support expansion of housing aimed at very specific groups.

For the majority of Australia’s renters, housing will remain unaffordable, insecure and out of reach.

Community housing

If private investors get on board, the bond aggregator may help boost the supply of affordable and community housing by providing cheaper financing to community housing providers.

These two forms of housing are extremely important. However, they do little to help most renters.

Eligibility requirements for community housing mean many who require low-cost housing, where rent is calculated at between 25% and 30% of household income, are not able to gain access.

Single older women are among the fastest-growing group of homeless people in Australia. However, most are unable to access community housing because the only eligibility benchmark they meet is their low-income status.

Women not leaving situations of domestic violence or who do not have a recognised disability will find it difficult to qualify for housing before they reach homelessness.

The private rental market these women face is obscene. There is extremely low housing security with the risk of eviction when the standard lease agreement (of six and 12 months) runs out. High rents place sufficient, nutritious food out of reach of their budget, and they face difficulties paying power bills.

Time spent bringing up children, the gendered pay gap and – for some – relationship breakdown are among the factors that lead to this housing experience.

Long waiting lists for social housing and eligibility restrictions mean this year’s budget proposals are likely to fail this group.

Affordable housing

The second target of the bond aggregator is affordable housing. This is housing that is rented at between 75% and 80% of market rent. It is often described as “key worker” housing, where teachers, ambulance drivers and police officers can live.

Affordable housing has an important place in the housing system. However, below-market rents in central, work-rich regions are still extremely high and out of reach for many.

Of more concern, it is unlikely that many of these lower-income workers would be able to maintain their high rents at retirement. This generates two risks:

  • that the renter is evicted and forced to find housing on the private market, which puts them at high risk of homelessness

  • that the housing provider continues their commitment to house the tenant securely once their income drops, so the risk here is to the housing provider’s bottom line. They will face a loss of income, as they drop rents from 80% of market value to around 30% of the retired person’s pension.

First home buyers

The budget tips its hat to first home buyers; prospective buyers will now be allowed to save up to A$30,000 at a reduced tax rate. But this is barely one-quarter of a standard 20% deposit for most apartments in Sydney.

Renters who aspire to home ownership and have sufficient income to service a mortgage may benefit from this measure. However, it will do little for the large number of low- and moderate-income households. For this group, spiralling housing costs put home ownership well out of reach.

It is also possible that this measure will add to inflationary pressure on housing prices by boosting demand for entry-level homes. Existing owners who are selling their homes would be the primary beneficiaries.

What’s missing?

There remains a need for courageous government action to tackle the structural inequities in the housing market.

Removing tax incentives that keep investor heat in the market will be essential – and so will increases to social housing budgets.

Investment in a large stock of secure low-cost social housing should be prioritised. Failing this, there will be a need to increase rent assistance payments, particularly in high-cost regions.

But this is far from ideal. More rent assistance will help renters in the short term, but amounts to a subsidy for private landlords in the long term.

Does the government care?

Underpinning much budget analysis is a sense that government should be concerned with the needs of the disadvantaged. Sociologist Keith Jacobs argues we should disavow ourselves of that view, describing housing policy in Australia as a “form of reverse welfarism that exacerbates social inequality”.

Jacobs argues:

… the state should be understood as an agency that sustains the conditions necessary for the finance industry, developers and real estate agents, along with well-off householders and landlords, to reap profits.

The failure of the 2017 budget to tackle tax measures that support individual private investment, and its emphasis on funding social and affordable housing through market investment mechanisms while providing little direct support at the bottom end of the market, does little to challenge this argument.

Emma Power, Senior Research Fellow, Geography and Urban Studies, Western Sydney University

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

PAKISTAN: CHRISTIANS BRACE FOR SHARIA IN SWAT VALLEY


Accepting Islamic law in exchange for peace leaves many uncertain, fearful.

ISTANBUL, March 27 (Compass Direct News) – Just over a month since Pakistan’s fertile Swat Valley turned into a Taliban stronghold where sharia (Islamic law) rules, the fate of the remaining Christians in the area is uncertain.

Last month, in an effort to end a bloody two-year battle, the Islamabad administration struck a deal with Taliban forces surrendering all governance of Swat Valley in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Sources told Compass that after the violence that has killed and displaced hundreds, an estimated 500 Christians remain in the area. Traditionally these have been low-skilled workers, but younger, more educated Christians work as nurses, teachers and in various other professions.

The sole Church of Pakistan congregation in Swat, consisting of 40 families, has been renting space for nearly 100 years. The government has never given them permission to buy land in order to build a church building.

An associate pastor of the church in central Swat told Yousaf Benjamin of the National Commission for Justice and Peace that with the bombing of girls schools at the end of last year, all Christian families migrated to nearby districts. After the peace deal and with guarded hope for normalcy and continued education for their children, most of the families have returned to their homes but are reluctant to attend church.

The associate pastor, who requested anonymity, today told sources that “people don’t come to the church as they used to come before.” He said that although the Taliban has made promises of peace, the Christian community has yet to believe the Muslim extremists will hold to them.

“The people don’t rely on Taliban assurances,” said Benjamin.

Last week the associate pastor met with the third in command of the main Taliban militant umbrella group in Pakistan, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Kari Abdullah, and requested land in order to build a church. Abdullah reportedly agreed, saying that Islam is a religion of peace and equality, and that his group intended to provide equal opportunities to the religious communities of Swat.

The Catholic Church in Swat is located in a school compound that was bombed late last year. Run by nuns and operated under the Catholic Church Peshawar Diocese, the church has been closed for the last two years since insurgents have been fighting government led forces, source said.

Parliamentarian Shahbaz Bhatti said Christians and the few Hindus in Swat valley have lived under terror and harassment by the Taliban since insurgents began efforts to seize control of the region. He met with a delegation of Christians from Swat last month who said they were concerned about their future, but Bhatti said only time will tell how the changes will affect Christians.

“The Christian delegation told me that they favor the peace pact if indeed it can bring peace, stability and security to the people living there,” he said. “But they also shared their concern that if there is enforcement of sharia, what will be their future? But we will see how it will be implemented.”

Although there have been no direct threats against Christians since the establishment of the peace accord, some advocates fear that it may only be a matter of time.

“These days, there are no reports of persecution in Swat,” Lahore-based reporter Felix Qaiser of Asia News told Compass by phone, noting the previous two years of threatening letters, kidnappings and aggression against Christians by Islamic extremists. “But even though since the implementation of sharia there have been no such reports, we are expecting them. We’re expecting this because other faiths won’t be tolerated.”

Qaiser also expressed concern about the treatment of women.

“They won’t be allowed to move freely and without veils,” he said. “And we’re very much concerned about their education there.”

In the past year, more than 200 girls schools in Swat were reported to have been burned down or bombed by Islamic extremists.

Remaining girls schools were closed down in January but have been re-opened since the peace agreement in mid-February. Girls under the age of 13 are allowed to attend.

Since the deal was struck, seven new sharia judges have been installed, and earlier this month lawyers were trained in the nuances of Islamic law. Those not trained are not permitted to exercise their profession. As of this week, Non-Governmental Organizations are no longer permitted in the area and vaccinations have been banned.

“These are the first fruits of Islamic law, and we’re expecting worse things – Islamic punishment such as cutting off hands, because no one can dictate to them,” Qaiser said. Everything is according to their will and their own interpretation of Islamic law.”

 

Launch Point for Taliban

Analysts and sources on the ground have expressed skepticism in the peace deal brokered by pro-Taliban religious leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad, who is also the leader of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi. The insurgent, who has long fought for implementation of sharia in the region, has also fought alongside the Taliban against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

He was imprisoned and released under a peace deal in April 2008 in an effort to restore normalcy in the Swat Valley. Taliban militants in the Swat area are under the leadership of his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah.

The agreement to implement sharia triggered alarm around the world that militants will be emboldened in the northwest of Pakistan, a hotbed for Taliban and Al-Qaeda extremists fighting Western forces in Afghanistan and bent on overthrowing its government.

Joe Grieboski of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy said the peace deal makes Talibanization guaranteed by law, rendering it impossible to return to a liberal democracy or any guarantee of fundamental rights.

“The government in essence ceded the region to the Taliban,” said Grieboski. “Clerical rule over the region will fulfill the desires of the extremists, and we’ll see the region become a copy of what Afghanistan looked like under Taliban rule.”

This can only mean, he added, that the Taliban will have more power to promulgate their ideology and power even as the Pakistani administration continues to weaken.

“Unfortunately, this also creates a safe launching off point for Taliban forces to advance politically, militarily and ideologically into other areas of the country,” said Grieboski. “The peace deal further demonstrates the impotence of [Asif Ali] Zardari as president.”

Grieboski said the peace deal further demonstrates that Pakistani elites – and President Zardari in particular – are less concerned about fundamental rights, freedom and democracy than about establishing a false sense of security in the country.

“This peace deal will not last, as the extremists will demand more and more, and Zardari and the government have placed themselves in a weakened position and will once again have to give in,” said Grieboski.

Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of advocacy group Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan, said he fears that militants in Swat will now be able to freely create training centers and continue to attack the rest of Pakistan.

“They will become stronger, and this will be the greatest threat for Christians living in Pakistan,” said Johnson.

Thus far the government has not completely bowed to Taliban demands for establishment of full sharia courts, and it is feared that the insurgents may re-launch violent attacks on civilians until they have full judicial control.

“The question of the mode of implementation has not yet been decided, because the Taliban want their own qazis [sharia judges] and that the government appointed ones should quit,” said lawyer Khalid Mahmood, who practices in the NWFP.

Mahmood called the judiciary system in Swat “collapsed” and echoed the fear that violence would spread in the rest of the country.

“They will certainly attack on the neighboring districts,” he said.

Earlier today, close to the Swat Valley in Khyber, a suicide bomber demolished a mosque in Jamrud, killing at least 48 people and injuring more than 150 others during Friday prayers. Pakistani security officials reportedly said they suspected the attack was retaliation for attempts to get NATO supplies into Afghanistan to use against Taliban fighters and other Islamist militants.

Report from Compass Direct News

INDIA: NEWS BRIEFS


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Andhra Pradesh, March 19 (Compass Direct News) – Hindu extremists armed with sticks assaulted a pastor, seriously injuring him, on March 11 in Medak. About 30 extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh stopped pastor Ezra Krupanamdam as he was returning from a prayer meeting at the home of a recently converted Christian, reported the All Indian Christian Council. The intolerant Hindus beat, punched and stomped on him. The pastor was found lying in a pool of blood and was rushed to a hospital. A medical examination showed that he sustained fractures to his spinal cord and ribs. At press time the pastor was in intensive care at Gandhi hospital. Area Superintendent of Police Bhaskar Reddy told Compass that four extremists were arrested in connection with the attack.

New Delhi – About 12 Hindu extremists armed with rods and hockey sticks assaulted a pastor and his family and threatened to murder them on March 8 in India’s capital. The extremists beat Apostolic Assembly Church pastor A.K. Wilson, his wife and son and took 15,000 rupees (US$290) from them, reported the Evangelical Fellowship of India. Warning the Christians not to continue their ministry, the Hindu hardliners threatened to burn their house and kill them if they did not vacate their home in one week. Pastor Wilson told Compass that he and his family sustained minor injuries; he added that he believes the attack was planned rather than spontaneous. The pastor filed a police complaint with Uttam Nagar police, and Station House Officer R. K. Tyagi told Compass that an investigation was underway.

Uttar Pradesh – Hindu extremists in Unnao accused a pastor of forceful conversion on March 8 and threatened to destroy his church building. A source told Compass that the extremists tried to enter pastor K.K. Vimal’s house at about 11 p.m. shouting denunciations of Christianity and falsely accusing him of hitting a neighbor’s car and forcibly converting people. The pastor locked the doors and hid in the attic. The intolerant Hindus told the pastor to leave the area and to stop leading worship meetings. Unable to enter his home, they filed a police complaint and returned to the pastor’s house with seven officers. After questioning, police found the accusations against the pastor were baseless. The Hindu hardliners, however, threatened to destroy his church building, shouting, “We’ll see how big a pastor you really are.” Pastor Vimal told Compass that he has relocated to another area.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) disrupted a prayer meeting and threatened Christians on March 6 in Bangalore. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Siloam Brethren Assembly Church members had gathered in new church premises at about 7 p.m. for an inaugural prayer meeting when the Hindu extremists barged in. Led by a Hindu hardliner identified only as Ramamurthy, they disrupted the meeting, verbally abused the Christians and threatened to harm them if they met for Sunday worship on March 8. Church leaders filed a police complaint, and two police officers were posted on the church premises. A church representative told Compass that Sunday worship service was not conducted on March 8, as police advised church leaders against it.

Andhra Pradesh – Upper-caste Hindu extremists on March 1 attacked the Sunday worship of a church in Khammam. The All India Christian Council reported that the extremists attacked pastor Isaac Ravi as he was leading the service, disconnected the power supply and beat the pastor and other Christians, including women and children. The attackers also damaged the church’s furniture and sound system, shouting that there was no place for Christians in the area. A police complaint has been filed against the assailants, but no First Information Report has been registered.

Uttarakhand – Police on March 1 beat a Christian after detaining him in Dehradun. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported than an unidentified group had repeatedly disturbed church meetings at a rented home by playing high-volume music during services the past few months. Pastor Kuldeep Singh filed a complaint against them at Patel Nagar police station on Feb. 24, and at about 10 a.m. on March 1, as Sunday worship was about to begin, officers arrived and took the Christian renting the house, Sanjay Verma, into custody. Some of those Pastor Singh had named in the complaint had summoned police to the site. Officers beat Verma and detained him for about two hours. Christians gathered at the police station to support Verma, according to the Evangelical Fellowship of India, and police urged them to reach a compromise with those disturbing their worship services. The Christians refused, as members of the opposing group insisted that they would stop playing loud music only if the Christians stopped worshipping. The church moved worship services to another venue.

Himachal Pradesh – Hindu extremists armed with sticks assaulted a Christian on Feb. 26 in Damtal. According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), Joginder Masih had gone to a local shop when a group of extremists began following him and making derogatory comments about Christianity. Masih asked the Hindu hardliners to stop, and they beat him relentlessly. EFI reported that the intolerant Hindus opposed construction of a church building that Masih and other Christians had begun. Area Christians said they believed the attack was premeditated, with the extremists trying to provoke Masih into retaliating. Sustaining minor injuries, he filed a police complaint but no First Information Report has been registered.

Report from Compass Direct News

CHINA: CHRISTIANS WARY AS RECESSION, UNREST HIT


Beleaguered government officials could view church as threat – or a force for stability.

BEIJING, February 25 (Compass Direct News) – With China’s central government last December issuing a number of secret documents calling on provincial officials to strive to prevent massive unrest in a rapidly collapsing economy, observers are watching for signs of whether authorities will view Christian groups as a threat or a stabilizing influence.

While the Sichuan earthquake last May proved that Christians were willing and able to assist in times of national crisis, raids on house church groups have continued in recent weeks.

The secret reports have come in quick succession. A central government body, the Committee for Social Stability (CSS), issued an internal report on Jan. 2 listing a total of 127,467 serious protests or other incidents across China in 2008, many involving attacks on government buildings or clashes with police and militia.

“Recently every kind of contradiction in society has reached the level of white heat,” the CSS warned in an earlier document issued on Dec. 16.

The document said some officials had “ignored the welfare of the masses … piling up pressure until the situation exploded,” and concluded that, “The relevant Party and State organs must … give daily priority to the task of getting rid of all the maladies which produce social instability and the present crisis.”

On Dec. 10, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the National People’s Congress issued an internal document calling on senior provincial officials to make every effort to alleviate social and political problems exacerbated by the current recession.

On Dec. 12, the Ministry of Public Security authorized provincial officials to tighten control of all communications in the sensitive period prior to Chinese New Year, which this year fell on Jan. 25. Fearing turmoil as millions of newly-unemployed factory workers headed home for New Year celebrations, the government cancelled all leave for Public Security Bureau (PSB) officers, placed them on high alert and mobilized an additional 150,000 police and armed militia for the holiday period.

On Dec. 15, the public security ministry issued a further document calling for tightened security at government ministries, military bases, armament stores, state borders, airports and railway stations.

In its Dec. 16 report, the CSS warned that provincial authorities must try to resolve grievances by non-violent means before protestors begin attacking factories and government offices or stealing, looting and burning property.

The scale of demonstrations and riots has already reached frightening proportions. In the Jan. 2 internal assessment leaked in Hong Kong, the CSS said the 127,467 serious incidents across China last year involved participation of around 1 percent of the population. Of these cases, 476 consisted of attacks on government and Party buildings, while 615 involved violent clashes with police and militia, leaving 1,120 police and Party officials and 724 civilians killed or injured.

 

Church as Subversive

Concerned by the growth of unregistered house church groups in an uncertain political and social climate, the Chinese government has ramped up efforts both to identify Christians and to portray Christianity as a subversive foreign force.

Local governments in China last year reported on continued measures to prevent “illegal” religious gatherings and curb other criminalized religious activities, according to reports from the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) on Dec. 20 and Feb. 2. (See “Tortured Christian Lawyer Arrested as Officials Deny Abuses,” Feb. 11.)

In recent months authorities have quietly gathered data on church growth using surveys at universities and workplaces, and called meetings at various institutions in the capital to discuss the supposed dangers of foreign religious influence. (See “Officials Grapple with Spread of Christianity,” Feb. 4.)

Raids on unregistered church groups have continued in recent weeks, with police perhaps prompted to ensure tighter controls on church activity. On Feb. 11, police arrested two South Korean pastors and more than 60 Chinese house church leaders from four provinces who had gathered for a seminar in Wolong district, Nanyang city, the China Aid Association (CAA) reported. The police also confiscated personal money, cell phones and books, and forced each person to register and pay a fine before releasing some of the elderly leaders.

Authorities held six of the detained leaders for several days but by Sunday (Feb. 22) had released all of them, Compass sources confirmed.

In Shanghai, police and members of the State Administration of Religious Affairs on Feb. 10 ordered Pastor Cui Quan to cancel an annual meeting for house church leaders, and then ordered the owner of the hall used by Cui’s 1,200-member congregation to cease renting it to Cui within 30 days, according to CAA.

Senior staff at Beijing’s Dianli Hospital on Feb. 6 ordered elderly house church pastor Hua Zaichen to leave the premises despite being severely ill, CAA reported. Government officials had refused to allow Hua’s wife, Shuang Shuying, an early release from prison to visit her dying husband unless she agreed to inform on other Christians, according to Hua’s son. After refusing their offer, Shuang was finally able to visit Hua on her release date, Feb. 8; Hua died the following day.

Both Shuang and her husband have suffered years of persecution for their involvement in the house church movement.

On Feb. 4, police seized Christian lawyer and human rights defender Gao Zhisheng from his home in Shaanxi province, CAA reported. At press time his whereabouts were unknown.

While other incidents have gone unreported, house church leaders in northern China told Compass in January that despite tighter restrictions in the current economic and political climate, they were optimistic about the ability of the church to survive and flourish.

 

SIDEBAR

Disenchantment, Dissent Spread Across China

In December, China celebrated the 30th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s “open door” economic reform policy, which had led to a high annual growth rate of some 10 percent. While Party leaders publicly congratulated themselves, an internal party document warned that 75 percent of the financial benefits had gone to only 10 percent of the population, mainly high and middle-ranking Party members and some entrepreneurs.

With the growth rate now seriously dented, relations between Party members and the general public were “about to explode,” the document warned.

The document also referred to an “ideological vacuum in Party and state,” a “moral vacuum in upholding regulations,” and a “vacuum in spiritual civilization,” in stark contrast to the moral and spiritual values held by religious groups.

According to the Research Institute of the State Council, urban unemployment among young people had already risen to 10.5 percent by last June. If foreign investors continued to withdraw funds, the institute warned, this figure could rise to 16 percent or higher, sparking more outrage against the government.

Tens of thousands of factories closed down in the first six months of 2008, well before the full impact of the global recession hit China. By November, 10 million migrant workers were unemployed; most recent estimates put the figure at 20 million, and officials admit this figure will reach at least 35 million by the end of 2009.

Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu, responsible for agricultural affairs, warned in a recent report that 30 percent of all villagers have set up peasant organizations to challenge local government officials and crime bosses. Some groups also have plans to launch armed insurgencies and their own peasant governments.

Several million university graduates will also face unemployment this year, potentially lending their voices and leadership skills to mass protest movements.

An increasing number of intellectuals have already signed Charter 08, a petition issued in December calling for multi-party elections, human rights, press freedom and the rule of law.

On Jan. 7, a prominent Chinese lawyer, Yan Yiming, filed an application with the Finance Ministry demanding that it open its 2008 and 2009 budget books to the public. On Jan. 13, more than 20 Chinese intellectuals signed an open letter calling for a boycott of state television news programs because of “systematic bias and brainwashing,” while a Beijing newspaper ran an article arguing that freedom of speech was written into the constitution, The Washington Post reported in late January.

In response, Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu warned China’s leaders via state media that, “The present situation of maintaining national security and social stability is grave.”

Many analysts agree that the Chinese Communist Party may be facing its greatest challenge to date.

Report from Compass Direct News