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Australians debate merits of religious discrimination bill

July 10, 2019 CNA Daily News 0

Canberra, Australia, Jul 10, 2019 / 01:19 pm (CNA).- The religious discrimination bill proposed by Australia’s coalition government is being well received generally, though some conservative members of parliament have asked instead for a religious freedom bill.

The religious discrimination bill would make it unlawful to discriminate against people on the ground of their religious belief or activity; establish a religious freedom commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission; and amend existing laws regarding religious freedom, including marriage and charities law, and objects clauses in anti-discrimination law.

The government wants to make religious belief and activity a protected class, like race or sex. It also hopes to ensure that groups rejecting same-sex marriage are not stripped of their charitable status.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said July 9 that “of course we will do what we need to do from a legislative point of view,” but “what all that boils down to is the culture in this country. It’s not the laws that make freedom of religion work, it’s the culture that accepts it.”

Morrison’s coalition government is led by the Liberal Party, which is joined by the National Party. The opposition Australian Labor Party is expected to back the bill.

Coalition MPs were briefed on the bill by attorney-general Christian Porter July 5.

Afterwards, Porter told Guardian Australia that “a bill like this would provide a very powerful avenue for someone who believed that a general rule in their employment especially disadvantaged them because of their religion, to argue that that rule was contrary to the act and unfair.”

He said the bill “provides an avenue for people who think a rule in their employment has unfairly disadvantaged them or led to their termination unfairly because of their religion, provides an avenue for complaint and potentially redress in those circumstances, and so it goes a long way to protect people from being discriminated against in the context of their employment.”

Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, of the Liberal Party, voiced concerns July 9 that the bill does not go far enough, saying it “would be defensive in nature and limited to protecting against acts and practices by others which are discriminatory on the grounds of religion.”

She said that “quiet Australians now expect the Coalition to legislate to protect their religious freedom.”

Porter made a case for the superiority of a religious discrimination bill over a religious freedom bill.

“As soon as you say, ‘Here is a bill that says everyone has a right to freedom of speech, everyone has got a right to freedom of association, to freedom of religion’ they all start competing with each other, and eventually you get the circumstance that you have got in America where the highest court in the land decides what is more important: the right to free choice or the right to life, and then the decisions around how the boundaries on really, really sensitive public policy decisions are made get made by courts,” the attorney-general stated.

Senator Pauline Hanson, of the One Nation Party, expressed concern on Facebook July 9 that “the government may be creating a pathway for extremists to practice polygamy, genital mutilation, or even under-aged marriage.”

One Nation, an Australian nationalist party, is a crossbench party with two seats in the country’s 76-member Senate. It does not have a member in the House of Representatives.

“Many people, including myself, are concerned about the rights of Australians who practice a legitimate religious faith,” Hanson said. “But what do we do when a belief clashes with the laws and customs of our land?”

The religious discrimination bill is being introduced to implement a commitment made in the 2019 federal election.

A review of religious freedom in Australia was finished in May 2018, making 20 recommendations; among these was a Religious Discrimination Bill.

The government has asked the Australian Law Reform Commission to report on how to balance competing claims of religious freedom rights and LGBT rights.

Australia has seen debate over religious freedom in recent years with respect to the seal of the confessional, hiring decisions, and same-sex marriage.

When same-sex marriage was legalized in Australia in 2017, efforts to include amendments that would protect religious freedom failed during parliamentary debate.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney noted last year that “we cannot take the freedom to hold and practice our beliefs for granted, even here in Australia,” and that “powerful interests now seek to marginalize religious believers and beliefs, especially Christian ones, and exclude them from public life. They would end funding to faith-based schools, hospitals and welfare agencies, strip us of charitable status and protections.”

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Catholic woman with schizophrenia being held for blasphemy in Indonesia 

July 8, 2019 CNA Daily News 0

Jakarta, Indonesia, Jul 9, 2019 / 12:05 am (CNA).- A mentally ill woman who identified herself as a Catholic is being held for blasphemy in Indonesia after an incident last week in which she brought a dog to a mosque and did not remove her shoes inside.

The woman, who has a schizophrenia diagnosis, was arrested on July 2 for blaspheming Islam, which is a criminal offense in the Muslim-majority country. It is punishable by up to five years in prison.

The incident for which the 52 year-old woman was arrested was caught on video and shared widely within the country. It shows the “visibly distressed” woman arguing with mosque members while her dog runs around, according to the Associated Press.

The woman had come to the mosque thinking that she was breaking up the wedding of her husband to another woman, according to reports from The Australian. Authorities charged her with blasphemy for failing to remove her shoes inside the mosque, and for bringing her dog, which is considered a ritually impure animal in the Islamic religion.

The woman is only being identified by SM, her initials. According to The Australian, her relatives have sent medical records to officials to prove that the woman is mentally ill and did not intentionally blaspheme the Islamic faith.

The woman was held at Jakarta’s Police Hospital, which confirmed that she had schizophrenia and recommended that she instead be transferred to a psychiatric facility.

Despite her mental illness, police have said that the blasphemy charges stand until a court decides otherwise. International human rights groups have long opposed blasphemy laws such as those in Indonesia. They argue that they are used primarily to manipulate and persecute Christians and other religious minorities.

Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority nation in population in the world. While 87% of the population are Muslim, 10% are Christian, and 2% are Hindu. Discrimination and attacks on religious minorities in the country are not uncommon.

In April, Indonesia’s Supreme Court rejected the appeal of a Buddhist woman of Chinese descent who was convicted of blasphemy for complaining about the volume of a local mosque’s call to worship. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Her complaint is thought to have sparked a riot against Chinese-Indonesians, during which multiple Buddhist temples were burned or ransacked.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian and the former governor of Jakarta, completed a two-year sentence in January 2019 on a conviction of insulting the Quran.

Yunahar Ilyas, deputy chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), a prominent body of political Islam, said that the woman’s actions should “not be considered as blasphemy” because of her schizophrenia, but he did not directly call for a drop of the charges against her, The Australian reported.

Amnesty International condemned SM’s recent arrest, calling it “inappropriate” given her history of mental illness.

“This latest, unfortunate and absurd case is further proof that blasphemy laws should be repealed. Police must immediately release the woman and drop the charges against her,” said Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty Indonesia, The Australian reported.

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Australian government proposes religious discrimination bill

July 6, 2019 CNA Daily News 1

Canberra, Australia, Jul 6, 2019 / 06:01 am (CNA).- Australia’s coalition government has proposed the introduction of legislation that would make it unlawful to discriminate against people on the ground of their religious belief or activity.

The proposal is being made to implement a commitment made in the 2019 federal election.

The legislation would also establish a religious freedom commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Moreover, it would amend existing laws regarding religious freedom, including marriage and charities law, and objects clauses in anti-discrimination law.

It would be made clear that religious groups cannot be required to make their property available for same-sex marriage celebrations.

The office of prime minister Scott Morrison said in December that “Australia is a place where discrimination on the basis of a person’s identity – including their religious identity – is unacceptable.”

“It is also a place where we respect the right of religious institutions to maintain their distinctive religious ethos. Our laws should reflect these values.”

The government wants to make religious belief and activity a protected class, like race or sex. It also hopes to ensure that groups rejecting same-sex marriage are not stripped of their charitable status.

A review of religious freedom in Australia was finished in May 2018, making 20 recommendations; among these was a Religious Discrimination Bill.

The government has asked the Australian Law Reform Commission to report on how to balance competing claims of religious freedom rights and LGBT rights.

Australia has seen debate over religious freedom in recent years with respect to the seal of the confessional, hiring decisions, and same-sex marriage.

When same-sex marriage was legalized in Australia in 2017, efforts to include amendments that would protect religious freedom failed during parliamentary debate.

Morrison’s coalition government is led by the Liberal Party, which is joined by the National Party.

The opposition is the Australian Labor Party.

Labor senator Kristina Keneally told the ABC July 3 that “we are willing to have discussions with the government and work with the government on a religious discrimination and freedom act.”

Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney noted last year that “we cannot take the freedom to hold and practice our beliefs for granted, even here in Australia,” and that “powerful interests now seek to marginalize religious believers and beliefs, especially Christian ones, and exclude them from public life. They would end funding to faith-based schools, hospitals and welfare agencies, strip us of charitable status and protections.”

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Bishops decry introduction of assisted suicide, euthanasia in Australian state

June 19, 2019 CNA Daily News 0

Melbourne, Australia, Jun 19, 2019 / 06:01 pm (CNA).- The four Latin rite ordinaries in Victoria have written a pastoral letter denouncing the state’s “new, and deeply troubling chapter of health care,” as voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide became legal Wednesday.

The Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017 took effect June 19.

In a June 14 letter, the bishops of Melbourne, Ballarat, Sale, and Sandhurst wrote that “We cannot cooperate with the facilitation of suicide, even when it seems motivated by empathy or kindness.”

“What is being referred to as ‘VAD’ is a combination of what in plain- speaking is more commonly known as physician assisted suicide and euthanasia,” they noted.

“We feel a responsibility not just to say ‘no’ to VAD, but to give every encouragement to model a way of life that renders VAD unnecessary.”

The Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017 allows adult Victoria residents who are terminally ill, expected to die within six months (or 12 if they have a neurodegenerative condition), and mentally competent, to ask their doctor to prescribe drugs that will end their lives.

Two doctors must verify the requester’s eligibility, and the person must make three requests for assisted suicide or euthanasia. Those seeking to end their lives must have lived in Victoria for at least a year, and be an Australian citizen or permanent resident.

According to The Age, a Melbourne daily, pharmacists at The Alfred Hospital will prepare and supply the mixture of drugs. They will deliver to the terminally ill the dose of about 100mL of liquid in a locked box with a key.

The box will include instructions on how to mix and drink the drugs, “and there is no expiry date on when the drugs can be consumed,” The Age reported.

Physicians will be allowed to administer the drugs via an intravenous drip to those incapable of swallowing.

Health practicioners are granted conscientious objection rights against participation in euthanasia or assisted suicide under the law.

About 100 doctors across the nearly 92,000 square mile state “have began receiving the mandatory training required to be allowed to assist terminally ill patients who need medical help to die,” according to The Age.

A review board of 13 medical and legal experts will review assisted suicide-euthanasia applications after the fact to ensure compliance with the law. The board will also be able to recommend improvements to the state government, and refer breaches to police, coronors, or the Australian Health Practicioner Regulation Agency.

The bishops said the legislation has been inappropriately labeled as a compassionate response to terminal illness. They pointed to Pope Francis, who has characterized euthanasia as a feature of a “throw-away culture.”

“Francis calls us to follow Christ by accompanying people with compassion, sharing hope not fear. In Victoria, we have entered a moment in which we are called to join this task,” they said.

“We object to the unnecessary taking of a human life; we object to the diminishment of the love that can be given and received in the last days of our loved ones; we object to the lack of adequate funding for excellent palliative care; we object to state-sponsored practices that facilitate suicide; and most of all we object to the lazy idea that the best response our community can offer a person in acute suffering is to end their life.”

The bishops said that Catholics should accompany those dying, providing them with love and friendship until the last moment of their life. They encouraged Victoria’s Christian community to engage the law with prayer and dialogue.

“We are called to engage with our Victorian communities with friendship and wisdom, not motivated by fear,” they said. “We will not abandon those we love, and we believe they have a right to be loved from the beginning to the end of their life.”

They pointed to the examples of Saint Gianna Beretta Molla and Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, who bore witness to the value of the human person “despite great personal cost.”

The bishops also applauded the efforts of Catholic hospitals.

“Catholic hospitals and Catholic residential care organisations have shown great courage. They have united to find ways to model excellent care for their patients, and are committed to resisting calls to involve themselves in VAD,” they said.

“Please learn about their thoughtful and considered response to VAD, which is framed through their enduring commitment to excellence in end of life care, and show them your support.”

Victoria Health Minister Jenny Mikakos, of the Australian Labor Party, expects the number of persons seeking assisted suicide or euthanasia to be low initially, and increase in later years.

“We anticipate that once the scheme has been in place for some time, we’ll see between 100 and 150 patients access this scheme every year,” Mikakos told the ABC.

“In the first year, we do expect the number to be quite modest — maybe only as low as a dozen people,” she added.

According to The Australian, pro-life supporters held a vigil outside Parliament House in Melbourne June 18.

Denise Cameron, president of Pro-life Victoria, said the law is still widely opposed by those in the medical field.

“The Andrews government has set in motion a regime which will legitimise suicide for our most vulnerable community members, devalue palliative care and pressure doctors into abandoning their medical ethic of first do no harm,” she said.

While the bill was being considered in 2017, Bishop Peter Stasiuk of the Ukrainian Eparchy of Saints Peter and Paul of Melbourne said support of euthanasia and assisted suicide is “motivated by a false sense of compassion.” He wrote in a pastoral letter that “Endorsing suicide as a solution to pain or suffering sends the wrong message, especially to the young. Suicide is a tragedy for the person who takes their own life, but it also seriously affects their family and community. It would be morally corrupt to legally endorse any form of suicide.”

The assisted suicide and euthanasia law has been opposed not only by Catholics, but by leaders of the Greek and Coptic Orthodox Churches, as well as Anglicans and Lutherans.

Advocates for assisted suicide and euthanasia have said the eligibility requirements are too onerous, and intend to challenge them in court, but do hope other Australian states will follow Victoria’s lead.

Queensland and Western Australia are considering similar bills.

New South Wales rejected such a bill in 2017, as did the national parliament in 2016, and that of Tasmania in 2013.

Australia’s Northern Territory legalized assisted suicide in 1995, but the national parliament overturned the law two years later.

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Christian leaders call for dialogue, end to violence in Hong Kong

June 17, 2019 CNA Daily News 0

Hong Kong, China, Jun 17, 2019 / 04:17 pm (CNA).- Hundreds of thousands of protestors in Hong Kong are continuing to demonstrate against the government’s plans to allow extraditions to mainland China— a plan which as of Saturday has been indefinitely suspended.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, had introduced a bill that would allow for secret arrests and extraditions to mainland China, where Communist courts would try alleged criminals.

The legislation drew widespread protest and was placed on hold, but protests have continued, calling for Lam’s resignation.

Catholic leaders are speaking out in support of the protestors and calling for peace and dialogue.

“They are protesting an issue about an extradition rule promoted by the government,” Cardinal John Tong Hon, Apostolic Administrator of Hong Kong, told Vatican Radio.

“This is our concern too…we ask our Catholics to pray for this situation.”

A group of six religious leaders in Hong Kong have formed a coalition to appeal for an end to violent protests— the largest anti-government demonstrations since 2003— on the island.

The cardinal is part of the interreligious coalition, which includes leaders of Catholicism, Protestant Christianity, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Islam, Vatican Radio reported.

The coalition, on a visit to the Vatican this week, called for the individual rights of the protestors to be respected; distanced themselves from the violent tactics of some; and urged the government and the protestors to sit down together to engage in dialogue.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, held a Mass and prayer service on Sunday to pray for “the future of [Hong Kong].” He also posted a photo to Facebook of himself on stage with several protestors, with the caption “Hong Kong people, come on! Courage and force… Hong Kongers #withdrawextradictionbill.”

In addition, Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing of Hong Kong took part in a continuous ecumenical prayer meeting outside the Legislative Council building with thousands of Christians overnight after the latest rally on Sunday, The Union of Catholic Asian News reported.

The issue of extradition has been a contentious one in the region for a number of years, as Hong Kong has no formal extradition deal with Taiwan, Macao and mainland China, potentially creating legal loopholes in some circumstances.

Lam announced June 15 that she was putting the proposed legislation on indefinite hold, and she issued an apology via a government spokesperson. Despite this, protestors showed up June 16 in even greater numbers than the June 9 demonstrations, during which police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters, injuring 72 members of the crowd; 21 police officers were also injured.

Many of the island’s Christians have been involved in the protests. Large groups of protestors have even adopted the hymn “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” as an unofficial anthem for the movement.

“Regrettably the ‘Extradition Bill’ dispute has now come to a violence and bloodshed stage,” the diocese of Hong Kong said in a June 12 statement.

“Therefore, once more we make an urgent appeal, that the SAR Government and the general public exercise restraint and seek a solution to the current dilemma through peaceful, rational channels.”

The Civil Human Rights Front, a political group that organized the protests, reported that nearly 2 million people had taken to the streets in the most recent protest, held June 16. Police said they counted 338,000 people along the original procession route.

Last week the organizers said a little over 1 million participated, while police put their estimate at 240,000.

As a special administrative region, Hong Kong has a large degree of autonomy from mainland China, with its own political and economic system. The territory was a British colony from 1842 until 1997.

There are some 581,000 Catholics in Hong Kong, or about eight percent of the population.

Hong Kong also has a separate legal system from the mainland. Britain ceded sovereignty of the island to China in 1997; the agreement giving Hong Kong special rights and freedoms under Chinese rule ends in 2047.

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