Pakistani conservatives staunchly support child marriage

PAKChildMarriage2019LAHORE, Pakistan —Hameeda, 15, was married to Saqib, 30, in a small ceremony in a small village in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region of northern Pakistan.

Hameeda, who only had recently stopped playing house with her dolls, is now running a household of her own and is on her way to become a mother.

“My husband works as a driver in United Arab Emirates while I stay in the village with my in-laws – he visits during Eid holidays only," she said, referring to annual Muslim holidays that follow the fasting month of Ramadan.

"One day I will also visit him by taking an airplane,” she added, her face lighting up.

Hameeda is one of more than a million child brides in Pakistan in spite of laws that make it illegal for girls to marry before the age of 16. A new bill in parliament is seeking to raise the age to 18. It faces opposition by religious conservatives. But child advocates say something has to be done.

“Child marriage is one of the worst human rights violations," said Samar Minallah Khan, an independent anthropologist and child rights advocate based in Islamabad. "It puts an end to a child's right to freedom, education and to play – it takes away their childhood. They cannot be children anymore.”

Pakistan has one of the highest rates of child marriage of any country in the world, sixth in the world, according to UNICEF, with an estimated 1,909,000 children currently married. In Pakistan, 21 percent of girls are married off before their 18th birthday, 3 percent before the age of 15.
Meanwhile, most marriages with child brides involve men three to four times older than them.

“Parents want to get rid of their young girls as soon as they reach puberty, the mindset is that they are considered to be a burden," said Rubina Saigol, a child advocate in Lahore. "(With the marriage), the girl is property of another home and belongs there (and therefore has to be taken care of there).”

“It is rooted in economic reasons, with this the idea is the girl is only an entity not a human being with any human or property rights," she added. "The son, however, is considered the breadwinner, girl just a liability.”

Last month, a seven-year-old girl was given in marriage to a 28-year-old man in a village in Punjab in central Pakistan. The police raided the ceremony and arrested the bridegroom. In another case, a 60-year-old man was arrested as he was about to marry a 12 year-old girl in Sadiqabad in southern Pakistan in June. And a 45-year-old man married a 10-year-old girl in Sindh in southern Pakistan in May. He was arrested.

The Marriage Act sets the minimum age for a girl to marry in Pakistan is 16 – it is 18 for boys – but advocates say the age must be raised – and the law better enforced. Pakistan is also a signatory to international agreements such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child that require enforcement of laws to prevent child marriage.

In May, the ruling party Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf introduced a bill in the legislature to amend the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 to set the marriageable age for girls at 18. It would set a fine and possible imprisonment for the groom and those involved in facilitating the marriage such as parents, marriage brokers and religious authorities that marry the couple.

Meanwhile, a number of lawmakers, including government ministers, have balked.

“I will never support any legislation that is against the tenants of Islam," said Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan. "Pakistan is an Islamic country and no such law can be passed here even if it costs me my ministry or my seat (in parliament).”

Like with all previous attempts to amend the marriageable age girls, Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology warned that any legislation to ban child marriage would lead to “complications.” It asked instead for an awareness campaign to discourage the trend.

Even so, some officials expressed disappointment.

“What hopes can one really attribute to a society (where) 50 elected representative and even ministers actually voted for underage marriage? Should be enough to give sleepless,” Fawad Chaudhry, minister of science and technology tweeted.

Advocates say the issue is never been a priority and the new administration of Imran Khan pays only lip service to it.

“The current government of Imran Khan is an extremely conservative right wing one, they have no interest or will (to do anything) in issues like child marriages," said Saigol. "They are focused on other things and this is not a priority for them. Every other day we hear of underage girls being married or Hindu girls’ abduction (for marriage) but it doesn’t bother the government much.”

Hameeda, meanwhile, waits for her child to be born. She says her biggest problem is that she doesn't have that much to do, and being in her second trimester is limiting. She recounts how she once would have liked to have been a school teacher where she could teach girls in her village but marriage ended that dream.

“I would have made a difference for my community,” she said.

Now, she says the child will at least reduce her boredom.

“Since my husband is away most of the time, I feel my child will be a good distraction for me,” she said.

Photo: Screenshot of Safia Badal, now 19, and her famliy. She was married at the age of 13-years-old and has two children. She said in an interview of Voice of America that a girl should be married when she is mentally mature.
Credit: Courtesy of Voice of America's official YouTube channel. (07/28/19)

Story/photo published date: 08/29/19
A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

Testing his legacy: Indian Prime Minister prepares for upcoming elections

Narendra ModiVaranasi, India – On April 11, 900 million Indians go to the polls to choose 543 lawmakers and their leader.

It is the world's largest democratic festival, complex, colorful and chaotic.

It is also a test for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who caused an upset in Indian politics after winning the 2014 elections on a wave of Hindu nationalism and promises to fire up the Indian economy.

Modi – and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – aren't necessarily shoo-ins this time around, though. He has broken too many promises and failed to improve the economy, say many former supporters. He has divided the country, firing up Indian Hindus against minorities, say critics. Even so, he has strong backing among Hindus and the middle and upper classes, not least because of his tough on corruption, tough on terrorism (Read: Pakistan) stance, say analysts.

Still, while most analysts say it's impossible to predict the outcome on May 23 after seven phases of voting, one thing is certain: Modi, in spite of the glowing biopic, "PM Narendra Modi: Story of a Billion People," set to hit Indian theaters April 5, won't likely get another landslide.

“I don’t think he is going to win this election easily," said Ajay Gudvarthy, professor of political studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Modi did win easily five years ago on a promise to reform the economy by increasing jobs and making development trickle down. But even as the Indian economy has increased output during his tenure, he has presided over slowing economic growth and rising unemployment the government has taken pains to hide – to 6.1 percent – the highest in four decades.

That slowing growth has partly to do with two of his initiatives, a sweeping sales tax and doing away with the lower currency denominations in order to curb corruption.

Both were shocks to the economy and to a majority of Indians who use small bills to pay for everything.

“He curbed currency and made everyone face cash crisis," said Mohammad Afrazul, 33, a weaver. "People lined up at the banks…Only a tyrant could do this.”

"I am going to vote for anyone but Modi," he added. “He promised to improve the condition of weaving business, but he actually did otherwise.”

Analysts say believe Modi’s popularity has declined mainly because of the economy and his failure to create jobs.

“Modi has become a popular figure when it comes to war and nationalism," said Gudvarthy. "But the same popularity has not reached the rural and common India. He is facing farmers’ wrath.”

Under Modi regime, India has faced four big protests by farmers, who were part of his base due to promises to double their income. They have been abandoning Modi in droves, analysts say.

“Modi said he would double the farmers' income, but he actually reduced it to almost nothing," said Sukaru Lal, 44, a farmer in Mirzapur district of northern India, who took part in the protests. "I am opening a shop to sell daily goods because farming has become a loss for me. If I vote Modi this time, the farming sector will completely collapse.”

“We protested to remind him of his own promises," he added. "We did not ask for anything else. He did not pay attention even after our protest.”

Meanwhile, over the past five years, analysts say India has witnessed a sharp rise in Hindu nationalism that has seen a rise in right-win Hindu groups' power and also violence against minorities like Muslims: Lynchings over the protection of cows – sacred to Hindus – became far more common and Modi was slow to condemn such violence.

Analysts say that push toward nationalism worked initially but that its really all about living conditions in the end.

“Modi is trying to convert (nationalism into) votes – he thinks that Hindus will vote for him in large numbers," said Gudvarthy. "But Hindus have also problems, which he failed to address.”

The main threat to Modi now is the Indian National Congress, which has led India for most of the country’s post-independence history. Its leader, Rahul Gandhi, is part of the Gandhi dynasty that includes Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, and Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, his grandmother and father respectively.

Some believe it's likely that following the election, Indian opposition parties band together in a coalition to unseat Modi. In India, a party must receive a majority of the vote to be able to rule and choose the prime minister. In 2014, the landslide for the BJP made this unnecessary.

In spite of the BPJ's economic woes, nationalism is running high in India following a suicide bombing in the disputed region of Kashmir that killed more 40 members of the Indian military in February – the most devastating attack in the region in three decades.

The attack was allegedly orchestrated by Jaish-e-Muhammad, which operates from Pakistan despite being banned by the country. In response to the attack, India launched airstrikes at training camps of the group in Pakistan – the first time Indian war planes have entered the country's territory in decades, escalating tensions to level not seen since the 1999 war. Pakistan diffused tensions by returning a pilot captured during the airstrikes.

Analysts say that Modi has been using the conflict with Pakistan to shore up his popularity: The attack and his response helped promote him as a strong leader.

"India has been facing the menace of terrorism for years," Modi told supporters at an election rally in Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India. "But there is a big difference now – India will no longer be helpless in the wake of terror."

Sarthak Sharma, 49, a clothing merchant from Varanasi in northern India, says that tough talk is partly why he supports Modi.

“Modi banned older notes, curbing out the corruption from the businesses and everywhere," he said. "He attacked Pakistan many times during his tenure, a step which his predecessors could not do.”

Jabeen Bhatti reported from Berlin.

Photo: The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi interacting with the beneficiaries of Pradhan Mantri Bhartiya Janaushadhi Pariyojana through video-conferencing, on the occasion of Jan Aushadi Day, in New Delhi on March 07, 2019.
Credit: Courtesy of the Prime Minister of India official website (03/07/2019)

Story/photo published date: 04/04/2019

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

Persecuted in China and unwanted in Korea: trials and tribulations of China's Christian minority

KOR220319TM007SEOUL — On April 21, 2008, the day Chen Mo had been fearing finally arrived: The native of China’s central Henan Province was arrested by local police.

Chen, then 25, was tortured and beaten, he said.

Chen’s crime was belonging to the Church of Almighty God (CAG), a Chinese Christian religious movement that that country’s government has labeled as an “evil cult” that is a threat to state security.

After being jailed for five years, he fled to South Korea. Now he – like hundreds of other members of his church in exile here – live in terror of being deported back to China, where it is likely he will be jailed again.

“We want to go back," he said. "But we have to wait until China has freedom of religion.”

Chen and other church members held a press conference in Seoul this week that coincided with a release of a report claiming thousands of church members have been arrested in China.

The Church, which started in 1991, has an estimated four million members in China. Its followers believe that Jesus Christ has returned and is incarnated as a Chinese woman: She is not publicly named by the Church, but scholars identify her as Yang Xiangbin, a woman born in 1973 in northwestern China and now believed to be living in the United States.

Their religious practice centers around a minimalist style of worship that includes reading from The Word Appears in the Flesh, which they believe to be the word of God, singing hymns, sharing testimonies and hearing sermons.

They do not practice any of the traditional Christian sacraments, believing that those belong to a previous era of Christianity.

The Church of Almighty God is on China’s list of xie jiao, or cults that are seen as a threat to state security. Like members of other groups targeted by the Chinese government — including Falun Gong and Uighur Muslims — members of the Church of Almigthy God say they are persecuted.

Chen said he spent five years in prison, being forced to undergo frequent indoctrination sessions.

“I lost the best years of my youth there,” he said.

Church member Mo Xiufeng is currently serving a 9 year sentence in prison, according to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bi-partisan group made up of members of the U.S, House of Representatives.

According to a March 20 report published by the Church, more than 11,000 CAG members were arrested in China in 2018 alone – and 20 died as a result of mistreatment.

The report is self-published and figures are impossible to verify. But Massimo Introvigne, founding director of the Italy-based Center for Studies on New Religions said he found the numbers credible based on Chinese media accounts.

“Chinese media report almost weekly that hundreds of members of the Church have been arrested in one province or another,” he said.

The US State Department’s Human Rights Report 2018, released in March, singled out China for its extreme human rights violations and noted the “systematic torture in custody” of members of the Church of Almighty God.

The group claims that at least 400,000 of its members were arrested between 2011 and 2017.

“The Church of Almighty God is often referred to by the Chinese Communist Party as the ‘new Falun Gong,’” said Introvigne, who has written a book on the Church that will be published by Oxford University Press.

Introvigne said the church has expanded to a significant size from its origins among the small “house churches” of the 1980s as small “house churches,” and also that it does not follow the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement and China Christian Council.

That growth has led to a crackdown.

“'You should not grow’ is the main message to any religious movement in China,” said Introvigne.

After his release from prison, Chen said he stayed in hiding, constantly moving homes until an opportunity to escape came in 2016, and he fled to South Korea’s Jeju Island – a resort destination that offers visa-free tourist entry for mainland Chinese.

But freedom has remained elusive for Chen and nearly 1,000 other asylum seekers from the CAG who have been fled to South Korea.
All of them have filed asylum claims, but none have been approved by the South Korean government.

“They’ve lost everything – houses, families, jobs,” said Rosita Soryte, a former Lithuanian diplomat, who is president of the International Observatory of Religious Liberty of Refugees. “They are not full members of society anywhere, here they live in limbo. These people need to find a place to stay, because (South) Korea is not giving them asylum and they cannot go home.”

Church members fear that they will be immediately arrested if they are deported to China.

Many report that their relatives back home remain under constant threat and surveillance, and say the Chinese government has continued to monitor and harass them in South Korea.

While Church of Almighty God members have found refuge in some 30 other countries including the US, Canada, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand and several EU countries, South Korea has proven particularly resistant to allowing asylum claims.

Last year, large protests broke out over 500 Yemeni refugees who landed on Jeju Island.

The Chinese Church of Almighty God members have not inspired the same public outcry but officials have not been sympathetic to their requests.

An official from the Jeju Island Immigration Office told the Korea Times last year that the Church members “didn't provide detailed, credible explanations on how they were actually persecuted in China. They just claimed they had concerns that they might be persecuted had they stayed there."

Intovigne notes that they have also faced opposition from other Christian groups in South Korea, which is 29 percent Christian, according to a 2014 PewResearch study.

“In Korea, there is a strong Christian opposition to heterodox groups,” he said.

A Korean website called has written against the CAG and argues members should be denied asylum. Small protests at their church and online harassment campaigns have dogged the CAG members as well.

The group has been accused in China of abducting and brainwashing followers and committing acts of violence.

In 2014, religious missionaries murdered a customer in a McDonald’s in Shandong: After the perpetrators were captured, authorities declared them CAG members.

The Church has denied the claim. Some scholars, including Introvigne, were able to access the trial transcripts and concluded that the killers were not members of CAG.

Meanwhile, the Church of Almighty God members continue to practice their faith in South Korea under a cloud of uncertainty. They’ve opened four churches in the country and have attracted roughly 100 Korean members.

You Xin, a 26-year-old member who fled from Ningbo, Zhejiang province in 2015, said she keeps busy with Church activities and hobbies such as taking photographs but is limited by her uncertain status.

“I can’t work, I can’t study,” she said. “I don’t have access to medical insurance.”

Beneath a cheerful demeanor, she said that troubled thoughts are never far away.

“I have nightmares about being on the run, about missing a flight,” she said. “Every day we hear that persecution is getting worse and worse in China. We are very much in fear and very much unsettled.”

Photo: March 20, 2019 - Seoul, South Korea - Painting representing the founding of the Church of Almighty God in China, presented at a display inside their church in Seoul, South Korea, where many members have fled from China in recent years seeking asylum.
Credit: Thomas Maresca/ ARA Network Inc. (03/20/19)

Story/photo publish date: 03/25/19

A version of this story was published in Religion News Service.

Pakistani Christians remain on edge for the holidays after Asia Bibi's release

PAK180618NI002LAHORE, Pakistan – For the first time in nine years, Asia Bibi will be with her family on Christmas.
But many Christians here are also afraid of a backlash this holiday season in the wake the Pakistani

Supreme Court’s landmark judgement in October exonerating the Christian woman who was charged under the country’s draconian blasphemy laws.

Recent cases of abductions, allegations of blasphemy and hate crimes against Christians, who make up 2 percent of the South Asian country’s populations, have led churches to beef up security as parishioners sing carols around bonfires and watch nativity dramas.

“This is best time for us. We plan the Christmas play throughout the year and arrange several programs in the festive season,” said Michelle Tariq, 17-year-old college student in Lahore. “But it is a tense situation in the country. We hope that the government will facilitate us in marking our religious season.”

A mother of five, including three stepchildren, Bibi was arrested for blasphemy in 2010 after she allegedly insulted the Prophet Muhammed during an argument over whether or not she should have drunk from the same water bucket used by her Muslim coworkers on a farm.

The Supreme Court’s acquitted her of the charges, sparking unrest in Pakistan as Islamic hardliners called for her death. She and her husband are now in hiding in a government safehouse.

The climate has led many Christians to tone down their celebrations this year.

“We used to conduct carol singing in our neighborhood every Christmas,” said Natasha Joseph, a 31-year-old housewife in Karachi “This year we are scared to use loudspeakers as some Muslims might complain.”
Some will stay inside this Christmas.

Ishtiaq Masih, a 47-year-old security guard in Lahore, usually takes his family to the zoo and then joins other relatives for a picnic in Lawrence Gardens, a botanical garden in the city, after their Christmas festivities. Not this year.

“This has been our ritual for years,” he said. “There is a threat of attack in public spaces for my family.”
Last year, Islamic State suicide bombers stormed Sunday mass at Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in the southwestern city of Quetta, killing nine people and injuring several others.

Christian survivors of that and other attacks feel unsafe participating in festivities.

“I have asked my family to just pray at home,” said Haroon Gill, 50, a schoolteacher in Quetta who was in the church. “There is no need to risk their lives. The children are upset. They won’t participate in the Christmas programs. I don’t have much of a choice knowing how our church was attacked last year and I was injured.”

It’s not the first time Christians have felt targeted for openly expressing their faith.

In 2016, on Easter Sunday, militants killed more than 90 people in a suicide bombing at Gulshan Iqbal Park in Lahore. An affiliate of the Pakistani Taliban, Jamaatul Ahrar, took responsibility, saying that they targeted the Christians.

“Ever since the Easter attack, we fear going to crowded places,” said Iqbal Masih, 42, an electrician who lost family members in the bombing, said the climate has grown more fearful since the Bibi decision.

“Muslims are angry at us. They don’t want to see us celebrating.”
Space for religious minorities in Pakistan shrinking.

The United States last week added Pakistan to its blacklist of countries that violate religious freedom over the treatment of minorities in the country.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had designated Pakistan among “countries of particular concern” in a congressionally mandated annual report.

“In far too many places across the globe, individuals continue to face harassment, arrests or even death for simply living their lives in accordance with their beliefs,” Pompeo said in a statement. “The United States will not stand by as spectators in the face of such oppression,” Pompeo said.

Shaista Malik, 22-year-old Christian business student in Lahore, has experienced the discrimination firsthand.

“We decorated our house with a Christmas tree. Our landlord made it an excuse to ask us to vacate the upper portion of the house,” said Malik. “Intolerance has increased in Pakistan.”

Human rights activist Wilson Chowdhry of the British Pakistani Christian Association criticized Pakistan’s government for not doing more to protect Christians. He noted that Bibi and her husband, Ashiq Masih, would spend their holiday away from her children, who are staying with a friend.

“Despite her joy at being free I cannot believe that Asia Bibi is feeling like much of a winner today,” said Chowdhry.

Photo: Christian parents Razia Masih (L) and Ilyiab Masih (R) at their home in Burewala, Pakistan. Their 17-year-old high school student, Sharoon Masih, died in a hate crime beating that took place at a campus in August 2017.
Credit: Mehwish Edwin/ARA Network Inc. (09/14/2017)

Story/photo publish date: 12/20/18

A version of this story was published in the Religion News Service.

Afghans don't look forward to voting day

AFG181015ZH010Qalaye Fatooh, Afghanistan --Every morning, the muddy, ramshackle home of Abdullah Sarwar on the highest hill in Qalaye Fatooh is one of the first to be hit by the sun.

From this hill in a slum near Kabul, he can see the shiny, tall buildings and new roads of the capital, constructed from the international aid that has flowed in the post-Taliban era.

But here, locals say have seen little of that progress or attention.

That's why, when voters go to the polls on Oct. 20 to choose from more than 2,500 candidates vying for seats in the 249-member parliament – a vote that is the first Afghan-organized and run parliamentary election since the toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001 – many voters in this district, and across Afghanistan will ignore it.

“I refused to register for this election,” said Sarwar, who sits in his small worn-out wooden booth, where he repairs shoes to pay his rent and feed his family of nine. “In fact, none of my family registered."

"I went to the polls in the past but who cared about us? No one," he added. "These (candidates) will not either."

Qalaye Fatooh is a poor village a few miles from the capital that began to develop six years ago after Afghans from across the country took refuge there, either to escape the Taliban or high rents in Kabul. It currently has up to 2,000 families, no one is quite sure.

Here, most people live in houses made of mud that provide the barest shelter from the sun, wind and snow. Most don't have access to regular electricity or running water. Many, like Abdullah, are not even 100 percent certain of their last name.

Employment is irregular, and most residents are barely literate, and are self-employed in businesses that serve the community such as vendors of goods or barbers.

Jobs, or any way out of the desperate poverty that marks this district, is the one of the two single biggest concerns. The other is the insecurity that marks much of the country, and the violence that has been steadily worsening over the past few years.

In the first six months of the year, almost 1,700 civilians have been killed in terror attacks by the Taliban and other groups, the highest number in a six-month period since the United Nations began recording a decade ago.

Now, militants have vowed to disrupt the elections, and have already targeted voter registration centers and campaign rallies across the country.
Sarwar says he longs for the peace he had growing up in his home town in Logar province, to the south. But things heated up there as the Taliban took over his village last year, and he left for Qalaye Fatooh to protect his family.

Even so, he feels the Taliban's presence here in Qalaye Fatooh, he said, as they come to the village and its surrounding to shop or see family and friends.

That presence along with the threat of violence and terror has kept campaigning in Qalaye Fatooh lower key than in Kabul or other cities in Afghanistan. Even so, some candidates try, showing up and promising voters jobs and peace.

Even so, many voters here and across the country say they are too afraid to go to the polls.

“My husband told me that the Taliban will kill us if we attach election stickers to our national IDs,” said Bibi Saeeda, 47, of Qalaye Fatooh, mother of eight, referring to the stickers needed to be eligible to vote that most of her relatives and neighbors are avoiding. "We are surrounded by Taliban-affiliated militants (here): They are aware of each step we take – for our own safety, we have to go along with them.”

Seven members of Bibi Saeeda's family are eligible to vote. Only two – her husband and eldest son – will do so. The situation has dismayed Mahbooba, Saeeda's daughter who just turned 18. She was looking forward to voting in her first election.

“I was so excited about being 18 and having the right to vote,” she said, echoing other young voters in this area, and across the country. “I was very keen to stand behind that ballot box and cast my ballot.”

So far, Qalaye Fatooh has been spared violence in the run up to the election. But folks here remember vividly when military convoys were targeted by the Taliban's suicide bombers on the road that connects the city to Kabul several times over the past years.

Moreover, most here in this district remember vividly the violence from their hometowns and villages.

The Afghan government says it plans to deploy 50,000 armed forces – and put thousands more on alert – across the country on election day, to ensure a peaceful vote.

While many remain deeply skeptical over that promise, some still say they will ignore the threat.

“I will happily go to the polls,” said Abdullah Haidari, 25, who distributes carpet-weaving materials to the locals, and voted in the 2014 election. “Despite the Taliban presence, I believe nothing will happen, Inshallah. For a better future and peaceful life, I am determined to cast my ballot again.”

Many say it's very important to do so, to make Afghanistan a better place.

“I want to vote for the one who aims to serve the country,” said Noor Ahmad Ahadi, 24, a first-time voter who is barely literate, standing in his small barbershop in this district decorated with posters of Afghan models.

“Now candidates come to us offering 5,000 to 10,000 Afs (USD $66-$133) for our votes, but I know those who ask our votes in exchange for money will never serve us," he added. "So I will vote for the one who comes up with a plan and ensures me that it can work for our better future.”

But Sarwar says it's all for nothing. Candidates' attention lingers only so far as to get votes, as he points, incensed, to a host of election posters with campaign slogans that have been pasted onto his booth.

“It's nothing more than deceit,” he said.

Photo: Oct.15, 2018 – Kabul, Afghanistan – Abdullah, 70, is the breadwinner of a family of nine. He was displaced by the Taliban a year ago and now lives in Qalaye Fatooh, where he can barely pay the rent and feed his family. He is pessimistic about the upcoming election and it's outcome and says he's not eager to go to the polls.
Credit: Zakarya Hassani/ ARA Network Inc. (10/15/18)

Story/photo published date: 10/18/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

Wanting a piece of the last Shangri-La

BHUElections2018VARANASI, India – Bhutanese voters have already decided to oust their current leaders, voting out their prime minister and his political party in the first round of parliamentary elections last month.

Now many voters of this tiny, ancient kingdom hope that whoever wins the second round Thursday will renegotiate their lopsided long-time alliance with India and make nice-nice with China.

"We love our sovereignty," said Pawo Choyning Dorji, 35, a photographer in the capital of Thimphu. "We appreciate how India has helped in the development of Bhutan but our relationship with India has cost us our sovereignty. India must know that someday Bhutan is going to establish a good relationship with China.”

Bhutan is only one case of China and India jockeying for influence in South Asia, a rivalry that has been heating up over the past few years, and playing out especially in Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and the Maldives.

But it is the tiny country of Bhutan where the rivalry is hottest these days.

"It's a tiny speck of a country in South Asia, and it was only last summer's standoff between India and China that brought Bhutan to the headlines," said Faisel Pervaiz, South Asia analyst at the global think tank, Stratfor. "But now, what looks to be an election in a tiny, mountainous Himalayan kingdom actually has geopolitical implications between the world's two most populous countries."

Both countries are closely watching the results, hoping for an advantage in the future: The ruling party had been very close to India, analysts said.

In fact, India has had a "hegemony by default" in the region for decades, being the largest country in terms of size and population and the strongest economy and military strength, say analysts. And while it has strong cultural and linguistic ties to its neighbors, it is Bhutan where it has played the most dominant role, all but dictating its foreign and economic policy, and being its dominant benefactor and trade partner.

Enter China with its Belt and Road initiative, it's 'Marshall Plan' to connect Asia, Africa and Europe. In South Asia, it's been calling on governments with offers of investments, loans and economic partnerships, talking to countries who lack resources for roads, bridges and ports. As a result, they have been very receptive.

India has been so concerned that it has tripled its foreign aid over the past seven years – the most going to what it sees as its buffer state of Bhutan – and upped its offers of loans, infrastructure projects and other economic links, and also military cooperation.

Last year, the rivalry came to a head.

New Delhi has long had an interest in protecting the so-called narrow “chicken neck” near Bhutan that connects northeastern India to the rest of the country. Last year, Indian troops stopped Chinese forces from building a road on Bhutanese-controlled land on the Doklam plateau that Beijing has long claimed, stoking fears of a repeat of the Sino-Indian border war of the early 1960s. Both sides stood down after talks.

While each country in the region has had a different reaction to China: for example, in Sri Lanka, it has been politically risky to embrace China while in Nepal, it was an advantage, China is still inching forward in the race for hearts and minds.

"India is still the dominant country," said Pervaiz. "But where it was winning by a mile, now it is winning by an inch."

In Bhutan, that's because many see China as the future.

“China is beneficial for us," said Shyam Parajuli, 46, who sells gifts and knickknacks, often to Chinese tourists in Thimphu. "They pay a good price for the goods they buy here. Indians don’t, because they know every inch of this country very well.”

Some voters thought it would be a boon for local business.

“We get most of the business-related items from India but recently China has started giving us cheap products which make the trade cheaper, and many people prefer cheap products here,” said Sangay Choden, a middle-aged teacher in Thimphu. “If we get more trade goods from China on regular basis, we may be able to do more business with more profit.”

Other noted, however, that India provides Bhutan with crucial aid and the lion’s share of its commerce. “We enjoy Indian liquors in the bars here, thinking how to loosen the Indian hold around our neck,” said Pushpa Gurung, a 28-year-old aspiring fashion model.

Four years ago, India cut off kerosene shipments to Bhutan in what many viewed as punishment for expanded economic relations with China. The move soured many Bhutanese on India’s role in their economy.

Still, the prospect of becoming a battleground for fight between two nuclear-armed powers was a wake-up call for Bhutan.

“The Doklam standoff highlighted the vulnerability of a small, landlocked country like Bhutan to the changing geopolitical dynamics between its large and powerful neighbors,” said lawmaker Pema Gyamtsho, a leader of the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, the mainstream opposition political party squaring off against the upstart Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa in Thursday’s election runoff. "The incident became a better opportunity for Bhutan as it has opened more toward the world.”

The Bhutanese say they are not worried of becoming another Tibet – China annexed the Himalayan nation in the mid-20th Century. That development was one reason why Bhutan drew closer to India in the first place. The world has changed since then, said Thimphu-based political blogger Yeshey Dorji, 63.

“We are not worried about China entering Bhutan – this is not the 1950s or 1970s," Dorji said. "If China wants to enter Bhutan, they will employ economic means – as does India, to subjugate Bhutan. Once our boundary issues are sorted out, China will be as good a neighbor as any other country.”

Meanwhile, leaders from across the political spectrum have repeatedly said they want to make the country self-reliant and avoid foreign entanglements that might compromise their environmental and economic progress.

The country is focused on so-called positive development. Agriculture is on track to being entirely organic in two years. By 2030, the Bhutanese intend to recycle 100-percent of their waste. Under Bhutanese law, leaders must strive for Gross National Happiness rather than economic growth alone.

Issues other than foreign relations are also playing a big role in voters’ choices, of course. Rural poverty and poor healthcare were major reasons voters rejected the ruling People's Democratic Party in September.

Tshering Cigay Dorji, the chief executive of the Thimphu Tech Park, a venture launched in 2012 to diversify the Bhutanese economy, said the country’s choice in the long-run was not only between its two neighbors. It was whether Bhutan wanted to full join the international community or not.

Television was allowed in the country in 1999. The country’s monarchy ceded power to parliament in 2008. Mass tourism is limited with a $250 fee. Like Shangri-La, Bhutan has been closed off to the rest of the world for much of its history.

“Bhutan has already opened itself to the world though cautiously and carefully,” said Dorji. “It is not possible to isolate itself in this age of fast-changing developments spurred on by new technologies. For the future, I would like for Bhutan to be peaceful, balanced and happy as it is now, but also economically more self-reliant.”

Bhatti reported from Berlin; John Dyer in Boston contributed to this report.

Photo: July 6, 2018 - New Dehli, India - Former Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a meeting in the Indian capital where both leaders idiscussed a wide range of bilateral, regional and international issues.
Credit: Courtesy photo by Tshering Tobgay's official Twitter account (07/06/18)

Story/photo published date: 07/06/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

Making blasphemy laws international

PAKRivzi18LAHORE, Pakistan – Those convicted of dishonoring the Prophet Mohammed or desecrating the Koran in Pakistan face the death penalty – one of the harshest punishments in the Muslim world.

But the harshness doesn’t stop at the South Asian’s country’s borders. Many Pakistanis expect the same punishments to apply to non-Muslims abroad.

A diplomatic rift has opened between Islamabad and the Hague following populist, rightwing Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders’ now-cancelled Prophet Muhammad cartoon competition – a contest clearly designed to test the tolerance of Muslims who rioted in the past after Mohammed caricatures appeared in foreign newspapers.

Wilders announced the contest and its $10,000 prize in June. Around 200 people entered submissions before his November deadline.

After news of Wilders’ contest spread, demonstrators in Pakistan called for to severe diplomatic ties with Dutch government.

Leading the demonstrations was cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, whose far-right political party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik, aims to protect “the honor of the prophet.” Confident after garnering 2 million votes in the July’s parliamentary elections, Rizvi took to the streets asking the government to launch a missile against Holland.

“The only way to stop the release of blasphemous cartoons is through jihad,” said Rizvi at a rally at Data Darbar, a Sufi Muslim shrine in Lahore. “Pakistan should end diplomatic ties with Netherlands. We demand the government to launch Ghauri missile on Holland.”

His followers agreed. “Dutch are kafirs [non-believers],” said Muhammad Tayab, public school teacher in Lahore. “They dared to humiliate our prophet. They should all be killed for hurting our religious sentiments.”

Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned the contest but tried to calm his angry constituents with a video statement saying that people living in the West didn’t understand Muslims’ religious zeal.

“They [Westerners] have their own way of looking at their religions, while we look at it in a very different way," Khan said, adding that he would bring the issue up at the United Nations.

In late August, Dutch police in The Hague arrested Junaid Iqbal Gujjar, a 26-year-old Pakistani who had threatened to attack Wilders and the Dutch Parliament to stop the blasphemy. In a Facebook video, he vowed to send the Dutch politician “to hell.”

“I am a true lover of Prophet,” Gujjar said in the video, adding that he needs support and help from other Muslims to achieve his goal. “I have come here from France and will not return until I reach to the person who is conducting the competition.”

Wilders cancelled the competition next day.

The Pakistani government claimed the cancellation a victory. “The cancellation of the blasphemous contest is a great moral victory of Muslim Ummah,” said Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in late August.

Wilders pushed back. “Don’t claim victory too soon Pakistan government, I am not finished with you yet,” he wrote on twitter. “I will expose your barbarism in many other ways.”
The outrage reflects Pakistan’s longtime obsession with blasphemy abroad.

In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve satirical cartoons of Prophet Mohammad. The same set of cartoons was reprinted in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and several other European countries in 2006.

Pakistan was engulfed in protests.

Vandals looted storefronts of the Norwegian phone company Telenor, Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants and Western banks. Several people died in the violence. A Pakistani cleric, cleric Maulana Yousaf Qureshi, announced $1 million bounty and a car for anyone who killed the Danish cartoonists. Denmark closed its embassy due to security concerns.

Ten years later, French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, printed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. Protests broke out in Pakistan, with thousands thronging the streets, leading to clashes with police.

“Since independence from India in 1947, Pakistan has made religion, rather than a more inclusive, multicultural and more secular state narrative, it’s raison d'être both at home and abroad,” said Farahnaz Ispahani, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. who specializes in Pakistan’s minorities.

Khan has used the blasphemy issue to improve his standing among voters, she added. Now he needs to follow through with his rhetoric and condemn anyone who appears to trespass against the rule.

“The present and past governments live entrapped by jihadi rhetoric and the Islamist mindset that believes the world would be better off cast in its image,” she said.

Critics of anti-Muslim rhetoric are often ignorant.

Rabi Pirzada, a pop singer who was not even aware of Wilders’ competition, tweeted that

“freedom of expression can never justify blasphemy. We strongly protest against disrespect of our beloved prophet in France. The sketch makers must be hanged immediately.”

A legal expert at the Pakistan International Commission of Jurists, Reema Omer, noted that Christians and other religious minorities are most likely to run afoul of the country’s blasphemy laws.

She noted that the country’s supreme court and the National Commission of Human Rights had raised concerns about the misapplication of the law, but officials have done little to follow up with those worries.

“Change seems unlikely,” she said.

Khan’s support for the laws would only erode Pakistan’s standing abroad, she added.

“The current government’s pretense that its extremist positions will somehow bring the rest of the world round to its point of view will only isolate Pakistan further,” said Isphani.

Photo: Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the leader of the biggest party, Tehrik-e-Labbaik, has led an aggressive campaign that has been garnering the most attention among far-right groups.
Credit: Courtesy of Khadim Hussain Rizvi's official YouTube channel. (08/29/18)

Story/photo published date: 10/14/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

What's MeToo in Chinese?

CHINA-metoo A PROTEST SIGN PLACED ON WEIBOBEIJING – After spending two months late last year nudging university officials to punish her former PhD advisor for trying to pressure her and others into sex, Luo Xixi found unlikely help on China’s heavily censored internet.

She published a post on Weibo, a popular microblog site similar to Twitter, to detail her own experiences and those of four others with the professor at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. In a few hours, her post – in initially targeting her less than 10 followers – garnered three million views.

It had swift consequences in the conservative country, too: The professor was fired.
“I don’t think the officials forgot to block me,” Luo told USA Today by phone from her California home, where she moved after graduation to work in software programming. “I can tell the government is trying to open the door to the #MeToo movement, little by little.”

Sexual abuse scandals aren’t new in China but they rarely have caused a stir in the past. In this deeply patriarchal society, women who spoke out before were often seen as airing dirty laundry in public and bringing shame upon their family.
But with Luo's post – the first by a Chinese to use her real name – the tide has turned and the floodgates to sexual misconduct allegations in China burst open.

Other Chinese nationals living overseas began posting on various Chinese-language social media sites alleging sexual misconduct by academics. Since late July, every few days new victims and witnesses inside China aired their accusations on chat groups or personal blogs against such prominent figures in philanthropy, the media, entertainment – including a national variety show host and a monk who heads the country’s Buddhist association.

State censors have deleted some of the posts though not before they percolated on cyberspace through re-posts and were amplified by local media reports.

Much as the so-called Great Firewall has kept sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and most recently Reddit off-limits to China’s netizens, there is a plethora of popular homegrown sites.

Also, as China’s censorship apparatus is known to employ A.I. to automatically block sensitive terms from posts and group chats, some netizens find a way around referring to #MeToo by using homophonic Chinese words that mean “rice rabbit.”

“China has a contentious internet culture – people in China are used to taking their grievances online,” said Yang Guobing, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in online activism in China. "(Censorship) hasn’t really stopped the determined protesters.”

For example, in April, five Chinese abroad, including one on the faculty at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and another teaching at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, posted open letters online demanding that Peking University release specifics of a 1998 investigation into a former professor following their undergraduate classmate’s suicide: They believe he repeatedly raped her. Even as she took her own life, the professor held on to his position for more than a decade and won national recognition.

Even though they saw that the time has come to right an old wrong, they distanced themselves from the #MeToo movement because Chinese officials are often quick to crack down on organized actions.

“Before I came forward, I told our classmates we shouldn’t hitch ourselves to any movement or political demand,” the Wesleyan professor Wang Ao wrote on one of his blogs. "I tend to think I’m just an outsider and volunteer."

Following the recent wave of allegations, however, a few of the accused ended up apologizing online. After well-known environmentalist Feng Yongfeng was accused of harassing several women, he posted his mea culpa on WeChat, a social media-cum-messaging app.

And the fallout has been particularly swift for professors fingered as perpetrators. They all were let go.

The latest to face consequences is Xu Gang, associate professor of East Asian studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. On at least two Chinese-language social media sites, Wang publicized his female colleagues’ accusations against Xu’s sexual harassment dating back two decades. He left his tenured position earlier this month.

Meanwhile, Luo says she now embraces #MeToo, as she’s since realized the term is a rallying cry that resonates with the Chinese.

“So more people can come forward,” she said. “So they know they’re not alone.”

Photo: A protest sign posted by a user of the Chinese social media website, Weibo: The sign is referring to #MeToo by using homophonic Chinese words that mean “rice rabbit.”

Story/photo publish date: September 17, 2018 

A version of this story was published by USA Today.

Afghans don't look forward to voting day

AFG181015ZH013Kabul, Afghanistan – In one month, millions of Afghan voters will go to the polls to choose lawmakers in the first locally run parliamentary election since the Taliban was ousted from power in 2001.

But due to concerns over security and especially the fairness and transparency of the vote Oct. 20, some say they won't go.

“I will not participate in the upcoming election as my vote will not be counted – I do not believe anymore that it will be a transparent election," said Mortaza Nazari, an unemployed 20-year-old living in Kabul. "Only rich guys who collude with Afghanistan’s independent election commission can win the election. So it is just a show to fool the citizens.”

Nazari says he's not happy about his decision to sit it out but has no choice, given the situation in the country.

“There is no security, no stable economy, no reliable leader and no hope," he added. "Every day there is killing, bloodshed and violence across Afghanistan. Here in Afghanistan there is no news of reconstruction or hope.”

Instead, there is worsening violence.

In the first six months of the year, almost 1,700 civilians were killed, the highest number in a six-month period since the United Nations began recording a decade ago.

As a result, the elections are considered a major test for Afghan security authorities as the Taliban and other militant groups have vowed to disrupt campaigning and voting in the run up to the elections, and have already targeted voter registration centers.

At the same time, it's a test for the fragile democracy created after the fall of the Taliban. The elections are currently being held three years late – a violation of Afghanistan’s constitution, which dictates that parliamentary elections must be held every five years.

The fact that parliamentary elections were delayed this long shows that there is not sufficient institutional capacity to apply the constitution and to hold elections on time, says analyst Thomas Ruttig, the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a research organization based in Kabul and Berlin.

"(Afghan institutions) are often very dysfunctional and Afghan democracy is more a facade than reality,” he said. "And at the moment, there are no conditions to have a halfway fair election in Afghanistan – and that undermines institutions and the belief of people in (the democratic process) even further."

The last presidential election in 2014 deeply eroded faith in the democratic process: The outcome was decided through a political deal – not votes. A power sharing deal made between current President Ashraf Ghani and his political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, allowed both candidates to win.

“There is also a widespread tiredness – not of democracy, but of this kind of democracy where you have elections and in the end you never know whether your vote really has counted,” Ruttig added.

Also, in 2014, ballot stuffing at the polling stations was rampant throughout the country and analysts say they are waiting for a repeat performance in October, especially in remote and insecure areas that are out of reach from election observers and monitors.

Meanwhile, there are issues with the candidates themselves: Almost three dozen would-be and current MPs have been banned from running by the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC), who accuse them of having ties to illegal armed groups.

Also, there is a lack of candidates in some districts, especially in the district council races, which are being held alongside the parliamentary election for the first time. Moreover, there are people who are running who do not have any political experience.

The district councils are important to Afghans as these council leaders provide a closer link to the population, especially in rural areas.

There was supposed to be electoral reforms after the last election but it never materialized, analysts said.

Naim Ayoubzada, head of the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan in Kabul, says he worries that security issues, lack of transparency and the technical challenges of ensuring a fair vote might spill over into the presidential race in April, and even prevent it from happening.

“The coming parliamentary election is a good start for the next year's presidential election – it can guarantee our democracy and can help (deepen) the legitimacy of the democratic structures," he said. “But if we can’t hold parliamentary election then holding the presidential election could be impossible. In this case, people will lose hope of democracy, Afghanistan will head toward crises, ethno-nationalism and defragmentation, and finally Afghanistan will turn into a safe haven for terrorists like ISIS.”

“Considering the current situation, deterioration of political and economic situation is more likely to be seen rather than having our problems fixed,” he added.

Ruttig says that because it took more than eight months to get final results from the last parliamentary election, the counting of votes might not even be completed by the time the April election takes place.

In spite of all the dire predictions concerning this race, and the many that want to sit it out, some still say they are excited by the chance to choose.

“The current situation is totally not acceptable, the country is in a deep political and economic crisis," said Asifa, 25, from Balkh province in the north, who asked her last name be withheld out of security concerns.

"But I (will vote) for security and political and economic stability by participating in the election,” she added. "And I vote to bring change and have peace and stability.”

Photo: Oct.15, 2018 – Kabul, Afghanistan – A poster for MP candidate Masooma Tawasuli hangs outside a carpet-weaving shop in the Qalaye Fatooh district of Kabul. The shop's owner, Abdullah Haidari, is happy about going to the polls and says that he is determined to vote for a better future.
Credit: Zakarya Hassani/ARA Network Inc. (10/15/18)

Story/photo published date: 09/13/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times. 

As an Indian state registered its citizens, it forgot four million Muslims

IND180810SM001VARANASI, INDIA — Late last month, Indian authorities released the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a document that lists all the actual Indian citizens living in Assam, a remote state in northeastern India that shares a border with Bangladesh and Bhutan.

The list was designed to identify who can work legally, vote and enjoy the rights of citizenship. It was designed to weed out illegals. The problem is, four million names are missing.

Indian army veteran Azmal Haque is one of them.

“I feel humiliated and shamed by the Indian government. I can be a part of Indian army but not of India,” said Haque, 51, who now works as a labor contractor after retiring as from Indian Army as a captain after 30 years.

Haque’s 15-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter are also missing from the list. “I lived my life fighting for the country,” he said. “How can a foreigner go into the armed forces? How can I be termed an illegal migrant?”

Haque and others are worried that they will be deported, though they are not sure where they would be sent.

Most Indians absent from the list are Bengali-speaking Muslims. Many Indians, including lawmakers in in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) wrongfully consider them as illegal Bangladeshi migrants. Critics have said the party pursues nationalist policies that favor India’s majority Hindu religion.

In 2016, for example, Modi introduced a citizenship amendment bill that would grant Indian citizenship to non-Muslims from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who had been living in India for more than six years.

“These Muslims came from Bangladesh and have occupied our land,” said Roshan Pandey, a 26-year-old Bhartiya Janta Party supporter who studies at the Institute of Business Management in Calcutta. “Now they are taking away our jobs, education and employment opportunities. For the native Indians to grow and prosper, the government must deport them back to the country where they originally belong. NRC is the first towards that direction.”

Those sentiments infuriated 30-year-old social worker Shajahan Ali. Nobody in his family of six made it onto the register. India is a secular democracy, he said. His ethnic origins shouldn’t matter.

“Many BJP supporting Hindus’ call me and my family illegal Bangladeshi immigrants every time,” he said. “They tell me to go back to Bangladesh. I have no proof to show that I am Indian, too. Just that this our fourth generation born and living on this land.”

Authorities have given citizens a month to file claims to be placed on the list. But, given India’s cumbersome bureaucracy, many are doubtful that’s enough time.

“Government has done injustice with us. I feel like they have deliberately excluded Muslims from the citizenship list,” said Masuma Begum, 25, a member of the All Assam Minorities Students Union who said she applied to be on the list and provided the relevant documents but was still rejected.

Jiauddin Ali Ahmed, 52, is a farmer in Rangia, a village in Assam, said he lost papers in a flood that proved he was the nephew of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, India’s fifth president from 1974 to 1977.

“We have our voter’s identity card, school and other relevant documents but authorities do not count us as citizens,” he said. “I will visit the NRC office and follow the instructions of the authorities. I do not know what I would do now? I hope they do not make me illegal.”

The Bhartiya Janta Party recently won state government elections in Assam after running a campaign critical of Bangladeshi immigrants, said Abdul Kalam Azad, an independent human rights researcher in Assam.

“They benefit if fewer ethnic Bangladeshis living in India are considered citizens,” he said. “Everyone in the state believe that illegal Bangladeshis should be removed. That is what uniting most of the Hindus across the country.”

But hundreds of thousands of Hindus in Assam are not counted on the list, either. But some say that Modi has suppressed news of their fates.

“The government has managed to convince non-NRC Hindus that they do not have to worry because of the 2016 citizenship bill,” said Joydeep Biswas, an economics professor Assam University. “This government is not going to give citizenship to any Muslims, and this relaxes Hindus.”

Even if some Hindus are not counted as citizens, Modi’s party stands to gain when he faces reelection next year if Muslims are not allowed to vote because they are not on the list.

“If you take away voting rights of the Muslims, this will help,” said Biswas.

Photo: VARANASI, INDIA - Masuma Begum, 25, holds her voter identity card which also serves as proof of Indian citizenship throughout India except Assam. Even though she is a voter in India, the government does not consider her as citizen of the country. Credit: Masuma Begum, 8/9/18

Story/photo publish date: 9/12/18

A version of this story was published by USA Today.

When religious political parties become mainstream

PAKRivzi18LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistani voters might put the terrorist-supported candidates into parliament later this month, underlining how radical forces are near the center of power in the Central Asian country.

Several ultra-right religious groups have fielded candidates for the July 25 ballot, when voters will choose a new National Assembly who will in turn elect a prime minister.

Around 200 candidates are running from new parties that previously were considered on the fringe of Pakistani politics.

The leader of the biggest party, Tehrik-e-Labbaik, is firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who has led an aggressive campaign that has been garnering the most attention among far-right groups.

“If I’m given the atom bomb, I would wipe Holland off from the face of the earth before they can hold a competition of caricatures,” he told journalists recently at the Karachi Press Club, referring to a Dutch competition of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad.

The mainstreaming of the militants was the brainchild of the all-powerful Pakistan army, which floated the plan last year. At the time, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif rejected the idea, but he lost his job a year ago because a court convicted him on corruption charges stemming from not disclosing payments from his son.

On July 13, police arrested Sharif when he returned to Pakistan to face other corruption charges related to owning a London apartment that he should be able to afford based on his public salary.

On the same day, an Islamic State suicide bomber killed 128 people at a campaign rally in the country’s north.

Political observers criticized the army’s plan, saying military leaders were seeking to empower militants who might support their belligerent policies towards India and operations on the Afghan border.

“We are not disarming the radicals. We are not teaching them how to become good citizens and respect the true words of Islam,” said Ahmed Rashid, a Lahore-based author of books on extremism in South Asia. “We are taking them lock stock and barrel and inserting them with all their vices into the main political stream. This is no way to educate the people or to take the nation forward.”

Rizvi shot to fame last year when he staged blockades and other protests that brought the country’s capital to a halt over demands that lawmakers change in the parliamentary oath which he considered blasphemous. The action forced a government minister to resign, giving him legitimacy among religious voters.

Analysts didn’t foresee him winning enough of the parliament to join the government, but he would still be influential.

“Rizvi’s Labbaik won’t make any major dents in terms of getting seats but it will become a pressure group that can in the future hold sway,” said Sohail Waraich, a political analyst based in Lahore.

The leader of Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek is Hafiz Saeed, a mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks in India that killed 160 people. He is a designated global terrorist. The US has offered a $10 million bounty for information that leads to his capture.

On the election trail in the Iqbal Town district of Lahore, Saeed ridiculed the United States and Indian governments who opposed his entry into Pakistani politics.

“The world powers like India and US created obstacles for us but today we have won the first round against them,” he said. “We are now on the ballot.”
Pakistani officials un-froze cleric Ahmed Ludhianvi, a critic of Shiite Islam, and lifted a ban on his sectarian outfit, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, which is also running candidates.

The mainstreaming of the religious parties comes as the Financial Action Task Force, a Group of Seven initiative to combat money laundering, reportedly announced late last month that Pakistan would be kept on the task force’s “grey list” – a sign that it had not been diligent enough in cracking down on terror financial networks.

To avoid placement on the “black list,” or the worse ranking for offenders, Pakistani officials have agreed to a plan to choke off financing for the Islamic State, al Qaeda, the Haqqani Network and others.

Pakistani voters who supported the extremist religious groups saw those moves as a sign of how foreign institutions were biased against Islam and Pakistan.

“Every citizen of Pakistan has a right to contest the election,” said Mohammad Masood, a voter at the Lahore event. “Why should religious parties be denied that fundamental right? Hafiz Saeed has done great service for his people and that is why he’s been declared a terrorist by our enemies.”

Photo: Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the leader of the biggest party, Tehrik-e-Labbaik, has led an aggressive campaign that has been garnering the most attention among far-right groups.
Credit: Courtesy of Khadim Hussain Rizvi's official YouTube channel. (08/29/18)

Story/photo published date: 07/17/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

A new hope for Pakistani Christians

PAK180618NI00LAHORE, Pakistan – Pakistan’s second-ever prince of the church is due for installment on June 29.

In May, Pope Francis tapped Archbishop of Karachi Joseph Coutts to be among 14 new addition cardinals. Coutts would be only the second Pakistani cardinal after Joseph Cordeiro, who was named by Pope Paul VI in 1973 but died in 1994.

The reaction was swift, Coutts, 72, said.

“After the news of my appointment as cardinal came in, I was genuinely overwhelmed by the love I received from the common people, politicians and the media in the country. It was heartening that everybody considered it a great honor for Pakistan,” said Coutts, who has been the top Catholic clergyman in Pakistan since 2012. “People think that I’ll be relocating. I keep telling them that I’ll remain Archbishop of Karachi and becoming a cardinal is an added responsibility.”

Coutts’ nomination has come as good news for beleaguered Pakistani Christians who hope his elevation will bring international attention to their issues.

“We are a religious minority in Pakistan, but now our voice can be heard well in the universal church,” said Cecil Shane Chaudhry, executive director of National Commission for Justice and Peace, a human rights organization formed by the Catholics Bishops' Conference of Pakistan. “Archbishop Coutts is a visionary with immense knowledge and in-depth understanding of political matters.”

About 4 million of the country’s largely Muslim 208 million population, Christians are the second-largest religious minority in Pakistan. They often live in the fear of violence and remain one of the most persecuted religious communities in Pakistan.

Many Pakistani practice orthodox versions of Islam that include honor killings of women, attacks on churches, forced conversions and harsh punishments under blasphemy laws that often target Christians.

In the last few months, militants have launched deadly attacks on the Christian community in the southwestern city of Quetta. On Easter Monday, gunmen killed four men from a Christian family. An attack on churchgoers resulted in two deaths on April 15. In December 2017, suicide bombers attacked Bethel Memorial Church, killing nine people.

In its annual ranking of the 50 countries where it’s most dangerous to be a Christian, the non-profit Open Doors USA ranks Pakistan at number five. The World Watch List 2018 noted that much of the Christian persecution in Pakistan comes from radical Islamic groups that flourish under the favor of political parties, the army and the government.

These radical Islamic groups run thousands of Islamic education centers where youth are taught and encouraged to persecute religious minorities like Christians.

“Earlier when we were growing up we hardly faced discrimination on the basis of being Christian,” said Komal Francis, 43, a school teacher in Lahore. “Now my son is bullied in school and no one even wants to sit next to him in class. I have lodged a complaint with the school management, but they don’t feel it is important to address on-campus discrimination. Meanwhile my son suffers.”

Recalling an incident last year in the southern city of Burewala where a Christian schoolboy was beaten to death on campus because of his faith, Francis said she was scared for her son.

“I tell my son to ignore and never respond to the slurs that are hurled at him but honestly I fear, what if some children beat him up?” she worried.

Meanwhile, the country’s blasphemy laws continue to haunt the already-vulnerable community.

Debating aspect of Islam in public, referring to the prophet Mohammad disrespectfully on social media, including satirical memes or even liking posts perceived as anti-Islam content on Facebook or other platforms are a few of the many acts that lead to charges against Christians.

In a recent incident, an 18-year-old Christian, Patras Masih, a sewer cleaner, was accused of posting a blasphemous picture in a Facebook group. He surrendered to the police after a mob threatened to burn down his Christian neighborhood.

Officials from the Federal Investigation Agency apprehended his cousin, Sajid Masih, 24, a janitor, and brought him to Lahore for questioning. Masih claimed he was beaten up and ordered to perform oral sex with his younger cousin. Not wanting to comply, Sajid jumped from the fourth floor of a building and injured himself.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recently slammed Pakistan’s abusive enforcement of the strict blasphemy laws resulted in the suppression of rights for non-Muslims.

According to the commission’s report, about 100 blasphemy cases have been registered since 2011 and nearly as many people are currently serving prison sentences for blasphemy charges. Approximately 40 of those imprisoned are awaiting the death penalty or are serving life sentences.

Pakistani convicted of blasphemy include Christian mother and field laborer Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death by hanging based on allegations of blasphemy in 2010 and who has been in jail since awaiting appeal. In February, Rome’s ancient Colosseum was lit in red in solidarity with Bibi and persecuted Christians around the world.

A state governor was gunned down in 2011 after intervening on her behalf, and a Pakistani minister who called for changing the blasphemy laws was killed that same year by gunmen.

“Anybody can be a victim of blasphemy,” says Coutts. Salmaan Taseer, the slain governor, was a powerful man but he was targeted for criticizing the law, he noted.

Citing the example of university student Mashal Khan, who was lynched to death on false rumors of blasphemy in Mardan in March, Coutts expressed concern on the misuse of the blasphemy law.

“The law is being misused so freely and there is total emotionalism in it,” he said, adding that too many Pakistani are quick to turn to mob violence when someone is accused of blasphemy. “Without logic they join and kill.”

Now, taking up his new post, Coutts said he wanted Pakistanis find peace in their hearts.

“Today it is the Christians,” he said. “Tomorrow it will be another weaker community who is a target of society’s discrimination and injustice. It’s a constant struggle. We will try to reach out and help whenever we can.”

Photo: September 14, 2017 - Burewala, Pakistan - Razia Masih, who is Christian, holds a photo of her son Sharoon Masih, a 17-year-old high school student who died in a hate crime beating that took place at a campus in August 2017.
Credit: Mehwish Edwin/ ARA Network Inc. (09/14/17)

Story/photo published date: 06/26/18

A version of this story was published in Religion News Service.

Singapore teaches North Korea business skills and entrepreneurship

Students in North Korea attend a workshop on business development and entrepreneurship held by Singaporean non-profit group Choson Exchange in May 2018. (Photo courtesy of Calvin Chua/Choson Exchange)SINGAPORE – When Ian Collins arrived in North Korea in November 2017, he wasn’t sure what to expect. Tensions at the time were high, as Pyongyang had just conducted its sixth-ever nuclear test in September, while missile launches and heated rhetoric were flying all over the region.

Even more daunting – Collins, a 38-year-old Australian based in Singapore, was going to the secretive state built on a Stalinist economy to teach North Koreans about business skills and entrepreneurship.
“I like a bit of adventure,” he said, laughing.

Collins was volunteering with a Singaporean non-profit called Choson Exchange, which has been running business training workshops in North Korea since 2009.

What he found was a country and a people very different from the images generally seen in popular media.

“Before I went, North Koreans seemed like sort of robotic adherents to the regime,” said Collins, who works as an industrial safety and management consultant.

“And walking into the classroom for the first time was a little bit intimidating. The rooms are dark a lot of the time from a lack of electricity and they’re all wearing similar outfits with their pins of the leader.”

But Collins said that after initial jitters and some ice-breaker exercises, the mood changed dramatically. “I found them to be one of the most receptive audiences I've ever spoken to,” he said. “Just because there's that hunger for information.”

And after classes, he had the chance to socialize with some of the local North Korean partners involved in hosting the workshop, which was held at the Pyongsong University of Science. “We sang karaoke, talked about our families – I got to see the human face of the country.”

Choson Exchange, which was founded by Singaporean entrepreneur Geoffrey See, has taught more than 2,000 North Koreans directly and has brought about 100 North Koreans to Singapore for training.

Calvin Chua, 33, a programs coordinator for Choson Exchange, said that the basic concepts of doing business are not unfamiliar to most North Koreans. An informal culture of entrepreneurship has emerged in North Korea since the 1990s, when a famine struck the country and many people needed to trade in black markets to survive.

Still, many North Koreans have not yet been exposed to many basic market concepts, said Chua.

“For example, how do you know what’s a good price to charge?” he said. “Or not understanding concepts that we're very familiar with, such as branding.”

On the final day of the four-day workshop that Collins helped to lead, the 80 students broke up into small groups to give quick, Shark Tank-like pitches for products that reflected their practical concerns.

Their ideas included a solar-powered heater that would absorb energy all summer and store heat to use over the winter, a type of surge protector to deal with constant electricity shortages and a nutrition-packed health drink.

One idea that stood out to Collins was a training tool for taekwondo, the Korean martial art. Instead of the pine boards that students break with kicks, the team came up with a plastic board that could be broken and then snapped back into shape.

“They claimed you could use it a hundred times, Collins said. “The environmental impact would be huge. If true, it’s got massive international potential.”

Another group pitched a scheduling app for the locally-produced smartphones that are increasingly being adopted. Surprisingly, there’s even an app store for North Koreans -- but it’s an actual, physical shop where customers bring their phones to have apps installed.

Chua, who works as an architect and urban strategist, said that Pyongyang has evolved dramatically as a city over the 10 years since his first visit there.

Kim Jong Un, who took over as leader of North Korea in 2011 after his father, Kim Jong Il died, not only ramped up development of nuclear weapons and missiles, but also made economic and urban development a priority.

“If nuclear weapons is his foreign policy, then architecture and urban development is his domestic policy,” said Chua.
Another Singaporean who has seen the changes in North Korea is Patrick Soh, who brought the first fast food franchise to North Korea in 2009, a burger restaurant called Samtaesong (Three Stars).

“In the beginning it was hard to even find pens and paper, batteries,” said Soh. “But now, you are seeing cars, smartphones, tablets. They’ve built a modern new airport, there are new high-rise buildings everywhere.”

Of course, strict sanctions imposed by the U.N. last year are having an impact on economic development and restricting the kind of international investment that would propel growth.

North Korea’s abysmal human rights records and its nuclear arsenal have kept it ostracized from much of the world, but a whirlwind spate of international diplomacy, highlighted by a summit meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un here in Singapore, has created a sense of optimism for many. Chua said that Choson Exchange is hoping to be able to launch a business incubation center in North Korea that could one day connect local entrepreneurs with outside investors.

Choson Exchange has already had some success stories from their workshops. One group of former students opened a modern café serving cappuccino and espresso in a cheery, well-designed space. They even adopted one of the concepts they heard about in the workshop: customer loyalty cards.

“They applied it, even though they may not really need a loyalty card,” said Chua. “Technically, they don't have a lot of competitors.”

In the meantime, Collins is preparing to join Choson Exchange’s next workshop in North Korea in August. He said he’s looking forward to enjoying another side of North Korea that defied expectations: the beer, which comes in nine varieties made by state-run manufacturer Taedonggang, running the gamut from lager to stout.

“That was a very pleasant surprise,” said Collins. “It was great – some of the best beer I've ever had.”

A version of this story can be found in Public Radio International.

#MeToo gaining traction in Pakistan

Swat Valley, Pakistan-Tabassum Adnan of Swat Valley was married at 14 and eventually managed to leave her husband. These days, she helps other women fight for their rights as the head of an all-female jirga, or local council. (Photo: Jabeen Bhatti | ARA Network)LAHORE, Pakistan – This is Pakistan’s #MeToo moment.

A handful of Pakistani women recently alleged that famous male actor and musician Ali Zafar assaulted them, garnering headlines, prompting outrage and debates, and sparking the #MeToo movement in conservative Pakistan.

The women’s remarkable public statements – followed by others in the politics and business sectors-- are a sea change in this highly traditional Islamic country where female honor killings, child brides and polygamy are commonplace, and women are only given a portion of an inheritance that males receive.

“The #MeToo movement has organically come with women coming forward against powerful men, be it Ali Zafar or a CEO of a tech start-ups, to finally hold men accountable for their behavior,” said Nighat Dad, director of the Digital Rights Foundation and an activist for women's rights. “Hopefully that will encourage women to come forward.”

Women as victims of sexual harassment have log suffered in silence in Pakistan, where shame is the victim’s and not that of the perpetrator. Most of the women go without reporting the incidents but those who do come forward often suffer shame or face questions about their morality.

But Meesha Shafi, a Pakistani pop singer who accused Zafar of sexually harassing her on multiple occasions, is challenging the country’s culture.

“Today I am breaking this culture of silence and I hope that by doing that I am setting an example for young women in my country to do the same,” Shafi wrote last month on Twitter. “We only have our voices and the time has come to use them.”

Zafar denied the claims and demanded that Shafi delete the allegation on the social network and issue an apology or he would file a $9 million defamation suit against her.

“I am deeply aware and in support of the global #Metoo movement and what it stands for,” Zafar said in a statement. “I am the father of a young girl and a young boy, a husband to a wife and a son to a mother. I have nothing to hide. Silence is absolutely not an option.”

Shafi has refused to take down her tweets. Her attorney has denied she defamed Zafar.

Days after the public dispute erupted, more women came forward against Zafar, who has been compared to Hollywood producer and serial abuser Harvey Weinstein in the Pakistani press.

Leena Ghani, a make-up artist based in London came out saying that Zafar had repeatedly “crossed boundaries” with her.

“His behavior displays a clear lack of respect for women,” Ghani said on Twitter. “Inappropriate contact, groping, sexual comments should not fall in the grey area between humor and indecency.”

Humna Raza, a blogger from Lahore, accused Zafar of groping her when she asked to take a selfie with him. Another girl, Noor Sehar, accused Zafar of sexual misconduct at a party.

There has been a mixed reaction to Shafi and Zafar’s case in Pakistan. While many have supported the singer for bravely speaking out, there have been those who’ve questioned the accusations.

“I just don’t see any truth in these allegations,” questioned film actress Resham, who only uses a single name for her public persona. “Ali cannot do such a thing. How can he harass a woman and she doesn’t slap him back, hit him with a shoe, push him away or complain to his wife?”

The actress has also been shamed on social media.

"The backlash that Meesha has faced, the misogynistic attitudes that she has had to confront also sends women a message that there is still a cost to coming forward,” said Dad.

Others defended Shafi.

“Meesha is a superstar who is really successful and earns as much as the male stars in this country,” said actor and model Iffat Omar in an Instagram post. “So why would she do this if she was not hurt? Many people are claiming that she is doing this for fame or money. She already has more than enough of both.”

The allegations are not isolated.

Khalid Bajwa, chief executive of local music streaming company Patari, stepped down from his post last month following sexual harassment allegations.

Still, many women are afraid to come forward, also because of repercussions they face from a deeply conservative society.

For example, when Ayesha Gulali, a lawmaker from the mainstream Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf political party, recently accused her party’s leader, Imran Khan, of sending her lewd text messages she suffered backlash online and from within her party. Party leaders tried but failed to kick her out of the party and expel her from parliament.

Also, when broadcast journalists Tanzeela Mazhar and Yashfeen Jamal pursued a sexual harassment case against the director of current affairs Pakistan television, Agha Masood Shorish, they stirred up a storm of criticism before he was eventually fired.

“When I raised my voice, people responded with (degrading) comments about women, our character and personal lives,” Mazhar said.

“I think in any society it is difficult for women to come forward,” said Dad.

Still, Shafi’s answer is clear: “It’s only scary till you say it!” she tweeted.

A version of this story can be found in USA Today.

China tells their citizens to 'duck and run' in the event of a North Korean nuclear attack

The sign outside Yanji’s new train station greets visitors to the home of the Korean Autonomous Region in northern China where ethnic Koreans make up more than one-third of the local population going back generations. They area tune into South Korea TV channels for news on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. [PHOTO: VIOLET LAW]	YANJI, China – Standing at six-foot-one, Che Yong shuddered at the thought of ducking for cover in a potential nuclear attack.

“I’ve been living with this threat even when I was still in college,” said Che, 27, now a PhD student in Korean literature. “And it’s just been getting worse. Where am I going to hide when the Big One finally hits?”

Che and other residents of this frontier town along China’s border with the Hermit Kingdom find themselves caught in the middle of the nuclear standoff between the US and North Korea.

For years, they have experience earthquake-like tremors whenever North Korean officials test nuclear weapons.

But in recent months, as the war of words between Washington and Pyongyang has ratcheted up, the prospect of nuclear Armageddon appears increasingly imminent.

Some are trying to prepare. And they received some instructions, too. In a rare move to hammer home the risks of a nuclear war, the Communist Party controlled-daily newspaper serving Yanji and Jilin Province ran a full page advisory late last year illustrated with instructional comics on how to stay safe in event of a nuclear attack.

“Don’t look toward the blast. And move quick – in two seconds look for a physical barrier to hide behind,” the advisory warned. “Jump into a river or a lake and dive under the water.”

The advisory failed to note the inconvenient fact that waterways in this frigid corner of northeastern China freeze for most of the winter. North Korean defectors walk across the frozen river border to reach Chinese soil. Authorities here routinely repatriate them.

North Korea leader Kim Jong-un has threatened to aim his arsenal squarely at U.S. interests. But to the Chinese here, the potential for collateral damage is palpable.

With the nearest underground test site less than 70 miles away, locals have already been rattled by the tremors of missile trial blasts. The athletic field of a high school near downtown cracked a fissure nearly two-feet long after a 2016 test blast. On social media sites there’s anxious discussion that nuclear exchange might trigger an eruption on an active volcano smack on the border.

“I can feel the earth shake beneath my feet. You bet I’m scared but what can I do?” said Wang Li, a university bookstore clerk who was looking after her nephew at the store. “I can’t leave this town. All my family is here.”

Anticipating that local residents like Wang and her family might have to flee their home after a nuclear strike, the Chinese government has reportedly been building several “refugee settlement sites” along the border. Citing documents obtained from China Mobile, the country’s largest phone service provider, media reports said the sites were designed to prepare for tensions along the North Korean border.

Robert Jacobs, a historian of nuclear technologies at Hiroshima City University who has studied survivors of the first-ever atomic bombing, said China’s duck-and-roll survival guide was largely futile. Authorities are likely ill-prepared for what follows the blast, he said.

“For people living across the border, the real problem for them is radioactive fallout and what comes after,” said Jacobs. “The advisory is public relations management. They tell people things to make them feel good.”

This region knows war, having survived Tsarist Russian occupation and later Japanese invasion well into the first half of the last century. But the possibility of mushroom clouds appearing on the horizon is something many Chinese citizens reluctant to speak too much about.

“I can see how this is a sensitive topic that the government doesn’t want us to talk about,” said Liu Xiaolong, 65, as he helped his toddler grandson put on a face mask to shield him from the cold. “There is nothing I can do about this.”

Knowing full-well China’s state-censored media tends to sweep news under the rug to maintain order and keep the peace, Che has been tapping other sources to stay informed on the nuclear threat. Yanji is home to the Korean Autonomous Region of northern China where ethnic Koreans like Che make up more than one-third of the local population that has lived in the region for generations.

“Most Koreans in the area tune into South Korea TV channels for news, so we have better access to facts,” Che said. “North Korea is a huge threat to our security."

An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.

China targets EU economy with Belt and Road investments

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_Xi_Jinping_March_2017.jpegWARSAW – China's massive, trillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative has taken Central Asia and Africa by storm as developing countries line up for the funds to break ground on pricey, Chinese-backed infrastructure projects.

But analysts say the European Union and its prized single market, the second-largest economy in the world in terms of purchasing power, is China's real endgame.

As Beijing courts Eastern and Central European states in order to better access lucrative Western European markets, the European Union's standard bearers – France and Germany – fear Chinese investment in the bloc's more vulnerable states will increase Beijing's influence in the region and only widen the ideological rift already present in the bloc between East and West.

"The main aim is not Central or Eastern Europe, but it's completing the Belt and Road infrastructure via these countries," said Stefan Meister, who heads the Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia at the German Council for Foreign Relations in Berlin. "The side-effect is that you can use all of the weak spots to block other decisions which are linked to China."

Launched in 2013, China's Belt and Road initiative has sought to develop modern transportation links throughout some 64 countries, coming into contact with 60 percent of the world's population and a third of its economy along the way.

In 2017 alone, China invested $81 billion into Europe in foreign direct investments, up 76 percent from 2016, according to a recent report by law firm Baker McKenzie.

According to the report, the UK, the Netherlands and Switzerland received the most Chinese capital last year, but $9 billion has already flowed through the bloc's eastern and central states as part of the Belt and Road initiative. Last year, China established an $11-billion investment fund for the region and promised an additional $3 billion in funding in November.

The fruits of Chinese largesse in the region aren't quite as visible as elsewhere in the world, but notable projects have already drawn attention.

Seen as the "dragon head" of its Belt and Road initiative in Europe, in 2016, China's state-owned shipping firm, the China Ocean Shipping Company, agreed to invest some $1.24 billion into Piraeus, Greece's largest port. At the time of the announcement, the firm bought a 67 percent stake in Piraeus for $457.5 million and pledged $620.9 million to modernize shipping facilities over the course of time, according to reports.

With Piraeus as China's gateway to the continent, goods will be shipped from the south through Central and Eastern Europe via an upcoming high-speed railway between Belgrade and Budapest estimated to cost some $3.8 billion. Construction on the project broke ground in Belgrade in November thanks to a $297.6 million loan from China's Exim Bank, with construction on the Hungarian portion expected to start in 2020. Exim is providing 85 percent of the credit needed to fund the project.

Such projects have been welcomed by Eastern and Central European states, where the infrastructure gap between the European Union's western members is expansive and the EU hasn't acted fast enough to bridge the divide, said Angela Stanzel, a policy fellow in the Asia and China program with the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

Poland and Hungary and particular hungry for investment and opportunity, officials say.

"We are ready to be the gate to the West, first of all, from the economic viewpoint – this also includes China's One Belt, One Road initiative," said Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in October during an economic cooperation summit in Belarus, when he was still Poland's minister of economic development and finance. "Here, we can develop mutually beneficial cooperation for our countries and nations."

Even in countries like Romania, where Chinese dollars have yet to significantly land due to weak diplomacy and economic policy, links between former communist states and China "can still be exploited" for both countries' benefit, said Aurelian Dochia, a Romanian economist.

"Romania didn’t make enough efforts and did not find the best way to convince the Chinese that their presence in Romania would be interesting," he said. "I think it shows a weakness in Romania's diplomacy and economic policy."

Even so, Romanians have been wary of the Chinese: Former Prime Minister Victor Ponta was heavily criticized in 2014 for a visit in China in an attempt to move closer to Beijing instead of focusing solely on Western Europe. 
Meanwhile, Beijing's growing investments in the region have already put pressure on recipients to get in line with Chinese policy initiatives, said Stanzel, even though Brussels has for the time being managed to piece together unity within the bloc on most economic and sociopolitical issues involving China.

"On the sensitive issues, the member states are already divided," said Stanzel, citing the fact that both Greece and Hungary objected to strong language from the EU condemning China's island building in the South China Sea, and that a veto by Hungary last year stymied a common EU statement on China's human rights abuses.

"Now it seems as if there are very few countries, such as Germany and France, that keep sticking to mentioning the sensitive issues such as human rights, whereas all the others just don't do that anymore," she said.

Such strife over a third party's policy goals is only adding fodder to divides in the bloc, said Meister.

Hungary and Greece, recipients of Belt and Road dollars, have long been seen as troublemakers within the EU: Greece for its economic woes, and Hungary for it's rightward political swing with Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic and Poland, strong European economies and benefactors of lucrative Chinese trade deals, have also shifted to practicing right-wing politicking in recent years.

Chinese investments are being used by these countries to say that "they're sovereign states, that they have alternatives [to the EU]," said Meister. "In this way, it plays more into this narrative that these are problematic countries, that these are troublemakers, and now they're even doing deals with China and even voting for China inside of the EU."

Jakub Jakobowski with the Center of Eastern Studies at the University of Warsaw, however, says instead that it's Western European member states who have more incentive to cozy up to China.

"In Western Europe, they say big Chinese investment appeared in Eastern Europe and this makes the region more dependent on China, but this is not true," he said. "Maybe this opinion stemmed from the fact they expected bigger capital to come to their region."

"Presence of Chinese capital in the region…is even smaller, as we receive only a fraction of the investment which comes to France or Germany, for example," Jakobowski added.

Both Germany and France are huge recipients of Chinese investment, and their respective leaders have made numerous personal visits to China to attract business during their tenures. Even so, both countries have remained steadfast in condemning unsavory global policies out of Beijing.

"Mutual dependencies are increasing and sometimes the balance of power shifts," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told German weekly WirtschaftsWoche. "Europe must work hard to defend its influence, and above all, it should speak with one voice to China."

China's push in Eastern European member states threatens to upset Franco-German economic and political dominance in the bloc at a time of heightened instability on the continent, said Meister.

"Germany is only very slowly understanding what is going on here and at the same time, China is so important as a market also now for Germany that we have no interest in a huge conflict with the Chinese," he said.

But European standard bearers can't afford to dawdle on the issue, Meister added.

"This is about the future of Europe," he said. "This is the future of our industries, our technology, and we're already really too late. The Chinese are already in many areas."

An alternative version of this story can be found here.


Pakistanis protest rape and murder of 7-year old girl

b_179_129_16777215_00_https___ssl.c.photoshelter.com_img-get_I0000x6PxlC60Ivc_s_500_I0000x6PxlC60Ivc.jpegKASUR – In a conservative Muslim society where rampant sexual abuse has long been a taboo subject, the rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl in the eastern Pakistani city of Kasur is fueling calls for change.

“Zainab’s death has opened the debate on child abuse to Pakistan’s public, in media and social media in a huge way,” said Nadia Jamil, an actress and philanthropist who is among a host of high-profile Pakistanis who have spoken up about child abuse since the first grader Zainab Ansari’s body was found in a garbage heap on January 5.
“It’s never been so transparent and so open before,” said Jamil. “It really has shaken the nation’s dormant empathy and conscience.”
Ansari’s went missing a day before her body was discovered while her parents were in Saudi Arabia. An autopsy report confirmed that Ansari was raped, sodomized and strangled to death.

“We had gone for pilgrimage to Mecca. While we were praying for the well-being of our children this incident happened,” said Zainab’s father Amin Ansari, a shopkeeper in Kasur. “My daughter never returned from her Quran class and the police didn’t help us find her.”

On Tuesday, Police arrested 24-year-old Mohammed Imran, who they said confessed to luring Ansari with food. He also allegedly confessed to killing at least seven other girls. Police on Thursday said he could have been involved in a child pornography ring.

But before those developments, anger over the authorities’ perceived inaction erupted into protests that resulted in two deaths after police shot into a crowd on January 10.

In recent weeks, the #JusticeForZainab campaign on social media has also taken off, a petition to hang the suspected abusers has garnered almost 80,000 signatures and lawmakers have proposed public executions for those convicted of raping children younger than 14.

The unrest and activism reflects frustration over child abuse in Pakistan, especially in Kasur. The local press dubbed the city the “child abuse capital” of the country after the media obtained a video of 285 children being abused there. Authorities released the men implicated in the videos.

“Child pornography is readily available in CD shops in our city,” said local lawyer Mohmmad Waqas. “Videos from 2015 scandal are still in markets. The parents whose children were taped, they were silenced by the powerful people in the area. In such a situation where government shuts its eyes, crimes against children continue with impunity.”

Sahil, an NGO that has been fighting child sexual abuse since 1996, has tallied more than 720 incidents of child abuse in Kasur in the last three years. This year, they have recorded 12 reports of abuse in the neighborhood where Ansari’s body was recovered.

"These incidents are a result of not punishing those who were part of the larger incident reported in 2015,” said Samar Minallah Khan, an anthropologist and documentary filmmaker based in Islamabad who has been outspoken on child abuse issues in Kasur. “So many families came out despite the shame that is attached to sexual abuse."

The government turns a blind eye to the abuse because of the money it generates, said Khan.

"In Kasur, child abuse is not just a social issue, there is money involved,” she said. “When the Pakistani government makes sure that no blasphemous content is put out, then how come we have acceptance for this kind of content being distributed openly? It's probably a big thriving business.” 

Pakistani society is deeply patriarchal. Men’s interests trump those of women and children, she added. Questioning the victim is routine here. Critics blame abused women and children for attracting predators. But the situation is changing, she added. 

"Because of the image of Zainab, people have started to realize that the child who experiences such forms of violence is a victim,” said Khan. “Due to this, so many people have broken the silence in shared and their own experiences."

Many outraged Pakistanis want schools to prepare children so they might avoid abuse.

"There are widespread calls for sex education in schools and awareness programs for children, parents, teachers etcetera,” said Rubina Saigol, an author and independent human rights activist in Lahore. “In the past sex education was berated as obscenity and a shameful idea. People were in denial. They used to say, ‘This doesn't happen in an Islamic society.’”

Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah said he and his colleagues would act on those suggestions.

“The government has taken a decision to amend the law on child protection,” he said. “We plan to change the curriculum for child protection and have made a request to the religious scholars to help in making positive changes in syllabus.” 

Zainab’s elder sister Laiba, 16, wanted more done.

“It is all blur now,” she said. “I only have memories and nothing else. My sister was so innocent, like all little children are. She didn’t deserve to be killed. I don’t know how to cope with this loss. Her killer should be stoned to death.”

A version of this story has been published in USA Today.

Pakistan blasphemy laws ignite tension with the U.S.

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_PAK130912aa001.jpegLAHORE, Pakistan – Harsh laws forbidding blasphemy against Islam are dividing Pakistani society and driving a wedge between the South Asian country and the United States.

Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department announced added Pakistan to its Special Watch List for severe religious freedom violations, citing the abuse of Christians, Hindus, the Ahmadi Muslim sect and other religious minorities in the country.

Central to that abuse are the country’s blasphemy laws, said Daniel Mark, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “Pakistan continues to harass its religious minorities, has state-sanctioned discrimination against groups such as the Ahmadis, and tolerates extra-judicial violence in the guise of opposing blasphemy,” Mark said in a statement.

The Jan. 4 move came on the same day President Donald Trump froze security aid to Pakistan, saying Islamabad had failed to crack down on terrorist networks in the country.

Similarly, the draconian blasphemy laws reflect how Pakistani leaders have permitted radical Islamic beliefs to infiltrate the judiciary, said local experts.

“Why is Pakistan’s establishment mainstreaming jihadists?” asked Pervez Hoodbhoy, a political analyst based in Islamabad. “For three decades, Pakistan’s military establishment has stoutly denied supporting violent religious groups but today the military’s attitude is more ambivalent.”

Controversies over blasphemy laws boiled over in November when protesters led by firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi brought the Pakistani capital to standstill after lawmakers altered their parliamentary oath in a manner that Rizvi said undermined the sanctity of the Prophet Mohammed.

Lawmakers restored the original wording of the oath, but the protesters demanded for the resignation of the Law Minister Zahid Hamid. He resigned and the Pakistani military negotiated an end to the blockade of the main highway into Islamabad. Six died in the protests.

Now Rizvi’s political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah, which advocates for Sharia law in the country, is widely expected to gain seats in parliament in July’s general election.

His party has been growing since 2016, when authorities executed Mumtaz Qadri, a former police officer who assassinated Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in 2011 for his opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws. Qadri and Rizvi are both adherents of the Barelvi movement that holds mystical beliefs about Mohammed.

“The execution of Mumtaz Qadri has revived the blasphemy issue and reinvigorated Barelvi activism,” said Hoodbhoy.

Introduced under British rule, the blasphemy laws originally carried a maximum sentence of two years in prison. But in the mid-1980’s, General Zia ul Haq, a military dictator on a campaign of Islamization, revised the legislation to include strict punishments for a wide array of infringements, including the desecration of the Koran.

“Pakistan was made in the name of Islam and its Prophet and we should uphold a law like blasphemy, which protects our religion,” said Khadim Hussain Rizvi, leader of the Pakistani Taliban. “Why should Muslims be apologetic about it?”

Rizvi noted that that Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of modern Pakistan, was a lawyer who defended Ilm-ud-din, a 19-year-old Muslim man who stabbed Hindu publisher Mahashe Rajpal for publishing a book that the young man felt was offensive to Muslims.

Today, the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a Catholic group, said 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadis, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus have charged under the blasphemy rules since 1987. No one has been executed, but currently 40 people are on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy, according to the U.S. on International Religious Freedom.

The most prominent death-row convict is Asia Bibi, a Christian woman found guilty in 2010 for alleged blasphemy during an argument a year earlier about drinking Muslim women’s water as she was harvesting berries.

“Once someone is even accused of blasphemy, they are doomed,” said Farzana Bari, a Pakistani human rights activist and director of the Gender Studies Department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. “Violence against minorities is on the rise, and people are now encouraged to commit such acts with impunity.”

Last year 2017 saw at least 10 high-profile blasphemy cases that garnered headlines in Pakistan. Many of the cases suggested that blasphemy laws were being used irresponsibly or as retaliation in other disputes, often in the form of vigilante killings.

“Blasphemy has become the tool of choice for Pakistan’s resurgent Islamists, one that rarely fails,” said Hoodbhoy. “Point your finger at someone – possibly someone whose business you covet or a political opponent – and scream that he defiled Prophet Muhammad. Before you know it, a lynch crowd will have assembled.”

In September, a judge in the eastern city of Gujrat sentenced Nadeem James, 35, to death after a friend accused him of sharing anti-Islamic material on WhatsApp.

In June, police charged 28-year-old Christian mechanic Ashfaq Masih with blasphemy after he got into verbal spat for asking a customer for 36 cents as payment for a car repair. He was booked under the blasphemy law and is now awaiting trial.

In May, a mob attacked a mentally disabled man and beat him brutally inside a mosque in Chitral in northern Pakistan after he was accused of uttering blasphemous remarks following Friday prayers. No one was charged in the incident, but prosecutors filed blasphemy and terrorism charges against the man.

In spite of occasionally talk of rescinding blasphemy rules, Pakistani officials have used them for their own ends, too. A year ago, authorities apprehended five bloggers who had been critical of Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies. They were released but charged with blasphemy.

The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), a counter-intelligence agency, later told a judge in Islamabad that no evidence was found against the bloggers. However, their lives will never be the same.

“Blasphemy accusations against us were never about prosecution,” said Ahmad Waqass Goraya, 35, one of the the activists forcibly abducted last year. “The purpose was to disgrace us and our families in public and set example for others. They wanted to suppress our voices.”

The bloggers either moved or keep a low-profile in their communities.  “The counter-intelligence agency’s statement doesn’t change anything for us,” said Goraya. “The fear of being lynched…remains the same. Our families live under constant fear from Islamic extremists and the state alike.”

Another version of this story can be found here. 

Move over Eminem, meet Menime, Kashmir’s first girl rapper

IND171204BT002Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir – Hip-hop and rap music were born out of the struggles of black communities in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s.

Borrowing a page from them, a female high-school student in conflict-torn Kashmir has become a rapping sensation in the conservative, Muslim-majority region, controlled by India, where girls are sometimes not even sent to school.

Emcee Mehak Ashraf, 17, says she is using the politically charged genre to shed light on the repression she and her fellow Kashmiris face every day under Indian occupation.

“Rap is my way of expressing resistance," said Ashraf, who goes by the stage name Menime, an anagram of the American rapper Eminem, one of her biggest inspirations.

Menime, the region's first female rapper, is a shy and gangly girl often found in a gray and purple hoody. She says she began scribbling lyrics when she was 12, after listening to Eminem and reading about the plight of her region in local newspapers.

Now in high-school, she says she sometimes eschews homework to create 'rhymes', often writing about feeling trapped and the sweet freedom that is just hovering nearby, just as she did when she was younger.

“A bird in the trap is also sad, it also wants freedom, so bad! It wants to fly high in the sky and tease the people passing by..,” she wrote when she was 12.

The dizzying speed of her rhymes first drew attention from local radio producers – but not for the reasons she'd hoped for at the time.
"I told them (radio producers) that I’m a political rapper and my songs depict the reality of Kashmir," said Menime, recounting an appearence she made on Kashmiri radio in 2016. "They didn’t want me to touch politics."

Not wanting to forfeit the rare opportunity, she dutifully performed hits by the likes of her idol Eminem and rapper Nikki Minaj.
"But I decided not to perform there again," she said. "All my life I have seen the brutality of Indian occupation. I want to be a political rapper and have my voice heard."

Her appearance on the program didn't go unnoticed: She was quickly contacted by the rap duo A.H.M Dexterity, who were interested in having Menime join them in founding a triad of political rappers.

"She dazzled me with her rapping skills," said Aamir Ismael, 23, also known as Emcee Ame. "That too at such a young age."
Emcee Ame entered the rap game as a lyrical activist in 2010 when over 100 protesters and bystanders in Kashmir were shot dead by Indian soldiers during an anti-India demonstration. Thousands of others were wounded and hundreds blinded by pellet-firing shotguns, a weapon human rights groups have deemed lethal.

"Some choose to throw stones at the occupation – we choose rhymes," said Emcee Ame. "Mehek is the latest addition to our artillery."
Since joining A.H.M Dexterity, Menime has become a sensation in the Muslim majority region where rap as a genre still remains on the fringes of mainstream music. She gained significant attention after releasing a freestyle video online that poignantly discusses the turmoil in Kashmir.

"We are creating a platform for the artists, especially women, to help them be heard," said A.H.M Dexterity's other member, Mir Imaad, 23, also known as Emcee Husteer.

"Unfortunately, we live in an occupied state, we don’t have resources and we get no sponsorship,” he added. “But we want hip-hop culture to grow to the level where it can become a huge market in Kashmir."

It's a lofty goal in Kashmir, where outspoken dissenters are silenced and pro-independence groups often spar with Indian forces who have been permanently stationed in the region for seven decades, say locals. Some 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict since 1989, while another 10,000 have been forcibly disappeared by government forces, according to the rights activists and pro-independence groups.

Menime's family feared a similar fate for their daughter when she revealed her passion, but ultimately gave in to her wishes. It'll likely to be a more difficult task to win over the hearts and minds of others, said Amjad Majid, a Kashmiri art critic.

“Kashmir has given birth to one of its first speed rappers," he said. "What worries me is how all this will play out in Indian media, which seems hell-bent on portraying Kashmiri culture under a homogenized tint of conservatism in order to disconnect it from the rest of the world."

The Indian media is wildly unpopular in Kashmir, where it’s seen as an extension of the state.

"They label our martyrs as terrorists," said Menime.

That's not going to stop her from following her passion: "I can only laugh at them," she added.

But the Indian state has been known to close down rap concerts, which they view as too controversial.

In the southern Indian city of Bangalore recently, police stopped a show amid accusations that Kashmiri rapper Roushan Elahi’s lyrics were "anti-national." Elahi was among the first rappers to rhyme about the atrocities in Kashmir that ensued during the 2010 protests against the Indian military.

Despite the constraints of the state, Menime could stand to benefit from the support of local Kashmiris, said Najeeb Mubarki, a journalist and political analyst.

“But what is also relevant is how the state will react, since its default mode is crushing, if not criminalizing, all and any forms of dissent and resistance to its brutality in Kashmir,” he said.

Menime worries about being targeted like other rappers in Kashmir, some of whom have been forced to go underground after their music has been labeled seditious.

“Such threats may scare me – but nothing scares me more than my mother’s scolding," she said with a smile.

“I feel really weak when I see deaths and destruction," she added. "It’s rap that gives me courage though.”

Photo: Dec 4, 2017 - Srinagar, India-controlled Kashmir - A H M Dexterity band poses for a group photo in Srinagar. Kashmir's new generation is engaging with global cultures, especially with the hip-hop scenes from around the world, including those from the U.S.
Credit: Baba Tamim/ARA Network Inc.

Story/photo publish date: 12/29/2017

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

'Going on a witch hunt' in India is real — and deadly

BHILWARA, India — "Going on a witch hunt" is a custom many in India observe — and for those hunted it can be deadly.

Just ask Ramkanya Devi, 80, who still lives in fear three months after a young neighbor branded her as a witch responsible for the girl's illness.  

Read more at USA Today

Discrimination in China is high, but gays finally feel emboldened to combat homophobia

    GUANGZHOU, China – Peng Yanhui still remembers shuddering when he testified three years ago about doctors using electroshock therapy to try changing his sexual orientation to straight.

“I was very nervous,” Peng said. “I screamed so loud when they poked my arm with an electric shock (device).”   

Read more at USA Today

People are still cleaning sewers by hand in this country — and they're dying

NEW DELHI — Chandra Kanta shudders when she thinks about how she will explain her son's death someday to her 6-month-old granddaughter. 

Mohanlal Kanta, 22, died from asphyxiation in August while cleaning a blocked sewer line without a gas mask or other protective gear, as required by laws rarely enforced. 

Read more at USA Today

Mysterious 'braid-choppers' are drugging women and cutting off their hair in India

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_IND130723AA001.jpegSRINAGAR, Kashmir — Shaqeela Sajad was sweeping the front porch last week when a masked man dressed in black forced a handkerchief over her nose and attacked her. 

“When I opened my eyes in the hospital, I found my braid had been hacked,” said Sajad, 24, who is pregnant with her first child, from her home in Srinagar in India-administered Kashmir.

Read more at USA Today

Poor, overpopulated Bangladesh can't handle flood of Rohingya refugees

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — This resort town has one of the longest beaches in the world and is one of the biggest tourist attractions in this desperately poor country. Yet even this vital source of revenue is at risk.

Foreign and domestic vacationers are avoiding the area because more than 500,000 refugees fleeing persecution in neighboring Myanmar have set up temporary camp here.

Read more at USA Today

More than half of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are 'traumatized' children

    For a 7-year old, Mohammad Sohail is unusually quiet. He’s startled by the smallest sounds and rarely smiles. He clutches the hand of 18-year-old Jahangir Khan as the two make their way through the muddy and cramped alleys of the Kutupalong Refugee Camp in the southern Bangladesh district of Cox Bazar.

“I first saw him outside a local school where many child refugees are living about three weeks ago," recalled Khan, a Rohingya refugee who was born in Kutupalong camp after his family fled Myanmar’s Rakhine State in the late 1970s. "His clothes were wet; he was shivering, and he looked lost. He looked like an orphan.”

Read more at USA Today

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