Chinese Christians face state crackdown

Xu Shijuan stopped holding church gatherings at her house in China at the order of local officials.The 62-year-old Chinese shopkeeper had waited nearly his entire adult life to see his dream of building a church come true – a brick house with a sunny courtyard and spacious hall with room for 200 believers.

But in March, about a dozen police officers and local officials suddenly showed up at the church on his property and made the frightened congregants disperse.

They ordered that the cross, a painting of the Last Supper and Bible verse calligraphy be taken down.

And they demanded that all services stop until each person along with the church itself was registered with the government, said the shopkeeper, Guo, who gave his last name only from fear of retribution.

Without warning, Guo and his neighbours in China’s Christian heartland province of Henan had found themselves on the front lines of an ambitious new effort by the officially atheist ruling Communist Party to dictate – and in some cases displace – the practice of faith in the country.

Under President Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, believers are seeing their freedoms shrink dramatically even as the country undergoes a religious revival.

Experts and activists say that as he consolidates his power, Xi is waging the most severe systematic suppression of Christianity in the country since religious freedom was written into the Chinese constitution in 1982.

The crackdown on Christianity is part of a broader push by Xi to “Sinicize” all the nation’s religions by infusing them with “Chinese characteristics” such as loyalty to the Communist Party.

Over the last several months, local governments across the country have shut down hundreds of private Christian “house churches”. A statement last week from 47 in Beijing alone said they had faced “unprecedented” harassment since February.

A dozen Chinese Protestants interviewed by the Associated Press described gatherings that were raided, interrogations and surveillance, and one pastor said hundreds of his congregants were questioned individually about their faith.

Like Guo, the majority requested that their names be partly or fully withheld because they feared punishment from authorities.

“Chinese leaders have always been suspicious of the political challenge or threat that Christianity poses to the Communist regime,” said Xi Lian, a scholar of Christianity in China at Duke University.

“Under Xi, this fear of Western infiltration has intensified and gained a prominence that we haven’t seen for a long time.”

Officials once largely tolerated the unregistered Protestant house churches that sprang up independent of the official Christian Council, clamping down on some while allowing others to grow.

But this year they have taken a tougher approach that relies partly on “thought reform” – a phrase for political indoctrination.

Last November, Christian residents of a rural township in southeast Jiangxi province were persuaded to replace posters of the cross and Jesus Christ inside their homes with portraits of Xi, a local official said.

“Through our thought reform, they’ve voluntarily done it,” Qi Yan, a member of the township party committee, told the AP by phone. “The move is aimed at Christian families in poverty, and we educated them to believe in science and not in superstition, making them believe in the party.”

The poster campaign appears to symbolise what analysts see as the underlying force driving the change in the party’s approach to religion: the ascendance of Xi.

“Xi is a closet Maoist – he is very anxious about thought control,” said Willy Lam, a Chinese politics expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “He definitely does not want people to be faithful members of the church, because then people would profess their allegiance to the church rather than to the party, or more exactly, to Xi himself.”

Various state and local officials declined repeated requests to comment. But in 2016, Xi explicitly warned against the perceived foreign threats tied to faith, telling a religion conference: “We must resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means.”

Those who resist pay the price. After Jin Mingri, a prominent pastor who leads Zion Church in Beijing, refused local authorities’ request to install surveillance cameras inside his house church, police individually questioned hundreds of members of the 1500-person congregation, he said.

The congregants faced veiled threats, Jin said, and many were asked to sign a pledge promising to leave Zion, which the government agents called illegal, politically incorrect and a cult.

Some people lost their jobs or were evicted from rented apartments because police intimidated their bosses and landlords.

“A lot of our flock are terrified by the pressure that the government is putting on them,” he said. “It’s painful to think that in our own country’s capital, we must pay so dearly just to practice our faith.”

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A date to remember as colleagues reunite

TOGETHER AGAIN: Former Newcastle Custom Credit employees at their latest date-driven reunion on Wednesday at the Colliery Inn at Wallsend. Picture: Jonathan CarrollTHEY were workmates who became a tight knit groupof friends that would play touch footy in their lunch break, and occasionally get busted by the boss piggy back racing in the office hallway.

They knew how to have a good time, and they did.

They were the staff at Newcastle’s Custom Credit, where locals went to get a loan before the days people soughtfinance directly from the bank.

On the seventhof the seventh in 1977–7/7/77 – staff in the “acceptance” department noticed the date andwondered what they would be doing “when the eights came up.”

“I have thisthing for numbers,” Vicki Williams said.

“We decided we would try to meet up again on the eighth of the eighth, ’88.

“We thought it would be fun to see what everyone was up to when the eights came up. Whether we’d all be married by then, whether we’d have any kids,whatwe were all doing with our lives.”

So they did. On the eighth stepof Newcastle City Hall.

Vicki WilliamsHerald covered the story at the time.

The friends havesince met up again on the ninth of the ninth, 1999, to continue the tradition.

And on Wednesday –the eighth of the eighth, 2018 –they again came together for lunch and a few drinks to remember the mischief and shenanigans they got up to back in the old Custom Credit days. Some people had traveled from as far as Mullumbimby and Brisbane.

FLASHBACK: The Herald’s report on the group’s 1988 reunion.

But most of the crew were still living in the Hunter area.

“I don’t think it happens in many workplaces where you can keep friendships like we have,” Ms Williams said.

The four main staff members who concocted the originalreunion plans in 1977 –Keith Wilson, Bev Folbigg, Judy Kennedy, and Ms Williams – were all at the lunch on Wednesday, joined by about 30 other former colleagues.

“Custom Credit was a subsidiary of the National Bank. We had a huge office that was originally next to where Spotlight is in town now,” Ms Williams said.“We grew and moved into a building next to where Rundles is in the west end.

“Because we were all young while we were working in that industry, we were lucky toreceivesome pretty good financial advice early on in our careers. Most of us had managed to buyour first house, or take out loans to start a business,by the time we were in our early 20s.

“Everyone has filtered out to be quite successful in the areas they went into. A lot of the people there are well known business people around Newcastle.”

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Phoenix fall 1-0 to Bentleigh in FFA Cup

Mark Rudan’s tenure as Wellington Phoenix coach is off to a disastrous start after a 1-0 defeat to a 10-man Bentleigh Greens in the FFA Cup.

The Greens took the lead midway through the first half and had a man sent off 10 minutes later but were still able to hold out their A-League opponents to secure a famous victory at Kingston Heath on Tuesday night.

It is just the sixth time an A-League side has been beaten in the cup by a team outside of the national competition.

Rudan was coaching the Phoenix in his first competitive match and fielded a strong starting team featuring former Socceroos Nathan Burns and Mitch Nichols, Fijian star Roy Krishna and new recruit Steven Taylor, an ex-Premier League player for Newcastle United.

Yet there was little discernible difference between themselves and Victorian NPL powerhouse Bentleigh, who made the FFA Cup semi-finals in 2014.

Marco Jankovic, the son of former Real Madrid defender Milan Jankovic, put the Greens in front with a header from a corner kick in the 23rd minute.

Soon after, James Kelly was shown his second yellow card and sent off following a late challenge on another new Wellington signing Michal Kopczynski.

But the Phoenix did not have the quality in the final third to break down a resolute Bentleigh defence.

Meanwhile, Western Sydney dodged a potential disaster of their own, edging minnows Hellenic Athletic 4-3 at the death in Darwin.

Hellenic came from 2-0 down to twice draw level with the Wanderers and were centimetres away from taking the lead – only for Brendon Hamill to clear a Robert Kilmartin header off the line in the 81st minute.

Instead, Roly Bonevacia won it for the Wanderers with a goal from close range in added time to shatter any hopes of a miraculous upset from the locals.

Newcastle Jets had no such troubles at Cbus Super Stadium, beating a plucky Gold Coast Knights 1-0 courtesy of an early Nikolai Topor-Stanley goal to finally register their first FFA Cup win in the tournament’s five-year history.

In the other matches involving A-League sides, a first-half Kosta Barbarouses goal saw Melbourne Victory defeat Perth Glory 1-0 in the west.

In Redcliffe, a stunning Bruno Fornaroli goal in the last minute of extra time gave Melbourne City a 1-0 victory over Brisbane Roar.

The match looked destined for a penalty shootout but Fornaroli’s lash from outside the box was enough to book City’s spot in the next round.

Play was stopped for more than half an hour in the first half following a suspected head or neck injury to City midfielder Luke Brattan, who was taken from the field in an ambulance.

Devonport Strikers are also into the round of 16 for the second time after upsetting Northcote City 3-1 in Melbourne, becoming the first Tasmanian team to win an FFA Cup match on the road.

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‘Dad’s surfing’: Milo the retriever isn’t lost, he’s just waiting

Milo, now two-and-a-half years old, has been trusted to wait on the beach by himself for about a year. Photo: Chris McKeenThe golden retriever sits on the rugged beach each day, alone, staring out to sea.

But anyone who approaches Milo, thinking he is a lost, is in for a surprise.

Attached to his collar is a note: “Dad’s surfing”.

Milo has not been abandoned. Instead the loyal dog daily accompanies his owner Dayne Maxwell to Bethells Beach, 30 kilometres west of Auckland, then sits without wandering, watching while “dad” enjoys a ride.

Milo waits patiently on the beach for his owner, Dayne Maxwell, to come in from surfing. Photo: Chris McKeen

Then Milo’s ears go back – he’s spotted Maxwell emerging from the water from about 50 metres away, surfboard in hand.

“When he realises it’s me, he sprints down and goes pretty crazy in the water,” Maxwell said.

There is a lot of barking and tail wagging involved.”It’s full-on excitement,” Maxwell said.

When Milo spots his “dad” Dayne Maxwell emerging from the sand, it’s a flurry of golden-haired excitement. Photo: Chris McKeen

Being able to trust an excitable, two-and-a-half-year-old golden retriever to stay put on a beach full of interesting sights and sounds is no easy feat, but the pair have been performing the ritual for just over a year.

They started their daily ritual when the pup was about one. Now, Milo can be trusted to hang out on the beach by himself.

How long he waits depends on how good the surf is, said Maxwell, “it is usually somewhere between one to two hours”.

He’ll say hello to Bethells Beach regulars, but always keeps an eye on the water for dad. Photo: Chris McKeen

If there are people or dogs around, he’ll go up say hello. “But if there’s no one around he’ll sit on the beach and waits like a little statue,” Maxwell said.

“He keeps his eye on any surfer who walks out, and you can see him analysing them to see whether it’s me or not.”

The pooch is something of a local celebrity with Bethells Beach regulars.

Maxwell put the note on his collar so people know he’s not abandoned.

Milo’s tag tells other beach users he’s not lost. Photo: Chris McKeen

Once a family friend spotted him on the beach while Maxwell was having a surf, assumed he was lost and took him home.

Maxwell, who works for Maritime New Zealand, has been surfing at Bethells for about 30 years.

He lives out by the beach with his wife and three children. Milo usually gets about two walks a day.

Maxwell said Milo’s probably one of the happiest, most spoiled dogs in Auckland.

“My wife is the fair-weather walker and I’m the wet-weather walker. We feel like we’ve let him down if he only gets one walk in a day,” Maxwell said. “I do keep an eye on him while surfing, but he’s always there when I come in.”

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Zimbabwe opposition harassed: rights group

Human Rights Watch has made concerns about Zimbabwe security forces following a disputed election.Zimbabwean security forces and unidentified gunmen have beaten and harassed dozens of people in a crackdown on the political opposition following a disputed election, Human Rights Watch says.

The allegation contradicts assertions by the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa that it has abandoned the state-sponsored violence and intimidation associated with the rule of former leader Robert Mugabe. It comes after soldiers last week opened fire on rioters, protesters and bystanders in Harare, an opposition stronghold. Six people were killed.

Human Rights Watch said it had documented “numerous cases” of soldiers beating up people in some Harare bars and restaurants since the August 1 shootings. The military accused the people of undermining Mnangagwa because most votes in the Zimbabwean capital went to the opposition, according to the international rights group.

The group also reported a case in which six masked men broke into the house of a youth leader of the opposition, beat up some people and abducted two men.

“The masked men put the abducted men in a white double-cab truck and drove them to a secluded place along Masvingo road, then beat and kicked them for an hour before releasing them,” said Human Rights Watch, which documented similar cases elsewhere.

Sibusiso Moyo, Zimbabwe’s foreign affairs minister and a retired army general, denied allegations that soldiers are beating people, reported The Herald, a state-run newspaper.

“All what we are realising is that there is a lot of misinformation that is coming out from social media,” Moyo told ambassadors and others in Harare on Monday, according to The Herald.

He said the military is “a well-trained and very disciplined force” that at one point “took over the responsibility of policing,” a reference to the military takeover in November that led to the resignation of 94-year-old Mugabe after 37 years in power.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission said Mnangagwa, who was a longtime enforcer for Mugabe, and the ruling party won the country’s July 30 election. Mnangagwa has urged the opposition to join him in rebuilding the country’s shattered economy, but the main opposition party alleges that the election results were rigged.

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