Apr 22, 2017

More central Ohioans drawn to Hinduism

By Danae King
The Columbus Dispatch


Andrea McCanney had tried everything to cure her depression: doctors, medicine and all the Western world had to offer.

Nothing worked.

Then, at the urging of a friend in 2011, she went to Nithyanandeshwara Hindu Temple in Delaware County. She sat in front of a live video feed from India of the temple’s guru, Paramahamsa Nithyananda, and after trying his techniques, she began to feel better.

“He gives you direction,” said McCanney, of Delaware. “He gives you techniques, a little thing to try. You do it enough times and it really starts to change everything about your life. It gives you a new perspective.”

Three months later she went to India to learn more. Now, she’s the ritual coordinator at the temple and Nithyananda gave her the name Gurupriya Nithya, which she will soon make her legal name.

Hinduism is the third-most practiced religion in Columbus, according to a 2015 report by the Columbus Council on World Affairs. The report says there were 11,147 adherents and that Columbus is home to 15 Hindu temples. Most Columbus residents, 648,889 in 2015, practice Christianity, and the second-largest religion is Islam, with 15,578 adherents, according to the report.

At Sri Lakshmi Ganapathi Temple and Hindu Cultural Center of Ohio on the North Side, Head Priest Satyanarayana Sastry said he sees more Americans showing an interest in Hinduism.

People are interested in Hindu principles of nonviolence, vegetarianism and more, he said. There also are often free classes in yoga, meditation and cooking offered at temples that draw people further into the culture.

Traditions such as yoga and meditation can help stressed Americans find relief from daily life and transform them, said Kate Kaura, a graduate teaching associate in comparatives studies at Ohio State University.

“There’s always been this stereotype that the East is spiritually fulfilled and prosperous and that the West is materially fulfilled,” Kaura said. “Some Westerners are finding they’re not fulfilled in material goods and are looking for spiritual fulfillment ... they’re looking toward Hinduism and Buddhism.

“I think people are ready for something that’s more inclusive than what they were exposed to previously,” added McCanney.

The spiritual tradition doesn’t judge people on their body, race, gender, gender identity, sexuality or even religion.

“It is beyond religion,” said Ma Sivananda, the spiritual head of the Nithyanandeshwara Hindu Temple. “Hindu dharma is inclusiveness of all ... It’s relating with yourself, your inner being. It’s relating with everybody in your life.”

Part of the appeal of the religion might also be the fact that it doesn’t require those interested in it to profess their belief, Kaura said.

Free classes

Nithyanandeshwara Hindu Temple, 820 Pollock Road in Delaware, offers free classes, including:

• Meditation: 7 p.m. Wednesdays at the temple.

• A "Heal and Rewrite Your Relationships" class: 7 p.m. Thursdays at Phoenix Bookstore, 3110 N. High St. in Clintonville.

• Yoga: 9:30 a.m. Saturdays at the temple.

For more information on free classes, visit www.vedictempleohio.com.

“It’s arguably one of the most-inclusive religions there is,” Kaura said. “(Americans) are interested in dabbling in different traditions, and Buddhism and Hinduism don’t require practitioners or followers to declare absolute faith. They’re just picking and choosing.”

Instead of giving up another faith, people can incorporate their religious backgrounds into Hinduism, said Paul Olen, a member of the Delaware County temple who lives in Delaware. He was raised Roman Catholic, but no longer practices. But he said he still believes in the teachings of Jesus, whom he believes was a holy man.

“(Hinduism) is not incompatible with anything,” Olen said. “The only thing it’s incompatible with is ... if people think of themselves as separate. We believe in oneness. The goal is to experience oneness with all.”


Suit says Cobb schools 'capitulated' to Christians in yoga flap

Yoga in schools.
Yoga in schools.
Ty Tagami
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
April 19, 2017

An assistant principal who says she introduced yoga into her Cobb County school to calm down disruptive students is claiming she was victimized by Christian parents who objected on religious grounds, and by a school district that “capitulated” to them.

The resulting federal lawsuit jabs a couple of hot-button issues in public education. Beyond the debate about yoga and religion, it raises the question of whether it’s bad for an educator’s career to be transferred to a “lower-performing” school.

Bonnie Cole, who is now the assistant principal at Mableton Elementary, asserts that it is and that the forced move from Bullard Elementary added 16 miles to her commute. She is seeking financial recompense for the resulting distress, inconvenience, income loss, “humiliation” and “indignities” and the effect on her career.

The lawsuit against the school district filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia says that yoga, as Cole introduced it, was not done as a religious practice and the school district was being hypocritical because during that period emails containing “Christian-based Daily Scripture Devotionals” were being sent to all staff.

District spokeswoman Donna Lowry said there would be no comment on pending litigation, and Cole’s attorney, Edward D. Buckley, did not return a call seeking comment.

Cole, who says she is a Christian, says school leaders and ultimately the school board buckled under pressure from parents who held a prayer rally at Bullard “for Jesus to rid the school of Buddhism.” The next day, two women put their hands on Cole’s office window and prayed.

“Not only was the capitulation and transfer a humiliating and public demonstration of the district’s lack of support of Ms. Cole, it made clear to the community that religious activities will be allowed as long as they are part of the “accepted” religion of Christianity,” her lawsuit says.

Cheryl Crawford, who runs a nonprofit that has introduced yoga into about 30 schools in metro Atlanta, said teachers want it because it calms disruptive students by teaching them to channel emotions like anger, fear and sadness. “Just telling them to focus doesn’t work. That’s pretty well-known now.”

Cobb has a history of controversy over religion in schools. In 2002, the district put a sticker on science textbooks that said evolution is “a theory, not a fact” and encouraged students to read with an open mind, “critically considered.”

Yoga has been controversial among conservative Christians. Albert Mohler, a former president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in 2010 that yoga is derived from Eastern religions and is not a Christian pathway to God. A lawsuit in southern California alleged that yoga in school violated the First Amendment ban on the government establishment of religion.

Cole’s lawsuit claims Cobb “engaged in the ‘de facto’ establishment” of the parents’ belief that yoga didn’t conform to their Christian beliefs, and violated the First Amendment by allowing Christianity on school grounds and in school emails.

Experts say the question of whether yoga is a religious practice that violates the constitution’s establishment clause is an exceedingly difficult one to answer.

“This is a hotly contested topic,” said Jonathan R. Herman, who teaches religion at Georgia State University. Yoga’s roots in Hinduism are typically stripped away in the practice of it today, he said. Instead, it’s often seen as spiritual but not religious, he said. “It’s a way of being religious in modern America while being ostensibly anti-religion.

It’s a slippery issue for academics, let alone the courts.

Another expert, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, who teaches at Indiana University at Bloomington about the intersection of religion and law, said “religion” itself is a debatable word in the context of the establishment clause.

The word “religion” is used as shorthand for a variety of ideas and practices, and academics and courts can legitimately disagree about whether something is, or isn’t, “religious,” she said.

“I think it’s a deeply unstable and unsettled concept.”


Apr 21, 2017

Judge tosses charge against pastor in faith-healing death

The Associated Press
April 20, 2017

BERNVILLE, Pa. (AP) — A judge on Wednesday ruled there was insufficient evidence to charge the leader of a church that rejects modern medicine, but prosecutors said they would try again to bring him to trial in the pneumonia death of his granddaughter.

Prosecutors want to hold the Rev. Rowland Foster accountable by charging him with failing to report suspected child abuse in the death of 2-year-old Ella Foster, his granddaughter.

Hours after the district judge's decision, the district attorney's office said it planned to refile the felony count.

Foster, 72, serves as pastor of Faith Tabernacle Congregation, part of a fundamentalist Christian sect that instructs members to eschew treatment by physicians and the use of pharmaceutical drugs. Prosecutors argue he should have reported the girl's condition to authorities because state law requires ministers to report suspected abuse.

The girl's parents, Jonathan and Grace Foster, are charged with involuntary manslaughter and await trial. They have relinquished custody of their six other children, but have not commented on the allegations.

The church's stance against modern medicine has resulted in the deaths over the years of dozens of children from preventable or treatable illnesses, most in Pennsylvania, according to an advocacy group that tracks faith-based medical neglect. Their members have said they hope the pastor's prosecution might spur change in a church that has resisted it.

Defense attorney Chris Ferro said after the hearing that "there's just a lack of evidence all the way around."

"This is a grieving grandfather, not a criminal," he said.

Prosecutor Jonathan Kurland told District Judge Andrea Book that the Fosters "failed to provide adequate medical care for Ella Foster when it would have been apparent to a reasonable person that she needed that medical care."

"And she died as a result," he said.

The girl's parents summoned the elder Foster to their home while she was dying, and he anointed her head with oil. A funeral home alerted police, who found her body fully dressed, partly covered with a blanket.

Ella Foster likely suffered from severely labored breathing and a temperature of about 104 on the day she died, police said in charging documents.

Dr. Neil Hoffman, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, called her condition "quite easily or eminently treatable" and said she almost certainly would have survived had she been given antibiotics. He said she would have had severely labored breathing and a bad cough for at least a day before she died.

"The treatment could have been started within an hour or so of death and still had a high likelihood of being effective and saving the child," Hoffman testified.

Trooper Brian Cipko, the lead investigator, told the judge Ella may have been dead for several hours before authorities arrived. He said he grew suspicious about the answers when he asked the family what happened.

"The parents say, 'We don't know, she was sick,'" Cipko said. "That's a red flag. As an investigator, a big red flag."

The pastor told police he has never been to a doctor.

He did not testify at the preliminary hearing and did not comment afterward. A few dozen supporters attended the hearing, some softly singing hymns in the rural central Pennsylvania court building.


Healing after pain of cult life

Lesley Smailes, author of the book called ‘Cult Sister’
Lesley Smailes, author of the book called ‘Cult Sister’
Angela Daniels
Herald live
April 9, 2017

Book author reveals (almost) all

She has a habit of sitting back and closing her eyes while she thinks, a tiny worry line creasing her forehead as she recalls the cult that dominated her life for a decade.

For all the pain those memories clearly dredge up, Lesley Smailes will not give away all of her secrets, which is somewhat strange for a woman whose tell-all book Cult Sister was launched earlier this week in Port Elizabeth.

But Smailes, 52, who ran off with a small band of reclusive “brothers and sisters” at 18 when visiting the US, has her reasons.

She says she believes in forgiveness and protecting people’s privacy, not least of all her children, all of whom were born into the cult that doesn’t really have a name.

It was 1983 when Smailes left Port Elizabeth on what should have been a gap year.

In 1992 she returned, still a young woman but with three children in tow, bringing with her a lifetime of memories and far too many nightmares.

Told largely through a series of letters between Smailes and her mother, the book tells of a remarkable life focused largely on her 10 years in the cult, also giving personal peeks into a tragic childhood.

When it comes to the cult, it all started in a park in New York when Smailes chatted to a man about Christ, morals and being a better person.

The very next day Smailes, who admits to promiscuity and other vices, moved in with the group who have been referred to as the Garbage Eaters, the Raincoat People and The Bicycle Christians.

What followed was a decade crisscrossing the US, surviving on food found in dumpsters, hitchhiking, sewing, cleaning and living in abandoned buildings – searching for redemption.

Twenty years Smailes’s book has been published.

Writing it had been traumatic, she said. Remembering, reliving, opening old wounds that had scabbed over, is how she explains it.

The trauma was a result of the isolation she felt and the rigidity of a group where she “could not honour my gut [and] was subject to those in authority”.

The strict rules and discipline meted out to children and the constant fear of losing them to social services all exacerbated the trauma.

The group did not work, surviving by finding food in dumpsters, selling goods they found and fixing broken items.

In between they “witnessed” to people, often bringing them home to join a later, finally group where antiquated clothing was worn, women were subservient and men grew beards. Smailes submitted to it all. It was when she had children that she really found the going tough.

“It’s traumatic living out of a backpack and having children,” she said.

All three of her children were born at home with no medical assistance bar a “sister midwife”.

The Church, as the group sometimes called itself, eschewed modern medicine, trusting only in God.

The book highlights Smailes’s marriage to a man she barely knew, the few visits from her family – something of an oddity for a cult that fervently hid from most members’ families – and relationships forged.

Smailes said she tried to live without regret but as she said this, tears were rolling down her cheeks.

“I regret hurting people,” she said, explaining that she cries easily as “when you have been broken it’s easy to cry”.

Many who left the cult, started by Jim Roberts, write scathingly of the man called Brother Evangelist. Smailes does not. She says she believes his true intention was to be a good shepherd.

“I wouldn’t want people to magnify my faults,” she said, explaining she went through far more pain than the book describes but she deliberately chose not to malign others.

On religion, Smailes admits that for some time after returning to Port Elizabeth she struggled with Christianity, leading a hedonistic life after her divorce.

“I grew up with my children. I knew all the bouncers at the clubs. I love to dance and many of my friends are fringe people. I guess that’s who I am,” she said.

“I became disillusioned with the church world. I didn’t feel accepted.”

That changed somewhat when Smailes joined Father’s House Church, but even now you can see the internal struggle she has with mainstream churches, as she calls them.

“I would never have dreamt I would belong. It’s very mainstream but I love the ministry for what they do with the poor, hungry and homeless,” she said.

Smailes hopes her book will encourage people, making them realise much can be overcome.

She has overcome many tribulations but when she leans back against the wall, closes her eyes and sorrowfully rubs her fingers along the ridge of her nose, it’s easy to see the tragic teen who joined a cult.

It’s that pain that helps her help others as a reflexologist and meridian healer. “I call myself the unlocker of the cry. As a therapist I can access people’s pain,” she said.



Alka Dhupkar
Mumbai Mirror
April 20, 2017

In an interview with Mumbai Mirror, just before he was picked up by cops, Sunil Kulkarni, founder of Shifu Sunkriti, denies allegations of running a cult and pins blame on parents.

Sunil Kulkarni has been accused of running a sex cult and brainwashing the youth. However, the man at the centre of the storm of allegations claims that he is trying to “free human beings from cages”. His Facebook page ‘Shifu Sunkriti’ helps him spread his word. During the two-hour-long interview with Mumbai Mirror, Kulkarni was on the phone for a good part of the time. During one such conversation, he was trying to convince someone to leave their parents’ home. However, he did not disclose his location to anyone on the phone. He did not even allow Mirror to photograph him. Just as he stepped out of the coffee shop in Fort where this interview was conducted, Kulkarni was picked up by cops. Excerpts from the interview:

What does Shifu Sunkriti stand for?

Shifu Sunkriti is not an organisation; it is my mystic name. Shifu means master, Sunkriti means Sun (reason) + Prakriti. I have been talking to every age group of people about their own family problems and emotional problems. I trained people on neuroplasticity resilience, it is a total connect of a brain to the body through the spinal cord through the electrical energy through the endocrinal grands that is basically the chemical energy. When all this is brought together, we get connected to ourselves. To do that, you have to physically get naked before yourself and then look at your body, get friendly with your body, then you actually get emotionally naked. You should have that courage.

How does Shifu Sunkriti function?

Nine months back, I started a Facebook page to carry my thoughts forward. After my Facebook page came in the news, I was flooded with emails from all over the world. Depressed people are writing to me. The practitioners of psychology and psychiatry take advice from my Facebook articles. My articles talk about brain and body connection, male and female relations, about society and culture.

Why are the youth leaving their parents’ homes after joining Shifu Sunkriti. In one case, a student even dropped out of college.

It is not Shifu Sunkriti but the parents who are at fault in all cases. In the recent case which is before HC, the parents were torturing their children. They have an abusive relationship and they followed their children everywhere they went. A domestic violence case should have been filed against them. I am just trying to help the two adult girls, who are trying to live an independent life. How is that a crime? I have even met Vijaya Rahatkar, chairperson of the Maharashtra State Commission of Women and complained about the parents. I have written to the police stations and to the Mumbai Police chief. In two other cases, parents of two young boys are just trying to put the blame on me for whatever differences they have with their sons. One of the boys work for me and one of the boys is a friend of his. But I have just helped these boys solve their emotional problems. Now one of the parents has confined their son in Goregaon and we are trying to release him.

You claim on your LinkedIn profile that you are a psychiatrist and a clinical psychologist. Then why don’t you open your clinic and practice?

I did practice for three years. My Facebook page and my profession are two different things. I am a corporate trainer by profession. I have been giving lectures on management in all education institutes from Mithibai College to IIM Ahmedabad and IIT Kharagpur. One of the girls from the current HC case was working with me as a counsellor. I used to conduct lectures in Mithibai College and during one of the meeting she came in contact with me and then took up psychology. I have 16 such young counsellors nationally, all of them are under the age of 25. I don’t prescribe any medicine to anybody. I just show them the path.

You have many cases against you, from rape to cheating and now of running a cult.

The parents have filed a case against police in HC; they have not made me a party. Yes, the girls stayed with me in Andheri after they left their parent’s house in December but that doesn’t mean I have done anything wrong. The past rape case in Delhi against me was fictitious, that is why I could secure my bail. The financial cheating cases were nothing but the cases of cheque bouncing. I have cleared it with signing the bond. My annual income is Rs 75 lakh and I pay all taxes to the government. I am going to expose the parents soon.

Why are you not allowing us to take your picture if you have nothing to hide?

I am not hiding. If somebody is trying to trap me I will definitely fight back.


Girls are under his influence: HC

By Sharmeen Hakim

The Bombay High Court yesterday came down hard at the Mumbai police for their tardy investigation into the alleged ‘sex racket’ being run by Sunil Kulkarni. The court has ordered an FIR to be registered against ‘Shifu Sunkriti’ as well as Kulkarni.

A division bench of Justice Ranjit More and Anuja Prabhudesai were hearing a petition filed by a Chartered Accountant and his wife, alleging that their educated daughters (23 and 21) had left their home at the behest of Kulkarni, who was drugging and sexually abusing them.

When the bench was informed that the girls had left their home on their own accord and their statements were recorded by the police, the furious bench said, “The language in the WhatsApp messages clearly shows the girls are under the influence [of Kulkarni], you can’t go by the statement made by them.”

The bench was referring to Facebook chats between the girls and Kulkarni back in December, when their parents refused to let them meet Kulkarni. The girls had to be let go after they began accusing their parents of domestic violence.

“This needs to be taken seriously. If they had gone by their own free will, no one would have approached the court,” said the court.

The police through public prosecutor Sangeeta Shinde said that they had raided Kulkarni’s premises on April 9, six days after the NGO helping the parents submitted their report to the police. “The parents approached the police in December last year for the first time and till April the police did nothing. You (police) should have taken immediate action,” the court remarked. “How can the police take such serious cases so casually?” Justice Prabhudessai asked.

When Mirror contacted Sanjay Saxena, Joint CP, Crime, last night, he confirmed that Kulkarni was being interrogated. Till the time of going to press, the Malad police were in the process of registering an FIR against Kulkarni.

Incidentally, both girls were seen giving interviews to the media outside the High Court but neither Kulkarni nor the girls attended the HC hearing inside the court. Both girls did speak to Mirror, and mouthed exactly the same allegations against their parents that Kulkarni said.

Advocates for the petitioners, Sandesh Patil and Varsha Bhogle also pointed out complaints from the parents of two more children. They claim that their son left home earlier this month. “He gave reasons that we had failed in his upbringing and had sent him into depression,” the complaint reads. Another set of parents stated that their son called Kulkarni ‘God’ and that he would go to any lengths for him.


Cisco Had a Hand in Chinese Oppression, Sect Says

Courthouse News Service
April 19, 2017

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – An argument before the Ninth Circuit on Tuesday hinged on whether Cisco Systems intentionally assisted the Chinese government in its persecution of practitioners of a religion called Falun Gong.

The appellants claim a federal judge’s decision in 2014 that a group of Chinese and U.S. citizens could not pursue their claims against Cisco due to jurisdictional issues was incorrect.

Instead, their attorney Paul Hoffman argued Cisco manufactured a surveillance software program with explicit knowledge the Chinese government would use it to identify, arrest and in some cases torture and kill members of a religious sect.

Cisco’s attorney Kathleen Sullivan acknowledged the human-rights violations laid out in the complaint were “odious,” but said Cisco didn’t bear any responsibility.

“This lawsuit is inappropriate to bring against a company that lawfully exported internet infrastructure to China,” Sullivan told the three-judge panel.

To punish U.S. companies for the actions of a foreign government amounts to an end-around of U.S. foreign policy and opens a Pandora’s Box, she said.

But Hoffman said the case was akin to others where a company actively participated in a program they knew was being used to violate human rights.

“The allegations go far beyond that,” Hoffman said.

The Chinese Community Party has attempted to suppress Falun Gong since the 1990s.

The Falun Gong is a religion with both Buddhist and Taoist influences, combining meditation and spiritual exercises with a moral philosophy that emphasizes truthfulness, compassion and tolerance.

After its founding in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, the modern mind-body practice spread quickly throughout China, garnering as many as 70 million followers in 1999.

Around that time, the Chinese Communist Party began to view the religion as a threat, and enacted a crackdown and propaganda effort aimed at snuffing out the burgeoning practice.

This effort reportedly involved forced conversions, labor camps, extrajudicial killings, psychiatric abuse and other abusive forms of brainwashing perpetrated by the Chinese government.

Hoffman’s clients, consisting of an assortment of U.S. and Chinese citizens, say they were subjected to the abuses and claim Cisco was at least partially responsible.

In their 2011 lawsuit, the members of Falun Gong say Cisco developed a surveillance software called Golden Shield and then customized it with the specific intent to help the Chinese government identify and track down members despite knowing about the human-rights violations.

“They didn’t just develop the software, they developed an entire system to designed to collect information and these people’s backgrounds, and that information was used for the advancement of this persecution” Hoffman said at the hearing.

The lawsuit was initially dismissed by U.S. District Judge Edward Davila on technical grounds, agreeing with Cisco that the federal courts are not the appropriate venue for the case.

Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon attempted to delve into whether the software’s development in San Jose could trigger jurisdiction. But Sullivan said the religious group’s claims about Cisco’s actions in the Silicon Valley are vague and unspecific.

At one point, Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt asked whether Cisco’s actions could be compared to a company that makes the nerve gas Syrian President Bashar Assad used on his own people last month, and whether that constituted aiding and abetting.

“Yes, but that is not what happened in this case,” Sullivan said, adding none of the Cisco executives named in the lawsuit knew or believed they were aiding and abetting China’s human-rights violations.

The panel is expected to rule in the coming weeks.


Girls in sex cult doc's photos may be from Delhi; cops send team

n of vice?: Little Flower society in Bandra, where Sunil Kulkarni had been staying since a few months
Den of vice?: Little Flower society in Bandra,
 where Sunil Kulkarni had been staying since a few months
The Hindu
APRIL 22, 2017

During interrogation, Kulkarni denies ásking youngsters to leave home; police say he was running similar racket in Delhi

Mumbai: The girls whose explicit pictures were found on pen drives at the residence of sex cult racket accused Sunil Kulkarni might be from Delhi, where he originally hails from, investigating officers said on Friday.

Kulkarni, who was accused of influencing young girls and taking advantage of them in a petition filed before the Bombay High Court, was arrested by the Mumbai Police Crime Branch on Thursday.

While searching his Bandra residence, the police had found three pen drives containing explicit pictures of young girls and videos of young men and women engaged in sexual acts, which seem to have been recorded using hidden cameras.

“Investigations so far indicate that Kulkarni was running a similar racket in Delhi, and the girls whose pictures we found might be Delhi residents. A team is leaving for Delhi by Saturday to investigate this aspect,” an officer who is part of the investigation said.

Kulkarni's interrogation so far has revealed that while he had several young women under his influence, he did not encourage them to leave their families and stay with him.

“The two sisters whose parents had gone to court against Kulkarni were staying with him because relations were severely strained between them and their parents. All the other girls who were under his influence continued to stay with their families. Kulkarni encouraged this, and called them over only when he wanted to. We suspect this was a deliberate attempt to not attract the attention of neighbours. Residents of the building in Bandra where he was staying were surprised when we made inquiries,” the officer said.

The police team being sent to Delhi will try to trace the girls in the images and will also be recording a statement from his estranged wife, who stays in Delhi.

Meanwhile, the crime branch is also probing Kulkarni’s source of income and verifying claims he has made about his profession. Kulkarni has claimed to be a visiting faculty in several colleges in Mumbai and a corporate trainer for several companies. The police have contacted all institutions to verify his claims.

“Kulkarni had earlier claimed to have completed his MD in Psychiatry from the Indira Gandhi Medical College in Nagpur. However, the college has confirmed that they don’t offer such a course,” an officer said.


Ian Mulgrew: Bountiful polygamy trial reveals spinelessness of politicians

Winston Blackmore, who is accused of practising polygamy, arrives at the courthouse in Cranbrook on Tuesday.
April 20, 2017

The prosecution of Winston Blackmore and James Oler, leaders of rival breakaway sects of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints, is a make-work project born of political cowardice.

For a quarter century, the B.C. government has heard legal opinions that the anti-polygamy statute these old goats are charged with breaking is unconstitutional — a 19th–century relic with no place in a modern criminal code.

But in 2005, under increasing pressure over allegations about sexual exploitation in the religious communes in the southeastern corner of the province, then attorney general Wally Oppal decided to criminally prosecute these two. Blackmore reputedly has 24 wives, Oler four.

Ignoring the advice of his own department, three previous attorneys general and those independent legal opinions, Oppal invoked the almost never-used section 293 of the Criminal Code.

At the same time that the HBO show Big Love was delighting audiences with its take on polyamory, Oppal was championing an archaic product of 19th-century bigotry, passed in 1890 to keep Mormons, who then practised polygamy, out of Canada.

This week the former justice, now in private practice, was peddling the line: “Those sections are in there for a very good reason, the protection of women.”

Hogwash. The law was was drafted before women were considered persons. Victorian lawmakers did not pass it out of concern for them or children — they were considered chattel.

The arrival of the Mormons in the 1880s triggered the polygamy and bigamy laws, backed by well publicized threats of rigorous enforcement.

The first judge to examine the Blackmore/Oler case in 2009 tossed it, pointing to nearly 20 years of politics and Oppal’s “prosecutor shopping” — when he appointed a third special prosecutor after the first two recommended against charges.

Undaunted, the province asked then-B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman to offer an opinion.

Unfortunately, in his 2011, 335-page door-stopper even the conservative jurist had to acknowledge the section violated religious freedom “in a manner that is non-trivial and not insubstantial.”

Since elevated to Chief Justice of the B.C. Court of Appeal, Bauman also said it wrongly created a risk of the prosecution of children aged 12 through 17. So much for protecting girls.

Still he argued that the law could be excused under section 1 of the Charter because of the pernicious effects of polygamy — “the harm to women, to children, to society and to the institution of monogamous marriage.”

Instead of taking that qualified endorsement to the province’s top bench (the Court of Appeal) or the Supreme Court of Canada for a confirming opinion, the B.C. Liberals continued the crusade.

It has allowed them, when questioned about these issues, to hide behind the excuse that they are before the court.

Special prosecutor Peter Wilson was appointed and relaid the charges.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Sheri Donegan, a former provincial Crown attorney (until 2010) and lecturer on child protection, is now hearing the evidence.

Pardon me for thinking this entire affair is another black eye for the legal system and the Liberals.

Surely the government cannot constitutionally criminalize consensual adult domestic relationships when the Supreme Court of Canada says they can go to clubs and engage in orgies.

Saturday-night saturnalia is legal while living together puts adults at risk of being thrown in a jail whether or not they are calling it a “celestial marriage”?

This law does not require polygamy to involve a minor or occur in a context of dependence, exploitation, abuse of authority, a gross imbalance of power or undue influence — only multiple sexual partners.

This law is an unacceptable infringement on fundamental rights guaranteed by the Charter — the freedom to practise one’s religion and to associate in family units with those whom one chooses.

Marriage is about progeny and property: It’s a matter for family law and administrative regulation regarding inheritance and familial fiscal obligations, not the criminal law — which is a punishing broadsword, not a social-engineering scalpel.

If Parliament wants to protect women and children from the supposed evils of polygamy, then politicians should get rid of this dodgy anachronism and pass appropriate laws targeting the specific harms.

“This is a complex social issue,” Bauman said. “Parliament is better positioned than the court to choose among a range of alternatives to address the harms (of polygamy). Even according Parliament a healthy measure of deference, it cannot be said the measure, in this limited respect, is ‘carefully tailored so that rights are impaired no more than necessary.'”

This prosecution only underscores the spinelessness of our politicians to properly address the dysfunctional religious communes or polygamy.

Here we are — millions spent on police investigations, legal fees and proceedings that will likely continue for years to come — spinning our wheels while another generation of children may be growing up damaged.


World Culture Festival should not have been allowed if Yamuna was fragile: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
April 18, 2017

Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar on Tuesday said the authorities should have never given permission to hold the World Culture Festival (WCF) if the Yamuna was "so fragile and pure".

He added that the fine should be levied on the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and the central and Delhi governments for giving permission to hold the event.

His remarks came after the report of an expert committee set up by NGT said it would take Rs 42.02 crore and a decade for the ecological rehabilitation of the Yamuna floodplains from adverse damages caused by the festival.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, Ravi Shankar said the Art of Living (AoL) obtained all the necessary permissions including NGT's.

"The NGT had the application file for two months and they could have stopped it in the beginning. It defies all principles of natural justice that you give permissions and slap a fine for not violating any rules.

"If the Yamuna was so fragile and pure, they should have stopped the World Culture Festival at the very beginning. A historic programme, deserving of applause and appreciation, is unjustly projected as a crime," he said.

Ravi Shankar added that the event, which saw over three million attendees from 155 countries over a three-day period, polluted neither air, water nor land.

"The world over, cultural programmes are held on riverbanks. The whole idea was to bring awareness to save the river.

"The Art of Living, that has rejuvenated 27 rivers, planted 71 million trees, revived several ponds, is being projected as destroying a dead river," Ravi Shankar said.

The event was held on the left bank of the river between the Barapullah elevated road and the DND flyway between 11 and 13 March, 2016.

The report of the seven-member expert committee, headed by former Secretary of Water Resources Ministry Shashi Shekhar, told the National Green Tribunal (NGT) about the ecological damage caused to over 300 acres of floodplains due to the festival last year.

The experts have estimated that some 300 acres of floodplains west (right bank) of the river Yamuna and about 120 acres floodplains of the eastern side (left bank) of the river have been "adversely impacted" ecologically at "different magnitudes".

The AoL has criticised the report stating it was deliberately leaked to the media and that some members of the committee were biased.

The next hearing over the matter in the NGT is on 20 April.


B.C. polygamy trial does not include a challenge to the law's validity

James Oler, who is accused of practising polygamy in a fundamentalist religious community, arrives for the start of his trial in Cranbrook, B.C., Tuesday, April 18, 2017.

Vancouver Sun
April 20, 2017

CRANBROOK, B.C. – The polygamy trial of two Mormon fundamentalist leaders is unusual. But the issues and evidence raised have nothing to do with whether the centuries’ old law is valid.

The trial could have been that had either Winston Blackmore or James Oler given notice, that they would be asserting their right to freely practice their religion. In Canada, that’s what’s required. It’s not something that a defence lawyer can just casually drop in after the prosecution’s case has been concluded.

But neither of the accused did, even though Blackmore registered his disdain for the proceeding with his refusal to enter a plea at the start of the trial, forcing Justice Sheri Donegan to enter a not-guilty plea on his behalf.

Blackmore’s lawyer says that his client doesn’t believe he is doing anything wrong by following one of his religion’s fundamental teachings that to reach the highest degree of salvation a man must have multiple wives.

But what he believes doesn’t matter if there’s no challenge to the law. It also doesn’t matter that Mormon fundamentalists also conform to church founder Joseph Smith’s teaching that the only temporal laws that must be followed are those that have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

That rather surprising belief is also held and maintained by the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as historian Richard Bennett testified Thursday.

It’s laid out in the Doctrine and Covenants, which is one of LDS’s four religious texts. The section was read out in court by the Canadian professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.

Testifying Thursday, Bennett said it was only after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1904 upheld two federal laws banning plural marriage that God revealed to the church’s prophet Wilford Woodruff that it was time to end the practise of polygamy.

After that revelation, LDS members were told there would be no more plural marriages and that men with multiple wives would have to choose one wife to live with, while continuing to support their other wives. And it was because of this revelation that Mormon fundamentalist split off from the mainstream church.

The court-appointed amicus, Joe Doyle, jumped on this teaching during Bennett’s cross-examination. Left unspoken was the fact that Canada’s polygamy law has never been tested by its highest court.

But as prosecutor Peter Wilson noted in his opening statement earlier this week, the validity was determined in a 2011 decision following the lengthy constitutional reference case in B.C. Supreme Court. It’s that decision that is the genesis for this trial.

Of course, it is possible that Justice Donegan could re-open the question. But it seems unlikely.

Mormons’ doctrine that “the law of the land that is constitutional” is the only kind of law that must be followed is only one of many things that sets the LDS apart from other Christian religions.

It is a revelatory religion, which means that what they believe changes over time based on revelations that their prophet and president receives from God or his messengers.

It’s meticulous record keeping that allows its members to keep the rules straight and it’s something that Bennett says is repeated frequently throughout the religion’s holy books – The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Wisdom

Asked about the importance of record keeping, Bennett smiled and paused before answering, “Well, there would not be an LDS church without records.”

The church historian was testifying a day after Texas Ranger Nick Hanna had identified dozens of FLDS marriage and personal records seized in 2008 during a raid on the Yearning for Zion ranch.

There were marriage records for 20 of the 24 women listed on Blackmore’s indictment and five marriage records for Oler, whose indictment lists only four women.

The Oler marriage record matched the information found on the personal records of Oler and those five women.

Those records are key to the prosecution’s case because the law applies to sanctioned, conjugal relationships that are celebrated or marked by ceremonies or rites.

The trial is expected to last at least another week.



April 21, 2017

Russia’s decision to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country shows the “paranoia” of Vladimir Putin’s government, according to the chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

Russia’s Supreme Court issued a verdict Thursday upholding a claim from the country’s justice ministry last month that Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activity violated laws on extremism. The ruling liquidates the group’s headquarters in St. Petersburg and all 395 of its local religious organizations. Russia contains 175,000 members of the church, which first began operating in the country in 1991. Coming after six days of hearings, the decision means the Christian denomination is classified alongside terrorist groups such as the Islamic State group (ISIS).

“It’s very disappointing but frankly not very surprising,” Thomas J. Reese, chair of USCIRF told Newsweek Friday. “Russia has been cracking down on religious groups that are not supportive of the government and it’s just amazing to pick on a small group which is pacifist which doesn’t want to be involved in politics and to classify them as the same is ISIS just shows how absurd these extremism laws are in Russia.”

Reese, whose commission is charged with making recommendations to Congress, the president and the State Department, claimed that Russia’s decision was motivated by Putin’s desire for absolute control within the country, particularly at a time when his government is being attacked from the outside.

“They just look very suspiciously on any organization that they can’t control,” he said. “And Jehovah’s Witnesses just want to be left alone. It seems like there’s a lot of paranoia in the Russian government. They feel besieged from the outside because of economic sanctions and the reaction to their invasion of Crimea and other things they’ve been doing. And so they’re going after any NGOs that have any kind of outside funding.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses began in the United States at the end of the 19th century. They are known in part for their stance on refusing blood transfusions, something which was used by Russia's justice ministry during the hearings to attack the group as extremist.

A spokesperson for the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses told Newsweek Thursday the group was prevented from mounting any sort of defense in court or having any dialogue with authorities since they were first warned in March 2016. Still, said Robert Warren, none of the evidence presented offered a justification for the ban.

“[It was] obvious even from what was presented in court that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not extremist in any way and we’re no threat to anyone or any entity in Russia or any other country in the world,” he said. “We feel like the ruling flies in the face of all of the evidence that was presented in court. I think it’s really an embarrassment to Russia and it really sends a very negative message about the Russian authorities to the international community.”

Warren confirmed the church would be appealing to a three-person panel within the 30-day allotted timeframe. Interfax news agency quoted Sergei Cherepanov, a Jehovah’s Witnesses representative, as stating that the group would also appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Reese, though, conceded he had little hope of either avenue being successful.

“Granted the attitude of the government, so far I think the likelihood of this decision being reversed is pretty limited and the likelihood of the Putin government paying attention to any international courts is pretty limited also,” he said.

USCIRF, an independent bipartisan commission, will be releasing its annual report next week. Reese stated that the report will point out “the serious problems of the deterioration of religious freedom in Russia over the past year and that this has to be brought up in conversations with officials in the Russian government at the very highest level.”

But he admitted that he was unsure how those recommendations would be taken on board by President Donald Trump, whose administration’s position on Russia he described as being “in flux.”

Jehovah's Witnesses currently in Russia, in which over 70 percent of the population identifies as Russian orthodox, a religion that the country declared in 1997 was part of its "historical heritage." During the Supreme Court hearing, Russia's justice ministry warned that individuals could also be persecuted under the extremism law, which was passed following the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. and Russia’s second war in Chechnya in 1999 and 2000.

"The fear is that you now have 175,000 Jehovah's Witnesses, well, what are you going to do, create a new gulag for them? Put them in jail?" Reese said.

For Warren, the matter is one of real importance and one that goes far beyond the fate of Jehovah's Witnesses in the country.

“To tell someone that you don’t have the right to worship God and follow Jesus Christ according to your understanding of the scriptures, which is clearly peaceful, law abiding, to us, that’s a clear violation of fundamental human rights,” he said. “And if that’s happening to us, it means that fundamental human rights are at stake throughout Russia.”


Defense Department expands its list of recognized religions

The Pentagon, headquarters of the Department of Defense, in the 1990s. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/DoD/Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force
Kimberly Winston
Religion News Service
April 21, 2017

See list.

(RNS) Humanist? Deist? No religion?

No problem.

The Department of Defense announced a near doubling of its list of recognized religions. It will now formally recognize humanism and other minority faiths among members of the armed forces.

The move, which came at the end of March but was made public this week, means servicemen and women who are adherents of small faith groups are now guaranteed the same rights, privileges and protections granted to their peers who are members of larger faith groups.

The move was lauded by humanist organizations, which have been pushing for full recognition, including their own chaplains, for 10 years.

“Beyond Humanism, the new listing is a win for diversity in general,” Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, said in an announcement. “There have been prior declarations that the government or the military has recognized Humanism in one way or another. But this is different.”

Previously, the U.S. military recognized just over 100 religions. The new list has grown to 221 to include the earth-based faiths, such as heathens and Asatru, and an additional eight Protestant groups, including the International Communion of the Charismatic Christian Church.

Jewish servicemen and women may now choose among Orthodox, Conservative and Reform instead of just “Jewish.”

Torpy, a West Point alumnus whose humanism was not recognized when he attended in 1998, offered thanks to the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, which oversaw the new list.

“This is really good,” he said. “But the still-to-do’s include a statement from the chaplains in the services saying we encourage humanists to come to our chapels to get humanist materials and referrals.”

Torpy said his organization is ready with “chaplain outreach” to help train military chaplains in humanist beliefs and needs.

Josh Heath, co-director of the Open Halls Project, which works to support heathens and other earth-based faiths in the military, said the newly recognized groups will now find it easier to get their holidays off, travel off-base to religious services, or keep special religious items in the barracks.

“If you run into any miscommunication about your religious needs you can say this is my official religious preference and be accommodated,” he said.

Heath hopes it will make it easier for military heathens to find each other and form on-base communities.

And there’s another plus: The Department of Defense will now have more accurate counts of each recognized religious group, which varies widely depending on who’s counting.

According to MAAF figures, more than 22 percent of service personnel identify as “no religious preference,” and slightly more than 1 percent identify as “atheist” or “agnostic.” In 2010, the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute estimated humanists make up 3.6 percent of the U.S. military.

The new policy has its detractors. Writing for Reporter, the official newspaper of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Roger Drinnon said a “heavily secularized military culture, stemming from ongoing atheist activism and LGBT advocacy,” has led to “an environment where restrictions and even punitive actions reportedly are being imposed on chaplains, commanders and lower ranks who seek to serve without compromising their religious faith.”

Humanism was recognized by the Army in 2014, but this new order expands that to all branches of the military.

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She covers atheism and freethought for RNS.


Religion News: Defense Department expands its list of recognized religions

Religion News

The Department of Defense announced a near doubling of its list of recognized religions. It will now formally recognize humanism and other minority faiths among members of the armed forces.

Previously, the U.S. military recognized just over 100 religions. The new list has grown to 221 to include the earth-based faiths, such as heathens and Asatru, and an additional eight Protestant groups, including the International Communion of the Charismatic Christian Church.

Clearwater City Council votes 5-0 to buy downtown parcel coveted by the Church of Scientology

Tracey McManus, Times Staff Writer
Tampa Bay Times
April 20, 2017

CLEARWATER — The City Council on Thursday voted unanimously to buy a vacant but high-profile downtown lot from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, intercepting a crucial piece of land the Church of Scientology said it needed for its campus.

A packed auditorium at City Hall greeted the 5-0 decision with applause.

Scientology leader David Miscavige had offered to bankroll a multi-million dollar revitalization of downtown if the city stepped aside and allowed the church to buy the lot, which borders its 13-story Oak Cove religious retreat. He pitched the idea last week to a select group of downtown stakeholders with help from Scientology celebrities like John Travolta, and was willing to pay more than three times what the city was offering.

But council members said the 1.4-acre property at the corner of Pierce Street and Osceola Avenue is needed for the city's 10-year, $55 million overhaul of the waterfront and Coachman Park. City staff said it could be coupled with the City Hall site across the street and redeveloped into a hotel, condos and apartments, retail or other uses.

"Will the city be able to guide the use of that property for the good of all of Clearwater? To me that's the most critical question, to which my answer would be yes," City Council member Bob Cundiff said.

About 200 people gathered in City Hall for the discussion. While roughly 25 people lined up to speak in favor of the city buying the land, only four spoke against the purchase.

"I feel the city is slowly losing control of the city's destiny, and it's going to the Church of Scientology," resident Bob Holsinger said. "I feel this issue tonight is also a symbolic issue."

The city will pay $4.25 million for the property and allow the aquarium to continue using the space for parking while it renovates its facility across the Intracoastal on Island Estates. That project could take two years.

The church wanted the land to build a pool, playground and other accommodations for parishioners staying at the Oak Cove.

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw has made clear that Miscavige's proposed retail development hinged on the church's ability to buy the aquarium land. In private meetings with City Council members last month, Miscavige described funding a facade overhaul for Cleveland Street, recruiting high-end retailers to empty storefronts, and building an entertainment complex on Myrtle Avenue with actor Tom Cruise.

Shaw declined to comment Thursday on the church's next steps. The council's vote raises a number of questions, including: What will Scientology do with the $26 million in downtown real estate, including the landmark Atrium office tower, it has purchased since January in anticipation of its retail plan? And will its retail proposal go away entirely or evolve?

In a letter to the Tampa Bay Times on Monday, Shaw blasted the city as "arrogant" for wanting to keep the aquarium land out of the church's hands, calling it "manifest obstruction" and a statement by City Hall that Scientologists are second-class citizens.

At the time, the city's position was becoming clear even before the official vote, with three of the five council members saying they supported buying the land.

"Whose votes do not count? Whose money does not count?" Shaw asked. "The bigotry against Scientologists is barefaced."

In denying the church the land it wanted, the council "apparently believes (Scientologists) are not deserving of a swimming pool and other amenities for their children," Shaw wrote.

City residents who attended Thursday night's meeting spoke about the overwhelming presence Scientology has downtown and its effect on economic development since the church arrived in 1975.

"I recognize that the Scientologists are a part of this community," said resident April Robinson. "The difference is that we have no issue with them being a part of our community, using and enjoying our mutually beneficial amenities. They are the ones that want us out."

Resident Martin Hughes, however, said it was a mistake to throw away the church's offer to revitalize downtown and questioned the motives of the city in buying the land.

"We have an economic entity whose willingness to be a partner in and with our great city is being questioned, I suspect, in part due to a difference in their world view and perceived dearth of development disclosure," Hughes said.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO David Yates has said the nonprofit has always been committed to selling to the city because the two are partners in the community.

"I think everybody's hope and desire is the city can move ahead with a strong master plan to really revitalize downtown," Yates said. "It's an amazing area, beautiful area, so I think this is a good first step."

Council member Bill Jonson described the fierce opinions that have come in over the last several weeks on this issue, and held up a thick binder of comments he's received from both sides.

Mayor George Cretekos said the purchase of the land ties into the future of the waterfront and the fate of the city's 10-year waterfront redevelopment plan. Referencing the city's upbeat motto, he said religion doesn't play a factor — and shouldn't going forward.

"All of us, whether we are Scientologists, whether we are Presbyterian, Methodist, Jewish, Muslim, or in my case, Greek Orthodox, we will be able to celebrate a Clearwater that truly is 'Bright and Beautiful Bay to the Beach.'"

Times Staff Writer Laura C. Morel contributed to this report. Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.


Apr 20, 2017

Russia bans Jehovah's Witnesses after supreme court rules Christian sect 'extremists'

Lawyers for the Jehovah's Witnesses said they would appeal the court's decision
Group to appeal ruling amid international concern over freedom of religion

Lizzie Dearden
The Independent
April 20, 2017

Russia has banned Jehovah's Witnesses after the Supreme Court ruled the Christian sect to be an "extremist" group.

“The Supreme Court has ruled to sustain the claim of Russia's ministry of justice and deem the 'Administrative Centre of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia' organisation extremist, eliminate it and ban its activity in Russia,” said judge Yuri Ivanenko.

“The property of the Jehovah's Witnesses organisation is to be confiscated to the state revenue.”

A lawyer for the justice ministry, Svetlana Borisova, told the court adherents “pose a threat to the rights of the citizens, public order and public security".

Judges ordered the closure of the group's Russian headquarters and 395 local chapters, as well as the seizure of its property.

Lawyers for the Jehovah's Witnesses said they would appeal the court's decision, which has not yet come into effect, and could take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

“We will do everything possible,” Sergei Cherepanov, a Jehovah's Witnesses representative, was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

In 2010, judges in Strasbourg found a previous ruling by a Russian court to ban the organisation unlawful.

The ministry of justice had previously applied for an order to shut down its national headquarters near St Petersburg, state media reported.

Its administrative centre, which has 175,000 members, had previously been suspended in March over alleged "extremist activity".

Jehovah's Witnesses, who are known for door-to-door preaching and handing out literature, reject some of mainstream Christianity's core beliefs and have more than 8.3 million members around the world.

The US-based group has generated controversy for stances including its rejection of blood transfusions and opposition to military service, facing court proceedings in several countries.

Representatives said hundreds of people gathered at the Russian Supreme Court to hear the six-day case, which they said was the culmination of a decade of "aggressive actions".

David A Semonian, a spokesman at the sect's world headquarters in New York, said the ministry of justice had “no basis” for its claims.

He said the ban would put members under threat of criminal prosecution even for praying together in a “violation of our basic human rights”.

Jehovah’s Witnesses first registered as a religious group in Russia in 1991 and registered again in 1999, but have been targeted repeatedly by authorities in a wide-ranging crackdown on religious freedom.

Russia changed its legal definition of extremism in 2006, removing requirements for violence or hatred but stating the “incitement of….religious discord” as criteria, leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses with the same legal status as Isis or Nazis.

The group's international website was blocked in Russia two years ago over alleged extremism, with the group's Bibles banned the following year, while a local chairman was jailed for two years on charges of possessing "extremist literature" in 2010.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was among the international bodies condemning a “state sponsored campaign of harassment and mistreatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses” it said dated back to the 1990s in Russia.

It listed police searches, assaults, arson attacks, vandalism, seizures and raids on worship, as well as the arrest of several members and criminal investigations.


Apr 18, 2017

Israel Police Raid ultra-Orthodox Jewish Newspaper, Arrest 28 in Extortion Case

Followers of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach are suspected of threatening executives at major companies so that they place ads in the paper

Yair Ettinger
April 18, 2017

The police Tuesday arrested 28 people from a Jerusalem-based ultra-Orthodox sect suspected of extorting major companies into advertising in their newspaper.

The police say the suspects threatened executives from both private and state-owned companies so that they would place ads in Hapeles, an ultra-Orthdodox newspaper associated with Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach.

The raid on offices in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv-suburb Bnei Brak culminated an 18-month undercover investigation, the police said.

Loyalists of Auerbach called the action "a world war against the Jerusalem sect." A spokesman for the sect called it "a dictatorial attempt of silencing reminiscent of dark regimes."

Some of the suspects will be brought before the Rishon Letzion Magistrate's Court on Tuesday to have their detentions extended.

The police also raided the homes of executives of the newspaper, arresting Editor-in-Chief Nati Grossman, his deputy Yishayahu Wein and CEO Shmulik Elyashiv.

The police said they launched the investigation after receiving dozens of complaints from executives at major companies in Israel. The suspects set up a special phone line through which they discussed which companies to harass and to what extent, the police said.

On Tuesday, Auerbach supporters gathered around the police during the raids, shouting at them and later burning trash containers, throwing objects and stones at them and trying to prevent the arrests.

Hapeles employees said the men arrested included leaders of the fight against drafting ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, men into the Israel Defense Forces. They also included organizers of recent stormy protests such as members of the sect's Committee for Saving the Torah World. Sect members also said that overnight, the military police arrested yeshiva students.

As the spokesman for Auerbach's sect put it, "Arrests of newspaper editors and writers isn't something that can be part of the public agenda. It's not democracy but a tyrannical dictatorship. The Israel Police and its emissaries don't dare arrest other newspaper editors − as extremist as their opinion is. The Jerusalem sect says that anyone who doesn't stop this madness of silencing now will feel it personally sooner or later."

The police accused the suspects of trying "to disrupt and attack rights to property and privacy through harassment and intimidation."

Two years ago, the police arrested members of the sect suspected of extorting Hapeles advertisers. Most advertisers in the ultra-Orthodox market, mainly government ministries and major corporations, have been shunning the newspaper since its fight with mainstream Haredi newspapers, mainly Yated Neeman.

Two leaders, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman and Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, called on their supporters to boycott Hapeles.

The arrests two years ago led to an indictment against Avraham Traeger, suspected of running the campaign to pressure advertisers to work with Hapeles. The trial of Traeger, who was also arrested Tuesday, is still going on.

Traeger is accused of publishing names of advertisers in rival papers so that other activists linked to the Jerusalem sect would pressure them, mostly through anonymous phone calls, to advertise in Hapeles.

Members of Auerbach's sect say that since the indictment, Traeger's campaign has been advised by lawyers to avoid criminal offenses and stick with what the sect calls "a public fight."

Polygamy trial set to begin for Winston Blackmore, accused of marrying 24 times

Winston Blackmore with six of his daughters and some of his grandchildren in April 2008.
Police first investigated allegations against Blackmore in the '90s

The Canadian Press
April 17, 2017

A decades-long legal battle culminates in British Columbia on Tuesday with the start of a trial for a breakaway Mormon leader charged with polygamy.

Winston Blackmore of Bountiful is accused of having two dozen wives over a 25-year period.

The legal fight dates back to the early 1990s when police first investigated allegations that residents of an isolated religious community were practicing multiple or "celestial'' marriages.

A lack of clarity around Canada's polygamy laws led to failed attempts at prosecuting Blackmore, followed by several efforts to clarify the legislation, including a reference question to the B.C. Supreme Court. The court ruled in 2011 that laws banning polygamy were constitutional and
did not violate religious freedoms guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Blackmore is not the only Bountiful-area resident who has been charged. James Oler will face trial alongside Blackmore for allegedly marrying four women between 1993 and 2009.

None of the allegations have been proven in court and the case is being heard by judge alone.

Oler was appointed to lead Bountiful following Blackmore's excommunication from the Mormon splinter group in 2002 by Warren Jeffs, head prophet of the U.S.-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Last week, Justice Sheri Ann Donegan of the B.C. Supreme Court dismissed a request from Blackmore's lawyer, Blair Suffredine, to hold separate trials for Blackmore and Oler.

Suffredine argued the polygamy charges involve separate and different allegations. If tried together, evidence against Oler could be prejudicial to Blackmore and vice versa, he said.

Peter Wilson, a special prosecutor appointed by the provincial government, argued that expert evidence was going to be called from witnesses in the United States and that it wouldn't make sense to have them come to Canada again for a second trial.

Donegan said she wanted to "balance the interests of the public and the accused'' and was not persuaded that the trial needed to be separated. She is expected to give her full reasons for the decision before the trial begins Tuesday.

The trial in Cranbrook is expected to last several weeks.
Canadian law

Suffredine said in an interview there's no question surrounding the validity of Canada's polygamy laws, but rather whether his client is entitled to an exemption for religious reasons.

"The dilemma is this, put simply: If you went out and slept with 20 women and made kids with each one of them, but then ran away and didn't pay for them, you would not have committed any crime,'' he said.

"But if you go through a ceremony where you promise to live with her or look after her and the children all your life, now you've committed a crime.''

Oler doesn't have a lawyer for the trial. An impartial adviser has been appointed to assist the court and provide balance.

Wilson declined to comment before the trial.

Catholic university bans yoga 'because of eastern mysticism'

Yoga is practiced by millions of people around the world Getty Images
Students warned of 'dangers of the practice of yoga' and college president says it is better to be 'safe than sorry'

Will Worley
The Independent
April 14, 2017

A Catholic university has banned yoga classes because of fears the practice “has some potential for eastern mysticism”.

Stretching and breathing classes at the Benedictine College, Kansas, will now take place under the name "Lifestyle Fitness".

The institution responded to concerns of staff, students and church leaders over students practising yoga.

The college’s president, Stephen Minnis, told campus newspaper BC Circuit: “Yoga as created has some potential for eastern mysticism which has caused concern among members of the Catholic Church.

“[Kansas Archbishop Naumann] has expressed his concerns and the issues surrounding that. We asked ourselves if there was a way to bring those yoga benefits to our students and faculty without the possible effects of eastern mysticism and are currently investigating other alternatives.”

Mr Minnis said he was unsure if the “spiritual harm” of yoga would affect the Benedictine College campus but it was “better to be safe than sorry”.

The cancellation apparently occurred without the reasoning being communicated to university yogis.

Yoga has existed for thousands of years and is commonly practised by a wide range of people for its health and mental benefits. Many consider it an essential part of their lives.

But its roots in eastern religions concerned local Catholic leaders.

"It is a mind and body practice developed under Hinduism, the goal of which is spiritual purification that will lead to a higher level of understanding and eventually union with the divine," said Rev John Riley, chancellor for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, to the Wichita Eagle.

"It is for these reasons that Catholics are alerted to the dangers of the practice of yoga and are encouraged to look for other exercise alternatives that do not incorporate a spiritual dimension."

Yogis responded with disappointment. Josh Olson, a junior business marketing and management major, said he has done yoga since high school to prevent injuries from athletics and reduce stress.

He called it a "step in the right direction" that the school isn't completely eliminating yoga-like practices but said he was frustrated by the lack of communication from school officials.

"It seems like a PR move to me, like we don't want to step on anyone's feet," Mr Olson said. "I don't see the sense behind it."

Rev Riley suggested Catholics seeking a spiritual alternative to yoga should try something like Pietra Fitness, which incorporates Christian prayer and meditation with stretching and strengthening.

The Pietra Fitness website – which advocates yoga-like exercises for the “mind, body and soul” – claims “ one cannot regularly practice yoga without some spiritual effect; therefore we recommend that Christians stop the practice of yoga and seek alternatives consistent with Christian philosophy and spirituality”.

In response, Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, issued a statement urging Benedictine College not to "abolish" yoga at the university. He said while yoga is a Hindu-based practice, it is a mental and physical discipline that can provide benefits to everyone.

An online petition started by Benedictine students asking the school to "bring back yoga" had nearly 100 supporters earlier this week.

Additional reporting by agencies.