May 31, 2017

The Church of Scientology wanted a vacant lot. So did the city of Clearwater, Fla. One of them won

Les Neuhaus
Los Angeles Times
May 30, 2017

When the Church of Scientology secretly purchased the dilapidated 11-story Fort Harrison Hotel in this western Florida city in 1975, locals didn’t know what to make of their new neighbors.

It would be the following year before the church was publicly identified as the owner of the hotel, which would be renovated to become Scientology’s international headquarters. The church, meanwhile, began scooping up other prime properties – dozens of them, including entire blocks – throughout downtown Clearwater.

It is a tactic that the church has used elsewhere, most notably in its birthplace of Hollywood, where it has assembled a vast array of properties. Although the church tends to improve the condition of its real estate holdings, its purchases — like Scientology itself — are often controversial, surrounded by rumor and suspicion.

So it was in Clearwater, a city of 110,000 that is now Scientology’s international headquarters. County records show that the church owns 66 properties in the city, where an estimated 12,000 Scientologists live. City officials have long grappled with fears that the church’s influence was growing too deep.

All that came to a head last month, when the city of Clearwater went head to head with the church in a struggle over a strategically located parcel of vacant land. The city won, despite offering vastly less than the church was willing to pay. But the repercussions shook City Hall and the highest levels of the church, which has a reputation for sharp elbows and for winning at any cost.

Was the battle for this parcel of land an indication of the church’s unspoken intent to consolidate political power in Clearwater? Residents wondered. Conspiracy theories are nothing new when it comes to the Church of Scientology.

The Fort Harrison Hotel is located steps from Clearwater City Hall, close to the downtown waterfront area, where the city is planning a 10-year, $55-million development called “Imagine Clearwater.” The project is aimed at revitalizing a forlorn area that is pocked with vacant storefronts and half-finished buildings.

Just offshore, connected to downtown by a causeway, is a glimmer of what Clearwater could be. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is a nonprofit marine rescue and rehabilitation facility that draws some 800,000 visitors annually and is Clearwater’s top attraction after the city’s famed beaches. It also was at the center of the dispute between the city and the church.

The aquarium owned a 1.4-acre vacant lot that is bordered on three sides by City Hall and two church properties — the Fort Harrison Hotel and a 13-story condominium tower. Two years ago, the Church of Scientology became interested in buying it and building a swimming pool and playground for its members.

But the aquarium, which is in the middle of a $54-million fund-raising campaign to significantly expand the marine rescue center, had previously agreed to sell the lot to the city. The small plot suddenly vaulted in value.

The church is one of the largest taxpayers in Pinellas County and is widely regarded as a good steward of its properties. A 2014 Florida State University study found that it brought $917 million into Clearwater that year. Still, many people in the city are suspicious of Scientology, which has long battled a reputation as a cult, and hasn’t been seen as the friendliest of neighbors.

The Fort Harrison Hotel is ringed with security cameras and is closed to the public, despite its three restaurants and ballroom. Several questionable deaths and hundreds of 911 calls from the building through the years haven’t helped the church’s image.

Some non-Scientology locals also fret that tourists are put off by the airline-style uniforms that some Scientologists wear.

“I think most of the locals might be used to seeing them in their uniforms, but I also think tourists are like, ‘What is this?’” said April Robinson, a Clearwater resident.

The city of Clearwater had various ideas in mind for the aquarium’s vacant lot, including a hotel, Mayor George Cretekos said in an interview. It was willing to pay $4.25 million, roughly the assessed valuation of the land. So were the Scientologists.

In early March, the church upped the ante: Scientology leader David Miscavige personally raised the church’s offer to $12.5 million. The aquarium said no, citing an agreement with the city.

On March 14, Miscavige met individually with Clearwater City Council members at the Fort Harrison Hotel, offering a sweetener: The church would fund an $8-million renovation of storefronts and facades along Cleveland Street, a portion of which has many retail spaces sitting empty.

Many downtown business owners were said to favor the plan or at least were willing to hear Miscavige out. But city leaders were resistant. “If they really wanted to help improve Cleveland Street, then why not just go do it?” Cretekos said in an interview in his office.

In early April, the church again raised its offer — this time to $15 million, along with the $8-million Cleveland Street revitalization offer. Put together, it amounted to more than five times what the city was offering to spend.

Again, the aquarium declined, prompting the church to question the aquarium board’s fiduciary responsibility.

On April 11, Miscavige held an invitation-only event on the Fort Harrison Hotel’s rooftop patio for community business leaders and other prominent Clearwater figures. Also there were Scientology celebrities, including John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and pianist Chick Corea, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Miscavige gave a roughly two-hour presentation, replete with graphics, citations of noteworthy architects and building consultants.

Bledar “Tony” Starova, who owns a pizzeria on Cleveland Street, was at the event and was impressed by the church’s plan.

“It looked very good, and I was hoping it happens,” he said by telephone. “But, really, this is the first time [the city and the church] are talking to each other. I liked the church’s plan, but I think the city should be the leader of these things.”

On April 20, the City Council unanimously voted in favor of buying the plot for the original $4.25 million.

“We are satisfied with the outcome,” aquarium Chief Executive David Yates said in a telephone interview. “We committed the lot to the city very early on and we stuck by that commitment.”

The church was not satisfied. Ben Shaw, a Scientology spokesman, wrote a letter to the Tampa Bay Times calling the City Council “arrogant” and the vote a case of “manifest obstruction.”

“Whose votes do not count? Whose money does not count? The bigotry against Scientologists is barefaced,” he said.

The church’s chief counsel, Monique Yingling, also sent a letter to the Pinellas County Commission urging it to block $26 million in tourism tax funds earmarked for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

“Astoundingly, [the Clearwater Marine Aquarium] rejected $15 million in private funding, and is now essentially asking to recoup that amount from taxpayer funds!” she wrote.

On April 25, the County Commission approved the $26-million grant.

Shaw has since said that the church, while disappointed, has moved on.

“The church was interested in buying a piece of land from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium; the aquarium sold the property to the city,” he said in an email. “That is the end of that story.”

Some downtown business owners, however, say the matter is far from dead: Church members, they believe, launched a boycott of downtown businesses after the vote.

“The business people have been telling me they’re not coming into their stores,” Clearwater City Council member Bob Cundiff said in a phone interview. “I even suggested maybe they put up a sign at the entrance of their stores or businesses, saying uniformed shoppers get a discount.”

Shaw said the business owners were wrong.

“There is absolutely no boycott of downtown businesses by church members,” he said. “There has never been a boycott.”

In 2014, the city commissioned a report by an independent advisory panel working for the Urban Land Institute. Among its goals was to determine how the city could best revitalize the downtown core. It concluded that dysfunction between the city and the Church of Scientology was threatening Balkanization and the city’s decline.

“They are the two largest landowners in the study area; they command the largest budgets; and they have the most influence over public opinion,” author Brad Rogers wrote. “These two organizations must become partners in the future of the city. If they cannot, no one else will.”

Ten Questions You Always Wanted to Ask a Jehovah's Witness

May 31 2017

"On the same day, one guy spat in our cart and another man said people like us should be gassed."

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.

Melanie is a 34-year-old dental assistant from Berlin, and she has been a Jehovah's Witness since she was 17. She grew up within the community but made the decision to be a full-fledged member at that age by being baptized. While to her it's simply her community, outsiders often consider Jehovah's Witnesses close to a religious sect. That reputation likely springs from Witnesses missionary zeal, their direct interpretation of the Bible and Jesus's words, and the fact that breaking their rules—like having sex before marriage or undergoing blood transfusion—could lead to expulsion from the church and the community. According to some Jehovah's Witnesses, you're still allowed to maintain your relationship with your family and visit gatherings if you're expelled—but there are countless accounts of former members who have been shunned by their loved ones completely.

To understand what it's like on the inside, I met Melanie in the Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah's Witnesses assembly in Berlin. The hall is really a sparsely furnished room with rows of chairs alongside more rows of chairs and a small stage with a podium. It doesn't look like a church much—only the posters with Bible verses in four languages give away the fact that this room has a religious purpose. Melanie's husband, Thomas, stayed near during the interview, and a church elder was also present.

Melanie tells me that she's dealt with people thinking her community is a sect since she was still at school, but according to her, people are just misinformed. Twice a week, she meets other Witnesses, and they all go around town to hand out information at train stations. She also goes door to door. Throughout my conversation with her, she held a small Bible bound in black leather close, citing verses from it from time to time. Many of them had to do with Judgement Day—Jehovah's Witnesses believe that God wants to purge the world of all evil to give way to paradise, where good people can live in peace and harmony. Melanie says that she has never considered leaving the community.

VICE: How does it feel to stand in a public place and try to convince people of what you believe, while knowing that many people passing by think that what you're doing is weird?
Melanie: I'm proud of what I do. Of course, it takes courage to go out and stand there. At the end of the day, I'm not harming anyone. I only offer information and don't force anyone into anything. Everyone can decide for themselves if they want to talk to us or not. But besides that, I don't actually think that people generally have a negative opinion about Jehovah's Witnesses—or about me as a person. Most people just aren't interested in what we do.

But is standing on street corners with a literature cart an efficient way to get them to join your side?
There are different forms of preaching. What you see us do on the street with our carts, that's a passive form of preaching. We offer people reading material, and give them the chance to ask questions or just talk with us. We get approached by all sorts of different people. Lots of people ask: "What does the Bible actually teach? Can you explain it to me in a nutshell?" Or they comment on the cover image of The Watchtower, our monthly magazine. You've probably heard about our active missionary work, too—Jehovah's Witnesses go from door to door. That's when we talk to people about specific topics or offer selected literature, for example for teenagers or families.

How many people talk to you on a day?
That's hard to say, it often depends on the weather. Sometimes loads of people approach us to ask for specific information about the Jehovah's Witnesses or they are looking for a certain book. Or they just need someone to talk to. But there are also days when no one talks to us.

Do people ever insult you when you're doing your work?
It happens. But I mostly feel that people are trying to insult us by the looks they give us. My husband and I once got spat on. This guy walked past us twice, came up closer from the side, and spat on our cart. It happened so quickly that neither of us got the chance to react. We just wiped down the trolly and carried on with our work. That same day, another man walked past and said that people like us should be gassed. [During the Second World War, an estimated 1,200 Jehovah's Witnesses were murdered in the concentration camps.] Things like that happen sometimes, but it's rare. Thankfully, I've never been physically attacked.

Do you hate non-believers?
No, of course not, why should I? I respect others and don't judge them for their beliefs. I expect the same thing in return. I would never force anyone to join my religion.

Will God punish me for not believing in him?
I can't answer as to what kind of decisions God will make. I would never put myself out there and say that only Jehovah's Witnesses will be saved and people who hold other beliefs will perish. Only Jehovah decides who can enter his paradise.

Jehovah's Witnesses don't celebrate their birthdays. Don't you even celebrate in secret?
I'm 34 now, and I've honestly never celebrated my birthday. It's just not important to me—it happens that on the day itself, I usually forget that it's my birthday. I never felt like I was missing out. You can always eat cake, and there are plenty of other opportunities for presents. When I was younger, my parents gave me presents if I came home with a good report card.

When was the last time you couldn't do something because you were a Jehovah's Witness?
There are some events I can't partake in because of my beliefs, like Christmas parties at work. But that means I just don't go. I try my best to live my life as God would want me to, and I don't have the desire to do anything he wouldn't approve of. It just wouldn't do me any good. I don't feel like I'm not allowed to do certain things; it's quite the opposite. Because God is my friend, it's important to me not to do anything that would hurt him. I don't want to disappoint him.

How much money do you donate to the community on a monthly basis?
You probably want to know about the membership fees—we don't have any. We only have a little wooden box at the entrance of the Kingdom Hall where everyone can put in a donation as often and as much as they like. We never talk about the amount. That's private. The money is used for printing The Watchtower, for example, which has a circulation of about 61 million and is translated into 300 languages—
it's the most widely circulated magazine in the world. Because donations are managed and divided internationally, they can be put to use in different countries —for example, for disaster relief or the maintenance of assembly buildings in other parts of the world.

When do you expect the world to end?
According to the Bible, we're not expecting the end of the world in the sense that the whole planet and all the people on it will be destroyed. The word "world" often implies people—for example, people within a certain society. The Bible says that one day Jehovah will destroy all evil and let the righteous carry on living. In Psalm 37:10-11, it says: "In just a little while, the wicked will be no more... But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace."

We don't know when exactly this will happen, but the Bible mentions a few events that will occur just before God takes action. "And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places." (Matthew 24:6–7)

When I read that to people, I've heard them say that it sounds a lot like what's currently in the news. When I read it, I realize it won't be long now before God takes action. That's exactly why us Jehovah's Witnesses keep informing people about what's in the Bible.

Hot yoga guru in hot water over sexual assault allegations, lawsuit payments and an arrest warrant

Bikram yoga
Bikram Choudhury
Samantha Schmidt
National Post

May 26, 2017

For many of the guru’s millions of followers worldwide, Bikram Choudhury’s signature “hot yoga,” performed in sweltering, sweaty rooms, is a euphoric, spiritual practice that promotes healthy, peaceful living.

But over the course of about two years, the yoga tycoon’s image has been tarnished by numerous sexual assault allegations and lawsuits. And now, attorneys say, Choudhury is on the run, dodging court hearings and a legal judgment.

The 73-year-old guru, the founder of Bikram yoga, has yet to pay any of the $6.8 million awarded last year to his former attorney, Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, who alleges she was sexually harassed by Choudhury and fired after investigating claims from a student that he had raped her. Choudhury has repeatedly denied the allegations.

So on Wednesday, a California judge issued an arrest warrant for Choudhury, ordering him to hand over the proceeds from his business to satisfy the judgment. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Edward Moreton issued the warrant and set bail at $8 million.

“It’s been a long road chasing this guy down,” Jafa-Bodden’s attorney, Aaron Osten told The Washington Post. “I don’t want to say it’s done, but it’s awfully close, because he’s got nowhere else to go.”

Choudhury, who is a three-time national yoga champion in his native India, created his system of yoga in the 1970s, turning it into a global yoga empire. Bikram yoga, which consists of 26 poses done in a 105-degree room for over 90 minutes, attracted celebrity clients such as Raquel Welch and Quincy Jones, the founder bragged.

But for Jafa-Bodden, who worked as head of legal and international affairs at Choudhury’s yoga school from 2011 until 2013, there was a grim side to the business. She alleged that Choudhury sexually harassed and inappropriately touched her, tried to get her to stay with him in a hotel suite, and subjected her to obscene comments about women and minority groups. She accused him of pressuring her to cover up his sexual harassment of women.

“She tried to put her foot down and stop this man,” Osten said.”He threatened her life. He threatened her family’s life, he threatened to have her deported.”

And in March 2013, she was suddenly fired from her position. Last year, Jafa-Bodden successfully sued Choudhury, alleging gender discrimination, wrongful termination and sexual harassment during her time working for him. After she won, Jafa-Bodden told reporters, “I feel vindicated, I’m elated,” and described Choudhury as “a dangerous, dangerous predator.”

One of the jurors hugged her after the verdict, telling her she was a “warrior for women,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

But in the year since, Jafa-Bodden’s attorneys said, Choudhury has funneled his assets into sham corporations, even undergoing a “sham divorce” to hide his resources.

Choudhury could not be located for comment and no lawyers appeared for him, according to the Associated Press. Last year, he claimed he was nearly bankrupt.

Speaking to CNN in 2015, Choudhury repeatedly denied sexually assaulting anyone, saying he would never resort to physical aggression to have sex because he has so many offers.

“Women like me. Women love me,” he said. “So if I really wanted to involve the women, I don’t have to assault the women.”

Osten said Choudhury had a fleet of about 44 luxury cars, including Bentleys and Rolls Royces, in a warehouse in California. “It was a pretty extraordinary collection,” Osten said.

The attorneys said Choudhury tried to ship the cars and other property overseas, and tracked a number of vehicles in Florida and Nevada. Osten said the legal team now has court orders in those states preventing him from moving property from warehouses.

“He has sufficient funds to satisfy the judgment,” Osten said, including a $3 million diamond-encrusted watch he has previously flaunted. “But he’d rather play this game and run fast and loose with this legal system.”

Despite the allegations, the yoga master continues to travel and teach classes worldwide, Osten said, including recently in Acapulco, Mexico. The arrest warrant means authorities can flag Choudhury at any airport, and the legal team can work with authorities to arrest the yoga master in Mexico or any country that is a member of The Hague Convention.

Outside of court Wednesday, Jafa-Bodden celebrated the arrest warrant, calling it a win for any women who have endured sexual harassment.

“To have that bench warrant issued for Bikram. It sends a message to a debtor like Bikram that he will be held accountable and that the wheels of justice, although they don’t turn as fast as we would want them to, they do turn,” she said.

Six other women have filed sexual assault lawsuits against Choudhury, including five who accuse him of raping them. One of those lawsuits is in the process of being settled while the rest are set for trial later this year, according to the Associated Press.

In interviews with the Los Angeles Times, three of the women who have filed lawsuits say Choudhury nurtured a cultlike devotion among followers that allowed him to take advantage of female students. That devotion – and a fear of being exiled from the yoga community – kept victims and others from speaking up, the women told the Los Angeles Times.

Promoter of Blacklisted Festival Says His Event Was ... Blacklisted

L.A. Weekly
MAY 26, 2017

Promoter Nick Janicki says that when he first proposed his Blacklisted festival to the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation late last year, he could not have anticipated that the event — a music and arts fest featuring politically outspoken artists like moe., Citizen Cope, Beats Antique and Talib Kweli — would suffer what he sees as an an eponymous fate. “The irony is mind boggling,” he says.

According to Janicki, Blacklisted was blacklisted.

Janicki had planned for the festival to take place in late July at the new Los Angeles State Historic Park, in the shadow of Chinatown. But Janicki is now planning to change locations, due in part to criticism from the local community.

George Yu, president of the Chinatown Business Improvement District, says Janicki should have known that the community might not be thrilled about the proposed event — after all, in some of the event’s marketing materials the word “slaughter” was superimposed over the People’s Republic of China flag.

“He’s supremely arrogant,” Yu says. “He wants to do an anti-China event. Can you imagine having an anti-Mexican event in Boyle Heights? They’d kick his ass.”

Janicki says Yu's anti-China accusations could not be further from the truth. He says the intent of the festival is to spread awareness about injustices occurring in China, such as organ harvesting and censorship within the country and beyond, sanctioned by the Chinese government. “My feeling is that I have a moral and ethical obligation to tell people about what’s happening in China,” he says.

Janicki says he described Blacklisted in his permit application as a festival and benefit concert sponsored by the likes of Alt Power Productions, Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting and his own Blacklisted Studios. (On Janicki’s LinkedIn page, he describes Blacklisted Studios as “a production company aimed at giving a voice to the voiceless. We focus on humanitarian events. Our most recent endeavor is the that is illuminating the genocide of Falun Gong in China. We are seeking sponsors and musicians and are devoted to saving orphans caused by the persecution in China.”)

Janicki himself practices Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that borrows the qigong practice of the Buddhist school, as well as from Taoist tradition. He claims that the majority of organ harvesting in China impacts practitioners of Falun Gong. “The numbers are staggering," he says. "You have about 200 to 250 people a day being murdered for their organs. … That’s almost a billion dollars a month in profits. Billions of dollars can buy a lot of silence.”

Yu says he is against any presence of Falun Gong, which he describes as a “cult,” at the event. Janicki says it is “impossible” to banish Falun Gong from Blacklisted, since it's the festival's central cause. As a result, Yu officially refused to give the festival his and the Chinatown BID’s support.

According to Sean Woods, superintendent of California State Parks' Los Angeles sector, the event is still on the table but has yet to be permitted. “We are holding back on the permit," he says, "but the ball is in their court.” He says the Chinatown BID is one of many community stakeholders Janicki should approach for buy-in as part of the event planning process.

Woods also says that the permit is being held back because the event has transformed into something different than what was first pitched. “The concern for the state is that it has gone from a music festival or concert to a political event, which could increase policing and change the costs,” Woods says. “Are there people going to be protesting, or is it a concert? It changes the whole dynamic.”

Asked if there are any current or past plans to host protests at Blacklisted, Janicki says: “Nope. Never.”

“This is where it gets very confusing for me,” Janicki says. “I have email confirmations [from California State Parks Special Events Coordinator Larry Fulmer] that the date was locked in on Jan. 17. I had sent an email [on Dec. 28] saying, ‘The permits are in, are we good to go?' And I got an email back saying, ‘Yes, everything is locked in and we’re good to go.'”

Janicki admits he never received a signed copy of his permit back, but that he took Fulmer’s email as confirmation enough.

Janicki stands by the way in which the event was originally proposed in his permit application submitted nearly six months ago. “We have 20 artists that have scheduled around this and are also putting a lot on the line to be a part of this,” he says. “I have several hundreds of thousands of dollars that have been invested. … It’s a big deal for everyone involved.”

In the meantime, Janicki has worked to secure a new venue: The Reef, the DTLA convention center that hosted Entertainment Weekly's Popfest last summer. The new venue has three acres outside with a main stage, and a second indoor stage — plenty of space to accommodate Janicki's original plans for interactive workshops, meditation spaces, a candle-light vigil and, of course, music.

“We’re not trying to take the park back,” Janicki says. “We don’t want to harm the Chinese community — we absolutely don’t want to do that. We want Chinatown to prosper. We’ll go somewhere that we’re welcome.”

Sovereign Citizens Sentenced

May 9, 2017

‘Stole’ Vacant Homes and Filed False Claims to Intimidate Officials

For more than three years, a Pennsylvania group claiming to be sovereign citizens—and therefore not subject to U.S. law—schemed to “steal” dozens of foreclosed homes worth millions of dollars and sell them to unsuspecting victims.

The scheme came to light after local officials in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, received documents declaring sovereign citizen status for three residents. Alarmed, the officials contacted the FBI shortly after receiving the documents in May 2010.

Officials had good reason to be concerned: That same month, two so-called sovereign citizens opened fire on police during a traffic stop in Arkansas, killing two officers. The ambush is just one example of how members of the movement often turn to violence.

Sovereign citizens are anti-government extremists who claim the federal government is operating outside its jurisdiction and they are therefore not bound by government authority—including the courts, taxing entities, motor vehicle departments, and even law enforcement.

They also are prone to engage in numerous types of financial frauds and schemes, based on their skewed interpretation of law.

“Most of these sovereign citizens are extremists,” said Special Agent Walter Szpak, who investigated the case out of the FBI’s Philadelphia Field Office. “When they get arrested, they don’t believe they have committed a crime, and they believe they have the right to retaliate.”

Knowing the potential for criminal and even violent activity by sovereign citizens, FBI agents decided to interview the three people in Pennsylvania who signed the declarations of sovereignty: Steven Hameed, Darnell Young, and Damond Palmer. Hameed and Young were married.

“It’s not illegal to file this kind of paperwork,” explained Szpak. “This is America; they can say whatever they want. But it’s essentially a warning to law enforcement, saying, ‘We’re about to start committing criminal acts.’”

Which is exactly what Hameed, Young, and Palmer were doing. The trio scoured public records to find foreclosed houses in Delaware County, west of Philadelphia. Then they crafted jargon-laden paperwork claiming ownership on 70 properties worth more than $9 million. Most of the homes belonged to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or Wells Fargo bank.

After staking fraudulent claims to the properties, they listed the houses as rent-to-own opportunities on Craigslist at low prices, Szpak said.

FBI agents could not find the three suspects at first to conduct an initial interview about their claims of sovereign status; they did not live at the addresses listed on their declarations. Agents kept looking, using property records to track them down.

“Every time we went to one of these addresses, someone else was living there,” Szpak said. “The tenants told us they had bought or rented the property from the people we were looking for. That’s when we realized what they were doing.”

As the scope of the fraud became more apparent, the FBI was joined in the investigation by other agencies, including HUD, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and several county and local police departments.

In the midst of the federal investigation into the fraud, Hameed, Young, and Palmer were charged by local police for offenses such as trespassing. In response, the three played another trick popular within the sovereign movement: “paper terrorism.” They filed more than 250 fraudulent IRS forms against numerous state and local law enforcement officials and judges. The fake 1099-DIV and 1099-INT forms falsely claimed that the victims had been paid hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in dividends or interest.

Because the forms were fake, the victims did not know they had been filed and obviously did not pay any taxes on the income. In some cases, the IRS placed liens against the victims or seized tax refunds they would have otherwise been owed.

“These fraudulent tax forms can have a real impact on victims,” Szpak said. “And, even though they are fake, some of them can remain on victims’ credit reports for years.”

They also added to a growing list of federal charges the trio faced. The three were charged in December 2015 with conspiracy to commit offenses against the United States, bank fraud, and corrupt interference with Internal Revenue laws, among other crimes. All three pleaded guilty in June 2016. Hameed was sentenced to eight years in prison in February; Young and Palmer received shorter sentences in 2016.

The scam left scores of victims in its wake, Szpak said, including people who learned they were not actually home owners. Although HUD and Wells Fargo worked with the unsuspecting victims who bought homes, none were allowed to stay in the homes they thought they owned.

Has China really stopped obtaining organs from executed prisoners?

PBS News Hour
May 29, 2017

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Decades ago, China began a practice that human rights advocates and medical ethicists condemned: taking organs, such as kidneys and livers, from executed prisoners to transplant into people who needed them.

The Chinese government says it’s reformed the practice. Now they say they only recover organs from volunteers. But some say the practice continues.

Hari Sreenivasan and producer Dan Sagalyn have the story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This is when a life is renewed. A transplant surgeon, seen here, removes a kidney from a volunteer donor and inserts it into someone whose kidneys are failing.

In most cases, patients who need a new organ have to wait months or years before one is available. But this man, who told us he had end-stage kidney disease 11 years ago, could wait no longer.

KIDNEY TRANSPLANT PATIENT (through interpreter): I was on dialysis already two years, and I was constantly going downhill.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We met him in Vancouver, Canada. He asked that we conceal his identity by hiding his face and replacing his voice to protect his privacy.

KIDNEY TRANSPLANT PATIENT (through interpreter): They called these people the living dead. You just haven’t died yet, but you’re gone.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Because of his age and rare blood type, he says he would have died before reaching the top of the waiting list for a new kidney. So, urged by family and friends, he went to China’s capital, Beijing, in 2006. Within one week, he received a new kidney. He says he paid $10,000 for the transplant.

In Canada, it would have been free, since the government pays for health care. In the U.S., the average hospital charge for a kidney transplant is $150,000. Traveling to another country for this kind of surgery is called transplant tourism.

KIDNEY TRANSPLANT PATIENT (through interpreter): I went there dead. I came back alive.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On average, 22 people die every day in the United States waiting for a transplant. The median wait time for a lung here is four months, a heart almost a year, and a kidney two years. Transplant tourists understandably have been drawn to other countries by promises of little to no wait.

It’s not just Canada that generates transplant tourists to China. On the other side of the world, at about the same time, an Israeli doctor had a patient who also needed a transplant.

DR. JACOB LAVEE, Transplant Surgeon: Back in 2005, a patient of mine came to me one day and told me, doc, I’m fed up waiting here in Israel for a suitable heart donor to become available, and I was told — that’s what he told me — by my insurance company that I should go to China because they have scheduled me to undergo heart transplantation. And he specified a specific date two weeks ahead of time.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Heart surgeon Dr. Jacob Lavee is president of the Israel Society of Transplantation. While kidney transplants can involve obtaining a kidney from a living donor, that is not the case with a heart transplant.

DR. JACOB LAVEE: If a patient was promised to undergo a heart transplant on a specific date, this could only mean that the — those who promised that knew ahead of time when his potential donor would be dead.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Human rights investigator Ethan Gutmann and lawyer David Matas have testified before Congress about China’s transplant system.

DAVID MATAS, Human Rights Lawyer: It is unconscionable to kill a healthy, innocent person so that a sick person can live.

HARI SREENIVASAN: They say they know how organs in China become available with no wait time.

DAVID MATAS: They have obviously got a lot of people sitting around waiting to be killed for a transplant. And they are just picking the right person to be killed depending on who the patient is.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Matas and Gutmann say Chinese doctors have coordinated with Chinese prison officials, and inmate executions take place when patients are in need of organs.

Medical professionals and human rights advocates say this practice violates the prisoner’s human rights.

However, this is how one Chinese doctor justified the practice. This video was produced by the Chinese government.

DR. HE XIAOSHUN, First Affiliated Hospital of Sun Yat-Sen University (through interpreter): To apply the traditional Chinese way of thinking, the prisoners committed sins in their lives. If we let them donate their organs, well, in a sense, they are offering salvation. They can atone for their crime with that opportunity.

HARI SREENIVASAN: At a press conference in 2005, China’s vice minister of health, Huang Jiefu, admitted the government took organs from executed prisoners.

But, in 2014, Huang Jiefu, who is now leading the reform efforts in China, declared that, starting in 2015, China would stop using organs from executed prisoners.

But Matas and Gutmann believe they have evidence that this practice still continues. They say inmates on death row include prisoners of conscience, such as practitioners of Falun Gong who become unwilling sources for organs. Falun Gong is a form of Chinese meditation and exercise with a spiritual underpinning.

Since 1999, the Chinese government has cracked down on Falun Gong, charging it with being an unregistered religion and cult that aims to subvert the state.

DAVID MATAS: We interviewed Falun Gong who got out of prison, got out of China, systematically blood-tested, organ-examined, not for their health — they were being tortured — and only the types of examinations relevant to transplantation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Wang Chunying and Yin Liping practice Falun Gong. Both say they were detained a number of times between 1999 and 2009.

WANG CHUNYING, Falun Gong Practitioner (through translator): In 2008, I was forced to take a blood draw. The atmosphere was very tense and horrific. I thought this blood draw must be related to looking for matching organs.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Chinese government might say, we just needed more blood. That is all. We didn’t take her organs. We didn’t do anything to her body. We just took blood to make sure there wasn’t an infection in the yard.

How do you know that the government wanted your blood for any other reasons?

WANG CHUNYING (through interpreter): Because the living conditions were terrible in the reeducation camp. They didn’t care about whether we lived or died.

YIN LIPING, Falun Gong Practitioner (through interpreter): Once, I was forced to take a blood draw. There were multiple times of other tests, such as MRI, ultrasound and chest X-ray.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Gutmann says he’s interviewed ethnic minorities from Tibet and Xinjiang who all tell similar stories about medical examinations while in prison.

ETHAN GUTMANN, Human Rights Investigator: When you start to hear the same description of an examination in a completely different language from a completely different group, but it’s the same examination, this is one of the big tipoffs that this is really directed towards China’s enemies, its political and religious enemies.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Matas and Gutmann say there’s another possible motive driving this practice: profit. In the past, some Chinese hospitals even advertised the costs of new organs, $98,000 to $130,000 for a liver, $130,000 to $160,000 for a heart.

By reviewing Chinese medical publications, hospital Web site data, and making calls to hospitals, Gutmann and Matas estimate there could be 60,000 to 100,000 transplants still taking place each year in China. The Chinese government rejects these accusations.

In 2016, it says there were just over 13,000 transplants performed in the country. Compare that to the United States that had 33,000 transplants last year.

In an e-mail to the NewsHour, a spokesman from the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., writes: “The Chinese government firmly abide by the internationally recognized ethical principles about organ transplantation, and adhere to the voluntary organ donation after the death of Chinese citizens.”

We asked if political prisoners were singled out for execution for their organs. The embassy didn’t respond to this question.

Chinese officials do say, since 2015, they no longer recover organs from prisoners.

Dr. Huang Jiefu, who is leading reform efforts, acknowledged in an interview with a Chinese newspaper progress has been slow.

“Our use of death row prisoner organs before the establishment of a citizen organ donation system was an act of desperation to save the lives of patients suffering organ failure. When the citizen donation system was set up, we abolished this source of organs as quickly as possible.”

In February of this year, at a Vatican conference on organ trafficking, Chinese medical leaders agreed that using organs from executed prisoners is a crime and should be condemned worldwide. A number of American doctors who have been to China say they believe the country has taken major steps to stop the practice of taking organs from executed prisoners.

DR. FRANCIS DELMONICO, Adviser, World Health Organization: The reports that we get from Canada or the United States or from the Middle East of individuals undergoing transplantation, that’s markedly reduced, but it has not completely stopped.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Dr. Francis Delmonico is an adviser to the World Health Organization and former president of the Transplantation Society. He’s leading the international effort to help China establish a new system of organ donation.

When did you first become aware that China might be executing people for their organs?



DR. FRANCIS DELMONICO: I was invited to the Peking Union Medical College by Jiefu Huang, who was, at the time, vice minister of health.

And he was a liver transplant surgeon. And he said to me, “Frank, this is — we have got a horrendous problem, and I need your help.”

Individuals in China were being executed. And those were the — they became the source of organs for many people from around the world going to China, as many as 11,000 transplants being performed, and this is in 2006.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While some doctors like Huang Jiefu wanted this practice stopped, others who were making money from organ trafficking didn’t, according to Delmonico.

To put pressure on China, a number of medical associations and journals launched a boycott, beginning in 2006, banning Chinese research papers that relied on data from executed prisoners.

At the same time, Delmonico and other doctors helped China build a new and legitimate system for organ recovery, similar to the system in the U.S., requiring consent and only from live or deceased donors in hospitals.

Has China stopped harvesting organs from people that they have executed, that they are executing?

DR. FRANCIS DELMONICO: I don’t know that for certain. So I can say to you that it’s markedly reduced. But can I assure you or the rest of the world that it’s completely stopped? I can’t.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Delmonico says there’s a new generation of doctors in China that want and embrace the reforms that are taking place in China’s transplantation system.

But human rights investigator Ethan Gutmann says China is still killing prisoners and taking their organs.

ETHAN GUTMANN: Our report shows tremendous continuity over time, even while they’re — the Chinese are making completely different statements about this.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Leading experts to call for inspections of Chinese hospitals.

DR. JACOB LAVEE: What needs to be done now is an international committees of transplant experts that will be allowed to visit China and verify the source of these organs.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In his desperation, this man says he didn’t think about where his new kidney came from, and, looking back, that he has no regrets.

KIDNEY TRANSPLANT PATIENT (through interpreter): It’s given me a new outlook on life. I had an opportunity to see my children graduate from universities. I have a happy life with my wife.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Hari Sreenivasan.

Danish Jehovah's Witness arrested after Russia raid

The arrest comes after Russia banned the Jehovah's Witnesses and seized the organisation's property earlier this year because of alleged extremism.

MAY 30, 2017

Russian security forces have raided a Jehovah's Witnesses service and arrested a Danish citizen in the latest move against the Christian group since Moscow banned it as an "extremist organisation".

"Armed officers from the FSB" detained some 50 worshippers during a service Thursday in the town of Oryol, some 350 kilometres (220 miles) south of Moscow, a senior Jehovah's Witnesses official, Yaroslav Sivulsky, told AFP Monday.

Dennis Christensen of Denmark was then arraigned before a judge on Friday and arrested on charges of "participating in extremist activities," Sivulsky said.

The other worshippers were released without charge, he said.

The raid and arrest came after Russia's Supreme Court banned the Jehovah's Witnesses in April over alleged extremism and seized the organisation's property in the country.

The ruling sparked fears of a crackdown on religious freedom in Russia, where there are an estimated 175,000 Jehovah's Witnesses.

"This is the first time that a Jehovah's Witness has been jailed since the Soviet Union," Sivulsky said.

Members of the group - a Christian evangelical movement that was born in the United States in the 19th century - consider modern churches to have deviated from the Bible's true teachings.

They reject modern evolutionary theory and refuse blood transfusions.

The powerful Russian Orthodox Church spoke out against the group ahead of the Supreme Court ruling, with one church official branding it a "destructive sect".

Jury selection begins for minister accused in member beating

Brooke Covington, a member of the Word of Faith Fellowship church in Spindle, N.C., leaves a hearing at Rutherford County Courthouse
Brooke Covington, a member of the Word of Faith Fellowship
church in Spindle, N.C., leaves a hearing at Rutherford
County Courthouse
ABC News
May 30, 2017


Jury selection began Tuesday for a North Carolina church minister accused of beating a man to expel his "homosexual demons."

Brooke Covington, 58, a longtime minister at Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, North Carolina, is the first of five church members to face trial in the case. Each defendant will be tried separately.

Covington has pleaded not guilty to charges of kidnapping and assaulting former church member Matthew Fenner in January 2013. If convicted, Covington faces up to two years in prison.

Fenner, 23, said he was leaving a prayer service Jan. 27, 2013, when nearly two dozen people surrounded him in the sanctuary. He said they slapped, punched, choked and blasted him — a church practice that involves intense screaming — for two hours as they tried to expel his "homosexual demons."

As part of an ongoing, two-year investigation into abuse of Word of Faith Fellowship congregants by church leaders, The Associated Press interviewed four former church members who said they witnessed Fenner's assault.

Based on exclusive interviews with 43 former members, documents and secretly made recordings, the AP reported in February that Word of Faith Fellowship congregants were regularly punched, smacked, choked, slammed to the floor or thrown through walls in a violent form of deliverance meant to "purify" sinners by beating out devils.

Fenner said he joined the sect with his mother and brother in 2010. He fled after he said he was attacked.

"You can't imagine the emotional toll this has taken on my life. I had to put a lot of things on hold because of this. ... I can't do anything until this is over," Fenner told the AP in a previous interview.

The defense had filed requests to move the trial out of Rutherford County, located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains midway between Charlotte and Asheville, due to years of negative publicity about the church's practices. As an alternative, the defense asked to have a jury brought in from another area.

The judge did not describe his reasoning for denying those requests.

"We are going to pick a jury and we are going to pick a jury today," said Superior Court Judge Gary Gavenus.

Over the last few years, there have been numerous delays in the case.

At first, the five defendants were represented by the same attorneys — all members of Word of Faith Fellowship. Assistant Prosecutor Garland Byers Jr. filed a motion in 2015 to disqualify the law firm, citing conflicts of interest. A judge agreed, but the church appealed. A year later, though, the church attorneys withdrew the appeal, and the defendants got their own new attorneys.

One of the defendants, Sarah Anderson, left the church in 2015, saying her 1-year-old son was being abused. It's unclear whether she will testify at Covington's trial and if she does, what she will say.

The AP's investigation also revealed that congregants were ordered by church leaders to lie to authorities investigating reports of abuse and that two assistant district attorneys and a veteran social worker were among those who coached congregants and their children on what to say to investigators. After the AP report, the prosecutors, including one who is a son-in-law of a church founder, left their jobs, and the social worker resigned.

The sect was founded in 1979 by Jane Whaley, a former math teacher, and her husband, Sam, a former used car salesman. Under Jane Whaley's leadership, Word of Faith Fellowship grew from a handful of followers to its current congregation in North Carolina, and another nearly 2,000 members in churches in Brazil and Ghana. It also has affiliations in other countries.


Mohr reported from Jackson, Mississippi.

A closer look at Jehovah's Witnesses living in the U.S.

Pew research center
APRIL 26, 2016
Jehovah's Witnesses living in the U.S.

The death of superstar musician Prince has prompted many reflections on his life – including his religious faith. Prince, who was raised as a Seventh-day Adventist, became a Jehovah’s Witness as an adult and attended services in his home state of Minnesota.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, who make up just less than 1% of U.S. adults, are known for their door-to-door proselytism. But members of this denomination, which has its origins in 19th-century America, are also unique in many other ways. Here are a few facts about Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States today, based on Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study:

Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the most racially and ethnically diverse religious groups in America. No more than four-in-ten members of the group belong to any one racial and ethnic background: 36% are white, 32% are Hispanic, 27% are black and 6% are another race or mixed race.

Most Jehovah’s Witnesses – roughly two-thirds (65%) – are women, while only 35% are men. Christians worldwide are more likely to be women than men, but this gender gap is particularly large in the context of U.S. Christian groups. For instance, 54% of U.S. Catholics are women.

Compared with other U.S. religious groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses tend to be less educated. A solid majority of adult Jehovah’s Witnesses (63%) have no more than a high school diploma, compared with, for example, 43% of evangelical Protestants and 37% of mainline Protestants.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have a low retention rate relative to other U.S. religious groups. Among all U.S. adults who were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses, two-thirds (66%) no longer identify with the group. By contrast, about two-thirds of those who were raised as evangelical Protestants (65%) and Mormons (64%) still say they are members of those respective groups.

On the flip side, about two-thirds (65%) of current adult Jehovah’s Witnesses are converts – like Prince, they were raised in another faith.
Religious beliefs and practices

Jehovah’s Witnesses identify as Christians, but their beliefs are different from other Christians in some ways. For instance, they teach that Jesus is the son of God but is not part of a Trinity.

By traditional measures of religious commitment, Jehovah’s Witnesses are one of the most highly religious major U.S. religious groups. Nine-in-ten Jehovah’s Witnesses (90%) say religion is very important in their lives, while similar shares say they believe in God with absolute certainty (90%) and that the Bible is the word of God (94%).

Our survey found at least two other interesting ways in which Jehovah’s Witnesses stand out in their beliefs. For one, while half of Jehovah’s Witnesses say they believe in heaven, very few (7%) say they believe in hell, the traditional image of which is challenged by the denomination’s teaching. The share of all U.S. Christians who believe in hell is 10 times larger (70%). And most Jehovah’s Witnesses (83%) say their religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life; only about three-in-ten U.S. Christians (29%) believe this about their own religious faith.

Compared with U.S. Christians overall, Jehovah’s Witnesses are especially likely to say they attend religious services at least once a week (85%, compared with 47% of all U.S. Christians), pray daily (90% of Jehovah’s Witnesses vs. 68% of all U.S. Christians) and – perhaps not surprisingly – share their faith with others at least once a week (76% vs. 26%). They also are more likely than U.S. Christians overall to participate in prayer or scripture study groups and to read scripture at least weekly, among other religious behaviors.

Social and political views

Like many other highly religious Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses tend to take conservative positions on social issues. For example, three-quarters (75%) say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, while similar shares oppose same-sex marriage and say homosexuality should be discouraged by society (76% each). Roughly three-quarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses (74%) also reject evolution, saying humans have always existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

But Jehovah’s Witnesses do not commonly advocate for these beliefs in the political sphere. The denomination teaches that its members should remain politically neutral and abstain from voting or participating in “any action to change governments.”

This is reflected in our polling. Three-quarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses (75%) say they are political independents who do not lean toward either major party. Half (50%) decline to answer a question about political ideology (i.e., whether they describe their political views as conservative, moderate or liberal). And most Jehovah’s Witnesses (64%), when asked if they are registered to vote, say they are not registered or decline to answer the question.

Note: The last two paragraphs under the “Demographics” section were added on April 27, 2016.

Doctor found guilty over referrals

Northern Star
May 31, 2017
Cathy Adams

A doctor who sent a patient off for new age healing treatments such as "esoteric lung massage" has been found guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct.

The patient, a 55-year-old Ballina woman with a persistent cough, consulted thoracic physician Samuel Kim in Goonellabah in 2010.

The Professional Standards Board found that Dr Kim inappropriately referred the patient to esoteric practitioners from the controversial Universal Medicine spiritual healing group, of which he was a member.

During the course of her two-year treatment under Dr Kim, the patient was sent to Universal Medicine for "treatments" such as "chemo washing" through "chakra puncture" and "esoteric lung massage".

The patient made a complaint to the Health Care Complaints Commission, claiming she was not only misdiagnosed but also told she had to go on the lung transplant list. She was also prescribed hormone replacement therapy and put on vitamin B injections.

The HCCC took the complaint before the Professional Standards Committee.

The complaint was proven, with the exception of the innappropriate administration of B12 injections.

Dr Kim accepted his conduct was significantly below the standard to be reasonably expected of a practitioner with his level of training or experience.

He also accepted that his conduct was improper and unethical.

The Committee noted there was no complaint made about Dr Kim's approach to the conventional medical treatment of the patient's lung disease, and was not critical of Dr Kim's interest or training in Universal Medicine, but was critical of his referrals to Universal Medicine practitioners.

The Committee found Dr Kim had not adequately explained the difference between conventional and complementary medicine, stating "every effort must be made by a medical practitioner to make those boundaries clear and ensure that the patient understands the nature of any treatment that is recommended".

In oral evidence, Dr Kim acknowledged he was an advocate for and supporter of Universal Medicine principles.


Russian Supreme Court upholds liquidation of Jehovah's Witnesses chapter

MOSCOW, May 26, 2017

(RAPSI) – The Supreme Court of Russia has upheld a ruling declaring a branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization in Cherkessk extremist and liquidating it, RAPSI learnt in the courtroom on Friday.

The court has dismissed an appeal against the February 10 ruling of the Supreme Court of the Karachay-Cherkessia Republic. In addition to the organization’s declared extremist status and it liquidation, its real estate property was ruled to be transferred to the state. On Friday, this ruling came into force.

On April 20, Russia’s Supreme Court banned the Administrative Centre of Jehovah's Witnesses as extremist organization. According to the ruling, the Centre and its local branches are to be liquidated.

The Justice Ministry said that violations of the law “On Combatting Extremism” had been revealed during inspection conducted in the organization. The Prosecutor General’s Office’s notice concerning inadmissibility of carrying out extremist activities by Jehovah's Witnesses has taken effect, the Ministry said.

Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization has had many legal problems in Russia. Since 2009, 95 materials distributed by the organization in the country have been declared extremist and 8 Jehovah's Witnesses’ branches have been liquidated, according to the Justice Ministry.

Jehovah's Witnesses is an international religious organization based in Brooklyn, New York. Since 2004 several branches and chapters of the organization were banned and shut down in various regions of Russia.

Prison Fellowship Speaks Out After Amanda Knox Claims Brainwashing Cult Tactics Used on Inmates

Amanda Knox, the U.S. student convicted of murdering her British flatmate Meredith Kercher in 2007, arrives in court for her appeal trial session in Perugia, Italy, October 3, 2011.
Amanda Knox
May 25, 2017

America's largest Christian ministry serving those in prison is speaking out after Amanda Knox, a writer who spent four years in an Italian prison before being acquitted of murder, claimed that ministries use "cult tactics" to brainwash inmates.

Knox, who was originally convicted of the 2007 murder of British student Meredith Kercher in Italy before finally being definitively acquitted by the Supreme Court of Cassation in 2015, wrote a lengthy article earlier this week on feminist website
Broadly, claiming that "vulnerable prisoners" are forced into embracing religion.

But James Ackerman, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship, told The Christian Post that participation in programs offered by ministries like Prison Fellowship are voluntary. And those programs help prisoners "achieve holistic life transformation and emerge as productive citizens."

"More than 24,000 prisoners across 293 U.S. prisons voluntarily participate in Prison Fellowship classes each month," he said. "Prison Fellowship also manages entire prison units in three prisons in Texas and Minnesota, which provide around 500 prisoners — who voluntarily chose to serve their time in those units — with a values-based reentry program of work and study within a supportive community."

Ackerman stressed that these are voluntary programs and "can be life-changing."

"Prisoners who participate in educational and/or vocational training while incarcerated have a 43 percent lower recidivism rate and increase their odds of finding employment after their release by 13 percent," he noted.

"We are seeing prisoners use their sentences as a time to grow, change and find a new, positive life path with Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers as their guide."

In her article on Broadly, Knox described some of her own experiences in prison, along with cases in the U.S. where nonreligious inmates have told her that they were afforded no alternatives to Christian-based rehabilitation programs, and were essentially forced to partake in prayer and other religious activities.

When describing 25-year-old Katie McKibben's experience at a county-contracted women's facility in Santa Ana, California, called The Villa, which she was forced to attend after failing to remain sober following her third DUI, Knox wrote that she was "subjected to incessant proselytizing."

McKibben is a secular humanist who was reportedly refused a nonreligious option. The 12-step program she was ordered to attend at The Villa included multiple prayers throughout the day, guest speakers talking about how they got saved and meetings at an evangelical church.

"Atheism, agnosticism, and secular humanism were not accepted as rehabilitative ideologies by the Villa's counselors. McKibben says they considered her refusal to acknowledge a higher power as symptomatic of 'the alcoholic mind.' As a result, McKibben lived in terror of being sent back to jail," Knox wrote.

McKibben said in her own words:

"There was a lot of fear, because if you do one thing wrong, you're back in jail. If you don't like the program they send you to, then the other option is jail."

The Villa in question has also rejected notions that its rehabilitation program is forced.

Addicts "come to the program voluntarily," a spokesperson for the group told Knox.

"Their parents can't make them. Their probation officers can't make them. And all we do is try to give them tools to help guide them toward their recovery. If they don't want it, then they'll probably continue to drink and use. It's that simple."

Knox argued that religious institutions have better access than secular ones to inmates at state and federal prisons in the U.S. and that secular beliefs are discriminated against within the criminal justice system. Even during her time in prison in Capanne, she said the only rehabilitation available was mass, Bible study and social hour with Franciscan nuns and friars.

She concluded that secular prisoners will able to enjoy the "privileges" their religious cellmates get "only when the justice system recognizes that religion doesn't have some special claim to social fitness — and that God isn't the only way to rehabilitation."

Man who almost died after refusing blood transfusion hits out at 'harmful' Jehovah's Witness teachings

Rebecca Lumley
Irish Independent
May 25 2017

A man who almost died after refusing a blood transfusion has hit out at the “harmful” practices in the Jehovah’s Witness religion that prohibited him from doing so.

Phil Dunne was a devoted Jehovah’s Witness five years ago when he was diagnosed with cancer and told he would die if he did not receive a blood transfusion to negate internal bleeding caused by a tumour in his stomach.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are prohibited from receiving blood transfusions “even in matters of life and death” and report a worldwide following of 8.3 million people.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio One’s Liveline, Mr Dunne described how he was willing to die rather than go against his religion’s teachings.

He said: “I had my father in law at the time write out a will for me because I was too weak in bed. I gave him all the instructions on what to do and I pretty much prepared myself to die.”

Mr Dunne, who is originally from Co Wicklow and grew up in the US, was an active member of his religion at the time and had been attending Jehovah’s Witnesses meetings since the age of seven.

He said he spent four days in hospital before doctors could think of an alternate way to treat him that did not involve a transfusion.

He said: “I think they were hoping that I would just break down and take a transfusion eventually.

“They decided to try very intense, targeted radiation to try and shrink the tumour so rapidly that they’d be able to stop the bleeding and then I’d be able to do chemotherapy to actually control the cancer once they’d stabilised me.”

Mr Dunne said doctors regarded this as a “last ditch” solution, but the procedure proved successful and he has been cancer-free since.

The experience led Mr Dunne to re-evaluate his involvement with the religion.

He recounted: “Everyone around me was so proud of me and I became the shining example of faith and that was kind of weird because on the inside I was really feeling conflicted.

“It kind of feels like you stepped out onto the street and somebody pulls you back just before a bus hits you. I’m just sitting there wondering if I had died for no reason back then, would I have really believed in the teaching?”

Mr Dunne gradually became disillusioned in his faith and after two years left the religion completely. This resulted in the breakdown of his marriage and led him to move away from the area in which he had lived.

He said: “It got to a point where I couldn’t live with the hypocrisy, preaching about something I didn’t believe in.

“They make you really terrified of telling anyone you have doubts or anything like that, so I hid it for a long time and because of that I was breaking down, I was acting terribly and I really wasn’t doing well and that was affecting my marriage negatively.”

When someone chooses to leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses they are as good as “excommunicated”, according to Mr Dunne.

“They can officially shun you, they call it dis-fellowshipping. It’s basically the same as excommunication. So no-one is supposed to talk to you.

“You’re not even meant to say hi if you see them on the street. If people find out that you’ve disassociated yourself they assume that you’re what they call an apostate. You’re what they describe as a mentally diseased person.”

Mr Dunne said that while he has “nothing against individual Jehovah’s Witnesses”, he believes their teachings “can be harmful.”

He said: “People need to be aware of the dangers involved in any organisation.”

The Book of Mormon Gets the Literary Treatment

Grant Shreve
May 23, 2017

The Book of Mormon is a wholly American Scripture. It is the sacred text for the 15 million-strong Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s the calling card for thousands of missionaries, and part of the inspiration for a Tony award-winning Broadway musical. But rarely has the book, on its own merits, been considered a genuine work of art. That’s changing, as American literary scholars embrace it as worthy of attention. In 2012, during the waning days of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and the nation’s so-called “Mormon moment,” literature professors were on the cusp of their own “Book of Mormon moment.” For the first time, studies of the Book of Mormon’s literary qualities were appearing in major journals of American literary studies. Literature courses that prominently featured the Book of Mormon started to appear with more frequency in secular university course catalogues. Now the text, first published in 1830 and once derided as “a fiction of hob-goblins and bugbears,” is being parsed by non-Mormon students across the country, with literature scholars breaking more than a century of professional silence on the book.

Seth Perry is an assistant professor of religious studies at Princeton University whose “American Scriptures” course begins with the Book of Mormon and proceeds through scriptural touchstones like Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health and L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. The aim is to ascertain how these works use rhetoric to present themselves as Scripture. For him, the Book of Mormon is the quintessential example of this kind of text, but he is the first to admit that it’s not easy to teach, especially in the early weeks of a semester. The single “biggest barrier” to this, he says, is that the Book of Mormon “has historically been marked as not artistic.” Perry has students read passages from the book aloud in order to experience it as an oral work first and a text second, which enables them to grasp those aspects of book most often sneered at—its repetitious style and use of mnemonics—and arrive at a more sophisticated sense of its style, shape, and origins.

Someone outside the field of literary studies might not be surprised to learn of the Book of Mormon’s historical exclusion from secular literature classrooms. After all, as a sacred text, its proper home would seem to be on the preacher’s pulpit rather than the professor’s lectern. But literary studies is an omnivorous and often indiscriminate discipline. The sacredness or profaneness of any given text has never been an obstacle to literary-critical appropriation.

Take the Bible, for instance. When the renowned literary critic Northrop Frye began teaching “The Bible and English Literature” at the University of Toronto in the 1970s, he, along with luminaries like Robert Alter, helped usher in a curricular revolution that would transform how universities taught the Bible. The Bible-as-literature movement was so successful that by the fall of 1982, when the notoriously shy Frye—bedecked in an ill-fitting powder blue suit that made him look like an unkempt televangelist—stood in front of a gaggle of undergraduates and two video cameras to recount the history of his most famous course for posterity, literature classes on the Bible had become a staple of English departments across North America.

This same period also saw the ramping up of what would come to be called the “canon wars,” as scholars busily recovered authors and texts that had been excluded from the literary pantheons of earlier generations of critics. In this heady period of scriptural appropriation and literary recovery, it would have made sense for the Book of Mormon to find a home in the expanding canon of American literature, given that it has remained one of the most popular, influential, and historically significant texts from the nineteenth century, not to mention one of the only published works of the period that continues to be read and studied outside of lecture halls. That it never did wasn’t because calls for its study as literature weren’t being made, either.

In her groundbreaking biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History, Fawn Brodie—a Mormon apostate—expressed bafflement that “scholars of American literary history have remained persistently uninterested in the Book of Mormon.” Brodie wrote that sentence in 1945, but it could as easily have been written in 2005, when the total number of articles on the Book of Mormon that had ever been published in academic journals specializing in American literature was one.

Throughout most of the discipline’s history, the virtually universal neglect of the Book of Mormon by professional literary critics was never debated and rarely even questioned. As a case in point, one non-Mormon scholar I spoke to recalls having an essay on the Book of Mormon rejected from a prominent journal of American literary studies because the book, her anonymous reviewer wrote, “wasn’t a valid object of literary study.” Although the religious bias lurking behind a remark like this is obvious, it is interesting for how it couches prejudice in the language of aesthetics. This strategy is particular to anti-Mormon discourse going back to the nineteenth century, and one that helps to explain literary studies’ unreasonable distaste for the book, as well as the significance of its recent recovery.

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, English professor Jared Hickman celebrates the “audacity” of the Book of Mormon’s style in his “American Bibles” course. He teaches the Book of Mormon alongside Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred, and Lew Wallace’s epic Ben-Hur. To Hickman’s mind, placing these weighty tomes together makes perfect sense given their stylistic excesses and common obsession with the problem of how to interpret signs, symbols, texts, and the natural world. Given that the Book of Mormon is also a text that purports to be a history of ancient Israelities who crossed the Atlantic to become American Indians, Hickman prods his students towards creative interpretations of the Book of Mormon’s treatment of indigenous peoples, asking them why, during the era of Indian removal, an American Scripture would also be “a history of Indians.” Although he deliberately brackets discussions of how LDS Church members typically read the Book of Mormon, Hickman does invite students to consider the strange power the text has in our culture by asking them to carry the book around conspicuously for several days and observe how people react. Every time, he says, students report numerous sidelong glances at the library and double takes on the quad.

For the Book of Mormon’s earliest critics, deriding its style was as important as dismantling its truth claims, a way of undercutting the possibility that even if the book was not true Scripture, it might still be good fiction. In his lively 1830 pamphlet Delusions (the first polemic directed against the Book of Mormon) the Christian Restorationist Alexander Campbell concluded that, besides being fraudulent, the Book of Mormon also had “not one good sentence in it.” (It has several.) By the time Mark Twain referred to it as “chloroform in print” in 1872, the aesthetic delegitimation of the book was complete. Twain found the book “slow,” and wrote, “If Joseph Smith composed this book, the act was a miracle — keeping awake while he did it was, at any rate.”

Even as eloquent a defender of the book as Terryl Givens—a professor of religion and literature at the University of Richmond who has since the 1990s been an emissary of Mormon culture and theology to non-Mormon intellectuals—felt compelled to admit that “searching for literary wonders in the Book of Mormon is a bit like seeking lyrical inspiration in the books of Chronicles or Judges.” In the absence of full-throated arguments on behalf of its literary merits, an (un)critical consensus about the Book of Mormon congealed within professional literary studies that besides being patently false, it was also tedious, risible, caricaturish, artless, vulgar, and transparently proselytic. Why would anyone read such a book?

In recent years, however, American literary studies has undergone a paradigm shift as it has turned attention to the blindspots and limits embedded in its secular identity. In the midst of this institutional self-examination, and nudged on by the work of Mormon scholars like Grant Hardy who have begun applying narrative theory to it, the Book of Mormon was primed for a reevaluation. These factors, in addition to the wide availability of attractive reader’s editions of the Book of Mormon armed with immaculate scholarly introductions framing it for non-Mormon audiences—notably Hardy’s 2005 University of Illinois Press edition and Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s 2008 Penguin edition—have made the Book of Mormon’s inclusion on American literature syllabi that much easier. Thus, Mormon and non-Mormon students alike are being asked to confront this most strange and difficult American text in a pedagogical setting nineteenth-century Americans (and many contemporary ones) wouldn’t have dreamed of. In these post-secular classrooms, it is not the Book of Mormon’s truthfulness that is being put under the analytic microscope, but its rhetoric, its form, and its historical import.

Perhaps the most conspicuous academic embrace of the Book of Mormon is occurring in—of all places—liberal secular Vermont, where Elizabeth Fenton is currently teaching a graduate seminar at the University of Vermont called “The Book of Mormon and its World,” which all available evidence suggests is the first literature course outside of Utah to focus exclusively on the Book of Mormon. After requiring students to spend three weeks reading the Book of Mormon in its entirety, Fenton is devoting the remainder of her course to a series of “meditations” on potential historical and theological contexts for the book. Because it is a living religious text, Fenton acknowledges that the book must be taught “with a certain generosity,” but she emphasizes that her course is focused exclusively on intellectual questions rather than questions of faith. Given the multitude of preconceptions students have about the book, distinctions like this are paramount. “Truth in advertising is important with the Book of Mormon,” she says.

In the short time she’s been teaching the course, Fenton says that her students have come to appreciate the Book of Mormon as an artistic achievement even as many of them openly balk at its supernatural origin story. One of the fruits of this openness to the book is that certain episodes have organically emerged as focal points of discussion, the most frequent of which is an episode from the second chapter of the book of Mosiah wherein the aging King Benjamin, after a transformative visit from an angel, attempts to deliver a valedictory gospel to his subjects. In the story, the teeming masses gathered outside Benjamin’s palace inspire him to build a tower from which to proclaim his good news so that all might hear him. When some of his listeners are still too far-flung to hear his voice, he instructs his scribes to mass-produce and distribute pamphlets of his speech in order to ensure a universal access to his words. Beginning with a revelation and ending with the production of a text, this borderline comic episode of ancient American media strategy would seem to be the Book of Mormon reflecting on its own emergence as an oral text.

Whereas King Benjamin’s pamphlets incited mass conversions, Joseph Smith’s written words moved more slowly, but did eventually inspire millions of followers. Today Smith’s most important literary production is being received in ever more complex, subtle, and unexpected ways. The LDS Church founder once remarked that his writing suffered from a “lack of fluency according to the literati of the age.” But for the literati of our own age, the Book of Mormon may be finally getting its due.

Grant Shreve has a PhD in American Literature from Johns Hopkins University. He is currently at work on a book about secularity, religious diversity, and the rise of the American novel.

The growing business of religion in India

  • The growing business of religion in India
  • Improvement in tourism infrastructure at religious places can unlock the economic potential of religious tourism

Pranav Gupta Sanjay Kumar
Live Mint
May 20 2017

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Pranab Mukherjee visiting the holy shrines at Kedarnath and Badrinath in Uttarakhand earlier this month, chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat is optimistic about the state’s prospects in the new tourist season. How popular is religious tourism among Indians? Does religion or class affect the probability of people undertaking pilgrimages?

Studies conducted by Lokniti at the Delhi-based Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) help us answer such questions. The studies show that nearly one in two Indians plan to undertake religious tourism in the next two years and a bigger number reported doing so in the past two years.

A study conducted by Lokniti on Religious attitudes, behaviour and practices in 2015 shows that a significant section of the population in all major religious groups in India reported having undertaken religious tourism over the past two years. Religious tourism is defined as going for a pilgrimage and it may or may not involve an overnight stay. There was significant inter-religious variation in prevalence of religious tourism though, with the figure being around three-fourth for Sikhs and one-third for Muslims and Christians.

Click here for enlarge

Does class play a role in people undertaking religious tourism? Among Hindus, class does not seem to have any influence on religious tourism, but among Muslims, lower classes seem to have a slightly higher probability of undertaking pilgrimages. The results are based on Lokniti’s multi-dimensional economic class index which takes into account income, asset ownership, place of residence and occupation.

Click here for enlarge

The popular perception that older people are more likely to go for pilgrimages seems to be slightly misplaced. Among Hindus, we find no age-based pattern as respondents from all age-groups were equally likely to have undertaken a pilgrimage. Among Muslims, those aged 56 years or above were relatively much more likely to have undertaken a pilgrimage. While there is no gender-based difference among Hindu pilgrims, Muslim men are more likely to undertake pilgrimages than women.

Given the rise in religiosity in the country, going for pilgrimages may increase in times to come. The same study also shows that more than 25% Indians reported having become more religious over the past 4-5 years. The trend is valid across religions and in keeping with other attitudinal surveys. Between 2007 and 2015, the share of respondents in India who perceived religion to be very important increased by 11 percentage points to 80%, according to the Pew Global Attitude surveys.

Click here for enlarge

Religious places are ranked high in preferred tourist destinations for Indians, according to the State of Nation Study conducted by Lokniti in 2008, which found that 39% of the respondents reported pilgrimages/holy sites as their most preferred location for a vacation.

These findings, however, are slightly different from a National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) report on domestic tourism for 2008-09. The report found that social purposes accounted for almost three-fourth of all overnight trips, while pilgrimages and religious trips accounted for only around one in 10 such trips in the year preceding the survey. Although the NSSO released a similar report in 2014-15, it can’t be compared with the Lokniti findings as NSSO figures are based on response for the last 30 days, against Lokniti’s period of past two years.

Nonetheless, the NSSO report does show that average expenditure on religious trips has more than doubled during this period, and it is ranked second in terms of average number of persons per household who go on such trips.

Click here for enlarge

The broad trends seem to suggest that religious tourism should be accorded priority in India’s tourism policy.

This story is based on survey data shared exclusively with Mint. Pranav Gupta is a researcher with Lokniti CSDS and Sanjay Kumar is professor and currently director of CSDS