Jul 30, 2017

Brazilians Funneled as 'Slaves' by U.S. Church, Ex-Members Say

Word of Faith Fellowship church in Sao Joaquim de Bicas, Brazil.
Sao Joaquim de Bicas, Brazil
July 24, 2017

Spindale, N.C. (AP) -- When Andre Oliveira answered the call to leave his Word of Faith Fellowship congregation in Brazil to move to the mother church in North Carolina at the age of 18, his passport and money were confiscated by church leaders — for safekeeping, he said he was told.

Trapped in a foreign land, he said he was forced to work 15 hours a day, usually for no pay, first cleaning warehouses for the secretive evangelical church and later toiling at businesses owned by senior ministers. Any deviation from the rules risked the wrath of church leaders, he said, ranging from beatings to shaming from the pulpit.

"They trafficked us up here. They knew what they were doing. They needed labor and we were cheap labor — hell, free labor," Oliveira said.

An Associated Press investigation has found that Word of Faith Fellowship used its two church branches in Latin America's largest nation to siphon a steady flow of young laborers who came on tourist and student visas to its 35-acre compound in rural Spindale.

Under U.S. law, visitors on tourist visas are prohibited from performing work for which people normally would be compensated. Those on student visas are allowed some work, under circumstances that were not met at Word of Faith Fellowship, the AP found.

On at least one occasion, former members alerted authorities. In 2014, three ex-congregants told an assistant U.S. attorney that the Brazilians were being forced to work for no pay, according to a recording obtained by the AP.

"And do they beat up the Brazilians?" Jill Rose, now the U.S. attorney in Charlotte, asked.

"Most definitely," one of the former congregants responded. Ministers "mostly bring them up here for free work," another said.

Though Rose could be heard promising to look into it, the former members said she never responded when they repeatedly tried to contact her in the months after the meeting.

Rose declined to comment to the AP, citing an ongoing investigation.

Oliveira, who fled the church last year, is one of 16 Brazilian former members who told the AP they were forced to work, often for no pay, and physically or verbally assaulted. The AP also reviewed scores of police reports and formal complaints lodged in Brazil about the church's harsh conditions.

"They kept us as slaves," Oliveira said, pausing at times to wipe away tears. "We were expendable. We meant nothing to them. Nothing. How can you do that to people — claim you love them and then beat them in the name of God?"

The Brazilians often spoke little English when they arrived, and many had their passports seized.

Many males worked in construction; many females worked as babysitters and in the church's K-12 school, the former members said. One ex-congregant from Brazil told AP she was only 12 the first time she was put to work.

Although immigration officials in both countries said it was impossible to calculate the volume of the human pipeline, at least several hundred young Brazilians have migrated to North Carolina over the past two decades, based on interviews with former members.

The revelations of forced labor are the latest in an ongoing AP investigation exposing years of abuse at Word of Faith Fellowship. Based on exclusive interviews with 43 former members, documents and secretly made recordings, the AP reported in February that congregants were regularly punched, smacked and choked in an effort to "purify" sinners by beating out devils.

The church has rarely been sanctioned since it was founded in 1979 by sect leader Jane Whaley, a former math teacher, and her husband, Sam. Another previous AP report outlined how congregants were ordered by church leaders to lie to authorities investigating reports of abuse.

The AP made repeated attempts to obtain comments for this story from church leaders in both countries, but they did not respond.

Under Jane Whaley's leadership, Word of Faith Fellowship grew from a handful of followers to about 750 congregants in North Carolina and a total of nearly 2,000 members in its churches in Brazil and Ghana and its affiliations in Sweden, Scotland and other countries.

Members visit the Spindale compound from around the world, but Brazil is the biggest source of foreign labor and Whaley and her top lieutenants visit the Brazilian outposts several times a year, the AP found.

Former member Thiago Silva said he was excited when he boarded a plane in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte to fly to a Word of Faith youth seminar in North Carolina in 2001. He was 18 and expecting to use his tourist visa to meet new people and visit the U.S.

He soon learned, he said, that there would be "no happiness."

"Brazilians came here for labor. I'm telling you, that's it," Silva said. He called the treatment "a violation of human rights."

Silva, now 34, recounted being among a group of Brazilians working alongside Americans — the locals were paid, the Brazilians were not, he said.

Silva and others also said Whaley took complete control of congregants' lives on both continents, mandating such daily staples of life as where they lived and when they could eat — and even forcing some into arranged marriages to Americans so they could stay in the country.

The lack of freedom was pervasive, they said: Silva, for example, said he could phone his parents from the U.S only if someone who spoke Portuguese monitored the call.

"There's no free will," he said. "There's Jane's will."



Over the course of two decades, Word of Faith Fellowship absorbed two churches in Brazil, in the southeastern cities of Sao Joaquim de Bicas and Franco da Rocha.

During her frequent visits, Whaley would tell the Brazilian members of her flock that they could improve both their lives and their relationships with God with a pilgrimage to the mother church, according to several of those interviewed. The Brazilians' brand of worship was inferior, she often would say.

In addition to being promised a higher standing in the church, some said they also were enticed with the chance to attend college, to learn English, to see a bit of the U.S.

Others said they felt they simply had no choice.

All the while, the strict rules in place in Spindale were being imposed in Brazil, leading to complaints to police reviewed by the AP and a legislative hearing in 2009. But Word of Faith never faced any official censure — many of the allegations came down to the word of ex-members against the church — and the human pipeline continued to flow, even as Brazilian parents said they were being completely cut off from their children in North Carolina.

Labeled a "rebel" because she talked back to pastors as a child, Elizabeth Oliveira, who is no relation to Andre, told the AP that she was frequently kept in isolation for days at a time in various ministers' homes in Sao Joaquim de Bicas.

Being sent to the U.S. was a way to "correct" her bad behavior. She said she was 12 when she made her first extended trip to Spindale and was immediately put to work. She helped out in the school during the day, then sewed clothes and babysat in the evenings, sometimes well past midnight, Oliveira said. She was never paid, she said.

Now 21 and studying medicine in Belo Horizonte, Oliveira said she broke with the church after her eighth trip to Spindale.

"I suffered so much there," she said. "When I turned 18, I left and was told, once again, that I would die on my own in the world and go to hell."

Ana Albuquerque traveled to Spindale from Brazil 11 times over the course of more than a decade, starting at age 5 with her parents. Over time, she said she witnessed so much screaming and shoving to "expunge devils" that she began to see the behavior as normal.

In her final three trips, she joined a group of two dozen other Brazilian teens staying up to six months under tourist visas.

"They come to you and say, 'You will get to know the United States of America. You will get to go to the malls,'" she said. "But when you get there, everything is controlled."

Albuquerque, now 25, said she worked full time without pay — as a teacher's aide at the school during the day and then babysitting congregants' children at night.

Her reckoning came during her final trip, when she was 16. Albuquerque said Whaley and another minister repeatedly spanked her with a flat piece of wood while screaming that she was "unclean" and possessed by the devil.

"Pray for it to come out of you!" Albuquerque recalled being exhorted during a session lasting 40 minutes.

During her final two weeks in Spindale, Albuquerque said she endured days of forced isolation, Bible reading, threats of being placed in a psychiatric ward and refusals by Whaley to let her call her parents. She finally was allowed to return to Brazil, where she left the church.

Luiz Pires said he was 18 in 2006 when he was encouraged by ministers in the Sao Joaquim de Bicas church to travel to North Carolina for his spiritual betterment.

Upon arrival, he said he found "horrific" living conditions, with eight people crammed in the basement of a church leader's house, forced to work long hours at church-related businesses. Any payment went to living expenses, Pires said, despite the fact that he and others cleaned and did yard work at the member's house where they lived.

"There was never time to sit down. We were worked like slaves," he said.

Former congregant Jay Plummer supervised remodeling projects for a church leader's business and confirmed that his fellow American workers were paid while the Brazilians who labored alongside them were not.

"Room and board is what they worked for, and they did not have a choice," Plummer told the AP. "And when they would not want to work and vocalize that, they would just get in trouble."

Paulo Henrique Barbosa had heard the horror stories about life in Spindale. But the sect's influence was so great that he said he felt he must comply when church leaders in Franco da Rocha — supported by his parents — told him to travel to Spindale in 2011, when he was 17.

Pastors told him he would violate God's will if he refused.

"Everybody knew these trips were not about tourism," said Barbosa, now 23 and working in information technology in Sao Paolo. "I didn't want to go, but I had no choice."

Once in Spindale, conditions were worse than he feared, he said: For six months, he helped in the school in the mornings and worked in construction in the afternoons and evenings, sometimes until 1 a.m. He was never paid, he said.

The church controlled everything he did, Barbosa said, even prohibiting snacks between meals. Television, music and certain brand-name products all were off-limits.

Barbosa said he also slept in a church member's basement, with about 15 other young males. Speaking Portuguese was forbidden.

Anyone in the bathroom for more than the mandated five minutes was suspected of committing the "sin" of masturbation, and Whaley would be called to the house to decree the punishment.

If any of the males appeared to be having an "impure dream," Barbosa said, everybody would be awakened, ordered to surround him and repeatedly shake him and shriek into his ears to "expulse the devils," a Word of Faith practice called "blasting."

Barbosa said he asked to return to Brazil many times "but they always told me no, that it was God's will for me to stay."

Leaving on his own seemed insurmountable, Barbosa said. He had flown into Charlotte, more than an hour from Spindale, and had no car and little money. He knew no one outside the church and did not speak English. He was allowed to return to Brazil only when his six-month tourist visa was set to expire.

"From the time you are a kid, you are trained to believe that leaving the church will mean you go to hell, get cancer or get AIDS," he said.



The AP investigation documented repeated abuses of the tourist and student visas obtained for Brazilian church members.

Brazilians most often first arrived in North Carolina on six-month tourist visas for church functions, sometimes 20 or 30 at a time. Some Brazilians would leave after a few weeks; others would stay the duration.

Perhaps to circumvent the rules against employment, church leaders sometimes referred to the forced labor projects as "volunteer work," according to Brazilians interviewed in both countries.

Such work included ripping out walls and installing drywall in apartments owned and rented out by a senior church minister and family members, they said.

Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank focusing on labor issues, said rental properties are "for-profit businesses for which the immigrants cannot volunteer" under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Some of those interviewed said they'd been lured to the U.S. in part by promises of obtaining a college education but were unable to study or attend classes because of their punishing work schedules.

"There were times I would get done at 4 in the morning and I knew I had to get up by 8 to go to work. I would sit there, staring at my books. But how can you concentrate? You're just too tired," Andre Oliveira said.

Former congregants said far more Brazilians came on tourist visas, with several hundred teenagers staying for extended periods.

The experience of Andre Oliveira, now 24, is illustrative.

After first traveling to Spindale in 2009, he said it took him months to obtain permission to return to Brazil. Back home, he said he and others were forced to move into a minister's house, where he worked as a cleaner for months until he was told "it was the will of God to visit Spindale — this time, on a student visa."

When he arrived back in North Carolina, ministers again took his passport and put him to work in companies owned by church ministers, he said. He took a few college classes, but didn't have time to study.

"A typical day would start like this: I'd start work at 9 in the morning and it would end 15 or 16 hours later — sometimes longer," he said. "We didn't stop." 'Oliveira and others said they had little choice but to follow orders.

"We knew what would happen: We would be screamed at, blasted, hit. And what are you going to do? You have nowhere to go. You don't know the language. You have no documentation. So you work," Oliveira said.

"It was slave labor," added Rebeca Melo, 29, who grew up in the church in Brazil and visited the U.S. about 10 times for religious functions and trips with her family.

Those visits included shopping excursions, but she said things were far different when she moved to Spindale on a student visa in 2009.

"I did not want to move here. Jane said it was the will of God," she told the AP.

Melo said her passport was taken and she was quickly put to work. Despite her student visa, church officials were clear that school was not to be her focus, she said.

Student visas were just a "means for us to be here legally," she said.



Whaley's brand of "love" also played a key role in enticing Brazilian males to Spindale — and keeping them there once their visas expired, according to 10 former members of the church.

Some of those interviewed spoke of male Brazilians — as well as church members from various other countries — obtaining green cards for permanent residency and being able to legally work by being "married off" to female American congregants.

It is illegal to enter a sham marriage for the purpose of avoiding U.S. immigration laws.

The arranged marriages also addressed the fact that the Spindale congregation has more unmarried females than males, the ex-members said. Under Whaley's rules, congregants aren't allowed to date outside the church, much less marry.

"I can count at least five or six Brazilian guys that moved here to marry an American girl," Melo said. "They would never, ever, ever consider letting you date somebody outside of the church."

Silva said that Whaley often told people that she heard from God who they should marry or used her iron grip over members' lives to arrange relationships.

Silva recalled a young Brazilian couple in love who would be unable to stay in the U.S. past their visas if they married. Whaley wanted to keep the man in Spindale so she told him it was the "will of God" for him to marry an American, Silva said.

With his visa time running down, Andre Oliveira said church leaders found him a bride.

It wasn't long after former member Kim Rooper joined the Spindale church that she said she was asked to marry a man from Ecuador whose visa was expiring.

Rooper, an American who now lives in Tampa, Florida, said she was coached on how to make the marriage look legitimate to immigration authorities, like keeping a photo album of the couple.

"Long story short, it came time to consummate the marriage and I struggled with that," she said. "I had a hard time because I didn't love him, and nor did I have an attraction to him."

Church leaders told her it was the "will of God" to submit to her husband, Rooper said.

"And that's when I knew I had to escape," she said.


Weiss reported from Spindale and Charlotte, North Carolina; Mohr from Marlborough, Massachusetts, and Jackson, Mississippi; Prengaman from Sao Joaquim de Bicas and Franco da Rocha, Brazil. AP writer Tamara Lush contributed from Tampa, Florida.


The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate@ap.org


'Tragedy follows him everywhere:' What I discovered while writing my book about Ramdev

Priyanka Pathak-Narain
July 30, 2017

I first saw Baba Ramdev and noticed his flair for drama on a blistering September evening in 2008. Surrounded by fawning, adoring fans, he was standing tall, rock-star like, on a floodlit boat on the Ganga in Kanpur. Ramdev – who incidentally also had deep links with the Congress – was kicking off the VHP’s Ganga Raksha Andolan with a fiery speech.

I trailed Ramdev when he retired that evening to a government guesthouse in the city. A masterful strategist and public speaker, Ramdev, guarded by private security supplied by businessman Subrata Sahara, now in the dock for a Rs 17,000 crore Ponzi scheme, was taking questions from journalists. He laughed and chortled, at himself and at us reporters. I found it impossible to keep journalistic distance from this yoga guru turned swadeshi business tycoon turned politician. I found myself fascinated, enraptured. Ramdev wanted you to like him. And you did.

Every time I met Ramdev thereafter, he was charming, earthy and self-deprecating. A gifted storyteller, Ramdev, like many good politicians, has a remarkable ability to project proximity and familiarity while remaining closely guarded and calculating. No matter how much time I spent with him, I never felt like I was able to scratch beyond the surface. So, many years later when I decided to write a book on Ramdev I knew that in order to tell his complete story, warts and all, I’d have to tell it not in his words but in the words of the people who witnessed and were part of his spectacular rise.

I began at the beginning. I spoke to members of Ramdev’s family: his mother Gulabo Devi, brother Devdutt Yadav and uncle Jagdeesh Yadav. I spoke to his friends: from his junior at the gurukul he attended in his early twenties, Acharya Abhaydev, to his lifelong deputy, Acharya Balkrishna. I interviewed long-time Haridwar residents who have known Ramdev since his early days conducting yoga camps for a few dozen people there. I met people who had worked for Ramdev at different points of time – from Vipin Pradhan, an aide of Ramdev’s between 2002 and 2005, before Patanjali Ayurveda Ltd was even established, to SK Patra, the CEO who helped lay the foundations for Patanjali’s phenomenal growth. All in all, I spoke to fifty-two people to unravel Ramdev’s story.

I fully expected to find disgruntlement and a fair share of unhappy acquaintances – after all, fame always comes with backbiters and naysayers. But when I stepped back to admire the arc of Ramdev’s life, a troubling pattern emerged: the likeable and warm Ramdev has in his wake a trail of dramatic falling-outs and tragedies.

In their early days they would travel across the country together holding yoga camps, and making chawanprash in rented utensils and selling it on bicycles in Haridwar. Eventually they set up the Divya Yog Mandir Trust, of which Karamveer was founding vice-president, and under whose aegis they conducted yoga camps and established an Ayurvedic pharmacy. Karamveer had a bitter parting with Ramdev. One day in March 2005, he just left without telling anyone, never to return.

The idealistic Karamveer couldn’t brook, he says, the gradual commercialisation of a trust established for charitable purposes or the inroads that he felt Ramdev’s family were making in their establishment. He says, “Idealism is easy when you have nothing. It’s what you do when you have fame, money or power that matters. Unfortunately, I saw it changing them [Ramdev and Bakrishna].”

The spat with Karamveer seemed to be the beginning of a trend. In 2009 Ramdev fell out with Kirit Mehta, one of the founders of Aastha TV, the channel that propelled Ramdev into a league of unimaginable celebrity, after he took over the channel. And then again, in 2013, Ramdev had a sour altercation with his most pivotal CEO, SK Patra. They had differences over how the company was run – Ramdev sees working for Patanjali, Patra claims, as service, to the nation and for swadeshi. Patra, on the other hand, has a more orthodox view: he worked for compensation and recoiled against the culture of enforced reverence in the company.

Each one of these instances is on the public record. First is the murder of Swami Yogananda, an Ayurveda doctor and friend who allowed Ramdev’s Divya Yog Mandir Trust to use his licence for their Ayurvedic medicine manufacturing unit when they set it up in 1995. After eight years of operating under Yogananda’s licence, the alliance was dropped in 2003. Over a year after the Divya Pharmacy stopped using Yogananda’s licence, in December 2004, he was found dead in a pool of his own blood in his home in Haridwar. The case was closed unsolved in October 2005.

Then in July 2007 Ramdev’s 77-year old guru, Shankar Dev, who gifted Ramdev his ashram and its lands, enabling him to establish the Divya Yog Mandir Trust, disappeared. Shankar Dev, who lived austerely to the end, even after the success of his disciple’s venture, went for a morning walk and never returned. He left a cryptic, garbled note about a loan he had taken and was unable to repay. At the time of the disappearance, Ramdev was on a yoga tour in the US and UK and did not return home till the following month. When asked at a press conference why he did not cut short his trip, Ramdev said, “If I knew he was alive, I would have.”

The CBI opened an investigation into Shankar Dev’s disappearance in 2012. From the agency’s reply to an RTI filed by me, it is clear that the case is still open.

Then in 2010, Rajeev Dixit, Ramdev’s second mentor, and from whom Ramdev learnt his swadeshi messaging, died suddenly. After making a speech in Bemetara canvassing for the political party that they had founded together, Dixit collapsed in the bathroom, evidently due to a cardiac arrest. He died that night aged 43. The following day, Dixit’s colleagues noticed his face “was unrecognisable...a strange purple and blue. His skin was peeling strangely”. They demanded a post-mortem but Ramdev, eyewitnesses claim, refused to allow it citing scriptural prohibition and had Dixit’s body cremated instead.

When I started researching Ramdev’s life, I anticipated a spectacular rags-to-riches tale. Ramdev was born to a poor farmer and is now at the helm of an empire with over $3.6 billion! And, of course, I did find that story. But I found so much more. There is no evidence linking Ramdev to these deaths, and he has consistently denied any involvement in the cases. Yet tragedy just seems to follow Ramdev everywhere he goes.

Priyanka Pathak-Narain is the author of the forthcoming From Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev, Juggernaut.


Jul 28, 2017

The Meditation Cure

A basic practice of Buddhism turns out to be one of the best ways to deal with the anxieties and appetites bequeathed to us by our evolutionary history

Robert Wright
Wall Street Journal
July 28, 2017

Much of Buddhism can be boiled down to a bad-news/good-news story. The bad news is that life is full of suffering and we humans are full of illusions. The good news is that these two problems are actually one problem: If we could get rid of our illusions—if we could see the world clearly—our suffering would end.

And there's more good news: Buddhism offers tools for doing that job. A good example is the type of meditation known as mindfulness meditation, now practiced by millions of people in the U.S. and other places far from Buddhism's Asian homeland. Mindfulness meditation, Buddhists say, can change our perspective on feelings such as anxiety and rage and thereby sap their power to warp our vision and make us suffer.

These claims—the bad news and the good—are more than two millennia old, but they're now getting important support from evolutionary psychology, the modern study of how natural selection engineered the human mind. Evolutionary psychology gives Buddhism's diagnosis of the human predicament a back story. It explains why humans are prone to illusions and to suffering and why the two problems are related. And this explanation can strengthen the Buddhist prescription, adding to the power of mindfulness meditation in particular.

Mindfulness meditation is an exercise in attention. It involves calming the mind—typically by focusing on the breath—and then using the resulting equanimity to observe things with unusual care and clarity. The things observed can include sounds, physical sensations or anything else in the field of awareness. But perhaps most important is the careful observation of feelings, because feelings play such a powerful role in guiding our perceptions, thoughts and behavior.

And here is where an evolutionary perspective can be helpful. Mindfulness calls for a kind of skepticism toward feelings. Rather than automatically following their guidance, you critically inspect them and decide which ones to trust. Evolutionary psychology helps to explain why this skepticism is warranted—why so many human feelings are unreliable guides. We don't generally think of Darwin and the Buddha as being on the same wavelength, but in this and other ways their worldviews turn out to harmonize nicely.

The Darwinian account of the human situation, like the Buddhist account, begins with bad news. The process that created us, natural selection, is indifferent to whether we are happy or sad, enlightened or deluded. Ultimately, natural selection only cares about one thing (or, I should say, "cares"—in quotes—since natural selection is just a blind process, not a conscious designer). And that one thing is getting genes into the next generation. Genetically based mental traits—including particular feelings—that in the past contributed to genetic proliferation have flourished, while traits that didn't have fallen by the wayside. Whether those feelings—and the thoughts and perceptions those feelings shape—give us a true view of reality is, strictly speaking, beside the point. So is whether they make us happy or miserable.

Take anxiety, for example. Evolutionary psychologists consider anxiety to be natural, grounded in our genes. After all, worrying about things can lead you to do something about those things. If you worry that your toddler, who seems to have wandered off somewhere, may get devoured by a beast, you'll go make sure your toddler is safe—which, not incidentally, means making sure that copies of your genes are safe.

'Anxiety is unpleasant. But natural selection doesn't care about that.'

Of course, anxiety is unpleasant. But natural selection doesn't care about that. It doesn't even care that some of this unpleasantness will be for naught—that your toddler turned out to be in the hut next door, and the nightmare scenario that for a moment seemed so real was all in your head. Better safe than sorry, from natural selection's point of view. "False positives" are a feature, not a bug, even though they make you suffer by fostering an illusion.

According to evolutionary psychology, our natural anxieties include social anxieties. The ancestral environment—the hunter-gatherer milieu in which humans evolved—featured lots of social interaction, and this interaction had consequence for a person's genes. If you had low status in the group and few friends, that cut your chances of spreading your genes, so impressing people mattered.

Similarly, if your offspring didn't thrive socially, that boded ill for their reproductive prospects, and hence for your genes. So it made sense, in Darwinian terms, for our ancestors to worry about what people thought of them and their offspring.

Here, too, false positives could arise. Our ancestors presumably worried about some things in their social environment that turned out not to be worth worrying about. But we moderns have things even worse. The false-positive problem can be compounded by the fact that anxiety no longer operates in the environment for which natural selection designed it.

Consider an artifact that has never been found by archaeologists unearthing the remnants of a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer village: PowerPoint. One thing our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn't do was give presentations to an audience consisting largely of people they didn't know. Maybe that's why the prospect of doing this fills some people with overwhelming anxiety: Anxieties designed for a small and fairly intimate social environment get amplified by an environment that is neither.

This doesn't mean that anxiety about public speaking is worthless. Worrying about your PowerPoint presentation can lead to a better presentation.

But let's face it: Though this anxiety is sometimes productive, it often isn't. There are people who, before a presentation, are beset by images of themselves spontaneously vomiting while talking to a crowd—even though, come to think of it, they've never spontaneously vomited while talking to a crowd. In a particularly perverse twist on PowerPoint anxiety, I've been known to lie awake the night before a big presentation worrying that if I don't get to sleep I'll do a bad job the next day.

I defy anyone to argue that this is natural selection's way of increasing my chances of surviving and reproducing. So too with other modern social anxieties: a sense of dread before going to a cocktail party that, in fact, is unlikely to lead to anything worth dreading; or worrying about how your child is doing at her first slumber party, something you're powerless to influence. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn't have to navigate roomfuls of people they had never met, or send their children off to sleep in homes they had never seen—and that, presumably, is why these occasions can bring powerful yet typically unproductive anxiety.

'Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn't have to navigate roomfuls of people they had never met.'

This mismatch between our evolved nature and the environment in which we find ourselves isn't just a modern phenomenon. For thousands of years, there have been social environments that weren't the ones people were designed for. The Buddha was born to a royal family, which means that he lived in a society with clusters of population much bigger than a hunter-gatherer village. And there is evidence that people were being called on to speak before large audiences and that something like PowerPoint anxiety had taken shape. In one discourse, the Buddha's list of common fears included the "fear of embarrassment in assemblies."

That people were, even in the Buddha's day, experiencing an uncomfortable mismatch between the environment their feelings were engineered for and the environment in which they found themselves may help to explain Buddhism's early emphasis on meditative practice. The meditation that is described in ancient texts would have made people more aware of their feelings—in a sense more objectively aware of them—and so less reflexively governed by them. This remains a central goal of mindfulness meditation today.

And it can work. I have a daily meditation practice—periodically recharged by silent meditation retreats of a week or more—and I have more than once used meditation to deal with intense anxiety. In the middle of the night before a big talk, I have even sat up in bed, meditated, and gotten to a point where I viewed a knot of anxiety with such calm objectivity that it might as well have been a piece of abstract art I was contemplating in a museum. It entirely lost its grip on me, after which it disappeared. Perhaps Buddhists more than two millennia ago had much the same experience when meditating on "fear of speaking in assemblies."

There is no doubt, however, that the modern environment surpasses the Buddha's environment in its power to warp our feelings about, hence our perception of, the world. Consider powdered sugar doughnuts.

I have warm feelings toward them—so warm that, if I were guided only by my feelings, I would eat them for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and between-meal snacks. Yet I'm told that eating that many doughnuts would be bad for me—that my feeling of attraction to powdered-sugar doughnuts is not to be trusted. This is hard news to take.

How could natural selection let something like this happen—give me feelings that don't even do a good job of taking care of the body containing my genes? Well, natural selection designed our feelings for an environment with no junk food, an environment in which the sweetest thing available was fruit. So a sweet tooth, and the feelings it inspires, served us well. But in the modern world, which features the achievement of culinary science known as "empty calories," these feelings become misleading.

Or, I should say, more misleading. Fundamental to Buddhism is the idea that craving in general—tanha, as it's called in ancient texts—is inherently misleading. Regardless of what we thirst after—junk food, healthful food, sex—the thirst, the tanha, fosters an illusion of enduring gratification. When I see anything tasty, I imagine how good it will taste, not how that satisfaction will inevitably fade, leading to the desire for more.

'The pleasures we seek evaporate quickly and leave us thirsting for more.'

This was one of the Buddha's main messages: that the pleasures we seek evaporate quickly and leave us thirsting for more. We spend our time looking for the next gratifying thing—the next doughnut, the next sexual encounter, the next status-enhancing promotion, the next online purchase. But the thrill always fades, and it always leaves us wanting more. The old Rolling Stones lyric "I can't get no satisfaction" is, according to Buddhism, the human condition. Though the Buddha is famous for asserting that life is full of suffering, some scholars say that's an incomplete rendering of his message and that the word translated as "suffering," dukkha, could be translated as "unsatisfactoriness."

From natural selection's point of view, dooming an animal to relentlessly recurring unsatisfactoriness is a wonderful idea. After all, if pleasure didn't subside, we'd never seek it again. Our first meal would be our last, because hunger would never return. So too with sex: a single act of intercourse, and then a lifetime of lying there basking in the afterglow. That's no way to get lots of genes into the next generation! Contentment is nice while it lasts, but it evaporates by design.

Much in the modern world—from junk food to pornography to nicotine to the Facebook algorithm that governs your news feed—has been engineered to intensify tanha, our unquenchable desire for more.

What to do? One approach is to meditate: Observe particular cravings mindfully, thus weakening them. This is challenging—more challenging than meditating on anxiety, I'd say—but there's evidence that it can work. A study involving 88 smokers, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence in 2011, found that this kind of mindfulness training more effectively treated nicotine addiction than the American Lung Association's Freedom From Smoking program, which offers group counseling and a menu of therapies such as nicotine patches.

'Regular mindfulness meditation can also undermine craving in a more general way.'

Regular mindfulness meditation can also undermine craving in a more general way. It can lessen the urgency of finding the next big thing by deepening your appreciation of things that you already have.

Buddhism's list of unfortunate human illusions is long. It includes misconceptions about the "self" that we think of as being at our core and misconceptions about the nature of the things that we see in the world, including other humans. And many of these illusions can plausibly be explained as having been implanted in us by natural selection to serve its agenda—an agenda that doesn't put a priority on seeing the world as it actually is or on finding lasting happiness in the world that we do see.

It is a tribute to Buddhism that it sized up the human predicament more than two millennia before science got around to discovering the origins of that predicament. But it would be unlike the Buddha to boast about this. If he were around today, he might instead thank Darwin for the corroboration, for explaining how humans wound up being prone to illusion and to attendant suffering. And if Darwin were around today, and joined the mindfulness meditation movement, he might thank the Buddha for coming up with a way to address the problem.

This essay is adapted from Mr. Wright's new book, "Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment," which will be published by Simon & Schuster on Aug. 8. His previous books include "The Evolution of God," "Nonzero" and "The Moral Animal."


Jul 27, 2017

Why religious people 'cling' to beliefs even when contradicted by evidence

Staunchly religious people's minds are dominated by emotion over analytic thinking, a study has suggested

Chris Baynes
The Independent Online

July 27, 2017

Religious people "cling" to certain beliefs in the face of evidence because those views are closely tied to their moral compasses, new studies have suggested.

Dogmatic individuals hold confidently to their faith even when contradicted by experts because those beliefs have "emotional resonance," researchers said.

In contrast, militant atheists struggle to see anything positive about religion because their brains are dominated by analytical thinking, scientists found.

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio interviewed 900 religious and non-religious people in two studies examining personality characteristics that drive dogmatism.

In both groups, they found people with higher critical reasoning skills were less staunch in their beliefs. But they differed in how moral concerns influence their thinking.

"Emotional resonance helps religious people to feel more certain - the more moral correctness they see in something, the more it affirms their thinking," said Anthony Jack, associate professor of philosophy and co-author of the research. "In contrast, moral concerns make non-religious people feel less certain."

Jared Friedman, a PhD student who co-authored the research, added: "It suggests that religious individuals may cling to certain beliefs, especially those which seem at odds with analytic reasoning, because those beliefs resonate with their moral sentiments."

While empathy is usually seen as a good thing, a burning sense of morality can be dangerous at its most extreme, researchers said.

"Terrorists, within their bubble, believe it's a highly moral thing they're doing. They believe they are righting wrongs and protecting something sacred," said Mr Jack.

He added Donald Trump's election campaign had been been able to "appeal to members of its base while ignoring facts" by emotionally resonating with people.

At the other extreme, despite espousing critical thinking, dogmatic atheists "may lack the insight to see anything positive about religion," said Mr Jack. "They can only see that it contradicts their scientific, analytical thinking."

The researchers said their findings, published in the Journal of Religion and Health, lend further support to their earlier work that shows people have two brain networks for empathy and analytic thinking.

They said the religious dogmatist's mind appears to be dominated by empathy, while the atheist's is ruled by the analytic network.

The studies surveyed people who identified as atheist, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, and of 19 other religions.

Researchers suggested their findings were also broadly applicable to other areas of strongly opinionated debate, such as politics, vegetarianism and climate change.


Jul 26, 2017

The polygamous town facing genetic disaster

Brigham Young founded Salt Lake City in Utah
Brigham Young founded Salt Lake City in Utah
In a remote region of the US, a town is struggling with a chilling health crisis caused by a recessive gene. The reason? Here, polygamy is still practiced.
Zaria Gorvett
BBC News
July 26, 2017

“We are to gird up our loins and fulfill this, just as we would any other duty…” said Brigham Young, who led the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), or Mormons, back in the mid-19th Century. It was a sweltering summer’s day in Provo City, Utah and as he spoke, high winds swirled dust around him.

The holy task Young was speaking of was, of course, polygamy, where one man takes many wives. He was a passionate believer in the practice, which he announced as the official line of the church a few years earlier. Now he was set to work reassuring his flock that marrying multiple women was the right thing to do.

He liked to lead by example. Though Young began his adult life as a devoted spouse to a single wife, by the time he died his family had swelled to 55 wives and 59 children.

Fast-forward to 1990, a century after 
polygamy was abandoned, and the upshot was only just beginning to emerge. In an office several hundred miles from where Young gave his speech, a 10-year-old boy was presented to Theodore Tarby, a doctor specializing in rare childhood diseases.

The boy had unusual facial features, including a prominent forehead, low-set ears, widely spaced eyes and a small jaw. He was also severely physically and mentally disabled.

After performing all the usual tests, Tarby was stumped. He had never seen a case like it. Eventually he sent a urine sample to a lab that specializes in detecting rare diseases. They diagnosed “fumarase deficiency”, an inherited disorder of the metabolism. With just 13 cases known to medical science (translating into odds of one in 400 million), it was rare indeed. It looked like a case of plain bad luck.

But there was a twist. It turned out his sister, whom the couple believed was suffering from cerebral palsy, had it too. In fact, together with colleagues from the Barrow Neurological Institute, soon Tarby had diagnosed a total of eight new cases, in children ranging from 20 months to 12 years old.

In every case, the child had the same distinctive facial features, the same delayed development – most couldn’t sit up, let alone walk – and, crucially, they were from the same region on the Arizona-Utah border, known as Short Creek.

Even more intriguingly, this region is polygynous. In this small, isolated community of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), the likelihood of being born with fumarase deficiency is over a million times above the global average.

“When I moved to Arizona that’s when I realized that my colleagues here were probably the most familiar I’d ever met with this disease,” says Vinodh Narayanan, a neurologist at the Translational Genomics Research Institute, Arizona, who has treated several patients with fumarase deficiency.

What’s going on?

The disease is caused by a hiccup in the process that provides energy to our cells. In particular, it’s caused by low levels of an enzyme – fumarase – that helps to drive it. Since it was perfected billions of years ago, the enzyme has become a staple of every living thing on the planet. It’s so important, today the instructions for making it are remarkably similar across all species, from owls to orchids.

For those who inherit a faulty version, the consequences are tragic. Though our brains account for just 2% of the body’s total weight, they are ravenously hungry – using up around 20% of its energy supply. Consequently, metabolic disorders such a fumarase deficiency are particularly devastating to the organ. “It results in structural abnormalities and a syndrome including seizures and delayed development,” says Narayanan.

Faith Bistline has five cousins with the disease, who she used to look after until she left the FLDS in 2011. “They are completely physically and mentally disabled,” she says. The oldest started learning to walk when he was two years old, but stopped after a long bout of seizures. Now that cousin is in his 30s and not even able to crawl.

In fact, only one of her cousins can walk. “She can also make some vocalisations and sometimes you can understand a little bit of what she’s saying, but I wouldn’t call it speaking,” she says. They all have feeding tubes and need care 24 hours a day.

Fumarase deficiency is rare because it’s recessive – it only develops if a person inherits two faulty copies of the gene, one from each parent. To get to grips with why it’s plaguing Short Creek, first we need to back to the mid-19th Century.

Brigham Young was a busy man. In addition to leading the Mormon church, he also founded a city – Salt Lake City, Utah – which flourished from a sparsely populated desert valley into a full-blown polygynous utopia in the space of a few short decades.

Alas, it didn’t last. By the 1930s, the practice had been abandoned by the church and banned by the state of Utah, making it punishable by imprisonment and a hefty fine (equivalent to around $10,000 (£7,675) in today’s money). Followers needed somewhere to go.

They settled on the remote ranching town of Short Creek, which formed part of the Arizona Strip. This was an area larger than Belgium (14,000 sq miles, or 36,000 sq km) with only a handful of inhabitants – the perfect place to hide from the prying eyes of federal marshals.

Today it’s home to the twin towns of Hildale and Colorado City – either side of the Utah-Arizona border – and some 7,700 people. It’s the headquarters of the FLDS, which is famous for its conservative way of life and polygyny. “Most families include at least three wives, because that’s the number you need to enter heaven,” says Bistline, who has three mothers and 27 siblings.

In the end, the link to fumarase deficiency is a numbers game. Take Brigham Young. In all, his children begat 204 grandchildren, who, in turn, begat 745 great-grandchildren. By 1982, it was reported that he had at least 5,000 direct descendants.

This sudden explosion is down to exponential growth. Even with just one wife and three children, if every subsequent generation follows suit a man can have 243 descendants after just five generations. In polygynous families this is supercharged. If every generation includes three wives and 30 children, a man can – theoretically – flood a community with over 24 million of his descendants in the space of five generations, or little over 100 years. Of course this isn’t what actually happens. Instead, lineages begin to fold in on themselves as distant (and in the FLDS, not so distant) cousins marry. In polygynous societies, it doesn’t take long before everyone is related.

This is thought to be how one-in-200 men (one in 12.5 in Asia) are descended directly from super-fertile Mongol warrior Genghis Khan, who died nearly eight centuries ago. As Brigham Young said himself: “It is obvious that I could not have been blessed with such a family, if I had been restricted to one wife…”

In Short Creek, just two surnames dominate the local records – Jessop and Barlow. According to local historian Benjamin Bistline, who spoke to news agency Reuters back in 2007, 75 to 80% of people in Short Creek are blood relatives of the community’s founding patriarchs, Joseph Jessop and John Barlow.

This is all very well, but we now know that most people are walking around with at least one lethal recessive mutation(one that would kill us before we reach reproductive age) in their genome, around the same number as in fruit flies. Humans haven’t gone extinct because, being recessive, they’re only unmasked if we have children with someone who also just so happens to carry a copy of that exact same mutation too.

This is where the system starts to become unstuck. “With polygyny you’re decreasing the overall genetic diversity because a few men are having a disproportionate impact on the next generation,” says Mark Stoneking, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany. “Random genetic mutations become more important.”

In isolated communities, the problem is compounded by basic arithmetic: if some men take multiple wives, others can’t have any. In the FLDS, a large proportion of men must be kicked out as teenagers, shrinking the gene pool even further.

“They are driven to the highway by their mothers in the middle of the night and dumped by the side of the road,” says Amos Guiora, a legal expert at the University of Utah who has written a book about religious extremism. Some estimate that there may be up to a thousand so-called “lost boys”. “Often they spend years trying to repent, hoping to get back into the religion,” says Bistline, who has three brothers who were discarded.

Conservationists have known for years that a population’s “mating system” – the fancy word for sexual behaviour – can have a profound impact on its genetics. In wild deer and sage grouse, as in Mormon cults, polygyny is associated with high levels of inbreeding, because it shrinks the number of males contributing to the gene pool and increases the relatedness of the entire community.

The fumarase deficiency gene has been traced to Joseph Jessop and his first wife, Martha Yeates (14 children). One of their daughters went on to marry co-founder John Barlow – and the rest is history. Today the number of people carrying the fumarase gene in Short Creek is thought to be in the thousands.

The FLDS are not alone. Today polygyny is more widespread in Africa than any other continent. In March 2014, Kenya's Parliament passed a bill allowing men to marry multiple wives, while in many West African countries it’s been practised for thousands of years.

Intriguingly, it’s associated with rare disease here, too. In Cameroon, scientists recently reported a polygamous community with abnormally high levels of stuttering. By comparing local genomes with those from sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and North African populations, the researchers identified “exceptionally rare” gene variants among this community, which appear to be responsible – though the authors do not speculate about whether this is a consequence of polygyny.

Which brings us to the good news. Since inbreeding tends to uncover “recessive” mutations that would normally remain in hiding, studying these communities has helped scientists to identify many disease-causing genes. That’s because genetic information is useless on its own. To be meaningful to medical research, it must be linked to information about disease. In fact, more human disease genes have been discovered in Utah – with its Mormon history – than any other place in the world.

It’s not the legacy Brigham Young expected, but in the end, it’s possible that the controversial practice might have some unintended positives.


18 detained in connection to cult activities

July 26, 2017

HANGZHOU, July 26 (Xinhua) -- Police in east China's Zhejiang Province have detained 18 suspects in connection to activities of the "Almighty God" cult.
Police in Changxing County caught the suspected cult members following an investigation. Police also confiscated laptops and books used by the cult for dissemination of information.

"Almighty God," known in Chinese as Quannengshen, grabbed national headlines in 2014 with viral videos showing five of its members beating a woman to death at a McDonald's in the eastern city of Zhaoyuan, condemning her as an "evil spirit" after she refused to give them her mobile phone number for recruitment purposes.

First appearing in the 1990s in central China's Henan Province, Quannengshen claims that Jesus has been resurrected as Yang Xiangbin, who is the wife of the cult's founder Zhao Weishan, also known as Xu Wenshan. The couple fled to the United States in September 2000.

According to Dong Jianfeng, a police officer from Changxing County, most of the apprehended suspects showed signs of depression.

"Some of them are divorced and do not seem to know how to vent their suppressed emotions," Dong said. "Some of their families have experienced bad accidents and caused them to become depressed."

According to initial investigations, the cult's financial sources mainly came from "donations" from its members. The higher the donation, the more rights a member obtained. More donations allowed members access to higher positions within the cult, according to police.

"Every member was willing to donate their money, and the amounts ranged from 10,000 yuan (1,481 U.S. dollars) to tens of thousands of yuan," Dong said.

"The cult's 'leaders' imposed spiritual control over the members," Dong said. "They were told that as long as they gave donations, the Almighty God would keep their illness at bay."

Of the detained suspects, eight have been "re-educated" and denounced their cult beliefs, police said.


Investigation leads to improvements in safeguarding at Jehovah's Witnesses charity

Press release

Investigation leads to improvements in safeguarding at Jehovah’s Witnesses charity

From: The Charity Commission
Published: 26 July 2017

The charity regulator reports on its investigation into Manchester New Moston Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses.

A Charity Commission investigation has led to improvements in safeguarding at a Jehovah’s Witnesses charity, according to a report published today (26 July 2017). The report also makes findings of misconduct and mismanagement against the charity’s trustees.

The Commission concludes that trustees of the Manchester New Moston Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses did not deal adequately with allegations of child abuse made against one of the trustees in 2012 and 2013. The individual was subsequently convicted of 2 counts of indecent assault.

The report details the findings of the regulator’s statutory inquiry into the charity, which opened in May 2014 to investigate the charity’s handling of safeguarding matters, including the potential risks to the charity and its beneficiaries relating to this individual.

The report also acknowledges that, since the inquiry was opened, the charity has improved its child safeguarding policy and its procedures for handling misconduct allegations.

The regulator’s detailed report highlights that the trustees did not identify one allegation as potential child abuse, dismissing it as ‘a matter between 2 teenagers’. The report also finds the trustees did not:

  • fully enforce the restrictions they decided to place on the individual’s activities at the charity
  • adequately consider and deal with potential conflicts of loyalty within the trustee body
  • keep an adequate written record of the decision-making process used to manage the potential risks posed by the individual to the beneficiaries of the charity

The regulator’s report examines the events surrounding an internal disciplinary procedure, held to determine whether the abuser should be allowed to continue as a member of the congregation. The Commission finds that the victims of abuse were ‘effectively required’ to attend a hearing at which they had to repeat their allegations in the presence of the abuser, and the abuser was permitted to question the alleged victims. The trustees had argued that they were not responsible for the procedure and that the victims took part in the hearing voluntarily. The Commission accepts that the trustees did not themselves conduct the disciplinary procedure, but concludes that they carry ultimate responsibility and must be held accountable for the impact it had on the victims.

The report also criticises the charity for failing to cooperate openly and transparently with the Commission, stating that the trustees ‘did not provide accurate and complete answers’ about issues under investigation.
Harvey Grenville, Head of Investigations and Enforcement at the Charity Commission, said:

As our report makes clear, the victims of abuse were badly let down by the charity. The trustees should have made the victims’ welfare their first priority. Instead, their actions and omissions, both in response to allegations of abuse, and in their attitude towards our investigation, fell short of what the public would expect of those running a charity in a modern society. Our report rightly holds the trustees of the Manchester New Moston congregation to account. I hope that it therefore provides some comfort and reassurance to those affected by the circumstances we have investigated.

Our investigation has helped ensure that the charity has improved its procedures around the handling of child safeguarding concerns and its internal disciplinary process. Most importantly, the charity’s policy and procedures now make clear that victims of child sexual abuse are not required to make their allegations in the presence of the alleged abuser. They also state that protective restrictions must be put in place to protect the charity’s members from people found guilty of child sexual abuse by the criminal courts. We welcome these changes.

I would like to thank all those who came forward to provide us with information and intelligence throughout the investigation.

The Commission’s inquiry into another Jehovah’s Witnesses charity, the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain, is ongoing. This inquiry is examining the child safeguarding policy and procedures further, as they are common to all Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations in England and Wales.

The Commission encourages people who have been affected by safeguarding in congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in England and Wales to make contact with the investigations team at IAEInvestigationsCRM@charitycommission.gsi.gov.uk.


PR 55/17

Notes to editors
1. The Charity Commission is the independent regulator of charities in England and Wales. To find out more about our work, see our annual report.
2. Search for charities on our online register.
3. The Commission’s inquiry into Manchester New Moston Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses opened on 27 May 2014 and concluded with the publication of the report on 26 July 2017.
4. The Commission has faced continued challenge in the Tribunal against its decision to open the investigation into the charity. In April, the regulator welcomed an Upper Tribunal judgment dismissing an appeal against its decision to investigate the charity.
5. Section 46 of the Charities Act 2011 gives the Commission the power to institute inquiries. The opening of an inquiry gives the Commission access to a range of investigative, protective and remedial legal powers.
6. The Commission is not a safeguarding authority and its inquiries do not investigate allegations of abuse or actual incidents of abuse, whether historic or recent. Its concern is with the proper regulation of charities. Anyone with concerns about specific incidents of alleged abuses, whether historic or recent, for any charity, should report their concerns to the police and the relevant safeguarding authorities.
Press office

Email pressenquiries@charitycommission.gsi.gov.uk

Press enquiries - office hours0300 065 2123
Press enquiries - out of hours07785 748787


Jul 23, 2017

Family of Jehovah's Witness who died after refusing blood transfusion can't keep suing doctors

A state appeals court has refused to revive a lawsuit over the death of a Jehovah's Witness who wouldn't consent to having blood transfusions.
Matt Miller
Penn Live
July 21, 2017

The family of a Jehovah's Witness who died after repeatedly refusing blood transfusions can't sue the hospital where doctors begged for a chance to save her life, a state appeals court ruled.

The case, outlined in an opinion by Superior Court Judge Jacqueline O. Shogan, involves a convergence of religion, medicine and the law.

Its focus is on what happened before Terri Seels-Davila, a Jehovah's Witness missionary, died after giving birth at Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia in November 2010.

Seels-Davila, who had been serving on mission with her husband in Nicaragua, chose Hahnemann because of its "bloodless medicine" program for patients who won't agree to having blood transfusions, including Jehovah's Witnesses, Shogan noted. The treatment plan for Seels-Davila called for recycling her own blood back into her system.

Yet that proved to be inadequate when complications of her delivery required Seels-Davila to deliver by cesarean section. She developed internal bleeding. Even though doctors warned that her condition was dire, Seels-Davila, her husband and other family members refused to consent to a transfusion, court filings state.

Those filings include testimony from a doctor who said Seels-Davila told him "she was a minister of the faith...and that she was OK with whatever happened." Seels-Davila died four days later.

Seels-Davila's family sued the hospital for medical malpractice in 2012. During a civil trial three years later, a Philadelphia County jury ruled in favor of the hospital and the doctors who treated her.

The family's failed appeal to the state court represented an attempt to revive the suit. Seels-Davila's relatives claimed, among other things, that the county judge wrongly prevented an expert witness from testifying against the bloodless medicine program and didn't allow them to press a claim for corporate negligence.

Shogan agreed that the expert witness wasn't qualified to testify in the case. The family's failure to provide a competent expert witness also undermined its corporate negligence claim, she found.

The state judge found as well that the county judge rightly allowed the jury to see the consent forms Seels-Davila signed in which she explicitly refused to consent to transfusions.

"The consent forms were not admitted merely to show that Seels-Davila understood the risks of treatment, yet elected to proceed," Shogan wrote. "The consents were admitted to prove that Seels-Davila knowingly refused treatments that would have saved her life."


Human rights activism is Miss World Canada Anastasia Lin's crowning achievement

Anastasia Lin
Anastasia Lin
The Globe and Mail
July 21, 2017

When she signed up for Miss World Canada 2015, Anastasia Lin never thought she would receive international attention for her criticism of human rights abuses in China, or that the Chinese government would block her from representing Canada in the Miss World pageant there. Now, as her pageant career comes to a close, not even her exit is going as she planned.

“Part of me can’t wait to give the crown away because it’s such a huge responsibility, but I feel that it needs to end right and let everyone see that there is nothing wrong with doing what I did for the past two years, there is nothing wrong in speaking the truth,” Ms. Lin said in an interview, adding that young girls see her as a role model for her commitment to speaking out.

She had expected that, in keeping with tradition, she would crown her successor at the Miss World Canada 2017 ceremony on Saturday, but because of a change in ownership of the pageant, she will have to say goodbye to the world of pageants from afar.

She said she is puzzled about why she was not invited to this year’s crowning ceremony on July 22. But Miss World Canada says the decision is purely logistical.

“The pageant now is under new direction, headed by director Michelle Weswaldi, who is the former Miss World Canada 1996. She will be crowning the recipient. She did not crown her successor in 1997 as the organization switched hands in that year as well,” a spokesperson for Miss World Canada said.

Ms. Lin has been a part of the pageant world for years, placing third in Miss World Canada in 2013 and going on to win it in 2015.

During the contest, Ms. Lin spoke about the plight of Falun Gong practitioners in China. When she attempted to travel to Hainan for the Miss World pageant, Chinese authorities formally barred her from entering.

Miss World organizers allowed Ms. Lin to represent Canada in 2016 in Washington. However, she said she was told at the competition, which is largely sponsored by Chinese companies, that she could speak to media only with the approval of pageant officials.

She has continued her activism on the Falun Gong issue, and says she is still unable to enter China, as are some members of her family. Despite the pain of not being able to go to the country of her birth, where her grandparents and father reside, Ms. Lin said she does not regret her pageant experience because it gave her the platform to speak on behalf of those who seek her help.

Falun Gong is a spiritual practice that emerged in China in the early 1990s. By the end of the decade, human-rights organizations such as Amnesty International had published reports of a crackdown on the group by the Chinese Communist Party, and that thousands of practitioners had been tortured in prison.

“The whole experience gave me courage, I don’t think there is anything I can’t do right now,” she said. “I saw how scared the Chinese government is of a single person’s voice. I realized the government, as the Chinese say, is a paper tiger, with nothing to back them up.”

Ms. Lin said she will continue her acting career and her activism – something she had never expected to do when she first entered the pageant.

“I always tell myself that this is the last time I’m going to do this, this is the last time I’m going to speak up about anything to do with China or human rights because it’s not my job, I’m an actress,” Ms. Lin said, adding that, despite the difficulties, she cannot abandon the victims who come to seek her help.

Ms. Lin is advocating on behalf of a Canadian woman, Sun Qian, who is a Falun Gong practitioner and has been behind bars in China since February. Ms. Lin spoke about the case at the United Nations Human Rights Council in June and has launched a petition calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “to do everything in his power to secure her safe release.”

“I never thought one individual would have the chance to stand on the international stage and talk about things that even the mainstream media sometimes doesn’t cover,” she said. “It means a lot to the people of China. People on the street and at T&T [Supermarket] approach me and tell me they support my work because if no one speaks, then everyone will suffer.”


Can the Study of Cults Help Us Understand Radicalism?

Benjamin David
Sarah Mills 
Huffington Post
July 19, 2017

Terrorism and the process that leads to it, radicalisation, are the pressing problems defining much of the discourse of our time. Although extremism is currently, and frequently, manifesting itself in the form of Islamist terrorism, the driving mentality behind it is specific to no one religion in particular. Can other forms of extremist thinking help us better understand and, hopefully, combat terrorism and radicalism?

Cults can offer significant insight into devotion-based violence. Even when their practices do not cross over into physical violence, of which the most notorious of them have indeed been guilty, cults regularly infringe upon human rights and exact, through coercive persuasion, the sort of exclusive loyalty that is characteristic of other worldviews that do result in bloodshed. Psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton, in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China, provides criteria by which we may identify mind-control groups. The criteria, which has since been applied to cults, elucidates the mentality operating within a person who is willing to die or murder (or both) for his or her beliefs. It easily bridges the gap between potential violence and terrorist violence. Lifton’s definitions could also be extended, thus classifying groups as cult-like that had hitherto not been considered as such.

The Orwellian method behind the madness takes shape through a study of these characteristics, revealing the insidiousness intrinsic to groups that maintain their power through mental and emotional abuse. Cults first and foremost isolate the recruit from her milieu. Contact with outsiders is limited, even eliminated, reinforcing the ‘us versus them’ dichotomy. Teachings manipulate circumstances, even historical events, in order to situate the group as part of a “divine plan”. Members see the group as a mediating force between divinity and themselves. All, even unrelated, knowledge is filtered and interpreted in light of teachings. The group is exclusionary; it derives its life-force from a worldview in which distinction from nonbelievers is essential. There is an emphasis on purity and an inflexible pressure to conform entirely to the doctrine. Sins are a public affair. Members are encouraged to confess and, if they are not publicly shamed in culling ceremonies, they are ostracised from the community. Doctrine is all-encompassing, applicable to every aspect of daily life. Disagreement, critical thinking, and personal interpretation are all highly discouraged. The group makes claims to infallibility. The language is ‘loaded,’ or adapted and infused with new meanings, in the vein of ‘Newspeak.’

There is no salvation outside the cult, nonbelievers will eventually either convert or perish, and believers will inherit a given version of eternal paradise. The psychological effects of indoctrination are devastating, even for those who never deviate from it (those who do - the ‘apostates’- are often subjected to harassment, loneliness, isolation, depression, and suicidal thoughts).

Of particular note is the relevancy of the above characteristics to modern-day religious and political organisations that might be legally classified as non-violent, but which regularly incite hatred of the ‘other’ - othering that, of course, renders impossible living in peace if you are an ex-member. What would it take for non-violent extremist groups to cross over into actual violence? According to Dr Arthur Dole, professor in psychology and member of the International Cultic Studies Association Board of Directors, terrorists are fuelled by the same extremist thinking as high control groups. The degrees of distance between groups like Al Qaeda and Heaven’s Gate are negligible and the standard by which he assesses their affinity to cult-like characteristics - the Group Psychological Abuse Scale - demonstrates the extent to which underlying mentality is uniform across the board. While cults do direct their abuses towards members, and terrorists towards non-combatants, both offer a transcendent, ideal vision of the afterlife, encourage a metaphorical or literal martyrdom, promise a sense of meaning and distinction, infringe upon individual freedoms, and cultivate an extreme dependency on the group or its leader.

There is fundamentally little difference between those who believe God will eventually exterminate all nonbelievers and those who enact God’s will for Him. The harm of letting these beliefs go unchecked far outweighs any harm that might result from offending the sensibilities of the religious. The same mentality that justifies psychological abuse, that separates families and friends, that segregates and ostracises on the basis of gender, race, orientation, identity, or belief is the same that can very likely lead to fatalities. And it is facetious to label any organisation that does so as ‘non-violent.’


An Indonesian Childhood in Chains - Shackling Persists Despite Government Eradication Efforts

Fifteen-year-old Subekti spent his childhood shackled to the floor of his family’s house in Serang, Indonesia.
Kriti Sharma
Researcher, Disability Rights Division

Meg Mszyco
Coordinator, Disability Rights Division

Childhood should be a time of innocence, play, and learning. But 15-year-old Subekti spent his shackled to the floor of his family’s house in Serang, a city about a three-hour drive from Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta.

 < Fifteen-year-old Subekti spent his childhood shackled to the floor of his family’s house in Serang, Indonesia.

For the past six years, since he was 9, Subekti has had both his ankles tightly chained to the floor, just meters away from where his parents sleep. Unable to walk or move around, Subekti’s muscles have atrophied, leaving skeletal legs.

A neighbor alerted the media last week to draw attention to Subekti’s plight. When members of the nongovernmental National Commission for Child Protection (Komnas Anak) visited, he reportedly begged them, “free me.”

His family told Komnas Anak that they shackled him to prevent him from disturbing the community. Subekti comes from a poor family where there is little awareness of mental health conditions. His parents believe he has a spiritual problem and consulted a faith healer but without success.

Subekti’s story is horrifying but not uncommon. More than 57,000 people in Indonesia with real or perceived mental health conditions have been subjected to pasung – shackled or locked up in confined space – at least once in their lives. Despite a 1977 government ban, the practice continues, fueled by the mistaken belief that mental health conditions are the result of possession by evil spirits, having sinned, or immoral behavior.

When Human Rights Watch researched the situation of people in pasung in Indonesia, families told us they felt they had little choice but to resort to shackling because they struggled to cope in the absence of government support and community mental health services.

Despite the media attention, eight days later, Subekti remains in chains. His house is only about a kilometer from the local government office, but authorities have not successfully convinced his parents to release him. He is now receiving mental health medication at home from a community health center.

In addition to providing him with counseling and other mental health services, the local social affairs office needs to ensure Subekti’s release. Local authorities should provide his family with the necessary support so that Subekti can live a normal childhood in the community.

While Human Rights Watch has documented Indonesian’s efforts to eliminate pasung, cases like Subekti’s remind us there is much work to be done to ensure no one lives a life in chains.



Wirapol Sukphol
Wirapol Sukphol
July 19, 2017

BANGKOK (AP) — A former monk known for a jet-setting lifestyle was back in Thailand on Thursday after he was extradited from the United States, where he fled to escape charges including statutory rape and fraud.

Wirapol Sukphol, 37, appeared on a YouTube video showing the orange-robed monk aboard a private jet. He wore aviator sunglasses and had a Louis Vuitton carry-on bag, sparking an outcry over his behavior.

Soon after the video surfaced in 2013, Wirapol was defrocked amid accusations of multiple sexual relationships with women — a cardinal sin for monks.

He was also alleged to have had sex with a 14-year-old girl. The statute of limitations has expired in that case, but he still faces fraud, money laundering and other charges.

He was arrested in California last year.

Wirapol returned to Bangkok late Wednesday under an extradition agreement with the United States. According to Paisit Wongmuang, director-general of Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation, Wirapol “wanted to come back to Thailand and was ready to enter the justice system.”

Critics say Wirapol is an extreme example of a wider crisis in Thai Buddhism, which has become marginalized by a shortage of monks and an increasingly secular society.

Born in the poor northeastern province of Ubon Ratchathani, Wirapol entered the monkhood as a teenager and gained local renown for claims of supernatural powers. Gradually, he cultivated wealthy followers to help fund expensive projects in the name of Buddhism, including erecting an 18-meter (59-foot) -high Buddha statue.

Thailand’s Anti-Money Laundering Office has discovered 41 bank accounts linked to Wirapol. Several of the accounts kept about 200 million baht ($5.9 million) in constant circulation, raising suspicion of money laundering, the office said.

According to the Department of Special Investigation, Wirapol at one point had accumulated assets of an estimated 1 billion baht ($32 million). During a shopping spree from 2009 to 2011, Wirapol bought 22 Mercedes cars worth 95 million baht ($2.8 million), the department said.


Russia Jehovah's Witnesses banned after they lose appeal

BBC News
July 17, 2017

Russia's Supreme Court has ordered the disbanding of the Jehovah's Witnesses on Russian territory.

The ban came into effect after the court rejected an appeal by the religious group against a ruling in April which declared it to be extremist.

The justice ministry had argued that the group distributed pamphlets which incited hatred against other groups.

The group described the ruling as the end of religious freedom in Russia.

The denomination says it has 175,000 members in Russia - a country where it was persecuted during the Stalin era.

An estimated eight million people worldwide are part of the Christian-based movement, best known for going door-to-door looking for new converts.

The ruling means that the group's headquarters near St Petersburg and 395 local chapters will close.

It will be required to hand over all its properties, known as Kingdom Halls, to the Russian government.

The group's Russia spokesman, Yaroslav Sivulsky, said that "religious freedom in Russia is over".

"There were no real facts of any extremism on part of Jehovah's Witnesses. It's all about bad literature and intolerance. Now anyone who studies the Bible can be jailed," he said, quoted by Newsweek magazine.

The Witnesses group was founded in the United States in the 19th century.

They take most of the Bible literally and refuse blood transfusions. They are not seen by traditional Christian Churches as a mainstream denomination.

During Joseph Stalin's reign of terror in the Soviet Union it was outlawed and thousands of members were deported to Siberia. Other Christian groups were also persecuted.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a revival of Christianity in Russia and the ban on Jehovah's Witnesses was lifted in 1991. But attitudes hardened again and in 2004 it was accused of recruiting children and preventing believers from accepting medical assistance.

Human rights group Sova has argued that an "official repressive campaign" has been conducted against the movement for years and many of their members have been physically attacked.

The Jehovah's Witnesses are expected to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, but Russia may well ignore any verdict in their favour.


Daphne Bramham: Even guilty verdicts in polygamy trial unlikely to end Bountiful saga

A photo of 124 of Winston Blackmore's children taken more than a year ago. With three babies born recently, Blackmore now has 148 children.
A photo of 124 of Winston Blackmore's children taken
 more than a year ago. With three babies born recently,
Blackmore now has 148 children.
Daphne Bramham
Vancouver Sun
July 21, 2017

On Monday, two former bishops of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints will hear the verdict in their polygamy trial, Canada’s first such trial since 1906.

Winston Blackmore is Canada’s most outspoken, prolific and unapologetic polygamist. His indictment lists 24 women as wives and he is known to have fathered 148 children, three of whom have been born since his trial on one count of polygamy concluded in April.

His co-defendant is James Oler. Originally, four women were named on his indictment, but a fifth was added during the trial. It’s not known how many children he has.

If guilty, they face the prospect of up to five years in jail.

But even they are found guilty, it’s unlikely to end the long-running saga of Bountiful, which the two men’s fathers founded 70 years ago as a discreet place to practice polygamy just like Mormonism’s early leaders did.

If the verdict is guilty, Blackmore plans to make an application to challenge the validity of the polygamy laws, arguing they infringe on his constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of religion, according to his lawyer, Blair Suffredine.

Listen to Daphne Bramham detail the upcoming verdict expected Monday in B.C.’s polygamy trial.

During the trial, the judge refused to hear Suffredine’s constitutional argument because he failed to properly notify the judge, the other lawyers and the federal Justice Department of a challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

(Oler refused legal counsel and made no effort to defend himself during the trial.)

Both Blackmore and Oler were raised in polygamous families.

At various points, each of their fathers was Bountiful’s spiritual leader, just as they have both been.

At home, in school and at church, they were taught that it was a holy order bestowed on only the worthiest of men. They were also taught to obey God’s laws over the laws of Canada.

Blackmore’s father, Ray, had six wives and 31 children. Winston was born into the first family on Aug. 25, 1956. His mother was Anna Mae, Ray’s first and only legal wife, and the family’s powerful matriarch. Winston was her fifth son and the ninth of her 13 children.

At his 2012 tax trial, Blackmore testified that between 2000 and 2006, he didn’t live with any of his 22 wives or 67 children. He lived with his mother in a two-bedroom apartment.

After Ray died, James Oler’s father became Bountiful’s spiritual leader. To dislodge him, Blackmore convinced Anna Mae to sign over the family’s property — title to most of the Bountiful townsite — to the church and its United Effort Plan trust.

It caused a split in the family that was cemented when Blackmore was excommunicated in 2002. Some refused to follow him when he set up a breakaway sect that Winston audaciously named the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. When the mainstream church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, suddenly realized three years ago that its name had been appropriated, it successfully sued Blackmore and got back its name.

Brandon James Blackmore was one of the Blackmore siblings who stuck with the FLDS. Intensely loyal to its erratic and abusive prophet, Warren Jeffs, Brandon and his wife, Gail, took their 13-year-old daughter to Utah in 2004 to marry Jeffs.

On Aug. 11, the pair will be sentenced for the unlawful removal of a child from Canada for an illegal purpose.

Their co-defendant was James Oler. His acquittal is being appealed.

Oler’s mother is Winston’s and Brandon’s sister, who was 16 when she became Dalmon Oler’s second wife.

Three of James’s five ‘mothers’ were teenagers when they joined the family. One had been legally adopted by Ray and Anna Mae Blackmore and was 14 when she became one of Dalmon’s plural wives. When she had a child at 15, provincial child protection officials stepped in and took both mother and child into care. But no charges were laid and within a few months, she was back with Oler.

In the early 1990s, RCMP investigated both Dalmon Oler and Winston Blackmore following complaints of abuse and recommended charges. None was ever laid.

Government lawyers and a couple of retired judges advised the attorney general that the polygamy law was invalid, an unjustifiable infringement of religious freedom.

More than a decade later, more abuse complaints prompted another investigation. Again, no charges were laid because while special prosecutor Richard Peck concluded that the polygamy law “may well be upheld by the courts,” he recommended the government get “an authoritative statement” from the B.C. Court of Appeal on its validity.

Wally Oppal, a former Court of Appeal judge, was attorney general. He disagreed and two special prosecutors later, charges were laid.

But this time, it was Dalmon’s son, James, who was charged with one count of polygamy along with Blackmore.

Those charges were eventually stayed after Blackmore convinced a judge that the two prosecutors were improperly appointed.

So, finally, in 2010, another attorney general ordered a reference case. But instead of sending it to the appeal court, that attorney general, Mike de Jong, sent it to the B.C. Supreme Court. The law was upheld, clearing the way for charges against Oler and the three Blackmores.

But a decision from the B.C. Supreme Court, a trial court, doesn’t carry the weight of an appellate court. It’s only an opinion and it’s one that Blackmore believes is wrong.


The polygamy offence

The Criminal Code’s polygamy section 293 says: “Every one who practises or enters into or in any manner agrees or consents to practise or enter into

(i) any form of polygamy, or (ii) any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time, whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage, or celebrates, assists or is a party to a rite, ceremony, contract or consent that purports to sanction a relationship mentioned in subparagraphs (i) or (ii),

is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.”

It goes on to say : “Where an accused is charged with an offence under this section, no averment or proof of the method by which the alleged relationship was entered into, agreed to or consented to is necessary in the indictment or on the trial of the accused, nor is it necessary on the trial to prove that the persons who are alleged to have entered into the relationship had or intended to have sexual intercourse.”