Christians going down the line on casino gambling

The Christian community is urging the government not to legalise casino gambling for Cricket World Cup (CWC) 2007 or at any time; to defer discussions on the draft legislation until after CWC and to learn from experiences based on research.

Church leaders have also begun a number of activities aiming at sensitising the public to the dangers of casino gambling and said they feel legal action might also be an option.

The draft legislation, entitled the Gambling Prevention (Amendment) Bill 2006, to legalise casino gambling is due for its first reading in Parliament today. And Alliance For Change MP Sheila Holder will also lead a motion in Parliament for a study to be conducted to determine whether casino gambling would add to the country’s tourism product or aggravate the crime situation.

At a joint press conference called by representatives of the Guyana Council of Churches (GCC), Guyana Evangelical Fellowship (GEF) and the Georgetown Ministers’ Fellowship (GMF) at the National Library Annexe yesterday, Pastor Marlon Hestick said the Christian community, which he said represents 57% of the population, was “unalterably opposed” to the government’s proposal to license persons or institutions to engage in casino gambling for CWC 2007 and beyond.

Reading from a prepared statement, Hestick said the church leaders are also proposing alternative means of economic activities, particularly as it relates to tourism development through cultural entertainment and the performing arts, which they described as a win-win situation in the tourism industry. They are also willing to discuss with the government strategies on the country’s economic and social development.

Urging Muslims and Hindus to fully engage in the discussions on the issue, the statement said there was also still time for redress on the part of the government.

The statement said the government’s approach on the issue so far has illustrated little regard for Sections 13 and 50 of the Constitution of Guyana having not involved civil society in any meaningful consultation, nor engaged Parliament in any form of discussion.

Asked whether they had met President Bharrat Jagdeo to express their concerns, Hestick said that in March last year they had met the President at State House and expressed their concerns. The President had told them then that there was going to be widespread consultations on the issue. Since then there had been no further interaction. However, the GCC received an invitation dated December 6, 2006 from Prime Minister Sam Hinds to a meeting to be held on December 8. The Chairman of the GCC, to whom it was addressed, was out of the country on GCC business at the time and did not receive the invitation until after the date of the meeting.

The government has also not offered any study to show the social impact of legalised gambling in Guyana. Instead, the statement said, “there exists a lot of evidence to show that, with our weak law enforcement, judicial, legislative and social infrastructure, the advent of casino gambling could see Guyana moving from a ‘Jurisdiction of Concern’ in the USA State Department’s money-laundering list, to a ‘Jurisdiction of Primary Concern’.” The statement pointed to the US State Department website that dealt with the International Narcotics Strategy Control Report for 2006.

Some of the deleterious effects the statement listed were the creation of false values including the get-rich-quick illusion; discouragement of thrift, honest enterprise and a productive work ethic; promotion of greed; temptation to weak-willed persons who frequently develop an addiction to gambling; family neglect and domestic violence and undermining the family unit; wasting of money that could be used for productive purposes; enrichment of a few and impoverishment for the majority; an increase in crime to obtain money to gamble; pauperization of the gamblers; and promotion of opportunities for illegal activity including money laundering as well as corruption in the public and private sectors.

Stating that Guyanese would not have any type of tourism at any cost, the Christian leaders said, “Government cannot and must not be held to ransom by any stakeholder because it facilitated investors’ efforts to benefit from tourism and CWC 2007.”

The leaders produced a draft document entitled ‘Legal, Moral, Social and Constitutional Considerations in Addressing the Responsibilities of Government with regard to Casino Gambling in Guyana,’ which the statement said is a research paper that “elucidates the concerns of the Guyanese people” and outlines “Guyana’s perilous descent at the level of governance and constitutional issues.”

As a maturing democracy, they said, the implications of the findings cannot be ignored. They have begun to distribute this document to a number of stakeholders.

Expressing the GMF’s position on the draft legislation, Pastor Loris Heywood said that apart from the moral principles, a number of violent crimes engulfed the Guyanese society over the past three to four years. Research, he said, shows that narco-crime is associated with casino gambling in laundering money and excessive and wanton violence, the use of deadly weaponry, utter disregard for the sanctity of life, trans-border crime with linkages to international networks and it also corrupts systems and structures of the government including the judiciary.

The legalisation of casino gambling, Heywood said, was not just a matter of accommodating Buddy’s International Hotel or Cricket World Cup but that the provision for the licensing of the minimum of three casinos in each of the country’s ten administrative regions was a “strategic evil” given the country’s porous borders and transnational crime.

Quoting from last year’s US State Department report which stated that drug trafficking and money laundering appear to be propping up the Guyana economy and known drug traffickers have acquired substantial land and investment in large properties, he said that as a patriotic Guyanese and Caribbean person he felt uncomfortable relying on the US report “to tell us what we already know.”

Rev Ellsworth Williams of the GEF said he would have preferred if the government had called the religious community together to discuss some development strategy paper in terms of job creation, how to help the poor, and how to find solutions for the country’s ills instead of rushing the bill through Parliament to legalise casino gambling.

Chairman of the GCC Rev Alphonso Porter said gambling was morally wrong in principle because it involves misuse of money and it was not in exchange for goods and services.

It was an appeal to chance where the gains of the winners represent the accumulated loss of the losers.

He reiterated that casino gambling is used as a cover for many criminal activities adding that the government was promoting these social diseases at a time when HIV was on the increase and the law enforcement agencies were unable to solve high-profile murders. He said this was disturbing since it created additional burdens.

The GCC, he said, does not believe that the government should seek to justify casino legislation because of revenue generation because it could also bring tragic social consequences to the nation.

The GCC represents the Anglican Diocese, Roman Catholic Diocese, the Church of the Nazarene, Outreach Ministries International, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Metho-dist Episcopal Zion Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Guyana, the Guyana Presbyterian Church, Presbytery of Guyana, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Moravian Church, the Salvation Army, the Congregational Union of Guyana, the Methodist Church of Guyana and the Guyana Missionary Baptist Church.

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