Egypt clashes leave 72 dead, U.S. warns country to pull back from the brink


Originally posted on National Post | News:

CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt’s interior minister on Sunday pledged to deal decisively with any attempts to destabilize the country, a thinly veiled warning to supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi occupying two squares in Cairo in a month-long stand-off with the security forces.

The warning came as authorities said that the death toll in weekend clashes between Mohammed Morsi’s Islamist backers and security forces near one of those sit-ins had reached 72, in the deadliest single outbreak of violence since the July 3 military coup.

“I assure the people of Egypt that the police are determined to maintain security and safety to their nation and are capable of doing so,” Mohammed Ibrahim told a graduation ceremony at the national police academy. “We will very decisively deal with any attempt to undermine stability,” said Ibrahim, who is in charge of the police.

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Ibrahim’s comments added pressure on Morsi’s backers…

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Egypt: Copts & Muslim Clashes


The link below is to an article reporting on the latest persecution news and clashes between Copts and Muslims in Egypt.

For more visit:
http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/06/us-egypt-clashes-idUSBRE93503A20130406

Christian Girls Kidnapped in Yemen Are Rescued


Parents, other abducted Christians remain missing.

ISTANBUL, May 18 (CDN) — Saudi Arabian and Yemeni security forces rescued two German girls yesterday, 11 months after the two young sisters, their parents, brother and four other Christians were taken hostage in Yemen.

Reported to be between 3 and 6 years old, the two girls, Lydia Hentschel and her younger sister Anna Hentschel, were part of a group of nine Christian foreigners who were kidnapped on June 12 last year. Three of the adult hostages, a Korean and two German women, were murdered shortly afterwards.

The foreigners worked in a hospital near the city of Saada. No group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. Although the German family, a British man, and the three murdered women were Christians, it was not clear if they were kidnapped because of their faith.

There was no indication as to the whereabouts of the girls’ parents, Johannes and Sabine Hentschel, the girls’ 2-year-old brother Simon, and the Briton, identified only as Anthony.

The two girls were found in a disputed border region between Yemen and Saudi Arabia during Saudi cross-border raids in the northern region of Saada, according to Reuters. Saudi and Yemeni security forces collaborated in the operation to free the sisters.

Over the last year violent clashes have flared between Yemeni government forces and the Houthi armed group in Saada. The fighting has reportedly hindered efforts to locate the missing foreigners.

Reuters quoted the German foreign minister as saying the two young sisters were in “relatively good health” and would be transported from Saudi Arabia to Germany on Wednesday (May 19). Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he remained concerned about the safety of the rest of the German family.

Westerwelle told Reuters that learning the whereabouts of the remaining hostages remains a high priority, with efforts “continuing undiminished” and hopes still alive.

Today CNN reported that a spokesman for the German family said it was likely that the youngest sibling, Simon, was dead, since he was not found along with the two sisters.

In the last 15 years nearly 200 foreign nationals have been kidnapped in Yemen, and most have been released unharmed, Reuters reported.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Two Church of Christ in Nigeria Journalists Killed in Jos


Other Christians murdered in area that continues to be wracked by violence.

LAGOS, Nigeria, April 27 (CDN) — The killing of Christians in Jos, Plateau state in Nigeria continued over the weekend with two journalists and five other persons falling victim to Muslim youth gangs.

Nathan S. Dabak, an assistant editor at a newspaper of the Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN) called The Light Bearer, and Sunday Gyang Bwede, a reporter at the publication, were stabbed to death on Saturday (April 24) at Gado-Bako in Jos North Local Government Area along with an unidentified motorcyclist.

“The staff of the church were murdered in cold blood by some Hausa Muslim youths,” the Rev. Pandang Yamsat, president of COCIN, told Compass today. “This is clear because they have been using the hand phones of the deceased journalists and boasting that they are the ones that killed them.”

The young Muslim men have been boldly answering calls to the cell phones of the deceased journalists, he said; when a friend of Dabak called his cell phone number, an unknown voice responded, “We have killed all of them – you can do your worst!”

Dabak, 36, and the 39-year-old Bwede had left their office on Saturday morning and were on their way to interview local politician Bulus Kaze when they fell into the hands of young Muslim men, Yamsat said.

The church started a search for the two Christians that day but did not discover their bodies until about noon on Sunday at the mortuary of Jos University Teaching Hospital, he said. He added that the church was eagerly waiting for results of a police investigation.

“The security team of the church has been communicating with the police, but they are yet to make any headway on this unfortunate incident,” he said.

Burial of the slain journalists is scheduled for Friday (April 30).

In his statement on Monday (April 26), Yamsat lamented that “while efforts have been tailored towards the return of peace to the state by the military Special Task Force, it is regrettable that the state is confronted with a spate of killings.”

“The church is still mourning the death of its pastor and his wife killed in Boto, Bauchi state,” Yamsat said, in reference to the April 13 kidnapping and murder of the Rev. Ishaku Kadah, 48, and his 45-year-old wife Selina. “It is sad that it should again be left to face another brutal murder of two of their staff.”

The state branch of the Nigerian Union of Journalists also condemned the circumstances that led to the death of the two journalists, expressing deep concern over what it described as “a series of attacks on its members in recent times in the course of carrying out their legitimate duties.”

Four other Christians also were killed on Saturday (April 24) in the Dutse Uku district of Jos’ Nasarawa Gwom area in a revenge attack following the discovery of the corpse of a teenage Muslim who had been missing. Their names were not released at press time.

The four Christians reportedly died, three of them stabbed to death, when hundreds of Muslim youths rampaged throughout the area in protest.

Earlier, police reportedly exhumed eight bodies from shallow graves in a predominantly Christian village near Jos. The discovery of the bodies brought to 15 the number of corpses found in three days in an area fraught with Muslim aggression that has left hundreds of Christians dead.

Jos has become a flash-point for ethnic and religious tensions in Plateau state, which is located between Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north and Christian south. Previously hundreds of Christian villagers were struck with machetes and burned to death on March 7 in Dogo Nahawa, Zot and Rastat, three villages in Jos South and Barkin Ladi Local Government Areas.

On March 17, Muslim Fulani herdsmen assaulted two Christian villages in Plateau state, killing 13 persons, including a pregnant woman and children. In attacks presumably over disputed property but with a level of violence characteristic of jihadist method and motive, men in military camouflage and others in customary clothing also burned 20 houses in Byei and Baten villages, in the Riyom Local Government Area of the state, about 45 kilometers (29 miles) from Jos.

On Jan. 17, two pastors and 46 other Christians were killed in an outbreak of violence in Jos triggered when Muslim youths attacked a Catholic church. Police estimated over 300 lives were lost in subsequent clashes, in which 10 church buildings were burned.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Pastor, Wife Killed in Northern Nigeria


Suspected Islamists kidnap, slay couple in Bauchi state.

LAGOS, Nigeria, April 20 (CDN) — Suspected Islamic extremists last week abducted and killed a Church of Christ in Nigeria pastor and his wife in Boto village, Bauchi state in northern Nigeria.

The Rev. Ishaku Kadah, 48, and his 45-year-old wife Selina were buried on Saturday (April 17) after unidentified assailants reportedly whisked them from their church headquarters home on Tuesday (April 13) and killed them. Their burnt bodies were found hours later.

On Jan. 22, suspected Islamic extremists had set fire to their church building days after Christians displaced by violence in Plateau state had taken refuge on the church premises.

“This is yet another case of unprovoked killing of Christians, which we condemn, and demand that the law enforcement agents must fish out the perpetrators of this act,” Bishop Musa Fula, state chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria in Bauchi state, told Compass.

Police have reportedly arrested two suspects and have launched a man-hunt for several other accomplices. Authorities are not releasing the names of the suspects.

Boto is located in the predominantly Christian Tafawa Balewa Local Government Area of Bauchi state, which has a history of Muslim attacks on Christians.

“Police claim they are working on it and we want to believe them,” Fula added. “We need assurance that our people are safe. We will soon meet later on the matter to decide our next line of action on these kind of attacks.”

The murdered couple’s son, Simeon Kadah, said an eyewitness who had come to the church premises to collect some rented chairs saw men dragging the pastor and his wife out of their house. Kadah said the men asked the eyewitness if he was a Muslim, and when he told them that he was, they told him to leave the area and tell no one what he had seen.

The Rev. Ladi Thompson of the Macedonian Initiative, an organization fighting anti-Christian persecution, decried the killing of the pastor and his wife, saying it is an indication of the great dangers Christians are exposed to in the predominantly Muslim north.

“This kind of mindless killing follows the same pattern that we have been campaigning against, which many state governments in northern Nigeria are not paying due attention to,” Thompson said. “The government cannot afford to continue to pay lip service to protecting Christians when some people in the name of religion can take the laws into their hands.

Unless we get to the root of cases like this, there will be no end to it.”

Following attacks on Christians near Jos in Plateau state in January and March, sporadic killings of Christians reportedly continue. Previously hundreds of Christian villagers were struck with machetes and burned to death on March 7 in Dogo Nahawa, Zot and Rastat, three villages in Jos South and Barkin Ladi Local Government Areas. 

On March 17, Muslim Fulani herdsmen assaulted two Christian villages in Plateau state, killing 13 persons, including a pregnant woman and children. In attacks presumably over disputed property but with a level of violence characteristic of jihadist method and motive, men in military camouflage and others in customary clothing also burned 20 houses in Byei and Baten villages, in the Riyom Local Government Area of the state, about 45 kilometers (29 miles) from Jos.

On Jan. 17, two pastors and 46 other Christians were killed in an outbreak of violence in Jos triggered when Muslim youths attacked a Catholic church. Police estimated over 300 lives were lost in subsequent clashes, in which 10 church buildings were burned.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Islamic Assailants Kill Hundreds of Christians Near Jos, Nigeria


Fulani herdsmen strike Christian villages, slaying mainly ethnic Berom with machetes.

LAGOS, Nigeria, March 8 (CDN) — An uneasy calm prevailed in Plateau state, Nigeria today following the killing of hundreds of Christians early yesterday morning in three farming villages near Jos by ethnic Fulani Muslims.

The mostly ethnic Berom victims included many women and children killed with machetes by rampaging Fulani herdsmen. About 75 houses were also burned.

State Information Commissioner Gregory Yenlong confirmed that about 500 persons were killed in the attacks, which took place mainly in Dogo Nahawa, Zot and Rastat villages.

“We were woken up by gunshots in the middle of the night, and before we knew what was happening, our houses were torched and they started hacking down people” survivor Musa Gyang told media.

The assailants reportedly came on foot from a neighboring state to beat security forces that had been alerted of a possible attack on the villages but did not act beforehand.

The attack on Sunday is the latest in several religious clashes in the state in recent months that have claimed lives and property. Plateau state is a predominantly Christian state in a country almost evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. The Muslim minority has been contesting ownership of some parts of the state, leading to frequent clashes.

Bishop Andersen Bok, national coordinator of the Plateau State Elders Christian Fellowship, along with group Secretary General Musa Pam, described the attack as yet another “jihad and provocation on Christians.”

“Dogo Nahawa is a Christian community,” the Christian leaders said in a statement. “Eyewitnesses say the Hausa Fulani Muslim militants were chanting ‘Allah Akbar,’ broke into houses, cutting human beings, including children and women with their knives and cutlasses.”

Soon after the militants besieged Dogo Nahawa, the Christian leaders said, at 1:30 a.m. they contacted the military, which is in charge of security in the state.

“But we were shocked to find out that the soldiers did not react until about 3:30 a.m., after the Muslim attackers had finished their job and left,” they stated. “We are tired of these genocides on our Christian brothers and state here that we will not let this go unchallenged.”

Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) President Ayo Oritsejafor decried the attack on the Christian community as barbaric and urged the federal government to stop the killing of innocent citizens or risk a total breakdown of law and order.

“I have just returned from a trip abroad,” he said. “While I was away, I was inundated with reports of another catastrophe in the Jigawa state capital, where several churches were burnt, and just as I was trying to settle down and collate reports from the field, I am hearing of another on Sunday morning.”

Director of Social Communications, Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, Rev. Monsignor Gabriel Osu said the Sunday killing in Jos is a major setback for the country’s effort to gain the confidence of the international community.

“Do you know that because of things like these, anywhere Nigerians travel to they are subjected to dehumanizing scrutiny?” he said. “Any act of violence at this time is totally condemned, and the government should make haste to fish out all identified perpetrators of such heinous crimes against God so that we can move forward as a people united under one umbrella.”

On Friday (March 5) the National Youth President of the PFN, Dr. Abel Damina, expressed concern over cases of clandestine killings of Christians in remote parts of Plateau state by Islamic extremists and called on the federal government to retrieve sophisticated weapons in their possession.

“Even as I speak to you now, I am receiving reports that some clandestine killings are still going on in the remote areas of Plateau State by the fundamentalists,” Damina reportedly said. “They pounce on Christians and kill them without anybody knowing much of their identity except that they are Christians.”

He added that recently he visited the governor in Jos regarding the crisis and secured photos of Christian victims.

“Young men, Christians, were going to their farm to harvest their produce and the fundamentalists pounced on them,” he said. “They were called infidels. At the last conference, we received reports with photographs of the fundamentalists using AK-47 rifles to destroy our churches. Where did they get the arms from? We have reports of truck loads of arms that had been intercepted, and we did not hear anything about them.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Egyptian security arrests Christian for praying at home


On October 24, 2009 Egyptian State Security recently arrested a Christian Copt in the village of Deir Samalout, Samalout, Minia province, for praying “without a license,” reports Jeremy Reynalds, correspondent for ASSIST News Service.

The incident occurred on Oct. 24 2009.

According to a story by Mary Abdelmassih of the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), he was held in prison for two days before being released on “compassionate grounds.”

AINA reported that Maurice Salama Sharkawy, 37, had invited Pastor Elia Shafik, to conduct the sacrament of the “Anointing of the Sick” for his sick father, who had suffered a stroke. State Security broke into his house while the prayers were ongoing, handcuffed Sharkawy, put him in a police car and took him to a police station for interrogation.

According to AINA, authorities accused Sharkawy of carrying out “religious rites without a license,” and “causing sectarian sedation” by calling a priest into the village. A number of his cousins living in the same house and attending the prayer service, were also detained with him.

State Security has placed Sharkawy under observation.

AINA said that in an audio interview with Wagih Yacoub of Middle East Christian Association (MECA), Sharkawy said that State Security told him he should have first gone to them to obtain permission before carrying out any religious rites. He was also told by Security that there are twelve Muslim houses in the village and that would create sectarian clashes.

The son of the village mayor filed a complaint that Sharkawy had converted his home into a place of worship without obtaining a government license to host religious ceremonies.

AINA said the police record of the investigation states the defendant called for the prayer meeting, which angered a number of Muslim neighbors, who complained to the mayor of the village. The village of Deir Samalut has no church, and the nearest one is in the village of el Tayeba, over five miles away.

AINA reported that Mohammed Khalaf Allah, mayor of the village Deir Samalout, told al-Sherouk newspaper that Sharkawy used to invite Copts in his home, and that he asked him more than once to go to church (in the next village). The mayor said he asked Sharkawy to “pray there, but he claimed that he could not go to church and that the priest visits him at home for ordinary matters, which is common among Christians.”

The mayor also said, “The villagers confirmed to me more than once that the sound of prayer comes out of Maurice’s house, and that he refuses to go to church and decides to pray in his own home together with a number of the village Copts.”

Commenting on the latest incident, Rev. Moses Raphael of the Samalout Coptic Orthodox Diocese said the arrest of the village Copts for praying at home is not uncommon.

AINA reported he said, “Such a matter comes as no surprise; it has become common in Minya to prevent Christians from praying.”

Given the recent security clampdown on Christians praying in places outside their licensed churches, AINA reported Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic Watani newspaper, blames the State as the main party standing in the way of building places of worship which would put an end to human rights violations.

Sidhom said, “Authorities turn a blind eye to Constitutional provisions of equality and freedom of belief. They terrorize worshipers who dare conduct services outside a licensed church, treating them as law violators, despite the fact that the root problem lies in the authorities’ reluctance to permit the erection of new churches or restore existing ones.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

New Dimension in India’s Anti-Christian Violence Feared


Concern grows that Hindu terrorists could become more apt to target Christians.

PUNE, India, November 5 (CDN) — After the recent arrests of numerous Hindu terrorists for exploding bombs, authorities increasingly view Hindu rightwing extremists as a threat not only to Muslim and Christian minorities but also to national security.

Historically Hindu terrorist groups have traded blows with India’s Muslim extremists, but because of a perceived threat from Christianity – as one Hindu extremist leader expressed to Compass – many analysts believe Hindu terrorists increasingly pose dangers to Christians as well.

Police in Goa state arrested two members of Hindu terrorist group Sanatan Sanstha (Eternal Organization) on Saturday (Oct. 31) for their alleged role in an explosion that took place near a church in Margao on Oct 16. Christians, which make up more than 25 percent of the 1.3 million people in Goa, were apparently not the target of the explosion, which occurred accidently when two members of the Sanatan Sanstha were trying to transport explosives to a nearby location on the eve of the Diwali Hindu festival, according to DNA newspaper.

Nevertheless, the incident served as a wake-up call to Christian leaders and others who fear Hindu terrorists could take greater aim at the Christian community. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council (AICC), said that while terrorism was not new for rightwing groups, some of the extremist groups had “metamorphosed into fully fledged terrorism squads on classical lines – cells with local leaders, supply lines, bomb-making experts, and clear linkage with the intellectuals and motivators in the RSS [Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] hierarchy.”

Suresh Khairnar, a civil rights activist who has conducted nearly 100 fact-finding trips on communal incidents, told Compass that Muslims may be the main target of Hindu terrorist outfits, but “there is no doubt that they pose a threat to the Christians also.” He added that these Hindu groups also launch attacks on Hindus from time to time – masquerading as Islamist groups to create communal unrest, as well as to confuse investigating agencies.

Asghar Ali Engineer, chairman of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, concurred that Christians have increasingly become a secondary target for rightwing Hindu terrorists behind Muslims, who form 13.4 percent of the population.

“Christians, on the other hand, are only 2.3 percent,” said Engineer. “And because of their engagement with education, medicine and social work, it is difficult to promote anti-Christian sentiments.”

A former inspector general of police of Maharashtra, S.M. Mushrif, also said that while Muslims are the prime target of Hindu terrorists, attacking Christians also helps the Hindu assailants to portray themselves as “working for a Hindu cause.”

Members of suspected terror groups are known to have attacked Christians. On June 27, Shailendra Chauhan, alias Uday Singh – suspected to be a close aide of Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, the prime suspect in a September 2008 blast in Malegaon, Maharashtra – was arrested for allegedly killing a Christian priest in Noida, a satellite town of Delhi. The 25-year-old Chauhan was also accused of vandalizing a church building in Sangam Vihar in Delhi in October 2008, according to The Times of India.

The AICC’s Dayal added that Islamic groups are the immediate target of Hindu terrorist groups, “but once the terror gangs of Hindutva [Hindu nationalist ideology] taste blood, it is easy to predict that they will swing into action against any perceived enemy target.”

How Alleged Terrorist Group Views Christians

The Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) of Mumbai is investigating powerful bomb blasts in Malegaon town, Maharashtra, allegedly carried out by members of the Hindu nationalist Abhinav Bharat (Pride of India) in September 2008. Compass spoke with the president of Abhinav Bharat about the alleged terrorist group’s attitude toward Christians.

The Malegaon blasts near a mosque killed six people and injured more than 100. The ATS arrested 11 people, including a serving officer of the Indian Army, from the Abhinav Bharat and other rightwing outfits.

The president of the Abhinav Bharat, Himani Savarkar, told Compass that members of her organization had been falsely accused, saying “The government is lying about their involvement. There is collusion between Muslims and the government.”

Asked if only Muslims were a threat to Hindus, she said, “There is danger from both Muslims and Christians, because of conversions and terrorism.”

Conversion represents a threat in that people converting to Islam change their loyalties from India to Mecca, while the loyalties of converts to Christianity shift from India to the Pope, Savarkar said. She also spoke of a more direct threat in Christianity – “Muslims want to kill the kafirs [unbelievers], and even Jesus asks in the Bible to kill all those who do not believe in Him” – and it is not known how many other Hindu extremists share this fallacy.

The number of Hindus, she added, “is slowly reducing, and one day we will become a minority in our own nation. We do not have any other nation.”

Savarkar, niece of Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist who killed Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948, said that in her view the main reasons people convert away from Hinduism are poverty and illiteracy.

“They do not know what they are doing,” she said. “We have to awaken Hindus. Hindus need to be made aware of the threats.”

Violent Despair

The use of bombs is a sign of frustration among extremists, said civil rights activist Khairnar, referring to the two successive defeats of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), India’s chief Hindu nationalist conglomerate. The BJP, which ruled the federal government from 1998 to 2004, has lost both the 2004 and 2009 general elections.

“They are now exploding bombs because they know they cannot succeed democratically,” he said, though he added that bomb-making per se was not a new development. “Even Nathuram Godse, the killer of Mahatma Gandhi, launched several bomb attacks before finally succeeding in assassinating him.”

In the case of the Malegaon blasts, Dayal said that the involvement of Hindu religious leaders and former army personnel indicated that terror attacks by rightwing Hindu groups were well planned. Security analysts warn that the extremist groups must be prevented from graduating to bigger terror groups.

On Oct. 21, the Mumbai Mirror daily quoted an ATS officer as saying Hindu extremist groups “are putting up a mild face as an organization while their members are detonating bombs. It’s only a matter of time before they begin to acquire better technology and more lethal bombs. Their influence is growing; there are several politicians and even ex-policemen who owe allegiance to them. They can be dangerous if not stopped now.”

O.P. Bali, former director general of police of Maharashtra, told Compass that until 2003, the year he retired, extreme Hindu nationalist groups like the Bajrang Dal mainly used weapons like sticks, tridents and knives.

“Bomb-making is a newer development, and they are still learning,” Bali said. “Considering the way some local Islamist groups have graduated from making and detonating of small bombs to bigger ones, the efforts of rightwing groups must be nipped in the bud.”

Hindu/Muslim violence has a long history. In 1947, when India became politically independent, British colonial India was divided into “Hindu-majority” India and “Muslim-majority” Pakistan. The partition resulted in the killing of around 1 million people – Hindu, Sikh and Muslim – in violent clashes mainly during the mass migration of around 14.5 million people from India to Pakistan and vice versa.

Engineer said the common notion that increasing modernization in India would put a halt to the growth of extremist groups was mistaken.

“Extremism is a reaction to modernization, and therefore such groups will grow even bigger in the future.”

Dayal seconded Engineer, saying the rightwing extremist groups were trying to keep pace with Islamist groups.

“Fortunately, in most areas, government vigilance, civil society and good relations between communities have kept these terror groups at the margins,” Dayal said. “But with the growth of parties that use identity-based divisive issues such as the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena party, with the apathy of government in BJP-ruled states, and with the middle-class support base for them, I fear such Hindutva terror groups may grow. That has been the historical experience in Western Europe and elsewhere.”

When suspects in the Malegaon blast were formally charged in January 2009, ATS officials told the court that the alleged terrorists’ goal was formation of a Hindu nation – and that the suspects planned to approach Israeli intelligence for help in combating Muslim extremists if the need arose, according to a Jan. 21 article in The Hindu.

Following numerous arrests, The Times of India daily on Oct. 21 quoted senior police officials as saying that Maharashtra was fast becoming a “hub of rightwing organizations’ terror activities.”

“The youth are being indoctrinated by fundamentalist organizations,” an officer told the daily. “The state should act quickly to control rightwing terror.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Prisoners Freed in Acteal, Mexico Case Yet to Return Home


 

Christians bear no grudges, fear no threats from accusers.

TUXTLA GUTIERREZ, Mexico, October 12 (CDN) — Alonso Lopez Entzin, a Tzotzil-speaking Christian in Chiapas state, Mexico, spent 11 years and eight months in prison for a crime he did not commit. Accused of participating in the tragic “Acteal massacre” in December 1997 in which 45 persons died near San Cristobal de las Casas, he and more than 80 of his neighbors were summarily arrested and charged with the murders.On Aug. 12, the Federal Supreme Court of Mexico ordered that Lopez Entzin and 19 other indigenous men accused in the Acteal killings – 18 are Christian, including Lopez Entzin – be freed from El Amate Penal facility in Chiapas. Their release came as a surprise to him and his fellow prisoners, as well as to thousands of people in Mexico and around the world advocating their release.

Of the 18 Christians released, only five were Christians when they were arrested; the rest came to trust in Christ while in prison. At least 27 innocent men who were Christians at the time of their arrest remain in prison, according to advocacy organizations.

“I thank God that I have been granted freedom,” Lopez Entzin told Compass. “We are no longer imprisoned thanks to the power of God. There is no other person that has this kind of power, only God.”

The court is reviewing the cases of another 31 men convicted in connection with the massacre. Six more defendants will be granted new trials.

“Right now we see the first fruits of our prayers,” said Tomas Perez Mendez, another of the 20 freed prisoners. “We are confident in the Lord that the rest of the brothers are going to obtain their freedom as well.”

Lopez Entzin added that winning their freedom will not be easy.

“When we were inside El Amate, we began to pray, fast and glorify our Lord Jesus Christ. There are thousands and thousands of brothers who prayed for us inside the jail – thank God He answered those prayers,” he said through tears. “That’s why those brothers who remain behind in El Amate believe that if God’s will is done, they will soon be free.”

Most of the remaining Acteal inmates are evangelical Protestant Christians sentenced to 25- and 36-year prison terms. For years, human rights advocates and legal experts have presented legal arguments showing that the men were convicted on dubious evidence. The district court of the state of Chiapas, however, has consistently ruled against the defendants in appeals.

Attorneys for the defendants finally succeeded in bringing the case before the Federal Supreme Court in Mexico City. The justices who reviewed the case found clear violations of due process and on Aug. 12 overturned the convictions in a 4-1 decision.

The court ruling stated that the decision was not a determination of the guilt or innocence of the men, only that their constitutional rights had been violated during their arrest and conviction.

Though grateful to be free at last, Agustin Gomez Perez admitted that prison was “very difficult, very difficult indeed.”

“There inside the jail, everybody loses,” Gomez Perez said. “I saw it. Many lost their wives, their families, their homes. In the years I was in jail I lost my son. It was May 7, 2005. Twelve families were traveling in a truck to visit us in El Amate. They had an accident, and my 3-year-old son Juan Carlos was killed.”

Inmates expressed gratitude for church groups and international organizations that lent support to their families during their incarceration. Some groups supplied chicks, piglets and coffee plants for wives and children to raise on family plots. A volunteer team of doctors and nurses from Veracruz provides free treatment to prisoners and their dependents.

The prisoners said that one of the greatest helps was regular visits from their families. International Christian organizations raised money for bus fares and chartered vehicles to ensure that the prisoners’ families, who could not otherwise afford the travel, saw their husbands and fathers as often as possible.

Normalcy Not Returned

Despite being freed, the 20 men have yet to resume normal life with their families.

“When I left jail, I didn’t think I would be stuck half-way home,” Gomez Perez said. “I was thinking I would come home and see my wife and children. But we haven’t got there. We are left here half-way home.”

“Half-way home” for the released men is the market district in hot, bustling Tuxtla Gutierrez. They are living in makeshift half-way houses provided by the federal government, awaiting resettlement on land that state authorities have promised them.

Compass met with seven of the former inmates in a rented building they occupy with their wives, children and, in some cases, grandchildren. The families share windowless, sparsely furnished rooms with bare cement floors. Government food rations sustain them. While the half-way house is better than prison, it is nothing like the lush, green Chiapas mountains to which they long to return.

The men agreed to the relocation scheme because the farms they worked before going to prison have long since reverted to their heirs or, in some cases, neighbors. They welcome the assistance to get back on their feet financially.

Government officials, however, insist that the Acteal prisoners must relocate to new communities because they fear violent clashes will flare between them and their old rivals.

The seven freed men were unanimous in their opinion that such confrontations would not happen.

“In the first place, we do not agree with what the government is saying,” Gomez Perez said. “We hold no grudges against those who accused us. What happened, happened. We are not thinking vengeance.”

Perez Mendez agreed with Gomez Perez that the men feel no ill will against those who accused them and no resentment for what they suffered in jail.

“God does not want that we hold grudges or take vengeance against anyone,” he said. “There is not really much danger out there in our communities either. When people saw the news on television on Aug. 12 that we were getting out, they were happy. Well, now we hear that they found out we are not coming home, that we are here in Tuxtla, and some are saying, ‘Why don’t they come home? Tell them to come.’”

The Acteal prisoners have reason to hold grudges. Their attorneys say many of them were arrested in random police sweeps in the days following the massacre simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Public indignation over the brutal slayings, fueled by numerous inflammatory press releases from Las Abejas, a civic group whose members were primary targets in the massacre, as well as by the left-leaning human rights organization Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, swelled to fever pitch in December 1997.

Authorities responded by arresting dozens of “suspects,” without evidence or warrants, to quell the outcry.

Some Acteal defendants found themselves accused of the crime by allies of the rebel Zapatista guerrilla army. A land dispute between Zapatista sympathizers and opponents of the rebels intensified during the waning months of 1997, claiming the lives of 18 indigenous men, the majority of them Protestant Christians. Attorneys say indifferent law enforcement officers failed even to investigate the murders, let alone arrest the perpetrators.

Frustrated with the authorities’ foot-dragging and desperate to defend themselves against further aggression, nine indigenous young men armed themselves and confronted their enemies on Dec. 22, 1997. The ensuing firefight and subsequent massacre at the Catholic hermitage in Acteal ended with 45 dead, many of them women and children who were participating in an Abejas-sponsored program that day.

Five of the nine armed men have confessed to participating in the Acteal shootings and insist they acted alone. Those five are serving prison terms in El Amate. Two others were arrested and released because they were minors at the time of the crime. Two more remain at large and, ironically, have reportedly come under the protection of the Zapatistas.

Las Abejas and its allies continue to assert that that the Acteal killings were carried out by “paramilitary” units equipped and assisted by the Mexican army. With the passage of time, many of those who hold this thesis have admitted that most of the Acteal prisoners did not, in fact, participate in the shooting. Nevertheless, they insist that until the “intellectual authors” of the atrocity come forward and confess, not one prisoner – even though innocent of the crime – should be released.

That strange logic has helped to keep more than 50 innocent men in prison for nearly 12 years.

“It is certain that we suffered an injustice for nearly 12 years,” Perez Mendez said. “A lot of people tell us that we are guilty. But as far as we are concerned, God knows all. We did not commit that crime.

He implored Christians to pray for the innocent men who have yet to be released.

Pray as well for we who are not at home in our communities,” he said. “I ask that you not forget us.”Report from Compass Direct News