Islamists Raid House Churches in West Java


Demonstrators drive out 100 Christians in one service, stop worship in others.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, December 18 (CDN) — About 200 demonstrators from hard-line Islamic organizations in West Java on Sunday (Dec. 12) disrupted the worship of a church in Rancaekek district, Bandung, driving more than 100 worshippers from the building.

Members of the Islamic Defenders Front, the Indonesian Ulama Forum and the Islamic Reformist Movement arrived with the Civil Service Police Unit of Rancaekek district and sealed the house, thus leaving other churches that use it without a worship venue. The protestors also disrupted the worship of six other churches meeting in homes the same day.

The demonstrators arrived at 9 a.m., when the Huria Kristen Batak Protestant (of HKBP) Bethania church building had begun worship in the building where a pastor and his family live. The protestors urged the local government to seal the building immediately because it was a private house rather than registered as a place of worship.

About 10 minutes into the church’s worship, the demonstrators removed by force more than 100 members of the HKBP church on Teratai Street, the pastor said.

“Because they were fearful, children and women were crying when they came out of their place of worship,” the Rev. Badia Hutagalung told Compass by phone.

Hutagalong, 26, lives in the second story of the building. Church officials declined to say who owned the home.

Hutagalung said the congregation resisted the temptation to clash with the Islamic protestors, who were using ambulance sirens to disrupt the service.

The Civil Service Police Unit of Rancaekek district then affixed a document on the front of the building declaring, “This house has been sealed because it has violated Bandung Regency Regulation No. 16, of the year 2009, about building administration.”

HKBP elder Jawadi Hutapea said the document was signed by the head of Rancaekek district, Meman Nurjaman, and the chief of the Civil Service police.

Nurjaman reportedly said use of a private house as a place of worship violated the cited regulation.

“It should be only a place to stay but in fact functioned as a place of worship,” Nurjaman told Tempo News. “Now we’ve sealed the house. From now on, the house may only be used as a house to live in.”

Hutagalung said the church was using the house because it had not been able to obtain permission to establish a church building under conditions imposed by Indonesian law. The Joint Ministerial Decree promulgated in 1969 and revised in 2006 requires places of worship to obtain the approval of at least 60 persons from the local community, mandates there be at least 90 church members, and the church must be approved by the the village head.

“These terms are very difficult for us to fullfil,” Hutagalung told Compass.

The HKBP congregation was established in Rancaekek district in 1999, he added, because of the absence of a church for ethnic Bataknese in the area.

District head Nurjaman reportedly suggested that the church use a room at the College of Public Administration in Jatinangor, Sumedang Regency. Hutagalung said his congregation could do that, but he said not all the churches that use the building could merge together there.

“If we are forced to worship with other churches in the college complex, it is the same as closing the HKBP church in Rancaekek,” Hutagalung said.

He said he had received the suggestion from the district head for the churches to merge worship in the college complex a few weeks ago. Hutagalung said he has sought permission for the churches to worship separately in the college complex, but so far he has not received a response from the college building administrator.

If the HKBP church has not found an alternative venue this Sunday, the congregation plans to worship in front of the house that has been sealed, he said.

 

Other Churches Targeted

Other churches based in homes in the district met with the same opposition from Islamic protestors.

The Indonesian Evangelical Tabernacle Church (GKII), which began 20 years ago, met at 9:15 a.m. but the Islamic demonstrators appeared and insisted that they disband immediately, said a GKII pastor identified only as the Rev. Margaretha.

She said worship ended within 20 minutes because the protestors broke through an iron fence to force their way in.

“The mob lifted and slammed the fence until it was damaged,” Pastor Margaretha.

About half of the 60-member congregation, which consists mainly of women, was crying, she said. The protestors forced her to sign a letter promising not to use the house as a place of worship.

“They also damaged the door and the Christmas tree,” Pastor Margaretha said. “In the stressful situation, finally I signed the letter.”

Margaretha added that the demonstrators also took four chairs used for worship.

The Pentecostal Tabernacle Church also began its worship on Sunday (Dec. 12) before the Islamist demonstrators interfered.

The Rev. Filemon Sirait told Compass by phone that when the congregations began to worship at 9:30 a.m., the Islamic protestors suddenly massed in front of the house and forced them to stop.

Seeing that the demonstrators were willing to use force, the congregation finished their worship after only 15 minutes, he said.

“We worshiped only in prayer after that time,” Sirait said.

The demonstrators then barged into the house with a document for the pastor and congregation to sign stipulating that they would not use the place for worship, he said.

“Because we were depressed and fearful, finally we signed the letter stating that we agreed not to use the residential house as a place of worship,” Sirait said.

The church was established in Rancaekek district 12 years ago.

The Muslim protestors also disrupted the worship of the Church of Pentecost-Rancaekek, led by the Rev. Bungaran Silitonga. Established 10 years ago, the church has 40 members.

Silitonga told Compass that the Muslim demonstrators stormed into their house at around 2 p.m. and took 37 chairs used for worship activities.

“They took 37 chairs on the order of the district of Rancaekek,” he said.

Silitonga called the head of Rancaekek district to complain about the stolen chairs, and by evening the official had found and returned them, he said.

Islamist protestors reportedly succeeded in sealing five of seven houses used for Christian worship on Sunday. Other churches whose house worship was disrupted were the Indonesian Christian Church, a Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Christian Church.

Report from Compass Direct News

Indonesian Church Leaders Wounded in Attack


Elder remains in critical condition after being stabbed in heart, stomach.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, September 15 (CDN) — An elder of a West Java church that Muslim groups attacked last month remains in critical condition after a motorcyclist stabbed him in the heart and stomach on his way to a service on Sunday (Sept. 12), according to Theophilus Bela, president of the Jakarta Christian Communication Forum.

Hasian Sihombing of Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) sustained a wound to his heart of three centimeters. Also injured in the attack was the Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak, struck with a wooden block on her back, head and face by another motorcyclist when she tried to help Sihombing.

Simanjuntak, who suffered dizziness after the attack, was still weak and receiving hospital treatment along with Sihombing at Mitra Keluarga Hospital Bekasi Timur, Bela stated in an e-mail advisory today.

A member of the HKBP congregation, Ratna Gurning, told Compass that she was with Sihombing as he and other church members walked to the service in the Ciketing area of Bekasi, where the church has been meeting in an open field after officials in June sealed a house they had used for worship in the Pondok Timur housing complex in Jejalen Jaya sub-district, Bekasi.

“About 500 meters from church, they saw some [16] motorcyclists on eight motorcycles were following them,” Gurning said. “Suddenly, our church elder, Hasian, was stabbed in his stomach.”

Sihombing was bleeding profusely, Gurning said, and Pastor Simanjuntak came to help him.

“Rev. Luspida was beaten from behind with a wooden beam, which struck her head, face, and back,” Gurning said.

Gurning said that Pastor Simanjuntak recognized the assailants as having “come to a religious service of HKBP’s community” to protest.  

On Aug. 8 at least 300 members of the Islamic People’s Forum and the Islamic Defenders Front broke through a police barricade and ordered 20 members of the HKBP church meeting in Ciketing to leave, according to Bela. When the church members refused, the protestors assaulted the group with sticks, stones or their bare hands. Some required hospital treatment.

The previous Sunday, Aug. 1, around 300 Muslim protestors and 300 police officers surrounded members of the HKBP as they worshiped in the open field, and one protestor hit Pastor Simanjuntak on the cheek.

The 1,500-strong congregation has been waiting for local officials to respond to a building permit application filed in 2006. When Muslim neighbors in December 2009 objected to the meetings in a housing complex on the grounds that the church had no permit, officials banned church members from meeting there.

With its building permit application delayed, the church ignored the ban, leading officials to seal the building on June 20. Bekasi Mayor Mochtar Mohammad on July 9 reportedly said he would allow the congregation to meet in public areas or at the city hall, and Pastor Simanjuntak moved worship to the proposed building site. Her church has now filed a case against the Bekasi administration.

Member of Parliament Sukur Nababan told Compass that police must apprehend the assailants in Sunday’s attack quickly. He refuted a comment by Jakarta and Bekasi police officials who said that the incident was not religiously motivated.

“This is not purely criminal,” Nababan said. “This incident was premeditated. Freedom of religious is the responsibility of the government.”

Nababan called on the Bekasi officials to grant a permit to the church for its Christian activities in accordance with the constitutional rights of all Indonesians.

The coordinator of HKBP church’s legal team, Saor Siagian, agreed that the police leaders’ views that the attack was not religiously motivated were erroneous.

“The stabbing of Hasian was not purely a criminal act,” Siagian told Compass. “This incident was pre-planned, and it was terrorism against religious rights.”  

On the day of the attack, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono reportedly asked Djoko Suyanto, minister of political, legal and security affairs, to work with the head of Indonesian Police Jendral Bambang Hendarso Danuri to arrest the assailants.

The chairman of the Communion of Churches in Indonesia, the Rev. Andreas Yewangoe, asked police to thoroughly investigate, stop allowing violence and guarantee security for the congregation.

“We also ask all Christians to remain steadfast in the face of this calamity and not be provoked,” he said.

A demonstration in front of National Police Headquarters in Jakarta is scheduled for Thursday (Sept. 16) at 2:30 p.m. to urge police to seriously investigate the attack.

Report from Compass Direct News

Muslim Protestors Surround Worshipers in Bekasi, Indonesia


Tensions mount as congregation asserts right to worship.

DUBLIN, August 4 (CDN) — Around 300 Muslim protestors and 300 police officers surrounded members of the Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan or HKBP) on Sunday (Aug. 1) as they worshiped in an open field in Ciketing, Bekasi, local sources said.

“There were many police on guard, but the attackers were able to get very close to the congregation,” Theophilus Bela, president of the Jakarta Christian Communication Forum, said in a statement to international government and advocacy groups. “We are afraid that they will attack the church again next Sunday.”

He added that a protestor hit the Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak on the cheek.

Police held back the shouting protestors while the church worshiped, but at one point they allowed Murhali Barda, leader of the Front Pembela Islam (FPI or Islamic Defenders Front) in Bekasi, through the cordon for an angry confrontation with church leaders, Voice of America (VOA) reported.

Bekasi police commander Imam Sugianto told VOA that his forces were there to protect “both sides.”

The New York Times quoted Sugianto as saying that, “If the local people don’t give their permission, they can’t worship here,” but Pastor Simanjuntak said the Bekasi administration had approved the church’s decision to meet in the field, according to The Jakarta Globe.

“We demand the Bekasi administration to let the public know that they gave us the green light to conduct our prayers here,” Pastor Simanjuntak reportedly said.

The 1,500-strong congregation, established some 15 years ago, initially met in each other’s homes before purchasing a residential property in the Pondok Timur housing complex in Bekasi for use as a worship building. The group then met in the building while they waited for local officials to respond to a building permit application filed in 2006.

When Muslim neighbors in December objected to the meetings in the housing complex on the grounds that the church had no permit, officials banned church members from meeting there. As the local government had delayed the processing of its application for a building permit, the church ignored the ban, leading officials to seal the building on June 20.

Bekasi Mayor Mochtar Mohammad on July 9 said he would allow the congregation to meet in public areas or at the city hall, according to the Globe. Pastor Simanjuntak chose to move to the proposed building site, and Sunday meetings at the field in Ciketing were soon greeted by crowds of protestors.

The FPI’s Barda said the church’s insistence on worshipping at the site was a provocation, according to VOA. He also accused Christians in Bekasi of attempting to convert Muslims away from their religion, citing a recent Internet report claiming that the Mahanaim Foundation, a local Christian charity, had carried out a mass baptism of new converts.

Foundation spokeswoman Marya Irawan, however, told The Jakarta Post that the crowds were not baptized but only invited to Mahanaim leader Henry Sutanto’s home as part of an effort to reach out to the poor.

Pastor Simanjuntak’s church has now filed a case against the Bekasi administration.

“I fully support any efforts to take this to the courts,” a local Christian leader who preferred to remain unnamed told Compass. “We need to respond through legal channels and let the government know that these attacks are a gross human rights violation.”

Hard-line Islamic groups held a congress in Bekasi on June 20, and on June 27 announced their united intent to combat the “Christianization” of the region. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Indonesian Muslims Call for Halt to ‘Christianization,’” July 2.)

Bonar Tigor Naipospos, spokesman for Indonesia’s Institute for Peace and Democracy (Setara), told VOA that unsubstantiated rumors about Christians using deceptive practices to convert Muslims have fueled the anger in Bekasi. He reportedly said that Muslims believe that Christians badger people to convert and entice them with money, food or other incentives.

Pastor Simanjuntak has said that she and her church will continue meeting in the field, as they have nowhere else to go.

Report from Compass Direct News

Indonesian Muslims Call for Halt to ‘Christianization’


Forum highlights religious tensions in Bekasi, West Java.

DUBLIN, July 2 (CDN) — Muslim organizations in Bekasi, West Java, on Sunday (June 27) declared their intention to establish paramilitary units in local mosques and a “mission center” to oppose “ongoing attempts to convert people to Christianity,” according to the national Antara news agency.

At a gathering at the large Al Azhar mosque, the leaders of nine organizations announced the results of a Bekasi Islamic Congress meeting on June 20, where they agreed to establish a mission center to halt “Christianization,” form a Laskar Pemuda youth army and push for implementation of sharia (Islamic law) in the region, The Jakarta Post reported.

“If the Muslims in the city can unite, there will be no more story about us being openly insulted by other religions,” Ahmad Salimin Dani, head of the Bekasi Islamic Missionary Council, announced at the gathering. “The center will ensure that Christians do not act out of order.”

Observing an increasing number of house churches, Muslim organizations have accused Bekasi Christians of aggressive proselytizing. The Rev. Simon Timorason of the West Java Christian Communication Forum (FKKB), however, told Compass that most Christians in the area do not proselytize and meet only in small home fellowships due to the lack of officially recognized worship venues.

Many Christian seminary graduates prefer to remain on Java rather than relocate to distant islands, Timorason added, making West Java the ideal place to launch new home-based fellowships for different denominations. But neighbors see only the multiplication of churches, he said, and therefore suspect Muslims are converting to the Christian faith.

“The ideal solution is to have one building with a permit to be used by different denominations in each housing complex,” Timorason said. “If every denomination wants their own church in the same area, it’s a problem.”

 

Declaration of Intent

Kanti Prajogo, chairman of the Congress committee, had hoped to present a written declaration of intent to city officials at the mosque gathering, but officials did not respond to his invitation, according to The Jakarta Post.

Around 200 people attended the June 20 Congress, representing local organizations such as the Bekasi Interfaith Dialogue Forum, the Bekasi Movement Against Apostasy, the local chapters of Muhammadiyah and the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) – two of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organizations – and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), well known for its aggressive opposition to Christians and other non-Muslim groups.

Government officials on Monday (June 28) called for the FPI to be declared a forbidden organization, claiming that FPI members were implicated in “too many” violent incidents.

“We are not concerned about their mission,” legislator Eva Kusuma Sundari reportedly said at a press conference in Jakarta, “but we are concerned about the way they implement their goals.”

A spokesman for another large organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), said Tuesday (July 28) that despite one member being present at the congress in an unofficial capacity, NU had not approved the joint declaration, contradicting a statement made the previous day by Bekasi NU official Abul Mutholib Jaelani, who told The Jakarta Post that he had asked all 56 NU branches in the city to contribute at least 10 members to the youth army.

 

Contributing to Religious Conflict

Rapid residential and industrial development has created huge social problems in Bekasi. Sociologist Andi Sopandi of Bekasi Islamic University told The Jakarta Post that the call for sharia was a warning signal, and that local officials should urgently pursue dialogue between Muslim and Christian leaders.

Locals and newcomers will get along well only if they share similar basic values, particularly religious ones, Sopandi reportedly said, pointing to sharp disputes over the Filadelfia Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) church in Jejalen Jaya sub-district earlier this year as an example.

A neighbor of the church confessed to The Jakarta Post that local clerics had asked him and other residents to sign a petition against constructing the HKBP church building and threatened not to pray at their funerals if they failed to cooperate; the majority of his neighbors signed the document under duress.

Under a 2006 Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB), at least 60 local residents must approve the establishment of a house of worship, whether a mosque or a church. The congregation must also have at least 90 members and obtain letters of recommendation from the local interfaith communication forum (FKUB) and religious affairs office before gaining final approval from district officials.

These terms make it virtually impossible for churches in Bekasi to obtain building permits. Bekasi regency has a population of 1.9 million, of which 98.2 percent are Muslim, according to 2006 data from the Bekasi Regency Religious Affairs office. Protestants, who form 0.67 percent (approximately 12,700 people) of the population, and Catholics who make up 0.55 percent, are served by only 16 officially recognized churches in seven of the 23 sub-districts.

Sudarno Soemodimedjo, deputy chief of the Bekasi FKUB, told The Jakarta Post in February that even if a church construction committee gained the approval of 60 local residents, the FKUB would not issue a letter of recommendation if there were any public objections.

“The SKB orders us to maintain public order, which means we have to refuse the establishment of a house of worship we believe may trigger a conflict in the future,” he said.

As a result, many Christians meet in unrecognized worship venues, giving Muslim groups legal grounds to oppose church gatherings.

“If the SKB was applied consistently, many mosques that were built without permits would have to close,” Timorason told Compass.

The government wants each new settlement to have a place of worship, he added, “but it’s always a mosque. There should be one of each to be fair.”

“Violations against freedom of religion remain rampant [in Indonesia],” confirmed the chairman of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, who goes by the single name of Hendardi, at a press conference announcing the release of its January 2010 “Report on the Condition of Religious and Faith Freedom in Indonesia.”

“This is mostly because the government is half-hearted in its upholding of the right to worship,” he said.

Of 139 violations recorded by the institute last year, West Java took first place with 57 incidents, followed closely by Jakarta at 38.

Report from Compass Direct News

Moroccan Islamists Use Facebook to Target Christians


Local Christians sense authorities, extremists and society in collusion against them.

RABAT, Morocco, June 17 (CDN) — Moroccan Christians say Muslim extremists in the country are aiding and encouraging the government to pursue them by exposing and vilifying them on social networking site Facebook.

Facebook user Gardes Maroc Maroc has posted 32 image collages featuring dozens of Christian converts, calling them “hyena evangelists” or “wolves in lamb’s skins” who are trying to “shake the faith of Muslims.” That terminology on the website, which is in Arabic, matches that of Morocco’s anti-proselytizing law, which outlaws efforts to “shake the faith of Muslims.”

The online images depict Christian converts and their families from across the country and include details about their roles and activities in churches, their personal addresses and anecdotal stories attempting to malign them.

“These are some pics of Moroccan convert hyenas,” reads one image.

Since March, the Moroccan government has expelled more than 100 foreign Christians for alleged “proselytizing.” Authorities failed to give Christians deportation orders or enough time to settle their affairs before they left.

Observers have called this a calculated effort to purge the historically moderate Muslim country, known for its progressive policies, of all Christian elements – both foreign and national.

Amid a national media campaign to vilify Christians in Morocco, more than 7,000 Muslim clerics signed a statement denouncing all Christian activities and calling foreign Christians’ aid work “religious terrorism.”

On the Facebook page, Gardes Maroc Maroc makes a particularly strident call to Moroccan authorities to investigate adoptive parents of children from the village of Ain Leuh, 50 miles south of Fez. The user claims that local Christians under orders of “foreign missionaries” were attempting to adopt the children so missionary efforts would not “go in vain.”

On March 8, the Moroccan government expelled 26 Christian foreign staff members and parents working at Village of Hope in Ain Leuh.

Now efforts against national Christians have gained momentum. One image on the Facebook page challenged the Islamic Ministry of Religious Affairs and Endowments, saying, “Evangelist hyenas are deriding your Ministry.” The page with the images claimed that Christians had rented out an apartment belonging to that government ministry.

An entire page was dedicated to a well-known Christian TV personality in the Middle East, Rashid Hmami, and his family. The user also inserted pictures of hyenas next to those of Christians, presumably to indicate their danger to the nation.

 

National Christians Threatened

Moroccan Christians told Compass that authorities had begun harassing them even before the forced deportations of foreigners, and that pressure from officials only intensified in March and April.

Since the deportations started in early March, it seems that authorities, extremists and society as a whole have colluded against them, local Christians said. Dozens of Christians have been called to police stations for interrogation. Many of them have been threatened and verbally abused.

“They mocked our faith,” said one Moroccan Christian who requested anonymity. “They didn’t talk nicely.”  

Authorities interrogated the convert for eight hours and followed him for three weeks in March and April, he said. During interrogation, he added, local police told him they were prepared to throw him in jail and kill him.

Another Moroccan Christian reported that a Muslim had taken him to court because of his Christian activities. Most Moroccan Christians that spoke to Compass said the attitudes of their Muslim relatives had shifted, and many have been kicked out of their homes or chosen to leave “to not create problems” for their families.

Moroccan converts meet in house churches. Some of them have stopped meeting until the pressure subsides.

“The government is testing the reactions,” said Moroccan lawyer Abdel Adghirni of the recent pressure on Christians.

The lawyer, known as one of the strongest defenders of Berber rights in Morocco, said that although the government’s recent reactions seem regressive, they are part of the nation’s societal transformation process.

“The government is trying to dominate,” said Adghirni. “They are defending themselves. They feel the wind of change. All of this is normal for me – like a complex chemistry that activates as different elements come into contact. Things are moving.”

 

Congressional Hearing

In an effort to alert U.S. Congress to the sudden turn against religious tolerance in Morocco, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission is holding congressional hearings today on the deportations of foreign Christians from the country.

Earlier today, the National Clergy Council held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to congratulate the Moroccan government on religious tolerance. Organizers of the congressional hearings said they view the council’s press conference as an effort to counter the hearings.

The Rev. Rob Schenck, who heads the council, has had numerous exchanges with Moroccan Islamic leaders and in early April met with the Moroccan ambassador to the United States.

“I have enjoyed a close friendship of several years with the ambassador,” Schenck stated on his website.

Organizers of the congressional hearings have said they are baffled that the National Clergy Council, and in particular Schenck, would speak so highly of the Moroccan government at a time when it is in such blatant violation of human rights.

“There’s good and bad in every country, but what Morocco has done on the whole to advance religious liberty in that region of the world is extraordinary,” Schenck said in a media statement yesterday on Christian Newswire. “We hope to present a fair and balanced picture of this unusual country.”

Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.), co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said that the Moroccan government has deported nearly 50 U.S. citizens.

“In spite of this, the U.S. government has pledged $697.5 million to Morocco over the next five years through the Millennium Challenge Corporation,” he said. Wolf is advocating that the United States withhold the nearly $697.5 million in aid that it has pledged to Morocco.  

“It is inappropriate for American taxpayer money to go to a nation which disregards the rights of American citizens residing in Morocco and forcibly expels Americans without due process of law,” he said.

Among those appearing at the hearing today is Dutch citizen Herman Boonstra, leader of Village of Hope, who was expelled in March. Boonstra and his wife were forced to leave eight adopted children in Morocco. Moroccan authorities have refused re-entry for the couple, as they have for all deported Christian foreigners.

Lawyer Adghirni said he believes Morocco cannot survive and develop economically – and democratically – without national diversity.

“We can’t be free without Christians,” Adghirni said. “The existence of Christians among us is the proof of liberty.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Egyptian Couple Shot by Muslim Extremists Undaunted in Ministry


Left for dead, Christians offer to drop charges if allowed to construct church building.

CAIRO, Egypt, June 9 (CDN) — Rasha Samir was sure her husband, Ephraim Shehata, was dead.

He was covered with blood, had two bullets inside him and was lying facedown in the dust of a dirt road. Samir was lying on top of him doing her best to shelter him from the onslaught of approaching gunmen.

With arms outstretched, the men surrounded Samir and Shehata and pumped off round after round at the couple. Seconds before, Samir could hear her husband mumbling Bible verses. But one bullet had pierced his neck, and now he wasn’t moving. In a blind terror, Samir tried desperately to stop her panicked breathing and convincingly lie still, hoping the gunmen would go away.

Finally, the gunfire stopped and one of the men spoke. “Let’s go. They’re dead.”

 

‘Break the Hearts’

On the afternoon of Feb. 27, lay pastor Shehata and his wife Samir were ambushed on a desolate street by a group of Islamic gunmen outside the village of Teleda in Upper Egypt.

The attack was meant to “break the hearts of the Christians” in the area, Samir said.

The attackers shot Shehata twice, once in the stomach through the back, and once in the neck. They shot Samir in the arm. Both survived the attack, but Shehata is still in the midst of a difficult recovery. The shooters have since been arrested and are in jail awaiting trial. A trial cannot begin until Shehata has recovered enough to attend court proceedings.

Despite this trauma, being left with debilitating injuries, more than 85,000 Egyptian pounds (US$14,855) in medical bills and possible long-term unemployment, Shehata is willing to drop all criminal charges against his attackers – and avoid what could be a very embarrassing trial for the nation – if the government will stop blocking Shehata from constructing a church building.

Before Shehata was shot, one of the attackers pushed him off his motorcycle and told him he was going to teach him a lesson about “running around” or being an active Christian.

Because of his ministry, the 34-year-old Shehata, a Coptic Orthodox Christian, was arguably the most visible Christian in his community. When he wasn’t working as a lab technician or attending legal classes at a local college, he was going door-to-door among Christians to encourage them in any way he could. He also ran a community center and medical clinic out of a converted two-bedroom apartment. His main goal, he said, was to “help Christians be strong in their faith.”

The center, open now for five years, provided much-needed basic medical services for surrounding residents for free, irrespective of their religion. The center also provided sewing training and a worksite for Christian women so they could gain extra income. Before the center was open in its present location, he ran similar services out of a relative’s apartment.

“We teach them something that can help them with the future, and when they get married they can have some way to work and it will help them get money for their families,” Shehata said.

Additionally, the center was used to teach hygiene and sanitation basics to area residents, a vital service to a community that uses well water that is often polluted or full of diseases. Along with these services, Shehata and his wife ran several development projects, repairing the roofs of shelters for poor people, installing plumbing, toilets and electrical systems. The center also distributed free food to the elderly and the infirm.

The center has been run by donations and nominal fees used to pay the rent for the apartment. Shehata has continued to run the programs as aggressively as he can, but he said that even before the shooting that the center was barely scraping by.

“We have no money to build or improve anything,” he said. “We have a safe, but no money to put in it.”

 

Tense Atmosphere

In the weeks before the shooting, Teleda and the surrounding villages were gripped with fear.

Christians in the community had been receiving death threats by phone after a Muslim man died during an attack on a Christian couple. On Feb. 2, a group of men in nearby Samalout tried to abduct a Coptic woman from a three-wheeled motorcycle her husband was driving. The husband, Zarif Elia, punched one of the attackers in the nose. The Muslim, Basem Abul-Eid, dropped dead on the spot.

Elia was arrested and charged with murder. An autopsy later revealed that the man died of a heart attack, but local Muslims were incensed.

Already in the spotlight for his ministry activities, Shehata heightened his profile when he warned government officials that Christians were going to be attacked, as they had been in Farshout and Nag Hammadi the previous month. He also gave an interview to a human rights activist that was posted on numerous Coptic websites. Because of this, government troops were deployed to the town, and extremists were unable to take revenge on local Christians – but only after almost the
entire Christian community was placed under house arrest.

“They chose me,” Shehata said, “Because they thought I was the one serving everybody, and I was the one who wrote the government telling them that Muslims were going to set fire to the Christian houses because of the death.”

Because of his busy schedule, Shehata and Samir, 27, were only able to spend Fridays and part of every Saturday together in a village in Samalut, where Shehata lives. Every Saturday after seeing Samir, Shehata would drive her back through Teleda to the village where she lives, close to her family. Samalut is a town approximately 105 kilometers (65 miles) south of Cairo.

On the afternoon of Feb. 27, Shehata and his wife were on a motorcycle on a desolate stretch of hard-packed dirt road. Other than a few scattered farming structures, there was nothing near the road but the Nile River on one side, and open fields dotted with palm trees on the other.

Shehata approached a torn-up section of the road and slowed down. A man walked up to the vehicle carrying a big wooden stick and forced him to stop. Shehata asked the man what was wrong, but he only pushed Shehata off the motorcycle and told him, “I’m going to stop you from running around,” Samir recounted.

Shehata asked the man to let Samir go. “Whatever you are going to do, do it to me,” he told the man.

The man didn’t listen and began hitting Shehata on the leg with the stick. As Shehata stumbled, Samir screamed for the man to leave them alone. The man lifted the stick again, clubbed Shehata once more on the leg and knocked him to the ground. As Shehata struggled to get up, the man took out a pistol, leveled it at Shehata’s back and squeezed the trigger.

Samir started praying and screaming Jesus’ name. The man turned toward her, raised the pistol once more, squeezed off another round, and shot Samir in the arm. Samir looked around and saw a few men running toward her, but her heart sank when she realized they had come not to help them but to join the assault.

Samir jumped on top of Shehata, rolled on to her back and started begging her attackers for their lives, but the men, now four in all, kept firing. Bullets were flying everywhere.

“I was scared. I thought I was going to die and that the angels were going to come and get our spirits,” Samir said. “I started praying, ‘Please God, forgive me, I’m a sinner and I am going to die.’”

Samir decided to play dead. She leaned back toward her husband, closed her eyes, went limp and tried to stop breathing. She said she felt that Shehata was dying underneath her.

“I could hear him saying some of the Scriptures, the one about the righteous thief [saying] ‘Remember me when you enter Paradise,’” she said. “Then a bullet went through his neck, and he stopped saying anything.”

Samir has no way of knowing how much time passed, but eventually the firing stopped. After she heard one of the shooters say, “Let’s go, they’re dead,” moments later she opened her eyes and the men were gone. When she lifted her head, she heard her husband moan.

 

Unlikely Survival

When Shehata arrived at the hospital, his doctors didn’t think he would survive. He had lost a tremendous amount of blood, a bullet had split his kidney in two, and the other bullet was lodged in his neck, leaving him partially paralyzed.

His heartbeat was so faint it couldn’t be detected. He was also riddled with a seemingly limitless supply of bullet fragments throughout his body.

Samir, though seriously injured, had fared much better than Shehata. The bullet went into her arm but otherwise left her uninjured. When she was shot, Samir was wearing a maternity coat. She wasn’t pregnant, but the couple had bought the coat in hopes she soon would be. Samir said she thinks the gunman who shot her thought he had hit her body, instead of just her arm.

The church leadership in Samalut was quickly informed about the shooting and summoned the best doctors they could, who quickly traveled to help Shehata and Samir. By chance, the hospital had a large supply of blood matching Shehata’s blood type because of an elective surgical procedure that was cancelled. The bullets were removed, and his kidney was repaired. The doctors however, were forced to leave many of the bullet fragments in Shehata’s body.

As difficult as it was to piece Shehata’s broken body back together, it paled in comparison with the recovery he had to suffer through. He endured multiple surgeries and was near death several times during his 70 days of hospitalization.

Early on, Shehata was struck with a massive infection. Also, because part of his internal tissue was cut off from its blood supply, it literally started to rot inside him. He began to swell and was in agony.

“I was screaming, and they brought the doctors,” Shehata said. The doctors decided to operate immediately.

When a surgeon removed one of the clamps holding Shehata’s abdomen together, the intense pressure popped off most of the other clamps. Surgeons removed some stomach tissue, part of his colon and more than a liter of infectious liquid.

Shehata could not eat normally and lost 35 kilograms (approximately 77 lbs.). He also couldn’t evacuate his bowels for at least 11 days, his wife said.

Despite the doctors’ best efforts, infections continued to rage through Shehata’s body, accompanied by alarming spikes in body temperature.

Eventually, doctors sent him to a hospital in Cairo, where he spent a week under treatment. A doctor there prescribed a different regimen of antibiotics that successfully fought the infection and returned Shehata’s body temperature to normal.

Shehata is recovering at home now, but he still has a host of medical problems. He has to take a massive amount of painkillers and is essentially bedridden. He cannot walk without assistance, is unable to move the fingers on his left hand and cannot eat solid food. In approximately two months he will undergo yet another surgery that, if all goes well, will allow him to use the bathroom normally.

“Even now I can’t walk properly, and I can’t lift my leg more than 10 or 20 centimeters. I need someone to help me just to pull up my underwear,” Shehata said. “I can move my arm, but I can’t move my fingers.”

Samir does not complain about her condition or that of Shehata. Instead, she sees the fact that she and her husband are even alive as a testament to God’s faithfulness. She said she thinks God allowed them to be struck with the bullets that injured them but pushed away the bullets that would have killed them.

“There were lots of bullets being shot, but they didn’t hit us, only three or four,” she said. “Where are the others?”

Even in the brutal process of recovery, Samir found cause for thanks. In the beginning, Shehata couldn’t move his left arm, but now he can. “Thank God and thank Jesus, it was His blessing to us,” Samir said. “We were kind of dead, now we are alive."

Still, Samir admits that sometimes her faith waivers. She is facing the possibility that Shehata might not work for some time, if ever. The couple owes the 85,000 Egyptian pounds (US$14,855) in medical bills, and continuing their ministry at the center and in the surrounding villages will be difficult at best.

“I am scared now, more so than during the shooting,” she said. “Ephraim said do not be afraid, it is supposed to make us stronger.”

So Samir prays for strength for her husband to heal and for patience. In the meantime, she said she looks forward to the day when the struggles from the shooting are over and she can look back and see how God used it to shape them.

“There is a great work the Lord is doing in our lives, we may not know what the reason is now, but maybe some day we will,” Samir said.

 

Government Opposition

For the past 10 years, Shehata has tried to erect a church building, or at a minimum a house, that he could use as a dedicated community center. But local Muslims and Egypt’s State Security Investigations (SSI) agency have blocked him every step of the way. He had, until the shooting happened, all but given up on constructing the church building.

On numerous occasions, Shehata has been stopped from holding group prayer meetings after people complained to the SSI. In one incident, a man paid by a land owner to watch a piece of property near the community center complained to the SSI that Shehata was holding prayer meetings at the facility. The SSI made Shehata sign papers stating he wouldn’t hold prayer meetings at the center.

At one time, Shehata had hoped to build a house to use as a community center on property that had been given to him for that purpose. Residents spread a rumor that he was actually erecting a church building, and police massed at the property to prevent him from doing any construction.

There is no church in the town where Shehata lives or in the surrounding villages. Shehata admits he would like to put up a church building on the donated property but says it is impossible, so he doesn’t even try.

In Egypt constructing or even repairing a church building can only be done after a complex government approval process. In effect, it makes it impossible to build a place for Christian worship. By comparison, the construction of mosques is encouraged through a system of subsidies.

“It is not allowed to build a church in Egypt,” Shehata said. “We can’t build a house. We can’t build a community center. And we can’t build a church.”

Because of this, Shehata and his wife organize transportation from surrounding villages to St. Mark’s Cathedral in Samalut for Friday services and sacraments. Because of the lack of transportation options, the congregants are forced to ride in a dozen open-top cattle cars.

“We take them not in proper cars or micro-buses, but trucks – the same trucks we use to move animals,” he said.

The trip is dangerous. A year ago a man fell out of one of the trucks onto the road and died. Shehata said bluntly that Christians are dying in Egypt because the government won’t allow them to construct church buildings.

“I feel upset about the man who died on the way going to church,” he said.

 

Church-for-Charges Swap

The shooters who attacked Shehata and Samir are in jail awaiting trial. The couple has identified each of the men, but even if they hadn’t, finding them for arrest was not a difficult task. The village the attackers came from erupted in celebration when they heard the pastor and his wife were dead.

Shehata now sees the shooting as a horrible incident that can be turned to the good of the believers he serves. He said he finds it particularly frustrating that numerous mosques have sprouted up in his community and surrounding areas during the 10 years he has been prevented from putting up a church building, or even a house. There are two mosques alone on the street of the man who died while being trucked to church services, he said.

Shehata has decided to forgo justice in pursuit of an opportunity to finally construct a church building. He has approached the SSI through church leaders, saying that if he is allowed to construct a church building, then he will take no part in the criminal prosecution of the shooters.

“I have told the security forces through the priests that I will drop the case if they can let us build the church on the piece of land,” he said.

The proposal isn’t without possibilities. His trial has the potential of being internationally embarrassing. It raises questions about fairness in Egyptian society during an upcoming presidential election that will be watched by the world.

Regardless of what happens, Shehata said all he wants is peace and for the rights of Christians to be respected. He said that in Egypt, Christians have less value than the “birds of the air” mentioned in the Bible. According to Luke 12:6, five sparrows sold for two pennies in ancient times.

“We are not to be killed like birds, slaughtered,” he said. “We are human.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Another Copt Killed as Alleged Shooters Plead Not Guilty in Egypt


Coptic carpenter killed outside building that Muslims feared would be used as church.

ISTANBUL, February 16 (CDN) — Three men accused of killing six Coptic worshipers and a security guard pleaded not guilty on Saturday (Feb. 13) as the Coptic community mourned the loss of yet another victim of apparent anti-Christian violence.

The three men allegedly sprayed a crowd with gunfire after a Christmas service in Nag Hammadi on Jan. 6. In addition to the seven that were killed, nine others were wounded. The killings were the worst act of anti-Coptic violence since January 2000, when 20 Copts were killed in sectarian fighting in Al-Kosheh.

Defendants Mohammed al-Kammuni, Qorshi Abul Haggag and Hendawi Sayyed appeared Saturday in an emergency security court in Qena, a city 39 miles (63 kilometers) north of Luxor.

In front of the packed courtroom, the three men said little at the hearing other than to enter their plea before Judge Mohammed Adul Magd, according to one attorney present at the hearing. The men are charged with premeditated murder, public endangerment and damaging property.

Numerous Muslim attorneys volunteered to defend them for free as seven attorneys representing the interests of the victims looked on. The next hearing is set for March 20.

Even as the men entered their pleas, the Coptic community mourned the loss of yet another Christian, this one shot dead by police. On the evening of Feb. 9, Malak Saad, a 25-year-old Coptic carpenter living in Teta in Menoufia Province, was walking outside a meeting hall that police had seized from Christians when he was shot through his chest at close range. He died instantly.

Scant details are known about the shooting. Police surrounded the entire village and closed it to all reporters. In a statement, officials at the Interior Ministry said the Saad was killed by mistake when a bullet discharged while a police guard was cleaning his weapon. The Interior Ministry said the shooter has been detained and will be tried in a military court. Such courts are traditionally closed to the public.

One of Saad’s cousins, who requested anonymity, disputed the Interior Ministry’s version of the incident. He said that the guard had used the bathroom inside the meeting hall and had come outside of the building when he exchanged a few words with Saad and shot him at close range. The bullet went completely through Saad’s chest.

The building in question had been Coptic-owned for 16 years, but two days prior to the shooting, police seized it after a group of Muslims started a rumor that the owners planned to convert the hall into a church building.

Disputes over worship venues are common in Egypt. Copts and other Christians are extremely restricted in opening or even maintaining houses of worship because of complex government statutes. Anti-Christian elements within Egyptian society often use the statutes to harass Christians, Christian leaders said.

Christians Arrested

Following the Jan. 6 shootings, in a move that Christian leaders said was designed to silence the Coptic community’s protests, police began going door to door and arresting Coptic men in their late teens and 20s. Reports vary widely on the numbers of how many men were arrested, but 15 arrests have been confirmed.

Early in the morning of Jan. 8, officers from State Security Intelligence appeared at the home of Tanios Samuel looking for a different house. When officers realized they were at the wrong home, they arrested his brothers, Fady Milad Samuel, 21, and Wael Milad Samuel, 24.

“We are Copts. It is their country, they will do whatever they want,” Tanios Samuel said about the arrests.

He said the government is using his brothers and the others arrested as pawns to silence dissent. He said he lives in fear for himself and his brothers.

“The families are very scared – scared of violence, getting threats all the time,” Samuel said. “All we want is peace.”

Last month’s attack brought widespread outrage across the Coptic community and from human rights groups around the world.

Since his rise to power in 1981, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has avoided classifying any anti-Coptic attack as part of a larger sectarian struggle within the country. His critics however, have long said his policies or lack thereof contribute greatly to the anti-Christian climate within the country.

Although freedom of religion is guaranteed in Egypt’s constitution, Islam is the official state religion. In public schools, the Quran is used to teach Arabic.

On Jan. 21, Mubarak made an uncharacteristically strong statement about the shootings to MENA, the government-run news agency.

“The criminal act in Nag Hammadi has bled the hearts of Egyptians,” he said. “I hasten to affirm that the reasonable people of this nation, and its religious leaders and thinkers … bear the greater responsibility to contain discord and ignorance and blind fanaticism and to confront the despicable sectarian strife that threatens the unity of our society.”

Despite Mubaraks’s comments, the government has characterized the attack as either a random criminal act or as one done in reaction to a November incident in which a 21-year-old Christian man allegedly raped a 12-year-old Muslim girl.

In an interview with BBC Arabic, Dr. Fathi Sourour, head of the Egyptian Parliament, said, “The Nag Hammadi shooting of Christians on Christmas Eve was a single criminal act, with no sectarian dimensions.” He added that the crime was “prompted by the ‘death’ of a Muslim girl as a result of being raped by a Copt.”

Later, commenting on a report about the incident, he described the shootings as “a clash between two brothers living in one home.”

Copts, however, have a starkly different impression of the shooting.

Georgette Qillini, a Coptic member of the Egyptian Parliament, described the attack as “a purely sectarian crime and by no means an individual criminal attack,” the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram reported.

Ibtessam Habib, another Coptic Parliament member, agreed that “sectarian rather than personal motives lie behind the Nag Hammadi attack.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

India Finally Allows EU to Visit Orissa – But No Fact-Finding


After months of asking, delegation wins clearance to enter Kandhamal district.

NEW DELHI, January 29 (CDN) — Weary of international scrutiny of troubled Kandhamal district in Orissa state, officials yesterday finally allowed delegates from the European Union (EU) to visit affected areas – as long as they do no fact-finding.

A team of 13 diplomats from the EU was to begin its four-day tour of Kandhamal district yesterday, but the federal government had refused to give the required clearance to visit the area, which was wracked by anti-Christian violence in 2008. A facilitator of the delegation said that authorities then reversed themselves and yesterday gave approval to the team.

The team plans to visit Kandhamal early next month to assess the state government’s efforts in rehabilitating victims and prosecuting attackers in the district, where a spate of anti-Christian violence in August-September 2008 killed over 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

When the federal government recommended that Orissa state officials allow the delegation to visit the area, the state government agreed under the condition that the diplomats undertake no fact-finding, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency. The government stipulated to the EU team, led by the deputy chief of mission of the Spanish embassy, Ramon Moreno, that they are only to interact with local residents. The delegation consented.

Delegates from the EU had also sought a visit to Kandhamal in November 2009, but the government denied permission. The diplomats from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Finland were able to make it only to the Orissa state capital, Bhubaneswar, at that time.

Ironically, three days before the government initially denied permission to the EU team, the head of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Mohan Bhagwat, visited Orissa and addressed a huge rally of its cadres in Bhubaneswar, reported PTI on Tuesday (Jan. 26).

While Bhagwat was not reported to have made an inflammatory speech, many Christians frowned on his visit. It is believed that his organization was behind the violence in Kandhamal, which began after a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, was killed by Maoists (extreme Marxists) on Aug. 23, 2008. Hindu extremist groups wrongly blamed it on local Christians in order to stir up anti-Christian violence.

On Nov. 11, Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told the state assembly House that 85 people from the RSS, 321 members of the VHP and 118 workers of the Bajrang Dal, youth wing of the VHP, were rounded up by the police for the attacks in Kandhamal.

EU’s Indictments

It is believed that New Delhi was hesitant to allow EU’s teams into Kandhamal because it has indicted India on several occasions for human rights violations. Soon after violence broke out in Kandhamal, the European Commission, EU’s executive wing, called it a “massacre of minorities.”

Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, who was attending the ninth India-EU summit in France at the time of the violence, called the anti-Christian attacks a “national shame.” French President Nicolas Sarkozy, head of the European Council, and Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, took up the issue “strongly with Singh,” reported The Times of India on Sept. 30, 2008.

On Aug. 17, 2009, the EU asked its citizens not to visit Kandhamal in an advisory stating that religious tensions were not yet over. “We therefore advise against travel within the state and in rural areas, particularly in the districts of Kandhamal and Bargarh,” it stated.

The EU’s advisory came at a time when the state government was targeting the visit of 200,000 foreign tourists to Orissa, noted PTI.

Kandhamal Superintendent of Police Praveen Kumar suggested that the advisory was not based on truth.

“There is no violence in Kandhamal since October 2008,” he told PTI. “The people celebrated Christmas and New Year’s Day as peace returned to the tribal dominated district.”

Before denying permission to the EU, the Indian government had restricted members of a U.S. panel from coming to the country. In June 2009, the government refused to issue visas for members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to visit Orissa. The panel then put India on its “Watch List” for the country’s violations of religious freedom.

Tensions Remain

Local human rights activist Ajay Singh said that while the state government had made some efforts to rehabilitate the victims, a lot more needed to be done.

An estimated 300 families are still living in private relief camps in Kandhamal, and at least 1,200 families have left Kandhamal following the violence, he said. These families have not gone back to their villages, fearing that if they returned without converting to Hinduism they would be attacked, he added.

Singh also said that authorities have asked more than 100 survivors of communal violence living in an abandoned market complex known as NAC, in G. Udayagiri area of Kandhamal, to move out. He said it is possible they were asked to leave because of the intended visit of the EU team.

Of the more than 50,000 people displaced by the violence, around 1,100 have received some compensation either from the government or from Christian and other organizations, he added.

Additionally, the state administration has to do much more in bringing the attackers to justice, said a representative of the Christian Legal Association. Of the total 831 police cases registered, charges have been filed in around 300 cases; 133 of these have been dropped due to “lack of evidence,” said the source.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Lunar missions could prove creation true


Current space programs may set their sights on Mars, but a team of astronomers and a biochemist at the science-faith think tank Reasons To Believe (RTB) publicly encourage NASA and other space agencies to revisit the lunar surface—to look for the remains of Earth’s oldest life-forms, reports Maureen Bell and Kathy Ross, special to ASSIST News Service.

Astronomer and RTB president Hugh Ross says, “The Apollo program helped researchers solve the mystery of the Moon’s origin. Return missions to the Moon could solve the mystery of life’s origin.”

According to biochemist Fazale Rana, “Chemical signatures confirm life was present on Earth in fair abundance back to 3.8 billion years ago.” What’s missing, he says, are the fossils. “Wind and water erosion and plate tectonics have destroyed the fossils of Earth’s first life. [But] there are good reasons to expect them in abundance in pristine forms on the Moon.”

Ross and fellow astronomer Jeff Zweerink point out that when the Earth was young, it was “bombarded” by asteroids and large meteorites. “These collisions sent large amounts of the Earth’s surface material into outer space, and much of that material landed on the Moon—about a million kilograms on every 100 square kilometers of the Moon’s surface.”

New research by British earth scientist Ian Crawford indicates that at least some of this Earth material made it to the Moon with its fossil structures still intact. Crawford affirms that “substantial survivability is to be expected.”

In their book Origins of Life, Rana and Ross present their model for the origin of life. This model, totally compatible with the Bible, predicts that (1) Earth’s first life would be both complex and diverse; and (2) the origin of life occurred suddenly, as soon as Earth’s physical conditions permitted. Non-theistic models predict the opposite.

As Ross stated in a lecture at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, “We are thrilled with the prospect that lunar missions could put our creation model to the test, either affirming or showing us wrong. Finding and analyzing pristine fossils of Earth’s first life could help settle, finally, one of the great creation-evolution controversies.”

About Reasons To Believe

Reasons To Believe is a California-based science-faith think tank. Founded by Hugh Ross in 1986, the organization strives to demonstrate that science and faith are, and always will be, allies, not enemies. Through myriad resources—including books, print periodicals, podcasts, and a content-rich website—speaking engagements, and radio and TV interviews, RTB scholars present reasons for confidence in the findings of science and in the authority of the Bible. For more information and resources, visit www.reasons.org

Report from the Christian Telegraph