A Recipe for a great time with Friends
Taliban takes responsibility, but medical organization unsure of killers’ identity.
ISTANBUL, August 12 (CDN) — The killing of a team of eye medics, including eight Christian aid workers, in a remote area of Afghanistan last week was likely the work of opportunistic gunmen whose motives are not yet clear, the head of the medical organization said today.
On Friday (Aug. 6), 10 medical workers were found shot dead next to their bullet-ridden Land Rovers. The team of two Afghan helpers and eight Christian foreigners worked for the International Assistance Mission (IAM). They were on their way back to Kabul after having provided medical care to Afghans in one of the country’s remotest areas.
Afghan authorities have not been conclusive about who is responsible for the deaths nor the motivation behind the killings. In initial statements last week the commissioner of Badakhshan, where the killings took place, said it was an act of robbers. In the following days, the Taliban took responsibility for the deaths.
The Associated Press reported that a Taliban spokesman said they had killed them because they were spies and “preaching Christianity.” Another Taliban statement claimed that they were carrying Dari-language Bibles, according to the news agency. Initially the attack was reported as a robbery, which IAM Executive Director Dirk Frans said was not true.
“There are all these conflicting reports, and basically our conclusion is that none of them are true,” Frans told Compass. “This was an opportunistic attack where fighters had been displaced from a neighboring district, and they just happened to know about the team. I think this was an opportunistic chance for them to get some attention.”
A new wave of tribal insurgents seeking territory, mineral wealth and smuggling routes has arisen that, taken together, far outnumber Taliban rebels, according to recent U.S. intelligence reports.
Frans added that he is expecting more clarity as authorities continue their investigations.
He has denied the allegation that the members of their medical team were proselytizing.
“IAM is a Christian organization – we have never hidden this,” Frans told journalists in Kabul on Monday (Aug. 9). “Indeed, we are registered as such with the Afghan government. Our faith motivates and inspires us – but we do not proselytize. We abide by the laws of Afghanistan.”
IAM has been registered as a non-profit Christian organization in Afghanistan since 1966.
Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a former political candidate, dismissed the Taliban’s claims that team members were proselytizing or spying, according to the BBC.
“These were dedicated people,” Abdullah said according to the BBC report. “Tom Little used to work in Afghanistan with his heart – he dedicated half of his life to service the people of Afghanistan.”
Abdullah had trained as an eye surgeon under Tom Little, 62, an optometrist who led the team that was killed last week. Little and his family had lived in Afghanistan for more than 30 years with IAM providing eye care.
IAM has provided eye care and medical help in Afghanistan since 1966. In the last 44 years, Frans estimates they have provided eye care to more than 5 million Afghans.
Frans said he doesn’t think that Christian aid workers are particularly targeted, since every day there are many Afghan casualties, and the insurgents themselves realize they need the relief efforts.
“We feel that large parts of the population are very much in favor of what we do,” he said. “The people I met were shocked [by the murders]; they knew the members of the eye care team, and they were shocked that selfless individuals who are going out of their way to actually help the Afghan people … they are devastated.”
The team had set up a temporary medical and eye-treatment camp in the area of Nuristan for two and a half weeks, despite heavy rains and flooding affecting the area that borders with Pakistan.
Nuristan communities had invited the IAM medical team. Afghans of the area travelled from the surrounding areas to receive treatment in the pouring rain, said Little’s wife in a CNN interview earlier this week, as she recalled a conversation with her husband days before he was shot.
Little called his wife twice a day and told her that even though it was pouring “sheets of rain,” hundreds of drenched people were gathering from the surrounding areas desperate to get medical treatment.
The Long Path Home
The team left Nuristan following a difficult path north into Badakhshan that was considered safer than others for reaching Kabul. Frans said the trek took two days in harsh weather, and the team had to cross a mountain range that was 5,000 meters high.
“South of Nuristan there is a road that leads into the valley where we had been asked to come and treat the eye patients, and a very easy route would have been through the city of Jalalabad and then up north to Parun, where we had planned the eye camp,” Frans told Compass. “However, that area of Nuristan is very unsafe.”
When the team ended their trek and boarded their vehicles, the armed group attacked them and killed all but one Afghan member of the team. Authorities and IAM believe the team members were killed between Aug. 4 and 5. Frans said he last spoke with Little on Aug. 4.
IAM plans eye camps in remote areas every two years due to the difficulty of preparing for the work and putting a team together that is qualified and can endure the harsh travel conditions, he said.
“We have actually lost our capacity to do camps like this in remote areas because we lost two of our veteran people as well as others we were training to take over these kinds of trips,” Frans said.
The team of experts who lost their lives was composed of two Afghan Muslims, Mahram Ali and another identified only as Jawed; British citizen Karen Woo, German Daniela Beyer, and U.S. citizens Little, Cheryl Beckett, Brian Carderelli, Tom Grams, Glenn Lapp and Dan Terry.
“I know that the foreign workers of IAM were all committed Christians, and they felt this was the place where they needed to live out their life in practice by working with and for people who have very little access to anything we would call normal facilities,” said Frans. “The others were motivated by humanitarian motives. All of them in fact were one way or another committed to the Afghan people.”
The two Afghans were buried earlier this week. Little and Terry, who both had lived in the war-torn country for decades, will be buried in Afghanistan.
Despite the brutal murders, Frans said that as long as the Afghans and their government continue to welcome them, IAM will stay.
“We are here for the people, and as long as they want us to be here and the government in power gives us the opportunity to work here, we are their guests and we’ll stay, God willing,” he said.
On Sunday (Aug. 8), at his home church in Loudonville, New York, Dr. Tom Hale, a medical relief worker himself, praised the courage and sacrifice of the eight Christians who dedicated their lives to helping Afghans.
“Though this loss has been enormous, I want to state my conviction that this loss is not senseless; it is not a waste,” said Hale. “Remember this: those eight martyrs in Afghanistan did not lose their lives, they gave up their lives.”
Days before the team was found dead, Little’s wife wrote about their family’s motivation to stay in Afghanistan through “miserable” times. Libby Little described how in the 1970s during a citizens’ uprising they chose not to take shelter with other foreigners but to remain in their neighborhood.
“As the fighting worsened and streets were abandoned, our neighbors fed us fresh bread and sweet milk,” she wrote. “Some took turns guarding our gate, motioning angry mobs to ‘pass by’ our home. When the fighting ended, they referred to us as ‘the people who stayed.’
“May the fruitful door of opportunity to embrace suffering in service, or at least embrace those who are suffering, remain open for the sake of God’s kingdom,” she concluded.
Concern for Afghan Christians
Afghanistan’s population is estimated at 28 million. Among them are very few Christians. Afghan converts are not accepted by the predominantly Muslim society. In recent months experts have expressed concern over political threats against local Christians.
At the end of May, private Afghan TV station Noorin showed images of Afghan Christians being baptized and praying. Within days the subject of Afghans leaving Islam for Christianity became national news and ignited a heated debate in the Parliament and Senate. The government conducted formal investigations into activities of Christian aid agencies. In June IAM successfully passed an inspection by the Afghan Ministry of Economy.
In early June the deputy secretary of the Afghan Parliament, Abdul Sattar Khawasi, called for the execution of converts, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“Those Afghans that appeared on this video film should be executed in public,” he said, according to the AFP. “The house should order the attorney general and the NDS (intelligence agency) to arrest these Afghans and execute them.”
Small protests against Christians ensued in Kabul and other towns, and two foreign aid groups were accused of proselytizing and their activities were suspended, news sources reported.
A source working with the Afghan church who requested anonymity said she was concerned that the murders of IAM workers last week might negatively affect Afghan Christians and Christian aid workers.
“The deaths have the potential to shake the local and foreign Christians and deeply intimidate them even further,” said the source. “Let’s pray that it will be an impact that strengthens the church there but that might take awhile.”
Report from Compass Direct News
My best friend is not around anymore. I would probably have not written about her tonight, except I have been thinking about her throughout the day. I have just felt a need to write something about her tonight.
My friend Rebecca died over two years ago now, but the memory of her continues fresh in my mind and in my heart. I miss her so, so much. I think of her often – there may be a smile, sometimes a quiet laugh, often there will be tears. Her place has never been taken by another & her place will always be her place.
I think this far down the track I am yet to say goodbye… I don’t want to say goodbye. I still hope that she is just around the corner and that we can continue where we left off. One more conversation, one more embrace, one more look – one more so much. But that would still not be enough.
I knew her – she knew me. We could talk with openness. We just went together so well. Her thoughtfulness, her heart, her being – Rebecca. That is why she was my best friend. She was Rebecca – she is Rebecca. There is no one like Rebecca to me.
I miss her so.
Half of those arrested in recent months could face apostasy charges.
ISTANBUL, January 28 (CDN) — At least 14 Christians have been detained in Iranian prisons for weeks without legal counsel in the past few months as last year’s crackdown has continued, sources said.
Three Christians remained in detention at Evin prison after authorities arrested them along with 12 others who had gathered for Christmas celebrations on Dec. 24 in a home 20 kilometers (12 miles) southeast of Iran’s capital, Tehran, according to a source who requested anonymity.
While the others were released on Jan. 4, remaining at Evin prison were Maryam Jalili, Mitra Zahmati and Farzan Matin, according to the source. Jalili is married and has two children.
Matin sounded ill in a short phone conversation this week to his family, the source said.
“Maybe he caught a cold, maybe it’s something else, but for sure they are under heavy pressure,” the source said. “They are not allowed visits from family. It doesn’t seem good.”
Security forces went to the homes of all the detainees and confiscated their books, computers and other literature, according to Farsi Christian News Network. None of the Christians have had access to legal counsel or representation.
“Normally they eventually release them,” said an Iranian source of the Dec. 24 arrests. “They never keep one person forever … but we don’t know when. We are used to living with this kind of government. Therefore we try our best and seek what God will do, and pray that they don’t keep them so long.”
The source said authorities have promised the release of the three Christians arrested Dec. 24 but have yet to let them go.
“They called their families, and they were told they would be released after bail … but then they didn’t [release them],” he said of the three Christians held in Evin.
Within days after the Dec. 24 arrest, Jalili’s sister, Mobina Jalili, and another Christian were arrested in Isfahan. The source said these two have had no contact with their families. The location and conditions of their detainment are unknown.
In the southwestern city of Shiraz, seven Christians were being detained as of Jan. 11, another source said, and most of them may face charges of apostasy, or leaving Islam.
Family members who have spoken with the arrested Christians said authorities have told the detainees – with the exception of one who was not born a Muslim – that they are guilty of apostasy, the source said.
The names of those detained in Shiraz are Parviz Khaladj, Mehdi Furutan, Roxana Furouyi, Behrouz Sadegh-Khanjani, Abdol Reza Ali Haghnejad, Iman Farzad and one identified only as Mahyar.
Another Christian in the northern city of Rasht, Davoot Nejatsabet, also has been arrested. And Yousef Nadarkhani, who was arrested last year on Oct. 13 in Rasht, remains in prison.
The source said the government was in crisis with so many of its citizens continuing to openly protest against it, and that this was an opportune moment to lash out against Christians.
“They see that the West is keeping quiet about Christians,” said the source. “But the Christians should mobilize about what is happening.”
Arrested Christians are regularly denied legal counsel. Often Christians are charged with other crimes, such as espionage or disrupting public order, because of their faith. The charged political climate in Iran has made it nearly impossible for Christians to find appropriate defense lawyers they can afford, a source said. Many of Iran’s human rights lawyers have either fled the country, the source said, are in prison or are otherwise unable to take up Christian cases.
Under sharia (Islamic law), apostasy is one of several “crimes” punishable by death, although Islamic court judges are not required to hand down such a sentence. No converts to Christianity have been convicted of apostasy since international pressure forced officials to drop the death sentence of Christian convert Mehdi Dibaj in 1994.
In the years following the convert’s release, however, Dibaj and four other Protestant pastors, including converts and those working with them, have been murdered. The murderers of the Christians have never been brought to justice, and government officials are suspected of playing a role in the killings.
Governmental and non-governmental agencies say that Christian converts are regularly placed under surveillance, arrested, imprisoned without due process and tortured. Muslim-born Iranians who have embraced Christianity are legally prohibited from practicing their newfound faith.
Report from Compass Direct News
ISTANBUL, August 6 (Compass Direct News) – In a bizarre show of Turkish nationalism, a young Muslim here took a Christian Turk at knife point, draped his head with the national flag and threatened to slit the throat of the “missionary dog” in broad daylight earlier this week.
Yasin Karasu, 24, held Ýsmail Aydýn, 35, hostage for less than half an hour on Monday (Aug. 3) in a busy district on the Asian side of Istanbul in front of passersby and police who promptly came to the scene.
“This is Turkey, and you can’t hand out gospels,” he yelled, according to the daily newspaper Haberturk. “These godless ones without the true book are doing missionary work.”
About 99 percent of Turkey’s population is at least nominally Muslim, and in the popular mindset the religion is strongly connected with being Turkish.
Karasu threatened to slit Aydin’s throat if anyone came near him and commanded those watching to give him a Turkish flag. Within minutes, Aydin told Compass, bystanders produced two flags. Karasu, who has known Aydin for a year, wrapped the larger of the two flags around Aydin’s head, making it difficult for him to breathe in heat that reached the low 30s Celsius (90s F) this week.
“Do you see this missionary dog?” he yelled at the crowd. “He is handing out gospels and he is breaking up the country!”
Karasu placed the smaller flag in Aydin’s hand and commanded him to wave it.
“Both flags came at the same time,” Aydin told Compass. “The big one he put very tightly over my head, and in the heat I couldn’t breathe.”
The whole time Karasu held a large knife to Aydin’s throat.
“You missionary dogs, do you see this flag?” he said, commanding Aydin to wave the flag. “This is a holy flag washed in the blood of our fathers.”
Aydin said he told Karasu, “Yasin, in any case this flag is mine as well! I’m a Turk too, but I’m a Christian.”
Karasu insisted that Aydin was not a Turk because he had betrayed the Turkish flag and country by his evangelism, according to Aydin.
Aydin said he told Karasu, “No, Yasin, I’m a Turk and I’m waving this flag with love. This is my flag. I’m a Turk.” He said Karasu replied, “No, you can’t be – you are breaking up the country, and I won’t allow it.”
Police managed to convince Karasu to put down the knife and release Aydin, telling him that if he killed the convert Turkey would be ridiculed around the world, and that as a last resort they were authorized to shoot to kill him.
“If you love this country, leave the man,” they told him.
A member of the Turkish Protestant Alliance’s legal team said Karasu was evidently trying to get attention.
“He was the type of person who would commit a crime,” said Umut Sahin. “He had just gotten out of the army, he probably didn’t have a job … Anyway he achieved his goal of putting on a show.”
Sahin added that Karasu had previously gotten into trouble for selling pirated CDs.
Aydin, who escaped with a slight cut on his throat, said that he never would have believed that Karasu would do such a thing.
The two men have known each other for about a year. While in the army, Karasu showed interest in learning more about Christianity and would call Aydin, a convert from Islam, to ask questions and talk, saying he was interested in other religions.
“He would call me often, because while in the army he was really depressed and he would often call me to tell me,” said Aydin. “He wanted relief and to talk to someone, but at the same time he was researching about religions.”
After his release from compulsory army duty, Karasu called Aydin and the two planned to meet at a Protestant church in the district of Kadikoy. Karasu came with a friend identified as Baris, who preferred to stay outside while the two of them had tea alone in the church basement.
Aydin said they spoke for nearly 20 minutes about Karasu’s life in his hometown of Erzurum and his financial and family difficulties, as well as some spiritual matters, but since his friend was outside they made it short. Karasu was smiling, in good spirits and not at all the way Aydin remembered him from their meeting nearly a year earlier when he was depressed, he said.
“He looked so healthy, and he was smiling, he was dressed well, he was talking comfortably, he looked so cheerful,” recalled Aydin with disbelief. “He was not at all depressed! I was so surprised!”
Karasu thanked Aydin for the conversation, and the two got up from the table to go up the stairs. Aydin led the way, walking ahead of Karasu about a meter. Just as Aydin reached the stairway, he felt an arm grab him around the neck.
“At the first step he violently grabbed me, putting his arm around my neck, and gripped me tightly,” recalled Aydin. “I was surprised and thought someone had come up from behind me to tease me, but then I remembered it was just the two of us downstairs. ‘Yasin,’ I said, ‘Is that you? Are you playing a joke on me?’”
“What joke!” he said, pulling out a knife, according to Aydin. “You’re a missionary dog, and I’ve come to cut your throat.”
Karasu told Aydin that he planned to make an example of him in the eyes of the nation by killing him in public. Two members of the church tried and failed to stop Karasu. The two church members and Karasu’s friend followed them to a busy street down the road.
“He took me down to the busy street by the sea, threatening to kill me,” Aydin said. “The funny thing about it is that I had the impression that we were playing a part in a film. Not a single person on the way down tried to stop him or told him to stop. They just all looked on with consternation.”
Within one or two minutes, he said, police and a television crew arrived.
“Within a minute, both police and cameras showed up – how quick was that?” he said. “I was surprised.”
Suspicion of ‘Terrorism’
Although Aydin said he believes the act was an isolated incident, other Christian Turks as well as police suspect it may have been an act of propaganda to frighten Turkey’s small Protestant community, most of whom are converts from Islam.
“I don’t think it was planned,” said Aydin, “but it is possible that it was.”
The police section on terrorism combat is researching the possibility that the attack was planned by a wider group. Aydin has decided not to press charges, telling Turkish media that he forgave Karasu.
“I think it was an isolated case, but I have to see the police report,” said Sahin of the Turkish Protestant Alliance. “If this was a provocation he would have killed him. He just wanted to show off … with the Turkish flag.” He added with a chuckle, “As if we don’t like waving it.”
According to Article 24 of the Turkish Constitution, people of all faiths have the right to spread information about their faith.
Aydin, who was convinced he was going to lose his life, said he feels the experience instilled new life into him.
“On Aug. 3 I died and was reborn,” said Aydin. “That was my date of death and birth. I was sure I was going to die. It’s like a new opportunity, a new life. I really think the Lord gave me a second chance, because if you think of it, after other events, like Hrant Dink or the Malatya killings, those brothers weren’t so fortunate, right?”
Police found two knives on Karasu’s person, along with two cell phones and the two flags he got from his audience. He is still in police custody with his friend.
In February 2006 an Italian Catholic priest was killed in the Black Sea coastal town of Trabzon, and Armenian Christian editor Hrant Dink was shot in front of the weekly Agos three months before three Christians – two Turks and a German – were killed in Malatya in April 2007.
Last month a German businessman was also murdered for being a Christian on a busy Istanbul street (see “Christian Murdered on Busy Street in Istanbul,” July 28).
All murders were committed by Turkish men in their 20s.
Report from Compass Direct News
ISTANBUL, July 28 (Compass Direct News) – On a crowded street here last week a German businessman died after a Turk with a history of mental problems stabbed him for being a Christian.
Witnesses saw Ýbrahim Akyol, 26, stab Gregor Kerkeling in the chest on July 20 at 10:50 a.m. after following him out of St. Anthony Catholic Church in Istanbul’s central district of Beyoglu. Church security cameras captured the attack on Kerkeling, who regularly visited the church when he was in town for business.
Kerkeling, in his early forties, had just visited the church to pray that morning. Akyol, a Muslim who reportedly had been visiting area churches scouting around for a Christian victim, followed Kerkeling out of the church building and asked him for a Turkish lira. When Kerkeling refused and gestured him away, Akyol repeatedly stabbed him in the heart and chest area before passersby intervened. According to various news reports, an ambulance did not arrive in time to save Kerkeling’s life.
In a statement to the prosecutor, Akyol reportedly confessed that he woke up that morning and decided he would kill a Christian. He took a kitchen knife with him and went to Istiklal Street, a long pedestrian and commercial road where some of the main traditional churches are located, looking for a victim.
“I wanted to kill a Christian that day and was visiting churches for this reason,” he told prosecutors, according to the Hurriet Daily News. “I saw the person and killed him.”
Akyol, according to various Turkish papers, was addicted to paint thinner. They also reported he had received treatment at a well-known mental hospital in Istanbul but did not give details of his state of mind.
Earlier that morning at St. Anthony church, one of Turkey’s best known and visible churches, at around 9:30 a.m. Akyol tried to pick a fight with a door guard by refusing to take off his cap, saying he couldn’t remove it because he was a Muslim.
In his confession to the prosecutor, Akyol said he looked into the eyes of the door guard and tried to decide whether to kill him, reported the daily Sabah. The guard had asked him to come out of the church with him, and Akyol followed him to the front steps where he attempted to open a debate about Islam and Christianity.
In the end, he reportedly said he decided not to kill the guard because “there was no light in his eyes.”
After his conversation with the guard, Akyol took his knife to a knife store and had it sharpened, according to police.
A member of St. Anthony church said that the community was upset.
“The community was a little bit shaken by what happened,” said the church member. “We realize that we are vulnerable, and that we must rely on God for our security. It is easy to be affected by fear when the motives and circumstances for this event are completely unclear.”
The church has hundreds and often thousands of visitors daily, and it is the first church that many Turks curious about Christianity visit.
Since 2006, five Christian men have been killed in Turkey because of their beliefs. The murders have been committed by men in their early twenties who said they were motivated by religious and nationalistic beliefs allegedly fanned by official elements and other influential figures said to be plotting to destabilize Turkey.
Media reported that according to police, Akyol carried a photo of the founder of the modern nation, Kemal Ataturk. On the back of the photo he had written: “I love my homeland. Those who disagree with my thoughts or don’t like them can get out of my country.”
Although last week’s murder does not seem to be related to the previous ones, St. Anthony’s community members are aware that their visibility could make them an easy target to those wanting to attack Christians or foreigners.
“St. Anthony’s would be an easy target for someone who would want to lash out at Christians, or even at foreigners, because often people view the church as a foreign institution,” said a member of the parish on the condition of anonymity.
The St. Anthony member asked for prayer that the community will “not be controlled by a spirit of fear, but continue to live out our very simple testimony with His incredible joy.”
Man of Prayer
In an interview with the daily Vatan, Kerkeling’s fiancée, Hatice Isik, said he was quite “religious” and prayed every day.
“First thing every morning, he would go to St. Anthony church in Taksim and pray,” she said, according to Vatan. “Sometimes we went together.”
Kerkeling was on his way to meet Isik at an area café after his prayers when he was stabbed. She and Kerkeling were planning on getting married in a few months.
Kerkeling’s body was sent to Germany on Friday (July 24).
Report from Compass Direct News
JERUSALEM , July 15 (Compass Direct News) – For three long years a Jewish believer in Christ struggled to keep her bakery business alive after the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the country’s highest religious governing body, annulled her kashrut (Jewish dietary law) certificate because of her faith.
Pnina Conforti, 51, finally gave a sigh of relief when the Israeli Supreme Court on June 29 ruled that her belief in Jesus Christ was unrelated to her eligibility for a kashrut certificate. While bakeries and restaurants in Israel are not required to obtain such a permit, the loss of one often slows the flow of customers who observe Jewish dietary laws and eventually can destroy a business.
Conforti said that the last three years were very difficult for her and her family, as she lost nearly 70 percent of her customers.
“We barely survived, but now it’s all behind us,” she said. “Apparently, many people supported us, and were happy with the verdict. Enough is enough.”
Conforti, who describes herself as a Messianic Jew, had built her Pnina Pie bakeries in Gan Yavne and Ashdod from scratch. She said her nightmare began in 2002 with an article about her in “Kivun,” a magazine for Messianic Jews in Israel.
“Soon after, the people of the Rabbinate summoned me and told me that my kashrut certificate was annulled because I do not profess Judaism,” she said.
Food prepared in accordance with kashrut guidelines is termed kosher, from the Hebrew kasher, or “fit,” and includes prohibition of cooking and consuming meat and diary products together, keeping different sets of dishes for those products, and slaughtering animals according to certain rules. News of the faith of the owner of the Pnina Pie bakery in Gan Yavne spread quickly, soon reaching extremist organizations such as Yad le’Achim, a sometimes violent Orthodox Jewish group.
“They spread around a pamphlet with my photo, warning people away from acquiring products from my business,” Conforti said. “One such a pamphlet was hung in a synagogue. However, I refused to surrender to them and continued working as usual.”
Four years later, in 2006, Conforti decided to open another patisserie in Ashdod, near her original shop in Gan Yavne, in southern Israel. The business flourished, but success didn’t last long.
“A customer of mine, an Orthodox Jew from Ashdod, visited his friends and relatives in Gan Yavne,” she said. “There in the synagogue he came across a pamphlet from 2002 with my photo on it. In addition to boycott calls, I was also described as a missionary. My customer confronted me, and I honestly told him I was a believer.”
Soon thereafter the Rabbinate of Ashdod withdrew the kashrut certificate from her shop there, she said.
“Pamphlets in Hebrew, English and French about me begun circulating around the town,” Conforti said. “They even printed some in Russian, since they saw that the customers of Russian origin continue to arrive.”
The withdrawal of the certificate from the shop in Ashdod in 2006 was a serious blow to her business. Conforti decided to take action, and her lawyer appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court. Judges Yoram Denziger, Salim Jubran and Eliezer Rivlin ruled that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel overstepped its authority.
“The Kashrut Law states clearly that only legal deliberations directly related to what makes the food kosher are relevant, not wider concerns unrelated to food preparation,” the panel of judges wrote.
In response, the Chief Rabbinate accused the judges of meddling in religious affairs.
Soon after she petitioned the Supreme Court, Conforti said, the Chief Rabbinate had offered her a deal by which it would issue her business a kashrut certificate but with certain restrictions, such as handing the keys of the bakery to a kashrut supervisor at night. Conforti declined.
Tzvi Sedan, editor-in-chief of “Kivun,” said the Supreme Court verdict was paramount.
“It’s important not only for Messianic Jews, but also for every other business owner who has to suffer from the arbitrariness of the Rabbinate,” Sedan said. “But I still want to see this decision implemented fully in reality.”
At press time Conforti still hadn’t received the certificate. She was waiting for a team of inspectors from the Rabbinate to inspect the business prior to issuing her the certificate.
A Jew of Yemenite origin, Conforti said she was raised in religious family but came to trust in Christ following her encounter with a Christian family during a visit to the United States.
“There I found Christ and embraced him as my personal Savior,” she said. “I do not engage in [evangelistic] activity, but if someone starts a conversation about my faith, I will speak openly about it.”
Report from Compass Direct News
LOS ANGELES, May 20 (Compass Direct News) – In an attempt to silence a Christian human rights activist living in England, Iranian authorities arrested and interrogated his Muslim father for six days before releasing him yesterday .
Abdul Zahra Vashahi, a retired 62-year-old suffering a heart condition, was arrested on Thursday (May 14) in Iran’s southwestern city of Bandar Mahshahr and interrogated about the human rights activities of his son, a Christian convert who has been living in England since 2003. His son, John (Reza) Vashahi, converted to Christianity while in England and in 2008 founded the Iranian Minorities Human Rights Organization (IMHRO).
In February the elder Vashahi had received a call from local authorities telling him that if his son didn’t stop his activities, they would arrest him instead.
While his father was in custody, authorities asked the elder Vashahi many questions about his son’s activities and had him fill out forms with detailed information about his extended family and friends.
“He is very tired, because the interrogations were very long,” his son told Compass. “All the questions were about me.”
The younger Vashahi said the Iranian government started putting increased pressure on his family, whom he has not seen in six years, since he founded IMHRO.
“It is a good example of harassment even outside the country,” Vashahi told Compass by telephone today. “It is just showing how far the government will go if we let them. Inside we can’t talk, and we come to Europe and still they want to silence us; it’s a very worrying sign.”
Vashahi, unlike his father, was involved in politics when he lived in Iran. His family belongs to Iran’s Arab-speaking community, the Ahwazi, most of whom live in the southwestern province of Khuzestan.
He said that even when he was living there, police had come to his father’s workplace to ask him questions, but that after he fled the country six years ago, the pressure seemed to have stopped. It began anew when he became an outspoken Christian campaigning for the rights of minorities in Iran and especially with the establishment of IMHRO, he said.
The activist is an active member of Amnesty International, and through his own organization he publicizes Iran’s human rights violations of minorities, especially Christians. He has also started a blog called “Jesus for Arabs.”
Fighting for Minority Rights
Vashahi acknowledged that his family, which is Muslim, was never happy with his choice of faith or vocation.
Asked whether he believed the government arrested his father because of his faith or his work, the younger Vashahi said, “I think it’s both, because part of my human rights activity is in regard to Christians in Iran, and we’ve been in touch with Christians and persecuted churches.”
The 30-year-old activist said that when the Revolutionary Guard arrested his father, they confiscated all of his books and compact discs, as well as a computer and his sister’s university dentistry textbooks.
“It’s a bad situation, and I hope we find some solution,” Vashahi said, “No one has the right to talk about anything in Iran. Suppression of the church is increasing in Iran; they don’t want us to talk about that. They don’t want us to talk about it inside, and also they want to silence us outside.”
Vashahi said that despite the government pressure, he is not planning to stop his human rights activism.
“I’m not going to be silent, because if I do, then I’m accepting their logic, which means I caused the arrest of my dad,” Vashahi said. “My dad is innocent, and that system is wrong to arrest someone instead of somebody else.”
In 2008, when deciding to establish the IMHRO, he said he felt torn between confronting Iran’s injustices and wanting to ignore them from his comfortable, safe distance.
“Another part of me was saying, ‘you are safe now, but you should do your fair share, you should make noise, and if people inside can’t talk and you are outside and you don’t want to talk, how will people learn what is happening?’” he said. “I felt responsibility, and in the end that part won.”
In a phone conversation with his mother yesterday while his father was sleeping to recover from his time in prison, he said he felt that she was choosing her words very carefully. She told him not to contact them or other family and friends.
“She emphasized that we are all Muslims, and that this is an Islamic country,” Vashahi said. “So she was giving me hints that it [the arrest] had to do with the change of religion.”
Although there were no official charges against his father, Vashahi said it is possible that authorities still could take him to court or detain him again for more interrogation.
“I hope this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “In fact, they’ve taken my family as hostage. They did this type of policy to other people and they’ve always failed, and I don’t know why they keep doing it, because people like me they are not going to stop. Others didn’t stop, and they’re just bringing more condemnation on themselves and exposing themselves to more condemnation in the eyes of the world.”
New Wave of Arrests
Compass has learned of four confirmed arrests of Christians in the last two weeks in the capital city of Tehran, while sources said a new wave of arrests has rolled across the country.
Authorities have been warning arrested Christians not to speak to foreign news agencies.
“The government is treating people like they don’t want them to talk,” said a source. “The government is really afraid of international news agencies, they really don’t like them. That is why they put pressure on the believers, and they are really scared.”
Although in most cases of arrests and interrogations Christians have been released with no physical harm, a source said in some instances they were told to sign papers that they would stop Christian activities and were threatened if they continued.
“It’s happening everywhere,” said the source. “This is the strategy of the government. They are doing it everywhere.”
Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, are in their second month of detention at the notorious Evin prison house in Tehran, accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Held with no legal counsel for over a month, they suffer illness in notorious prison.
LOS ANGELES, April 13 (Compass Direct News) – Accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings,” two Iranian Christian women have been held in a Tehran prison for over a month in a crowded cell with no access to legal representation.
Amnesty International, in an appeal for urgent action last week, reported that authorities have made the accusations known but have imprisoned the women without filing official charges. The organization called on Iranian authorities to release them and expressed concern for their health.
Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, who were active in church activities and distributing Bibles according to Amnesty’s appeal, were arrested on March 5. They are being held in the detention center of Evin Prison, a facility that has drawn criticism for its human rights violations and executions in recent years. Amnesty’s appeal included a call to urge Iranian officials to ensure that the women are not being tortured.
Based on a telephone conversation between Esmaeilabad and a third party on March 28, Amnesty reported that Esmaeilabad said both are suffering from infection and high fever and had not received adequate medical care. The women continue to be detained in an overcrowded cell with 27 other women. Amnesty said they “may be prisoners of conscience, detained solely on account of their religious beliefs.”
The women are allowed a one-minute call each day and a weekly visit from family. Authorities have informed their family members that the women are accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings,” according to the report, and that they would be released after payment of a $400,000 bail. The families have presented the title deeds of their homes as bail but are still waiting for approval from the judge.
Initially the Ministry of Intelligence summoned one of the women, and then took her to the apartment the two shared. There they were officially arrested, and authorities confiscated computers, books and Bibles. The two women were interrogated and held at different police stations.
On March 18 they appeared before Branch 2 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran and subsequently transferred to Evin Prison, said the report.
Even if the women are released on bail, they still have to stand trial. Accusations have not included “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, though investigations are ongoing. It is not known whether the women are converts from Islam.
Last September the Iranian Parliament approved review of a new penal code calling for a mandatory death sentence for “apostates.” Under current law death sentences for apostasy have been issued only under judicial interpretations of sharia (Islamic law).
Under the new penal code, male “apostates” would be executed, while females would receive life sentences. The new code was sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which is expected to rule on it. The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by Parliament. This council has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.
Converts to Christianity in Iran risk harassment, arrest and attack from authorities even though Article 23 of the Iranian Constitution grants that individual beliefs are private and no one can be “molested or taken to task” for holding them. Iran has also signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
“This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching,” the covenant states.
The last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government was Hossein Soodmand in 1990. He was accused of working as “an American spy.” Since then at least six Protestant pastors have been assassinated by unknown killers.
Report from Compass Direct News