Murder of Governor in Pakistan Darkens ‘Blasphemy’ Case


Assassination called a blow to prospects of justice for Christian mother on death row.

LAHORE, Pakistan, January 5 (CDN) — The case of Asia Noreen, the first Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan on blasphemy charges, suffered a major setback when her most vocal supporter, the governor of Punjab Province, was gunned down by one of his police bodyguards yesterday (Jan. 4) in Islamabad.

The lives of Noreen and Gov. Salman Taseer were at risk since the day he, his wife and daughter visited her in the Sheikhupura District Jail on Nov. 22, after news of her conviction appeared in the media.

Taseer had openly criticized the blasphemy statutes and vowed to try to repeal the “black laws” in parliament. He also promised Noreen (also called Asia Bibi) that he would recommend a presidential pardon for her.

The governor’s assurance and his support for Noreen gave new hope to the impoverished mother of two children and step-mother to three others – and drew violent condemnation from Islamist forces, sparking countrywide protests.

“The governor’s visit gave us hope that all was not lost,” Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan, which has pursued Noreen’s case from the onset, told Compass. “We believed that God had sent the governor to help us … his words of support boosted Noreen’s morale, and she was actually quite optimistic about the outcome of her appeal in the high court.”

He said the murder of Taseer in broad daylight had shocked all those opposing the blasphemy laws, and that “there is little hope of these laws ever being repealed.”

Johnson confirmed that Noreen’s life was at high risk ever since the governor had highlighted her case.

“The local Islamist forces believed that President [Asif Ali] Zardari would pardon Noreen on Taseer’s recommendation, and this was unacceptable to them,” said Johnson, confirming that intelligence agencies had determined that Islamists had plotted to kill Noreen inside jail to make an example of her. “Noreen was earlier allowed two hours in the morning and two in the evening to go outside her cell to relax. After the intelligence information, the jail authorities restricted her movement, and now she is kept in the cell at all times. A security guard has also been deployed with her.”

He added that news of the assassination of the governor would surely panic the Christian woman.

Johnson said Noreen’s appeal of her conviction had yet to be taken up for hearing by the Lahore High Court, but that the murder would definitely affect the course of justice. “The governor’s brutal murder has diminished our hopes for justice for Noreen,” he said.

Her family, he said, has been in hiding since Islamist parties started protests in favor of the blasphemy laws.

“Even I am keeping a low profile these days,” Johnson said.

Taseer and Noreen were declared “Wajibul Qatil” (liable to be killed) by radical Islamic clerics. A cleric in Peshawar and a local politician in Multan offered a combined sum of 50 million rupees (US$579,300) for anyone who killed Taseer and Noreen.

Protests, shut-down strikes and general uproar pressured Pakistan’s federal government to announce that the blasphemy laws would not be repealed.

Taseer, however, continued to publicly vent his opposition – even using Twitter – to the blasphemy laws, which effectively mandate death for anyone convicted of insulting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Although courts typically overturn convictions, and no executions have been carried out, rights activists say the laws are used to settle rivalries and persecute religious minorities.

On Friday (Dec. 31), Taseer had tweeted “I was under huge pressure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing.”

The assassination is significant not simply because of the person targeted and the reason behind it, but because of the broader societal implications.

“[It points to] the presence of radical elements inside the Pakistani state apparatus,” said columnist Cyril Almeida.

He said that the fact that Taseer’s own bodyguard shot him is not just worrying because it indicates a failure of the vetting process but because it points to “the extent to which this poison has affected the Pakistani state. The investment in jihad has come home to roost.”

In the hours immediately following the killing, television anchors hosted several shows in which guests, while stopping short of openly supporting the murder of Taseer, did speak out in support of killing those deemed to have blasphemed. Some Pakistanis have reported that they received text messages on their mobile phones praising the assassination.

Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik has said the guard, Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri, told police that he killed Taseer because of the governor’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Qadri had escorted the governor from Rawalpindi to Islamabad on Tuesday (Jan. 4).

A 26-year-old policeman from Barakhao on the outskirts of Islamabad, Qadri had reportedly transferred to the Elite Force after commando training in 2008. Thus far, he has not been identified as a member of any violent Muslim extremist groups but is considered devout in his faith.

Noreen was convicted under Section 295-C of the defamation statutes for alleged derogatory comments about Muhammad, which is punishable by death, though life imprisonment is also possible. Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment. Section 295-A of the defamation law prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” It is punishable by life imprisonment, which in Pakistan is 25 years.

Report from Compass Direct News

Life on Hold for Egyptian Christian Arrested for his Faith


Unresolved charge of ‘defaming religion’ leaves him in perpetual limbo.

CAIRO, Egypt, December 16 (CDN) — An Egyptian who left Islam to become a Christian and consequently lost his wife, children and business is waiting to see if the government will now take away his freedom for “defaming” Islam.

Ashraf Thabet, 45, is charged with defaming a revealed religion, Article 98f of the Egyptian Penal Code. The charges stem from Thabet’s six-year search for spiritual meaning that eventually led him to become a Christian. During his search, he shared his doubts about Islam and told others what he was learning about Jesus Christ.

Local religious authorities, incensed at Thabet’s ideas, notified Egypt’s State Security Intelligence service (SSI), which arrested and charged him with defamation. If found guilty, Thabet would face up to five years in jail. But because prosecutors have made no move to try the case, Thabet lives in limbo and is subject to a regular barrage of death threats from people in his community in Port Said in northeast Egypt.

“I don’t know what is going to happen in the future,” Thabet said. “They’re making life hard for me. I can’t get back my computer. I can’t get back anything.”

 

Searching

Thabet said that before his search began he was a committed Muslim who did his best to observe its rules, including those for prayer and fasting.

“I wasn’t an extremist, but I was committed to praying and to reading the Quran,” Thabet said. “I went to the Hajj. I did the usual things. I followed the Quran for the most part.”

Despite his efforts, Thabet admitted that his understanding of God was based on fear and routine, nearly rote obedience.

“There was no spiritual relationship between myself and God,” he said. “In general I was always cautious about my relationship with God. I didn’t want to do anything wrong.”

Thabet started looking at Christian Web sites, but his real interest in Christianity began when he watched the film, “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004.

“When I watched ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ I was very touched by Jesus’ story, and I wanted to read more about Him,” Thabet said. “So I asked a friend how I could know more about Jesus, and he told me, ‘The Bible.’”

His friend, a Christian Copt, did not get him a Bible until a month later because, Thabet thinks, he was afraid of being accused of proselytizing. Thabet began reading the Bible, which had a powerful impact on him, especially the Sermon on the Mount.

“I felt inside myself that these were the words of God,” he said. “The Bible tells people to give and to give out freely, so these words couldn’t be the words of a human being or a [mere] person, because human beings are inherently selfish.”

Thabet was also struck by the lives that the early followers of Jesus led, especially their willingness to lose everything, including their lives, for Christ.

The final factor that led Thabet to become a Christian came from Islam’s “Ninety-Nine Names of Allah,” attributes of God according to the Quran and tradition. In the names, God is called a “healer” a “resurrecter” and “just.”

“I started to compare all these characteristics with the characteristics of Jesus, and I saw that Jesus had a lot of the characteristics that God had, not only the human characteristics, being just and being kind, but there were similarities in the supernatural characteristics, like that He raised people from the dead,” he said. “In the Quran only God could raise people from the dead. I noticed that Jesus could raise people from the dead, and that He could heal people. Once I started to notice
the similarities between God and Jesus, I started believing that Jesus is the Son of God.”

Thabet said he cared about others “going the right way,” so he started having conversations with Muslim friends.

At first, people respected Thabet or tolerated what was seen as an awkward curiosity. But after he told his friends they were “only Muslim by inheritance,” they started to turn against him. They asked him what he was going to be if he wasn’t going to be a Muslim.

“I told them I started to read about Christianity, and I was starting to believe in it, and that’s when they brought the elders to talk to me,” he said.

The meeting didn’t go well. The Islamic leaders were unable to answer his questions and ended up yelling at him. Then they reported him to the SSI.

 

Arrest

The SSI summoned Thabet and questioned him on his doubts about Islam.

Thabet said by the time he was done with the interrogation, the SSI officer looked almost sick and told him not to talk to anyone else in Port Said about religion.

“I don’t encourage you to talk about these things with people or to open up these types of discussions, because it will just provoke people and make them angry,” the officer told him, according to Thabet.

Two days later, Thabet said, the SSI ordered him to report for more questioning, this time with an officer who specialized in religious issues and countering missionaries. The officer wanted to know what made him start to doubt Islam. He asked specific questions about what Web sites he had been on and what books he had read, and whether he had been baptized.

Thabet said that at the time of his questioning, he was still struggling with his new beliefs. Part of him wanted something that would restore his faith in Islam, so he went to Internet chat rooms for religious discussion.

“A part of me wanted to feel that I was wrong, that there was an answer to my questions,” he said. “I was looking for someone who would say ‘No, no, this is how it is,’ and that I would regain my trust back or not have any more doubts. But none of the people I talked to could answer me. They didn’t say anything to any effect.”

Thabet said he was always respectful, but Muslims found his questions provocative and became increasingly angry.

Eventually police came for Thabet. On March 22 at 3 a.m., he said, 11 officers from the SSI cut the power to his home, kicked down his front door and assaulted him in front of his crying wife and children.

Thabet quickly pulled away from the fight, once he realized they were officers from the SSI. The men swarmed over Thabet’s home, seizing his computer and every book and CD he owned. They took him to jail.

Authorities interrogated Thabet non-stop for 12 hours, took a break and then interrogated him for seven more, he said.

Initially he was held for 15 days. Then authorities ordered he be held for another 15 days. Then they extended it again. Thabet said he spent the entire time in solitary confinement, and he wasn’t informed of the “defamation of religion” charge against him until the end of 132 days in jail. He said he was not tortured, however, and that his interrogators and jailers were largely civil.

There was more hardship waiting for him at home. Muslim leaders in his neighborhood convinced his wife to divorce him and take his 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.

“They gave her the money to file for a divorce, a car and another person to marry,” Thabet said, adding that the Muslim leaders had offered him money too if he would stay in Islam. “In the beginning they tried to bribe me to come back to Islam, but I refused.”

Thabet has only had a few brief moments with his children since he was arrested, mainly when his soon-to-be ex-wife came to their home to gather a few belongings. If she goes through with the divorce, according to Egyptian law it is likely Thabet will lose all parental rights to his children, including any right to see them.

In Egypt and most other Muslim-majority countries, leaving Islam is considered ample grounds for termination of parental rights. Thabet said the religious leaders consider him “lost to Islam” and are trying to “save” his wife and children.

He filed a report with police about the Muslim leaders bribing his wife – and about another man who swindled money from him – but police ignored both reports, he said.

Kamal Fahmi of Set My People Free to Worship Me, a group headquartered in Cairo dedicated to raising awareness about the problems faced by Muslims who become Christians, said that under Islam, “Muslim converts don’t have the right to exist.”

Arrests like Thabet’s are common in Egypt.

“It is a tactic used to intimidate people and scare them from leaving Islam and taking alternative beliefs or moral codes,” Fahmi said.

In Islam as it is most often practiced in Egypt, merely expressing doubt about Islam is considered wrong, Fahmi said. Questioning any of its claims is considered blasphemy and is punishable by imprisonment under a variety of charges in Egypt; it is punishable by death in some other countries.

“Saying, ‘I don’t believe in Muhammad,’ is considered defaming Islam,” Fahmi said. “Saying, ‘I don’t believe in Islam as it is not true,’ can lead to death [murder], as you are considered an apostate,” Fahmi said. “Even rejecting the Islamic moral codes can lead to the same thing. Criticizing any of the sharia [Islamic law] is considered blasphemy.”

 

The Future

Thabet said he is uncertain what the future holds. He was released on Aug. 1 but, because he has the defamation of religion charge over his head – with no indication of when the case could go to court – he is unable to work and cannot even obtain a driver’s license.

His savings are almost depleted, forcing him to borrow money from a Muslim friend. He is concerned about re-arrest and receives death threats on a regular basis. He is too afraid to leave his apartment on most days.

“There are a lot of phone threats,” Thabet said. Noting he had been baptized three years ago, he said he has received phone threats in which someone tells him, “We are going to baptize you again with blood.”

On numerous occasions while talking in Internet chat rooms, he has been told, “Look outside the window, we know where you are,” Thabet said.

In recent days Muslims are angry at converts and at Christians in general, he said. “They’re very worked up about religious issues.”

He said he wants to leave Egypt but admits that, at his age, it would be very hard to start over. And if he stays in Egypt, he said, at least he will have a chance to see his children, however brief those encounters may be.

Since Thabet was released from jail on Aug. 1, authorities have seized his passport and summoned him four times for questioning. He said he thinks the SSI is trying to wear him down.

“Everyone is telling me that they [the government] want to make my life hard,” he said. “The problem here in Egypt is the religious intolerance that is found in government ministries. The intolerance has reached a point where they can’t think straight. Their intolerance makes them unaware of their own intolerance.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Recent Incidents of Persecution


Punjab, India, December 1 (CDN) — Hindu extremists on Nov. 14 beat a Christian in Moti Nagar, Ludhiana, threatening to harm him and his family if they attended Sunday worship. A source told Compass that a Hindu identified only as Munna had argued with a Christian identified only as Bindeshwar, insulting him for being a Christian, and beat him on Nov. 7. Munna then returned with a mob of about 50 Hindu extremists on Nov. 14. Armed with clubs and swords, they dragged Bindeshwar out of his house and severely beat him, claiming that Christians had offered money to Munna to convert. Local Christian leaders reported the matter to the police at Focal Point police station. Officers arrested three Hindu extremists, but under pressure from local Bharatiya Janata Party leaders released them without registering a First Information Report. Police brokered an agreement between the parties on Nov. 18 and vowed they would not allow further attacks on Christians.

Tripura – Hindu extremists attacked a prayer conference on Nov. 6 in Burburi, threatening Christians if they opened their mouths. A local evangelist known only as Hmunsiamliana told Compass that area Christian leaders organized a prayer conference on Nov. 5-7, but extremists ordered the participants not to open their mouth or make any sound. Christian leaders reported the threat to police, and the participants proceeded to pray aloud. On the nights of Nov. 6 and 7, a huge mob of Hindu extremists pelted the Christians with stones, but the participants continued praying. The meeting ended on the evening of Nov. 7 under police protection.

Chhattisgarh – Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) disrupted a Christian youth gathering in Raipur on Nov. 6 and accused organizers of forcible conversion. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that Vision India had organized the Central India Youth Festival with about 900 in attendance when the extremists stormed in at about 4:30 p.m. and began questioning leaders. The Christian and VHP leaders then held a meeting in the presence of police, with the Christian leaders explaining that it was a normal youth meeting with no forceful conversion taking place. Nevertheless, officers and VHP leaders proceeded to observe the gathering and proceedings, and the Christians were made to submit a list of participants. In this tense atmosphere, the meeting concluded at 10 p.m. under heavy police protection.

Madhya Pradesh – On Oct. 31 in Neemuch, Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal barged into a worship meeting shouting Hindu slogans and accused those present of forceful conversion. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that about 40 extremists rushed into the church building at about 10 a.m. shouting “Jai Shri Ram [Hail Lord Ram].” The Rev. K. Abraham, who was leading the service, pleaded with them to come back later, but the invaders remained and continued shouting. After the service ended, the extremists rushed Abraham and accused the church of paying money to people to convert, as published in newspaper Pupils Samachar. The Christians said the newspaper published the false news because Abraham, principal of United Alpha English School, refused to advertise in it, according to EFI. The extremists grabbed a woman in the congregation who had a bindi (dot) on her forehead, claimed that she had been lured to Christianity and asked her why she was attending the service, according to EFI. “Where were you people when I was demon-possessed?” the woman replied, according to EFI. “You didn’t come to help me, but when I came to the church in God’s presence, these people prayed for me and helped me to get deliverance.”

Karnataka – Police on Oct. 29 detained Christians after Hindu extremists registered a false complaint of forced conversion in Kalammnagar village, Uttara Kannada. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that at around 8:15 p.m. police accompanied extremists belonging to the Bajrang Dal, who along with members of the media stormed the Blessing Youth Mission Church during a worship service for senior citizens. They dragged out Ayesha Nareth, Hanumanta Unikal,Viru Basha Doddamani, Narayana Unikkal and Pastor Subash Deshrath Nalude, forced them into a police jeep and took them to the Yellapur police station. After interrogation for nearly six hours, the Christians were released without being charged.

Orissa – Hindu extremists refused to allow the burial of a 3-year-old Dalit Christian who died in Jinduguda, Malkangiri. The All India Christian Council (AICC) reported that the daughter of unidentified Christian tribal people fell ill and was taken to a nearby health center on Oct. 27. The doctor advised the parents to take the child to a nearby hospital, and the girl developed complications and died there. When the parents brought the body of the girl back to their village, according to AICC, Hindus refused to allow them to bury her with a Christian ritual. There are only 15 Christian families in the predominantly Hindu village. With the intervention of local Christian leaders, police allowed the burial of the body in a Christian cemetery.

Karnataka – On Oct. 6 in Beridigere, Davanagere, a Christian family that converted from Hinduism was assaulted because of their faith in Christ. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that the attack appeared to have been orchestrated to appear as if the family provoked it. An elderly woman, Gauri Bai, went to the house of the Christian family and picked a quarrel with them. Bai started shouting and screaming for help, and suddenly about 20 Hindu extremists stormed in and began beating the Christians. They dragged Ramesh Naik out to the street, tied him to a pole, beat him and poured liquor into his mouth and onto his body. His sister, Laititha Naik, managed to escape and called her mother. Later that day, at about 8:30 p.m., the extremists pelted their house with stones, and then about 70 people broke in and began striking them with sickles, stones and clubs. Two brothers, Ramesh Naik and Santhosh Naik, managed to escape with their mother in the darkness, but the Hindu extremists took hold of their sister Lalitha and younger brother Suresh and beat them; they began bleeding and lost consciousness. The attackers continued to vandalize the house, damaging the roof and three doors with large boulders. The unconscious victims received treatment for head injuries and numerous cuts at a government hospital. Police from the Haluvagalu police station arrested 15 persons in connection with the assault.

Report from Compass Direct News

Anti-Christian Sentiment Heats Up


Terrorist threat in Iraq emerges at importune moment for Copts.

CAIRO, Egypt, November 22 (CDN) — As bombings and other attacks continue against Christians in Iraq, Christians in Egypt have gathered to pray and plan for their own safety.

When a group of Islamic extremists on Oct. 31 burst into Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad during evening mass and began spraying the sanctuary with gunfire, the militant organization that took responsibility said Christians in Egypt also would be targeted if its demands were not met. Taking more than 100 congregants hostage, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) called a television station and stated that the assault came in response to the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt allegedly holding two Coptic women against their will who, the ISI and some others believe, converted to Islam.

The group issued a 48-hour deadline for the release of the women, and when the deadline passed it issued a statement that, “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen [Muslim fighters] wherever they can reach them.” The statement later added ominously, “We will open upon them the doors of destruction and rivers of blood.”

In the attack and rescue attempt that followed, 58 people were reportedly killed. A week and a half later, Islamic extremists killed four people in a series of coordinated attacks against Christians in Baghdad and its surrounding suburbs. The attackers launched mortar rounds and planted makeshift bombs outside Christian homes and one church. At least one attack was made against the family members of one of the victims of the original attack.

On Nov. 15, gunmen entered two Christian homes in Mosul and killed two men in the house. The next day, a Christian and his 6-year-old daughter were killed in a car bombing. At the same time, another bomb exploded outside the home of a Christian, damaging the house but leaving the residents uninjured, according to CNN.

The threats against Christians caused a flurry of activity at churches in Egypt. A 35-year-old Protestant who declined to give her name said Christians in Cairo have unified in prayer meetings about the threats. An SMS text message was sent out through prayer networks asking people to meet, she said.

“I know people are praying now,” she said. “We have times for our people to pray, so all of us are praying.”

Security has increased at churches throughout Egypt. In Cairo, where the presence of white-uniformed security police is ubiquitous, the number of uniformed and plain-clothes officers has doubled at churches. High-ranking police officers shuffle from one house of worship to another monitoring subordinates and enforcing new security rules. At times, parking on the same side of the street as a church building, or even driving by one, has been forbidden.

On Nov. 8, leaders from the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches gathered to discuss how to improve security at churches. According to the leaders of several churches, the government asked pastors to cancel unessential large-scale public meetings. Pope Shenouda III canceled a celebration to commemorate the 39th anniversary of his installment as the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Guests at a recent outdoor Christmas bazaar and a subsequent festival at the All-Saints Cathedral in Zamalek
were greeted with pat-downs, metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs.

Some church leaders, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the security improvements are haphazard, while others say they are genuine efforts to ensure the safety of Christians.

Most Christians in Cairo avoided answering any questions about the attacks in Iraq or the threats made against Christians in Egypt. But Deliah el-Sowkary, a Coptic Orthodox woman in her 20s, said she hoped no attacks would happen in her country. Noting the security present at all churches, still she said she is not that worried.

“I think it’s different in Egypt than in Baghdad, it’s more safe here,” El-Sowkary said.

Almost a week after the bombings, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak issued a statement through the state-run MENA news agency that the Copts would be protected from attacks.

“The president affirmed his extensive solicitude for the protection of the nation’s sons, Muslims and Copts, from the forces of terrorism and extremism,” the agency stated.

 

Pressure Cooker

The security concerns came against a backdrop of heightened tensions between the Muslim majority and the Coptic Christian minority over the past few months, with weeks of protests against Christians in general and against Shenouda specifically. The protests, held mostly in Alexandria, ended two weeks ago.

The tension started after the wife of a Coptic priest, Camilia Zakher, disappeared in July. According to government sources and published media reports, Zakher left her home after a heated argument with her husband. But Coptic protestors, who started gathering to protest at churches after Zakher disappeared, claimed she had been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam.

Soon after, Egypt’s State Security Intelligence (SSI) officers found her at the home of a friend. Despite stating she had left of her own free will, authorities brought Zakher back to her husband. Since then, Zakher has been in seclusion. It is unclear where she is or if she remains there of her own free will.

Unconfirmed rumors began spreading that Zakher had converted to Islam and was being held against her will to force her to return to Christianity. Protests outside mosques after Friday prayers became weekly events. Protestors produced a photo of unknown origin of a woman in Islamic covering whom they claimed was Zakher. In response, Coptic authorities released a video in which the priest’s wife stated that she wasn’t a Muslim nor ever had been.

Another rumor began circulating that Zakher went to Al-Azhar University, one of the primary centers of Islamic learning in the world, to convert to Islam. But Al-Azhar, located in Cairo, released a statement that no such thing ever happened.

No independent media interviews of Zakher have taken place because, according to the Coptic Church, the SSI has ordered church officials not to allow public access to her. Along with their accusations about Zakher, protestors also claimed, without evidence, that a similar thing happened in 2004 to Wafa Constantine, also the wife of a Coptic Orthodox priest. Constantine was the second woman the ISI demanded the Copts “release.” Like Zakher, her location is not public knowledge.

The month after the Zakher incident, Egyptian media reported in error that the SSI had seized a ship from Israel laden with explosives headed for the son of an official of the Coptic Orthodox church. The ship was later found to be carrying fireworks, but another set of Islamic leaders, led in part by Nabih Al-Wahsh, an attorney famous for filing lawsuits designed to damage the church, declared without any evidence that Copts were allied with the Israelis and stockpiling weapons in the basements
of their churches with plans to overthrow the Muslim majority.

The claims were echoed on Al-Jazeera by Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-’Awa, the former secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, and in a statement issued by the Front of Religious Scholars, a group of academics affiliated with Al-Azhar University.

There was no time for tensions to cool after Al-’Awa and the others leveled their allegations. The next month, Bishop Anba Bishoy, the secretary of the Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masri Al-Yawm that Muslims were “guests” in Egypt, inflaming a Muslim population already up in arms.

“The Copts are the root of the land,” the bishop said. “We love the guests who came and settled in our land, and regard them as brothers, but they want to control even our churches? I reject anything that harms the Muslims, but as Christians we will do everything, even die as martyrs, if someone tries to harm our Christian mission.”

Around the same time, the Front of Religious Scholars called for a complete boycott of Christians in Egypt. The group called Christians “immoral,” labeled them “terrorists” and said Muslims should not patronize their businesses or even say “hello” to them.

The statement by the scholars was followed by a media leak about a lecture Bishoy was scheduled to give at a conference for Orthodox clergy. In his presentation, Bishoy planned on questioning the authorship of a verse in the Quran that calls Christians “blasphemers.” Muslims believe that an angel revealed the Quran to Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, who transmitted it word-by-word to his followers. Bishoy contended there was a possibility the verse in question was added later.

The mosque protests became even more virulent, and the conference was abruptly cancelled. Bishoy was forced to issue an apology, saying he never meant to cast doubt on Islam and called Muslims “partners” with the Copts in Egypt. Shenouda also issued an apology on national television. By comparison, an Islamic publishing house that rewrote and then issued what it termed the “true Bible” caused barely a stir.

Al-’Awa then blamed the deteriorating state of Muslim-Christian relations on Shenouda and Bishoy. He accused the Coptic Orthodox Church of exploiting the government’s “weak stance” toward it and “incarcerating anyone [who] is not to its liking.”

The Al-Azhar Academy of Islamic Research issued a statement that declared, “Egypt is a Muslim state.” The statement further went on to read that the Christians’ rights were contingent on their acceptance of the “Islamic identity” of Egypt. The statement was endorsed by Ali Gum’a, the mufti of Egypt.

The statement also referenced an agreement made between Muhammad and a community of Egyptian Christians in the seventh century as the guiding document on how Christians should be governed in a Muslim-dominated state. If ever codified into Egyptian law as many Muslims in Egypt desire, it would legally cement the status of Christians in the country as second-class citizens.

In 639, seven years after Muhammad died, Muslim armies rode across from Syria and Palestine and invaded Egypt, then controlled by the Byzantines. At first the Muslims, then a new but well-armed minority within Egypt, treated the conquered Christians relatively well by seventh century standards. But within a generation, they began the Islamization of the country, demanding all official business be conducted in Arabic, the language of the Quran, and Coptic and Jewish residents were forced to pay special taxes and obey rules designed to reaffirm their second-class status.

In the centuries since then, the treatment of Christians in Egypt has ebbed and flowed depending on the whim of those in power. After the coup of 1952, in which a group of men known as the Free Officers’ Movement took power from a European-backed monarch, Copts have seen their treatment decline.

In 1971, then-President Anwar Sadat introduced a new constitution designating Islamic law as “a principle source of legislation” in Egypt. In 1980, the National Assembly made Islam the official religion of the state.

Estimates of the Coptic population range from 7 to 12 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people. They are accepted by some in Egypt and openly discriminated against by others. Violent attacks against Christians – which the government does little to prevent – accentuate tensions.

The state also routinely harasses converts to Christianity from Islam. Many have to live in some sort of hiding.

The Protestant woman said she was not sure whether attacks would happen in response to the threats, but whatever happens, she said she expects that Christians in Egypt will continue to endure persecution.

“According to the Bible, we know this is going to happen,” she said. “This is not new or novel for us. The Bible said that we will be persecuted. It is expected.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Pakistani Woman Appeals Death Sentence for ‘Blasphemy’


District judge bows to pressure of local Muslims, handing down stunning sentence to Christian.

LAHORE, Pakistan, November 13 (CDN) — Attorneys for a Christian mother of five sentenced to death by hanging for allegedly speaking ill of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, have filed an appeal of the verdict, they said.

Bowing to pressure from Muslim extremists in Pakistan, according to the Christian woman’s husband and rights groups, a district court judge handed down the stunning sentence to Asia Noreen on Monday (Nov. 8). Additional District and Sessions Judge Naveed Ahmed Chaudhary of Nankana Sahib district delivered the verdict under Pakistan’s controversial “blasphemy” statute, the kind of law that a resolution before the United Nations condemning “defamation of religions” would make legitimate internationally.

Noreen is the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s widely condemned law against defaming Islam.

Noreen’s lawyer, Chaudhry Tahir Shahzad, said that among other allegations, she was accused of denying that Muhammad was a prophet.

“How can we expect a Christian to affirm a Muslim belief?” Shahzad said. He added that he and lawyer Manzoor Qadir had filed an appeal against the district sessions court’s verdict in the Lahore High Court.

Asia (alternately spelled Aasya) Noreen has been languishing in isolation in jail since June of last year after she argued with fellow field workers in Ittanwali village who were trying to pressure her into renouncing Christianity. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, told Compass that the argument began after the wife of an Ittanwali elder sent her to fetch water in Nankana Sahib district, about 75 kilometers (47 miles) from Lahore in Punjab Province.

The Muslim women told Noreen that it was sacrilegious to drink water collected by a non-Muslim, he said.

“My wife only said, ‘Are we not all humans?’ when the Muslim women rebuked her for her faith,” Masih, a field laborer, told Compass by telephone. “This led to an altercation.”

Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) General Secretary Katherine Sapna told Compass that the women told Muslim cleric Muhammad Salim about the incident, and he filed a case with police on the same day, June 14, 2009.

On June 19, 2009, Masih said, the Muslim women suddenly raised a commotion, accusing Noreen of defaming Muhammad.

“Several Muslim men working in the nearby fields reached the spot and forced their way into our house, where they tortured Asia and the children,” said Masih, who confirmed that his wife is 45 years old and that they have five children – four girls and a boy, the oldest daughter 20.

Police arrived and took his wife into custody, presumably for her own protection, he said.

“They saved Asia’s life, but then later a case was registered against her under Sections 295-B and C [blaspheming the Quran and Muhammad, respectively] at the Nankana police station on the complaint of Muhammad Salim, the local imam [prayer leader] of the village,” he said. “Asia has been convicted on false charges. We have never, ever insulted the prophet Muhammad or the Quran.”

Salim reportedly claimed that Noreen confessed to speaking derogatorily of Islam’s prophet and apologized. Under immense pressure from local Muslims, according to Masih, CLAAS and Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministry, local judge Chaudhary ruled out the possibility that Noreen was falsely accused. In spite of repeated efforts by the Muslim women to pressure her into renouncing her faith, the judge also reportedly ruled “there were no mitigating circumstances.”

Chaudhary also fined her 100,000 rupees (US$1,150), according to CLAAS.

Ataul Saman of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) said that lower court verdicts in blasphemy cases are usually overturned by higher courts. He said lower court proceedings take place under intense pressure, with local Muslims gathering outside and chanting slogans to pressure judges. Saman added that NCJP research showed that up to 80 percent of blasphemy charges are filed against people to settle personal scores.

Rights groups have long criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy laws as too easily used to settle grudges or oppress religious minorities, such as the more than 4 million Christians that Operation World estimates out of Pakistan’s total population of 184.7 million. To date no one has been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, as most are freed on appeal after suffering for years under appalling prison conditions. Vigilantes have killed at least 10 people accused of blasphemy, rights groups estimate.

Noreen was convicted under Section 295-C of the defamation statutes for alleged derogatory comments about Muhammad, which is punishable by death, though life imprisonment is also possible. Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment. Section 295-A of the defamation law prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” It is punishable by life imprisonment, which in Pakistan is 25 years.

Between 1986 and August 2009, at least 974 people have been charged with defiling the Quran or insulting Muhammad, according to the NCJP. Those charged included 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 from other religions.

Johnson of Sharing Life Ministry, which is active in prisons and has been following Noreen’s case from the onset, said he was impressed by her continued faith.

“A week before the verdict, I went to visit Asia in jail,” he said. “I asked her what she was expecting. She told me that Jesus would rescue her from this fake case.”

The verdict was shocking in that no one was expecting a death sentence for a woman, he said. Masih agreed.

“Asia was hoping that the judge would free her and she would come home to be with us, but this conviction has dashed our hopes for now,” Masih said.

He said that since the sentencing, authorities have not allowed him or other members of their family to visit his wife.

“We don’t know yet how she is, but we trust the Lord,” he said. “Asia is suffering for Jesus, and He will not forsake her.”

Report from Compass Direct News

After Fatwa, Pastor in Pakistan Beaten with Bricks


Convert, a former fighter in Afghanistan, had protested Islamic attack.

SARGODHA, Pakistan, November 5 (CDN) — Muslim extremists in Islamabad on Monday (Nov. 1) beat with bricks and hockey sticks a Christian clergyman who is the subject of a fatwa demanding his death.  

The Rev. Dr. Suleman Nasri Khan, a former fighter in Afghanistan before his conversion to Christianity in 2000, suffered a serious head injury, a hairline fracture in his arm and a broken bone in his left ankle in the assault by 10 Muslim extremists; he was able to identify two of them as Allama Atta-Ullah Attari and Allama Masaud Hussain.

The attack in Chashma, near Iqbal Town in Islamabad, followed Islamic scholar Allama Nawazish Ali’s Oct. 25th fatwa (religious ruling) to kill Khan, pastor of Power of the Healing God’s Church in the Kalupura area of Gujrat city. A mufti (Islamic scholar) and member of Dawat-e-Islami, which organizes studies of the Quran and Sunnah (sayings and deeds of Muhammad), Ali is authorized to issue fatwas.

Khan, 34, had relocated to a rented apartment in Islamabad after fleeing his home in Gujrat because of death threats against him and his family, he said. The fatwa, a religious order to be obeyed by all Muslims, was issued after Khan protested anti-Christian violence in Kalupura last month.

Muslim extremists who learned of his conversion had first attacked Khan in 2008 – killing his first child, 3-month old Sana Nasri Khan. He and wife Aster Nasri Khan escaped.

“During the Kalupura Christian colony attacks, once again it came into the attention of Muslim men that I was a converted Christian who had recanted Islam, deemed as humiliation of Islam by them,” Khan said.  

In this week’s attack, Khan also sustained minor rib injuries and several minor cuts and bruises. He said the Muslim radicals pelted him with stones and bricks while others kicked him in the chest and stomach. They also tried to force him to recite Islam’s creed for conversion; he refused.

On Monday night (Nov. 1) Khan had gone out to buy milk for a daughter born on July 19 – named after the daughter who was killed in 2008, Sana Nasri Khan – when during the wee hours of the night five unidentified Muslim extremists began kicking and pounding on the door.

“When my wife asked who they were, they replied, ‘We have learned that you have disgraced Islam by recanting, therefore we will set your house on fire,” Khan told Compass. “When my wife told them that I was not at home, they left a letter threatening to torch the house and kill my whole family and ordered me to recant Christianity and embrace Islam.”

Khan had sold some of his clothes at a pawnshop in order to buy milk for the baby, as he has been financially supporting six Christian families from his congregation who are on a Muslim extremist hit list. Islamic militants have cordoned off parts of Kalupura, patrolling the area to find and kill the families of Allah Rakha Masih, Boota Masih, Khalid Rehmat, Murad Masih Gill, Tariq Murad Gill and Rashid Masih.

Often feeding her 5-month-old daughter water mixed with salt and sugar instead of milk or other supplements, Aster Nasri Khan said she was ready to die of starvation for the sake of Jesus and His church. Before her beaten husband was found, she said she had heard from neighbors that some Muslim men had left him unconscious on a roadside, thinking he was dead.

The Rev. Arif Masih of Power of the Healing God’s Church in Islamabad told Compass that he was stunned to find Khan unconscious in a pool of blood on the roadside. Saying he couldn’t go to police or a hospital out of fear that Muslims would level apostasy charges against Khan, Masih said he took him to the nearby private clinic of Dr. Naeem Iqbal Masih. Khan received medical treatment there while remaining unconscious for almost four hours, Masih said.  

Born into a Muslim family, Khan had joined the now-defunct Islamic militant group Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, which later emerged as Jaish-e-Muhammad, fighting with them for eight and half years in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

While fighting in Afghanistan’s civil war in 2000, he said, he found a New Testament lying on the battlefield. He immediately threw it away, but a divine voice seemed to be extending an invitation to him, he said. When he later embraced Christ, he began preaching and studying – ending up with a doctorate in biblical theology from Punjab Theological Seminary in Kasur in 2005.

Upon learning of the Oct. 25 fatwa against him, Khan immediately left Gujrat for Islamabad, he said. He was living in hiding in Chashma near Iqbal Town when Muslims paid his landlord, Munir Masih, to reveal to them that Khan was living at his house as a tenant, he said. A young Christian whose name is withheld for security reasons informed Khan of the danger on Oct. 29, he said.

The young Christian told him that Munir Masih revealed his whereabouts to Allama Atta-Ullah Attari, a member of Dawat-e-Islami.

Khan said he confided to Christian friends about the dangers before him, and they devised a plan to hide his family in Bara Koh, a small town near Islamabad.

“But as I had sold and spent everything to help out Kalupura Christians,” he said, “I was penniless and therefore failed to move on and rent a house there.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Pakistani Muslim Tortures, Accuses Christian Who Refused Slavery


Land owner falsely charges young man with illicit sex, calls villagers to beat, burn him.

SARGODHA, Pakistan, October 29 (CDN) — A Muslim land owner in Pakistan this month subjected a 25-year-old Christian to burns and a series of humiliations, including falsely charging him with having sex with his own niece, because the Christian refused to work for him without pay.

Fayaz Masih is in jail with burns on his body after No. 115 Chitraan Wala village head Zafar Iqbal Ghuman and other villagers punished Masih for refusing to work as a slave in his fields, said the Rev. Yaqub Masih, a Pentecostal evangelist. The village is located in Nankana Sahib district, Punjab Province.

Sources said neither Fayaz Masih nor his family had taken any loans from Ghuman, and that they had no obligations to work off any debt for Ghuman as bonded laborers.

Yaqub Masih said the young man’s refusal to work in Ghuman’s fields infuriated the Muslim, who was accustomed to forcing Christians into slavery. He said Ghuman considered Masih’s refusal an act of disobedience by a “choohra,” the pejorative word for Christians in Pakistan.

On Oct. 3 Ghuman and 11 of his men abducted Masih from his home at gun-point and brought him to Ghuman’s farmhouse, according to Yaqub Masih and Yousaf Gill, both of nearby village No. 118 Chour Muslim. Gill is a former councilor of Union Council No. 30, and Yaqub Masih is an ordained pastor waiting for his denomination to assign him a church.

Fayaz Masih’s family members told Yaqub Masih that Ghuman was carrying a pistol, and that the 11 other men were brandishing rifles or carrying clubs, axes and bamboo sticks. They began beating Masih as they carried him away, calling him a choohra, Yaqub Masih said.   

Gill said that Ghuman’s farmhands tied Fayaz Masih’s hands and legs and asked him once more if he would work in Ghuman’s fields. When he again refused, Gill said, Ghuman summoned four barbers; three ran away, but he forced one, Muhammad Pervaiz, to shave Masih’s head, eyebrows, half of his mustache and half of his beard.

After they had rubbed charcoal on Masih’s face, Ghuman then announced that Masih had had relations with Masih’s 18-year-old niece, Sumeera, and called for everyone in the village to punish him. He and his men placed Masih on a frail, one-eyed donkey, Yaqub Masih and Gill said, and a mob of Muslim men and children surrounded him – beating tins, dancing and singing door-to-door while shouting anti-Christian slogans, yelling obscenities at him and other Christians, and encouraging villagers to beat him with their shoes and fill his mouth with human waste, Yaqub Masih said.

Some threw kerosene on Masih and alternately set him on fire and extinguished the flames, Gill said. He added that Muslims made a garland of old shoes from a pile of garbage and put it around Masih’s neck.

Yaqub Masih said the abuse became unbearable for the young man, and he collapsed and fell off the donkey.  

 

Police Ignore Court

Masih’s sister, Seema Bibi, told Compass that the accusation that Masih had had sex with her daughter Sumeera was utterly false. She said Ghuman made the allegation only to vent his fury at Masih for refusing to work for him.

Seema Bibi said that Ghuman told her daughter at gun-point to testify against Masih in court on Oct. 4. Sumeera surprised the Muslim land owner, however, saying under oath that Masih was innocent and that Ghuman had tried to force her to testify against her uncle. A judge ruled that Sumeera had not had illicit relations with Masih, and that therefore she was free to go home.

Her mother told Compass, however, that since then Ghuman has been issuing daily death threats to her family.

After Masih collapsed from the abuse, Yaqub Masih and Gill called local police. Police did not arrive until three hours later, at 3:30 p.m., they said, led by Deputy Superintendent of Police Shoiab Ahmed Kamboh and Inspector Muhammad Yaqub.

“They rebuked the Muslim villagers that they could have killed this Christian youth, and they told them to give him a bath at once and change his clothes, in order to reduce the evidence against them,” Gill said.

Family members of Masih said Kamboh and Inspector Yaqub arrested some of the leading figures within the mob, but soon thereafter they received a call to release every Muslim.

“Instead of taking the Muslim men into custody, they detained my brother, and he was taken to the police station,” Seema Bibi said.  

On Oct. 4 police sent Masih to District Headquarters Hospital Nankana Sahib for examination, where Dr. Naseer Ahmed directed Dr. Muhammad Shakeel to mention in the medical report how severely Ghuman and his farmhands had beaten him, Gill said. He said the medical report also stated that Masih had sustained burns and that his head, mustache, eyebrows and beard were shaved.

In spite of the court ruling that Masih had not had sex with his niece, police were coerced into registering a false charge of adultery under Article 376 of the Islamic statutes of the Pakistan Penal Code, First Information Report No. 361/10, at the Sangla Hill police station.

At press time Masih remained in Shiekhupura District Jail, said Gill. Gill also has received death threats from Ghuman, he said.

The 11 men who along with Ghuman abducted Masih and brought him to Ghuman’s farmhouse, according to Masih’s family, were Mehdi Hussain Shah and Maqsood Shah, armed with rifles; Muhammad Amin, Rana Saeed, Muhammad Osama and four others unidentified, all of them brandishing clubs; Muhammad Waqas, with an axe; and Ali Raza, bearing a bamboo stick and a club.

Report from Compass Direct News

Blind Chinese human rights defender still under house arrest


ChinaAid (www.chinaaid.org ) reports that after blind human rights defender Chen Guangcheng was recently interviewed by a Chinese radio reporter, media lost direct contact with him and his wife, reports Michael Ireland, chief correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

However, says ChinaAid, one of their friends, Zeng Jinyan, mentioned in her blog that she had contacted Chen and his wife on September 23. Since that date, there has been no word from them.

Radio Free Asia reporter Zhang Min interviewed Chen on September 13 and provided the information to ChinaAid.

Since then, ChinaAid reports, family friend Zeng Jinyan wrote in her blog, “Chen Guangcheng’s mother-in-law recently visited Chen in his home. When she arrived, she was physically searched by government-paid guards keeping Chen’s family under house arrest. A few days before, on the September 20, the local communist leader of the town invaded Chen’s home with at least 4 policemen and over 20 guards. They stayed there for six hours.”

ChinaAid says the guards on watch currently have free rein of Chen’s house, intruding any time they wish. Not only have they invaded the family’s privacy — they also threatened them, saying, “Don’t you really know who holds your little life in their hands?”

ChinaAid went on to add that the local government forced Chen to cut off all external communications. The guards do not allow Chen or his wife out of their house. The family relies on Chen’s 78-year-old mother, the only one who is allowed to go out, to buy their food. The guards have even forbidden Chen’s 5-year-old daughter from going to school.

ChianAid explained that Chen Guangcheng and Gao Zhisheng, both Christian human rights defenders who continue to suffer for their work, were nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

The award was made on October 8, 2010, to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was honored for "Struggle for Fundamental Human Rights." He was given the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for "his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights" — a prize that enraged the Chinese government, which had warned the Nobel committee not to honor him. China officially denounced the award as "Blasphemy."

In a year with a record 237 nominations for the peace prize, Liu had been considered a favorite, with open support from winners Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and others.

In the case of Guangcheng, ChinaAid "insists that the local authorities cease their invasive control of Chen and his family," and asks concerned Christians to join them in praying for their freedom and safety.

ChinaAid had also prayed the Nobel Peace Prize would be awarded to Chen Guangcheng or Gao Zhisheng, who have both suffered under the hands of Chinese authorities.

ChianAid had earlier said: "Such an award would be an incredible encouragement and source of hope to every human rights lawyer in China."

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Somali Family Laments Kidnapping of Christian Girl


Islamic extremist insurgents abducted 15-year-old nearly eight months ago.

MOGADISHU, Somalia, October 6 (CDN) — An underground Christian family from central Somalia is agonizing over the kidnapping of their daughter nearly eight months ago by Islamic militants bent on punishing those who leave Islam.

Ghelle Hassan Aded told Compass that he has not seen his 15-year-old daughter, Anab Ghelle Hassan, since Islamic extremists from the al Shabaab (“the Youth”) insurgency kidnapped her on Feb. 15. Certain that the militants would come after the rest of the family, they immediately fled, said Aded, who spoke with Compass from an undisclosed location in Somalia’s autonomous region of Puntland.

The family formed part of a growing movement of underground Christians in Dhusa Mareb, capital of Galgaduud Region in central Somalia, said other sources in Somalia who confirmed the kidnapping. Aded and his family had become Christians in 2001 while living in Kampala, Uganda. In 2008, the family returned to Somalia and settled in Dhusa Mareb, where their tribesmen live.

The al Shabaab insurgents fighting the Transitional Federal Government soon began monitoring the family’s activities. Aded said they took note that the family did not attend mosque, and on several occasions the insurgents or other Muslims questioned him. In Somalia, Christians hold small meetings in secret and are advised not to keep Bibles or other Christian literature at their homes; they often have to keep them buried in a hole.

On Feb. 15, Aded and his wife sent young Hassan to the market to buy food, he said; relatives told them later that day that they saw al Shabaab insurgents kidnap her at 10 a.m. as she was going about her business at the local market. Knowing that the insurgents would soon come after the rest of his family, Aded said, he fled immediately with his wife, 11-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son to Puntland.

At their location in Puntland, the family appeared devastated by the kidnapping, with Aded’s wife often weeping over the loss, but they said they maintain hope of seeing Anab again.

“We are increasingly afraid of being discovered by the militants on our trail and wish to go back to Kampala as soon as possible,” Aded said. “After months of monitoring, the militants were convinced that we were practicing Christianity, contrary to their banning of all other religions in Somalia.”

Al Shabaab insurgents control much of southern and central Somalia and have embarked on a campaign to rid the country of its hidden Christian population. With estimates of al Shabaab’s size ranging from 3,000 to 7,000, the insurgents seek to impose a strict version of sharia (Islamic law).  

Al Shabaab was among several splinter groups that emerged after Ethiopian forces removed the Islamic Courts Union, a group of sharia courts, from power in Somalia in 2006. Said to have ties with al Qaeda, al Shabaab has been designated a terrorist organization by several western governments.

The transitional government in Mogadishu fighting to retain control of the country treats Christians little better than the al Shabaab insurgents do. While proclaiming himself a moderate, President Sheikh Sharif Sheik Ahmed has embraced a version of sharia that mandates the death penalty for those who leave Islam.

Report from Compass Direct News

Muslim Extremists Suspected in Death of Christian Worker in India


Christian in Jharkhand state may have been slain during Islamic festival.

NEW DELHI, September 28 (CDN) — Family members of a Christian worker who was found dead in a Muslim area in Jharkhand state a day after the Islamic Eid festival said they suspect he may have been murdered by local residents.

The body of Shravan Kumar, who had worked with the Gospel Echoing Missionary Society, was found lying in a well near the Idgah Mosque in Garhwa town in the wee hours of Sept. 13, a close relative of the deceased told Compass by phone.

Kumar, 31, lived in Pratapgarh district in neighboring Uttar Pradesh state. He left for Garhwa, 65 kilometers (40 miles) from his house, saying he wanted to see a colleague there on Sept 10.

“But neither did he visit the colleague, nor did he get back home,” said the relative.

On Sept. 15, a family member went to Garhwa looking for him. He found his picture in an advertisement police had placed in a local newspaper in an effort to identify the body.

“When Kumar’s body was handed over to the family, it was beyond recognition; it had swollen,” said the relative.

Later, the family member went to the well in Garhwa where the body was found. Local youths who pulled Kumar’s body from the well the morning of Sept. 13 informed the family member that they noticed injuries on his face and around his neck. Police were immediately informed, but officers did not arrive until 10 p.m.

“Kumar had lived in a rented house in Garhwa a few years ago, and on the morning of Sept. 12 he visited his old landlord and mentioned that he planned to preach in the Idgah Mosque area,” said the source, adding that Kumar’s family suspected “that he preached to the Muslims on the Eid festival, and as a result he was killed and thrown in the well.”

A police spokesman, however, said he refused to believe that Kumar was murdered. Deputy Superintendent of Police Ashok Kumar Singh told Compass that “as of now” police were not exploring any possibility of a crime.

“The post-mortem report says there was no injury mark on his body, and he died by drowning,” Singh said.

In 1998, Kumar had received a head injury after suspected Hindu nationalist extremists hit him with a rod in Sitamani in neighbouring Bihar, the relative said.

“Since then, he had been suffering from a mild psychological ailment,” he added. “If he did not take his daily medicine, he would get a little disturbed and begin to preach to non-Christians aggressively. This is what may have happened on Sept. 12 when he preached in the Muslim area.”

Kumar, who became a Christian from a Hindu background in 1997, held prayer meetings in his house shortly after his conversion against the wishes of local Hindu nationalists, the relative added.

The religious atmosphere in India was tense at the time of his death. On Sept. 13, Muslim mobs burned a Christian school and a church, both belonging to the Church of North India (CNI), in the Muslim-majority Kashmir region in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. No students or staff members of the school were hurt, but at least five Muslims died and more than 50 were injured as security officers opened fire at the mob to prevent the burning of the school.

Also, on Aug. 13 Muslims attempted to burn a CNI hospital in Jammu and Kashmir’s Anantnag district, but security forces managed to prevent it. In a separate incident the same day and in the same state, a mob vandalized the Catholic-run Good Shepherd High School in Pulwama district.

In a similar incident the same day, Muslims in Malerkotla town in northern Punjab state burned the furniture of a CNI church.

These incidents took place after the Quran was allegedly desecrated in the United States. Although Florida Pastor Terry Jones had withdrawn the threat to burn the Quran to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Iranian government-run news channel Press TV showed dubious clips of the Quran being torn in the US.

Kumar’s family fears that the police will overlook the available clues indicating the role of local Muslims and instead claim that he committed suicide.

“No one who knew Kumar can believe that he could have committed suicide,” said the relative. “Although he was psychologically unwell, he always faced life’s problems boldly.”

Kumar, the sole bread winner in the family, is survived by a 25-year-old wife and a 5-year-old daughter.

According to the 2001 Census, Jharkhand has a population of around 27 million, out of which 4.06 percent are Christian. Muslims account for close to 14 percent of the state’s population.

Report from Compass Direct News