Alleged Bomber of Christian Boy in Israel to Stand Trial


Hearing could determine whether Jack Teitel is transferred from mental hospital.

ISTANBUL, September 3 (CDN) — An Israeli man accused of planting a homemade bomb that almost killed the son of a Messianic Jewish pastor in Ariel, Israel has been declared competent to stand trial.

Jack Teitel, 37, who in November was indicted on two charges of pre-meditated murder, three charges of attempted murder and numerous weapons charges, is expected to enter a plea on Sunday (Sept. 5).

David and Leah Ortiz, parents of the teenage victim, said that the 10 months since the indictment have been difficult but their stance toward Teitel remains the same; they have forgiven him for the attack but want him to face justice before a judge and seek salvation from God.

If nothing else, they said, they want him incarcerated to keep other Messianic Jews from being attacked either by Teitel or those following his lead.

“He’s dangerous,” Leah Ortiz said. “He’s an extremely dangerous person. He’s totally unrepentant.”

Sunday’s plea will open the way for a trial expected to start within weeks and last for more than six months. Officials at a hearing possibly the same day as the scheduled plea will decide whether Teitel will be moved from the mental hospital where he has been held for most of his detainment.

It is possible Teitel will enter no plea on Sunday. He has publically stated that he doesn’t “recognize the jurisdiction” of Jerusalem District Court.

 

Bombing

On March 20, 2008, Ami Ortiz, then 15, opened a gift basket that someone had left anonymously at his family’s home in Ariel. The basket disappeared in a massive explosion that destroyed much of the Ortiz home and shattered Ami’s body.

When he arrived at the hospital, Ami was clinging to life. He was bleeding profusely, had burns covering much of his body and was full of needles, screws and glass fragments the bomb-maker had built into the device.

The doctors had little hope for him and listed his condition as “anush,” meaning his soul was about to leave his body.

After countless hours of surgery and even more spent in prayer, Ami went from “near dead,” to burned and blind and eventually to playing basketball on a national youth team. Both his parents said his recovery was nothing short of a miracle from God.

 

‘Most Radical Evangelist’

When Teitel was arrested in October 2009, police found him hanging up posters celebrating the shooting of two teenagers at a gay and lesbian community center in Tel Aviv.

Teitel’s background is still somewhat of a mystery. An emigrant from the United States, he became an Israeli citizen in 2000, got married not long afterwards and is the father of four children. Usually portrayed in Israeli media as part ultra-orthodox ideologue and part fringe survivalist, it is clear that Teitel was motivated by a fascination with end-times prophecy and an extremely violent interpretation of Judaism and Jewish nationalism.

He is a self-described follower of such anti-missionary groups as Yad L’Achim. According to authorities, Teitel sought to kill those he deemed enemies of traditional Judaism: Palestinians, homosexuals, liberal Jewish intellectuals and, in the Ortiz case, Messianic Jews.

David Ortiz is well known in Israel, both for his activities in the Jewish community and for his efforts to expose Palestinians to the gospel.

“He said the reason why he wanted to kill me was that I was the most radical in evangelism, so I had to be first,” said Ortiz, who has seen transcripts of Teitel’s confessions.

Along with the Ortiz case, police said Teitel is responsible for the June 1997 shooting death of Samir Bablisi, a Palestinian taxi driver who was found in his cab with a single bullet wound to his head. Two months later, police said, Teitel allegedly shot Isa Jabarin, a Palestinian shepherd who was giving him driving directions to Jerusalem.

Police also said that Teitel attempted to burn down a monastery and unsuccessfully planted several bombs. He also is accused of the September 2008 bombing of Zeev Sternhell of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The bombing left the emeritus history professor slightly wounded.

During one court hearing, Teitel flashed a victory sign and reportedly said, “It was a pleasure and honor to serve my God. God is proud of what I have done. I have no regrets.”

 

Long Road to Trial

David Ortiz said that as bad as the bombing itself was, waiting for the trial has been yet another ordeal.

As officials investigated the bombing, police harassed Messianic Jewish friends of theirs, saying, “If you are Jewish, why did you become a Christian?” Ortiz said.

The Ortiz family had to sue police and pay 5,000 shekels (US$1,320) to obtain a copy of a security camera video belonging to the family that police had seized as evidence. The video shows Teitel laying the basket at the Ortiz home.

“We had to hire a lawyer because we understood clearly that our rights as victims had to be protected,” said David Ortiz.

Particularly galling to the pastor has been the hands-off response of government officials to the attack.

“We are the only family in Israel that has been a victim of an attack that hasn’t been visited by a government official,” he said, adding that officials have made no public condemnation of the attack. “If the leaders do not condemn an act, it emboldens others who want to do the same thing.”

According to the International Religious Freedom Report 2009 issued by the U.S. Department of State, there are 10,000 Messianic Jews in Israel. The report documents several cases of violence against Messianic Jews, including cases where baptismal services have been disrupted, Messianic Jews have been beaten and Christian literature has been torched.

 

God Shows Up

Leah Ortiz said that what Teitel intended for evil, God meant for good in order to reach people.

“The Lord has taken the worst tragedy that could possibly happen and has used it for the greatest good that He possibly could,” she said.

The incident, and how the Ortiz family has dealt with it, has become a lightning rod of sorts in Israel, forcing people to think more seriously about the claims of the Messianic Jews.

In a place filled with the type of hatred that causes people to strap bombs to their bodies to kill others, the attack has given people a reason to think and, for some, to choose forgiveness and peace.

Ortiz said he has gotten calls from Palestinians who had said if he could forgive a man who bombed his child, then they can forgive what has happened to them. Orthodox Jews have called him and asked forgiveness for their hatred toward Messianic Jews. Muslims have called Ortiz offering blood for transfusions for Ami.

Ortiz said he was devastated after the attack, but that he has been blessed to see God working “supernaturally” through the incident. Ami is an example of God’s grace and healing power, Ortiz said, explaining, “Ami has been a wonder within my own eyes. How could anyone who went through so much be so peaceful?”

Ami’s high school friends, most of them not Messianic Jews, have sought him out and asked him about the ordeal.  Ortiz said he thinks God will use him in a big way.

His wife explained, “I have that sense this is about something bigger. This is something bigger than what has happened to us and to our family.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Theology Student Dies in Attack in Madhya Pradesh, India


Hindu extremists raid revival meeting in one area, while others attack gospel event in another.

NEW DELHI, April 27 (CDN) — Hindu extremists raided Christian events in India’s Madhya Pradesh state this month, leaving a visiting theology student dead and several other Christians injured.

The body of 23-year-old Amit Gilbert was recovered from a water well 25 feet from the site of a Christian revival meeting that 15 to 20 Hindu extremists attacked on April 17 in Gram Fallaiya, Post Pathakheda, Betul district. With covered heads and carrying iron rods and bamboo clubs, members of the Hindu extremist Dharam Sena and Bajrang Dal cut electricity at the night-time event and began striking, sending the more than 400 in attendance running, Christian leaders said.

Eyewitnesses said the assailants chased Gilbert, of Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh state, and beat him mainly on his legs. Police in the state controlled by the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said that for the moment they believe Gilbert accidentally fell into the well amid the chaos, but Christians present said that is unlikely.

His body was found with his head and legs submerged in the 1.5-meter deep water of the well, yet he had no water in his lungs or stomach when Christians drew him out, said Pastor Santwan Lal, organizer of the April 15-17 revival event, suggesting that Gilbert was dead before being thrown in. 

“Amit was hit first and then picked up and thrown into the well,” Pastor Lal said. “If he had fallen into the well, he would have had more bruises and at least a broken bone or two, since the well is rocky and narrow. But that was not the case.”

Pastor Lal and others Compass spoke with said they believe the posture of the body leaves no doubt that Gilbert was murdered.

“He sustained an injury on the left side of his face near the ear,” Pastor Lal added.

An autopsy was conducted, but authorities are not disclosing findings, Pastor Lal said. Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bajrang Dal are reportedly exerting intense pressure on local authorities.

Betul Assistant Sub-Inspector Santosh Jain told Compass that the results of the autopsy, conducted by a team of doctors, will not be released because they have now become politicized.

Police on April 19 arrested nine people in connection with the incident and charged them with rioting, violence and trespassing, but not murder. Officers also registered Gilbert’s death under the Section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which pertains to inquiry and report on an incident involving death of a person whether suicide or otherwise.

“We are trying hard, but this case does not seem to be moving forward,” Jain said. “A report has been registered against 10 to 12 [initially] unidentified people, and we have so far arrested nine. All have accepted their involvement in the crime, and all belong to the Bajrang Dal. Not one of them is a local from Betul. Their bails have been rejected at the lower court.”

Arrested were Rakesh Dhurwe, Neeraj Rajput, Radheshyam Sahu, Sonu Rajput, Raju Kahar, Rajesh Oriya, Raju Deshmukh, Arun Thackrey, and Hemrath Bahalavi, he said.

Though police have initially determined that Gilbert fell into the well, they say they are open to the possibility that he was thrown into it.

Pastor Lal added that two women were also injured in the melee.

“As a result of the violence, two ladies attending the meeting were hit, and one of them was admitted in a local hospital for three days,” he said.

Christian leaders said Betul has increasingly witnessed such attacks since the BJP came to power in the state in 2004, with various incidents of Christians being beaten, arrested and intimidated.

The April 17 attack was sudden and without provocation or warning, Pastor Lal said. Soon after the assailants left, the Christians gathered to determine if anyone were missing. An unnamed girl and a nephew of the pastor were missing but later found, and that night Gilbert’s body was found when a Christian shined a flashlight into the well.

Gilbert was visiting as a volunteer to another pastor after having finished his Masters in Divinity degree from Central India Bible College, Itarsi, Madhya Pradesh, in March. He had reportedly insisted on staying to help Pastor Abhishek John in Sallaiya village in order to gain ministry experience.

Sources said April 17 was to have been Gilbert’s last day of volunteer service, as he was planning to return home to Uttar Pradesh the next day.

Rampage in Balaghat

In Balaghat on April 14 and 15, Hindu extremists attacked a three-day gospel meeting with fuel-bombs in spite of the presence of police summoned beforehand to provide security.

Prior to the event attended by 10,000 people in Balaghat’s Mulna stadium, local newspapers carried open threats issued by the Bajrang Dal and BJP workers against the Christian community. On April 14Bajrang Dal members threw two fuel-bombs into the stadium that did not explode.

“They had hurled petrol bombs even in the presence of the police,” Saurabh Panduria, a local Christian doctor, told Compass. “Thankfully it did not explode, or anything could have happened as there were many women, children and sick people in the crowd.”

The next day Bajrang Dal and the BJP workers attacked the event as well as the quarters where people who had come from outside Balaghat to attend the meetings were staying, including Kamla Nehru hall.

Police increased security for the April 15 meeting, but as it was drawing to a close about 150 BJP andBajrang Dal members surrounded the stadium. Some of them tried to storm in, but police repelled them. Hindu extremists responded by pelting them with stones and throwing fuel bombs at police vehicles. They also attempted to destroy stadium property.

Bajrang Dal workers Golu Thakre and Manu Yadav were among those who harassed participants at an afternoon meeting on April 15, said Dr. Amos Singh of Jeevan Jyoti Ministries in Balaghat.

“Darbari and Ganesh from Barai village in Mandla, Madhya Pradesh, and Sunil Jagne from Gondia, Maharashtra, were severely beaten by the Bajrang Dal people, and they were interrogated like they were criminals,” Singh said. “The police arrived later.”

At 5 p.m. extremists caught hold of some Christians and forced them to the BJP local office in Balaghat, where BJP and Bajrang Dal members assaulted at least three of them.

Police arrested nearly 23 Bajrang Dal members, including eight leaders. This prompted BJP Member of Parliament K.D. Deshmukh and Member of Legislative Assembly Ramesh Bhatere to lead a mob that surrounded the police station and protested throughout the night, loudly shouting slogans against the administration and the Christian community.

About 1,000 to 1,500 BJP and Bajrang Dal supporters fanned throughout Balaghat, bunching particularly around a bus stand and railway station and damaging at least three vehicles, including ones belonging to a senior police officer and an ex-Member of Parliament, Ashok Singh Saraswat. The mob attempted to set fire to buses from Maharashtra state transport corporation.

Since most of those attending the meeting were outsiders, the Bajrang Dal members descended on the railway station and bus stand and harassed passengers and broke property, damaging both buses and railway coaches, Singh said. If the extremists found a Bible in the luggage of people at the railway station and bus stand, they attacked them, he said.

“Christians who were returning from the meeting and attempting to get away from Balaghat as soon as possible were attacked and beaten with sticks and pelted with stones,” Singh said. “Women workers of the BJP attacked Christian women staying in Sindhi Dharamshala [hall], and some Christians who had come from Gondia and other places from nearby Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh had to flee for their lives, leaving behind their luggage in the Kamla Nehru hall and other places where they were put up.”

Pastor Kamlesh Nagpure said that he and his family were stuck in the stadium, unable to go to their home outside the city limits of Balaghat.

“People were driven to safety in tractors and private cars following the ruckus, and they were attacked even till early morning, 4 a.m.,” he said. “The attackers used large sticks to rough people up and indulged in brick throwing, which also damaged some vehicles. Some of us who could not get a safe ride outside town limits were forced to stay inside the stadium the whole night. Most of the crowd was composed of women and children.”

Christian leaders reportedly said the mob also damaged a Catholic church in Balaghat and attempted to attack other church buildings and houses belonging to Christian leaders. They threw fuel-bombs at the house of the Rev. Arvind Deep, where several participants had taken refuge that night.

At last the administration was forced to impose a curfew until April 17, even as the BJP declared a total shutdown of market and other activities on April 16 and 17 as part of their protest.

“Targeting participants of the meeting and beating and intimidating them continued till 10 a.m. on April 16,” Singh told Compass. “Many Christians have fled Balaghat out of fear and have gone to live with their relatives.”

Eight people who were arrested on April 15 were reportedly released the next morning.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Young Christian Woman Allegedly Abducted in Pakistan


Muslims said to employ various ruses; forced conversion, marriage feared.

LAHORE, Pakistan, April 13 (CDN) — A Muslim tricked a 19-year-old Christian woman into leaving her house here on April 1, and he and a car full of friends took her away, according to her family.

Sonia Mohan’s family said they fear the Muslim, Ali Raza, will force her to convert to Islam and marry him. Raza came to their home in Lahore’s Nishtar Colony claiming that her brother, Johnson Parvaiz, wanted to see her outside, Parvaiz said.

“Sonia would not have gone with them if he hadn’t told her that I wanted to see her,” Parvaiz said. “Ali Raza came to our home and told Sonia that I had asked for her, and she went out of the house with him. They had parked a vehicle outside and left, and afterwards we never heard from her.”

He said his sister’s cell phone remained off for two days. When it began to ring again they called repeatedly, and finally a man answered the phone and then handed it to Mohan. Parvaiz said she told him not to call her, that she was very happy and that they should not try to find her.

“It was obvious from her voice that she had been forced to say that,” Parvaiz said. “I fear that she will first be converted to Islam, and then married, and then it will become impossible for us to see her again.”

Initially police were unwilling to register the family’s complaint, he said. Only after the family enlisted the help of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) did police begin searching for Raza and Mohan.

Parvaiz added that Raza and his friends had previously told her to convert to Islam, saying that because she was beautiful she did not deserve to live as a lowly Christian. Raza and Mohan had no prior contact except that Raza had harassed his sister that one time, he said; her family complained to his parents, who live in the area.

Parvaiz added that Raza worked in a factory called Combined Fabrics, where he had a reputation of harassing Christian women. Since the alleged abduction he has been missing from work.

Nishtar Colony Station House Officer Munawar Doggar told Compass that it did not appear that Mohan, who along with the rest of her family belongs to the American Reformed Presbyterian Church, went with Raza willingly. He said he had delayed registering a case on behalf of Mohan’s family only because Raza’s family had filed a complaint that Raza himself had been abducted.

After speaking with Compass, however, Doggar said he would file a First Information Report imminently.

“I want to fully investigate the matter so that no injustice is done to any party,” he said. “But the family of the girl should now come to the police station and surely their FIR will be registered.”

On the day of the kidnapping, Raza’s uncle, Zaffar Jamil, filed a complaint that Raza himself had been abducted as a smokescreen to delay police in pursuing the abduction of Mohan, Parvaiz said.

“In this way, the police would reject my police complaint, saying, ‘Raza was abducted, so how could he abduct Sonia?’” Parvaiz said.

In his uncle Jamil’s complaint to police, Jamil had said that two men identified only as Fahad and Almas – friends of Raza present in the waiting car when Raza allegedly kidnapped Mohan – were the ones who likely abducted Raza.

Compass has obtained a copy of Jamil’s complaint. He crafted it in such a way that he can withdraw it at any point, and he says he had only a suspicion about the abduction of Raza and the identity of the supposed culprits. Otherwise police would quickly determine that Fahad and Almas had not abducted Raza, and the tactic to delay justice would be short-lived, Parvaiz said.

APMA Chief Organizer in Punjab Province Khalid Gill told Compass that previously Fahad had employed duplicitous tactics to marry a Christian woman in Youhanabad, Lahore, and that for that reason Raza had sought Fahad’s help in tricking Mohan into going with him.

Gill said that in such kidnapping cases, police often delay investigations until after abducted women get pregnant, after which legally it is nearly impossible for courts to return them to their families.

“That is the reason that APMA has been asking for revision of the family laws, and that in such cases where such tactics have been used, the marriage should be declared void so that the girl returns to the family and starts living her life from where it was interrupted,” Gill said.

Jamil and Raza’s brother, Nasir Dilawar, and Dilawar’s wife Majidan, along with Raza’s brother Muhammad Asif, have assured Mohan’s family that she will be returned soon, but that promise also was only at attempt to forestall legal action, Parvaiz said.

He added that the fact that Raza and his accomplices felt it necessary to employ the ruses to delay police investigations was further evidence that Mohan and Raza had no prior relationship.

The family fears that the longer her return is delayed, the more likely that she will become pregnant or get intimidated into giving a statement in court that she went willingly due to her captors’ threats that her father or brothers will be killed if she refuses, Parvaiz said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Violent Death of Girl in Pakistan Spurs Push for Justice


Rare protest by family of tortured child puts spotlight on abuse of Christian working poor.

LAHORE, Pakistan, January 28 (CDN) — A daring protest and a high-profile funeral here on Monday (Jan. 25) for a 12-year-old Christian girl who died from torture and malnourishment has cast a rare spotlight on abuse of the Christian poor in Pakistan.

In an uncommon challenge in the predominantly Muslim nation, the Christian parents of Shazia Bashir Masih protested police unresponsiveness to the alleged violence against their daughter by Muslim attorney Chaudhary Muhammad Naeem and his family and his attempt to buy their silence after her death. The house servant died on Friday (Jan. 22) after working eight months in Naeem’s house.

An initial medical report indicated she died gradually from blows from a blunt instrument, wounds from a sharp-edged weapon, misuse of medicines and malnourishment. Key media highlighted the case on Pakistan’s airwaves, and minority rights groups along with high-ranking Christian politicians have swooped in to help.

Initially police were unresponsive to the family’s efforts to file charges against Muslim attorney Naeem, and on Saturday (Jan. 23) they staged a protest in front of the Punjab Assembly. The power of Naeem, a former president of the Lahore Bar Association, was such that officers at Litton Road police station refused to listen to Shazia’s relatives when they tried to file a complaint to retrieve her three months ago, telling the girl’s relatives, “a case against a lawyer cannot be registered,” her uncle Rafiq Masih told Compass.

Her mother, Nasreen Bibi, told Compass Naeem came to their home on the day Shazia died and offered 30,000 rupees (US$350) to keep the death secret and to pay for burial expenses.

“I refused to accept their offer, and they went they went away hurling death threats,” she said.

Bibi, a widow who subsequently married a 70-year-old blind man, told Compass that hunger and poverty had forced her to send her daughter to work at Naeem’s house for 1,000 rupees per month (US$12) – the family’s only source of income. Two older daughters are married, and she still cares for a 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son living at home.

Rafiq Masih said Naeem illegally kept Shazia at his house, forced her to work long hours and summarily refused family requests to see her. Three months ago, Masih said, Naeem allowed him and Shazia’s mother to see her for five minutes, and the girl complained that Naeem and his son were raping her. Shazia also told them that Naeem, his wife and sister-in-law were beating her and threatening to harm her if she tried to escape.

Enraged, Naeem promptly asked him and Shazia’s mother to leave, Masih said.

“We tried to bring Shazia with us back home,” he said, “but Naeem flatly refused to let Shazia go, and he cruelly and inhumanely grabbed her hair and dragged her inside the house. He returned to threaten us with dire consequences if we tried to file a case against him for keeping Shazia at his home as a bonded laborer.”

Masih and Bibi then went to the Litton Road police station to try to get Naeem to release Shazia, and it was then that duty officers deliberately offered the misinformation that a case could not be made against a lawyer, they said.

A Muslim neighbor of Naeem, Shaukat Ali Agha, told Compass that Naeem tortured Shazia.

“Often that little girl’s cries for mercy could be heard from the residence of the lawyer during the dead of night,” Agha said. “And whenever Shazia requested some food, she got thrashed badly by his wife, son and sister-in-law. One day Shazia was viciously beaten when, forced by starvation, she could not resist picking up a small piece of sugar cane from the lawn of Naeem’s residence to chew.”

As Shazia’s condition deteriorated, Naeem released her to the family and they took her to Jinnah Hospital Lahore on Jan. 19. After fighting for her life there for three days, she succumbed to her injuries and critically malnourished condition, her mother said.

Doctors at the hospital told Compass they found 18 wounds on her body: 13 from a blunt instrument, and five from a “sharp-edged weapon.”

A high-ranking investigating official told Compass that Naeem had given contrary statements under questioning. The police official said that Naeem initially stated that Shazia had fallen down some stairs and died. The police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Naeem quickly changed his statement, saying she had stolen food from the refrigerator and therefore was beaten. The official added that Naeem also said Shazia was insane, disobedient and stubborn, and “therefore she had gotten thrashed and died.”

Doctors at Mayo Hospital Morgue have taken blood and tissue samples from Shazia’s liver, stomach and kidneys and sent them to the Chief Chemical Examiner’s Forensic Lab in Islamabad to determine the official causes of death, officials said.

Family Beaten in Court

On Saturday (Jan. 23) Shazia’s family, along with many other Christians and Muslims, protested outside the Punjab Assembly for three hours, according to rights groups. Key television channels covered police inaction in the face of the violent death, and several high-profile politicians pledged their support, including Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. He promised to give the family 500,000 rupees (US$5,835) after Pakistani Minister of Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti announced a gift of the same amount to compensate the family.

Only after this public pressure did police file a First Information Report, and Naeem and six others, including family members, were arrested earlier this week. Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif reportedly visited the family, promising justice.

The Lahore High Court took up the case on Tuesday (Jan. 26) and ordered police to conclude investigations within 14 days, but none of the high-level action seemed to matter at a hearing that day at District and Sessions Court Lahore, at which Naeem and his accusers were present. As routinely happens in cases where Christians in Pakistan accuse Muslims of wrongdoing, Compass observed as Naeem’s lawyers chanted slogans against Shazia’s family, threatened them and beat them – including Bibi and her blind husband – driving them from the courtroom.

Compass witnessed the Muslim attorneys yelling chants against local media and Christianity, as well. Naeem was neither handcuffed nor escorted by Defense A-Division Police, though he has been charged with murder.

At Shazia’s funeral on Monday at Sacred Heart Cathedral Church, Bishop of Lahore Diocese the Rt. Rev. Alexander John Malik officiated as eminent Christian politicians, human rights activists, Christian clergymen and many others gathered to pay their respects amid heavy police contingents.

After the funeral, her body was taken to her home in the Sammanabad slum of Arriya Nagar, where a throng of neighbors and Christian mourners gathered, chanting for justice. Shazia’s coffin was then taken to Miani Sahib Christian Cemetery, where she was buried amid cries and tears.

Present at the burial ceremonies were Provincial Minister of Punjab for Minorities Affairs Kamran Michael, Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Bhatti, Christian members of Punjab Parliament Tahir Naveed Chaudhary and Khalil Tahir Sindhu, Bishop Albert Javed, Bishop Samuel Azariah, National Director of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement Joseph Francis and other Christian leaders.

In a joint statement issued that day in Lahore, Catholic Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha and Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the National Council for Justice and Peace, said that Shazia’s death was not an isolated incident, but that violence against the more than 10 million child laborers in the country is commonplace.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Egyptian Christian women forced to marry, convert to Islam


Coptic Christian women in Egypt are being forced to marry and convert to Islam and that oppression is part of a larger pattern of persecution against Christians facilitated by the Egyptian government, according to two recent reports, writes Baptist Press.

"Cases of abduction, forced conversion and marriage are usually accompanied by acts of violence which include rape, beatings, deprivation of food and other forms of physical and mental abuse," said a new assessment by Christian Solidarity International and the Coptic Foundation for Human Rights.

At the same time, the 2009 U.S. State Department report on international religious freedom noted the Egyptian government fails to prosecute crimes against Copts and even has taken a hand in destroying church property and, in one case, a government official reportedly raped a woman who had converted from Islam to Christianity.

About 90 percent of the Egyptian population is Sunni Muslim, and the rest primarily identify themselves as Coptic Christians, according to the Human Rights Watch report "Prohibited Identities: State Interference with Religious Freedom." Copts typically are underprivileged and experience discrimination.

Egyptian sex traffickers entice Coptic Christian women from low-income families by promising an escape from poverty, then force the women into Muslim "marriages" or outright slavery, according to the CSI/CFHR report.

"Such abuse remains covered in a cloak of silence and tacit acceptance, even though it is against the constitutional affirmations of civil rights," the report said.

Once a Coptic girl is coerced into marriage and Islamic conversion, her family will not take her back, and if she leaves her "husband," she is considered a "disgrace" to her family, the report said. In addition, the Coptic Orthodox Church excommunicates female members who wed Muslim men, the State Department said.

Since Islam is the "religion of state" in Egypt, conversion to Islam is easy, while returning to Christianity is unacceptable, the HRW report said. The Civil Status Department, which issues national identity cards, sometimes refuses to give Coptic women a new card identifying her as Christian since it is considered apostasy for a Coptic woman to leave Islam, even to return to her religion of origin.

Egyptian law requires every citizen to have an identity card for purposes such as voting, employment and education.

Most of the cases of Coptic women being coerced into marriage are not reported and "observers, including human rights groups, find it extremely difficult to determine whether compulsion was used, as most cases involve a female Copt who converts to Islam when she marries a Muslim male," the State Department report said.

In two examples of coerced conversion, CSI/CFHR reported Nov. 10:

– An Egyptian woman was raped and beaten since she would not have sex with the man she was forced to marry. The Coptic cross on her wrist was later removed with acid.

– Another woman was forced to marry a Muslim lawyer and work for him in "slave-like conditions" for five years.

John Eibner, CSI’s chief executive officer, urged President Obama in a letter to combat the trafficking of Christian women and girls in Egypt and to make sure the U.S. makes this issue a priority in its relations with Egypt.

"Trafficking of Christian women in Egypt is not a new phenomenon…. But this problem has now reached boiling point within Egypt’s Coptic community, which views it as symptomatic of a much broader pattern of religious persecution," Eibner said in his letter.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Lutheran denomination splitting after gay pastor vote


The nation’s largest Lutheran denomination is splitting following a controversial decision at its August conference to allow noncelibate homosexuals to serve as pastors, reports Baptist Press.

It will take months to determine how truly significant the change to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American (ELCA) is, but a conservative group of Lutherans calling themselves Lutheran CORE already is calling for the more orthodox churches to leave the denomination. Lutheran CORE leaders voted Nov. 18 to form a new Lutheran body, and churches nationwide are now taking sides in the dispute. It takes a two-thirds vote for a church to leave the ELCA and join Lutheran CORE, which has formed a committee that will draft a proposal for how the new church body will function. The committee’s recommendations will be released in February and voted on in August.

The ELCA claims 4.8 million members and 10,500 churches.

"Many ELCA members and congregations have said that they want to sever ties with the ELCA because of the ELCA’s continued movement away from traditional Christian teachings," Lutheran CORE chair Paull Spring said. "The vote on sexuality opened the eyes of many to how far the ELCA has moved from Biblical teaching."

Meeting in Minneapolis in August, delegates to the ELCA’s biennial conference voted 559-451 to allow openly practicing homosexuals to serve as pastors. It became the largest denomination in America with such a policy. The Episcopal Church, a smaller denomination, has a similar stance.

The Minneapolis conference was followed by a meeting of 1,200 Lutheran CORE supporters Sept. 25-26 in Fishers, Ind., where delegates to that meeting voted to authorize the Lutheran CORE Steering Committee to "initiate conversations among the congregations" toward a possible "reconfiguration" of Lutherans. That steering committee voted Nov. 18 to begin the process of forming a new denomination. The word "CORE" is an acronym for "Coalition for Renewal."

Neither side is predicting how many churches will leave or stay. In Erskine, Minn., 80 percent of Rodnes Lutheran Church members voted Oct. 18 to leave the ELCA, the INFORUM.com website reported. But in Waseca, Minn., Nov. 22, 77 percent of Grace Lutheran Church members voted to stay, the Waseca County News newspaper reported.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, believes the issue of homosexuality eventually will divide all mainline denominations.

"You either approve gay and lesbian sexually active pastors and clergy or you don’t," he told Baptist Press. "Opinion is divided enough in the mainline denominations that if you approve it, then you’re going to have conservatives leaving and if you don’t, then you’re going to have liberals leaving. I believe that this issue will end up reconfiguring the entire mainline Protestant landscape. It is in the process of dividing the Episcopalians. It’s dividing now the Lutherans. It’s in the process of dividing the Presbyterians, and it eventually will end up dividing the Methodists."

Land asked, rhetorically, referencing the ELCA’s namesake, "Does anyone have any doubt what Martin Luther believed about this? The question is whether you’re going to be under the authority of Scripture or not. And, clearly, there are large chunks of mainline Protestantism that have decided they are going to stand in judgment of Scripture."

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Seizure of 15,000 Bibles in Malaysia Stuns Christians


Imports confiscated for using “Allah,” a forbidden word for non-Muslims.

FRESNO, Calif., November 7 (CDN) — Malaysian port and customs authorities have seized at least 15,000 Bibles in recent months because the word “Allah” for God appears in them.

Some 10,000 of the Bahasa Malaysia-language Bibles, which were printed in Indonesia, are in Kuching, capital of Sarawak in East Malaysia, and another 5,000 copies are in Kelang near Kuala Lumpur.

The Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) on Wednesday (Nov. 4) called for the immediate release of the confiscated Bibles. At the same time, CFM Executive Secretary Tan Kong Beng told Compass that the federation is striving for amicable relations with government authorities.

“We are open to and desire further discussion with officials so that this problem can be resolved,” the CFM official said.

The CFM officially represents the three major Christian groups in the country: The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, the Council of Churches of Malaysia, and the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship Malaysia.

A strong Christian community in Indonesia, estimated 37 million by Operation World, has long produced large amounts of literature for export to Malaysia. In 2005 the government of Malaysia agreed to allow the use of “Allah” in non-Muslim literature, according to CFM.

“The government and CFM have exchanged letters on this matter previously,” reads the CFM statement, “and we have a written agreement in December 2005 that Bahasa Malaysia Bibles can be distributed so long as the symbol of the cross and the words ‘A Christian publication’ are printed on the front page.”

With the exception of the temporary suspension of publication of the Roman Catholic Herald newspaper in 2007 and the ongoing court battle over the weekly’s use of “Allah,” few problems were encountered in the policy. This past March, however, authorities suddenly began seizing CDs, Sunday school materials, and Bibles containing the word “Allah.”

Church leaders were stunned that no one had informed them of a change in policy. Quiet negotiations failed to resolve the situation, and several lawsuits began working their way through the court system. These suits challenge the right of the Minister of Home Affairs to restrict the use of “Allah” and to limit freedom of religion.

“To withhold the use of the Bahasa Malaysia Bibles is an infringement of Article 11 of the Federal Constitution, which gives every Malaysian the right to profess his/her faith as well as to practice it,” according to the CFM.

A government official in Malaysia was unavailable for comment. Officially, the government says only that use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims could create “confusion” among Muslims.

The Kuala Lumpur High Court in Malaysia was scheduled to determine the legality of the word “Allah” in non-Muslim literature on July 7 but postponed the decision. The Herald newspaper had been allowed to use the term until a final court decision was to be handed down, but the Kuala Lumpur High Court on May 30 overturned that brief reprieve. 

The Rev. Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Herald, has cited examples from Malay dictionaries going back to the 17th century that use “Allah” as the vernacular translation for God. He has also noted that “Allah” is an Arabic term derived from the same roots as the Hebrew Elohim, and that the word pre-dates Muhammad, Islam’s prophet.

The Herald has a circulation of 13,000 and an estimated readership of 50,000. The newspaper is sold in Catholic churches and is not available from newsstands.

While the issue is tied up in the courts, many are hoping for a more harmonious solution to the problem. Both Indonesia and Malaysia use variations of Malay as their national languages, and all translations of the Bible in both countries used “Allah” for God until Malaysian authorities decided in the past few years that it was an Islamic term that should be used only by Muslims. In so doing, Malaysia effectively shut off the importation of Christian literature from Indonesia.

Malaysia’s population is about 60 percent Muslim, 19 percent Buddhist and 9 percent Christian. About 6 percent are Hindu, with 2.6 percent of the population adhering to Confucianism, Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Turkish Police Official Axed amid Allegations in Murders


Head of intelligence allegedly hid evidence, failed to prevent slaying of Christians.

MALATYA, Turkey, October 22 (CDN) — The head of Turkey’s police intelligence department was removed on Friday (Oct. 16) amid allegations that he failed to prevent the murder of the Christian editor of an Armenian weekly and the slayings of three Christians in this city in southeastern Turkey.

Ramazan Akyurek is also accused of withholding evidence in those cases and improperly investigating the murder of a Catholic priest in 2006.

After a Malatya trial hearing on Friday, prosecution lawyers in the case commended the removal of Akyurek for negligence but said it came too late. Akyurek has been placed in a different position within police headquarters in Ankara.

Prior to the January 2007 murder of Hrant Dink, editor of the Armenian weekly Agos, Akyurek allegedly received a report about the orchestrated plan to kill him. That clearly implied that Akyurek was one of the masterminds behind the murder, according to Erdal Dogan, one of the prosecuting attorneys in the Malatya case.

While heading the investigation of the Dink murder, Aykurek reportedly not only witheld intelligence but also tried to affect the outcome of the trial, claiming in his investigation report that a group of “friends” planned to kill Dink because he offended Turkey.

“This is a disaster,” Dogan said. “The same happened with the Malatya massacre. “We know he had information on all the developments of the massacre, but he didn’t act on it. He tried to cover it up. We know that they were following the movements of the killers.”

Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske were bound hand and foot, tortured and then slain with knives at the Zirve Publishing Co. in April 2007. Dogan said that had Zirve staff members not suspected that something was wrong and called police, the five young men who were caught at the scene of the crime most likely would not have been apprehended.

“It’s difficult to know to what extent this character affected the investigations during that time,” Dogan said. “This is why the fact that they took him from his position was important, but they removed him late; they removed him very late.”

Akyurek was head of police in the city of Trabzon in 2006 when Catholic priest Andrea Santoro was killed. It was under his auspices that a young man was arrested and imprisoned for the murders without investigation into who was behind the murder, according to Dogan.

In the same year, Akyurek was promoted to head Turkey’s police intelligence unit.

“Even though Aykurek was incompetent as a police head and covered up crimes, he became the head of intelligence with access to all of Turkey’s intelligence,” Dogan said.

More Evidence Sees Light

Akyurek was fired about a week after Turkish press received leaked documents showing payments the Malatya gendarmerie made in exchange for intelligence on missionary activities between March 2007 and November 2008. The amounts totaled nearly 10,000 Turkish lira (US$6,840).

At Friday’s hearing the Malatya court heard the testimony of Murat Gokturk, a former petty officer in the Malatya intelligence department at the time of the murders. Gokturk had made contact with Huseyin Yelki, a Christian volunteer at Zirve who is one of the suspects in the murders because of his heavy involvement with gendarmerie in the months leading up to and directly after the slayings.

Gokturk testified that he contacted Yelki and requested a New Testament in Arabic so he could learn the language better, as he has an Arabic heritage. He claimed that when he contacted Yelki from his gendarmerie office, he and the intelligence department were not following missionary activities.

“Missionary activities are legal,” said Gokturk. “This is a religious and conscience right. It’s not a crime.”

Prosecuting lawyers asked that the judges record Gokturk’s statement that missionary activities are legal. They later explained that since all other evidence shows that officials did spy on missionaries in Malatya, such a statement showed they were aware that they were doing so in violation of their legal jurisdiction.

“We questioned the witness [Gokturk], but he tried to hide the truth either by saying, ‘I don’t remember,’ or by lying,” said Dogan. “But evidence shows that he and Huseyin Yelki had a very close relationship and information exchange, and it’s obvious that this was not a simple information exchange. They met many, many times.”

The European Union Commission report on Turkey’s progress in 2009 was also published last week. Under the section on democracy and the rule of law, the report noted that high-profile cases such as the Malatya and Dink trials, which are connected to the alleged criminal network Ergenekon, raised concerns about the quality of investigations. The report noted a need “to improve the working relationship between the police and the gendarmerie on the one hand and the judiciary on the other.”

Concerning freedom of religion, the report noted that missionaries are widely perceived as a threat to the integrity of Turkey and Islam. It also pointed out that the Ministry of Justice allowed judicial proceedings under Article 301 of the Criminal Code – which criminalizes “insulting Turkishness” – in the case of Turkish Christians Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal for sharing their faith with others.

This last case has also been linked to the Ergenekon cabal believed to have masterminded the Santoro, Dink and Malatya murders. It has continued for three years with no resolution.

“It’s finally clear that there is a connection between Santoro, Dink and Malatya and everyone is talking that way,” said Dogan, noting how the prosecuting lawyers in the cases as well as the media perceive the link. “It is now obvious that these three crimes came from the same center.”

The Malatya court is still waiting for an answer from the Ergenekon judges about whether the murder of the three Christians will be joined into the the latter case, under which more than 100 former military, political figures, journalists and others have been arrested.

Dogan, however, said that whether the Malatya case is connected with the Ergenekon case is now secondary, and that it is probably better for the Malatya trial to stay separate to determine what really happened.

“It’s enough for me that this picture is clear,” said Dogan of the link between the cases and Ergenekon. “There is no doubt for me. If they connect them or not it doesn’t matter. Because when the court case goes there, Ergenekon is so complicated that the Malatya case could get lost in it.”

The next hearing of the Malatya trial is set for Nov. 13.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Hostilities Flare in BJP-Run Madhya Pradesh, India


Anti-Christian violence, efforts to tarnish church increase in past five years.

NEW DELHI, October 14 (CDN) — Since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Madhya Pradesh in December 2003, Christians in the state have suffered increased attacks and concerted efforts to tarnish their image, church leaders said.

Before the BJP took office the state recorded two or three attacks against Christians per year, they said, whereas Jabalpur Archbishop Gerald Almeida said that in the past five years 65 baseless charges of forceful conversion – commonly accompanied by mob violence – have been registered in his diocese alone.

“There are some groups who are closely monitoring the Christian movement, and these people are bent on creating problems for the Christians for the past five years,” Almeida told Compass.

The state is not able to control these groups, he added. Indeed, police routinely working with Hindu extremist groups filed an average of more than three unsubstantiated complaints of “coerced” conversions each month in the past five years, according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh (see sidebar below).

In the first eight months of this year, Madhya Pradesh saw the third highest number of attacks against Christians and Christian institutions in the country with 11, behind Karnataka with 43 and Andhra Pradesh with 14, according to Christian advocacy organizations.

The Rev. Anand Muttungal, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh, said growing attacks on Christians were a symptom of fear among Hindu extremists that the Catholic Church’s influence is spreading.

“The Church as an organization is doing very well in many fields,” Muttungal said. “It causes those fundamentalists to worry. It could be one of the main reasons for the continuous attacks on Christians.”

Madhya Pradesh has a Christian population of 170,381, only 0.3 percent of the total in the state, according to the 2001 census. The state’s history of religious intolerance runs deep, with an “anti-conversion” law passed in 1968 that has serves as a pretext for harassing Christians.

Igniting anti-Christian violence shortly after the BJP came to power was an incident in Jhabua district, where the body of a 9-year-old girl called Sujata was found in one of the Christian schools on Jan. 11, 2004. Although a non-Christian confessed to the crime, Hindu extremists used the event to justify various attacks against the Christian community.

Abuses became so rampant in 2005 and 2006 that the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) sent a fact-finding team to Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in June 2006. Investigators found that Hindu extremists had frequently invoked the state’s anti-conversion law as a means to incite mobs against Christians and to get Christians arrested without evidence.

Jabalpur Archbishop Almeida cited cases chronicled by the NCM such as the arrest under the anti-conversion law of two local women who were merely distributing gospel tracts in March 2006. Almeida also cited the NCM report on the jailing of four pastors in January 2006 for alleged “forceful conversion” after Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal dragged them to a Hindu temple and forced them to deny Christ.

Catholic Church records show that in 2007, a 70-year-old woman identified only as Mrs. Godwin was arrested along with another woman on charges of forceful conversion; they too were only distributing religious literature, a right they had under the nation’s constitution.

Christian leaders said one aim of such abuses of the state’s anti-conversion law is to tarnish the image of Christians by showing them as lawbreakers. Hate propaganda and spurious allegations against Christians continue unabated in the state, church leaders said.

The customary practice in India and especially in Madhya Pradesh, they said, is for Hindu extremists to raise false allegations on the slimmest of pretexts and get police to make hurried arrests.

Political Machinery

After the NCM report in 2006 first documented the violence, the Madhya Pradesh political machinery’s influence became evident when State Minorities Commission Chairman Anwar Mohammed Khan asserted that reports of Hindu extremists attacking Christians in the state were “baseless.”

Khan told Frontline magazine that extremists had not targeted Christians. The magazine also quoted state Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan as saying the BJP government was greatly concerned about “unethical conversions” – presumably of Hindus to Christianity.

The magazine criticized the state Minorities Commission for speaking “the same language as the Bajrang Dal and the state chief minister,” thereby failing its mandate to defend minorities.

This year the commission tried to increase state control over church activities, unofficially recommending that the government enact a law to set up a board to manage church properties such as schools, colleges, hospitals and charities. The Christian community strongly protested, and the state withdrew the proposal.

Leo Cornelio, archbishop of Bhopal, said the Minorities Commission recommendation “shows beyond doubt that it is disloyal to minorities” and “loyal to the government,” according to the Indian Catholic.

The battle over state control of church properties is not over. Muttungal told Compass that the Minorities Commission has started to collect details of church properties through the Education Department. It is certain, he said, that this will lead to a legal battle involving the Education Department, Minorities Commission and the Catholic Church.

SIDEBAR

Police Collusion Seen in ‘Forced Conversion’ Complaints

NEW DELHI, October 14 (Compass Direct News) – Hindu extremist groups in collusion with the state police filed an average of more than three baseless complaints of “coerced” conversions per month in the past five years – shortly after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power – according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh.

“I have gathered information from all the districts of the state, according to which the number of [forced or fraudulent] conversion complaints against Christians in the last five years is over 180,” the Rev. Anand Muttungal, spokesman for the state’s Catholic body, told Compass.

Muttungal said he asked the Madhya Pradesh State Crime Records Bureau, a body under the state interior ministry that monitors criminal complaints, about the number of forced conversion complaints in the last five years, and the state agency put the number wrongly at fewer than 35.

Muttungal also said most of the complaints were filed by third parties – not the supposed “victims” – who were unable to produce any unlawfully converted people to support their allegations. He added that the complainants were mainly members of the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal, youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP).

“In Jabalpur, the complaints were lodged mainly by the Hindu Dharam Sena [Hindu Religion Army],” he said.

Most recently, the leader of the Hindu Dharam Sena on Sept. 27 got police to interrogate, without cause, a Catholic group traveling through Jabalpur. The Rev. Anto Mundamany of the Carmelite of Mary Immaculate order said the inspector-in-charge of the Civil Lines police station and four other policemen came to the Carmel Niketan center, where the group had stopped for dinner. Police interrogated him and the 45 Catholic visitors about their religious identity, he said, to determine whether the visitors were Hindus whom the priests and nuns at the center might be forcibly trying to convert.

Journalists accompanied the police, and the following day local newspapers reported on the incident, portraying the Christians as inherently suspect.

“Although the police left after making sure that all the participants who had arrived for an inter-parish tour were Christians, the newspapers made no mention of that fact,” Mundamany said.

The local daily Dainik Bhaskar reported that Yogesh Agarwal, head of the Hindu Dharam Sena, had informed police about a supposed “conversion plot” by the Catholic order.

“There can be little doubt that the police are party to this disturbing trend,” Muttungal said.

The incidence of anti-Christian attacks is the highest in the state in Jabalpur – local Christians say the city witnessed at least three attacks every month until recently, mainly by Agarwal and his cohorts. Although numerous criminal complaints are pending against Agarwal, he remains at large.

A Christian requesting anonymity said police officers personally act on his complaints against Christian workers.

A June 2006 report by the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) found that Hindu nationalist groups in Madhya Pradesh had frequently invoked the state’s anti-conversion law as a pretext to incite mobs against Christians. The NCM report also pointed at police collusion in the attacks.

“The life of Christians has become miserable at the hands of miscreants in connivance with the police,” the NCM said in its report. “There are allegations that when atrocities were committed on Christians, the police remained mere spectators, and in certain cases they did not even register their complaints.”

The NCM is an independent body created by Parliament in 1993 to monitor and safeguard the rights of minorities.

Muttungal said the Catholic Bishops’ Conference would approach the state high court with the facts it has gathered to prove police involvement in complaints against Christians.

Most complaints against Christians are registered under Section 3 of the Madhya Pradesh “Freedom of Religion Act” of 1968, popularly known as an anti-conversion law. The section states, “No person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet any such conversion.”

Offenses under the anti-conversion law are “cognizable,” meaning police are empowered to register a complaint, investigate and arrest for up to 24 hours, without a warrant, anyone accused of forced conversion.

Police also use Sections 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to arrest Christians. Section 153A refers to “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.” Section 295A concerns “deliberate and malicious acts to outrage religious feelings.” These IPC crimes are also cognizable.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Copts Grapple with Cause of Fire at Church in Egypt


Many in congregation doubt investigators’ hasty declaration of electrical mishap.

ISTANBUL, September 18 (CDN) — The congregation of a Coptic church that was destroyed by fire last week is divided over whether it was a case of arson.

At 3 p.m. on Sept. 8, a fire broke out in the rear of the Church of Saint Paul and Saint Peter near the main entrance of the building. Located in the town of Shebin al-Kom some 37 miles (60 kilometers) northwest of Cairo, the church building along with its icons, relics and most of its furniture was destroyed.

According to local media reports, investigators said the cause of the fire was electrical. A sizable portion of the congregation, however, disputes this.

Gamal Gerges, a local reporter who works for the newspaper Al-Youm al-Sabeh, said police have no proof that the fire was accidental.

“The police say it is an electric fire – the police say it is no criminal act,” Gerges said. “The police did not have evidence, but said what they did to avoid strife between the Christians and the Muslims.”

The priest of the church has declined to comment publicly on the cause of the fire, other than repeating what investigators have said. He said he is waiting for the official report to determine the cause of the fire.

One member of the congregation, a 25-year-old woman, is not so quiet. The woman, whose name has been withheld for her protection, said that the electrical system in the church was largely unscathed by the fire. She said the damage did not radiate from the church’s fuse box.

She said she believes the fire was set intentionally but did not suggest any possible culprits.

Through an interpreter, the Rev. Antonious Wagih told Compass that relations between the Coptic and Muslim communities in the area are amicable. Media reports indicate, however, that prior to the fire local Muslims were harassing priests, and that people who lived around the church dumped dirty water on the congregants from balconies. Other reports state that local women cheered after the church burned down.

Reasons for the discrepancies between Wagih’s statements and media reports were unclear. Wagih told Compass that he “did not want to [get] into a struggle or argument with the authorities.” He added that he wanted to “avoid any dispute in this area.”

Roughly 400 families attend Saint Paul and Saint Peter. The woman who claimed the fire was arson said many congregants shared her view. Other church members were not immediately available, but other media reports also indicated that she was not alone in her opinion.

No one was injured in the fire. At press time there was no monetary estimate of damages.

The Coptic community of Shebin al-Kom used the Church of Saint Paul and Saint Peter for three years after they purchased the building from a group of Roman Catholics with a dwindling congregation.

The Shebin al-Kom fire was one of a spate of incidences reported by Coptic leaders during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

Report from Compass Direct News