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 

INDONESIA: CHRISTIANS CALL FOR REJECTION OF SHARIA-INSPIRED BILLS


Church leaders fear legislation will lead to religious intolerance; church, orphanage opposed.

JAKARTA, August 19 (Compass Direct News) – The Indonesian Council of Churches (PGI) has called for the rejection of two bills inspired by sharia (Islamic law).

The Halal Product Guarantee Bill and the Zakat Obligatory Alms Management Bill, both under consideration in the Indonesian parliament, cater to the needs of one religious group at the expense of others, violating Indonesia’s policy of pancasila or religious tolerance, said the Rev. Dr. A.A. Yewangoe, director of the PGI.

“National laws must be impartial and inclusive,” Yewangoe told Compass. “Since all laws are binding on all of the Indonesian people, they must be objective. Otherwise discrimination will result … The state has a duty to guard the rights of all its citizens, including freedom of religion.”

Dr. Lodewijk Gultom, head of PGI’s Law and Human Rights Department, pointed out that according to regulations on the formation of proposed laws, a bill cannot discriminate against any group of citizens. But the Halal product bill several times mentions sharia, as if Indonesia were an exclusively Muslim state, he said.

“If this bill is enforced, it will cause other religions to demand specific rights, and our sense of unity and common destiny will be lost,” Gultom said.

Gultom also said the bills were an attempt to resurrect the Jakarta Charter, a statement incorporated into Indonesia’s constitution in 1945 before it was quickly withdrawn. It declared that the newly-created state would be based on a belief in the one supreme God “with the obligation to live according to Islamic law for Muslims.”

Public opinion on the Jakarta Charter remains sharply divided, with some insisting that Islamic law is warranted because of the country’s Muslim majority, while others believe its implementation would disturb national unity.

Two members of Parliament, Constant Pongawa and Tiurlan Hutagaol, both from the Prosperous Peace Party, have requested the withdrawal of the Halal and Zakat bills to avoid creating conflict between Muslims and other religious groups.

“These bills are a step backward and will lead to the isolation of different religions,” agreed Ronald Naibaho, head of the North Sumatran chapter of the Indonesian Christian Youth Movement.

National church leaders have requested a meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to discuss the impact of these bills and a number of other discriminatory laws being applied at provincial levels across the country.

Church, Orphanage Closed

Muslim groups, meantime, recently moved to close more Christian institutions.

On July 21, following complaints from community groups, police forcibly dismantled a church in West Java on grounds that it did not have a building permit, while similar groups in East Java successfully lobbied for the closure of a Catholic orphanage claiming that it planned to “Christianize” local children.

Police in Bogor district, West Java, dismantled the temporary bamboo structure erected by the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan church in Parung Panjang on July 21. Church leaders insist that the church had long ago applied for a building permit that was not granted even though they had met all requirements, including obtaining permission from the Bogor Interfaith Harmony Forum.

“There are 234 buildings in Parung Panjang that lack building permits, including a mosque,” church elder Walman Nainggolan told Compass. “Why was our house of worship singled out?”

The church has filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia. Commissioner Johny Nelson Simanjuntak agreed to clarify the status of the church building permit with local officials and asked local police to permit peaceful worship as guaranteed by the constitution.

Separately, a group of Muslims lobbied for the closure of a Catholic orphanage for crippled children in Batu, in the Malang district of East Java, stating concern that the facility would become a covert vehicle for “Christianization.” In response to demonstrations in front of the mayor’s office in October 2008 and June 2009 and complaints from 10 different Muslim religious and community organizations, Batu Mayor Eddy Rumpoko on June 19 rescinded a building permit issued to the Catholic Bhakti Luhur Foundation and ordered that construction cease immediately.

The foundation operates 41 orphanages serving approximately 700 children with special needs.

“We are greatly saddened by this action,” the Rev. Laurentius Heru Susanto, a local vicar, told Compass. “The home was meant to serve the people. There was no other purpose.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

4th century biblical manuscript now available online


The British Library has announced that the pages of 4th century biblical manuscript called the Sinaiticus Codex have been scanned and posted online after four years of work, reports Catholic News Agency.

The manuscript was written in Greek and dates to the time of the expansion of Christianity under Constantine. It can now be viewed with translations in English, German and Russian at www.codexsinaiticus.org.

For centuries it was kept at the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, until it was divided up in the 19th century and sent to the University of Leipzig library in Germany, the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg and the British Library. Some portions of the manuscript remained at the Mount Sinai monastery.

The project to digitalize the manuscript cost more than one million dollars.

The Codex, written by three scribes, also includes texts from the 1st century and is one of the best preserved manuscripts of the era.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

TALIBAN THREATENS POPE IF CHRISTIANITY IS SPREAD IN AFGHANISTAN


In the lead-up to his coming trip to the Holy Land, Pope Benedict XVI has been warned by Islamic extremists that he must stop any attempts to convert Muslims to Christianity or face “the consequences of a severe reaction,” reports Hilary White, LifeSiteNews.com.

ANSA news service reports that the Taliban issued the statement on an Islamic website after the Islamic news service Al Jazeera showed American soldiers holding copies of the Bible translated into the two local languages.

“The Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan asks Pope Benedict XVI to act to stop the foolish and irresponsible actions of the crusaders upsetting the feelings of Muslim rebels, without awaiting the consequences of a severe reaction,” said the message on the website, alemarah1.org.

“The Taleban forcefully exhort the mujaheddin [jihadis], scholars and all religious circles to control the activities of the invaders and crusaders, and not allow anyone to preach religions except Islam,” the message continued.

The US army later responded, “Any form of religious proselytism by troops is prohibited,” and assured that the bibles pictured had been “confiscated and destroyed.”

At the same time, Islamic extremists in Jordan condemned the Pope’s visit, claiming that he had failed to apologise for what they regard as insults to Islam in a speech at Regensburg in 2006. The Pope is scheduled to arrive in Jordan on Friday for the first stage of a tour that will include Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Zaki Bani Rusheid, head of the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the international organisation the Muslim Brotherhood, told Reuters, “The present Vatican pope is the one who issued severe insults to Islam and did not offer any apology to the Muslims.” The Islamic Action Front is the Jordan’s largest mainstream Islamist party.

In 2006, Pope Benedict spoke to an audience at the University of Regensburg where he had once served as professor of theology, on the inherent unity of faith and reason. In it he quoted the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who wrote in 1391, “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The emperor was writing on jihad and of forced conversions of Christians by conquering Muslims.

The comments, after careful management by liberal western news media, prompted a wave of riots and violence by Muslims around the world, including attacks on Christian churches in Israel, the murder of a nun in Somalia and the beheading of a priest in Iraq.

Observers note that there are early signs that the same media that instigated the “Muslim outrage” in 2006 are setting the stage for another round.

The Huffington Post reported at the end of April that in the town of Nazareth a large banner has been stretched across the main square condemning anyone who insults Mohammad. HP’s Diaa Hadid wrote, “The pontiff may have to tread carefully with his visit to Nazareth,” and said that “many Muslims” are still angry over the Regensburg speech. Hadid quotes an Anglican head of a local ecumenical group that Christians in the area fear more violence if the Pope makes any other “contentious” statements on Islam.

The Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent Riazat Butt wrote on Tuesday that Pope Benedict “must” go to Jerusalem as a “penitent pilgrim.” Butt cites 35 Christians, Jews and Muslims who claim that “papal blunders” are sending out “‘divided messages’ on anti-Semitism and inter-faith activity.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

PAKISTAN: ISLAMABAD CHURCH ON THE THRESHOLD OF WAR


By Elizabeth Kendal

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin

Special to ASSIST News Service

The Margala Hills are all that lie between al-Qaeda-Taliban jihadists and their goal: nuclear-armed Islamabad. While most popular media reports give the impression that this crisis has only recently emerged, this is far from the case. The reality must be absorbed and lessons must be learned.

In 2003, as part of their ‘War on Terror’ alliance, America and Pakistan agreed that the Pakistani Army be given the job of eliminating al-Qaeda and Taliban elements in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA) of North West Frontier Province (NWFP). However, a high death toll — including the loss of possibly 3000 soldiers — weakened both Army moral and public resolve, creating domestic political problems for then-president General Musharraf.

In pursuit of political gain, Musharraf brokered ‘land-for-peace’ deals with the al-Qaeda-Taliban alliance. In February 2005 South Waziristan was ceded, followed by North Waziristan in September 2006. With this ‘peace’, the military withdrew and jihadists were released from prison with compensation on a mere pledge not to engage in terrorism. If there were a turning point in the ‘War on Terror’, this unconditional surrender of Waziristan was surely it, for the power of the al-Qaeda-Taliban alliance has grown in both Afghanistan and Pakistan ever since.

The jihadists were never going to be pacified so long as their goal — the total Islamisation and Talibanisation of fortress Afghanistan and nuclear-armed Pakistan — remained unchanged and unrealised. The ‘Islamic Republic of Waziristan’ simply became a terrorist sanctuary and launching pad for further advances. Within months several more tribal areas had fallen under Taliban control. (‘Land-for-peace’ deals with agenda-driven fundamentalist Islamists and jihadists secure incremental Islamist advance, not peace.)

In July 2007 the government’s assault on the Islamists of the Lal Masjid (the Red Mosque in the centre of Islamabad) left some 100 Islamists dead. (The Islamists say thousands died, including children.) Consequently in September 2007 Al-Qaeda declared jihad against the government of Pakistan and the war was on in earnest. This war pits a determined al-Qaeda-Taliban alliance (with numerous high-level sympathisers) against an unstable and equivocating Pakistani government and a conflicted and divided Pakistani Army plagued by Pashtun and Sunni defections.

In the 18 months since, the jihadists have held or captured all the tribal areas. In February 2009 President Asif Ali Zardari brokered a ‘sharia-for-peace’ deal with the Taliban in Malakand Division which comprises one third of NWFP and includes the glorious, albeit Taliban-held, Swat Valley. All of NWFP is now either ceded to the Taliban or under some degree of Taliban control or influence.

Emboldened by its Malakand victory and its advances in strategic Peshawar, the Taliban launched its Spring Offensive with a further escalation. In early April a more united Taliban (see RLP 518, 23 Feb 2009) surged with little resistance south east from Swat (towards Islamabad) into Buner District in a ‘blitzkreig’. From there they quickly infiltrated Haripur District which borders the outskirts of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. According to most Western and Indian analysis and intelligence, Pakistan’s fall is inevitable and imminent, although according to Pakistan, this assessment is ‘ridiculous’.

The Church in Pakistan’s NWFP is already suffering severe repression and persecution under Taliban tyranny. Christians there are living in fear and paying jizya, the’tax’ or protection money demanded of subjugated Jews and Christians in the Quran (Sura 9:29). Their lives are always in the balance. The Church in Islamabad stands on the brink of the same fate. If the al-Qaeda-Taliban alliance manages to capture Islamabad in the months ahead, the world will instantly become a different place, and the Church in Islamabad and across Pakistan will see suffering and persecution unlike anything it has ever known before.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

MISSIONARIES EVACUATED FROM MADAGASCAR


Assemblies of God World Missions has evacuated its missionaries from troubled Madagascar, an island nation in the Indian Ocean off the southeastern coast of Africa, reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.

Following months of threats and infighting for political position, Madagascar experienced a coup on March 17, as President Marc Ravalomanana apparently chose to step down.

“The military is divided as to who they are going to support,” explains Africa Regional Director Mike McClaflin. “The American Embassy very strongly urged American citizens to evacuate the island . . . and now the American Embassy has evacuated its staff.”

McClaflin says that Assemblies of God World Missions (AGWM) leadership made the decision on March 14, at the recommendation of the U.S State Department, to take AG missionaries in Madagascar out of harm’s way and moved them to Nairobi, Kenya, for the time being.

“With missionaries now in 212 countries and territories of the world, almost no civil uprising, conflict or disaster takes place in the world that does not touch the lives of some of our missionaries,” states AGWM Communications Director Randy Hurst. “The unrest and government takeover in Madagascar affects four missionary families and well as one single missionary.”

Included in the list of missionaries evacuated are the families of Nate and Tammy Lashway, Jay and Carey Rostorfer, and Aaron and Heather Santmyire, Zach and Shellie Maddox, missionaries from East Africa who were visiting the Santmyires, along with short-term MAPS worker Ashley Masten, were also evacuated. The Manny Prabhudas family, who also serve in Madagascar, are currently in the United States on their itineration cycle.

Hurst adds that “Madagascar is an example of how so many of the crises in our world today demand that we as a church must commit ourselves increasingly to intercessory prayer for our missionaries and fellow believers around the world.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph