Religious Conversion Worst Form of ‘Intolerance,’ Bhutan PM Says


Propagation of religion is allowable – but not seeking conversions, top politician says.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 13 (CDN) — In the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Christianity is still awaiting legal recognition, Christians have the right to proclaim their faith but must not use coercion or claim religious superiority to seek conversions, the country’s prime minister told Compass in an exclusive interview.

“I view conversions very negatively, because conversion is the worst form of intolerance,” Jigmi Yoser Thinley said in his office in the capital of the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Christian leaders in Bhutan have told Compass that they enjoy certain freedoms to practice their faith in private homes, but, because of a prohibition against church buildings and other restrictions, they were not sure if proclamation of their faith – included in international human rights codes – was allowed in Bhutan.

Prime Minister Thinley, who as head of the ruling party is the most influential political chief in the country, said propagation of one’s faith is allowed, but he made it clear that he views attempts to convert others with extreme suspicion.

“The first premise [of seeking conversion] is that you believe that your religion is the right religion, and the religion of the convertee is wrong – what he believes in is wrong, what he practices is wrong, that your religion is superior and that you have this responsibility to promote your way of life, your way of thinking, your way of worship,” Thinley said. “It’s the worst form of intolerance. And it divides families and societies.”

Bhutan’s constitution does not restrict the right to convert or proselytize, but some Non-Governmental Organizations have said the government effectively limits this right by restricting construction of non-Buddhist worship buildings and celebration of some non-Buddhist festivals, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

It adds that Bhutan’s National Security Act (NSA) further limits proclamation of one’s faith by prohibiting “words either spoken or written, or by other means whatsoever, that promote or attempt to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste, or community, or on any other ground whatsoever, feelings of enmity or hatred between different religious, racial, or language groups or castes and communities.” Violation of the NSA is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, though whether
any cases have been prosecuted is unknown, according to the State Department report.

Bhutan’s first democratic prime minister after about a century of absolute monarchy, Thinley completed three years in office last Thursday (April 7). While he affirmed that it is allowable for Christians to proclaim their faith – a practice commanded by Christ, with followers agreeing that it is the Holy Spirit, not man, that “converts” people – Thinley made his suspicions about Christians’ motives manifest.

“Any kind of proselytization that involves economic and material incentives [is wrong],” he said. “Many people are being converted on hospital beds in their weakest and most vulnerable moments. And these people are whispering in their ears that ‘there is no hope for you. The only way that you can survive is if you accept this particular religion.’ That is wrong.”

Thinley’s suspicions include the belief that Christians offer material incentives to convert.

“Going to the poor and saying, ‘Look, your religion doesn’t provide for this life, our religion provides for this life as well as the future,’ is wrong. And that is the basis for proselytization.”

Christian pastors in Thimphu told Compass that the perception that Bhutan’s Christians use money to convert the poor was flawed.

The pastors, requesting anonymity, said they prayed for healing of the sick because they felt they were not allowed to preach tenets of Christianity directly. Many of those who experience healing – almost all who are prayed for, they claimed – do read the Bible and then believe in Jesus’ teachings.

Asked if a person can convert if she or he believed in Christianity, the prime minister replied, “[There is] freedom of choice, yes.”

In his interview with Compass, Thinley felt compelled to defend Buddhism against assertions that citizens worship idols.

“To say that, ‘Your religion is wrong, worshiping idols is wrong,’ who worships idols?” he said. “We don’t worship idols. Those are just representations and manifestations that help you to focus.”

Leader of the royalist Druk Phuensum Tshogpa party, Thinley is regarded as a sincere politician who is trusted by Bhutan’s small Christian minority. He became the prime minister in April 2008 following the first democratic election after Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated power in 2006 to pave the way toward democracy.

Until Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the practice of Christianity was believed to be banned in the country. The constitution now grants the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion to all citizens. It also states that the king is the protector of all religions.

Thus far, the Religious Organisations Act of 2007 has recognized only Buddhist and Hindu organizations. As a result, no church building or Christian bookstore has been allowed in the country, nor can Christians engage in social work. Christianity in Bhutan remains confined to the homes of local believers, where they meet for collective worship on Sundays.

Asked if a Christian federation should be registered by the government to allow Christians to function with legal recognition, Thinley said, “Yes, definitely.”

The country’s agency regulating religious organizations under the 2007 act, locally known as the Chhoedey Lhentshog, is expected to make a decision on whether it could register a Christian federation representing all Christians. The authority is looking into provisions in the law to see if there is a scope for a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu organization to be registered. (See http://www.compassdirect.com, “Official Recognition Eludes Christian Groups in Bhutan,” Feb. 1.)

On whether the Religious Organisations Act could be amended if it is determined that it does not allow legal recognition of a Christian federation, the prime minister said, “If the majority view and support prevails in the country, the law will change.”

Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.

“I am part Christian, too,” he said. “I read the Bible, occasionally of course. I come from a traditional [Christian] school and attended church every day except for Saturdays for nine years.”

A tiny nation in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan has a population of 708,484 people, of which roughly 75 percent are Buddhist, according to Operation World. Christians are estimated to be between 6,000 to nearly 15,000 (the latter figure would put Christians at more than 2 percent of the population), mostly from the south. Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepalese, constitute around 22 percent of the population and have a majority in the south.

 

Religious ‘Competition’

Bhutan’s opposition leader, Lyonpo Tshering Togbay, was equally disapproving of religious conversion.

“I am for propagation of spiritual values or anything that allows people to be good human beings,” he told Compass. “[But] we cannot have competition among religions in Bhutan.”

He said, however, that Christians must be given rights equal to those of Hindus and Buddhists.

“Our constitution guarantees the right to freedom of practice – full stop, no conditions,” he said. “But now, as a small nation state, there are some realities. Christianity is a lot more evangelistic than Hinduism or Buddhism.”

Togbay said there are Christians who are tolerant and compassionate of other peoples, cultures and religions, but “there are Christians also who go through life on war footing to save every soul. That’s their calling, and it’s good for them, except that in Bhutan we do not have the numbers to accommodate such zeal.”

Being a small nation between India and China, Bhutan’s perceived geopolitical vulnerability leads authorities to seek to pre-empt any religious, social or political unrest. With no economic or military might, Bhutan seeks to assert and celebrate its sovereignty through its distinctive culture, which is based on Buddhism, authorities say.

Togbay voiced his concern on perceived threats to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture.

“I studied in a Christian school, and I have lived in the West, and I have been approached by the Jehovah’s Witness – in a subway, in an elevator, in a restaurant in the U.S. and Switzerland. I am not saying they are bad. But I would be a fool if I was not concerned about that in Bhutan,” he said. “There are other things I am personally concerned about. Religions in Bhutan must live in harmony. Too often I have come across people who seek a convert, pointing to statues of our deities and saying
that idol worship is evil worship. That is not good for the security of our country, the harmony of our country and the pursuit of happiness.”

The premise of the Chhoedey Lhentshog, the agency regulating religious organizations, he said, “is that all the different schools of Buddhism and all the different religions see eye to eye with mutual respect and mutual understanding. If that objective is not met, it does not make sense to be part of that.”

It remains unclear what the legal rights of Christians are, as there is no interaction between the Christians and the government. Christian sources in Bhutan said they were open to dialogue with the government in order to remove “misunderstandings” and “distrust.”

“Thankfully, our political leadership is sincere and trustworthy,” said one Christian leader.

Asserting that Christians enjoy the right to worship in Bhutan, Prime Minister Thinley said authorities have not interfered with any worship services.

“There are more Christian activities taking place on a daily basis than Hindu and Buddhist activities,” he added.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

China Keeps Church Leaders from Public Worship Attempt


Police put pastors under house arrest over weekend, before detaining at least 160 on Sunday.

DUBLIN, April 11 (CDN) — Police in China held “about two dozen” pastors and elders of Beijing’s Shouwang Church under house arrest or at police stations over the weekend to keep them from attending a Sunday worship service in a public location, according to Bob Fu of the China Aid Association.

Three top leaders of the church remain in jail and several others are under strict surveillance after  hundreds of Chinese police yesterday cordoned off the walkway to a third-floor outdoor meeting area adjacent to a property purchased by the church in Haidian district, Beijing, and arrested at least 160 members of the 1,000-strong church as they tried to assemble.

The church members were bundled into waiting vans and buses to prevent them from meeting as planned in the public space, Reuters and The Associated Press (AP) reported, and most had been released by today.

Church leaders claimed officials had pressured their landlords, forcing them out of both rented and purchased locations and leaving them no choice but to worship in the open.

“The government cornered them into making this decision,” Fu said, adding that the church had initially tried to register with the government. “They waited for two years, and when the government still denied them registration, they tried to keep a low profile before finally deciding to buy the Daheng New Epoch Technology building.”

Shouwang is a very unique church, he said.

“Most members are well-educated, and they include China’s top religious scholars and even former government officials, which may be a factor in the government’s response to them,” he said.

As one of the largest house churches in Beijing, Shouwang is unique in insisting on meeting together rather than splitting the congregation into smaller groups meeting in several locations, Fu said. Zion church, for example, may have more members than Shouwang, but members meet in smaller groups across the city.

“This is based on the founding fathers’ vision for Shouwang Church to be a ‘city on a hill,’” as stated in the Bible in Matthew chapter five, Fu explained. “So they’ve made a conscious decision not to go back to the small-group model. Either the government gives them the keys to their building or gives them written permission to worship in another location, or they will continue meeting in the open.”

Police arrested anyone who showed up to take part in the service, AP reported.

 

‘Most Basic Necessity’

Church leaders last week issued a statement to the congregation explaining their decision to meet outdoors.

“It may not be the best decision, but at this time it is an inevitable one,” the statement said, before reminding church members that the landlord of their premises at the time, the Old Story Club restaurant, had come under government pressure and repeatedly asked them to leave, while the previous owners of the Daheng New Epoch Technology building, purchased a year ago by the church for 27.5 million RMB (US$4.2 million), had refused to hand over the keys. (See, “Church in China to Risk Worshipping in Park,” April 7.)

The church had already met outdoors twice in November 2009 before officials gave tacit consent to move to the Old Story Club restaurant. Officials, however, again prevented Shouwang Church from meeting in May and August of last year.

Fu said it was common for government officials across China to pressure landlords into revoking leases for house church groups.

“For example, right now I know of at least two churches that were made ‘homeless’ in Guangzhou this week, including one church with at least 200 members,” he said.

Shouwang’s statement pointed to Article 36 of China’s Constitution, which grants every citizen freedom to worship, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified by China, which states that every citizen has the right to observe his religion or belief “either alone or in community with others and in public or private.”

For this reason the church planned to meet outdoors until officials granted legal, written permission to worship in an approved location – preferably at the building purchased by the church.

The document also advised church members not to resist if they were held under house arrest or arrested at the Sunday venue.

“Objectively speaking, our outdoor worship must deliver this message to the various departments of our government: attending Sunday worship is the most basic necessity for Christians in their life of faith,” the statement concluded.

The number of Protestant house church Christians in China is estimated at between 45 and 60 million, according to Yu Jianrong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Rural Development Institute, with a further 18 to 30 million people attending government-approved churches.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Vietnam Grants Last-Minute Permit for Christmas Event


Officials present several obstacles to large-scale worship service.

HO CHI MINH CITY, December 29 (CDN) — Granted permission only five hours before a scheduled Christmas event, house church leaders turned an empty field into a rudimentary stadium and welcomed some 20,000 people for a time of worship and evangelism on Sunday (Dec. 26) in Vietnam’s largest city.

The last-minute permission for the event in Ho Chi Minh City reflected the byzantine manner in which authorities have applied Vietnam’s religions laws. The central government’s Bureau of Religious Affairs (BRA) in Hanoi, the body charged with managing religion in communist Vietnam, gave permission for the event to the newly registered Vietnam Assemblies of God (AOG) organization in early December. The Vietnam AOG represents a large grouping of mostly unregistered house churches in the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship (VEF).

Organizers were grateful for the early permission this year – last year they received only 42 hours notice for an event that 40,000 people attended – but when the AOG superintendent, Pastor Duong Thanh Lam, and other VEF leaders began working out particulars with the Ho Chi Minh City BRA, they met with considerable resistance. After the Ho Chi Minh City BRA finally consented, church leaders said, the organizers found that landlords with potential venues, clearly under pressure, refused to rent them space.

The stand-off lasted until Christmas Day. Meantime, based on the permission from Hanoi, organizers sent invitations to many thousands of Christians in the city and surrounding provinces, and Christians were preparing to come with friends and neighbors to the event, sources said. Some 300 buses, each carrying 60 to 70 passengers, were to bring people from the provinces, they said.

By 11 a.m. on Christmas Day, in spite of official promises, the required permission papers had not yet been granted, church leaders said. Organizers debated whether to push ahead or call off the event – wondering whether communicating word of a cancellation was even possible at that point. Finally at 5 p.m., in an emergency meeting with the city’s ruling People’s Committee, they got a verbal go-ahead and a promise of a written permit.

They said this meant they had only 24 hours to build a perimeter around the field, bring in electricity and water, prepare sanitary facilities, set up chairs, erect a stage, and install the sound and lighting systems.

But the next morning – the Sunday of the planned event – authorities informed organizers that the permission was not for their program but only to provide a place where the buses and people could come so organizers could explain, apologize and send them home, sources said. Organizers said it was another in a series of deeply discouraging betrayals, but that many Christians in Vietnam and worldwide were praying fervently.

Just before noon, a church leader went to the BRA office in a last-ditch attempt to get written permission. He urged officials to think through the possible consequences of many thousands of people arriving in the city for a much anticipated event and finding nothing. Finally at 1 p.m., just five hours before the event was scheduled to start, the BRA issued written permission for a gathering of 5,000 people.

Permission at last in hand, organizers called and text-messaged the many people standing by to help set up to come to the venue in district 12. Sources said they came quickly, like a small army, encountering huge cement culverts and pilings on roads as they approached the venue. These had to be manually removed to allow buses and trucks to enter.

Too late now to set up properly, they said, they did only what was absolutely necessary. They brought in 14,000 chairs on flatbed trucks, and one of the trucks served as the stage. As a backdrop they had time only to put up a large red cross with a white border that, when lit, sources said, stood starkly and powerfully against the night sky.

Crews and volunteers worked feverishly erecting towers and installing sound and lighting systems. Christmas worshippers began arriving in large numbers at 5 p.m., even though people reported authorities had prevented a significant number of buses from embarking on their journey, and that others were intercepted and forced to turn around.

The program began only 30 minutes later than the announced start time of 6 p.m., which organizers regarded as a miracle, and people continued to pour into the venue until well after 7 p.m. while worship music was underway. Those attending enthusiastically participated in loud and joyful praise, and sources cited as especially moving a local choir of hundreds singing “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.”

As they did last year, the Jackson family of six from the United States sang at the rally. The state-controlled media had earlier given ample coverage to the unique sight of the Christian group giving away their CDs in a busy downtown area.

Pastor Ho Tan Khoa was well into his evangelistic message when the lights went out, although sources said that, miraculously, the sound system was not affected. Thousands of people in the crowd opened their cell phones, lighting the darkness with their digital candles. The failure – or cutting – of the electricity did affect the live video broadcast on www.hoithanh.com , but within about 15 minutes power was restored.

After a song and prayer for healing, Pastor Pham Dinh Nhan asked those who wanted to follow Christ to come forward. Hundreds streamed up, and sources said those who arrived first rushed onto the flatbed truck serving as a stage and clung to the large cross. Organizers estimated 2,000 people indicated a first-time decision to follow Christ.

In a fitting closing song, the Jackson family sang both in Vietnamese and English, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Pastor Duong Thanh Lam then graciously thanked the relevant government departments for “recognizing our need to worship” and for “creating the conditions for this event to happen.”

Those who follow religion in Vietnam were puzzled that the government went to such lengths to hinder the gathering. They cited the government lock-out of a scheduled Christmas celebration in Hanoi on Dec. 19 as an example of interference that will also long be remembered (see http://www.compassdirect.org, “Vietnam Authorities Move to Stop Protestant Christmas Events,” Dec. 20).

“It seems Vietnam squandered an excellent public relations opportunity at a time when there are renewed efforts in the U.S. Congress to put Vietnam back on the religious liberty blacklist,” said one long-time observer.

Some Vietnamese church leaders and international observers have said they believe officials have clamped down on Christmas celebrations this year because they were alarmed at the size of last year’s Christmas events.

One church leader told Compass of Directive No. 75 of the Ministry of Interior, an Oct. 15 order that presumably forbids such gatherings. Though no church leader has been shown the directive, an official considered to be sympathetic to Christians told a pastor that the directive orders strict adherence to the Decree on Religion 22. This 2005 decree, the main law governing religion, forbids Christians in unregistered groups from any public gatherings, restricting their religious activity to
single family worship in their household.

In practice, sources said, many house churches have experienced considerably more freedom than that. Last year many unregistered groups were allowed, though reluctantly, to hold large public Christmas gatherings in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

The unregistered house churches are becoming increasingly frustrated. Most have tried to register their congregations according to existing laws but have either been refused or ignored. The freedoms that members of registered churches enjoy are not available for unregistered Christians, sources said, and unregistered Christians are unable to register.

Many speculate that concern over security in the run-up to the January 2011 Party Congress, held every five years, is one reason for the government’s approach. Whatever the reason, all concerned church leaders agreed that the efforts to stop the large Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City Christmas events this year were ordered from the top level of government. No leaders said they believe the obstacles resulted merely from disagreements and delays among government departments, as it was sometimes made
to appear.

A number of other events held in public venues by the registered Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) and the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) went ahead peacefully. The largest one in Ho Chi Minh City on Dec. 17 attracted an estimated 9,000 people, with about 1,000 indicating a desire to follow Christ.

In some places, unregistered house church organizations held small Christmas events without difficulty. According to one count, at least 6,000 people throughout Vietnam indicated a first-time decision to follow Christ in this year’s Christmas events.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christians in Turkey Acquitted of ‘Insulting Turkishness’


But court heavily fines them for dubious conviction of collecting personal data.

ISTANBUL, October 19 (CDN) — After four years of legal battle in a Turkish court, a judge acquitted two Christians of insulting Turkey and its people by spreading Christianity, but not without slapping them with a hefty fine for a spurious charge.

Four years ago this month, Turan Topal, 50, and Hakan Tastan, 41, started a legal battle after gendarmerie officers produced false witnesses to accuse them of spreading their faith and allegedly “insulting Turkishness, the military and Islam.”

At the Silivri court an hour west of Istanbul, Judge Hayrettin Sevim on Thursday (Oct. 14) acquitted the defendants of two charges that they had insulted the Turkish state (Article 301) and that they had insulted its people (Article 216) by spreading Christianity. Sevim cited lack of evidence.

He found them guilty, however, of collecting information on citizens without permission (Article 135) and sentenced them to seven months of imprisonment each. The court ruled that the two men could each pay a 4,500 lira (US$3,170) fine instead of serving time, said their lawyer Haydar Polat.

Tastan expressed mixed feelings about the verdicts.

“For both Turan and I, being found innocent from the accusation that we insulted the Turkish people was the most important thing for us, because we’ve always said we’re proud to be Turks,” Tastan said by telephone. “But it is unjust that they are sentencing us for collecting people’s information.”

At the time of their arrests, Topal and Tastan were volunteers with The Bible Research Center, which has since acquired official association status and is now called The Association for Propagating Knowledge of the Bible. The two men had used contact information that individuals interested in Christianity had volunteered to provide on the association’s website.

Administrators of the association stated openly to local authorities that their goal was to disseminate information about Christianity.

The two men and their lawyer said they will be ready to appeal the unjust decision of the court when they have seen the official statement, which the court should issue within a month. Polat said the appeal process will take over a year.

“Why should we have to continue the legal battle and appeal this?” asked Tastan. “We are not responsible for the information that was collected. So why are they fining us for this? So, we continue our legal adventure.”

Still, he expressed qualified happiness.

“We are free from the charges that we have insulted the Turkish state and the people of Turkey and we’re glad for that, but we are sorry about the court’s sentence,” Tastan said. “We’re happy on one hand, and sorry on the other.”

The court hearing lasted just a few minutes, said Polat.

“The judges came to the court hearing ready with their decision,” Polat said. “Their file was complete, and there was neither other evidence nor witnesses.”

Polat was hesitant to comment on whether the decision to convict the men of collecting private data without permission was because they are Christians. He did underline, however, that the court’s decision to fine the men was unjust, and that they plan to appeal it after the court issues an official written verdict.

“This was the court’s decision,” said Polat, “but we believe this is not fair. This decision is inconsistent with the law.”

 

Christianity on Trial

The initial charges in 2006 against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme” claiming that some Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and making insults against Turkishness, the military and Islam.

In March 2009 the Turkish Ministry of Justice issued a statement claiming that approval to try the two men’s case under the controversial Article 301came in response to the “original” statement by three young men that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam was a primitive and fictitious religion that results in terrorism, and to portray Turks as a “cursed people.”

Two of the three witnesses, however, stated in court that they didn’t even know Topal and Tastan. The third witness never appeared in court. Prosecutors were unable to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms. At the same time, they questioned their right to speak openly about Christianity with others.

Polat and his legal partners had based their defense on the premise that Turkey’s constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.

“This is the point that really needs to be understood,” Polat told Compass last year. “In Turkey, constitutionally speaking, it is not a crime to be a Christian or to disseminate the Christian faith. However, in reality there have been problems.”

The lawyer and the defendants said that prosecuting lawyers gave political dimensions to the case by rendering baseless accusations in a nationalistic light, claiming that missionary activities were carried out by imperialistic countries intending to harm Turkey.

Tastan and Topal became Christians more than 15 years ago and changed their religious identity from Muslim to Christian on their official ID cards.

Initially accompanied by heavy media hype, the case had been led by ultranationalist attorney Kemal Kerincsiz and a team of six other lawyers. Kerincsiz had filed or inspired dozens of Article 301 court cases against writers and intellectuals he accused of insulting the Turkish nation and Islam.

Because of Kerincsiz’s high-level national profile, the first few hearings drew several hundred young nationalist protestors surrounding the Silivri courthouse, under the eye of dozens of armed police. But the case has attracted almost no press attention since Kerincsiz was jailed in January 2008 as a suspect in the overarching conspiracy trials over Ergenekon, a “deep state” operation to destabilize the government led by a cabal of retired generals, politicians and other key figures. The lawyer is accused of an active role in the alleged Ergenekon plot to discredit and overthrow Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party government.

Ergenekon has been implicated in the cases of murdered priest Andreas Santoro, Armenian editor Hrant Dink, and the three Christians in Malatya: Necati Aydin, Ugur Yuksel and Tilmann Geske.

In a separate case, in March of 2009 Tastan and Topal were charged with “illegal collection of funds.” Each paid a fine of 600 Turkish lira (US$360) to a civil court in Istanbul. The verdict could not be appealed in the Turkish legal courts. This ruling referred to the men receiving church offerings without official permission from local authorities.

Report from Compass Direct News

Decline of traditional media


Should the threat to traditional media from the internet really be a cause for concern?

The new social media — blogging, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube are current faves — revolutionising the publishing world, for better and worse. Let’s look at both the better and the worse in perspective.

The current tsunami of personal choices in communication is slowly draining the profit from mainstream media. These media traditionally depend on huge audiences who all live in one region and mostly want the same things (the football scores, the crossword, the TV Guide, etc.). But that is all available now on the Internet, all around the world, all the time.

One outcome is a death watch on many newspapers, including famous ones like the Boston Globe. As journalist Paul Gillin noted recently: “The newspaper model scales up very well, but it scales down very badly. It costs a newspaper nearly as much to deliver 25,000 copies as it does to deliver 50,000 copies. Readership has been in decline for 30 years and the decline shows no signs of abating. Meanwhile, new competition has sprung up online with a vastly superior cost structure and an interactive format that appeals to the new generation of readers.”

Traditional electronic media are not doing any better. As James Lewin observes in “Television audience plummeting as viewers move online” (May 19, 2008), mainstream broadcasters “will have to come to terms with YouTube, video podcasts and other Internet media or they’ll face the same fate as newspapers.”

Radio audiences have likewise tanked. Overall, the recent decline of traditional media is remarkable.

Some conservative writers insist that mainstream media’s failure is due to its liberal bias. But conservatives have charged that for decades — to no effect. Another charge is that TV is declining because it is increasingly gross or trivial. True enough, but TV’s popularity was unaffected for decades by its experiments with edgy taste.

Let’s look more closely at the structure of the system to better understand current steep declines. Due to the low cost of modern media technology, no clear distinction now exists between a mainstream medium and a non-mainstream one, based on either number of viewers or production cost. Today, anyone can put up a video at YouTube at virtually no cost. Popular videos get hundreds of thousands of views. Podcasting and videocasting are also cheap. A blog can be started for free, within minutes, at Blogger. It may get 10 viewers or 10,000, depending on the level of popular interest. But the viewers control that, not the providers.

The key change is that the traditional media professional is no longer a gatekeeper who can systematically admit or deny information. Consumers program their own print, TV, or radio, and download what they want to their personal devices. They are their own editors, their own filmmakers, their own disc jockeys.

Does that mean more bias or less? It’s hard to say, given that consumers now manage their own level of bias. So they can hear much more biased news — or much less. And, as Podcasting News observes, “Social media is a global phenomenon happening in all markets regardless of wider economic, social and cultural development.”

Understandably, traditional media professionals, alarmed by these developments, have constructed a doctrine of “localism” and, in some cases, called for government to bail them out. That probably won’t help, just as it wouldn’t have helped if the media professionals had called for a government “bailed out” of newspapers when they were threatened by radio, or of radio when it was threatened by TV. Video really did (sort of) kill the radio star, but the radio star certainly won’t be revived by government grants.

Still, the news is not all bad. Yes, new media do sometimes kill old media. For example, no one seriously uses pigeon post to send messages today. But few ever thought birdmail was a great system, just the only one available at the time. However, radio did not kill print, and TV did not kill radio. Nor will the Internet kill older media; it will simply change news delivery. Sometimes in a minor way, but sometimes radically.

Media that work, whether radio, TV, newspapers, books, blogs, or any other, thrive when there is a true need. Today’s challenge is to persuade the consumer to look at alternatives to their own programming decisions.

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

The original news article can be viewed at:
http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/decline_of_traditional_media/

Article from MercatorNet.com

EGYPT: TWO CLASHES SHAKE COPTIC COMMUNITY


Security forces fail to avert attacks on Christians in separate cases.

ISTANBUL, July 7 (Compass Direct News) – Separate cases of sectarian violence in two villages erupted in Egypt last week, shaking the country’s Coptic Christian community as Muslims attacked their homes and security forces imposed curfews in an effort to maintain peace.

Last Wednesday (July 1) in the village of Kafr El Barbari in Mit Ghamr, Dakahlia, north of Cairo, Muslim villagers mourning the death of 18-year-old Mohamed Ramadan Ezzat, an Al Azhar University student stabbed to death by a Coptic grocer, attacked Christian homes with stones, breaking their windows.

During post-funeral violence, 25 people were injured as hundreds of angry Muslims attacked Coptic homes. Some sources claimed that those who attacked the Christian houses were Muslims from surrounding villages. Reports varied on extent of damage to houses.

Many of the 1,000 Christian Copts who live in the village of 4,000 inhabitants fled or remained indoors out of fear that tensions may escalate. A non-profit organization that visited Kafr El Barbari on Sunday reported that it was unable to make contact with Christians.

On June 29, Ezzat had gone to the family grocery store of 50-year-old Emil Gerges to buy soft drinks. A dispute about an alleged debt Ezzat had with the store ended when Gerges’ son John, 20, stabbed the young Muslim. Ezzat died in the hospital that evening, after which his family members attacked and burned the Gerges’ store as well as two of the family apartments.

Gerges, his two sons and wife were arrested on June 29, and while his wife was released for health reasons, the men of the family remain in prison under charges of manslaughter. Security forces ordered a curfew in the village and placed a cordon around it to prohibit movement into and out of it.

Although the conflict in Kafr El Barbari was seen as a family dispute, sources say it quickly escalated into sectarian violence, heightening tensions throughout the country.

“The event could have passed as an individual fight, only there is so much tension now that if any individual fight happens between a Muslim and Christian, the whole village erupts and fights,” said Samia Sidhom, news editor of Egyptian Coptic weekly Watani.

So far there has been no official reconciliation meeting between the village’s Christians and Muslims, although leaders have met. Ezzat’s father, in a statement this week to online news agency Youm 7, said that his family has conflict only with the Gerges family and asked Christians who had fled to return to their homes. He did, however, imply that if the courts did not vindicate his son’s death, he would.

Sidhom of Watani said that overall there is an increase in sectarian tensions in the country because Islamic elements see a benefit to dissension rising.

“It destabilizes the country, and it puts security authorities at a weak point,” she said.

Other Coptic experts, however, believe that security forces have a hand in most cases of sectarian violence across the nation.

“The police are more than capable of controlling any situation if they want to,” said Ibrahim Habib, chairman of U.K.-based United Copts, of the apparent lack of control during Ezzat’s funeral. “This is deliberate I think. Some authority in the police feels that this is a time to teach Christians a lesson, to humiliate them according to sharia [Islamic law], to treat them as dhimmi, to treat them as second class citizens. If the government is serious, it is more than capable of controlling things.”

Rumors Lead to More Violence

On the heels of violence in Ezbet Boshra-East last month that left Christian villagers imprisoned and hiding in their houses on suspicion of holding a prayer meeting without permission, just five kilometers away in Ezbet Guirgis on Friday (July 3) Christians faced a similar fate.

After rumors spread among Ezbet Guirgis’s 400 Muslims that the majority Christians were planning to use a four-story building as a church, early in the morning the Muslims set fire to a warehouse adjacent to the building.

The village priest, the Rev. Saman Shehata, had applied for permission to use the building for worship last year, but authorities had rejected it.

The village’s 1,400 Coptic Christians have not used the building due to lack of official permission even though they have owned it for three years. Instead, the Christians have been using an old 35-square-meter building that has association status, allowing them to pray in it.

Shehata told Compass he believed that local police authorities who resented the application for permission to use the newer building as a church, which he filed eight months ago, spread the rumor that Copts would worship there in spite the denial of his request.

“These rumors are most likely spread by the lower ranking people from the police themselves,” Shehata said. “They incite the Muslims to show that they don’t want the building.”

The priest, who has been working in Ezbet Guirgis for 12 years, said his application for church use was rejected due to its proximity to the village’s only mosque.

The fire damaged two buildings, and Muslims also tried to burn cars belonging to the church and priest. Fire brigades arrived at the scene 90 minutes later. Shehata said that after morning prayers, when he went to file a complaint about the fires, he received a phone call informing him that Muslims were attacking Christians.

Few Christians were injured. Authorities arrested 11 Christian Copts and five Muslims in connection with the fires and ensuing violence. Security forces also placed a temporary curfew on the village of Ezbet Guirgis and are monitoring the village.

On his way to visit the Christian prisoners and to give them food today, Shehata said that security forces had detained and were trying to blame Safuat Atalla, a 28-year-old Copt, for the fires, which also destroyed some of the villagers’ stored crop harvest. Atalla used to work as the Shehata’s driver and had resigned on friendly terms after he found a better job to support his new wife and ailing parents.

Shehata, however, fears that the police may be torturing Atalla to extract a false confession that he set the fires out of anger toward the priest. Shehata said it was impossible to know how the prisoners are being treated as police have heavily supervised his visits.

“The greatest difficulty is that the prayer space is very limited, and it can only accommodate 1 percent of the Christian villagers,” said Shehata of the community’s older, smaller building. “People have to stand outside the building whenever they come for mass.”

The priest said the excuse authorities give for not allowing them to use or build a church is to maintain the village’s harmony.

“Christians are forced to pray in the street, and other villagers pass through them with their cattle, and this also leads to friction,” said Shehata. “So isn’t it better to pray within four walls than in the streets, humiliated?”

Shehata said this was the first time the two communities clashed in the village.

Priest Leaves

The case of Ezbet Guirgis is similar to that of Ezbet Boshra-East, said an Egyptian human rights expert, as in both villages violence erupted on rumors about the use of church-owned buildings.

Reconciliation meetings are expected to take place in Ezbet Guirgis soon, but the expert said it was likely that in order to maintain peace, Shehata may have to leave the village as did the Rev. Isaak Castor from Ezbet Boshra-East after last month’s clashes.

“It’s expected that Father Saman must leave, because they accepted that solution in Boshra so it will be hard to accept anything else,” said the expert.

Rumors have already started circulating that Muslims are demanding that Shehata leave.

“Father Isaac is already out of the village,” said the expert, who recently spoke with Castor. “He left before the reconciliation meeting that happened on Wednesday [July 1].”

Castor moved to Minya at the request of his superiors.

Commenting on the three cases of sectarian violence within two weeks, Habib of United Copts expressed worry about the negative role security forces have played in the events and the lack of equality for Coptic Christians seeking their rights based on the Constitution, which in theory grants them religious freedom.

“The national security force is a danger, and the police are not even-handed,” he said. “Even when it comes to court, they do not supply enough evidence, the Islamists have infiltrated the courts, and this is a bad recipe for Egypt. We are really worried about what will happen in the future to the Christians.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

EGYPT: TWO CLASHES SHAKE COPTIC COMMUNITY


Security forces fail to avert attacks on Christians in separate cases.

ISTANBUL, July 7 (Compass Direct News) – Separate cases of sectarian violence in two villages erupted in Egypt last week, shaking the country’s Coptic Christian community as Muslims attacked their homes and security forces imposed curfews in an effort to maintain peace.

Last Wednesday (July 1) in the village of Kafr El Barbari in Mit Ghamr, Dakahlia, north of Cairo, Muslim villagers mourning the death of 18-year-old Mohamed Ramadan Ezzat, an Al Azhar University student stabbed to death by a Coptic grocer, attacked Christian homes with stones, breaking their windows.

During post-funeral violence, 25 people were injured as hundreds of angry Muslims attacked Coptic homes. Some sources claimed that those who attacked the Christian houses were Muslims from surrounding villages. Reports varied on extent of damage to houses.

Many of the 1,000 Christian Copts who live in the village of 4,000 inhabitants fled or remained indoors out of fear that tensions may escalate. A non-profit organization that visited Kafr El Barbari on Sunday reported that it was unable to make contact with Christians.

On June 29, Ezzat had gone to the family grocery store of 50-year-old Emil Gerges to buy soft drinks. A dispute about an alleged debt Ezzat had with the store ended when Gerges’ son John, 20, stabbed the young Muslim. Ezzat died in the hospital that evening, after which his family members attacked and burned the Gerges’ store as well as two of the family apartments.

Gerges, his two sons and wife were arrested on June 29, and while his wife was released for health reasons, the men of the family remain in prison under charges of manslaughter. Security forces ordered a curfew in the village and placed a cordon around it to prohibit movement into and out of it.

Although the conflict in Kafr El Barbari was seen as a family dispute, sources say it quickly escalated into sectarian violence, heightening tensions throughout the country.

“The event could have passed as an individual fight, only there is so much tension now that if any individual fight happens between a Muslim and Christian, the whole village erupts and fights,” said Samia Sidhom, news editor of Egyptian Coptic weekly Watani.

So far there has been no official reconciliation meeting between the village’s Christians and Muslims, although leaders have met. Ezzat’s father, in a statement this week to online news agency Youm 7, said that his family has conflict only with the Gerges family and asked Christians who had fled to return to their homes. He did, however, imply that if the courts did not vindicate his son’s death, he would.

Sidhom of Watani said that overall there is an increase in sectarian tensions in the country because Islamic elements see a benefit to dissension rising.

“It destabilizes the country, and it puts security authorities at a weak point,” she said.

Other Coptic experts, however, believe that security forces have a hand in most cases of sectarian violence across the nation.

“The police are more than capable of controlling any situation if they want to,” said Ibrahim Habib, chairman of U.K.-based United Copts, of the apparent lack of control during Ezzat’s funeral. “This is deliberate I think. Some authority in the police feels that this is a time to teach Christians a lesson, to humiliate them according to sharia [Islamic law], to treat them as dhimmi, to treat them as second class citizens. If the government is serious, it is more than capable of controlling things.”

Rumors Lead to More Violence

On the heels of violence in Ezbet Boshra-East last month that left Christian villagers imprisoned and hiding in their houses on suspicion of holding a prayer meeting without permission, just five kilometers away in Ezbet Guirgis on Friday (July 3) Christians faced a similar fate.

After rumors spread among Ezbet Guirgis’s 400 Muslims that the majority Christians were planning to use a four-story building as a church, early in the morning the Muslims set fire to a warehouse adjacent to the building.

The village priest, the Rev. Saman Shehata, had applied for permission to use the building for worship last year, but authorities had rejected it.

The village’s 1,400 Coptic Christians have not used the building due to lack of official permission even though they have owned it for three years. Instead, the Christians have been using an old 35-square-meter building that has association status, allowing them to pray in it.

Shehata told Compass he believed that local police authorities who resented the application for permission to use the newer building as a church, which he filed eight months ago, spread the rumor that Copts would worship there in spite the denial of his request.

“These rumors are most likely spread by the lower ranking people from the police themselves,” Shehata said. “They incite the Muslims to show that they don’t want the building.”

The priest, who has been working in Ezbet Guirgis for 12 years, said his application for church use was rejected due to its proximity to the village’s only mosque.

The fire damaged two buildings, and Muslims also tried to burn cars belonging to the church and priest. Fire brigades arrived at the scene 90 minutes later. Shehata said that after morning prayers, when he went to file a complaint about the fires, he received a phone call informing him that Muslims were attacking Christians.

Few Christians were injured. Authorities arrested 11 Christian Copts and five Muslims in connection with the fires and ensuing violence. Security forces also placed a temporary curfew on the village of Ezbet Guirgis and are monitoring the village.

On his way to visit the Christian prisoners and to give them food today, Shehata said that security forces had detained and were trying to blame Safuat Atalla, a 28-year-old Copt, for the fires, which also destroyed some of the villagers’ stored crop harvest. Atalla used to work as the Shehata’s driver and had resigned on friendly terms after he found a better job to support his new wife and ailing parents.

Shehata, however, fears that the police may be torturing Atalla to extract a false confession that he set the fires out of anger toward the priest. Shehata said it was impossible to know how the prisoners are being treated as police have heavily supervised his visits.

“The greatest difficulty is that the prayer space is very limited, and it can only accommodate 1 percent of the Christian villagers,” said Shehata of the community’s older, smaller building. “People have to stand outside the building whenever they come for mass.”

The priest said the excuse authorities give for not allowing them to use or build a church is to maintain the village’s harmony.

“Christians are forced to pray in the street, and other villagers pass through them with their cattle, and this also leads to friction,” said Shehata. “So isn’t it better to pray within four walls than in the streets, humiliated?”

Shehata said this was the first time the two communities clashed in the village.

Priest Leaves

The case of Ezbet Guirgis is similar to that of Ezbet Boshra-East, said an Egyptian human rights expert, as in both villages violence erupted on rumors about the use of church-owned buildings.

Reconciliation meetings are expected to take place in Ezbet Guirgis soon, but the expert said it was likely that in order to maintain peace, Shehata may have to leave the village as did the Rev. Isaak Castor from Ezbet Boshra-East after last month’s clashes.

“It’s expected that Father Saman must leave, because they accepted that solution in Boshra so it will be hard to accept anything else,” said the expert.

Rumors have already started circulating that Muslims are demanding that Shehata leave.

“Father Isaac is already out of the village,” said the expert, who recently spoke with Castor. “He left before the reconciliation meeting that happened on Wednesday [July 1].”

Castor moved to Minya at the request of his superiors.

Commenting on the three cases of sectarian violence within two weeks, Habib of United Copts expressed worry about the negative role security forces have played in the events and the lack of equality for Coptic Christians seeking their rights based on the Constitution, which in theory grants them religious freedom.

“The national security force is a danger, and the police are not even-handed,” he said. “Even when it comes to court, they do not supply enough evidence, the Islamists have infiltrated the courts, and this is a bad recipe for Egypt. We are really worried about what will happen in the future to the Christians.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

TURKEY: ALLEGED ‘MIDDLEMAN’ IN MALATYA MURDERS A NO-SHOW


State fails to set aside funds to transport key witness to hearing.

MALATYA, Turkey, June 25 (Compass Direct News) – A suspected “middleman” between the alleged masterminds and young executors in the stabbing murders of three Christians here failed to appear at a hearing on Friday (June 19) because of a procedural error.

The state prosecutor’s office failed to set aside funds to transport Varol Bulent Aral to the southeastern city of Malatya from Istanbul, where he is held, the court announced. Aral is the second suspected middleman connecting the five young murderers to “deep state” masterminds who allegedly plotted to kill Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske.

The three Christians were bound and tortured before they were murdered on April 18, 2007 at Zirve Publishing Co., where they worked. Suspects Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, Abuzer Yildirim and alleged ring-leader Emre Gunaydin were caught at the scene of the crime.

While in prison, Gunaydin testified to the state prosecutor that Aral, a journalist allegedly attached to a far-reaching political conspiracy known as Ergenekon, had contacted him and instructed him to carry out the murders. Gunaydin had also testified that Huseyin Yelki, who worked as a volunteer at the Zirve office, had planned details of the crime with him.

The court heard Yelki’s testimony in the last two hearings, but judges could not arrive at conclusive evidence connecting him to the murders. At the May hearing, Gunaydin retracted his statement that he and Yelki met to strategize before the murders. An order last month to investigate Yelki’s bank accounts for links to suspicious activity has yielded no new information, judges stated at the last hearing. He is still obligated, however, to attend every court hearing.

At a May hearing, the court also requested a list of people who have visited Gunaydin since the beginning of this year, suspecting that he may be under pressure to retract statements he has made implicating middlemen in the murders. The court is still evaluating the list of visitors it received.

Gunaydin’s girlfriend, Burcu Polat, was also expected to testify on Friday but did not appear. The court ordered Polat to appear at the next hearing and is petitioning the prosecutor’s office to funnel the necessary funds for Aral’s transportation from Istanbul to Malatya.

Erdal Dogan, one of a team of plaintiff lawyers in the Malatya case, told reporters after the short hearing that Aral’s absence resulted from a great oversight on the part of the Justice Ministry.

“They didn’t bring the witness due to a lack of funds,” said Dogan. “That the Justice Ministry knew the court date and didn’t put money aside for the witness to come is a tragic state of affairs.”

When asked whether the case will be joined to the ongoing Ergenekon court hearings, Dogan said the court is still researching possible links between the Malatya murders and those of Armenian Christian and newspaper editor Hrant Dink, who was killed three months before the men in Malatya, and Catholic priest Andrea Santoro, who was slain in the Black Sea coastal town of Trabzon in February 2006.

Link with ‘Insulting Turkishness’ Trial?

In Silivri, the case against Turkish Christian converts Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal for “insulting Turkishness” under controversial Article 301 continues to drag on two years after they were charged – leading the defendants to wonder if the “deep state” is also behind their ordeal.

Tastan and Topal were charged after speaking about their faith. The decision to try them under the disputed article came after three young men – Fatih Kose, Alper Eksi and Oguz Yilmaz – stated that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam is a primitive, fictitious religion that results in terrorism and to portray Turks as a “cursed people.”

Prosecutors have yet to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms. Turkey’s constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.

At a June 24, 2008 hearing, two witnesses for the prosecution declared they did not know the defendants and had never seen them before facing them in the courtroom. Several witnesses – including one of the original complainants, Kose – have failed to show up on various trial dates.

On May 28 the court, though yet again reaching no conclusions, ordered five witnesses to appear at the next hearing, set for Oct. 15.

“This is malicious,” Topal told Compass. “Every time they call someone else, find something new to accuse us of. They have called everyone, and this time they’re calling people from the judiciary… claiming that we met with them. It just keeps going on.”

Three of the five lawyers ordered to appear at the next hearing are workers in the country’s judicial system.

“If they would just make up their mind and at least pronounce us guilty, we would have a chance to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights, but now there’s just uncertainty,” said Topal.

He said he and Tastan are convinced that their trial is a set-up from Turkey’s “deep state” and is connected to the murders of the Christians in Malatya.

“In my mind, our court case and these murders were orchestrated,” Tastan said.

He described how, after they came out of a hearing held the day the three Christians were murdered in Malatya, members of the press and others gathered outside the courthouse in Silivri.

“Among the crowd, people yelled out to us, ‘We will cut you up too. We will kill you too,’” he said. “So when did they gather these people? When did they come? When did they learn of the event to know to yell at us if there wasn’t a connection between the two cases?”

Two key figures pressing the Article 301 charges and promoting sensational media coverage of the Silivri trial are now jailed themselves, unable to attend the hearings. Both ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz and spokesperson Sevgi Erenerol of the Turkish Orthodox Church – a Turkish nationalist denomination with no significant following – are accused of playing leading roles in Ergenekon, an ultranationalist cabal of retired generals, politicians, journalists and mafia members under investigation for conspiracy to overthrow the government.

“I think that it was the same people who orchestrated this,” said Tastan, referring to Ergenekon.

Report from Compass Direct News

EGYPT: CONVERT’S RELIGIOUS RIGHTS CASE THREATENS ISLAMISTS


Muslims said to fear that freedom to legally change religion would wreak societal havoc.

CAIRO, Egypt, May 12 (Compass Direct News) – In the dilapidated office here of three lawyers representing one of Egypt’s “most wanted” Christian converts, the mood was hopeful in spite of a barrage of death threats against them and their client.

At a court hearing on May 2, a judge agreed to a request by the convert from Islam to join the two cases he has opened to change his ID card to reflect his new faith. The court set June 13 as the date to rule on the case of Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary’s – who is in hiding from outraged Islamists – and lawyer Nabil Ghobreyal said he was hopeful that progress thus far will lead to a favorable ruling.

At the same time, El-Gohary’s lawyers termed potentially “catastrophic” for Egyptian human rights a report sent to the judge by the State Council, a consultative body of Egypt’s Administrative Court. Expressing outrage at El-Gohary’s “audacity” to request a change in the religious designation on his ID, the report claims the case is a threat to societal order and violates sharia (Islamic law).

“This [report] is bombarding freedom of religion in Egypt,” said lawyer Said Faiz. “They are insisting that the path to Islam is a one-way street. The entire report is based on sharia.”

The report is counterproductive for Egypt’s aspirations for improved human rights, they said. In the eyes of the international community it is self-condemned, the lawyers said, because it is not based on Egypt’s civil law, nor does it uphold the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights that Egypt has signed.

The report stated that those who leave Islam will be subject to death, described El-Gohary as an “apostate” and called all Christians “infidels.”

“During the hearing, they [Islamic lawyers] were saying that Christians are infidels and that Christ was a Muslim, so we said, ‘OK, bring us the papers that show Jesus embraced Islam,’” Faiz said, to a round of laughter from his colleagues.

Ghobreyal, adding that the report says El-Gohary’s case threatens public order, noted wryly, “In Egypt we have freedom of religion, but these freedoms can’t go against Islam.”

The trio of young lawyers working on El-Gohary’s case, who formed an organization called Nuri Shams (Sunlight) to support Christian converts’ rights, said they have received innumerable threats over the phone and on the Internet, and sometimes even from their colleagues.

Churches Challenged

To date no Christian convert in Egypt has obtained a baptismal certificate, which amounts to official proof of conversion.

Churches fear that issuing such certificates would create a severe backlash. As a result, converts cannot apply for a change of religion on their ID, but El-Gohary was able to travel abroad to get a baptismal certificate from a well-established church. In April a Coptic Cairo-based priest recognized this certificate and issued him a letter of acceptance, or “conversion certificate,” welcoming him to the Coptic Orthodox community.

El-Gohary’s baptismal certificate caused a fury among the nation’s Islamic lobby, as it led to the first official church recognition of a convert. A number of fatwas (religious edicts) have since been issued against El-Gohary and Father Matthias Nasr Manqarious, the priest who helped him.

“The converts have no chance to travel, to leave, to get asylum, so we have to help them to get documents for their new religion,” Fr. Manqarious told Compass by telephone. “So I decided to help Maher El-Gohary and others like him. They can’t live as Christians in broad daylight.”

For several months El-Gohary has been in hiding, relying on others to meet his basic needs. When Compass spoke with him by phone earlier this month, he said he lives in fear for his life and worries about his 14-year-old daughter’s safety.

“I’m hiding. Someone brings me my food and water. I haven’t gone out in a week,” said El-Gohary. “Many Muslims and sheikhs … say if anyone sees Maher Gohary, he must kill him. My life is very difficult.”

His original case, filed in August of last year, included an attempt to change the religious affiliation on his teenage daughter’s ID, but he later dropped it after further legal consultation. El-Gohary said that when radical Muslims recognize his daughter on the streets, they warn her that they will kill her father when they find him.

“She’s afraid for me,” he said.

His church acceptance letter has re-kindled discussion of a bill proposed by parliamentary members affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a hard-line Islamist opposition movement, which would make apostasy punishable by death, said El-Gohary’s lawyers. Human rights experts, however, say that such a bill does not stand a chance in the Egyptian Parliament and is primarily a smokescreen to induce fear in Egypt’s Christian converts from Islam.

Some Hope from Baha’is

Sources said the fact that the judge asked for a baptismal certificate and filed the letter of acceptance in the case represents progress in the ongoing struggle of Egyptian converts, who are not recognized in their own country.

Now that El-Gohary’s lawyers have produced the acceptance letter, the judge in the case finds himself in a bind, said Hassan Ismail, general secretary of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations.

“The judge is in a paradox with the document he asked for,” Ismail said. “It is difficult to accept it, and yet it is difficult having this document among those of the case.”

Ismail, who has worked for years defending the rights of both Baha’is and converts, said it is hard to predict what the judge will decide in June. Even with all the required documents and “proof” of El-Gohary’s conversion, he said, the judge may still deny his right to change religions.

“For us human rights activists, these decisions are political, not legal,” he said. “These sorts of documents put the government into a corner, and we are working hard to get them in order to push the government to make different decisions.”

At the age of 16 all Egyptians are required to obtain an ID that states their religion as Muslim, Christian or Jewish. These cards are necessary for virtually every aspect of life, from banking, to education and medical treatment.

Baha’is, who do not fall under the rubric of any of Islam’s “heavenly religions,” were forced to lie about their religion or not obtain cards until March, when in a historical decision Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court upheld a lower court’s 2008 ruling that all Egyptians have a right to obtain official documents, such as ID cards and birth certificates, without stating their religion.

The gains of Baha’is have been a gauge of sorts for the Christian convert community, even though in reality they are not granted the freedom to change their stated religion or leave it blank on their cards and the official registry.

“I’m very optimistic about the cases of minorities and converts in Egypt,” said Ismail. “I believe that the case of Baha’is was an indicator for converts … If we were able to push their case, then we can defend the rights of converts.”

The human rights activist said that although discrimination against converts who are seen as apostates from Islam is greater than that against those raised in other religions, ultimately converts will be able to gain legal ground. El-Gohary’s case, he said, will play an important role.

“After years of fighting, the Baha’is have rights,” he said. “I think converts will succeed even if it takes years. Many are expecting to see Maher’s case [succeed], because it’s well documented.”

Attorney Ghobreyal said that El-Gohary’s case is on solid legal footing based on Article 46 of the Egyptian Civil Code, which grants religious freedom to the country’s citizens.

In his mind it is irrational that the government gave rights to the Baha’is, who fall outside of the three heavenly religions, while not granting the same rights to Christian converts. His only explanation is that a governmental green light to people to leave Islam could wreak havoc.

Not only is there fear of the Muslim front reacting violently to such a decision, but “they’re afraid that if they allow it, then all Muslims will become Christians,” said Ghobreyal. “They know there are many converts, and they will all officially become Christians.”

The lawyer said there are rumors circulating that there are a few million converts eagerly awaiting the results of El-Gohary’s case. Egypt’s last census in 2006 did not factor in religion, so figures of the Coptic population are based on estimates. These range from 6 to 15 percent of the country’s 80-million population. It is not possible to estimate the number of converts, most of whom live in secrecy.

“Ten years ago, you never heard about a convert, but now you hear that someone is going to the court to ask to become a Christian,” said Ghobreyal.

Hegazy’s Hope

The first convert to file for a change on his ID card, Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy, said he was pleased with the progress of El-Gohary’s case and hoped that more converts would take the risk of joining their cause.

“I think that every case added to the convert case will be a help,” said Hegazy.

An outspoken critic of the refusal of Egypt’s established churches to openly baptize converts, Hegazy said that in El-Gohary’s case publicity and criticism pushed the church to take a step in the right direction in producing the conversion certificate.

“But this is not a big step, and there are many more that need to be taken and have not been,” he said. “Just to be clear, the [Egyptian] church has not given a baptism certificate, it has given an acceptance letter, and the church has declared they are not going to give a baptism paper … but we can’t deny that the step that the priest took to give the certificate was audacious.”

Hegazy, who lost his case in January 2008 and is waiting for an appeal date, was never able to get a baptism certificate, nor can he travel since he does not have a passport. If he returns to his hometown to apply for one, he risks losing his life.

He said he still hopes any of Egypt’s churches will help him by baptizing him and giving him a certificate in time for his appeal or for a new case he plans to open soon. Hegazy said that although his case is not as public as it used to be, he still faces danger when he leaves his house.

Although he is also in hiding and fears for his life, El-Gohary said he hopes his case opens the way for other converts to experience freedom.

“I hope this for all of those who want to live in the light and the sun; there are many families,” he said of Egypt’s converts. “I want to live in peace as a Christian. I hope my country gives me the freedom to worship my God and gives me my human rights.”

Egypt is a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, an inter-governmental body made up of 47 states responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. On April 18, 2007, in its written statement applying for a seat to the Human Rights Council, the representative of Egypt to the U.N. stated that if elected it would emphasize promoting cultural and religious tolerance, among other human rights.

Report from Compass Direct News

IRAN: TWO CHRISTIAN WOMEN IMPRISONED


Held with no legal counsel for over a month, they suffer illness in notorious prison.

LOS ANGELES, April 13 (Compass Direct News) – Accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings,” two Iranian Christian women have been held in a Tehran prison for over a month in a crowded cell with no access to legal representation.

Amnesty International, in an appeal for urgent action last week, reported that authorities have made the accusations known but have imprisoned the women without filing official charges. The organization called on Iranian authorities to release them and expressed concern for their health.

Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, who were active in church activities and distributing Bibles according to Amnesty’s appeal, were arrested on March 5. They are being held in the detention center of Evin Prison, a facility that has drawn criticism for its human rights violations and executions in recent years. Amnesty’s appeal included a call to urge Iranian officials to ensure that the women are not being tortured.

Based on a telephone conversation between Esmaeilabad and a third party on March 28, Amnesty reported that Esmaeilabad said both are suffering from infection and high fever and had not received adequate medical care. The women continue to be detained in an overcrowded cell with 27 other women. Amnesty said they “may be prisoners of conscience, detained solely on account of their religious beliefs.”

The women are allowed a one-minute call each day and a weekly visit from family. Authorities have informed their family members that the women are accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings,” according to the report, and that they would be released after payment of a $400,000 bail. The families have presented the title deeds of their homes as bail but are still waiting for approval from the judge.

Initially the Ministry of Intelligence summoned one of the women, and then took her to the apartment the two shared. There they were officially arrested, and authorities confiscated computers, books and Bibles. The two women were interrogated and held at different police stations.

On March 18 they appeared before Branch 2 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran and subsequently transferred to Evin Prison, said the report.

Even if the women are released on bail, they still have to stand trial. Accusations have not included “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, though investigations are ongoing. It is not known whether the women are converts from Islam.

Last September the Iranian Parliament approved review of a new penal code calling for a mandatory death sentence for “apostates.” Under current law death sentences for apostasy have been issued only under judicial interpretations of sharia (Islamic law).

Under the new penal code, male “apostates” would be executed, while females would receive life sentences. The new code was sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which is expected to rule on it. The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by Parliament. This council has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

Converts to Christianity in Iran risk harassment, arrest and attack from authorities even though Article 23 of the Iranian Constitution grants that individual beliefs are private and no one can be “molested or taken to task” for holding them. Iran has also signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

“This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching,” the covenant states.

The last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government was Hossein Soodmand in 1990. He was accused of working as “an American spy.” Since then at least six Protestant pastors have been assassinated by unknown killers.

Report from Compass Direct News