ISRAEL: NON-ARAB CHRISTIANS SEEK IN VAIN FOR BURIAL SITES


Orthodox denominations face discrimination from authorities, nominally Christian gatekeepers.

HAIFA, Israel, July 8 (Compass Direct News) – Here in Israel’s third-largest city, it was not possible for the Russian Orthodox relatives of a 65-year-old woman who died on June 27 to find a Christian cemetery for her.

Their plight – for five days the body of Nadejda Edelman was stored at a hospital morgue – is common to Christians of foreign ancestry throughout the country. When Edelman passed away in Rambam Medical Center in this northern Israeli city, it took almost a week to find a grave for her and arrange for a funeral. Haifa, with 265,000 people, is 90 kilometers (56 miles) north of Tel Aviv.

On July 1 Edelman, a devout Christian, was buried outside of Haifa in Emeq Hefer Local Council Cemetery – a “secular” site for persons of no faith tradition. Had there been a Christian cemetery available, Edelman’s family might still have had problems obtaining a plot; the immigrant had not been able to have her ID registered as “Christian,” only as “Russian.”

“A cross on her neck and a testimony on her behalf by her close friend, as Edelman was childless, didn’t convince the authorities, and even if it would have, there are just no existing solutions for the deceased Russian Orthodox Christians of Russian origin in Israel,” said one of the founders of Sophia, an association of Russian Orthodox Christians in northern Israel. He requested anonymity.

Throughout Israel it’s not unusual for delays of days or weeks for burial of the Christian deceased of foreign ancestry. One Christian, Sergei Loper, was not buried until 20 days after his death; for another, Yuri Neverdasov, an available grave was not found for five days.

Christians make up 2.1 percent of Israel’s population, and the Orthodox denominations are a fraction of that. The issue of funeral rites and burials in Israel is especially difficult for these minorities, given the country’s complicated ethnic and religious makeup and laws that give religious institutions control over personal matters such as weddings, births and deaths.

The faith communities of Jews and Arabs in Israel each have their own designated burial societies that are responsible for arranging burials as well as religious rituals. Jewish burial societies called Hevra Kadisha are responsible for the Jewish deceased, while Arab burial societies provide services for Arab Muslims and Christians.

Such societies must obtain a special permit from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and sign a contract with the Social Security Service; this latter agency then covers the cost of burial fees in accordance with Israeli law. In theory every family in Israel is entitled to this reimbursement, but Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox families miss out because the funds go to the Arab burial societies rather than directly to the survivors.

Problems in addressing foreigners’ needs began in the early 1990s with a massive wave of immigration from the Former Soviet Union. Along with Jewish relatives, many Christians, Muslims and non-religious emigrants from Russia settled in Israel. Soon authorities were hard-pressed to address the needs of children of mixed marriages and of non-Jewish spouses and relatives – some with religious backgrounds other than Judaism, some holding no defined religious views and some who were atheists.

The question of foreign (especially Russian) Christians, as well as that of Jews who openly declared their conversion to Christianity, was especially disturbing, and Israel initially dealt with it by registering many people only as “Russians” without any reference to their religious belief. Later the religious designation for all people was eliminated from Israeli identification cards.

With legislation that was passed in 1992 but took more than a decade to implement, eventually authorities worked out a partial solution – establishing a few secular cemeteries and creating sections within Jewish cemeteries for “non-religious persons.” These measures did not meet the needs of people who wished to be buried in accordance with their religious beliefs, especially the Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Christians.

Discrimination against Non-Arabs

The Sophia association has tried to address this complicated issue and assist members of the Russian Orthodox community and their families. Thus far authorities have little heeded their plea.

“It would be only natural if Christians would be buried in Christian cemeteries, yet the Arab local councils usually decline our requests,” said Dr. Ilya Litvin of Haifa, a member of Sophia.

In Israel’s Arab Christian cemeteries, the heads of local councils are the only ones entitled to make the decisions, but many of them are Christians by birth only; they belong to Communist parties and in reality have little sympathy for religious sentiment, advocates said.

“They claim that there is a severe shortage of graves there and little possibility for expansion, yet I believe that it’s just politics,” Litvin said. “They don’t really care about us – we are not Arabs.”

Oleg Usenkov, press-secretary of St. Nicolay’s church at Migdal ha-Emeq, added that a Christian burial may sometimes come only as a negotiated favor.

“Sometimes our priest, Father Roman Radwan, pulls personal connections and after some negotiations they allocate a grave for the deceased members of our community, but usually we hear a ‘No,’” he said.

Other options for the church are the non-Jewish section at the Jewish cemetery or the secular cemetery. It is usually not possible, however, to conduct Christian ceremonies at these sites.

Usenkov of St. Nicolay’s church said he vividly recalls a recent funeral of his friend Andrey Shelkov.

“The funeral was organized by the Jerusalemite Hevra Kadisha [Jewish burial society], and we were not even allowed to put a cross inside the coffin,” Usenkov said. “One of the Hevra Kadisha workers felt sorry for us and told me, ‘You can draw a Pisces [fish symbol] on his arm and put it inside the coffin, isn’t that a Christian symbol as well?’ Imagine that: having to draw a Pisces, just like the early Christians who had to hide their faith!”

Burials can be costly, and the Israeli Social Security Service covers burial fees only by transferring the compensation to the burial societies, not to the families of the deceased. Since there is no such burial society for Russian Orthodox Christians, state funds to cover the high costs go to local councils’ treasuries rather than to the families.

The leaders of Sophia have requested the office of Israel’s prime minister to give their association status similar to that of a Hevra Kadisha, which would allow Sophia to meet the burial needs of Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Christians, but to no avail.

“In reply we received a formal letter which offers no solution,” said Litvin. “The letter suggested that we should somehow obtain a cemetery, and that then we were to apply to the Ministry of Religious Affairs for the license – which is practically impossible, and everyone knows it.”

A written inquiry by Compass to the social security office elicited the same response.

“We feel helpless and frustrated: the heads of Greek Orthodox Church choose not to interfere, or maybe they can’t, while the Israeli authorities are brushing us off,” Litvin said. “As a result, innocent people are denied of their basic right – to be buried according to their religious beliefs. Some of them are childless and poor, and there is no one to stand up for their rights. We hope that someone will take responsibility for this issue.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

IRAQ: COURT RELEASES CHRISTIAN GIRL SENTENCED FOR MURDER


Prison term reduced for abused niece who defended herself; family fears retaliation.

ISTANBUL, November 17 (Compass Direct News) – In prison at the age of 14 for having fatally stabbed her uncle in northern Iraq, Asya Ahmad Muhammad’s early release on Nov. 10 thanks to a juvenile court decision was overshadowed by fear of retaliation from her extended Muslim family.

Also known as Maria, the now 16-year-old Muhammad was sentenced to five years in prison for killing her paternal uncle in self-defense on July 9, 2006 when he attacked her, her mother and little brother at their family kitchen utensil store in the outskirts of Dohuk. The uncle had cut her mother with a knife and was fiercely beating them for converting to Christianity and for “shaming” the family by working in public when Muhammad stabbed him.

Clearing her of an original conviction for premeditated murder, the Erbil high court last year had reduced Muhammad’s sentence from five to three-and-a-half years, upholding an earlier decision that she was guilty of killing her uncle though she acted in defense of herself and others.

Muhammad’s lawyer, Akram Al-Najar, told Compass that following his appeal to the Dohuk juvenile court, the court earlier this month agreed to reduce her sentence to two years and four months on the basis of her good conduct and having served nearly three-quarters of her three-and-a-half year sentence.

“She deserved to be released since her behavior and attitude was excellent,” said Al-Najar. “That is why the court accepted my request and decided to reduce her punishment to two years and four months.”

Local Christians have commented that Muhammad’s sentence was light, considering that it was culturally acceptable for an uncle to beat his niece. Her jail time also meant that she didn’t have to fear reprisal attacks from her relatives.

But Muhammad’s release from prison now means a possible retaliation from extended family members for her uncle’s death, said Al-Najar.

“I am not sure she is safe right now, especially after her release, since there are still people intent on gaining revenge,” said the lawyer.

 

Father Threatened

Muhammad’s father, Ahmad Muhammad Abdurahman, who converted in 1998 while working in Beirut, said that in the last week family members have called him twice telling him his days of joy are numbered.

“My sisters called me, and my brother’s wife called me also [and said], ‘You are a shame. Don’t be happy in your family; we will never let you be happy in your family,’” Abdurahman told Compass.

He explained that his change in faith was grounds for an “honor” crime in his Kurdish family, and even more so now that blood had been shed. His father, a Muslim cleric, was enraged by Abdurahman’s conversion. Abdurahman’s deceased brother, Sayeed, on five occasions had tried to kill him and had also burned down his house. Abdurahman has seven brothers.

Abdurahman said that since the release of his only daughter, he has left his old home but remains in the town of Dohuk, unsure of what the next step is for his family. He said his only hope now is to come up with the “blood money” necessary to buy peace with his family for his brother’s death. The court has set this amount at 10 million Iraqi dinars (US$8,670).

Unable to keep a stable job, Abdurahman is not sure he will be able to come up with the amount, nor whether it will suffice to keep his family safe within the borders of Iraq.

“I just pray that God gives me provision to take my daughter and family to a different country,” he said. “We have now moved to a different house, but I am afraid they will come and contact me again. I want to keep my daughter and wife safe, but I don’t know how I will manage to do so.”

In a phone interview with Christian support organization Open Doors, Muhammad said her time in prison had been difficult and she was thankful to be back with her family.

“I am very glad because God gave me a miracle, and I am very happy to meet my mother and my father,” she told a representative of the organization. “My hope [is] in Jesus; I always prayed for God to comfort my mother [until] I see my mother, I see my family again.”

 

Relative ‘Safe Haven’

Despite the recent waves of violence in Mosul, south of Dohuk in northern Iraq, Abdurahman said that the Kurdish part of the country is still considered a safe haven for Christians, where many Christian families from Mosul have also fled in recent weeks

“Many Christians come here from Mosul and Baghdad, and the Kurdish government does a good job to protect Christians,” he said. “That’s what I see.”

He noted, however, that according to Iraqi law it is still not possible for Iraqis to change their religion on their national identification cards.

“It is my dream that one day I will be free to change my ID card,” he said. “My card now writes ‘Muslim.’ But my faith is Christian.”

Abdurahman asked for prayer as he looks for a job or a way to get out of Iraq.

“I don’t know what will come from God,” he said. “I’m not worried about that, but my family needs help, they need food and things … I’m just thanking God that he brought my sheep, my daughter, into the family again.”

Report from Compass Direct News