Pakistani Christian Falsely Accused of ‘Blasphemy’ Illegally Detained


Policeman says Arif Masih, held at an undisclosed location, is innocent.

LAHORE, Pakistan, April 15 (CDN) — Police in Punjab Province, Pakistan have illegally detained a Christian on a “blasphemy” accusation, even though one officer said he was certain an area Muslim falsely accused 40-year-old Arif Masih because of a property dispute.

On April 5 Shahid Yousuf Bajwa, Masih’s next-door neighbor, initially filed a First Information Report (FIR) against “an unidentified person” for desecrating the Quran after finding threatening letters and pages with quranic verses on the street outside his home in Village 129 RB-Tibbi, Chak Jhumra, Faisalabad district. Desecrating the Quran under Section 295-B of Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes is punishable by up to 25 years in prison.

“Some identified person has desecrated the Holy Quran and has tried to incite sentiments of the Muslims,” Bajwa wrote in the FIR. Clearly stating that he did not know who had done it, he wrote, “It is my humble submission to the higher authorities that those found guilty must be given exemplary punishment.”

Bajwa charges in the FIR that when he went outside his home at 9 p.m. and found the pages, he looked at them by the light of his cell phone and thought they were pages of the Quran. Masih’s uncle, Amjad Chaudhry, told Compass the pages look like those of a school textbook containing quranic verses.

Chaudhry said Bajwa and his two brothers are policemen. After Bajwa found the pages and the threatening letters, Chaudhry said, he arranged for an announcement to be made from the loudspeaker of the area mosque.

“The message urged all the Muslims of the village to gather there due to the urgency and sensitivity of the matter,” Chaudhry said.

He said initially local Muslims were very angry and suggested that Christian homes be set ablaze, but that others said the Christians should be first given a chance to explain whether they were responsible.

“Then some Muslims began saying that because Arif Masih lived on this street, he would be the person who could have done this crime,” he said. “However, most of the people who gathered there said that they knew Arif Masih well and they could not imagine he could do such a vile thing. But others insisted that because Masih was the only Christian who lived on the street, only he could be suspected of the crime.”

At about 10 p.m. on April 5, Chaudhry said, Bajwa’s brother Abdullah Bajwa called Masih to the Siyanwala police station, where he was arrested; Masih’s family members were unaware that he had been arrested.

According to Section 61 of Pakistan’s Criminal Procedure Code, an arrested person must be produced within 24 hours before a court; Masih has been detained at an undisclosed location without a court appearance since April 5, with police failing to register his arrest in any legal document, making his detention illegal. Investigating Officer Qaisar Younus denied that Masih was in police custody, but Superintendent of the Police Abdul Qadir told Compass that Masih had been detained for his own safety.

Younus told Compass that he was sure Masih was innocent, but that he had been falsely accused because of a land dispute.

 

Property Conflict

According to Chaudhry, about two years ago Masih bought a plot next to his house that another villager, Liaquat Ali Bajwa (no relation to Shahid Yousuf Bajwa) wanted to buy – and who despised Masih for it, telling the previous owner, “How come a Christian can buy the plot that I wanted to buy?”

The parcel owner had given Masih preference as he knew him well, and he understood that the homeowner adjacent to the property had the first rights to it anyway.

At the same time, Ali Bajwa was able to seize about five square feet of the house of a Christian named Ghulam Masih after the wall of his home was destroyed in last year’s flooding. Feeling he was not in position to challenge Ali Bajwa, Ghulam Masih sold the land to Arif Masih so that he could take charge, Chaudhry said.

Arif Masih subsequently filed a civil suit against Ali Bajwa to evict him from his property. Chaudhry said Arif Masih was about to win that case, and that Ali Bajwa thought he could retain that property and obtain the one Arif Masih had purchased by accusing him of blasphemy with the help of police officer Shahid Yousuf Bajwa.

Ali Bajwa had been threatening Masih, saying, “You will not only give me this plot, but I will even take your house,” Chaudhry said.

Chaudhry said he had learned that Shahid Yousuf Bajwa felt badly after villagers criticized him for falsely accusing an innocent man of blasphemy, but that Bajwa feared that if he withdrew the case he himself would be open to blasphemy charges.

 

Neighbors

Arif Masih’s family has remained steadfast throughout the case, refusing to flee the area in spite of the possibility of Muslim villagers being incited to attack them, Chaudhry said.

“It all became possible because of Muslim villagers who sided with us,” he said.

Chaudhry said that when police arrived at the scene of the Muslims who had gathered with the pages and the threatening letters, the villagers told officers that they had not seen who threw them on the street. He said that the letters included the threat, “You Muslims have failed in doing any harm to us, and now I order you all to convert to Christianity or else I will shoot you all.”

The letters did not bear the name of the person who wrote them, he added.

On Monday (April 11), Chaudhry managed to meet with Masih, though Masih’s wife has yet to see him. Chaudhry told Compass that the first thing Masih asked him was whether everyone was safe, as there are only three Christian families in the area of about 150 Muslim homes.

“If the mob had decided to harm our houses, then it would have been very devastating,” Chaudhry said.

After Masih was arrested, at midnight police came to his house and began beating on the main gate, Chaudhry said. When Masih’s wife, Razia Bibi opened the door, the officers rushed into the house and searched it.

“They were looking for some proof, but thank God they could not find anything that could even be remotely linked with the incident,” he said.

Chaudhry added that police have not mistreated Masih, but he said the matter has lingered so long that he feared police may involve him in the case, or that “things may go wrong like in most blasphemy cases.”

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

Seminary Students in Indonesia Evicted from Two Locations


Forced departure from campground and office building leads to demonstration, arrests, injuries.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, October 30 (CDN) — In the past week hundreds of students from Arastamar Evangelical Theological Seminary (SETIA) were evicted from two sites where they had taken refuge after Muslim protestors drove them from their campus last year. 

With about 700 students earlier evicted from Bumi Perkemahan Cibubur (BUPERTA) campground, officers appointed by the West Jakarta District Court on Monday (Oct. 26) began evacuating more than 300 students from the former municipal building of West Jakarta.

In response, the more than 1,000 evicted SETIA students demonstrated in West Jakarta on Tuesday (Oct. 27), clogging traffic and leading to altercations with police that led to the arrest of at least five students. Six officers were injured.

The eviction from the former West Jakarta mayoral building came after the city settled accounts last week with the Sawerigading Foundation, which officially gained ownership of the site from the city after a long court dispute. The foundation plans to build apartments on the land, a 13,765 square-meter parcel with six buildings.

Demonstrating in front of the buildings, the students formed a blockade. A bulldozer began to level buildings, and students began throwing plastic chairs and rocks at police. Officers responded with tear gas that dispersed the crowd.

“Five people were arrested and taken for questioning by the West Jakarta Police,” Police Commissioner Djoni Iskandar told Compass at the site. The identities of the five students were not known at press time, although the head of the student senate, Alexander Dimu, said that one was identified as Adi Siwa.

Traffic Police Chief Commissioner Sungkono, who goes by a single name, told Compass that two traffic officers and four security policeman were injured by objects the students had thrown.

“Brigade Chief Charles and Sudiyanto had just gotten out of a car when they were hit by flying objects,” he said. “The same was true of four other police: Diak, Arif, Luki, and Mardiana, who had injuries to their hands, feet, and a torn lip.”

Inadequate Alternatives

The students were originally driven from their school when hundreds of protestors shouting “Allahu-Akbar [“God is greater]” and brandishing machetes forced the evacuation of staff and students from the SETIA campus in Kampung Pulo village on July 26-27, 2008.

Urged on by announcements from a mosque loudspeaker to “drive out the unwanted neighbor” following a misunderstanding between students and local residents, the protestors also had sharpened bamboo and acid and injured at least 20 students, some seriously.

The Jakarta provincial government has offered to house students at a city-owned office building in North Jakarta that SETIA officials said was unfit for habitation.

“A barn for water buffalo is much nicer than that place,” Ronald Simanjuntak secretary of the SETIA Foundation, told Compass.

The building has broken windows, non-functioning toilets, a roof that is in disrepair, and a bare cement floor, he said, adding that major renovations would be necessary.

“Our primary request is that we be allowed to return to our own campus peacefully,” Simanjuntak said. “We were in the old West Jakarta mayor’s office because the provincial government sent us there. Don’t imagine that we were trying to take over that place.”

An inspection of the North Jakarta building by representatives from the SETIA Foundation, the Sawerigading Foundation, and city officials found the building was uninhabitable and unsuitable for classes, said SETIA’s rector, the Rev. Matheus Mangentang.

“So the solution is to return us to our campus,” Rev. Mangentang told Compass. “[The North Jakarta building] needs months of renovation work; it was supposed to be torn down.”

The area secretary for the Jakarta Provincial Government who goes by a single name, Muhayat, told Compass that suitability “is a relative thing.”

“Why is the place unsuitable?” he said. “Is it the location?”

According to Muhayat, the Jakarta government plans to sell a property that would allow it to provide proceeds for construction of a new SETIA campus in the Lippo area of Cikarang, West Java Province. Officials hope a sale could be completed late this year, allowing construction to begin in early 2010.

“The students need to be patient and not act unilaterally,” Muhayat said. “The provincial government and the [SETIA] Foundation are in the midst of working on a new campus.”

The students would like to return to their former campus in Kampung Pulo, East Jakarta, with assurances of safety and security from the vice-governor, but area residents reportedly remain hostile.

SETIA’s Simanjuntak said that if students are forced to the North Jakarta building, school officials would ask the Sawerigading Foundation for time to renovate it. Sawerigading has offered 250 million rupiahs (US$26,000) to SETIA for renovations.

Of the total SETIA students, another 297 are still living at the Transit Lodge in Kalimalang, East Jakarta.

Report from Compass Direct News 

EGYPT: VIOLENCE AGAIN ERUPTS OVER QUEST FOR WORSHIP SITE


Two Copts wounded in Minya province over plan to use building as church venue.

ISTANBUL July 31 (Compass Direct News) – The recent eruption of sectarian violence in Egypt’s Minya province continued last week as local Christians again faced harsh reprisals from Muslims for trying to convert a building into a worship facility.

On July 24 security forces in the village of Hawasliya were able to prevent a crowd of Muslims, which numbered in the hundreds according to some reports, from torching the building. But the mob succeeded in setting fire to four neighboring stables, killing sheep and cows belonging to Copts.

During the melee two Copts, including an elderly woman, were wounded. Both received hospital treatment.

“When Muslims see that Christians are making a church, they get upset about it,” said Teresa Kamal, a local journalist. “Why are people full of hate like this? Something has happened to radicalize the people.”

Pastor Milad Shehata, 39, heads up the project to convert the four-story property into a church building. He told Compass that the village’s Protestant Christians had no other place to worship.

“I have no intention of leaving this place at any price,” said Shehata. “This place has been built from the sweat and hard-earned money of very poor people. Even if I or my family is killed, it doesn’t matter. I will not leave this place.”

Shehata had begun to refurbish the building to accommodate church meetings and was planning to apply for permission to use it as a place of worship before holding services on the premises.

On July 23, officers investigating complaints from Muslim villagers about two crosses Shehata had installed on the outside of the building took him to the local police station. After questioning, they released him with orders to return the next morning. At that time two policemen escorted him to the main prison in Minya, where he was held without charge until Saturday afternoon (July 25).

“I don’t know why I was arrested,” said Shehata. “I was there for 37 hours, but no one even gave me even a cup of water.”

Since the attack on July 24, elders from the Muslim community have extended the offer of a reconciliation meeting on condition the church is never opened.

“There is no point in holding a reconciliation meeting if we have to close the church,” said Shehata. “The church is the whole point.”

Recent Troubles

There have long been drafts of a unified law for the building of places of worship in Egypt aimed at resolving recurrent conflicts faced by new churches. Such legislation, however, has been consistently passed over in parliamentary sessions.

Human rights lawyer Naguib Gobraiel said there was a stark contrast between the freedom to practice religion given to Muslims and that afforded to Christians.

“Muslims can put a mat down anywhere and pray and no one objects,” he said, pointing out the contrast with Christians’ inability to secure worship sites. “Why do they differentiate? It implies that we can’t have private prayers.”

The July 24 incident marks the fourth time in as many weeks that planned new church buildings have sparked violent responses from inhabitants of villages surrounding the city of Minya.

Despite the recent high incidents of sectarian strife, Minya Gov. Ahmad Dia’a El-Din told Compass that inter-faith relations are not as strained as they may seem.

“These kinds of attacks are not as frequent as some people imagine,” he said. “They are not happening night and day. The proof is the businesses – you find many shops owned by Copts. People live together and Copts are wealthy, they are doing fine business.”

El-Din seemed eager to demonstrate that he led by example.

“I personally work closely with Christian people and have good relationships with them,” he said. “I harbor no personal animosity.”

Gobraiel, however, was not impressed.

“The governorate of Minya has the highest level of radicalization and intolerance,” he said. “The governor has totally failed in tackling this issue from all different aspects – education, media, culture and security.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

EGYPT: POLICE COLLUSION SUSPECTED IN ATTACK ON CHURCH IN MINYA


Strangely, officers arrest Copts; roof collapses after Muslim suspects set fire to church building.

ISTANBUL, July 17 (Compass Direct News) – Villagers in Ezbet Basillious, Minya suspect local police in Egypt of corruption and collusion after two Copts were arrested for an arson attack on their own house church on Saturday (July 11).

Egyptian State Security Investigations (SSI) officers later arrested three Muslim suspects in accordance with eyewitness testimony that local police had ignored. The suspects were seen entering the Church of St. Abaskharion Kellini with cans of kerosene and leaving it shortly after, shouting “Allahu Akbar [God is great].”

The two Copts who were arrested, 35-year-old Reda Gamal and Fulla Assad, 30, are still in custody.

Suspicions of police collusion come not only from the inexplicable arrests of the Copts but also from the lack of police presence while the church was burning. Guards who were stationed outside the property had left their posts, and according to some reports they had moved to a nearby café and were drinking tea while the property burned.

“It sounds like a pre-arranged situation, that they [the arsonists] knew this was the agreed time, [when] the guards were away,” a source told Compass. “Mahmoud Muhammad Hussein, the head guard, and Mustafa Moussa, one of the village guards, were heard telling people, ‘Say Reda set fire to the church.’ So the local police were involved.”

The attack in Ezbet Basillious, 90 kilometers south of Cairo, took place shortly before noon. The perpetrators entered the building where the church met using a connecting door from an adjoining residence. The fire cracked walls and caused the roof to cave in.

It took police two hours to arrive at the scene, according to Suleiman Faiz, a local schoolteacher.

Three Copts were taken to the police station, initially only for questioning – Gamal, Assad and Assad’s 75-year-old mother-in-law. Assad and her mother-in-law live in a home next to the house used by the church, and it was through their connecting door that the attackers entered the locked building.

The two women were present in the house at the time and witnessed three men carrying cans of kerosene. Mary Abdelmassih, a reporter for the Assyrian International News Agency, said the arsonists threatened them at knife-point to remain quiet and not call for help.

After questioning, Assad and her mother-in-law returned home. The following day Assad was arrested, and at press time she and Gamal were still being held.

“This Copt, Gamal, they took him as a pawn in order that later they could twist the church’s arm to give up its rights,” Abdelmassih said. “This happens every time, there is no change in the scenario at all.”

Buildings in Egypt require government permission to be used for religious gatherings, and typically churches find it very difficult to obtain.

Officials promised the Abaskharion Kellini house church a prayer license on July 3 that would enable the building in which it meets to be used as a place of prayer; the congregation has struggled in vain for 30 years to construct another church building for worship. Having received verbal assurance that a prayer license would be granted for the building in which it met, the diocese’s bishop held a consecration service there, and SSI officials then closed the house church and placed it under guard pending formal permission.

The attack marked the third recent incident of violence against the Coptic community in Minya, with new church premises being the precipitating factor in each case. Muslim mobs on June 6 attacked a building in Ezbet Boushra-East on suspicion that it would be converted into a worship place, and the same thing happened on July 3 at a building in Ezbet Guirgis Bey.

“People are really fed up, and if they lose patience there will be fighting in the streets,” a source who requested anonymity told Compass. “A lot of young people are getting so exhausted from this persecution that they might do anything; they’ve had enough.”

Schoolteacher Faiz, 34, told Compass that initially the attack on the Abaskharion Kellini house church made him and others angry.

“You can imagine the amount of anger one would have to a very unfair situation like this,” he said. “Equality and justice for everybody is essential. We love Egypt and would like it to take its place among the respectable nations on earth.”

Faiz said he hopes some day Egypt becomes free of corrupt police in order to have full freedom of religion.

“We trust that these little actions and these little conspiracies from low-ranking police forces, and those who have infiltrated police with radical ideas, which are against the country’s interest, are found out and corrected,” he said. “Because we still trust the higher ranking people in leadership.”

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: MUSLIMS ATTACK 110 HOMES OF CHRISTIANS


Beating of field worker leads to hatchet attack on his family, then on all village Christians.

LAHORE, Pakistan, July 3 (Compass Direct News) – After a Muslim beat a Christian field worker for asking him to let him pass on Tuesday (June 30), a cleric in a village near here used a mosque loudspeaker to announce a call to attack Christians that resulted in more than 500 Muslims ransacking and looting at least 110 houses.

With the mosque falsely broadcasting the accusation that the Christian had blasphemed Islam, the Muslim recruits rampaged through Kasur district’s Bahmaniwala village, breaking down gates, wrecking and plundering homes and in some cases beating Christian women. They set various items ablaze including vehicles, though Compass found fire damage to homes was minimal.

“We don’t even have potable water, as they have damaged the turbine,” villager Zareena Bibi told Compass. “We knew about the incident, but could never imagine that they would wreak such devastation. They have not spared a single house here.”

Outraged that the lower-class Christian field worker on his tractor had asked the Muslim to move out of his way, 15 to 20 Muslims had previously mounted a hatchet attack on the family of the field worker, 37-year-old Sardar Masih, wounding his brother’s head, family members told Compass.

Masih told Compass that after his family members had sought treatment at a local hospital – where medical staff members denied them local anesthesia for their stitches because they were Christians – they learned that a call to gather had been issued from a local mosque regarding the altercation.

“We were told that in that meeting they decided to blame Christians for blasphemy of their Islamic religion,” Masih told Compass. The Muslims in the meeting, he added, then schemed with Muslim cleric Muhammad Latif of Maanwala, who appealed from the mosque loudspeaker for villagers to gather to “teach Christians an exemplary lesson.”

Latif, who heads a vigilante group called Sunni Force, also managed to recruit Muslims from other hamlets, Masih said. Soon the number of Muslims swelled to 500 to 800, according to the eyewitnesses.

The ensuing attack began with the breaking of electricity meters at 110 homes, cutting their power, area Christians said.

Damages and Threats

Masih told Compass the triggering incident began when he and his 10-year-old son, Waqas Masih, were returning from the fields on a tractor at 7 p.m.

“When we entered the village, Muhammad Hussein and his nephew had parked their motorbike in the middle of the road,” Masih said. “I requested them to get it aside, and Hussein said that he did not know how a ‘sweeper’ [chuhra, a derogatory term designating lower-class Christians] could order him. I was with my son, and I only requested them to let us go as we are getting late.”

He said Hussein was drunk from a nearby wedding celebration.

“I only made the request, and then they got up on the tractor and dragged me down and began beating me,” Masih said. “Then my son ran home and told my family members.”

Masih’s brother, 32-year-old Ashraf Masih, told Compass that he was at home when Waqat arrived out of breath saying that two men were beating his father. Ashraf Masih and brothers Mushtaq Masih, 35, Tariq Masih, 25, and Shahbaz Masih, along with their cousins Shafiq and Vikram Masih and 65-year-old father Chanan Masih, rushed to the site. By the time they arrived, Ashraf Masih said, a large crowd had gathered, but they were only exchanging harsh words and the conflict was cooling down.

“I told Muhammad Hussein that whoever he is, he has no right to lord it over them,” Ashraf Masih told Compass, adding that as they were leaving Hussein asked how could chuhras talk to them that way.

After the brief encounter, Ashraf Masih said, they went home back, not knowing that Hussein and his cohorts were planning to attack them. After half an hour, he said, Hussein and 15 to 20 other men armed with sticks and hatchets launched their assault on their house.

“They broke the door and smaller walls, and they beat my father, my mother and paternal uncle,” he said.

An assailant delivered a blow with hatchet to the head of his brother Mushtaq Masih, Ashraf Masih said, and blood gushed out. Other brothers also received hatchet wounds.

“When we realized that our life was in danger, we recklessly fought and made them flee,” he said. “Three of their men were also injured, but I don’t know their names.”

Afterward village official Muhammad Shafiq went to the family and warned them not to go to police, he said.

“We followed his advice, but he cheated on us,” Ashraf Masih said. “He took the Muslim party to the police station, where they got an FIR [First Information Report] registered, and then Shafiq and Manawala Deputy Mayor [Zulfiqar Ali] Bhutto took them to a hospital to get a medico-legal report.”

The family learned 90 minutes after the altercation that the Muslim assailants had gone to the police station, he said.

“Then we also rushed to the Sadar police station, but the police told us that an FIR had already been registered of the incident so they could not write another report,” Ashraf Masih said. “Then we went to Kasur Civil Hospital to obtain medical treatment, but when we entered the hospital they were already sitting there, and with them were Muhammad Shafiq and Dr. Bhutto.”

The injured Masih family members were shocked, he said, to learn that Shafiq had brought the assailants to the hospital but had told them not to go to the police station or the hospital for treatment.

After waiting for hours for medical treatment with no one paying them any attention, he said, at 5 a.m. their wounds were stitched without local anesthesia.

“The medical staff treated us like animals, and even made us sit outside all night,” Ashraf Masih said.

After the received basic first-aid treatment, Ashraf Masih said, his brother Sardar Masih suggested that they not go home for a few days, as the police had filed the Muslim assailants’ FIR. “Only our women were at home when our house was attacked the next day,” he said.

In spite of the assault on the family the day of the triggering incident, local Christians said no one foresaw the attack on the community on Wednesday (July 1).

“We thought that it was just an ordinary clash and would settle down with the passage of time, but they not only came back and attacked us, they then did havoc to all Christian families,” said Chanan Masih, the brothers’ father, adding that there was no justification for the attack on all the Christian villagers. “We used to visit their houses and even respected their Muslim call to prayer.”

On that day most of the men were away harvesting crops and others had gone to the Lahore Vegetable Market to sell them, while still others were busy getting Christians bailed out in the case filed against them. Area Christians said that most of their homes were therefore defenseless.

The Muslim mobs entered homes where mostly women and children were present and in some instances beat the women, local Christians said. In other instances, they said, women ran up to their roofs or to nearby fields and hid themselves to save their honor and lives.

“In one sad instance, a young girl who was taking bath got so nervous that she ran to the fields stark naked,” said one local Christian. “Such was the perilous state after 15 to 20 men entered each Christian house after breaking down gates.”

Throughout the violence that began about 7:30 p.m. and lasted two hours, area Christians said, the assailants threatened to throw all Christians out of the village.

Local resident Zareena Bibi told Compass that the looters stole from her son, Vikram Bashir, money from recent crop sales – 200,000 rupees (US$2,470) – along with 70,000 rupees (US$865) in cash gathered at his marriage the previous week. The attackers also stole a gold ornament from his bride worth 30,000 rupees (US$370).

Naseem Masih told Compass that her family had gold and more than 200,000 rupees looted. Amid broken glass, she pointed toward damages to two doors, a window grill, a fan, crockery and kitchen utensils that could no longer be used. Her mother-in-law said that they made her remove her gold earrings.

“My son got married only three months ago,” said one area Christian. “They took out new clothes from trunks and threw them on the floor so that they may not remain useful. They also gathered such articles and put them on fire. They were shouting that they would throw out these ‘sweepers’ from here.”

Sardar Masih said that his family’s house was especially hard-hit during the violence and looting. The attackers not only damaged his tractor, he said, but they put sandy soil in its engine that rendered it nonfunctional. The tractor was the main source of income for the family, he added, and without it they were left virtually unemployed.

“They have tried to make us completely poor and without any home,” he said.

Expel and Ostracize

Similarly, Naseem Masih told Compass that the assailants had burned their 10 donkey carts. And a few area Christians also reported that some families had been deprived of the dowries they had accumulated over the years for their daughters yet to be given in marriage.

Local resident Allah Ditta told Compass that he had gone to Lahore Market to sell crops.

“We were informed over the phone that Muslims had attacked us,” he said, adding that the assailants beat his wife and children and also looted 100,000 rupees (US$1,235) from his home.

Local Christians said that on Wednesday (July 1), at about 2 p.m. several young Muslims gathered and began chanting slogans calling for the expulsion of Christians, saying, “We will not let them live here.” By 2:30 p.m., the area mosque was announcing that no shop should provide anything to Christians and that they should totally ostracize them.

“This announcement was made by Maulvi Latif,” one Christian said. Maulvi is an honorific referring to an expert in Islamic law.

Another Christian said that Latif had twice before created problems for Christians, though on a smaller scale. Area Christians and Muslims have lived next to each other peaceably for more than a century and had good relations, village Christians said.

“There has never been any such incident before,” said one Christian.

When Compass entered the village and asked about the conflicts this week, Muslims claimed complete ignorance of them.

Talks and Restoration

The Community Development Initiative (CDI) advocacy group is facilitating talks between the two sides, though mistrust still runs high in the area, said CDI Research Officer Napoleon Qayyum. He said the CDI requested that Water and Power and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) Managing Director Tahir Basharat Cheema ensure that electricity be restored to the houses of Christians.

After the request, electricity was provisionally restored to several Christian families until new electricity meters are installed, he said, adding that WAPDA has begun installing new electricity meters at no cost as well. Qayyum said that Mushtaq Masih had requested that the CDI take up the case of the brothers, and that the organization would provide legal assistance to others who were injured with the help of the American Center of Law and Justice (ACLJ).

CDI is also providing meals to all 110 families, he said.

“Our partner, ACLJ, is constantly monitoring the situation and is providing its full support in this difficult time,” Qayyum said. Several Christian organizations were visiting the area and providing help to the injured, he said, adding that the only area church building was unaffected by the assault.

Muslim Leaders Appalled

Among Muslim leaders, Pakistan Peoples Party Member of Provincial Assembly (MPA) Chaudhry Ahmed Ali Tohlu told Compass that the culprits must be brought to justice. Tohlu asserted that Muslims would be able to repeat such violence only over his dead body and those of other like-minded Muslim leaders.

“I am born in a Muslim family, but today I am feeling bad because of what my fellow Muslims have done,” he said.

Member of National Assembly Sheikh Wasim of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz said, “Christians are our brothers and sisters, and what has been done to them is very unjust, and being a Muslim I apologize to the Christian community in my capacity.”

Divisional Police Officer Kasur Sultan said the violence “is a shameful incident,” and Union Council Nazim Sardar Fakhir said, “We all are ashamed, and those who instigated the matter should be brought to book.”

Human Rights and Minority Affairs Provincial Minister Kamran Michael said that Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif had told him over the phone to go to the village and express solidarity with the Christian community. He pledged that all damages would be covered by the government.

“Our religion teaches peace, so we should forgive the culprits, but the government will take action against the culprits,” Michael said.

MPA Joel Amir Sahotra condemned the looting that characterized the attack.

In the aftermath of the violence, police, civil administration, politicians and Christians of the area met, CDI’s Qayyum said, and established a 12-member committee to keep watch and inform authorities of any wrongdoing.

“Till the time things are normalized, anyone found fueling the matter would be punished, and the committee is responsible for informing the police,” he said. “After the meeting, Deputy Mayor Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and I went together in the mosque and Bhutto made a public announcement on the loudspeaker.”

The deputy mayor announced from the mosque that what took place was shameful and that all the shops must resume selling everything to the Christian community, he said.

Area Christians, however, said they remained fearful of new outbreaks of violence.

Report from Compass Direct News 

ALGERIA: CHRISTIANS ACQUITTED IN BLASPHEMY CASE


Verdict suggests Algerian government could be softening crackdown on Christians.

ISTANBUL, October 29 (Compass Direct News) – A court in northwestern Algeria today acquitted three Christians charged with blaspheming Islam and threatening a member of their congregation who re-converted to Islam.

The acquittal was announced in a court at Ain El-Turck, 15 kilometers (nine miles) west of the coastal city of Oran. The defendants believe the judge’s decision to acquit was due to the spurious evidence used against them.

The acquittal also comes as part of a larger trend of the Algerian government bowing to negative international media attention and government condemnations of such cases, they said.

Defendant Youssef Ourahmane said that as a result, a recent government crackdown against evangelical Christians has eased off in recent months.

“We had noticed the last four or five months the government is trying to back down a little bit,” Ourahmane said. “I think the pressure on them has been strong, such as condemnations from the U.S. and foreign ministries from France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Spain. This pressure from outside has embarrassed the Algerian government very much.”

Algerian courts have handed several suspended sentences to local evangelicals in the last year under a recent presidential decree that prohibits proselytizing Muslims. No Christian, however, has served prison time on religious charges.

Ourahmane, Rachid Muhammad Essaghir, and a third man were charged in February with “blaspheming the name of the Prophet [Muhammad] and Islam” and threatening the life of a man who claimed to have converted to Christianity but who “returned” to Islam when his fundamentalist ties were exposed.

The first hearing of the three men took place on Oct. 21 in Ain El-Turck. A lawyer appointed by the Ministry of Religion also joined the hearing and surprised the defendants by supporting their plight.

The lawyer affirmed the rights of religious minorities such as Christians in Algeria. The Christians present said she would like the case to be closed.

A prosecutor in the case had sought three years of prison for the three men and a fine of 50,000 dinars (653 euros) for each.

Taking the stand last week, the three men were asked whether they had blasphemed Muhammad and threatened Shamouma Al-Aid, the convert and plaintiff. Al-Aid had professed Christianity from July 2004 through July 2006, when he attended a church near Oran. It was there that he met the Christians, against whom he later filed the blasphemy complaint.

Essaghir, an evangelist and church elder for a small community of Muslim converts to Christianity in Tiaret, has been one of the most targeted Christians in Algeria.

In the last year he has received three sentences, one for blasphemy and two for evangelism. Police stopped Essaghir and another man in June 2007 while transporting Christian literature. As a result they were convicted in absentia in November 2007 and given a two-year sentence and 5,000-euro fines. The Protestants requested a retrial, and the charges were dropped at a hearing in June.

Asked if he could explain why he and other Christians were under fire by Islamists, he told Compass that Muslims felt menaced by the existence of Christianity and its rise in Algeria.

“We are attacked because Muslims feel threatened by us,” said Essaghir. “There are many people who are coming to Christ.”

When the three accused Christians met Al-Aid, he claimed that his family was persecuting him, so they took him in to their church community. But in 2006 the Christians learned that Al-Aid in fact had links with Islamic fundamentalists.

After excommunicating Al-Aid, in October 2007 the three Christians were summoned by police when Al-Aid registered his complaint that they had insulted Muhammad and Islam and threatened his life.

“But the accusations against us are unfounded,” Essaghir told Compass last week by phone. “There is no proof, but we are being condemned because there is no justice.”

Ourahmane said that Al-Aid had shown the police text messages to support his claims, but that police said the number had not been registered with telecommunications services.

With their fresh acquittal, the three Christians could open a case against Al-Aid for bringing a case against them based on spurious evidence, according to Algerian law.

Instead, they want to offer their forgiveness, Ourahmane said.

“We have decided to forgive him and will communicate we are all ready to help him if he needs any help,” he said. “We are in touch with him through one of our team members, and if he is thirsty or hungry we are more than happy to help.”

 

Pressure on Algeria’s Church

The three acquitted men are just a few of the Algerian Christians who have come under legal heat in a wave of trials this year against the country’s tiny evangelical church.

Habiba Kouider, facing a three-year sentence after police stopped her while she was carrying several Christian books, has been kicked out of her family’s home. Kouider’s brothers learned about her conversion to Christianity after her case sparked national and international media attention.

In most cases the Christians have been charged under a presidential decree from February 2006 that restricts religious worship to government-approved buildings. The decree, known as Ordinance 06-03, also outlaws any attempt to convert Muslims to another faith.

The international community has been vocal about the Algerian government’s stance toward Christians. On June 6, some 30 U.S. congressmen sent a letter to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

They addressed human rights violations resulting from Ordinance 06-03, which has resulted in the closures of churches and criminal charges against Christians.

Algeria’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but loose terminology in its penal code – such as Article 144, which calls for up to five years of prison for “anyone who offends the Prophet and denigrates the tenets of Islam” – has allowed judges to give Islamic practice the force of law.

On Sept. 29 six men in Biskra, 420 kilometers (260 miles) south of Algiers, were sentenced to four years of prison for eating in public before sunset during the month of Ramadan, according to Algerian national daily Liberte. Muslims are required to abstain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset during this 30-day period.

An Oct. 6 editorial in Algerian daily El Watan lamented the decision as proof that religious rights were eroding in Algeria.

“The divine law itself does not provide for severe penalties, and even the Taliban regime is not as strict,” said editorial writer Reda Bekkat. “One can imagine a judge tomorrow questioning people [who were] walking on the streets at the hour of prayer because they are not at the mosque.”  

Report from Compass Direct News