Afghan Authorities Block Lawyer from Visiting Jailed Christian


Second suspect accused of ‘blasphemy’ is government informant, accused says.

ISTANBUL, December 9 (CDN) — A Christian in Afghanistan facing “apostasy” charges punishable by death is still without legal representation after authorities blocked a foreign lawyer’s attempt to visit him in prison, sources said.

A Christian lawyer from the region who requested anonymity travelled to Kabul on behalf of Christian legal rights organization Advocates International two weeks ago to represent 45-year-old Said Musa (alternatively spelled Sayed Mossa). Authorities denied him access to Musa and to his indictment file.

“If a man is not entitled to define his own beliefs, and to change those ideas, under the existing constitutional order of Afghanistan, then how is this government more moral than the Taliban’s?” the lawyer said in an e-mail to Compass.

After several court hearing postponements, Musa appeared before a judge on Nov. 27 without prior notice. Rejecting the case file as deficient, the judge sent it to the attorney general’s office for corrections, according to the lawyer. The lawyer said he has deduced that the file was missing a formal indictment and other “incriminating” evidence.

The legal expert said that according to Afghan law, Musa is entitled to see a copy of the indictment and review the evidence against him, but authorities have denied him both rights. If the prosecutor does not present the court with an indictment within 15 days of arrest, the attorney said, an accused person has the right to be released. Musa has been in jail since May 31.

 

Suspicious Second Suspect

The prosecutor in charge of western Kabul, Din Mohammad Quraishi, said two men, Musa and Ahmad Shah, were accused of conversion to another religion, according to Agence France-Presse. But Musa’s letters from prison and other sources indicate that Shah is a government informant posing as a Christian.

Musa and Shah appeared before the judge on Nov. 27 “shackled and chained” to each other, according to a source who was present. Though Shah, who was also arrested six months ago, has denied he is a Christian, the prosecutor said there was “proof” against him.  

Musa and the other sources claim that Shah is an informant posing as a Christian in order to damage him and other Afghan Christians. They claim that Shah allegedly sent images of Christians worshiping to the country’s most popular broadcaster, Noorin TV, which aired them in May.

The broadcast appeared on an Afghan TV show called “Sarzanin-e-man,” or “My Homeland,” hosted by Nasto Nadiri, 27, an outspoken opponent of the government and a parliamentary hopeful. Noorin TV station is opposed to the government and does what it can to “embarrass” it, a source said.

The broadcast put in motion the events that got Musa arrested, sources said. The hour-long TV show sparked protests throughout the country against Christians and a heated debate in parliament. In early June, the deputy secretary of the Afghan Parliament, Abdul Sattar Khawasi, called for the execution of converts from Islam.

Many converts to Christianity left the country, according to sources, and many were arrested, though the exact number is unknown.

Musa was concerned about the public outcry against Christians and went to his employer, the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent (ICRC), to request personal leave the morning of May 31. Authorities arrested him after he left the building, and his family could not locate him for nearly two months.

The Christian suffered sexual abuse, beatings, mockery and sleep deprivation because of his faith in Jesus in the first months of his detention. Last month, after quiet diplomatic efforts, authorities transferred him to the Kabul Detention Center in the Governor’s Compound. There have been no reports of mistreatment since he was transferred.

The lawyer who tried to visit him said that all Afghans in the country are assumed to be Muslims, and this assumption is deeply ingrained in the culture. The result is lack of justice for the “deviants,” he said.

“It is the greatest shame on a family, clan and the nation, that someone would consider to leave Islam,” the lawyer told Compass. “I [saw] the face of the attorney general literally darken in distaste when he realized we came to assist this man who committed such a shameful offense. Therefore there are no ‘rights’ Christians can claim.”

The lawyer said that from the perspective of the court, if Musa continues to stand for his faith in Jesus, he will certainly be found guilty of “apostasy,” or leaving Islam.

Though no one knows when a court hearing will take place, monitors expect it could be any day and, as before, could come without warning. Musa is still looking for an Afghan lawyer that will agree to defend him in court.

In his latest letters from prison, Musa asked Christians to continue to pray for him and Afghanistan and “not give up.”

An amputee with a prosthetic leg, Musa worked for the ICRC for 15 years, fitting patients for prosthetic limbs. He stepped on a landmine when serving in the Afghan Army, and his injury required the amputation of his right leg below the knee, according to World Magazine.

Married and the father of six young children, Musa has been a Christian for eight years.

 

Another Christian in Prison

Another Afghan Christian is in prison for his faith, sources said. Shoib Assadullah, 25, was arrested on Oct. 21 for giving a New Testament to a man who reportedly turned him in to authorities.

Assadullah is in a holding jail in a district of Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan. Sources said his family has been unsuccessful at procuring his release despite paying bribes to officials. As in Musa’s case, because of the sensitivity of the charges, no lawyer has agreed to defend him. Assadullah has not reported any mistreatment while in prison.

He has stood before a judge at least once since his arrest. The judge asked him what faith he followed, and Assadullah told him he was a Christian, said a source who requested anonymity.  

Although Assadullah’s family has tolerated his new faith, they are not pleased with it, the source said, and a few days ago his father disowned him. Assadullah became a Christian about five years ago.

“He wants others to know that he is not frightened, and that his faith is strong,” the source told Compass. “He is desperately missing having a Bible.”

Assadullah asked that people pray that Afghan believers would stay strong in their faith, the source said.

Musa and Assadullah are the only known Christian converts from Islam in prison in Afghanistan, and both face probable apostasy charges punishable by death under sharia (Islamic law), which is still applied in the country.

Last month, in its 2010 International Religious Freedom Report, the U.S. State Department reported that respect for religious freedom in Afghanistan diminished in the last year, “particularly for Christian groups and individuals.”

The constitution states that Islam is the “religion of the state” and that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” The report stated that conversion from Islam is understood by Islamic clergy, as well as many citizens, to contravene the tenets of Islam.

Nevertheless, the country has signed the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulating religious freedom, including the freedom to change one’s faith. The nation’s constitution also provides a measure of religious liberties under Article 2, but Article 3 limits the application of all laws if they are contrary to the “beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.”

Another source who requested anonymity said the proceedings against Musa and Assadullah typify the intolerance and abhorrence inherent in Islam toward open-mindedness and progress. He said that the only sentence possible would be death, and that if Musa were freed his only recourse would be to leave the country or be killed.

The source voiced exasperation toward the international community and defenders of human rights for not speaking up for the Christians in prison.

“We try as much as we can to push things in order to reveal this unfair situation, knowing that Afghanistan is a signatory of the Human Rights Convention,” he said. “But this serious failure of human rights is more or less accepted as a case ‘so sensitive’ that nobody wants to really fight against.”

According to the state department report, estimates of the size of the Christian community in Afghanistan range from 500 to 8,000.

Report from Compass Direct News

Convicted Hindu Nationalist Legislator in India Released on Bail


Stunned Christians suspect bias in case of politician’s role in Orissa violence.

NEW DELHI, July 30 (CDN) — Less than a month after Orissa state legislator Manoj Pradhan was sentenced to seven years of prison for his part in anti-Christian mob violence in 2008, he was released on bail pending his appeal.

Along with fellow Hindu nationalist Prafulla Mallick, Pradhan on June 29 was convicted of causing grievous hurt and rioting in connection with the murder of a Christian, Parikhita Nayak. Justice B.P. Ray heard the petition on July 7, and the same day he granted Pradhan and Mallick bail conditional on posting bail bond of 20,000 rupees (US$430) each.

Pradhan and Mallick were released from jail on July 12 and await the outcome of an appeal to the Orissa High Court.  

Attorney Bibhu Dutta Das said that ordinary people don’t get bail so easily when convicted of such crimes, and he questioned how Pradhan could be granted release just for being a legislator.

“It takes years for convictions in High Court,” Das told Compass. “We will not sit silent. We will challenge this bail order in the [New Delhi] Supreme Court very soon.”

The Christian community expressed shock that someone sentenced to seven years in prison would get bail within seven days of applying for it.

“I am very disappointed with the judiciary system,” said Nayak’s widow, Kanaka Rekha Nayak, who along with her two daughters has been forced into hiding because of threats against her. “I went through several life threats, but still I took my daughters for hearings whenever I was called by the court, risking my daughters’ lives – certainly not for this day.”

In addition to the bail, the court has issued a stay order on the 5,000 rupee (US$107) fine imposed on Pradhan and Mallick. Attorney Das told Compass the decision was biased, as the Lower Court Record was not even consulted beforehand.

“This is the normal court procedure, and it was bypassed for Pradhan,” he said. “The judgment was pre-determined.”

Dibakar Parichha of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese told Compass, “Sometimes the judicial system seems mockery to me. One court convicts him, and another one grants him bail.”

The rulings are demoralizing to those who look toward the courts for justice, he said.

“There is a very powerful force behind this. It is not as simple as it looks,” Parichha said.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, said he was surprised by the orders.

“While it is a legal right for anybody to get bail, it is surprising that Pradhan was wanted in so many cases, and he can coerce and influence witnesses,” Dayal said. “His petition should not have been granted.”

The two Hindu nationalists were convicted by the Phulbani Fast Track Sessions Court I Judge Sobhan Kumar Das. Pradhan, member of the state Legislative Assembly (MLA) from G. Udayagiri, Kandhamal for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), filed a petition stating that his name was not mentioned in the original First Information Report filed by Kanaka Rekha Nayak, but that he was dragged into the case later.

The bail order includes a warning to Pradhan to refrain from intimidating witnesses, stating, “The petitioner shall not threaten the witnesses examined.”

Rekha Nayak, along with her daughters Lipsa Nayak (4 years old when her father was killed) and Amisha Nayak (then 2 years old) were eyewitnesses to the murder of her 31-year-old husband, a Dalit Christian from Tiangia, Budedipada, in Kandhamal district. He was murdered on Aug. 27, 2008.

Rev. Dr. Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, urged the Christian community to keep hope.

“The case is still on, not that it has come to an end,” he said. “There is a move that is being made to take the case further.”

Attorney Das has said he plans to appeal Pradhan’s sentence of seven years, in hopes of increasing it to life imprisonment.

 

Cases

Pradhan, who denies any wrongdoing, has been charged in 14 cases related to the August-September 2008 anti-Christian attacks. In seven of the cases he has been acquitted, he was convicted of “grievous hurt” in the Nayak case, and six more are pending against him.

Of the 14 cases in which he faces charges, seven involve murder; of those murder cases, he has been acquitted in three.

Cases have been filed against Pradhan for rioting, rioting with deadly weapons, unlawful assembly, causing disappearance of evidence of offense, murder, wrongfully restraining someone, wrongful confinement, mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy houses, voluntarily causing grievous hurt and voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means.

Pradhan was also accused of setting fire to houses of people belonging to the minority Christian community.

The Times of India reported Pradhan as “one of the close disciples” of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) leader Swami Laxamananda Saraswati, whose assassination on Aug. 23, 2008, touched off the anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal and other parts of Orissa.

Rekha Nayak filed a complaint and a case was registered against Mallick and others for murder, destroying evidence, rioting and unlawful assembly. Pradhan was arrested on Oct. 16, 2008, from Berhampur, and in December 2009 he obtained bail from the Orissa High Court.

Despite his role in the attacks, Pradhan – campaigning from jail – was the only BJP candidate elected from the G. Udayagiri constituency in the 2009 Assembly elections from Kandhamal district.

In recent court actions, Fast Track Court-II Additional Sessions Judge Chittaranjan Das on July 21 acquitted nine persons who had been arrested in the Tikabali area for various offenses, including arson, due to “lack of evidence.” The main charge against them was torching of a church on Aug. 28, 2008 at Beladevi village.

At least 132 persons have been convicted in different cases related to the 2008 violence in Orissa’s Kandhamal district, state Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said on July 19. Patnaik said that 24 members of the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal (Youth Wing of World Hindu Council) and VHP have been arrested and jailed.

Revenue and Disaster Management minister S.N. Patro said on July 21 that the 55 Christian places of worship were damaged in Tikabali block; 44 in G. Udaygiri; 39 in Raikia; 34 in K. Nuagaon; 19 in Baliguda; 16 in Daringbadi; nine in Phulbani; six in Kotgarh; five in Tumudibandha; and one each in Phiringia and Chakapada blocks.

 

SIDEBAR

India Briefs: Recent Incidents of Persecution

Karnataka - Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh accused a pastor in Aldur of forceful conversion on July 24 and threatened him, telling him not to preach about Jesus. The All India Christian Council reported that the extremists filed a police complaint against Pastor Anand Kumar of forceful conversion. Both police and extremists ordered Pastor Kumar to remove the cross and name plate of the church. At press time area Christians were taking steps to resolve the issue.

Jammu and Kashmir – The state’s Foreigners Registration Officer reportedly issued a notice to a senior Christian worker to leave India by July 20 after a false complaint of forceful conversion was filed against him. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the state succumbed to pressure by Muslim extremists to deport Father Jim Borst, who has run Good Shepherd School in the Kashmir Valley since 1963. The school has been attacked on two occasions by members of other schools who felt they were unable to compete with it. For eight years these groups have led a campaign against Borst, claiming he was forcibly converting people under the guise of providing education. Borst, who denies the charge, has a valid visa till 2014. The interior minister reportedly said he had no knowledge of the deportation order, and Borst’s superiors indicated he would not leave.

Madhya Pradesh – Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists on July 18 disrupted Christian worship in Barwaha, near Indore. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Pastor Subash Chouhan of the Indian Evangelical Team was leading Sunday worship when the extremists stormed in on the terrified Christians. They accused Pastor Chouhan of forceful conversion, photographed the congregation and told the pastor to close his tailoring school, which includes non-Christian students. This is the second time Pastor Chouhan has been arrested on false charges of forceful conversion; previously he was jailed for three days. The case was pending at press time.

Punjab – Police arrested Christians on July 10 after Hindu nationalists beat them, falsely accusing them of forcible conversion in Gurdaspur. Members of the Indian Pentecostal Church of God (IPCG) Western Region were visiting houses in the area on a social outreach mission when a group of extremists began to argue with them and then started beating four of them with their fists and shoes. Later they handed the Christians over to police, along with three more Christian men and five Christian women, complaining that they were converting people from the Hindu religion. Pastor Promod Samuel, along with the IPCG head A.M. Samuel, rushed to the Gurdaspur City police station to help the Christians, but officers detained them as well. Samuel told Compass that the president of the Hindu extremist groups Shiva Sena and Bajrang Dal, as well as many other Hindu nationalist leaders, gathered at the police station clamoring for officers to file charges against the 14 Christians. Hearing of the arrests, Christian leaders of Gurdaspur requested their release. The Christians were not released until Samuel signed an agreement assuring that Christians would not enter any non-Christian home. “The extremists are continuously following us around, to keep a check on us.” Samuel said.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists toppled a church building and attacked Christians on July 6 in Parawada, Visakhapatnam. The All India Christian Council (AICC) reported that local Hindu extremists were jealous and angry that a church stood at the entrance of the village and urged the Christians to move. The extremists threatened to attack the Christian community, claiming that they would allow no church in the area. When the church pastor refused to give in to their demand, they began damaging his household goods and pulled down the church building. The extremists also stopped the Christians from drawing water from a well. AICC was taking steps to resolve the matter at press time.

Madhya Pradesh – Police on July 4 arrested and charged two Christians under the state’s controversial “anti-conversion” law at Jawahar Nadar, Adharthal. According to the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), a member of the Apostolic Christian Assembly, Shravan Kuman Dubey, invited Vishal Lal to lead a prayer service for his 6-year-old son Ravi’s birthday. Around 7:30 p.m., during prayer, a mob of nearly 75 Hindu nationalist extremists accompanied by police entered the house and falsely accused those present of forced conversion, taking 14 Christians to the Adhartal police station. After nearly four hours, police charged Shravan Kumar and Vishal Lal with forcible conversion and sent the others home. With GCIC intervention, both were released on bail the next day.

Madhya Pradesh – Hindu extremists belonging to the Dharma Raksha Samithi (Religion Protection Council) on June 28 stopped a Christian school bus and questioned young elementary students in Indore. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the bus was carrying Christian students from Orissa to their school in Indore. The extremists ordered the young students to get out of the bus and asked them whether forceful conversion was taking place, frightening the schoolchildren as police remained mere spectators. After threatening to harm the Christians if they carried out any Christian activities, they let them go. Area Christian leaders condemned the incident as a sign of Hindu extremists’ “reign of terror” in the state and demanded an investigation.

Karnataka – On June 13 in Anekal, Bangalore, Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh beat a pastor whom they accused of forceful conversion. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that, in an apparently premeditated attack, an unidentified extremist telephoned Pastor Sam Joseph to come and pray for a sick person. The pastor agreed, only to be taken to a gathering of Hindu extremists with media people. The extremists accused the pastor of forceful conversion, beat him up and dragged him to Hebbagudi police station. Police released the pastor without charges after forcing him to agree that he would no longer lead Christian meetings.

Himachal Pradesh – State officials on June 5 sealed a Mission India building, claiming that it belongs to “outsiders,” in Bari, Mandi district. The Evangelical Fellowship of India’s (EFI) advocacy desk reported that the government closed the building, which functioned as a Bible study center and orphanage, claiming that no land in the area could be owned by non-native people. Pastor Sam Abraham told Compass that Mission India purchased the plot in 2005, constructed a building in 2007 and began using it as a Bible study center and orphanage in 2008. In July 2008, Hindu extremists filed a complaint against Mission India of forceful conversion and demanded the building be shut down. The extremists have since accused the Christians of forceful conversion, verbally abused them for their faith and threatened to kill them if they did not leave. Mission India officials asserted that the land legally belongs to them and that they have all necessary documents. At press time the Christians were looking for a place to rent that would accommodate at least 10 orphans.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christians in India Faced Three Attacks per Week in 2009


Over 150 assaults reported, many in southern part of country.

NEW DELHI, December 31 (CDN) — After unprecedented large-scale attacks on Christians in the previous two years, 2009 brought hardly any respite as the minority faith faced an average of more than three violent attacks a week.

There were at least 152 attacks on Christians in 2009, according to the “Partial List of Major Incidents of Anti-Christian Violence in India” released by the Evangelical Fellowship of India.

“The trend of attacks on the Christian community by rightwing Hindu groups goes unabated,” said Dr. Dominic Emmanuel, the spokesperson of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese. “Overall, the Christian community still feels insecure.”

Emmanuel also noted that none of the states that have “anti-conversion” laws have repealed them. The north-central states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Orissa in the east, Gujarat in the west and Himachal Pradesh in the north have anti-conversion laws, which Hindu hardliners routinely use to arrest Christians on spurious accusations of “forcible conversion.”

“If 2007 and 2008 went down in history as the most blood-soaked ones in the history of modern Christianity in India, 2009 surely rates as the year of frustrating confrontations with the law and tardy governance and on justice for the victims of communal violence,” said Dr. John Dayal, a Christian and human rights activist and member of the government’s National Integration Council.

Dayal referred to violence that erupted in Orissa’s Kandhamal district during the Christmas week in 2007, killing at least four Christians and burning 730 houses and 95 churches. The attacks were carried out to avenge an alleged attack on a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.

Violence re-erupted in Kandhamal in August 2008 after the assassination of Saraswati by a Maoist group, as rightwing Hindu groups falsely blamed Christians for it. This time, the violence killed more than 100 people and resulted in the incineration of 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

No Longer a Haven

A disturbing new trend emerged this year as southern India, which had long been considered a haven for Christians, recorded the highest incidence of anti-Christian violence. Of the total 152 incidents, 86 were reported from southern states, mainly Karnataka with 48, Andhra Pradesh with 29, Tamil Nadu with five and Kerala with four.

Northern and central states, seen as the stronghold of rightwing Hindu extremists, recorded 42 incidents of violence, half the number in the south.

There were 15 attacks in Madhya Pradesh state, 14 in neighboring Chhattisgarh, three each in Uttar Pradesh and the Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, and one each in the national capital Delhi and neighboring Haryana state.

In the west, seven attacks were reported: six in Maharashtra and one in Gujarat. In the northeast, four attacks were reported: three in Assam and one in Manipur.

Karnataka recorded the highest number of violent incidents as the first-ever victory of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state elections in 2007 emboldened rightwing Hindu extremist groups. Karnataka became the first southern state with a stand-alone BJP government in the history of India.

Anti-Christian violence in Andhra Pradesh rose to new heights after a Christian, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, became the chief minister of the state in May 2004. To target him politically, rightwing Hindu groups attacked Christians while accusing them of converting Hindus to Christianity. This year Reddy died on Sept. 2 in a helicopter crash.

The incidence of Christian persecution in the north and the central states declined apparently due to the BJP’s defeat in the April-May general elections and a growing realization among a section of the BJP leadership that violent incidents no longer please voters. But the hard-line section of the BJP and groups linked to the party, such as the VHP and its youth wing Bajrang Dal, carried on with their hardcore anti-Christian stand.

Impunity in Orissa

Orissa state in the east, which witnessed two massive spates of attacks on Christians in 2007 and 2008, saw only two recorded violent incidents this year.

The morale of Christians in Orissa, however, remained low as few assailants in the 2008 rampage were brought to justice.

“The courts in Kandhamal make a mockery of the judicial process, and the murderers lord it over the witnesses and victims while judges and law look on,” Dayal said. “The church remains helpless, its puny effort at giving strength to the witnesses falling far too short.”

Of 787 cases registered by Orissa police, 100 are being handled by two-fast track courts in Kandhamal. Around 35 cases have been heard, resulting in around 50 convictions and more than 190 acquittals.  Manoj Pradhan, a legislator for the BJP, has been exonerated “for lack of evidence” in six cases, most of them involving murder charges.

Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, said the growing number of acquittals was producing a culture of impunity, “where those who commit crimes against Christian minority do not fear punishment by law.”

“As the elected representative of the Orissa state assembly [Pradhan] has been let off in murder cases,” George said. “People want to know what has happened to the long arms of justice.”

Dayal, who was in Kandhamal recently, said that of the more than 4,640 houses burned in 2008 violence, only 200 have a roof over the rebuilt walls as 2009 ends.

“And perhaps at the end of the next year, another 2,500, God willing, will have been rebuilt,” he said. “But around 2,000 houses will even then remain unfinished.”

Dayal added that more than 20,000 men, women and children of Kandhamal continue to live as refugees or homeless people in various cities, working at odd jobs and sometimes begging.

“Some girls have already been pushed into the evil of human trafficking,” he said.

Most people in Kandhamal remain without jobs, and the rehabilitation process, in which the church is participating, still is a long distance from covering all victims, Dayal said, adding, “The state government seems to have called it a day with the barest minimum done in this sector.”

Emmanuel of the Delhi Archdiocese said that since the BJP is not in power at the federal level, some of their front organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal will harass Christians in order to remain in the news.

“Christianity teaches us to hope in God,” Emmanuel said. “We can only hope that 2010 will be a better year for Christians, but in practical terms it really does not appear that things would be any better as the ranks of rightwing Hindu fundamentalists keep their pressure.”

There are around 24 million Christians in India, or roughly 2.3 percent of the over 1.1 billion people.

Report from Compass Direct News 

EGYPT: VILLAGE CHRISTIANS IN HIDING AFTER CLASH


Violence erupts on mere suspicion of a prayer meeting.

ISTANBUL, June 25 (Compass Direct News) – Nearly 1,000 Coptic Christians in Egypt are hiding in their homes after clashes erupted Sunday (June 21) between them and their village’s majority-Muslim population over the use of a three-story building belonging to the Coptic Church.

When on Sunday at 11 a.m. a group of 25 Christians from Cairo stopped in Ezbet Boshra-East, a village of about 3,000 people three hours south of Cairo by car, few villagers failed to take notice. Planning to visit local Christians and the Rev. Isaac Castor, the group had gathered outside the building owned by the Coptic Church, where the priest lives with his family.

Castor said only six of them had entered the building when Muslim neighbors approached the rest of the group waiting outside and began taunting them. A Muslim woman walked up to one of the visiting women, he said, and slapped her.

Soon village youths gathered and started throwing stones at the visitors and the building, and according to Castor within minutes hundreds of villagers, Muslims against Christians, were fighting each other in the streets of Ezbet Boshra-East. Castor’s car was also vandalized.

“They were all over the streets hitting each other with sticks and their fists,” Castor told Compass from his home by phone. “Some people were on top of buildings throwing stones; it was like a civil war.”

Sectarian tensions have previously flared in the village. Last July, when Castor first moved to Ezbet Boshra-East with his family, Muslims vandalized Christians’ farmlands and poisoned their domestic animals after services took place at the building owned by the church, according to International Christian Concern.

Since last July’s incidents, authorities have stipulated that only two Christians at a time can visit the building, and according to Castor this was the source of the fighting that erupted in front of the building on Sunday. The neighbors thought he was conducting a prayer meeting and not adhering to the rule set by local authorities.

In the violent clash in front of the church-owned building, 17 Christians and eight Muslims were estimated to have been injured. According to various reports, nearly 19 Coptic Christians were arrested and released the following day, along with the injured Muslims.

So far there is no concrete information on how the Christians were treated while in prison. During the arrests of the Christians, police vandalized many of their homes. Egyptian sources told Compass that police often turn the homes of those whom they arrest “upside down.”

Soon after the clashes, electricity and phone services were cut. Electricity was restored after 24 hours, but at press time telephones were still not operating. All communications happen via mobile phones.

Authorities also imposed a 6 p.m. curfew on the entire village, but Castor said Christians were too afraid to come out of their homes and were living off personal food stockpiles. He also said that a number of families had left the village to stay with friends and relatives in nearby towns and villages. Eyewitnesses visiting Ezbet Boshra-East yesterday confirmed that although there were Muslim villagers outside, there were no Christians walking on the streets.

Procedures vs. Tolerance

There is no church building in Ezbet Boshra-East, and so far the Coptic Church has not sought to obtain permission to build one. Nor has it officially applied for permission to use the three-story building as a place of prayer as an official association.

When a reporter from a major Egyptian TV channel asked Castor by telephone whether he had obtained permission for prayer and worship for the building purchased by the church, he responded, “Do I need to have permission if I was called to pray for a sick person?” He admitted in the interview, however, that obtaining permission would help to avoid clashes and that authorities should grant it quickly.

There are other villages around Ezbet Boshra-East, such as Talt three kilometers away, where there are Coptic associations. Also, official churches are established in Ezbet Boshra-West and El Fashn, both 15 kilometers (nine miles) away.

Castor said poor Muslim-Christian relations are reflected in the lack of an area church.

“There is no love or tolerance for each other, and I think this is wrong,” Castor said. “I’m worried about the future. I’m worried about the freedom of religion and the inability to build churches. There is bias. It is unfair and unacceptable that people don’t have the freedom of worship. If the current policies continue, the hate will continue.”

The village-wide violence on Sunday harkened to sectarian violence in Upper Egypt in 2000 in the area of El Kosheh, said Ibrahim Habib, chairman of U.K.-based United Copts.

“This degree of radicalization is a bad sign for the future of Egypt, when there is so much hate for people who are basically peaceful and just want to pray,” said Habib.

Egypt’s constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship under Article 46.

“What’s the value of a statement like this if it is not put into action?” he said of Article 46, adding that when government agencies do not promote freedom of worship but instead “become agents of persecution, they make a mockery of the constitution.”

Habib also expressed dismay that a whole village took umbrage only because they suspected a prayer meeting.

“How can private worship annoy people?” he said. “They are not broadcasting it. This is not fair. I’m really annoyed. They say Islam is tolerant, but is this tolerant? This is not tolerant at all.”

Other Non-Governmental Organizations in Egypt said that they expect reconciliation meetings to take place in Ezbet Boshra-East in the coming weeks.

Report from Compass Direct News