The link below is to an article that looks at the latest news from the civil war in Syria and the deployment of Patriot Missiles and NATO troops to the Turkish border with Syria. Iran is threatening a wider war.
After painful effort to change ID card, Christians flee – to similar fate.
CAIRO, Egypt, March 21 (CDN) — When the plane carrying Maher El-Gohary and his daughter, Dina Mo’otahssem, took off from Cairo International Airport last month, they both wept with joy. After spending two-and-a-half years in hiding for leaving Islam to become Christians, they were elated by their newfound freedom.
They also felt secure that once they arrived in Syria, they would quickly obtain visas to the United States and start a new life. That hope soon proved unfounded.
After spending more than a week and a half unable to obtain a visa to the United States or to any country in Europe, they realized they may have traded in the reality of being prisoners in their own country for being refugees in another. And as El-Gohary watches the weeks pass and his resources dwindle, he said the stress is almost unbearable.
“I feel like we’ve stepped out of a prison cell and into a fire,” he said. “We are in very, very bad conditions … My daughter and I divide the bottles of water to live, because there is no income.”
Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary, 58, gained notoriety in Egypt after he sued the government in August 2008 to gain the right to change the religion listed on his state-issued ID card from Islam to Christianity. In Egypt, ID cards play a critical role in a person’s life, being used for everything from opening a bank account and renting an apartment to receiving medical care.
The listed religious affiliation, whether a card-holder subscribes to it or not, also determines whether the person is subject to Islamic civil law. The listed religious designation determines what state-mandated religion classes minors are required to take in school. El-Gohary said he filed the suit so his daughter, then 15, could opt out of the religious classes and would not be subject to the persecution he suffered when he became a Christian in his 20s.
It is a crime punishable by imprisonment to have no ID card in Egypt.
The suit sparked outrage throughout Egypt. Both El-Gohary and his daughter were publicly branded apostates in a country where 84 percent of Muslims think those who leave Islam should be executed, according to a study released by the Pew Research Center in December. The same month the suit was filed in 2008, El-Gohary and his daughter were forced into hiding.
For two-and-a-half years, El-Gohary shifted back and forth among several apartments in Cairo and Alexandria, usually once every month. Even in hiding, the two were harassed regularly by Egypt’s dreaded State Security Intelligence service (SSI) and assaulted repeatedly by others, including someone pouring acid on Dina, El-Gohary said.
While in hiding, El-Gohary tried repeatedly to leave Egypt, but officials at the Ministry of the Interior blocked him at every attempt. On at least one occasion, they seized his passport. In December 2010, after a long legal battle, El-Gohary got a court decision ordering the Ministry of the Interior to allow him to travel, but he said it still took several weeks for the government to comply with the order; the Jan. 25-Feb. 11 revolution didn’t hurt, El-Gohary said.
Out of Egypt
After the national demonstrations that led to the removal of both President Hosni Mubarak and Minister of Interior Habib Al-Adly, El-Gohary and his daughter went to Cairo International Airport on Feb. 22 to leave the county. They came prepared with their newly issued passports, the court order and myriad documents to prove they had the right to leave the country. Even so, authorities took the two aside for interrogation at the airport.
“My daughter and I went to the counter of the airport to the manager, then they took us to the SSI,” El-Gohary said. “We spent an hour talking to an officer trying to tell him, ‘We spent ages during Habib Al-Adly’s time, and even now after the revolution, we don’t have the right to leave?’”
According to El-Gohary, the guard asked him if he really wanted to leave the country.
“Yes,” El-Gohary replied. “I have a court order against Al-Adly, and I have the right to leave and the freedom to travel outside the country.” As if to add insult to more than two years of injury, the SSI officers told El-Gohary that Egypt was “their country” and to “come back anytime you want to.”
El-Gohary credits the revolution as the reason he was allowed to leave Egypt, saying it was a miracle “from God.”
They chose to go to Syria because Egyptian citizens are not required to have visas to visit there. After contact with a U.S. organization that concentrates on religious freedom, El-Gohary expected it would be easy to get a visa to the United States, where his wife lives. But he said he has been unable to obtain an entry visa there or to any country where he will feel safe. He went to a U.N. office in Syria seeking assistance; he was given an appointment to come back on April 20.
“I wasn’t expecting, after all this suffering and all these years, that…” El-Gohary said, cutting himself off. “The series of persecution is not finished.”
Although they don’t live under the same type of threats as they did in Egypt, El-Gohary and Dina now live in an apartment where they still watch everything they say and everyone with whom they talk. They still spend much of their time trapped between the four walls of their apartment because Syria, El-Gohary said, is a country where converts to Christianity from Islam are persecuted.
“The danger is still there,” El-Gohary said. “We don’t get out of the house. We don’t meet people. We don’t tell people what we are doing or talk to them about our situation. Because we don’t want someone to say, ‘Why are you applying to the U.N.?’ There are still a lot of enemies.”
Dina, now 17, said that although leaving Egypt was “like a miracle,” she is devastated by the prospect of having to spend more time with her life on hold. She said she is just as scared in Syria as she was in Egypt.
“We’re really, really tired of all this suffering,” she said. “I’ve lost two years of my life. I want to finish school.”
Muslim converts to Christianity in Syria were sometimes forced to leave their place of residence due to societal pressure last year, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report. While there is no official state religion in Syria, the constitution requires that the president be Muslim and stipulates that Islamic law is a principal source of legislation.
With strict monitoring and curtailing of militant Islam, the government in Syria has long been considered a moderate regime. The government’s fear of violent responses by Islamic extremists to increasing conversions to Christianity, however, was at least partially responsible for the closing of six buildings where Christians were meeting last year, according to Christian support organization Open Doors. Noting that several Christians were arrested and interrogated in 2010, the organization’s World Watch List bumped Syria’s ranking up to 38th place among nations in which persecution of Christians takes place, from position 41 the previous year.
Syria is 90 percent Muslim, and 6.34 percent of its 22.5 million population is Christian, according to Operation World.
Though El-Gohary and his daughter have a dark outlook on their current situation, they are still grateful.
“Without God’s love, we would have been dead by now,” El-Gohary said. “Getting out of Egypt itself was a victory from God.”
Dina said she also is thankful, but that as she gets older she is becoming increasingly preoccupied by one wish.
“I want to get out so I can finish my studies,” she said. “I want to go into a church and out of a church without being scared of being killed.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Current space programs may set their sights on Mars, but a team of astronomers and a biochemist at the science-faith think tank Reasons To Believe (RTB) publicly encourage NASA and other space agencies to revisit the lunar surface—to look for the remains of Earth’s oldest life-forms, reports Maureen Bell and Kathy Ross, special to ASSIST News Service.
Astronomer and RTB president Hugh Ross says, “The Apollo program helped researchers solve the mystery of the Moon’s origin. Return missions to the Moon could solve the mystery of life’s origin.”
According to biochemist Fazale Rana, “Chemical signatures confirm life was present on Earth in fair abundance back to 3.8 billion years ago.” What’s missing, he says, are the fossils. “Wind and water erosion and plate tectonics have destroyed the fossils of Earth’s first life. [But] there are good reasons to expect them in abundance in pristine forms on the Moon.”
Ross and fellow astronomer Jeff Zweerink point out that when the Earth was young, it was “bombarded” by asteroids and large meteorites. “These collisions sent large amounts of the Earth’s surface material into outer space, and much of that material landed on the Moon—about a million kilograms on every 100 square kilometers of the Moon’s surface.”
New research by British earth scientist Ian Crawford indicates that at least some of this Earth material made it to the Moon with its fossil structures still intact. Crawford affirms that “substantial survivability is to be expected.”
In their book Origins of Life, Rana and Ross present their model for the origin of life. This model, totally compatible with the Bible, predicts that (1) Earth’s first life would be both complex and diverse; and (2) the origin of life occurred suddenly, as soon as Earth’s physical conditions permitted. Non-theistic models predict the opposite.
As Ross stated in a lecture at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, “We are thrilled with the prospect that lunar missions could put our creation model to the test, either affirming or showing us wrong. Finding and analyzing pristine fossils of Earth’s first life could help settle, finally, one of the great creation-evolution controversies.”
About Reasons To Believe
Reasons To Believe is a California-based science-faith think tank. Founded by Hugh Ross in 1986, the organization strives to demonstrate that science and faith are, and always will be, allies, not enemies. Through myriad resources—including books, print periodicals, podcasts, and a content-rich website—speaking engagements, and radio and TV interviews, RTB scholars present reasons for confidence in the findings of science and in the authority of the Bible. For more information and resources, visit www.reasons.org
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Chinese officials appear relentless after an attack on a Christian construction left the building in shambles and several of those guarding the site severely injured, reports MNN.
Church members of a Chinese home church network in Linfin, Shaxi were sleeping at the construction site of a new building when 400 officials attacked the site at once. The attack began at 3 AM on the morning of September 13, 2009 and lasted for several hours, leaving numerous believers unconscious, heavily bleeding or with severe injuries. When church members arrived at the hospital, they discovered that the emergency room had been ordered to withhold treatment.
This intense crackdown against believers has come as an outrageous shock to many. The orders to attack the building clearly came with government involvement. The building in question, however, was fully within their rights. The construction site is owned by the Christians who own the “Good News Cloth Shoes Factory,” a Christian-run factory that was building a chapel room for the factory.
“They called it a worship center. It’s a part of the factory owned by the Christians, and the government regarded it as a church, so that’s why they started attacking,” explains ChinaAid Association President Bob Fu. According to Fu, the government would likely not have given approval for an actual church building to go up, but since the factory was erecting the building on their own property, they were within their rights to use it for their own purposes. The government was clearly not pleased by the prospect of a gathering spot for a home church network that consists of about 80,000 believers total, and they reacted.
“[The government is] very nervous about the rapid growth of the Christian church over there,” Fu explains.
Of course this nervousness does not justify the atrocious behavior of the officials on Sunday. The building was destroyed, people were left bloodied and injured, and several items were stolen, including the factory’s business license. Before the attacks were over, officials erased any evidence and cleaned the site enough to ensure their involvement would go unnoticed.
In the meantime, believers are being called upon to pray. “Several thousand church members gathered at the church construction site at a special prayer meeting for four to five hours under the heavy rain,” says Fu. “The government sent officers to prevent church members from getting into the church site.” As the crackdown—which is being called “worse than the Wenchuan earthquake” by some—continues, your prayers are seriously needed.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Christians’ fears little allayed; armed outfits mushrooming.
KATHMANDU, Nepal, September 10 (CDN) — Pastor John Vanlalhriata was reading the Bible at his home in Kathmandu valley Sunday afternoon (Sept. 6) when a friend called to give him the news that electrified the Christian community.
“Ram Prasad Mainali has been arrested by police along with three more accomplices,” the friend said. “Finally, our prayers have been answered.”
The 36-year-old Mainali, who claims to have worked in the national army, became a household name in May after the little-known underground organization he headed, the Nepal Defense Army (NDA), claimed responsibility for placing a bomb in one of Nepal’s oldest churches during mass, killing two women and a schoolgirl and injuring more than a dozen people.
Though police claimed a breakthrough in less than a fortnight, saying they had arrested a 27-year-old woman who planted the bomb in the prayer hall of the Catholic Assumption Church on May 23, the suspected mastermind remained elusive. Despite a red alert for Mainali’s arrest, he remained at large in the former Hindu kingdom, continuing to intimidate Christians by ordering them to leave the country or face further violence. He was arrested on Saturday (Sept. 5) in Biratnagar.
The NDA, founded in 2006 after Nepal deposed King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah and became a secular republic, claimed to be grooming an army of suicide bombers in a bid to turn Nepal into a Hindu state again. Since last year, it began to strike in earnest in eastern Nepal, Mainali’s home region.
In March 2008, the NDA bombed a mosque in eastern Nepal, killing two people at prayer, and four months later it gunned down a Catholic priest, the Rev. John Prakash Moyalan, at his residence.
“The Christian community is relieved that Mainali has been arrested,” Pastor Vanlalhriata of the Believers’ Church in Kathmandu told Compass. “They feel Mainali would now learn that it was not good to persecute the church and threaten God’s people. But they are also apprehensive that he might be released soon.”
After the initial joy, that thought is the prospect haunting Nepal’s Christian community – that Mainali and his accomplices could be released soon, either because of legal loopholes or the culture of impunity pervading Nepal since 1996, when Maoist guerrillas began an armed revolt and triggered grave human rights violations for a decade.
“We will have to wait and watch what happens now,” said Balan Joseph, a 42-year-old garment factory employee who lost his teenage daughter, Celeste, in the bombing; eight days later, his wife Buddha Laxmi succumbed to an internal hemorrhage from the blast. “Mainali’s arrest doesn’t mean his gang has been wiped out. Unless the government takes tough action, the morale of all potential killers will rise, and recruits will continue to flock to these gangs.”
Christians have been further anguished by the revelation that Mainali had been arrested previously for an explosion. There were no casualties, and a court granted him bail. On being freed, he promptly went underground, resurfacing Saturday (Sept. 5) in the tea garden district of Jhapa, in eastern Nepal, when police arrested him on a tipoff.
Chirendra Satyal, spokesperson at the Assumption Church, said the possibility of release is the overriding concern. He said a priest told him, only half-jokingly, “I hope the authorities don’t release him again.”
Satyal said he also feels that the threat to Christians has not ended.
“There is a culture of impunity in Nepal,” he told Compass. “This government may fall, and the new one that replaces it may decide to release Mainali. Or he can have a successor stepping into his shoes.”
A sense of insecurity still pervades the Assumption Church, which has not relaxed safety measures even after the arrest. Cars are not allowed inside the compound, and handbags have to be left at the gate. Professional security guards have been employed, reinforced by policemen deployed by the government.
The arrests have also failed to erase the terror from the hearts of those who were present in the church on that fatal day, especially the children. While widower Joseph said God has given him strength to bear his loss, his surviving children – Chelsea, 11, and Sylvester, 9, are still traumatized.
“My friends told me about the arrest,” Chelsea told Compass. “But I am still afraid. So is my brother. And though he too knows about the arrest, he has not talked about it with us.”
On Tuesday, authorities brought Mainali to Kathmandu valley, and he appeared before the chief district officer, who gave police permission to hold him in remand for 10 days for further investigation.
“We feel the threat of religious attacks has ended,” said Police Superintendent Devendra Subedi, whose team arrested Mainali. “A day later, we also arrested Vinod Pandey, who headed another underground organization, the Ranavir Sena, which too was demanding the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion. With the heads in the police net, the outfits are bound to collapse.”
Pandey, also arrested from eastern Nepal with an aide, was reportedly planning a series of bomb attacks in the capital and three other major towns: Pokhara, a popular tourist destination, and Biratnagar and Birgunj, two key trade hubs.
Dr. K.B. Rokaya, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Nepal (NCCN), said the arrests of the militant group leaders will not resolve the problems of violence in Nepal.
“There are over 100 armed groups in Nepal that are engaged in extortion, abductions and killings,” said Rokaya, who is also a member of Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission. “Nepal passed through a decade of armed conflict to reach a transitional period where there is still political instability due to the weak government. Many armed groups are trying to take advantage of the vacuum. It’s not only Christians who are suffering, the entire nation is.”
In the Terai, lowlands in southern Nepal running across the open border with neighboring India, armed gangs have mushroomed since the fall of the royal government three years ago. The Believers’ Church is concentrated there. It is part of Christian Unity, an umbrella of churches of different denominations on the plains that the NDA has repeatedly threatened.
The NCCN is putting its hope in a new constitution being drafted by a 601-member Constituent Assembly in consultation with different political parties, organizations and communities. It is scheduled to be presented in May 2010. The NCCN has submitted its recommendations for protection of religious minorities to the Constituent Assembly, as well as to Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal and President Ram Baran Yadav.
The NCCN’s Rokaya said the recommendations can be summed up in four points: freedom to practice the religion of choice; freedom to change it (a tacit reference to past laws that made conversion a punishable offence); freedom not to practice any religion; and the state not interfering in religious matters.
Report from Compass Direct News
After nearly two and half years in jail, elderly men’s 10-year sentences overturned.
ISTANBUL, April 21 (Compass Direct News) – After more than two years in a Pakistani jail, two elderly Christian men convicted of “blasphemy” against the Quran were acquitted on Thursday (April 16) when a high court in Lahore overturned their 10-year sentence.
James Masih, 67, and Buta Masih, 72, were accused of burning pages from the Quran in October 2006 and were also tried under an anti-terrorism law because their actions were deemed to have created fear and panic. In a case that drew crowds of Islamic fanatics, they were convicted on Nov. 25, 2006 of blaspheming Islam’s sacred book.
The pair has claimed from the start that the blasphemy charges were fabricated due to a dispute over a plot of land that a Muslim neighbor wanted James Masih to sell.
“It happens many times, it is always a false story due to some other enmity,” said Father Yaqub Yousaf, the men’s parish priest. “Pastors and priests, we tell them that it is better not to speak on religion with the Muslims, not to say anything that can hurt them, so normally they don’t do that.”
After rumors erupted that the two men had burned pages of the Quran on Oct. 8, 2006, some 500 Muslims attempted to kill them. Police arrested the two Christians and held off the crowds, which stayed outside the police station through the night.
The Christian men launched an appeal soon after their conviction and have since remained in prison.
“I appeared in court 27 times during the appeal,” said Khalil Tahir Sindhu, their lawyer. “Most of the time the judges postponed the case, saying, ‘We will hear the case next time.’”
Sindhu told Compass that religious bias and public pressure led to the judge’s original decision to sentence the men and could have had much to do with the delays in hearing the appeal.
“At the last hearing [Dec. 15, 2008], the judge reserved judgment, which according to law has to be given within three months,” he said. “But it was over three months, so I went to court and told him, ‘These are old men and they are sick, so please announce the judgment.’”
James Masih was hospitalized three times during his internment, receiving treatment for a chest infection.
“Jail is totally different [in Pakistan], you hardly have proper food, and no facilities,” said Fr. Yousaf. Sources said both men were traumatized by their ordeal, an effect also felt keenly by their families, who were rarely able to visit.
Articles 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code respectively prescribe life imprisonment for desecrating the Quran and death for insulting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.
Although the law has not been implemented to the full extent of capital punishment or life in prison since its introduction in 1986, there have been more than 20 deaths recorded in blasphemy-related violence.
Even after their acquittal and release, Sindhu said, the men will not be able to immediately return home.
“It is dangerous now, we will not send them to their home,” said Sindhu. “We will keep them away for one to two months until the situation changes. Anyone can kill them.”
Christians previously accused of blasphemy continued to experience prejudice and sometimes violence even after being cleared of the charges.
“It is difficult for the blasphemy accused to find work,” commented Wasim Muntizar from the Lahore-based Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement. “Churches are afraid to help them, because fanatics won’t hesitate to kill the ‘blasphemer’ and attack the church.”
Although the families of James and Buta Masih remain excited at the prospect of the pair’s upcoming return home, Fr. Yousaf has urged them to keep their celebrations muted.
“They are excited, yes, but I told them not to express so strongly their joy about it,” he said. “I requested them to keep it secret, because it may not be safe – some of the Muslims may say the court has not taken the right decision. In the past people have been killed after being acquitted.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Doctor acquitted while two other believers remain in jail; mobs threaten their homes, families.
Istanbul, November 13 (Compass Direct News) – A Christian doctor in Pakistan jailed since May 5 on charges of “blasphemy” was acquitted last week, while another Christian and his adult daughter remained incarcerated after more than a month on charges of desecrating the Quran.
Dr. Robin Sardar of Pakistan’s Punjab province was released on Nov. 4 after his accuser said the claim that he had blasphemed Islam’s prophet Muhammad was the result of a “misunderstanding.”
“The complainant said in the court that he has, through a misunderstanding, done all these things,” said Ezra Shujaab of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), which represented Sardar.
After a thorough investigation, the court found the accusation to be baseless and freed Sardar, Shujaab said. Angry villagers and local Muslim clerics had threatened to kill Sardar if he was acquitted, and he has gone into hiding, as did his family after his incarceration six months ago. A mob bearing sticks and kerosene and chanting death threats had surrounded the family’s house at that time.
In May Dr. Sardar was taken to Punjab’s Gujranwala Central Jail after a Muslim vendor filed a blasphemy complaint with police, prompting the attacks on his house. Sardar and the vendor had reportedly clashed over whether the merchant could set up shop in front of the doctor’s clinic.
The vendor, Muhammad Rafique, had claimed that Sardar had insulted Islam’s prophet during a visit between the two men. In his written statement, Rafique had called for the death penalty for Sardar and threatened that local Muslims would riot if police did not arrest him.
Under article 295-C of the Pakistani Penal Code, blasphemy against Muhammad merits death.
As happened to Sardar, violent Muslim mobs also attacked the home of Gulsher Masih after his daughter was accused of desecrating the Quran on Oct. 9 in the village of Tehsil Chak Jhumra.
Both he and his daughter, 25-year-old Sandal Gulsher, have been detained in Faisalabad since Oct. 10, and the rest of the family has gone into hiding.
A mob numbering in the hundreds gathered at the house of Masih last month armed with sticks, stones and bottles of kerosene after accusations that he had encouraged his daughter to tear pages from the Quran were broadcast over loudspeakers from a mosque.
“A mob came and they stoned their house, and they put the kerosene oil on the whole house to put it on fire,” said Yousef Benjamin of the National Commission for Justice and Peace. “However, just before that the police came in.”
Initially the whole family was taken into protective custody by police from the nearby Faisalabad station.
Under pressure from the mob, police on Oct. 10 charged Masih’s daughter – and Masih himself, for defending her – with violating section 295-B of the Pakistani Penal Code, which prescribes life imprisonment for those convicted of desecrating the Quran.
“When on the 10th the police were ready to register the FIR, I was there and more than 100 Muslim people were forcing the police … [saying] ‘We want Gulsher and his daughter to be hanged,’” said Quaiser Felix, a journalist for Asia News.
Masih and his daughter remain in custody and await a court hearing. They will plead innocent and deny all charges, said Shujaab, adding, “They did nothing.”
The rest of the family is in hiding, unable to return home due to fears of reprisal.
“It is very common in Pakistan that when a Christian person is caught or booked under blasphemy laws, then even if the court releases him or her they have to migrate from the area,” said Benjamin. “It is dangerous; they cannot come back to the community openly.”
Both Sardar and Gulsher’s families now face the prospect of never returning to their home towns, said Shujaab of APMA.
“Sardar, though he was acquitted, he cannot live in the home where he was residing,” said Shujaab. “They have to live like refugees.”
Although false blasphemy charges are leveled at Muslims as well as Christians in Pakistan, religious differences are often a motivating factor for the accusations.
“Muslims become challenged by these people, those who are somewhat established Christians,” said Shujaab. “[Out of] jealousy they want to throw these people out of the villages. They have involved them so that they should not live there in that village.”
Report from Compass Direct News