Pro-Democracy Advocate Released from Prison


Her new Christian faith deepens; authorities allow evangelist Luis Palau to address pastors.

HO CHI MINH CITY, March 30 (CDN) — A Protestant prisoner of conscience who had called for democratic freedoms in Vietnam was released earlier this month after serving a three-year sentence for “propagandizing to destroy the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”

Attorney Le Thi Cong Nhan’s sentence had been reduced by one year after an international outcry over her sentencing. She was released on March 6. Remaining in prison for another year is her colleague, Christian lawyer Nguyen Van Dai.

The 31-year-old Cong Nhan had also supported a labor union that sought to be independent. Now serving an additional three-year house arrest sentence, Cong Nhan said in a surprisingly frank interview with Voice of America’s Vietnamese language broadcast on March 9 that she has no intention of giving up her struggle for a just and free Vietnam and accepts that there may be a further price to pay.

Cong Nhan, arrested in March 2007, received a Vietnamese Bible from a visiting delegation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom – with official permission from Vietnam’s minister of Public Security – early in her incarceration, but she had to struggle constantly to retain it. Twice she went on a hunger strike when authorities took the Bible away from her.

She had become a Christian shortly before her arrest, and she told Voice of America that while in prison she was able to read the entire Bible.

“In prison the Lord became my closest friend, my teacher, and the one who carried my burdens with me,” she said. “When I was released from prison, I received many words of praise and of love and respect – I became a bit worried about this, as I do not consider myself worthy of such. I believe I must live an even better and more worthy life.”

Her prison experience has confirmed her calling and faith, she said.

“As a direct result of my prison experience, I am more convinced than ever that the path that I have chosen is the right one,” Cong Nhan said. “Before prison I was just like a thin arrow, but now I have become a strong fort.”

Luis Palau Allowed to Speak

While Christians in several parts of Vietnam are still subject to abuse from local officials, the country’s national authorities have continued to allow high-profile Christian events. On March 17, renowned U.S. evangelist Luis Palau was allowed to address more than 400 pastors in a day-long event at the New World Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.

Palau, who had arrived in Hanoi with his entourage on March 13, had addressed nearly 200 Hanoi area pastors at an evening event at the Hanoi Hilton on March 14. The two events were streamed live on http://www.hoithanh.com, a popular website that reports on Protestant news in Vietnam. Hundreds of Vietnamese in Vietnam and abroad were estimated to have watched the presentations.

The events were deemed significant, if not historic, by Vietnam’s Christian leaders. Very rarely is a prominent foreign Protestant leader allowed to address Vietnamese leaders, especially one from the United States.

The events were significant also in that they brought together leaders from virtually all segments of Vietnam’s fractured and sometimes conflicted Protestant groups, Christian leaders said. The gatherings included leaders of open churches and house churches, registered and unregistered churches, and urban and even ethnic minority groups from Vietnam’s remote mountainous regions.

Two representatives of a Mennonite church headed by activist pastor Nguyen Hong Quang, however, were turned away by police. 

Palau and Mike McIntosh, pastor of San Diego mega-church Horizon Christian Fellowship, strongly challenged the Vietnamese church leaders to strive for unity. The assembled pastors were challenged to put aside past conflicts and suspicions for the sake of the Kingdom of God in Vietnam, with Palau saying that unity was a requirement for God’s blessing on their churches and nation.

Some Vietnamese leaders responded by expressing remorse for their divisions and committed to start working toward reconciliation.

Organizers and participants said they hope such short events will lead to larger gains. Though the Luis Palau Association had originally planned for a two-day event for 2,000 pastors, most agreed this was an unprecedented first step toward a bigger goal. With an invitation from all segments of the Protestant community in Vietnam in hand, the Luis Palau Association is prepared to help organize evangelistic festivals in Vietnam in 2011, the centenary of Protestantism in Vietnam.

“There is still a long way to go, but we are seeing miracles piling up,” said one senior Vietnamese leader. “It could happen!”

One prominent overseas Vietnamese leader wondered if Palau’s visit to Vietnam could be compared to Billy Graham’s visit to Moscow during the Soviet Communist era.

Also sharing testimonies during the March 17 event were Rick Colsen, a top Intel executive, and John Dalton, Secretary of the Navy under President Clinton.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Hindu Nationalist Party Official in India Charged in Nun’s Rape


Local politician of Bharatiya Janata Party had attended Christian school.

NEW DELHI, December 11 (CDN) — Police in Orissa state have arrested an official of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for allegedly leading an attack that ended in the rape of a Catholic nun during last year’s anti-Christian mayhem in Kandhamal district.

Officers in the eastern state of Orissa had been searching for Gururam Patra, identified by local residents as the general secretary of the BJP in Kandhamal district, for more than 14 months. Arrested on Saturday (Dec. 6) in Balliguda, Patra was charged with leading the attack but not with rape.

Dilip Kumar Mohanty, an investigating officer, told Compass that a non-bailable warrant had been issued against Patra, accused of being “the main organizer” of the attack on Aug. 25, 2008, in which then-28-year-old Sister Meena Lalita Barwa said she was gang-raped.

Mohanty said he had gathered “sufficient evidence” against Patra.

“He is the one who went into the house where the nun was staying and took her out, along with his associates who outraged her modesty,” Mohanty said.

Previously police had arrested 18 associates of Patra.

The Rev. Ajay Singh of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar told Compass that Patra had become a “terror” for local Christians, as “he was threatening against [those] identifying the accused in numerous cases.”

Violence in Kandhamal took place in August-September 2008, killing more than 100 people – mostly hacked to death or burned alive – and incinerating more than 4,500 houses, as well as destroying over 250 churches and 13 educational institutions. The violence began after a VHP leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, was killed by Maoists (extreme Marxists) on Aug. 23. Hindu extremist groups wrongly blamed local Christians for the assassination.

A local Christian from K. Nuagaon village, where the nun said she was raped, told Compass on condition of anonymity that Patra was the general secretary of the BJP for Kandhamal district. But the BJP and its ideological mentor, the Hindu nationalist conglomerate Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps or RSS), were reluctant to admit association with him.

Suresh Pujari, president of the Orissa state BJP, told Compass that he did not know if Patra was a member of his party.

“I have heard his name, but I have never met him,” he said. “The BJP is a big organization, and I cannot know everyone.”

RSS spokesperson Manmohan Vaidya told Compass that Patra was a block president (a local government position) in Balliguda during the violence.

“He may have attended a few meetings of the RSS, but he was never associated with the organization officially,” he said.

Investigating officer Mohanty said police have yet to establish his affiliations, but “it appears that he was from the RSS group.” Mohanty said Patra was not accused of rape but of being the main leader of the attack.

On Nov. 11, Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, told the state assembly House that 85 people from the RSS, 321 members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) and 118 workers of the Bajrang Dal, youth wing of the VHP, were rounded up by the police for the attacks in Kandhamal.

Educated by Christians

Union Catholic Asian News (UCAN) agency reported Patra attended a Catholic school, Vijaya High School, in Raikia town in Kandhamal district.

The news agency quoted the Rev. Mathew Puthyadam, principal of the school when Patra attended, as saying that he was a good student and respected the priests.

“I really wonder how he changed,” Puthyadam told UCAN.

UCAN reported that Puthyadam said right-wing Hindu groups commonly recruit people educated at Christian schools and indoctrinate them against Christians. There were a few other former students of Catholic schools who also led mobs that attacked Christians in Kandhamal, he added.

Puthyadam reportedly said that when Patra’s mother brought him to the school, she said he lost his father in early childhood and they had no money to continue his studies; the priest arranged sponsorship through a Christian aid agency to cover his fees and lodging at Bishop Tobar Hostel.

‘Police Refused to Help’

It was during the August 2008 attacks that Barwa of the Divyajyoti Pastoral Centre in K. Nuagaon area in Balliguda, said she was attacked and raped.

At an Oct. 24, 2008 press conference, the nun said 40 to 50 people attacked the house in which she and priest Thomas Chellantharayil were staying; he also was attacked in the Aug. 25 incident. She said the assailants first slapped and threatened her, then took her out of the house.

“There were three men who first threatened to throw me into the smoldering fire,” she said. “Then they threw me on the veranda [which was] full of plastic pieces. One of them tore my blouse and undergarments. While one man stood on my right hand, the other stood on my left hand and the third man raped me.”

Another man tried to rape her as she got up, she said, and when a mob arrived she was able to hide behind a staircase. But the mob pulled her out and threatened to kill her while others wanted to parade her naked in the street.

“They then beat me up with their hands,” she said. “I was made to walk on the streets wearing my petticoat and sari, as my blouse was torn by one of the attackers. When we reached the market place I saw two policemen there. I asked them to help me, but they refused.”

When the nun filed a complaint at the Balliguda police station, she said, police made no arrests until The Hindu newspaper highlighted her case on Sept. 30, 2008.

Christian leader John Dayal, a member of India’s National Integration Council, said the government has yet to fully address violence against Christians.

“The administration, civil and police, have to act with their full strength to stop the hate campaign that has been unleashed in the last one year, and which has penetrated distant villages, creating schism and hatred between communities,” he said.

On Sunday (Dec. 7) Christians and rights activists formed a new organization, the Association of Victims of Communal Violence in Kandhamal in Phulbani to deal with the growing communal divide in Kandhamal.

“The major task of the new association, working closely with clergy and civil society activists irrespective of religion, is to restore public confidence and to ensure that the victims and witnesses felt safe enough to depose in court,” said Dayal.

He said Christian leaders hope this grassroots initiative will also help in the process of reconciliation and allow people to go back to their villages, where right-wing groups are threatening them with death if they do not convert to Hinduism.

Dayal also said there were rumors of human trafficking in Kandhamal, and that the new association felt special projects for women and especially young girls were urgently required.

“I pray they remain rumors,” he added.

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: TWO CLASHES SHAKE COPTIC COMMUNITY


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rumors Lead to More Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Priest Leaves

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

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

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

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

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

Castor moved to Minya at the request of his superiors.

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News 

EGYPT: TWO CLASHES SHAKE COPTIC COMMUNITY


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rumors Lead to More Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Priest Leaves

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

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

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

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

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

Castor moved to Minya at the request of his superiors.

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News 

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

EGYPT: TWO COPTS RE-ARRESTED IN ABU FANA MURDER


Christians fear police coercing them to drop charges of Muslim attack on monastery.

ISTANBUL, May 29 (Compass Direct News) – Police this month released two Copts wrongfully arrested for killing a Muslim during an attack on Abu Fana monastery in Egypt in May 2008, but then re-arrested them as part of an intimidation campaign against Christians, their lawyer said.

More worrisome to the Christians in custody is that their fate most likely will be decided outside of the justice system, in “reconciliation meetings.” The state prosecutor investigating the case has not announced the results of his findings on the true identity of the murderer, as he is awaiting the outcome of the out-of-court talks between Copts and local Muslims.

Brothers Refaat and Ibrahim Fawzy Abdo have been incarcerated for a year. On May 3 the two brothers were released on bail, but the Minya State Security Services issued a new detention order and had them arrested on May 20 for “security reasons.” Egyptian security forces can incarcerate people without reason according to provisions in criminal law.

A criminal court in Cairo ordered the release of the Fawzy Abdo brothers twice, but each time the interior ministry issued another arrest order. Advocacy groups say the interior ministry is working with local police and the investigating officer to keep them detained, force a confession and make the Copts look guilty in the Abu Fana attack.

“Police arrested them for reasons of ‘security concerns’ in spite of no evidence,” said Ibrahim Habib, chairman of United Copts of Great Britain. “They are comforting Islamists by scapegoating Christians.”

The two men worked as building contractors on the walls of Abu Fana monastery in Upper Egypt when nearly 60 armed Muslim residents attacked it in May 2008. The attack left one Muslim dead and four Christians injured, and two of three monks briefly kidnapped were tortured.

Five days after the attacks, security forces arrested the Fawzy Abdo brothers, charging them with murder. In November they were sent to El Wadi El Gadid Detention Camp near the Egypt-Sudan border and tortured as authorities tried to extract a false confession of murder, their lawyer said.

Minya Gov. Ahmed Dia el-Din claimed the Muslim murdered at Abu Fana was killed by one of the brothers from 80 meters away. But the Coptic brothers’ lawyer, Zachary Kamal, told Compass that an autopsy showed a bullet fired from a short distance.

The two men have faced extreme conditions in prison such as solitary confinement and broken teeth from beatings, and they have not been allowed to see their families, who are undergoing extreme hardship. Refaat Fawzy Abdo has six children and Ibrahim Fawzy Abdo has seven; both Christians are the breadwinners of their households.

Reconciliation Instead of Justice?

Reconciliation meetings with area Muslims continue with the participation of Coptic businessmen, the diocese of Mallawi, a member of Parliament and attorney Kamal, all under the auspices of the police.

Such meetings are somewhat customary in Egypt, in which different parties come together to settle legal matters out of court. They carry a social purpose of restoring faith and communal harmony in the face of sectarian tensions.

Kamal said he was not opposed to a reconciliation meeting instead of normal judicial channels, but that terms of the discussion were unacceptable. Authorities want the brothers to admit to the murder of the Muslim and the Copts to pay compensation to the victim’s family.

“They want the Copts to accept guilt, but that means they will carry the blood of the victim the rest of their lives,” Kamal said.

Other Copts worry that the meetings are a substitute for administrative justice, and that police are using the brothers as a bargaining tool to force Abu Fana’s monks to drop charges against local Muslims and call off the investigation of the attack.

“The brothers are still held because they are being used as a negotiation chip,” said Samia Sidhom, English editor of Egyptian Christian weekly Watani. “The reconciliation efforts are to make the monks change their testimony. If they do that, the brothers will be released.”

Sidhom said that Coptic church leaders entered into negotiations with local Muslims and politicians and gave up their legal rights because obtaining justice in the Islamist-tilted Egyptian legal system is very difficult.

“Typically a Copt or their buildings are attacked, and the only way for the police to avoid punishing the culprits is through these reconciliation meetings, where the Copts give up any legal rights they have,” Sidhom said.

State officials, however, said the Copts are superimposing religious persecution claims onto a simple argument over property. The Minya governor said the attacks were not religious but were provoked by a long-standing land dispute between the monks and local Bedouins.

Whether the monastery attack started as a land dispute or not, the findings of secular rights groups revealed that in the course of the violence, attackers tied two of the kidnapped monks to a palm tree, whipped and beat them, and forced them to spit on a cross and give the confession of Islam, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Motives for the May 2008 attacks against the monastery, located 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Cairo, are still unknown. Coptic advocacy groups claim the attacks were motivated by growing hostility against Egypt’s Christian community.

Report from Compass Direct News

ONE KILLED, 11 INJURED IN PAKISTAN CHURCH ATTACK BY GUNMEN


As violence continues to spiral out of control in Pakistan, ANS has received news that indiscriminate firing by a group of Muslim men on congregants of a Presbyterian church in Gujranwala district on Monday, March 2, left a woman dead and 11 others injured, reports Dan Wooding and Sheraz Khurram Khan, special to ASSIST News Service.

Several Muslim men, identified as Amjad, Balal, Zeeshan, Azam and others whose identities could not be ascertained by ANS, opened fire on worshipping Christians at the Presbyterian Church in Songo, which is a town that is some 7 kilometers from Gujranwala city, a week after two Muslim men robbed a Christian resident of the area on gunpoint.

On February 25, two Muslim men intercepted a Christian man, Imran, on his way home and robbed him at gunpoint of 3,000 Pakistani Rupees ($37.3506 USD), a mobile phone and a wrist watch.

Bleeding, Imran, after going home, he then went to the local police station to report the incident. The matter was “resolved” after Muslim notables brokered reconciliation between Imran and the accused.

However, the patch-up proved short-lived, as several armed Muslims made forcible entry into several homes of Christians on March 2 and allegedly harassed and threatened Christians.

Another group of Muslims, who were carrying iron rods, clubs, and guns, entered into the church. They opened fire at the congregants. The culprits allegedly also smashed the windows of the church and desecrated Bibles. They removed the cross erected at the roof of the church and left the scene shouting at the Christians that they would face worse attacks if they did not leave the town.

Talking to ANS by phone, Pastor Patras of the Presbyterian church, said that moving the inured Christians to the local hospital was not without a struggle. Elaborating on this, he said the Muslims had blocked the road leading to hospital apparently to stop Christians from going to Gujranwala District Headquarter Hospital. He said they were eventually able to shift the injured to the hospital after police intervention.

”Police vehicles ferried the injured to the hospital,” he said.

Commenting on the death of Christian woman, Shakeela, who succumbed to her bullet injuries, Shahzad Kamran of the Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan (SLMP) called for her post-mortem.

He alleged that the police “are not taking any action to arrest assailants.”

Mr. Sohail Johnson, Chief Coordinator of SLMP, who visited the scene of incident, condemned what he called “a brutal attack” on Christians and urged prayer partners of the ministry to pray for protection of Pakistani Christians.

“Fundamentalist Muslims are targeting Christians as they cannot tolerate their existence in Pakistan,” he told ANS.

Pastor Patras claimed that the attitude of the nursing staff and medics at the government-run hospital was “callous and indifferent” toward the injured Christians. He said the gunmen had “exercised their influence over the hospital staff” after failing to “stop injured Christians from arriving at the hospital.”

“The medics at the DHQ Gujranwala asked us to take Shakeela to Lahore. It took us a long time to arrange an ambulance as we had no resources,” said Pastor Patras, who believes, Shakeela’s death could have been averted if multiple odds were not stacked against them.

Asked if the police had made any arrests, he said they arrested a couple of people but said “the real culprits are still scot-free.”

Pastor Patras described the situation as “extremely tense”, adding, “Fearing attacks, Christians have shut themselves in their houses. We are scared and are praying for our safety.”

He said Muslims had also attacked Christian residents of Kotli Sahvo, a village in Gujranwala district on February 28. “Police did not even file a report, let alone take action against the culprits,” he alleged.

“Even if a report was lodged. We would lose it in the court as we would not have resources to hire a lawyer,” he said.

ANS has discovered that local Christians have protested against the incident and have demanded immediate arrests of the culprits.

Report from the Christian Telegraph