Life on Hold for Egyptian Christian Arrested for his Faith


Unresolved charge of ‘defaming religion’ leaves him in perpetual limbo.

CAIRO, Egypt, December 16 (CDN) — An Egyptian who left Islam to become a Christian and consequently lost his wife, children and business is waiting to see if the government will now take away his freedom for “defaming” Islam.

Ashraf Thabet, 45, is charged with defaming a revealed religion, Article 98f of the Egyptian Penal Code. The charges stem from Thabet’s six-year search for spiritual meaning that eventually led him to become a Christian. During his search, he shared his doubts about Islam and told others what he was learning about Jesus Christ.

Local religious authorities, incensed at Thabet’s ideas, notified Egypt’s State Security Intelligence service (SSI), which arrested and charged him with defamation. If found guilty, Thabet would face up to five years in jail. But because prosecutors have made no move to try the case, Thabet lives in limbo and is subject to a regular barrage of death threats from people in his community in Port Said in northeast Egypt.

“I don’t know what is going to happen in the future,” Thabet said. “They’re making life hard for me. I can’t get back my computer. I can’t get back anything.”

 

Searching

Thabet said that before his search began he was a committed Muslim who did his best to observe its rules, including those for prayer and fasting.

“I wasn’t an extremist, but I was committed to praying and to reading the Quran,” Thabet said. “I went to the Hajj. I did the usual things. I followed the Quran for the most part.”

Despite his efforts, Thabet admitted that his understanding of God was based on fear and routine, nearly rote obedience.

“There was no spiritual relationship between myself and God,” he said. “In general I was always cautious about my relationship with God. I didn’t want to do anything wrong.”

Thabet started looking at Christian Web sites, but his real interest in Christianity began when he watched the film, “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004.

“When I watched ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ I was very touched by Jesus’ story, and I wanted to read more about Him,” Thabet said. “So I asked a friend how I could know more about Jesus, and he told me, ‘The Bible.’”

His friend, a Christian Copt, did not get him a Bible until a month later because, Thabet thinks, he was afraid of being accused of proselytizing. Thabet began reading the Bible, which had a powerful impact on him, especially the Sermon on the Mount.

“I felt inside myself that these were the words of God,” he said. “The Bible tells people to give and to give out freely, so these words couldn’t be the words of a human being or a [mere] person, because human beings are inherently selfish.”

Thabet was also struck by the lives that the early followers of Jesus led, especially their willingness to lose everything, including their lives, for Christ.

The final factor that led Thabet to become a Christian came from Islam’s “Ninety-Nine Names of Allah,” attributes of God according to the Quran and tradition. In the names, God is called a “healer” a “resurrecter” and “just.”

“I started to compare all these characteristics with the characteristics of Jesus, and I saw that Jesus had a lot of the characteristics that God had, not only the human characteristics, being just and being kind, but there were similarities in the supernatural characteristics, like that He raised people from the dead,” he said. “In the Quran only God could raise people from the dead. I noticed that Jesus could raise people from the dead, and that He could heal people. Once I started to notice
the similarities between God and Jesus, I started believing that Jesus is the Son of God.”

Thabet said he cared about others “going the right way,” so he started having conversations with Muslim friends.

At first, people respected Thabet or tolerated what was seen as an awkward curiosity. But after he told his friends they were “only Muslim by inheritance,” they started to turn against him. They asked him what he was going to be if he wasn’t going to be a Muslim.

“I told them I started to read about Christianity, and I was starting to believe in it, and that’s when they brought the elders to talk to me,” he said.

The meeting didn’t go well. The Islamic leaders were unable to answer his questions and ended up yelling at him. Then they reported him to the SSI.

 

Arrest

The SSI summoned Thabet and questioned him on his doubts about Islam.

Thabet said by the time he was done with the interrogation, the SSI officer looked almost sick and told him not to talk to anyone else in Port Said about religion.

“I don’t encourage you to talk about these things with people or to open up these types of discussions, because it will just provoke people and make them angry,” the officer told him, according to Thabet.

Two days later, Thabet said, the SSI ordered him to report for more questioning, this time with an officer who specialized in religious issues and countering missionaries. The officer wanted to know what made him start to doubt Islam. He asked specific questions about what Web sites he had been on and what books he had read, and whether he had been baptized.

Thabet said that at the time of his questioning, he was still struggling with his new beliefs. Part of him wanted something that would restore his faith in Islam, so he went to Internet chat rooms for religious discussion.

“A part of me wanted to feel that I was wrong, that there was an answer to my questions,” he said. “I was looking for someone who would say ‘No, no, this is how it is,’ and that I would regain my trust back or not have any more doubts. But none of the people I talked to could answer me. They didn’t say anything to any effect.”

Thabet said he was always respectful, but Muslims found his questions provocative and became increasingly angry.

Eventually police came for Thabet. On March 22 at 3 a.m., he said, 11 officers from the SSI cut the power to his home, kicked down his front door and assaulted him in front of his crying wife and children.

Thabet quickly pulled away from the fight, once he realized they were officers from the SSI. The men swarmed over Thabet’s home, seizing his computer and every book and CD he owned. They took him to jail.

Authorities interrogated Thabet non-stop for 12 hours, took a break and then interrogated him for seven more, he said.

Initially he was held for 15 days. Then authorities ordered he be held for another 15 days. Then they extended it again. Thabet said he spent the entire time in solitary confinement, and he wasn’t informed of the “defamation of religion” charge against him until the end of 132 days in jail. He said he was not tortured, however, and that his interrogators and jailers were largely civil.

There was more hardship waiting for him at home. Muslim leaders in his neighborhood convinced his wife to divorce him and take his 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.

“They gave her the money to file for a divorce, a car and another person to marry,” Thabet said, adding that the Muslim leaders had offered him money too if he would stay in Islam. “In the beginning they tried to bribe me to come back to Islam, but I refused.”

Thabet has only had a few brief moments with his children since he was arrested, mainly when his soon-to-be ex-wife came to their home to gather a few belongings. If she goes through with the divorce, according to Egyptian law it is likely Thabet will lose all parental rights to his children, including any right to see them.

In Egypt and most other Muslim-majority countries, leaving Islam is considered ample grounds for termination of parental rights. Thabet said the religious leaders consider him “lost to Islam” and are trying to “save” his wife and children.

He filed a report with police about the Muslim leaders bribing his wife – and about another man who swindled money from him – but police ignored both reports, he said.

Kamal Fahmi of Set My People Free to Worship Me, a group headquartered in Cairo dedicated to raising awareness about the problems faced by Muslims who become Christians, said that under Islam, “Muslim converts don’t have the right to exist.”

Arrests like Thabet’s are common in Egypt.

“It is a tactic used to intimidate people and scare them from leaving Islam and taking alternative beliefs or moral codes,” Fahmi said.

In Islam as it is most often practiced in Egypt, merely expressing doubt about Islam is considered wrong, Fahmi said. Questioning any of its claims is considered blasphemy and is punishable by imprisonment under a variety of charges in Egypt; it is punishable by death in some other countries.

“Saying, ‘I don’t believe in Muhammad,’ is considered defaming Islam,” Fahmi said. “Saying, ‘I don’t believe in Islam as it is not true,’ can lead to death [murder], as you are considered an apostate,” Fahmi said. “Even rejecting the Islamic moral codes can lead to the same thing. Criticizing any of the sharia [Islamic law] is considered blasphemy.”

 

The Future

Thabet said he is uncertain what the future holds. He was released on Aug. 1 but, because he has the defamation of religion charge over his head – with no indication of when the case could go to court – he is unable to work and cannot even obtain a driver’s license.

His savings are almost depleted, forcing him to borrow money from a Muslim friend. He is concerned about re-arrest and receives death threats on a regular basis. He is too afraid to leave his apartment on most days.

“There are a lot of phone threats,” Thabet said. Noting he had been baptized three years ago, he said he has received phone threats in which someone tells him, “We are going to baptize you again with blood.”

On numerous occasions while talking in Internet chat rooms, he has been told, “Look outside the window, we know where you are,” Thabet said.

In recent days Muslims are angry at converts and at Christians in general, he said. “They’re very worked up about religious issues.”

He said he wants to leave Egypt but admits that, at his age, it would be very hard to start over. And if he stays in Egypt, he said, at least he will have a chance to see his children, however brief those encounters may be.

Since Thabet was released from jail on Aug. 1, authorities have seized his passport and summoned him four times for questioning. He said he thinks the SSI is trying to wear him down.

“Everyone is telling me that they [the government] want to make my life hard,” he said. “The problem here in Egypt is the religious intolerance that is found in government ministries. The intolerance has reached a point where they can’t think straight. Their intolerance makes them unaware of their own intolerance.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Anti-Christian Sentiment Heats Up


Terrorist threat in Iraq emerges at importune moment for Copts.

CAIRO, Egypt, November 22 (CDN) — As bombings and other attacks continue against Christians in Iraq, Christians in Egypt have gathered to pray and plan for their own safety.

When a group of Islamic extremists on Oct. 31 burst into Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad during evening mass and began spraying the sanctuary with gunfire, the militant organization that took responsibility said Christians in Egypt also would be targeted if its demands were not met. Taking more than 100 congregants hostage, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) called a television station and stated that the assault came in response to the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt allegedly holding two Coptic women against their will who, the ISI and some others believe, converted to Islam.

The group issued a 48-hour deadline for the release of the women, and when the deadline passed it issued a statement that, “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen [Muslim fighters] wherever they can reach them.” The statement later added ominously, “We will open upon them the doors of destruction and rivers of blood.”

In the attack and rescue attempt that followed, 58 people were reportedly killed. A week and a half later, Islamic extremists killed four people in a series of coordinated attacks against Christians in Baghdad and its surrounding suburbs. The attackers launched mortar rounds and planted makeshift bombs outside Christian homes and one church. At least one attack was made against the family members of one of the victims of the original attack.

On Nov. 15, gunmen entered two Christian homes in Mosul and killed two men in the house. The next day, a Christian and his 6-year-old daughter were killed in a car bombing. At the same time, another bomb exploded outside the home of a Christian, damaging the house but leaving the residents uninjured, according to CNN.

The threats against Christians caused a flurry of activity at churches in Egypt. A 35-year-old Protestant who declined to give her name said Christians in Cairo have unified in prayer meetings about the threats. An SMS text message was sent out through prayer networks asking people to meet, she said.

“I know people are praying now,” she said. “We have times for our people to pray, so all of us are praying.”

Security has increased at churches throughout Egypt. In Cairo, where the presence of white-uniformed security police is ubiquitous, the number of uniformed and plain-clothes officers has doubled at churches. High-ranking police officers shuffle from one house of worship to another monitoring subordinates and enforcing new security rules. At times, parking on the same side of the street as a church building, or even driving by one, has been forbidden.

On Nov. 8, leaders from the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches gathered to discuss how to improve security at churches. According to the leaders of several churches, the government asked pastors to cancel unessential large-scale public meetings. Pope Shenouda III canceled a celebration to commemorate the 39th anniversary of his installment as the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Guests at a recent outdoor Christmas bazaar and a subsequent festival at the All-Saints Cathedral in Zamalek
were greeted with pat-downs, metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs.

Some church leaders, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the security improvements are haphazard, while others say they are genuine efforts to ensure the safety of Christians.

Most Christians in Cairo avoided answering any questions about the attacks in Iraq or the threats made against Christians in Egypt. But Deliah el-Sowkary, a Coptic Orthodox woman in her 20s, said she hoped no attacks would happen in her country. Noting the security present at all churches, still she said she is not that worried.

“I think it’s different in Egypt than in Baghdad, it’s more safe here,” El-Sowkary said.

Almost a week after the bombings, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak issued a statement through the state-run MENA news agency that the Copts would be protected from attacks.

“The president affirmed his extensive solicitude for the protection of the nation’s sons, Muslims and Copts, from the forces of terrorism and extremism,” the agency stated.

 

Pressure Cooker

The security concerns came against a backdrop of heightened tensions between the Muslim majority and the Coptic Christian minority over the past few months, with weeks of protests against Christians in general and against Shenouda specifically. The protests, held mostly in Alexandria, ended two weeks ago.

The tension started after the wife of a Coptic priest, Camilia Zakher, disappeared in July. According to government sources and published media reports, Zakher left her home after a heated argument with her husband. But Coptic protestors, who started gathering to protest at churches after Zakher disappeared, claimed she had been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam.

Soon after, Egypt’s State Security Intelligence (SSI) officers found her at the home of a friend. Despite stating she had left of her own free will, authorities brought Zakher back to her husband. Since then, Zakher has been in seclusion. It is unclear where she is or if she remains there of her own free will.

Unconfirmed rumors began spreading that Zakher had converted to Islam and was being held against her will to force her to return to Christianity. Protests outside mosques after Friday prayers became weekly events. Protestors produced a photo of unknown origin of a woman in Islamic covering whom they claimed was Zakher. In response, Coptic authorities released a video in which the priest’s wife stated that she wasn’t a Muslim nor ever had been.

Another rumor began circulating that Zakher went to Al-Azhar University, one of the primary centers of Islamic learning in the world, to convert to Islam. But Al-Azhar, located in Cairo, released a statement that no such thing ever happened.

No independent media interviews of Zakher have taken place because, according to the Coptic Church, the SSI has ordered church officials not to allow public access to her. Along with their accusations about Zakher, protestors also claimed, without evidence, that a similar thing happened in 2004 to Wafa Constantine, also the wife of a Coptic Orthodox priest. Constantine was the second woman the ISI demanded the Copts “release.” Like Zakher, her location is not public knowledge.

The month after the Zakher incident, Egyptian media reported in error that the SSI had seized a ship from Israel laden with explosives headed for the son of an official of the Coptic Orthodox church. The ship was later found to be carrying fireworks, but another set of Islamic leaders, led in part by Nabih Al-Wahsh, an attorney famous for filing lawsuits designed to damage the church, declared without any evidence that Copts were allied with the Israelis and stockpiling weapons in the basements
of their churches with plans to overthrow the Muslim majority.

The claims were echoed on Al-Jazeera by Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-’Awa, the former secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, and in a statement issued by the Front of Religious Scholars, a group of academics affiliated with Al-Azhar University.

There was no time for tensions to cool after Al-’Awa and the others leveled their allegations. The next month, Bishop Anba Bishoy, the secretary of the Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masri Al-Yawm that Muslims were “guests” in Egypt, inflaming a Muslim population already up in arms.

“The Copts are the root of the land,” the bishop said. “We love the guests who came and settled in our land, and regard them as brothers, but they want to control even our churches? I reject anything that harms the Muslims, but as Christians we will do everything, even die as martyrs, if someone tries to harm our Christian mission.”

Around the same time, the Front of Religious Scholars called for a complete boycott of Christians in Egypt. The group called Christians “immoral,” labeled them “terrorists” and said Muslims should not patronize their businesses or even say “hello” to them.

The statement by the scholars was followed by a media leak about a lecture Bishoy was scheduled to give at a conference for Orthodox clergy. In his presentation, Bishoy planned on questioning the authorship of a verse in the Quran that calls Christians “blasphemers.” Muslims believe that an angel revealed the Quran to Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, who transmitted it word-by-word to his followers. Bishoy contended there was a possibility the verse in question was added later.

The mosque protests became even more virulent, and the conference was abruptly cancelled. Bishoy was forced to issue an apology, saying he never meant to cast doubt on Islam and called Muslims “partners” with the Copts in Egypt. Shenouda also issued an apology on national television. By comparison, an Islamic publishing house that rewrote and then issued what it termed the “true Bible” caused barely a stir.

Al-’Awa then blamed the deteriorating state of Muslim-Christian relations on Shenouda and Bishoy. He accused the Coptic Orthodox Church of exploiting the government’s “weak stance” toward it and “incarcerating anyone [who] is not to its liking.”

The Al-Azhar Academy of Islamic Research issued a statement that declared, “Egypt is a Muslim state.” The statement further went on to read that the Christians’ rights were contingent on their acceptance of the “Islamic identity” of Egypt. The statement was endorsed by Ali Gum’a, the mufti of Egypt.

The statement also referenced an agreement made between Muhammad and a community of Egyptian Christians in the seventh century as the guiding document on how Christians should be governed in a Muslim-dominated state. If ever codified into Egyptian law as many Muslims in Egypt desire, it would legally cement the status of Christians in the country as second-class citizens.

In 639, seven years after Muhammad died, Muslim armies rode across from Syria and Palestine and invaded Egypt, then controlled by the Byzantines. At first the Muslims, then a new but well-armed minority within Egypt, treated the conquered Christians relatively well by seventh century standards. But within a generation, they began the Islamization of the country, demanding all official business be conducted in Arabic, the language of the Quran, and Coptic and Jewish residents were forced to pay special taxes and obey rules designed to reaffirm their second-class status.

In the centuries since then, the treatment of Christians in Egypt has ebbed and flowed depending on the whim of those in power. After the coup of 1952, in which a group of men known as the Free Officers’ Movement took power from a European-backed monarch, Copts have seen their treatment decline.

In 1971, then-President Anwar Sadat introduced a new constitution designating Islamic law as “a principle source of legislation” in Egypt. In 1980, the National Assembly made Islam the official religion of the state.

Estimates of the Coptic population range from 7 to 12 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people. They are accepted by some in Egypt and openly discriminated against by others. Violent attacks against Christians – which the government does little to prevent – accentuate tensions.

The state also routinely harasses converts to Christianity from Islam. Many have to live in some sort of hiding.

The Protestant woman said she was not sure whether attacks would happen in response to the threats, but whatever happens, she said she expects that Christians in Egypt will continue to endure persecution.

“According to the Bible, we know this is going to happen,” she said. “This is not new or novel for us. The Bible said that we will be persecuted. It is expected.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Two Churches Come under Attack from Islamists


One community in Punjab Province faces threat from grenade, another from bulldozer.

SARGODHA, Pakistan, July 13 (CDN) — Christian communities in two areas came under attack in Punjab Province earlier this month.

In Sargodha, an unidentified motorcyclist on July 1 tossed a grenade in front of the gates of St. Filian’s Church of Pakistan, next to a small Christian-owned amusement park where children were playing, Christian sources said.

One of the owners of the playground, Shehzad Masih, said the hand-made grenade was thrown just before 9 p.m., when hot summer weather had cooled and the park was crammed with parents and their children. It did not explode.

Masih said children told him that after throwing the grenade, the motorcyclist sped away, disappearing into the traffic of University Road in Sargodha, a major street where government offices are located. Masih said police confirmed that it was an explosive device that did not go off.

The Rev. Pervez Iqbal of St. Filian’s said the Bomb Disposal Squad and New Satellite Town police took the grenade away. High-ranking police officials cordoned off the area, declaring a “High Red Alert” in Sargodha, he added. He and Masih said the whole area was evacuated.

“By the grace of God, that hand grenade did not go off, and there was no loss of life or property despite the fact that the alleged militant made his best efforts to throw it close to the entrance of the church, possibly inside the church,” Iqbal said.

A retired member of the army who now serves as a clergyman told Compass that a standard hand grenade normally has eight ounces of explosive material capable of killing within 30 to 50 yards.

“Nowadays Muslim militants are able to make their own hand-made grenades,” he said on condition of anonymity, adding that the explosive content in the undetonated grenade has not been revealed.

Area Christians said the attempted attack comes after many Christian clergymen and heads of Christian organizations received threatening letters from Islamic militants.

In spite of the incident, the following Sunday service took place at its usual time.

Iqbal told Compass that police have taken no special measures to protect the church building since the attempted attack, though a police patrol vehicle is stationed outside the church gate.

“This is the only measure taken by the police to beef up security at the church,” he said.

 

Bulldozer

At a small village near Sheikhupura, Punjab Province, a church building and Christian homes came under threat of demolition on July 5. Islamic extremists issued threats as, accompanied by local police, they intended to demolish the Apostolic Church Pakistan structure in Lahorianwali, Narang Mandi, with a bulldozer, area Christians said.

Assistant Sub-Inspector Rana Rauf led Narang Mandi police and the extremists in an attempted demolition that was averted with the intervention of Christian leaders who called in district police.

The attempted assault followed the arrest on July 1 of local influential Muslim Muhammad Zulfiqar, who had forcibly stopped renovation of a church wall on that day; he was released the same day.

“Rana Rauf disdainfully used derogatory remarks against Christians, calling them ‘Gadha [donkey],’ and said they go astray unless a whip is used to beat them and show them the straight path,” said Yousaf Masih, a Christian who also had been arrested and released on July 1, when Rauf, Zulfiqar and the extremists stopped the renovation work.

Another area Christian, Zulfiqar Gill, told Compass that the Islamic extremists threatened the Christians in the July 5 incident.

“They said that if we ever tried to rebuild the walls or renovate the frail Apostolic Church building, they would create a scene here like Gojra,” said Gill. On Aug. 1, 2009, Islamic assailants acting on a false rumor of blaspheming the Quran and whipped into frenzy by local imams attacked a Christian colony in Gojra, burning at least seven Christians to death, injuring 19 others, looting more than 100 houses and setting fire to 50 of them. The dead included women and children.

Khalid Gill of the Christian Lawyers’ Foundation said Zulfiqar has tried to illegally obtain the church property and attacked the structure twice previously in the past two years. Younas Masih said Zulfiqar demolished one of the church walls on Oct. 8, 2008, and local Christian Akber Masih said Zulfiqar set aflame the tents and decorations of a Christmas Service at the Apostolic Church Pakistan in 2009.

In each case, Christians filed charges against Zulfiqar, but because of his wealth and influence he was never arrested, area Christians said.

A Deputy District Officer Revenue report states that Zulfiqar has illegally occupied land and wishes to seize the church property and the house of an assistant pastor. Zulfiqar has already demolished the house of the assistant pastor, Waris Masih, according to the report.

Lahorianwali is a predominantly Islamic village of more than 350 Muslim families and only 36 Christian families, sources said.

Report from Compass Direct News

Afghan parliamentarian calls for execution of Christians


International Christian Concern (ICC) has told the ASSIST News Service (ANS) that it has learned that an Afghan parliamentary secretary has called for the public execution of Christian converts from the parliament floor, reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.

On Tuesday, the Associated Free Press reported that Abdul Sattar Khawasi, deputy secretary of the Afghan lower house in parliament, called for the execution of Christian converts from Islam.

Speaking in regards to a video broadcast by the Afghan television network Noorin TV showing footage of Christian men being baptized and praying in Farsi, Khawasi said, “Those Afghans that appeared in this video film should be executed in public. The house should order the attorney general and the NDS (intelligence agency) to arrest these Afghans and execute them.”

An ICC spokesperson said, “The broadcast triggered a protest by hundreds of Kabul University students on Monday, who shouted death threats and demanded the expulsion of Christian foreigners accused of proselytizing.

"As a result, the operations of Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) and U.S.-based Church World Service (CWS) have been suspended over allegations of proselytizing. The Afghan government is currently undertaking an intensive investigation into the matter.

"According to Afghan law, proselytizing is illegal and conversion from Islam is punishable by death.”

ICC sources within Afghanistan have reported that many national Christians are in hiding, fearful of execution. Under government pressure during investigations, some Afghans have reportedly revealed names and locations of Christian converts.

Aidan Clay, ICC Regional Manager for the Middle East, said, “It is absolutely appalling that the execution of Christians would be promoted on the floor of the Afghan parliament. Khawasi’s statement sounded a whole lot like the tyrannical manifesto of the Taliban not that of a U.S. ally. American lives are being lost fighting terrorism and defending freedom in Afghanistan – yet Christians are being oppressed within Afghan borders.

“This comes after billions of U.S. dollars have been invested in the war effort, and millions more have been given in aid. The U.S. government must intervene to protect the religious freedoms and human rights of all Afghans. The U.S. is not a mere outside bystander – but, is closely intertwined within Afghan policy.”

Clay added, “Intervention is not a choice, but a responsibility, as Afghan policies reflect the U.S. government’s ability and commitment to secure a stable government in Afghanistan.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Egyptian Couple Shot by Muslim Extremists Undaunted in Ministry


Left for dead, Christians offer to drop charges if allowed to construct church building.

CAIRO, Egypt, June 9 (CDN) — Rasha Samir was sure her husband, Ephraim Shehata, was dead.

He was covered with blood, had two bullets inside him and was lying facedown in the dust of a dirt road. Samir was lying on top of him doing her best to shelter him from the onslaught of approaching gunmen.

With arms outstretched, the men surrounded Samir and Shehata and pumped off round after round at the couple. Seconds before, Samir could hear her husband mumbling Bible verses. But one bullet had pierced his neck, and now he wasn’t moving. In a blind terror, Samir tried desperately to stop her panicked breathing and convincingly lie still, hoping the gunmen would go away.

Finally, the gunfire stopped and one of the men spoke. “Let’s go. They’re dead.”

 

‘Break the Hearts’

On the afternoon of Feb. 27, lay pastor Shehata and his wife Samir were ambushed on a desolate street by a group of Islamic gunmen outside the village of Teleda in Upper Egypt.

The attack was meant to “break the hearts of the Christians” in the area, Samir said.

The attackers shot Shehata twice, once in the stomach through the back, and once in the neck. They shot Samir in the arm. Both survived the attack, but Shehata is still in the midst of a difficult recovery. The shooters have since been arrested and are in jail awaiting trial. A trial cannot begin until Shehata has recovered enough to attend court proceedings.

Despite this trauma, being left with debilitating injuries, more than 85,000 Egyptian pounds (US$14,855) in medical bills and possible long-term unemployment, Shehata is willing to drop all criminal charges against his attackers – and avoid what could be a very embarrassing trial for the nation – if the government will stop blocking Shehata from constructing a church building.

Before Shehata was shot, one of the attackers pushed him off his motorcycle and told him he was going to teach him a lesson about “running around” or being an active Christian.

Because of his ministry, the 34-year-old Shehata, a Coptic Orthodox Christian, was arguably the most visible Christian in his community. When he wasn’t working as a lab technician or attending legal classes at a local college, he was going door-to-door among Christians to encourage them in any way he could. He also ran a community center and medical clinic out of a converted two-bedroom apartment. His main goal, he said, was to “help Christians be strong in their faith.”

The center, open now for five years, provided much-needed basic medical services for surrounding residents for free, irrespective of their religion. The center also provided sewing training and a worksite for Christian women so they could gain extra income. Before the center was open in its present location, he ran similar services out of a relative’s apartment.

“We teach them something that can help them with the future, and when they get married they can have some way to work and it will help them get money for their families,” Shehata said.

Additionally, the center was used to teach hygiene and sanitation basics to area residents, a vital service to a community that uses well water that is often polluted or full of diseases. Along with these services, Shehata and his wife ran several development projects, repairing the roofs of shelters for poor people, installing plumbing, toilets and electrical systems. The center also distributed free food to the elderly and the infirm.

The center has been run by donations and nominal fees used to pay the rent for the apartment. Shehata has continued to run the programs as aggressively as he can, but he said that even before the shooting that the center was barely scraping by.

“We have no money to build or improve anything,” he said. “We have a safe, but no money to put in it.”

 

Tense Atmosphere

In the weeks before the shooting, Teleda and the surrounding villages were gripped with fear.

Christians in the community had been receiving death threats by phone after a Muslim man died during an attack on a Christian couple. On Feb. 2, a group of men in nearby Samalout tried to abduct a Coptic woman from a three-wheeled motorcycle her husband was driving. The husband, Zarif Elia, punched one of the attackers in the nose. The Muslim, Basem Abul-Eid, dropped dead on the spot.

Elia was arrested and charged with murder. An autopsy later revealed that the man died of a heart attack, but local Muslims were incensed.

Already in the spotlight for his ministry activities, Shehata heightened his profile when he warned government officials that Christians were going to be attacked, as they had been in Farshout and Nag Hammadi the previous month. He also gave an interview to a human rights activist that was posted on numerous Coptic websites. Because of this, government troops were deployed to the town, and extremists were unable to take revenge on local Christians – but only after almost the
entire Christian community was placed under house arrest.

“They chose me,” Shehata said, “Because they thought I was the one serving everybody, and I was the one who wrote the government telling them that Muslims were going to set fire to the Christian houses because of the death.”

Because of his busy schedule, Shehata and Samir, 27, were only able to spend Fridays and part of every Saturday together in a village in Samalut, where Shehata lives. Every Saturday after seeing Samir, Shehata would drive her back through Teleda to the village where she lives, close to her family. Samalut is a town approximately 105 kilometers (65 miles) south of Cairo.

On the afternoon of Feb. 27, Shehata and his wife were on a motorcycle on a desolate stretch of hard-packed dirt road. Other than a few scattered farming structures, there was nothing near the road but the Nile River on one side, and open fields dotted with palm trees on the other.

Shehata approached a torn-up section of the road and slowed down. A man walked up to the vehicle carrying a big wooden stick and forced him to stop. Shehata asked the man what was wrong, but he only pushed Shehata off the motorcycle and told him, “I’m going to stop you from running around,” Samir recounted.

Shehata asked the man to let Samir go. “Whatever you are going to do, do it to me,” he told the man.

The man didn’t listen and began hitting Shehata on the leg with the stick. As Shehata stumbled, Samir screamed for the man to leave them alone. The man lifted the stick again, clubbed Shehata once more on the leg and knocked him to the ground. As Shehata struggled to get up, the man took out a pistol, leveled it at Shehata’s back and squeezed the trigger.

Samir started praying and screaming Jesus’ name. The man turned toward her, raised the pistol once more, squeezed off another round, and shot Samir in the arm. Samir looked around and saw a few men running toward her, but her heart sank when she realized they had come not to help them but to join the assault.

Samir jumped on top of Shehata, rolled on to her back and started begging her attackers for their lives, but the men, now four in all, kept firing. Bullets were flying everywhere.

“I was scared. I thought I was going to die and that the angels were going to come and get our spirits,” Samir said. “I started praying, ‘Please God, forgive me, I’m a sinner and I am going to die.’”

Samir decided to play dead. She leaned back toward her husband, closed her eyes, went limp and tried to stop breathing. She said she felt that Shehata was dying underneath her.

“I could hear him saying some of the Scriptures, the one about the righteous thief [saying] ‘Remember me when you enter Paradise,’” she said. “Then a bullet went through his neck, and he stopped saying anything.”

Samir has no way of knowing how much time passed, but eventually the firing stopped. After she heard one of the shooters say, “Let’s go, they’re dead,” moments later she opened her eyes and the men were gone. When she lifted her head, she heard her husband moan.

 

Unlikely Survival

When Shehata arrived at the hospital, his doctors didn’t think he would survive. He had lost a tremendous amount of blood, a bullet had split his kidney in two, and the other bullet was lodged in his neck, leaving him partially paralyzed.

His heartbeat was so faint it couldn’t be detected. He was also riddled with a seemingly limitless supply of bullet fragments throughout his body.

Samir, though seriously injured, had fared much better than Shehata. The bullet went into her arm but otherwise left her uninjured. When she was shot, Samir was wearing a maternity coat. She wasn’t pregnant, but the couple had bought the coat in hopes she soon would be. Samir said she thinks the gunman who shot her thought he had hit her body, instead of just her arm.

The church leadership in Samalut was quickly informed about the shooting and summoned the best doctors they could, who quickly traveled to help Shehata and Samir. By chance, the hospital had a large supply of blood matching Shehata’s blood type because of an elective surgical procedure that was cancelled. The bullets were removed, and his kidney was repaired. The doctors however, were forced to leave many of the bullet fragments in Shehata’s body.

As difficult as it was to piece Shehata’s broken body back together, it paled in comparison with the recovery he had to suffer through. He endured multiple surgeries and was near death several times during his 70 days of hospitalization.

Early on, Shehata was struck with a massive infection. Also, because part of his internal tissue was cut off from its blood supply, it literally started to rot inside him. He began to swell and was in agony.

“I was screaming, and they brought the doctors,” Shehata said. The doctors decided to operate immediately.

When a surgeon removed one of the clamps holding Shehata’s abdomen together, the intense pressure popped off most of the other clamps. Surgeons removed some stomach tissue, part of his colon and more than a liter of infectious liquid.

Shehata could not eat normally and lost 35 kilograms (approximately 77 lbs.). He also couldn’t evacuate his bowels for at least 11 days, his wife said.

Despite the doctors’ best efforts, infections continued to rage through Shehata’s body, accompanied by alarming spikes in body temperature.

Eventually, doctors sent him to a hospital in Cairo, where he spent a week under treatment. A doctor there prescribed a different regimen of antibiotics that successfully fought the infection and returned Shehata’s body temperature to normal.

Shehata is recovering at home now, but he still has a host of medical problems. He has to take a massive amount of painkillers and is essentially bedridden. He cannot walk without assistance, is unable to move the fingers on his left hand and cannot eat solid food. In approximately two months he will undergo yet another surgery that, if all goes well, will allow him to use the bathroom normally.

“Even now I can’t walk properly, and I can’t lift my leg more than 10 or 20 centimeters. I need someone to help me just to pull up my underwear,” Shehata said. “I can move my arm, but I can’t move my fingers.”

Samir does not complain about her condition or that of Shehata. Instead, she sees the fact that she and her husband are even alive as a testament to God’s faithfulness. She said she thinks God allowed them to be struck with the bullets that injured them but pushed away the bullets that would have killed them.

“There were lots of bullets being shot, but they didn’t hit us, only three or four,” she said. “Where are the others?”

Even in the brutal process of recovery, Samir found cause for thanks. In the beginning, Shehata couldn’t move his left arm, but now he can. “Thank God and thank Jesus, it was His blessing to us,” Samir said. “We were kind of dead, now we are alive."

Still, Samir admits that sometimes her faith waivers. She is facing the possibility that Shehata might not work for some time, if ever. The couple owes the 85,000 Egyptian pounds (US$14,855) in medical bills, and continuing their ministry at the center and in the surrounding villages will be difficult at best.

“I am scared now, more so than during the shooting,” she said. “Ephraim said do not be afraid, it is supposed to make us stronger.”

So Samir prays for strength for her husband to heal and for patience. In the meantime, she said she looks forward to the day when the struggles from the shooting are over and she can look back and see how God used it to shape them.

“There is a great work the Lord is doing in our lives, we may not know what the reason is now, but maybe some day we will,” Samir said.

 

Government Opposition

For the past 10 years, Shehata has tried to erect a church building, or at a minimum a house, that he could use as a dedicated community center. But local Muslims and Egypt’s State Security Investigations (SSI) agency have blocked him every step of the way. He had, until the shooting happened, all but given up on constructing the church building.

On numerous occasions, Shehata has been stopped from holding group prayer meetings after people complained to the SSI. In one incident, a man paid by a land owner to watch a piece of property near the community center complained to the SSI that Shehata was holding prayer meetings at the facility. The SSI made Shehata sign papers stating he wouldn’t hold prayer meetings at the center.

At one time, Shehata had hoped to build a house to use as a community center on property that had been given to him for that purpose. Residents spread a rumor that he was actually erecting a church building, and police massed at the property to prevent him from doing any construction.

There is no church in the town where Shehata lives or in the surrounding villages. Shehata admits he would like to put up a church building on the donated property but says it is impossible, so he doesn’t even try.

In Egypt constructing or even repairing a church building can only be done after a complex government approval process. In effect, it makes it impossible to build a place for Christian worship. By comparison, the construction of mosques is encouraged through a system of subsidies.

“It is not allowed to build a church in Egypt,” Shehata said. “We can’t build a house. We can’t build a community center. And we can’t build a church.”

Because of this, Shehata and his wife organize transportation from surrounding villages to St. Mark’s Cathedral in Samalut for Friday services and sacraments. Because of the lack of transportation options, the congregants are forced to ride in a dozen open-top cattle cars.

“We take them not in proper cars or micro-buses, but trucks – the same trucks we use to move animals,” he said.

The trip is dangerous. A year ago a man fell out of one of the trucks onto the road and died. Shehata said bluntly that Christians are dying in Egypt because the government won’t allow them to construct church buildings.

“I feel upset about the man who died on the way going to church,” he said.

 

Church-for-Charges Swap

The shooters who attacked Shehata and Samir are in jail awaiting trial. The couple has identified each of the men, but even if they hadn’t, finding them for arrest was not a difficult task. The village the attackers came from erupted in celebration when they heard the pastor and his wife were dead.

Shehata now sees the shooting as a horrible incident that can be turned to the good of the believers he serves. He said he finds it particularly frustrating that numerous mosques have sprouted up in his community and surrounding areas during the 10 years he has been prevented from putting up a church building, or even a house. There are two mosques alone on the street of the man who died while being trucked to church services, he said.

Shehata has decided to forgo justice in pursuit of an opportunity to finally construct a church building. He has approached the SSI through church leaders, saying that if he is allowed to construct a church building, then he will take no part in the criminal prosecution of the shooters.

“I have told the security forces through the priests that I will drop the case if they can let us build the church on the piece of land,” he said.

The proposal isn’t without possibilities. His trial has the potential of being internationally embarrassing. It raises questions about fairness in Egyptian society during an upcoming presidential election that will be watched by the world.

Regardless of what happens, Shehata said all he wants is peace and for the rights of Christians to be respected. He said that in Egypt, Christians have less value than the “birds of the air” mentioned in the Bible. According to Luke 12:6, five sparrows sold for two pennies in ancient times.

“We are not to be killed like birds, slaughtered,” he said. “We are human.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Rugby League: Some Thoughts on the Melbourne Storm


Like many rugby league fans I was stunned by the breaking news concerning the Melbourne Storm on Thursday evening. The Storm were never my number one team – that was Parramatta. However, the Storm were a team that I admired greatly, a brilliantly coached football team that had dominated rugby league in Australia for the last five years. They were the team to beat and they beat Parramatta in the Grand Final of 2009. Most fair-minded fans of the game were in awe of the Melbourne Storm and I used to love their football.

Now I feel cheated, as most rugby league fans do. Given the mighty resurgence of Parramatta in the lead up to last year’s Grand Final and their appearance in the Grand Final after some incredible wins in the finals, I felt the loss of the Grand Final along with the other Parramatta supporters – but the team had done their best and they hadn’t chocked.

Now we learn that they were playing an unfairly talent inflated team, paid for my illegal means and under the table payments, in total disregard of the salary cap rules that Parramatta and the other teams in the NRL were adhering to. The Parramatta team were playing a cheating team. Certainly many of the players and even some of the team management appear to have known nothing about the salary cap breaches. Yet by the actions of a few, the entire team were in fact cheats.

Parramatta have a right to feel cheated out of a premiership last year and Manly two years before that. These teams didn’t win the Grand Finals they played in, they lost them, so they don’t deserve the premiership title either. But it would have been a fairer opportunity for premiership glory to have been playing on a level playing field.

Shame on Melbourne – what hollow victories you had in 2007 and 2009, and what hollow minor premierships you gained from 2006 to 2008. At the moment I believe the Storm should be removed from the NRL completely – however, in time that view will be tempered, should the stories of players and officials of the Storm not knowing about the cheating prove true. At the moment however, it is difficult to believe that more people within the Melbourne Storm didn’t know about the cheating – including the players who received the extra payments.

More is to be revealed concerning this story in days to come I think.

 

New Evidence Stalls Murder Trial in Malatya, Turkey


Defense lawyers’ absence also prolongs case that court wants closed.

MALATYA, Turkey, April 21 (CDN) — On the eve of three-year commemorations of the murders of three Christians in southeast Turkey, defense lawyers’ absence and new evidence kept a Malatya court from concluding the case here on Thursday (April 15).

Two defense lawyers excused themselves from the hearing, rendering the judges unable to issue a verdict to the five defendants charged with the murders of three Christians in Malatya on April 18, 2007. Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske, who worked at a publishing house that distributed Christian material in this southeastern Turkish city, were found murdered three years ago.

At Thursday’s hearing, prosecuting lawyers presented a 28-page detailed request that the Malatya case be joined to a plot called Cage Plan, believed to be part of Ergenekon, a “deep state” operation to destabilize the government led by a cabal of retired generals, politicians and other key figures.

The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found a year ago in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 named naval officers, termed as “operations” the murders of the three Christians in Malatya, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andreas Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos. The aim of the Cage Plan was to destabilize the government by showing its inability to protect Turkey’s minority groups.

Last week newspapers reported that the Cage Plan, aimed at Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities, not only contained a list of names of Protestant Christians who would be targeted, but also named some of their children.

Judges will announce a decision on whether to combine the Malatya murders with the Cage Plan at the next hearing, scheduled for May 14. Hearings for the Cage Plan are expected to begin on June 15.

“If you ask me, unfortunately at this exact moment we are exactly where we started,” said prosecuting lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz. “I’m not talking about public awareness. In terms of public awareness, of course our contribution is something substantial. But in terms of evidence and exposing the real network, we couldn’t get anywhere.”

Judges also decided to call a new witness in May. Burak Dogru, a convict serving time in Sivas, wrote a letter to the court accusing suspect Varol Bulent Aral of organizing the murders and offering him money to kill the three Christians.

“When I refused the offer, he told me to forget what I knew, otherwise I would not see the sunlight again,” he wrote in his letter, reported the Hurriyet Daily News.

In the last court hearing two months ago, the court rejected the prosecuting attorney team’s appeal that the Malatya murders be joined to the Ergenekon file, despite a police report showing links between the two cases.

Cengiz said he believes that the Malatya prosecutor is missing an opportunity to collect more evidence that could connect the Malatya murders to the Ergenekon case.

“The Ergenekon prosecutor is drowning in the files,” said Cengiz. “This [Malatya] prosecutor has enough time and resources because he is in a position to have direct contact with first-hand evidence. But I think he is intimidated and is just trying to get rid of the case as soon as possible. This case is a hot potato for the prosecutor, and he just wants to throw it away as soon as possible.”

In February’s hearing, prosecutors detailed accusations against the five young men accused of slaughtering the Christians – Emre Gunaydin, Salih Gürler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker and Abuzer Yildirim – and demanded three consecutive life sentences for each of them if convicted. The five men are charged with murder, being part of a terrorist organization, holding citizens against their will and stealing.

“We may not have proved that this case is linked to Ergenekon and other shadowy networks,” said Cengiz. “But I think we convinced everyone in Turkey that this murder was not committed by [just five men]. We may not convict them, the network, before the court, but we already convicted them in the eyes of the public. I wish, of course, that we could also do that before the law. But at this stage this evidence and this file doesn’t seem to me capable of doing this.”

Graveyard Memorials

In churches and at various memorial services on Sunday (April 18), Christians around Turkey commemorated the deaths of the three slain men.

Scores of people came to the graves of Aydin in Izmir, Tilmann in Malatya and Yuksel in Elazig, an hour northeast of Malatya, to commemorate the deaths. The Malatya murders have become a milestone for the Turkish church, which is also eager for closure on the murder case and justice for those responsible.

“For the church, it’s another one of those events in life which we don’t understand but entrust it to the hands of a loving God who we believe in,” said Zekai Tanyar, chairman of the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey. “I think one aspect is that the church in Turkey said this does not pull us away from the Lord; we continue to follow Him. It’s probably brought in sort of a depth in some ways, and it has certainly brought in awareness from the worldwide church, and therefore more prayer for Turkey.”

Tanyar said that while churches want to see closure for the sake of the families who lost their loved ones, they also want “the truth, the real culprits and mindsets behind the killings to be revealed somehow. So in a sense, our prayer is that God who is the worker of miracles will work these two contradictory expectations out; a closure and an exposure at the same time.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Muslims Murder Pakistani Christian with Axe Blows


Rival merchants threatened to kill potato seller if refused to convert to Islam.

MIAN CHANNU, Pakistan, March 22 (CDN) — Six Muslims in Khanewal district, southern Punjab Province, killed a Christian with multiple axe blows for refusing to convert to Islam this month, according to family and police sources.

The six men had threatened to kill 36-year-old Rasheed Masih unless he converted to Islam when they grew resentful of his potato business succeeding beyond their own, according to Masih’s younger brother Munir Asi and a local clergyman. The rival merchants allegedly killed him after luring him to their farmhouse on March 9, leaving him on a roadside near Kothi Nand Singh village in the wee hours of the next day.

The Rev. Iqbal Masih of the Mian Channu Parish of the Church of Pakistan said Rasheed Masih was a devoted Christian, and that both he and his brother Asi had refused the Muslims’ pressure to convert to Islam.

“As the Christian family strengthened in business and earned more, the Muslim men began to harbor business resentment, as Muslims are not used to seeing Christians more respected and richer than them,” the pastor said. “That business rivalry gradually changed into a faith rivalry.”

Mian Channu police have registered a case against the six men and an investigation is underway, but the suspects are still at large, police officers told Compass. Police said the suspects were Ghulam Rasool, Muhammad Asif, Muhammad Amjad, one identified only as Kashif and two other unidentified Muslims; they were charged with torture and murder.

Masih’s family lives in Babo John Colony, Mian Channu of Khanewal district. Masih’s brother Asi is a representative of the Council of Mian Channu.

“Our continuous denial to recant our faith and convert gradually turned into enmity,” Asi told Compass. The FIR further states, “Both the Muslim men [Rasool and Asif] were not only inviting them to Islam but hurling threats of dire consequences and death on them for the last six months in case they refused to convert.”

Police said Rasool – a radical Muslim who along with Asif had threatened to kill the brothers if they did not convert, according to Asi – called Rasheed Masih to his farmhouse ostensibly to purchase potatoes on March 9, and that Rasheed went to it by motorbike at about 5:30 p.m. Waiting for Masih there, police said, were Rasool and Asif with an axe, Amjad and Kashif with iron rods and the two unknown Muslims with clubs.

They began striking him as soon as he arrived, police said.

An autopsy under the supervision of Dr. Muhammad Khalid of Tehsil Headquarters Hospital Mian Channu revealed 24 wounds all over the body of Masih, according to a copy of the report obtained by Compass.

“In my opinion, cause of death in this case is due to the shock caused by all the above-mentioned injuries collectively and torture,” Khalid states in the report. “All the injuries are ante-mortem and sufficient to cause death in an ordinary course of nature.”

According to the FIR, when Asi and two Christian friends went to the farmhouse when Masih failed to return after a few hours, they were stunned to hear Masih shrieking as they witnessed him being beaten and struck with an axe.

“As Ghulam Rasool and his accomplices saw me at the farmhouse,” Asi told police, according to the FIR, “the Muslim men put my fatally injured brother on a motorcycle and then threw him off the road near village Kothi Nand Singh.”

Asi and his Christian friends found Masih by the roadside after he had succumbed to his injuries. The Muslims had absconded with Masih’s motorcycle and 350,000 rupees (US$4,088), as well as his cell phone, according to the FIR.

As Asi and his Christian friends were on their way to the hospital with the body of Masih, a city police station patrol met them and transferred the body to the Tehsil Headquarters Hospital Mian Channu.  

At press time the Muslim suspects were at large even though police have filed a case strong enough to apprehend and prosecute them, Asi said. He appealed for assistance from Christian rights groups and politicians, as his family is still receiving death threats in a bid to intimidate them into withdrawing the case, he said, and they feel powerless in comparison with the influence and wealth of the Muslim suspects.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christmas Season Attacks Worry Christians in India


Hindu extremists launch two assaults and claim hundreds of ‘reconversions.’

NEW DELHI, December 22 (CDN) — With at least two violent attacks and alleged “reconversion” of over 1,700 Christians in the week leading up to Christmas, a sense of fear is growing among India’s minority Christian community.

On Sunday (Dec. 20), Hindu extremists attacked a church during worship in western Maharashtra state’s Sindhudurg district and a Christmas exhibition in Gwalior city in central Madhya Pradesh state. The following day, extremists claimed having converted over 1,700 tribal (aboriginal) Christians “back” to Hinduism in western Gujarat state.

“Christmas is a favorite time for violence against Christians in India, as it intimidates the Christian community at large,” said Dr. John Dayal, member of the government’s National Integration Council, headed by Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh.

Dayal pointed out that the first mass attack on Christians in India took place in Gujarat’s Dangs district during Christmas in 1998, setting the stage for future attacks through the season.

“Then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee [of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP] went to see the damage [in Dangs], but instead of commiserating with the victims, he called for a national debate on conversions,” Dayal said. “That political philosophy has been behind the festive season attacks on the Christian community.”

The Rev. Anand Muttungal of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Madhya Pradesh said the attacks around Christmas could be a reaction to increased and favorable coverage of Christians and churches in newspapers and television channels during the festival season.

“Rightwing extremists cannot tolerate this, and they cannot stop it either,” he said. “So, in frustration, they launch attacks.”

On Christmas Eve of 2007, eastern Orissa’s Kandhamal district witnessed a massive spate of anti-Christian attacks that killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches.

Arson in Madhya Pradesh

The assailants in the Dec. 20 attack in Madhya Pradesh state have been identified as members of the extreme rightwing outfit Bajrang Dal. Muttungal said members of the Hindu extremist group shouted Hindu slogans and burned artwork depicting biblical scenes at an annual Christmas fair organized by the Catholic Church in Gwalior city.

The mayor of Gwalior had inaugurated the two-day fair on Saturday (Dec. 19), and it was organized with due permission from authorities, he said.

“The incident has spread panic among Christians in the state,” reported Indian Catholic, a news portal run by the Catholic Church in India.

The portal quoted Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal as saying that the attack “is a matter of serious concern for Christians, especially when we are preparing to celebrate Christmas.”

Three of the attackers were arrested, and two of them were sent to judicial custody by a local court.

Also on Sunday (Dec. 20), around 60 men barged into the New Life Fellowship (NLF) church in Kankauli area in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district and beat the pastor, his wife and a few other Christians, according to NLF Pastor Atul Bhore. The church meets at the privately owned Anant Hotel in Kankauli.

“The attackers, all men, accused us of converting Hindus,” the 37-year-old pastor told Compass. “Then they beat us, including my wife, with their hands and legs. My back is still in pain.”

The attackers were allegedly led by a local leader of the Hindu extremist Shiv Sena party, identified as Vaibhav Naik. Also taking a lead role in the attack was a local leader of the ruling Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Rupesh Nagrekar.

The NCP is part of the ruling state coalition with the Congress Party. As policy, both parties renounce the Hindu nationalist ideology of the opposition Shiv Sena party and its ally the BJP. But involvement of local leaders of the two “secular” parties is not uncommon in Maharashtra.

An official from the Kankauli police station said police were on the lookout for the attackers, and that they would be arrested soon.

A Christian from the NLF church said police were initially reluctant to take action against the attackers.

“The police warned us against ‘conversions,’ as if the allegations made against us were true,” the Christian said. “Only after Dr. Abraham Mathai from the Maharashtra State Minorities Commission intervened did the police show interest in prosecuting the attackers.”

‘Reconversions’ in Gujarat

Following these two attacks, yesterday (Dec. 21) Hindu extremist group Shree Sampraday Seva Samiti (Service Committee of the Hindu sect Shree Sampraday) claimed to have “reconverted” 1,747 people to Hinduism in Gujarat state’s Surat city, reported The Times of India newspaper.

“The camp to reconvert tribals, who had embraced Christianity, was held in the city for the first time, and nearly 5,000 people from Maharashtra and Gujarat participated in the ceremony,” the newspaper reported.

About 10 Hindu priests chanted mantras at a fire ritual, around which sat those willing to “get back” to Hinduism, it stated, adding that participants were given a meditation word and sacred thread to mark their “reconversion.”

“We organized the event in Surat to promote Hinduism in urban areas,” one of the organizers, Yashwant More, told the newspaper. “We have a series of events planned in the near future to hold such reconversion camps in urban areas of Gujarat. In January, events are planned in Vadodara and Silvassa.”

Gujarat has an anti-conversion law, known as the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, which mandates all those seeking to convert, as well as clergy involved in any “conversion ceremony,” to seek prior permission from district authorities. No permission was sought for the event, noted the newspaper.

Christians complain that anti-conversion laws, in force in four other states including Madhya Pradesh, have been enacted only to harass Christians and are rarely used against Hindu nationalist groups.

Sociologists say that India’s tribal peoples, who have long practiced their own ethnic faiths, are not Hindus. Hindu nationalists are active mainly in tribal regions to “Hinduize” local villagers and repel conversions to other faiths.

Many reports of “reconversions,” however, have been found to be false. In 2007, Hindi-language daily Punjab Kesari reported that four Christian families in Nahan town, in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, had “reconverted” to Hinduism. But a fact-finding team of the All India Christian Council revealed that none of the members of those families had ever converted to Christianity.

More than 80 percent of India’s 1.1 billion people are Hindus; Christians make up a meager 2.3 percent of the population.

Opposition and attacks will not dampen the spirit of Christmas, said Dayal.

“The birth of Christ is a harbinger of salvation, and this salvific promise goads us on to celebrate Christmas without fear,” he said. “We will not be cowed, or scared, or intimidated into retracting from our faith and from celebrating the birth of the Messiah.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Plot Targeting Turkey’s Religious Minorities Allegedly Discovered


CD indicates naval officers planned violence against non-Muslim communities.

ISTANBUL, December 16 (CDN) — ISTANBUL, December 16 (Compass Direct News) – Chilling allegations emerged last month of a detailed plot by Turkish naval officers to perpetrate threats and violence against the nation’s non-Muslims in an effort to implicate and unseat Turkey’s pro-Islamic government.

Evidence put forth for the plot appeared on an encrypted compact disc discovered last April but was only recently deciphered; the daily Taraf newspaper first leaked details of the CD’s contents on Nov. 19.

Entitled the “Operation Cage Action Plan,” the plot outlines a plethora of planned threat campaigns, bomb attacks, kidnappings and assassinations targeting the nation’s tiny religious minority communities – an apparent effort by military brass to discredit the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The scheme ultimately called for bombings of homes and buildings owned by non-Muslims, setting fire to homes, vehicles and businesses of Christian and Jewish citizens, and murdering prominent leaders among the religious minorities.

Dated March 2009, the CD containing details of the plot was discovered in a raid on the office of a retired major implicated in a large illegal cache of military arms uncovered near Istanbul last April. Once deciphered, it revealed the full names of 41 naval officials assigned to carry out a four-phase campaign exploiting the vulnerability of Turkey’s non-Muslim religious minorities, who constitute less than 1 percent of the population.

A map that Taraf published on its front page – headlined “The Targeted Missionaries” – was based on the controversial CD documents. Color-coded to show all the Turkish provinces where non-Muslims lived or had meetings for worship, the map showed only 13 of Turkey’s 81 provinces had no known non-Muslim residents or religious meetings.

The plan identified 939 non-Muslim representatives in Turkey as possible targets.

“If even half of what is written in Taraf is accurate, everybody with a conscience in this country has to go mad,” Eyup Can wrote in his Hurriyet column two days after the news broke.

The day after the first Taraf report, the headquarters of the Turkish General Staff filed a criminal complaint against the daily with the Justice Ministry, declaring its coverage a “clear violation” of the laws protecting ongoing prosecution investigations from public release.

Although the prime minister’s office the next day confirmed that the newly revealed “Cage” plot was indeed under official investigation, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized Taraf’s public disclosure of the plan as “interfering” and “damaging” to the judicial process and important sectors of the government.

But when the judiciary began interrogating a number of the named naval suspects and sent some of them to jail, most Turkish media – which had downplayed the claims – began to accept the plot’s possible authenticity.

To date, at least 11 of the naval officials identified in the Cage documents are under arrest, accused of membership in an illegal organization. They include a retired major, a lieutenant colonel, three lieutenant commanders, two colonels and three first sergeants.

The latest plot allegations are linked to criminal investigations launched in June 2007 into Ergenekon, an alleged “deep state” conspiracy by a group of military officials, state security personnel, lawyers and journalists now behind bars on charges of planning a coup against the elected AKP government.

Christian Murders Termed ‘Operations’

The plot document began with specific mention of the three most recent deadly attacks perpetrated against Christians in Turkey, cryptically labeling them “operations.”

Initial Turkish public opinion had blamed Islamist groups for the savage murders of Italian Catholic priest Andrea Santoro (February 2006), Turkish Armenian Agos newspaper editor Hrant Dink (January 2007) and two Turkish Christians and a German Christian in Malatya (April 2007). But authors of the Cage plan complained that AKP’s “intensive propaganda” after these incidents had instead fingered the Ergenekon cabal as the perpetrators.

“The Cage plan demanded that these ‘operations’ be conducted in a more systematic and planned manner,” attorney Orhan Kemal Cengiz wrote in Today’s Zaman on Nov. 27. “They want to re-market the ‘black propaganda’ that Muslims kill Christians,” concluded Cengiz, a joint-plaintiff lawyer in the Malatya murder trial and legal adviser to Turkey’s Association of Protestant Churches.

In the first phase of the Cage plot, officers were ordered to compile information identifying the non-Muslim communities’ leaders, schools, associations, cemeteries, places of worship and media outlets, including all subscribers to the Armenian Agos weekly. With this data, the second stage called for creating an atmosphere of fear by openly targeting these religious minorities, using intimidating letters and telephone calls, warnings posted on websites linked to the government and graffiti in neighborhoods where non-Muslims lived.

To channel public opinion, the third phase centered on priming TV and print media to criticize and debate the AKP government’s handling of security for religious minorities, to raise the specter of the party ultimately replacing Turkey’s secular laws and institutions with Islamic provisions.

The final phase called for planting bombs and suspicious packages near homes and buildings owned by non-Muslims, desecrating their cemeteries, setting fire to homes, vehicles and businesses of Christian and Jewish citizens, and even kidnapping and assassinating prominent leaders among the religious minorities.

Lawyer Fethiye Cetin, representing the Dink family in the Agos editor’s murder trial, admitted she was having difficulty even accepting the details of the Cage plot.

“I am engulfed in horror,” Cetin told Bianet, the online Independent Communications Network. “Some forces of this country sit down and make a plan to identify their fellow citizens, of their own country, as enemies! They will kill Armenians and non-Muslims in the psychological war they are conducting against the ones identified as their enemies.”

No Surprise to Christians

“We were not very shocked,” Protestant Pastor Ihsan Ozbek of the Kurtulus Churches in Ankara admitted to Taraf the day after the news broke.

After the Malatya murders, he stated, Christians had no official means to investigate their suspicions about the instigators, “and we could not be very brave . . . Once again the evidence is being seen, that it is the juntas who are against democracy who [have been] behind the propaganda in the past 10 years against Christianity and missionary activity.”

Patriarch Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox Church also openly addressed the Cage plot, referring to recent incidents of intimidation against Christian and Jewish citizens in Istanbul’s Kurtulus and Adalar districts, as well as a previous raid conducted against the alumni of a Greek high school.

“At the time, we thought that they were just trying to scare us,” he told Today’s Zaman. Several of the jailed Ergenekon suspects now on trial were closely involved for years in protesting and slandering the Istanbul Patriarchate, considered the heart of Eastern Orthodoxy’s 300 million adherents. As ultranationalists, they claimed the Orthodox wanted to set up a Vatican-style entity within Turkey.

Last summer 90 graves were desecrated in the Greek Orthodox community’s Balikli cemetery in the Zeytinburnu district of Istanbul. The city’s 65 non-Muslim cemeteries are not guarded by the municipality, with their maintenance and protection left to Greek, Armenian and Jewish minorities.

As details continued to emerge and national debates raged for more than a week over the Cage plan in the Turkish media, calls came from a broad spectrum of society to merge the files of the ongoing Dink and Malatya murder trials with the Ergenekon file. The Turkish General Staff has consistently labeled much of the media coverage of the Ergenekon investigations as part of smear campaign against the fiercely secular military, which until the past two years enjoyed virtual impunity from civilian court investigations.

According to Ria Oomen-Ruijten, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Turkey, the long-entrenched role of the military in the Turkish government is an “obstacle” for further democratization and integration into the EU.

Report from Compass Direct News