With attacks mounting, parishioners fear hostilities could escalate.

MIGDAL HA-EMEQ, Israel, June 22


(Compass Direct News) – When the congregation at St. Nicolay church in this northern Israeli town gathered on that quiet Friday morning of May 29, they never expected to be showered with stones.

The Russian Orthodox worshipers, including many women, children and the elderly, had filled the small building to overflow with several outside when they were stunned by the rain of stones. Some were injured and received medical care.

“The church was crawling with people – the worshipers stood not only inside the church, but also outside, as the building is very small, when suddenly a few young men started throwing stones at the direction of our courtyard,” Oleg Usenkov, press secretary of the church told Compass. “Young children were crying, everyone was very frightened.”

The church had also been attacked earlier that week, during a wedding ceremony. Stones and rotten eggs were thrown from the street, hitting guests as they arrived.

The same night, the Rev. Roman Radwan, priest of St. Nicolay church, filed a complaint at the police station. An officer issued a document to confirm that he had filed an official complaint and sent him home, promising that measures would be taken. But within 24 hours, the attackers again appeared at the church’s doorway and no police were present to deter them – although the police station is located a few dozen meters from the church.

The identity of the assailants is unknown – a police officer said the complaint “lacked the exact description of the attackers” – but eye-witnesses claimed they were ultra-orthodox yeshiva students who frequently cursed the church on their way to the school or synagogue.

“They often assault us verbally, curse and yell at us, although we tried to explain that this is a place of worship, a holy place,” said a frustrated Usenkov, adding that the police inaction amounts to nonfeasance.

Another member of the congregation identified only as Nina, born in Moscow and now living in Nazeret Ilit, said that she didn’t understand where all the hatred is coming from.

“They are heading to the yeshiva or going back home after praying at the synagogue – are they inspired to attack us during their prayers?” she said. “I hope not. We are all Israeli citizens, we pay taxes, serve in the army and are entitled to freedom of choice when it comes to religion.”

She and other members of the congregation fear hostilities could escalate quickly if measures are not taken soon. Already the small building, which barely accommodates the worshipers, is surrounded by a stone fence by order of Migdal ha-Emeq officials following a series of arson attempts and other attacks.

Members of the congregation, a few hundred Christians from Migdal ha-Emeq, Afula, Haifa, Nazareth and other Israeli cities still remember how their building was vandalized in June 2006. Under cover of darkness, unidentified men broke in and broke icons and modest decorations, smashed windows and stole crosses.

The identity of those responsible remains unknown.

Established in 2005, the church building was constructed to meet the needs of Christians who do not belong to the Arab Christian minority, mostly Russians who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. Besides the Christians, these immigrants included other non-Jews, as well as atheistic Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity.

No official data on religious make-up of the immigrants are available, especially since many fear deportation or persecution for talking openly about their faith, but Usenkov – a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity after immigrating to Israel in the 1990s – said he believes there are at least 300,000 Christians of Russian or Russian-Jewish origin who live in Israel today.

According to Israeli law, non-Jewish relatives of a Jew are also entitled to citizenship, but Jews who have converted to other faiths are denied it.

Most of the Russian and Russian-Jewish Christians in Israel belong to the Russian Orthodox Church and find it difficult to adjust to Greek or Arabic services common in the Greek Orthodox churches of Israel. Since St. Nicolay’s church opened its doors, hundreds of worshipers from across Israel have visited it.

“Many people fear they might pass away without seeing a priest, or they dream of a Christian wedding service,” said Radwan, an Israeli-Arab whose family once owned the land on which the St. Nicolay church is located. “Here we can answer their needs. We do not want to harm anyone and wish that no one would harm us.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Police ignore arrest order, but lawyers hopeful 13-year-old can be returned to parents.

ISTANBUL, February 26 (Compass Direct News) – After months of legal deadlock, lawyers in Pakistan said they have new hope they can restore to her family a 13-year-old Christian girl who was kidnapped and forced to marry a Muslim.

Saba Masih might be returned to her family, the lawyers said, if they can legally maneuver around Pakistani policemen who have stonewalled their attempts to pursue a kidnapping case against the captors. On Saturday (Feb. 21) a Pakistani judge charged the suspects with kidnapping for the first time in the seven-month legal ordeal.

“The judiciary is one thing, the police are another,” said Arfan Goshe, a lawyer who has taken on the custody case. “I will prove [the three accused men] kidnapped Saba so the judiciary will force the police to arrest them.”

On Saturday (Feb. 21), Judge Mohammed Ilyas issued a First Instance Report (FIR) at a subordinate court in the Punjabi village of Chawk Munda against Amjad Ali, Muhammad Ashraf and Muhammed Arif Bajwa on charges of kidnapping, trespassing, and threatening the Masih family.

Attorney Goshe, a Muslim, said the three kidnappers trespassed onto the property of Yunus Masih, the father of Saba, and threatened to kill his family and burn down his house in late December.

The decision to file kidnapping charges marks a major shift of momentum in the case. In previous hearings judges have nearly always sided with the kidnappers – based on either dubious evidence or threats from local Islamists – in the Muslims’ legal battle to retain custody of Saba and her 10-year-old sister Aneela. A court ruled the younger daughter could return to her family last September.

The two girls were kidnapped in June 2008 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Saba was married to Ali the next day. Bajwa and Ali registered a case with police on June 28 for custody of the girls based on their alleged conversion to Islam. The court granted them custody in July.

At nearly all the hearings, Muslim groups protested outside the courtroom against lawyers attempting to return Saba to her Christian parents. A traditional interpretation of Islamic law (sharia) does not allow non-Muslim parents to have custody of Muslim children.

In spite of the judge’s decision to begin procedures for kidnapping charges, Chawk Munda police have not followed through with the FIR by arresting the three Muslims. Today the judge contacted the local police station and ordered officers to register the kidnapping case against the three men, Goshe told Compass. He said he hopes police will file the FIR within the next few days.

“The police are favoring the accused party at this time,” he said. “Everybody knows [Saba] was abducted, and that the culprits are trying to threaten minorities everywhere.”

But others are less optimistic the kidnappers will be arrested. Khalid Raheel, Saba’s uncle, said he believes he may have to bribe the police. They would likely demand around 20,000 Pakistani rupees (US$250), he said.

Uncooperative police had also blocked the legal team’s efforts to register charges before Saturday’s ruling. As a result, the Christian family’s lawyers filed a private complaint to the subordinate court of Chawk Munda, sidestepping the need for a police investigation to file charges that would be necessary at a normal criminal court.

Goshe said the court is finally complying after months of deadlock because the multiple charges against the kidnappers cannot be ignored. Previous court hearings focused on Saba’s alleged conversion to Islam to mitigate the charges of her kidnapping, but the judiciary could not ignore the three suspects’ subsequent crimes of trespassing and attempting to burn down the Masihs’ house, he said.

In January, lawyer Akbar Durrani of the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) filed an appeal to register kidnapping charges against Ali, the husband of Saba. Durrani had tried to register these charges in December, but Judge Malik Saeed Ijaz refused the case since it was built upon the testimony of Saba’s sister Aneela, whose status as a minor invalidated her testimony.

Instead, the judge ordered Ali to pay a dowry of 100,000 rupees (US$1,255) and allow her parents to visit, both required by Pakistani marriage protocol. Saba, however, relinquished her dowry, a prerogative provided by sharia. Her family suspects that she made this decision under threat.


Struggling Family

Attempts by Saba’s family to contact and visit her have been thwarted by Ali’s Muslim family members, despite a court order for visitation rights.

“We have heard nothing from Saba,” said Raheel, her uncle. “Once we tried to visit her, and [Ali’s family] ran after us and tried to shoot us. But the judges did not do anything.”

The seven months of legal battling have taken their toll on Saba’s family. Her parents have eight children but have been unable to send their sons to school due to the ongoing costs of the case, even though CLAAS has undertaken it pro bono.

The girls’ uncle has been trying to maintain the family’s quality of life as they struggle to get Saba back and their legal options dwindle.

“This year I will try my best to help them and send them to a school,” said Raheel.

Aneela continues to adjust to life back with her family, away from captivity. She is preparing to resume her schooling.


Common Crime

Kidnapping and rape victims in Pakistan are often Christians, since the influence of sharia on the country’s judicial system means they can be unofficially treated as second-class citizens.

Last month Muslims allegedly abducted and raped another 13-year-old Christian girl. CLAAS reported that two men kidnapped Ambreen Masih in the industrial city of Sheikupura, located northwest of Lahore. Her attackers threatened to her keep silent, and she was abducted a second time this month before her parents discovered the crime, according to a CLAAS report.

The family filed rape charges against the two kidnappers in Sheikupura, but policeman have not yet taken legal action, according to CLAAS.  

Report from Compass Direct News