Lao Officials Visit Expelled Christians, Give Assurances

Officials led by provincial governor explain law providing for right to believe.

DUBLIN, March 19 (CDN) — Officials in Laos’ Saravan Province yesterday visited 48 Christians expelled from Katin village and assured them that they had the legal right to embrace the faith of their choice, according to advocacy group Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF).

During a 30-minute visit the delegation, led by provincial Gov. Khamboon Duangpanya, read out June 2002’s Decree 92 on the Management and Protections of Religious Activity in Laos and explained its religious freedom provisions to the group, assuring them that they could freely believe in Christianity “if their faith was genuine.”

HRWLRF reported that the officials also said the Christians had the right to live anywhere in the district. Ta-Oyl district officials had expelled the Christians from Katin village at gunpoint on Jan. 18 when they refused to give up their faith. Having lost access to their homes, fields and livestock, the Christians then built temporary shelters at the edge of the jungle, about six kilometers (nearly four miles) away from the village.

The district head, identified only as Bounma, on Monday (March 15) summoned seven of the believers to his office and declared that he would not tolerate the existence of Christianity in areas under his control. The group must either recant their faith or move elsewhere, he’d said.

Shortly afterwards an anonymous source told the Christians that the chiefs of Katin and neighboring Ta Loong village planned to burn down their temporary shelters within 48 hours. (See “Lao Officials Threaten to Burn Shelters of Expelled Christians,” March 16.)

Also present at yesterday’s meeting were three other provincial officials, the deputy-head of Ta-Oyl district, identified only as Khammun, and the head of religious affairs in Ta-Oyl, identified only as Bounthoun, HRWLRF reported. During the brief meeting, the Christians asked Gov. Duangpanya if they had the right to live in Katin or other villages in the district.

He responded that as Lao citizens, the Christians could live wherever they chose. In regard to their current location, however, Khammun said he would have to “consult with the proper authorities” before granting the Christians permission to remain on land owned by neighboring Ta Loong village.

After delegating this responsibility to Khammun, Gov. Duangpanya assured the Christians that they could contact him if they needed further help, according to HRWLRF.

According to the Lao Law on Family Registration, when a citizen moves from one village to another for less than a year, he or she must request permission for “temporary changing of residence” from the original village. The paperwork is then turned over to authorities in the new village and reviewed after six months. After a year, citizens must repeat the process to apply for permanent residence in their new location.

Until now provincial officials have largely ignored the plight of Katin Christians, failing to intervene last July when villagers seized a Christian identified only as Pew and poured rice wine down his throat, killing him by asphyxiation. Village officials later fined Pew’s family for erecting a cross on his grave, and then detained 80 Christians in a school compound, denying them food and pressuring them to renounce their faith.

The heads of 13 families signed documents renouncing Christianity in order to protect their children; most of them, however, have since resumed attendance at worship meetings.

Provincial officials did call a meeting in September 2008 asking Katin authorities and residents to respect the religious laws of the nation, but four days later village officials seized and slaughtered a buffalo owned by a villager who refused to give up his faith.

A communist country, Laos is 1.5 percent Christian and 67 percent Buddhist, with the remainder unspecified. Article 6 and Article 30 of the Lao Constitution guarantee the right of Christians and other religious minorities to practice the religion of their choice without discrimination or penalty.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Egyptian Court Refuses to Return Passport to Christian

Convert from Islam tried to leave country to save his life.

ISTANBUL, March 15 (CDN) — An Egyptian court last week refused to return the passport of a convert from Islam who tried to leave Egypt to save his life, the Christian said on Friday (March 12).

On Tuesday (March 9) the Egyptian State Council Court in Giza, an administrative court, refused to return the passport of Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary. El-Gohary said he was devastated by the decision, which essentially guarantees him several more months of living in fear.

“I am very, very disappointed and very unhappy about what happened,” he said, “because I am being threatened – my life is being threatened, my daughter’s life is being threatened very frequently, and I don’t feel safe at all in Egypt.”

Nabil Ghobreyal, El-Gohary’s attorney, told Compass the government declined to give the court any reason for its actions.

“There was no response as to why his passport was taken,” Ghobreyal said.

On Sept. 17, 2009, authorities at Cairo International Airport seized El-Gohary’s passport. El-Gohary, 57, also known as Peter Athanasius, was trying to leave the country to visit China. Eventually he intended to travel to the United States. At the time, El-Gohary was told only that his travel had been barred by “higher authority.”

El-Gohary, who converted to Christianity from Islam more than 30 years ago, gained notoriety in Egypt in February 2009, when he filed a court application to have the religion on his identification card changed from Muslim to Christian. El-Gohary’s action caused widespread uproar among conservative Muslims in Egypt. He was branded an “apostate” and multiple fatwas, or religious edicts were issued against him. In accordance with some interpretations of the Quran, some Muslims believe El-Gohary should be killed for leaving Islam.

Since filing his application, El-Gohary has lived in fear and has been in hiding with his 15-year-old daughter. Every month, he said, they move from apartment to apartment. He is unable to work, and his daughter, also a Christian, is unable to attend school.

Their days are filled with anxiety, fear and boredom.

“We are very fearful,” El-Gohary said. “We are hiding between four walls all day long.”

El-Gohary went through extraordinary efforts to get the documentation the court demanded for him to officially change his religion, including getting a certificate of conversion from a Coptic Christian religious group. The certificate, which was the first time a Christian church in Egypt recognized a convert from Islam, also caused an uproar.

But ultimately, in June the court denied his application. He was the second person in Egypt to apply to have his religion officially changed from Islam to Christianity. The other applicant was denied as well. El-Gohary has not exhausted his appeals and may file legal proceedings with an international legal body. He has another hearing with the administrative court on June 29.

“I don’t understand what I have done wrong,” El-Gohary said. “I went though the normal legal channels. I thought I was an Egyptian citizen and I would be treated as such by the Egyptian law. I went through the front doors of the legal system, not the back doors, and for that I am being threatened, chased, and I live in continuous fear.”

The National Constitution of Egypt guarantees freedom of religion unless it contradicts set practices in sharia, or Islamic law. While it is easy to change one’s religious identity from Christian to Muslim, it is impossible to do the opposite.

El-Gohary’s case was mentioned by name in a human rights report issued Thursday (March 11) by the U.S. Department of State. El-Gohary said he was pleased that his case was in the report. He said he believes it is his duty to open new doors for his fellow converts in Egypt.

“This is something I have to do,” he said. “It is a duty. I have become a symbol for Christians in Egypt.”

El-Gohary said he hopes U.S. President Barack Obama, other world leaders and international groups will pressure the Egyptian government to allow him to leave the country.

In spite of his ordeal, El-Gohary said faith is still strong and that he doesn’t regret becoming a Christian.

“I don’t regret it at all,” he continued, excitedly. “This is the narrow road that Christians have to go through and suffer to reach eternal life. I have no regrets whatsoever. We are very grateful to know Christ, and we know He’s the way.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Attacks on Christians in Karnataka Frequent, Furious

Southern state has become epicenter of religious assaults, Christians say.

NEW DELHI, February 4 (CDN) — Karnataka state recorded the highest number of anti-Christian attacks in India last year, and it is keeping pace this year.

Christians in Karnataka are being attacked “at rapid regularity” and “with near impunity,” and it is “a serious matter of concern for the Christian community,” said Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI).

Much of the violence occurs under the vigilante pretext of rounding up Christians supposedly involved in “forcible” or “fraudulent” conversion efforts. On Monday (Feb. 1) in Thagadur village, Kodagu district, Hindu extremists dragged 11 Christians – including four women – from their homes and colluded with police to arrest them on such false charges.

The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that all of the Christians, members of the Beraka Gospel Church in Suntikupa village, were tortured at the Siddapur police station to pressure them to admit to the charges. Most of the jailed Christians are tribal, daily wage laborers who work on coffee plantations.

Police denied torturing the Christians, but like many people in India easily confused by Hindu extremist propaganda, Inspector Ratan Singh of the Siddapur police station seemed to erroneously believe that laws against fraudulent conversion apply to any kind of proclamation of faith.

“According to the complaint we received, the accused were inviting local Hindus for prayer meetings to convert them,” Singh told Compass, as if such activity were illegal in India. “We did not beat them. When they were produced before the judicial magistrate, they said they were not mistreated by the police.”

The GCIC recorded 72 attacks on Christians in Karnataka in 2009. That represents a decline from the 112 attacks the previous year, when three months of anti-Christian violence in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district in 2008 led Hindu extremists in Karnataka to lash out as well, according to Christian leaders.

Justice Michael F. Saldanha, a retired judge of the Karnataka High Court and president of the Catholic Association of South Kanara (a district in Karnataka also known as Dakshina Kannada), told Compass that attacks on Christians in the state increased after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) began to rule.

In May 2008 the BJP came to power in Karnataka, thus making it the first southern state with a stand-alone BJP government in the history of India. The party’s rule was preceded by a 20-month rule in alliance with a local party, the Janata Dal (Secular).

Although Karnataka has had a dominant presence of the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar since 1950, its cadres obtained free rein only after the BJP’s electoral victory, Saldanha explained.

“The real headquarters of the Sangh Parivar is not in Maharashtra [official headquarters of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, in Nagpur), it’s in Karnataka,” said Saldanha, who conducted a private inquiry into a series of attacks that rocked Karnataka in September 2008 following the unprecedented anti-Christian bloodbath in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district.

Between Aug. 17 and Sept. 21, 2008, more than 28 attacks on churches, led mainly by the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal, a Sangh Parivar offshoot, were reported from various parts of Karnataka.

Saldanha pointed out that Brahmins, the highest or priestly class in the caste hierarchy in Hinduism, from Udupi district and Mangalore city in neighboring Dakshina Kannada district played a special role in leading the Hindu right-wing movement. The retired judge also accused the BJP government of supporting Sangh Parivar outfits with public money.

“The Karnataka government gives money to right-wing groups for festivals in the name of celebrations, and also through donations to certain temples,” he said.

Agreeing with Saldanha, the CBCI’s Joseph said the violence in Karnataka points to a “decline in civility and collapse of administration.”

“It is indeed sad that Karnataka, which enjoyed communal harmony and social amity for so long, has recently been pushed into the cycle of hate crimes perpetrated by the extreme elements in society that do not believe in mutual tolerance or acceptance,” Joseph said.

Karnataka Gov. H.R. Bhardwaj reportedly said earlier this week that protection of people’s lives and liberties, including the right to propagate their religion, was “the essence of Indian democracy.”

The governor said it was the responsibility of the state government “to see that nobody is allowed to flout the democratic norms and laws of the land,” acknowledging a rise in the incidence of attacks against churches, reported Daijiworld.

His comments came a day after an attack on a glass painting of the Virgin Mary at the entrance arch of the Canara Organisation for Development and Peace building in Nantoor area on Saturday (Jan. 30).

On that day Christians held a silent protest in Mysore, and on Monday (Feb. 1) Christians in Mangalore protested in like fashion against increasing attacks on them.

On Jan. 28, unidentified people burned down a church in Raipura area in Molakalmuru town in Chitradurga district. The Jesus Loves Holy Temple Church turned into ashes, reported GCIC.

Two Catholic churches were attacked in Mysore and Uttara Kannada districts on Jan. 25. Unidentified people reportedly broke a statue of Mary on the compound wall of the Holy Family Church in Hinkal village in the wee hours in Mysore district. In the other incident, glass panes covering the statue of Mary were broken at St. Anthony Church in the Pernamakki area in Uttara Kannada district.

At 2:30 a.m. this morning, unidentified people broke into a Catholic church and vandalized it in the Malavalli area of Mandya district, reported the Karnataka-based GCIC. The cross, statues and musical instruments in the St. Mathias Church were destroyed, it said, adding that the parish priest filed a complaint at the Malavalli police station.

‘Lip Service’

Echoing claims of the Hindu nationalist BJP, Karnataka State Minorities Commission member Anthony Fernandez said he does not believe there is any reason for concern.

“Some elements are simply trying to tarnish the image of the state government,” he said.

Fernandez acknowledged, however, that the Hindu nationalist Sri Ram Sene (Army of God Rama) was involved in some attacks. The Sri Ram Sene is believed to be a splinter group from the Sangh Parivar family of organizations under the RSS.

Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa on Jan. 28 warned those who vandalize religious places, saying he would have their hands “chopped off.”

“I, the chief minister of Karnataka, am saying I will chop off their hands,” Yeddyurappa was quoted as saying by Headlines Today news channel.

The CBCI’s Joseph said “lip service” by the government was “no longer enough.”

“It has to show results on the ground that it means business in tackling the menace of communal elements,” he said. “Unprovoked violence against fellow citizens in the name of religion is pernicious, and it must stop forthwith, or else the impression may gain ground that the administration of the day is colluding with criminal and extreme elements in vitiating the social harmony for short term political gains – something this country can ill afford in the long run.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Forced Recantations of Faith Continue in Vietnam

New Christians in northwest violently compelled to return to ancestor worship.

HANOI, Vietnam, January 18 (CDN) — A Vietnamese man violently forced to recant his fledgling Christian faith faces pressure from authorities and clansmen to prove his return to traditional Hmong belief by sacrificing to ancestors next month.

Sung Cua Po, who embraced Christianity in November, received some 70 blows to his head and back after local officials in northwest Vietnam’s Dien Bien Province arrested him on Dec. 1, 2009, according to documents obtained by Compass. His wife, Hang thi Va, was also beaten. They live in Ho Co village.

Dien Bien Dong District and Na Son Commune police and soldiers led by policeman Hang A Senh took the Christian couple to the Na Son Commune People’s Committee office after police earlier incited local residents to abuse and stone them and other Christian families. After Po and his wife were beaten at 1 a.m. that night, he was fined 8 million dong (US$430) and a pig of at least 16 kilos. His cell phone and motorbike were confiscated, according to the documents.

Christians Sung A Sinh and Hang A Xa of Trung Phu village were also beaten about the head and back and fined a pig of 16 kilos each so that local authorities could eat, according to the reports. The documents stated that the reason for the mistreatment of the Christians was that they abandoned “the good and beautiful” traditional Hmong beliefs and practices to follow Protestant Christianity.

Christian sources reported that on Dec. 15 police took Po and his wife to members of their extended family, who applied severe clan pressure on him to deny their faith. When police added their own threats, Po finally signed recantation documents.

“I folded – I signed when police threatened to beat me to death if I didn’t recant,” he said. “Then they would seize my property, leaving my wife a widow, and my children fatherless – without a home.”

Following Po’s written recantation, authorities subjected him to further family and clan pressure and “fines,” as well as rites to satisfy traditional Hmong spirits said to have become upset when he offended them by becoming a Christian.

Po faces the ultimate test to prove his recantation is sincere on Feb. 13, Lunar New Year’s Eve. He remains under severe threat, the documents report, unless he voluntarily offers sacrifices to his ancestors at that time.

The documentation of the forced recantations in northwest Vietnam indicates authorities are contravening Vietnam’s 2004/2005 public religion policy.

All three men had received a summons dated Dec. 11, 2009 to appear at the Na Son Commune Peoples’ Committee office at 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 15 “to take care of business relating to following the Vang Chu religion.”  

The officials’ use of the Vang Chu religion in these documents was said to be significant. Vang Chu is a mythological Hmong savior who, it is believed, will unite and deliver the Hmong. For some time Vietnamese authorities have deliberately misnamed Protestantism as Vang Chu in order to give Christianity a threatening political character. Any real or imagined political opposition provides Vietnamese communists with a carte blanche excuse to apply repressive measures, Christian sources said.

One of the other Christians arrested, Xa, has received another summons handwritten by the chief of Trung Phu village, Hang A Po, “to solve the issue of the Vang Chu religion.” The summons ordered Xa to appear without fail at the home of village chief Po in mid-December and to bring sufficient food, including a 15-to-20 kilo pig, to feed everyone.

“Here is Vietnamese jungle justice on full display – show up at the home of an official to be tormented and bring plenty of food and liquor for your tormentors,” observed one source.

The summons purports to represent district and commune police who will be present, as well as the village chief.

“It is clear that in spite of public national policies outlawing forced recantation, to the contrary, Dien Bien government policy to force new Christian believers to recant is being vigorously implemented,” said one source.

This conclusion is consistent with other findings. In November 2009 religious liberty advocates acquired a Vietnamese language booklet entitled “Some Documents Concerning Religious Belief and Religion.” The 104-page document “For Internal Circulation” was published in November 2007 by the Dien Bien Province Department of Ethnic Minorities.

The collection of documents, including some marked “Secret,” clearly shows Dien Bien religion policies and directives relative to Protestants are different than the “new religion legislation” of 2004/2005. The Dien Bien documents reveal a secret “Guidance Committee 160” is overseeing repressive policies initiated before the new religion legislation of 2004/2005 that continue to guide officials.

“These events and findings in Dien Bien clearly show that the excuse given by our government that such events are isolated exceptions perpetrated by a few bad officials is not believable,” said one church leader. 

Report from Compass Direct News 


Hindus opposed to pastor’s evangelistic efforts name him, three others.

NEW DELHI, August 31 (Compass Direct News) – Hindus opposed to a pastor in a village in Madhya Pradesh, India have falsely charged him and three other Christians in the murder of a young man killed in a gang fight between two clans, according to area Christians.

Pastor Kamlesh Tahed, 32, of Mehendi Kheda village, Jhabua district, told Compass he was not even in the village on Aug. 8, the day 22-year-old Roop Singh Baria was killed. Pastor Tahed, who spent 20 days in jail on false charges of “forcible conversion” in 2001 before a court declared him innocent, is in hiding.

“I was away in another village to pray for a sick person the day the murder took place,” Pastor Tahed told Compass.

Three other Christians from his clan – Kasna Tahed, 25, Ramesh Tahed, 26, and Vasna Tahed, 36 – are in police custody, also charged in the murder of Baria, of nearby Negadia village, even though they were not present at the site of the melee either, Pastor Tahed said.

“We four had nothing to do with the fight and murder,” Pastor Tahed told Compass. “The report that was filed in the police station had not only the names of the 13 suspects involved in the fight, but also the four Christians who were not even present at the site of the fight.”

He added that 10 of the 13 Hindus charged are in custody, and three are on “the run.”

All 17 men are booked under all the same charges – murder, rioting, rioting with a deadly weapon and unlawful assembly – with the courts to determine which charges actually apply to which suspects.

The murder came amid a mob fight after the Baria clan attacked the Tahed clan over 1,000 rupees (US$20) that one of the Tahed family members had borrowed, area Christians said. Members of the Baria clan filed the First Information Report (FIR) on the melee and named Pastor Tahed because he is a Christian leader, said another area pastor who has suffered the same fate.

Pastor Bahadur Baria of the same village’s opposing clan told Compass that in all previous conflicts – personal, religious or social – sympathizers of Hindu extremists falsely accuse area Christians as well as bait them into conflicts.

“There are RSS [Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang] sympathizers living in both villages,” Pastor Baria said, “and they have inflamed the tribal Hindus to hook the Christian families into all rioting, murder, and other cases in the village so that the Christians are troubled from every side.”

Pastor Baria said what happened to Pastor Tahed also has happened to him; a member of the Tahed clan was murdered by a Baria clan gang, and his name appeared in the FIR. Only after a costly court process was he exonerated from murder charges, he said.

“This has not been once but every time something happens, the Christians are dragged into it,” he said.

Pastor Tahed said he used to participate in the clan conflicts before becoming a Christian.

“I once was one of them, but in the 20 years since I became a Christian, they have been dragging me into false cases and hate me for my work of evangelism,” he said. “They hooked me into a similar case in 2001 with additional charges of ‘forceful conversions,’ and I was behind bars for 20 days. Finally the court set me free as I was proved innocent.”

While Christian friends search for a lawyer to represent him and the three other Christians, Pastor Tahed has fled the area.

“These almost regular court procedures involve a lot of money, and being an evangelist with no fixed source of income, I cannot afford them,” he said.

In retaliation for the murder of Roop Singh Baria, two days later the Baria clan set on fire 12 houses of the Tahed clan, he added.

Pastor Tahed has a small plot of farmland as the only source of income by which he supports his wife, six children, parents and four children of his deceased elder brother, he said. Of the other three Christians charged, Kasna Tahed has three children, Ramesh Tahed has two and Vasna Tahed has three.

For the security of the families left behind, four police guards are posted Mehendi Kheda village and four at Negadia village.

“This is to prevent further mishaps in both the clans,” Pastor Tahed said.

Report from Compass Direct News 


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 


Muslims said to fear that freedom to legally change religion would wreak societal havoc.

CAIRO, Egypt, May 12 (Compass Direct News) – In the dilapidated office here of three lawyers representing one of Egypt’s “most wanted” Christian converts, the mood was hopeful in spite of a barrage of death threats against them and their client.

At a court hearing on May 2, a judge agreed to a request by the convert from Islam to join the two cases he has opened to change his ID card to reflect his new faith. The court set June 13 as the date to rule on the case of Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary’s – who is in hiding from outraged Islamists – and lawyer Nabil Ghobreyal said he was hopeful that progress thus far will lead to a favorable ruling.

At the same time, El-Gohary’s lawyers termed potentially “catastrophic” for Egyptian human rights a report sent to the judge by the State Council, a consultative body of Egypt’s Administrative Court. Expressing outrage at El-Gohary’s “audacity” to request a change in the religious designation on his ID, the report claims the case is a threat to societal order and violates sharia (Islamic law).

“This [report] is bombarding freedom of religion in Egypt,” said lawyer Said Faiz. “They are insisting that the path to Islam is a one-way street. The entire report is based on sharia.”

The report is counterproductive for Egypt’s aspirations for improved human rights, they said. In the eyes of the international community it is self-condemned, the lawyers said, because it is not based on Egypt’s civil law, nor does it uphold the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights that Egypt has signed.

The report stated that those who leave Islam will be subject to death, described El-Gohary as an “apostate” and called all Christians “infidels.”

“During the hearing, they [Islamic lawyers] were saying that Christians are infidels and that Christ was a Muslim, so we said, ‘OK, bring us the papers that show Jesus embraced Islam,’” Faiz said, to a round of laughter from his colleagues.

Ghobreyal, adding that the report says El-Gohary’s case threatens public order, noted wryly, “In Egypt we have freedom of religion, but these freedoms can’t go against Islam.”

The trio of young lawyers working on El-Gohary’s case, who formed an organization called Nuri Shams (Sunlight) to support Christian converts’ rights, said they have received innumerable threats over the phone and on the Internet, and sometimes even from their colleagues.

Churches Challenged

To date no Christian convert in Egypt has obtained a baptismal certificate, which amounts to official proof of conversion.

Churches fear that issuing such certificates would create a severe backlash. As a result, converts cannot apply for a change of religion on their ID, but El-Gohary was able to travel abroad to get a baptismal certificate from a well-established church. In April a Coptic Cairo-based priest recognized this certificate and issued him a letter of acceptance, or “conversion certificate,” welcoming him to the Coptic Orthodox community.

El-Gohary’s baptismal certificate caused a fury among the nation’s Islamic lobby, as it led to the first official church recognition of a convert. A number of fatwas (religious edicts) have since been issued against El-Gohary and Father Matthias Nasr Manqarious, the priest who helped him.

“The converts have no chance to travel, to leave, to get asylum, so we have to help them to get documents for their new religion,” Fr. Manqarious told Compass by telephone. “So I decided to help Maher El-Gohary and others like him. They can’t live as Christians in broad daylight.”

For several months El-Gohary has been in hiding, relying on others to meet his basic needs. When Compass spoke with him by phone earlier this month, he said he lives in fear for his life and worries about his 14-year-old daughter’s safety.

“I’m hiding. Someone brings me my food and water. I haven’t gone out in a week,” said El-Gohary. “Many Muslims and sheikhs … say if anyone sees Maher Gohary, he must kill him. My life is very difficult.”

His original case, filed in August of last year, included an attempt to change the religious affiliation on his teenage daughter’s ID, but he later dropped it after further legal consultation. El-Gohary said that when radical Muslims recognize his daughter on the streets, they warn her that they will kill her father when they find him.

“She’s afraid for me,” he said.

His church acceptance letter has re-kindled discussion of a bill proposed by parliamentary members affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a hard-line Islamist opposition movement, which would make apostasy punishable by death, said El-Gohary’s lawyers. Human rights experts, however, say that such a bill does not stand a chance in the Egyptian Parliament and is primarily a smokescreen to induce fear in Egypt’s Christian converts from Islam.

Some Hope from Baha’is

Sources said the fact that the judge asked for a baptismal certificate and filed the letter of acceptance in the case represents progress in the ongoing struggle of Egyptian converts, who are not recognized in their own country.

Now that El-Gohary’s lawyers have produced the acceptance letter, the judge in the case finds himself in a bind, said Hassan Ismail, general secretary of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations.

“The judge is in a paradox with the document he asked for,” Ismail said. “It is difficult to accept it, and yet it is difficult having this document among those of the case.”

Ismail, who has worked for years defending the rights of both Baha’is and converts, said it is hard to predict what the judge will decide in June. Even with all the required documents and “proof” of El-Gohary’s conversion, he said, the judge may still deny his right to change religions.

“For us human rights activists, these decisions are political, not legal,” he said. “These sorts of documents put the government into a corner, and we are working hard to get them in order to push the government to make different decisions.”

At the age of 16 all Egyptians are required to obtain an ID that states their religion as Muslim, Christian or Jewish. These cards are necessary for virtually every aspect of life, from banking, to education and medical treatment.

Baha’is, who do not fall under the rubric of any of Islam’s “heavenly religions,” were forced to lie about their religion or not obtain cards until March, when in a historical decision Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court upheld a lower court’s 2008 ruling that all Egyptians have a right to obtain official documents, such as ID cards and birth certificates, without stating their religion.

The gains of Baha’is have been a gauge of sorts for the Christian convert community, even though in reality they are not granted the freedom to change their stated religion or leave it blank on their cards and the official registry.

“I’m very optimistic about the cases of minorities and converts in Egypt,” said Ismail. “I believe that the case of Baha’is was an indicator for converts … If we were able to push their case, then we can defend the rights of converts.”

The human rights activist said that although discrimination against converts who are seen as apostates from Islam is greater than that against those raised in other religions, ultimately converts will be able to gain legal ground. El-Gohary’s case, he said, will play an important role.

“After years of fighting, the Baha’is have rights,” he said. “I think converts will succeed even if it takes years. Many are expecting to see Maher’s case [succeed], because it’s well documented.”

Attorney Ghobreyal said that El-Gohary’s case is on solid legal footing based on Article 46 of the Egyptian Civil Code, which grants religious freedom to the country’s citizens.

In his mind it is irrational that the government gave rights to the Baha’is, who fall outside of the three heavenly religions, while not granting the same rights to Christian converts. His only explanation is that a governmental green light to people to leave Islam could wreak havoc.

Not only is there fear of the Muslim front reacting violently to such a decision, but “they’re afraid that if they allow it, then all Muslims will become Christians,” said Ghobreyal. “They know there are many converts, and they will all officially become Christians.”

The lawyer said there are rumors circulating that there are a few million converts eagerly awaiting the results of El-Gohary’s case. Egypt’s last census in 2006 did not factor in religion, so figures of the Coptic population are based on estimates. These range from 6 to 15 percent of the country’s 80-million population. It is not possible to estimate the number of converts, most of whom live in secrecy.

“Ten years ago, you never heard about a convert, but now you hear that someone is going to the court to ask to become a Christian,” said Ghobreyal.

Hegazy’s Hope

The first convert to file for a change on his ID card, Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy, said he was pleased with the progress of El-Gohary’s case and hoped that more converts would take the risk of joining their cause.

“I think that every case added to the convert case will be a help,” said Hegazy.

An outspoken critic of the refusal of Egypt’s established churches to openly baptize converts, Hegazy said that in El-Gohary’s case publicity and criticism pushed the church to take a step in the right direction in producing the conversion certificate.

“But this is not a big step, and there are many more that need to be taken and have not been,” he said. “Just to be clear, the [Egyptian] church has not given a baptism certificate, it has given an acceptance letter, and the church has declared they are not going to give a baptism paper … but we can’t deny that the step that the priest took to give the certificate was audacious.”

Hegazy, who lost his case in January 2008 and is waiting for an appeal date, was never able to get a baptism certificate, nor can he travel since he does not have a passport. If he returns to his hometown to apply for one, he risks losing his life.

He said he still hopes any of Egypt’s churches will help him by baptizing him and giving him a certificate in time for his appeal or for a new case he plans to open soon. Hegazy said that although his case is not as public as it used to be, he still faces danger when he leaves his house.

Although he is also in hiding and fears for his life, El-Gohary said he hopes his case opens the way for other converts to experience freedom.

“I hope this for all of those who want to live in the light and the sun; there are many families,” he said of Egypt’s converts. “I want to live in peace as a Christian. I hope my country gives me the freedom to worship my God and gives me my human rights.”

Egypt is a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, an inter-governmental body made up of 47 states responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. On April 18, 2007, in its written statement applying for a seat to the Human Rights Council, the representative of Egypt to the U.N. stated that if elected it would emphasize promoting cultural and religious tolerance, among other human rights.

Report from Compass Direct News


Christian leaders assert decision breaches religious law.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, May 5 (Compass Direct News) – Church members in Depok city, West Java, are unable to use their church building after the mayor, citing protests from area Muslims, revoked a permit issued in 1998.

Under a Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB) issued in 1969 and revised in 2006, all religious groups in Indonesia must apply for permits to establish and operate places of worship.

The Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) church in Cinere village, Limo sub-district, in 1997 applied for permission to construct a church building and auditorium on 5,000 square meters of land, said Betty Sitompul, manager of the building project. Permission was granted in June 1998, and construction began but soon stopped due to a lack of funding.

After construction began again in 2007, members of a Muslim group from Cinere and neighboring villages damaged the boundary hedge and posted banners on the walls of the building protesting its existence. Most of the protestors were not local residents, according to Sitompul.

By then, the church building was almost completed and church members were using it for worship services.

Mayor Nur Mahmudi Ismail asked church leaders to cease construction temporarily to appease the protestors. Six months later, in January 2008, the church building committee wrote to the mayor’s office asking for permission to resume work on the project.

“We waited another six months, but had no response,” Sitompul said. “So we wrote again in June 2008 but again heard nothing.”

The building committee wrote again in February, asking for dialogue with the protestors, but members of the Muslim group also wrote to the mayor on Feb. 19, asking him to cancel the church permit.

On March 27 the mayor responded with an official letter revoking the church permit on the grounds of preserving “interfaith harmony.” When challenged, he claimed that city officials had the right to revoke prior decisions, including building permits, at any time.

The Rev. Simon Todingallo, head of the Christian Synod in Depok, said the decision breached SKB regulations and was the result of pressure from a small minority who did not want a church operating in the area. Rev. Todingallo added that the ruling is illegal since the mayor has no right to decide alone, but must also involve Religious Affairs and Internal Affairs ministries.

Saddled with an expensive building complex that was effectively useless, church officials said they would attempt to negotiate with the mayor’s office for the return of the permit and seek legal counsel if negotiations failed.

Report from Compass Direct News


Couple goes into hiding as police place Islamic law over Egyptian penal code.

ISTANBUL, April 23 (Compass Direct News) – Christian convert Raheal Henen Mussa and her Coptic husband are hiding from police and her Muslim family for violating an article of Islamic law (sharia) that doesn’t exist in the Egyptian penal code.

Police arrested Mussa, 22, on April 13 for marrying Sarwat George Ryiad in a customary marriage (zawag al ‘urfi), an unregistered form of matrimony in Egypt made without witnesses. It has gained popularity among Egyptian youth but is not sanctioned by most Islamic scholars.

The two signed a marriage contract between themselves. Only Ryiad and their attorney have a copy. Police have not obtained a copy of the contract, but they used its existence as a pretext for arresting Mussa.

According to a strict interpretation of sharia, Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men, although the opposite is allowed, and Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution stipulates that sharia is the basis for legislation.

The two have not committed a crime according to Egyptian law since they didn’t seek official marriage status, but police and Mussa’s family are pursuing them because they violated Islamic law, advocacy groups say.

“They have not violated the law, but the family and the police are applying their own unwritten law,” said Helmy Guirguis, president of the U.K. Coptic Association. “Islamic law interprets that if a Muslim girl marries a non-Muslim man, even on paper, they are breaking the law of God, not the law of man.”

The two could not get married in an official ceremony since Mussa is considered a Muslim by birth, and changing one’s religious status away from Islam is impossible in Egypt. A lawsuit is pending, however, for a Muslim-born man to change his status on his identity card.

Formerly known as Samr Mohamed Hansen, Mussa converted to Christianity three years ago, before marrying Ryiad. Police arrested her as she came home from her workplace at a Cairo salon. They identified her by the Coptic cross tattoo on her right arm – a common mark among Copts.

She was transferred to a station operated by the secret police, where she stayed until Sunday (April 19), when her family took her. While in their custody, her family completely burned off her cross tattoo, according to the U.K. Coptic Association.

Mussa escaped from them on Tuesday (April 21). She and her husband fled Cairo and are in hiding. If the two are caught, advocates fear, they could be forcibly separated, arrested and beaten, with Mussa being returned to her family.

Sharia influence in Egyptian law also means that Muslims have the right (hisbah) to file a lawsuit against someone who has violated the “rights of God.” This provision, advocates fear, means Mussa and Ryiad’s unsanctioned marriage could make them targets of Muslim extremists wishing to apply the full extent of this law.

The most famous example of hisbah’s application came in 1995, when Cairo University professor Nasr Abuh Zayd was declared an “infidel” and forcibly divorced from his wife for criticizing orthodox views of the Quran.

Ryiad and Mussa were not married in a Coptic ceremony, as many churches avoid marrying registered Muslims to non-Muslims for fear of being targeted by authorities and Islamic extremists.

“Nobody [in Egypt] can declare the marriage of a Coptic man to a Muslim girl,” attorney Naguib Gabriel told Compass. “It would be very dangerous to the life of a priest.”


Marriage Woes

Mussa and Ryiad’s case is the latest in a spurt of recent arrests and lawsuits against those who don’t adhere to the Islamic-influenced dictum that Muslim women may not marry non-Muslim men.

In October 2008, a Cairo court handed Father Metaos Wahba a five-year prison sentence for issuing a marriage certificate to a Christian man and a Muslim convert to Christianity. He stated that he did not know the woman’s papers stating her religion as “Christian” were a forgery.

Human rights groups have called on Egyptian President Hosny Mubarak to release Fr. Wahba, as Egypt is a signatory to the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which allows full religious freedom, including conversion.

Mussa’s jailing mirrored that of Christian convert Martha Samuel Makkar, 24, detained last December at a Cairo airport for attempting to flee the country with her husband. She was charged with carrying forged documents that listed her religion as Christian and incarcerated for a month.

A judge granted her bail but not before threatening to kill her for leaving Islam (see “Judge Tells of Desire to Kill Christian,” Jan. 27).

Nadia Tawfiq, the lawyer in charge of Makkar’s chase, said many arrests and trials in Egypt result from laws that assign people social status according to the religion on their identity cards.

She said the best hope for change is a May 2 court hearing of Maher El-Gohary, a Muslim-born man who is fighting to have his Christian religion recognized on his official documents. If he succeeds, he would be the first person in the country to be granted that right.

Report from Compass Direct News