Christians suffer in Iran’s ‘free nation,’ says Open Doors USA

Iran’s president claimed his country is a genuine cradle of liberty. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in New York for the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly, reports MNN.

Ahmadinejad insisted that political opponents are free to demonstrate, refusing to acknowledge that opposition groups and Christians have been driven underground by a vicious government crackdown.

"When we discuss the subject of freedoms and liberty it has to be done on a comparative basis and to keep in mind that democracy, at the end of the day, means the rule of the majority, so the minority cannot rule," Ahmadinejad said.

President of Open Doors USA Carl Moeller says, "Any person that’s had any exposure to the realities of life in Iran would disagree with President Ahmadinejad."

Moeller says Ahmadinejad is the master of the big lie. "He’s a holocaust denier, for example. And it’s easy to deny something as long as you don’t have to [back it up with] evidence. In this case, it’s easy to say Iran is a free country because everybody who would dissent knows clearly that if they dissent, they would be sent to prison."

Iran is one of the most repressive places to be a Christian. It ranks second on Open Doors’ World Watch list of countries which persecute Christians. "We’ve talked, on this program, about those who have spent months in prison simply for converting to Christianity and suffered huge abuse because of it," says Moeller.

Despite this oppression, Moeller says many Iranians are turning to Christ. They’re responding to Christian radio and satellite television broadcasts. Some are reading about Christ on the Internet. Some young people are starting churches as a result.

Moeller says most Iranians are aware of it. "90 percent of Iranians are aware that Muslims are turning to faith in Jesus Christ and have first-hand knowledge of that. It’s an incredible statistic. And we see that the increase in persecution is a direct relationship with the growth of the church in Iran."

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Somali Christian Killed, Four Children Kidnapped

Al Shabaab insurgents allegedly seek to train young ones as Islamist soldiers.

NAIROBI, Kenya, September 7 (CDN) — Another member of an underground Christian movement in Somalia has been murdered by Muslim insurgents in a continuing campaign to eliminate converts from Islam.

Area sources said al Shabaab militants entered the house of Osman Abdullah Fataho in Afgoi, 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Mogadishu in Shibis district, at 10:30 the night of July 21 and shot him dead in front of his wife and children.

Fataho was a long-time Christian deeply involved in the activities of the small, secret Christian community, sources said. Area Christians said they suspected someone had informed the insurgents of Fataho’s faith.

The assailants abducted his wife and children, later releasing her on the condition that she surrender the little ones to be trained as soldiers, sources said.

“We know they have taken the children to brain-wash them, to change their way of life from Christian to Muslim and to teach them the Quran,” said one source. “Al Shabaab was aware that her husband was a Christian, but they were not sure of her faith.”

Abducted were 5-year-old Ali Daud Fataho, 7-year-old Fatuma Safia Fataho, 10-year-old Sharif Ahmed Fataho and Nur Said Fataho, 15.

A Christian leader who attended Fataho’s funeral on July 22 said that one of the slain man’s relatives noted that the insurgents had targeted him because he had left Islam. The al Shabaab militants are said to have links with al Qaeda.

The incident has spread fear among the faithful in the lawless country, much of which lies in the grip of ruthless insurgents intent on rooting out any person professing Christianity. Leaders of the Christian underground movement have been forced to flee their homes to avoid being killed by the insurgents, said one leader who together with seven others has temporarily moved to an undisclosed area.

The leader added that he was unable to go to his office for fear of falling into the hands of the hard-line Islamic insurgents.

Al Shabaab, which controls large parts of central Somalia, recently banned radio stations from playing music and outlawed bell ringing that signals the end of school classes “because they sound like church bells.”

In 2009 Islamic militants in Somalia sought out and killed at least 15 Christians, including women and children. This year, on Jan. 1 al Shabaab insurgents murdered 41-year-old Mohammed Ahmed Ali after the Christian had left his home in Hodan, on the outskirts of Mogadishu.

On March 15, al Shabaab rebels shot Madobe Abdi to death on March 15 at 9:30 a.m. in Mahaday village, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Jowhar. Abdi’s death was distinctive in that he was not a convert from Islam. An orphan, Abdi was raised as a Christian.

On May 4, the militants shot Yusuf Ali Nur to death in Xarardheere, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Jowhar. The 57-year-old Nur had been on a list of people al Shabaab suspected of being Christian, sources who spoke on condition of anonymity told Compass.

The transitional government in Mogadishu fighting to retain control of the country treats Christians little better than the al Shabaab insurgents do. While proclaiming himself a moderate, President Sheikh Sharif Sheik Ahmed has embraced a version of sharia (Islamic law) that mandates the death penalty for those who leave Islam.

Report from Compass Direct News

Two Christian Families in Bangladesh Suffer Extortion, Beatings

Muslims vehemently protest baptism of converts, fabricate false charge against church leaders.

PINGNA, Bangladesh, August 2 (CDN) — Two Christian women in Bangladesh’s northern district of Jamalpur said village officials extorted relatively large sums of money from them – and severely beat the husband of one – for proclaiming Christ to Muslims.

Johura Begum, 42, of Pingna village said a member of the local union council, an area government representative and the father of a police officer threatened to harm her grown daughters if her family did not pay them 20,000 taka (US$283). The police officer whose father was allegedly involved in the extortion was investigating a fabricated charge that Christians had paid Muslims to participate in a river baptism on May 26.

Begum had invited seven converts from Islam, including three women, to be baptized on the occasion, she said. Only six men among 55 converts were baptized by the leaders of the Pentecostal Holiness Church of Bangladesh (PHCB), Christian leaders said, as the rest were intimidated by protesting Muslims; the next day, area Islamists with bullhorns shouted death threats to Christians.

“The council member threatened me, saying I had to give him 20,000 taka or else we could not live here with honor, dignity and security,” Begum said. “If I did not hand over the money, he said I my grown-up twin daughters would face trouble.”

Begum said her husband is a day-laborer at a rice-husking mill, and that 20,000 taka was a “colossal amount” for them. She was able to borrow the money from a Christian cooperative, she said.

“I gave the extortion money for the sake of our safety and security,” Begum said. “It not possible to say aloud what abusive language they used against me for inviting people to God.”

Villagers backed by a political leader of the ruling Bangladesh Awami League party also allegedly extorted 250,000 taka (US$3,535) from another Christian woman, 35-year-old Komola Begum of Doulatpur village, whose husband is a successful fertilizer seller.

The villagers claimed that she and her husband had become rich by receiving funds from Christians. After the baptisms, local Muslims beat her husband to such an extent that he received three days of hospital treatment for his injuries, she said.

Komola Begum, who had invited 11 persons including three women to the baptisms, told Compass that her husband’s life was spared only because she paid what the Muslims demanded.

“My husband is a scapegoat – he simply does business,” she said. “But he was beaten for my faith and activities.”


False Charge

The 55 baptisms were to have taken place on the banks of the Brahmanputra River in Mymensingh district, 110 kilometers or 68 miles north of Dhaka (Jamalpur is 140 kilometers or 87 miles northwest of Dhaka).

Leaders of the PHCB congregation had begun baptizing the converts, and the rage of area Muslims flared as they staged a loud protest at the site, area Christians said. Police soon arrived and detained the Christian leaders and others present.

At the police station, officers forced one of those present at the baptism, 45-year-old Hafijur Rahman, to sign a statement accusing four of the Christian leaders of offering him and others money to attend, Rahman told Compass.

Police swiftly arrested two of the Christian leaders, while two were able to flee.

Rahman told the Compass that he was not offered any money to go to the baptism service.

“I was not aware of the content of the case copy – later I came to know that a case was filed against the four Christian neighbors by me,” Rahman said. “I am an illiterate man. Police took my fingerprint on a blank paper under duress, and later they wrote everything.”

Rahman said he went to the baptisms because one of his neighbors invited him.

“I went there out of curiosity,” he said. “They did not offer us any money.”

The document Rahman signed charges that he and others were offered 5,000 taka (US$70) each as loan to attend a meeting in Mymensingh.

“Instead of attending a meeting, they took us to the bank of the Brahmanputra River,” the document states. “Some Christian leaders had some of us bathed according to the Christian religion. Then some of us protested. The Christian leaders said, ‘If you need to take loan, you need to accept Christian religion.’”

Denying that Rahman was forced to sign the document, local Police Chief Golam Sarwar told Compass that a fraud case was filed against four Christians.

“They lured local Muslims by giving them 5,000 taka to become Christian, and their activities hurt the religious sentiment of the Muslims,” Sarwar said.

For three days after the baptism ceremony, Jamalpur district villagers announced through bullhorns the punishment Christians would receive for their activities, chanting among other slogans, “We will peel off the skins of the Christians.” They also shouted that they would not allow any Christians to live in that area.

Johura Begum said that when she became a Christian 20 years ago, area Muslims beat her and forced her to leave the village, though she was able to return three years later.

“Local Muslims bombarded us with propaganda – that when I became a Christian, I would have to be naked in the baptism before the Christian cleric,” said Johura Begum. “Recently they are bad-mouthing Christianity with these kinds of disgraceful and scurrilous rumors, and my daughters cannot attend their classes.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Christians Narrowly Escape Flying Bullets in Pakistan

Evangelistic team cheats death; separately, stray gunshot leads to false charges.

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, July 15 (CDN) — Suspected Islamic extremists fired bullets into the car of a Christian evangelist with impunity last month, while in another Punjab Province town stray gunfire led to two Christians being falsely accused of murder.

Following a youth revival in Essa Nagri, near Faisalabad, the Rev. Kamran Pervaiz, a guest speaker from Rawalpindi, was in the passenger seat of a Toyota Corolla returning to Faisalabad with his team on June 25 when 12 armed men tried to stop their car, the pastor said.

Pastor Naeem Joseph, an organizer of the revival, was leading the ministry team by motorbike, and he led them past the armed men as they reached the Narawala Road bypass at about 1:15 a.m.

“I didn’t stop,” Pastor Joseph told Compass. “A gunshot was fired at me, but it missed, and instead of going straight I turned right towards the Sudhar bypass and took the motorbike into the fields.”

Pervaiz Sohtra was driving the car.

“Rev. Kamran asked me to increase the speed,” Sohtra said. “The armed men shouted to stop and directly fired at the car. I saw from the rearview mirror that they were coming after us, and I told everyone to stay down.”

The rear window suddenly broke to pieces as bullets pierced the car.

“Pervaiz [Sohtra] turned off the lights and took the car into the fields and turned off the engine,” Kamran Pervaiz said. “The attackers drove by, near the road, without noticing the fields. No one was injured. We were all safe.”

Pervaiz said he was certain that they were targeted because of their involvement in the Christian revival meeting; response to Pervaiz’s preaching jumped when a crippled man was healed after the evangelist prayed for him at the event. Muslim groups had warned the Christians to abort the meeting after banners and posters were displayed across Essa Nagri.

“A local Muslim group tore the banners and threatened us, telling us not to organize the meeting or else we would face dire consequences,” said Salman John, one of the organizers.

A police patrol responded to the ministry team’s emergency number phone call, reaching them in the field shortly before 2 a.m. and escorting Pervaiz and the others in their bullet-damaged car to Model Town, Faisalabad.

Pastor Joseph filed an application for a First Information Report (FIR) at Ghulam Muhammad Abad police station in Faisalabad. Acting Superintendent Shabir Muhammad took the application but declined to register an FIR due to pressure from local Muslim groups, he said.

“I am trying to register the FIR, but the things are out of my control at higher levels,” Muhammad told Compass.


False Arrest

In Gujrat, by contrast, police soon arrested two young Christian men after shots fired into the air by a drunken man killed a neighbor.

Cousins Saleem Masih, 22, and John Masih, 23, were falsely accused of robbery as well as murder, a later police investigation found, and they were released. Both worked at the farm of Chaudhry Ashraf Gondal, who became inebriated along with friend Chaudhry Farhan on June 18, according to Riaz Masih, father of Saleem Masih.

“They were feasting and then got drunk and started firing gunshots into the air for fun, and one of the bullets hit a passer-by near their home, and he died on the spot,” Riaz Masih said.

Yousaf Masih, father of John Masih, told Compass that when police arrived, Ashraf Gondal “gave them some money and asked them to take care of the matter.”

On June 22, police went to Yousaf Masih’s house asking for Saleem and John Masih. When Yousaf Masih said they were at work and asked if everything was alright, the inspector told him that the two young men had robbed and murdered shopkeeper Malik Sajid on June 18 at about 11:30 p.m.

“My son and Saleem came home around 6 p.m. and they didn’t go out after that,” Yousaf Masih told the officers. “On June 18 they were at home – they didn’t go out, so how could they murder Sajid?”

Police went to Ashraf Gondal’s farm and arrested the two young Christians. When police told Ashraf Gondal that they had robbed and murdered Sajid, he replied that they were capable of such a crime as they often asked him for advances on their pay and “they even sell alcohol.” Alcohol is illegal for Muslims in Pakistan and can be sold only by non-Muslims with a license.

Riaz Masih said he and Yousaf Masih rushed to Ashraf Gondal for help, but that he spoke harshly to them, saying, “Your sons have robbed and murdered an innocent person, and they even sell alcohol. Why should I help criminals, and especially Christian criminals?”

The two fathers went to the police station, where the Station House Officer (SHO) refused to allow them to meet with their sons. They went to Pastor Zaheer Latif.

“I’ve known Saleem and John since they were small kids, and they could never rob or murder anyone,” Pastor Latif told Compass. “They were targeted because they are Christians. The SHO and Ashraf knew that these boys would not be able to prove themselves innocent.”

The pastor referred the fathers to the senior superintendent of police operations officer Raon Irfan, who undertook an investigation. When he spoke with Ashraf Gondal, Irfan said, the landowner denied that Farhan had visited him on June 18.

“I have read the inquiry report by the SHO,” Irfan told Compass. “I am aware of the fact that this SHO is a corrupt person, and it is clearly a false report.”

Irfan said that, after talking with villagers, he concluded that Farhan was with Ashraf Gondal in Gujrat on June 18, and that they shot into the air for fun and one of the bullets killed Sajid.

“Ashraf bribed the SHO to arrest someone else and file charges of robbery and murder,” Irfan said. “Ashraf is an influential person, and he told the SHO to file the case against Saleem and John, as they are Christians and would not be able to prove themselves innocent.”

Advocacy group Peace Pakistan filed an appeal of the false charges with the Gujrat Session Court on June 25. In light of Irfan’s report, Session Judge Muhammad Gulfam Malik on June 27 released Saleem Masih and John Masih and suspended the SHO for corruption and filing a false case.

No action, however, was taken against Ashraf Gondal or Farhan. Police have not arrested either of them.

Report from Compass Direct News

Vietnam’s Temporary Release of Priest Goes against Trend

Government granting leave to Father Ly is said to be tightening control overall.

DUBLIN, March 30 (CDN) — Vietnamese officials have in recent months tightened control over those they regard as dissidents, and the temporary release of Catholic priest Thadeus Nguyen van Ly on March 15 was a rare exception, according to Amnesty International (AI).

Officials on March 15 released Ly, now 63, from prison for one year so that he could receive medical treatment.

An outspoken advocate for religious freedom, Ly was sentenced to eight years in prison in March 2007 for “spreading propaganda” against the state. He had previously received 10- and 15-year sentences on similar charges.

“The release of Father Ly appears to be a one-off, related to his health,” Brittis Edman, Asia researcher for AI, told Compass by phone.

Human rights lawyer Le Thi Cong Nhan was released on March 6 after serving a three years in prison.  Officials have sentenced 16 other “perceived dissidents” since last September.

“Those 16 are people whose names are in the public domain,” Edman added. “There are probably others we’re not aware of.”

Edman confirmed that Ly was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, although few details are available on the prognosis or the availability of treatment. Fellow priests told the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) that Ly had suffered three strokes in May, September and November of last year, partially paralyzing his right arm and leg and making it difficult for him to walk, write or feed himself.

Following urgent requests from diocesan priests and family members, officials on March 14 granted Ly one year’s reprieve from his jail sentence. On March 15 they transported him by ambulance from Ba Sao prison camp in northern Ha Nam province to a home for retired priests in Hue, central Vietnam.

Under pressure from international advocacy groups including AI, the government may have granted Ly’s release to ward off potential embarrassment should he die in prison, Edman said.

“He’s a very public figure, and the Vietnamese government is not comfortable with being criticized.”

Religious Rights Campaigner

Ly was first jailed for one year in 1977 when he distributed a Church statement decrying the arrest of Buddhist monks and the treatment of Catholics in Vietnam, according to an AI report.

This was followed in December 1983 by a 10-year sentence served from the time of his arrest in May 1983 until his early release in July 1992. Prior to his arrest, Ly wrote a seven-point document urging officials to cease harassing Christians and announced that he was willing to be martyred for his faith.

In November 1994 Ly issued a “Ten Point Statement on the State of the Catholic Church in the Hue Diocese,” criticizing the lack of adequate training for would-be priests, the state’s interference in church teachings and its appropriation of church property.

He also became an advisory board member of the U.S.-based Committee for Religious Freedom in Vietnam (CRFV), according to AI.

In 1999, authorities objected when Ly coordinated relief projects for flood victims in partnership with CRFV. In November 2000, while U.S. President Bill Clinton and a CRFV delegation were in Vietnam, Ly reissued his ten-point statement and later made further appeals for religious freedom.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in February 2001 invited Ly to address a hearing on Vietnam. Though unable to attend, Ly submitted written testimony stating that the Vietnamese government had “stripped all churches of their independence and freedom” and urging that the U.S. Congress not ratify a long-negotiated U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement.

State-owned media then accused Ly of inviting “foreign hostile forces to intervene in Vietnam’s internal affairs” and inciting Catholic followers against the state.

Officials in May 2001 seized Ly during a church service and sentenced him to 15 years in prison for allegedly spreading anti-government propaganda. He was released under house arrest in February 2005 but arrested again in February 2007 and sentenced to eight years for organizing a pro-democracy event.

When the government released over 5,000 prisoners to mark Vietnam’s National Day last Sept. 2, Ly was omitted from the list despite vigorous international campaigns for his release. In a state media report quoted by UCAN, Vice Minister of Public Security Le The Tiem declared that the priest was “still in good enough health to serve his sentence.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Islamic Militants in Somalia Murder Christian Leader

Al Shabaab extremists threaten widow of slain pastor of underground church.

NAIROBI, Kenya, January 26 (CDN) — Islamic extremists shot the leader of an underground church to death outside the capital city of Somalia this month and have threatened to kill his wife, his tearful widow told Compass.

Having learned that he had left Islam to become a Christian, Somali militants from the Islamic extremist al Shabaab murdered 41-year-old Mohammed Ahmed Ali at about noon on Jan. 1, Amina Ibrahim Hassan said.

He was killed sometime after leaving his home in Hodan, on the outskirts of Mogadishu, she said. She and other family members were not immediately aware that he had been killed.

“We waited for him that day, but he did not turn up,” said Hassan, who has since fled to Nairobi. “The following day, on Jan. 2, I was informed by the fellowship that my husband had been killed.”

Ali led an underground church. Christian sources said members of al Shabaab, said to have links with al Qaeda terrorists, had been monitoring Ali and his wife for indications that they had left Islam.

Ali had organized New Year’s Day festivities for Christians to take place in Medina, about 15 kilometers (nine miles) outside of Mogadishu. Al Shabaab extremists killed him after word of the planned party leaked to them, Hassan said.

Hassan, who worked for a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) before leaving the country, said she received threatening calls from members of al Shabaab on Jan. 3.

“We know who you are working for,” Hassan said one extremist told her. “We also know your home and that you are a follower of the Christians, and we are going to kill you the way we killed your husband.”

Aware of the Islamic extremist militia’s determination to carry out their threats, Hassan called a relative in Nairobi and informed him of the death of her husband and her intention to flee to Nairobi. 

She set out for Kenya early the next morning by bus with her only child, 2-year-old son Abdi Asis Mohammed Ahmed. They reached Ifo, one of the Dadaab refugee camps on the Kenya side of the border, on Jan. 11. She stayed there for a few days before continuing on, arriving at Nairobi on Jan. 20.

“I am thankful that I was able to reach Kenya safely having lost everything – my husband and property,” Hassan said.

Al Shabaab extremists have been monitoring Somalis who work with NGOs for signs that they have embraced Christianity, Christian sources said. 

Ali came to faith in Christ under the influence of his late uncle, Ali Mohammed Nur, who died in 2000 at the age of 70. Ali, who had worked as a taxi driver, completed secondary education and converted to Christianity the same year his uncle died in 2000. He was baptized in 2005.

Hassan said she converted to Christianity in 2005, was baptized in 2006 and married Ali in 2007. She worked for various NGOs in Somalia before fleeing the war-torn country.

In 2009 Islamic militants in Somalia sought out at least 15 Christians, including women and children, and killed them for their faith in a campaign to rid the country of all non-Muslims. On Nov. 14, Islamic extremists controlling part of Mogadishu executed a 23-year-old Christian they accused of trying to convert a 15-year-old Muslim to Christianity, according to Christian sources. Members of al Shabaab had taken Mumin Abdikarim Yusuf into custody on Oct. 28 after the 15-year-old boy reported him to the militants.

Before Yusuf was executed by two gunshots to the head, reports filtered in that he had been badly beaten and his fingers broken as the Islamists tried to extract incriminating evidence against him and information about other Christians. A source later learned that Yusuf’s body showed signs of torture; his front teeth were gone, and some of his fingers were broken, the source said.

On Oct. 19 in Galkayo, in Somalia’s autonomous Puntland region, three masked members of another militant Islamist group in Somalia killed a Somali woman who declined to wear a veil as prescribed by Muslim custom. Sources said members of the comparatively “moderate” Suna Waljameca group killed Amina Muse Ali, 45, in her home; she had said members of the group had long monitored her movements because they suspected she was a Christian.

Suna Waljameca is considered “moderate” in comparison with al Shabaab, which it has fought for control over areas of Somalia; it is one of several Islamic groups in the country championing adoption of a strict interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). Along with al Shabaab, another group vying for power is the Hisbul Islam political party.

Somali Christians are in danger from both extremist groups and Somali law. While proclaiming himself a moderate, President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has embraced a version of sharia that mandates the death penalty for those who leave Islam.

On Sept. 28, a leader of Islamic extremist al Shabaab militia in Lower Juba identified only as Sheikh Arbow shot to death 46-year-old Mariam Muhina Hussein in Marerey village after discovering she had six Bibles, according to Christian sources. On Sept. 15, al Shabaab militants shot 69-year-old Omar Khalafe at a checkpoint they controlled 10 kilometers (six miles) from Merca after discovering that he was transporting Bibles, sources said.

On Aug. 18 al Shabaab extremists shot and killed 41-year-old Ahmed Matan in Bulahawa, near the Somali border with Kenya, according to Christian sources. In Mahadday Weyne, 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Mogadishu, al Shabaab Islamists on July 20 shot to death another convert from Islam, Mohammed Sheikh Abdiraman, sources said. On Feb. 21 al Shabaab militants beheaded two young boys in Somalia because their Christian father refused to divulge information about a church leader.

The extremists also reportedly beheaded seven Christians on July 10; Reuters reported that they were killed in Baidoa for being Christians and “spies.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Turks Threaten to Kill Priest over Swiss Minaret Decision

Slap to religious freedom in Switzerland leads to threat over church bell tower in Turkey.

ISTANBUL, December 15 (CDN) — In response to a Swiss vote banning the construction of new mosque minarets, a group of Muslims this month went into a church building in eastern Turkey and threatened to kill a priest unless he tore down its bell tower, according to an advocacy group.

Three Muslims on Dec. 4 entered the Meryem Ana Church, a Syriac Orthodox church in Diyarbakir, and confronted the Rev. Yusuf Akbulut. They told him that unless the bell tower was destroyed in one week, they would kill him.

“If Switzerland is demolishing our minarets, we will demolish your bell towers too,” one of the men told Akbulut.

The threats came in reaction to a Nov. 29 referendum in Switzerland in which 57 percent voted in favor of banning the construction of new minarets in the country. Swiss lawmakers must now change the national constitution to reflect the referendum, a process that should take more than a year.

The Swiss ban, widely viewed around the world as a breach of religious freedom, is likely to face legal challenges in Switzerland and in the European Court of Human Rights.

There are roughly 150 mosques in Switzerland, four with minarets. Two more minarets are planned. The call to prayer traditional in Muslim-majority countries is not conducted from any of the minarets.

Fikri Aygur, vice president of the European Syriac Union, said that Akbulut has contacted police but has otherwise remained defiant in the face of the threats.

“He has contacted the police, and they gave him guards,” he said. “I talked with him two days ago, and he said, ‘It is my job to protect the church, so I will stand here and leave it in God’s hands.’”

Meryem Ana is more than 250 years old and is one of a handful of churches that serve the Syriac community in Turkey. Also known as Syrian Orthodox, the Syriacs are an ethnic and religious minority in Turkey and were one of the first groups of people to accept Christianity. They speak Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, a language spoken by Christ. Diyarbakir is located in eastern Turkey, about 60 miles from the Syrian border.

At press time the tower was standing and the priest was safe, said Jerry Mattix, youth pastor at the Diyarbakir Evangelical Church, which is located across a street from Meryem Ana Church.

Mattix said that threats against Christians in Diyarbakir are nothing out of the ordinary. Mattix commonly receives threats, both in the mail and posted on the church’s Internet site, he said.

“We’re kind of used to that,” Mattix said. He added that he has received no threats over the minaret situation but added, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we do.”

Mattix said the people making threats in the area are Muslim radicals with ties to Hezbollah “who like to flex their muscles.”

“We are a major target out here, and we are aware of that,” Mattix said. “But the local police are taking great strides to protect us.”

Mattix said he also has “divine confidence” in God’s protection.

The European Syriac Union’s Aygur said that Christians in Turkey often serve as scapegoats for inflamed local Muslims who want to lash out at Europeans.

“When they [Europeans] take actions against the Muslims, the Syriacs get persecuted by the fanatical Muslims there,” he said.

The threats against the church were part of a public outcry in Turkey that included newspaper editorials characterizing the Swiss decision as “Islamophobia.” One Turkish government official called upon Muslims to divest their money from Swiss bank accounts. He invited them to place their money in the Turkish banking system.

In part, the threats also may reflect a larger and well-established pattern of anti-Christian attitudes in Turkey. A recent study conducted by two professors at Sabanci University found that 59 percent of those surveyed said non-Muslims either “should not” or “absolutely should not” be allowed to hold open meetings where they can discuss their ideas.

The survey also found that almost 40 percent of the population of Turkey said they had “very negative” or “negative” views of Christians. In Turkey, Christians are often seen as agents of outside forces bent on dividing the country.

This is not the first time Akbulut has faced persecution. Along with a constant string of threats and harassment, he was tried and acquitted in 2000 for saying to the press that Syriacs were “massacred” along with Armenians in 1915 killings.

In Midyat, also in eastern Turkey, someone recently dug a tunnel under the outlying buildings of a Syriac church in hopes of undermining the support of the structure.

At the Mor Gabriel Monastery, also near Midyat, there is a legal battle over the lands surrounding the monastery. Founded in 397 A.D., Mor Gabriel is arguably the oldest monastery in use today. It is believed local Muslim leaders took the monastery to court in an attempt to seize lands from the church. The monastery has prevailed in all but one case, which is still underway.

“These and similar problems that are threatening the very existence of the remaining Syriacs in Turkey have reached a very serious and worrying level,” Aygur stated in a press release. “Especially, whenever there is a problem about Islam in the European countries, the Syriacs’ existence in Turkey is threatened with such pressures and aggressions.”

Report from Compass Direct News