In Japan women are increasingly turning to diapers to save time. Time is saved by not having to go to the bathroom. I sure hope this isn’t something that catches on in Australia.
Left for dead, Christians offer to drop charges if allowed to construct church building.
CAIRO, Egypt, June 9 (CDN) — Rasha Samir was sure her husband, Ephraim Shehata, was dead.
He was covered with blood, had two bullets inside him and was lying facedown in the dust of a dirt road. Samir was lying on top of him doing her best to shelter him from the onslaught of approaching gunmen.
With arms outstretched, the men surrounded Samir and Shehata and pumped off round after round at the couple. Seconds before, Samir could hear her husband mumbling Bible verses. But one bullet had pierced his neck, and now he wasn’t moving. In a blind terror, Samir tried desperately to stop her panicked breathing and convincingly lie still, hoping the gunmen would go away.
Finally, the gunfire stopped and one of the men spoke. “Let’s go. They’re dead.”
‘Break the Hearts’
On the afternoon of Feb. 27, lay pastor Shehata and his wife Samir were ambushed on a desolate street by a group of Islamic gunmen outside the village of Teleda in Upper Egypt.
The attack was meant to “break the hearts of the Christians” in the area, Samir said.
The attackers shot Shehata twice, once in the stomach through the back, and once in the neck. They shot Samir in the arm. Both survived the attack, but Shehata is still in the midst of a difficult recovery. The shooters have since been arrested and are in jail awaiting trial. A trial cannot begin until Shehata has recovered enough to attend court proceedings.
Despite this trauma, being left with debilitating injuries, more than 85,000 Egyptian pounds (US$14,855) in medical bills and possible long-term unemployment, Shehata is willing to drop all criminal charges against his attackers – and avoid what could be a very embarrassing trial for the nation – if the government will stop blocking Shehata from constructing a church building.
Before Shehata was shot, one of the attackers pushed him off his motorcycle and told him he was going to teach him a lesson about “running around” or being an active Christian.
Because of his ministry, the 34-year-old Shehata, a Coptic Orthodox Christian, was arguably the most visible Christian in his community. When he wasn’t working as a lab technician or attending legal classes at a local college, he was going door-to-door among Christians to encourage them in any way he could. He also ran a community center and medical clinic out of a converted two-bedroom apartment. His main goal, he said, was to “help Christians be strong in their faith.”
The center, open now for five years, provided much-needed basic medical services for surrounding residents for free, irrespective of their religion. The center also provided sewing training and a worksite for Christian women so they could gain extra income. Before the center was open in its present location, he ran similar services out of a relative’s apartment.
“We teach them something that can help them with the future, and when they get married they can have some way to work and it will help them get money for their families,” Shehata said.
Additionally, the center was used to teach hygiene and sanitation basics to area residents, a vital service to a community that uses well water that is often polluted or full of diseases. Along with these services, Shehata and his wife ran several development projects, repairing the roofs of shelters for poor people, installing plumbing, toilets and electrical systems. The center also distributed free food to the elderly and the infirm.
The center has been run by donations and nominal fees used to pay the rent for the apartment. Shehata has continued to run the programs as aggressively as he can, but he said that even before the shooting that the center was barely scraping by.
“We have no money to build or improve anything,” he said. “We have a safe, but no money to put in it.”
In the weeks before the shooting, Teleda and the surrounding villages were gripped with fear.
Christians in the community had been receiving death threats by phone after a Muslim man died during an attack on a Christian couple. On Feb. 2, a group of men in nearby Samalout tried to abduct a Coptic woman from a three-wheeled motorcycle her husband was driving. The husband, Zarif Elia, punched one of the attackers in the nose. The Muslim, Basem Abul-Eid, dropped dead on the spot.
Elia was arrested and charged with murder. An autopsy later revealed that the man died of a heart attack, but local Muslims were incensed.
Already in the spotlight for his ministry activities, Shehata heightened his profile when he warned government officials that Christians were going to be attacked, as they had been in Farshout and Nag Hammadi the previous month. He also gave an interview to a human rights activist that was posted on numerous Coptic websites. Because of this, government troops were deployed to the town, and extremists were unable to take revenge on local Christians – but only after almost the
entire Christian community was placed under house arrest.
“They chose me,” Shehata said, “Because they thought I was the one serving everybody, and I was the one who wrote the government telling them that Muslims were going to set fire to the Christian houses because of the death.”
Because of his busy schedule, Shehata and Samir, 27, were only able to spend Fridays and part of every Saturday together in a village in Samalut, where Shehata lives. Every Saturday after seeing Samir, Shehata would drive her back through Teleda to the village where she lives, close to her family. Samalut is a town approximately 105 kilometers (65 miles) south of Cairo.
On the afternoon of Feb. 27, Shehata and his wife were on a motorcycle on a desolate stretch of hard-packed dirt road. Other than a few scattered farming structures, there was nothing near the road but the Nile River on one side, and open fields dotted with palm trees on the other.
Shehata approached a torn-up section of the road and slowed down. A man walked up to the vehicle carrying a big wooden stick and forced him to stop. Shehata asked the man what was wrong, but he only pushed Shehata off the motorcycle and told him, “I’m going to stop you from running around,” Samir recounted.
Shehata asked the man to let Samir go. “Whatever you are going to do, do it to me,” he told the man.
The man didn’t listen and began hitting Shehata on the leg with the stick. As Shehata stumbled, Samir screamed for the man to leave them alone. The man lifted the stick again, clubbed Shehata once more on the leg and knocked him to the ground. As Shehata struggled to get up, the man took out a pistol, leveled it at Shehata’s back and squeezed the trigger.
Samir started praying and screaming Jesus’ name. The man turned toward her, raised the pistol once more, squeezed off another round, and shot Samir in the arm. Samir looked around and saw a few men running toward her, but her heart sank when she realized they had come not to help them but to join the assault.
Samir jumped on top of Shehata, rolled on to her back and started begging her attackers for their lives, but the men, now four in all, kept firing. Bullets were flying everywhere.
“I was scared. I thought I was going to die and that the angels were going to come and get our spirits,” Samir said. “I started praying, ‘Please God, forgive me, I’m a sinner and I am going to die.’”
Samir decided to play dead. She leaned back toward her husband, closed her eyes, went limp and tried to stop breathing. She said she felt that Shehata was dying underneath her.
“I could hear him saying some of the Scriptures, the one about the righteous thief [saying] ‘Remember me when you enter Paradise,’” she said. “Then a bullet went through his neck, and he stopped saying anything.”
Samir has no way of knowing how much time passed, but eventually the firing stopped. After she heard one of the shooters say, “Let’s go, they’re dead,” moments later she opened her eyes and the men were gone. When she lifted her head, she heard her husband moan.
When Shehata arrived at the hospital, his doctors didn’t think he would survive. He had lost a tremendous amount of blood, a bullet had split his kidney in two, and the other bullet was lodged in his neck, leaving him partially paralyzed.
His heartbeat was so faint it couldn’t be detected. He was also riddled with a seemingly limitless supply of bullet fragments throughout his body.
Samir, though seriously injured, had fared much better than Shehata. The bullet went into her arm but otherwise left her uninjured. When she was shot, Samir was wearing a maternity coat. She wasn’t pregnant, but the couple had bought the coat in hopes she soon would be. Samir said she thinks the gunman who shot her thought he had hit her body, instead of just her arm.
The church leadership in Samalut was quickly informed about the shooting and summoned the best doctors they could, who quickly traveled to help Shehata and Samir. By chance, the hospital had a large supply of blood matching Shehata’s blood type because of an elective surgical procedure that was cancelled. The bullets were removed, and his kidney was repaired. The doctors however, were forced to leave many of the bullet fragments in Shehata’s body.
As difficult as it was to piece Shehata’s broken body back together, it paled in comparison with the recovery he had to suffer through. He endured multiple surgeries and was near death several times during his 70 days of hospitalization.
Early on, Shehata was struck with a massive infection. Also, because part of his internal tissue was cut off from its blood supply, it literally started to rot inside him. He began to swell and was in agony.
“I was screaming, and they brought the doctors,” Shehata said. The doctors decided to operate immediately.
When a surgeon removed one of the clamps holding Shehata’s abdomen together, the intense pressure popped off most of the other clamps. Surgeons removed some stomach tissue, part of his colon and more than a liter of infectious liquid.
Shehata could not eat normally and lost 35 kilograms (approximately 77 lbs.). He also couldn’t evacuate his bowels for at least 11 days, his wife said.
Despite the doctors’ best efforts, infections continued to rage through Shehata’s body, accompanied by alarming spikes in body temperature.
Eventually, doctors sent him to a hospital in Cairo, where he spent a week under treatment. A doctor there prescribed a different regimen of antibiotics that successfully fought the infection and returned Shehata’s body temperature to normal.
Shehata is recovering at home now, but he still has a host of medical problems. He has to take a massive amount of painkillers and is essentially bedridden. He cannot walk without assistance, is unable to move the fingers on his left hand and cannot eat solid food. In approximately two months he will undergo yet another surgery that, if all goes well, will allow him to use the bathroom normally.
“Even now I can’t walk properly, and I can’t lift my leg more than 10 or 20 centimeters. I need someone to help me just to pull up my underwear,” Shehata said. “I can move my arm, but I can’t move my fingers.”
Samir does not complain about her condition or that of Shehata. Instead, she sees the fact that she and her husband are even alive as a testament to God’s faithfulness. She said she thinks God allowed them to be struck with the bullets that injured them but pushed away the bullets that would have killed them.
“There were lots of bullets being shot, but they didn’t hit us, only three or four,” she said. “Where are the others?”
Even in the brutal process of recovery, Samir found cause for thanks. In the beginning, Shehata couldn’t move his left arm, but now he can. “Thank God and thank Jesus, it was His blessing to us,” Samir said. “We were kind of dead, now we are alive."
Still, Samir admits that sometimes her faith waivers. She is facing the possibility that Shehata might not work for some time, if ever. The couple owes the 85,000 Egyptian pounds (US$14,855) in medical bills, and continuing their ministry at the center and in the surrounding villages will be difficult at best.
“I am scared now, more so than during the shooting,” she said. “Ephraim said do not be afraid, it is supposed to make us stronger.”
So Samir prays for strength for her husband to heal and for patience. In the meantime, she said she looks forward to the day when the struggles from the shooting are over and she can look back and see how God used it to shape them.
“There is a great work the Lord is doing in our lives, we may not know what the reason is now, but maybe some day we will,” Samir said.
For the past 10 years, Shehata has tried to erect a church building, or at a minimum a house, that he could use as a dedicated community center. But local Muslims and Egypt’s State Security Investigations (SSI) agency have blocked him every step of the way. He had, until the shooting happened, all but given up on constructing the church building.
On numerous occasions, Shehata has been stopped from holding group prayer meetings after people complained to the SSI. In one incident, a man paid by a land owner to watch a piece of property near the community center complained to the SSI that Shehata was holding prayer meetings at the facility. The SSI made Shehata sign papers stating he wouldn’t hold prayer meetings at the center.
At one time, Shehata had hoped to build a house to use as a community center on property that had been given to him for that purpose. Residents spread a rumor that he was actually erecting a church building, and police massed at the property to prevent him from doing any construction.
There is no church in the town where Shehata lives or in the surrounding villages. Shehata admits he would like to put up a church building on the donated property but says it is impossible, so he doesn’t even try.
In Egypt constructing or even repairing a church building can only be done after a complex government approval process. In effect, it makes it impossible to build a place for Christian worship. By comparison, the construction of mosques is encouraged through a system of subsidies.
“It is not allowed to build a church in Egypt,” Shehata said. “We can’t build a house. We can’t build a community center. And we can’t build a church.”
Because of this, Shehata and his wife organize transportation from surrounding villages to St. Mark’s Cathedral in Samalut for Friday services and sacraments. Because of the lack of transportation options, the congregants are forced to ride in a dozen open-top cattle cars.
“We take them not in proper cars or micro-buses, but trucks – the same trucks we use to move animals,” he said.
The trip is dangerous. A year ago a man fell out of one of the trucks onto the road and died. Shehata said bluntly that Christians are dying in Egypt because the government won’t allow them to construct church buildings.
“I feel upset about the man who died on the way going to church,” he said.
The shooters who attacked Shehata and Samir are in jail awaiting trial. The couple has identified each of the men, but even if they hadn’t, finding them for arrest was not a difficult task. The village the attackers came from erupted in celebration when they heard the pastor and his wife were dead.
Shehata now sees the shooting as a horrible incident that can be turned to the good of the believers he serves. He said he finds it particularly frustrating that numerous mosques have sprouted up in his community and surrounding areas during the 10 years he has been prevented from putting up a church building, or even a house. There are two mosques alone on the street of the man who died while being trucked to church services, he said.
Shehata has decided to forgo justice in pursuit of an opportunity to finally construct a church building. He has approached the SSI through church leaders, saying that if he is allowed to construct a church building, then he will take no part in the criminal prosecution of the shooters.
“I have told the security forces through the priests that I will drop the case if they can let us build the church on the piece of land,” he said.
The proposal isn’t without possibilities. His trial has the potential of being internationally embarrassing. It raises questions about fairness in Egyptian society during an upcoming presidential election that will be watched by the world.
Regardless of what happens, Shehata said all he wants is peace and for the rights of Christians to be respected. He said that in Egypt, Christians have less value than the “birds of the air” mentioned in the Bible. According to Luke 12:6, five sparrows sold for two pennies in ancient times.
“We are not to be killed like birds, slaughtered,” he said. “We are human.”
Daughter unable to attend school, church; acid thrown on her jacket.
CAIRO, Egypt, May 25 (CDN) — From the mosque across the street, words blasting from minaret megaphones reverberate throughout the tiny apartment where Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary is forced to hide. Immediately following afternoon prayers, the Friday sermon is, in part, on how to deal with Christians.
“Do not shake their hands. Do not go into their homes. Do not eat their food,” an imam shouts as El-Gohary, a convert to Christianity from Islam, looks through his window toward the mosque, shakes his head and grimaces.
“I hope one day to live in a place where there are no mosques,” he says. “How many megaphones do they need?”
For nearly two years, El-Gohary and his teenage daughter have been living in hiding because he abandoned Islam and embraced Christianity. During this time he has been beaten and forcibly detained, and his daughter has been attacked. He has had to endure death threats, poverty and crushing boredom.
Asked what gets him through the constant pressure of living on the run, El-Gohary said he wants to show the world how Christians are treated in Egypt.
“My main driving force is I want to prove to people the amount of persecution that Muslim converts and Christians face here, and that the persecution has been going on for 1,400 years,” he said.
When asked the same question, his 16-year-old daughter, Dina Maher Ahmad Mo’otahssem, pushed back tears and said one word.
El-Gohary, 57, and his daughter were forced into hiding shortly after August 2008, when he sued the national government to allow him to change the religion listed on his state-issued ID from Islam to Christianity.
El-Gohary followed in the footsteps of Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy, 27, also a convert from Islam, in filing an ID case because he didn’t want his daughter to be forced to take Islamic education classes or have her declared an “apostate” by Egyptian Islamic authorities if she decided to stay a Christian into adulthood. Dina is required by law to possess an ID card. The ID card is used for everything from opening a bank account to receiving medical care. The identification also determines whether Egyptians are subject to Islamic civil courts.
Dina is the daughter of El-Gohary and his first wife, who is a Muslim. El-Gohary said that before he got married, he told his future wife that one day he would be baptized as a Christian. He said he now thinks she was convinced that he would eventually turn back to Islam. Over time, she grew tired of his refusal go back on his faith and complained to El-Gohary’s family, demanding a divorce.
“She started crying. She went to my parents and my brother and said, ‘This is not going to work out, I thought that he was going to change his mind. I didn’t think he was that serious about it,’” El-Gohary said. “She started talking about it to other people to the point where they started calling me from the loudspeakers of the local mosque, asking me what I was doing and ordering me to come back and pray.”
Eventually El-Gohary married another Muslim, and over the years she became a Christian. She has fled Egypt and lives in the United States; El-Gohary hasn’t seen her since March 2009.
On April 11, 2009, El-Gohary’s lawyers presented a conversion certificate from the Coptic Church in court. He obtained the certificate under court directions after going to Cyprus, at great expense, to obtain a baptismal certificate. The next month, the State Council, a consultative body of Egypt’s Administrative Court, provided the court with a report stating that El-Gohary’s change of faith violated Islamic law. They instructed that he should be subject to the death penalty.
In February 2009, lawyers opposing El-Gohary’s case advocated that he be sentenced to death for apostasy. On June 13, 2009, a Cairo judge rejected El-Gohary’s suit.
On Sept. 17, 2009, authorities at Cairo International Airport seized his passport. He was trying to travel to China with the eventual hope of going to the United States. On March 9, 2010, the Egyptian State Council Court in Giza, an administrative court, refused to return his passport. He has another hearing about the passport on June 29.
“I think it’s a kind of punishment, to set an example to other Muslims who want to convert,” El-Gohary said. “They want me to stay here and suffer to show other converts to be afraid. They are also afraid that if they let me go, then I will get out and start talking about what is happening in Egypt about the persecution and the injustice. We are trapped in our own country without even the rights that animals have.”
As recently as last week, El-Gohary and his daughter were living in a small, two-bedroom apartment across the street from a mosque on the outskirts of an undisclosed city in Egypt. The floor was littered with grime and bits of trash. Clumps of dust and used water bottles were everywhere.
El-Gohary had taped over the locks, as well as taped shut the inside of windows and doors, to guard against eavesdroppers and intruders. He had taped over all the drain holes of the sinks to keep anyone from pumping in natural gas at night.
Even the shower drain was taped over.
The yellow walls were faded, scuffed and barren, save for a single picture, a holographic portrait of Jesus, taped up in what qualified as a living room. El-Gohary motioned through a door to a porch outside. Rocks and pebbles thrown by area residents who recently learned that he lived there covered the porch.
“I would open the window, but I don’t want the rocks to start coming in,” he said.
El-Gohary has an old television set and a laptop with limited access to the Internet. Dina said she spends her time reading the Bible, talking to her father or drawing the occasional dress in preparation for obtaining her dream job, designing clothes.
Even the simple task of leaving El-Gohary’s apartment is fraught with risk. Every time he leaves, he places a padlock on the door, wraps it with a small plastic bag and melts the bag to the lock with a match.
El-Gohary cannot work and has to rely on the kindness of other Christians. People bring him food and water and the occasional donation. When the food runs out, he has to brave going outside.
“Our life is extremely, extremely hard. It’s hard for us to attend a church more than once because people will know it is us,” he said. “We can’t go to a supermarket more than once because we are going to be killed.”
Possibly the worst part for El-Gohary is watching his daughter suffer. A reflective youth with a gentle demeanor, Dina is quick to smile. But at a time when her life should be filled with friends, freedom and self-discovery, she is instead confined between four walls.
Even going to school, normally a simple thing, is fraught with dangerous possibilities. Dina hasn’t gone to school in about a year. She said that the last time she did, other students ridiculed her mercilessly, and a teacher hit her when she tried to attend religious classes for Christians instead of Muslims.
Now she and her father fear she could be beaten, kidnapped and forcibly converted, or simply killed. She can’t even go to church, she said.
“I don’t understand why I am being treated this way,” she said. “I believe in something, Christianity – I chose the religion because I love it. So why should I be treated this way?”
Dina was a little girl when she starting hearing about Jesus. Her father used to sit with her and tell her stories from the Bible, and he also told her about his conversion experience. Like her father, she cites a supernatural experience as a defining event in her faith.
One night, she said, she had a dream in which an enormous image of Jesus smiling appeared in a garden. She said the image became bigger and bigger until it touched the ground and became a golden church. She told her father about the dream, and since then she has believed in Christ.
Under Islamic law, Dina is considered a Muslim because her father was born as one. Because, like her father, Dina has decided to follow Christ, she is considered an “apostate” under most interpretations of Islamic law.
She gained national prominence in November 2009, when she wrote a letter, through a Coptic website, to U.S. President Barack Obama. She told the president that Muslims in the United States are treated much better than Copts in Egypt and asked why this was the case. She hopes the president will pressure the Egyptian government to ensure religious rights or let her and her father immigrate to the United States.
One afternoon last month, Dina was walking to a market with her father. As the two walked, El-Gohary noticed smoke and vapors coming off Dina’s jacket. The canvas was sizzling and dissolving. Someone had poured acid over the jacket. El-Gohary ripped it off her and threw it away.
“I asked people if they saw what happened and everyone said, ‘No, we didn’t see anything,’” El-Gohary said.
Luckily, Dina was not physically injured in the attack, but since then she has been terrified to go outside.
“I am very, very scared,” she said. “I haven’t gone outside since the attack happened.”
Change of Faith
El-Gohary, also known as Peter Athanasius, became a Christian 36 years ago while attending an academy for police trainees. During his second year of school, he became good friends with his roommate, a Copt and the only Christian in the academy. After watching cadets harass his roommate for praying, El-Gohary asked him why the others had ridiculed him.
“For me, it was the first time I had heard something like that,” El-Gohary said. “I didn’t have any Christian friends before, and I didn’t know about the level of persecution that takes place against Christians.”
Eventually, El-Gohary asked his friend for a Bible and took it home. His family tried to dissuade him from reading it.
“No, you can’t read the Bible,” his father told him. “It’s a really bad book.”
Undeterred, El-Gohary began reading the Bible in the privacy of his room. In the beginning, he said, the Bible was difficult to understand. But El-Gohary concentrated his efforts on the New Testament, and for the first time in his life, he said, he felt like God was speaking to him.
El-Gohary read the account of Jesus meeting the woman caught committing adultery, and the level of mercy that Jesus showed her transformed him, he said.
“Jesus said, ‘If anyone among you is without sin, then let him throw the first stone.’ The amount of forgiveness and love in this story really opened my eyes to the nature of Christianity,” El-Gohary said. “The main law that Jesus talked about was loving God ‘with all your heart, soul and mind.’ The basis of Christianity is love and forgiveness, unlike Islam, where it is based on revenge, fighting and war.”
Also, El-Gohary said, when he compared the two religions’ versions of heaven, he found that the Islamic version was about physical pleasure, whereas for Christians it was about being released from the physical world to be with God.
El-Gohary said his decision to follow Christ was final after he had a brilliant vision of light in his bedroom at his parents’ home, accompanied by the presence of “the peace of God.” El-Gohary said at first he thought he was seeing things, but then his father knocked on the door and demanded to know why the light was on. He told his father he was looking for something.
As a budding Christian convert, El-Gohary went back to the police academy and learned as much as he could about Christ and the Bible from his roommate. Persecution wasn’t long in coming.
One day an upperclassman spotted El-Gohary absent-mindedly drawing a cross on a notebook. The cadet sent El-Gohary to a superior for questioning.
El-Gohary avoided telling academy officials that his roommate had taught him about Christianity, but a captain at the school was able to piece together the evidence. The captain called El-Gohary’s father, a high-ranking officer at the academy, who in turn told the captain to make the young convert’s life “hell.”
Officials were imaginative in their attempts to break El-Gohary. He had to wake up before all the other students. He was ordered to carry his mattress around buildings and up and down flights of stairs. They exercised El-Gohary until he was about to pass out. Then they forced him to clean bathroom facilities with a toothbrush.
El-Gohary was not swayed from Christ, but he decided he couldn’t stay in what he said is the agency that “is the center of persecution against Christians” in Egypt. He tried numerous times to resign, but officials wouldn’t let him. Then he tried to get kicked out. Eventually, officials suspended the police cadet and sent him home for two weeks. At home, his family had a surprise waiting; they had hired an Islamic scholar to bring him back to Islam.
The scholar started by yelling Islamic teachings into El-Gohary’s ears, then moved on to write Quranic verses on his arms. El-Gohary remained seated and bore the humiliation in silence. Suddenly El-Gohary stood up, pinned the man against a wall and started yelling at him; the convert had caught the distinct smell of burning flesh – when he looked down at his arms, El-Gohary saw the scholar burning his hands with thin, smoldering iron rods.
“I said, ‘Enough! I have tolerated all of your talk. I have listened to all you have said, but this has gone too far,’” El-Gohary recalled. “The man said I had a ‘Christian demon’ inside me.”
As bad as things have been for El-Gohary and his daughter, their dedication seems rock-solid. They said they have never regretted their decisions to become Christians.
El-Gohary said that eventually, he will triumph.
“By law, my circumstance will have to change,” he said. “I have done nothing illegal.”
Dina is not so sure; she said she doesn’t feel like she has a future in Egypt, and she hopes to move to a place where she can get an education.
Whatever happens, both El-Gohary and his daughter said they are prepared to live in hiding indefinitely.
“There are days that I break down and cry, but I am not giving up,” Dina said. “I am still not going back to Islam.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Coptic carpenter killed outside building that Muslims feared would be used as church.
ISTANBUL, February 16 (CDN) — Three men accused of killing six Coptic worshipers and a security guard pleaded not guilty on Saturday (Feb. 13) as the Coptic community mourned the loss of yet another victim of apparent anti-Christian violence.
The three men allegedly sprayed a crowd with gunfire after a Christmas service in Nag Hammadi on Jan. 6. In addition to the seven that were killed, nine others were wounded. The killings were the worst act of anti-Coptic violence since January 2000, when 20 Copts were killed in sectarian fighting in Al-Kosheh.
Defendants Mohammed al-Kammuni, Qorshi Abul Haggag and Hendawi Sayyed appeared Saturday in an emergency security court in Qena, a city 39 miles (63 kilometers) north of Luxor.
In front of the packed courtroom, the three men said little at the hearing other than to enter their plea before Judge Mohammed Adul Magd, according to one attorney present at the hearing. The men are charged with premeditated murder, public endangerment and damaging property.
Numerous Muslim attorneys volunteered to defend them for free as seven attorneys representing the interests of the victims looked on. The next hearing is set for March 20.
Even as the men entered their pleas, the Coptic community mourned the loss of yet another Christian, this one shot dead by police. On the evening of Feb. 9, Malak Saad, a 25-year-old Coptic carpenter living in Teta in Menoufia Province, was walking outside a meeting hall that police had seized from Christians when he was shot through his chest at close range. He died instantly.
Scant details are known about the shooting. Police surrounded the entire village and closed it to all reporters. In a statement, officials at the Interior Ministry said the Saad was killed by mistake when a bullet discharged while a police guard was cleaning his weapon. The Interior Ministry said the shooter has been detained and will be tried in a military court. Such courts are traditionally closed to the public.
One of Saad’s cousins, who requested anonymity, disputed the Interior Ministry’s version of the incident. He said that the guard had used the bathroom inside the meeting hall and had come outside of the building when he exchanged a few words with Saad and shot him at close range. The bullet went completely through Saad’s chest.
The building in question had been Coptic-owned for 16 years, but two days prior to the shooting, police seized it after a group of Muslims started a rumor that the owners planned to convert the hall into a church building.
Disputes over worship venues are common in Egypt. Copts and other Christians are extremely restricted in opening or even maintaining houses of worship because of complex government statutes. Anti-Christian elements within Egyptian society often use the statutes to harass Christians, Christian leaders said.
Following the Jan. 6 shootings, in a move that Christian leaders said was designed to silence the Coptic community’s protests, police began going door to door and arresting Coptic men in their late teens and 20s. Reports vary widely on the numbers of how many men were arrested, but 15 arrests have been confirmed.
Early in the morning of Jan. 8, officers from State Security Intelligence appeared at the home of Tanios Samuel looking for a different house. When officers realized they were at the wrong home, they arrested his brothers, Fady Milad Samuel, 21, and Wael Milad Samuel, 24.
“We are Copts. It is their country, they will do whatever they want,” Tanios Samuel said about the arrests.
He said the government is using his brothers and the others arrested as pawns to silence dissent. He said he lives in fear for himself and his brothers.
“The families are very scared – scared of violence, getting threats all the time,” Samuel said. “All we want is peace.”
Last month’s attack brought widespread outrage across the Coptic community and from human rights groups around the world.
Since his rise to power in 1981, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has avoided classifying any anti-Coptic attack as part of a larger sectarian struggle within the country. His critics however, have long said his policies or lack thereof contribute greatly to the anti-Christian climate within the country.
Although freedom of religion is guaranteed in Egypt’s constitution, Islam is the official state religion. In public schools, the Quran is used to teach Arabic.
On Jan. 21, Mubarak made an uncharacteristically strong statement about the shootings to MENA, the government-run news agency.
“The criminal act in Nag Hammadi has bled the hearts of Egyptians,” he said. “I hasten to affirm that the reasonable people of this nation, and its religious leaders and thinkers … bear the greater responsibility to contain discord and ignorance and blind fanaticism and to confront the despicable sectarian strife that threatens the unity of our society.”
Despite Mubaraks’s comments, the government has characterized the attack as either a random criminal act or as one done in reaction to a November incident in which a 21-year-old Christian man allegedly raped a 12-year-old Muslim girl.
In an interview with BBC Arabic, Dr. Fathi Sourour, head of the Egyptian Parliament, said, “The Nag Hammadi shooting of Christians on Christmas Eve was a single criminal act, with no sectarian dimensions.” He added that the crime was “prompted by the ‘death’ of a Muslim girl as a result of being raped by a Copt.”
Later, commenting on a report about the incident, he described the shootings as “a clash between two brothers living in one home.”
Copts, however, have a starkly different impression of the shooting.
Georgette Qillini, a Coptic member of the Egyptian Parliament, described the attack as “a purely sectarian crime and by no means an individual criminal attack,” the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram reported.
Ibtessam Habib, another Coptic Parliament member, agreed that “sectarian rather than personal motives lie behind the Nag Hammadi attack.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Christians convicted on fabricated charges arrested en route to file protest of church attack.
LOS ANGELES, December 1 (CDN) — Five pastors arrested without a warrant in China’s Shanxi Province as they were en route to file a complaint over the demolition of their church building have been sentenced to prison terms of three to seven years.
In one of the most oppressive measures against Christians in recent years, house church leader Yang Rongli was sent to prison for seven years for “illegally occupying farming land” and “disturbing transportation order by gathering masses,” according to China Aid Association (CAA). She and four other pastors were sentenced on Wednesday (Nov. 25) at the People’s Court of Raodu district, Linfen City, Shanxi Province.
Yang’s husband, Wang Xiaoguang, was handed a sentence of three years on the charge of “illegally occupying farming land.” Cui Jiaxing was sentenced to four and half years, and Yang Xuan to three and half years, on the same charge; Zhang Huamei received four years of prison for “disturbing transportation order by gathering masses.”
The pastors were among Fushan Church leaders arrested by Shanxi Province officers of the Public Security Bureau (PSB) on Sept. 25 as they made their way to Beijing to protest an attack on a Fushan Church branch congregation in Linfen city. In the wee hours of Sept. 13 some 400 uniformed police and civilians bearing shovels, batons, bricks, iron hooks and other weapons had beaten members of the church who were sleeping at the nearly finished factory building used as a worship site.
With several Fushan County officials involved in the attack, dozens of Christians were seriously injured among the more than 100 who were hurt, CAA reported. According to the Epoch Times, a church member’s relative obtained a license to build the shoe factory and was allowing the group to meet there, as the church was growing too large to meet in homes and the building could hold up to 400 people.
“To punish an innocent house church leader with seven years’ imprisonment is the most serious sentence since 2004, when the senior Henan house church leader Pastor Zhang Rongliang received a similar length,” said CAA President Bob Fu in a press statement. “We strongly condemn these unjust sentences, which are based on trumped-up charges.”
Characterizing the trial as a farce, Fu said the case clearly demonstrated a deteriorating state of religious freedom in China and called upon the international community, including the U.S. administration, to express concern.
“The court’s conduct throughout the trial clearly indicated the government had decided upon the verdict and prepared it in advance,” Fu said in the statement. “Government prosecutors showed over 1,000 pages of so-called ‘evidence materials’ related to this case, but the defense lawyers were only allowed to review about 50 pages before the trial.”
Pastors Yang and Wang were able to chat briefly with their son during a recess near the bathroom outside the courtroom, Fu said; they encouraged the boy to stand firm in his faith in Christ.
The two pastors have led the Fushan Church, part of a 50,000-strong house church network in Linfen and the surrounding villages, for more than 30 years.
“The Fushan Church leaders’ unwarranted arrests, detentions and severe sentences after the massive church destruction on Sept. 13 marks one of the worst crackdowns on house church leaders in the past decade,” Fu said.
The Beijing PSB has misrepresented the demolition and attack on the Linfen branch church as a response to a “violent uprising,” Fu said. The branch congregation had gathered at the Good News Cloth Shoe Factory, a building still under construction in Fushan County, when the government-led mob attacked and took money, Bibles, clothes and cell phones, among other items, he said.
Report from Compass Direct News
Police maneuver to keep incapacitated son of preacher in jail – and out of hospital.
LAHORE, Pakistan, June 23 (Compass Direct News) – A 37-year-old Christian is languishing in a Sialkot jail after police broke his backbone because his father was preaching Christ, according to a local advocacy group.
Arshad Masih had been in a hospital – chained to his bed on false robbery charges – after police torture that began Dec. 28, 2008 left him incapacitated. He was discharged from General Hospital in Lahore on Saturday (June 20) and returned to jail despite efforts by the Community Development Initiative (CDI), a support group that is providing Masih legal assistance.
CDI Research Officer Napoleon Qayyum said that hospital personnel treated Masih callously, but that conditions there were better than in the jail in Sialkot. At least in the hospital, Qayyum said, Masih’s gray-haired father was able to carry him on his shoulders when he needed to go to the bathroom.
Hospital staff members released Masih even though they knew he would not receive the medical care he needs in jail and could face further abuse, the CDI researcher said.
“We told the hospital administration and doctors that Masih would be released from jail within a few days, so he should not be discharged from the hospital as he would not be taken care of in jail, but they paid no heed to our request,” Qayyum said.
He said Sialkot police gave assurances that Masih would be released from jail if he arrived there from the hospital by 10 p.m. A police van left early Saturday morning from Sialkot to bring Masih from the hospital in Lahore to Sialkot jail, but it did not reach the hospital until 6 p.m. even though it is only 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Sialkot to Lahore.
Qayyum said officers also invented delays on the return trip.
“Despite our requests to the police van staff, they reached the jail at 10:30 p.m.,” Qayyum said. “The Sialkot police used the delays to demoralize us by creating problems so that we do not file a petition for torturing.”
The CDI official said the group’s first priority is to “take him out of Sialkot so that police may not further create problems for him.”
Hajipura police detained Masih on Dec. 28 on orders from the Sadar police station in Gujranwala, where Masih’s father, Iqbal Masih, had been preaching Christ.
The elder Masih, an itinerant preacher who has traveled to remote areas to proclaim Christ for three decades, told Compass that objections to his ministry led to false accusations of robbery against his son. Area Muslims resented his preaching and his visits to a Christian family in Gujranwala, he said, and told him to stop visiting the family.
“They told me that I was preaching a false religion and should stop doing it, and that I should succumb to their pressure,” the elder Masih told Compass.
Area Muslims had complained to Gujranwala police of the elder Masih’s efforts, and officers there first sought to arrest him in a case filed against “unidentified people,” he said. Later, he said, Gujranwala police told Hajipura police to charge his son in some robbery cases, as Arshad Masih lived in the Hajipura precincts.
When police arrested Arshad Masih on Dec. 28, they tortured him for several days, the younger Masih said.
“They hung me upside down all night, beat me and used all inhumane torture methods, leaving me permanently paralyzed,” he said.
Police falsely named him in a robbery case, according to CDI. All others named in the case were released after paying bribes, advocacy group officials said. Police officers also asked Masih’s father for a bribe of 50,000 rupees [US$620], the elder Masih said.
“They asked me as well for 50,000 rupees, but I refused to pay on the grounds that it was illegal and additionally I hadn’t that much money,” Iqbal Masih said.
The complainant in the robbery case eventually testified that Arshad Masih hadn’t been among the robbers, and he was granted bail. Before court orders reached the jail, however, Sialkot police informed Sadar police officers in Gujranwala, who arrived at the jail and had Masih remanded to them for a robbery case filed against “unidentified people.”
“Because of that, Masih could not be freed for one moment,” CDI’s Qayyum said.
Gujranwala police also threatened to kill Masih in a staged police encounter if he told the court that he had been tortured, according to CDI. They also warned him that he should not act as if he were in any pain in court.
The court, however, found him unable to stand and sent him to Allama Iqbal Memorial Hospital in Sialkot for medical examination. Gujaranwala police therefore had to leave him. But police did not tell Masih or CDI staff which police station was keeping Masih in its custody at the hospital.
With the help of the American Center for Law and Justice, CDI filed a case in the Gujranwala Sessions court for Masih’s bail and also provided some assistance for his medical treatment.
On June 16, the Sadar police station investigating officer told the court that police under his command were not detaining Masih, but that the Sialkot police were. Because the Gujranwala police were not detaining him, he argued, bail orders issued on March 23 for Masih’s release pertained to Sialkot and therefore Masih’s police custody in the hospital was illegal.
“The police have been keeping us in the dark so that we could never pursue the case in the right direction,” said CDI’s Qayyum. “How can a brutally tortured patient even heal their wounds in such mental agony when his hand is always tied in chains, and two policemen are maintaining a 24-hour watch over him?”
The researcher said he maintained hope that the judicial system would provide Masih relief from his agony, which has taken its toll on his family as well. Masih has three children that he has pulled from school due to lack of money.
His wife is illiterate and cannot make a living, CDI officials said, adding that Masih’s four married sisters are the main sources of his financial support.
Report from Compass Direct News
Convert to Christianity loses another job as co-workers learn he’s not Muslim.
ISTANBUL, June 15 (Compass Direct News) – Since Iranian native Nasser Ghorbani fled to Turkey seven years ago, he has been unable to keep a job for more than a year – eventually his co-workers would ask why he didn’t come to the mosque on Fridays, and one way or another they’d learn that he was a convert to Christianity.
Soon thereafter he would be gone.
Never had anyone gotten violent with him, however, until three weeks ago, when someone at his workplace in Istanbul hit him on the temple so hard he knocked him out. When he came back to his senses, Ghorbani was covered in dirt, and his left eye was swollen shut. It hurt to breathe.
His whole body was in pain. He had no idea what had happened.
“I’ve always had problems at work in Turkey because I’m a Christian, but never anything like this,” Ghorbani told Compass.
A carpenter by trade, Ghorbani started working at an Istanbul furniture maker in November 2008. From the beginning, he said, the Turks he worked with noticed that he didn’t go to the mosque on Friday. Nor did he behave like everyone else.
“If someone swore, I would say, ‘Don’t swear,’ or if someone lied, I said, ‘That’s not honest,’” he said. “You know Turks are very curious, and they try to understand everything.”
Although he tried to conceal his faith from his co-workers, inevitably it became obvious.
Soon after he started his new job, Ghorbani and his family found a new apartment. On the planned move-in day, New Year’s Day, his boss sent the company truck along with a truck driver to help; members of the Christian group that often meets in his home also came.
“When the [truck driver] saw all these people at our house, he was surprised,” said Ghorbani’s wife, Leila, explaining that he seemed especially surprised to find foreigners among the group. “It was big news back at the factory.”
Ghorbani said that in the following months the questions persisted, as well as pressure to attend the mosque. He avoided these as best as he could, but he admitted that two mistakes confirmed their suspicions. Someone from work learned that he had a broken personal computer for sale and bought it, only to find Christian documents and photos on the hard drive. Secondly, a mutual friend later admitted to a co-worker that he went to the same church as Ghorbani.
“The attitude in the entire factory changed toward me,” said Ghorbani, chuckling. “It was like they had agreed to marginalize me. Even our cook started only serving me potatoes, even though she had cooked meat as well. I didn’t say anything.”
In May the truck driver who had helped the Ghorbanis move finally confronted him.
“Your country is a Muslim country,” he told him, “and you may have become a Christian, but you are coming to Friday prayers today.”
On May 22 during lunch, his co-workers told him they were taking him to the mosque that day. “You are going to do your prayers,” one said.
Ghorbani brushed it off and, to appease them, said he would come after lunch. But as they were about to leave for the mosque, he asked them why they only pray once a week – and told them that as a Christian he couldn’t accept it and wouldn’t join them.
After the day’s last delivery and pick-up, the truck driver returned to work. As everyone was getting ready to leave, from the corner of his eye Ghorbani saw the truck driver walking up to him, and felt the blow of his fist on his temple. When he regained consciousness, some co-workers were washing his face in the bathroom.
They told him a little about how he was beaten, put him in a cab with one of their colleagues and sent him home. That evening, his fellowship group was meeting at his home. They had just sat down for dinner when Ghorbani arrived later than usual.
“He walked in, and he was limping because his right side hurt,” said an Iranian friend who was at the meeting. “There was dirt all over his clothes, and there was blood in his left eye. When I saw him I got scared. I thought that maybe a car had hit him.”
Wanting to avoid a hospital visit and questions from police, Ghorbani went to a private doctor a few days later. The doctor instructed him to stay home for three weeks to recover from the injuries: badly bruised ribs, shoulder, shins and eye, and internal stomach bleeding.
When he took the medical report to his workplace the following day, co-workers told him that his boss had fired the truck driver, and that even though management was very happy with his work, it would be safer for him to look for employment elsewhere. They said the truck driver blamed Ghorbani for losing his job and had threatened to kill him if he ever saw him.
“I have a family and home and nothing to lose,” the truck driver said, according to co-workers. “If I kill him, the worst thing that could happen to me is that I do some jail time.”
Ghorbani’s friend said that even if other Iranian converts to Christianity don’t suffer violence as Nasser has, life for them is full of pressure and uncertainty at work.
“Maybe for Christians by birth there are no pressures or problems, but people like us who want to [leave Islam to] follow Jesus are fired,” said the friend.
He explained that following their faith means living righteously and not stealing or cheating their bosses out of time and wages.
“That’s when the marginalization starts, when you resist doing wrong,” he said. “But if you live the way they do, lying and stealing, they don’t notice you’re a Christian.”
The Iranian friend said that even before he converted to Christianity in Turkey, his colleagues would pressure him to come to the mosque for Friday prayers because he was a foreigner.
“After becoming a Christian, the pressure gets worse,” he said. “The way they look at you changes … and, honestly, they try to convince you, [saying] that you haven’t researched your decision well enough.”
Now running his business out of his own home, the friend said no one can disrupt his work because of his faith, but he is a rarity among Iranian refugees in Turkey.
Ghorbani’s wife said the New Testament is clear on how to respond to attacks.
“The Bible says don’t be surprised when things happen against you, but love more, because you suffer for Christ,” she said.
Hope for a Future
The Ghorbanis said they are thankful for their time in Turkey, though their future is unclear.
The family first fled to Turkey in 2002 after realizing that their families were becoming aware of Nasser’s newfound faith. Ghorbani had worked in the Iranian Armed Forces for 10 years before he was fired in 1995 because, as a secular Muslim, he refused to attend Quran classes, which were necessary for keeping his job or being promoted.
For the following eight years, the government kept close tabs on the couple, questioning them every six months. Ghorbani could not travel outside of Iran during this period.
In 2001 he became a Christian under the influence of a customer who ordered furniture from his shop. As soon as Ghorbani’s passport was issued, he fled to Turkey; his family followed a few months later. Soon his family also espoused Christianity after his wife had a dream of Jesus saving her from sinking sand.
“We have learned the truth, and it has set us free,” Leila Ghorbani said.
The family is in the process of applying to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to re-open their case; their first application was denied three years ago.
According to the UNHCR’s most recent Global Report, in Turkey there were 2,100 Iranian refugees and 2,300 asylum-seekers from Iran in 2008. Although there is no data on how many Christian Iranians are living in Turkey, it is estimated that there is an Iranian house church in each of 30 “satellite cities” where the government appoints refugees and asylum seekers to live.
The Ghorbanis have three daughters, ages 20, 17 and 2. Ghorbani said he and his family would be in danger if they were returned to Iran.
“As a Christian I can’t return to Iran, or I risk losing my life,” Ghorbani said. “If they catch me, because I was a lieutenant they will directly hang me.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Evacuated after Muslim attack in July, Christians forced to leave campground.
JAKARTA, October 27 (Compass Direct News) – Over 1,000 students forced from the Arastamar Evangelical School of Theology (SETIA) in East Jakarta have now moved into an abandoned mayor’s office in Jakarta after management at the Bumi Perkemahan Cibubur (BUPERTA) campground demanded that 700 students temporarily resident there had to leave by Oct. 14.
Urged on by announcements from a mosque loudspeaker to “drive out the unwanted neighbor,” hundreds of protestors shouting “Allahu-Akbar [“God is greater]” and brandishing machetes, sharpened bamboo and acid had forced the evacuation of staff and students from the SETIA campus in Kampung Pulo village on July 26 and 27, following a misunderstanding between students and local residents. Attackers injured at least 20 students, some seriously.
Key among motives for the attack was that area Muslims felt “disturbed” by the presence of the Christian college. They want it to be moved to another area.
Following the evacuation, some students were temporarily billeted in church offices, while others slept in the lobby of Indonesia’s parliament building. Officials then moved 600 female students to the BUPERTA campground, where they were later joined by 100 male students. A further 400 male students remained at a migrants’ center in Bekasi, while 32 post-graduate students were accommodated in a housing complex in Kota Wisata, not far from the campground in Cibubur.
Campground manager Umar Lubis sent a letter to SETIA principal Matheus Mangentang on Oct. 6 ordering the students to vacate the premises in advance of a pan-Asian scouts jamboree scheduled at the facility for Oct. 18-27. Lubis sent a copy of the letter to Fauzi Bowo, the governor of Jakarta.
Mangentang initially protested, since the campground could accommodate up to 30,000 people and there would only be 300 participants in the jamboree. He also noted that despite an agreement reached in September, Bowo had failed to repair and extend bathroom facilities in an abandoned mayoral office in Jakarta offered for use by the staff and students.
When the council made no attempt to begin renovations on the mayor’s office, Mangentang himself hired bricklayers and carpenters to install more toilets, repair damaged ceilings on two floors of the building and erect partitions to create 13 classrooms.
The students last week moved into the abandoned mayor’s office. But the building still lacks many basic amenities, according to staff. Students carry well water into the building in large plastic drums for showers, toilets, laundry and cooking.
One staff member told Compass that the water was slimy to the touch and not suitable for showering.
Bowo had also promised Mangentang that the students could return to their original campus at the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. He then promised to find a site for a new campus and provide an official building permit, but at press time there was no evidence of action taken to fulfill these promises.
Mangentang has refused to cover costs for the campground, which now amount to some 580.7 million rupiah (US$58,418), on the grounds that since they were unfairly evicted from their campus, the governor’s office should fund the cost of temporary relocation.
Cibubur campground officials had also charged SETIA 50,000 rupiah (US$5) per day for water. When Mangentang refused to pay this fee, officials restricted the water supply so that there was not sufficient water available for laundry and shower facilities for the students.
Bowo had committed to paying those bills but said he must first meet with the local House of Representatives to request funding for them and any other expenses that would be incurred by providing a new building site and campus for SETIA.
SETIA staff sought advice from the National Commission on Human Rights in Jakarta on Sept. 7. The commission then wrote to the superintendent of police in Jakarta, asking for a police escort to return the students safely to their campus, but the superintendent did not respond. Neither has any investigation been carried out against the residents who violently attacked staff and students in July.
Last year the Muslim extremist Islamic Defenders’ Front demonstrated in front of the college, accusing it of having misapplied its permit.
Since 2007, protestors have held six demonstrations. On March 7, 2007, more than 200 Muslims set fire to construction workers’ quarters in an effort to keep SETIA from adding a fifth dormitory.
Three days later, some 300 people gathered to protest the construction, demanding that the school close. They claimed it was disturbing area residents when students sang during their classes and that students were evangelizing people in the area.
Government officials have brokered talks between the conflicting parties, without success.
Report from Compass Direct News
Another inflammatory funeral procession planned for Sunday, in spite of ban.
BHUBANESWAR, September 5 (Compass Direct News) – Asserting that most area Hindus are tolerant and peaceable, victims of ongoing anti-Christian violence in the eastern state of Orissa blamed the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) and other extremist groups for the terror of the past two weeks.
“The mobs that attacked our parishes and institutions were largely composed of extremists from the VHP and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal,” said Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of the Behrampore Catholic diocese.
At least four parishes, a presbytery and a youth hostel were destroyed in Munniguda town in Rayagada district under the Behrampore diocese in the spate of violence that began following the killing of a VHP leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his associates in Kandhamal district on August 23. Christian leaders say more than 100 lives have been lost and thousands of houses, churches and institutions damaged or destroyed in the violence.
The state government attributed the assassination of the VHP leader and his associates to Maoists who have since claimed responsibility for the murders, but the Hindu extremist groups continue to blame Christians.
Asked if he condemned the violence on Christians, VHP Orissa State President Gauri Prasad Rath told Compass that he categorically did not.
“You should ask me to condemn the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and his associates with AK-47s by Christians,” he said.
While the Global Council of Indian Christians says more than 100 people have been killed in the violence, the Kandhamal District Collector’s Office told Compass that the death toll is only 14 people. The office reports 22,685 people are in relief camps in Kandhamal. The same office has also reported that 2,400 buildings have been destroyed in the mayhem, though Christian leaders believe the total is much higher.
Hindus Protected Christians
Father Mathew Puthyadam, a Catholic priest in Phulbani town in Kandhamal district, told Compass that local Hindu families gave him shelter.
As mob of around 4,000 people was carrying the body of Saraswati in a procession outside his church on the night of August 24, he said, he first sought shelter with Christians.
“When the mob was destroying my parish [Christ the King Church], I went to the house of parish workers nearby and hid in a broken bathroom,” Fr. Puthyadam said. “The mob somehow came to know that the house belonged to Christians, and they launched an attack on it. They beat up the two boys who live there, but they managed to escape. Thankfully, they did not come to the bathroom.”
About an hour after the mob left, Fr. Puthyadam came out to the street to see if it was safe for him to leave.
“A Hindu lady told me some extremists were still roaming around,” he said. “She asked me to hide in her kitchen and gave me food to eat.”
Later, Fr. Puthyadam fled to a forest, and finally came to the Archbishop’s House in the state capital, Bhubaneswar.
“Many among the mob were goons and thieves who were seemingly led by extremist groups,” he recalled, saying he felt he had gotten a “second life” as he could have been killed.
Another priest who managed to reach Bhubaneswar after a seven-day journey from Onjamundi village in Kandhamal district praised local Hindu families for protecting him.
“On the evening of August 25, a mob of 300 people who were armed with pistols, chisels and sticks, started burning houses and churches,” said Father Laxmikant Pradhan, a Catholic priest. “We could see thick smoke rising from all around. But Hindu families in the village asked Fr. Prabodha Kumar, my associate, and I to hide in their homes.”
Ravindranath Pradhan, a 45-year-old former soldier of the Indian Army, told Compass that VHP supporters attacked Christian houses in his village of Gadragaon in the Rupagaon area of Kandhamal.
“We know the attackers – they are from the VHP,” he said. “We have named them in our police complaint.”
Pradhan and 113 others reached Bhubaneswar on August 28 after walking for four days from Gadragaon. The homeless Christians were given shelter in a YMCA center in the capital city.
Creating a Rift
Some Orissa locals believe the extremists meant to create a rift between Christian missionaries and lower-caste tribal peoples known as “Other Backward Classes” (OBCs).
Prabhu Kalyan Mahapatra, a local Hindu and freelance journalist, told Compass that he did not think the violence was the result of what media are portraying as a Hindu-Christian “clash.”
In Kandhamal, there are OBCs who are lower castes but not “outcasts,” Mahapatra said, noting that the OBCs were mainly traders, while Dalits and tribal peoples were laborers and the poorest of the poor. He said the OBCs exploited Dalit and tribal people.
“However, Christian missionaries provided education to Dalits and tribals, which was not liked by the OBCs for obvious reasons,” he said, pointing out that several people from Dalit and tribal backgrounds had risen to become bureaucrats and members of parliament because of education provided by Christian institutions. “And the VHP took advantage of the situation and created a rift between OBCs and Christian missionaries.”
Mahapatra said that locals’ tolerance for Christian converts made Hindu-Christian conflict an unlikely reason for the violence. A Christian convert, Madhusudan Das, was recognized by the people of all local communities as the “father of modern Orissa,” he said.
Das, a lawyer, social reformer and patriot, worked for the political, social and economical uplift of people of eastern India, especially Orissa, and contributed numerous articles and poems both in Oriya and English.
“If the people of these communities respect a convert [Das], how can you say the Hindus of Orissa are not tolerant?” he asked.
Mahapatra explained how the VHP extended Saraswati’s funeral procession to incite violence.
“The funeral was taken from Saraswati’s ashram [religious center] in Jalespeta to his other ashram in Chakapada in Kandhamal, covering around 134 kilometers, when the distance between the two ashrams is merely 70 kilometers,” he said.
The attacks on Christians began during the funeral procession, he added.
New Tensions Feared
The Orissa government yesterday put a ban on rally planned by the VHP to take the ashes of Saraswati in another public procession throughout Orissa villages beginning on Sunday (September 7), according to the Press Trust of India news agency.
The ban was announced by the state government in hearing of a petition filed by Archbishop Raphael Cheenath from Orissa in the Supreme Court of India. The state government, however, fears fresh trouble on Sunday, as it is believed that the VHP may still go ahead with the processions.
“The state government has decided to rush additional force to the riot-affected areas in view of VHP’s proposed ‘kalas puja’ [worship of the remains of a deceased] of slain Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati,” reported The Indian Express newspaper today.
According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India, mobs led by extremist groups are “roaming in Kandhamal and threatening the Christians to ‘reconvert’ or face death.”
Christians from various denominations will fast and pray for the Christians in Orissa on Sunday.
The VHP and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, a partner of the ruling government led by the Biju Janata Dal party, continue to blame Christians for the killing of Saraswati and four others in spite of the Maoist claim of responsibility for the assassination.
Saraswati allegedly incited the attacks on Christians and their property in Kandhamal during last Christmas season. The violence lasted for more than a week beginning December 24, and killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches.
The 2007 attacks were allegedly carried out mainly by VHP extremists under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on Saraswati by local Christians. Hundreds of Christians were displaced by the violence in Kandhamal, and many are still in various relief camps set up by the state government.
Christians make up 2.4 percent of Orissa’s population, or 897,861 of the total 3.7 million people.
Report from Compass Direct News