The following are articles from Compass Direct News from the period I was on my break:
The following are articles from Compass Direct News from the period I was on my break:
After painful effort to change ID card, Christians flee – to similar fate.
CAIRO, Egypt, March 21 (CDN) — When the plane carrying Maher El-Gohary and his daughter, Dina Mo’otahssem, took off from Cairo International Airport last month, they both wept with joy. After spending two-and-a-half years in hiding for leaving Islam to become Christians, they were elated by their newfound freedom.
They also felt secure that once they arrived in Syria, they would quickly obtain visas to the United States and start a new life. That hope soon proved unfounded.
After spending more than a week and a half unable to obtain a visa to the United States or to any country in Europe, they realized they may have traded in the reality of being prisoners in their own country for being refugees in another. And as El-Gohary watches the weeks pass and his resources dwindle, he said the stress is almost unbearable.
“I feel like we’ve stepped out of a prison cell and into a fire,” he said. “We are in very, very bad conditions … My daughter and I divide the bottles of water to live, because there is no income.”
Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary, 58, gained notoriety in Egypt after he sued the government in August 2008 to gain the right to change the religion listed on his state-issued ID card from Islam to Christianity. In Egypt, ID cards play a critical role in a person’s life, being used for everything from opening a bank account and renting an apartment to receiving medical care.
The listed religious affiliation, whether a card-holder subscribes to it or not, also determines whether the person is subject to Islamic civil law. The listed religious designation determines what state-mandated religion classes minors are required to take in school. El-Gohary said he filed the suit so his daughter, then 15, could opt out of the religious classes and would not be subject to the persecution he suffered when he became a Christian in his 20s.
It is a crime punishable by imprisonment to have no ID card in Egypt.
The suit sparked outrage throughout Egypt. Both El-Gohary and his daughter were publicly branded apostates in a country where 84 percent of Muslims think those who leave Islam should be executed, according to a study released by the Pew Research Center in December. The same month the suit was filed in 2008, El-Gohary and his daughter were forced into hiding.
For two-and-a-half years, El-Gohary shifted back and forth among several apartments in Cairo and Alexandria, usually once every month. Even in hiding, the two were harassed regularly by Egypt’s dreaded State Security Intelligence service (SSI) and assaulted repeatedly by others, including someone pouring acid on Dina, El-Gohary said.
While in hiding, El-Gohary tried repeatedly to leave Egypt, but officials at the Ministry of the Interior blocked him at every attempt. On at least one occasion, they seized his passport. In December 2010, after a long legal battle, El-Gohary got a court decision ordering the Ministry of the Interior to allow him to travel, but he said it still took several weeks for the government to comply with the order; the Jan. 25-Feb. 11 revolution didn’t hurt, El-Gohary said.
Out of Egypt
After the national demonstrations that led to the removal of both President Hosni Mubarak and Minister of Interior Habib Al-Adly, El-Gohary and his daughter went to Cairo International Airport on Feb. 22 to leave the county. They came prepared with their newly issued passports, the court order and myriad documents to prove they had the right to leave the country. Even so, authorities took the two aside for interrogation at the airport.
“My daughter and I went to the counter of the airport to the manager, then they took us to the SSI,” El-Gohary said. “We spent an hour talking to an officer trying to tell him, ‘We spent ages during Habib Al-Adly’s time, and even now after the revolution, we don’t have the right to leave?’”
According to El-Gohary, the guard asked him if he really wanted to leave the country.
“Yes,” El-Gohary replied. “I have a court order against Al-Adly, and I have the right to leave and the freedom to travel outside the country.” As if to add insult to more than two years of injury, the SSI officers told El-Gohary that Egypt was “their country” and to “come back anytime you want to.”
El-Gohary credits the revolution as the reason he was allowed to leave Egypt, saying it was a miracle “from God.”
They chose to go to Syria because Egyptian citizens are not required to have visas to visit there. After contact with a U.S. organization that concentrates on religious freedom, El-Gohary expected it would be easy to get a visa to the United States, where his wife lives. But he said he has been unable to obtain an entry visa there or to any country where he will feel safe. He went to a U.N. office in Syria seeking assistance; he was given an appointment to come back on April 20.
“I wasn’t expecting, after all this suffering and all these years, that…” El-Gohary said, cutting himself off. “The series of persecution is not finished.”
Although they don’t live under the same type of threats as they did in Egypt, El-Gohary and Dina now live in an apartment where they still watch everything they say and everyone with whom they talk. They still spend much of their time trapped between the four walls of their apartment because Syria, El-Gohary said, is a country where converts to Christianity from Islam are persecuted.
“The danger is still there,” El-Gohary said. “We don’t get out of the house. We don’t meet people. We don’t tell people what we are doing or talk to them about our situation. Because we don’t want someone to say, ‘Why are you applying to the U.N.?’ There are still a lot of enemies.”
Dina, now 17, said that although leaving Egypt was “like a miracle,” she is devastated by the prospect of having to spend more time with her life on hold. She said she is just as scared in Syria as she was in Egypt.
“We’re really, really tired of all this suffering,” she said. “I’ve lost two years of my life. I want to finish school.”
Muslim converts to Christianity in Syria were sometimes forced to leave their place of residence due to societal pressure last year, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report. While there is no official state religion in Syria, the constitution requires that the president be Muslim and stipulates that Islamic law is a principal source of legislation.
With strict monitoring and curtailing of militant Islam, the government in Syria has long been considered a moderate regime. The government’s fear of violent responses by Islamic extremists to increasing conversions to Christianity, however, was at least partially responsible for the closing of six buildings where Christians were meeting last year, according to Christian support organization Open Doors. Noting that several Christians were arrested and interrogated in 2010, the organization’s World Watch List bumped Syria’s ranking up to 38th place among nations in which persecution of Christians takes place, from position 41 the previous year.
Syria is 90 percent Muslim, and 6.34 percent of its 22.5 million population is Christian, according to Operation World.
Though El-Gohary and his daughter have a dark outlook on their current situation, they are still grateful.
“Without God’s love, we would have been dead by now,” El-Gohary said. “Getting out of Egypt itself was a victory from God.”
Dina said she also is thankful, but that as she gets older she is becoming increasingly preoccupied by one wish.
“I want to get out so I can finish my studies,” she said. “I want to go into a church and out of a church without being scared of being killed.”
Report from Compass Direct News
‘Kill all the Christians,’ local imam tells villagers.
CAIRO, March 8 (CDN) — A Muslim mob in a village south of Cairo last weekend attacked a church building and burned it down, almost killing the parish priest after an imam issued a call to “Kill all the Christians,” according to local sources.
The attack started on Friday evening (March 4) in the village of Sool, located in the city of Helwan 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Cairo, and lasted through most of Saturday. A local imam, Sheik Ahmed Abu Al-Dahab, issued the call during Friday afternoon prayers, telling area Muslims to kill the Christians because they had “no right” to live in the village. The attack started several hours later.
The Rev. Hoshea Abd Al-Missieh, a parish priest who narrowly escaped death in the fire, said the clamor of the church being torn apart sounded like “hatred.”
“I was in the attack, but I can’t describe it,” he said. “The sound of the church being destroyed that I heard – I can’t describe it, how horrible it was.”
According to villagers, the mob broke into the Church of the Two Martyrs St. George and St. Mina, and as they chanted “Allahu Akbar [God is greater],” looted it, demolished the walls with sledgehammers and set a fire that burned itself out the next morning. Looters removed anything valuable, including several containers holding the remains of venerated Copts – most of whom were killed in other waves of persecution – then stomped and kicked the containers like soccer balls, witnesses said.
After the fire went out, the mob tore down what little remained of the church structure. The group of Muslims then held prayers at the site and began collecting money to build a mosque where the church building once stood, said the assistant bishop of Giza the Rev. Balamoun Youaqeem.
“They destroyed the church completely,” he said. “All that was left is a few columns and things like that. As a building, it’s all gone.”
During the fire, Al-Missieh was trapped in a house near the church building that was filling up with smoke. He faced a difficult dilemma – choke or burn to death in the house, or face an angry mob of thousands screaming for blood.
“When the smoke was too much, I told myself, ‘I am dying anyway,’ so I decided I would go out and whatever happened, happened,” Al-Missieh said.
When he went outside, a man with a rifle told the priest to follow him. At first Al-Missieh was reluctant, he said, but the man fired off two rounds from the rifle and told the crowd to step away.
“No one will touch this man, he is with me,” the priest remembered the man yelling at the mob. Al-Missieh was taken to a house where he met three other workers who were at the church when it was attacked. The men all relayed stories similar to the priest’s.
Friday’s attack was another in a long list of disproportionate responses in Egypt to a rumor of an affair between a Muslim and a Copt. Earlier this month, Sool villagers accused a Muslim woman in her 30s and a Coptic man in his 40s, both of them married, of being involved with each other. On Wednesday (March 2) a village council of Coptic and Muslim leaders convened and agreed that the man should leave the village in order to avoid sectarian violence.
The next day, the woman’s cousin killed the woman’s father in a fight about the honor of the family. The same day, the cousin died of wounds he sustained in the fight. By Friday, Al-Dahab, the local imam, had blamed the entire incident on Christians in the village and called on all Muslims in Sool to kill them.
Because of the attack, Copts in Sool fled to adjacent villages. The women who remained in the village are now being sexually assaulted, according to Youaqeem, who added that he is receiving phone calls from women in the village begging for help. Those reports have not yet been independently confirmed.
“Everybody tried to find a way to get out,” Youaqeem said.
Groups of Muslims have set up blockades around Sool, declaring they intend to turn it into an “Islamic village,” Youaqeem said.
On Sunday (March 6), roughly 2,000 people gathered outside the Radio and Television Building in Cairo to protest the attack and what Copts see as a long-standing government refusal to address or even acknowledge the persecution of Christians in Egypt. Protestors also accused the government of not sending enough troops to the village to control the situation. Holding up crosses and signs, the protestors shouted the name of Jesus and chanted, “We need our church.”
Soldiers armed with AK-47s with fixed-sheathed bayonets held the crowd back from the building as several priests took turns addressing the crowd. When the Giza parish priest, Bishop Anba Theodosius, said the army had pledged to rebuild the church but would not give a written guarantee of the promise, the crowd became enraged and pushed through the line of soldiers.
No one was injured in the push. More protests about the attack continued Tuesday in Cairo.
Youaqeem said the attack has devastated and enraged the Coptic community, but he sees hope.
“As they say – ‘All things work to the good of those who love the Lord,’” he said.
Report from Compass Direct News
Bomb explodes as Christians leave New Year’s Eve Mass.
LOS ANGELES, January 3 (CDN) — At least 21 people were killed and scores were wounded on Saturday (Jan. 1) when a bomb outside a church in Alexandria, Egypt exploded as congregants were leaving a New Year’s Eve Mass celebration.
The explosion ripped through the crowd shortly after midnight, killing instantly most of those who died, and leaving the entrance-way to the Church of the Two Saints, a Coptic Orthodox congregation, covered with blood and severed body parts.
The blast overturned at least one car, set several others on fire and shattered windows throughout the block on which the church is located.
Egyptian authorities reportedly said 20 of the victims have been identified. At least 90 other people were injured in the blast, 10 seriously. Among the injured were eight Muslims. Many of the injured received treatment at St. Mark’s Hospital.
Burial services for some of the victims started Sunday (Jan. 2) in Alexandria, located in northern Egypt on the Mediterranean Sea.
Witnesses reportedly said a driver parked a car at the entrance of the church and then ran away seconds before it exploded. Government officials have claimed they found remnants of the bomb, filled with nails and other make-shift shrapnel, at the site; they suspect an unidentified suicide bomber, rather than a car bombing.
No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the attack comes two months after an Islamic group known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) issued a threat stating that, “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen [Muslim fighters] wherever they can reach them.”
Claiming they would open “rivers of blood” upon Christians, the group specifically threatened Egyptian Christians based an unsubstantiated rumor that two Coptic women, both wives of Orthodox clergy, were being held against their will after converting to Islam. The statement came after ISI claimed responsibility for an attack on a Baghdad church during mass in which 58 people were killed.
The Egyptian government continues to suspect foreign elements mounted the Alexandria attack, but an unconfirmed report by The Associated Press, citing anonymous government sources, said an Egyptian Islamic group is being investigated.
Bishop Mouneer Anis, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Egypt, said in a written statement that he thinks the attack was linked to the Iraqi threats. He added that his church has taken greater security measures at its downtown Cairo location.
“We pray with all the people of Egypt, Christians and Muslims, [that they] would unite against this new wave of religious fanaticism and terrorism,” he said.
For weeks before the ISI issued its threat, Alexandria was the site of massive protests against the Orthodox Church and its spiritual leader, Pope Shenouda III. Immediately after Friday prayers, Muslims would stream out into the streets surrounding mosques, chant slogans against the church and demand the “return” of the two women. Before that, as early as June, clerics from at least one central Alexandria mosque could be heard broadcasting anti-Christian vitriol from minaret loudspeakers during prayers, instructing Muslims to separate themselves entirely from their Christian countrymen.
The Alexandria bombing comes almost a year after a shooting in Nag Hammadi, Egypt left six Christians and one Muslim security guard dead. In the Jan. 6, 2010 attack, a group of men drove by St. John’s Church, 455 kilometers (282 miles) south of Cairo, and sprayed with gunfire a crowd leaving a Coptic Christmas Eve service.
Three men were eventually charged with the shootings, but the case has yet to be resolved.
Egypt wasn’t the only place in the Middle East plagued with anti-Christian violence over the holiday season.
The day before bombers struck the Alexandria church, an elderly Christian couple in Baghdad was killed when terrorists placed a bomb outside of their home, rang the doorbell and walked away, according to media and human rights reports. The bombing happened at the same time other Christian-owned homes and neighborhoods throughout Baghdad were being attacked.
Estimates of the number of people wounded in the attacks in Iraq range from nine to more than 13.
Report from Compass Direct News
Unresolved charge of ‘defaming religion’ leaves him in perpetual limbo.
CAIRO, Egypt, December 16 (CDN) — An Egyptian who left Islam to become a Christian and consequently lost his wife, children and business is waiting to see if the government will now take away his freedom for “defaming” Islam.
Ashraf Thabet, 45, is charged with defaming a revealed religion, Article 98f of the Egyptian Penal Code. The charges stem from Thabet’s six-year search for spiritual meaning that eventually led him to become a Christian. During his search, he shared his doubts about Islam and told others what he was learning about Jesus Christ.
Local religious authorities, incensed at Thabet’s ideas, notified Egypt’s State Security Intelligence service (SSI), which arrested and charged him with defamation. If found guilty, Thabet would face up to five years in jail. But because prosecutors have made no move to try the case, Thabet lives in limbo and is subject to a regular barrage of death threats from people in his community in Port Said in northeast Egypt.
“I don’t know what is going to happen in the future,” Thabet said. “They’re making life hard for me. I can’t get back my computer. I can’t get back anything.”
Thabet said that before his search began he was a committed Muslim who did his best to observe its rules, including those for prayer and fasting.
“I wasn’t an extremist, but I was committed to praying and to reading the Quran,” Thabet said. “I went to the Hajj. I did the usual things. I followed the Quran for the most part.”
Despite his efforts, Thabet admitted that his understanding of God was based on fear and routine, nearly rote obedience.
“There was no spiritual relationship between myself and God,” he said. “In general I was always cautious about my relationship with God. I didn’t want to do anything wrong.”
Thabet started looking at Christian Web sites, but his real interest in Christianity began when he watched the film, “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004.
“When I watched ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ I was very touched by Jesus’ story, and I wanted to read more about Him,” Thabet said. “So I asked a friend how I could know more about Jesus, and he told me, ‘The Bible.’”
His friend, a Christian Copt, did not get him a Bible until a month later because, Thabet thinks, he was afraid of being accused of proselytizing. Thabet began reading the Bible, which had a powerful impact on him, especially the Sermon on the Mount.
“I felt inside myself that these were the words of God,” he said. “The Bible tells people to give and to give out freely, so these words couldn’t be the words of a human being or a [mere] person, because human beings are inherently selfish.”
Thabet was also struck by the lives that the early followers of Jesus led, especially their willingness to lose everything, including their lives, for Christ.
The final factor that led Thabet to become a Christian came from Islam’s “Ninety-Nine Names of Allah,” attributes of God according to the Quran and tradition. In the names, God is called a “healer” a “resurrecter” and “just.”
“I started to compare all these characteristics with the characteristics of Jesus, and I saw that Jesus had a lot of the characteristics that God had, not only the human characteristics, being just and being kind, but there were similarities in the supernatural characteristics, like that He raised people from the dead,” he said. “In the Quran only God could raise people from the dead. I noticed that Jesus could raise people from the dead, and that He could heal people. Once I started to notice
the similarities between God and Jesus, I started believing that Jesus is the Son of God.”
Thabet said he cared about others “going the right way,” so he started having conversations with Muslim friends.
At first, people respected Thabet or tolerated what was seen as an awkward curiosity. But after he told his friends they were “only Muslim by inheritance,” they started to turn against him. They asked him what he was going to be if he wasn’t going to be a Muslim.
“I told them I started to read about Christianity, and I was starting to believe in it, and that’s when they brought the elders to talk to me,” he said.
The meeting didn’t go well. The Islamic leaders were unable to answer his questions and ended up yelling at him. Then they reported him to the SSI.
The SSI summoned Thabet and questioned him on his doubts about Islam.
Thabet said by the time he was done with the interrogation, the SSI officer looked almost sick and told him not to talk to anyone else in Port Said about religion.
“I don’t encourage you to talk about these things with people or to open up these types of discussions, because it will just provoke people and make them angry,” the officer told him, according to Thabet.
Two days later, Thabet said, the SSI ordered him to report for more questioning, this time with an officer who specialized in religious issues and countering missionaries. The officer wanted to know what made him start to doubt Islam. He asked specific questions about what Web sites he had been on and what books he had read, and whether he had been baptized.
Thabet said that at the time of his questioning, he was still struggling with his new beliefs. Part of him wanted something that would restore his faith in Islam, so he went to Internet chat rooms for religious discussion.
“A part of me wanted to feel that I was wrong, that there was an answer to my questions,” he said. “I was looking for someone who would say ‘No, no, this is how it is,’ and that I would regain my trust back or not have any more doubts. But none of the people I talked to could answer me. They didn’t say anything to any effect.”
Thabet said he was always respectful, but Muslims found his questions provocative and became increasingly angry.
Eventually police came for Thabet. On March 22 at 3 a.m., he said, 11 officers from the SSI cut the power to his home, kicked down his front door and assaulted him in front of his crying wife and children.
Thabet quickly pulled away from the fight, once he realized they were officers from the SSI. The men swarmed over Thabet’s home, seizing his computer and every book and CD he owned. They took him to jail.
Authorities interrogated Thabet non-stop for 12 hours, took a break and then interrogated him for seven more, he said.
Initially he was held for 15 days. Then authorities ordered he be held for another 15 days. Then they extended it again. Thabet said he spent the entire time in solitary confinement, and he wasn’t informed of the “defamation of religion” charge against him until the end of 132 days in jail. He said he was not tortured, however, and that his interrogators and jailers were largely civil.
There was more hardship waiting for him at home. Muslim leaders in his neighborhood convinced his wife to divorce him and take his 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.
“They gave her the money to file for a divorce, a car and another person to marry,” Thabet said, adding that the Muslim leaders had offered him money too if he would stay in Islam. “In the beginning they tried to bribe me to come back to Islam, but I refused.”
Thabet has only had a few brief moments with his children since he was arrested, mainly when his soon-to-be ex-wife came to their home to gather a few belongings. If she goes through with the divorce, according to Egyptian law it is likely Thabet will lose all parental rights to his children, including any right to see them.
In Egypt and most other Muslim-majority countries, leaving Islam is considered ample grounds for termination of parental rights. Thabet said the religious leaders consider him “lost to Islam” and are trying to “save” his wife and children.
He filed a report with police about the Muslim leaders bribing his wife – and about another man who swindled money from him – but police ignored both reports, he said.
Kamal Fahmi of Set My People Free to Worship Me, a group headquartered in Cairo dedicated to raising awareness about the problems faced by Muslims who become Christians, said that under Islam, “Muslim converts don’t have the right to exist.”
Arrests like Thabet’s are common in Egypt.
“It is a tactic used to intimidate people and scare them from leaving Islam and taking alternative beliefs or moral codes,” Fahmi said.
In Islam as it is most often practiced in Egypt, merely expressing doubt about Islam is considered wrong, Fahmi said. Questioning any of its claims is considered blasphemy and is punishable by imprisonment under a variety of charges in Egypt; it is punishable by death in some other countries.
“Saying, ‘I don’t believe in Muhammad,’ is considered defaming Islam,” Fahmi said. “Saying, ‘I don’t believe in Islam as it is not true,’ can lead to death [murder], as you are considered an apostate,” Fahmi said. “Even rejecting the Islamic moral codes can lead to the same thing. Criticizing any of the sharia [Islamic law] is considered blasphemy.”
Thabet said he is uncertain what the future holds. He was released on Aug. 1 but, because he has the defamation of religion charge over his head – with no indication of when the case could go to court – he is unable to work and cannot even obtain a driver’s license.
His savings are almost depleted, forcing him to borrow money from a Muslim friend. He is concerned about re-arrest and receives death threats on a regular basis. He is too afraid to leave his apartment on most days.
“There are a lot of phone threats,” Thabet said. Noting he had been baptized three years ago, he said he has received phone threats in which someone tells him, “We are going to baptize you again with blood.”
On numerous occasions while talking in Internet chat rooms, he has been told, “Look outside the window, we know where you are,” Thabet said.
In recent days Muslims are angry at converts and at Christians in general, he said. “They’re very worked up about religious issues.”
He said he wants to leave Egypt but admits that, at his age, it would be very hard to start over. And if he stays in Egypt, he said, at least he will have a chance to see his children, however brief those encounters may be.
Since Thabet was released from jail on Aug. 1, authorities have seized his passport and summoned him four times for questioning. He said he thinks the SSI is trying to wear him down.
“Everyone is telling me that they [the government] want to make my life hard,” he said. “The problem here in Egypt is the religious intolerance that is found in government ministries. The intolerance has reached a point where they can’t think straight. Their intolerance makes them unaware of their own intolerance.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Rumor of romance with Christian sends hundreds into destructive frenzy.
CAIRO, Egypt, November 29 (CDN) — Christians in a small village in southern Egypt are rebuilding their lives and homes after hundreds of Muslims rampaged through their community firebombing houses and businesses over rumors of a romantic relationship between a Christian and a Muslim.
At least 23 homes and numerous businesses, all Christian-owned, were damaged or destroyed in the village of Al-Nawahid in Qena Governorate, 454 kilometers (282 miles) south of Cairo. Five people were injured, two seriously.
The attack devastated the Christians of Al-Nawahid, said Badier Magdy Demetry, 22.
“It has affected us in every way, financially, physically, spiritually – everything,” Demetry said. “My brother saw the house after it was burnt down, and he fainted. He couldn’t believe what happened to the house. Everybody is living in sadness and desperation.”
The attack started on the evening of Nov. 15 when a throng of hundreds of Muslims poured onto the streets chanting “God is great!” while brandishing swords, knives, meat cleavers and shooting rifles in the air, according to Ra’fat Samir, a human rights activist in Luxor.
The mob moved to four streets in the village where some 40 homes owned by Christians are huddled together. The Christians fled as the crowd approached.
“People started to run away from their houses, from the top of their roofs to the house next door, so they could escape with their wives and children,” Demetry said. “Then they attacked us and set the houses on fire – more than 20 houses.”
Others were too afraid to leave their homes when they heard the gunfire, rights activist Samir said.
“When they knew there was an attack, they all started to hide,” he said.
Five people who couldn’t run quickly enough were injured, according to Samir. Two 87-year-old men suffered head injuries, and the rest had injuries to their arms and shoulders, he said.
The mob pelted the homes and businesses with rocks and then looted them. They then torched the buildings with Molotov cocktails and bombs made out of propane tanks. Numerous shops were destroyed along with a grocery store and a business that sold animals to butchers. Also destroyed were farms and two water pumps worth more than US$20,000 each. The pumps were vital for transporting water from the Nile to farms in the arid, agricultural-based community.
“They stole as much as they could, and whatever they couldn’t take, they burned,” Demetry said. “There was screaming all over the village. We were screaming and asking God to help us. We have never seen a night like that before.”
The rioters were responding to a rumor that a 20-year-old Coptic man, Hussam Naweil Attallah, was romantically involved with an 18-year-old Muslim woman, whose name has not been released. Attallah knew the woman because he and his family lived next door to her.
Someone had allegedly seen the two alone together near a cemetery. Attallah and the woman were detained and then handed over to police. After subjecting the young woman to a medical examination to confirm her virginity, authorities decided the two had not been intimate, and the woman was released. Egypt’s State Security Intelligence kept Attallah in its custody, presumably for his protection. He is still in custody.
It is unclear who started a rumor about an illicit relationship, but Samir said there is a feud going on in Al-Nawahid among three families for political control of the area, and two of the families are inciting violence, using Christians in the area as pawns to depose the current mayor.
Local police and area residents seemed to be aware unrest was coming before the riot happened, Samir said. Church officials canceled St. George’s Day services in anticipation of violence. Security forces had been posted near the Christian area of Al-Nawahid for a few days, but for unknown reasons they moved away shortly before the destruction started.
When the rampage began at 8 p.m., at the start of Eid al-Adha – the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice – local police were quickly outnumbered, and military police were called. At 10 p.m. the new security detail surrounded the area of the violent mob but did nothing to stop the attacks.
Security forces prevented firefighters deployed to the scene from entering the area where fires were burning, according to Samir. When fire-fighting teams eventually entered the area, Muslim groups had severed fire mains. The blazes raged for four hours.
Two rioters were detained, according to local media reports. The use of tear gas eventually broke up the mob.
After the rioting was over, Copts whose homes and property had been damaged were rounded up and taken to a police station. They declined to cooperate with the police, citing alleged irregularities in police reports and objections to how officers conducted the investigation into the fires.
Initially police claimed that the fires started suddenly and that area Muslims tried to help put them out. Samir said he thought the claim was dubious at best.
“The fires started at the same time in 23 houses?” he said.
Demetry was less diplomatic. “We saw them,” he said. “We saw them, one by one, doing it.”
According to Samir, police did not let the victims report the names of the people who attacked their homes or report damages. He also said police did not take any information about men who suffered physical injuries. The group of victims has obtained a lawyer to take both criminal and civil action against the attackers.
“As long as the police fail to make strong charges against these people, these problems will keep going for years,” Samir said. “Because they try to hide the truth.”
Meantime, victims like Demetry and his family are left to sift through the rubble and try to rebuild their lives. He said his brother is still trying to cope.
“His whole apartment was turned to ashes,” Demetry said. “Even the plaster [from the walls] was on the ground. They even tried to break the ceramic floor and take it.”
There are many similarities between this month’s attack and an attack that happened in November 2009 in the village of Kom al-Ahmar, also in Qena Governorate. For several days, mobs swept through the village burning Christian-owned houses and businesses after a rumor started that a Christian man, Girgis Baroumi Girgis, then 21, raped a Muslim girl, then 12. Samir said people often use rumors in Qena to incite violence against the Christian minority.
“When people want to make a problem, they make up a story that a Christian boy is in love with a Muslim girl or vice versa,” Samir said.
Numerous Coptic human rights activists and some journalists in Egypt have called the rape accusation into question. They cite the conflicting accounts from the alleged victim, physical evidence that seems to contradict an accusation of sexual assault and lack of witnesses to a crime that allegedly took place in broad daylight on a major thoroughfare of the village.
Girgis has been in jail without any serious attempt to bring him to trial – another sign, interested parties said, that the evidence against him is weak.
Things are now quiet in Al-Nawahid, but it is an uneasy peace.
“Everyone is still afraid. Even the people in the village next door are afraid,” Demetry said, “We can’t trust anyone.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Terrorist threat in Iraq emerges at importune moment for Copts.
CAIRO, Egypt, November 22 (CDN) — As bombings and other attacks continue against Christians in Iraq, Christians in Egypt have gathered to pray and plan for their own safety.
When a group of Islamic extremists on Oct. 31 burst into Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad during evening mass and began spraying the sanctuary with gunfire, the militant organization that took responsibility said Christians in Egypt also would be targeted if its demands were not met. Taking more than 100 congregants hostage, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) called a television station and stated that the assault came in response to the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt allegedly holding two Coptic women against their will who, the ISI and some others believe, converted to Islam.
The group issued a 48-hour deadline for the release of the women, and when the deadline passed it issued a statement that, “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen [Muslim fighters] wherever they can reach them.” The statement later added ominously, “We will open upon them the doors of destruction and rivers of blood.”
In the attack and rescue attempt that followed, 58 people were reportedly killed. A week and a half later, Islamic extremists killed four people in a series of coordinated attacks against Christians in Baghdad and its surrounding suburbs. The attackers launched mortar rounds and planted makeshift bombs outside Christian homes and one church. At least one attack was made against the family members of one of the victims of the original attack.
On Nov. 15, gunmen entered two Christian homes in Mosul and killed two men in the house. The next day, a Christian and his 6-year-old daughter were killed in a car bombing. At the same time, another bomb exploded outside the home of a Christian, damaging the house but leaving the residents uninjured, according to CNN.
The threats against Christians caused a flurry of activity at churches in Egypt. A 35-year-old Protestant who declined to give her name said Christians in Cairo have unified in prayer meetings about the threats. An SMS text message was sent out through prayer networks asking people to meet, she said.
“I know people are praying now,” she said. “We have times for our people to pray, so all of us are praying.”
Security has increased at churches throughout Egypt. In Cairo, where the presence of white-uniformed security police is ubiquitous, the number of uniformed and plain-clothes officers has doubled at churches. High-ranking police officers shuffle from one house of worship to another monitoring subordinates and enforcing new security rules. At times, parking on the same side of the street as a church building, or even driving by one, has been forbidden.
On Nov. 8, leaders from the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches gathered to discuss how to improve security at churches. According to the leaders of several churches, the government asked pastors to cancel unessential large-scale public meetings. Pope Shenouda III canceled a celebration to commemorate the 39th anniversary of his installment as the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Guests at a recent outdoor Christmas bazaar and a subsequent festival at the All-Saints Cathedral in Zamalek
were greeted with pat-downs, metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs.
Some church leaders, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the security improvements are haphazard, while others say they are genuine efforts to ensure the safety of Christians.
Most Christians in Cairo avoided answering any questions about the attacks in Iraq or the threats made against Christians in Egypt. But Deliah el-Sowkary, a Coptic Orthodox woman in her 20s, said she hoped no attacks would happen in her country. Noting the security present at all churches, still she said she is not that worried.
“I think it’s different in Egypt than in Baghdad, it’s more safe here,” El-Sowkary said.
Almost a week after the bombings, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak issued a statement through the state-run MENA news agency that the Copts would be protected from attacks.
“The president affirmed his extensive solicitude for the protection of the nation’s sons, Muslims and Copts, from the forces of terrorism and extremism,” the agency stated.
The security concerns came against a backdrop of heightened tensions between the Muslim majority and the Coptic Christian minority over the past few months, with weeks of protests against Christians in general and against Shenouda specifically. The protests, held mostly in Alexandria, ended two weeks ago.
The tension started after the wife of a Coptic priest, Camilia Zakher, disappeared in July. According to government sources and published media reports, Zakher left her home after a heated argument with her husband. But Coptic protestors, who started gathering to protest at churches after Zakher disappeared, claimed she had been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam.
Soon after, Egypt’s State Security Intelligence (SSI) officers found her at the home of a friend. Despite stating she had left of her own free will, authorities brought Zakher back to her husband. Since then, Zakher has been in seclusion. It is unclear where she is or if she remains there of her own free will.
Unconfirmed rumors began spreading that Zakher had converted to Islam and was being held against her will to force her to return to Christianity. Protests outside mosques after Friday prayers became weekly events. Protestors produced a photo of unknown origin of a woman in Islamic covering whom they claimed was Zakher. In response, Coptic authorities released a video in which the priest’s wife stated that she wasn’t a Muslim nor ever had been.
Another rumor began circulating that Zakher went to Al-Azhar University, one of the primary centers of Islamic learning in the world, to convert to Islam. But Al-Azhar, located in Cairo, released a statement that no such thing ever happened.
No independent media interviews of Zakher have taken place because, according to the Coptic Church, the SSI has ordered church officials not to allow public access to her. Along with their accusations about Zakher, protestors also claimed, without evidence, that a similar thing happened in 2004 to Wafa Constantine, also the wife of a Coptic Orthodox priest. Constantine was the second woman the ISI demanded the Copts “release.” Like Zakher, her location is not public knowledge.
The month after the Zakher incident, Egyptian media reported in error that the SSI had seized a ship from Israel laden with explosives headed for the son of an official of the Coptic Orthodox church. The ship was later found to be carrying fireworks, but another set of Islamic leaders, led in part by Nabih Al-Wahsh, an attorney famous for filing lawsuits designed to damage the church, declared without any evidence that Copts were allied with the Israelis and stockpiling weapons in the basements
of their churches with plans to overthrow the Muslim majority.
The claims were echoed on Al-Jazeera by Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-’Awa, the former secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, and in a statement issued by the Front of Religious Scholars, a group of academics affiliated with Al-Azhar University.
There was no time for tensions to cool after Al-’Awa and the others leveled their allegations. The next month, Bishop Anba Bishoy, the secretary of the Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masri Al-Yawm that Muslims were “guests” in Egypt, inflaming a Muslim population already up in arms.
“The Copts are the root of the land,” the bishop said. “We love the guests who came and settled in our land, and regard them as brothers, but they want to control even our churches? I reject anything that harms the Muslims, but as Christians we will do everything, even die as martyrs, if someone tries to harm our Christian mission.”
Around the same time, the Front of Religious Scholars called for a complete boycott of Christians in Egypt. The group called Christians “immoral,” labeled them “terrorists” and said Muslims should not patronize their businesses or even say “hello” to them.
The statement by the scholars was followed by a media leak about a lecture Bishoy was scheduled to give at a conference for Orthodox clergy. In his presentation, Bishoy planned on questioning the authorship of a verse in the Quran that calls Christians “blasphemers.” Muslims believe that an angel revealed the Quran to Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, who transmitted it word-by-word to his followers. Bishoy contended there was a possibility the verse in question was added later.
The mosque protests became even more virulent, and the conference was abruptly cancelled. Bishoy was forced to issue an apology, saying he never meant to cast doubt on Islam and called Muslims “partners” with the Copts in Egypt. Shenouda also issued an apology on national television. By comparison, an Islamic publishing house that rewrote and then issued what it termed the “true Bible” caused barely a stir.
Al-’Awa then blamed the deteriorating state of Muslim-Christian relations on Shenouda and Bishoy. He accused the Coptic Orthodox Church of exploiting the government’s “weak stance” toward it and “incarcerating anyone [who] is not to its liking.”
The Al-Azhar Academy of Islamic Research issued a statement that declared, “Egypt is a Muslim state.” The statement further went on to read that the Christians’ rights were contingent on their acceptance of the “Islamic identity” of Egypt. The statement was endorsed by Ali Gum’a, the mufti of Egypt.
The statement also referenced an agreement made between Muhammad and a community of Egyptian Christians in the seventh century as the guiding document on how Christians should be governed in a Muslim-dominated state. If ever codified into Egyptian law as many Muslims in Egypt desire, it would legally cement the status of Christians in the country as second-class citizens.
In 639, seven years after Muhammad died, Muslim armies rode across from Syria and Palestine and invaded Egypt, then controlled by the Byzantines. At first the Muslims, then a new but well-armed minority within Egypt, treated the conquered Christians relatively well by seventh century standards. But within a generation, they began the Islamization of the country, demanding all official business be conducted in Arabic, the language of the Quran, and Coptic and Jewish residents were forced to pay special taxes and obey rules designed to reaffirm their second-class status.
In the centuries since then, the treatment of Christians in Egypt has ebbed and flowed depending on the whim of those in power. After the coup of 1952, in which a group of men known as the Free Officers’ Movement took power from a European-backed monarch, Copts have seen their treatment decline.
In 1971, then-President Anwar Sadat introduced a new constitution designating Islamic law as “a principle source of legislation” in Egypt. In 1980, the National Assembly made Islam the official religion of the state.
Estimates of the Coptic population range from 7 to 12 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people. They are accepted by some in Egypt and openly discriminated against by others. Violent attacks against Christians – which the government does little to prevent – accentuate tensions.
The state also routinely harasses converts to Christianity from Islam. Many have to live in some sort of hiding.
The Protestant woman said she was not sure whether attacks would happen in response to the threats, but whatever happens, she said she expects that Christians in Egypt will continue to endure persecution.
“According to the Bible, we know this is going to happen,” she said. “This is not new or novel for us. The Bible said that we will be persecuted. It is expected.”
Report from Compass Direct News
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