Muslim youths kill two, wound two others after dispute over teasing of Christian women.
KARACHI, Pakistan, March 22 (CDN) — Two Christians were gunned down and two others are in a serious condition with bullet wounds after Muslim youths attacked them outside a church building in Hyderabad last night, witnesses said.
Residents of Hurr Camp, a colony of working-class Christians in Hyderabad in Sindh Province, were reportedly celebrating the 30th anniversary of their Salvation Army church when a group of Muslim youths gathered outside the building and started playing music loudly on their cell phones. They also started teasing Christian women as they arrived for the celebration, according to reports.
Christians Younis Masih, 47, Siddique Masih, 45, Jameel Masih, 22, and a 20-year-old identified as Waseem came out of the church building to stop the Muslim youths from teasing the Christian women, telling them to respect the sanctity of the church. A verbal clash ensued, after which the Muslim youths left, only to return with handguns.
Witnesses told Compass by phone that the Muslim youths opened fire on the Christians, killing Younis Masih and Jameel Masih instantly, and seriously injuring Siddique Masih and Waseem. The injured men have been transferred to a hospital in Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh.
Younis Masih is survived by his wife and four children, while Jameel Masih was married only a month ago, and his sudden death has put his family into a state of shock.
“My son had gone to the church to attend the anniversary celebrations from our family…a few hours later we were told about his death,” a wailing Surraya Bibi told Compass by telephone from Hyderabad. “I got him married only a month ago. The cold-blooded murderers have destroyed my family, but our most immediate concern is Jameel’s wife, who has gone completely silent since the news was broken to her.”
She said the local police’s indifference towards the brutal incident had exacerbated the Christians’ sorrow.
“The police were acting as if it was not a big deal,” she said. “They did not register a case until late at night, when all of us blocked the main Hyderabad Expressway along with the two dead bodies for some hours.”
Jameel Masih’s paternal uncle, Anwar Masih, told Compass that police were biased against the Christians, as “none of the accused has been arrested so far, and they are roaming the area without any fear.”
He said police had taken into custody some teenagers who had no involvement in the killings.
“This has been done just to show their senior officials that they are not sitting idle,” he said.
Anwar Masih said the families had little hope for justice, because “if we have to dishonor the dead bodies by placing them on the roads to get a case registered, what should we hope for when the investigations begin?”
He said that during their protest, some leaders of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a regional political party known for its secular but often violent ideology, arrived and suggested the Christians retaliate against the Muslims.
“We told them that as Christians we are not going to take the law into our hands,” Anwar Masih said.
He said that Jameel Masih’s father, Sardar Masih, and the other Christians would visit the Baldia Colony police station Wednesday morning (March 23) to see whether there has been any progress in the investigation.
“Please pray for us,” he said.
Compass made efforts to contact Hyderabad District Police Officer Munir Ahmed Sheikh to ask about progress in the case and whether any of the named suspects have been arrested by police, but the calls were unanswered.
The killing of the two Christians comes a week after another Christian, sentenced to life imprisonment on false blasphemy charges, died in Karachi Central Prison. The family of Qamar David claims he was murdered on March 15, while conflicting reports from the jail suggest that he died of heart failure.
If David died from torture, yesterday’s killings bring the number of Christians murdered in March alone to four, the most prominent among them being Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, who was assassinated in Islamabad on March 2 for opposing the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.
Report from Compass Direct News
Demonstrators drive out 100 Christians in one service, stop worship in others.
JAKARTA, Indonesia, December 18 (CDN) — About 200 demonstrators from hard-line Islamic organizations in West Java on Sunday (Dec. 12) disrupted the worship of a church in Rancaekek district, Bandung, driving more than 100 worshippers from the building.
Members of the Islamic Defenders Front, the Indonesian Ulama Forum and the Islamic Reformist Movement arrived with the Civil Service Police Unit of Rancaekek district and sealed the house, thus leaving other churches that use it without a worship venue. The protestors also disrupted the worship of six other churches meeting in homes the same day.
The demonstrators arrived at 9 a.m., when the Huria Kristen Batak Protestant (of HKBP) Bethania church building had begun worship in the building where a pastor and his family live. The protestors urged the local government to seal the building immediately because it was a private house rather than registered as a place of worship.
About 10 minutes into the church’s worship, the demonstrators removed by force more than 100 members of the HKBP church on Teratai Street, the pastor said.
“Because they were fearful, children and women were crying when they came out of their place of worship,” the Rev. Badia Hutagalung told Compass by phone.
Hutagalong, 26, lives in the second story of the building. Church officials declined to say who owned the home.
Hutagalung said the congregation resisted the temptation to clash with the Islamic protestors, who were using ambulance sirens to disrupt the service.
The Civil Service Police Unit of Rancaekek district then affixed a document on the front of the building declaring, “This house has been sealed because it has violated Bandung Regency Regulation No. 16, of the year 2009, about building administration.”
HKBP elder Jawadi Hutapea said the document was signed by the head of Rancaekek district, Meman Nurjaman, and the chief of the Civil Service police.
Nurjaman reportedly said use of a private house as a place of worship violated the cited regulation.
“It should be only a place to stay but in fact functioned as a place of worship,” Nurjaman told Tempo News. “Now we’ve sealed the house. From now on, the house may only be used as a house to live in.”
Hutagalung said the church was using the house because it had not been able to obtain permission to establish a church building under conditions imposed by Indonesian law. The Joint Ministerial Decree promulgated in 1969 and revised in 2006 requires places of worship to obtain the approval of at least 60 persons from the local community, mandates there be at least 90 church members, and the church must be approved by the the village head.
“These terms are very difficult for us to fullfil,” Hutagalung told Compass.
The HKBP congregation was established in Rancaekek district in 1999, he added, because of the absence of a church for ethnic Bataknese in the area.
District head Nurjaman reportedly suggested that the church use a room at the College of Public Administration in Jatinangor, Sumedang Regency. Hutagalung said his congregation could do that, but he said not all the churches that use the building could merge together there.
“If we are forced to worship with other churches in the college complex, it is the same as closing the HKBP church in Rancaekek,” Hutagalung said.
He said he had received the suggestion from the district head for the churches to merge worship in the college complex a few weeks ago. Hutagalung said he has sought permission for the churches to worship separately in the college complex, but so far he has not received a response from the college building administrator.
If the HKBP church has not found an alternative venue this Sunday, the congregation plans to worship in front of the house that has been sealed, he said.
Other Churches Targeted
Other churches based in homes in the district met with the same opposition from Islamic protestors.
The Indonesian Evangelical Tabernacle Church (GKII), which began 20 years ago, met at 9:15 a.m. but the Islamic demonstrators appeared and insisted that they disband immediately, said a GKII pastor identified only as the Rev. Margaretha.
She said worship ended within 20 minutes because the protestors broke through an iron fence to force their way in.
“The mob lifted and slammed the fence until it was damaged,” Pastor Margaretha.
About half of the 60-member congregation, which consists mainly of women, was crying, she said. The protestors forced her to sign a letter promising not to use the house as a place of worship.
“They also damaged the door and the Christmas tree,” Pastor Margaretha said. “In the stressful situation, finally I signed the letter.”
Margaretha added that the demonstrators also took four chairs used for worship.
The Pentecostal Tabernacle Church also began its worship on Sunday (Dec. 12) before the Islamist demonstrators interfered.
The Rev. Filemon Sirait told Compass by phone that when the congregations began to worship at 9:30 a.m., the Islamic protestors suddenly massed in front of the house and forced them to stop.
Seeing that the demonstrators were willing to use force, the congregation finished their worship after only 15 minutes, he said.
“We worshiped only in prayer after that time,” Sirait said.
The demonstrators then barged into the house with a document for the pastor and congregation to sign stipulating that they would not use the place for worship, he said.
“Because we were depressed and fearful, finally we signed the letter stating that we agreed not to use the residential house as a place of worship,” Sirait said.
The church was established in Rancaekek district 12 years ago.
The Muslim protestors also disrupted the worship of the Church of Pentecost-Rancaekek, led by the Rev. Bungaran Silitonga. Established 10 years ago, the church has 40 members.
Silitonga told Compass that the Muslim demonstrators stormed into their house at around 2 p.m. and took 37 chairs used for worship activities.
“They took 37 chairs on the order of the district of Rancaekek,” he said.
Silitonga called the head of Rancaekek district to complain about the stolen chairs, and by evening the official had found and returned them, he said.
Islamist protestors reportedly succeeded in sealing five of seven houses used for Christian worship on Sunday. Other churches whose house worship was disrupted were the Indonesian Christian Church, a Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Christian Church.
Report from Compass Direct News
Muslim neighbors fabricate attempted murder charge after beating them for their faith.
LOS ANGELES, October 27 (CDN) — Muslim neighbors of a Christian family in Bangladesh scheduled to be baptized last month beat them and filed a false charge of attempted murder against them and other Christians, the head of the family said.
Foyez Uddin, 62, told Compass that his neighbor Nazrul Islam and Islam’s relatives told him, his wife and his two adult children that as Christians they were “polluting” society and beat them on Sept. 17 in Joysen village in Rangpur district, some 300 kilometers (186 miles) north of Dhaka. Islam is a policeman.
Islam’s uncle, Abdul Mannan Miah, then filed false charges against Uddin, his family and three others, accusing them of trying to kill Miah’s niece, Uddin said by telephone after his release on bail on Oct. 8. The village is under Pirgacha police jurisdiction.
Uddin said his family was fishing at his pond on Sept. 17 when eight to 10 Muslim neighbors led by Islam appeared and began speaking abusively about their Christian faith.
“Nazrul told us, ‘You are polluting society by deviating from Islam. Come back to Islam, otherwise we will not allow any Christian to live here in this village,’” Uddin said.
He told them that his family would not return to Islam, Uddin said.
“I replied, ‘Invite Islamic scholars, and if they can satisfy us in light of the Quran, then we will go back to Islam. Otherwise nothing can affect our unshakeable faith in Christ,’” Uddin said. “They beat me, my wife and two sons for objecting to their proposal to come back to Islam.”
The angry neighbors then broke into his home and burned two Bibles, tore two others and ripped four hymnals, he said, and they also damaged some furniture and chairs. Their home serves as a worship venue, and Uddin said the villagers also hacked with a machete the sign board of their house church, Faith Bible Church of God.
The pastor of the church, Lavlu Sadik Lebio, told Compass that he went to a nearby police station to complain about the attack, but officers did not respond to him. He said he only went to inform police, not file a case, but even so officers were unresponsive.
“Intentionally burning Bibles was the most sacrilegious attack on our faith – how can a member of the police department do that?” Pastor Lebio said. “Those people should have kept in mind how an announcement of burning a copy of the Quran in the U.S. stirred up the anger, discontent and hatred of Muslims all over the world.”
Taken into police custody on Sept. 18, Uddin said he and his family were unable to be baptized as planned.
“We were planning to be baptized in the last week of September,” he said. “Somehow our neighbors came to know about the baptismal ceremony, and they became very rude to us. We have been living in faith in Christ, the mainspring of our life, but we were not baptized.”
As part of the attack on Sept. 17, Miah, the uncle of police officer Islam, filed the charge of attempted murder against Uddin, his family and three others that day, the Christian said.
When handing Uddin over to court, police filed a report stating that he had collaborated with people within the Christian community and that he had made defamatory remarks about Islam, Uddin said.
“In the police report while handing me over to court, I was mentioned as a troublesome Christian, but in the case copy filed by my neighbor, nothing was mentioned about me as a Christian,” Uddin said. “I was hurt by the police role.”
The police report to the court said that area residents did not approve of his Christian activities, and that there was the possibility of a communal clash. On this basis police requested he remain in custody while the investigation was underway.
According to the case file obtained by Compass, Uddin and his companions allegedly attempted to kill Islam’s sister (Miah’s niece), Jahanara Begum, sexually harassed her, severely beat her and stole her gold jewelry worth 41,000 taka (US$570).
Uddin said that Begum – sister of police officer Islam and niece of Miah – had a boil on her head that her father lanced the day of the attack. When blood continued rushing out from the procedure, her father, Azizul Muhury, took her to a nearby clinic called Pirgacha Medical and admitted her there. Later her brother Islam filed the false case, saying one of the eight accused had hit her on the head in an attempt to kill her, Uddin said.
According to the case file, Uddin was fishing on Begum’s inundated land, though he says he was at his own pond. Furthermore, the case file states Uddin was on Begum’s land at 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 17, when according to Uddin he was worshipping at his house church. The service did not end until 10 a.m.
According to the police file, Begum objected to him catching fish on her flooded land, and after paying no attention to her he eventually became furious and allegedly beat her “in a pre-planned manner.”
Uddin’s companions were said to be hiding nearby with bamboo, knives and machetes to attack her, and at some point in a quarrel, they supposedly emerged and surrounded Begum. Nural Islam, 52 – known in the area as a recent convert to Christianity – allegedly struck her in the head with a machete on Foyez’s order, according to the case file. Uddin said Islam is a rickshaw driver who was working all day and was not present.
Uddin was then alleged to have hit her on the hand with bamboo, and when she supposedly fell down, according to the case file, his brother Iman Ali, 45, hit her with an iron rod on her back. Uddin said Ali could not have been present either, as he was suffering from tuberculosis and could not walk properly due to the debilitating illness.
Uddin’s son, Shahjahan Miah, 25, then allegedly snatched the 27,000-taka (US$375) gold chain from her neck, according to the case file, and 25-year-old Mohammad Sirajul Islam took her 14,000-taka (US$195) gold earring. Uddin said Mohammad Sirajul Islam – also known in the area as a recent convert to Christianity – had lost work due to his new faith and had been forced to relocate to Chittagong district, some 500 kilometers (310 miles) away from Rangpur district, and he was in Chittagong on that day.
His father, Mohammad Farid, 42, had also converted to Christianity, and the case file accuses him of trying to strangle Begum. Uddin said Farid also lives in Chittagong district and was there at the time. In the case file, Uddin’s wife, 47-year-old Mosammat Shahar Banu, is then accused of removing Begum’s clothes. Uddin’s other son, 28-year-old Shahdul Islam, then allegedly seriously wounded her by striking her with bamboo, according to the case file.
Thus the case file charges all members of Uddin’s family, as well as three people who were not present – two other recent converts to Christianity and Uddin’s brother, he said. Uddin said he has sent letters stating the falseness of the charges to the Rangpur district administrative chief, district police chief, sub-district administrative chief, home minister of Bangladesh, home secretary of Bangladesh, inspector general of police (Bangladesh police chief), president of the Rangpur district press club, member of parliament of that area, Rangpur divisional commissioner and commander of Bangladesh’s elite force (RAB-5), as well as to the Faith Bible Church of God chairman.
The case file mistakenly identifies Uddin as Foyez Ali, and also errs in listing his age as 50 rather than 62.
Since Uddin became a Christian in 2007, some of his neighbors have threatened to kill him or expel him from the village, he said.
“In threatening us, they have also said that the government will reward them if we Christians are beaten,” Uddin said.
The main weapon of Muslim villagers opposed to Christians is to withhold work from them, he said.
“Once I used to cultivate other people’s land for my livelihood,” he said. “When the local people came to know that we lead our life in Christ, then they stopped giving us their land for cultivation. Nobody talks with us, and we are outcasts here.”
Last Christmas, around 100 to 150 people went to Uddin’s house to protest their celebration of the birth of Christ.
“Police are deployed in all churches at Christmas,” he said. “Two police were deployed at our house to avoid any kind of unwanted situation. Those two police stopped the angry villagers.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Zamfara state assailants emboldened by lack of prosecution in Jos mayhem, CAN leader says.
LAGOS, Nigeria, February 26 (CDN) — The head of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Zamfara state told Compass that he was disappointed in the lack of response by state police to recent church burnings by Muslim youths.
“It is unfortunate that there has been no response from the police, and even the state governor has refused to meet with us,” said the acting state chairman of CAN, the Rev. Edwin Okpara.
The Redeemed Christian Church of God building in Tudun Wada was partly burnt on Jan. 25, and Christian Faith Bible church and the Living Faith Foundation Chapel, both in Gusau, were partly burnt in attacks on Jan. 20 and 24 respectively. Zamfara state, one of the predominantly Muslim states in northern Nigeria, was the first in the country to implement Islamic law (sharia).
In the petition dated Jan. 26, CAN stated that the church burnings came in the aftermath of “a grand plot to unleash mayhem on churches and Christians in the state due to the religious clash in Jos, Plateau state.”
The association alleged that those who attacked the Zamfara churches were emboldened because officials made no serious move to arrest those who carried out the Jos attacks. Two pastors and 46 other Christians were killed in the outbreak of violence in Jos on Jan. 17, triggered when Muslim youths attacked a Catholic church; 10 church buildings were burned, and police estimated more than 300 lives were lost in the clash.
“We are seriously disturbed by the restlessness and panic these attacks have created among the Christian community and ask that every necessary and urgent step be taken by your command to secure the lives of both Christians and Muslims in the state as citizens of Nigeria,” the CAN petition states. “Despite these attacks and provocation, the church and Christians as peaceful people have remained calm and have no plans to retaliate, but [we are] appealing to you to act and protect our interest.”
The State Police Command was not available for comment on the CAN request.
Okpara lamented that Christians in the state have been suffering in silence with little means of drawing attention to their plight.
“The level of persecution in Zamfara is alarming, more than in any other state in the country,” Okpara said. “Not even in Sokoto or Kano are Christians subjected to the kind of discrimination we are subjected to.”
He said it was impossible to get land to build churches in Zamfara state; Christians are forced to sign an understanding binding them to refrain from using land in the state for church buildings.
“We are more or less operating underground churches in the state,” he said. “The present state government has turned out to be more anti-Christian than the former government in the state, which introduced the sharia law.”
Leaders of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) on Tuesday (Feb. 23) decried cases of persecution and discrimination against Christians and called on the federal government to put an end to it. Virtually all churches in predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria have been refused certificates of occupancy for their buildings, they said.
“There seems to be an unwritten law that churches are not welcomed in the northern part of the country,” the PFN leaders noted in a statement.
Report from Compass Direct News
Holding convert from Islam without formal charges since May, police seek ‘terrorism’ evidence.
NAIROBI, Kenya, February 18 (CDN) — Prosecutors and police are trying to concoct a terrorism case against an Ethiopian convert from Islam who has been jailed since May without formal charges, Christian leaders said.
Bashir Musa Ahmed, a 39-year-old Ethiopian national, was arrested on May 23 when police found him in possession of eight Bibles in Jijiga, capital of Ethiopia’s Somali Region Zone Five, a predominantly Muslim area in eastern Ethiopia. Zonal police arrested him after he was accused of providing Muslims with the Somali-language Bibles, sources said, though Ethiopia’s constitution protects such activity.
A state official joined Christian leaders in stating that Islamist interests have kept Ahmed in jail in spite of the state’s failure to find any legitimate charge against him. Initially the Christian was arrested for “malicious” distribution of a version of the Bible that is widely available in Ethiopia and is commonly used by Somali Christians inside and outside of the country.
Unable to mount a case rooted in Islamist accusations with no legal bases, authorities have turned toward the terrorism charge as a new tactic, Christian leaders said. Police have submitted the terrorism charge to prosecutors, prompting the prosecutors last month to ask police to find some evidence for the accusation, according to a church leader.
“Police have submitted their investigation results to the prosecutor’s office accusing Bashir of terrorism,” said the church leader. “We heard that the prosecutors asked police to solidify their accusations with evidences of Bashir’s connections [to a terrorist group, and to specify] which terrorist group. Prosecutors seem to feel they need to have some evidence to charge him with terrorism.”
Church leaders said they have received reports of authorities beating Bashir in jail.
“We repeatedly asked prison officials to take him to the hospital, and they are not willing to do so,” said the church leader. “We are only allowed to talk to him for few minutes in the presence of onlookers. We take food for him, and we don’t know whether it reaches him or not.”
The church leader said law enforcement officials are receiving pressure from tribal and Islamic religious leaders.
“We have visited a number of officials in the region – the regional state president, the chairman of security forces and others, and they openly told us that they don’t want to dismay the public by releasing Bashir,” he said. “Some of the officials were saying to us that it is not right to translate the Bible into the regional state language and cultural context.”
A Christian worker in Addis Ababa said a regional state official of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front who has close ties with authorities said that Ahmed was about to be released at one point, as prosecutors were unable to find any chargeable offense against him.
“I was almost sure he would be released within days,” at least on bail, the official told the Christian worker, but “other issues came into play to influence the turn of events.”
The official recalled participating in meetings in which regional state officials brought together all tribal and religious leaders in Somali state, he said.
“I heard the regional state leaders say that they are directly handling Ahmed’s case to protect the religion and culture of Somalis,” he said. “It was enough for me to realize that Ahmed’s case involved a different agenda.”
The Ethiopian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the official told the Christian worker.
“This is not the communist regime’s time,” he said. “Everyone has the right to follow and practice the religion of his choice. Ahmed shouldn’t be in jail for a single day. I suspect that the regional leaders are using Ahmed’s case for other purposes.”
Ethiopia’s constitution, laws and policies promote freedom of religion, but occasionally local authorities infringe on this right, according to the U.S. Department of State. An estimated 40 to 45 percent of Ethiopia’s population belongs to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, evangelical and Pentecostal groups make up another 10 percent, and about 45 percent of the country’s people are Sunni Muslim, according to the report.
Held without a court appearance for several months, Ahmed has been repeatedly denied bail as police continued to ask the court for more time to carry out investigations. At one hearing, sources said, a judge in Dire Dawa asked what crime Ahmed had committed; the prosecutor responded that Ahmed was trying to perpetuate a religious clash in the region.
Prosecutors have repeatedly opposed the defendant’s pleas for bail with the argument that the case is a “very high sensitive matter with a potential to instigate religious instability.”
“Ahmed’s case is still pending and seems beyond legal proceedings,” said the Christian worker. “We have tried every possible way, and all didn’t work.”
Powers and Authorities
Bordering lawless Somalia, Ethiopia’s Somali state sees sporadic instability in various areas, and sources said federal officials appear reluctant to take action that could diminish trust with tribal and religious leaders.
An Ethiopian national, Ahmed is known as a bold preacher of Christianity and is credited with opening discussion of the two faiths between Christian and Muslim leaders. He is well-known in the area as a scholar of Islam.
The Christian worker said he has spoken to the speaker of the House of Federation in Addis Ababa, asking that he intervene; he has also brought the matter to the attention of the national security adviser to the prime minister. The adviser said he was unhappy with the handling of Ahmed’s case and promised to come back with some answers within a week.
“This one too just disappeared,” the Christian worker said. “It seems to me that we are only left with the exceptional intervention from God.”
He said a ministry representative in the region has visited the police commander in Somali state to ask why Ahmed has been kept so long without trial. The commander was not responsive, he said.
“When he was challenged that it was Ahmed’s constitutional right to get formal court proceedings, the commander abruptly responded that the constitution was second to his Islamic faith,” the worker said. He added that state authorities, unlike in other areas, are acting according to their personal will rather than the law.
A church leader following the case in Jijiga said that even after many months in prison, Ahmed was fervently telling about faith in Christ to other inmates. “He is zealous to reach his tribe’s men,” said the church leader.
A conviction on terrorism charges would bring him a harsh sentence, he said.
“Bashir has an indefinite and uncertain future,” he said. “Pray for him.”
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
Social, political factors behind country’s reluctance to allow Christianity to grow
THIMPHU, Bhutan, February 1 (CDN) — Bars, pubs and discos have become legal in Bhutan – a cause of concern for the older generation – but construction of worship buildings other than Buddhist or Hindu temples is still prohibited.
The prohibition remains in force even though Christians abide by Bhutan’s codes of conduct, speaking the Dzongkha language as well as the Nepali language at church gatherings, and wearing the national dress.
The National Assembly of Bhutan banned the practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions through edicts in 1969 and in 1979. But Christians do meet for Sunday worship, with attendance of more than 100 Christians in an underground church not unusual.
Why are Christians seen as a greater threat to the culture of the nation than the “democracy disco culture,” as one government official described the emerging subculture among the Bhutanese youth? It is believed that Christianity will create religious tensions in the country.
“There are reasons why Christianity is not being tolerated in the country,” said a former high government official who requested anonymity. “Look at the communal tensions in India and Nepal. Christianity can divide the Bhutanese society as well.”
He mentioned two incidents that appeared in the Bhutanese press last year, one in which 13 Christians allegedly hanged a woman they had accused of being a witch, and a suicide by a Hindu man who reportedly left a note saying his Christian wife and children were pressuring him to convert.
Christians here said these were isolated incidents that they strongly condemned.
“A majority of believers in Bhutan are not educated and are from lower economic backgrounds,” said the pastor of an underground church. “When open preaching is not allowed, this is what happens.”
Sound Christian teaching remains lacking, he said. There is a tremendous need for good Christian teaching and general education among the Christians in Bhutan, said the pastor.
“But little can be done given the restrictions we face here.”
Christians are only allowed to pray if someone is sick among their acquaintances, he added.
The government also fears that Christianity could cause societal tensions because of the general misconception that Christians lure others to the faith with money; converts are viewed with suspicion, said a government official on condition of anonymity.
“There should be one religion in one nation,” said the official, adding that religious freedom should be allowed only after educating people.
Threat from Within
Bhutanese officials are no strangers to religious conflict.
“You must also understand that the kind of Buddhism practiced in Bhutan is a minority sect within the two Buddhist divisions,” said the former government official.
A majority of Buddhists in Bhutan practice Vajrayāna Buddhism, also known as Tantric Buddhism, and belong to the larger Mahayana sect, one of the two major divisions of the religion along with the Theravada sect.
Theravada Buddhism has a widespread following in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asian countries, including Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Mahayana is practiced in a few East Asian countries, including Japan.
Unlike Theravada, which is more individualistic in its motivation, Mahayana Buddhism involves an aspiration to achieve enlightenment not only for one’s own sake, but for the sake of all “sentient” beings.
“There is a perceived threat to the Buddhist sect in Bhutan from the more powerful Theravada division,” said the source, without divulging more about the clash within Buddhism. “In such a scenario, how can you expect the government to willingly open doors to Christianity, which too is a threat?”
Of Bhutan’s more than 670,000 people, Christians are estimated to range in number between 3,000 and 6,000. Around 75 percent of the people practice Buddhism, and roughly 22 percent are Hindus, mostly of Nepali origin.
Monarchy and Buddhism
Religion is so closely linked to the monarchy in Bhutan that one cannot exist without the other.
The national flag of Bhutan, which consists of a white dragon over a yellow and orange background, also has religion in it. While the yellow half represents civil and political powers of the King, the orange signifies monastic traditions of Buddha’s teachings.
The religious link is protected in the new constitution, which was adopted in March 2008. Article 2 notes that the dual powers of religion and politics shall be unified in the person of the king, “who, as a Buddhist, shall be the upholder of the Chhoe-sid,” the traditional dual system of governance characterized by the sharing of power between the religious and political heads of the country.
Given that the king embodies religious and political authority, the common people worship him.
Additionally, Buddhism is woven into the national fabric. Bhutan is the only country in the world that employs a “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) equation to measure its people’s level of happiness, and the GNH assumes that all citizens are Buddhist. Respondents to the GNH survey are asked questions concerning “spiritual activities like meditation and prayers, and consideration of karmic effects in daily life.”
The introduction of democracy in Bhutan did not involve disturbing the religious and cultural status quo. While former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006, brought democracy to Bhutan without any demand for it, people believe his intentions were far from transforming the country into a full democracy.
It is believed that the political turmoil in neighboring Nepal partly influenced King Singye Wangchuck’s decision to make the country, at least on paper, a constitutional monarchy after over 100 years of absolute monarchy. A decade-long civil war led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist – which took more than 12,000 lives – is believed to be behind the abolition of the royal parliamentary system and the adoption of a socialist republic in Nepal. In 2006 the then-king of Nepal, Gyanendra, agreed to relinquish sovereign power to the people.
All sources in Bhutan confirmed that the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (selected in 2006 but not crowned until 2008), was still the supreme ruler. Perhaps this is why both the ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (Bhutan Peace and Prosperity) Party and the opposition People’s Democratic Party are royalists.
Pictures of kings of Bhutan are found everywhere in the country – in homes, shops, hotels, underground churches and on street walls. Many large posters with the kings’ pictures carrying the inscription “Kings of our Hearts” can be seen along the streets. Even public buses have “Our Kings Forever” painted on them.
“But you cannot expect things to change overnight,” said the former government official. “It’s not wise to allow development without any bridle. Things are improving slowly.
Added an optimistic source, “Freedom in the real sense of the word and in all spheres is bound to come to Bhutan. It’s just a matter of time.”
Report from Compass Direct News