Turkey Arrests 20 Allegedly Linked to Malatya Murders

Suspects in Ergenekon network long sought in homicide case to be questioned.

ISTANBUL, March 18 (CDN) — In simultaneous operations in nine different provinces of Turkey, authorities yesterday arrested 20 people suspected of playing a role in the murder of three Christians in Malatya in 2007, according to local news reports.

Zekeriya Oz, chief prosecutor overseeing the investigation into a clandestine network known as Ergenekon allegedly aimed at destabilizing the government, ordered the arrests based on information that linked the suspects to both the network and to the Malatya murders, Turkish press reported after Istanbul Chief of Police Chief Huseyin Capkin announced the sweep at a press conference yesterday.

“This was an operation related to the Malatya Zirve publishing house murders,” Capkin said, according to online news agency Malatya Guncel. “They were just arrested. This is connected to the Zirve publishing house. That’s the framework.”

Those apprehended include Ruhi Abat, a Muslim theology professor from Malatya Inonu University, Mehmet Ulger, a retired commander of the Malatya Gendarmerie in service at the time of the murders, and other members of the military. Oz will question the suspects in Istanbul, according to reports.

Police also raided the guesthouse of the Izmir Gendarmerie, seizing computers and documents. News sources listed Malatya, Siirt, Mugla, Mersin and Izmir as some of the cities in which authorities conducted raids and arrests.

A plaintiff attorney in the Malatya murder case, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, told Compass that the names on the list of those arrested were suspects he and his colleagues have been trying to convince the Malatya prosecutor to pursue since the court received a tip in May 2008.

“They are all the usual suspects,” Cengiz said. “All their names were mentioned in the first informant letter. Unfortunately, despite all our efforts, we couldn’t find anyone to investigate these allegations.”

The letter was the first of many informant letters the Malatya court has received since it started hearing the case on Nov. 22, 2007. Penned by someone who identified himself by the pseudonym “Ali Arslan” but unsigned, the letter claimed that Ulger incited Emre Gunaydin, one of the suspects, to carry out the murders and that he communicated with Gunaydin through Abat and two gendarmerie officers, reported Turkish English daily Today’s Zaman.

Cengiz said that, though it was the duty of the Malatya prosecutor to pursue leads in the informant letter, the prosecutor deferred the investigation to the military court, which in turn refused to investigate, claiming that the name on the letter was fake and the letter was not signed.

“It was like a joke,” Cengiz said.

On April 18, 2007, two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Christian Tilmann Geske, were bound, tortured and then murdered at the office of Zirve Publishing Co., a Christian publishing house in Malatya. The suspects, Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim, were arrested while trying to escape the scene of the crime, as was alleged ringleader Gunaydin.

From the beginning of the court hearings, plaintiff lawyers have brought evidence to the court showing the five young suspects were connected to a wider plot to kill the three Christians as well as other key Christian leaders across Turkey. Known as the Cage Plan, the plot is believed to be part of the alleged Ergenekon “deep state” operation to destabilize the government.

The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found in 2009 in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 naval officers, termed as “operations” the Malatya killings, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.

Cengiz told Compass that new evidence in the Ergenekon case might have convinced Oz to pursue those detained yesterday, and he called the move “a very big step” in shedding light on the Malatya case. He and colleague Erdal Dogan said their efforts – especially a request they sent to Oz on Jan. 18, 2010 asking him to investigate the allegations that Ergenekon members were behind the Malatya murders – surely helped to move the process along.

“I believe our efforts had a very big influence on this,” Cengiz said. “We submitted a petition and requested this from Oz last year. He is acting with the Malatya prosecutor on this.”

At the request of the Istanbul Chief Prosecutor’s Office, the Istanbul Police Department prepared a report last year revealing links between the Malatya murders and Ergenekon, according to Today’s Zaman. According to the report, Sevgi Erenerol, spokesperson for a bogus ultranationalist association known as the Turkish Orthodox Church, described foreign missionary activity as “spying” and “provoking.”

“A piece of evidence in the report was a conference on missionary activity given by Sevgi Erenerol … at the General Staff’s Strategic Research and Study Center,” reported Today’s Zaman.

Erenerol was arrested in connection with Ergenekon in 2008. Her suspected links with those thought to have masterminded the Zirve murders may have influenced yesterday’s arrests, Today’s Zaman reported.

She is also believed to be one of the key people behind false accusations against two members of Turkey’s Protestant Church, Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal, who were arrested in October 2006 for insulting Turkishness and Islam because they openly shared their faith.

After four years of legal battle, a judge finally acquitted the two Christians of insulting Turkey and its people by spreading Christianity, but not without slapping them with a hefty fine for a spurious charge. The two men are in the process of appealing the fine.

The Turkish Constitution grants all citizens the right to speak about their faith.

Plaintiff attorneys in the Malatya murders case said they believe yesterday’s arrests bring them closer to their requests that the Malatya murders case file be joined to that of the Ergenekon trial.

“From now on, we can predict it is very possible that our case will be sent to Istanbul soon and that these two cases will be merged,” said Cengiz.

The next Malatya hearing is scheduled for April 29.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christians in Turkey Face Harassment; Murder Trial Stalls

Departure of presiding judge in Malatya case could further delay justice, attorneys fear.

ISTANBUL, March 15 (CDN) — Though the horrific scale of the 2007 Malatya murders has not been repeated in Turkey’s Protestant church, a recent report shows harassment continues to be a daily problem for the country’s Christians and churches.

Discrimination, slander and attacks against churches were among the examples of ongoing harassment that the Turkish Association of Protestant Churches (TEK) recorded in 2010.

In an eight-page report published earlier this year, TEK’s Committee for Religious Freedom and Legal Affairs outlined problems Protestants face. Turkish laws and “negative attitudes of civil servants” continue to make it nearly impossible for non-Muslims to establish places of worship, the committee reported. Three churches faced legal problems last year regarding their buildings, according to the report.

Missionary activities are still considered a national threat despite the existence of Turkish laws guaranteeing citizens the freedom to propagate and teach their faith, and children are victims of discrimination at school, according to the report. Though the Religious Education General Directorate for Higher Education and Training Committee allows non-Muslim students to stay out of religious classes, parents have reported cases in which they were not able to take their children out of such

“After four years [since the Malatya murders], Turkey’s religious freedoms have not improved as desired,” said attorney Erdal Dogan. “Christians, Alevis [a Shiite sub-community] and people of other beliefs are still not protected by law. And people of other faiths apart from Muslims have no legal status. Since racism is still prevalent in the context of freedom, discrimination in its turn has become a fact of life.”   

About a third of Turks are estimated to be Alevis.

Turkey rose to 30th place in Open Doors’ 2011 World Watch List of nations in which persecution against Christians takes place, up from 35th place the previous year. The Christian support organization cited deteriorating conditions as the secular country applied some laws in discriminatory ways against Christians.

TEK estimates that there are up to 3,500 Protestant Christians in Turkey.


Malatya Trial Stalled

In the trial of the five primary suspects in the murder of three Christians in Malatya, plaintiff attorneys fear the departure of one of the three judges to a Supreme Court of Appeals post in Ankara could further stall the nearly four-year-old case.

The loss of Judge Eray Gurtekin, who had presided over the case since it began on Nov. 22, 2007, could threaten to set back the progress of the court that has been examining links between the killers and alleged masterminds, according to Dogan, a plaintiff attorney in the case. Gurtekin was appointed as a judge in the Supreme Court of Appeals in Turkey’s capital Ankara last month.

“In a three-member panel [of judges], the change of one is not really helpful,” said Dogan, “because just as the previous presiding judge had started to understand and pay close attention to the case file, a new judge came in his place. I hope he will catch on quickly.”

The new judge joined the Malatya hearings panel this month, and Dogan said there could be more changes in the panel.

The 12th Istanbul High Criminal Court is expected to hear the testimony of another witness on March 29, and the court is trying to locate two more witnesses in order to shed light on the Malatya murders.

On April 18, 2007, two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Christian Tilmann Geske, were bound, tortured and then murdered at the office of Zirve Publishing Co., a Christian publishing house in Malatya. The suspects, Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim, were arrested while trying to escape the scene of the crime, as was alleged ringleader Emre Gunaydin.

From the beginning of the court hearings, prosecuting lawyers have brought evidence to the court showing the five young suspects were connected to a wider plot to kill the three Christians as well as other key Christian leaders across Turkey. Known as the Cage Plan, the plot is believed to be part of the alleged Ergenekon “deep state” operation to destabilize the government.

The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found in 2009 in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 naval officers, termed as “operations” the Malatya killings, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.

Questioned by the judges, Varol Bulent Aral – suspected of being one of the people who planned the murders and linked the killers to the masterminds – said he wanted the court to find out who was supporting the Zirve Publishing Co. He added a cryptic remark to Tilmann Geske’s widow, Suzanne Geske, who continues to live in Malatya with her three children and regularly attends the murder hearings.

“I want to ask Suzanne, what business does a German have here?”

The judges finally threw Aral out of the courtroom for contempt of court when he told the judges: “You are in the clouds!”

Prosecuting lawyers still hope judges will join the Malatya case files to the Cage Plan case, which is being tried at an Istanbul court.

The threat of violence against Christians continues. Last week Turkish news sources reported that Istanbul police arrested two suspects, ages 17 and 18, accused of plotting to assassinate a priest on the European side of the city. The Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office is examining their case.

Report from Compass Direct News

Recent Incidents of Persecution

Tamil Nadu, India, September 30 (CDN) — Police detained evangelist V.K. Williams and seven other Christians after Hindu extremists disrupted their evangelistic meeting on Sept. 29 in Theni, according to the Global Council of Indian Christians. The extremists filed a complaint against the Christians of “forceful conversion” and pressured police to arrest them, and officers took the eight Christians to the station for questioning. At press time, area Christian leaders were trying to free them.

West Bengal – On Sept. 26 in Purulia, Hindu extremists stopped a worship service and dragged Christians out, saying no more prayer or worship should take place in the village. A source in Kolkata reported that the extremists were threatening to kill the Christians if they did not convert to Hinduism. The Christians reported the matter to the Kenda Police Station. Officers summoned both parties to the police station, but the extremists threatened to kill the Christians if they went.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Bajrang Dal attacked Gnanodya Church at Yellapura, Karwar district, on Sept. 26. The All India Christian Council reported that the assailants broke into a church worship service after having filed a complaint against Pastor Shiva Ram of “forcible conversions.” In the presence of the police, the attackers started to vandalize the church, pulling down calendars and breaking furniture. Church members said their pastor was targeted because of his social service works. Police took the pastor into custody and jailed him.

Karnataka – Karnataka police on Sept. 26 arrested a Pentecostal pastor, Shivanda Siddi, on false charges of “forceful conversions” in Mundgod. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that at about 11 a.m. five Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal stormed the church building while Christians were praying and began arguing with the pastor. They beat him, stripped him of his clothes and took Bibles from those present. The extremists later telephoned police in Yellapur, about three kilometers away (less than two miles), and an inspector arrived and took the pastor, seven women and two young children to the police station. The extremists continued to threaten the Christians in front of police, who watched in silence. With GCIC intervention, police released the women and children without charges, but Pastor Siddi was charged with “defiling a place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class.” He was put in Uttar Kananda’s Sirsi prison.

Karnataka – On Sept. 19 in Santhemarnalli, police led by Inspector Madhava Swamy threatened a pastor with harm if he did not stop alleged “forceful conversion” activities. The All India Christian Council reported that police threatened Pastor Mhades of Good Shepherd Community Church after Hindu extremists filed the complaint against him. Police barged into his church, questioned him and told him that they would take action against him if he did not stop trying to convert people. Area Christian leaders claimed that there was no case of forceful conversion, and that Christians were only conducting their regular worship services.

Andhra Pradesh – Police on Sept. 17 arrested a Christian convert from Islam, Sheik Magbool, after Muslim extremists filed a complaint against him of uttering derogatory remarks against the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, in Kurnool. A source reported that Maqbool organized a three-day, open air Christian meeting and distributed some tracts that allegedly contained comparisons between the teachings of Jesus Christ and those of Muhammad. The Muslim extremists accused Maqbool of making derogatory remarks against Muhammad, threatened to kill him and filed a police complaint against him. Area Christian leaders maintained that the tracts did not contain any hateful remarks against Muhammad; they asserted that the Muslim extremists reprinted the tracts after adding some lines insulting to Muhammad in order to fabricate a case against the Christians. Maqbool was put in a jail cell, with the Down Court rejecting his petition for bail on Sept. 21.

Chhattisgarh – On Sept. 15 in Raipur, Hindu extremists misrepresenting themselves as journalists barged into a prayer meeting led by Pastor Kamlakarrao Bokada and accused him of “forceful conversion,” verbally abused him and falsely accused him of dishonoring their idols. They ordered the pastor to video-record the prayer meeting, but he refused. The pastor, who visits Christian homes in the Khorpi area, was ordered not to do so again. Police refused to register a complaint by Christians.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists in Vizianagaram on Sept. 13 attacked a pastor’s wife, injuring her head, and told the church leader to leave the area, according to the All India Christian Council. The attack came after Pastor Y. Caleb Raj of Good Shepherd Community Church requested that youths playing loud music before the idol of Ganesh near his church not disturb the Sept. 12 worship service. As the pastor was speaking to organizers of the Ganesh event, Hindu extremists gathered and some tried to manhandle him. They told him to close down the church and leave the village. When Pastor Raj was out on ministry work the next day, the same group of Hindu extremists came and struck his wife with a wooden club. Pastor Raj filed a police complaint, but no arrests had been made at press time.

Chhattisgarh – Hindu extremists in Raigarh on Sept. 12 beat evangelist Robinson Roat and ordered him to stop all Christian activities. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that about 25 extremists barged into the worship meeting in Roat’s home. They told him he would face further harm if he left his house. The Christian did not venture out for two days.

Madhya Pradesh – Hindu extremists in Satna on Sept. 12 accused Pastor V.A. Anthony of “forceful conversion” and of carrying out the funeral of a non-Christian in a local Christian cemetery. Based on the complaint of the Hindu extremists, the inspector general of police summoned Pastor Anthony and a high-level inquiry is pending, reported the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC). The son of a local church member had died under mysterious circumstances earlier this year, and the pastor and church members had buried him in the Christian cemetery according to the wishes of his parents and other relatives, according to the GCIC.

Uttar Pradesh – Hindu nationalists from the extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on Sept. 5 beat a pastor in Sarva village in Babina, Jhansi district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that three Hindu extremists led by Surendra Yadav and armed with wooden clubs barged into the church building after Sunday classes and beat Pastor Anil Masih on his back and legs, kicked him and verbally abused him. The assault went on for about 30 minutes. The next day, Masih’s father informed Babina police. Masih received hospital treatment for a broken left leg. GCIC sources told Compass that after Masih’s discharge from the hospital on Sept. 10, he filed a complaint against the extremists at the Babina police station on Sept. 13. At press time, no arrests had been made.

Karnataka – Police on Sept. 1 stopped a pastors’ meeting in Mysore, claiming that they were being trained to “convert people,” though conversion and persuading to convert is legal in India. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that the Mysore Pastors Association organized a two-week pastoral training program with about 50 local church leaders and evangelists in attendance. Police arrived and ordered the organizers to vacate the premises by the next day. Even though such trainings are legally permitted in India, the Christians called off the meeting.

Rajasthan – Hindu extremists attacked two Christian workers, damaged their vehicles and seized evangelistic literature from them on Aug. 26 in Udaipur. The All India Christian Council reported that evangelists Charlie John and V.M. George were distributing gospel tracts when a group of Hindu extremists suddenly came and began objecting. The extremists blocked their vehicle and beat the two Christians, leaving them with serious injuries. Police came to their rescue and suggested they file a complaint against the extremists, but the Christians said they chose to forgive their attackers.

Report from Compass Direct News

Somali Christian Killed, Four Children Kidnapped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News

Two Christian Families in Bangladesh Suffer Extortion, Beatings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


False Charge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News

Egyptian Couple Shot by Muslim Extremists Undaunted in Ministry

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.”


Tense Atmosphere

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.


Unlikely Survival

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.


Government Opposition

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.


Church-for-Charges Swap

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.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Al Shabaab Militants Execute Christian Leader in Somalia

Islamic extremists run into 57-year-old Yusuf Ali Nur after battle with rival group.

NAIROBI, Kenya, May 5 (CDN) — Islamic militants yesterday killed another leader of the underground church movement in Somalia, sources said.

Before he was fatally shot on Tuesday (May 4) in Xarardheere, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Jowhar, 57-year-old Yusuf Ali Nur had been on a list of people the Islamic extremist al Shabaab suspected of being Christian, sources who spoke on condition of anonymity told Compass. Al Shabaab, said to have links with al Qaeda, has vowed to rid Somalia of Christianity.

The militants fighting the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu had been engaged in a two-hour battle with a rival rebel group, the Ahlu Sunna Waljamer, which had taken control of the Xarardheere area, before they came across Nur. Nur had lived in Xarardheere since leaving Jowhar in July 2009.

Eyewitnesses said that after al Shabaab took control of the area, they went from house to house looking for enemy fighters when they arrived at Nur’s rented home at about 10:30 a.m. Sources said that upon finding Nur, one of the militants remarked, “Oh! This is Yusuf, whom we have been looking for,” before they sprayed him with bullets at close range.

Nur is survived by his wife, whose name was withheld for security reasons, and three children, ages 11, 9 and 7.

This latest death comes after several execution-style murders of Somalis suspected of being members of a suppressed yet resilient underground faith movement in Somalia. A number of Christians have been beheaded by the radical Islamists out to topple the fledgling TFG and introduce a strict version of sharia (Islamic law).

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

Nur, who had worked on a farm while in Jowhar, had long being monitored by al Shabaab, the sources said. After settling in Xarardheere, he became the head teacher of Ganane Primary School and also taught English. The al Shabaab militants object to the use of English, preferring Arabic, and even after relocating to Xarardheere Nur realized he was in danger of the militants finding him, sources said.

Ganane is a private school owned by wealthy Somali proprietors.

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

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

Advocacy group International Christian Concern has reported that three members of al Shabaab killed Somali Christian Mu’awiye Hilowle Ali in front of his home in Afgoye on March 23, executing him with close-range shots to his head and chest.

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

Report from Compass Direct News 

Bomb Attack in Iraq Seriously Injures Christian Students

One person dead in explosions that end classes for students this semester.

ISTANBUL, May 5 (CDN) — At least 50 Iraqi Christian students are receiving hospital treatment following a bomb attack on Sunday (May 2) outside Mosul that killed at least one person and has forced nearly 1,000 students to drop classes for the rest of the semester.

Nearly 160 people were injured in the blasts targeting three buses full of Christians traveling to the University of Mosul for classes. The convoy of buses, which brings Christian students from villages east of Mosul, was making its daily route accompanied by two Iraqi army cars.

“This is the hardest attack, because they attacked not only one car, but the whole convoy and in an area that is heavily guarded by the army,” said Syrian Catholic Bishop of Mosul Georges Casmoussa.

The explosions happened east of Mosul between two checkpoints. A roadside bomb followed by a car bomb reportedly exploded as the buses were clearing the second checkpoint in the area of Kokjaly. The checkpoint was staffed by U.S., Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish soldiers.

The owner of a nearby car repair shop, Radeef Hashim Mahrook, was killed in one of the blasts as he tried to help the students, sources said.

Sources told Compass that lately there have been indications that Islamic extremists intend to increase attacks against Christians in more sophisticated and targeted ways. There were no warnings of the Sunday blasts.

Nearly 20 of the more seriously injured students are receiving treatment in Erbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Casmoussa said the Turkish Consulate and the Kurdish Regional Government have offered to transfer students needing more medical care to Turkey.

“Some of them were severely injured in the face, arms, necks or eyes,” said Casmoussa. “Now the Turkish consulate and the government of Kurdistan offer us to bring the most injured to Turkey to continue the care.”

Many of Mosul’s Christians have fled the city after repeated violence targeting them and live in the villages east of the city. The students on Sunday’s convoy were from Qaraqosh, Karamless and Bartella, located nearly 32 kilometers (20 miles) away.

Over 1,000 Christian students, most belonging to internally displaced families, and about 100 university faculty and staff members commute to Mosul every week in buses belonging to the Syrian Catholic Bishopric. About 15 buses served the internally displaced Christian community daily.

“The project of transportation of students will be stopped,” said Casmoussa. “We can’t continue now.” 

While the church has focused on dealing with immediate medical needs, the bishop said the church simply could not take the responsibility of transporting students after such a calculated and fierce attack.

“The chief of army offered to help us again, but it is impossible,” said Casmoussa. “They were with us every day…yet this is the result. We don’t have another solution now.”

Last February, after attacks against Christians left three university students dead, the Chaldo-Assyrian Student and Youth Union proposed that the Ministry of Education open a new university in a safer area on the Nineveh plains. Nearly 3,000 Christian undergraduate students and 250 graduate students are studying in Mosul.

Casmoussa said the Christian community is hoping the University of Mosul will help Christian students who are unwilling to commute to Mosul by sending faculty members to hold semester-end examinations in Qaraqosh.

“This is [an attack] against all the Christian people,” said Casmoussa. “Our culture is immense capital for the future to build our lives, not just to have bread to eat and continue life without any sense.”

Due to the violence against Christians in Mosul, Casmoussa relocated to the village of Qaraqosh three years ago, and commutes into the city to serve his diocese. On Jan. 17, 2005 gunmen abducted him and released him the next day.

Sunni Muslim insurgents have frequently targeted members of Iraq’s Christian minority, especially in Mosul. Iraq’s current government is Shiite-led.

Report from Compass Direct News