ALGERIA: CHRISTIANS ACQUITTED IN BLASPHEMY CASE


Verdict suggests Algerian government could be softening crackdown on Christians.

ISTANBUL, October 29 (Compass Direct News) – A court in northwestern Algeria today acquitted three Christians charged with blaspheming Islam and threatening a member of their congregation who re-converted to Islam.

The acquittal was announced in a court at Ain El-Turck, 15 kilometers (nine miles) west of the coastal city of Oran. The defendants believe the judge’s decision to acquit was due to the spurious evidence used against them.

The acquittal also comes as part of a larger trend of the Algerian government bowing to negative international media attention and government condemnations of such cases, they said.

Defendant Youssef Ourahmane said that as a result, a recent government crackdown against evangelical Christians has eased off in recent months.

“We had noticed the last four or five months the government is trying to back down a little bit,” Ourahmane said. “I think the pressure on them has been strong, such as condemnations from the U.S. and foreign ministries from France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Spain. This pressure from outside has embarrassed the Algerian government very much.”

Algerian courts have handed several suspended sentences to local evangelicals in the last year under a recent presidential decree that prohibits proselytizing Muslims. No Christian, however, has served prison time on religious charges.

Ourahmane, Rachid Muhammad Essaghir, and a third man were charged in February with “blaspheming the name of the Prophet [Muhammad] and Islam” and threatening the life of a man who claimed to have converted to Christianity but who “returned” to Islam when his fundamentalist ties were exposed.

The first hearing of the three men took place on Oct. 21 in Ain El-Turck. A lawyer appointed by the Ministry of Religion also joined the hearing and surprised the defendants by supporting their plight.

The lawyer affirmed the rights of religious minorities such as Christians in Algeria. The Christians present said she would like the case to be closed.

A prosecutor in the case had sought three years of prison for the three men and a fine of 50,000 dinars (653 euros) for each.

Taking the stand last week, the three men were asked whether they had blasphemed Muhammad and threatened Shamouma Al-Aid, the convert and plaintiff. Al-Aid had professed Christianity from July 2004 through July 2006, when he attended a church near Oran. It was there that he met the Christians, against whom he later filed the blasphemy complaint.

Essaghir, an evangelist and church elder for a small community of Muslim converts to Christianity in Tiaret, has been one of the most targeted Christians in Algeria.

In the last year he has received three sentences, one for blasphemy and two for evangelism. Police stopped Essaghir and another man in June 2007 while transporting Christian literature. As a result they were convicted in absentia in November 2007 and given a two-year sentence and 5,000-euro fines. The Protestants requested a retrial, and the charges were dropped at a hearing in June.

Asked if he could explain why he and other Christians were under fire by Islamists, he told Compass that Muslims felt menaced by the existence of Christianity and its rise in Algeria.

“We are attacked because Muslims feel threatened by us,” said Essaghir. “There are many people who are coming to Christ.”

When the three accused Christians met Al-Aid, he claimed that his family was persecuting him, so they took him in to their church community. But in 2006 the Christians learned that Al-Aid in fact had links with Islamic fundamentalists.

After excommunicating Al-Aid, in October 2007 the three Christians were summoned by police when Al-Aid registered his complaint that they had insulted Muhammad and Islam and threatened his life.

“But the accusations against us are unfounded,” Essaghir told Compass last week by phone. “There is no proof, but we are being condemned because there is no justice.”

Ourahmane said that Al-Aid had shown the police text messages to support his claims, but that police said the number had not been registered with telecommunications services.

With their fresh acquittal, the three Christians could open a case against Al-Aid for bringing a case against them based on spurious evidence, according to Algerian law.

Instead, they want to offer their forgiveness, Ourahmane said.

“We have decided to forgive him and will communicate we are all ready to help him if he needs any help,” he said. “We are in touch with him through one of our team members, and if he is thirsty or hungry we are more than happy to help.”

 

Pressure on Algeria’s Church

The three acquitted men are just a few of the Algerian Christians who have come under legal heat in a wave of trials this year against the country’s tiny evangelical church.

Habiba Kouider, facing a three-year sentence after police stopped her while she was carrying several Christian books, has been kicked out of her family’s home. Kouider’s brothers learned about her conversion to Christianity after her case sparked national and international media attention.

In most cases the Christians have been charged under a presidential decree from February 2006 that restricts religious worship to government-approved buildings. The decree, known as Ordinance 06-03, also outlaws any attempt to convert Muslims to another faith.

The international community has been vocal about the Algerian government’s stance toward Christians. On June 6, some 30 U.S. congressmen sent a letter to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

They addressed human rights violations resulting from Ordinance 06-03, which has resulted in the closures of churches and criminal charges against Christians.

Algeria’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but loose terminology in its penal code – such as Article 144, which calls for up to five years of prison for “anyone who offends the Prophet and denigrates the tenets of Islam” – has allowed judges to give Islamic practice the force of law.

On Sept. 29 six men in Biskra, 420 kilometers (260 miles) south of Algiers, were sentenced to four years of prison for eating in public before sunset during the month of Ramadan, according to Algerian national daily Liberte. Muslims are required to abstain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset during this 30-day period.

An Oct. 6 editorial in Algerian daily El Watan lamented the decision as proof that religious rights were eroding in Algeria.

“The divine law itself does not provide for severe penalties, and even the Taliban regime is not as strict,” said editorial writer Reda Bekkat. “One can imagine a judge tomorrow questioning people [who were] walking on the streets at the hour of prayer because they are not at the mosque.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: PARTIAL VICTORY SEEN IN RULING ON KIDNAPPED GIRLS


With both minors saying they had converted to Islam, lawyers feared worse.

ISTANBUL, September 15 (Compass Direct News) – Christian human rights lawyers in Pakistan saw a partial legal victory in a judge’s ruling last week that one of two kidnapped girls be returned to her Christian parents. The judge further ruled that her sister be free to choose whether to go with the Muslim man who allegedly forced her to convert and marry him.

Justice Malik Saeed Ejaz ruled on Tuesday (Sept. 9) that 10-year-old Aneela Masih be returned to her parents – an unprecedented legal victory for Christian parents of a girl who supposedly converted to Islam, according to one lawyer – while leaving her sister, 13-year-old Saba Masih, free to choose whether to go with Amjad Ali, a Muslim man who married her after the June 26 kidnapping.

Saba Masih, whose birth certificate indicates that she is now 13 but who testified that she is 17, said she did not want to return to her parents and tried to keep her little sister from returning to them. Their Muslim captors have repeatedly threatened the two girls that their parents would harm them if they returned.

The older sister is not willing to meet with any of the family members or her parents, said Rashid Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

“It’s normal behavior,” he told Compass. “She was tutored and brainwashed by the family of her husband Ali, and naturally they made up her mind that her parents will hurt her and treat her inhumanely. In fact that will never happen. Her family is really peaceful, and remained so peaceful the whole time the case was heard in high court.”

After more than three hours of heated legal arguments in the Multan branch of Lahore’s High Court, the judge deemed the oldest child sui juris – capable to handle her own affairs – based on her testimony that she is 17 years old and on a Lahore medical board’s ruling that she is between 15 and 17. The medical board may have been pressured to declare Saba Masih as an adult, according to the parents’ lawyers.

Conditions set in the ruling called for the parents not to “interfere” with Aneela Masih’s religious beliefs, that they be allowed to visit Saba Masih and that the groom’s family pay them 100,000 rupees (US$1,316) according to Pakistani marriage tradition.

Raised in a Christian family in the small town of Chowk Munda, the two girls were kidnapped on June 26 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Saba Masih was married to Ali the next day, and the kidnappers filed for custody of the girls on June 28 based on their alleged forced conversion to Islam.

Islamic jurisprudence and Pakistani law do not recognize the forced marriages of minors.

 

‘Pleased with Outcome’

“We are pleased with the outcome,” said Joseph Francis, head of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). He said, however, that the verdict was not complete without the return of Saba Masih to her family.

Francis and two other CLAAS lawyers were present at the Sept. 9 judgment despite repeated threats against their office over the course of the hearings.

CLAAS lawyer Akbar Durrani told Compass that it was the first time in his life that he had seen such a decision. “In my experience they have not given us the custody of minor girls even as young as 9 years old that have been declared Muslim,” said Durrani, who has been practicing law in Pakistan for 18 years. “It is a legal victory.”

As a minor, though, Aneela Masih’s previous declaration that she had converted from Christianity to Islam was not explicitly recognized. Calling the lawyers into his private chamber to present options before ruling, according to the parents’ lawyers, the judge said he would make no mention of the girls’ supposed conversion to Islam.

“This was a very favorable thing for us,” said Durrani. “He said, ‘I’m only going to decide the custody,’ so we decided this is acceptable to us.”

In his private chamber, the judge gave them different options, warning them that if they didn’t cooperate or accept his proposals he would make his own judgment. In the end he said he would hand the little girl to her mother and set the other free.

“Wherever she wants to go she can go,” the judge told the parties. “But if she wants to go with you she can go, and if she wants to go to her husband she can go.”

The girls, their mother and Ali were then invited into the judge’s chamber, where the judge announced the decision to them.

Durrani said that Aneela Masih went to her mother willingly, while her older sister gave a cry and tried to pull the 10-year-old back to her.

“The minor resisted for a fraction of a second to go to the mother,” Durrani said. “The little girl was under pressure; every time she was instructed by her elder sister not to talk to her mother.”

Her mother hugged her, and the lawyer said the little girl seemed very comfortable in her lap. There her mother tried to remove the veil from her daughter to look at her, but she resisted. Outside the courtroom, however, Aneela Masih removed the veil herself and later accepted food and drink. The girls had been fasting during Ramadan.

The lawyers said it was clear from the 10-year-old girl’s reactions that she was confused from the ordeal.

 

Supreme Court Question

Lawyers for the parents are weighing the options and feasibility of getting the oldest daughter back through the Supreme Court.

On Friday (Sept. 12), the girls’ uncle, Khalid Raheel, who has spearheaded the efforts to get them back, told CLAAS lawyers that Aneela was readjusting into her life at home. Raheel asked the family lawyers that they continue to try to get Saba back.

Rehman said he does not think the case would stand in the Supreme Court. “She willingly said, ‘I don’t want to go with my parents,’” he said.

Durrani and Francis, however, said they would continue to fight for her. “We’ll go to the Supreme Court for Saba,” said Francis.

“We will try getting the statement of Aneela and then will re-open the case,” said Durrani, adding that Aneela Masih had told her family, “Please get her back from that place.”

Rehman told Compass in a phone interview that Saba Masih’s statement that she is 17, her supposed embrace of Islam and her marriage by consent will make getting her back very difficult.

“She has admitted the marriage at the court and produced the marriage papers and has claimed that she’s over 16, so it was very difficult for us to prove our case that she’s a minor girl… because it is denied by Saba herself,” said Rehman.

He explained that the only way to secure the oldest daughter’s return to her family would be by proving she is a minor, something virtually impossible at this point because of her testimony. The court has refused to admit her birth certificate as evidence.

Saba Masih still refuses to communicate with her parents.

 

‘Frightened, Small Girl’

In court last week, both sisters sat in hijab dress fully veiled next to a policewoman from the Dar Ul Rahman women’s shelter, where the two girls had stayed since a July 29 hearing.

Their mother tried to talk to them and show them photos. Durrani said that Aneela Masih was responsive to her mother, but her older sister would pull her away, forbidding her from talking to her.

The judge had ruled that the girls stay at the shelter in order to think of their alleged conversion to Islam away from external pressures. Lawyers for the parents said that while in the shelter the girls were continually harassed and threatened that their family would not take them back.

Aneela Masih stated to the lawyers and her parents after the court decision that Ali’s family and their captors told them that everyone was Muslim – the lawyers, the judge, society – and that their parents could not take them back.

Knowing the attention the case of the two girls had attracted, Durrani said, the judge left the case till last. Yet the courtroom, he said, was full of “those who had kidnapped the girls, their supporters, the Islamic fanatics; all these were present in the court and interested in the hearing of the case.”

From the outset at last week’s hearing, the judge wanted to ask Aneela Masih questions about Islam to extract a statement on which he could rule on her custody. Durrani and colleague Justin Gill fought against the lawyer and the judge, arguing that as the 10-year-old was a minor, her statement on faith could not be valid and that she must be returned to her mother.

“We concentrated our efforts on Aneela, that at least we should have some relief to get her back and then we can fight in the Supreme Court if we wish to go for any other thing,” he said, referring to the older sister’s case.

The judge had decided to postpone the verdict till this Thursday (Sept. 18) and place the girls back in the Dar Ul Rahman shelter, where their mother could visit them for two hours every day. But the CLAAS lawyers said they feared waiting would only work against their case in the long run, making it more difficult to gain custody of the younger sister if both were exposed to more harassment and possible brainwashing.

“Even if she is a Muslim and has changed her religion, according to Islam a mother is the best custodian of the child,” Durrani said he and Gill argued.

Rehman said that Aneela Masih seemed frightened and, according to information he had obtained, the girl was afraid of her abductors and her own family even while in the shelter.

“She was a frightened, small girl,” he said. “They told her that if she returned to her parents she’d be treated unkindly.”

 

Threats, Car Chase

On Sept. 8, the day before the hearing, while traveling together from Lahore to Multan, the three lawyers for the Christian parents – Francis, Durrani and Gill – received threatening calls from the supporters of the girls’ kidnappers.

That night while, on their way back from dinner to a bishop’s house where they were staying in Multan, the CLAAS team was approached by armed men on motorcycles who threatened them, warning them to not go to the judgment hearing the next day.

“They said, ‘You should not be in court or you will be responsible for the consequences,’” said Durrani.

When nearby police saw the scene and approached, the armed men left the scene.

“We were afraid, but we knew we had to go,” Durrani said.

After the hearing, while traveling back to Lahore, Durrani said that Muslim fanatics chased them for about 100 kilometers (62 miles).

“Then we went to another city and got to the highway from another shortcut,” he said.

Durrani said the lawyers have many cases like this, causing them concern for their own safety.

“It is not the first time we get threats, but by the grace of God, and by the refuge of our Holy Ghost we are safe,” he said. “Every time we know the prayers of our church and other Christians are with us, which is why we are able to get the victory for our Lord.”

Report from Compass Direct News