Blast Kills 21 outside Church in Alexandria, Egypt

Bomb explodes as Christians leave New Year’s Eve Mass.

LOS ANGELES, January 3 (CDN) — At least 21 people were killed and scores were wounded on Saturday (Jan. 1) when a bomb outside a church in Alexandria, Egypt exploded as congregants were leaving a New Year’s Eve Mass celebration.

The explosion ripped through the crowd shortly after midnight, killing instantly most of those who died, and leaving the entrance-way to the Church of the Two Saints, a Coptic Orthodox congregation, covered with blood and severed body parts.

The blast overturned at least one car, set several others on fire and shattered windows throughout the block on which the church is located.

Egyptian authorities reportedly said 20 of the victims have been identified. At least 90 other people were injured in the blast, 10 seriously. Among the injured were eight Muslims. Many of the injured received treatment at St. Mark’s Hospital.

Burial services for some of the victims started Sunday (Jan. 2) in Alexandria, located in northern Egypt on the Mediterranean Sea.

Witnesses reportedly said a driver parked a car at the entrance of the church and then ran away seconds before it exploded. Government officials have claimed they found remnants of the bomb, filled with nails and other make-shift shrapnel, at the site; they suspect an unidentified suicide bomber, rather than a car bombing.

No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the attack comes two months after an Islamic group known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) issued a threat stating that, “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen [Muslim fighters] wherever they can reach them.”

Claiming they would open “rivers of blood” upon Christians, the group specifically threatened Egyptian Christians based an unsubstantiated rumor that two Coptic women, both wives of Orthodox clergy, were being held against their will after converting to Islam. The statement came after ISI claimed responsibility for an attack on a Baghdad church during mass in which 58 people were killed.

The Egyptian government continues to suspect foreign elements mounted the Alexandria attack, but an unconfirmed report by The Associated Press, citing anonymous government sources, said an Egyptian Islamic group is being investigated.

Bishop Mouneer Anis, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Egypt, said in a written statement that he thinks the attack was linked to the Iraqi threats. He added that his church has taken greater security measures at its downtown Cairo location.

“We pray with all the people of Egypt, Christians and Muslims, [that they] would unite against this new wave of religious fanaticism and terrorism,” he said.

For weeks before the ISI issued its threat, Alexandria was the site of massive protests against the Orthodox Church and its spiritual leader, Pope Shenouda III. Immediately after Friday prayers, Muslims would stream out into the streets surrounding mosques, chant slogans against the church and demand the “return” of the two women. Before that, as early as June, clerics from at least one central Alexandria mosque could be heard broadcasting anti-Christian vitriol from minaret loudspeakers during prayers, instructing Muslims to separate themselves entirely from their Christian countrymen.

The Alexandria bombing comes almost a year after a shooting in Nag Hammadi, Egypt left six Christians and one Muslim security guard dead. In the Jan. 6, 2010 attack, a group of men drove by St. John’s Church, 455 kilometers (282 miles) south of Cairo, and sprayed with gunfire a crowd leaving a Coptic Christmas Eve service.

Three men were eventually charged with the shootings, but the case has yet to be resolved.

Egypt wasn’t the only place in the Middle East plagued with anti-Christian violence over the holiday season.

The day before bombers struck the Alexandria church, an elderly Christian couple in Baghdad was killed when terrorists placed a bomb outside of their home, rang the doorbell and walked away, according to media and human rights reports. The bombing happened at the same time other Christian-owned homes and neighborhoods throughout Baghdad were being attacked.

Estimates of the number of people wounded in the attacks in Iraq range from nine to more than 13.

Report from Compass Direct News

Anti-Christian Sentiment Heats Up

Terrorist threat in Iraq emerges at importune moment for Copts.

CAIRO, Egypt, November 22 (CDN) — As bombings and other attacks continue against Christians in Iraq, Christians in Egypt have gathered to pray and plan for their own safety.

When a group of Islamic extremists on Oct. 31 burst into Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad during evening mass and began spraying the sanctuary with gunfire, the militant organization that took responsibility said Christians in Egypt also would be targeted if its demands were not met. Taking more than 100 congregants hostage, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) called a television station and stated that the assault came in response to the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt allegedly holding two Coptic women against their will who, the ISI and some others believe, converted to Islam.

The group issued a 48-hour deadline for the release of the women, and when the deadline passed it issued a statement that, “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen [Muslim fighters] wherever they can reach them.” The statement later added ominously, “We will open upon them the doors of destruction and rivers of blood.”

In the attack and rescue attempt that followed, 58 people were reportedly killed. A week and a half later, Islamic extremists killed four people in a series of coordinated attacks against Christians in Baghdad and its surrounding suburbs. The attackers launched mortar rounds and planted makeshift bombs outside Christian homes and one church. At least one attack was made against the family members of one of the victims of the original attack.

On Nov. 15, gunmen entered two Christian homes in Mosul and killed two men in the house. The next day, a Christian and his 6-year-old daughter were killed in a car bombing. At the same time, another bomb exploded outside the home of a Christian, damaging the house but leaving the residents uninjured, according to CNN.

The threats against Christians caused a flurry of activity at churches in Egypt. A 35-year-old Protestant who declined to give her name said Christians in Cairo have unified in prayer meetings about the threats. An SMS text message was sent out through prayer networks asking people to meet, she said.

“I know people are praying now,” she said. “We have times for our people to pray, so all of us are praying.”

Security has increased at churches throughout Egypt. In Cairo, where the presence of white-uniformed security police is ubiquitous, the number of uniformed and plain-clothes officers has doubled at churches. High-ranking police officers shuffle from one house of worship to another monitoring subordinates and enforcing new security rules. At times, parking on the same side of the street as a church building, or even driving by one, has been forbidden.

On Nov. 8, leaders from the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches gathered to discuss how to improve security at churches. According to the leaders of several churches, the government asked pastors to cancel unessential large-scale public meetings. Pope Shenouda III canceled a celebration to commemorate the 39th anniversary of his installment as the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Guests at a recent outdoor Christmas bazaar and a subsequent festival at the All-Saints Cathedral in Zamalek
were greeted with pat-downs, metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs.

Some church leaders, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the security improvements are haphazard, while others say they are genuine efforts to ensure the safety of Christians.

Most Christians in Cairo avoided answering any questions about the attacks in Iraq or the threats made against Christians in Egypt. But Deliah el-Sowkary, a Coptic Orthodox woman in her 20s, said she hoped no attacks would happen in her country. Noting the security present at all churches, still she said she is not that worried.

“I think it’s different in Egypt than in Baghdad, it’s more safe here,” El-Sowkary said.

Almost a week after the bombings, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak issued a statement through the state-run MENA news agency that the Copts would be protected from attacks.

“The president affirmed his extensive solicitude for the protection of the nation’s sons, Muslims and Copts, from the forces of terrorism and extremism,” the agency stated.


Pressure Cooker

The security concerns came against a backdrop of heightened tensions between the Muslim majority and the Coptic Christian minority over the past few months, with weeks of protests against Christians in general and against Shenouda specifically. The protests, held mostly in Alexandria, ended two weeks ago.

The tension started after the wife of a Coptic priest, Camilia Zakher, disappeared in July. According to government sources and published media reports, Zakher left her home after a heated argument with her husband. But Coptic protestors, who started gathering to protest at churches after Zakher disappeared, claimed she had been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam.

Soon after, Egypt’s State Security Intelligence (SSI) officers found her at the home of a friend. Despite stating she had left of her own free will, authorities brought Zakher back to her husband. Since then, Zakher has been in seclusion. It is unclear where she is or if she remains there of her own free will.

Unconfirmed rumors began spreading that Zakher had converted to Islam and was being held against her will to force her to return to Christianity. Protests outside mosques after Friday prayers became weekly events. Protestors produced a photo of unknown origin of a woman in Islamic covering whom they claimed was Zakher. In response, Coptic authorities released a video in which the priest’s wife stated that she wasn’t a Muslim nor ever had been.

Another rumor began circulating that Zakher went to Al-Azhar University, one of the primary centers of Islamic learning in the world, to convert to Islam. But Al-Azhar, located in Cairo, released a statement that no such thing ever happened.

No independent media interviews of Zakher have taken place because, according to the Coptic Church, the SSI has ordered church officials not to allow public access to her. Along with their accusations about Zakher, protestors also claimed, without evidence, that a similar thing happened in 2004 to Wafa Constantine, also the wife of a Coptic Orthodox priest. Constantine was the second woman the ISI demanded the Copts “release.” Like Zakher, her location is not public knowledge.

The month after the Zakher incident, Egyptian media reported in error that the SSI had seized a ship from Israel laden with explosives headed for the son of an official of the Coptic Orthodox church. The ship was later found to be carrying fireworks, but another set of Islamic leaders, led in part by Nabih Al-Wahsh, an attorney famous for filing lawsuits designed to damage the church, declared without any evidence that Copts were allied with the Israelis and stockpiling weapons in the basements
of their churches with plans to overthrow the Muslim majority.

The claims were echoed on Al-Jazeera by Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-’Awa, the former secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, and in a statement issued by the Front of Religious Scholars, a group of academics affiliated with Al-Azhar University.

There was no time for tensions to cool after Al-’Awa and the others leveled their allegations. The next month, Bishop Anba Bishoy, the secretary of the Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masri Al-Yawm that Muslims were “guests” in Egypt, inflaming a Muslim population already up in arms.

“The Copts are the root of the land,” the bishop said. “We love the guests who came and settled in our land, and regard them as brothers, but they want to control even our churches? I reject anything that harms the Muslims, but as Christians we will do everything, even die as martyrs, if someone tries to harm our Christian mission.”

Around the same time, the Front of Religious Scholars called for a complete boycott of Christians in Egypt. The group called Christians “immoral,” labeled them “terrorists” and said Muslims should not patronize their businesses or even say “hello” to them.

The statement by the scholars was followed by a media leak about a lecture Bishoy was scheduled to give at a conference for Orthodox clergy. In his presentation, Bishoy planned on questioning the authorship of a verse in the Quran that calls Christians “blasphemers.” Muslims believe that an angel revealed the Quran to Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, who transmitted it word-by-word to his followers. Bishoy contended there was a possibility the verse in question was added later.

The mosque protests became even more virulent, and the conference was abruptly cancelled. Bishoy was forced to issue an apology, saying he never meant to cast doubt on Islam and called Muslims “partners” with the Copts in Egypt. Shenouda also issued an apology on national television. By comparison, an Islamic publishing house that rewrote and then issued what it termed the “true Bible” caused barely a stir.

Al-’Awa then blamed the deteriorating state of Muslim-Christian relations on Shenouda and Bishoy. He accused the Coptic Orthodox Church of exploiting the government’s “weak stance” toward it and “incarcerating anyone [who] is not to its liking.”

The Al-Azhar Academy of Islamic Research issued a statement that declared, “Egypt is a Muslim state.” The statement further went on to read that the Christians’ rights were contingent on their acceptance of the “Islamic identity” of Egypt. The statement was endorsed by Ali Gum’a, the mufti of Egypt.

The statement also referenced an agreement made between Muhammad and a community of Egyptian Christians in the seventh century as the guiding document on how Christians should be governed in a Muslim-dominated state. If ever codified into Egyptian law as many Muslims in Egypt desire, it would legally cement the status of Christians in the country as second-class citizens.

In 639, seven years after Muhammad died, Muslim armies rode across from Syria and Palestine and invaded Egypt, then controlled by the Byzantines. At first the Muslims, then a new but well-armed minority within Egypt, treated the conquered Christians relatively well by seventh century standards. But within a generation, they began the Islamization of the country, demanding all official business be conducted in Arabic, the language of the Quran, and Coptic and Jewish residents were forced to pay special taxes and obey rules designed to reaffirm their second-class status.

In the centuries since then, the treatment of Christians in Egypt has ebbed and flowed depending on the whim of those in power. After the coup of 1952, in which a group of men known as the Free Officers’ Movement took power from a European-backed monarch, Copts have seen their treatment decline.

In 1971, then-President Anwar Sadat introduced a new constitution designating Islamic law as “a principle source of legislation” in Egypt. In 1980, the National Assembly made Islam the official religion of the state.

Estimates of the Coptic population range from 7 to 12 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people. They are accepted by some in Egypt and openly discriminated against by others. Violent attacks against Christians – which the government does little to prevent – accentuate tensions.

The state also routinely harasses converts to Christianity from Islam. Many have to live in some sort of hiding.

The Protestant woman said she was not sure whether attacks would happen in response to the threats, but whatever happens, she said she expects that Christians in Egypt will continue to endure persecution.

“According to the Bible, we know this is going to happen,” she said. “This is not new or novel for us. The Bible said that we will be persecuted. It is expected.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Christian in India Suffers Miscarriage in Hindu Extremist Attack

Four pastors also injured in Karnataka, hub of anti-Christian persecution.

NEW DELHI, October 13 (CDN) — Police in a south Indian state known for turning hostile to minority Christians in recent years have arrested two suspected Hindu nationalists for beating four pastors and striking the wife of one of them in the stomach, killing her unborn child.

The attack took place at a Christian gathering in a private Christian school to celebrate the birth of Mahatma Gandhi on Oct. 2 in Chintamani, in Karnataka state’s Kolar district, reported the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC).

About 40 people barged into New Public School during the concluding prayer that morning and began selectively beating the pastors and Kejiya Fernandes, wife of one identified only as Pastor Fernandes. Chintamani police arrived but the attack went on, and when it ended at noon officers took the Christians to the station instead of arresting the attackers.

Denied medical attention, the injured Christians were released at 7:30 p.m. only after Kejiya Fernandes began to bleed profusely, GCIC reported. She and her husband later received hospital treatment, where she lost the baby she had been carrying for four months, according to GCIC.

Pastor Fernandes received an injury to his ear. The three other victims, identified only as pastors Robert, Muthu and Kenny, all ministered in a local independent church.

Of the 12 suspects named in the police complaint, two were arrested the same day, and the rest are absconding, said attorney Jeeva Prakash, who is associated with the Evangelical Fellowship of India’s (EFI) advocacy department.

The police complaint against the 12 includes “causing death of quick unborn child by act amounting to culpable homicide” (Section 316 of the Indian Penal Code), and “intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace” (Section 504). No charges related to defiling a religious place or gathering or creating communal conflict were included.

All the accused are residents of Chintamani city and suspected to be associated with Hindu nationalist groups.

The attack was reportedly carried out to avenge an alleged insult to Hindu gods during the Christian gathering, with the accused also having filed a police complaint, added Prakash, who visited the area and the Christian victims this week.

The complaint against the Christians was for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” (Section 295-a), and, strangely, Section 324 for “voluntarily causing hurt by dangerous weapons or means,” among other charges.

The Christians were not arrested, as a court granted them anticipatory bail.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, whose birthday the Christians were celebrating, was friends with Christian missionaries during British rule and taught religious tolerance. The acclaimed Hindu, India’s greatest political and spiritual leader, was killed in 1948 by Nathuram Godse, who was allegedly influenced by the ideology of the Hindu extremist conglomerate Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

For the last three years, Karnataka has been seen as the hub of Christian persecution in India. Of the more than 152 attacks on Christians in 2009, 86 were reported in Karnataka, according to the EFI.

This year, too, Karnataka is likely to top anti-Christian attacks. According to the GCIC, at least 47 attacks on Christians in the state had been reported as of Sept. 26. Persecution of Christians in Karnataka increased particularly after the August 2008 anti-Christian mayhem in eastern Orissa state, where Maoists killed a Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader but Hindu extremists wrongly blamed it on local Christians.

The attacks in Orissa’s Kandhamal district killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

While Hindu nationalists had targeted and were working in Karnataka for close to two decades, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to sole power in the state for the first time in the history of independent India in May 2008. Prior to that, the BJP ruled in coalition with a local party, the Janata Dal-Secular, for 20 months.

It is believed that the victory of the BJP – and later the violence in Orissa, which was also ruled by a coalition that included the BJP – emboldened Hindu extremists, who now enjoy greater impunity due to the party’s incumbency.

Despite the high incidence of persecution of minorities in Karnataka, BJP leaders deny it, alleging complaint are the result of a political conspiracy of opposition parties.

There are a little more than 1 million Christians in Karnataka, where the total population is more than 52 million, mostly Hindus.



India Briefs: Recent Incidents of Persecution

Karnataka, India, October 13 (Compass Direct News) – Hindu extremists belonging to the Bajrang Dal on Oct. 3 stormed into a Christian worship service, beat those attending and confiscated Bibles in Emarakuntte village, Kolar district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that nearly 25 extremists barged into the house of a Christian identified only as Manjunath, where Pastor Daniel Shankar was leading Sunday worship. Verbally abusing those present and falsely accusing them of forcible conversion, the extremists dragged them out and photographed them. Pastor Shankar managed to escape. Police arrived – after the extremists called them – and confiscated the Bibles and a vehicle belonging to the pastor. A GCIC coordinator told Compass that Shankar, accompanied by area pastors, went to the police station the next day, and officers made him give a written statement that he would stop Christian activities in the village. Only then were the Bibles and vehicle returned. No worship was held on Sunday (Oct. 10).

Karnataka – Police on Sept. 5 detained a pastor after Hindu nationalist extremists registered a false complaint of forcible conversion in Doni village, Gadag district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that at 8:30 p.m. nearly 100 extremists belonging to the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh stormed the worship of an Indian Pentecostal Church at the home of a Christian identified only as Nagaraj. A GCIC coordinator told Compass that the extremists repeatedly slapped Pastor Mallikarjuna Sangalad, dragged him outside and tore his shirt. They also tore up a few Bibles of those in the congregation. The extremists called Mundargi police, who arrived at the spot and took Pastor Sangalad to the police station as the slogan-shouting extremists followed. Police questioned the pastor for over two hours and warned him against leading services. With GCIC intervention Sangalad was released at around 11 p.m. without being charged, but he was forced to sign a statement that he would not conduct services at Nagaraj’s home.

Karnataka – Police on Sept. 3 stopped worship and falsely accused a pastor of forcible conversion, threatening to jail Christians if they continued religious activities in Ganeshgudi village. A Global Council of Indian Christians coordinator told Compass that Ramnagar police Sub-Inspector Babu Madhar, acting on an anonymous accusation of forcible conversion, disrupted worship and threatened Calvary Fellowship Prayer Centre Pastor P.R. Jose as nearly 40 congregants of the house church looked on. The sub-inspector warned the Christians against worshipping there and told Pastor Jose to shut down the church or be arrested. On Sept. 4, however, Madhar returned to the house and informed Pastor Jose that they could continue worship services.

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

Algerian Muslims Block Christmas Service

Neighborhood residents protest new church building in Kabylie region.

ISTANBUL, December 31 (CDN) — Nearly 50 Muslim members of a community in northern Algeria blocked Christians from holding a Christmas service on Saturday (Dec. 26) to protest a new church building in their neighborhood.

As Algerian Christian converts gathered for their weekly meeting and Christmas celebration that morning, they were confronted by protestors barring the doors of their church building. Tafat Church is located in Tizi-Ouzou, a city 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of the Algerian capital, Algiers. Established five years ago, the church belongs to the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA). Until recently it met in a small rented building. In November it opened its doors in a new location to accommodate the growing needs of its nearly 350 congregants.

The local residents protesting were reportedly irritated at finding that a church building with many visitors from outside the area had opened near their houses, according to an El Watan report on Sunday (Dec. 27). The daily newspaper highlighted that the residents feared their youth would be lured to the church with promises of money or cell phones.

“This land is the land of Islam! Go pray somewhere else,” some of the protestors said, according to El Watan. Protestors also reportedly threatened to kill the church pastor.

The protestors stayed outside the church until Monday (Dec. 28), and that evening some of them broke into the new building and stole the church microphones and speakers, according to the pastor, Mustafa Krireche. As of yesterday (Dec. 30) the church building’s electricity was cut.

One of Algeria’s Christian leaders, Youssef Ourahmane, said he could not recall another display of such outrage from Algerians against Christians.

“It was shocking, and it was the first time to my knowledge that this happened,” said Ourahmane. “And there weren’t just a few people, but 50. That’s quite a big number … the thing that happened on Saturday was a little unusual for Algeria and for the believers as well.”

A few weeks before the Saturday incident, local residents signed a petition saying they did not want the church to operate near their homes and wanted it to be closed. Local authorities presented it to the church, but Ourahmane said the fellowship, which is legally authorized to exist under the EPA, does not plan to respond to it.

On Saturday church leaders called police, who arrived at the scene and told the Christians to go away so they could talk to the protestors, whom they did not evacuate from the premises, according to local news website The story published on Sunday was entitled, “Islamic tolerance in action at Tizi-Ouzou.”

“In that area where the church is located, I’m sure the people have noticed something happening,” said Ourahmane. “Having hundreds of Christians coming to meet and different activities in the week, this is very difficult for Muslims to see happening there next door, and especially having all these Muslim converts. This is the problem.”

A local Muslim from the neighborhood explained that residents had protested construction of the church building in a residential area, according to El Watan.

“What’s happening over there is a shame and an offense to Muslims,” he told El Watan. “We found an old woman kissing a cross … they could offer money or mobile phones to students to win their sympathies and sign them up. We won’t let them exercise their faith even if they have authorization. There’s a mosque for those who want to pray to God. This is the land of Islam.” 

Behind the Scenes

Ourahmane said he believes that Islamists, and maybe even the government, were behind the protests.

“Maybe this is a new tactic they are trying to use to prevent churches from meeting,” he said. “Instead of coming by force and closing the church, the local police use the Muslim fundamentalists. That’s my analysis, anyhow.”

In February 2008 the government applied measures to better control non-Muslim groups through Ordinance 06-03. Authorities ordered the closure of 26 churches in the Kabylie region, both buildings and house churches, maintaining that they were not registered under the ordinance.

Despite efforts to comply with the ordinance, many Christian groups indicated they were blocked by lack of information, bureaucratic processes or resistance to their applications, according to this year’s International Religious Freedom Report by the U.S. Department of State. None of the churches have closed since then, but their status continues to remain questionable and only valid through registration with the EPA.

“If we have the right to exercise our faith, let them tell us so,” Pastor Krireche told El Watan. “If the authorities want to dissolve our association through legal means, let them do so.”

Recent growth of the church in Algeria is difficult for Muslims to accept, according to Ourahmane, despite public discourse among the nation’s intellectuals advocating for religious freedoms. Unofficial estimates of Christians and Jews combined range from 12,000 to 40,000, according to the state department report. Local leaders believe the number of Algerian Christians could be as many as 65,000.

Increasing numbers of people who come from Islam are like a stab for the Muslim community, said Ourahmane.

“It’s hard for them to accept that hundreds of Christians gather to worship every week,” he said. “It’s not easy. There are no words to explain it. It’s like a knife and you see someone bleeding … They see the church as a danger to Algerian culture.”

The Algerian government has the responsibility to face up to the changing face of its country and to grant Christians the freedom to meet and worship, said Ourahmane.

“The local authorities and especially the Algerian government need to be challenged in this all the time,” he said. “They have to be challenged: ‘Don’t you recognize the situation here?’ I mean we’re talking of tens of thousands of believers, not just a few.”

There are around 64 churches in the Kabylie region, where most Algerian Christians live, as well as house groups, according to Ourahmane. The Kabylie region is populated by Berbers, an indigenous people of North Africa.

“There are lots of healings and deliverance, and people are experiencing new things in their life,” Ourahmane said of the Algerian churches. “They are finding hope in Christ which they have never experienced before.”

There are half a dozen court cases against churches and Christians. None of these have been resolved, frozen in Algeria’s courts.

False Accusations

In ongoing negative media coverage of Christians, last month Algerian newspaper Echorouk published a story claiming that the former president of the EPA, who was deported in 2008, had returned to Algeria to visit churches, give advice and give them financial aid.

The report stated that the former EPA president, Hugh Johnson, was known for his evangelism and warned readers of his evangelizing “strategies.” 

Yesterday Johnson told Compass by telephone that the report was pure fabrication, and that he has not set foot in Algeria since he was deported.

Johnson’s lawyers are still trying to appeal his case in Algerian courts.

This year church groups stated that the government denied the visa applications of some religious workers, citing the government ban on proselytizing, according to the state department report.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Church Screening of ‘Jesus Film’ Attacked in Pakistan

Muslim villagers injure seven Christians, two seriously; police refuse to register case.

SARGODHA, Pakistan, December 14 (CDN) — Some 50 Muslim villagers armed with clubs and axes attacked a showing of the “Jesus Film” near this city in Punjab Province on Wednesday night (Dec. 9), injuring three part-time evangelists and four Christians in attendance.

Two of the evangelists were said to be seriously injured. The Muslim hardliners also damaged a movie projector, burned reels of the film and absconded with the public address system and donations from Christian viewers in Chak village, about 10 kilometers northeast of Sargodha, at 7 p.m.

Officers at the Saddr police station refused to register a case against the Muslim assailants, sources said.

Compass observed three part-time evangelists – Ishtiaq Bhatti, Imtiaz Ghauri and Kaleem Ghulam – screening the film within the premises of the Catholic Church of Chak, which sits within the police precincts of Saddr police station-Sargodha. Bhatti said the church compound was crammed with Christian villagers clapping as the film showed Jesus Christ performing miracles, raising the dead, casting out evil spirits and healing ailments.

Injured Christians were taken to the Basic Health Unit (BHU) of Chak village. Bhatti was treated for minor injuries, while Ghauri and Ghulam sustained serious injuries for which they received treatment at another hospital.

The evangelists who were screening the film said from their clinic beds that a Muslim cleric instigated the Muslim villagers, who were armed with clubs, spades and axes.

“They charged on us deadly and swiftly and left us injured and broke all our appliances and took away funds collected by congregants to help us,” Bhatti said. “Muslim men also injured those Christian villagers who tried to intervene and stop them.” 

The intervention of Chaudhary Nassar-Ullah Cheema, headman of the village, resulted in the rescue of the Christian evangelists and the surrender of the Muslim mob, sources told Compass. The Muslim hardliners were forced to evacuate the church grounds, but only after a stand-off of nearly two hours.

Eyewitnesses who requested anonymity told Compass that numerous Muslim villagers and their clerics had gathered outside the church compound as the film played, with some of them climbing trees to get a clearer view of the screen. The eyewitnesses said that as soon as the Muslim attackers watched the resurrection and ascension of Christ, they became enraged because their version of Islam forbids portraying an image of a living thing and especially that of a prophet.

The sources added that although Muslims hold Christ as a prophet, they believe he was never crucified, having been replaced by a man identical to him.

No doctor was initially available for the four injured Christian viewers and three preachers who were taken to the BHU of Chak, but a male nurse treated their wounds and allowed them to go home. Ghauri and Ghulam sustained critical injuries and were transferred to District Headquarters Hospital in Sargodha.

Asad Masih, a local Christian leader, told Compass that they tried to register a case against Muslim villagers for thrashing (Article 337 of the Pakistan Penal Code) stealing (Article 380), recovery of the stolen items (411) and desecrating the church building, but police scornfully rejected their application. Officers peremptorily told them to settle the dispute in a local jury of village elders, he said.

Inspector Azeem Warriach of Saddr police station told Compass that registration of a case against a large number of Muslim villagers would further create a break-down of law and order.

“Therefore, I’ve directed them to solve the problem at the local level so that they might reconcile and live in perfect peace and harmony,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Victims of Bomb Blast in Israel Recovering as Suspect Indicted

Messianic Jews hope for punishment from courts, mercy from God, for confessed killer.

ISTANBUL, November 13 (CDN) — One morning during the week of March 10, 2008 in Ariel, Israel, David Ortiz opened his Bible randomly, read the words on the pages that opened before him and was filled with dread.

“I opened the book to Jeremiah, and a verse jumped out, “Ortiz said, referring to Jeremiah 9:21: “Death has climbed in through our windows and has entered our fortresses; it has cut off the children from the streets and the young men from the public squares.”

“I was afraid,” he said. “It was given to me like a promise, but of a different kind.”

For weeks, Ortiz had felt a premonition that something horrible was going to happen to him or his family. Six months prior, while in Norway, Ortiz watched a violent storm rip over the countryside. The wind tore out trees and threw them across a field. But still, through it all, some trees survived. Ortiz felt God was using the storm to speak to him.

“The ones that are rooted are the ones that remain,” he said.

On March 20, 2008, Ortiz’s fears came to pass. When his 15-year-old son lifted the lid of a Purim basket, left anonymously as a gift at their Ariel apartment, a bomb inside the basket exploded.

The bomb was devastating. It damaged the Ortiz family apartment and destroyed much of what they owned. When young Ami Ortiz was taken to the hospital, he was blind, covered with blood and burns and full of needles and screws contained in the bomb. The doctors told his mother, Leah Ortiz, that Ami was “Anush.”

“Literally, in Hebrew it means the spirit is leaving the body,” she said.

Now, 20 months later, Ami is 16, back in school and playing basketball. And yesterday the man that police say committed the crime was indicted for attempted murder.

Other than what has been released in court proceedings, little is known about Jack Teitel, the man accused of bombing the Ortiz family. One thing is certain – he believes he was acting in accordance with the will of God. Walking into court, the 37-year-old, U.S.-born West Bank settler shouted that God was proud of him.

“It was a pleasure and honor to serve my God,” Teitel reportedly said. “God is proud of what I have done. I have no regrets.”

Police said that Teitel is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish nationalist who picked out his targets based on his nationalist philosophy. Along with the Ortiz case, police said Teitel is responsible for the June 1997 shooting death of Samir Bablisi, a Palestinian taxi driver who was found in his cab with a single bullet wound to his head. Two months later, police said, Teitel shot Isa Jabarin, a Palestinian shepherd who was giving Teitel driving directions to Jerusalem.

Police also said that Teitel attempted to burn down a monastery and unsuccessfully planted several bombs. He is also accused of the September 2008 bombing of Zeev Sternhell of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The bombing left the emeritus history professor slightly wounded.

Teitel has told police he was trying to kill David Ortiz, pastor of a church of Messianic Jews called Congregation of Ariel, not injure his son.

In all, Teitel has been indicted for two cases of pre-meditated murder, three cases of attempted murder, carrying a weapon, manufacturing a weapon, possession of illegal weapons and incitement to commit violence.

Adi Keidar, Teitel’s attorney, reportedly said his client is “mentally unstable.” He cited Teitel’s alleged confession to acts he did not commit. After a psychiatric evaluation by the state, Teitel was deemed fit to stand trial. Keidar is representing Teitel or behalf of the Honenu organization, a nationalistic law firm endorsed by Mordechai Eliyahu, a rabbi known for his far-right Orthodox views.

Honenu is known for defending, among others, Ami Popper. Popper was convicted in 1990 for shooting seven Palestinian workers who were waiting for a ride at a day labor pick-up site. Popper’s attack, like all others cited in Honenu’s website, was said to come “in response” to Palestinian aggression. Despite numerous attempts to contact Keidar, he could not be reached for comment.

David Ortiz said he is not surprised by Teitel’s claim that God is proud of him. Ortiz cited biblical verses where the early Christians were warned that one day people would kill them and think that they were doing the will of God. Teitel, Ortiz said, saw him as an enemy of the nation of Israel.

“He saw me and the professor as false prophets,” Ortiz said.

Police have brought no evidence linking Teitel to any other co-conspirator. But Leah Ortiz said she thinks Teitel worked with others. Teitel’s neighbor, Yosef Espinoza, was brought in for questioning and later released. Teitel does not speak Hebrew, but when he was arrested he was distributing handouts written in Hebrew criticizing homosexuals in Israel.

When his apartment was raided, police found a cache of illegal weapons he has been indicted for owning. Ortiz also said that a recording tape from a closed-circuit television camera taken on the day of the bombing shows Teitel was driven to the Ortiz apartment by another person.

Regardless, Leah Ortiz scoffs at the claim that Teitel was politically motivated. Instead, she said, he used politics and religion as a foil to justify murder.

“He is a serial killer,” she said.

In spite of all the pain that the Ortiz family has gone through, Leah Ortiz said she has seen much good come from the tragedy, including miraculous healings. She said that the bombing has helped soften the opinion of people in Israel toward Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah promised by the Jewish prophets.

“It has made them face the facts of how they see Jesus,” she said.

Howard Bass, a leader of a Messianic congregation in Beer Sheva, Israel, said he isn’t so sure.

“It’s not that simple,” he said, adding that such attacks may help tolerant people to eschew violence, but that others will actually be encouraged by the bombings. “It makes people aware of how far they [people set against the Messianic Jews] will be willing to go and abhor them. It’s bringing things to light and forcing people to make a decision: What is good and what is evil?”

Hostile Environment

Bass himself was a victim of at least one attack by anti-missionary, Orthodox extremists. On Dec. 24, 2005, several hundred Orthodox Jews mobbed an outdoor service held by Bass. The mob destroyed church equipment, terrorized congregants and threw Bass into a baptismal pool.

Bass has since sued Yad L’Achim, an Orthodox, anti-missionary organization he said is responsible for inciting the attack. A court decision in the case is due later this month.

On its website, Yad L’Achim asserts that missionaries are “devious” and are trying to “destroy the Jewish people.” The organization makes no distinction in its website between missionaries and Messianic Jews. The site also goes as far as to accuse Messianic Jews of “playing the victim to the hilt” in reference to the Ortiz bombing.

Despite numerous attempts to reach members of Yad L’Achim, no one was made available for comment.

According to the International Religious Freedom Report 2009 issued by the U.S. Department of State, there are 10,000 Messianic Jews in Israel. The report documents several cases of violence against Messianic Jews, including one case on May 15 in which “Ultra-Orthodox residents of the Tel Aviv suburb of Rehovot attacked and beat a group of Messianic Jews who were handing out New Testament pamphlets on the street.”

Additionally, Bass cites a book published this week in Israel entitled, “The King’s Torah.” Bass said the book encourages the killing of gentiles and anyone else deemed to be a threat to Israel.

“We’re seeing a spirit rising,” Bass said, “where they feel they have a legitimate right to kill anyone who threatens the Jewish state.”

Mentioning the book, David Ortiz agreed with Bass, calling the bombing and recent anti-Christian aggression “a shadow of things to come.”

As for what the Ortiz family wishes for Teitel, Leah Ortiz said she hopes he will receive a sentence that is “equal to his crime.” Because Israel has no death penalty, this very likely would mean life in prison.

Regardless of what happens in court, members of the Ortiz family say they have forgiven Teitel.  David Ortiz hopes one day to sit down face-to-face with Teitel and talk. He said he hopes Teitel will become another Apostle Paul.

“There is something inside him that makes him want to kill people. If God has had mercy on me, maybe he’ll have mercy on others,” Ortiz said. “The Lord forgave David and many people in the Bible – my goal and my prayer for him is that he will repent and be saved.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Islamic Groups Shut Down Worship of Church in Indonesia

Under pressure from Islamists, local officials order halt to services in home.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, October 5 (CDN) — Several Islamic organizations have pressed officials in a sub-district near Indonesia’s capital city to forbid Jakarta Christian Baptist Church to worship in a house, resulting in an order to cease services.

The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the Betawi Forum Group, and political party Hizbut Tahrir have told officials in Sepatan sub-district, Tangerang district, near Jakarta that worship activities cannot be conducted in a residence. The house belongs to the Rev. Bedali Hulu.

Both District Officer Ismet Iskandar and a sub-district officer support the closure and have ordered Hulu to use his home only as a residence, the pastor said. The sub-district officer, who goes by the single name of Rusdy, has sent a notice ordering an end to all worship at the house.

“But they have not put forth a solution,” Hulu said. “For a long time we have suggested that we build a place of worship, but there has been no response from the local government.”

On Sept. 27 a large crowd came to the house and demanded a stop to the Sunday worship service, Hulu said. Visibly frightened and anxious, the congregation hurried through the service.

An Islamic throng also came to the house on Sept. 13, with hundreds barging in and forcing the congregation out, Hulu said. Worship did not take place that day.

In another incident on the night of Sept. 19, unknown persons burned a vehicle belonging to the church. Hulu said the car was parked in front of his house. The next day Hulu reported the incident to police, who promised to catch the culprit, though at press time no one had been arrested.

Security forces, however, were able to maintain peace the next day when a mob showed up at the house, Hulu said; worship took place free of incident.

Church members feel terrorized by the mobs, the pastor said, but the nearest house of worship is several miles away, and many congregants do not have access to transportation. The Sepatan church has been serving worshippers, mostly day laborers, in Pisangan village since 2005.

“In the beginning we approached religious and community leaders and asked for permission to worship,” Hulu said. “They had no objections.”

Hulu established the church in June 2005 and held services in his home until December 2006 without objection from neighbors. He had obtained written permission from a local official to hold the services, and the church was registered with Religious Affairs authorities.

When the church planned to hold a Christmas celebration in December 2006, however, FPI members began an extended intimidation campaign with the express goal of ending “illegal” Christian activity in the village.

A Joint Ministerial Decree promulgated in 1969 and revised in 2006 requires a congregation of at least 90 adult members, the permission of at least 60 neighbors and a permit from local authorities to establish a place of worship. Church leaders say it is virtually impossible to obtain a permit under these terms.

The Rev. Wilhelmus Latumahina, head of the Fellowship of Pentecostal Churches of Banten Province, said that for years different groups have requested permission to build places of worship in Sepatan sub-district, with no response from officials.

He added that if the government closes a church, it is obligated to provide a solution.

Hulu said he would like to negotiate a solution. The pastor said he has tried repeatedly to meet with Sub-district Officer Rusdy but has been told that the official was not in the office.

Outside Agitators

Hulu said outside Islamists have incited local people to oppose the church.

Two years ago Islamists succeeded in closing the church, and Hulu was temporarily forced from the area. On Nov. 4, 2007, as children attended Sunday school at the church, a group of around 10 FPI members arrived and broke up the meeting. On Nov. 19 of that year, several FPI associates sent a letter to Hulu warning him and his family to leave the village within six days or the extremists would chase them out.

Hulu left temporarily on the advice of police, but his wife and mother-in-law were allowed to remain.

When Hulu filed another police report, the police summoned him to a meeting at the home of FPI leader Habib Muhammad Assegaf. While Hulu and his wife met with Assegaf, a church member sent a text message informing them that a small mob had attacked the church, breaking windows and taking church property. The mob also forced Hulu’s mother-in-law to leave the building.

Hulu reported this incident to district police in Tangerang, who informed him that he could either return to Pisangan village and cease all religious activity, or pursue the matter through legal channels. Weary of the constant pressure, Hulu filed an official complaint.

A Pisangan FPI leader who goes by the single name of Ocit then demanded that Hulu withdraw his complaint or else FPI members would raid the homes of individual church members.

Tensions were subsequently resolved through dialogue facilitated by a member of the Tangerang Parliament, Hanie Lawrence, and worship was permitted to resume. A number of radical Muslim organizations, however, have now resumed the fight to close the church.

Agus Andrianto, police chief of Tangerang district, said his forces are doing everything possible to maintain peace in Sepatan.

“It is our job to curb excesses,” he said. “We don’t want anything to get out of hand.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Church Wins Legal Battle to Worship in Building

Court in West Java rescinds mayor’s order revoking permit.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, September 29 (CDN) — Christians have won a court battle restoring the right to worship in their building in Depok City, West Java.

Depok Mayor Nur Mahmudi Ismail on March 27 had revoked the building permit for a multipurpose building and house of worship for Gereja Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) church following protests by Muslims. A court in Bandung on Sept. 17 rescinded the order that revoked the church building permit, paving the way for congregants to resume worship there.

Head Judge A. Syaifullah read the decision of the three-judge panel, which found the mayor’s reasoning for canceling the building permit inadequate. The mayor had said that most people living near the church objected to its building in Jalan Pesanggrahan IV, Cinere Area of Depok City.

“These objections by the local residents should have been raised when the building permit was going through the approval process, not protesting afterwards,” said Syaifullah.

Syaifullah added that the mayor also should have taken the views of church members into consideration.

“In this case, the revocation of the building permit was based upon the objections of one group in the community without considering those from the church,” he said.

Construction of the church building had begun in 1998, shortly after the permit was issued, but halted soon afterward due to a lack of funds.

When the project began anew in 2007, members of a Muslim group from the Cinere Area of Depok City and neighboring villages damaged the boundary hedge and posted protest banners on the walls of the building. Most of the protestors were not local residents.

The court determined that lawyers for the church successfully demonstrated that church leaders had followed all Depok City procedures for the building permit. Betty Sitompul, vice-chair of the HKBP church building committee, stated that the church court win was a victory for all Christians.

“We won because we had followed all the procedures and had completed all the required documents,” she said.

In early June the church had filed suit against the mayor’s action in a provincial court in Bandung, with church lawyer Junimart Girsang arguing that the mayor’s revocation of the permit was wrong.

Girsang said that the court had finally sided with justice for all Indonesians.

“The judges made the right decision and had no choice, because all of the papers for the permit were done properly,” he said.

The church had been meeting in a naval facility located about five kilometers (nearly three miles) from the church building since the permit was revoked, causing great inconvenience for church members, many of whom did not have their own transportation.

In South Sumatra Province, another HKBP church outside the provincial capital city of Palembang is trying to overcome objections by Muslim protestors in order to complete construction of its building in Plaju.  

Church leaders acknowledge they had not finished the application process for a permit before beginning construction. They said they went forward because after they applied to the mayor of Palembang, he told them to talk with the governor of South Sumatra. After talking with Gov. Alex Noerdin and securing his approval on Feb. 10, church leaders began construction on a donated plot of 1,500 square meters only to face a demonstration by members of several Muslim organizations on June 27.

The South Sumatra Muslim Forum (FUI Sumsel) organized the demonstration. Carrying a copy of a mayoral decree dated May 2009 ordering a halt to construction, the protestors gathered outside the building site, listened to speeches and then destroyed a bridge leading to it before demanding that the government ban the building project.

Applications for church permits are often fraught with difficulty in Indonesia, leaving many congregations no choice but to worship in private homes, hotels or rented conference facilities. Such gatherings leave churches open to threats and intimidation from activist groups such as the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front), in recent years responsible for the closure of many unregistered churches.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Copts Grapple with Cause of Fire at Church in Egypt

Many in congregation doubt investigators’ hasty declaration of electrical mishap.

ISTANBUL, September 18 (CDN) — The congregation of a Coptic church that was destroyed by fire last week is divided over whether it was a case of arson.

At 3 p.m. on Sept. 8, a fire broke out in the rear of the Church of Saint Paul and Saint Peter near the main entrance of the building. Located in the town of Shebin al-Kom some 37 miles (60 kilometers) northwest of Cairo, the church building along with its icons, relics and most of its furniture was destroyed.

According to local media reports, investigators said the cause of the fire was electrical. A sizable portion of the congregation, however, disputes this.

Gamal Gerges, a local reporter who works for the newspaper Al-Youm al-Sabeh, said police have no proof that the fire was accidental.

“The police say it is an electric fire – the police say it is no criminal act,” Gerges said. “The police did not have evidence, but said what they did to avoid strife between the Christians and the Muslims.”

The priest of the church has declined to comment publicly on the cause of the fire, other than repeating what investigators have said. He said he is waiting for the official report to determine the cause of the fire.

One member of the congregation, a 25-year-old woman, is not so quiet. The woman, whose name has been withheld for her protection, said that the electrical system in the church was largely unscathed by the fire. She said the damage did not radiate from the church’s fuse box.

She said she believes the fire was set intentionally but did not suggest any possible culprits.

Through an interpreter, the Rev. Antonious Wagih told Compass that relations between the Coptic and Muslim communities in the area are amicable. Media reports indicate, however, that prior to the fire local Muslims were harassing priests, and that people who lived around the church dumped dirty water on the congregants from balconies. Other reports state that local women cheered after the church burned down.

Reasons for the discrepancies between Wagih’s statements and media reports were unclear. Wagih told Compass that he “did not want to [get] into a struggle or argument with the authorities.” He added that he wanted to “avoid any dispute in this area.”

Roughly 400 families attend Saint Paul and Saint Peter. The woman who claimed the fire was arson said many congregants shared her view. Other church members were not immediately available, but other media reports also indicated that she was not alone in her opinion.

No one was injured in the fire. At press time there was no monetary estimate of damages.

The Coptic community of Shebin al-Kom used the Church of Saint Paul and Saint Peter for three years after they purchased the building from a group of Roman Catholics with a dwindling congregation.

The Shebin al-Kom fire was one of a spate of incidences reported by Coptic leaders during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

Report from Compass Direct News