Suspects in Ergenekon network long sought in homicide case to be questioned.
ISTANBUL, March 18 (CDN) — In simultaneous operations in nine different provinces of Turkey, authorities yesterday arrested 20 people suspected of playing a role in the murder of three Christians in Malatya in 2007, according to local news reports.
Zekeriya Oz, chief prosecutor overseeing the investigation into a clandestine network known as Ergenekon allegedly aimed at destabilizing the government, ordered the arrests based on information that linked the suspects to both the network and to the Malatya murders, Turkish press reported after Istanbul Chief of Police Chief Huseyin Capkin announced the sweep at a press conference yesterday.
“This was an operation related to the Malatya Zirve publishing house murders,” Capkin said, according to online news agency Malatya Guncel. “They were just arrested. This is connected to the Zirve publishing house. That’s the framework.”
Those apprehended include Ruhi Abat, a Muslim theology professor from Malatya Inonu University, Mehmet Ulger, a retired commander of the Malatya Gendarmerie in service at the time of the murders, and other members of the military. Oz will question the suspects in Istanbul, according to reports.
Police also raided the guesthouse of the Izmir Gendarmerie, seizing computers and documents. News sources listed Malatya, Siirt, Mugla, Mersin and Izmir as some of the cities in which authorities conducted raids and arrests.
A plaintiff attorney in the Malatya murder case, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, told Compass that the names on the list of those arrested were suspects he and his colleagues have been trying to convince the Malatya prosecutor to pursue since the court received a tip in May 2008.
“They are all the usual suspects,” Cengiz said. “All their names were mentioned in the first informant letter. Unfortunately, despite all our efforts, we couldn’t find anyone to investigate these allegations.”
The letter was the first of many informant letters the Malatya court has received since it started hearing the case on Nov. 22, 2007. Penned by someone who identified himself by the pseudonym “Ali Arslan” but unsigned, the letter claimed that Ulger incited Emre Gunaydin, one of the suspects, to carry out the murders and that he communicated with Gunaydin through Abat and two gendarmerie officers, reported Turkish English daily Today’s Zaman.
Cengiz said that, though it was the duty of the Malatya prosecutor to pursue leads in the informant letter, the prosecutor deferred the investigation to the military court, which in turn refused to investigate, claiming that the name on the letter was fake and the letter was not signed.
“It was like a joke,” Cengiz said.
On April 18, 2007, two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Christian Tilmann Geske, were bound, tortured and then murdered at the office of Zirve Publishing Co., a Christian publishing house in Malatya. The suspects, Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim, were arrested while trying to escape the scene of the crime, as was alleged ringleader Gunaydin.
From the beginning of the court hearings, plaintiff lawyers have brought evidence to the court showing the five young suspects were connected to a wider plot to kill the three Christians as well as other key Christian leaders across Turkey. Known as the Cage Plan, the plot is believed to be part of the alleged Ergenekon “deep state” operation to destabilize the government.
The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found in 2009 in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 naval officers, termed as “operations” the Malatya killings, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.
Cengiz told Compass that new evidence in the Ergenekon case might have convinced Oz to pursue those detained yesterday, and he called the move “a very big step” in shedding light on the Malatya case. He and colleague Erdal Dogan said their efforts – especially a request they sent to Oz on Jan. 18, 2010 asking him to investigate the allegations that Ergenekon members were behind the Malatya murders – surely helped to move the process along.
“I believe our efforts had a very big influence on this,” Cengiz said. “We submitted a petition and requested this from Oz last year. He is acting with the Malatya prosecutor on this.”
At the request of the Istanbul Chief Prosecutor’s Office, the Istanbul Police Department prepared a report last year revealing links between the Malatya murders and Ergenekon, according to Today’s Zaman. According to the report, Sevgi Erenerol, spokesperson for a bogus ultranationalist association known as the Turkish Orthodox Church, described foreign missionary activity as “spying” and “provoking.”
“A piece of evidence in the report was a conference on missionary activity given by Sevgi Erenerol … at the General Staff’s Strategic Research and Study Center,” reported Today’s Zaman.
Erenerol was arrested in connection with Ergenekon in 2008. Her suspected links with those thought to have masterminded the Zirve murders may have influenced yesterday’s arrests, Today’s Zaman reported.
She is also believed to be one of the key people behind false accusations against two members of Turkey’s Protestant Church, Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal, who were arrested in October 2006 for insulting Turkishness and Islam because they openly shared their faith.
After four years of legal battle, a judge finally acquitted the two Christians of insulting Turkey and its people by spreading Christianity, but not without slapping them with a hefty fine for a spurious charge. The two men are in the process of appealing the fine.
The Turkish Constitution grants all citizens the right to speak about their faith.
Plaintiff attorneys in the Malatya murders case said they believe yesterday’s arrests bring them closer to their requests that the Malatya murders case file be joined to that of the Ergenekon trial.
“From now on, we can predict it is very possible that our case will be sent to Istanbul soon and that these two cases will be merged,” said Cengiz.
The next Malatya hearing is scheduled for April 29.
Report from Compass Direct News
Departure of presiding judge in Malatya case could further delay justice, attorneys fear.
ISTANBUL, March 15 (CDN) — Though the horrific scale of the 2007 Malatya murders has not been repeated in Turkey’s Protestant church, a recent report shows harassment continues to be a daily problem for the country’s Christians and churches.
Discrimination, slander and attacks against churches were among the examples of ongoing harassment that the Turkish Association of Protestant Churches (TEK) recorded in 2010.
In an eight-page report published earlier this year, TEK’s Committee for Religious Freedom and Legal Affairs outlined problems Protestants face. Turkish laws and “negative attitudes of civil servants” continue to make it nearly impossible for non-Muslims to establish places of worship, the committee reported. Three churches faced legal problems last year regarding their buildings, according to the report.
Missionary activities are still considered a national threat despite the existence of Turkish laws guaranteeing citizens the freedom to propagate and teach their faith, and children are victims of discrimination at school, according to the report. Though the Religious Education General Directorate for Higher Education and Training Committee allows non-Muslim students to stay out of religious classes, parents have reported cases in which they were not able to take their children out of such
“After four years [since the Malatya murders], Turkey’s religious freedoms have not improved as desired,” said attorney Erdal Dogan. “Christians, Alevis [a Shiite sub-community] and people of other beliefs are still not protected by law. And people of other faiths apart from Muslims have no legal status. Since racism is still prevalent in the context of freedom, discrimination in its turn has become a fact of life.”
About a third of Turks are estimated to be Alevis.
Turkey rose to 30th place in Open Doors’ 2011 World Watch List of nations in which persecution against Christians takes place, up from 35th place the previous year. The Christian support organization cited deteriorating conditions as the secular country applied some laws in discriminatory ways against Christians.
TEK estimates that there are up to 3,500 Protestant Christians in Turkey.
Malatya Trial Stalled
In the trial of the five primary suspects in the murder of three Christians in Malatya, plaintiff attorneys fear the departure of one of the three judges to a Supreme Court of Appeals post in Ankara could further stall the nearly four-year-old case.
The loss of Judge Eray Gurtekin, who had presided over the case since it began on Nov. 22, 2007, could threaten to set back the progress of the court that has been examining links between the killers and alleged masterminds, according to Dogan, a plaintiff attorney in the case. Gurtekin was appointed as a judge in the Supreme Court of Appeals in Turkey’s capital Ankara last month.
“In a three-member panel [of judges], the change of one is not really helpful,” said Dogan, “because just as the previous presiding judge had started to understand and pay close attention to the case file, a new judge came in his place. I hope he will catch on quickly.”
The new judge joined the Malatya hearings panel this month, and Dogan said there could be more changes in the panel.
The 12th Istanbul High Criminal Court is expected to hear the testimony of another witness on March 29, and the court is trying to locate two more witnesses in order to shed light on the Malatya murders.
On April 18, 2007, two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Christian Tilmann Geske, were bound, tortured and then murdered at the office of Zirve Publishing Co., a Christian publishing house in Malatya. The suspects, Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim, were arrested while trying to escape the scene of the crime, as was alleged ringleader Emre Gunaydin.
From the beginning of the court hearings, prosecuting lawyers have brought evidence to the court showing the five young suspects were connected to a wider plot to kill the three Christians as well as other key Christian leaders across Turkey. Known as the Cage Plan, the plot is believed to be part of the alleged Ergenekon “deep state” operation to destabilize the government.
The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found in 2009 in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 naval officers, termed as “operations” the Malatya killings, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.
Questioned by the judges, Varol Bulent Aral – suspected of being one of the people who planned the murders and linked the killers to the masterminds – said he wanted the court to find out who was supporting the Zirve Publishing Co. He added a cryptic remark to Tilmann Geske’s widow, Suzanne Geske, who continues to live in Malatya with her three children and regularly attends the murder hearings.
“I want to ask Suzanne, what business does a German have here?”
The judges finally threw Aral out of the courtroom for contempt of court when he told the judges: “You are in the clouds!”
Prosecuting lawyers still hope judges will join the Malatya case files to the Cage Plan case, which is being tried at an Istanbul court.
The threat of violence against Christians continues. Last week Turkish news sources reported that Istanbul police arrested two suspects, ages 17 and 18, accused of plotting to assassinate a priest on the European side of the city. The Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office is examining their case.
Report from Compass Direct News
Christians receive six and four years respectively for ‘undermining national unity.’
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, November 30 (CDN) — Two Christian evangelists, Ksor Y Du, 47, and Kpa Y Co, 30, were sentenced this month to six and four years in prison respectively for “undermining national unity.”
Ksor and Kpa, of the Vietnam Good News Mission (VGNM) church, received the harsh sentences on Nov. 15. House arrest of four and two years respectively also was added to the sentences, according to church sources and Vietnam’s Phap Luat (Law) newspaper. Both evangelists, who are of the Ede minority, live in Song Hinh district of Phu Yen Province, where there are some 20 VGNM congregations.
Ksor was one of many thousands of ethnic minority people in Vietnam’s Central Highland that participated in demonstrations in 2004 against religious oppression and illegal confiscation of their traditional lands. Many of the demonstrators were Christians. Along with hundreds of others, he was caught trying to flee to Cambodia following the harsh military crackdown after the demonstrations. He spent four years in prison and another year under house arrest.
In May of 2009, Ksor joined the VGNM, a house church network that has grown from 14 congregations meeting in homes in 2007 to 360 today. In spite of many attempts to register house churches, as provided by Vietnam’s religion regulations, only three congregations have been given local permission to carry on religious activities.
In September 2009, Ksor underwent three weeks of interrogation, and authorities pressured him to refrain from making international phone calls. His imprisonment had left him destitute and in poor health, and he has said he told authorities that he only called a relative in the United States three times to ask for funds for medicine and to repair his dilapidated house.
Phap Luat reported that he made 58 international phone calls, a gross exaggeration according to Ksor’s family. The newspaper reported that Ksor made the calls to take orders from abroad to incite people to join the illegal “Dega” church, which allegedly aimed to cause political unrest and demand independence for ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands.
Vietnamese authorities remain extremely suspicious of anyone who has dared to participate in demonstrations, especially if they become church leaders.
The two evangelists were arrested on Jan. 27. Ksor was on his way to the police station to answer yet another summons when he was intercepted by police, who tied his hands and dragged him behind a motorcycle to the station, according to village sources. He fell many times and arrived bloodied and bruised.
Both men were held 10 months without charges until their Nov. 15 trial, the area sources said. Authorities brought Ksor’s teenage daughter to prison and told her to testify that her father had made many overseas phone calls, according to VGNM leaders. When she refused, a female officer twice slapped her hard across the face before sending her away, the church leaders said.
During interrogation, authorities ordered both evangelists to accuse VGNM leaders of illegally starting the organization and to accuse Pastor Mai Hong Sanh of opening an illegal Bible school in Buonmathuot, sources said. The authorities grew angry when they refused.
During Ksor’s pre-trial incarceration, police from the commune, district and province visited his wife many times and pressured her to renounce her Christian faith, sources said. She steadfastly refused. They tried to entice her by telling her that if the family recanted they would be provided a monthly sack of rice, a new house and that her husband would be released immediately.
Ksor’s wife, A Le H’Gioi, attended the trial even though she had not been provided permission as required by Vietnamese law. She told church leaders that the presiding judge of the People’s Court addressed the matter of their faith directly, asking her husband, “Do you still insist on following the religion?” The judge also asked him, “After serving in prison already, do you still insist on staying with the Vietnam Good News Mission?”
She said her husband answered that he would not give up his faith in God even if it meant death. Christian leaders said the line of questioning contradicted assertions that the conviction and sentencing of the two evangelists had nothing to do with religion.
VGNM leaders said there were many other irregularities in the arrest and trial of the two evangelists, such as authorities’ failure to provide legal papers to their families as required by law.
In another incident against Protestants this month, some 200 police, local defense forces and young thugs attempted to seize church land in Quang Ngai city in Central Vietnam on Nov. 11, assaulting the pastor’s wife in the process. Authorities called off the land seizure that evening.
The property belongs to the Vietnam Christian Mission, a church with full legal recognition since 2007. Though the Quang Ngai congregation has complete legal papers for the property, local authorities have been threatening to seize it for some time, according to the long-time pastor of the church, Nguyen Luan Ke.
Pastor Nguyen, in his early 80s, reported that the assailants assaulted his wife, causing her to faint and fall. Details and photos were posted on the Nguoi Viet Web site. Authorities seized two of Pastor Nguyen’s sons and put them in a paddy wagon but left the door unlocked, a church source said.
The two men escaped, taking refuge in the parsonage along with other members of the pastor’s family, and frantically phoned for help. One call reached a Christian leader who was in Hanoi. This leader alerted central government authorities, who promised to look into the incident. Pastor Nguyen said the mob withdrew at the end of the day, having terrified him and his family.
Vietnam has come under heightened international scrutiny for the confiscation in May of a century-old Catholic cemetery in Con Dau, near Danang in central Vietnam, that resulted in one death. Authorities reportedly intend to turn the property over to a private company to build a tourist resort. The incident led to the flight of more than 40 Catholics to Thailand.
On Oct. 27, six parishioners were sentenced to prison, some for 12 months and some for nine. This event has garnered much more international publicity than the Protestant ones above.
In its annual report on religious freedom released on Nov. 17, the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom pointed to some progress in Vietnam but devoted several pages to religious liberty violations, noticeably against Protestants.
Vietnam’s state-controlled media reacted strongly. The Nov. 20 issue of Lao Dong (Workers) newspaper published an article entitled, “Abusing Religion Issues to Sabotage Vietnam.” It described religion as connected with “imperialist and hostile forces.”
The same day, Nhan Dan (People’s Daily) accused the state department report of being based on “distorted information.” It called on U.S. officials “to verify the events right in Vietnam,” the very thing many observers say U.S. diplomats in Vietnam do.
On Nov. 22, a Quan Doi Nhan Dan (People’s Army) article described critics of religious liberty abuses as “black hearts under the name of angels.”
Some observers believe that the Five-Year Communist Party Congress to take place in early 2011 is contributing to an uptick in harsh measures against religions and human rights activists.
Protestant church leaders in Vietnam lament that no officials who have taken heavy-handed actions against religious groups and their leaders have ever been called to account, thus violating Vietnam’s own laws and regulations.
Report from Compass Direct News
In its news night program on Friday 10th September Iranian State television announced that nine people had been arrested on the charge of carrying out evangelism just outside Hamedan. The report was announced by one of the security authorities, reports FCNN.
In this report State television mentioned that two of these people were being supported by organizations that are based outside the country, in particular the United States and Great Britain, but they did not mention the nationalities of these people.
In this report it has been said that: ‘the other seven people who were arrested are Iranian and were cooperating with these Christian-Zionist organizations’. This report labels the arrested people as ‘Christian Zionists’ and ‘evangelicals’ but it did not say anything about their relationship with Israel or Zionists.
In the Iranian government culture ‘Christian-Zionists’ is a title that they use to call Evangelical Christians who are benefiting from having access to a number of networks and TV satellite programs for evangelism.
This State TV report has not been reflected in other media and it is only the Fars news agency, which is connected to the Revolutionary Guard, which has mentioned that people had gathered to thank the security agents of Imam Mahdi and the legal authorities. This news agency has also published the lecture by Chief Justice Hojat Al-Islam BeegLare on this matter.
During the last few months and years there have been several times when Christians in home groups and new converts have been arrested by security agents, but this appears to be the first time in three decades that the State TV has broadcast the news of the arrest of a group of Christians in its program for a particular purpose.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Two years after political reforms, freedom of faith nowhere in sight.
MALÉ, Maldives, August 10 (CDN) — Visitors to this Islamic island nation get a sense of religious restrictions even before they arrive. The arrival-departure cards given to arriving airline passengers carry a list of items prohibited under Maldivian laws – including “materials contrary to Islam.”
After Saudi Arabia, the Maldives is the only nation that claims a 100-percent Muslim population. The more than 300,000 people in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago featuring 1,192 islets 435 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, are all Sunnis.
This South Asian nation, however, has more than 70,000 expatriate workers representing several non-Islamic religions, including Christianity.
Also, around 60,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, visit each year to enjoy the blue ocean and white beaches and normally head straight to one of the holiday resorts built on around 45 islands exclusively meant for tourism. Tourists are rarely taken to the other 200 inhabited islands where locals live.
Nearly one-third of the population lives in the capital city of Malé, the only island where tourists and Maldivians meet.
While the Maldivians do not have a choice to convert out of Islam or to become openly atheist, foreigners in the country can practice their religion only privately.
In previous years several Christian expats have either been arrested for attending worship in private homes or denied visas for several months or years on suspicion of being connected with mission agencies.
According to “liberal estimates,” the number of Maldivian Christians or seekers “cannot be more than 15,” said one source.
“Even if you engage any Maldivian in a discussion on Christianity and the person reports it to authorities, you can be in trouble,” the source said. “A Maldivian youth studying in Sri Lanka became a Christian recently, but when his parents came to know about it, they took him away. We have not heard from him since then.”
The source added that such instances are not uncommon in the Maldives.
“I wish I could attend church, but I am too scared to look for one,” said a European expat worker. “I have not even brought my Bible here; I read it online. I don’t want to take any chances.”
The British reportedly translated the Bible into the local language, Dhivehi, and made it available in the 19th century, as the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965. Today no one knows how the Dhivehi Bible “disappeared.”
“A new translation has been underway for years, and it is in no way near completion,” said the source who requested anonymity.
Religion Excluded from Rights
The 2008 constitution, adopted five years after a popular movement for human rights began, states that a “non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”
Abdulla Yameen, brother of the former dictator of the Maldives and leader of the People’s Alliance party, an ally of the opposition Dhivehi Raiyyathunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party or DRP), told Compass that the issue of religious freedom was “insignificant” for the Maldives.
“There’s no demand for it from the public,” Yameen said. “If you take a public poll, 99 percent of the citizens will say ‘no’ to religious freedom.”
Maldivians are passionate about their religion, Yameen added, referring to a recent incident in which a 37-year-old Maldivian citizen, Mohamed Nazim, was attacked after he told a gathering that he was not a Muslim. On May 28, before a crowd of around 11,000 Maldivians, Nazim told a visiting Indian Muslim televangelist, Zakir Naik, that although he was born to a practicing Muslim family, he was “struggling to believe in religions.”
He also asked Naik about his “verdict on Islam.” The question enraged an angry crowd, with many calling for Nazim’s death while others beat him. He received several minor injuries before police took him away.
“See how the public went after his [Nazim’s] throat,” said Yameen, who studied at Claremont Graduate University in California. When asked if such passion was good for a society, he replied, “Yes. We are an Islamic nation, and our religion is an important part of our collective identity.”
Asked if individuals had no rights, his terse answer was “No.” Told it was shocking to hear his views, he said, “We are also shocked when a nation legalizes gay sex.”
Mohamed Zahid, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, told Compass that the country has its own definition of human rights.
“It is to protect people’s rights under the sharia [Islamic law] and other international conventions with the exception of religious freedom,” he said. “We are a sovereign nation, and we follow our own constitution.”
Zahid and several other local sources told Compass that the issue of religious rights was “irrelevant” for Maldivians. “Not more than 100 people in the country want religious freedom,” Zahid said.
Politics of Religion
Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a virtual dictator for 30 years until 2008, is generally held responsible for creating an atmosphere of religious restrictions in the Maldives, as he sought to homogenize religion in the country by introducing the state version of Sunni Islam. He also led a major crackdown on Christians.
The Protection of Religious Unity Act, enacted in 1994, was an endeavor to tighten the government’s control over mosques and all other Islamic institutions. The Gayoom administration even wrote Friday sermons to be delivered in mosques.
In 1998, Gayoom began a crackdown on alleged missionary activities.
“A radio station based out of India used to air Christian programs via the Seychelles, but the government came to know about it and ensured that they were discontinued with the help of the government in the Seychelles,” said a local Muslim source.
That year, Gayoom reportedly arrested around 50 Maldivians who were suspected to have converted to Christianity and deported 19 foreign workers accused of doing missionary work. A source said Gayoom apparently wanted to regain popularity at a time when his leadership was being questioned.
When the archipelago became a multi-party democracy in October 2008, new President Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and activist, was expected to pursue a liberal policy as part of the country’s reforms agenda.
Although Nasheed is the president, his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has only 28 members and the support of four independents in the 77-member People’s Majlis (Maldives’ unicameral Parliament). Gayoom, now in his 70s and the leader of the largest opposition party, the DRP, has a simple majority – which presents difficulties in governance. Nasheed pleads helplessness in implementing reforms, citing an intransigent opposition.
Today Gayoom’s party accuses President Nasheed of not being able to protect the country’s distinct identity and culture, which the opposition says are rooted in Islam. The Gayoom-led parliament recently sought to impeach the education minister for proposing to make Islam and Dhivehi lessons optional – rather than mandatory – in high school.
To pre-empt the impeachment move, the whole cabinet of Nasheed resigned on June 29, which caused a major political crisis that led to violent street protests. The Nasheed administration allegedly arrested some opposition members, including Gayoom’s brother, Yameen. Political tensions and uncertainties continued at press time.
Now that President Nasheed’s popularity is declining – due to perceptions that he has become as authoritarian as his predecessor – it is feared that, amid immense pressure by the opposition to follow conservative policies, he might begin to follow in Gayoom’s footsteps.
Both the ruling and opposition parties admit that Islamic extremism has grown in the country. In October 2007, a group of young Maldivians engaged government security forces in a fierce shootout on Himandhoo Island.
Nasheed’s party alleges that Gayoom’s policy of promoting the state version of Sunni Islam created an interest to discern “true Islam,” with extremists from Pakistan stepping in to introduce “jihadism” in the Maldives. The DRP, on the other hand, says that behind the growth of extremism is the current government’s liberal policy of allowing Muslims of different sects to visit the Maldives to preach and give lectures, including the conservative Sunni sect of “Wahhabis.”
Until the early 1990s, Maldivian women would hardly wear the black burqa (covering the entire body, except the eyes and hands), and no men would sport a long beard – outward marks of Wahhabi Muslims, said the Muslim source, adding that “today the practice has become common.”
Still, Islam as practiced in the Maldives is pragmatic and unlike that of Saudi Arabia, he said. “People here are liberal and open-minded.”
As extremism grows, though, it is feared that radical Islamists may go to any extent to extra-judicially punish anyone suspected of being a missionary or having converted away from Islam, and that they can pressure the government to remain indifferent to religious freedom.
How long will it take for the Maldives to allow religious freedom?
“Maybe after the Maldivian government legalizes gay sex,” the Muslim source joked.
Report from Compass Direct News
Christians await court decision on assaults on services by ultra-orthodox Jews.
ISTANBUL, April 23 (CDN) — After a final court hearing in Israel last week, a church of Messianic Jews awaits a judge’s decision that could force an ultra-orthodox Jewish organization to publicly apologize to them for starting a riot and ransacking a baptismal service.
A ruling in favor of the Christian group would mark the first time an organization opposing Messianic Jews in Israel has had to apologize to its victims for religious persecution.
In 2006 Howard Bass, pastor of Yeshua’s Inheritance church, filed suit against Yehuda Deri, chief Sephardic rabbi in the city of Beer Sheva, and Yad L’Achim, an organization that fights against Messianic Jews, for allegedly inciting a riot at a December 2005 service that Bass was leading.
Bass has demanded either a public apology for the attack or 1.5 million shekels (US$401,040) from the rabbi and Yad L’Achim.
The case, Bass said, was ultimately about “defending the name of Yeshua [Jesus]” and making sure that Deri, the leadership of Yad L’Achim and those that support them know they have to obey the law and respect the right of people to worship.
“They are trying to get away from having any responsibility,” Bass said.
On Dec. 24, 2005, during a baptismal service in Beer Sheva, a group of about 200 men pushed their way into a small, covered structure being used to baptize two believers and tried to stop the service. Police were called to the scene but could not control the crowd.
Once inside the building, the assailants tossed patio chairs, damaged audiovisual equipment, threw a grill and other items into a baptismal pool, and then pushed Bass into the pool and broke his glasses.
“Their actions were violent actions without regard [for injury],” Bass said.
In the days before the riot, Yad L’Achim had issued notices to people about a “mass baptism” scheduled to take place at the facility in the sprawling city of 531,000 people 51 miles (83 kilometers) southwest of Jerusalem. In the days after the riot, Deri bragged about the incident on a radio talk show, including a boast that Bass had been “baptized” at the gathering.
The 2005 incident wasn’t the first time the church had to deal with a riotous attack after Yad L’Achim disseminated false information about their activities. On Nov. 28, 1998, a crowd of roughly 1,000 protestors broke up a Yeshua’s Inheritance service after the anti-Christian group spread a rumor that three busloads of kidnapped Jewish minors were being brought in for baptism. The assailants threw rocks, spit on parishioners and attempted to seize some of their children, Bass said.
In response to the 1998 attack and to what Bass described as a public, cavalier attitude about the 2005 attack, Bass and others in the Messianic community agreed that he needed to take legal action.
“What is happening here has happened to Jews throughout the centuries,” Bass said about persecution of Messianic Jews in Israel, adding that many in movements opposed to Messianic Jews in Israel are “arrogant.” He compared their attitudes to the attitudes that those in Hamas, a Palestinian group dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel, have toward Israelis in general.
“They say, ‘Recognize us, but we will never recognize you,’” Bass said.
Bass has fought against the leadership of Yad L’Achim and Deri for four years through his attorneys, Marvin Kramer and Kevork Nalbandian. But throughout the process, Kramer said, the two defendants have refused to offer a genuine apology for the misinformation that led to the 2005 riot or for the riot itself.
Kramer said Bass’s legal team would offer language for an acceptable public apology, and attorneys for the defendants in turn would offer language that amounted to no real apology at all.
“We made several attempts to make a compromise, but we couldn’t do it,” Kramer said. “What we were really looking for was a public apology, and they weren’t ready to give a public apology. If we would have gotten the public apology, we would have dropped the lawsuit at any point.”
Despite several attempts to reach Yad L’Achim officials at both their U.S. and Israeli offices, no one would comment.
The hearing on April 15 was the final chance the parties had to come to an agreement; the judge has 30 days to give a ruling. His decision will be issued by mail.
Kramer declined to speculate on what the outcome of the case will be, but he said he had “proved what we needed to prove to be successful.”
Belief in Israel
Bass said he is a strong supporter of Israel but is critical of the way Messianic Jews are treated in the country.
“Israel opposes the gospel, and these events show this to be true,” he said. Referring to Israel, Bass paraphrased Stephen, one of Christianity’s early martyrs, “‘You always resist the Spirit of God.’ What Stephen said was true.”
Kramer said that the lawsuit is not against the State of Israel or the Jewish people, but rather for freedom of religion.
“It has to do with a violation of rights of individuals to worship in accordance with the basic tenants of their faith and to practice their faith in accordance with their beliefs in accordance with law,” he said.
Bass’ lawsuit is just one of many legal troubles Yad L’Achim is facing. In February, the Jerusalem Institute of Justice (JIJ), a civil rights advocacy group, filed a petition asking Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to declare Yad L’Achim a terrorist organization and order that it be dismantled.
In the 24-page document Caleb Myers, an attorney for JIJ, outlined numerous incidences in which Yad L’Achim or those linked with it had “incited hatred, racism, violence and terror.” The document cited instances of persecution against Christians, as well as kidnappings of Jewish women from their Arab partners.
“Israel is a ‘Jewish and democratic’ state, while the actions of Yad L’Achim are not consistent with either the noble values of Judaism or the values of democracy,” the petition read. “Not to mention the fact that it is a country that arose on the ashes of a people that was persecuted for its religion, and has resolved since its establishment to bear the standard of full equality, without discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion or nationality.”
According to the document, Yad L’Achim went after people it viewed as enemies of ultra-orthodox Judaism. The group particularly targeted Messianic Jews and other Christians.
“Yad L’Achim refers to ‘missionary activity’ as if it was the worst of criminal offenses and often arouses fear of this activity,” the document read. “It should be noted that in the State of Israel there is no prohibition against ‘missionary activity’ as the dissemination of religion and/or faith among members of other religions/faiths, unless such activity solicits religious conversion, as stated in various sections of the Penal Code, which bans the solicitation of religious conversion among minors, or among adults by offering bribes. Furthermore, the organization often presents anyone belonging to the Christian religion, in all its forms, as a ‘missionary,’ even if he does not work to spread his religion.”
Particularly damning in the document was reported testimony gleaned from Jack Teitel. Teitel, accused of planting a bomb on March 20, 2008 that almost killed the teenage son of a Messianic Jewish pastor, told authorities that he worked with Yad L’Achim.
“He was asked to talk about his activity in Yad L’Achim and related that for some five years he was active in the organization, and on average he helped to rescue about five women each year,” the document read, using the Yad L’Achim term “rescue” to refer to kidnapping.
The 2008 bombing severely injured Ami Ortiz, then 15, but after 20 months he had largely recovered.
Teitel, who said Ortiz family members were “missionaries trying to capture weak Jews,” has been indicted on 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.
In interviews with the Israeli media, Yad L’Achim Chairman Rabbi Shalom Dov Lifshitz said his organization wasn’t connected with the attacks of the Ortiz family or with Teitel.
Report from Compass Direct News
Judge rules Iranian convert from Islam requires protection from persecutors.
NAIROBI, Kenya, March 15 (CDN) — Mohammad Azbari, a Christian convert from Islam who has fled to Kenya, knows what it’s like to be deported back to his native Iran.
When it happened in 2007, he said, Iranian authorities pressured the government of Norway to return him and his wife Gelanie Azbari to Iran after hearing rumors that he had forsaken Islam.
“When we arrived in Iran, we were interrogated by security and severely beaten,” he told Compass in Nairobi, where he and his family fought to persuade the Kenyan government to decline Iran’s demand to deport him back. “My son got scared and began urinating on himself.”
A cousin managed to secure their release, but not before Iranian authorities had taken valuable – and incriminating – possessions.
“They took everything that I had – laptop, camera and some of my valuables which contained all my details, such as information concerning my baptism, and my entire profile, including that of my family,” Azbari said.
Azbari had been employed in the Iranian army before fleeing, he said, and authorities were monitoring his movements because they were concerned that, having left Islam, he might betray his country and reveal government secrets.
When he and his Christian wife, a native of the Philippines, first fled Iran in 2000, he was still a Shia Muslim. The previous year authorities had arrested his wife after finding a Christmas tree in their house in Tehran; Azbari was not home at the time and thus escaped arrest, but as authorities took his wife away they left their then 3-year-old son unattended.
“I was put in a small cell for two days,” Gelanie Azbari told Compass, through tears. “While in the cell two police guards raped me. It was the worst of all the nights I have had in my lifetime. Since that time I have been sick both physically and mentally.”
Authorities soon took her husband in for interrogation, suspecting he was a spy for foreign states.
Still a Muslim, Azbari allowed his wife to follow her Christian faith. He had grown accustomed to watching her pray as a Christian and watch the Jesus Film. As time went by, he developed an urge to embrace Christianity. They started reading the Bible together.
The idea of trusting in and following Christ filled him with fear, as it was against the law to convert from Islam – it would mean losing his life, he said.
“I started questioning our leaders, who see themselves as God,” he said. “The claim of Jesus as the prophet as well as the Word and spirit of God is indicated in the Quran. When I read in the Gospels of Jesus giving people rest, it made me want to decide to accept him as my Lord and Savior.”
Sensing danger, the family fled to the Netherlands in 2000, and it was there that Azbari embraced Christianity. In 2003 the family left the Netherlands for Norway.
Azbari was an avid student of his new-found Lord; while in Norway, he became seminary teacher of Christology.
Throughout, Azbari said, the Iranian government had been monitoring his movements. In 2007 Iranian officials persuaded the Norwegian government to send him, together with his wife and son Reza Azbari, back to Iran.
After their interrogation and mistreatment upon arrival in Iran, Azbari managed to call his sister, who connected him with the army general cousin who helped secure their release. His sister took them in, but his brother in-law was not happy with their Christian prayers; he began quarreling with his wife, Azbari’s sister.
“They began looking for trouble for us,” Azbari said. “Sensing danger, we then left the home and went to find a place to stay. Everywhere we tried to book in we were rejected, since we were people who had been deported.”
They began attending a church made up primarily of foreigners, where Azbari’s wife and son felt more at home than he did. His army general cousin found out and, angry that they had sought refuge in a church after he had secured their release, grew furious.
“He was very angry, as they had also discovered this information from the laptop they had confiscated and threatened that I should be arrested,” Azbari said. “I then decided to move to central Iran to look for employment, leaving my family behind.”
The couple felt they could not go to Gelanie Azbari’s homeland as the Philippines has such friendly relations with Iran, he said.
“To go back to Philippines or Iran is quite unsafe for us,” Azbari said.
In October 2009, his sister notified him that police were looking for him and his family.
“I then decided to flee the country through Turkey, then to Kenya where I was arrested and then deported to Turkey,” Azbari said. “In Turkey they could not allow me to enter the country, hence I was returned to Kenya.”
They were arrested in January for illegal entry into Kenya. On March 4, a judge at Chief Magistrate Court No. 3 of Kenya dropped the charges against him, declaring that Azbari required international protection from his persecutors. The court also directed that Azbari be given back all his documents and the 10,000 Kenyan Shillings ($US130) in bail he had deposited.
They had applied for asylum with the United Nations. Appearing before the court on behalf of Azbari on Jan. 15, a representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had argued that he deserved asylum because his religious status had forced him to flee from his country of origin. On March 4 the court found that Azbari and his family require international protection under Section 82 of the laws of Kenya, and he was set free.
“We have witnessed the love of God and the sacrifices of what it means to love one in word and deed,” Azbari said moments after the decision. “We saw the love of Christ from the people who understood and stood with us.”
He thanked friends who introduced his family to Nairobi Pentecostal Church, which provided them spiritual strength. Three attorneys represented Azbari: Wasia Masitsa, a legal officer for the Urban Refugee Intervention Program; Christian lawyer John Swaka; and Laban Osoro of the United Nations. Rene Kiamba of the International Christian Chamber of Commerce had helped him post bail.
Report from Compass Direct News
Reports mount linking top gendarmerie officials to Malatya slaughter.
MALATYA, Turkey, November 17 (CDN) — Judges and prosecutors in the trial regarding the murder of three Christians in this southeastern city in Turkey on Friday (Nov. 13) renewed their request for help from the Istanbul High Criminal Court as reports mounted linking the slayings to top gendarmerie officials.
The Malatya court judges overseeing hearings on the murders of Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske requested that the Istanbul criminal court establish whether the case was linked to the controversial cabal of military, political and other influential figures, Ergenekon, which has allegedly been trying to overthrow the government by upsetting Turkey’s peace.
For the last two and a half years prosecuting lawyers have established the case that Emre Gunaydin, Salih Gurler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker and Abuzer Yildirim, who were caught at the murder scene on April 18, 2007, were not acting independently but were incited by Turkey’s “deep state,” an expression of which is Ergenekon. Seven months ago the Malatya court requested from prosecutors on the Ergenekon case at the Istanbul high court to examine whether the two cases were connected. They have not received a reply yet.
The court and various mainstream media have received informant letters with specific names linking the murders to top gendarmerie officials. Last month a Turkish newspaper received a list of payments the gendarmerie made to informants to physically follow and collect information on Christians in Malatya. Phone trees also show calls made from the murderers to two alleged “middle-men,” Huseyin Yelki and Bulent Varol Aral, gendarmerie officials and other nationalist figures in Malatya.
“We are expecting the Istanbul prosecutor to make a careful investigation and give us a response and attest to the connections the court has found,” said prosecuting attorney Erdal Dogan on Friday during a press briefing. “The actions of these men who are on trial were not independent, and from the beginning we believed they were organized by Ergenekon. Our theories have become more concrete, and we are expecting the Istanbul prosecutor to investigate these closely, establish the connections and give us a response.”
Lawyers said that informant letters, testimonies and other evidence have only confirmed their original suspicions. The most striking of these is that the local gendarmerie forces were following activities of Christians in Malatya in the months leading up to the murders and afterwards yet did not stop the young men from stabbing and slashing the three Christians to death.
“If you have been watching a small, tiny group so closely,” said lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz, “how could it be possible that you disregard this murder? This is a legitimate question which requires ordinary intelligence.”
Last month the head of Istanbul police intelligence, Ramazan Akyurek, was demoted amid allegations that he had neglected to investigate three Christian murder cases between 2006 and 2007. When Turkish news reporters asked Dogan whether prosecutors would make a request to investigate whether Akyurek played a greater part in the murders, he said that it was not out of the question.
The five young suspects were apprehended after Zirve Publishing Co. workers went to the publishing house to find out why the three Christian men were not answering their phones. Finding the door of the office locked and getting no answer, they called police. In a report prepared by Akyurek’s department, his staff claimed that the murderers were apprehended thanks to phone tapping – which attorney Dogan said is a lie.
“According to a report, they said that they had been listening to the murderers’ phones and following them, and that that’s how they found and arrested them,” said Dogan. “You know this is a lie. The five men were arrested haphazardly. We know that. We also know that the gendarmerie was in fact listening to their conversations, but there’s something interesting here: On the one hand they are listening to the criminals’ phones, but on the other they couldn’t thwart the crime.”
Prosecuting lawyers said that this makes both Akyurek’s department and the gendarmerie guilty of being accomplices to the crime, and that they should be tried along with the five young men.
“They should stand trial for not thwarting a crime and failing to perform their duties,” said Dogan. “They [gendarmerie and the police intelligence security] should be tried under Article 8 of the penal code as accomplices because they are connected. This is not a question of removing someone from his position. They should stand trial with the men who are now on trial.”
The lawyers expressed frustration at being able to see the bigger picture yet not having enough evidence to proceed, as well as with having to wait on the Istanbul prosecutor for more evidence.
“It is crystal clear,” said attorney Cengiz. “There is a much bigger agenda and much more complex connections. We convinced everyone, but we cannot do this beyond reasonable doubt; we can’t prove it. We are blocked, actually.”
Cengiz explained that as lawyers for the victims’ families, they are not in a position to collect evidence.
“We are heavily dependent on what the prosecutor is doing, and unfortunately they are not able to do much,” he said.
Cengiz said that although the case was complicated and the Malatya judges resisted their arguments at the outset of the hearings, now they agree with the prosecuting lawyers that there is a broader network behind the murders.
“Now they are very clear – they know what happened and what kind of connections there are, etcetera, but they are fighting against a dragon,” said Cengiz. “So they desperately sent this request to the prosecutor in Istanbul, hoping that it will be the Istanbul prosecutor who will create these links rather than them. It should be vice versa because they have all these details, but they are not ready for this confrontation.”
Cengiz explained that while the Malatya court has a better understanding of the case than the Istanbul prosecutors, the advantage of the Istanbul High Criminal Court is that it has the backing of the Justice Ministry and is better positioned to take on the powers that may be behind this and other murders.
“They can’t take the responsibility because this is just a tiny court in the remote part of Turkey, so how can they confront the reality?” he said.
The next hearing is set for Dec. 25, and prosecutors expect that by then the 13th Istanbul High Criminal Court will have sent an answer about connections of the murders to Ergenekon. They are also expecting the prosecuting judge to demand all five of the young men be charged with “three times life imprisonment,” plus additional years for organizing the crime.
“In our estimation, until now in a bizarre way the accused are acting like they have been given assurances that they will be forgiven and will get off the hook,” Dogan commented on the comfortable demeanor of the five men in court and their denial that others were behind the murders. “In the last months we see a continuation of the attempts to wreak havoc and chaos and overthrow the government. So we think whoever is giving confidence to these guys is affecting them. It is obvious to us that there is a group actively doing this. That means they are still trying to create chaos.”
Last week Ergenekon prosecutors found a hit-list consisting of 10 prominent representatives of minority groups as well as subscribers to Armenian weekly newspaper Agos, whose editor-in-chief was murdered three months before the Christians in Malatya. Cengiz explained that Ergenekon members are obsessed with purging Turkey of non-Muslim elements and non-Turkish minorities, which they see as a threat to the state.
“They were trying to create chaos in Turkey, and of course they were trying to send a clear message to members of non-Muslim groups that they are not wanted in Turkey,” said Cengiz of the way the three Christians in Malatya were murdered. “They did it in a horrendous, barbaric way. This was also part of the message. Everything was planned but not by them, by other people. They are just puppets.”
Further Evidence of Cabal
This week Turkish news magazine Yeni Aktuel published a five-page article with pictures chronicling the “anti-terrorist” activities of a counter-guerilla team leader identified only by his initials, K.T.
In the article, K.T. described how for years he and his team pursued and killed members of the outlawed Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK). Anti-guerilla activities in Turkey are paramilitary efforts managed by the “deep state.”
In K.T.’s account, he claimed that during his time in Malatya he met with members of an ultra-nationalist group who talked about murdering Hrant Dink, editor of Agos. Also during that time, members of the group spoke about how those who distributed Bibles in Malatya had to be “punished.”
One of the members of this group was a high school teacher called “O.” The teacher said that he arranged to be out of town before the Malatya murders, because police were following him and he wanted to make sure that they could not connect him to the Malatya murders.
Report from Compass Direct News